Christmas and New Year brought with them a nice long break, and with a nice long break, there usually comes television viewing – which is something I typically do not do. It is not because I am a productive person, but because I am too scattered to sit and watch one program for too long. One program I can watch is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The movies, though not completely accurate, are great representations of the books and the story overall, and I think they capture the mood as well as any movie could. One evening I was enjoying The Two Towers on television, and my oldest daughter (8 years) asked me, “Daddy, is Gollum a bad guy?” In the many times I’ve read Tolkien’s works, I’ve thought quite a bit about Gollum, but honestly I don’t guess I’ve ever categorized him so bluntly as “bad” or “good.” So of course, I gave her the only answer that fit. I said, “Yes, but no.” I believe he is both good and bad, and neither. I think it’s obvious from reading The Hobbit that Gollum falls more on the “bad guy” side, whereas when you read The Two Towers, that line gets blurred, and one could make a compelling argument that at least for a brief time, Gollum was a hero, and perhaps the hero of the book. How could that be? In a world as black and white as Tolkien’s, why would he create a character that was polarizing but wasn’t so polarized? I believe it’s because Tolkien held to the doctrine known as common grace.
The doctrine of common grace simply states that while God has set aside a people for himself from the beginning of time and given them a special kind of “salvation grace,” he also provides for all his creation – both for those who are against him and those who are his. For example, take the rain – the rain falls on every crop, not just those who are Christians. In business, both Christians and non-Christians succeed and do well. Both Christian and non-Christian men make good fathers and great husbands. There is evil in the world, but there isn’t as much as there could be because God has placed limits on those kinds of things. That is common grace. Common grace is exemplified not only in the way that Gollum guides the Ringbearer, but also in the fact that he didn’t destroy him when he had the chance. As always, Tolkien has much to teach us on this doctrine through the person of Gollum.
There is no doubt that Gollum did a great service to the Fellowship, specifically Frodo and Sam. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that without his direct influence and guidance, the task of delivering the Ring to Mount Doom might have failed. Without his knowledge of the “sneaky” passages through Mordor, the Hobbits would have had little choice but to walk through the front door, which all the armies in Middle Earth could not have done. Their task was monumental, and Gollum’s guidance made it less so. Early in Fellowship’s journey, Gandalf makes a prediction concerning Gollum when speaking to Frodo. He says, “My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.” It is interesting to think that Gandalf saw Gollum’s unnaturally long life as a part of some great plan. If you’ve read to the end, you know that part, any to say that Gollum was preserved just so he could play that part indicates that the author did indeed have an overarching Planner, as it were, working in middle earth. This being bestowed good things to Gollum as an integral part in the War of the Ring. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien calls this being Eru Ilúvatar, or literally, “He that is Alone.” He is the one who meant for Gollum to drop the Ring, yet still be a part of the picture, for Bilbo to use it to redeem the Dwarves, then for Frodo to use it to redeem Middle Earth. “Master Planner” of Middle Earth showed Gollum grace so that he could fulfill his purposes.
In the same way, the god of Middle Earth restrained Gollum. One thing I was struck by while reading The Two Towers was the ease at which Gollum gave up and led the Hobbits. He was a formidable foe by any standard, and particular against the standard of two untrained Hobbits. He laid down his power over the Hobbits to lead them. I think he did that for ill motives, but ultimately I believe he was restrained until his anger was needed – which comes into play both in Shelob’s Lair and at Mount Doom. In both incidents, his direct interference furthered the cause of the Hobbits, though they could not have seen it ahead of time (especially in Shelob’s Lair). It was the restraint of Gollum that ultimately lead to the success of the Fellowship, and when he was unrestrained, he was allowed to destroy himself.
One can find these same elements of common grace throughout Scripture, but they are very clear with the person of Pharaoh. Romans 9:17-18 says, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” According to Paul, God raised up Pharaoh. What does that mean? It means that God nurtured Pharaoh, protected him and his office, and even raised Egypt up around him. Why? So that, “my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Just as Pharaoh’s life was to ultimately bring about the deliverance of God’s people, Gollum was kept safe those many years to ultimately destroy the Ring himself. Just as Pharaoh’s evil was restrained until the time was right, Gollum’s was as well. Pharaoh’s anger was allowed to fully manifest at the Red Sea, where it spelled his demise. For Gollum, it was at the heart of Mount Doom. The same is true today. God cares for the world and everything in it. Though he loves his children much differently than he loves the rest of his Creation, he still “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45) God also restrains the evil of the world, as it could be much worse than it is today. It might be easy to look at the world and say, “Wow, this is bad,” but it could always be worse, and outside God’s direct restraint of evil, it would be.
To answer Anna’s question a different way, “No, Gollum isn’t a bad guy. He was used to do good things. However, he was a bad guy, as his ultimate end was destruction. He received everything he ever wanted, and it was that very thing that destroyed him.” Unrepentant man will too suffer the same fate. Though many unbelievers are really better people than I am, ultimately it is belief in the Son, Jesus Christ, which saves a man. The different between men and the unrepentant is not common grace though – it is God’s irresistible grace that made me alive in Christ. Common grace makes life on earth tolerable, but only God’s grace through faith can bring about salvation, and ultimately eternal life.