Gollum, Sméagol, is one of the more interesting characters in The Hobbit, and then in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He shows up over and over. But, he is also a very tragic figure. He ends up burnt to death in Mount Doom, never having managed to keep a hold of his precious. There is fan fiction written about Gollum, some of them have to do with alternate endings or with Gollum somehow finding some type of peace and salvation. What if Gollum repented at the last second? What if his behavior was excusable? What if this; what if that?
Unfortunately, I doubt that any of those fan fictions would be true. Rather, they often tend to demonstrate a very modern Western inability to deal with consequences. The history of the ring is a history filled with treachery and failure. The Dark Ring was forged by the fallen Lord Sauron, during the Second Age, in order to gain dominance over all the peoples of Middle-Earth. From its beginning, the Dark Ring is a betrayer as it is designed to turn the rings gifted to the various groups, the Rings of Power, into false rings that would allow the Dark Lord to rule them all.
That betrayal ran deep. It first betrayed Isildur, who took the ring for his own until it led him to his death. Then it took Sméagol, and turned him into Gollum. It is actually in Sméagol that we see the incredible resistance that hobbits had to the Dark Ring, for although it corrupted him, even to the end there was something left of Gollum that pointed to the earlier Sméagol. Two were betrayed by the Dark Ring, four were able to resist. Isildur and Gollum were either betrayed or turned into betrayers. Bilbo, Tom Bombadil, Frodo and Samwise all wore the Dark Ring and were either able to resist or unaffected. Let me first take a couple of lines to talk about Tom Bombadil, for it affects a bit what comes after. Tom Bombadil is never well-defined. He appears as a free spirit who has no desire for power per se, and it may be that which kept him from being affected. On the other hand, it may be that Tom Bombadil was not from one of the races designed to wear the Rings of Power and thus falls totally outside the power enchantment of the Dark Ring. Either way, he disappears from the story, and never even makes it into the movie series.
So, that leaves us two who were not able to resist the power of the ring: Isildur and Sméagol. Two were able to resist, a duras penas (through hard suffering): Bilbo and Frodo. The final one was barely affected, if at all. Samwise, like Tom Bombadil, appears to take no, to little, ill effect from wearing the Dark Ring. And, therein hangs the tale. I would argue that J.R.R. Tolkien intended these five as examples of resisting sin. In the Book to the Hebrews, the author warns, “You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.” The story of the Dark Ring contains within these five people a mini-story of resisting against sin. Let me quote fuller from Hebrews 12:
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.
You need to go back and look at the Silmarillion, in which J.R.R. Tolkien laid out a fuller history of Middle-Earth. When you read that history, and when you consider Aragorn, you will see a great cloud of witnesses who endured much and despised the shame in which they often found themselves. Aragorn was eventually crowned King of Gondor, King of the West. The ring-bearers were given passage to the Far Country after two of them had a chance to sit at the side of the King of Gondor, who honored them in public ceremony. Thus, the three ring-bearers who succeeded (even Bilbo who very barely succeeded, but finally gave the ring over willingly) became examples of resisting the dark impulses of the Dark Ring, or say, resisting the impulses of our sin.
It is in this light that we look back at both Isildur and Gollum. Both of them die in despair, having lost everything for which they strove. Isildur never got to see the victory against Sauron and never saw peace. Gollum never recovered the Dark Ring, and died in the fires of Mount Doom. What makes Gollum interesting is that even in his loss and despair, he has a key part in the trilogy, in that his very uncontrolled desire is what finally gives the victory to the allied forces under the King of Gondor. In Psalm 76 it says, “Surely the wrath of man shall praise You; With the remainder of wrath You shall gird Yourself.” Gollum is a very sad character. He is an example of how the Holy One can make even the wrath of human beings to praise him.
But, sadly, what he is not is a hero. Rather, he is a warning of how sin can so consume us that our very humanity is left tattered and destroyed. He also functions as an example of one who was nearly won back to the Light by the ministrations of Frodo. It is as Frodo keeps expressing forgiving and kind behavior toward him that Sméagol begins to return, even if only a bit. Frodo is a good example for us in that Frodo is an imperfect character, just like we are. And, yet, he is able to express enough of the Light toward Gollum that a near-transformation begins. Unfortunately, the transformation never finally kindles and Gollum never quite repents. So, he ends up not a hero, but a sad reminder of how close someone can come to reality without crossing the line.
Let us weep for the Gollums we encounter in our lives, who come so close but never quite cross the line (repent). And, let us watch ourselves so that we may not become Gollums.
… I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. 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. – Gandalf speaking to Frodo about Gollum