Gollum – the Mirror of Man

Gollum – the Mirror of Man January 18, 2007

It’s theology my precious…

Gollum shows us the Catholic understanding of humanity’s problem with sin. Peter Jackson’s film portrayal faithfully reveals Tolkien’s deep understanding of the tangled web that humanity has fallen into.

First notice that Gollum has been twisted and hideously deformed by sin. Smeagol was good once, just like the other happy hobbits, and in every scene of Jackson’s film, a glint of Gollumy goodness shines through. Never is Gollum totally devoured by the evil. Even as he plunges into the fires of Mount Doom there is still a desire that is not totally corrupted.

There’s no ‘total depravity’ here. Gollum’s goodness is horribly twisted. The light is shaded, but not extinguished. In my journey to the Catholic faith the Catholic understanding of original sin came as a great relief. I had been brought up in a kind of default Calvinism. Total Depravity was one of the doctrines that lay at the foundation of the form of Evangelicalism I was taught. I realize there are subtle explanations of the doctrine of Total Depravity that are more nuanced, but what I heard was, ‘You are dead in your trespasses and sins. There is none righteous, no not one. Your righteousness is as filthy rags. You cannot please God. You are totally and utterly depraved. You are a pile of dung that needs some snow to cover you.” The conclusion I drew was that I was worthless, and under judgement for something I had no choice in, and was powerless to do anything about.

The Catholic view of original sin is that we are created in the image of God, and although we are born in sin, the image of God is wounded, but not utterly destroyed. I found this view not only refreshingly compassionate, but also more true to what I perceived around me. Chesterton says something somewhere like this: “Sometimes things are actually just as they seem. There is no conspiracy, no secret knowledge, no esoteric understanding.”

Most people mean well. Nobody I know gets up in the morning and says, “Now, let me see what can I do today that is totally wicked, perverse and horrible.” Most people perceive their desires as good (even if they’re not good) and this means they want to pursue the good.

Experience indicates that most people are not actually totally and utterly depraved. They want goodness. They want God (if they only knew it) They want Love and Life and all things good. Oh yes, we go about getting what we want in wrong ways, and we are too often content with the good and too lazy to pursue the best. We’re sinners, that’s for sure, but like Gollum, there is always a glimmer of goodness within us. That’s what God sees, and that’s what he redeems, and that’s what he rescues. That’s the little ember that he wants to gently blow into life with the breath of the Holy Spirit.

In addition to this, the Catholic viewpoint says, “You may be cursed by sin, but with God’s grace, you can do something about it. Your actions matter. Your decisions matter. The good you do and the evil you do matter. You’re responsible. With God’s help you can do something about the state of your soul.”

That’s why Frodo continues to have compassion on Gollum. He sees what Gollum was and what he still can be. Frodo knows the terrible corrupting power of the ring. He’s seen how it made a monster of Bilbo. He sees how it’s made a monster of Smeagol, and he feels how he himself is being made into a monster, but this knowledge breeds compassion, not judgement in his heart. He looks on Gollum with pity not with blame.

Its the same with us. Twisted and deformed by sin, but still the image of God glimmers within, and Christ, like Frodo, knows the burden we bear, and sees not how deformed we are, but how beautiful we were, and how beautiful we can be.

He looks on us with pity not with blame. Praise Him.

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  • This is an awesome post. Please pass this out to any new converts you happen to run into. Last night at RCIA we ended up discussing sin as it relates to our final judgment, and one woman was very conerned. She was able to have a good conversation with Father after class (thankfully-I’m so glad he was still around to speak with her!), but I think your post on this might help her a lot. I’ll try to point her this way. Thank you!

  • Bless, Father!Your comments re: Frodo’s knowledge of the corrupting power of the Ring and its affect on its bearer is spot on. Time and time again, we read in the Fathers and the lives of the saints of how those who understood the nature of sin are those who are the most compassionate towards even the most obstinate of sinners. Even Sam, who before bearing the Ring could not understand the pity shown Gollum by Bilbo and Frodo, finally received that knowledge even though he bore the ring for such a short time. The Sam of Book II would never have stayed his hand as the Sam of Book VI did. Wonderful post, and I echo my predecessor. Hand this out to RCIA candidates as a great explanation of the Catholic view of sin using popular literature/film as an example.

  • Funny, this morning I was thinking about the scene in Jesus of Nazareth when a woman at the feeding of the multitude holds up a nice fat fish, which led to the images of Smeagol eating a simlar fish raw, fighting over the Ring, the allure of power…. then I get to work & find this fine post.I must say, reading this blog isn’t like reading other blogs.Now I have to figure out how to work this Smeagol discussion into my Sunday School class.

  • jeron

    thank you, father, for posting this. i sorely needed to read something like this today. there are no accidents. i’m headed to confession after work this afternoon as a matter of fact. i think you’re my new favorite blogger. God bless you.

  • Mark (UK)

    Father, I have a question regarding Anglican customs. In my understanding a Priest is one who performs a sacrifice; in our case the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Anglicans reject the sacrificial nature of the Mass (in particular the transubstantiation) but over the past decade or so have increasingly taken to adopting the title Priest and the more catholic term Father over the traditional one of Vicar and Reverend. Lady clergy also adopt the title Priest instead of the more correct Priestess. Can you shed some light on what is happening here, is it an ego trip, an inferiority complex or a desire to cross the Tiber or am I just plain wrong, it wouldn’t be the first time. God BlessMark

  • Hello Mark, ever since the Oxford Movement in the 19th century there has been the Anglo Catholic movement in the Church of England. The Oxford Movement was made up of a group of Anglicans who rediscovered the ancient church and wanted to see the Anglican Church as the continuing Catholic Church in England. They affected Catholic mannerisms, adopted Catholic styles of worship, built Catholic style churches, and looked to Rome for much of their belief and practice. Today those Anglicans who adopt Catholic practices are probably part of what remains of the Oxford movement, and in addition, the Anglo Catholics have influenced much of the other parts of the Anglican Church so that frequent communion, the wearing of vestments and certain Catholic practices are now more commonplace. It is a very interesting topic, and one which I would encourage you to study further. You might like to obtain a copy of my book ‘The Path to Rome’ which discusses Anglicanism and Catholicism in some depth.

  • Mark (UK)

    OK Father,I’ve ordered your book from Amazon, Now you have to offer up your next Mass for the Catholic Church in England, we could do with all the help we can get. God BlessMark

  • At St Mary’s in Greenville there is a splendid image of OL of Walsingham. Before every Mass I celebrate I kneel there and pray for England.

  • sin? jesus died for all of that. it was supposed to end there and then…..let it go.unless there`s some sort of game afoot here that i`m missing. why do you think that he got tacked up in the first place?he was in the process of calling the game.great archetecture though……

  • This is a great post… So many times I hear people say ‘oh I’m so like Frodo’ or ‘oh I’m more like Sam’ etc… These same people talk about how evil Gollum is, how distasteful… and I find myself feeling like ripping hair out by the fistfuls. The truth is that we are mostly Gollum… it is the rare individual indeed who is a Sam, or even a Frodo. How blind we are to our own faults sometimes… not that we don’t have the good within too, but we have an unrealistic and perhaps excessively rosy picture of ourselves. This is a blog entry I’m sure to come back to again and again. Thank you.

  • Great post, Father! With your permission, I’d love to print it out and use it with my high school catechism class.

  • feel free Rebecca!

  • the best blog i have ever read!!! Father, put more posts!