Pity: How the Real Battle of Middle Earth is Won
Though it is a book of children’s literature, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit still deals with issues of great moral complexity. In the novel, Bilbo Baggins debates whether or not he should kill the creature Gollum, who stands in his way of escaping the caves filled with goblins. While Bilbo could easily kill Gollum for his own self-preservation, he decides instead to have pity on him and spare his life. This scene in The Hobbit both foreshadows and allows for Frodo and Sam’s pity on Gollum in the rest of The Lord of the Rings. If Gollum had not been alive, he would not have served as Frodo and Sam’s guide to Mordor. And had Frodo not showed pity to Gollum, and the ring would not have been destroyed. Bilbo’s pity for Gollum thus makes the salvation of Middle Earth possible. This reinforces the theme that mercy wins the battle for Middle Earth and in our world.
Long before Frodo and Sam encounter Gollum, Bilbo meets Gollum on the way to the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit.. After playing a riddle game for Bilbo’s life where if he loses Gollum will lead Bilbo out of the mountain, Gollum betrays Bilbo and tries to attack him instead of doing what he promised. In trying to escape from Gollum, Bilbo discovers a ring that makes him invisible, giving him an advantage over Gollum. Gollum stands defenseless, unable to find Bilbo, and Bilbo has the prime opportunity to sneak up on Gollum and kill him. By many counts, Bilbo has a right to kill Gollum, or, at least it would be understandable if he did. Bilbo is trapped in the caves and needs to get out. Additionally, Gollum betrayed his promise to Bilbo, trying to attack him rather than leading him out of the caves. Killing Gollum would be a form of self-protection and self-defense, and it would avenge his betrayal to Bilbo. Bilbo thinks to himself that he must “stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it” (92). Killing Gollum, in a sense, would serve him right.
However, something inside Bilbo stops him from killing the creature. While he is invisible, he is able to take a good look at Gollum. When Bilbo really looks at Gollum, he observes that Gollum is “miserable, alone, lost” (93). He sees Gollum as he truly is: not a monster but a poor, miserable, hobbit-like creature. He sees that Gollum is defenseless and killing him is “not a fair fight” (92). This communicates that if we see deeper than surface-level, if we see people as they truly are, it will be much easier to show them mercy. Bilbo not only sees more of Gollum, but he begins to understand him: “A certain understanding, a pity mixed with horror welled up in Bilbo’s heart” (93). Bilbo begins to know more of Gollum’s pain. He imagines a “glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering” (93). He sees the misery Gollum endures daily and begins to empathize with him. And this understanding allows for Frodo to take “pity” on Gollum. This pity is not only feeling sorry for Gollum, but it is deeply sympathizing with his pain. It is not a haughty form of judgment but a stirring of compassion. This pity leads to an act of mercy, proving itself an action as well as a feeling. Pity motivates Bilbo to spare Gollum’s life.
This moment may seem small, but it is a critical moment in the fate of Middle Earth. Gollum is an essential figure in the mission to destroy the One Ring. Gollum was in possession of the ring for several years before it came to Bilbo and Frodo. The Ring slowly corrupted Gollum and then betrayed him, leaving him lost, lonely, and miserable. He is aware of the ring’s power and serves as an example to Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam for what the Ring can do. And after being captured and tortured by Orcs, Gollum is familiar with the structure of Mordor. He is able to serve as a guide to Frodo and Sam. But he is also the reason the Ring is destroyed in Mount Doom. Frodo almost takes the Ring for himself, which would fail his mission. But Gollum bites off his finger and falls into the fires of doom with the Ring. Frodo himself acknowledges Gollum’s essential part. Frodo says to Sam, “But for him I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end” (Return 241). This fulfills Gandalf’s words spoken earlier about Gollum: “My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or evil” (Fellowship 65). This scene shows us that unexpected people may have parts to play in our stories. We, like Frodo, should not be quick to deal out judgment.
But if Frodo had not learned his own lesson in pity, none of this would be possible. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf tells Frodo Gollum’s story and importantly, how Bilbo spared his life. Frodo is angry and wishes that Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance. He cries, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!” (65). But Gandalf replies, “Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need” (65). Gandalf warns Bilbo, “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment” (65). Gandalf claims that for his pity, Bilbo “has been well rewarded” (65). And though he does not know it, Frodo will be rewarded for is pity too. Later when Frodo meets Gollum himself, he chooses to have pity on him, just as Bilbo did. When Gollum first sneaks up on Frodo and Sam in The Two Towers, Frodo has the chance to kill Gollum. But he remembers his conversation with Gandalf about Bilbo’s pity. And when Frodo really looks at Gollum, he says, “Now that I see him, I do pity him” (246). Frodo chooses to spare Gollum’s life and trust him with his own. He lets Gollum guide him to Mordor and be a crucial part of his mission. Bilbo’s pity in The Hobbit both foreshadows and allows for this moment.
Pity for Gollum wins the battle for Middle Earth. This reinforces the Christian themes of mercy and forgiveness in Tolkien’s works. Jesus tells us, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (New Revised Standard Version, Matt 5.44). He also says to forgive others as God has forgiven us (Matt 6.13-15). Bilbo and Frodo do just that. They have compassion on Gollum and see him as he truly is, not a monster, but someone who needs help. They learn to love Gollum, their enemy, and see him as a friend. They grant him pardon. And because of their mercy, they save both Middle Earth and themselves. Tolkien’s writings implore us to forgive and be merciful to others. Many think the world can change through power or might. But it will only truly change through mercy. It is true for Middle Earth, and it is true for our world.
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