Anti-Hero, Cirith Gorgor, depression, Depression is an illness, Everyday is Exactly the Same, fantasy, Flawed hero, Gollum, Gollum/Smeagol, Hobbits, Identity, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature, Michael D.C. Drout, Morannon, music, NIN, Nine Inch Nails, Novel, Of Sorcerer’s and Men, Physical Ailments of Depression, Physical Symptoms of Depression, Rango, Sense of Self, Smeagol, Spirit of the West, Split Personality, suicide, The Lord of the Rings, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Two Towers, With Teeth
Try to save myself, but my self keeps slipping away.
Into the Void, Trent Reznor
Clint Eastwood made a square out of the dust on the windshield of his golf-cart. He framed Rango and said one of the best quotes I’ve ever heard in terms of narrative theory:
Spirit of the West: No man can walk out of his own story.
It may be a platitude, but this line still felt powerful when I was watching it, even after Clint Eastwood drove away in his golf-cart disappearing into the desert of Nevada. The line stuck with me, and as I was listening to Michael D.C. Drout’s lecture series Of Sorcerers and Men I was reminded again of the line as the man asked an important question: Is Gollum the hero of his own story?
Every reader I suspect has one friend, co-worker, or casual acquaintance who believes that they can do impressions. These will usually be, in order, Borat, Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, Bill Murray from Caddy Shack, and of course Andy Serkis’s now defining portrayal of Gollum. Imitation is the most sincerest form of flattery, but Jeff really needs to find a better hobby now that his divorce is finalized.
My usual, dismal humor aside, the character of Gollum is something that has lasted past the flair and hoopla of the Lord of the Rings film franchise, and even if there are people who no longer recognize words like Nazgul, Hobbits, Gandalf, and Aragorn, most people probably recognize the character of Gollum, in due large part to Serkis’s incredible performance, and maybe unfortunately that one episode of Big Bang Theory. Gollum as a figure and a character is something most people can latch onto easily in the Lord of the Rings trilogy because the character is so often recognized as an addictive personality, and his passion for the ring is popularly understood as an extended metaphor for drugs. At least that’s what myteachers and gym coaches use to tell us. And, I’m pretty sure, the reader probably has taken this interpretive route as well.
Having finished The Two Towers however, and looking at the larger character arc of the character Gollum, I kept returning to Drout’s question, and the Spirit of the West’s advice. No one can walk out of their own story, but is it possible for someone to break themselves down so much so that they can no longer see themselves as the hero or at least maker of their own story?
This is a difficult question and one that I struggle with because I suffer from depression. I drive my wife, friends, and coworkers nuts with this because I am often putting myself down, I rarely receive compliments with much comfort, and if anyone attempts to praise me I’m often to say that I’m really not worth it, or else that there are better people than me. This is usually my facade for my real feelings which often amount to the conviction that my life is worthless, I have no real importance to anyone around me, and that everyone would be better off if I was dead.
I have no rational explanation for this conviction. It’s all just a regular feeling I’m held by. Birthdays tend to be the worst, and I often find excuses not to accept any sort of praise. And I can honestly say that I’ve told myself regularly that I am worth less than dog-shit.
Taking all of this in, and reflecting on which part of the Book 4 of The Two Towers to write about there really doesn’t seem to be any conflict. I knew I was going to write about Gollum, but rather than look upon his disorder as a form of dependence or addiction, I feel that there stands a real argument that the man is really a beautiful metaphor for depression, specifically the way people can self-denigrate to the point oblivion.
It’s not simply that Gollum as a character is so far gone that he’s completely abandoned his previous name and identity of Smeagol, one of the river-folk from a good family, it’s the fact that he barely retains any sort of semblance of his previous existence. Though while reading the book I was struck by a passage, largely because Drout had pointed it out to me. I’ll admit that I was on my way to work, listening to the lecture about Gollum and becoming more and more sympathetic to the character, but I wasn’t prepared for what came next. Drout read the passage, and I had to drive through tears.
The passage takes place later in Book 4, as Sam and Frodo are asleep and Gollum has returned finding them in this state:
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist in him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee—but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepershave seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing. (699).
I was crying for Gollum, something I never really thought that I would say or write. It feels hammy or ridiculous, but at the same time I recognize it isn’t because I cry every time I read Harry Potter and read Dobby’s death, I weep every time Simba tries to wake up Mufassa after he’s fallen into the stampede, and to this day I know that I will never watch Old Yeller because…No, just no. Fuck, no. This sympathy for a fictional character who I often despise was an incredible sensation, and was partly what confirmed my re-interest in Tolkien and my conviction to finish his trilogy this time.
The passage was incredible for the way it helped me recognize the physicality of depression, and the tole it takes on the body.
Depression is as much a physical ailment as it is an emotional burden, not enough people really seem to recognize that. There’s the sadness, and morbid-as-fuck thoughts in which you try to rationalize why your existence is flawed, pointless, and a waste of other people’s time, but these sensations are only part of the larger show. I’ve begun to recognize more and more that my depression tends to manifest in physical ailments such as twitching, headaches, panic attacks where it feels like I can’t breath. And the most depressing thing about all of this crap is that I’ve begun to realize how ephemeral my body is, which is another way of saying I’ve become more and more aware of the aging process and so I’m realizing this clap-trap of a form is the only body I’m going to get.
My concern for my physical well-being is a sign that my depression has not completely taken my spirit over and so I’ve taken the time to invest in self-repair.
The physical symptoms of depression are real and present in this small scene, but even more so is the disconnect. Depression as an illness is not just about feeling sad and impotent coupled with a few physical ailments. Tolkien is really great at showing how the lingering pain of depression is this real sense of waste. Gollum/Smeagol in passage isn’t just some random cretin, he’s a real being who once had a life with passion and purpose. Seeing Sam and Frodo in their “youth” (Frodo is supposed to be in his fifties so I place that word in quotations) Gollum is really able, and thus the reader is able as well, to see how the man has wasted his life immersing himself in the ring. And this leads to the most pernicious aspect of depression that Tolkien is able to convey which is that, over time, people can become so comfortable in their pain that they don’t want to change their life because they don’t know anything else.
Long before this passage Gollum leads Frodo and Sam to Morannon just outside of the Black Gates of Cirith Gorgor. That’s all jargon for the entrance to Mordor, I’m a nerd remember.
Before the actual attempt to enter Mordor takes place Gollum confronts Frodo in a moment of desperation:
‘No, no, master!” Wailed Gollum, pawing at him, and seeming in great distress. ‘No use that way! No use! Don’t take the Precious to Him! He’ll eat us all, if He gets it, eat all the world. Keep it, nice master, and be kind to Smeagol. Don’t let him have it. Or ho away, go to nice places, and give it back to little Smeagol. Yes, yes master give it back, eh? Smeagol will keep it safe; he will do lots of good, especially to nice hobbits.” (623-4).
I’ve recently become aware of the fact that I can be something of a vampire to my friends, because I have a tendency to be a bit of a drama queen. Whenever my depression hits in force I’m unable to really contain it and so my friends wind up having to expend emotional energy to help me out, and this usually makes me feel even worse. Seeing myself in Gollum is not a pleasant sensation I can assure the reader, but looking at this passage his desire for the Precious is not just selfishness, it’s a sign of his deeper weakness. Because Gollum has spent close to 500 years just being in the pain of the Ring, he hasn’t allowed himself to develop any kind of personal significance; he has nothing but pain and the ring. Depression mimics this kind of lifestyle because when one suffers from depression for extensive amounts of time, one becomes comfortable with thatpain. I’ve said to my friends who have suggested therapy that, “I just enjoy being broken.” And as Gollum suggests to Frodo that he taker back the ring, it’s clear Gollum wants it back not because he wants to help others, he just wants to go back to a space and place where he could be comfortable being broken.
I recognize this isn’t a terrible novel observation, because if the reader has as an eclectic taste in music as I do, they might have listened to Nine Inch Nails. The entire collected recordings of Trent Reznor might as well be one long dedication to depression, and one of my favorite songs sprung to mind as I began this essay. Everyday is Exactly the Same is a song I’ve played almost everyday for the last few months and I’ve realized more and more how relevant the song feels to my life. Looking at just a few lyrics my own depression, and Gollum’s, takes on a new dimension:
I believe I can see the future
‘Cause I repeat the same routine
I think I used to have a purpose
But then again, that might have been a dream
I think I used to have a voice
Now I never make a sound
I just do what I’ve been told
I really don’t want them to come around, oh no
Every day is exactly the same
Every day is exactly the same
There is no love here and there is no pain
Every day is exactly the same
Human beings, and by extension I suppose Hobbits, are creatures of habit. It’s a cliche I repeat often, but that’s only because there’s a great level of truth to it: habit dies harder than love. Gollum’s existence is one defined by a past tragedy that, over time, disappears into the obsession of the Ring, and while many writers and fans have gravitated to the ring as an explanation for Gollum’s psychological state, I would argue that therereally can be a case made for the reality that Gollum is suffering from a real form of depression. I’m not ignoring the supernatural power of the Ring, but the pattern of behavior suggests a deeper struggle.
Gollum is a man who who used to live in his pain, and being separated from the “comfort” of the daily pain is a great burden to bear that steadily forces him to confront the realities of the past, not to mention the psychological and physical damage he’s done to his body and mind.
Peter Jackson, to his credit, managed to convey this reality in the second of the three films as Gollum is talking to himself one night while the Hobbits are asleep.
Gollum: We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious. They stole it from us. Sneaky little hobbitses. Wicked, tricksy, false!
Smeagol: [shaking his head] No. Not master!
Gollum: [snarling malevolently] Yes, precious, false! They will cheat you, hurt you, LIE.
Smeagol: Master is my friend.
Gollum: You don’t have any friends; nobody likes you!
Smeagol: [closes his ears with his hands] I’m not listening… I’m not listening…
Gollum: You’re a liar and a thief.
Gollum: [sinister whisper] *Murderer*.
Smeagol: [voice breaking; hurt by Gollum’s remark] Go away!
Gollum: “Go away?”
[Gollum laughs mockingly as Smeagol begins to cry]
Smeagol: [weeping] I hate you. I *hate* you.
As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve had conversations like this with myself. Conversations that end with me crying, holding my head, and saying the word “I hate you” over and over again. And I hope that this means I’m not too far gone into this shit.
But I began this essay with a real question: Is Gollum the hero of his own story? To which Tolkien seems to provide a not so subtle answer to this question. Near the end of Book 4 Sam and Frodo are making their way to the pass of Cirith Ungol and the realm of Shelob the giant spider and Sam begins to talk aloud about the “stories of old.” It’s a bit of meta-reflection that was used beautifully in the Second Lord of the Rings film,however something was left out that begs this initial question.
‘Maybe,’ said Sam, “but I wouldn’t be one to say that. Things done and over and made into part of the great tales are different. Why even Gollum might be good in a tale, better than he us to have by you, anyway. And he used to like takes himself once, by his own account. I wonder if he thinks he’s the hero of the villain?
‘Gollum!’ He called. ‘Would you like to be the hero—now where’s he got to again?’
There was no sign of him at the mouth of their shelter nor in the shadows near. (697).
At the opportunity to join the conversation, and perhaps give himself a moment to be full, and be the hero of his own story, Gollum is conspicuously absent, returning in just a few moments to find the Hobbits asleep and thus create the earlier quote that originally left me in tears as I drove to work. The question is answered by that absence, and Gollum’s real tragedy is thus revealed: he is a man living a life where is isn’t the hero.
Such a state of being may not seem terribly important in this contemporary times.
Heroes are the stuff of comic books or really bad action movies True Lies, or terrible action films like Commando. Yet despite this the idea of a person being their own hero is an important one, because if one is a claims adjustor, or a civil servant, or a reference access at a library the idea that your life is your own and that you are living your own narrative is important. It gives one a sense of purpose and direction, and one is able to build a life from such a narrative.
The problem with something like depression is that it numbs one from that purpose and drive. Life becomes about being, but more importantly about questioning the relevance of that being. Depression is a state where one regularly questions, or really believes that life would be better off without them. Gollum’s pain is that he has wasted his life living in that pain, and the worst part is he just wants to return to it because it’s better than facing the truth which is that he has wasted his life pursuing something that isn’t real.
There’s so much material in The Two Towers, but because Gollum has become a bit of a rock-star I wanted to dig into his character and find something that isn’t just imitations or caricatures. And in the real character I guess I found a bit of myself, or, as tragedy may be, a lot of myself. Tolkien deserves credit then for crafting a real vision of thereality of depression. My condition is not necessarily improving dramatically, but writing about it like this, finding connections to it in real life and fiction, and telling my story like this has helped me moving forward. It’s helped me claim my position in my own narrative as the, if not hero, at least the man of his own making.
Gollum is a man who has walked out of his own story, and allowed his desire for comfort in pain to become his defining trait, and ultimately his undoing. I suppose though that, in that tragedy, there’s still an opportunity for other people to find a bit of themselves, and reevaluate whether going to see a therapist every now and then is really such a bad thing. Just make sure not to see one for seventeen years because then you’re in Woody Allen territory.
And Gollum in a Woody Allen movie is a reality I don’t think any of us are ready for just yet.
This essay was written months ago. I have a tendency to sit on my work and so what was true during the original composition has, not changed, but altered dramatically. In the time since I wrote this essay my friend Savannah Blair killed herself. So what has not changed is my conviction and understanding that I laid bare in this essay. Depression is a disease, and those that suffer from it should seek counseling and medication if need be. Life is too short, and our connections to others is mortal and tenuous. The friend, sister, brother, father, mother, lover, partner that is here today can be gone tomorrow as quickly as it takes to squease a trigger.
Please, for the people you love, seek help. It’s worth it to stave off a great deal of pain and not just your own. Miss you Sav.
All quotes taken from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers were cited from the paperback Mariner edition. All quotes from Rango were provided by IMDb. And The Lyrics for Everyday is Exactly the same were quoted from AZLyrics.com.
If the reader happens to be someone who suffers from depression, or knows someone who suffers from the disease, I’ve provided a link below to a few resources for people who would like help, or at least would like to start researching the condition. Trust me as somebody who’s been dealing with the crap for almost 30 years, being happy and healthy is way, way, WAY better than being comfortable and broken.
Please remember, nothing is an original thought and just as I think I’ve contributed something unique to the culture, I find dozens or articles that more or less express the same thought. So, please enjoy these articles about Depression and Lord of the Rings:
Just for the record, since I wrote this essay I’ve begun to see a therapist. A friend of mine sees her regularly, and another friend found her number for me and hounded me until I called her up and made the appointment. Self-repair is a strange sensation, but it is worth it.