SANE Australia, a national organization for the mentally ill, paid special attention to media comments about Gollum in The Return of the King back in December. The group included references to Gollum in its “Stigma Files,” which catalogue inaccurate or insensitive portrayals of mental illness in the media.

Dr. Paul Morgan, SANE Australia’s deputy director, told the Sydney Morning Herald that groups or people–including Peter Jackson–referring to Gollum’s “schizophrenic nature” are incorrect.

“Somebody who flips into evil unexpectedly, that has nothing to do with schizophrenia,” Morgan told the paper. “The last thing (sufferers) need is the additional burden of media and movies making fun and portraying them falsely as some sort of twisted, monstrous character.”

The story also quoted Rebecca Griffin, director of support services at the Schizophrenia Fellowship of New South Wales, who agreed with Morgan that linking Gollum and schizophrenia is simply wrong, and that doing so increases the stigma and discrimination attached to real schizophrenics.

Several days after the Herald carried the story about mental health groups being disgruntled by the Gollum talk, it carried another piece on the subject–this time a guest column by novelist Sophie Masson.

“It’s probably not a good idea (though a common enough form of lazy modern metaphorical shorthand) for Jackson or others to use a medical term for what is clearly a moral and psychological state in Gollum,” Masson wrote, “one in which conscience, love and trust have been almost submerged by the degraded circumstances he’s reduced himself to by his terrifying, disgusting and pitiful craving for the evil Ring of power.”

Masson went on to say that “Gollum is certainly not mad in any real, medical sense of the term, but the character is sinister and pitiful.”

Masson’s biggest problem with the hubbub over Gollum’s mental condition is that it detracts from the power of Tolkien’s story itself.

She referred to those who complain about Gollum’s depiction as “self-appointed guardians who patrol the boundaries of the imagination and attempt to pin down the elusive butterflies of insight and metaphor with leaden pins of analysis.”

Masson suggested that no one really thinks of Gollum as “a real person with a mental illness,” and she doesn’t think “that he represents mentally ill people in any way, despite the director’s clumsy analogies.”

Nevertheless, people like Griffin from the Schizophrenia Fellowship don’t appreciate inaccurate labels, regardless of how fictional the character or depiction is. (I should note that I stand as condemned as anyone else for using the language of schizophrenia, having referred to Gollum’s “schizophrenic soliloquy of sorts” in a column about The Two Towers.)

Griffin told the Herald that Gollum, instead of being schizophrenic, more likely suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)–a psychiatric disorder in which a person has two or more identities or personalities that take turns controlling the person’s consciousness and behavior. She said Gollum’s condition was probably “triggered” by losing the Ring.

Despite Masson’s obvious displeasure with people who deconstruct fictional tales, it’s not difficult to understand how those charged with helping the mentally ill must be invested in the public discussion–even when, or especially when, the discussion involves a global box-office champion.

Furthermore, it seems reasonable to think of Gollum as a creature with at least two personalities, so Griffin’s DID comment may not ring completely false, even if the “diagnosis” is muddled by the various bits and pieces of information we have about Smeagol, er, Gollum.

Gollum’s history is probably well known to most readers: In his previous life as the hobbit-like Smeagol, he killed his friend Deagol to assume possession of the One Ring, which Deagol had found at the bottom of the river Anduin.

Smeagol’s lust for the One Ring eventually changed him fundamentally, and he became known as Gollum for the noises he made in his throat. He eventually lost the One Ring to Bilbo Baggins, Frodo’s uncle, and became ruled not by what he had, but by what he had lost.

Tolkien parenthetically noted in The Hobbit that Gollum “always spoke to himself through never having anyone else to speak to.” Tolkien didn’t say Gollum was talking to Smeagol necessarily, just talking to himself because no one else was around.

Later in Gollum’s story, of course, we find him referring to “we” and “us” constantly.

When Gollum first makes a play for the Ring around Frodo’s neck, prompting Sam and Frodo to attack, Gollum screams, “Don’t hurt us! Don’t let them hurt us, precious!”

Later, when Frodo and Sam press Gollum about showing them the way to Mordor, Gollum says, “I, we, I don’t want to come back.”

Frodo, it should be noted, chooses to call Gollum Smeagol, and in fact Gollum calls himself Smeagol when in front of the hobbits. Sam, on the other hand, gives the creature two different names entirely: Slinker (for Smeagol) and Stinker (for Gollum).

One of the more interesting passages to consider is when Sam wakes up and hears Gollum talking to himself.

Tolkien wrote: “Gollum was talking to himself. Smeagol was holding a debate with some other thought that used the same voice but made it squeak and hiss. A pale light and a green light alternated in his eyes as he spoke.” The ensuing debate is a delight to read, and it’s incredible on film (in The Two Towers) as performed by Andy Serkis and the effects team. As for the book, it’s interesting to note that Tolkien actually refers to the creature by both of his names, within the same paragraph.

When Gollum, Sam and Frodo are at the Black Gate and Gollum wants to show them a new way, Sam gets suspicious again.

To all appearances Gollum was genuinely distressed and anxious to help Frodo. But Sam, remembering the overheard debate, found it hard to believe that the long submerged Smeagol had come out on top: that voice at any rate had not had the last word in the debate. Sam’s guess was that the Smeagol and Gollum halves (or what in his own mind he called Slinker and Stinker) had made a truce and a temporary alliance: neither wanted the Enemy to get the Ring; both wished to keep Frodo from capture, and under their eye, as long as possible—at any rate as long as Stinker still had a chance of laying hands on his ‘Precious.’

Tolkien thus discusses Gollum/Smeagol with words like “voices,” “halves” and “thoughts,” all of which are engaging in their own right.

Perhaps the most interesting choice of words is the last–thought–for it suggests a subtler approach to the Gollum/Smeagol case. Andy Serkis may have chosen this approach, too.

“I don’t think he’s clinically schizophrenic,” Serkis told the Sydney Morning Herald. “He has parts of his personality which dominate at particular times … I can be a good person, I can be a bad person … I think most people are like that if they’re honest about it.”

On another occasion, however, Serkis said his portrayal of Gollum/Smeagol did call on the qualities of an addict.

“It’s so important for Frodo to have a connection with him (Gollum),” Serkis told religious press covering The Two Towers in New York City. “And it’s very much Frodo looking at this addict, is how we played it, the Ring junkie. He’s possessed by this thing that drives him insane. And Frodo is also being affected in that way. The bond between them was really, really strong, which of course added the tension between him and Sam and Sam mistrusting Gollum, but Sam never really being able to understand what it’s like to have that kind of addiction.”

The language of addiction is interesting, for it adds another complication to our thinking about Gollum. It’s worth noting that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does talk not only about mental disorders, but also about addictive disorders, noting that both types sometimes occur together (a state known as “comorbidity”).

Furthermore, the DSM classification system includes addictive disorders as a type of mental disorder. And in fact, many people with addictive disorders have mental disorders as well.

The point here is not to impose a Western mental health grid on Middle-Earth, a task for which I am neither qualified nor inclined.

Nevertheless, there seems to be something logical in Jackson’s–and others’–desire to speak about Gollum in the currency of mental health, which includes talk about addiction.

When Masson writes that it’s inappropriate to use “a medical term for what is clearly a moral and psychological state in Gollum,” it’s not altogether clear–given talk about Gollum’s Ring addiction that no one disputes–what the difference is.

There’s a lot going on with Gollum: bouts of identity confusion and alteration, Ring addiction, and–simply put–malicious choices. It’s not always easy to separate one from another.

Furthermore, it’s a hazardous task to speak of evil in the same breath as mental illness. One of the unfortunate by-products of fictional characterizations is that said characters’ traits are often assumed to be “statements” about real life. This is the sort of thing that SANE Australia and its Stigma Files track; they also take criticism for doing so, as Masson’s essay proves.

Serkis, however, seems to have thought about these hazards.

“There was never a sense that he was born evil,” Serkis said at the junket. “He had a weak moral stature and the Ring had got hold of him and got its claws into him, and he’d responded very quickly to it.”

Serkis also referred to Smeagol’s killing of Deagol for the Ring as a “bad decision” which “sort of takes him.”

“I really felt it important that people understood Gollum–that he wasn’t just this craven, lustful, evil thing,” Serkis reiterated.

Furthermore, Gollum wasn’t making the Ring up–and in this way, he wasn’t split from reality (a symptom that might more appropriately have him labeled schizophrenic). No, the Ring is a real item in Middle-Earth. And Tolkien made no bones about the fact that “Gollum was feeling the terrible call of the Ring.” Thus, anything that may be said about Gollum in this regard may also be said of Frodo–an addict in the making, perhaps. Even Sam got a taste, for that matter.

In fact, when Gollum, Sam and Frodo are fighting at Mount Doom and Sam is threatening to kill Gollum, Gollum screams, “Lost lost! We’re lost.”

After Gollum’s pleading, Sam softens.

“It would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature, just and many times deserved; and also it seemed the only safe thing to do,” Tolkien wrote of Sam. “But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shriveled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again.”

Sam thus gained empathy through experience, like Frodo before him.

Empathy is needed. Still, Gollum will betray the kindness because he is a Ring addict with no help. As Tolkien wrote, “After ages alone in the dark Gollum’s heart was black, and treachery was in it.”

So what is the point of all this? Oddly enough perhaps, it’s not Gollum at all. It’s us.

How we think about mental illness has changed. The surgeon general reports interesting information about how the number of mentally ill people has fluctuated across the decades because our definitions have fluctuated. For example, at one point, over 80 percent of the population of Manhattan was mentally disturbed—according to definition.

The San Bernardino Sun recently posted a report called “Lost Among Us: How Society Fails the Mentally Ill.” The project is a fascinating multimedia exploration of mental illness.

The project’s title is particularly interesting for at least two reasons. First, the mentally ill are often lost among us, so to speak, in that we simply overlook their conditions. Secondly, the title resonates when one considers the lyrics to “Gollum’s Song,” written by screenwriter Fran Walsh for The Two Towers.

The lyrics read, in part:

So in the end
I will be–What I will be
No loyal friend
Was ever there for me

These tears you cry
Have come too late
Take back the lies
The hurt, the blame!

And you will weep
When you face the end alone
You are lost!
You can never go home…

The song can be read with multiple meanings, one of which is an implication that “what goes around comes around,” so to speak. Eventually, we must deal with those we have neglected. Their lost-ness becomes our own.

It’s no coincidence that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gollum plays a pivotal role at the end of Tolkien’s epic tale. Nor is it a coincidence that Tolkien didn’t have Frodo treat Gollum the way we might treat those people with cardboard signs–model behavior he learned from someone wiser than he.

As our societies deal with the real problems of mental and addictive disorders, it’s not necessary to posit that Tolkien’s Gollum was a character ahead of his time. I think it’s enough simply to suggest that Tolkien’s Gollum is a character for our time–and likely all others.

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for This article originally appeared as part of a series of guest columns edited by Tolkien expert Greg Wright at Hollywood Jesus.

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