Most people are familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien’s character, Gollum. If you aren’t, and you plan on reading The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, you might want to go do that before you read this post. Oh– and yes, if you haven’t seen any of the movies, including the bad cartoon versions. I think the Peter Jackson version is clearly the best. Feel free to disagree with that judgment.
So the key thing about Lord of the Rings is that it is a quest to get rid of the ring, not to find it. While the story is not told in strict chronological order, the beginning is that Gollum finds the One Ring. He values it above everything else– all other possessions, all relationships, even the daylight (waking) world. It possesses him, in the end, and destroys him. Bilbo, on the other hand, while he feels the terrible seductive pull of the ring, is able to let go of it and pass it on with the help of friends and family, as well as a kindlier world view.
Gollum’s attachment to his possession– his preciousss— causes him an untold amount of suffering. That’s the Buddha angle: striving and attachment are the sources of suffering.
For all the years from the finding to the losing of the ring, the possession of it controls his life. then, after the losing of the ring, his quest to get it back dominates his life. I think that our fascination with Gollum stems, in part, from the fact that there’s a Gollum in all of us. We all have things that we get attached to– sometimes more than is good for us.
There is another metaphorical facet to the Gollum/One Ring relationship that many will spot: addiction. When he first encounters it, he is entranced, fascinated by its beauty. When he gains possession of it, he is intoxicated by its power, and uses it for his own secret gains. Eventually, it controls him and brings him no further joy but only the squalor and solitude of his secret life and the fear of no longer having it. Then, having lost it, his craving drives him across the width and breadth of Middle Earth. Talk about a Jones!
There is the point in the story where, with compassion from Frodo, Smeagol emerges and the character is shown to have a side worthy of compassion. This makes his final end somewhat of a sacrifice and allows us, the readers, to feel compassion for him. He effectively saves Frodo from falling into the doom of possession/addiction.
So there’s the food for thought for all of us: what things are possessing me? What things do I need to let go of to reduce my suffering? And who do I need in my Fellowship of the Ring?