Meeting Gollum on an Airplane

We are all Ring-wearers on occasion, even if we desire to be Ring-bearers.

‘Air New Zealand’
‘Air New Zealand’ (photo: Ryan Fletcher / Shutterstock)

One meets the most interesting and intriguing people on planes. This past weekend, I found myself sitting next to a talkative person, a woman in her mid-50s, who was not shy about telling her life story. She told me about her job, her father, who was English, and her mother, who was not. She was herself from upstate New York but now lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her husband had been killed six years earlier in a motorcycle accident.

Eventually and inevitably, she asked me what I did. I told her that I was a writer. She asked me what I wrote. I told her that I wrote biographies, and especially biographies of writers. As this elicited a puzzled look, I felt compelled to elaborate. I told her of some of the better-known people of whom I’d written. Shakespeare. Wilde. C. S. Lewis. Tolkien.

“Tolkien!” she exclaimed, her expression brightening. “I love The Lord of the Rings!” 

“Really?” I responded.

“Yes,” she continued, with a burst of enthusiasm. “I have the movie posters all over my apartment.”

I realized that this was not going to be a literary engagement with Tolkien’s text. I doubted, in fact, having learned a good deal about my interlocutor over the past 20 minutes or so, whether she had ever read Tolkien’s magnum opus. She certainly didn’t feel that the book warranted discussion.

I acknowledged that I also enjoyed the films.

“I’m such a huge fan,” she gushed. “So is my niece. She has the Eye of Sauron tattooed on her elbow and a Nazgûl tattooed on her forearm.”

This was a conversation stopper. What was one to say in the face of such a revelation?

My initial reaction was one of déjà vu. I recalled watching the film version of The Return of the King with an acquaintance in England with whom I was still friendly, in spite of our very different views. He was an angry and militant atheist who did not take kindly to my Christianity. As we left the cinema after watching the film together, I asked him with which of the characters he identified. “Gollum,” he replied, without a moment’s hesitation.

His reply shocked me into dumbness. What was there to say? We had just witnessed the self-sacrificial trudge into the valley of death by Frodo and Sam, which had been sustained by their willingness to lay down their lives for their friends and by their own self-sacrificial love for each other. We’d seen the wisdom of Gandalf and the faith and hope of Aragorn, the latter of whom takes his own self-sacrificial and doom-laden “Paths of the Dead,” and who triumphs over death itself, releasing the dead themselves from the curse that had bound them. And what of the courage of the Rohirrim and their heroic ride towards almost certain death in defense of all that is good, true and beautiful? 

How could one possibly identify with the utterly pathetic and self-centered Gollum rather than with those who gave their lives for others? It doesn’t make sense. The only answer, I came to understand with a sickening sense of resignation, is that those who identify with Gollum are those whose own identity has been gollumized by their slavery to the power of the real-life Ring which rules their lives. 

By way of a brief explanation, the Ring in Tolkien’s epic is synonymous with Sin itself, an applicable allegorical connection which Tolkien signifies through the date of the Ring’s destruction. The Ring is destroyed on March 25, probably the most important date on the Christian calendar, being both the feast of the Annunciation (the date on which the Word becomes Flesh in the Virgin’s womb) and also, according to tradition, the historical date of the Crucifixion. The power of the Ring is destroyed on the same symbolically charged date that the power of sin is destroyed. The wearing of the Ring is living in sin and the bearing of the Ring is resisting the Ring’s power through the self-sacrificial acceptance of the burden of sin, i.e. the carrying of the cross. Those who choose to live in sin, wearing the Ring habitually, become slaves to its power, as St. Paul tells us. It is, therefore, unsurprising that those who gollumize themselves should become gollums, identifying with Gollum himself. 

As the plane began its final descent into Charlotte, my interlocutor asked me for the title of my books on Tolkien. I told her. She then asked for my name to better enable her to locate my books online. I told her. 

“Joseph,” she repeated as I gave her my name. “My own Joseph is picking me up from the airport.”

“How old is your Joseph,” I asked.

She looked at me as though it were a strange or even an impertinent question. “Fifty-seven,” she replied.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought Joseph was your son.”

“No, he’s my boyfriend. I don’t have a son or a daughter, by choice. And after spending time with my niece, I know I made the right decision.”

Once again, I was rendered speechless. The denial of life seemed a natural consequence of the denial of life-giving grace. Those who choose to wear the Ring rather than bear it have the life they choose. Even if it’s the life of slavery that Gollum chooses, they will have it no other way. Their freedom of choice is a matter of life and death, not merely for themselves but for others.

This is all true, but one should always be mindful of the plank in one’s own eye when observing the mote in the eyes of others. We are all Ring-wearers on occasion, even if we desire to be Ring-bearers. In this, we are like Frodo Baggins. Knowing the power of the Ring, he had it in his heart to pity Gollum and to forgive him. There but for the grace of God, he seems to be telling Sam, go you and I.