Is being compared to Gollum the ultimate insult... or precious praise?

A man may go to jail for two years for comparing Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Gollum from Lord of the Rings on Facebook. But is Gollum tragically misunderstood?

Would you mind being compared to Gollum, the slimy, bulged-eyed backstabber from JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fantasy novels? Think carefully about the answer: a Turkish doctor could be facing two years in jail on the basis of how that particular teaser shakes down.

Dr Bilgin Çiftçi appeared in court this week, accused of insulting Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for comparing Erdogan to the movie portrayal of Gollum on Facebook. But in a classic James Pickles-esque “Who are the Beatles?” moment, the chief judge presiding over the case admitted that although he had seen parts of the Peter Jackson movie adaptations, he wasn’t overly familiar with Gollum’s character.

The judge adjourned the case to February and despatched a team of expert witnesses – “two academics, two behavioural scientists or psychologists and an expert on cinema and television productions”, according to Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman – to pore over Gollum’s character and decide whether it is a comparison worth jail time.

Dr Çiftçi’s liberty now depends on how well Gollum’s character comes across in the box. What will the court-appointed team of experts going to find? Let’s look at the evidence in the source material…

For the prosecution

I would like, if I may, to refer to my battered 1981 fourth-edition Unwin reprint of The Hobbit, page 77. And what a page it is! It is here that Prof Tolkien introduces Gollum thusly: “Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature.” Gollum, we are told, is fishing, but he’s as partial to Goblin meat - “he just throttled them from behind, if they ever came down alone”.

Indeed, his first thought on encountering Bilbo Baggins is to eat him. Even when bested by Baggins in a riddle game, Gollum - “a miserable wicked creature” - accuses the Hobbit of stealing his ring and tries to rob it back.

By the time we reach The Lord of the Rings trilogy (second impression, Unwin Books edition, 1974 for all of you following at home), Gollum isn’t just skulking in caves. In fact, the entire shebang can be laid at his door. He gives up the name Baggins and the Hobbit homeland of The Shire to the Dark Lord who’s after the ring of power, setting the whole war in motion. He teams up with Frodo and Sam, ostensibly to destroy the ring, but plans to feed them to the giant spider Shelob and claim back his “precious”. Friends don’t do that, Gollum.

He is, ultimately, a lying, cheating, murderous, semi-cannibalistic misanthrope.

For the defence

In The Hobbit, ol’ JRR, as omniscient narrator, professes: “I don’t know where he came from” but revises his opinion by the time of the first book of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, Gollum has a rather tragic back-story that paints him more as a victim of circumstance rather than an evil, self-serving creature.

Gollum is humanised – nay, Hobbitised – when his origins are revealed: Gollum was once Sméagol, another one of those little, curlyhaired folk we grew so fond of in The Hobbit. Sméagol’s ideallic, Hobbitty life was destroyed when he discovered the ring of power. The ring exerts such an influence on Sméagol that his mind and will are no longer his own, addicted to the ring’s power. Still, despite this, our increasingly unwashed and slimy friend has flashes of goodness, showing an obvious desire for redemption throughout the trilogy.

Gollum agrees to accompany Frodo and Sam to destroy the ring, even though he has a hidden agenda to turn them into spider-food. But he almost abandons his plan thanks to Frodo’s kindness, only continuing with it because of a right harshing from Sam. Sam, you had one job.

Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings films, has released a statement suggesting that the Turkish prosecutors may be considering the wrong character. “If the images below are in fact the ones forming the basis of this Turkish lawsuit, we can state categorically: none of them feature the character known as Gollum. All of them are images of the character called Sméagol,” said Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens in a joint statement. “Sméagol is a joyful, sweet character. Sméagol does not lie, deceive, or attempt to manipulate others. He is not evil, conniving, or malicious — these personality traits belong to Gollum, who should never be confused with Sméagol.”

As for Gollum himself, he might have been an alright chap himself: he did, after all, (SPOILER ALERT) destroy the ring himself. OK, he was trying to get it for himself at the time, but maybe we should cut him a little slack, right? After all, as Bilbo himself observed in The Hobbit, Gollum had a bit of a rubbish old time of it: “…endless unmarked days without light or hope or betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering”. Poor bloke.

Gollum is a victim of circumstance, and if anything deserves our sympathy, not our hatred.

What do you think?

Vile, murderous scumbag or sympathetic victim? Are comparisons to Gollum odious or nothing to be upset about? Over to you, the jury…


David Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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