The quest to recover a lost piece of priceless jewelry seems a natural topic for a good adventure story. Yet when the aggrieved quester discovers that the prize is not his, that it is not as valuable as he believed, and that he will die if he tries to regain it, the reader may begin to wonder if the story is really about adventure after all. Such is the case with Pearl, translated by J. R. R. Tolkien, and the story of Gollum that begins in The Hobbit and continues in The Lord of the Rings.1 Both the narrator of Pearl, who identifies himself as a jeweler (252), and Gollum must undertake a journey to find the thing each calls “my precious,” only to discover that he cannot reclaim it and live. The choice each character makes determines his eternal destiny; taken together, the moral lesson portrayed by both quests forms a powerful challenge to the reader.
Pearl begins with a description of the Jeweler’s prized pearl in terms that make the reader suspect that he has found the Pearl of Great Price described in Matthew 13:45-46. This illusion shatters after only eight lines:
Alas! I lost her in garden near:
Through grass to the ground from me it shot;
I pine now oppressed by love-wound drear
For that pearl, mine own, without a spot. (Tolkien, Pearl 9-12)
This pearl must not be the Kingdom of Heaven, since that Pearl will never desert a man, nor can any one man claim it as his own. As the poem progresses, the Jeweler reveals the truth: his “precious pearl without a spot” is his daughter, who died when she was less than two years old (48, 241-242, 483). While it may be natural for a father to mourn the loss of a daughter, the Jeweler’s grief has grown out of proportion, and he refuses all solace: “Be comforted Christ Himself me bade, / But in woe my will ever strove distraught” (55-56).
The Jeweler’s inner turmoil causes him to swoon on his daughter’s grave, and he is swept away on a dream-journey that leads him through Paradise to a place where he can see his daughter, the glorified Pearl Maiden, dwelling in bliss-on the other side of an uncrossable river. Rather than rejoicing that his daughter is in Heaven, however, the Jeweler focuses only on his own pain and believes that he still has a claim on her (Tolkien, Pearl 180-252, 277-88). The Pearl Maiden calls him to task for this attitude:
‘Good sir, you have your speech mis-spent
To say your pearl is all away
That is in chest so choicely pent,
And yet you have called your fate a thief
That of naught to aught hath fashioned her,
You grudge the healing of your grief,
You are no grateful jeweller.’ (257-59, 273-76)
Such irrational behavior also characterizes one of Tolkien’s most memorable creations: Gollum. The Stoor Sméagol murders his cousin for the One Ring, and his subsequent wicked behavior and obsession with the Ring drive him literally underground (LOTR 51-54). By the time Bilbo stumbles upon his hideaway deep under the Misty Mountains, the Ring has drained Sméagol of practically everything that once connected him with the Men from whom the Stoors were descended, leaving him lonely, bitter, corrupt, and split in personality, identifiable only by the guttural noise he makes (Hobbit 71-73). His names for the Ring have contracted through the centuries to two brief descriptions: “my birthday-present” and “my precious”-the latter appellation also being one he applies to himself (80-81). Although he can seldom bear to carry the Ring with him for long periods, he often takes it out of its hiding place to look at it and wears it from time to time, and he constantly fears that it will be stolen (81-82). He does not notice when the Ring abandons him, but the discovery of his loss leaves him inconsolable and enraged; and when he realizes that Bilbo must have the Ring in his pocket, he promptly comes to the erroneous conclusion that Bilbo has stolen it (82-87). Gollum’s murderous charge after Bilbo does lead the hobbit out of the labyrinth of caves under the Misty Mountains, but Gollum’s parting shout portends the danger that Bilbo has landed in: “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!” (87).