“My Precious”: Gollum vs. the Pearl Jeweler

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Each character’s spiritual progress is erratic after his initial turning point. The Pearl Maiden must correct the Jeweler’s false notions about the Kingdom of Heaven by proving the magnitude of grace in a long discourse based on the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15), and by reminding him how salvation works; she must also reiterate the danger of his errors (Tolkien, Pearl 409-900). Gollum’s lessons are primarily learned through Frodo’s example and not by speech, and his plan to take Sam and Frodo through Cirith Ungol shows that his reform has not gone as deep as it could (LOTR 606-41). Like the Pearl Maiden, Frodo must warn Gollum sternly of the grave danger in which he still stands as long as his affections are focused on the Ring, and Faramir warns him further after catching him in the Forbidden Pool (626, 671-78). Still, despite Faramir’s assessment that “malice eats [Gollum] like a canker” (676), hope is not yet lost.

Eventually, however, each character must choose whether to cling to his Precious despite the peril or relinquish it for something greater and, in Gollum’s case, unknown. The Jeweler’s choice comes by stages, but by the seventy-sixth stanza, he has had a definite change of heart. He compares the Pearl Maiden to a flourishing, blissful rose, while he is “but dust and dirt in kind” and unworthy of her company (Tolkien, Pearl 905-906). Moreover, the subject of his interest has shifted from his daughter to her surroundings; he declares that “As under moon ye have no stain / Your home should be without a spot” (923-24), and when she describes the New Jerusalem to him, he asks her to take him there (925-64). She guides him to where he can see the city from a high hill, and he marvels at this city made of priceless gemstones, matching John’s description in Revelation perfectly (925-1080). Already feeling overwhelmed by the sight, he is further astonished by a sudden procession of maidens from the city, all of whom are dressed like the Pearl Maiden, and in the midst of which appears the Lamb of God Himself (1081-1116). Everyone present praises “that fair Jewel” (1124), and the Jeweler declares, “The best was He, blithest, most dear to prize / Of whom I e’er heard tales of yore” (1131-32). The sudden sight of his daughter distracts him, and he loses control and tries to cross the river—only to wake in the graveyard where he had swooned (1147-73). Yet he has made his choice, and he confirms it when he realizes what he has done: “I stretched, and fell in great unease, / And sighing to myself I prayed: / ‘Now be it all as that Prince may please’” (1174-76). Firm in his resolve, though chiding himself for his disobedience, he releases his grief to God and prays that Jesus will make him a pearl as precious in His sight as the Pearl Maiden is (1177-1212).

Gollum’s decision comes earlier in his journey than the Jeweler’s does. He leaves Sam and Frodo on the stairs of Cirith Ungol for a time and returns to find them both asleep. Somehow, the sight stirs something within him. Tolkien gives us no indication of exactly what Gollum thinks at this crucial moment, but it is his last chance to leave the course he has set for himself, and he nearly repents—until Sam wakes suddenly and, startled, speaks harshly to him. Gollum could conceivably still have repented despite Sam’s interruption, although how that would have changed the outcome of the story is unclear; but Gollum’s anger finally overcomes Sméagol’s desire to change, and he chooses to continue pursuing the Ring by leading the hobbits on to Shelob’s Lair (LOTR 697-701). After that, his fate is sealed. Not even Frodo’s final warning outside Sammath Naur can shake his determination for more than a few minutes (922-23). Yet when he finally does regain the Ring, he forfeits everything he deemed precious; rejoicing in his achievement, he stumbles into the fire with which Frodo had threatened him and, with a final scream of “Precious,” loses both the Ring and his life (924-25).

The parallel stories of Gollum and the Jeweler illustrate the Apostles’ teaching as preserved in an ancient document called the Didache: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death; and between the two ways there is a great difference” (1.1). The Jeweler has followed the way of life in the past but allowed his inordinate love for his Pearl to lead him astray. Gollum has lived in the way of death for centuries, allowing his idolatrous lust for the Ring to devour him alive. Their paths mirror each other from the initial obsession with and loss of the Precious, through the wandering search for the Precious and the internal spiritual battles along the way, to the penultimate failed attempt to regain the Precious. The danger each faces is similar, and the choice each must make is the same. Yet the results of their choice are as different as Heaven and Hell. In the end, The Jeweler chooses to return to the way of life, and he presumably continues in it and secures his eternal salvation; by giving up his ungodly grief, he ensures that he will rejoin his daughter in the New Jerusalem, gaining every good thing he saw in his vision in the process. Gollum, however, fails to take advantage of his last chance to choose life freely. By choosing to continue his pursuit of the Ring, Gollum dooms himself to death on Orodruin and probably to eternal punishment beyond the circles of Arda; and in losing his life, he destroys the Precious he had hoped to regain. While their tales are fictional, this choice should cause the reader to ask himself whether he has a Precious and whether he will relinquish it for eternal life or cling to it and face eternal death.

This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.