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).
In desperation, Gollum leaves the safety of his cave after a year or two to track Bilbo down and reclaim the Ring. He wanders through many dark and dangerous places, including Mordor, before becoming trapped in Moria until the Fellowship arrives (LOTR 53-58, 247-49, 304, 1065-67). Like the Jeweler, Gollum has found his Precious again—in the possession of another, in this case Frodo Baggins. Consumed with lust for the Ring and hatred of “Baggins,” Gollum follows Frodo until he finally catches up with him in the Emyn Muil (304, 306, 310, 336, 373-75, 598-600). Yet he, too, cannot reclaim his Precious; Sam and Sting both stand in his way. Nor can he rejoice that the Ring is where it needs to be; although he acknowledges Frodo as “the master of the Precious,” he often bemoans his own misfortunes and laments the loss of the Ring (601-604).
The paths traveled by Gollum and the Jeweler converge at this point, but their attitudes and actions have been the same all along. Thus, the Pearl Maiden’s first remark applies equally to both of them: “Sir, e haf your tale mysentente” (Pearl 257). Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron gloss “mysentente” as both “misunderstood” and “distorted” (p. 335), and both definitions fit. Neither the Jeweler nor Gollum truly understands his situation, and both have framed their stories so as to strengthen their perceived claims to the Precious. Yet those claims are illegitimate; the Jeweler never had sole ownership of his daughter, and Gollum would have had no right to the Ring even had he not murdered Déagol for it. Nor does either character understand how idolatrous his affection for the Precious has become. Although Gollum does not have the revelation of Eru, the One True God of Tolkien’s world, that the Jeweler has of Yahweh, he should still know that his love for others and for all things good should outweigh his love for the Ring. That balance is evident in Frodo, who is usually able to keep his loves ordered properly despite the constant temptation of the Ring. The Jeweler also has a reminder of the ordo amoris in the Pearl Maiden, who rebukes him sharply after he complains of his sorrow that he cannot be reunited with her (Tolkien, Pearl 325-36):
‘’Twere better with cross yourself to bless,
Ever praising God in weal and woe….
Cease then to wrangle, to speak in spite,
And swiftly seek Him as your friend.
To your languor He may comfort lend,
And swiftly your griefs removed may seem;
For lament or rave, to submit pretend,
’Tis His to ordain what He right may deem.’ (341-42, 353-54, 357-60)
Nor are the Jeweler and Gollum merely in error because of their misplaced affections; they are also in grave danger and can save themselves only by giving up the one thing around which they have built their entire worlds. The Pearl Maiden tells the Jeweler plainly that he cannot simply cross the river to join her. The only path across the river is through death, but unless he repents and submits to God’s lordship once more, he will never be allowed to enter into glory (Tolkien, Pearl 313-24). Gollum, too, is in danger of eternal judgment. His obsession with the Ring is as idolatrous as the worship of Morgoth into which the earliest Men fell, and as one of the Second-born, he is under the Doom Eru pronounces in “The Tale of Adanel”: “Ye have abjured Me, but ye remain Mine. I gave you life. Now it shall be shortened, and each of you in a little while shall come to Me, to learn who is your Lord: the one ye worship, or I who made him” (MR 347). Gollum’s danger is also immediately physical, since Sauron has ordered him to find the Ring and bring it back to Mordor; were he to claim the Ring for himself once more, Sauron would know at once and have him hunted down and killed—if Sam did not kill him first (LOTR 601-602).
Both Gollum and the Jeweler begin to have a change of heart once the peril becomes obvious. Yet the extent of that change differs between the two. The Jeweler admits that he had earlier based his happiness on his daughter but now states that “Christ’s mercy, Mary and John: I dare / Only on these to found my bliss” (Tolkien, Pearl 383-84). Delighted, the Pearl Maiden welcomes him to stay and talk with her (397-400). Gollum’s equally sudden change, the partial recovery of Sméagol’s personality, does not reach the same level of reform; although he is eager to prove himself trustworthy, he still cannot conceive of anything higher than the Ring by which to swear his oath of fealty to Frodo, and Frodo’s stern warning against doing so makes no difference to him (LOTR 603-604). Sam begrudges Gollum’s presence, but Frodo becomes more tolerant of him (604).
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.
1According to The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Tolkien worked on his translation of Pearl at roughly the same time he wrote The Hobbit, since some stanzas were broadcast in 1936, and he began preparing the manuscript for publication in 1944, during the composition of The Lord of the Rings (14, 94, 114, 316-318, 440, 449). Although there is no evidence that Tolkien intended Gollum as a counterpart to the Jeweler, I believe that Pearl was among the numerous texts forming the semi-conscious literary background for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. For that reason, I will quote primarily from Tolkien’s translation, reverting to the Middle English text when it furnishes further parallels not apparent in Tolkien’s version.
Didache. c. 110. Trans. and ed. Cyril C. Richardson. Early Christian Fathers. Ed. Cyril C. Richardson. New York: Touchstone-Simon, 1996. 171-179.
Pearl. Ed. Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldon. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979. 53-110.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. 1937. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.
_____________. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
_____________. The Lord of the Rings. 1955. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
_____________. Morgoth’s Ring: The Later Silmarillion, Part One. Vol. 10 of The History of Middle-earth. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
_____________, trans. Pearl. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Ballantine, 1980. 99-132.