Unrequited Love and Sméagol’s Doom
On the toxicity of unrequited love
In order to speak more about Gollum’s fall, I first want to bring up a poem by one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s contemporaries, W. H. Auden. (Tolkien and Auden died within a month of each other in September 1973.) In 1960, Auden published a beautiful poem about unrequited love called “The More Loving One” in a book titled Homage to Clio. I’m presenting the full poem below.
The More Loving One
by W. H. Auden
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
As I’ve already said, I think the poem is beautiful. I love the positive message: if I love more than I am loved, so be it. It’s actually quite a Stoic sentiment. After all, Seneca tells us, “if you wish to be loved, love.” in Letters from a Stoic. He doesn’t tell us it will work, of course. But the idea is to stop waiting to be loved and start or continue loving. But what Seneca doesn’t tell us is whether the object(s) of our affection can love back. I think it’s clear that he is talking about loving others rather than things. But I digress. Back to Auden. The poet is bringing up something deeper than mutual affection.
What should we do when we aren’t loved back?
Search literature and you will find no shortage of works on unrequited love: Cyrano de Bergerac expressing his love for Roxanne but deeming himself too ugly for her to love, Pip chasing after cold Estella (all the while he is ignoring Biddy’s infatuation with him) in Great Expectations, or even Forrest Gump’s unconditional love for Jenny goes unreturned for the majority of the story. Unrequited love is everywhere because it’s timeless. And it’s painful. Auden essentially cautions us to not let it get to us if the object of our love is indifferent or less enthusiastic than ourselves.
Dr. Oliver Tearle agrees in his blog post “A Short Analysis of W. H. Auden’s ‘The More Loving One'” on interestingliterature.com. He writes, “Auden’s answer, as it consistently is throughout his work, is love: we should admire the stars all the same, even though they don’t care about us.” Emily Ardagh of Emily’s Poetry Blog agrees with Dr. Tearle, albeit with a somewhat safer conclusion of, “As always with Auden, this poem is a masterful exploration of ideas that can and will be read in many different ways.” I also agree with Dr. Tearle. At least I do in an example such as this. That is to say in a case where the recipient of my love is, at worst, indifferent towards me.
I am not alone in my thinking. Over at brainpickings.org, author Maria Popova writes that Auden’s poem “deals with nature and the disorienting necessity of learning to love a universe insentient to our hopes and fears, unconcerned with our individual fates — perhaps the least requited love there is.” The least requited love there is, though, may not be the same as the most unrequited love.
Unrequited Love as an action
On the surface, unrequited love sounds passive. And I guess that for most cases, it is. But what of the insidious instances where it’s active? Moments when love is withheld or when love is used as a manipulation to one’s nefarious gain? Let’s consider this article’s titular character from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. By all accounts, Sméagol was an easy-going Stoor (a Hobbit subrace) in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional world of Arda (at least by my reckoning, I haven’t yet exhausted all Tolkien resources). Prior to his stealing the One Ring from his cousin, Sméagol was content to spend his days lazing about in his grandmother’s Hobbit hole and fishing in the Gladden Fields. But then the Ring came to Sméagol, by way of his murdered cousin, and changed everything.
The convivial Stoor became obsessed, possessive, and murderous in an instant. He was cast out of his homeland and spent centuries living under the Misty Mountains, the Ring twisting his mind all the while. It was here that he became Gollum. His love for his precious—as he called the Ring, for the unfamiliar—never wavered. However, the Ring didn’t love him back. The Ring had its own sentience and it betrayed Gollum to further its machinations towards war on Middle Earth. It wasn’t just indifferent, it was toxic. Once the Ring deemed Gollum no longer useful, it found a new victim in Bilbo Baggins.
Yet Gollum’s obsession would not die easily. He was, after all, the more loving one. Gollum would spend the last seventy-eight years of his unnaturally long life trying to reclaim his precious after exclaiming, “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it for ever!” Spoiler alert: he gets it back. Briefly.
After the loss
In the sixty years between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, we are given little detail as to what Bilbo is up to. Things are mostly uneventful and when Gandalf comes to The Shire to celebrate Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday we learn that Bilbo shows few signs of aging and not a few signs that his adoration of the Ring he found under the Misty Mountains has started to take hold of him as it did with Gollum. Bilbo’s retirement from The Shire and his bequeathing of the Ring to his nephew, Frodo, sets the stage for the entire story of The Lord of the Rings as well as Gollum’s demise.
Despite trailing the Fellowship since at least Moria, Gollum makes virtually no appearance in this part of the story. But it doesn’t mean his obsession has abated. No, he has been seething with jealousy all this time. He wanted his precious back. Because it was his birthday present and no filthy Hobbits deserved it more than he did.
After the Fellowship splits up, Sam and Frodo successfully capture Gollum and Frodo uses the Ring as leverage. He admonishes Gollum that the Ring will hold him to his word. His word being his promise to lead the two Hobbits to Mount Doom where they will destroy the Ring. It is at this point we discover just how conflicted Gollum really is and how much sway “so small a thing” has on him.
For fear of turning this into a character study, I’ll keep this brief. Some people want to classify Gollum as having multiple personalities. A survey of 30 medical students by The BMJ revealed that only three respondents would have diagnosed Gollum with Dissociative Identity Disorder. This was my stance even before I found that article. Most of those respondents diagnosed him as schizophrenic which isn’t a condition I would’ve guessed. I did consider DID due to the Gollum and Sméagol dichotomy, but I dismissed it after reflecting upon the discussions the two have with each other. The article at The BMJ ultimately diagnoses him with a schizoid personality disorder.
Eh. I think he was just crazy in love. In love with an object that would never love him back. With an object that likely ushered in the Gollum personality. The will of the Ring incarnate. At least partially incarnate. The Ring clearly didn’t manifest its entire sentience into Gollum. But it gave Gollum enough essence to be cruel and to manipulate Sméagol. Gollum gave him ambition and drive. But I contend that even Gollum was unaware that such zeal would literally kill him.
Tolkien knew a thing or two about Unrequited Love
I don’t want to conjecture that Tolkien had someone in his life whom he deeply loved who, for all she cared, thought he could go to hell. I also don’t want to pretend that he meant for Sméagol’s obsession with the One Ring to be anything more than it was. But I think he knew instinctively what takes years of endurance for many of us to learn: unrequited love can be deadly. Especially if the one you love has a toxic will of its own. When it knows your feelings and uses them to its advantage you become myopic and, sometimes, reckless. You’ll do anything to prove yourself and win the affection you’re missing. It would serve us all well to remember the story within the story that is Sméagol’s downfall. Save your loving efforts for those who are worthy.
Frédéric Bennett beautifully shows Sméagol’s pain in Gollum’s Journey Commences. He (Sméagol/Gollum) is scared, bruised, and bloodied. But he also wears the mask of someone who is deeply, emotionally wounded. His eyes are paled by dullness and nihilism. We know from the books that Gollum is maniacal and deadly. The only evidence of that in Bennett’s work is the blood on Gollum’s face. The bruised and bleeding knuckles and knees could be for myriad reasons. It’s his mouth that makes him monstrous. He may have had a propensity towards madness without the Ring. We may never know. But a centuries-long liaison with something that had no affection for him—yet would not outright say so—drove poor Sméagol to his death. Don’t let it be you.
I was briefly in contact with Frédéric Bennett about buying this art piece in print format. He directed me to a high-resolution copy that I downloaded and paid to have printed myself. However, I did not discuss the artist’s intention with the piece so everything I have said about it is my opinion and not based on anything Fred shared with me.