“…the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many…” — J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
“Mommy, can Smeagol be saved?” Our eldest daughter asked this question during her introductory reading of The Lord of the Rings. The discussion of this important point drew in my husband. I attacked the question from the literary side, he from the philosophical. Our discussion culminated in a lengthy lecture, complete with charts sketched on the chalkboard, drawing in Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dickensian murderers, addiction, and werewolves (a popular topic in our home because of my new Gothic novel, Brother Wolf). The result was an illuminative exploration of the moral life and its significance in classic (and not-so-classic) literature.
Aristotle grounds his Ethics in human virtue. The range of possibilities for moral action stretches in both directions. A man may strive to live in virtue and attain a degree of perfection in the practice of it, perfection that leads to human flourishing. Contrariwise, he can become so habituated in vice that he becomes a wanton. The wanton is, in a sense, incapable of doing other than pursuing vice.
Aquinas, in his Christianization of Aristotelian philosophy, adds two critical pieces: clarifying man’s telos and properly understanding the operation of grace. The moral life is not merely a question of human flourishing but of its consummation in beatitude, eternal union with God. Beatitude is only attainable through grace. In fact, the moral life requires grace, with which we necessarily must cooperate.
Our ability to do so is hampered by the consequences of Original Sin. We operate with darkened intellect, weakened will, and unruly passions, laboring under the “three-fold concupiscence”: “the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life” (1 Jn 2:16). Our Lord tells us in Matthew 26:41: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” We see this in St. Paul’s lament over repeated sin—the “thorn in my flesh” which, in spite of prayer, remained with him. God’s response speaks to us as well: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9). Without grace, to use the colorful phraseology of Hosea 4:16, we will likely go “astray like a wanton heifer”.
Let us now consider the weakness of Smeagol. Smeagol, also known as Gollum, is the vile, twisted creature who for a long time possessed the One Ring and, under its influence, became more and more corrupted. When Bilbo Baggins encounters Smeagol in The Hobbit, he spares him even when he could easily have killed him. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, initially laments this as “a pity”, and is corrected by Gandalf:
“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.”
“I am sorry,” said Frodo. “But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.”
Long before the end of Tolkien’s tale, Frodo does feel pity for Smeagol. Notably, Frodo’s servant Sam Gamgee does not. The reason for this is in part the fact that Frodo himself feels the temptation of the Ring. He too could become its slave and experience the same powerlessness as Smeagol. Smeagol, loathsome as he is, is an object of pity, not of blame.
This distinction is critical in my new novel, Brother Wolf. As the Dominican Father Thomas Edmund Gilroy succinctly puts it:
The evil person, habituated to vice, does not will any differently. He chooses evil. This makes him an object of blame. The wanton person has been habituated to vice as well but to the extent that his will has become irrelevant. Second order desires have no effect. He is compelled in the continuation of his vicious habits. That makes him an object of pity.
Like Smeagol, the werewolf (unlike the vampire who is damned) is still a living man, capable of meriting damnation or redemption. He is, however, so habituated that he responds to his most vicious propensities under the influence of the moon. He has little or no power over his own inner darkness. The werewolf is ruled by his radical predisposition toward sin.
The wanton may, of course, be the architect of his wretchedness; the drug addict, the compulsive gambler, the lecherous fiend dominated by lower impulses. These may all be “to blame” in that it was their own voluntary behaviors that brought them to the reprobation. Smeagol’s immediate subservience to the Ring is indicative of established vice. Folklore operates on the understanding that the origins of lycanthropy usually involve dabbling in the occult or drug use. Nevertheless, here and now, the wanton is an object of pity or of disgust; he is now wholly at the mercy of his past decisions and present impulses. Justice demands that we judge the malicious actor with greater severity than the one under the power of that which is external to his will. This brings up another point made clearly by Aquinas: sins of the flesh (which reduce man to the beast) are more shameful but less grievous than those of the intellect (which imitate the sins of the fallen angels). Thus the bestial Smeagol, the werewolf, and the addict are more pitiable than the istar Saruman.
Freed from the burden of bearing the Ring, Smeagol is not completely beyond the reach of redemption. There is in fact a moment when, seeing the deep friendship of Frodo and Sam, he is briefly transformed:
For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.
Beyond pity, and even though the behavior of an active addict or werewolf or corrupted hobbit-like creature can be maddening, frustrating, and painful, it must be, on some level, understandable. The wanton’s fate is merely the consequence of lived concupiscence without grace, something of which we are all capable. The police inspector of Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend blandly remarks: “Burglary or pocket-picking wanted ‘prenticeship. Not so, murder. We were all of us up to that.”
What is the consequence? Through vice, the wanton man slowly loses his very self. In the aftermath of bloodshed, Dickens frequently calls such a fallen man merely “the murderer”. In Our Mutual Friend there is even a moment where the murderer writes his name on a blackboard and then, in acknowledging his guilt, erases it. The very name of Smeagol in his wantonness is conflicted. Is he “Smeagol”, “Gollum” (a name derived from the noise he makes), or merely the possessor of “The Precious”? The physical object that masters him all-too-easily erases who he is, even as its name becomes more important to him than his own. This loss of the name also illuminates one of the rules of folklore about lycanthropy: if you call the werewolf by his name when he is in the height of his bestial madness he can sometimes be recalled to himself, freed from the influence of the moon, and restored to humanity.
In literature as in life, the wanton shows in dramatic terms the moral struggle which we all experience. The sniveling Gollum, the active addict, the lycanthrope—these are all a form of concupiscence at technicolor. The tragedy and the dramatic tension both arise from the same fact: man is fearfully, wonderfully made, designed not for sin, corruption, and death, but beatitude (Psalm 139:14). It is not simply a question of darkness, there must be a counterpoint in light. The effectiveness of the sinner, much less the wanton, as a character in literature requires the possibility of redemption. What goes for Smeagol goes for the werewolf or for a Dickensian murderer: whether or not he is saved, he could be saved, if he could but be recalled fully to himself. This is possible for us as well only when we respond to the One Who knows us and Who calls us by name. These pitiable wretches of literature serve as reminders that, without benefit of grace, we would fall all too easily into wantonness.
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