The Passage of the Marshes
In the old cartoons, the discernment between good and evil was often presented with the figures of an angel on one shoulder of the person in question and a devil on the other shoulder. The angelic image was a paradigm of virtue, while the devilish illusion snickered commentary on behalf of vice into the person’s ear. The spiritual embodiments often would lobbed verbal attacks (and occasional physical objects) at one another, but generally the human was apart from the humorous banter: once he or she made a decision, either for good or ill, the two tiny shoulder-spirits would vanish. This is the standard metaphor, the vision of choice imprinted on the minds of children: our shoulders maintain an unusual standard of discernment even into adulthood.
Tolkien presents a different vision of discernment in The Lord of the Rings: the mesmerizing and captivating self-conversations of Sméagol. Part of their beauty lies in artful words of debate and humor interwoven into Gollum’s vocal duel of the lights: here Andy Serkis in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation shows his full colors. Yet a dark side of their allure derives from their paradoxical nature: for Tolkien has found in Sméagol/Gollum a device that transforms temptation from an internal monologue into an external dialogue. The struggle of discernment is revealed: the depths of the heart are publicly plumbed in both their strength and weakness. Sméagol and Gollum duelling entities help enrich the image of the conscience:
“‘I don’t know. I can’t help it. Master’s got it. Sméagol promised to help the master.’
‘Yes, yes, to help the master: the master of the Precious. But if we was the master, then we could help ourselfs, yes, and still keep promises.’”
Mastery, sin, desire, relationship: these are the logs of fuel for the fires of discernment.
There is depth and richness to this scene that slow and careful reading does reveal. With what does Gollum tempt? An appeal to reason (“It’s going to Him”), a twisting of words (“to help the master: the master of the Precious”), an offering of a deal (“Not hurt nice hobbit, of course, no, no”), an invocation of emotion (“Make the other hobbit, the nasty suspicious hobbit, make him crawl”), a stroking of the ego (“Lord Sméagol? Gollum the Great? The Gollum!”), and finally a strategic redirection (“She might help”). How often do our own consciences face such machinations?
With what does Sméagol weakly counter? A declaration of ignorance and weakness (“I don’t know. I can’t help it”), a reference to past action (“He took cruel rope off Sméagol’s leg. He speaks nicely to me”), a mincing of the idea of promise (“the Precious holds the promise”), and finally, when all else has failed, a delay of decision (“Not now. Not yet.”) How often do our own spirits try to resist with half-hearted efforts, to defend our actions in retrospect with such reasons?
In the stench of the Dead Marshes, we obtain our first glimpse into the struggle of the dark soul: the suppression of personal identity in Gollum, the severely weakened innocence in Sméagol. We may not consider similar our own discernment of good and evil: we may imagine we haven’t fallen so far, become so base, lost so much of ourselves. Perhaps we are right: or perhaps we have deluded ourselves by the secret internal monologues of temptation. The external dialogue of Sméagol/Gollum airs out the hidden conscience, even in the foul-smelling marshes. The forces of right and wrong do not dwell upon our souls (and shoulders) at passing whim: even when we deceive ourselves, they remain with us in constant discerning struggle.