The Stairs of Cirith Ungol
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” In the light of the parables of the lost sheep and prodigal son that contextualize that statement, how evident it seems of the overwhelming happiness and importance of even a single soul being saved. Such a meditation has oft been given, in richer and more profound detail than can be offered here. However, what is less often considered is the logical reverse to the parabolic lost coin: that is to say, the tragic sadness of losing a soul.
Gollum has showcased his indecision and internal struggles before. Yet ever the pale green light has maintained dominance, and what goodness left in Sméagol has been smothered and suppressed. In a rocky crevice on the stairs of Cirith Ungol, hidden from the eyes of the sleeping hobbits, our gangling guide has a final chance at repentance, a final opportunity to turn away from the wickedness he has been preparing. Tragically, Sméagol has almost won: he has almost overcome his darker half, almost set aside the old mastering Precious out of love for his new Master, Frodo. In his pain, in his debate, in his cautious gesture of caressing care, he nearly comes home. Only the sudden waking of Sam – and his gruff response – drives Sméagol back into the darkness of Gollum, from which he shall never rise again. As Tolkien himself wrote in a letter about this most tragic moment, Gollum’s “repentance is blighted and all Frodo’s pity is (in a sense) wasted.”
Is Sam to blame for Gollum’s final banality, then? Would Sméagol have retained an aura of goodness had Master Samwise been more like Master Frodo? In the context of the story, of course, we expect this startled reaction from Sam, and perhaps it is necessary for the ultimate resolution of the epic. The Precious holds tremendous power over Sméagol, and addiction takes long perseverance and vigilance to defeat. Nevertheless, it always begins with a single action, a single moment, a single choice: as Dismas the Good Thief reminds us from Calvary, there is no good endeavor too small to restore even the most forgone.
How haunting the beauty, how heart-wrenching the image, how devastating the defeat following the vision that Tolkien offers us:
“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.”
The ledger of Gollum is not unstained. Yet ultimately this is the core of Sméagol: a hobbit in all but his cruel fate, lost and loneliness and too long of this world. Such a recognition does not pardon his deeds or dismiss his decisions: instead, it fills our hearts with sadness to see how similar Sméagol is to Sam and Frodo, and how close he comes to redemption.
There is sadness in the losing of a soul; there is tragedy when we ourselves inadvertently and unknowingly cause such a loss. The burden lies not with Frodo and his stirring, or Sam and his roughness, but instead with us, the reader and the witness. For the briefest of moments we have entered into the darkest of nights and see the fleeting glimmer of hope, and then have seen it pass away. We have paused with pity on the fate of poor Sméagol, and we are sad, for in losing a soul, we recognize and begin to understand the great tragic potential of life.