Blog
Back to blog feed
seeking rapport with Colbert

You’ve seen Stephen Colbert on The Late Show criticizing the scientist who named a species of spider after Sméagol? It should have been Gollum, Colbert says, or better yet, how about Shelob? “This is sad,” Colbert concludes. It is, but the problem lies more with him.

First off is that he seems to think that the creature who lived in the cave was named Golem. This is annoying not just for the mispronunciation, but because there are actually people who think that the Jewish folklore creature the golem is somehow etymologically related to Gollum.

Second is that, although Colbert is right that Gollum would be a more appropriate name for a creepy spider than Sméagol, and Shelob better than either, his premise for saying so is entirely mistaken. He seems to have been spending too much time watching the movies and not enough reading the book. (But then, he doesn’t claim here to be a fan of Tolkien, but “a big fan of Lord of the Rings,” which is ambiguous.) He maintains that Sméagol and Gollum were not the same being, but that Gollum was a different creature that Sméagol transformed into. It’s understandable to think that, but erroneous. Sméagol always remained Gollum’s “real” name, and he would even answer to it in his better moods. Jackson’s staging of the Slinker-Stinker debate, which in the book was a purely internal struggle, as one between two personae who even seem to be physically separate, has fed the mistaken impression.

Worse yet is Colbert’s claim that Sméagol had been “kind and friendly … and enjoyed spending time with his friends and his family.” That doesn’t sound like the Sméagol in Gandalf’s report. Tolkien’s Sméagol, even before he encountered the Ring, “burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunnelled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward.” Déagol is described as his friend, but also as “of similar sort.” Tolkien calls them “rather miserable specimens” of hobbitkind. Sméagol has a “mean little soul,” and, Tolkien adds, is even “meaner and greedier” than Déagol (Letters 292). They don’t sound like guys that anyone else would enjoy being around. They’re probably best thought of as a pair of juvenile delinquents.

This is important, because Sméagol’s attitude is the seed of what he would become under enthrallment to the Ring. Colbert says that when Sméagol saw the Ring, “the dark power … seized Sméagol’s heart,” instantly transforming him into a thief and murderer. The Ring may work this way in the movies, which would explain Jackson’s puzzlement as to why, in Tolkien, the likes of Faramir remain unaffected by brief exposure to it.

But that’s because it doesn’t work that way in Tolkien. As Tom Shippey explained in The Road to Middle-earth, “use has to be preceded by desire.” Gandalf is clear that even the purest mind, even Bilbo’s, will be corrupted by the Ring eventually, but because Bilbo began his ownership with pity towards Gollum and did not lust for personal aggrandizement, the rot proceeded very slowly. Faramir never touches the Ring and, as he himself says, “I am wise enough to know that there are some perils from which a man must flee.” Sméagol, by contrast, was primed for the Ring’s influence. It didn’t need to reach out and grab him: he reached out and grabbed it. “He caught Déagol by the throat and strangled him, because the gold looked so bright and beautiful.” Not because the Ring poisoned his heart, but because it enabled his own character flaws.

As my friendly neighborhood linguist points out, even Sméagol’s name should clue you in that “kind and friendly” is hardly his hallmark. Etymologically related to “Smaug”, it connotes creeping or sneaking in, which fits Sméagol’s character both before and after he acquires the moniker of Gollum. And maybe a good name for a creepy spider, too.

I’m sure that Colbert is quite the Tolkien trivia master. (Although he seems to think that the singular of “Valar” is “Valar”: he’s not the only one.) But he’s wandered here into deeper and subtler waters than those required to remember who Elbereth is. He should embark on a more solid craft than relying on a movie-influenced view of The Lord of the Rings when critiquing a scientist who seems to have been sticking to the book.

About the Author: David Bratman

David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.


  • MIm

    I felt Colbert was just making a joke employing an oft used cheeky Tolkien fan persona — I’m not sure he was trying to offer a nuanced reading. I enjoy how Colbert pushes the Tolkien discourse into popular culture singnificantly at times.

    • David Bratman

      I disagree. Colbert wishes to dispute with the scientist over the nuanced point of the appropriateness of the name, so nuance is the coin he’s dealing in. Furthermore, the nuance – if it is that – of how and why Smeagol succumbs to the Ring is precisely the difference between the subtle work of character and morality that Tolkien wrote, and a simplistic hack power fantasy. I believe that understanding the nature and meaning of Tolkien’s work is important, or I wouldn’t have brought this up in the first place.

  • TroelsForchhammer

    Well said, and I agree entirely!

    Tolkien, in Letters no. 181, says, “But [Sméagol] would have never had to endure it if he had not become a mean sort of thief before [the Master Ring] crossed his path”, supporting your picture of a mean-spirited, malicious juvenile delinquent.

    And of course Sméagol-Gollum is often enough compared to a spider for it to be, to my mind, quite appropriate to have one named after him.

    Finally, I would emphasise that the Ring, in my opinion, does not change anyone. People change themselves because of the Ring – even because of the idea of the Ring (as with Saruman or Boromir). It is their own inner desire for the Ring – and particularly for the power that it offers – that corrupts people; the Ring itself is merely made to make people obsessed about it.

    • David Bratman

      Excellent eye for the citation. Thanks. (It’s p. 234-35 in the standard edition of Letters; I tend to prefer page citations, especially when, as in this case, the letter is 5 pages long.)

      • TroelsForchhammer

        Thank you 🙂
        I am not sure that mine is the standard edition – and in any case, at work I only have access to the on-line Kindle version, so page references would be unreliable at best.

        • David Bratman

          A serious problem with e-readers. I just read an e-copy of a book for review, and I bookmarked a lot of references, but now I have to go and look them all up in the hard copy to find out what page they’re on, as a scholarly review requires.

          • Harm Schelhaas

            I usually prefer to use Arda Structural References, at least for The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, where the Sociedad Tolkien Española has provided a standard table of paragraphs, and for Letters and often also Unfinished Tales. Because, entirely apart from the more recent problem with e-readers, there are simply too many editions with differing paginations around of these, and I also often have to deal with those who read them in translations, where even more differing paginations exist.

            Of course in translations the problem of changing paragraph boundaries becomes more serious, which is why the Ardarathorn paragraph table of the STE is so important, and their endeavor to extend it to more translations and more works.

          • David Bratman

            For the journal Tolkien Studies, of which I am co-editor, we use standard editions of Tolkien’s works for pagination, and then, because there are so many different editions in English of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, we add chapter numbers. I can usually find a quote from one of those books if you tell me what chapter it’s in.

            Unfortunately, none of this is of any help if the book you’re citing, whether it’s by Tolkien or not, is on your e-reader and you need the pagination of the hard copy.

  • Finduriel

    Dear Mr. Bratman,
    I am currently a Board Member of Sociedad Tolkien Española (Tolkien Society of Spain), and I would like to translate into Spanish your article for our website.

    It would be credited, of course 🙂

    Thank you for your attention.

    • David Bratman

      Go ahead. Please provide a link to the original here.

      • Finduriel

        Thank you very much! As soon as it is translated, I will come back with the link 🙂

        • Finduriel

          Hello again.

          This is the link to the translated article. We have included the video and the monologue transcription into Spanish.

          http://sociedadtolkien.org/noticias/view/buscando-un-entendimiento-con-colbert/

          • David Bratman

            Thank you. My Spanish is very little, but it looks a good translation to me, except in one key point. If I am understanding it correctly, the sentence “No le hizo falta estirarse y agarrarlo: el Anillo se estiró
            y lo agarró a él” means the opposite of what I wrote.

            To make it clear, here is what I wrote, with the possibly confusing pronouns changed to proper nouns: “The Ring didn’t need to reach out and grab Smeagol: Smeagol reached out and grabbed the Ring.”

            Am I misunderstanding the Spanish, or did I not make myself clear in English?

          • Finduriel

            This was our mistake, thank you for the comment, we will change it ASAP.

  • Chris McCreary

    First, Colbert pronounces “Gollum” the way he does because many people in the north-eastern U.S. don’t exactly pronounce “short o” vowels like most other English speakers. My roommate in graduate school pronounced it the same way. It annoyed me too, but it is a matter of dialect.

    Second, Colbert’s reasoning for choosing “Gollum” over “Smeagol” makes sense given a scene that occurs in TTT. It is the scene where Gollum is close behind the Hobbits descending a cliff side “like a spider”.

    Sorry, but this article is clickbate and beneath what the TS usually posts.

    • David Bratman

      First, the mispronunciation is not just a matter of the vowel. The name is, as is said first in The Hobbit, “a horrible swallowing noise,” and you can hear Tolkien making it, and adapting the name therefrom, as he reads that chapter in the Sayer tape.

      Second, most educated people I know do their best to pronounce names and foreign words the way they’re intended, if they know what that is. Colbert is well enough aware of such issues, having chosen to pronounce his own surname in a French style instead of the normal English one.

      Third, Colbert isn’t from the northeastern US: he grew up in South Carolina.

      Fourth, had Colbert wished to cite the spider comparison, he could have done so, and it would have eliminated his second complaint about the scientist’s choice of name, which was that Gollum wasn’t a spider and Shelob was.

      And fifth, as I pointed out, the creature who climbs the cliff like a spider is just as much Sméagol as he is Gollum. Frodo calls him by both names as soon as they meet. And the chapter is called “The Taming of Sméagol,” not “The Taming of Gollum.”

      • Old Badger-brock

        So much of Colbert’s TV persona is made up, it’s sometimes difficult for me to tell when it’s the real Colbert and when it’s the TV Colbert who is speaking. I understand he’s being more of his real self in his new late night TV gig, but I have yet to watch it. In regards to the pronunciation of his surname, the rest of his family pronounces the final ‘T’. He also pronounced “Report” without the final ‘T’. It’s a bit cheeky and playful, a regular showbiz type of thing.

        • David Bratman

          Because Colbert is cheeky and playful, he’s aware of pronunciation issues. He wasn’t being playful about Gollum’s name; he was in “show off my Tolkien trivia mastery” mode. In which mode you want to get it right.

          I strongly doubt Chris’s theory that the pronunciation is just dialect, and not just because it’s not Colbert’s dialect. Did his college roommate pronounce all words with that vowel like that? If not, it wasn’t a dialect, it was just a mispronunciation of “Gollum.” I’ve heard other people say “Golem,” but I’ve never heard anybody make that substitution in other words, and I’ve been an American all my life.

  • Old Badger-brock

    I’ve seen Stephen Colbert express his Tolkien fandom a few times on ‘The Colbert Report’. He’s had visits from some of the actors from Peter Jackson’s movies, which gave him plenty of opportunity to “geek out”. While Colbert is indeed a very avid fan, he, like many non-celebrity fans, often get things wrong, everything from Sindarin pronunciation to character backgrounds. For good or bad, he’s our celebrity representative, at least here in the U.S.

  • Josh Long

    David, that was an interesting piece. Thanks.

  • You stole the thunder from my heart. I was contemplating writing something about Colbert’s distorted view of Smeagol. But this should suffice.

  • Lobelia S-B

    Coming late to this piece … so grateful for it! I watched the episode with the “Golem” monologue and was flustered by it. Had I been pronouncing it wrong all these years? Seems crazy to me that such a professed fanboy would mess that up.

    Love Colbert though, and love his injection of all things Tolkien into his material. His passion and comic timing, to me, make up for any mistakes when all is said and done.

  • Kathy

    Thank you for this blog. I started reading Tolkien when I was 12 years old, and have read The Lord of the Rings over 200 times; I am now 51. I am an American – I love Stephen Colbert – but his self-appointed scholarship of Tolkien causes me to cringe. I set about to write him letters to correct a few errors, and to direct him toward the Society, but decided against the task. Your blog put my mind at ease. Thank you.