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.