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Gollum's entire backstory explained

Gollum has to be one of the most compelling characters in all of J.R.R. Tolkien's works. The warped and twisted hobbit-like enigma is an incredible depiction of the internal struggle between good and evil. The bipolar extremities of the Gollum/Sméagol character perfectly walk the line between pitiably good and horribly wicked.

When you run into a character with this much depth and inner conflict, one of the most natural questions that arises is how they got to be that way in the first place. What past trials and tribulations drove Sméagol into a life steeped in such vice and devilry? What was he even doing before he was caught — hook, line, and sinker — by the alluring power of the One Ring? And then there are always follow-up questions. Where was he born? How old is he? Who are his relatives?

Like any good biography, Gollum's backstory is a fascinating one filled with interesting relationships, mysterious intrigue, violent murders, desperate betrayals, and a hefty dose of disgusting, slimy subterranean activity. Let's start from the beginning, shall we?

Separating facts from fiction

Right out of the gate, it's important to point out that a good portion of Gollum's story is largely speculative, even when you take the facts right out of the original source material. This is because a lot of Gollum's backstory comes from a series of patchwork guesses that are made by none other than Gandalf the Grey. To muddle things up even further, much of Gandalf's information is based on conversations that he had with Gollum himself.

This means the bulk of Gollum's history is dependent on facts that he, himself, reported and then Gandalf assembled into something like a recognizable narrative. Of course, when Gandalf speculates about something, you can bet your bottom dollar that it's pretty darn near the truth, but still, it's important to remember that a good portion of the following information is technically never directly confirmed in a greater, narrative sense. With that said, something is better than nothing, so let's dive in.

Gollum's hobbit roots

The Grey Wizard has some pretty detailed hypotheses when it comes to figuring out Gollum's heritage. In the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf explains to Frodo that he guesses Gollum's people were "of hobbit-kind; akin to the fathers of the fathers of the Stoors."

Who are the Stoors? Good question. Hobbit lore traditionally breaks down the original branches of the tiny race into three breeds: the Harfoots, the Fallohides, and the Stoors. The Stoors are heavier and broader than most hobbits, can grow facial hair, and they like boats — a distinctly unique feature compared to the other hobbit branches. So, while it's hard to know for sure, Gollum appears to be from a proto-hobbit race that lived near the Great River, likely five to six centuries before the events of The Lord of the Rings take place.

While connecting Gollum to hobbits is fairly obvious on the surface — after all, he pretty clearly isn't a dwarf, an elf, or a man — a more surprising piece of information is the fact that, per Gandalf's beliefs, Gollum is also likely descended from royalty within the hobbit ranks, or at least the closest thing to royalty within hobbit culture.

Gollum, the hobbit aristocrat

While talking with Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf explains, "There was among [Gollum's people] a family of high repute ... ruled by a grandmother of the folk," adding that, "The most inquisitive and curious-minded of that family was called Sméagol."

In other words, going off of the speculation of Gandalf, Gollum — or really, Sméagol at this point — comes from what basically equates to hobbit aristocracy. Not only is his family rich and powerful, but his grandmother is literally referred to at one point as a matriarch.

For most people, growing up with wealth and power leads to an arrogant, "nose held high" kind of attitude — but not for Sméagol. In fact, he's specifically described, even at this early stage in life, as always looking downward. Sméagol's curious mind, combined with his gravitationally directed interests, lead him to obsess over things like diving into deep pools and tunneling and burrowing into the earth.

Sméagol's violent birthday

At one point, Sméagol and his friend Déagol go on a fishing expedition far away from home. During their angling activities, Déagol is pulled into the water by a giant fish. While underwater, he discovers the One Ring lying at the bottom of the riverbed, grabs it, and then splashes back up to the surface. Sméagol is seized with desire for the powerful piece of jewelry and, claiming that he deserves it since it's his birthday, he kills his friend and claims the Ring. Talk about an overreaction.

Showing some of his devilish cunning, Sméagol carefully hides the body and successfully covers up the murder before he returns home alone. There, he slowly begins to realize that his newfound prize has more power than he realized. Little does he know that he's in the earliest stages of the metamorphosis that will transform him from the unappealing yet not all that bad Sméagol into the sniveling, gurgling, villainous Gollum.

Becoming Gollum

It doesn't take long for Sméagol to realize that his new ring makes him invisible. He keeps it secret and quickly decides to use his new ability for some not-so-savory activities. Over time, this turns into an addiction to hurting other people in one way or another. He discovers secrets about them and then uses his stolen knowledge to cause all sorts of crooked and evil mischief. He also takes to a life of thievery.

Naturally, this evil growth in his behavior has negative side effects on his relatives. They become increasingly annoyed and bitter towards their petty, mean-spirited family member. In fact, Gandalf recounts that they literally kick him in their frustration ... and he bites their feet in response. Talk about petty.

Throughout this time of increasing isolation, Sméagol begins talking more and more to himself. He also begins to adopt what can be boiled down to a glorified nervous tick: He gurgles in his throat. Hearing the strange sound, his relations begin to call him Gollum.

The story of Sméagol's exile

Eventually, his relatives become fed up with the pesky, troublemaker. Sick and tired of his villainous antics, people begin telling Sméagol — who we'll now officially start calling Gollum — that he should just up and leave. The dissension becomes so great that his grandmother, looking for any way to calm the chaos, finally exiles him in an effort to keep to the peace. Weeping, Gollum leaves his childhood home and heads off into the wild.

As Gollum adjusts to his new life in exile, he follows the Great River northward. During this time, he begins to adopt the habit of wearing the One Ring to invisibly catch fish and then eat them raw. Eventually, he branches off, following a tributary of the river that trickles down from the distant Misty Mountains. Hoping to escape the bright, burning power of the sun, he worms his way into the underground mountain passages in search of a new home.

Gollum's life 'underhill'

Interestingly, part of Gollum's initial motivation in heading "underhill" isn't simply to escape the light or find a new home. He also hopes to discover new, interesting things at the roots of the great mountain range. However, his adventurous spirit is quickly dashed as he realizes that there's nothing worth discovering in the damp, dark caves.

There, deep underground, Gollum remains for hundreds of years. He spends his time fishing, eating, and resenting everything about his past life. He also indulges in a good deal of self-loathing. He even hates the Ring that has led him to such a miserable existence, regardless of the fact that, due to its enchanting power, he could never part with it even if he wanted to. In fact, he begins to call it his "precious" and his "birthday present," and he assuages his murderous guilt by convincing himself over and over again that Déagol should have given the Ring to him when he found it.

Over the years the Ring extends Gollum's life, keeping him alive but not well. His mind and body are steadily corrupted by its power, and he becomes warped and twisted as he spends year after year in his deep, dank underground lair.

Riddles in the dark

After roughly half a millennium spent in dark isolation, Gollum's straight-up awful life is suddenly flipped on its head one day when he runs into a little hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo, himself lost and looking for his companions, wanders down to the subterranean lake that happens to be the same place where Gollum has taken up his residence on a little island out in the water.

At this point, Gollum's primary diet has consisted of fish and the occasional goblin for longer than he can remember, so he paddles over to the shore where he confronts the scrumptiously crunchable hobbit to see if he can nab a quick snack. During the famous "riddle-game" that follows, Gollum is stumped by Bilbo when he can't guess what's in the hobbit's pocket, and he's forced to show him the way out of the mountains.

However, the conniving creature decides to use his precious ring to kill Bilbo and eat him anyway. In the ensuing events, he quickly discovers that the One Ring slipped off of his finger the last time he went up the mountain tunnels ... and Bilbo has found it. While he attempts to chase Bilbo down and regain his most prized possession, the hobbit manages to escape, leaving Gollum in what can truly be described as the depths of despair. Ringless, friendless, and abandoned, Gollum is left to lick his wounds at the roots of the Misty Mountains.

A journey of vengeance

Gollum spends the next year or two nursing a massive grudge against "Baggins," as he refers to Bilbo. However, initially, he's too afraid to leave his lake in pursuit. After a while, though, the incapacitating power of the now-gone Ring begins to weaken, and he begins to feel some inner strength again. Before long, he leaves the Misty Mountains once and for all in a desperate pursuit of his "precious."

Out and about again, Gollum finds that access to fresh air and better food helps his physical body grow stronger. By this time, though, Bilbo's trail has gone quite cold, and Gollum begins to wander eastward across Middle-earth into the dark forest of Mirkwood, in a vague pursuit of his prey. There, he establishes a reputation among the locals as a blood-drinking ghost and a monster that steals their young out of nests and cradles. Whether these rumors are true or not, eventually he makes his way all the way to the region of the Lonely Mountain, where he learns how Bilbo's adventures ended.

The master calls

Once Gollum discovers news regarding Bilbo's home country, he begins to travel back west in search of "Baggins" in the "Shire." However, halfway through the journey westward, he suddenly turns south and inexplicably begins heading for Mordor. More than likely, the lure of Sauron, the Ring's maker, begins calling him even more than the Ring itself, and eventually, he's captured and brought to Sauron's Dark Tower to be interrogated. There, he spills the beans, revealing to the Dark Lord that the One Ring has been found. He also informs him that it currently resides in a place called "Shire" and is owned by a creature named "Baggins."

After being held as a prisoner in Mordor for who knows how long, Gollum finally escapes his captivity (although it's later assumed that he was allowed to do so). By this point, he's been thoroughly cowed by Sauron and fears him more than anyone else in the world — a fear that he can't entirely shake even as he leaves the Black Land in the rearview mirror.

Gollum's encounter with Aragorn

While he does get to breathe the free air outside of Mordor for a little bit, Gollum's freedom is only short-lived. He hardly makes it to the Dead Marshes — the ghost-ridden swamp that he, Frodo, and Sam cross in The Two Towers — before he's found and caught by Aragorn the Ranger. By this time, Aragorn has been hunting Gollum as a favor for his friend Gandalf for quite a while, and he'd actually given up the search and was heading back home when he accidentally stumbled on the slimy creature's trail. He manages to capture his prey — although only after Gollum bites him in self-defense — and then Aragorn roughly leads the miserable wretch back to Mirkwood.

The Ranger of the North stays awake day and night to watch his captive, and he even has to resort to using a halter and a gag to make sure he doesn't lose his treacherous captive. He deprives Gollum of food and water until the creature is broken by hunger and thirst. Not surprisingly, after this point, Aragorn remains one of Gollum's most hated enemies. When Frodo brings up the Ranger during a conversation in The Two Towers, it says that "an evil light came into [Gollum's] eyes at the naming of Aragorn." When the reluctant pair arrive back in Mirkwood, Aragorn is happy to leave his quarry with the wood-elves.

Jail time for Gollum

It's fairly obvious to most Middle-earth residents that jail time and endless interrogations are infinitely worse if they're taking place in Mordor. However, Gollum hardly sees his new captivity in the elven halls of Mirkwood as much of an improvement. To add insult to injury, Gandalf eventually shows up on the scene and begins to grill Gollum with his own set of questions.

The wizard desperately wants to know what Gollum has been up to. He also uses the opportunity to attempt to confirm some of his own suspicions regarding the One Ring. While Gollum remains fairly reticent throughout the interrogation process, he breaks when Gandalf threatens him with fire. Insulted and scared, he finally begins to share some of his activities. However, when Gandalf pushes him to explain what he's been up to ever since his riddle-game with Bilbo, the interrogation hits a wall. Gollum, feeling torn between the immediate fiery fear before him and the much bigger fear of distant Sauron, flat-out refuses to share any more information.

Gollum makes a break for it

After this second round of interrogations by Gandalf, Gollum finds himself back in long-term captivity. However, his elvish guards take pity on the poor soul, partly thanks to a suggestion by Gandalf himself that Gollum still might be cured of his evil ways. So they allow him to spend time outdoors under a watchful guard. During this time, he becomes a master tree climber, learning to grab and swing from the branches with both his hands and his feet. He also finds a large, isolated tree that he particularly loves to climb.

One day, Gollum clambers up into this tree and then refuses to come down. Rather than climb up and try to dislodge the master arboreal acrobat, the guards remain at the foot of the tree and wait. Then, completely out of the blue (as far as they can tell), a group of orcs shows up out of nowhere and attacks the guards, freeing Gollum in the process and leaving the surviving elves convinced that it was a planned jailbreak.

It's thanks to these events that Legolas is sent to Rivendell to report on the escape of their prisoner. In fact, his presence at the Council of Elrond and his further involvement in the Fellowship of the Ring would've been very unlikely if he hadn't already been there reporting about Gollum's escape in the first place. So, yeah, thanks for that, Gollum.

His path collides with the Fellowship of the Ring

After his escape from Mirkwood, Gollum falls off of the map for a bit. The elves initially follow his trail south through Mirkwood, but eventually, they give up. Chances are good that Gollum sets out in search of the Ring once again, although he initially has no success. A creature of habit, it doesn't take long until he finds his way back into the underbelly of the Misty Mountains, this time via the abandoned dwarvish city of Moria.

And it's there, in the deep pits of Moria, that Gollum finally finds what he's been hunting for decades at this point. He crosses paths with the Fellowship of the Ring as they attempt to get to the other side of the mountains through the dark caverns of Moria. Gollum follows the company of adventurers out of the mountains and on into Lothlorien and beyond. While several members of the Fellowship — including Aragorn, Sam, and Frodo — become aware of him, they're unable to shake him as they travel down the Great River in the closing act of The Fellowship of the Ring.

A tragic finale for poor Gollum

At this point, we're bleeding into the most well-known parts of Gollum's story. The creature is ultimately caught by Frodo and Sam as they attempt to travel to Mordor on their own. Frodo tames Gollum, bringing a hint of the old Sméagol out of him for a time. However, it doesn't take long before the evil side regains control again. When that happens, Gollum treacherously leads his two hobbit companions into a trap within Shelob's lair in the mountains surrounding Mordor.

While his plan backfires spectacularly thanks to the heroics of Sam, Gollum continues to follow the hobbits as they work their way through Mordor and inch closer to Mount Doom. Ultimately, the creature attacks his former master right at the Cracks of Doom, biting off his finger and reclaiming the One Ring, just in time to slip, fall to a long overdue death, and inadvertently destroy the Ring in the fiery depths below.

While Gollum generally plays the part of a villain throughout The Lord of the Rings, there's no doubt that his waffling personalities, not to mention his final actions, have an enormous effect on the way that the story plays out. In fact, without his involvement, a very good argument could be made that the protagonists of the story would've never been able to achieve a final and complete victory over Sauron.