Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature. I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum.
Here, the narrator introduces readers to Gollum. As Bilbo escapes from goblins deeper into the caves, he encounters Gollum, and readers’ first impression of Gollum seems telling. The narrator describes every other character in the story by their relation to the characteristics of their race, but Gollum has no race, no point of origin, nothing but a name. Gollum appears to be the only one of his kind, a creature both tragic and deeply unsettling.
“What iss he, my preciouss?” whispered Gollum (who always spoke to himself through never having anyone else to speak to).
Gollum asks himself who and what Bilbo is. Gollum’s habit of speaking to himself supports his aura of extreme isolation but also introduces an element of frightening mental instability. The goblins above Gollum’s lake seem frightening but predictable; Gollum has gone mad, and there’s no telling what he might do.
But now the light in Gollum’s eyes had become a green fire, and it was coming swiftly nearer. Gollum was in his boat again, paddling wildly back to the dark shore; and such a rage of loss and suspicion was in his heart that no sword had any more terror for him.
The narrator describes the moment Gollum begins to suspect Bilbo has stolen his beloved ring. In his rage, Gollum sheds all fear and survival instincts. Gollum’s trancelike single-mindedness is reminiscent of the dwarves digging through Smaug’s gold. However, in Gollum, this trance appears far more frightening, revealing the depth of his madness. He would risk his own life for a small ring to hoard in the dark.
Riddles were all he could think of. Asking them, and sometimes guessing them, had been the only game he had ever played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago, before he lost all his friends and was driven away, alone, and crept down, down, into the dark under the mountains.
Here, talking with Bilbo, Gollum strains to remember the ways of the world above, and readers learn that he once belonged to that world before he was cast out. This detail adds an element of tragedy—and mystery—to Gollum’s character. Gollum may now be slimy, vicious, and crazed, but perhaps he was not always this way—perhaps he was once as normal and friendly as Bilbo. Such a drastic loss of soul is painful to imagine.
Suddenly Gollum sat down and began to weep, a whistling and gurgling sound horrible to listen to.
The narrator explains that when Gollum realizes he cannot find his ring, he breaks down and cries, and Bilbo, watching from the safety of the ring’s invisibility, is taken aback by Gollum’s intense emotions. Bilbo begins to see the ring’s true importance to Gollum. To Gollum, the ring doesn’t represent a treasure to be hoarded, but a friend—Gollum’s only companion, his only claim to any sense of friendship or identity.