September 21, 1937 – This may count as the official birth date of a well-known mentally disturbed fictional character: Gollum. For on this day in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien published his story The Hobbit that introduced Gollum to the world.
I assume you’ve read the Lord of the Rings series, or at least have seen Gollum in the films. Underneath all his wicked, obsessed, monomaniacal deviousness he is one of the saddest, most piteous and forlorn figures in fantasy.
Many websites routinely classify him as “mentally ill”. To give a random example, the Urban Times site puts him in a list of 33 Fantastic Films Whose Main Characters Have Mental Disorders.
But when it comes to what exactly was wrong with Gollum most people remain a bit vague, guessing around. Schizophrenia? Or maybe a split personality, torn between his original Sméagol roots and his later Gollum identity?
Actually we do know exactly what was wrong with him! In 2004, the British Medical Journal (see footnote) published an article with Gollum’s diagnosis.
It was the result of a student research project at University College London. Supervised by their psychiatry lecturer, six medical students carefully analyzed Gollum’s known past and behavior, considering all possible explanations.
Based on how Tolkien had recorded Gollum’s life history, moods and conduct, they concluded that (with his solitary habits, his nervousness and his paranoia) Gollum looked like a typical case of schizoid personality disorder.
SPD is not the same as schizophrenia: this is a more rare disorder. And it has nothing to do with multiple personalities either.
Schizoid Personality Disorder
According to the WHO’s official ICD-10 classification list, SPD is characterized by at least four of the following criteria:
- Emotional coldness, detachment or reduced affect.
- Limited capacity to express either positive or negative emotions towards others.
- Consistent preference for solitary activities.
- Very few, if any, close friends or relationships, and a lack of desire for such.
- Indifference to either praise or criticism.
- Little interest in having sexual experiences with another person (taking age into account).
- Taking pleasure in few, if any, activities.
- Indifference to social norms and conventions.
- Preoccupation with fantasy and introspection.
Based on these criteria, the students in their article came to the following end conclusion (emphasis added by me):
“Gollum displays pervasive maladaptive behaviour that has been present since childhood with a persistent disease course. His odd interest and spiteful behaviour have led to difficulty in forming friendships and distress to others. He fulfills seven of the nine criteria for schizoid personality disorder, and if we must label Gollum’s problems we believe that this is the most likely diagnosis.”
So we can consider this historical-literary-cinematic-fantasy-psychiatric riddle solved: the Gollum character suffered from SPD.
In Tolkien’s mythical Middle-Earth universe, poor Gollum never got any therapy. Maybe wise sorcerer Gandalf might eventually have been able to act as a kind of psychiatrist for him, but it was not to be. Instead, Gollum came to a horrible end by falling (together with the Ring) into a pit of red-hot boiling lava.
I’ve got just one other question here, a slightly more serious one that no one ever thought of in all those funny online posts about Gollum and his mental condition.
Just suppose I happened to have actually been diagnosed with some level of SPD, of schizoid personality disorder myself.
In that situation, would I be happy to be associated with the figure of Gollum as a kind of personification of my disorder? Would I be fine with an image of Gollum as a caricatural, but perhaps also typical representation of my own problems?
In short, wouldn’t I be afraid to be seen by others as some milder kind of Gollum myself?
I’m sure I would not like this at all.
Here is the Gollum Song from the soundtrack of The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (2002). Music composed by Howard Shore, lyrics written by Fran Walsh, performed by Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini:
Emiliana Torrini – Gollum’s Song
Where once was light
Now darkness falls
Where once was love
Love is no more
Don’t say goodbye
Don’t say I didn’t try
These tears we cry
Are falling rain
For all the lies
You told us
The hurt, the blame
And we will weep
To be so alone
We are lost
We can never go home
So in the end
I will be what I will be
No loyal friend
Was ever there for me
Now we say goodbye
We say you didn’t try
These tears you cry
Have come too late
Take back the lies
The hurt, the blame
And you will weep
When you face the end alone
You are lost
You can never go home
You are lost
You can never go home
- For the Gollum article from the British Medical Journal (BMJ, December 2004) see the PMC site, the medical journal archive of the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s Library of Medicine: A precious case from Middle Earth, by Elizabeth L. Sampson (lecturer in old age psychiatry) and six of her students.
- In the finale of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Gollum’s way of death was not a suicide. But I cannot help thinking here of an actual suicide too. See my post about Kiyoko Matsumoto, a Japanese student who in 1933 killed herself dramatically by jumping from a volcanic crater’s edge straight into the hot lava.