Torture in the Lord of the Rings

by Varda, with responses

In a discussion recently someone said that Aragorn tortured Gollum with fire to get information out of him. I had a vague idea that Gollum was burned but I was not too happy at the idea of Aragorn torturing anyone; torture is for the baddies, isn't it? We can't do wrong even in the cause of right; that way lies real evil.

Anyway, I scoured the book, and I think the idea arose from Gandalf describing Gollum when Aragorn brought the creature to the wizard;
'He rubbed his long hands as if they pained him; as if he remembered some old torture. I am afraid he had made his slow sneaking way...at last to the Land of Mordor...'

So it was Sauron who tortured Gollum thereby discovering that the Ring had gone to one called Baggins. But when Aragorn finds Gollum, he might not torture him, but he does, in the parlance of detective novels, 'rough him up a bit'

In the book, Aragorn says;
;I caught him, Gollum. He was covered with green slime. He will never love me, I fear; for he bit me, and I was not gentle...I deemed it the worst part of my journey,...watching him day and night, making him walk before me with a halter on his neck, gagged, until he was tamed by lack of drink and food...'


So Aragorn does not burn Gollum, just beats him, ties him up, gags him and starves him.

That's all right then ?

Aragorn then hands Gollum over to Gandalf who gets the truth out of him;

'the truth was desperately important, and in the end I had to be harsh. I put the fear of fire on him and wrung the true story out of him, bit by bit...'

I would forgive Gandalf this if he had used his great wisdom to see through Saruman as well, but after threatening this poor wretch with torture to get the truth, he is hoodwinked by a wizard out of his deference for authority and his own blindness to events all round him. His misreading of Saruman cost them all he gained from his interrogation of Gollum.

Contrast how Frodo treats Gollum; he says to Sam when Gollum jumps them;

'No! If we are to kill him (Gollum) we must kill him outright. But we can't do that, not as things are. Poor wretch! He has done us no harm...'

The truth is Frodo occupies a different moral planet to Aragorn, the guerilla, or Gandalf, the not even human Istari. Frodo feels pity, and acts on it. He does remember that Gandalf advised pity, but he feels it *before* he remembers what the wizard said.

When Frodo and Sam tie Gollum up, the elf-rope burns him. Frodo says; 'If you try to run away, you must be tied. But *we don't wish to hurt you...*'

There are important conclusions to be drawn from these passages. Everyone regards Gollum with disgust, Aragorn, Gandalf and Frodo. But Frodo does not find him utterly repellent, he still sees the human in him. Aragorn was not unwilling to rough Gollum up, but Frodo definitely does not want to hurt him, even though he and Sam are far more vulnerable to Gollum and his potential malice than Aragorn was.

In the end, Frodo uses the Ring itself to make Gollum do what he wants, where Aragorn uses torture and Gandalf uses the threat of torture. This is one of the rare times that Frodo actually uses the Ring (the other is where he puts it on at Parth Galen to escape from Boromir) and in keeping with the advice that Galadriel gave him, he does not actually wield it, just uses the threat of it.

Here, now, at this stage of the book, Frodo is at the height of his powers;
'For a moment it appeared to Sam that his master had grown and Gollum had shrunk; a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud, and at his feet a little whining dog. Yet the two were in some way akin and not alien; they could reach one another minds'

What binds Frodo and Gollum is they are both human, however good one is and however ruined the other is. Frodo never forgets this, and it is the wellspring of his pity; that could be me, he thinks. Frodo never tortures or coerces, he just uses the only thing he knows is sacred to Gollum to make him swear a meaningful oath.

Frodo has pity, real pity, not pity out of duty. For this reason, he comes as close as any to saving Gollum, and Gollum comes as close as he can to feeling love for another creature; for Frodo's pity is a redeeming pity. Here is Gollum, almost at the point where he gives Frodo and Sam up to Shelob, having second thoughts;

'Then Gollum came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo's knee, but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried far behond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and stream of youth, an old starved pitiable thing'

Pity, as Shakespeare says, ennobles the giver, and humanises the receiver. Compared to Aragorn and Gandalf, Frodo is not small at all, he is a moral titan.

Response from Orangeblossom Took:

Well, in Aragorn's defense, I would say he was pretty low on the scale of torturing as for as your Medieval-type kings go. I mean, even the best of monarchs weren't adverse to torture back then.

Gandalf, of course, is not really human and I am sure he just scared, rather than really hurt Gollum. After all, he is the one that tells Frodo about pity. I know he misreads Saruman but that is understandable. Saruman was the head of the Istari and they were "old friends." Anyway,speaking of torture, poor Gandalf does pay for it and more than makes up for it later.

Frodo, as you so rightly say, is a little guy who is a moral giant. His pity and Bilbo's led to the necessary events to destroy the ring. Frodo was the one to bear it because of his purity.

You are right about Tolkien and peoples. The Hobbits are the most realized. We learn very little about Gondor and only a bit more about Rohan. Someone who was as techo-phobic and traditional as Tolkien no doubt was uncomfortable with an urban society. I think the Hobbits are his ideal. Otherwise, he is, as you say, more comfortable with the lords and ladies.

Response from FanForever:

The pity Frodo shows can be said to be compassion, for more than anyone else he truly can put himself in Gollum's place. That's enough for him to understand a lot of things, and lead his actions towards peace, not violence...

Response from Vison:

I don't know that Gandalf actually "tortured" Gollum. He frightened him, which is certainly bad enough. But I have been involved in a long and heated debate on the subject of what constitutes "torture". (Of course, one is not surprised to find that someone somewhere made a "rule" and that there is a legalistic notebook definition of torture.)

Mistreatment of prisoners is a touchy issue. Where does the burning NEED for information intersect with decency and humanity? A very contentious issue just now.

I have to run away right now, but I'm really glad Varda started this thread. I hope to return.

Response from Goldberry:

I think there was also a bit of controversy in the way Faramir and his men treated Gollum - the way they took him in the cave and beat him up a bit. It’s not like he was carrying any weapons that would threaten anyone. Why should he be beaten up for looking for food? This gets into the touchy area of how far is too far? What kind of persuasion can the good guys use to get their information? PJ did not seem to think a lot about certain protocol issues – Gollum’s beating (by Faramir) and Aragorn’s “Mouth of Sauron” incident showed a little lack of dignity on the part of our good guys.

Response from FanForever:

Can there be ANY decency and humanity where torture is involved? Compassion is the key, as I said earlier, but then it is very hard to promote such a value in our current world of competition... That's why Frodo is not understood when he comes back to the Shire with his "peaceful" ideas. He had changed, but the world had not.

Reply from Varda:

Goldberry it is very important that you understand that scene is *not* in the book (Nor does Aragorn behead the Mouth of Sauron). Tolkien's Faramir would not torture anyone; he doesn't have to, he has great cunning and tricks the truth out of Frodo and Sam. He orders his men to shoot Gollum because he has trespassed on a sacred place, but obeys Frodo when he intervenes. He says, and you believe him, that he never willingly and would rather not kill at all.

PLEASE don't take that awful passage from the film as Tolkien's Faramir, it is nothing of the sort and there is no beating up of Gollum just a firm seizing. Certainly Faramir is willing to kill Gollum if he has to, but then he has orders from his father to kill anyone - even Frodo and Sam - who is found wandering in Ithilien, and Faramir knows Gollum is a murderer, which puts his capture in another category.

And many thanks, Fan Forever. Torture is abhorrent to any civilised nation. It always backfires. Torture has been used in Ireland by both sides of the conflict and it always backfired here, and made a bad situation worse.

Basically, if you have to resort to torture, you have already lost the war. Go home and reflect on your mistakes.

Thanks, Orangeblossom. In Aragorn's defence, I can say that when he roughs up Gollum he is at the start of his learning curve. And boy, does he have a long way to go.

Response from Gandalf 921:

This is a very interesting musing. I had kind of overlooked all that the first time I read it, with the conclusion that Aragorn and Gandalf were *similiar* to Frodo in their "innocence"... however there is a large contrast.

However, what should Gandalf have done with Gollum if he was in that situation and had to gain information? Nothing ever justifies torture, especially all the times which torture has been used in the past, but I'm not sure if Gollum would have confessed if offered rewards rather then punishment. And he was too dangerous to be let go, or as Windu says to Anakin "he is much too dangerous to be left alive!" when he was about to kill Palpatine in cold blood. But those circumstances were different, I suppose.

Do the ends (mistreating Gollum, and "torturing" him).. as the "good guys" did, really justify the means? Maybe at the end of it, the good guys lose their nobility in order to get things done easier?

Reply from Varda:

Many thanks, Gandalf, and I too was surprised at the hasty, unfeeling way both Gandalf and Aragorn treated Gollum. But perhaps the culprit is not the wizard but the writer.

Consider; why does either Gandalf or Aragorn believe Gollum has anything to tell them anyway? In fact, they keep on till he tells them of the Ring, but how did they know to keep on?

The truth is, Tolkien had to turn his story on the discovery that Gollum had betrayed a Baggins to Sauron. He had to make this a dramatic moment. Frodo getting the Ring was not a dramatic moment - in the book, 17 years elapse from the time Frodo gets the Ring to the time he leaves the Shire. So some exciting incident had to occur to create a dramatic nexus of narrative, and it is the discovery that Sauron knows Frodo has it and probably is sending something or someone to fetch it. And this moment is generated by Gandalf *finding out* from Gollum that he has told Sauron who now has the Ring.

But there are problems with this; for a start, Gandalf is supposed to be 'the wise', but he finds Gollum, wandering in an ecstasy of loss obviously having been tortured yet can't guess why.

Just what the blazes did Gandalf think happened to Gollum? He injured himself fishing? Without any threat of torture, Gandalf should have been able to deduce that Gollum had been caught and hurt by someone powerful and evil (that could only be Sauron, as Gandalf did not know Saruman was gone evil at this stage) and that he had been let loose because he had given up information that was required (had he not, Sauron would have tortured him to death)

Later, when Gollum escapes from the Elves of Mirkwood, Gandalf recognises that the orcs probably rescued him, which gives another hint that he is in league with Mordor. Even without Gollum telling them anything at all, Gandalf must know he should get to the Shire asap to secure the future of the Ring, one way or another. But Tolkien needs a dramatic crisis, so he makes Gollum tell Gandalf, and Gandalf then rushes to Bag End with his terrifying news...

So Tolkien sacrifices the moral integrity of his characters to plot creation just as Gandalf and Aragorn sacrifice their own moral integrity to expediency. It is noticeable that Frodo does neither, for he is the *real* hero, and Tolkien never makes him act out of character, except for the two moments when he goes against his fate; offering the Ring to Galadriel, and putting it on at the Cracks of Doom.