No matter what name you call him, whether it be Slinker, Stinker, Sméagol, or Gollum, he is one of the most fascinating and tragic characters in The Lord of the Rings. Wait. Tragic? Yes. His is a tragic case, which Tolkien well knew.

Many of the characters who meet or interact with Gollum hold little hope for his restoration or redemption. But Gandalf believes it possible, even though it remains unlikely. Unlikely though it may be, Gollum is within a hairs breadth of losing his battle with Sméagol on the stairs leading up to Shelob’s lair. After sneaking away to inform Shelob of his plans to lead Frodo and Sam to their deaths he returns to find them sleeping and the tender sweetness of the friendship shared by the two hobbits is the final straw. Sméagol wins out and had either hobbit woken to see the creature he was at that moment all might have worked out differently. Sméagol, the tired, lonely, and weary outcast who has long outlived any who may have once loved or cared for him looks with longing on the two hobbits, wishing he could share in that kind of fellowship. He reaches out to tenderly rest his hand on Frodo, who, feeling the touch, groans softly in his sleep and wakens Sam who seeing Gollum’s hand on his master lashes out with harsh words, failing to see the reality of the situation. And just like that, Sméagol is gone again and only Gollum remains.

We can ponder how the story might have been different if Sam had seen the truth in that moment, but ponder is all we can do, just as in the Primary World. What might have happened if things had worked out a little differently? If we had made different choices? If we had spoken up? If we had kept our mouths shut? We can never know the answer to those questions, but we can allow them to lead us back to one of the underlying themes throughout The Lord of the Rings, and that is the reality and importance of divine providence. As Tolkien so often repeats throughout his reflections on the role and nature of evil in his mythology, we can say with confidence that if we could see the whole picture–if we could see as Eru alone can see–we would know that the world and the story are better just so.

And that is reassuring, is it not? Even though this scene is tragic and one who was oh so close to redemption is driven away and fallen anew, it is somehow better so. We cannot know the possible outcomes. We cannot see or know how this is better than any of the other alternatives, but in Tolkien’s mythology–as in the Primary World–we can trust that it is so. It won’t make sense to us here on Earth. We won’t understand. But we can trust. We can hope. We can believe. And perhaps that is all that is asked of us.