This post owes a little something to Peter Leithart’s book Deep Comedy, which you should buy and read.
A friend of mine–reading through Lord of the Rings again–asked if Gollum is dumb and just doesn’t connect the dots, or he’s really smart and speaks brokenly to make people think he’s dumb. I think neither.
Gollum is highly intelligent. He is also driven by a singular desire to possess something that isn’t his to possess. It’s not quite true that nothing else matters to him; he still loves the simple pleasure of eating a fish, for example. But the desire for the Ring warps him in on himself until there’s very little else left. We catch glimpses of who he was, who he could have been. There are moments when you feel like Frodo almost reaches him. But in the end, he’d rather die with the Ring than live without it.
In the pre-Christian days, tragic figures were written to inspire pity and terror at their inexorable fate; Oedipus is doomed from the moment his parents fling him into the sea. Gollum is a deeper kind of tragedy, precisely because there is a way out, but he won’t take it. No malevolent fates are required; he manufactures his own destruction. It’s a state anyone can fall into.
If Gollum doesn’t scare you, you’re not paying attention.