Here is one of the essays from my book Reluctant Allies: Essays on Eliot and the Inklings.
J.R.R.Tolkien was famously antipathetic towards Shakespeare, and there is no suggestion that the beastly Caliban inspired Middle Earth’s little monster, nevertheless, Caliban and Gollum are interesting parallel studies in evil.
The figure of the beastly human reverberates through literature, from villains who transform into vampires and wolves, to those shape shifters who sin and so slip into the scaly skins of dragons, serpents, lizards and leviathans. The Gothic creations of Dr Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll also tread the terrifying borderland between humanity and the sub-human.
Gollum and Caliban, on the other hand, are not humans who transmogrify temporarily into beasts. They are horrific hybrids: half humans (or hobbits) who have been taken over by the bestial nature of the dark side. While they have become monstrous, their horror is mixed with humanity. The persistence of goodness within them makes for a more subtle, realistic and fascinating study in the struggle between good and evil.
In The Tempest Caliban is referred to as a calvaluna or moon calf. A “mooncalf” is an abortive fetus of a cow, and the term was also used for an abortive human fetus or a malformed monster. In some traditions he is depicted as: a wild aboriginal man, but more often as a freak, or a mix of fish and human. He is called “a hag seed” and “demi devil”, making it clear that his deformity (however it is portrayed) is the result of the perverted union of the witch Sycorax with a devil. We learn that after his mother was impregnated with diabolical seed she was abandoned and died on the island before Prospero’s shipwrecked crew arrive.
While the orphaned Caliban would seem to be a victim of dark forces, he is no innocent. Prospero’s harsh treatment of him is because Caliban would have raped Miranda and brags that he would have “peopled this isle with Calibans.” Caliban is evil, but he also pitiable. He is trapped not only on the island, but in his own miserable existence. Alone and abandoned, Caliban idolizes and idealizes his dead mother and is haunted by dreams of happiness, saying,
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
Curiously, Gollum may also have come from a deformed family. We learn in The Fellowship of the Ring that Sméagol was from the Stoorish branch of Hobbits—the river folk who live near the Gladden Fields. He was from a matriarchal clan ruled by his grandmother. Such an ignominious and mysterious family background makes one wonder just who Sméagol’s father might be, and whether, like Caliban, there might be some illegitimate aspect to his generation.
No matter what fault there might be in his family background, Gollum too, is not simply an innocent victim. On his birthday, he went fishing with his cousin Déagol. When Déagol was pulled into the river by a fish and discovered the ring of power, Sméagol demanded it as a birthday present. When Déagol refused, Sméagol strangled him. After this murder the dark magic of the ring captivated Sméagol. He used it for thieving and spying until his grandmother expelled him from the family. His homeless wanderings finally led Sméagol to retreat into the caves of the Misty Mountains where the ring twisted his mind and body from a hobbit into the miserable monster Gollum.
Like Caliban, Gollum is never wholly overtaken by the evil. He dreams of happiness and shows pitiable loyalty to Frodo and Sam in their journeys. Indeed, it is pity for Gollum which, time and again, leads various characters to show mercy and allow him to live. Gandalf sums it up when Frodo says it is a pity that Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum when he had the chance. Gandalf replies, “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand.” As the magician Gandalf pities Gollum, so the magician Prospero pities Caliban. He says to the “poor credulous monster”, “I pitied thee, took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour, one thing or other.”
So fellow Catholics—Shakespeare and Tolkien—reveal the nature of evil within the human heart. It bestializes us. We become monstrous and less than fully human. As St Paul teaches the Romans, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. If to be fully human is to reveal the glory of God, then to be less than human is to be less than our godlike potential. Furthermore, that descent into animality may be precipitated by a dark and dangerous beginning, but it also involves an act of our will. Caliban chooses to rape Miranda and Sméagol murders his kinsman.
Nevertheless, Shakespeare and Tolkien also reveal the Catholic response to monstrous humanity. It is summed up in one of the revelations of divine love to the fourteenth century English mystic, Julian of Norwich. When she contemplates the monstrous human condition she speaks of mercy. She reminds us that “All shall be well” for God “looks on us with pity, not with blame.”