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4th Apr 2020

Is it an 'insult' to compare Turkish leader Erdogan to Gollum?

  • A statue of the Gollum character at a comic convention in San Diego (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

A Turkish court has asked five experts to determine whether it was an insult to compare Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the fictional fantasy character Gollum.

The outcome will play a significant role in determining the verdict of Bilgin Ciftci, a physician who had shared pictures online which compared Erdogan to the creature from the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings books and films. The pictures showed Erdogan and Gollum, as portrayed by actor Andy Serkis, in similar positions, for example one showed both eating with their hands.

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  • Insulting the president, seen here with German chancellor Merkel, is a crime in Turkey (Photo: Turkish presidency)

The court decided that two academics, two behavioural scientists or psychologists, and a cinema expert should examine Gollum's character, the Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman reported Tuesday (1 December).

Ciftci, who after his published comparison was expelled in October from the Public Health Institution of Turkey, could face up to two years in prison, as insulting the president is a crime in Turkey.

The court's chief judge called for the character examination after admitting not having seen the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, a popular film series released in 2001, 2002, and 2003, based on the books by British writer J. R. R. Tolkien.

Ciftci's lawyer denied that Gollum is a bad character.

However, the question whether or not comparing someone to Gollum, named after his characteristic coughing sounds, is insulting, is not an easy one to answer.

Gollum: good or evil?

For years, fans of the books and the films have spent time on online forums to debate the nature of the fictional persona, who first featured in the novel The Hobbit.

Gollum was once a friendly figure of the hobbit race, until he was corrupted with power by the One Ring, an object that gives it bearer the ability to become invisible and that was created by the series' main villain, Sauron.

In fact, in the first edition of The Hobbit, published in 1937, the Gollum character was not as evil or addicted to the ring as in later rewrites.

The character has a split personality and both the books and the films portray the internal struggle between his more friendly persona Smeagol, and the more malign Gollum.

Swedish translator and Tolkien expert Leif Jacobsen once published a study of the nature of the characters, and noted that Gollum is “the most complex and interesting character in Middle-Earth”.

“By studying Gollum's character, you see features in him that are good, bad and neutral. … To do Gollum justice, you have to treat him in a category of his own,” he wrote.

“When it comes to Gollum, Tolkien has no intentions of leading us into adapting a certain opinion, e.g. Gollum being ultimately evil. He leaves it us as readers to decide what we will eventually think of this creature. Gollum is complex because we cannot easily define him,” added Jacobsen.

Deteriorating media freedom

The next court hearing will take place on 13 February 2016.

The case highlights the tense relation between Turkish politics and freedom of speech. In its most recent progress report, the EU said that media freedom and judiciary independence had deteriorated.

“Significant shortcomings affected the judiciary as well as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly,” the report noted.

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