It’s an awful noise, so uniquely awful that J.R.R. Tolkien had to invent a word for it.
That’s also the name for the poor creature who makes the sound, which Tolkien described as "a horrible swallowing noise in his throat." Gollum is a minor character in the author’s fantasy novels, but he’s the one that haunts me the most. He’s also among the most arresting elements in director Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of Tolkien’s work, particularly in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. A cinematic and theological wonder, Gollum forces us to confront the ugliness of sin—and claim that ugliness as our own.
In case you didn’t grow up poring over the maps that accompanied Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings novels, let me offer a bit of background. Gollum was once a hobbit, one of those small and quiet folk who form the unlikely heroes of Tolkien's tales. While fishing with a relative, Gollum came upon an unusual ring that cast an immediate spell over him. So enamored with it that he killed the relative in order to keep it, Gollum went on to use its power—invisibility—to thieve and spy until he is banished from his home.
In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, we find him so paranoid and fearful of losing the ring that he’s exiled himself to a dismal lake deep within a mountain, where he survives on cold fish and the occasional goblin. It’s here that Gollum meets Bilbo (Martin Freeman), a hobbit who has been traveling with the wizard Gandalf and a company of dwarves on the journey of the title. Separated from his companions during a goblin attack, Bilbo tumbles down, down, down into the mountain, landing with a thud in Gollum’s lair.
Gollum has been there so long—hundreds of years, his life prolonged by the evil power of the ring—that he no longer seems to recognize a hobbit when he sees one (let alone remember that he used to be counted among their merry lot). “What is it?!” he hisses as he backs Bilbo into a corner. Similarly, Bilbo sees no hint of a hobbit before him. Gollum’ eyes are as wide as saucers, the better to capture the slim light. His skin is pale from rarely seeing the sun, with bones threatening to pierce the sickly flesh. That gagging sound lurches from his throat, as if there’s another creature somewhere inside. If hobbits are cuddly, Gollum is monstrous.
A cinematic and theological wonder, Gollum forces us to confront the ugliness of sin, and claim that ugliness as our own.
In his debased physicality, Gollum stands as a fitting emblem for the desiccating effects of sin. In Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Cornelius Plantinga Jr. describes sin as “a parasite, an uninvited guest that keeps tapping its host for sustenance.” Having given his life over to the ring, Gollum has suffered moral devolution of sorts, in which someone full of good-natured life has become decrepit and vicious. It’s like watching a noble land animal slink back into the slimy sea.
As they did in the Lord of the Rings films that preceded An Unexpected Journey, Jackson and his filmmaking team bring Gollum to life with a dazzling mixture of artistry and technology. Actor Andy Serkis provides the voice and movements for the character, which is then fleshed out via computer-generated animation. Much of An Unexpected Journey is technically shaky—Jackson employs a new digital camera that lends a flatness to many of the scenes—but this central sequence between Gollum and Bilbo is astonishing. As he bargains with Bilbo over the lost hobbit’s fate (they play a game of riddles to determine whether Gollum will eat him or not), Gollum hovers in the darkness like an unholy ghost, a despicable, disgusting specter.
And yet, he’s also familiar. The reason Gollum is the most horrifying figure in a world of drooling trolls and oozing orcs is that his horror is our own. Gollum is what our sin looks like when we allow it to fester, to feed. (Here we have Plantinga’s parasite idea again.) We all have something akin to The One Ring in our lives—something that tempts us and will devour us if we give ourselves over to its power. The ring is whatever we value more than God; it’s whatever we value more than others. It’s the supremacy of the self, and we need to clear it from our throats before we choke.
That’s not always an easy task. In the skirmish of Bilbo’s sudden arrival, the ring falls from Gollum’s pocket and Bilbo picks it up. Discovering this, Gollum falls into the panic of an addict. “It’s ours!” he screeches. (The fact that he has developed something of a split personality also speaks to the way sin can fracture us, cutting us off from the person God desires us to be.) When sin has a hold on us this deeply, we’re beyond saving ourselves. We need the help of a wizard, or someone greater still.