It’s an awful noise, so 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 the most arresting element in director Peter Jackson’s ongoing movie adaptations of Tolkien’s work – including his latest, 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, 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 beneath a mountain, where he survives on cold fish and the occasional goblin. This movie’s hero, another hobbit named Bilbo (Martin Freeman), comes across him there while lost inside the mountain, but he hardly recognizes this monster as one of his own kind. Gollum’ eyes are as wide as saucers 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.
Indeed, in his physicality Gollum reminds me of Cornelius Plantinga Jr.’s Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, in which he 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 sea.
As in the Lord of the Rings films, 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 a 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.