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The Lord of the Rings Films: Splinters of the True Light
By Sister Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.
When The Return of the King, the final movie of Tolkien's masterpiece, hits theaters just before Christmas, it will be thoroughly Catholic.

Q U I C K S C A N

A Christian Allegory or Allusions
Middle-earth Suffered Today's Stresses
Seven Social-justice Principles Onscreen
True Light
The Story in Brief
What is Euchatastrophe?
Is The Lord of the Rings for Children?
Who Was Tolkien?
What Young People See in The Lord of the Rings

 

The Lord of the Rings

Pierre Vinet/© 2003 New Line Productions



On December 17, the third and final installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, is set to open in movie theaters across the country. Previous parts, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Two Towers (2002), garnered huge audiences and countless awards. When New Zealand director Peter Jackson proposed his three-film project to New Line Cinema (a division of AOL Time Warner), the company agreed to back it so that the lengthy films would respect the epic work of J.R.R. Tolkien—as much as any film treatment could do.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is based on one fantasy myth, written by Tolkien over 14 years and completed in 1949. Due to its length, the story was later published as three separate novels.

Professor Michael Foster, North American representative of the Tolkien Society since 1995, whom I interviewed for this article, calls The Lord of the Rings “the best work of fiction ever written, indeed no better told story ever written.” Foster says, “It is about friendship, nature vs. the machine, and the manifold richness of God’s creation. When you discover something so good, you want to celebrate it.”

Now, through Peter Jackson’s films, interest in the books and their author has surged again. Audiences want films that deal with such universal themes as the struggle between good and evil, courage, loyalty, friendship and self-sacrifice.

In addition to these, The Lord of the Rings is filled with religious symbolism and the back-story permeated with Catholic teaching on virtue, providence, redemption and social justice.

Tolkien succeeded in creating a powerful epic, with strong religious overtones, but one that is also accessible to many audiences, including non-Christians and young people.

A Christian Allegory or Allusions

It is a matter of great sadness for Tolkien scholars and fans that someone who has not read The Lord of the Rings should write about the films made by Jackson and his incredible team. Yes, I admit I am one of the few who dare to approach this incredibly rich literary and cinematic experience from the perspective of the films first.

When I asked some friends about the best way to read The Lord of the Rings, I was told: Start with The Hobbit because it’s where The Lord of the Rings starts. So I bought a paperback copy and, as I encountered character after character, I made a list. When the number reached 16, I said, “Forget it. Who can keep track of all these names?”

(Now experts like Professor Foster of Illinois Central College advise people not to start with The Hobbit, since Tolkien wrote it for his children. And he thinks readers would do well to skip the Prologues in the Rings books, as well.)

So to prepare for last year’s press junket for The Two Towers film, I bought the Sparks Notes Study Guide for The Lord of the Rings (2002). It was a great help to understanding the story line, characters, dilemmas, challenges and themes. At last, the splintered fragments of the light of Tolkien’s masterpiece began to illuminate my understanding of this great man’s soul.

Stan Williams, Ph.D., a “Tolkien Meister” like Professor Foster, has identified about 20 ways that The Lord of the Rings is a Christian myth that is “Catholic at its core” (Catholic Exchange, January 6, 2003, (http://www.stanwilliams.com/Articles/ttt.htm). Although some may think Williams sees more than Tolkien intended (e.g., Gandalf’s stewardship reflecting the papacy), Williams accurately identifies ideas and images of the Eucharist, the Blessed Mother, the Christian struggle between good and evil, divine providence and principles of social justice.

Yet another Tolkien Meister, children’s literature specialist Tim Lambarski, says, “Although Tolkien vehemently denied any intent to include Christian allegory in his stories, many have made attempts to find them nonetheless. But while there may not be allegories, the existence of Christian allusions within the story is hard to deny. Like all good authors, Tolkien wrote from his deepest beliefs. These were permeated by his Christianity and his deep spirituality. His knowledge and acceptance of Christian truths was on a level with C.S. Lewis’s.”

“Tolkien’s insight into human nature is well captured by Peter Jackson’s film, namely, that the purest or most noble of us is subject to temptation and fall,” says Ed McNulty, the editor of Visual Parables. “Although this is shown well in the first film in the case of Boromir’s trying to grab the ring, it is especially well-depicted in the second film in which we see that even Gollum is engaged in a struggle between his better nature and his lust for the Ring and the power it bestows. He becomes a truly tragic figure in his losing battle.”

McNulty adds, “Also, I loved the fact that his hero [Frodo], like Yoda in the Star Wars trilogy, comes in an unlikely small package, very much in keeping with the biblical tradition.”

Professor Foster agrees that Tolkien didn’t intentionally set out to write a Christian allegory, but he believes Tolkien consciously had the quest of the Fellowship begin on December 25 and end on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, when “The Word became flesh” and our salvation was at hand.

Middle-earth Suffered Today's Stresses

For me, experiencing the first two films of The Lord of the Rings meant entering into a premodern culture that, surprisingly, is a reflection of today’s society and threatened with wars.

True, this is a story as old as the human race and one that extends to all nations of the earth. But The Fellowship of the Ring got my attention by the way that the computerized special effects, the art and the dedication of true artists combined to produce an absolute masterpiece.

Then there is the purity of the story about the diverse societies of Middle-earth and what their cultures can tell us about ourselves.

For example, the first two films of the trilogy (and the third is sure to do so) emphasize the coexistence of Middle-earth’s cultures. This approach connected for me J.R.R. Tolkien, his Catholicism and this saga because it witnessed to diversity and the essential principles of Catholic social teaching.

In addition, it reminded me how entertainment and information media represent people, minorities and cultures, and how filmmakers can do this in ways that respect the dignity of the person. These principles of social teaching, rooted in Scripture and the lived tradition of the Church, offer humanity the best hope for lasting peace in a multicultural world.

Seven Social-justice Principles Onscreen

The principles of Catholic social justice have been articulated since the time of Pope Leo XIII. In 1999 Pope John Paul II explored these principles in detail for the Synod of the Americas (Apostolic Letter, Ecclesia in America). I would like to examine them here, in light of The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, the characters, cultures and the very Fellowship of the Ring witness to how these principles can work for the betterment of individuals and society.

1) The inherent dignity of the human person. The hobbits in particular show that each individual has an inviolable and invaluable worth and dignity. The relationships between each of the diverse characters of the Fellowship are created through their shared values. Indeed, the Fellowship emerges with its own culture of friendship, loyalty, courage and self-sacrifice.

2) Subsidiarity (that no higher-level community should strip other people of their capacity to see, judge and act on their own behalf). The minions of the malevolent Lord Sauron seek to possess the Ring and dominate all of creation rather than empower each culture to contribute to the earth’s common good. The principle of subsidiarity is both lived and threatened in The Lord of the Rings.

According to Professor Foster, the worldview of The Lord of the Rings is one that is against totalitarianism, which contradicts almost all principles of social justice.

3) That the common good be the determinant of economic social organization. The hobbits are small in stature but large in heart.

Their social organization attests to how this principle operates in a community that shares the same values; when the communities of Rohan (Riddermark) and the Rohirrim must band together to protect themselves from attack and annihilation, it is not the evil ambition of one (Wormtongue) that prevails, but the good of all.

4) The universal distribution of goods because ownership of property is not an absolute right. Again, the hobbits and their communal, tranquil life bear witness to the benefit of sharing the material goods that they need to live on—the virtue that Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B., calls “enoughness.”

5) Solidarity, the alternative to globalization, based on empathy for others. The Fellowship of the Ring personifies the principle of solidarity, just as the dramatic battle to possess the Ring for its power exemplifies its opposite: selfishness. Solidarity is about love and caring for others, not about power.

The friendship between the hobbits Frodo and Samwise (and Pippin and Merry), as well as the friendship between the dwarf Gimli and the elf Legolas, forms a bond of solidarity between different individuals and cultures, a bond that inspires hope for the good of all the oppressed.

6) An option for the poor from the social, economic and cultural vantage point of the least among us. Who is the least among all the characters in The Lord of the Rings? Is it, perhaps, the odd creature Gollum, who will play such a pivotal part in the resolution of the epic journey of Frodo and his companions? Or the group that is the most disenfranchised?

“There is a moving illustration of a disenfranchised group in ‘The Ride of the Rohirrim’ in The Return of the King,” says Sister Sean Mayer, a Daughter of St. Paul and also a Tolkien Meister. “It is about Ghân-buri-Ghân and his people. It’s one of the hundred meandering sub-sub-subplots that could easily be left out of the movie, but their story is a fine example of this principle of social justice.”

7) The integrity of creation. This principle has recently been more developed  by the Church than those mentioned above. In recent years Pope John Paul II has addressed care for the environment consistently in his January 1 World Day of Peace messages. This theme is also a favorite of Tolkien who mourned the industrialization of the English countryside and the ravages of war on the land and its peoples. When Merry and Pippin encounter the Ents in Fangorn Forest, we listen to what the voice of creation might tell us about the consequences of our irresponsibility regarding our world.

 

True Light

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy has been born a classic. The Tolkien Meisters will spend years comparing the books to the films, as perhaps they should.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is a tale for all times. If we are open, the splintered fragments of the true light of truth and love will continue to enlighten us through myths and wondrous stories told in word and image.

If we are willing to grow as persons and members of the world’s human community, then balancing freedom and responsibility becomes essential. Great literature and film satisfy our need for transcendent meaning, redemption and resurrection. Tolkien created a word, euchatastrophe, for bringing joy out of disaster. The Lord of the Rings shows how it’s done.


Rose Pacatte, F.S.P., is a media-literacy education specialist. She has an M.Ed. in media studies from the University of London, a certificate in pastoral communications from the University of Dayton (where she teaches in the summer) and a diploma in catechetics. She writes the “Eye on Entertainment” column for St. Anthony Messenger.

The Story in Brief

The first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, is the story of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a hobbit from the Shire in Middle-earth. He inherits the powerful One Ring and must take it to the fires of Mount Doom to destroy it, thereby keeping it from its maker, the evil Lord Sauron. Frodo leaves the quiet Shire with his friend Sam (Sean Astin), and two other hobbits on his epic quest. At a council convened by the elf Elrond, the Fellowship grows to include two men, an elf, a dwarf and a wizard. The journey of the nine is fraught with danger, darkness, uncertainty, courage and friendship.

In The Two Towers the companions of the Fellowship, who split up at the end of the first film, continue the quest. Isengard, the home of the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), aided by Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), unites with Mordor, the seat of the Dark Lord Sauron—hence the movie’s title. The members of the Fellowship work to get some allies; for example, Pippin and Merry make friends with the ent Treebeard, a tree-herder that walks and talks. Frodo and Sam convince the creature Gollum to guide them. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli help defend the refugees of Rohan at Helm’s Deep, getting unexpected help from an army of elves.

The Return of the King concludes the odyssey of the Fellowship as its members engage in the final battle for Middle-earth. Sam battles the giant spider of all nightmares. King Théoden (Bernard Hill) continues the fight, while Frodo and Sam press on to Mordor so that the One Ring can be destroyed.

What is Eucatastrophe?

By Richard Drabik

The quest to destroy the One Ring is beset with tragic events, sufferings and near-failures. Yet it is not only through these sufferings, but also because of them, that ultimate good is reached. Eucatastrophe is a word that means the triumph of good through suffering.

Tolkien defines eucatastrophe in theological terms: “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.”

As Christians we are called to live our life in the story of Christ, always mindful that our own story is a path pointing toward triumph. It is not surprising that there is a sense of Teilhard de Chardin’s omega point in this viewpoint; in the universe all things tend toward Christ—it is part of our being and story. Perhaps this is why Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings strikes a chord in the Christian soul.


Richard Drabik, M.A., is an online course designer and distance-learning specialist with the University of Dayton’s Institute for Pastoral Initiatives.

Is The Lord of the Rings for Children?

by Tim Lambarski

The Lord of the Rings is not a children’s story like The Hobbit. Although Tolkien first developed these Middle-earth stories for his children, they went far beyond that. I believe he eventually continued for his own sake. No one could put in as much labor as he must have unless he enjoyed it and found satisfaction in it.

The Hobbit is appropriate for children because the violence is subdued. No one is killed individually during the story. Only at the end do some of the dwarves die in battle or shortly thereafter. But even here Thorin is shown dying in bed; we do not see him being cut down in battle. The actual battle is somewhat distant.

But in The Lord of the Rings we experience vicious fight scenes, hacked-up bodies and heads thrown from catapults. The oppressive scenes are the stuff of nightmares, which is O.K. for adults who can separate their dreams from reality, but not for children who often cannot.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rated the first two movies A-3, recommending them only for adults, citing “battle violence” and “frightening images”; the third movie will not be rated until it is released. 


Tim Lambarski is a physicist and children’s literature specialist from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Who Was Tolkien?

by Barbara Beckwith

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, known as Ronald to his family and friends, was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1892. But he had few memories of Africa because his father died when he was four. His mother brought him and his younger brother, Hilary, back to England, her family’s home.

They settled in the West Midlands, which includes Birmingham where Tolkien attended grammar school, and the rural hamlet of Sarehole where the family first lived. According to the Tolkien Society (www.tolkiensociety.org/tolkien/biography.html), it was here that Ronald developed his love of words.

In 1900 Tolkien’s mother, Mabel, and her sister, May, were received into the Roman Catholic Church. That decision estranged them from their Anglican relatives. But Mabel held to her beliefs and raised her children Catholic. After she died of complications from diabetes in 1904, the parish priest, Father Francis Morgan, took upon himself responsibility for the boys.

At college Tolkien first studied classics, then English language and literature at Exeter College, Oxford, receiving a first-class degree in 1915. He met a young woman, Edith Bratt, at his aunt’s boardinghouse but Father Morgan forbade him to see her or write to her for three years, until he was 21. Then he began to court Edith in earnest; she converted to Catholicism and they married in 1916.

Enlisting as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers in the First World War, he arrived in France just in time for the terrible Battle of the Somme. There Tolkien contracted a typhus-like disease which limited his future military service. A number of his friends were killed in action. Tolkien’s direct military service in World War I and his civilian experience in World War II taught him of war’s cost yet bolstered his belief in the Catholic principle of a “just war.”

His first job after the war was as assistant lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1920 he was appointed the equivalent of an assistant professor at the University of Leeds.

He and Edith had four children: John Francis Reuel (who grew up to be a Roman Catholic priest), Michael Hilary Reuel (who became a schoolmaster), Christopher Reuel (now a university professor and the keeper of his father’s literary works) and Priscilla (a social worker).

In 1925 Tolkien applied for a professorship in Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. But in 1945 he changed his chair to the Merton Professorship of English Language and Literature, which he kept until his retirement in 1969.

At Oxford he made friends with C.S. Lewis, whom he led back to Christianity. The Anglican Lewis went on to write books of inspirational theology and children’s books such as The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Hobbit was published in 1936; The Lord of the Rings came out in three parts in 1954 and 1955. The following year it became a 12-part, condensed radio program on the BBC. The story first came to the United States in a pirated paperback edition in 1965, which generated a copyright dispute and much publicity.

The book, which has been interpreted as anti-consumerist, anti-atomic weapons, anti-development and pro-environment, eventually moved beyond countercultural circles and has been accepted as a fantasy classic.

Edith died in 1971, and Ronald in 1973. In a suburb of Oxford, they are buried in the Catholic section of Wolvercote Cemetery in a single grave.


Barbara Beckwith is the book review editor of this publication.

What Young People See In The Lord of the Rings

by Sarah Howison

The Lord of the Rings may deal with uncommon elements, like hobbits and elves and magic rings, but the themes that lie beneath the surface are universal. For teens especially, one of the most significant themes is that of friendships forged in dark times.

Key to the story is the friendship of Frodo and Sam. It is Frodo’s quest to take the One Ring to Mount Doom, but Sam refuses to let him go alone. As Frodo admits at the end of The Two Towers movie, he “wouldn’t have got far without Sam.” Sam stays by his side to the very end, a friend and almost a guardian angel to Frodo’s weakening mind and body.

Less obvious, however, are the other relationships formed along the way. In The Fellowship of the Ring, moviegoers can see the almost paternal air Boromir takes toward Merry and Pippin; that bond proves to be his redemption.

Legolas and Gimli’s friendship begins to evolve—surprising since elves and dwarves do not usually get along. In fact, at the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring movie, the two races nearly come to blows over their differences. Yet by the time Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn meet up with Éomer in The Two Towers, Legolas is ready to defend Gimli with his life.

Also evident is the theme of duty, of finding and attaining one’s place in life. Aragorn must accept his destiny as king of Gondor, whether he feels worthy or not. Although he finally decides he is ready to ascend the throne, some are not ready to accept him as their king. Students, especially those graduating from high school or college, feel a keen sympathy for Aragorn: They, too, are seeking their rightful place in the world, and they fear the possibilities of opposition and failure.

Fans of the books will know that love, too, can come out of strife. The story of Aragorn and Arwen is greatly emphasized in the movies, whereas in the books it occurs largely in the background. Aragorn loves her so much that he is willing to send her across the sea, where they can never be re-united, if it will save her the pain of mortality. Such self-effacing devotion again illustrates his kingly qualities.

Layered atop these themes is a majestic, sweeping tale of loyalty, redemption and courage. The nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring have little in common at the start of their quest, but they band together for the good of Middle-earth. In the end it is because of those bonds that they are saved.


Sarah Howison, winner of the 2003 Mithril Award for Best Tolkien Poetry (www.viragene.com/tolkien), is a freshman at Ohio University.


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