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. Tolkienas
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 Gods creation.
When you discover something so good, you want to celebrate it.
Now, through Peter Jacksons 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
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.
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 its 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
(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 years 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 Tolkiens masterpiece began to illuminate
my understanding of this great mans 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., Gandalfs
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, childrens 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
Tolkiens insight into human nature is well captured by Peter Jacksons
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 Boromirs 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
Professor Foster agrees that Tolkien didnt 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.
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 todays 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
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-earths 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.
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
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 earths 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 onthe 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
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.
Its 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.
Peter Jacksons 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. Tolkiens 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 worlds 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 its 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.
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
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 Sauronhence the movies 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 Helms 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.
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 Mans 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 Chardins omega point in this viewpoint; in the universe all things
tend toward Christit is part of our being and story. Perhaps this is why Tolkiens 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 Daytons Institute for Pastoral Initiatives.
Lord of the Rings for Children?
by Tim Lambarski
The Lord of the Rings is not a childrens 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 childrens literature specialist
from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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
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 Tolkiens 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 aunts 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. Tolkiens direct military service in World War I and his civilian
experience in World War II taught him of wars 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 fathers 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 childrens 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.
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 Frodos
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 wouldnt have
got far without Sam. Sam stays by his side to the very end, a friend and almost
a guardian angel to Frodos 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 Gimlis friendship begins to evolvesurprising
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 ones
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
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
is a freshman at Ohio University.