Last month’s issue discussed how we would take a contemporary film and discover, or at least share, where we see God in the story communicating to us. And I can’t think of a better film(s) to start with than The Lord of the Rings. But first a little back story…I promise not all film articles will be this “nerdy” and long. How do you express all your thoughts on an entire epic and contain them in one article? You don’t, but I’ll try.
The Fellowship of the Ring premiered during a crucial time in my life. I was a sophomore theatre major in college. I was discovering who I was as an individual, dissecting my childhood with remunerating thoughts on everything that had happened to me up until that point, and looking into the future determined to make it and myself what I wanted it/I to be. The Twin Tower Trade Center had collapsed 3 months prior, and my grandfather’s passing had not even been a month. I was in a state of turmoil on a most epic and intimate level and was in great need of inspiration and hope.
When I saw the first commercial for The Lord of the Rings, I was a bit taken back. As I said in last month’s issue, I had never read the books, didn’t know the author, the characters, and was never a fan of fantasy. What a sad and dark world I lived in. I remember realizing why Elijah Wood had not been seen in a while because of making these films and I remember my dad looking at an AD for the movie and recollecting to himself “Lord of the Rings….oh yeah…I think that was a book.” I had no idea what I had been missing and what I was about to discover for myself. I can’t help feeling very sentimental about these films because it was this franchise that made me want to be a film maker in college. I went through the cynical, disillusioned stage after college like many theatre majors, but The Hobbit movies, these past three years, brought back all the enthusiasm and determination to make good films. You really could say I went “there and back again.” And it feels so good to be back in the adventure!
Although I sat in the movie theatre, bewildered and completely lost in this convolution of weirdos when I first saw The Fellowship of the Ring, and felt like I had been, to quote my mom “to hell and back,” something really drew me into the world of “Middle Earth” and its people. It somehow exemplified what was happening to me in my own world, better than if I had written a novel about my life. It was a world in which the characters were being attacked on all fronts, with battles on the most epic scale like the battles of helms deep and the Pelennor Fields, threatening the lives and livelihoods of their race, down to the most personal and intimate of battles in their minds and hearts, such as the ring manipulating Frodo against himself and his friends. In the words of one of my favorite authors John Eldridge, “God and the devil are battling in the heavens and on the earth for our hearts.” In Ephesians 6:12, St. Paul says, “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”
That is exactly what I was feeling and seeing in my own world but was unable to put words or visuals to it. Tolkien’s Middle Earth was unlike my world, and yet, very much like my world. It was strangely relevant. Perhaps, it is best put by J.R.R. Tolkien’s friend and colleague: “The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores them to the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity” ~C.S. Lewis
What makes me love these books and movies so much are the characters. A king can be humble like Aragorn, and a simple hobbit from the Shire can do great things. The unbreakable bond between the four hobbits, and the special bond of the fellowship in a quest that may cost them their lives seriously made me re-evaluate the types of “friends” I was keeping. What connects all these characters together is the decision each one of them has to make. Their world is under threat from THE enemy. The same enemy that has attacked them and their ancestors over and over again. How true is this in our own world? If humans fall under the influence of the one we refer to as The Enemy, then he is the one we are fighting, not our brothers and sisters around the world. It is always and only “him.” He might change his name and shape but his work is unmistakable. Each character (whether it be King Aragorn, Bilbo, Frodo, Sam the gardener or Gandalf the Wizard) is faced with a decision to either join him, try to run away from him, or to fight him. And in doing so, they must fight for each other. Aragorn must decide to reclaim the throne, King Theoden must decide to come to Gondor’s aid, Arwen must decide to choose a mortal life, Bilbo must decide to walk outside his door, and Frodo must decide to destroy the Ring of Power in the face of death.
So much of the LOTR movies are dark and they are that way for a reason. Once the hobbits leave the Shire, they are plunged into a world of darkness that requires more of themselves than was ever required before. In Plsam 23:4, it reads “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” Most of our life is through the valley of the shadow of death. Navigating this life requires a fellowship with the same goal and with a strong leader. It also requires remaining in God. Although God is not at the forefront of Middle Earth, he walks with each character and moves against the evil forces that plague our friends in the trilogy. Tolkien coined a term “Eucatastrophe” which is basically the opposite meaning of catastrophe. Just as evil is at its strongest and all seems to be lost on our side, God uses the event that appears to be our demise, and turns it into our victory. Tolkien’s use of myth was his way of expressing the gospel. He called the Incarnation the eucatastrophe of human history and the Resurrection the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation. Frodo throwing himself into Mount Doom and destroying the Ring was the eucatastrophe of Middle Earth. God comes to the rescue when we are at our lowest.
We are all woven into this same Story. I think that is why Tolkien initially gave the ring of power such a central role through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogies and why the Shire, Rohan, and Gondor all look like they are set in different periods. It doesn’t matter what century you’re from, we are all fighting the same battle with the same enemy. Good vs. Evil is too simplistic a theme for this story. As we’ve seen in real life, good people fall from grace (like Saruman and Gollum) and sinners reconcile to goodness, like Boromir. Battle is what we do in this life. However, God is there , even when things look bleakest. All is not lost. Grace is a gift he bestows freely on whomever he chooses, whether it’s grace given to a king to win over temptation or grace given to an insignificant person to be courageous. Although Tolkien despised allegory, he did fill Middle Earth with the same simple treasures we value in this world. Forgiveness, hope, fellowship, courage and restoration, which all lead to the most beautiful gift of all: coming “home.”
And that is what I believe professor Tolkien wanted to communicate. God can restore anything: hearts, minds, health, land, and souls. What great news and great hope that instills! It undoubtedly struck a cord with audiences world wide. I never saw a more packed and diverse group of people in a movie theatre before (with the exception of The Passion of the Christ). From professors, to punk-goth groups, to Priests, this story seemed to draw everyone in, and already had a devote fan base. As I was taking my first journey into Middle Earth, I was also trying to get acquainted with the man behind the story, Professor Tolkien himself. Do yourself a favor and read about his life as a soldier and teacher and about his devotion to his Catholic Faith. His stories have so many tributes to his fallen school fellows who fought in the trenches with him, the English countryside where he grew up, the women he loved, his mother and his wife Edith, and about Christ and the history of the Church. We can see all of this in the characters of Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf, Saruman, Boromir, Arwen, Gollum, Galadriel, Gondor, and the Shire.
The Shire plays an important role in the trilogy. Being the ideal home that the hobbits day dream of returning to once the War of the Ring is over, they make the mistake of thinking the Shire is untouchable, until the war is brought to their front yards in the last book. I realize this was never in the movie, but I believe Tolkien wanted to demonstrate that although the Shire represents all of the good that we love in this world, it’s not perfect nor permanent. We actually have a real home and kingdom that we’ll belong to after this world passes, and THAT is the home we should be fighting for. It’s a happy accident that The Hobbit film changed Tolkien’s quote about valuing food, cheer and song, to Thorin’s last words to Bilbo “If more people valued home above gold this world would be a merrier place.” Didn’t I say God shows up in film without invitation from the writer or director? If we kept our focus on our real, future home, this world WOULD be a merrier place.
I know why Peter Jackson thanked the academy for seeing past the trolls, the wizards and the funny hobbits in order to award them Best Picture at the Oscars. This is our story and it’s about our hearts. We crave that which is good, and God protects those with a pure heart and the will to do his good. Even though people will complain about the films not being 100% “to the book,” Jackson definitely captured and visualized Tolkien’s spirit in each scene. He respected the source as a true story teller would. There is so much more I could share about God in Middle Earth but these three things stand out to me the most. I don’t think I’m being ridiculous when I say that introducing these films to a new generation, gave many a new meaning and purpose to their lives, not to mention, many more fans of the books too. My biggest takeaway from Tolkien and these movies is exactly what Gandalf says to Frodo: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Fight for each other. Make good decisions. God will follow through and take you home.