LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–I confess. I am a Tolkien fanatic.
Next to the Bible, I have read “The Lord of the Rings” through more times (over 20) than any other book. I remember the first time I took up “The Hobbit” at the age of 14, reading it in a single night under my blankets with my dad’s trusty railroad flashlight.
Though I was probably useless the next day at school, I felt as though my imagination had been “strangely warmed” by my new encounter, and I recall thinking how impossible it would be ever to put this epic into film. Unanticipated technology and the passion of director Peter Jackson have made the impossible a reality.
A word or two about Tolkien’s world are probably in order before I address the film itself. What kind of reality is this, and can it be “Christian,” what with the presence of wizards, elves and various creatures not found in any Bible concordance?
For Tolkien, God is the maker of all things, initially creating the Valar and the Maia, beings that are essentially angelic spirits. With the assistance of the Valar, He makes all other things, including the physical world (the major part of which is Middle-Earth, the world of mortals) and the creatures within it, in particular, elves, men, dwarves, hobbits, ents and all other living things.
Two of the angelic spirits, Morgoth and Sauron, rebel against God and the Valar and attempt to dominate Middle-Earth for their own evil purposes. They are twice defeated by the combined forces of elves and men under the direction of the Valar, but are not decisively overthrown. True victory can only come when the source of Sauron’s authority, the Ring of Power, is unmade. Even then, evil will not be completely vanished from the world. Evil men will still live and even thrive until the day comes when the world is remade.
This third and final installment of the story (“The Return of the King”) brings all the loose threads together. Frodo and Sam enter the evil land of Mordor to complete their task. Aragorn takes up the re-forged sword of his ancestor, King Elendil, the sword which once cut the Ring of Power from the hand of Sauron, and with that sword sets out to defeat the armies of the enemy once and for all.
Frodo and Sam eventually make their way to Gorgoroth, the evil Mount Doom where the Ring was forged, and by the most unexpected twists of providence, the ring is plunged into the Cracks of Doom, thus destroying the power of Sauron once for all. The film is beautifully and powerfully done. Purists like me will find details over which to quibble (Aragorn actually received the newly re-forged sword Anduril when he left Rivendell, not after the battle at Helm’s Deep, etc.), but the main force of Tolkien’s tale remains intact, and the genius of Peter Jackson’s film-making skill makes this into a fresh new encounter with the epic adventure for those of us who already know the story well.
This is in every sense a Christian story. Along with the theological parallels discussed above, there are messianic figures (Frodo and Aragorn), there is divine providence (Frodo was “meant” to find the ring and Gollum has a “part to play”), there is a decisive victory against evil (the Ring is destroyed), there is even an eschatology which is already inaugurated but not yet completed (Sauron’s power is dealt a death-blow, but evil still exists till the world is remade).
The victory against the enemy is not won by the might or power of men (such as in many historic epic tales) or by the power of wizards or magic (as in so many popular New Age stories), but by humble creatures (hobbits) carrying out their duty in a sacrificial act which seems to be little more than suicide, though they are saved at the last from death. One could almost turn to Romans 8:31-39 and read that text as an epilogue to the great battle scene before the Black Gate. Frodo, Aragorn and company truly were more than conquerors through the providence and power that comes from God through the forces of righteousness.
In a sentence, Tolkien gives his readers a theistic Christian worldview set in a fictional context, but with no allegorized treatment of cross and redemption, such as one will find in C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” This is not a presentation of the Gospel, although it is a story set in the context of a biblical worldview. Tolkien’s presentation is both more subtle and more profound than that of Lewis. It is more subtle in that there is no one-to-one relationship between the characters in the novel and those in the Bible (there is no “Aslan-Christ” figure) and it is more profound in that one can see biblical images all over Tolkien’s landscape.
Go see the film. If you have not yet read the books, set aside a little time the first of the year to do that. In them you will find a beautiful new world, a world which is, at its heart, just the old, old biblical story of faith, hope and love that Christians have known so well. In contrast to modern and postmodern works of fiction, Tolkien has given us a beautiful world filled with a consciousness of the presence of God and truth.
Chad Brand is associate professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” is rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images.