Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Lord of the Rings
This film column has been seized by Christian allegorists. Tom Wartenberg has been overthrown! (For now.) Meanwhile, here is Bill Murray’s commentary on Lord of the Rings.
“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
“Under the night the trees stood tall before them, arched over the road and stream that ran suddenly beneath their spreading boughs. In the dim light of the stars their stems were grey, and their quivering leaves a hint of fallow gold.” Is this a description of the Garden of Eden? No, it is Lothlorien, a mythical elf haven in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. This detailed imagery and distinct language, which have made the trilogy famous, could only come from the vivid imagination and linguistic genius of Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings is the greatest fantasy epic of our time, and ever since filmmaker Peter Jackson decided to bring the trilogy to the big screen, everyone has been talking about it. The epic has turned into a modern day Star Wars for some movie buffs, especially the fantasy fans, who have been itching for a new film. But ‘Rings’ has also inspired a different group of people: Christians.
The Lord of the Rings strikes many as being a Christian allegory, but it’s not that simple. If it was, then there would be an obvious Christ-figure in Frodo Baggins. He must carry the ring, a metaphorical cross, to save the Earth. The Fellowship of the Ring is viewed as Christ’s apostles. But if Frodo is the Christ-figure, then why is it Gandalf who is resurrected after dying in the mines of Moria? And why is the Fellowship only nine people, while Christ had twelve apostles? “I dislike allegory when I smell it,” said Tolkien. (Wagner) Myth and fairy story, he saw, must contain moral and religious truth, “but implicitly, not explicitly or allegorically.”
Tolkien and his life-long friend and colleague, C.S. Lewis, often discussed the ways in which the Christian faith could be expressed in alternative shapes and forms. They held the belief that Christian doctrine could be expressed in ways other than just repeating Bible verses. They both intended to write a new form of literature that would speak to both believers and non-believers. “Tolkien was wise enough to know that if you made the religious element too explicit, the allegory would have overwhelmed the story, and so he hid the fact that there were Christian elements,” says Mike Foster, a professor of English at Illinois Central College in East Peoria, Ill., and the North American representative of the Tolkien Society, which is based in England. “There are millions of readers who have read Tolkien without sharing his faith and been rewarded with his story.”
In the foreword to the trilogy, published in 1965, Tolkien declared that it was neither allegorical nor topical. Throughout his life, Tolkien denied that the trilogy was rooted in Catholicism. But at the age of 81, the author wrote to the Reverend Robert Murray, a Jesuit priest, saying: “The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. The religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” (Wagner).
At the centre of the story is the One Ring, created by the Dark Lord Sauron in the fires of Mount Doom, deep in the Land of the Shadow, Mordor. Whoever holds the One Ring holds power over all of the evil forces. It cannot be used for good, or used against the Dark Lord. For if one was to use it to destroy the Dark Lord, the ring’s power would corrupt him, and thus he would only become another Dark Lord. This is demonstrated by Gollum, the creature who discovered the ring and kept it hidden in dark places deep under the Earth. Eventually, his ‘Precious’ possessed him, illustrating the Biblical principle of the growing power of sin that begins small, but ends up controlling a person.
The One Ring cannot be destroyed, except in the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged. It is too evil to be hidden. Evil things are drawn towards it, and the Evil Eye can sense when it is worn by any being. The Dark Lord desires the ring, and will stop at nothing to get it. And if he were to obtain the One Ring, he would once again conquer all of Middle Earth, turning it into a vast land of shadow rather like New Jersey, and enslaving all of its peoples. Therefore, the Forces of the West must destroy the ring. As moviegoers everywhere now know, the heavy and grave task of carrying the ring through Mordor to Mount Doom falls on the shoulders of a four-foot tall hobbit named Frodo Baggins.
Tolkien’s choice of Frodo being the ring-bearer is the key to the underlying message of the story. Herein lie the Christian ideals of providence and sacrifice. Hobbits are a simple folk, isolated from the rest of Middle Earth in their tucked away land called the Shire. “Their faces were as a rule good-natured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eyed, redcheeked, with mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking” (qtd. in Kolich). Frodo must take the ring into the heavilyguarded land of Mordor and destroy it. In order to do so, he must get past enormous fortresses and Sauron’s vast armies of orcs and goblins. Obviously, the task seems impossible to the reader. But this is precisely Tolkien’s purpose, for if the good is to triumph, the reader must clearly see that the cost in terms of hardship and suffering matches the significance of the effort. Tolkien uses this to emphasize that if you are to fulfill your calling from God, you must make extraordinary sacrifices.
After journeying out of the Shire, all of the hobbits display an unswerving dedication to a higher cause than their daily routines in the Shire. Even hobbits can leave their pipes and ale to become heroes. It is a matter of will and spirit as to whether Frodo will accomplish his goal. It is evil that measures people in terms of size and strength alone, and this is Sauron’s downfall. He underestimates the hobbits and does not understand their motives. As Augustus M. Kolich, a professor of Tolkienology at the University of Pennsylvania, states, “[Sauron] fails because he sees the world as a reflection of his own evil inclinations. He cannot understand why anyone would want to abandon the power of the One Ring by destroying it.” He understands a person like Boromir, the human who tries to steal the ring to use it against him, but not a hobbit who cares little about the glory of power and conquest.
The Lord of the Rings ends in what Tolkien called a ‘eucatastrophe:’ a good catastrophe. The ring is destroyed and Sauron overthrown, but at incredible costs. All of Middle Earth is laid waste. The hobbits, the dwarfs, the elves and the wizards all sail off to the “Uttermost West,” as the magic and charm of their rule fades away from earth forever. Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher that in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’:
“I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairystories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effects because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth. It perceives,” he explained, “that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one” (Shippey)
“In Tolkien’s perception of life, though, there is always the ‘Dyscatastrophe’ – the bad catastrophe – that remains as a threat of what can be the possible end to the next age, our own” (Kolich). The overlying theme is that anyone can accomplish great feats when they give their heart to it. We can’t all live isolated in a hobbit-hole and ignore the evils of the world. The threat of doing so is the ‘dyscatastrophe.’ We are each called to go out and make a difference in the world by helping others and following the teachings of Christ. If we all do our part we can accomplish goals that we all thought were impossible. We can, and are called to, destroy Sauron and the ring that is evil. That is the message of Christ.
“Ours is but a small matter in the great deeds of this time.” Aragorn.
© Bill Murray 2002
Bill Murray, a native of Ohio, is a sociology and cinema studies student at Boston College. He writes on popular culture, media and politics.