20 Ways “The Lord of the Rings” Is Both Christian and Catholic

STAN WILLIAMS

Thanks to the vision and persistence of Kiwi filmmaker Peter Jackson and the financial backing of Warner Brothers' New Line Cinema, these great stories are now becoming accessible to millions more around the world.

Tolkien had hoped that others would come after him and like other myths adapt the Middle-earth stories to make them both applicable and accessible to new generations. Peter Jackson is doing that, and by most accounts doing it well. The third and last film in the series will be released December 2003.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision." [1] By design The Lord of the Rings is not a Christian allegory but rather an invented myth [2] about Christian and Catholic truths. But that presents a problem for filmakers. Because the Christian"
Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12)
"and when it comes to movies, audiences must SEE everything and anything that is important to the story. So, the conflict cannot be something the protagonist engages on purely a spiritual or emotional level — such as guilt, forgiveness, justification, or redemption. The source of the conflict has to be visible.

Luckily — no, let's make that Providentially — Tolkien spent a life time sub-creating (as he called it) a Middle-earth that contains physical entities representing all that is good and bad in our Earthly journeys. There are Dwarves, Elves, Orcs, Wizards, Hobbits, Ents, Trolls, Wraiths, Uruk-hais and at least one Balrog — all with their own languages, culturs, history, and myths — to mix it up with humans in a grand and epic battle with evil.

But a battle against evil alone does not make The Lord of the Rings fundamentally Christian and Catholic; and yet there are many ways that it is. Below are a few of these and one that is unique to Jackson's films. Can you tell which one it is?

A Christian Myth

Here are some of the ways The Lord of the Rings is a Christian myth.

  1. Darkness pervades Middle-earth where man, beast and nature are called to an adventure full of peril and hope. Here is how Elijah Wood explains the film's dominant theme: â??No matter how bad things are, no matter how much evil there is in this world, there is always some good worth fighting for, worth standing up for, and worth some effort in carrying on.â? [3]

  2. The One Ring illustrates how evil can entice and enslave. Beautiful gold rings are enticing to wear. But when we slip them on our fingers we announce our devotion and loyalty to their owner.

  3. Gandalf and Saruman, while not analogous, have traits, goals, and experiences similar to those of Jesus and Satan.Gandalf is even tempted in a battle with Saruman not unlike Christ is tempted by Satan in the wilderness.

  4. Evil is parasitic and can only destroy that which was created. Everything that Ilúvatar (God) created in Middle-earth (and in our world) is good. It is the perversion and corruption of what was created that is evil. Good can exist on its own. Evil can only live off what is good.

  5. Like all Chritians, Frodo is called to risk his life through great peril to save others. Frodo, like us, does not appear to be up to the task. He does not have any obvious talent suited for war. But he is chosen, as we are. We are all necessary for God's grand plan to be fulfilled; and even the most unlikely and disgusting Gollum-like beast in our life is necessary. And when Frodo asks, "What can a little hobbit do?" — Isaiah answers, "A little child will lead them" (11:6).

  6. In the Shire, the Hobbits come naturally to living a beatific life that Christ calls Christians to live by. The Hobbits are the meek that inherit the earth, the merciful who receive mercy, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers. (Mt. 5:3-12)

  7. Like all Christians, Tolkien's characters are called to play roles in a story tht is much greater and more important than they are aware. Just as we are not aware of all that has happened before us, [4] so Gandalf, at the end of The Hobbit, says to Bilbo, "You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? "you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!"

  8. There is a longing for the return of the king. As Christians long for the return of Christ the King, so the free people of Middle-earth long for their kingdoms to be once more united in peace and justice under the rightful heir. Did I mention that Aragorn looks like Christ?

  9. The Fellowship of the Ring is constituted of different characters with different gifts suited for battling evil — the diversity keeps them united. This is not unlike the diversity of spiritual gifts and temporal talents given to the different members of the Christian community for the unity of the body — so that we might be dependent on each other.

  10. Upon leaving Lorien, each of the Fellowship members are given custom fitted Elvish hooded cloaks not unlike St. Paul's amour in Ephesians 6:10-17. Again, Tolkien disliked allegory; so the cloaks are not exactly like St. Paul's amour of salvation. But they do have mystical traits of great aid that keep them safe in their battle with evil.

    A Catholic Core

    The Lord of the Rings is also Catholic.

  11. Tere are sacraments not symbols. For their journey, Galadriel graciously bestows upon the Fellowship — a representation of the church — seven mystical gifts; no mere symbols these, but glimmering reflections of the Church's seven sacraments — the conveying of spiritual grace through temporal rites. And at her Mirror, Galadriel derides the Reformers' taunt of Eucharistic magic in the Mass when she says: "For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same words for the deceits of the enemy." (353)

  12. As grace and creation is experienced through a sacrament, so control and destruction is experienced through an anti-sacrament — the One Ring. The ring that Frodo bears is not symbolic, but rather operates as an anti-sacrament. Dependent on a person's spiritual disosition, a sacrament literally allows grace and life to flow into a person through the physical realm. Likewise in Middle-earth, the characters' spiritual disposition makes them more or less susceptible to the anti-sacrament power of the ring, which if worn, literally brings evil and destruction upon the bearer.

  13. The protagonists pursue absolutes, rejecting any willingness to compromise or relativize. In Middle-earth there is an absoluteness of what is right and wrong. There is no hint of moral relativism that separates the different peoples, races, or creators of the freelands. Aragorn says to Eomer: "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among men." (428)

  14. The protagonists embrace suffering as a requirement of working out their salvation. It isn't enough to simply believe or have faith To be free of the tyranny of evil each of our protagonists must sacrifice, and work hard through great peril to secure their salvation and the right ordering of their world.

  15. The Shire, described as the ideal community, reflects the social teachings of Catholicism. The Hobbits benefit from a community structure with little formal organization and less conflict. They work only enough to survive and otherwise enjoy each other's company. There is no jealousy, no greed, and rarely does anyone do anything unexpected. There is a wholeness and graciousness about it that seems to come naturally out of selflessness.

  16. Gandalf, the steward of all things good in the world, reflects the papacy. Gandalf is leader of the free and faithful. He is steward of all things good in the world, but he claims rule over no land. As the Popes of history di with kings and emperors of our world, so Gandalf crowns the king and blesses him to rule with justice and peace.

  17. Middle-earth ideology reflects a corporate moral hierarchy and not individualism. There is no democracy or republic in Middle-earth. There are spiritual leaders like Gandalf, and Kings like Theoden and Elessar with lords and vassals. There is no defense of individualism, no claim of choice, and no justification for an individual to follow his conscience.

  18. There is a mystical Lady, like The Blessed Mother, who responds miraculously to pleas for help.The Lady is named Varda (or in Elvish, Elbereth or star-queen) and although she is never seen, she's is described as holy and queenly; and when her name is invoked — "O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! — as Frodo and Sam do on occasion, miracles follow that protect the quest and defeat the present enemy.

  19. The sign of the cross.At the end of the first movie (and the beginning of the second book) Aragorn kneels beside the mortally wounded Boromir — and as he dies, Aragorn makes a rudimentary sign of the cross touching first his forehead and then his lips. It is a salute to Avatar, the One who created all.

  20. There is a last sharing of cup and bread, not unlike O.T. manna and its fulfillment in The Eucharist.Before the Fellowship departs from Lorien, Galadriel bids each to participate in a farewell ritual and drink from a common cup. More significant is the mystical Elvish food given to the fellowship — lembas or waybread. A small amount of this supernatural nourishment will sustain a traveler fo many days.

    All of this should make viewing or reading The Lord of the Rings a more interesting and insightful experience for both Christians and Catholics. A fuller description of these themes can be found in the following books that were used for this article.

Bibliography

J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth. Bradley Birzer, 2003. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books.
Tolkien: A Celebration. Collected writings on a literary legacy. Edited by Joseph Pearce, 1999. San Francisco: Ignatius.
Finding God in The Lord of the Rings. Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware, 2001. Wheaton: Tyndale House.
Tolkien: Man and Myth. A literary life. Joseph Pearce, 1998. San Francisco: Ignatius.

Notes:

  1. While Tolkien has written that in sub-creating these stories his allegiance was to Christ and the Church, Jackson's allegiance was to Tolkien. Jackson made this comment to a group of Christian writers: "We wanted to honor Tolkien and obviously he was a very spiritual person. We've taken an approach of never trying to put in our own message or our own baggage into these films. We want the films to respect him and what he was about." (Interview, New York City, December 4, 2002)

  2. To Tolkien, myths are true because they are part of our God created imagination, and because they bring us "such joy [that] has the very taste of primary truth." To Tolkien the story of Jesus Christ is a "true myth." When Tolkien shared this concept with C.S. Lewis during an afternoon walk, Lewis felt "a rush of wind that came so suddenly," and within days proclaimed his belief in Christ, becoming one of Christianity's most effective apologists. (See also Tolkien's essay, On Fairy-Stories.)

  3. Interview, New York Cit, December 4, 2002.

  4. Read The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by his son Christopher, also the Appendix that immediately follows the third part of the trilogy: The Return of the King.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Stan Williams. "20 Ways The Lord of the Rings Is Both Christian and Catholic." Catholic Exchange (January, 2003).

This article reprinted with permission from Stan Williams.

THE AUTHOR

Dr. Stan Williams is Executive Producer and Managing Director for SWC Films, an independent feature film development company seeking investment partners. Stan Williams, Ph.D., writes occasionally about Judeo-Christian themes in motion pictures between his own film projects as Executive Producer of SWC Films. He can be reached at SDavid@StanWilliams.com or via his website at www.StanWilliams.com.

Copyright ©2003 Stan Williams