people, I read J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings as a child. The
experience catapulted my pre-adolescent imagination for the first time into
the wondrous and varied world of wizards, dwarves, goblins, and yes, hobbits.
From that moment on, I was never quite the same.
Tolkien's imaginary world is set to hit the silver screen. Will the movies do
as good a job as the books did in transporting young imaginations to the
enchanting land of Middle Earth? They will if they preserve a key element of
the books: a profound and mature religious worldview.
worldview is not one I was consciously aware of as a child reader. But thanks
to a recent biography, Tolkien: Man and Myth by
Joseph Pearce, I have come as an adult to understand the essential role
Tolkien's devout Catholicism played in making his books as compelling as they
sheds light on the ways Tolkien expressed complex spiritual truths through
the thoughts and actions of his characters – and through the internal
logic of his created world – relying less on the type of heavy-handed
allegory that is the hallmark of Lewis's Narnia books
(which Tolkien loathed). Those characters express the same wondrous religious
sensibility of their author, who described his work as "fundamentally
religious and Catholic."
Tolkien," writes Pearce, "Catholicism was not an opinion to which
one subscribed but a reality to which one submitted . . . . Tolkien remained
a Catholic for the simple if disarming reason that he believed Catholicism
LotR as a
religious work "falls into three distinct but inter-related areas,"
writes Pearce. These areas are "the sacrifice which accompanies the
selfless exercise of free will; the intrinsic conflict between good and evil;
and the perennial question of time and eternity, particularly in relation to
life and death."
theme of sacrifice in LotR is pervasive, with protagonist Frodo freely
choosing to carry a "great weight" – the enemy Sauron's ring
– into the dark realm of Mordor, the center of evil in the world, where
it can be destroyed. Frodo's undertaking of this quest perilous forms the
nucleus of the story, and the irony is all the greater that Frodo is a hobbit,
a small and weak race, upon whose brave shoulders the fate of all races
forces of good in Tolkien's works are represented as being far outnumbered
and overpowered (at least on the surface) by the minions of evil. The story
is as old as time itself: good vs. evil, with evil seemingly in control of
the whole wide world. But ultimately, the virtue of the few overcomes the
overwhelming numbers of the evil many, with the mystery of grace guiding the
affairs of men – not to mention those of hobbits.
in general, Tolkien's portrayal of evil is not explicitly Christian,
but its orthodoxy lies in its understanding that evil is in and of itself a
fearsome but ultimately impotent force. Only good can create, while evil but
lends itself to corruption and destruction. Of the monstrous races that serve
evil, Frodo says, "The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot
make real new things of its own. I don't think it gave life to [them], it
only ruined them and twisted them." The actual act of positive creation
is reserved for God – but everyone in Middle Earth is, to a greater or
lesser extent, a victim of the Fall.
also notes the mortality of man and his relation to eternity as a central
theme in Tolkien's work. "Three Rings for the Elven Kings under the
sky," begins the Ring Rhyme, which goes on to add, "Nine for mortal
men doomed to die." In LotR, elves are immortal, but men are, as
they are in reality, "doomed" to depart the earth. To Tolkien,
however, this "doom" is a gift from God, though man's understanding
of it is warped by his sinful state. Throughout the entirety of LotR,
it becomes clear that the final resting place of the faithful and valiant is
not in the fallow tombs of Middle Earth, but in the as-yet-unglimpsed fertile
lands beyond. If elves are a sorrowful race, it is the logical result of
their permanent term of exile in a fallen world.
all, Pearce's book isn't as exhaustive as is Humphrey Carpenter's biography
of Tolkien, but it does provide many interesting insights into the life and
work of a fascinating man. Especially gratifying to me was the discovery of
Tolkien's apparent political libertarianism.
political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood,
meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs),'" Pearce
quotes Tolkien as saying. It is no coincidence that The Shire is portrayed as
an idyllic rural society with little formal government, while Mordor is quite
emphatically an industrial, collectivistic slave-state.
Man and Myth is likely to be disappointing to those who want a
play-by-play account of Tolkien's life. But it is particularly valuable to
those of us who struggled in ignorance for years to understand just why
Middle Earth and its denizens appealed to us so strongly.
Pearce quotes poet Charles Coulombe, "In an age which has seen an almost
total rejection of the Faith on the part of the Civilisation she created, the
loss of the Faith on the part of many lay Catholics, and apparent uncertainty
among her hierarchy, Lord of the Rings assures us, both by its
existence and its message, that the darkness cannot triumph forever."
the filmmakers have done their job right, that message soon will be
experienced by millions of moviegoers, too.