Lord of the Rings: A Rambling Review and Reflection
By J. Ligon Duncan
I went to see the Lord of the Rings (Part One: The Fellowship of the Ring) -the movie adaptation of the first volume of the classic epic mythic trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien (pronounced, according to the BBC Self-Pronouncing Dictionary, "tol-KEEN")- the day after it debuted. I've seen it several times since. I went with tremendous anticipation (having read the cycle from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings to The Silmarillion twice: my brother has read them more than a dozen times!), but also with some trepidation. I was sure that I was going to be disappointed. Alas, my fears were immediately allayed. It was a brilliant picture.
I offer something of a review and something of a reflection here. If you have never read Tolkien, you'll be completely lost by what I'm about to say (just skip to the reflections). So, let me apologize here at the outset and then suggest that you pick up The Hobbit first and then proceed to read The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It will not be wasted time. Then see the movie.
By the way, if you are wondering why there's so much excitement amongst Christians about this book and movie, it is because Tolkien played an instrumental role in C. S. Lewis' conversion to Christ, and was one of the famous "Inklings" who along with Charles Williams and Lewis had a profound effect upon several generations of Christian readers. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is not a Christian allegory, but it is shot through with redemptive metaphors, Christian virtues, veiled references to divine providence and Christ-analogies.
I never thought a movie would ever do justice to Tolkien, but this one did, and that is high praise from a Tolkien fanatic. I should say, as a whole, the movie is incredibly intense (definitely not fare for younger children -- in that regard, the PG-13 rating needs to be taken seriously: there is no sexual content or foul language, but the violence, while not gratuitous, is realistic).
The Orcs were frightening (indeed far more frightening than my imagination has ever allowed-I'd always thought of them as sort of ugly, smelly, mean, bumbling idiots), the Cave Troll in Moria was the monster of the movie (IMHO), even better than the Balrog (who should have been the scariest - but in Producer Jackson's defense, he follows Tolkien's description to a tee). And the depiction of the Hobbits and The Shire was spot on. I didn't think I'd like Elijah Woods as Frodo (based simply upon my suspicions and the television ads they'd been running) - but I did. Sam, Frodo's sidekick, was perfect. Without having much by way of lines to give the feel of his character, he managed to convey the essence of the lovable, clumsy, loyal friend. Bilbo Baggins, Frodo's uncle, was very good indeed.
Filmmaker Peter Jackson did a nice job of compressing the early 5 chapters and giving us the essential feel of life in The Shire. Often people think of the scenes in The Shire at the book's beginning and end as comic relief or anti-climatic, but the Tolkien aficionado will recognize that the idyllic life, and repose, that they represent are close to the heart of what we fight for in the great struggles against evil in the world.
Gandalf, ah Gandalf, what can I say. He's simply my favorite character in all of "fantasy literature" (though I hate to besmirch Lord of the Rings with that designation). He is part-Hobbit's party entertainment, part-Grandfather, part-Sherlock Holmes, part-Wizard, part-Gunny Sergeant, part-most powerful single individual working for the defeat of Sauron in all of Middle Earth. He's fussing, warning, leading, fighting, protecting, thinking, laughing, pipe-smoking, interpreting, explaining, coming and going throughout the book/movie. If you ever have to face a Nazgul on a dark and stormy night-he's the guy you want with you! Ian McKellen did him justice, and that's saying a lot. Strider (Aragorn) was almost perfect, my brother Mel described him as "the right mix of nordic John Wayne and kingly mystery."
There are, of course, minor gripes one could make about the movie and casting (but I offer nothing but kudos to Jackson for his masterful work). Elrond, visually, didn't live up to Tolkien's description as "being as venerable as a Dwarven King of many summers" - but was pretty good. Regal and stern. Glorfindel (clearly a mighty warrior in Tolkien's book) should have been allowed to play his part, instead of the PC insertion of Arwen in the flight to the Ford.
Speaking of which, my brother bristled at the choice of Liv Tyler as Arwen. Guess he keeps waiting for her to break out in a vigorous rendition of Aerosmith's "Walk this Way!" rather than an elvish sonnet. Once one's nerve-endings have been seared by Steve Tyler, it's kind of hard to think his offspring could ever live him down. But, she's gorgeous - and according to Tolkien, Arwen was even more beautiful than the enchanting Galadriel (who mesmerized Gimli, but whom Eomer judged not the equal of the astonishing Arwen) and Tyler clearly lives up to that billing (sorry Cate, you are definitely "second-babe" to Liv). And, hey, Liv even learned a little Elvish for the part, so give her some slack.
The Elves of Lorien seemed to be designed to appeal to the cross-dressing set, yet also came across as angry and vindictive. They should have been more elvish and nice, yet, their grimness did capture the fear of Lorien that seemed to pervade the minds of all the non-elvish characters in the book (save Aragorn and Gandalf). Galadriel was painted darkly, but I think it worked. It appropriately drew attention to the theme of "temptation to power" that Tolkien clearly develops throughout the books and which Jackson aptly highlights with his own inventions (like Gandalf refusing to touch the ring, which is not part of the Tolkien's story).
Now, many of you may be thinking, "who cares?" - why all the fuss about Tolkien? What's the big deal about this book and movie? There are many good answers to that question, but I here offer two. First, The Lord of the Rings is great literature. Second, The Lord of the Rings is popular (adored by millions), fantasy literature, anchored in a stable moral universe derivative of a Christian worldview. Indeed, a number of things strike me about the book The Lord of the Rings and its author, in light of the movie. I could throw in a third: Tolkien's outsold everything in the book market but the Bible in the English-speaking world over the last half century! Already, there is a volume out on Tolkien by one of his successors at Oxford declaring him to be "the author of the century." Now, even if that is a bit overblown (more characteristic of American lack of restraint in praise than calm British reserve) it reminds the reader (and the movie-goer) that the author of this work is not your typical paperback writer. He was a first-rate scholar (among other accomplishments responsible for the 20th century's epic translation of Beowulf) and a linguistic genius. He actually created numerous imaginary cultures and languages in order to write the books! Tolkien's mother taught him Latin, French, and German. At school he learned Greek, Middle English, Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Old Norse, Welsh, Spanish, and Italian. He developed a working knowledge of Russian, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch and Lombardic. Beginning as early as 1914 he began creating his own languages, and many of these became the seeds for poems, ballads, stories and songs which evolved into the peoples and places of Middle earth. He developed an entire mythology which spanned four epoch ages, thousands of years of histories, and a creation and fall cosmology to boot. In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien employs the use of 14 different "original languages." Many of these languages even have modes of speech not unlike Old English, Middle, Victorian and Modern English. Don't expect that from Tom Clancy!
The literary quality of Tolkien's poetry and prose is outstanding, and his message and presuppositions are profound. Though these stories originated as tales he invented to entertain his children (!!), the lush descriptivity and indeed the pensive quality of his writing is overwhelming. A deep and abiding yearning and sorrow pervades his stories. Insight and wisdom punctuate mundane conversations. Moral exhortation fit for the most practical of people finds it way into wizard's banter in Tolkien's world.
And the moral in Tolkien is derivative of Christian insights into reality. He did not set out to write an allegory (he detested allegory!), but to entertain. However, in the course of entertaining he manages to set the table for serious moral engagement. A few unenlightened wags have suggested that Lord of the Rings is no different from Harry Potter. Well, I'd respond, 'sure, and Beowulf's the same as Batman in the DC comics.' And I don't just mean that there is a literary gulf that separates Tolkien from other popular fantasy literature. There is a moral gulf. J.K. Rowling is not bringing to bear a Christian mind in her literature (even if her goal isn't world-domination by kinder-warlocks, as some conspiracy theorists alarm). She wouldn't know a "Christian mind" if it bit her. Tolkien, on the other hand, can't escape his (for better and for worse). He thinks in medieval Christian categories and that thought-world is pervasive in his works.
My brother put it this way: "Tolkien is (probably) the greatest myth maker in the 20th century, his works are more thorough and complex than almost any other author in that span. And remarkably the point of almost all of his stories is the celebration of moral beings that overcome because of (divine) providence, and personal character and determination." Exhibit A is Tolkien's remarkable "Hobbits," human-like, genealogy-loving, trivia-fixated, pipe-smoking, overly-loquacious, homebody, halflings who occupy "the Shire" (Tolkien's Middle Earth version of the Cotswolds!).
How are Hobbits exhibit A of Tolkien's moral universe? Because their character not their stature or strength mattered in the end. The qualities of love and loyalty and justice and mercy enable Frodo Baggins the Hobbit to undertake the most difficult quest in the history of the Third Age of Middle Earth (a task which the most powerful good beings of that era could never have managed - not Aragorn, not Gandalf, not Elrond, nor Galadriel). Because the greatest power of evil was not the external evil of Sauron, but the internal evil that could be unleashed by the use (even for ostensibly good ends) of the one Ring.
But even Frodo would have failed without five other factors: the wisdom of Gandalf (whose sagacity not his "magic" was his greatest power), the aid of a loyal company (the Fellowship of the Ring, the original "band of brothers"), the undying love of a slow-witted, but great-hearted best friend (Sam Gamgee, the lovable assistant who would have slain a dragon for Frodo, if he didn't trip over his own feet trying), the self-absorbed malice of a petty-enemy (Gollum, who turns out to be Judas - the son of perdition deployed by divine providence to do a ghastly deed for the ultimate good), and above and behind them all, a pervasive, unnamed divine providence working all things for good (in Middle Earth parlance, this would have been denominated "the will of Eru" or "Illuvatar"). Sending Gandalf back from death, putting Gollum at the right place at the right time at Mt. Doom, leading the ring to be found by Bilbo Baggins in the first place ("the strangest event in the whole history of the ring"), all of this can be traced, said Tolkien in his letters, to Illuvatar.
In the end, the temptation is too much, even for Frodo, and only mercy spares him. Bilbo's original mercy to Gollum, Gandalf's counsel about mercy to Frodo, Frodo's mercy to Gollum, leave Gollum alive to be the one who, at last, destroys the ring (without intending to!). But behind these human acts of mercy and malice is the pervading, Esther-like, idea of divine providence in Tolkien. In the final analysis, Middle Earth is saved from Sauron by grace. None of the characters could have done it. It took divine intervention. This is sheer and unabashed Augustinianism.
A friend leaned over to my brother as the movie began and said: "Do you think any of these people know Hobbits are Calvinists?"
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. He is a graduate of Furman University and Covenant Theological Seminary. He recently completed doctoral studies at the University of Edinburgh and is currently serving as co-editor of The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, a multi-volume set of essays in remembrance of the 350th anniversary of the publication of the confession.