Free Republic
Browse · Search
General/Chat
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

Good and Evil in Middle-Earth
Christian History Magazine ^ | Spring 2003 | Ralph C. Wood

Posted on 12/19/2003 9:49:07 AM PST by My2Cents

Good and Evil in Middle-earth
The characters are mythic, but the epic sweeps across a Christian moral landscape.
by Ralph C. Wood

J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a profoundly Christian book. Like the anonymous seventh-century author of Beowulf whose work he had mastered, Tolkien infuses his pre-Christian epic fantasy with Christian convictions and concerns.

He also confronts evils altogether as great as the horrors of our own time. Rather than fleeing oppressive evil, Tolkien enables his readers to escape into the freeing reality of Good.

The inhabitants of Middle-earth do not know God as triune, but they do know him as the One. In The Silmarillion, he is called Ilúvatar, the All-Father, and he has imbued the entire cosmos with his Spirit. There is nothing that does not bear Ilúvatar's creative imprint.

Just as in Genesis Yahweh creates in concert with his heavenly court ("Let us make man in our image"), so does Ilúvatar employ his 15 valar in making the music of the cosmos. The valar are not polytheistic divinities but subordinate beings that Ilúvatar has created with the Flame Imperishable of his own Spirit.

The angels of Middle-earth

As patrons over the various creative qualities and natural powers resident in the cosmos, the valar are pure spirits, having no natural bodily existence and thus no mortal limits. Yet they assume shape and gender, both masculine and feminine, in order that the Children of Ilúvatar might know and love them.

Beneath the valar are somewhat less powerful beings called the maiar. Lower still are the elves and perhaps the ents, then men and hobbits, and finally dwarves.

Yet this descending chain of being is neither static nor imprisoning: it is wondrously free and life-giving. Within every rank, there is immense room for movement—either up or down, toward life or toward death, toward good or toward evil. The lower creatures are meant to serve the higher, yet without being demeaned or diminished. So are the higher beings meant to care for the lower, yet without condescension or contempt. All the creatures of Ilúvatar are meant to dwell in lasting regard for each other. Everywhere in Tolkien's work, authentic existence is always communal. Fellowship and friendship, companionship and mutuality, lie at the heart of Tolkien's Christian vision.

Disobedience and rebellion—whether among valar or hobbits—are the main motives for sin in Tolkien's world. These evils are prompted by pride, the deadliest of the sins. And they usually entail a denial of the interdependence that the All-Father has made intrinsic to his universe.

One of the valar, named Melkor, like Lucifer in biblical tradition, comes to relish his solitude and to despise everything that he can not bring under his control. He refuses all communal reliance, even upon Ilúvatar. Resentful that Ilúvatar alone possesses the Light of creative action, Melkor seeks to make creatures that will serve only himself.

Wraiths, trolls, and orcs

Melkor is most like Satan in forging for himself a crown of iron and according to himself a grandiose title, "King of the World."

Yet because Melkor rejects Ilúvatar's goodness, his iniquity has no real substance, no proper being. Though frighteningly actual, the demonic always remains shadowy and derivative; in the deepest sense, it is unreal.

Repeatedly Tolkien demonstrates that sin is a distortion and perversion of the Good. As their name indicates, the Ringwraiths—the nine men who have come totally under Sauron's sway—are ghostly figures who have been hideously twisted by their hatred.

Yet because evil has only a parasitic existence, it can never completely destroy or undo—though it can certainly mar and tarnish—the Good. The demonic Melkor is unable to create any original or free creatures. He can manufacture only parodies and counterfeits. In addition to the carnivorous trolls that he breeds in scorn for the tree-herding ents, he also makes the brutal orcs in mockery of the graceful elves.

Melkor also corrupts Sauron, one of the maiar. He is called the Lord of the Rings because he has forged the gemstone Rings of Power: nine for men and seven for dwarves. Far from being evil, these rings enable their owners to accomplish considerable good.

Treacherously, however, Sauron also forms the plain gold band of the Ruling Ring in order to control all the other rings. Into it he builds much of his own guile, and with it he purposes to dominate Middle-earth.

That "Precious" power

The power of the Ruling Ring is so fatally tempting that it usually overwhelms the wills of those who possess it, addicting them to its use.

A hobbit named Sméagol, for example, becomes so obsessed with the Ring that he breaks off relations with his fellow hobbits. He becomes "Gollum," living in self-absorbed solitude, talking only to himself, communing with none but his "Precious," as he calls the Ring. Gollum is himself possessed by Sauron's seductive instrument.

Evil, Tolkien reveals, is never freeing, always enslaving. To sin is not to set the will at liberty but to put it into captivity.

To do the Good, by contrast, is to enable the will, to enlarge its freedom. As in Romans 7, so in Tolkien's world: the imprisoning power of evil can be broken only by the transcendent power of Good.

In a pre-Christian epic such as The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien cannot have recourse to Israel and Christ and the church as the means of deliverance from evil, but he can and does create remarkable parables of divine redemption. The chief of these Gospel echoes concerns the surrender of coercive power by means of radical self-sacrifice, even death.

Good Fellowship

For reasons beyond his fathoming, a middle-aged hobbit named Frodo Baggins has been chosen to perform such a drastic act of self-surrender. He has been summoned to cast Sauron's Ring back into the Cracks of Mount Doom, the volcanic flames where it was originally forged. If the Ring is not destroyed, Middle-earth will fall under the Dark Lord's control, and all the Free Peoples of the world will be enslaved. Only with the destruction of the Ring can Sauron's power be broken and he himself consumed.

Frodo can succeed in his Quest—his vocation not to find a treasure but to be rid of one—only through companionship, not by solitary endeavor. Frodo's closest hobbit friends—Sam and Merry and Pippin—will not let him undertake his perilous journey alone. The four of them are joined by the wizard Gandalf, the elf Legolas, the dwarf Gimli, plus two men—the kingly Aragorn and the brave Boromir. Together, they become the Company of Nine Walkers, "set against the Nine Riders that are evil."

Small hands, great deeds

Frodo and his companions constitute a radical community of the Good, whose character often resembles a true church. They are not a company of mighty and outsized conquerors but a band of small and frail mortals.

As in the Gospel, however, their weakness becomes their strength. Elrond the elflord articulates this central truth: "Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere."

Like the early Christians, the Company dwells in remarkable solidarity. When one of the Company suffers, they all suffer. When one enjoys a momentary triumph, they all rejoice. To restore their failing strength, they eat lembas, the airy elven-bread that possesses unmistakably eucharistic qualities.

The Company also has a Christ-like master in Gandalf. In battle with a demonic creature called the Balrog, Gandalf saves his companions from sure death. To do so, the wizard himself dies and descends into a hellish abyss. Yet Gandalf is miraculously resuscitated and thus enabled again to lead the Nine Walkers on their Quest.

The hobbits also find themselves offering prayers of deliverance to one of the valar named Elbereth, the Mary-like queen of the stars. Their Quest finally succeeds because they possess the three theological virtues—unyielding faith in their master and their mission, undespairing hope that their cause will ultimately be vindicated beyond the walls of the world and, not least of all, undying love for each other and for those who intervene for them.

As a Roman Catholic, Tolkien believed that divine grace does not destroy but completes and fulfills the natural virtues: Christians are meant to realize these virtues even more fully than the pagans did. As a scholar of ancient Germanic and Scandinavian cultures, he also admired the valor of pagan warriors who died in defense of their companions and communities.

Tolkien's twin convictions are united in the sterling courage of Frodo and his friends. Like sheep led to the slaughter, they repeatedly offer to lay down their lives for their friends, having no hope of victory, yet inspired by the conviction that their love for each other requires them to resist Sauron's evil, even unto death.

While non-Christians can display heroic courage, they cannot exhibit the uniquely Christian virtue of heroic forgiveness. In most ancient pagan cultures—the Greeks, for example—mercy could be given only to the pathetic, the helpless, those who were unable to relieve their own plight. To forgive the strong or undeserving was to commit serious injustice.

Grace even to Gollum

The entire outcome of The Lord of the Rings hinges, by contrast, on Bilbo Baggins's mercy for the murderous Gollum. On first learning that his kinsman pitied the despicable creature when he could have killed him, Frodo is incensed. Bilbo should have slain Gollum, Frodo protests, giving him the death that he deserves. Gandalf's trenchant reply is the Christian core of Tolkien's massive work:

"Deserves [death]! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. … I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not least."

If Gollum—like many other characters in the novel—had not been given repeated chances of redemption, the Quest would not have succeeded. The Lord of the Rings is indeed a grace-abounding book.

Yet it is not a falsely cheering work. In the end, alas, Frodo is utterly overwhelmed by the power of the Ring: the heroic hobbit is prevented from fulfilling his mission. But because Tolkien's universe is providential rather than accidental, Frodo's defeat does not mean ultimate failure. Sauron's evil finally destroys itself—but only because the Company has fought it valiantly to the end. Frodo is so exhausted by his arduous Quest that he is unable to relish the fruits of the victory over Sauron.

Tolkien is unblinkingly honest about the effects of the self-surrendering life. The joy won at the end of the book is tearfully muted, for the triumph over Sauron also brings an end to the wondrous Fellowship of the Ring. Nor can Tolkien—in a pre-Christian world such as Middle-earth—translate his faithful heroes into Heaven. But he does have Frodo and Gandalf set sail for the Undying Lands, a paradise that Ilúvatar has created for the valar and other immortals.

Above the darkness

Even before this foreshadowing of glory divine, Tolkien's world is revealed to be neither an unsponsored nor an undirected universe.

Samwise Gamgee, the least articulate of the hobbits, discerns this truth in the unlikeliest place—in the heart of Sauron's sinister realm, where their efforts seem finally to have failed. Even if he and Frodo were somehow to succeed in destroying the Ring, there is no likelihood that they will themselves survive, or that anyone will ever hear of their valiant deed. They seem doomed to oblivion.

Yet, amid such hopelessness, Sam beholds a single star shimmering above the dark clouds of Mordor:

"The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of that forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach."

Sam sees that, in the ultimate reach of things, Life remains more powerful than death; Good conquers evil. Light, he discerns, is the primal, final reality—not the night that seeks to quench it. The single flickering star penetrates and defines the gargantuan gloom.

The immense accomplishment of Tolkien's work is to have given convincing fictional life to this profoundest truth, the reality made full and final in the Incarnation: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).

Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University.


TOPICS: The Hobbit Hole
KEYWORDS:
I'm becoming more and more convinced that the great debates, the great battles of our time in politics and in the world, particularly with the War on Terror, are not battles over ideology, but are spiritual battles. They require spiritual insight and spiritual resources to be victorious. This is why the "Lord of the Rings" film series, coming now as it has over the last three years, is such an important event.
1 posted on 12/19/2003 9:49:07 AM PST by My2Cents
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: My2Cents
ping?
2 posted on 12/19/2003 9:53:47 AM PST by My2Cents ("Well....there you go again...")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: ecurbh
Ping the rest of the "Fellowship."
3 posted on 12/19/2003 9:54:38 AM PST by My2Cents ("Well....there you go again...")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: My2Cents
"Men of the West! Stand and FIGHT!!"
4 posted on 12/19/2003 9:55:07 AM PST by wizardoz ("Let's roll!" ........................................................ "We got him!")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: My2Cents
bump
5 posted on 12/19/2003 10:01:04 AM PST by Lady Eileen
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: My2Cents
M2C; you beat me to it. That was excellent. Thanks for posting.
6 posted on 12/19/2003 10:01:48 AM PST by osagebowman (HHD-)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 3 | View Replies]

To: My2Cents
Tremendous post! Thanks so much! How nice that at least one of the legion of commentators who think they've found the secret of the universe hidden in the pages of LOTR has actually read The Silmarillion. LOTR is a big, nuanced story set in an even bigger, more nuanced context/history.

One quibble, though, is setting the Ents so high on the list. They're Yavanna's revenge- created after the dwarves.

7 posted on 12/19/2003 10:05:59 AM PST by Lil'freeper
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: 2Jedismom; 300winmag; Alkhin; Alouette; ambrose; Anitius Severinus Boethius; artios; AUsome Joy; ...

Ring Ping!!
There and Back Again: The Journeys of Flat Frodo

Anyone wishing to be added to or removed from the Ring-Ping list, please don't hesitate to let me know.

8 posted on 12/19/2003 10:41:00 AM PST by ecurbh (There's gonna be a hobbit wedding!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Corin Stormhands; g'nad
Lower still are the elves and perhaps the ents, then men and hobbits, and finally dwarves

Hmmm...

9 posted on 12/19/2003 10:44:23 AM PST by JenB (21 Days Til EntMoot)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 8 | View Replies]

To: My2Cents
You're absolutely right about LotR: it is the story for our times. It's interesting to see how it comes now at just the right hour....

Yet it is not a falsely cheering work. In the end, alas, Frodo is utterly overwhelmed by the power of the Ring: the heroic hobbit is prevented from fulfilling his mission. But because Tolkien's universe is providential rather than accidental, Frodo's defeat does not mean ultimate failure. Sauron's evil finally destroys itself—but only because the Company has fought it valiantly to the end. Frodo is so exhausted by his arduous Quest that he is unable to relish the fruits of the victory over Sauron.

I like this. This author understands the most important parts of Lord of the Rings! But I do dislike his phrasing "prevented from fulfilling his mission" because I see Frodo's mission as simply to get the Ring to the fire (I think Tolkien himself, in his letters, indicates this interpretation). Not to destroy the Ring himself.

Great post!

10 posted on 12/19/2003 10:47:16 AM PST by JenB (21 Days Til EntMoot)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: JenB; g'nad
Matthew 19:30
But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.
11 posted on 12/19/2003 11:13:06 AM PST by Corin Stormhands (It's all fun and games until someone gets banned.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 9 | View Replies]

To: Corin Stormhands
At least Elves know where they go when they die...
12 posted on 12/19/2003 11:14:17 AM PST by JenB (21 Days Til EntMoot)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 11 | View Replies]

To: My2Cents
LOTR contains a lot of elements of pre-Christian Germanic, Norse and Celtic mythology, the same elements and characters that are to be found in epics such as Das Nibelungenlied.

There is no "Christ" figure in LOTR. If anything, the triumphal restoration of Aragorn to the throne of Gondor is much closer to the Jewish concept of an earthly Messiah claiming the Throne of David. Someone who dies in order to save all of Middle-Earth, hmm, that would be Gollum. Not very "Christ-like" IMO.

13 posted on 12/19/2003 11:15:39 AM PST by Alouette ("Who is for the LORD, come with me!" -- Mattisyahu Ha-Cohen, father of Judah Maccabee)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: JenB; Corin Stormhands
At least Elves know where they go when they die...

and I really enjoy watchin' 'em start their journey...

14 posted on 12/19/2003 11:30:46 AM PST by g'nad
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 12 | View Replies]

To: Alouette
Christ figures never reflect all of Christ, just one aspect, one facet. So Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn, Sam all are Christ-figures because they illustrate one element of His character, just as the pre-Christian myth-heroes reflect on the Christ-to-come.

I believe Tolkien meant it that way. He certainly believed that all stories were "types" of the gospel, illustrating some truth, whether they came before or after Christ.
15 posted on 12/19/2003 11:34:38 AM PST by JenB (21 Days Til EntMoot)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 13 | View Replies]

To: My2Cents; Budge
How right your comments are, and this is exactly why the forces of evil and their puppets would do all in their power to silence the voices and darken the images that serve to remind folks of truth and light.

This is a very good article. I plan to see Return of the King today for the second time .

What a truly magnificent body of work Peter Jackson has created to compliment the original masterpiece of Tolkien himself and what a great service PJ has done in opening the world of Tolkien to those who may have never picked up the books.

16 posted on 12/19/2003 11:39:32 AM PST by sweetliberty (Better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Alouette
There is no "Christ" figure in LOTR.

Actually there are three (at least) that I would consider "Christlike" figures. Did a research paper on it in college (back in the 2nd Age).

Frodo - The Deliverer, carrying the weight of sin.

Gandalf - The Resurrection

Aragorn - The annointed King.

You may disagree (and Tolkien might even indicate that was not his intent). But hey, I got an "A." ;-)

17 posted on 12/19/2003 11:40:19 AM PST by Corin Stormhands (It's all fun and games until someone gets banned.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 13 | View Replies]

To: g'nad; JenB
and I really enjoy watchin' 'em start their journey...

*snif* that's just beautiful...

18 posted on 12/19/2003 11:41:13 AM PST by Corin Stormhands (It's all fun and games until someone gets banned.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 14 | View Replies]

To: Corin Stormhands
You gotta watch out, though, Elves don't always stay dead.
19 posted on 12/19/2003 11:51:47 AM PST by JenB (21 Days Til EntMoot)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 18 | View Replies]

To: Lil'freeper
Well-said. I'm dismayed hearing the movie reviewers critique "Return of the King," when it's clear they've never read the books. "Why would Peter Jackson have done such-and-such, or had someone say this-or-that?", when if they had read the books, they would realize that it was Tolkien, not Jackson, who put certain words in characters' mouths, or supplied the plot twists. I find that most of the critics who have not liked the films are those who have never read the books.
20 posted on 12/19/2003 12:03:33 PM PST by My2Cents ("Well....there you go again...")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 7 | View Replies]

To: Alouette
There is no "Christ" figure in LOTR.

I respectfully disagree. While there is not a consistent and perpetual Christ figure (like Aslan in "Chronicles of Narnia), there are aspects to the characters, and certain actions of characters (e.g., Gandalf, Aragorn) which are "types" of Christ (this was not lost on Peter Jackson who, in conveying Gandalf's fall into the abyss in Moria, had Gandalf's falling figure assuming the sign of a cross). Even Sam's role as constant companion, help, and encourager, is a type of the Holy Spirit.

21 posted on 12/19/2003 12:09:10 PM PST by My2Cents ("Well....there you go again...")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 13 | View Replies]

To: JenB
Well-said.
22 posted on 12/19/2003 12:09:57 PM PST by My2Cents ("Well....there you go again...")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 15 | View Replies]

To: Corin Stormhands
Don't forget...Aragorn, as King, was also a healer.
23 posted on 12/19/2003 12:10:53 PM PST by My2Cents ("Well....there you go again...")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 17 | View Replies]

To: My2Cents
Darn...extra credit...
24 posted on 12/19/2003 12:15:08 PM PST by Corin Stormhands (Proudly being a natural irritant since 1958.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 23 | View Replies]

To: Corin Stormhands
There is no "Christ" figure in LOTR.

Actually there are three (at least) that I would consider "Christlike" figures. Did a research paper on it in college

I majored in languages (also during the 2nd Age) and noted the similarities between LOTR and the Nibelungenlied of which there are many. One could argue that LOTR is actually a retelling of the Nibelungenlied just like Wagner's cycle of operas because the stories parallel each other in many ways.

I'm not a Christian, so the "aspects of Christ" analogy is not so obvious to me. It's just that these same aspects (faces of G-D) can also be found in the OT, as well as (l'havdil from holy to profane) in pre-Christian pagan myth. It is not a "uniquely" Christian allegory.

25 posted on 12/19/2003 12:57:38 PM PST by Alouette ("Who is for the LORD, come with me!" -- Mattisyahu Ha-Cohen, father of Judah Maccabee)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 17 | View Replies]

To: Alouette
I think the Fellowship as a whole is the Christ figure. Gandalf is the death and resurection. The Hobbits are the humble nature of the son of a carpenter. Aragorn is his natural ability to lead men when it must be done. Legolas is his grace. Gimli his fighting spirit.

Something like that, just going off the top of my head.
26 posted on 12/19/2003 1:02:51 PM PST by discostu (that's a waste of a perfectly good white boy)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 13 | View Replies]

To: Alouette; JenB; Wneighbor; ksen
It's just that these same aspects (faces of G-D) can also be found in the OT.

The Old Testament, which is of course full of references to Christ. Tolkien drew from many influences. He acknowledged that. But to paraphrase him "I am a Christian, my writing will reflect that."

It is not allegory in the sense that The Chronicles of Narnia are Christian allegory. But it is undeniable that Tolkien's faith shines forth through his work.

27 posted on 12/19/2003 1:31:19 PM PST by Corin Stormhands (Proudly being a natural irritant since 1958.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 25 | View Replies]

To: Corin Stormhands
Right. They are applicable, not allegorical. Elves do not represent anything, they demonstrate something. Aragorn is not Christ the way Aslan is Christ; he's just a type of Christ.

I hope that my faith will show in my writing, someday, half as beautifully as Tolkien's shines through his.
28 posted on 12/19/2003 1:35:01 PM PST by JenB (21 Days Til EntMoot)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 27 | View Replies]

To: My2Cents
read later
29 posted on 12/19/2003 1:52:45 PM PST by LiteKeeper
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: My2Cents
are not battles over ideology, but are spiritual battles

BINGO!

30 posted on 12/19/2003 3:35:24 PM PST by Maigret
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: JenB
I do dislike his phrasing "prevented from fulfilling his(Frodo's) mission"

I have felt that - not only the 'burden' of carrying the Ring, and the shoulder wound worked on Frodo, but his own guilt over knowing that he had succumbed to the the Ring - that all these things, not least his own sense of quilt worked on him, causing him continued pain, and din't allow him to 'heal'.

Don't know, but I've just always felt that his own sense of shame worked on him till he left Middleearth.

31 posted on 12/19/2003 9:02:33 PM PST by LinnieBeth
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 10 | View Replies]

To: My2Cents; All
recent article from the Christian science monitor.

'Return of the King' brings back the epic hero - and crowds

By Gloria Goodale and Daniel B. Wood | Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

LOS ANGELES – Hunks, babes, and a battle for the soul of mankind.
These might sound like ingredients in a cynical Hollywood producer's recipe for a surefire blockbuster. But they were also tapped, half a century ago, in the prose of a proper professor of Old English named J.R.R. Tolkien.



This week, it is his vision brought to life on the big screen that is drawing record-breaking audiences of every age to see "The Return of the King," the final installment of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings."

The linguist from Oxford University, it turns out, knew that it takes some bodacious swashbuckling to keep readers' eyes open. And he delivered something more that is now resonating in a post-9/11 world: deeper truths about man's struggle against evil and fight for redemption. "It's all the technology of Hollywood harnessed to telling a story that is worth something for the ages ... even the smallest creatures can make a significant difference in a war that encompasses the world," says Mel Campbell, who waited from 6 a.m to midnight midnight to see "Return of the King" at its opening showing Wednesday. The recreation manager from Palos Verdes, Calif., and several friends huddled around a table playing a "Lord of the Rings" board game to pass the time as they waited.

The epic, 200-minute finale has already won "best film" accolades by numerous groups, led by the New York Film Critics Circle. This has not staved off a certain level of "Ring" fatigue, inevitable given the nearly three years it has taken to complete the film-watching journey.

"For every one of my students who've become converts through the movies," says Charles Nelson, associate professor of literature at Michigan Technological University, "there are those who can't stand the books and think the movies are a waste of time." Nonetheless, says the professor who has taught one of the two longest running courses on Tolkien in the US (since 1973), just because a student isn't caught up in Tolkien's vision, doesn't change the fact that "Lord of the Rings" is one of the most important and influential books of the 20th century. A recent Amazon.com online poll dubbed it book of the millennium. It was No. 1 on the BBC's Big Read project.

"It touches on all the great themes of the old epics and sagas," says Nelson. "There's the loyalty of the fellowship, the idea of the roundtable and being bound together by a mission or a task," he says, adding that this focus on the contribution of the smallest member of the group is what sparks most with his students. "None of them really thinks they'll go on a big adventure like Aragorn, but they can identify with Frodo and Sam, two little people struggling against a big burden."

While Tolkien made a point of describing the hobbits as sort of half-men, Nelson says it's the valor of the ordinary "man" in extraordinary circumstances that makes the hobbits the story's heart. "They are short in stature, but not in vision."

"I think it's the hobbits which give normal people access into this larger saga," says Steven Hlebasko, a tennis instructor standing in line here. "People like the idea that even a tiny player without magical can affect the big picture."

In post-9/11 America, they also like the idea of heroes without irony, observers say - a turn away from many of the successful novels of the 20th century in which the dominant character was an anti-hero.

"My students are resonating with the return to heroism with a completely straight face, like the fire and policeman running straight into the World Trade Centers without fear," says Professor Michael Drout, a medieval specialist at Wheaton College. Attendance at his classes has doubled in the past three years. "[Students] have gotten tired of the wisecracking Han Solos, and figures like Holden Caulfield ["Catcher in the Rye"] that refuse to accept phoniness but aren't out to save the world."

Tolkien himself thought a film of his epic would be impossible. But Hollywood - now able to do computer animation of prominent characters as well as vast armies - has finally caught up, says Tom Shippey, a professor at Saint Louis University and one of the world's foremost Tolkien experts (he teaches the other longest-running Tolkien course in the country).

And the genre has taken off. But Tolkien, to many, did it first and best. The veteran of the horrors of World War I eschewed simplistic allegory. "Tolkien on his own generated the genre of heroic fantasy, which is one of the most prolific and popular genres in the world right now," says Dr. Shippey. The reason is simple, he adds. Combine the psychological depth of his timeless themes with the latest technology and you have the recipe for a blockbuster.

While similar plaudits have been showered on other fantasy blockbusters ("Star Wars," "The Matrix"), "Rings" has something none of the others possess: Tolkien's towering intellect that created a fully realized world, complete with languages and detailed histories. In fact, the books were intended as a sort of updated "Beowulf," ancient tales that contained all the learning of a culture in a single, grand saga. Says Nelson: "He was trying to put into readable English what he thought was being communicated by these old books."

32 posted on 12/22/2003 4:33:52 AM PST by LadyDoc (liberals only love politically correct poor people)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
General/Chat
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794
FreeRepublic.com is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson