Thanks to Brad B. for sending this over!
Frodo’s Quest Inspires a Search for Allegory
By Katie Zezima
New York Times – February 21, 2004
The “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy has created a real-life fantasy world for movie buffs and epic-adventure fans, complete with sold-out midnight releases and coveted action figures.
But the movies, which were released beginning in 2001, have also renewed interest in the British author J. R. R. Tolkien. His “Fellowship of the Ring” (1954), “Two Towers” (1954) and “Return of the King” (1955) are the basis for the movies and follow the Middle Earth hobbit Frodo, who gets help from other hobbits, dwarfs, elves, wizards and even men on his quest to return a dangerous ring.
In particular, the movies have spawned essays, Web logs and discussions about Tolkien’s Christianity and about how religious themes abound in the novels and, to a lesser extent, the movies. The film trilogy has, many say, prompted academic and theological discussion among people who do not fit the nerdy stereotypes typically applied to fans of Tolkien.
“It isn’t just geeks or Tolkien freaks or religious people,” said Thomas Howard, a visiting professor of English at the College of St. Thomas More in Fort Worth, who has written several essays on Tolkien. “It seems to overflow everywhere.”
That includes the Web and books. A “Lord of the Rings” package on christianitytoday.com has received 250,000 hits since it was posted in December, said Michael Hermon, the site’s Internet promotion manager. The site, which covers 11 magazines, gets a little more than eight million hits a month. Since November, Westminster John Knox Press has sold about 20,000 copies of “The Gospel According to Tolkien” by Ralph C. Wood, a professor of theology and literature at Baylor University.
Suddenly, people like Adam Davidson, 24, who never considered themselves fans of Tolkien, are embracing their inner Frodo. Mr. Davidson, an associate pastor at Crossroads Community Church, a Free Methodist congregation in Temperance, Mich., watched the movies at the urging of his wife, Emily.
“I’m not the guy who dressed up as my favorite character to go to the premiere,” Mr. Davidson said. “I have an appreciation of it from the movies first.”
Mr. Davidson finds the most religious significance in Frodo’s quest. “To me it’s how God uses the unexpected,” he said, “and half the time it’s because the people who don’t expect it can handle it. The ones who aren’t vying for the position are the ones who should get it because it won’t end up corrupting them.”
Glenn Teal, the church’s pastor, devoted a Sunday sermon to the trilogy, showing clips and discussing religious themes, including the importance of friendship and encouragement, evidenced by the hobbit Sam’s refusal to let Frodo to quit. More than 1,400 worshipers attended.
“I see these things as an opportunity for Christian people to engage the culture, to get into the debate,” Mr. Teal said. “If someone’s going to be talking about it, we should be part of the discussion.”
Darren Rowse, a Baptist minister in Melbourne, Australia, has devoted space on his blog to helping people apply some of the movies’ themes to their religious lives.
Mr. Hermon of christianitytoday .com said: “When we put anything having to do with `Lord of the Rings’ or Tolkien on the site, people flock to it. Our audience is looking for it, for sure.”
Scholars and theologians say the trilogy espouses Christian convictions and creeds as well as pagan elements. Though some parallels can be drawn between Christian doctrine and scenes in the books, most of the religious symbolism lies slightly below the surface, never so overt as to distract from the story.
That, scholars say, is what Tolkien intended. He was a devout Christian who, after his pious mother died when he was 12, was raised by a Roman Catholic priest. But he was not one to proselytize in his novels. Instead, scholars say, Tolkien drew on his adolescence, a mastery of the Old English epic “Beowulf” and his faith to create creatures who quietly lived out Christian tenets.
“Tolkien’s own imagination was so thoroughly Christian and so formed by a life of Roman Catholic piety that I think it was just implicit in how he saw the world,” said John D. Sykes Jr., a professor of English at Wingate University in Wingate, N.C., who has written articles on Tolkien and reviews of the movies. “Even Middle Earth, in its historical scheme, is a pre-Christian world entirely, and his mythology is meant to reflect that. The way he’s organized the thing is implicitly Christian, and there are also a number of more direct symbols that are there.”
Lembas, bread eaten by elves and the only thing Frodo and Sam consume on the last part of their journey, suggests the Eucharist, Dr. Sykes and Dr. Wood said. Other themes include faith, hope, fellowship and charity, which works itself out in forgiveness and pity. The triumph of good over evil is the main theme of the story.
“He writes a pre-Christian book in which there’s no Christ figure, but he gives to that book a profoundly Christian quality,” Dr. Wood said.
This effect was evident to Tolkien. In a Dec. 2, 1953, letter to a Jesuit priest, Tolkien called “The Lord of the Rings” a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision.”
Some, including Bradley J. Birzer, an associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Mich., and the author of “J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth” (ISI Books, 2002), see pagan themes. Dr. Birzer believes Tolkien continued the Western tradition of sanctifying pagan traditions for Christian use. Dr. Birzer cites the wizard Gandalf, who he believes is a Christianized version of the Norse god Odin.
Whether Christianity or paganism resonate in the movies is a topic of debate among scholars. Some, like Dr. Wood, believe the movies omit much of the religious allegory. Others think the movies stay true to, and even promote, Christianity.
“The whole thing depends on a sacrifice, and the sort of uplifting shock of the plot turn is the worst thing turning into the best thing,” Dr. Sykes said. “In the climax of the story you see clear Christian parallels.”