Who Took the Lord Out of ‘Lord of the Rings’?
by Fenton Johnson,
Pacific News Service – Jan 14, 2004
Editor’s Note: At the close of Hollywood’s adaptation of J.R. Tolkien’s “Rings” trilogy, the wizard Gandalf announces the dawn of the age of men: “May they be blessed.” But who or what is doing the blessing? The writer examines the attractions and pitfalls of a non-religious spirituality common in popular culture today.
I saw the last installment of “The Lord of the Rings” with a Trappist monk who afterward commented that he thought the film and other Hollywood fantasy epics are responding to and abetting the rise of a non-religious spirituality. J.R. Tolkien built his trilogy around one of the great human stories — the struggle of a character with his or her destiny — but the hobbit Frodo plays out his story outside any doctrinal architecture. At the end of “The Return of the King,” the good wizard Gandalf announces the dawn of the age of men — “May they be blessed” — but gives no clue who is bestowing the blessing.
At first I thought, “So what’s wrong with non-religious spirituality?” Institutionalized religion has a history of oppression, torture and war. Why not abandon it in favor of individualized definitions of spirituality?
The problem lies in the mixed blessing of institutions, which are the sum, more or less, of their very human members. For all their warts, institutions are our means to the end of passing on wisdom founded in collective experience. The nascent Christian church laid the groundwork for pogroms and crusades. But it also created a bureaucracy that preserved classical Roman history and culture and that, centuries later, provided the means to the rediscovery of Greek philosophy.
Some historical background: Christianity rose to dominance in large part because it was the first effort at popularizing religion as a means to the end of living a whole, meaningful life. The Greeks, the Romans and the Jews reserved the teaching and practice of virtue to a select group — property-owning male citizens, for the Greeks and Romans; those born to Jewish women, for the Jews, who taught that once born Jewish, all were subject to the law, rich or poor, male or female.
In teaching that every Jew was equal before the law, Judaism provided the means of democratizing the pursuit of virtue. In his teachings, Jesus draws upon Greek philosophy as well as the Jewish commitment to equality. Early Christian writers and teachers elaborated on that integration. Without denying the offenses committed in the name of the church, we can safely say that it incubated and popularized the concept — now taken for granted as our cultural ideal — of universal equality before a law grounded in tolerance, mercy and charity.
The epics of Homer and Virgil, the great poets of classical Greece and Rome, are stories of the triumph of cunning and strength. Tolkien’s prose epic sits comfortably on the same shelf, but with the salutary addition of a new, Christian philosophy handed down to him by the institutions of the church. God or the gods may be absent from “The Lord of the Rings,” but the story climaxes with an explicitly Christian conundrum: Despite enduring a year of the most extreme privation to achieve his goal, Frodo is unable to destroy the powerful ring and, at the crucial moment, slips it on. St. Augustine would have nodded his head in weary recognition at this illustration of original sin — the innate human tendency to seek power without grace. The ring’s destruction comes instead at the hands of the hapless outcast Gollum, toward whom Frodo has repeatedly exercised mercy and restraint.
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