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Theological Notebook: "The Return of the Ring" – Catholic Themes in "The Lord of the Rings"

Back in 2001, I wrote an article for Notre Dame Magazine, geared specifically to the size and style of the variety of short and casual essays that are published in the rear of the issue by various alumni. I wanted to talk about some of the theological or Catholic themes in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and I specifically used the hype of the soon-to-be-released movies and my teaching of high school students as the occasion and device for addressing the subject in the essay. The editors sat on it for an unusually long time and kept putting off their promises to let me know if they were going to run with it. At the last possible moment before the last issue would go to press before the release of the first installment of Peter Jackson's adaptation, I receieved a letter from the editor. He told me that they really would have liked to have run the piece, but were declining because they didn't understand my supposition that these movies were going to be a big deal, and they just didn't think that it would get across to the readers because most of them would never know anything about such an obscure film.

I was a little taken aback.

But that's the way of things. Magazine production leaves little time to be subjected to intense advertising campaigns or movie-going, perhaps. The essay was read by a number of friends, but otherwise just sat in my computer files. It only now gained some small chance at meaning because at the reception after J.P.'s wedding on the 11th, I got into a long conversation with J.P.'s Best Man and younger brother Nick, who, it turned out, was putting together his lesson plans for a high school Theology/Literature course on The Lord of the Rings and wanted to ask me for ideas. Over the course of our discussion, this old essay popped into mind and I promised to send it off to Nick, who dutifully reminded me in an email a little while ago. I include it here for anyone with the least interest.
The Return of the Ring
Michael Anthony Novak, M.A. ’97

It never fails. Over the years I have noticed how, when the news comes that a favorite story of mine is to be made into a movie, the first thought that I have is something like, “Wow! That’d make a great film!” The next thought is, inevitably, “I hope they don’t screw it up.” The truth of how often it seems Hollywood “screws it up” is borne out by how many times you hear the phrase “the book is better” when people talk about books and the movies based upon them. Therefore you can imagine the combination of excitement and horror that I felt when I learned that my favorite story of all, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, was being made into a series of films.

Certainly it is a story that begs to be seen: Tolkien succeeds in that rare attempt of creating an entire world in his stories. His Middle-Earth is a place that I have seen as clearly as the river and woods of my hometown in Illinois. At the same time, it is the evocative nature of his words — the tools of his creation — that achieve both the making of his world and the vivid quality of the epic that takes place in it. Naturally, most of Tolkien’s prose will be lost in the film. But the attempt to film the story, I think, is still worth the risk. The themes of his story are not going to be so easily lost, and these themes richly develop some of the most profound aspects of the Catholic faith.

Tolkien was a Catholic. He was part of the circle of Christian writers at Oxford in the middle of the 20th Century called the Inklings, whose number included such others as C. S. Lewis (in whose conversion Tolkien played a considerable part) and Charles Williams. As Tolkien read his story out serially to his fellow writers through the forties, and as Lewis continued to encourage him to publish his work, he came to realize that a great deal of his Catholic faith was expressing itself in his work.

Tolkien loved mythology, but loathed allegory. His stories are not like Lewis’ Narnia tales, where you can see how the Lion, Aslan, is the Christ of that world and so forth. Tolkien is not so direct. But the way that Tolkien saw mythology might need some explaining. Often when people use the word “mythology,” they know and mean that they are talking about something untrue: it is fiction, not fact. Tolkien sees it in a deeper way. Mythology is fundamentally true. It obviously isn’t on the basic, historical level, but it is true insofar as it speaks truths about how our world is. Its strength comes from its divorce from reality, which tends to be much more messy and confusing than the world of story. Story is able to speak more clearly to the facts of our lives, if in an indirect way. Tolkien said that The Lord of the Rings was “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” This statement might puzzle the casual reader at first. There is nothing explicitly of religion within the story. He made sure of that, but the themes drew from the deep wells of his faith.

The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally concerned with the Fall. I do not mean the primordial fall as related in the Adam and Eve story. In Tolkien’s world that has already happened somewhere at the dawn of humanity, offstage. Rather, the book explores the consequences of the Fall: the great rift in our innocence and our will. Everyone in the story must deal with the Ring: the One Ring; the tiny, seemingly-insignificant thing that holds all the power that one could ever desire. The catch is, of course, that the thing is fell, malevolent, evil in itself, and will corrupt everyone who desires it. This, of course, is merely the distilled version of what we all face: the corrupting choices found in the abuse of our own free will.

Sometimes people complain about this theme in Catholicism: that we dwell on the negative, or try to provoke guilt. But the reality is that insight into our fallen nature — an understanding of what is broken in humanity — is something we desperately need. All our troubles stem from this one root. Imagine how incomprehensible or insane we humans would seem to ourselves if we could not understand what it is that provokes us to everything from words behind each other’s backs to genocide. It is all equally dangerous to us. In this story, the lust for power of the mighty at first seems the greatest threat, but one of the greatest dangers in the story comes instead as a result of a moment’s heated words from the most innocent character. And so the quest of the Ring-bearer is our quest: we must put up with what is tempting us, resist it as it flails at our wills and eats at our freedom, as we take it to where at last it can be destroyed.

Another of the faith’s great themes is thereby revealed: the astonishing heroism and nobility of the ordinary. It is not the great and mighty of Tolkien’s world who undertake this quest, although they have their place, but the obscure, or even the ridiculous: a retired country gentleman who inherited his wealth, and his gardener. It is the same absurdity that we see in the third chapter of Luke, where
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.”
No one looking for the center of the action on planet Earth in this year would have looked to a man dressed in skins and eating bugs in the desert. But God rarely seems to choose the Caesars of the world to do anything that God considers important. In the Christian view of history — flying in the face of the history given to us by CNN — the most incredible thing ever done by a human being ends up being an unmarried pregnant girl who has the courage to say “Here I am, your servant.” In our media-dominated culture, with its constantly-reinforced vision of who and what is really important, I think that we easily forget this.

The list can go on. Perhaps the most poignant of the faith’s themes that we can see in the novel is that of self-sacrifice. The knowledge that even our death is something that we can use — a target into which the arrow of our lives can pierce —is central to the ancient and modern drama of martyrdom. It is seen in the tragic-triumphant table talk at the Last Supper, when Jesus tells us, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” What will be saved in Middle-Earth is saved, but not for those who brought about the salvation. It is saved for the largely unknowing and thereby ungrateful. It defies the logic of self-interest, of “What’s in it for me?” But in the bittersweet melancholy of its conclusion, the tale holds out the hope of something beyond what we seem to be left with, as the Resurrection of Christ holds out some undefined hope for us: that what is thought to be the end of the story is in fact, only the end of an early chapter.

So adapting this story to film could have a variety of effects. In 1939, C. S. Lewis seemed amused to note that out of about sixty reviewers of his science-fiction novel Out of the Silent Planet, only two were aware of how he was actually re-telling something of the Christian story in his space adventure. He wrote a friend that “this great ignorance might be a help to the evangelisation of England; any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.” This is true, I find as a teacher, but ignorance cuts both ways: poor theology — from Bugs Bunny cartoons, The X-Files and the frequently-horrific Discovery Channel — is also lodged in my students’ minds. So I have hopes for the movie to be a great success and that it will put something mythological and sound into my students’ minds as a potential aid to their theological education. But I have a greater hope, which I will tell each of them as the movie-hype gets louder: read the book.
Tags: books, catholicism, ethical, friends-notre dame era, gospels, literary, movies/film/tv, mysticism/spirituality, notre dame, saint joseph's high school, teaching, theological notebook, tolkien, writing
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