The Lord of the Rings and the Christian Faith, by Fr Edmund Little
When Mr Peter Jackson began filming J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand excitement became intense. Spies still prowl round his sets seeking the latest news. Web sites are agog with speculation about the film and the actors in it.
Rarely in the publicity is any mention made of the fact that Tolkien was a devout Catholic and that his work reflects his Faith. He wrote to a priest friend, 'The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously so in the revision'.
Russians in the atheistic Soviet Union woke up to the spiritual implications of the novel long before many westerners. Many read it in samizdat form. This was a system whereby one person would come into possession of a forbidden or suspect book, copy it by hand or typewriter, and then circulate the copies to others who would distribute it still further. Later people found that, with its elves and dragons, the novel could be declared on the customs form as a 'fairy-story' and safely imported through an unintelligent censorship.
By pinning the tag 'fairy-story' onto Tolkien's work, some western critics dismiss it as 'unrealistic' and 'escapist', unworthy of attention from mature commentators such as themselves. One scholar has trenchantly observed that people are never so childish as when they assert their grown-up status, which might explain why pornographic literature is so often and absurdly described as 'adult'.
There are in fact no fairies in Tolkien's work. It has elves, dwarves and hobbits, but they are not pretty, tinselly or quaint as in the works of Enid Blyton or Walt Disney. Each group is portrayed in detail, with its own well-defined language, psychology and culture. They are more realistic, in fact, than many people allegedly from 'real life' portrayed in modern fiction and films.
The real annoyance for a modern secular critic is the spirituality which appealed to Russian readers. Tolkien's Middle-earth is not a pointless or random world. It has a creator God who sets a purpose and a destiny for his creatures. They have the freedom to accept or reject the creator's moral order. Much of the novel portrays the crisis caused by those who reject it. There is no escapism here, if, by escapism, the hostile critic means a flight from harsh reality. Tolkien's fantasy serves as a mirror to reflect reality, harsh or otherwise, back to his readers so that they recognise that same reality in their own world.
Tolkien stresses the grim truth even the great and the good can succumb to evil. As Elrond observes to Boromir, ' . . . nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so'. Elrond affirms the Christian principle that creation is good. Evil is only a corruption of goodness and a rebellion against it. Evil is parasitical and negative, but a negative force can still possess great and horrible power. Like Lucifer, Sauron, the Dark Lord, was once a great spirit in the service of the Creator. Corrupted by power and greed, he sought to dominate rather than serve.
Saruman, the chief wizard, was also one of the angelic spirits of Valinor. Sent to Middle-earth to contest the power of Sauron, he too is corrupted by the lure of power and wealth. He should have led the fight against the forces of evil. Instead he falls from grace and joins what he should have opposed.
Judas had been an apostle. Our history is full of idealists who started off with wonderful intentions and finished as demagogic murderers.
Sauron's realm of Mordor is a dictatorship whose enslaved inhabitants are ruthless and cruel. Prisoners must endure prolonged, skilful torture of mind and body before meeting agonising death. For former inhabitants of the Soviet Gulag or Nazi concentration camps this is realism, not 'escapism'. The soil and air of Mordor are utterly polluted and despoiled. This too might strike a realistic note for those who see the River Danube poisoned by cyanide, or witness the destruction of forests in the interests of the global economy. Mordor in 'real' life takes many forms.
Tolkien pointed out that his work is escapist in the sense that it portrays things, places and people any sane person would wish to escape from. Who would want to hang around in Mordor? The only people who object to the escape of innocent and oppressed prisoners are the jailers.
'Escape', though, is not the same as running away from a responsibility. Gandalf forsakes a life of bliss in Valinor to enter Middle-earth and contest the powers of evil. He dies and is raised up from death. Frodo and Sam liberate Middle-earth from the power of the Dark Lord by abandoning the security of the Shire and entering into the torments of Mordor.
Christians will recognise many echoes of the gospels. Christ empties himself, as Paul says, and becomes as human beings are. In him, God enters into a fallen world. His 'escape' from that world is through suffering, death and resurrection, bidding his disciples use the same escape route to follow him. They too must take up their cross.
Tolkien also stresses the stark reality of evil but affirms its ultimate futility. (Some of his detractors, while not recognising evil or moral values, seem happy to accept the apparent futility of life in general.) In the darkness and fumes of Mordor Sam suddenly espies a star. The thought pierces him that in the end 'the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach'. Christianity too stresses both the reality of evil and its ultimate defeat. Jesus bids his disciples not to be afraid because, although they will have hardship in a fallen world gripped by sin and suffering, he has already overcome that world. The darkness has not overcome him. The disciples are not confined to its darkness but can find light and high beauty beyond.
The Gospel proclaims that the meek shall inherit the earth. It is the humble and insignificant hobbits who deliver Middle-earth from evil, while the wise and the proud play a secondary role.
Faith and hope are woven into the fabric of the novel. Most readers recognise and appreciate this, while warming to a story well told by a master craftsman. Optimism and good narratives are abhorrent to some species of literary critic who also complain that that the novel lacks the sexual explicitness which would help make it suitable for adults. True, The Lord of the Rings says nothing about sex but it does give great insights into love. That too is a gospel value which should not be abandoned for all the 'adult' literature in the world!