Center for the American Idea

Review of
"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings"

    In 1977, my oldest brother received a copy of The Silmarillion. Tolkien's own painting, "The Mountain Path," graced its cover and captured my ten-year old imagination, inviting me into his perilous realm. Twenty-four years later, the good will and connections of a colleague enabled me to see a special screening of "The Fellowship of the Rings," a full eight hours earlier than most Americans. I arrived at the theater at 8:45. Twenty minutes later, after a painfully wretched preview for the third Austin Powers movie, Galadriel's voice filled the theater: "History became legend and legend became myth."

    I'd entered the theater anxious that Peter Jackson would destroy the myth I had cherished and visited for nearly a quarter of a century. The New Zealand director seemingly possesses what Russell Kirk called the "diabolical imagination." Anyone who could direct "Heavenly Creatures"-the chilling movie of two lesbian teenagers who murder their mother by crushing her skull with a brick-could never properly capture Tolkien's world. He would, at worst, adulterate and pervert the movie for immoral ends. At best, I assumed, he would produce an action movie devoid of Tolkien's fundamental Christian message.

    Though never as direct about his religiosity as his closest friend C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, nevertheless, filled his mythology with Christian imagery. "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work," Tolkien wrote to a Jesuit friend. In it, for example, Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn represent the three parts of Christ: priest, prophet, and king. Loyal Sam serves as a St. John figure, the only apostle to stand with Jesus at the crucifixion. Additionally, Gandalf's proclamation of himself as a servant of the "Secret Fire" really refers to his serving the Holy Spirit. A devout Roman Catholic, Tolkien also filled the mythology with images of the Blessed Virgin Mary; the High Elf Galadriel being the most prominent. Finally, one can also translate lembas, the way bread of the elves which sustains Frodo as he ventures into Mordor, as the "bread of life," or, for a Catholic, the Blessed Eucharist.

    More important, though, the most prominent theme of The Lord of the Rings is blatantly Christian: the necessity of Christian mercy within the Economy of Grace. Indeed, it would be harder to find a passage in modern literature that better explains the ideal of mercy than the debate between Frodo and Gandalf over the merits of killing a depraved and twisted Hobbit, Gollum. Frodo states without hesitation, "He deserves death." Gandalf, an incarnate angel, replies, "Deserves it! 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 judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."

    And yet, despite my many prejudices against Jackson, from the opening chords of the 1950's-epic style soundtrack and Galadriel's narration, his version of Middle-earth captivated me. "History became legend, and legend became myth." From the Elvish and Númenórean armies of the Last Alliance to the breaking of the Fellowship, Jackson faithfully captured the spirit and essence of Tolkien's vision. At times, indeed, I wanted to jump into the landscapes, especially the pastoral Shire and the ethereal Rivendell. In every aspect of the film, Jackson and his crew demonstrated their own love of Tolkien's works. Some of Jackson's additions prove simply brilliant: Boromir teaching Pippen and Merry to sword fight; Sam using pots and pans to fight Orcs; and the Orcs scurrying down pillars like insects in Moria.

    Perhaps, most important for me, not only did Jackson include the vital conversation on mercy noted above as the central feature of the film, but he even added more religiosity to Tolkien's world than Tolkien himself had. When Arwen first appears-one of Jackson's changes I had dreaded prior to seeing the movie-she does so as a female Raphael from the Deuterocanonical Book of Tobias. She partially heals Frodo's Morgul wound with a prayer: "By Grace given to me, I give freely of myself to you." Here, Jackson has adopted T.A. Shippey's interpretation of the elves as semi-fallen angels. In his learned Road to Middle-earth, Shippey claims that Tolkien's elves represent the "neutral angels" of the early medieval poem, "The Legend of St. Michael," in which a number of angels declared neutrality in the war between St. Michael and Satan. Some lean towards God's side, others toward the devil's. In another addition on Jackson's part, the future king Aragorn twice makes a primitive sign of the cross: when Galadriel first appears; and when Boromir dies heroically. And, as possibly the most powerful moment in the movie, Gandalf faces the ancient demon Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dum, declaring his service to the Secret Fire. I-probably much to the embarrassed chagrin of my friend who attended with me-applauded.

    In terms of cinematography, Jackson borrowed heavily from 1990's epics such as "Last of the Mohicans" and "Braveheart." Filled with action, few moments of respite exist in the film. For three hours, one sits on the edge of his seat, as Frodo and the Fellowship make their way through Middle-earth, besieged on all sides by the growing evils from Mordor and Isengard. One Tolkien critic brilliantly noted several years ago that the Fellowship represents the Church, as it struggles through time and space against its many enemies. Jackson depicts that image beautifully. When Frodo expresses regret for living in such an evil time, having to bear such an immense burden, Gandalf wisely replies: "So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

Brad Birzer