- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2001

The new "Lord of the Rings" film that opens tomorrow is expected to take the movie-viewing world by storm, but what is not so well-known are the Christian convictions guiding the author of the classic tale.
J.R.R. Tolkien, who died in 1973, was a devout Roman Catholic. He never lived to see how his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, along with its prequel, "The Hobbit," became some of the hottest novels of the 20th century.
Born in South Africa, Tolkien lost his father when he was 4. The family returned to England and his mother converted to Catholicism. She died when Tolkien was 12.
Because the mother's conversion had caused a large rift with her Protestant family, the young Tolkien and his brother, Hilary, essentially were abandoned. A Catholic priest friend of the family installed the boys at a boardinghouse. They assisted him at daily Mass and ate breakfast with him in the refectory.
Although Tolkien's wife, Edith, was an Anglican, the first of their four children, John, became a Catholic priest. Tolkien, who started teaching at Oxford in 1925, was responsible for the 1931 conversion of fellow fantasy writer and Oxford don C.S. Lewis.
Both men wished to convey Christianity to a skeptical world by creating mythical worlds with the same moral contours as the Earth and a Creator who sounded suspiciously like the God of the Bible.
The 500,000-word book trilogy that inspired the movie "is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work," Tolkien once wrote to a friend. Elsewhere, he described his fantasy Middle Earth as "a monotheistic world of natural theology" influenced by a Christian worldview.
For instance, Middle Earth had Iluvatar, who created nine archangel-like beings to oversee creation. One of them, Melkor, rebelled. His most powerful servant on Middle Earth is the demonic Sauron, the one-eyed being who is the "Dark Lord" of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
Like the story of "Percival and the Holy Grail," "The Lord of the Rings" details a holy quest; to transport a supernatural ring crafted by Sauron to Mordor, the evil land of its birth. There, it must be unmade by being cast into the fires of a volcano. The unlikely creatures who do so are hobbits, an unassuming race of little people who wear bright colors and love to eat.
One of the forces sent to combat Sauron is the wizard Gandalf the Grey, whose hidden angelic status is described in the beginning pages of "The Silmarillion," a companion book. Gandalf marshals the forces of good to overthrow Sauron, who, armed with psychic powers, inhabits Mordor.
Various analysts have called the books which were written during the World War II years a reflection of a real cosmic battle, where good eventually must win out. Joe Pierce, a professor at Ave Maria College in Ann Arbor, Mich., and author of the 2000 book "Tolkien: Man and Myth," calls the books "theological thrillers."
"Calling them fantasies is a misnomer because there is so much truth in them," he says. "The hobbits' selection as the ultimate carriers of the Ring was the exaltation of the humble, the whole concept of the first being last and the last being first. That is how they could carry the Ring of Power for far longer without being as corrupted as greater mortals would have been."
Mr. Pierce wrote his book in response to the outrage voiced by British literati after several 1997 polls revealed the British public felt the Tolkien trilogy was the top novel of the 20th century. One poll even named it the greatest book of all time.
What the public discerned but the critics did not was how readers for the past 50 years had been encouraged by how ordinary folk could carry out great deeds.
"Frodo's carrying the Ring into Mordor was like carrying the cross not only Christ carrying his cross but us carrying our crosses in our daily lives," Mr. Pierce says. "It is only through self-sacrifice that these crosses can be borne in a way that ennobles us."
He points to the transformation of Gandalf the Grey, who lays down his life for his friends in the mines of Moria and reappears as transfigured Gandalf the White, as a kind of resurrection motif.
"His self-sacrifice purified him and made him more powerful," he said. "As Gandalf the White, he was a more powerful force for good than he was as Gandalf the Grey."
The character of Aragorn, a hidden king who comes into his own at the end of the saga, is a type of Christ figure, says Jim Ware, co-author of "Finding God in The Lord of the Rings" and a staff member at Focus on the Family.
"He was a good example of an incognito messiah, like Christ," Mr. Ware says. "Aragorn started out as a shadowy character smoking a pipe and he turns out to be the great king of Gondor."
The use of symbolic characters to reflect Christian realities was all spelled out in a famous Tolkien lecture, "On Fairytales," he adds. There, Tolkien explained how, if God creates man, that makes man creative and able to create fantasy worlds to reflect the ultimate realities of heaven. Thus, Tolkien's characters are not just characters, they are almost archetypes.
For instance, Mr. Pierce says, Tolkien shows how evil can be used to the purposes of good through the figure of Gollum, the wraithlike character who continually chooses evil, but is never beyond redemption. The hobbits are continually tempted to kill him at various points throughout the book.
"Frodo's merciful decisions to spare him is an inkling Gollum may play a part at the very end," Mr. Pierce says. "When Frodo's resolve fades at the last minute, Gollum in effect rescues him and takes the Ring into the abyss. The merciful choice was ultimately crucial. Key choices lead to other things subsequently happening.
"There is a providential design here. You have this feeling Gollum is a Judas figure. Judas was necessary for the passion of Christ to happen, but it was his free will that brought it about."
But Tolkien is not big on religious symbols and there are no churches, temples or rites in his books. Medieval courtesy is laced throughout, and at one point, a sort of prayer, known as the Standing Silence, is mentioned.
"Some Christians are leery of fantasy even of Tolkien's which contains wizards, wraiths and the demonic Sauron who is, in fact, the Lord of the Ring," Gene Veith writes in the Dec. 8 issue of World, an evangelical newsweekly. "Might reading this sort of thing lead to the occult?"
No, he says, because Harry Potter seeks and acquires power, whereas the characters in "The Lord of the Rings" reject it.
"The whole point of the story, on which the whole plot depends, is that the power of the Ring, because it has been forged by the Dark Lord, must not be used," Mr. Veith says. "Though the temptation to use its occult power is great, to do so corrupts the user, even if it were used for a good end or to defeat Sauron. The user would become a new Sauron."

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