- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

"The Fellowship of the Ring" is not just another blockbuster movie but a cultural event of major significance.

In 1963, the advent of the Beatles lifted American spirits dashed by John F. Kennedy's assassination; the band's first album was actually released in the United Kingdom the same day JFK was killed in Dallas. Now the Two Towers of Tolkien's Middle Earth stand where the twin towers of the World Trade Center of late lay shattered. And again it is British genius that recalls us to the great goodness of our mutual civilization.

A film like "The Fellowship of the Ring" is the Gesamtkunstwerk of which Richard Wagner could only dream, and its intense Nordicism albeit set to a Celtic score that lilts and soars would also have gratified the great nationalist composer. (Because all movie music is descended from Wagner, it is not surprising to also hear the tidal pull of the "Liebestod" in at least one scene.)

A film like this is not a work of art, of course, but of many arts. Landscapes were sculpted like clay, new architectures invented, original music commissioned, a language (Elvish) developed based on Tolkien's notes.

Hundreds of artists in all media drew storyboards, built models, designed costumes, makeup, prostheses, personae, "infernos." Fathomless worlds were constructed by computer artists. The international casting was an art unto itself.

Director and mastermind Peter Jackson spent years bringing the epic to the screen and almost two years filming it. Throughout the entire ordeal he reportedly held before him one overarching vision: that the fantasy become flesh and blood.

As cast member Elijah Wood put it, "There's a certain quality in some fantasy novels that you don't feel as if they really existed. They feel too far away. And one thing [Peter Jackson] really wanted to convey with this film is the realism. The Hobbits were to be slightly dirty and the sets and the atmosphere to be lived in and to be realistic and aged, so it didn't have that weird, sort of cheesy, fantasy look to it."

James Pinkerton in last Dec. 18's Newsday was right to stress that Tolkien's Ring cycle concerns power and the corruptibility of the powerful, but the film is not, as he contends, "all about" power; no mere warning could produce such an emotional impact. Rather, the portrayal of ideal masculinity and the closely related ideal of heroic sacrifice for one's people are what grab audiences by the heart.

There are no women on the Ring quest, although female Elves of unearthly beauty watch over it like armed Madonnas. There is more than enough going on among the comrades of the Fellowship.

A wide variety of masculine loves are incarnate there: Sam's little-brother attachment to Frodo; Frodo's admiring affection for his elder cousin Bilbo; Gandalf's paternal, almost maternal, concern and tenderness toward the "little ones," the Hobbits; the simple loyalty of Merry and Pippin, Frodo's homeboys from the Shire; the brutal, guilty passion of Boromir for the Ring of Power, and his lyrical love for his threatened people and their White City; the single-minded dedication and disciplined, chivalric self-control of Aragorn and Legolas.

Elijah Wood as Frodo lends fresh luster to the term "beautiful youth." His transparent and expressive Caravaggio face, the visual equivalent of the Vienna Boys Choir, flits like an androgynous angel between human and Hobbit, man and child, male and female.

Predictably, given the advance of homosexual hysteria in our time, there are those who view this as a "gay movie." After all, feminists and their homophiliac allies have gone all out to wreck real male comradeship the former want to outlaw it altogether and the latter to reduce it to unnatural acts but society's hunger for images of passionate masculinity uncorrupted by homosexual fetishism is stronger than ever.

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers" that is no queer luxury but a necessity for any vital social order. True men's love for each other is not homoerotic, sublimated or otherwise, but based on respect and admiration for manliness. When the stricken Boromir gasps to Aragorn that "I would have followed you, my brother my captain my king," it is because Aragorn has proved himself a valiant warrior in battle. And Boromir dies in Aragorn's arms, having "fought bravely and kept his honor," with the words "Our people" on his lips.

This brings us to the theology embedded in the Ring story. Tolkien the Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon is reputed to have been a devout Catholic who converted C.S. Lewis to the faith, yet these books are neither Judeo-Christian nor Greco-Roman but Nordic to the core. Germanic myths, Norse sagas and a pinch of the ancient religion of the Celts overshadow whatever Christian themes may be present.

Saruman's conversion to Evil is symbolized by his anti-Druidical willingness to uproot the sacred trees of Isengard. From the very geography of Middle Earth to the colossal statues of Germanic warrior-kings that guard Amon Hen to the nature-worship of the Elves to the reverence of Aragorn for the sword of Isildur, this story does not come from the Bible. It speaks the language of the sagas, not St. Paul.

For all its riches, "The Fellowship of the Ring" does not satisfy. You don't leave the theater sighing contentedly, "Wow, that was awesome. Weren't the Hobbits cute?" No: You are seized by a restless yearning for purity and beauty, to be worthy of Middle Earth; deeply inspired, as by a Muse; remoralized.

You realize afresh that humans cannot live without ideals, that ideals are more real than the starkest realism and more essential, just as art is more real than life hence its terribly beauty.

You have experienced the sublime, defined by John Ruskin: "Anything which elevates the mind is sublime, and elevation of mind is produced by the contemplation of greatness of any kind, whether of matter, space, power, beauty or virtue." Life is re-aestheticized.

As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke contemplates "The Torso of an Archaic Apollo," its lost eyes still burn into him, "bursting with light, until there is no place/That does not see you. You must change your life." Great art calls us to change our lives. This is why Peter Jackson shows us our ideals with dirt under their fingernails. We have a heritage of immortal beauty to live up to.

Marian Kester Coombs is a free-lance writer.

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