One of the most anticipated movies of all time, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, will be opening on December 17th. Timed perfectly to take advantage of the prelude to what used to be called “Christmas Vacation,” the extended opening weekend will surely be massive, and will probably set a record.
The popularity of Tolkien’s classic work is easy to understand. Chock full of rich themes—the struggle between good and evil, heroism, sacrifice, incredible natural beauty and grace contrasted with loathsome ugliness, loyalty and betrayal, the corrupting nature of absolute power, unlikely alliances formed under extreme duress, great love, and the emergence of both expected and unexpected champions—to name only a few, anyone reading it, and now seeing the film, is sure to be inspired in some way.
Originally published in the mid-1950’s but reaching its (first) zenith of popularity with the baby boomers in the mid-1960’s, the trilogy could be dismissed as mere escapism. No doubt, a reader COULD get hung up with the endless array of place names and Tolkien’s penchant for creating languages, not to mention the leisurely pace by which the basic narrative unfolds. But the work is far from escapism, and instead, forces us to deal with some of the most pressing issues of the real world, even if it does so in a manner that is not exactly straightforward.
Tolkien, devout Roman Catholic that he was, described the trilogy as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” He also wrote that
“We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.”
In a later letter, this became simply
“All stories are about the Fall.”
Deep thoughts for a 500,000-plus word novel that never once mentions religion, the Church, or even God. Nonetheless, symbols and analogies abound: Aragorn, who must pass through the Paths of the Dead, to be later revealed as King; the “waybread” or lembas of the Elves as the Eucharist; Gandalf who dies and is resurrected; Frodo as the suffering servant; Sauron as the fallen angel; and Galadriel, the elven Queen of Lothlórien as Our Lady, Queen of Heaven.
Moreover, there are certainly passages in which Divine Providence is at work. Early on, Gandalf must explain to Frodo that Bilbo’s discovery of the Ring was not a chance occurrence…
“…there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”
Undeniably, the very destruction of the Ring, the climax of the entire story, only happens as Evil implodes, according to a much higher plan, before the eyes of our otherwise helpless and by all appearances, defeated protagonists.
Even so, this is no ultimate and joyful victory over Evil. Every tear is most assuredly NOT wiped away. Rather, there is a tone of elegiac sorrow. Frodo is permanently scarred and sails away from the Shire, the Ents never find their Ent-wives, and the Elves depart their lands forever. As Tolkien wrote to a friend:
“I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat'— though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
Fair enough. There is no final victory in Middle Earth, or on this Earth, for that matter. We may have defeated the Nazis and the Communists, but now face Islamist terrorists. How appropriate that Advent has two parts. The first part (up to December 17th) highlights the Second Coming of Christ, while the second part (December 17-24) focuses on his coming into human history at the time of his birth in Bethlehem.
For commercial reasons, Peter Jackson’s Return of the King may not coincide with Advent’s Return of the King, but one could scarcely ask for a better contemporary Christmas movie. They can remove the Ten Commandments monument, but they can’t stop millions from experiencing a profoundly religious film.
Talk about Divine Providence!