Video Clips

Lord of the Rings The Achievement of a Christian Culture
by Fr John Hogan.

When Prof. Ronald Tolkien sat down to correct examination papers in the summer of 1930, he never thought he would begin a literary masterpiece which would capture the attention of the world. Taking a break from his work, he discovered a stray sheet of blank paper and almost absently wrote a sentence on it: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Taken aback, he asked himself: "What is a hobbit?" and he began to write to discover the answer. Twenty-five years later the last book of the Lord of the Rings saga was published. What had initially began as a fictional work for children became the creation of a whole universe with languages, history and a mythology which not only rivals the languages, history and mythology of the "real" world, but stands as a magnificent literary and artistic achievement which is nothing short of staggering.

This week sees the release of the third installment in New Zealand director Peter Jackson's mammoth screen adaptation of the work. Eagerly awaited, it promises to be a triumphant finale to a series which has already made cinematic history. All eyes, or most of them anyway, will be glued to screens in cinemas all over the world as audiences settle down for an almost three-and-a-half hour spectacle. Meanwhile sales of Tolkien's books, always quite healthy, have gone through the roof; works of criticism, interpretation and literary commentaries, and even lampoons of the work, are filling the shelves and Britain votes the trilogy as the Best Books of all time, leaving the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolfe in its wake.

With what appears to be a Lord of the Rings frenzy we could ask what is the attraction? Could the answer be as simple as a good story well told with fascinating characters and a fantasy world which, for some strange reason, appears attractive? Most will agree with that, but many will also acknowledge that the books are not without their literary faults. Academics are divided: some accept them as "literature" in the broadest sense of the term, most reject it as mere pulp fiction. Yet every student worth his or her salt will have read the books at least once. What is it about this creation that captures the imagination?

The answer might be found in the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was a quintessential English Catholic and a first rate scholar of philology and old literature. He was a man steeped in mythology, the essences of languages and the myriad of ancient cultures which formed and were formed by them. Just scraping the surface of the Lord of the Rings one will discover numerous references to and influences of Northern European cultures: Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Norse, Icelandic to name a view. The languages he invented have their antecedents in the ancient languages of these lands while being original languages in themselves. Tolkien's mind was one steeped in culture and it is this openness and richness he invested in his work. An important element in that was his Christian faith: Tolkien, it could be said, had a catholic/Catholic imagination. He was immersed in, and open to tradition: a tradition whose roots were deep and expansive. The world of Middle-Earth is the achievement of a Christian culture, and while many of his fans may not realize nor accept such a proposition, in reality it cannot be denied. This in itself might explain why so many contemporary academics, trained in almost exclusively feminist and Marxist critique, cannot stomach the idea that Tolkien's work might represent a worthy and honourable literary legacy.

For Tolkien, and many of his generation, Christian values were the dominant. Like his literary forebears - the anonymous authors of Old and Middle English verse, Chaucer, Shakespeare, even Milton and, of course, Eliot - the Christian faith and its rich culture was a vast tapestry within which the imagination could not only exist and work, but actually thrive. The basic tenets of the Christian story and belief provided paradigms to be explored, developed and reshaped according to the imagination and what the author wanted to express. The basic conflict between good and evil, the problem of sin and human weakness, the concept of a redeemer who makes the ultimate sacrifice, the promise of a destiny, a living providence at work and a malign being attempting to gain the upper hand: all of these themes, and others, have informed the literature and indeed all of the artistic endeavour of Western Europe until recent times. All of these elements are in Lord of the Rings: the battle between the peoples of Middle-Earth and the Dark Lord, Sauron; the quest to destroy the ring and the lure of evil which feeds on weakness; the sacrifice of the wizard Gandalf to save his friends from the demon Balrog, and the final triumph as the King returns to take his rightful place. Tolkien's work is Christian to the core and fits quite comfortably into the cultural legacy of Western art and literature, while adding new dimensions in the dialogue between the various disciplines and, in that all important dialogue between faith and culture.

It is ironic that in an age when many are rejecting the culture of Christianity and Europe moves towards the secular ideal, attempting to erase any mention of God from its Constitution, a thoroughly Christian work should be causing such a stir in the world. The historian Christopher Dawson points out in his work that a culture cannot survive without religion, and the cultures of Western Europe and the Americas are, for the most part, the offspring of that very religion. As Pope John Paul II reminds the Church in his recent letter Ecclesia in Europa, if Europe (the world?) turns its back on its Christian roots, it will lose its soul. Can this process be prevented? Can the Church reclaim the hearts and minds of the people for the Gospel and for Christian culture? The fact that the imaginations of the people of the world are so enflamed with the achievement of Tolkien's Catholic mind and its faithful translation to the screen, might just indicate that Christianity is not dead yet, and that, even if they do not admit it, the culture of Christianity is as rich and as attractive as it ever was. It might just convince us that if our new evangelization is to be successful, it must focus much of its efforts on the area of culture and there it may meet with success. People may not sit up and listen to sermons in Church anymore, but they will sit back in a cinema and let the experience of the visual arts speak to them. Will Tolkien and his "fantastic" achievement lead the way in a new Christian renaissance? Sit back, watch part three of the Trilogy and see if we can get any ideas.