Lord of the Rings

December 20, 2003 | 10 comments
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I saw the third installment tonight. The triology is an awesome accomplishment, but I still liked the books better than the movie. As you may know already, the movie has generated a plethora of Christian reviews (see here for links), mostly positive. Does this strike anyone else as odd?

Sure, the books and the movies contain some obvious Christian imagery, but they also contain devil-like creatures, mystical powers, and a conspicuous absence of God. I assumed that more Christian writers would pen reviews like this:

Is the Lord of the Rings harmless fantasy or perhaps even a wholesome Christian allegory? We think not. I read The Hobbit and the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings in 1971 when I was in Vietnam with the U.S. Army. I was not saved at the time, and, in fact, I was very antagonistic to the Christian faith. Had the books contained even a hint of Bible truth, I can assure you that I would not have read them at that particular point in my life. I had forgotten many of the details of the books, so I refreshed my memory recently by going through them again. They are filled with occultic imagery, such as witches, goblins, warlocks, wizards, fairies, and such things; and though these are strongly and unconditionally condemned in the Bible, they are often portrayed as good and desirable by Tolkien. Many of the heroes of the Lord of the Rings, in fact, are wizards and witches. The books were published in inexpensive paperback editions in the late 1960s, and they became very popular with that generation of drug headed hippies.

While some Mormons probably have sympathy for such views, I suspect that most of us (certainly most of the people on this site) see such views as silly. Still, I believe that the animating force behind these views is the idea that the books and movies portray the supernatural in a manner that distorts truth. Surely, popular culture can make true religion seem silly (is the Priesthood power something akin to the power in Gandalf’s staff?). Alternatively, popular culture might encourage unrealistic beliefs that equate true religion with voodoo. Are we too complacent as we are led down the garden path to hell?

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10 Responses to Lord of the Rings

  1. Clark Goble on December 21, 2003 at 4:03 am

    Why would it be odd? Tolkein was a devoted Catholic who, I’ve heard, converted C. S. Lewis to Christianity. (Although not to Catholicism)

  2. sid on December 21, 2003 at 10:42 am

    I think the views expressed by the reviewer quoted are very typical of the views held by a lot of evangelical, born-again Christians of the Fallwell/Robertson variety. They tend to see evidence of the presense of the devil in all kinds of places, so I am not at all surprised. In fact, I have been told that being LDS means I worship the devil at the Temple, and, hence am destined to go to hell. In fact, on the opening night of the latest LOTR, there were a bunch of evangelicals protesting outside the theatre!!!!
    They saw great significance in the fact that t he movie was going to begin exactly at 12.01am, at the stroke of midnight, with a lot of people dressed in costumes.

  3. Adam Greenwood on December 21, 2003 at 11:48 am

    These sorts of criticisms are indeed silly. I doubt that Tolkien really meant to encourage magic, any more than Michelangelo wanted people to believe that God is a static creature about an 1/8″ thick who lives on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

  4. Clark Goble on December 21, 2003 at 6:22 pm

    I’ve often wondered if these odd criticisms of Star Wars, Harry Potter and so forth among extreme Protestants doesn’t in fact have something to do with the Biblical hermeneutics they use. They adopt a position that seriously downplays metaphor and the role of metaphor in Biblical literature. Allegory in particular isn’t well appreciated. (Of course these are tendencies – there are numerous passages that can’t be taken any other way)

    There seems to be, however, even in passages with acknowledge metaphoric play, a view in which one ought to be very careful of the metaphor. I halfway wonder if this doesn’t go all the way back to the battles of the Reformation and the counter-Reformation when images and their role were so attacked within Protestantism (and to a lesser extent Catholicism) When this mindset, already distrustful of fiction, is turned to modern allegories, all hell can break lose. (If you’ll forgive the entendre)

    So perhaps we ought to look at these more extreme Protestants as bringing to light a strand of the history of Protestant approaches to texts. Thank heavens C. S. Lewis didn’t appreciate that strand the way these fellows do…

  5. Gordon on December 21, 2003 at 9:21 pm

    Excellent thoughts, Clark. I had never thought of it this way, but you may very well be right. As we discussed the book of Revelation in Gospel Doctrine today, I wondered why some evangelicals were so eager to embrace the imagery there, but so resistant to it in the Lord of the Rings.

  6. Jeremiah John on December 22, 2003 at 3:54 pm

    Given a different social situation, I imagine that the same kinds of silly tirades coming from our people (e.g. it’s pagan, Hippies were into this stuff).

    The tendency to rally the troops for every perceived Hollywood promotion of paganism is strangely similar to our Mormon aversion to everything Greek.

    Of course C.S. Lewis used magical elements in the Chronicle of Narnia; even the Screwtape Letters are stylized in a mythic way. But it should be no surprise that there is no God in the LOTR! If you are going to have an allegorical fantasy, you don’t put the true thing in there with all the metaphors. You also don’t make it simply a translation job, where each thing in your story corresponds on a one-to-one basis to things some common story which you want to tell in a fantastic way.

    This is my problem with the Chronicles of Narnia, especially the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. It’s like Orwell’s Animal Farm–“okay, so the horse is the proletariat, the pigs are the communists…I get it now, this is really about the Soviet Union!” “Okay, so Aslan is Jesus, and he has to die, but he gets to come back again because of the deep magic (read: eternal law). And he’s doing it to save the traitorous borther, which is like the sinner.”

    LOTR does not do this, which allows the story to hang together itself rather than on some outside real-world reflection. I do think that the LOTR is Christian in many ways, but only ambiguously so, like Beowulf is ambiguously Christian

  7. Clark Goble on December 22, 2003 at 4:37 pm

    It is not quite right to say that there is no God in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien had a rather developed mythology with its book of Genesis being The Similarion. (From which several elements were borrowed for the film)

    It might be more accurate to say that there is no Christian God in the text. However clearly the God of the Old Testament has hidden in the margin of the pages of Tolkien’s works.

  8. Clark Goble on December 22, 2003 at 5:11 pm

    One last comment before I leave for the day. I just put up a more literary blog on my site to keep it separate from the technical philosophy stuff. In it I discuss the latest Lord of the Rings.

    http://www.libertypages.com/clark/Literature/index.html

    (Yes this is unabashed advertising)

  9. lyle on December 23, 2003 at 10:05 am

    What Clark mentioned re: evangelicals and metaphor is very striking.
    So…they take the bible literally, and this leads them to think that all representations of people with magical powers is ‘evil.’ However, this also means that The Passion, which is very literal, can be read by liberal christians as being anti-semitic. So, why don’t Evangelicals see this criticism, yet they invoke a similar one against fictional accounts of wizards/witches? I think I’m missing something here…but can’t figure it out. In anycase, The Silmarilion is def. very genesis like, Tolkien’s best work IMO, and like Bishop Spong, if people can’t see the symbolism/metaphors in media/art/literature…they are missing half the picture (although to be fair, Spong misses the literal half…so is in no better shape).

    Oh well…I guess that since I play Dungeons & Dragons and go to the Temple, I’m doubly damned to Hell. Works for me, at least I’ll get to create my own “Hell,” I might even call it that, in order to borrow the counter-cultural tactic of stealing great words and turning them into horrid meanings (i.e. gay, etc).

  10. Shannon on January 27, 2004 at 2:04 pm

    In his last interview in 1971, Tolkien stated that he did not intend The Lord of the Rings as a Christian allegory and that Christ is not depicted in his fantasy novels. When asked about the efforts of the trilogy’s hero, Frodo, to struggle on and destroy the ring, Tolkien said, “But that seems I suppose more like an allegory of the human race. I’ve always been impressed that we’re here surviving because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds: jungles, volcanoes, wild beasts… they struggle on, almost blindly in a way” (Interview by Dennis Gerrolt; it was first broadcast in January 1971 on BBC Radio 4 program “Now Read On”). That doesn’t sound like the gospel to me. When Gerrolt asked Tolkien, “Is the book to be considered as an allegory?” the author replied, “No. I dislike allegory whenever I smell it.”

    Thus, the author of The Lord of the Rings denied the very thing that some Christians today are claiming, that these fantasies are an allegory of Christ’s victory over the devil.

    The preceding paragraphs were taken from an article written by David Cloud.