With The Return of the King, the third and final chapter of Peter Jackson’s historic film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, due in theaters Wednesday, December 17, the director and his collaborators recently took some time at a Los Angeles press event to contemplate the project.
Acknowledging Tolkien’s Religious Vision
Making these movies has occupied the last five years of their lives and provided plenty of time for reflection on the cultural, moral, and spiritual significance of the books that inspired them.
Tolkien’s Catholic faith and its influence in The Lord of the Rings were acknowledged by a number of the filmmakers, though many seemed not entirely clear about just what Tolkien believed, or how the shape of the story reflected those beliefs. (For more on the religious significance of Tolkien’s books, and how it has and has not carried over into the films, see “Faith and Fantasy: Tolkien the Catholic, The Lord of the Rings, and Peter Jackson’s Film Trilogy”.)
Tolkien’s love of unspoiled countryside and abhorrence for industrialization resonated far more with the generally environmentalist actors than many of his religious themes, such as his lack of faith in human nature and its ability, absent grace, to overcome evil though the latter notion did get some recognition. And at least one of the actors took the occasion to go to bat for the traditional Western European culture and values Tolkien represented, and to raise serious questions about the relationship of Islam and the West in the coming century.
“Certainly, Tolkien’s faith informs the third book especially,” stated Frances Walsh, one of the project’s three screenwriters. “The values in them, they give you a sense of hope, that it isn’t chaos, that it isn’t arbitrary, that it isn’t without a point. I love storytelling for those reasons. So many things fall away as we kind of charge forward into this new century. There’s so much cynicism and such a lack of ritual and a belief system to govern anything. I like stories for that because they still offer it.”
Jackson himself acknowledged the books’ religious themes, commenting, “I’m not a Catholic, so I didn’t put any of that personally into the film on my behalf, but I certainly am aware that there were certain [religious] things that Tolkien was thinking of… We made a real decision at the beginning that we weren’t going to introduce any new themes of our own into The Lord of the Rings. We were just going to make a film based upon what clearly Tolkien was passionate about.”
“Tolkien was a Catholic, and I am not,” reflected actor Ian McKellen, who plays the wizard Gandalf. “But Tolkien and I both lived through the second World War, and he was writing this during the war, and I was sleeping under a metal shelter in the north of England waiting for the bombs to fall. So there was a Sauron around. And although he doesn’t think of it as an allegory for the second World War, how could he not be affected? Because his boy, his Frodo was fighting in the north of France.
“Whenever I had to think, 'What is Sauron?' who we never see in the film I would think of Hitler. He’s the great evil force of our time, and certainly of Tolkien’s. So I always think of Frodo as the representative of all those kids who have given their lives. They’re still doing it, they’re doing it now…. Those are the connections I’ve got with Tolkien.”
McKellen also commented on the differing attitudes of his character Gandalf and the evil wizard Saruman toward Tolkien’s humble, earthy hobbits, with their many meals and many children.
“What I like about Gandalf, and what Saruman doesn’t like about Gandalf, is that Gandalf likes hobbits. Saruman doesn’t he’s extremely disparaging about them. They’re eating and drinking and having parties. They have big families. There’s not much going on in their world, they’re just happy where they are. They’re very content.
“Saruman doesn’t rate hobbits one little bit. And Gandalf does. And who destroys the ring? A couple of hobbits. That’s a message for our world…. And we are all much closer to being hobbits than we are to being wizards.”
The Challenge of Tolkien’s Spirituality
For some of the filmmakers, engaging the spirituality of Tolkien’s epic over an extended period of time seems to have been a challenging experience. While not sharing Tolkien’s beliefs, Frances Walsh acknowledged the appeal of the moral vision embodied in stories such as his.
“I think that stories [like Tolkien’s] do offer us comfort that we live in a moral universe, whether or not that is [true]… who can say? The world seems to be a very amoral place, governed by something arbitrary, and not founded on a great sort of sense of decency.”
She noted also the importance of Tolkien’s belief in immortality, “that even those who leave us too soon or who are lost in war or who die young and Frodo certainly represents all of those they go to another place, they don’t just fall into nothingness…. [Tolkien] took that from his own war experience and from his own profound Christian beliefs.”
While bringing a measure of respect and sympathy for Tolkien’s religious worldview, the filmmakers seemed not always to fully understand or appreciate the writer’s vision. For example, one notion that kept cropping up was the idea of the goodness of humanity, of looking within ourselves or to our own innate goodness to overcome evil and achieve salvation.
In reality, this notion is quite alien to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which dramatically emphasizes in a critical scene the frailty and fallibility of mortals and their dependence upon divine grace and providence.
Despite what seemed a general lack of appreciation for this theme, there was one notable exception: co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens, who spoke insightfully about the story’s theme of fallibility of human nature, and the necessity of having faith, not in ourselves, but in a higher power for the final triumph over evil.
“One of the things Tolkien understood, because he was a [Christian] humanist,” Boyens correctly noted, “is that we all fail, and we have the ability within us to fail. Faith requires us to believe in a higher power. Gandalf, very early on in the book says, 'The Ring came to Bilbo and in that moment something else was at work.’ Not the [Ring’s] designer, the maker, this evil power, but some other power was at work. So it’s whether you believe in that or not, whether you choose to believe in that or not.”
(Spoiler warning.) Describing a climactic point in Tolkien’s story and in the film, Boyens went on, “Frodo dragged himself to that point, and failed. And another power intervened.” Then, referring to the end of Frodo’s life in Middle-earth, she added, “And he ultimately surrenders to that power at the end of this movie, which is one of the most beautiful moments in this movie.”
Gimli Raises the Axe for Western Civilization
Perhaps the most passionate observations came from John Rhys-Davies, who plays the dwarf Gimli and voices Treebeard the Ent. Focusing on the necessity of defending civilization in times of crisis, Rhys-Davies took the media to task for failing to appreciate the preciousness of Western civilization, and warned of the potential consequences of rising Muslim extremism and the increasingly Islamic face of Europe.
“I think that Tolkien says that some generations will be challenged,” said Rhys-Davies, “and if they do not rise to meet that challenge, they will lose their civilization. That does have a real resonance with me.”
Pointing a finger at the media, Rhys-Davies went on, “What is unconscionable is that too many of your fellow journalists do not understand how precarious Western civilization is, and what a jewel it is…. The abolition of slavery comes from Western democracy. True democracy comes from our Greco-Judeo-Christian Western experience. If we lose these things, then this is a catastrophe for the world.”
Rhys-Davies revealed that as far back as 1955 his father had predicted that “the next World War will be between Islam and the West.” The actor recalled his response: “I said to him, ’Dad, you’re nuts! The Crusades have been over for hundreds of years!’ And he said, 'Well, I know, but militant Islam is on the rise again. And you will see it in your lifetime.’ He’s been dead some years now. But there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him and think, ’God, I wish you were here, just so I could tell you that you were right.’”
Looking at the lone female journalist at the table, Rhys-Davies said pointedly, “You should not be in this room [according to Muslim custom]. Because your husband or your father or your brother is not here to guide you. You could only be here in this room with these strange men for immoral purposes.”
Rhys-Davies went on to contemplate the significance of demographic shifts among Western Europeans and Muslims in Europe. “There is a demographic catastrophe happening in Europe that nobody wants to talk about, that we daren’t bring up because we are so cagey about not offending people racially. And rightly we should be. But there is a cultural thing as well…. By 2020, fifty percent of the children in Holland under the age of 18 will be of Muslim descent….
“And don’t forget, coupled with this there is this collapse of numbers. Western Europeans are not having any babies. The population of Germany at the end of the century is going to be 56% of what it is now. The populations of France, 52% of what it is now. The population of Italy is going to be down 7 million people.
“There is a change happening in the very complexion of Western civilization in Europe that we should think about at least and argue about. If it just means the replacement of one genetic stock with another genetic stock, that doesn’t matter too much. But if it involves the replacement of Western civilization with a different civilization with different cultural values, then it is something we really ought to discuss because (hang it all) I am for dead-white-male culture!”
His fellow filmmakers might not all agree, but Tolkien would have applauded.
(c) 2003 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website is the Decent Films Guide.