The Lord, and the Rings

The Ringwraiths

The Ringwraiths

A long time ago, in a shire far, far away… before Harry Potter rode a broomstick, before Luke Skywalker lifted a lightsaber, Frodo Baggins inherited a ring.

It is, we find out a few minutes into The Fellowship of the Ring, the new film by New Zealand director Peter Jackson, the “One Ring” referred to ominously in the prologue. Its discovery requires that Frodo and his companions embark on a quest to destroy the ring before the evil Lord Sauron can reclaim it and thereby rule the world in darkness.

In the book of the same name, the ring is described as an innocuous gold band. In the movie, it’s so luminous that it acts as sort of a mirror reflecting events unfolding around it. It’s as though Jackson can’t capture the essence of J. R. R. Tolkien’s best-selling The Lord of the Rings trilogy except through the chimerical lens of Hollywood magic. Because in the end, the story he’s relating is as old as the words that started it all: “Let there be light.”

For audiences nearly exhausted by the hero’s quest of Star Wars and Harry Potter, Frodo’s adventure seems a bit thin, “sort of stretched,” to use his uncle Bilbo’s aphorism in the beginning of the movie, “like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” And yet, the stories told in these other films seem much smaller, their landscapes quainter by comparison, like individual microcosms that could fit snugly into a pocket of Middle-Earth, the name Tolkien gave his densely textured world.

This seems especially true in several scenes throughout the movie. In one a mysterious stranger rises from the dimly lit corner of a tavern where he’s been brooding. When he reveals himself to be not only a friend but also a hero, we half-expect Han Solo to emerge from the stranger’s dark cowl, guns blazing, itching for a fight.

This scenario has played itself out so many times in popular culture that its very familiarity has become an archetype. We recognize it now as cinematic icon rather than as myth. Take Gandalf, for example, the sage wizard harboring esoteric knowledge. He’s none other than Dumbledore. Or Obi-Wan Kenobi. Take your pick.

If J.K. Rowling and George Lucas both knew what they were doing when they made use of these archetypes, they likely learned it from Tolkien. As a medieval scholar and linguist by profession, Tolkien was intimate with the original myths on which they’re based. He borrowed freely from Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Norse ballads such as Beowulf and The Elder Edda. More importantly, he relied heavily on the creation account in Genesis. The result is an epic fantasy that has since sold over fifty million copies worldwide and is considered a Bible for more than one generation’s counterculture.

Like other epic struggles played out in literature and on screen, The Lord of the Rings shares the same dichotomous backdrop of black and white, Good against Evil, fate versus free will. It’s ultimately a simple morality tale. It might also have been another dull fable if not for the world in which it’s set. There’s a charm in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, a rich tapestry of cultures, each possessing a fully realized heritage, many of which share a system of interconnected languages and runic alphabets all invented by the author.

“The stories were made,” he once said, “to provide a world for the languages rather than the reverse.” That is, the language dictated the reality. God knew this when he charged Adam with doling out the names in the Garden of Eden. But did W. H. Auden ever praise Adam, as he did Tolkien, for his “amazing gift for naming and a wonderfully exact eye for description”? Compare the 12 years the author spent composing his epic to the six days it took God in Genesis, and you begin to sense Tolkien’s devotion to the creative process.

In an essay entitled “On Fairy Tales,” the author proposed how creation is possible within a divinely created universe. Through an act he called “subcreation,” a writer is able to give “to ideal creation the inner consistency of reality”:

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 aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.

Subcreation produces what he referred to as “secondary belief” by which the reader comes to accept the existence of another world independent of God’s Earth. Such a world doesn’t require a suspension of disbelief because it is already infused with belief.

In addition to being a linguist, Tolkien was a devout Catholic. He was also a member of the Inklings, a group of Christian fantasy writers that included C. S. Lewis, whom the author helped convert. An inventor of worlds himself, Lewis said that “you can hardly put your foot down” in Middle-Earth, “without stirring the dust of history.” Unlike Lewis’s openly allegorical The Chronicles of Narnia, however, Tolkien insisted there was no inherent Christian metaphor in his novels, no explicit parallels to link it to a Biblical worldview, though readers still stubbornly search for them.

If Tolkien’s faith leaks into Middle-Earth, it’s in keeping with his theory of subcreation as process. “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Christian work,” he confessed, “unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” How could it not be, when only the Creator is capable of creating from nothing? Like any artist, Tolkien could only draw from the raw material of his own experience. Accepting his claim, then, that The Lord of the Rings is not a retelling of Old or New Testament theology, we come to understand how Middle-Earth is a direct response to God’s creative act. Through subcreation, Tolkien was able to craft a world that is self-consistent and believable on its own terms.

Does any of the linguist’s religious vision translate to the screen? For Jackson, whose 1994’s Heavenly Creatures demonstrated his versatility with marrying the language of cinema with that of otherworldly special effects, it would seem that God is in the details. Just as Tolkien engineered his own nomenclatures and genealogies, so Jackson constructs a visual language, a system of semiotics that acts as foundation for his own subcreation of Middle-Earth, which he shot in the lush countryside of New Zealand. This language manifests in a number of ways, from a simple leaf-shaped clasp used to fasten a cloak to snatches of ostensibly throwaway dialogue that — an astute fan of the books will notice — often precisely match specific chapter titles.

After the awe of the special effects has worn off, it’s the little things, a Hobbit would agree, that prove most lasting. Jackson offers viewers full immersion into his Middle-Earth. For instance, when the fleet-footed archer Legolas treads lightly upon a snow bank, the grace of the elves, otherworldly creatures in Tolkien’s universe, is imprinted in his footsteps. Or when the dwarf, Gimli, guffaws at a request for rest, the fortitude of his warrior culture tumbles out of him. That whole histories can be represented by gestures is an impressive achievement, evidence of a director well-versed with a much-revered text.

Toward the end of the movie, the elf queen Galadriel instructs the Fellowship, “Go now, and rest.” It’s good advice, especially for an audience made up of ordinary humans, who tire after three hours of simply watching the quest motif play out in battle after battle on a big screen. Say what you will about the meandering of the story, though, the film succeeds in what it suggests about Middle-Earth, in its promise of a world greater than the one depicted on screen. Jackson, like Tolkien, has offered viewers his own reply to divine creation.

Paul W. Morris has been involved with the website in several capacities since early 2001, including editor, marketing consultant, event producer, and contributor. He was an editor at Viking Penguin and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review before becoming a freelance gun for hire. He’s killed time at Entertainment Weekly and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia staring into the abyss, but nothing stared back. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including his introduction to a recent translation of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. The former Director of Literary Programs at PEN America and Vice President of the Authors Guild, he currently serves as the Executive Director of the literary nonprofit House of SpeakEasy. He lives in New York City.