The Knights of Middle-earth

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11/30/2012

Inspired by the author’s Catholic faith, J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels reflect the themes of chivalry, nobility and virtue

by Stratford Caldecott

Martin Freeman plays Bilbo Baggins in the film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, the film will be released in U.S. theaters Dec. 14. (Rex Features via AP Images)

This month, fans around the world will flock to the cinema to watch the first of three installments of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit — the “prequel” to the award-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy that was also released in three parts between 2001 and 2003. Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novels, the films depart from the original storyline in significant details, but go to great lengths to respect the author’s vision of Middle-earth — a world of great natural beauty and intense moral drama, set in the distant past.

Many will argue that translating such a story from book into film, no matter how impressive the result, is a mistake. A movie presents the audience with the filmmakers’ visualization, not the author’s or the reader’s. Conversely, reading or listening to a story engages the imagination at a deeper level than watching it on screen. Yet if a film had to be made, we should be grateful that efforts have been made to remain faithful to the spirit and texture of Tolkien’s stories.

THE CATHOLIC TOLKIEN

The spirit of Tolkien’s hugely successful fantasy novels is deeply Christian. Born in 1892, the author was a devout Catholic who grew up under the influence of Blessed John Henry Newman’s Oratory in Birmingham, England. All through his busy life as an Oxford professor and popular writer, he tried to attend Mass every day. His eldest son even became a Catholic priest. The stories that Tolkien wrote were more than entertainment; they were written to express a profound Christian wisdom.

In a letter Tolkien drafted to the manager of the Newman Bookshop in 1954, but never sent because it sounded too self-important (Letter 153 in the published collection), he admitted that his aim in writing the stories was “the elucidation of truth, and the encouragement of good morals in this real world, by the ancient device of exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments, that may tend to ‘bring them home.’” In another letter to a Jesuit friend in 1953, he explained that while he had consciously “absorbed” the religious element “into the story and the symbolism” (because he had no intention of making religious propaganda), The Lord of the Rings remains “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”

Tolkien’s Christian wisdom can pop out at readers in unexpected ways, but most often it simply sinks in at a deep level without distracting our attention from the story. I noticed an example as I read The Lord of the Rings to my youngest daughter recently. The story concerns the attempt to destroy a magical “Ring of Power” that threatens the freedom of all the peoples of Middle-earth. As the little hobbits Frodo and Sam struggle up Mount Doom in the final stage of their quest to reach the volcanic furnace in which the Ring can be unmade, Frodo comes to the end of his strength — drained by the ever-growing weight of the Ring he bears around his neck and the constant temptation to claim its power for his own.

His faithful servant Sam, who knows he is not permitted to bear the Ring, invites Frodo to climb onto his back. “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get!” Staggering to his feet, he finds to his amazement “the burden light.” Tolkien writes, “[Sam] had feared that he would have barely strength to lift his master alone, and beyond that he had expected to share in the dreadful dragging weight of the accursed Ring. But it was not so. Whether because Frodo was so worn by his long pains, wound of knife, and venomous sting, and sorrow, fear, and homeless wandering, or because some gift of final strength was given to him, Sam lifted Frodo with no more difficulty than if he were carrying a hobbit-child pig-a-back in some romp on the lawns or hayfields of the Shire. He took a deep breath and started off.”

Does this not remind you, as if in a faint echo, of a certain well-known passage in the Gospels? I am thinking of the one where Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28-30).

The echo may be faint, yet the whole journey of the two Hobbits across Mordor — including descriptions of the Ring and Frodo’s many falls under its weight — recalls the Way to Calvary, where Jesus bore the weight of the world’s sin. Those who are familiar with the Gospels can hardly fail to recognize a similarity. If the Ring is analogous to the Cross (because it represents sin), and Frodo as Ringbearer is analogous to Christ, then when Sam hauls the burden up onto his shoulders he finds exactly what Christ has promised: It feels light because Christ himself is still bearing the major part of the weight.

The link to the Christian story is even reinforced by the calendar date. The Ring is destroyed on March 25, which in our world is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the day Christ was conceived in the womb of Mary to bear our sins away.

NOBILITY OF SOUL

There are plenty of other parallels with Christianity in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but as the author insisted, the important point lies deeper than this. The story is meant to be enjoyed for its own sake, not merely decoded. A story is a way of exploring the way the world works. No author can avoid bringing his own understanding of free will and fate or providence, not to mention some conception of good and evil, to his writing. Tolkien’s understanding was shaped by his faith, which is the truth revealed by God about the way the world really works — and not only this world, but every possible world.

An important part of Catholic wisdom is the ethical tradition that rests on the natural laws of our nature, made in the image of God. This tradition could be called “nobility of soul” or “spiritual chivalry.” We see both in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings a learning process that Tolkien called “the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble,” which he believed was an important theme of his writing as a whole. In both novels, the hobbit heroes (Bilbo in the one, Frodo and Sam and their friends in the other) are lifted from the narrow, comfortable world of the Shire into a much vaster landscape to play key roles in battles that decide the fate of Middle-earth. This was a process that Tolkien observed among the soldiers he fought beside in the Battle of the Somme, in the First World War.

Through suffering and trial, the hobbits are fashioned into heroes, empowered to save their little world of the Shire from the spiritual evil that has corrupted it while they were away. Gandalf the wizard tells them, “That is what you have been trained for.” Although the film versions of The Lord of the Rings unfortunately omit this last stage, it is still clear that the hobbits have attained greater maturity and courage through their adventures.

After all, Tolkien wove the idea of “nobility of soul” very deeply into his mythology. This concept is represented partly in the Elves. The human beings and hobbits who are closest to the Elves by influence or nature are the noblest: Frodo (named “Elf-friend”) among the hobbits, Aragorn and Imrahil and Faramir among the men. The “elvish” tendency in man is always towards physical beauty, artistic ability and respect for creation. It is associated with a love for God’s creation that seeks to improve, protect, celebrate and adorn.

The “chivalry” that reveals this nobility is shown in behavior towards others, such as kindness and mercy, the refusal to mistreat even prisoners of war, and the showing of honor to the bodies of the dead. We see this, for instance, when Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor and leader of the fellowship of the Ring, insists on a proper funeral for Boromir before they continue with their quest. The knights of Middle-earth defend the weak from their oppressors and remain faithful to friends and liege-lord. Such behavior outwardly signifies the presence of heroic virtue within the soul, especially the cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice.

It is with these virtues that we are equipped to defend the truly important things, the little things, the domestic world of the free family, and the love that binds people together in fellowship.

Aragorn exemplifies all of these virtues in the highest degree, but we see them develop in the hobbits, too, as they learn to submit to discipline and overcome their fear to achieve great deeds without hope of reward — just because it is the right thing to do. This is Tolkien’s challenge to us: to become, in our own way, the knights of Middle-earth.

STRATFORD CALDECOTT is a director of Second Spring Oxford (secondspring.co.uk). His study of Tolkien called The Power of the Ring is being republished in an expanded and definitive edition by Crossroad Publishers.