The Fellowship of the Ring - a Theologian's Thoughts

Jerry Pratchett has said (in a way that eerily echoes a remark of Karl Barth about Kierkegaard) that there is something wrong with you if you read The Lord of the Rings at 14 and do not think it the greatest piece of literature ever written; however, there is something really wrong with you if you still think this at the age of 37!

To the great annoyance of critics - who have repeatedly denigrated the work as childish, escapist and unrealistic - The Lord of the Rings has been voted in more than one poll the most popular piece of English literature in the 20th Century. Literary figures like W H Auden and science fiction's Ursula K Le Guin who enthuse about Tolkien are exceptions to the rule. Most snootily dismiss it.

The Lord of the Rings became trendy in the late '60s and early '70s when it was associated in particular with university and hippy culture and the ecological movement. Its suspicion of technology and industrial society and preference for the small and free rather than the large and totalitarian awoke echoes everywhere.

The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien's great work - it is also deeply Christian, for all that Tolkien declares pointedly and unavailingly in the introduction that it is not intended as an allegory, a literary form which he "detests cordially". This warning has almost completely fallen on deaf ears: whether the parallel cited be Naziism, Communism (the Bomb), drug addiction, the ecological movement or even, heaven help us, the Taliban!

On the other hand, Tolkien himself admitted (letter of 2 December, 1953)1 that, "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism."

The best book on Tolkien (by a country mile) is Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle Earth.2 This, by another Professor of Medieval Language, is clear about The Lord of the Rings' linguistic and mythological roots. Yet it also sees that Christianity is integral to the work. The welter of fantasy over the last decades (Donaldson, Eddings, Feist, Cooper, 'Dungeons and Dragons' role-playing, even Pratchett and Rowling) is deeply indebted to Tolkien. However, equally striking is their usual attempt to 'repaganise' the genre. Tolkien represents the most significant contemporary example of a Christian school of writers (beginning perhaps with the author of Beowulf and Malory through Spenser to George Macdonald and C S Lewis) who have sought to colonise fantasy for Christianity.

The extent to which this Christian substructure is recognised is thus a key element in any review in Reality of Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring - the first part of his huge cinematic undertaking to film The Lord of the Rings (at a budget of around $190 million) in three films, coming out in successive years.

But first we need to get beyond the inevitable patriotism (the scenery, the tourism potential, little New Zealand etc). Next some of us at least (!) must struggle to contain our ire at the remarks of critics such as Mark Kermode and Germaine Greer. I had the misfortune of watching them both on a television review programme where the latter's opinions so enraged me I switched off; apparently I was not alone.

Kermode, who boasted of not having read the book, claimed that the film was Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings rather than J R R Tolkien's "and all the better for it". (How could he tell?) According to Germaine Greer, "The Lord of the Rings represents a rejection of otherness and a craving for people like oneself." (What of dwarves, elves, high Kings, horsemen, Ents etc?)

Since there is always a tiny bit of truth in the biggest lie (cf Stalinism's 'Big Lie'), it has to be admitted that Tolkien's work reveals parochialism as well as a love of adventure. The hobbits love food and drink, warm beds and hot baths. Yet this reminds us that Tolkien was himself a soldier in the First World War, and these observations suggest personal experience and have conviction. They enable us to relate to his heroes: they fight and struggle not because they want to but because they must.

The hobbits are indeed basically English, and the Shire is indeed rural Warwickshire/Oxfordshire. Yet, although both the landscape and domestic characteristics are celebrated, they are simultaneously satirised. For Tolkien is not unaware of England's tendency to complacency, arrogance, ignorance and suspicion of outsiders, and his depiction of hobbits is double-edged. All his heroes in one way or another stand outside the society they defend.

Here we see the main weakness of the film - that it is not long enough! (This is an apparently unfair criticism of a work that comes in at just under three hours: perhaps we needed an unrealistic four films!) Yet The Fellowship of the Ring does need to be longer at the beginning: both to establish what is at risk - the Shire - and also to build up by layers the terrors as Tolkien himself does.

It is understandable to leave out the Old Forest and Tom Bombadil (every previous version has done so, even the BBC 26-part radio serial, now being replayed in the UK), but much is lost in the process. Tolkien's own pacing of The Fellowship of the Ring is incomparable, as it intersperses growing moments of terror with joyful and safe domestic interludes - periods which are increasingly fraught. One is reminded once again of the trenches.

Tolkien moves the action from the familiar to the strange in a way that is as effective as it is classical: the borderland between the Shire and the Wild (the Old Forest boundary) is critical, for all that the Wild has already invaded the Shire in the shape of the Black Riders. Possibly at this point Jackson's Kiwiness serves him ill, for New Zealand's stunning landscape does not make such a division. (By contrast, anywhere as dramatic in England is seen as 'foreign'!)

The saga also needs to start slowly in order to build up the relationships between the hobbits. More needs to be shown of Frodo and Sam's rather archaic relationship. Merry and Pippin are also differently, clumsily and unconvincingly introduced in the film.

Whilst I am being negative (!), let me also deplore the way in which Aragorn's role is downgraded in this version, just as some of the dialogue is altered. Let us deal with these issues together. Jackson's alteration of the original text seems mostly pointless: Tolkien was a Professor of English Language and Literature. He knew about language, and his dialogue is evocative and powerful.

Why lose the important joke about Aragorn looking foul and seeming fair, when the hobbits first meet him in Bree (and are suspicious of him)? Why alter the fact that it is Aragorn who is reluctant to venture into Moria? The story behind this explains a lot about his relationship with Gandalf.

There are other places where Aragorn suffers. He needs to be Strider before he becomes the King. Here he is not. His role as leader of the Fellowship after the fall of Gandalf in Moria is undervalued. He is also presented, unlike Boromir, as harsh and unfeeling.

On the other hand, I did not expect the film to improve on the book, and this is one place where it does. Sean Bean is a revelation as Boromir. With a rather elaborate death scene - much more drawn out than Gandalf's rather overhasty expiry - he brings real nobility to the part and tends to eclipse Aragorn. In the book, his role as obvious villain is too obviously foreshadowed, a point highlighted by Harvard Lampoon's highly entertaining description of him (in their parody, Bored of the Rings) as 'the man with the pointed shoes'.

Orlando Bloom as Legolas is also especially good. Liv Tyler as Arwen and Cate Blanchett as Galadriel are both stunning elven queens - Arwen's part is written up in an attempt to balance the extraordinary gender disproportion of the work.3 By contrast, the depiction of the elven lords Elrond and Celeborn and their realms is rather less successful: it is perhaps difficult to convey ageless males, and both Lorien and Rivendell come over as lacy Italianate rococo rather than blossom and glade. And why on earth is the Council of Elrond, a meeting to decide the fate of Middle Earth, played out in a claustrophobic setting that reminds one of a jammed committee room?

In the acting department as a whole there are no disasters, but rather the opposite. Ian Holm who plays Bilbo was Frodo in the BBC radio version: as there he is magnificent, totally convincing in his few scenes. The pivotal figures, however, are - in addition to Aragorn - the hobbits and Gandalf. Both these latter are entirely adequate, even if I am not wholly convinced by Sam's accent. (Billy Boyd's broad Scots as Pippin is merely endearing.)

Ian McKellen's portrayal of Gandalf is titanic; for all that he might be more pompous and grumpy. In particular the extent of the Ring's temptation is superbly represented. He shows his awe of the Ring as sheer physical fear: he will not even touch it; he is so terrified of it. This is brilliantly done, and again adds to the book.

Frodo is of course key. It diminishes his centrality that Arwen (for reasons given above) is given the role of defying the Black Riders at the Fords of Bruinen. It is he who refuses to yield to them there, something that helps to explain the fact that he survives the Ring in the end.

When I previously wrote in this magazine on The Lord of the Rings, I worried that Jackson might remove the Christianity from the story. This is in fact very hard to do, for it runs inextricably throughout the tale. The original plot would have had to be far more changed to diminish the perhaps most significant Tolkienite virtue of courage, as well as the themes of the interplay of Providence and Choice, the importance of seeing things through as far as one can, the danger of stepping onto 'the Road' - this is also a very powerful image of Christian discipleship. "Be careful what road you take", says Bilbo, "for you do not know where it will sweep you off to!" (The cost of discipleship!)

It is a distinctly good sign that the movie proper (after a historical prologue) begins with Gandalf arriving in the Shire singing this very song. The Road will take you who knows where. Frodo's choices in willingly taking the Ring are key - as important as those yieldings to the lure of the Ring (by Boromir and Saruman) and those desperately difficult rejections of it (by Gandalf and Galadriel). The Lord of the Rings is an amazingly moral book, and the film does not shrink from this aspect of the tale.

Yet, as I have already suggested, there are occasions when this is weakened. Once again, Aragorn is involved. He is, along with Frodo and Gandalf, one of the three pillars of the Trilogy (King, as opposed to priest and prophet?). A major theological question arises over the depiction of the breaking of the Fellowship. Boromir's responsibility is played down. As importantly, so is "the continuous interplay of providence and free will" that is fundamental to Tolkien's understanding of choice and event.4

Tolkien sometimes calls this 'luck' or 'chance'; yet it is clearly not that, as his own language tells us: "chance, if chance you call it". These 'accidents' are 'meant' - and the one place this is mentioned in The Fellowship of the Ring is by Gandalf, when in Moria he speaks to Frodo about Gollum - a key passage, though placed differently to the book.

The film (like the language of the Games Workshop game based on the film) also tends to speak of 'Fate'. This pagan term needs careful exposition not to be profoundly misleading.

The interrelation of providence and free will brings out the importance of choice for Tolkien, as for many in the Christian discussion group the Inklings, of which Tolkien was a part (so too Lewis and Charles Williams).

At the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo is delivered from his dithering about what to do by Boromir's treachery. Aragorn is delivered from his dithering about whether to follow Frodo (as he fears perhaps he ought as Gandalf's successor) and his desire to go to Minas Tirith (as he wants - and in fact ought!) by a whole series of circumstances - including Boromir's betrayal. In other words, despite all immediate appearances to the contrary, everything works out 'as it should'.

Yet in the process Frodo thinks he has brought confusion on the company and Aragorn thinks he has failed. All these aspects are largely ignored in the film.

You might think from the above review that I am very negative about The Fellowship of the Ring. In fact I gave it 9 out of 10 as I left the cinema and even in retrospect, I am very grateful for a vision of Tolkien's world that is as faithful and exciting as this one is. The three hours whiz by, the action is enthralling and the scenery wonderful. Perhaps I should close by mentioning that tears came indeed to this exile's eyes as he viewed what he swore were hills he recognised around Matamata!


1 The Letters of J R R Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1981), p.172.

2 London: George Allen and Unwin, 1982.

3 It is noteworthy that Ursula K Le Guin, a notable feminist, does not mind this - for that is not what the work is principally about for her.

4 Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle Earth (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1982), p. 114.

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