What does an epic fantasy story about a ring of power and the races of humans, dwarves and elves fighting to keep that ring out of the hands of an evil entity called Sauron have to do with modern spirituality and our religion? Well, actually—much. J.R.R. Tolkien who penned the original books on which Peter Jackson based his cinematic vision said this about the modern era “”The spirit of wickedness in high places is now so powerful and so many-headed in its incarnations,” Tolkien wrote, “that there seems nothing more to do than personally to refuse to worship any of the hydra’s heads.” The world, he thought, seemed little better than a new Tower of Babel, “all noise and confusion.” It seems that Tolkien saw in his actual world much that he mirrored in his fantasy one. And I am so grateful that he did.
In his grand fictive creation of Middle Earth, Tolkien gave us a sandbox in which all sorts of imaginative creatures could come to life. Powerful wizards could battle each other and extol wisdom to those who follow them. Mysterious elves could haunt the woodlands and cast spells on unsuspecting travelers. Malevolent orcs and goblins could serve a dark master and plot sieges of towns and villages with the goal of subjugating the entire world to their dark vision. A pitiable golem could become addicted to the idea of power and chase a ring of power half-way across Middle Earth. And a simple hobbit could find within himself, the courage to do what others could not. Return the ring of power to the fires of Mount Doom where it had been forged by very dark magic and release the hold of the ring over the hearts of humans, dwarves and elves. Potent stuff. Ripe for the inclusion of all sorts of rich religious imagery. I think God has given us imaginations that we might find truth in story. Humans learn better through a story—Jesus knew this—that why much of his teaching was in the form of little stories, or parables. The human mind just grasps concepts better when presented in this manner.
When the land of Rohan is targeted for destruction by Sauron and his forces, the king of Rohan, Theodin, decides to evacuate his people to the safety of Helm’s Deep. It soon becomes clear that the evil forces are going to attack the humans at Helm’s Deep and so all begin preparing for an epic battle—the battle in fact is the primary focus of the last part of the middle movie: The Two Towers. I know it’s a bit confusing if you haven’t seen these films. I’m trying to do over 8 hours of movie magic in about 20 minutes. Back to our story: up to this time, the elves have refused to assist in battling Sauron as they believe a policy of no-interference is best for their kind. As the dwarfs and humans and the sole participating elf, Legolas, prepare to battle the raging hordes of orcs and goblins, something unexpected occurs—let’s watch:
Clip #1 Arrival of the Elves
Obviously we’re missing much in this story, but there’s no way to do the entire film trilogy unless you all want to spend all day here! But I hope you’re getting the main point I aiming at: Even in a world where darkness, ignorance and hatred threaten to overwhelm us all, there is hope and there are people we can turn to for help.
Tolkien had a deep and abiding faith. He was basically raised by a Catholic priest and loved his church deeply. I also have to believe that his experiences in World War II helped shape his writing. In his books there is always the threat of murder and chaos from the east. Mount Doom can be seen in the far distance rumbling and belching ash and smoke. Surely this is a clear metaphor for the threat of Germany—with it lurking to the south and east of Great Britain.
The psalmist reminds us that we are to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. Often, when confronted with our own death, we can find a kind of clarity that may be lacking in the ordinariness of the rest of our days. I’ve was deeply involved with two funerals this past week and I’m always reminded of the fragility of our lives and the fact that tomorrow is not promised us. We make assumptions and go about our lives—but they can end as quickly as the snuffing of a candle. The horrors we’ve witnessed the past week in France again shows us what someone with an unclear and broken mind can do—what blind hatred and deep ignorance—and fear—can cause someone to lash out in such an obscene and reprehensible manner.
Back to our story—when Pippin is confronted with the very real prospect of losing his life in battle, he expresses his anxiety to Gandalf and Gandalf in turn shares what is surely one of the most beautiful expressions of Heaven ever rendered in the English language:
Clip #2The Return of the King—Gandalf comforts Pippin.
A far green country—I really like that. I can get behind that image of heaven. The bible is filled with contradictory information concerning heaven and I truly believe that we have it in our human power to build God’s beloved community here and now without waiting for a medieval interpretation of poorly translated Hebrew Scripture that stands in for most people’s idea of heaven. We all know what it takes to build the beloved community. I don’t know what is holding us back. Back to Tolkien…
Spoiler alert for those of you who are unfamiliar with our story—Pippin survives the battle he was preparing for. And good wins out in the end. There are many great battles and incredible acts of heroism—one scene in particular has Théoden’s daughter Eowyn being confronted by the all-powerful Witch King on the battlefield. Eowyn is disguised as a man and in full battle armor and has been fighting the Witch King—who is somewhat surprised by this warrior’s abilities—but the Witch King exclaims that he can be killed by no man. And in one of the greatest bits of feminism I’ve ever witnessed on the big screen, Eowyn takes of her helmet to show long flowing blonde locks, declares that she is no man, and proceeds to stab the Witch King in his face—and we watch him shrink in upon himself and wither away—not unlike the death of the Wicked Witch of the West in Oz. It’s a great scene and one that leaves you both breathless and laughing because of the many layers at work there.
Finally, after some of the most dramatic battles scenes ever captured on film, the forces of good prevail and Sauron is defeated. As the climax of the film gives way to the dénouement—the unraveling—the moral, if you will—we get this scene of Aragorn, the true anointed kind of the humans—in fact one of the few humans from the original Fellowship of the Ring from much earlier—we see him returning to his rightful place as ruler of Middle Earth. This scene is his coronation and it has a few lovely surprises—pay close attention to what happens to the hobbits.
Clip #3 Aragorn’s Coronation
So you see, even though Aragorn is crowned and he is returned to both the throne and his true love, the real heroes of our story are the little hobbits. The everyday people who rise to the occasion and achieve a remarkable and heroic outcome for their entire community. And the community knows this and rewards them in turn. There are actually a few more ending scenes to this movie. There’s a farewell to the Fellowship of the Ring that we saw earlier, we have a moving farewell for Bilbo Baggins, Frodo’s Uncle and the one who actually set this whole affair in motion—and finally there is the scene where Samwise Gamgee returns to his home and is reunited with his wife and daughter. All ends well in Middle Earth.
There’s a constant movement in Tolkien’s masterpiece—a desire to move the story forward and to move his characters into the plot—and this is captured beautifully in Peter Jackson’s film. As we finish our exploration of The Lord of the Rings this morning, I leave you with the words to the traveling song of the Hobbits: The Road Goes On:
The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.
I’m grateful to serve this congregation that journey on its never-ending road. What delightful traveling companions you all are.