The Greatest (Fairy) Story Ever Told A critique of the movie, “Lord of the Rings”
Speaking as a rank amateur when it comes to reviewing movies and books, I would like to make some comments on the movie, “Lord of the Rings.” Personally, I enjoyed it enough to go a second time. I found the acting adequate, though not brilliant. Script and dialogue were good, capturing the feel of the book nicely. Attention to detail – for example, pronunciation of elvish words – was excellent. And of course, the scenery waàò great!
Given the length and breadth of the trilogy, it was necessary that some parts of the story be dropped. This did not seriously detract from the integrity of the story. More annoying were the additions. Most notably, the role of Arwen, daughter of Elrond, was expanded, making her Aragorn’s equal – whether in stealth, daring or horsemanship. It is hard to be sure whether this was done in the interests of feminism, or to keep immature male viewers happy.
The only other criticism I would make of the movie is that it sometimes lacked the suspense the book creates. The book conveys a sense of great fear and tension in the scene where the hobbits hide under the embankment from the “black rider.” The movie was less successful in that department. I suspect that lighting and music were not used so effectively at some of these points. In fact, the music was a disappointment. It may well have been good music, but not so good for a movie of this kind.
The place of fantasy
Lord of the Rings will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Many of the older members of our churches have been raised with the view that everything must have a use in the real world. The idea is that Lord of the Rings along with the whole fantasy genre – has nothing to do with the real world, therefore it is useless. In addition, anyone not inured to violence by TV/movie saturation may find some scenes a bit too much.
Others in our churches are opposed to themes of magic and the demonic in entertainment. This view should not be dismissed out-of-hand by those of us who enjoy the fantasy genre. There is no doubt that witchcraft, spiritism and necromancy are forbidden in Scripture (Deut. 18:9-14; 1 Sam. 28). Obviously, these sins should not be encouraged or glorified, whether in fantasy or any other literature.
The question is, does Tolkien encourage witchcraft and spiritism? Gandalf the wizard is certainly one of the “good guys,” and his magic one of the factors that delivers “Middle Earth” from the evil one, Sauron. There are also references to demons – the Balrog in Moria – though I do not believe the term “demon” is used in the relevant chapter of the book. Some have sought to excuse this by pointing out that Tolkien was a Roman Catholic with a strong view of good and evil. It is argued that his use of magic in the story simply portrays the struggle of good against evil, with the good finally overcoming the evil. It could also be pointed out that there is some sense of fore-ordination in both book and movie: Frodo is “appointed” for the task of bearing the ring.
A world apart
In reality, the philosophy behind “Lord of the Rings” is somewhat more complicated. Tolkien himself denied that his book was an allegory. He did not set out to provide an allegory of this world’s struggle between God and the devil. Further explanation is found in the essay on fairy tales in Tree and Leaf. The world of “Faerie” has nothing to do with this world, directly. It is a self-contained fantasy-world. The successful fantasy writer sets up a world that operates consistently according to its own rules – enabling the reader not so much to suspend disbelief, but for his mind to enter the secondary world of the writer.
It is in this department that Tolkien excels. The book especially succeeds in setting up an internally self-consistent world a world in which magic has a part. But there is no direct encouragement to practice of magic in this world, because “Middle Earth” is a different, secondary creation of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Why does the writer set up such a world in the first place? And what is the value of it? Here Tolkien’s philosophy resembles that of C. S. Lewis. The writer seeks to satisfy certain primordial desires. Man has a desire for marvels: to survey the depths of space and time; to commune with other living things; to do things he cannot do in this world (shoot a bow, and so on); and to become a sub-creator, as man is created in the image of the Creator.
According to Tolkien, fantasy also aids with the process of recovery, escape and consolation. We all need to “clean our windows,” to free ourselves from the drab blur of triteness and familiarity and possessiveness. But this escape is the escape of the prisoner, not the deserter. We long for a better world, as we should. We long to escape death, to be consoled by the happy ending, to be delivered from universal and final defeat. Such themes are undoubtedly reflected in Tolkien’s sub-creation, Lord of the Rings.
A comparison with the Book of Revelation
In this connection, it is also worth giving some thought to the role of the Book of Revelation in the Bible. Someone has called Revelation a “sacrament of the imagination.” In other words, truth about Christ’s victory over Satan, and the church’s joyful participation in that, are driven home forcefully and graphically by appeal to powerful symbols. The imagination is engaged in the truth of the Gospel. Images of giant, world-spanning angels and hideous monsters are used to do this. But it is definitely about this world, as well as heaven.
Keep this fact in mind as you consider Tolkien’s argument that the Gospel is the greatest fairy-story ever told. This might easily offend the Reformed reader, but we must understand that the author does not mean the Bible is not true. In fact, in the Gospels, Tolkien says, the “fairy-story” breaks into history. What he means is that the Gospel evokes and answers the above desires, more than any of the sub-creations of man. In the Gospel, we get a glimpse of joy beyond the walls of this world.
With this last part, I agree: that the Gospel answers the desires that express themselves in, and are sometimes heightened by, fairy stories. But to say that the Gospel is the fairy story breaking into history, with that I have a problem. After all, if fairy stories are not about this world, how can the Gospel be a fairy story?
What we learn from it
Notwithstanding this criticism, I believe we can learn something from Lewis and Tolkien. Lewis also used fantasy to give glimpses of joy beyond the walls of this world. Essentially, he was trying to excite the sensus deitatis – the sense in every man, implanted by the God who made us, that God exists and rules this world; that there is therefore good and evil and judgement – and a better world than this fallen one. It appears that Tolkien sees a similar purpose in the better fantasy literature.
Personally, I think he succeeds in doing this with Lord of the Rings, perhaps better than any other writer in the genre. The movie succeeds in this to a lesser extent again. But this success is limited. Lord of the Rings may evoke the desire for the triumph of good, but it has no answers. Lewis tends to give the answer more openly in story. Perhaps Lewis then fails to meet Tolkien’s criterion for a fairy story, resorting instead to allegory!
I believe there is a place for both approaches, so long as we remember that there is no substitute for the Bible. Fantasy literature, like life, may help increase our longing. But only the Bible answers it.