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Saturday, September 23, 2017
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Catholic Issues and Current Events

Catholicism Visible

by Dwight Longenecker

For Catholic readers of The Lord of the Rings the test for Peter Jacksonís film trilogy of Tolkienís masterpiece was not the excellence of the special effects, the acting, the directing the cinematography or the storytelling, but whether Jackson and his team would be faithful to Tolkienís Catholic vision.

It was a real challenge, not least because the Catholicism in Tolkienís work is written so deeply into the very warp and woof of the tale. Itís not like Tolkienís faith was there as big as a roaring lion for everyone to see. Tolkien eschewed his friend C.S.Lewis semi-allegorical approach in Narnia, and wove his Christian vision into the very fabric of his alternative adventure. The majority of Tolkienís fans donít even know he was Catholic, and have no idea that Catholic themes and a Catholic vision undergird the whole work. It could therefore be understood, if not excused, if the film maker missed the invisible qualities of Tolkienís work.

Happily, Peter Jackson, although not a believer himself, was joined on the scriptwriting team by a committed Christian, Philippa Boyens. Boyens understood Tolkienís theological stance, and both she and Jackson have been articulate about their desire to both understand and be faithful to Tolkienís underlying themes and religious vision. Were they successful? Letís look at some of the Catholicism made visible in Jacksonís film trilogy.

First we should consider the characters. Tolkien does not give us one clear Christ figure in Lord of the RIngs. Instead all the main male characters carry some traits of Christís character and sacrifice. Aragorn is semi-immortal, the returning king, the fulfillment of all the ancient prophecies. He is the hidden, yet revealed savior, who goes through the dark halls of death to redeem his lost kingdom. In casting Viggo Mortensen, Jackson gives us a character who looks like the typical icon of Christ, thus visually sealing Tolkienís predominant Christ figure.

Gandalf doesnít look like Christ, but his actions reveal his own Christ-like stature. As he battles the Balrog, plunges down into the abyss to save his friends, then swirls up into the cosmos where he is resurrected, Gandalf symbolizes the conquering, risen and ascended Christ. When he re-appears glorified in white his friends (like Christís disciples after the resurrection) do not recognize him, and as he goes on to exorcise Theoden King, and do battle with the forces of evil, he emerges as the triumphant warrior and bearer of light. Likewise Frodo, like Christ, bears the burden of sin on behalf of his whole race, and Samwise Gamgee, as he carries Frodo up Mount Doom, bears the burden of his brother in a scene reminiscent of Christ carrying his cross on the Via Dolorosa.

If Christ is made visible in the male characters, the Blessed Virgin is made visible in the female. Tolkien said that Galadriel was based on his understanding of the purity and power of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Cate Blanchettís portrayal is probably the most disappointing of all the characters in the trilogy. When she resists the temptation to take the ring, the film makersí attempts to portray her spiritual power result in a disturbingly witch-like Galadriel. It is arguable that her other scenes portray her beauty, purity and power, and that it is correct that when she faced the dark side she became more sinister, but she remains the most disappointing symbol of the Blessed Virgin in the film.

Arwenís role--brought up by the film makers from a minor part in The Silmarillion--is a pleasing surprise. She rescues Frodo at a crucial moment and takes him on an exciting ride escaping the Ringwraiths at the Fords of Bruinen. At that point, cradling the critically ill Frodo she prays that the grace given to her might pass into him for his healing. This line is not in Tolkienís work, and is a clear indication of the screenwriterís intent to weave Tolkienís faith themes into the whole work. That this happens at a scene where, (to quote the psalm) ďthe horse and the riders are cast into the seaĒ, thus hearkening back to the salvation by crossing through the Red Sea, brings forward the theme of salvation and the crucial role of Our Lady in the providence of God.

The final female role, in which Tolkienís Catholicism become visible is the courageous Rohan maiden Eowyn. When, on the field of battle, she cuts off the head of the Nazgul, and thus turns the battle, she becomes the daughter of Eve who will trample the head of the dragon. Thus Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel typify the grace, the strength and the purity and power of the Blessed Virgin.

A good film maker, when adapting a literary work, does not simply photograph the action that is told in the story. He also attempts to make visible all the invisible elements. Peter Jackson not only had to relate the adventure plot that Tolkien devised, he not only had to make the characters and locale of Middle Earth come to life. He had to conceive and create the film in such a way that Tolkienís mood, themes and underlying faith could be portrayed. However, this had to be done in the same, subtle and understated way that Tolkien did himself. It would have been unfaithful to have either ignored Tolkienís faith, or to have brought it up and highlighted more than Tolkien himself did.

It is my opinion that, apart from a few slight problems, Jackson succeeded in this task beyond all expectations. I have already briefly outlined the successful portrayal of the characters, and how Jackson included their ĎCatholicí dimension. He did the same with the rest of Tolkienís cast. The orcs successfully portray demons, while the Ringwraiths convey the horror of men given over to the dark side. Gollumís portrayal of an ordinary soul eaten up by addictions to lust and power is obsessively chilling and accurate, while the silent watchful eye of Sauron makes visible the unrelenting vigilance and terror of Satan himself. If Jackson succeeded in making the ĎCatholicí characters visible, he also succeeded in showing the reality of evil incarnate.

Finally, there are the many small touches in which Jackson makes Catholicism visible--not in a blatant way, but in a quiet way that is faithful to the subtlety of Tolkienís art. The visual signs and symbols proliferate throughout the film. Galadrielís gifts, especially the lembas way bread, are maintained as symbols of the gift of grace. At the death of Boromir we see Aragorn close his friendsí eyes and then touch his thumb to his forehead, lips and breast--reminiscent of the Catholicsí crossing of the forehead, lips and breast at the reading of the gospel. When Aragorn returns to his kingdom, the tree that had been barren bursts into flower, symbolizing the tree of the cross that becomes the tree of life. Then there is a scene in the extended version where Aragorn ruminates about his future in the great hall of Rivendell. He stands before the tomb of his mother, and the statue over the tomb resembles in her pose and dress, Our Lady of Lourdes.

Peter Jackson makes Catholicism visible in his version of Lord of the Rings just as Tolkien would have wanted it. There are flaws. Any work of art is less than perfect. At times the commercial demands for action, comedy and even slapstick intrude. However, beneath the total work, Tolkienís faith is made visible. It is done so in true artistic fashion--never presented for its own sake--never Ďon the noseí; never preachy or didactic. Instead, as is fitting for a great Christian work of art, the Truth is incarnated. Within Tolkienís subcreated world the eternal Truths of the Christian faith are both artfully concealed and artistically revealed.


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