WALL STREET JOURNAL
December 6, 2002
MYTH AT THE MULTIPLEX
JOHN J. MILLER
The movie version of “The Two Towers” opens on Dec. 18, the second installment in what is already a blockbuster J.R.R. Tolkien film trilogy. The new movie begins (at least it did at a recent screening) by replaying part of a scene from last year’s “The Fellowship of the Ring.” As his companions flee, the good wizard Gandalf turns to face the demonic Balrog and yells: “You cannot pass! I am a servant of the Secret Fire!”
The line about the Secret Fire is a curious one. Gandalf certainly speaks it in Tolkien’s novel, but its real meaning is never made clear on the book’s pages, and certainly not on screen. That would seem to make it a prime candidate for the cutting-room floor, since director Peter Jackson must delete all kinds of material to cram Tolkien’s epic into a few hours of film.
Yet the line is there — as it should be. As Bradley J. Birzer explains in “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth” (ISI Books), it is “the most important religious statement in the book.” The Secret Fire, Tolkien once told a friend, is really the Holy Spirit.
Most readers understand that “The Lord of the Rings” is more than just Harry Potter for grown-ups. Some have interpreted it as an allegory of World War II. Others have embraced its proto-environmentalism, reveled in its linguistic complexity or simply enjoyed its grand sweep and scope.
Secular readings of Tolkien, however, yield only so much. Mr. Birzer’s excellent new book is the latest in a bumper crop of studies — including those by Kurt Bruner, Joseph Pearce, Mark Eddy Smith and Jim Ware — that plumb the religious meaning of Middle Earth. Thanks in part to them, it has become increasingly obvious that Tolkien deserves a place alongside T.S. Eliot, Russell Kirk and C.S. Lewis as one of the 20th century’s great Christian humanists.
Tolkien’s deep faith is familiar to those who know his life story. When he was eight years old, in 1900, his widowed mother converted to Catholicism, an act that made her a virtual outcast within her family. Tolkien always blamed her death four years later on the resulting stress.
The orphaned Tolkien was left in the care of a severe priest, the Rev. Francis Morgan, who nonetheless secured Tolkien’s everlasting loyalty to the Catholic Church. Tolkien became a kind of evangelist among his academic friends; he was instrumental in convincing C.S. Lewis to become a Christian in 1931.
Between his Oxford lectures on medieval literature, Tolkien invented a mythology of Middle Earth. It was published posthumously as “The Silmarillion” in 1977 but written well before “The Lord of the Rings” first appeared in the 1950s; indeed, it served as a hidden backdrop to this much-loved saga. The mythology of Middle Earth was Tolkien’s own creation, of course, but he strived to make it correlate to events in the Bible. He called it a “sub-creation,” in deference to the real Creator.
Those who don’t realize any of this may still derive enormous pleasure from “The Lord of the Rings,” with its well-told tale of good vs. evil, courage vs. cowardice, redemption vs. ruin. At its core, however, the book is a piece of piety. “The Lord of the Rings,” Tolkien once wrote to a Jesuit friend, is a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first but consciously in the revision.”
Christians have been good at appropriating pagan traditions for their own ends — scheduling Christmas and Easter on pagan holidays, for instance. Tolkien moves in the reverse direction, taking Christian values and pouring them into a pagan world. His heroes aren’t Christians because the truth of Christianity hasn’t been revealed to them. But they do have inklings of it, as when Aragorn ponders mortality: “We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”
Peter Jackson, the director, appears to grasp all this. His films can’t be called religious, but they contain important moments of religious feeling. At the end of “Fellowship,” when Aragorn looks down upon the slain Boromir, he nearly crosses himself — his gesture might best be described as a half-cross. It’s a fitting symbol for Middle Earth, Tolkien’s devotional sub-creation.
Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review.