Tolkein's themes of evil and sacrifice resonate today.
When it came to seeing the final film in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, I was determined to get the full experience.
So, over two successive nights, I watched the first two installments "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers" on DVD, and took in "The Return of the King" at the movie theater. For more than ten hours, I was immersed in the land of Middle Earth -- filled with hobbits, men, elves, dwarfs, wizards, orcs and other fantastic creatures -- that was created by author J.R.R. Tolkein and brought to life on the silver screen by director Peter Jackson.
The films have drawn unprecedented praise from critics and achieved huge box-office numbers. And on January 25 at the Golden Globe Awards, "The Return of the King" won best dramatic film, and Jackson took the best director nod. Two days later the film earned 11 Academy Award nominations, including for best picture and best director.
Of course, many virtues justify the praise and revenue earned by "The Lord of the Rings." The special effects are spellbinding, and particularly in "The Return of the King," like nothing I've seen before. The story is gripping, rich with emotion, action, character development, humor and beauty. In addition, each installment in the series actually surpassed the high level of excellence established in its predecessor.
So, "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy obviously would have succeeded whenever it was released. But the timing of these films cannot be ignored either.
The first movie arrived in theaters about three months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Countless people who had denied that evil existed or was at work in the world were savagely awakened from their moral ignorance when hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania murdering thousands of innocent people. The notion that human nature is overwhelmingly good, but that misunderstanding and poor communication creates the world's woes, was swept away by this horrid display of evil and sin.
In "The Lord of the Rings," evil is very much at work. Frodo Baggins, his friends and allies must destroy the ring of power desired by Sauron, who seeks it in order to enslave all in darkness. But evil in "The Lord of the Rings" is not exclusively external, but internal as well. The sinful side of human nature is acknowledged clearly in the trilogy, as man faltered many times due to, for example, weakness, cowardice, greed, and the desire for power.
This evil led to war. Hobbits, men and elves did not long for battle, and throughout the films, the decisions to wage war were not easy. But it became a necessity. Sauron sought, if you will, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction in the ring, and had to be stopped before uniting with it. Again, the timing of such a cinematic theme is rather dramatic as our nation's leaders over these past two-plus years recognized the necessity of waging war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and against other terrorists around the globe. These decisions were not made lightly. Just as the hobbits' desire in "The Lord of the Rings" to be left alone in their beautiful Shire had to give way to the reality of war at their doorstep, so has been the similar case with the U.S. over the past two-plus years.
Countering evil, though, requires sacrifice. As exhibited when some politicians disingenuously call for sacrifice in order to raise taxes, a substantive notion of sacrifice can be elusive in a culture that so often emphasizes immediate gratification, self-absorption and a shirking of responsibility. But "The Lord of the Rings" films place enormous emphasis on sacrifice. Elves, dwarfs, hobbits and men make tremendous sacrifices to protect their freedom, families, friends, homes and nations. While watching these movies, I could not help but think of members of our military and intelligence services who sacrifice in similar ways.
In the end, Middle Earth is saved through sacrifice. Those very sacrifices make it clear that despite a wide array of shortcomings and failings, the folk of Middle Earth also are capable of great good through courage, loyalty and love, and are worth saving.
If this theme of sacrifice strikes a Christian chord, that should not be surprising as Tolkein was a devout Catholic. Christianity, after all, tells of the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for mankind. As St. Paul noted: "God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood." (Romans 3:25)
For all its other merits, perhaps the success of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy received an extra boost as many moviegoers, through recent experiences with terrorism and war, have gained a far greater appreciation for acts of sacrifice in the face of evil and death.
Raymond J. Keating is a columnist with Newsday in New York.
Copyright © 2004 Raymond J. Keating. Reprinted with permission of the author.