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As J.R.R. Tolkien fans awaited the December opening of the film The Lord of the Rings, Seattle Pacific University's C.S. Lewis Institute hosted a special conference to explore the epic's place in 20th century literature and culture. "Celebrating Middle Earth: The Lord of the Rings as a Defense of Western Civilization" attracted 600 people to campus November 9-10 to hear presentations by Tolkien biographer Joseph Pearce, author Peter Kreeft, and SPU faculty members John West, Janet Blumberg, Phillip Goggans and Kerry Dearborn. Also on the program were a medieval banquet and a performance of The Lord of the Rings Symphony by the SPU Symphonic Wind Ensemble.

"When I heard about the new film version of The Lord of the Rings," says John West, associate professor of political science and conference organizer, "I thought it would provide a wonderful opportunity to explore the theological and ethical dimensions of Tolkien's saga. I was also reading Joseph Pearce's biography of Tolkien at the time, and I thought it was so insightful that I wanted to invite him to SPU."

Pearce, whose book Tolkien, Man and Myth was published in 1998, spoke about the Christian foundation of The Lord of the Rings. "Far from being an escapist fantasy," he told his audience, "The Lord of the Rings is a theological thriller." Included below is an edited version of his remarks.

Tolkien and other British Christian authors have been the subjects of study at the Seattle Pacific C.S. Lewis Institute for more than 25 years. Today the Institute is a joint project of SPU's Society of Fellows and the Discovery Institute. The November conference was co-sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which provided funding for the event, as did the Eahart Foundation.

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings has emerged as "the greatest book of the twentieth century" in several major polls conducted in Britain in recent years. In one poll of more than 25,000 bibliophiles, conducted by a major bookselling chain and a national television channel, one-fifth nominated The Lord of the Rings as their first choice. It was a runaway winner, securing 1,200 votes more than George Orwell's 1984, its nearest rival.

Many literary experts greeted Tolkien's triumph with contempt. British writer Howard Jacobson dismissed Tolkien as being "for children … or the adult slow." Susan Jeffreys, writing in the Sunday Times, described The Lord of the Rings as "a horrible artifact" and added that it was "depressing … that the votes for the world's best 20th-century book should have come from those burrowing an escape into a non-existent world." Rarely has the cultural schism between the literati and the reading public been highlighted to such an extent.

Most of those who sneered at The Lord of the Rings are outspoken champions of cultural deconstruction and moral relativism. They would likely treat the Christian beliefs of Tolkien with the same disdain as they have his writings.

But then some of Tolkien's critics are Christians. They remain suspicious of The Lord of the Rings because they see within its mythological setting hints of neo-paganism, possibly even Satanism. Can anything containing wizards, elves, sorcery and magic be trusted? Certainly, in the wake of the worldwide success of the Harry Potter books, many Christians fear the effect that fantasy literature might be having on their children. Are these fears justified? Should Christian parents prohibit their children from reading The Lord of the Rings?

I believe the answer to this question is an emphatic "no." Far from being prohibited, Tolkien's epic should be required reading in every Christian family. It should take its place beside the Narnian chronicles of C.S. Lewis (Tolkien's great friend) and the fairy stories of George Macdonald as an indispensable part of childhood.

The profoundly Christian nature of Tolkien's work can be seen by looking more closely at Tolkien the man, at his philosophy of myth, and at the particular myth he weaves so beautifully in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien the Man
Tolkien was suspicious of paying too much attention to biographical details about the author in deciding whether a book was good or bad, and for the most part I agree with him. Nonetheless, Tolkien couldn't have written The Lord of the Flies any more than William Golding could have written The Lord of the Rings. Obviously, there is some profound correlation between an author and his work.

Tolkien was born in 1892. His father died in 1896, so Tolkien barely remembered him. His mother died in 1904, when Tolkien was only 12. Following his mother's death, he and his brother were sent to live with a distant relative, where they never really felt at home.

In 1916, within weeks of his marriage, Tolkien went off to fight in the First World War and was involved in the Battle of the Somme, one of the war's bloodiest conflicts. Tolkien referred to this battle when speaking of the "animal horror" of trench warfare. When people accuse Tolkien of escapism, they should consider the stark reality he lived through as both an orphan and a soldier.

Raised as a Roman Catholic, Tolkien had four children, and his role as father was crucial to his becoming a writer. He wanted to entertain his children, and this was the motivation for writing The Hobbit, the children's story that became a bestseller and established Tolkien's reputation as a writer.

Among the biographical facts that Tolkien admitted were significant to his works were his upbringing in a "pre-mechanical" age and his academic vocation as a philologist at Oxford University. His "taste in languages," he said, was "obviously a large ingredient in The Lord of the Rings."

However, it was his Christian faith that Tolkien said was the single most important influence on his writing of The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, it would be a mistake to see Tolkien's grand story as anything other than a specifically Christian myth. Tolkien's Philosophy of Myth
Tolkien's philosophy of myth derives directly from his Christian faith. He understood the nature of myth in a manner that has not always been appreciated by critics and readers. For many people, a myth is merely another word for a lie, something that is intrinsically not true. For Tolkien, myth had virtually the opposite meaning. It was the only way that certain transcendent truths could be expressed in intelligible form.

This paradoxical philosophy was destined to have a profound influence on the non-believer C.S. Lewis. In September 1931, Lewis, Tolkien and their mutual friend Hugo Dyson walked together and discussed the nature and purpose of myth. Lewis explained that he felt the power of myths, but that they were ultimately "lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver." Tolkien argued that we have come from God, and the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of God's eternal truth.

Building on this philosophy of myth, Tolkien and Dyson went on to express their belief that the story of Christ was simply a true myth, a myth that really happened. God, the omnipotent Poet, told the True Story with facts, weaving his tale with the actions of real men in actual history.

Tolkien's arguments had an indelible effect on Lewis, and the foundations of his Christian faith were laid. It is interesting — indeed astonishing — to note that without J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis might not have come to be known and loved throughout the world as the formidable Christian apologist and author of such sublime Christian myths as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Integral to Tolkien's philosophy of myth was his belief that the gift of creativity was a mark of God's divine image in man. Only God could bring something into being out of nothing. Man, however, could sub-create by molding the material of Creation into works of beauty, including art, music and literature.

The True Myth
Tolkien's last and unfinished work, The Silmarillion, forms the theological foundation and mythological framework for The Lord of the Rings. And the Creation myth in The Silmarillion is perhaps the most significant and most beautiful of all Tolkien's work.

Tolkien's own version of the Creation bears a remarkable similarity to the Creation story in the book of Genesis. In the beginning was Eru, the One, who "made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made." Eru then allows the Holy Ones, or archangels, to share his creative gifts, and they bring forth the Creation of God as a symphony of praise in his honor.

Disharmony is brought into the cosmic symphony of Creation when one of the archangels decides to play his own tune in defiance of the will of the Composer. This disharmony is the beginning of evil. The rebel archangel is named Melkor, later known as Morgoth, and is obviously Middle Earth's equivalent of Satan. Shortly after describing Melkor, Tolkien introduces Sauron, the Dark Lord in The Lord of the Rings. Sauron is described as a "spirit" and as the "greatest" of Satan's servants.

The magnificence of Tolkien's mythological vision in The Lord of the Rings precludes an adequate appraisal, in an essay of this length, of the Christian theology that gives it life. In the impenetrable blackness of the Dark Lord and his abysmal servants, the ring-wraiths, we feel the objective reality of evil. In the reluctant heroism of the hobbits we see goodness and courage ennobled by humility. In Gandalf, we see a powerful — at times almost Christ-like — prophet who beholds a vision of the Kingdom beyond the understanding of men. In the true, though exiled, Kingship of Aragorn, we see glimmers of the hope for a restoration of truly ordained authority. In Boromir, we see the human capability for repentance and the promise of redemption.

Ultimately, The Lord of the Rings is a mystical Passion Play. The carrying of the Ring — the emblem of sin — is the carrying of the Cross. The mythological Quest is a veritable Via Dolorosa, or road to the Cross.

Many have failed to grasp this ultimate truth at the heart of Tolkien's myth. But one is reminded of the words of C.S. Lewis that a diligent atheist or, for that matter, a delicate agnostic, cannot be too careful of what he or she reads. In straying deeply into Tolkien's world, people will find a world of truths not previously perceived. And they might even come to see that the exciting truths point to the most exciting Truth of all.

Joseph Pearce is the author of a number of books, including Tolkien, Man and Myth: A Literary Life; Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile; Wisdom and Innocence (a biography of G.K. Chesterton); and Literary Converts (a book about the spiritual lives of Waugh, Muggeridge, Lewis, Chesterton, Sayers and other British writers). He is currently co-editor of the St. Austin Review and writer-in-residence at Ave Maria College in Michigan.

More About Tolkien

Tolkien's Sources
By Janet Blumberg, Professor of English

While Tolkien drew on sources as old and varied as the Norse sagas, Homer and the Bible, his most fascinating influences came from the two bodies of literature that were the focus of his scholarly career. These were both English, Medieval and Christian, and grew out of periods of conversion and revival.

The first was Anglo-Saxon poetry (AD 600-1000), which Tolkien describes in "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" as containing "an instinctive historical sense" from which its sadness and beauty chiefly derived. Lovers of riddle, hero tale and elegy, Anglo-Saxon poets represented Christ as the young battle-leader who died and was mourned by his followers despite his defeat.

But Tolkien also drew upon High Medieval chivalric works such as The Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, fourteenth-century poems that reflected the synthesis of Aquinas and Dante with their highly ordered European Christian vision of all things consummating in the eternal Heavenly Rose.

While Tolkien borrowed from the later chivalric worldview for his histories and characters, he set his tale deliberately within the darker Anglo-Saxon elegiac worldview, in which one is forced to choose the Good, regardless of whether or not that side will ultimately win out. Tolkien, like C. S. Lewis, saw great danger to Christianity if believers accepted the gospel in order to be on the winning side, leading to hedonistic selfishness, the antithesis of spirituality. Only loving the Good, even in its defeat, is true loyalty to Christ.

Tolkien and Lewis, Scholars and Friends
By John West, Associate Professor of Political Science

As Joseph Pearce points out in his essay above, J.R.R. Tolkien helped introduce his friend and fellow Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis to Christ, thereby making possible Lewis' prolific career as a champion of "Mere Christianity."

But Tolkien benefited from Lewis's friendship as well.

Wracked by self-doubt, Tolkien probably never would have finished The Lord of the Rings without the faithful encouragement of Lewis, who was the story's chief booster during the more than a decade that it took Tolkien to write his epic. Tolkien would read parts of his developing story to Lewis, and Lewis would respond with criticism, praise, and even tears. Lewis also held Tolkien accountable. In 1944, Tolkien wrote that Lewis was "putting the screw on me to finish" the story. Even so, it would take Tolkien another five years!

After Tolkien achieved international acclaim from The Lord of the Rings, he wrote a correspondent that "I have never had much confidence in my own work, and even now when I am assured — much to my grateful surprise — that it has value for other people, I feel diffident, reluctant as it were to expose my world of imagination to possibly contemptuous eyes and ears."

According to Tolkien, it was Lewis who convinced him The Lord of the Rings was worth publishing and who kept him going during hard times. "Only by support and friendship did I ever struggle to the end of the labour," Tolkien wrote.

What an incredible testimony to the power of a friend's encouragement.

A Student's Review of the Film
By Brent Diebel, Senior Philosophy Major

The transition from a book to a movie often ends in disappointment. The producer of The Lord of the Rings faced the challenge of adequately condensing the trilogy to make three movies of reasonable length while maintaining a cohesive storyline. Since the storyline is immense, misrepresentation seemed inevitable.

Although the writer and director took some artistic license — such as with the omission of Tom Bombadil and the overemphasis of the elf princess Arwen's role as a warrior and as Aragorn's lover — these changes did not detract from the overall experience for me. I found the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring to have been surprisingly well done, and it captured two of the major themes in the tale: duty and friendship.

A strong sense of duty permeates Tolkien's epic. I think the movie correctly portrays Frodo's reluctance to bear the ring and his ability to overcome a sense of inadequacy in order to fulfill his duty. Within The Fellowship it is understood that individuals are important, yet there are greater ideals worthy of personal sacrifice to attain. In this light, death is never in vain and can be noble, as in the case of Boromir.

Tolkien also had a high regard for companionship and friendship. The Lord of the Rings shows how the weaknesses of one can be supplemented by the strengths of another. Even though Frodo is inadequate to carry his burden, his eight friends come beside him and make his journey possible.

Despite the changes and necessary condensing, I think Tolkien's true vision for The Fellowship of the Ring was preserved in the film.

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