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Winter 2004 | Volume 26, Number 5 | Features
Beyond the Shire

“Gimli the Dwarf ” Joins a Fellowship of Students, Faculty and Staff to Explore Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

On a Saturday morning in January, Seattle Pacific University Minister of Discipleship Matthew Koenig watched as young people clad in greenhooded capes made their way into Upper Gwinn Commons to claim seats — several hours before the scheduled speaker even arrived at the podium.

What would draw students out of their residence halls on a weekend? And in costume, no less? It was not just a movie star who drew them, although his arrival would cause a stir on any campus. These students were attracted by the same power that has provoked a 50-year publishing phenomenon and, more recently, record-breaking box office receipts. They were drawn by the power of the One Ring … or, more accurately, the allure of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Koenig first journeyed through Middleearth only recently. As so many readers have experienced since the first publication of “the book of the century” in 1953, he was challenged and captivated by Tolkien’s imagination, voice and resonant Christian themes. Moreover, he was inspired.

Koenig joined with Bryan Cole in the Office of Student Programs to create The Lord of the Rings Film and Lecture Event, a campus festival coinciding with the theatrical run of the third film in director Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the trilogy. On January 15 and 17, New Line Cinema’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Two Towers” played on SPU screens. One of the film’s beloved stars — Rhys-Davies (Gimli) — made a guest appearance. Seminars hosted by faculty, staff and guests covered a variety of perspectives on the saga. For a finale, Koenig arranged for almost 100 students to attend a Saturday evening screening of “The Return of the King” at Seattle’s famous Cinerama theater.

While Koenig has not yet gone so far as to don hobbit garb like some enthusiastic students, he does find Middle-earth to be a rewarding context in which to consider the challenges of following Christ into places unknown. The sacrificial departure of Frodo the hobbit from his idyllic home in the Shire and the desperate quest he undertakes to destroy the One Ring — Middle-earth’s weapon of mass destruction — suggest the story of a savior who bore a cross in order to save the world. Similarly, the tale of Aragorn, a man wrestling with the responsibility of accepting his destiny as king, suggests to Koenig the way people must wrestle with their own self-doubts in order to embrace God’s call.

“I don’t want students to leave SPU thinking discipleship is heavy, draining or unexciting,” Koenig explains. “The path of discipleship is relentlessly demanding, but at the same time it is invigorating and life-affirming.”

Many Readers, Many Interpretations
Koenig’s vision proved contagious. Tolkien experts and enthusiasts from on and off campus volunteered to lead students in exploring various corners of Middle-earth.

In a seminar titled “Notions of Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings,” Residence Life Coordinator Chuck Strawn focused on the heroes’ demonstrations of loyalty, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, wisdomseeking, and willingness to overcome prejudice and personal desires. “I think we are hungering for this,” he said, “because we can’t find it in those whose lives usually fill our television and movie screens.”

“We idealize freedom without restraint, but we’re wrong to do so,” Associate Professor of Philosophy Phillip Goggans told the audience in his session titled “The Meaning of Life in The Lord of the Rings.” “It’s not in our best interest to be absolutely free. We can never succeed anyway, and we make ourselves miserable in the attempt. The characters in The Lord of the Rings have a fixed purpose not subordinate to their will. This is the truth about us and what we long to believe.”

Christie Eppler, assistant professor of counselor education, explored the resiliency of Frodo in her presentation, “To Journey On When All Seems Lost.” Other seminar topics included “I Fear a Cage: Courage and Calling for Women in The Lord of the Rings,” presented by Laurie Wheeler, associate pastor of Seattle’s Church at the Center; and “Tragedy and Triumph in The Lord of the Rings,” led by Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion.

A Small Character Played by a Big Name
For many, a visit from Rhys-Davies — who participated in all three installments of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy as both the temperamental, axe-wielding dwarf named Gimli and as the voice of Treebeard — proved the highlight of the Seattle Pacific event.

As Gimli, this 60-year-old veteran of stage and screen was made unrecognizable beneath layers of makeup and a bristling red moustache and beard that required several hours of application daily. (Don’t let the movies fool you: He’s actually taller than the actors who played Gandalf, Aragorn and Legolas.) Nevertheless, students quickly recognized him as Sallah, Indiana Jones’ boisterous and beloved sidekick.

During the 90-minute talk-back session, one fan expressed reservations about the differences between the film’s Gimli and the dwarf of the novels. To defend the screenwriters, Rhys-Davies offered his summary of the trilogy: “In The Lord of the Rings … things are sort of OK, and then they go bad, and then they get worse, and then they seem to get a little bit worse, then something really bad happens, and then there’s a fight, and things look really bad, and there’s another battle, and then things look really, really bad.” He explained that, to combat the constantly escalating tension, the screenwriters made Gimli a “lightning rod” of comic relief.

During his work on the films, Rhys-Davies grew fond of the character. “I think that the key to the laughter Gimli generates for us is that he simply doesn’t realize that he is small. No matter what the odds are, he’d rather turn and fight than run. He may not be as agile as that pointy-eared fellow who runs up the trunks of heffalumps — or whatever they are — but, give him something 30 times higher than him, like a cave troll, and he’ll give it a go.”

Rhys-Davies, who grew up in colonial Africa and Wales, finds a lot of his own life lessons echoed in Tolkien’s writings. Regarding the author’s compelling story of war, mercy and sacrifice, Rhys-Davies says, “I think some generations do face challenges. Sometimes you become opposed to the evil so vehemently that you become part of the evil itself … and yet to do nothing is to write the destruction of most of the things that you really love.”

Steps of Fellowship in a Grand Adventure
The ongoing enthusiasm for Tolkien’s work — which was definitely in evidence at SPU’s January event — begs the question: What makes his achievement so powerful?

According to Wolfe, Tolkien was an exemplary Christian artist. “He created a truly incarnational form of art. He refused to turn his faith into the preachy abstractions that one finds in so much that purports to be Christian art today. Rather, his Christian vision is totally absorbed into the deeply imagined world of Middle-earth. The Word becomes flesh through artistically crafted words.”

As students returned to their coursework with Tolkien’s language, Rhys-Davies’ stories and Howard Shore’s lush film soundtrack resonating in their minds, Koenig was already looking ahead to the next meeting of his weekly “Theology Goes to the Movies” cadre. There he encourages attendees to examine contemporary films and discuss their artistry, themes and spiritual implications. The cadre’s current subject: “The Truman Show.”

“This is a special time for SPU,” he says. “As students take seriously the call to engage the culture, they realize they’re going to have to be shrewd to do it. I see this in how they view film. No doubt there’s a desire for entertainment, but there’s also a hunger to identify deeper themes in movies and to interpret them on a more sophisticated level. I see a great passion for following Christ beyond campus and into the culture. That’s a wonderful thing to see.”

Editor’s Note:
Response writer Jeffrey Overstreet, also a film columnist with Christianity Today, taught one of the seminars at The Lord of the Rings Film and Lecture Event. Students in his session listened to excerpts from interviews in which film cast and crew members offer their own interpretations of the story. Edited transcripts are now available from this issue's home page.

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