Arts, Media, and Entertainment

Escape into Reality

The Return of the King, the final installment of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, opens today, and like its predecessors, it shows every sign of becoming a record-breaking success. The worldwide popularity of these movies, like the continuing popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien's original masterpiece, reminds us once again of the captivating power of a well-told story. And the response to this particular story is especially encouraging. It shows us that even in a world steeped in moral relativism people still hunger for tales of the absolutes: the triumph of good over evil. Of course, when some people look at Tolkien's tale of wizards, hobbits, and elves, they believe that fans of his work are merely science fiction fans fleeing from reality. And that may be the case for some. But in his new book, The Gospel According to Tolkien, Ralph Wood argues that the Lord of the Rings helps us to "escape into reality." Wood points out that, far from being a shiny, happy escape fantasy, the Lord of the Rings deals effectively and movingly with subjects like death, war, hopelessness, tyranny, temptation, and the sinfulness of human nature. In short, it clearly reflects the turbulent twentieth century that Tolkien experienced, a time not very different from our own. As Wood writes, "Far from encouraging us to turn away from such evils, Tolkien's book forces us to confront them. Rather than grinding our faces in these horrors, however, it suggests a cure for the ills of our age." That's because Tolkien's work, though not explicitly Christian, is grounded in his Christian understanding of the world. Unlike the pagan epics from which Tolkien drew in writing his book -- or the modernist novels of many of his contemporaries -- the Lord of the Rings conveys a profound sense of hope. For although the story shows evil as horrifyingly real and destructive, it also shows the power and strength of goodness. The heroic actions of small, ordinary creatures against an overwhelming threat echo the biblical themes of God's strength being made perfect in weakness and the last becoming first. As Tolkien wrote elsewhere, a crucial theme in his work is "the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble." At the same time, as characters struggle against their own personal temptations, they show the weakness and fallibility of the human heart and our need for guidance and grace. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his review of the Lord of the Rings, "As we read we find ourselves sharing [the characters'] burden; when we have finished, we return to our own life not relaxed but fortified." Lewis and Tolkien knew, and Ralph Wood reminds us in his book, that there is a kind of escapism that Christians ought to encourage -- that is, the escape from a narrow, earthbound view of our own circumstances. This kind of escapism helps us to look at the bigger picture and understand the eternal moral truths governing our lives. So why not take a skeptical friend to the movie? Engage the issues afterwards over coffee. Tolkien's books, and now the movies, are giving people a whole new perspective on reality -- a perspective that prepares them for a better understanding of the God who is ultimate reality. For further reading and information: Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003). J. R. R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings(1955). J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories" in The Tolkien Reader(Ballantine Books, 1966). C. S. Lewis, "On Science Fiction," "The Hobbit," and "Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings" in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 2002). Lewis provides some valuable insights into his friend's work. Colin Duriez, Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship (often mistakenly listed as The Story of a Friendship) (Paulist Press, 2003). Tom Shippey, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Houghton Mifflin, 2002). Joseph Pearce, Tolkien: Man and Myth (Ignatius, 2001). Joseph Pearce, ed., Tolkien: A Celebration (Morehouse Group, 2001). Daniel Kennelly, "Making Middle Earth," Weekly Standard, 15 December 2003. (Available to subscribers.) Philip French, "It's That Gondor Moment . . . ," London Observer, 14 December 2003. BreakPoint Commentary No. 030212, "The Stories That Stay with Us: Movies to Watch This Christmas." See yesterday's BreakPoint Commentary, "Myth Meets Real Life." See also the BreakPoint Commentaries: "A Triumphant Return," "Preparatio Evangelica," "Now at a Theater Near You," and "Defrocking Frodo and the Death of the Imagination." (Archived commentaries; free registration required.) Visit the website for The Return of the King. Roberto Rivera, "The Lord of the Rings: A fan of the book reviews the film," Boundless, 20 December 2001. Gregory Jon Harbert, "A Look at the Creator of the Lord of the Rings: Tolkien on Faerie Tales," Santa Cruz Arts Journal, undated. Ethan Gilsdorf, "In England, Tolkien Gestures," Washington Post, 14 December 2003, P01. Kelley Reep, "Between Two Masters: A Modern Parable," BreakPoint Online, 24 January 2003. Gina Dalfonzo, "The Myth That Really Happened: Tolkien and the 'True Myth,'BreakPoint Online, 23 December 2002. See the resource list "Books to Give as Gifts: Recommendations from Chuck Colson and the Wilberforce Forum." See also the list of books for young adults and children.


Chuck Colson


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