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Tolkien's Christianity seen reflected in `Rings'


J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic who considered his faith a personal matter.

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“The `Lord of the Rings' is of course a fundamentally religious and Christian work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”

- J.R.R. Tolkien in a letter to a friend.

Following in the wake of Harry Potter's broomstick, the newly released movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring has riled up some members of the religious right.

But apart from the fact that Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone are both fantasies, the movies have little in common, several Tolkien experts said.

“What The Lord of the Rings is is a theological thriller,” Joseph Pearce, a Tolkien biographer, said in a recent interview.

“Tolkien's works reveal his Christian world view,” said author Jim Ware, “while Harry Potter is just telling a story.”

A British scholar who lived from 1892-1973, Tolkien was a devout Catholic who considered his faith to be a personal matter, both authors said.

Mr. Pearce, a writer-in-residence at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Mich., is the author of a 1999 biography, Tolkien: Man and Myth, and editor of a book of letters published this year, Tolkien - A Celebration: Collected Writing on a Literary Legacy (Ignatius Press).

Mr. Ware, a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, collaborated with Kurt Bruner, vice president of Focus on the Family, on the newly published Finding God in the Lord of the Rings (Tyndale, $12.99).

In Tolkien's works, published in the mid-1950s, the mythological world of Middle-Earth and its imaginary inhabitants - hobbits, wizards, elves, dwarves, men, and more - are used to tell stories that revolve around the eternal conflict between good and evil.

“Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among elves and dwarves and another among men,” Tolkien once wrote.

The book by Mr. Ware and Mr. Bruning draws parallels between events and themes found in the Bible and in The Lord of the Rings, and it offers a religious “reflection” at the end of each chapter.

In the chapter titled “Seductive Voice,” for example, Mr. Ware and Mr. Bruner compare the hobbits' misguided trust in a character called Sharkey to Satan's deception of humanity.

In “The Call,” the authors compare the hobbit Frodo's acceptance of a mission proposed by the wizard Gandalf to Peter and Andrew's acceptance of Christ's invitation to “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

Both Mr. Ware and Mr. Pearce said that Tolkien clearly disliked the literary technique of allegory, which uses symbolism to express general truths about humanity. But the author was determined to create fantasy stories that were in accord with his Christian values and beliefs.

“Tolkien believed that creativity was a gift from God that only comes from grace,” Mr. Pearce said, “so if you write a myth with a good heart, just intending on telling a good story, with the emphasis on good, then basically God would be a co-author and fragments and facets of this truth would inevitably play a part in this story.”

While there are good and bad wizards in The Lord of the Rings, they are angelic-like beings whose powers “can be seen as a miracle of grace or some diabolical intervention,” Mr. Pearce said. “The whole thing is a war between God and the devil.”

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the use of magic is used for selfish or evil purposes and scenarios are presented in which the end justifies the means, a number of Christian commentators have said.

Tolkien was a friend and colleague of C.S. Lewis, whom he met at Oxford University in the 1920s. They were members of the Inklings, a literary group, and their conversations led Lewis to become a Christian. After one lengthy discussion in which Tolkien said that Christ embodies all the truths of myths, “Lewis later wrote to a friend that he had taken a step from believing in God to believing in Christ,” Mr. Ware said from his office in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Lewis became known as one of the 20th century's most famous and respected Christian writers and apologists, penning such books as The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity.

Tolkien, by contrast, is well known for his fantasy world but not for his religious convictions.

“Being a private individual, it wasn't his way to make public pronouncements of apologetics,” Mr. Pearce said. “The insights we get into Tolkien's faith are in the letters he writes to his sons and to his friends. They are few in number but are like golden nuggets, they contain the depth and strength of his faith. They show that his Christian faith was at the center of his life and the most important thing in his life.”

Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, has said in interviews that he stuck as close as possible to Tolkien's writings. All three movies based on the trilogy were filmed at the same time but will be released separately over a three-year period.

“We constantly referred to the book, not just in writing the screenplay but also throughout production,” Jackson said in an essay on the movie's official Web site, “I wanted to take all the great moments from the books and use modern technology to give audiences nights at the movies unlike anything they've experienced before.”

Mr. Ware said he has gotten a number of letters from Christians who are angry about his book. The whole genre of fantasy makes some of them nervous, he added.

Some Christians, however, have re-evaluated the movie and the Tolkien triology because of the endorsement of Mr. Bruning, a vice president of Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian organization headed by Dr. James Dobson.

“One lady actually wrote to me and said, `Now I can go see the movie with a clear conscience.' Which is kind of a scary statement,” Mr. Ware said.

An editor at a major Christian magazine had been interested in publishing an article by Mr. Ware summarizing the ideas behind Finding God in the Lord of the Rings, but could not get the support of the publication's board of directors.

“They said, `Well, Tolkien may have been a Christian, but these fantasies do nothing to promote the gospel,'” Mr. Ware said. “Kurt [Bruning] and I take issue with that. I personally think fantasy is one of the best genres there is for communicating eternal truths.”

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