Even as cultural progressives put the axe to the old dead tree of Christianity, the roots of that ancient culture surface and shoot in unexpected ways - none more so than in the two blockbuster movies of 2004.
The Passion of the Christ surges towards half a billion in takings, while The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King tops them all with nearer $800 million. What is of great interest is that Tolkien’s epic, like Gibson’s, also climaxes on the most sacred day in the Christian calendar, Good Friday.
Tolkien, like Gibson, was a devout traditional Catholic – which will frustrate modern-day druids who would claim Tolkien as one of their own. In a 1953 letter to his old friend, Father Robert Murray, shortly before the Ring trilogy was published, Tolkien made his inspiration clear: “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” (in The Letters of JRR Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter (ed.), George Allen & Unwin, 1981)
That is unexpected and little understood, with several new books in recent years exploring resonances in the cosmologies and moral structure of Middle Earth and Christianity.
Writing to a critic in 1958 who wanted to analyse relevant facts about the author’s life, Tolkien confirmed that “a few basic facts are really significant. For instance I was born in 1892 and lived for my early years in ‘the Shire’ in a pre-mechanical age. Or more important, I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories).”
It is far from obvious to most readers or viewers of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy how this welter of orcs and elves, trolls and wizards is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, and how it implies a Christian author. It is certainly not a Christian allegory – unlike the Narnia series of children’s books by his closest friend at Oxford University, CS Lewis. Tolkien “cordially disliked” allegory, and had no time for Lewis’s books. However, he acknowledged that without Lewis’s shared passion for ancient myth and his consistent enthusiasm for the chapters of the Ring that Tolkien read to their circle of Christian friends, the book would never have been completed.
The Ring trilogy is no contrived allegory, and Tolkien himself felt he was not so much inventing the story as discovering it as he went along. Yet at its catastrophic climax, where the “One Ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them” is finally destroyed, the author himself hints at a Christian parallel.
On the final ascent of Mount Doom, the loyal hobbit, Sam, encourages his exhausted and struggling friend, Frodo, and in the end bears him on his back. Frodo’s mission is to destroy the Ring in the fires of that mountain but he is crushed in body and mind by its evil weight, and expects to die. He eventually succumbs to its corrupting power – only to be saved by the violence of Gollum, whose life had earlier been spared by the forgiving hobbit.
“I should say," wrote Tolkien, “that within the mode of the story the ‘catastrophe’ exemplifies (an aspect of) the familiar words: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’.” Tolkien dates the destruction of the Ring to March 25, which was the traditional date of Good Friday, the crucifixion, in Tolkien’s ancestral Anglo-Saxon world.
Flash across to the final ascent of Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, in Gibson’s film. Simon, conscripted to help carry Jesus’ cross, urges gentle words of encouragement – “nearly there!” – to his brutalised brother Jew. Sam and Frodo come to mind. Gibson shows Jesus telling his intimate circle, “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends”. Equally, in his own small way, could this be said of Frodo. In Jesus’s case, the One Sin to rule them all must be destroyed, and he needs no Gollum to help him.
In Gibson’s otherwise depressing film, there are sublime moments when Jesus conveys the sheer insuppressible joy of what he is achieving by his sacrifice. He falls under the weight of the cross; his dear mum flashes back to an image of her little boy falling on the gravel and rushes to him. “See, mother?" he chokes out through the blood and screaming mob, “I make all things new”.
These are both epics – Tolkien’s myth, and what he called the “true myth” of the dying and rising Christ. They are both vast stories, too big perhaps to be seen clearly. But however unclear our vision and however disturbing the experience of both films, great myth (especially true myth) enlarges our inner world - and to have two great Christian epics showing in our typically debased movie theatres during Holy Week is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime event.