Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Editor, Oblation: Liturgy and Evangelization
Editor’s note: This essay was originally given through the Theology and Film series sponsored by the Notre Dame Department of Theology and the Institute for Church Life. For Oblation, the essay will appear in four parts, I. The Elves Leave Middle Earth, II. The Fallen Imagination, III. The Christological Imagination, and IV. The Eschatological Imagination.
There is an inherent danger whenever one gives a public lecture on beloved pieces of literature or film. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, the danger is two-fold. The story of Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pip, Gandalf, Aragorn, and of course others, is deeply imprinted upon our imaginations not only through the books but the trilogy of films that gave flesh to the characters and places so dear to many of us.
A number of you know these stories so well, both the text and the film, that I risk public embarrassment in going into too much detail. Like many American readers, my initial encounter with the series was after I had seen the first film, and wanting to know how the tale turned out, I read the remainder of the trilogy over a Christmas holiday. And thus, I am no expert in the subtle grammars of Elvish, the distinctions between the plot of the movies and the books, or the mythological sources that Tolkien drew upon in creating the vivid world of the text.
But, as a Catholic theologian, I fashion myself as at least competent in what I would call the Catholic imagination. That is, there are certain images, narratives, rhetorical or literary tropes, and characterizations peculiar to the mind formed in the ethos of Catholicism. And that Tolkien, himself a faithful Catholic abiding in a post-Enlightenment England, permeates Middle Earth with certain features of this imagination. This does not mean that The Lord of the Rings is an allegory. The reader or movie-goer warps the narrative if he or she attempts to find a direct correspondence between the beloved characters of Middle Earth and the Scriptures, or specific doctrinal or ethical claims. Rather, watching The Lord of the Rings, those formed in the Catholic imagination contemplate the topoi of Catholicism in a setting outside of anything recognizably Christian. And such contemplation results in a seeding of the imagination, a deeper appreciation of what is at stake in the images, narratives, and signs of Catholicism itself.
Thus, what we perform today is a theology drawn from The Lord of the Rings. For the film is not an imaginative and thus more palatable version of academic theology. Indeed, The Lord of the Rings is just as much about World War II, European nationalism, as well as industrialization and its effects upon England as it is about anything explicitly theological (of course, perhaps this is the genius of Catholicism—that such historical realities are necessarily a matter of theological reflection) (Nicholas Boyle, Sacred and Secular Scriptures: A Catholic Approach to Literature [Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005]: 248-66). Tolkien is certainly not concerned with setting out a proper Christology, Eucharistic theology, or a theological account of the virtues. He is telling a tale. But, if we approach the text with openness to the enrichment of our own Catholic imaginations, to the sudden interruptions where an image requires us to perceive God anew, we may find that these films cultivate a robust theological imagination. And that our work as theologians may benefit from this seeding of the imagination.
Thus, we shall proceed in the following way. Dividing the Catholic imagination into three parts, we will explore the fallen, the Christological, and the eschatological imagination of the films. In each case, we will watch a bit of the film and then engage in a theological commentary upon what we view. And the hope is at the end, we might have time for a bit of discussion.
Part I: The Elves Leave Middle Earth
Before diving into our three-fold contemplation of the Catholic imagination in The Lord of the Rings, I would like to begin with a scene from the extended version of the film. Frodo and Sam, early on in their journey, encounter a group of wood elves departing Middle-Earth.
Think for a moment about the role of the “elf” in The Lord of the Rings. Elves are old, keeping alive the history forgotten by hobbits, dwarves, and men. They sing hymns and songs that draw the listener into the contemplation of the beautiful. Their bread (lembas) will fill the stomach in such a way that the one who eats of it will be satisfied after but one bite. They represent the good magic of Middle-Earth, a time of peace and harmony, one quickly passing away under the threat of Sauron. They depart Middle-Earth now in droves, their songs fading, and their magic absent or powerless against Sauron’s cancerous power. In the Fellowship of the Ring, as Frodo and his companions prepare to depart Lorien, J.R. Tolkien writes:
There in the last end of Egladil upon the green grass the parting feast was held; but Frodo ate and drank little, heeding only the beauty of the Lady [Galadriel] and her voice. She seemed no longer perilous or terrible, nor filled with hidden power. Already she seemed to him, as by men of later days Elves still at times are seen: present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time (419).
Thus, the sojourn of the elves away from Middle-Earth, is a kind of image of the modern condition. Indeed, elves remember the story of all creation. And through their songs and language, men, hobbits, and other friendly creatures come to know the enchanted nature of the cosmos, themselves participating in realities beyond their own limited memory. Frodo, as he rests in Rivendell in The Fellowship, listens to the music of the elves: “Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall became like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world” (261). But when the elves depart, how will the creatures of Middle-Earth remember the origins of the world? How will they contemplate the visions of far lands not yet imagined, of the golden mist that rises above the sea? The memory of the origins of the world is entrusted to hobbits and men, who as we know, are not always up to the task. Yet, the reader is confronted with this narrative. He or she is encountering this world through the traditioning of this story by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and now presumably Samwise Gamgee. The enchanted nature of the cosmos may be difficult for a world without elves to discern. But, The Lord of the Rings invites us to believe in that which is beyond the visible alone. That there remains a world of mystery unseen to the human eye, forgotten within the discourse of the modern world.
For the denial of this invisible world, of meaning, of hope in the midst of darkness, the erasure of love itself—this is the destruction of man and woman and hobbit and dwarf. Yet, if one can believe in that which is not yet seen, there remains hope. The Lord of the Rings is intended to awaken the reader or the viewer to this reality. Though the elves are departed, there remains an invisible world, a cosmos of good magic, one not solely oriented toward power, destruction, and efficiency (are these not the a-theological virtues of Mordor?). And such a world is revealed not simply through the magic of the elves but in the deeds of Frodo, of Aragorn, of Sam, of Gandalf, and a host of others who prove that the courage of hobbits and men and wizards can defeat all dark magic.
In part 2, we will examine the fallen imagination in The Lord of the Rings.