The first installment of Peter Jackson's three-part film series of "The Hobbit" will debut on Dec. 14. A prequel to "The Lord of the Rings," it's based on J.R.R. Tolkien's young adult book "The Hobbit, or There and Back Again" (1937). (The much darker and more adult "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, itself originally conceived as a tale for children, was published in 1954-1955.)
Tolkien, who died 1973, was a devout Catholic and a close friend of the novelist, fantasy writer and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, who, like him, was a noted literary scholar at Oxford University. (Late in life, though, Lewis moved to Cambridge.)
In fact, Tolkien played a crucial role in Lewis' conversion from atheism to Christianity and, in 1925, he helped to found an informal group of Christian intellectuals called "the Inklings," which included, besides Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and, as an occasional adjunct member, the Dante-translator, essayist and mystery novelist Dorothy Sayers.
These writers often read to each other from their works in progress, which explains why Lewis' "Perelandra" trilogy, for example, contains clear references to "Lord of the Rings." (For the record, Tolkien disliked Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia.")
Not surprisingly, Tolkien's worldview profoundly influenced his writing, in ways both subtle and obvious.
"'The Lord of the Rings' is of course," he wrote in a 1953 letter, "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion,' to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism."
To choose just two fairly obvious examples, Galadriel, the royal Elf known as "the Lady of Light" who rules Lothlorien with her husband, Lord Celeborn, is reminiscent of the Virgin Mary. At certain points, her portrayal even recalls descriptions of the Marian apparitions at such places as Lourdes and Guadalupe. (And, like Mary, she's far more prominent than her husband.) Moreover, the seeming death of Gandalf, followed by his "resurrection" as the even more powerful Gandalf the White, makes him an unmistakable Christ figure.
But the Christian spirit of Tolkien's Middle Earth runs far deeper than such surface parallels. In "Lord of the Rings," for instance, the warrior hero Boromir is incredulous at Gandalf's plan. Returning the ring to Mordor, he protests, is lethal foolishness. Sauron's foes should use it as a military weapon against the Dark Lord rather than, as Boromir sees it, essentially handing that weapon back to its evil master. Boromir is, in that regard, very like the zealous Jews who dreamed of a militant messiah who would drive the Roman occupiers out of Palestine by brute force.
However, Gandalf's plan strikes at Mordor's fatal weakness: Obsessed with power, Sauron cannot begin to comprehend those who aren't. He never imagines that he will be undone by, of all things, hobbits. "But," as the Apostle Paul might have observed, "God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty" (1 Corinthians 1:27). Jesus didn't liberate Judea with military might; instead, his seeming defeat in the garden and on the cross liberated all humankind.
"I wish the ring had never come to me," Frodo laments, in something of a Gethsemane moment. "I wish none of this had happened."
"So do all who live to see such times," replies the wise wizard, Gandalf. "But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought."
There is, in other words, an overarching and ultimately benevolent will and purpose in Tolkien's Middle Earth. And it rewards benevolence in others: Although they could easily (and justifiably) have chosen otherwise, Bilbo and later Frodo graciously choose to spare the life of the thoroughly depraved Gollum — who, though he certainly doesn't intend to do so, ultimately saves not only Frodo but all of Middle Earth. In the end, mercy triumphs over malice.