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The Lord of the Rings: Spiritual Themes Part I

01/12/04 | by [mail] | Categories: faith/skepticism

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort." Haven't you ever heard of a hobbit? Hobbits are little creatures that love comfort. They're about 3'6'', they eat 6-8 meals a day, they love to have parties and give gifts and they love things that grow in the ground. Respectable hobbits never go on adventures. One day Bilbo Baggins, a very respectable hobbit, was about to have his afternoon tea when he heard a knock at the door. It was a group of dwarves about to go kill a dragon and get their treasure back. Gandalf the wizard had told them to take Bilbo, since he might be of some help. So Bilbo reluctantly set out with them for the Lonely Mountain where the dragon lived. On the way they fought spiders and goblins and trolls (the trolls almost ate them for supper). And they were helped by elves and giant talking eagles and men. Along the way Bilbo got lost in a tunnel and found a magic ring that could make him turn invisible when he wore it. He met the ring's owner, Gollum, a pitiful little creature who was wasting away in the caves. Finally they killed the dragon and Bilbo came home with loads of treasure, not to mention his magic ring. At times he was excited and at times he was very scared, but what he learned later was that the story he was in was part of a bigger story, and even though he didn't know it at the time, his small role was important. And we're just like Bilbo. Your life is like a story; sometimes fun, sometimes boring, sometimes scary. But your little story is also part of the big story, and God is the author. The choices we make affect his story. And though we'll meet bad characters, it's nice to know that God is taking care of us.

What you've just seen is what I want to do for the next 3 Sundays. We're going to look at a made-up story and see what we can learn from it. We don't do this very often, but it's a time-tested method. Parents have always used fairy-tales to entertain and teach their children. Jesus made up stories to teach people lessons. We call them parables, which makes them sound more serious, but the truth is that they're just stories that he made up. And it was an ancient practice even when Jesus was on earth. The prophet Nathan used a fictional story to confront David about his sin. Fantasy and fiction is a great way to communicate important truths. Even if there was never a prodigal son who left his father and then came back to open arms, the story teaches us something that is deeply true.

So for three weeks we're going to look at a modern fairy-tale, The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the books in the 50s, and Peter Jackson made them into movies in recent years. But why pick this story over other works of fiction? Good question. We could look at the truths taught by Forrest Gump, The Chronicles of Narnia, Open Range, Harry Potter, the Simpsons or any number of fictional works, but there are a few things that set the Tolkien story apart.

1. Tolkien was a Christian. The messages that he buries in his story are firmly rooted in a Biblical worldview. We'll talk more about this author's faith in a minute.

2. It's a great story. Some stories are better than others. This is one of the best. It won an award for the most popular novel in the 20th century. This is due to Tolkien's great skill and the amount of effort he put into it to make it feel more real. For example, he invented two complete languages to be spoken in Middle Earth, his created world. It's true, at some schools you can actually take Tolkien's elvish as a foreign language class. He made up all the words, the alphabet, the grammar, the pronunciation, even the history of these languages. That kind of effort makes a story feel more real. Tolkien was a great story-teller.

3. It's a great movie. How many times have you read a great book, then gone to see a movie adaptation and it's terrible? I still think the books are better, but these movies are incredible. Peter Jackson and all the writers and actors worked so hard to be faithful to the books, and the result is a great set of movies, which have all been nominated for best picture Oscars.

4. And that's the fourth reason for using this story: It's relevant to our time. It's been one of the most watched movies of all time. When Jesus taught with stories, he used ideas that people understood and that made them feel the truth deeply. I believe this story does that.

Let me summarize the story for those of you who haven't read the books or seen the movies. I won't be able to do this justice; we're talking about 1500 pages of book and 9 hours of movie, but I'll give it a shot.

This is all taking place in a fantasy world called Middle Earth. You should know something about the different types of people in Middle Earth. There are the mysterious elves who have pointy ears, never get old or sick and mostly stay hidden in the forest. There are dwarves, short folks with beards who love to mine for treasure. Then there are hobbits: even shorter than dwarves, beardless, hairy-footed, curly-headed, gentle, homebodies. There are a handful of wizards, like Gandalf, who were sent to fight the powers of evil. There are orcs, bred by the evil forces to hate and destroy. The most common, of course, is humans. The humans of Middle Earth are a lot like the humans of our world: They have a great potential for good, but they are capable of being corrupted, especially by power.

The dark lord Sauron has been trying to conquer the world for thousands of years and he created a tool, the One Ring to enslave people. But he lost the ring and he was vanquished. Thousands of years later the ring is found by humble Bilbo Baggins and he doesn't even know that he has the most powerful weapon ever created. He gives it to his nephew, Frodo, and in time the wizard Gandalf discovers that it is the One Ring. A small group sets out to destroy the ring, the only hope for Middle Earth to be rid of Sauron. And the only place it can be destroyed is in Mt. Doom, a volcano in the middle of Sauron's realm: Mordor. That's the quest that the story centers around: Frodo trying to destroy the ring in Mordor. He's helped by his friends and pursued by evil, but in the end he finishes his task.

The characters in the story have to come to terms with three facts. These are also the three truths that I want the story to teach us today. 1) The old tales are really true, 2) Evil is real, and 3) Good is real.

[Video: "Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend, legend became myth, and for two and a half thousand years the ring fell out of all knowledge."]

At the end of the third age, when Bilbo found the ring, most people had forgotten the evil that once dwelled in Mordor. Thousands of years had passed since Sauron was defeated and his ring was lost. This line from the film sums it up well. To people in the third age, the story of Sauron was just a story. You might have told it to your kids to keep them from misbehaving, but you would rarely think of it as something that really happened in history, something that might still affect the world.

But then the ring is found and suddenly the myths and legends seem much more interesting. Of course, there were people who knew all along, people who had been preserving the history and preparing for the day when it would return to the world's attention. The sword that cut the ring from Sauron's hand, though broken, was still kept in Rivendell, for the day when the heir of the king would take it up and fight Sauron once again. So when myth is recognized as history, some were not surprised, and some had to adjust to it.

Middle Earth at the end of the third age is a lot like our world at the beginning of the 21st century. We tell the stories of our origins, God's dealing with humans and that strange fellow from Nazareth who was executed and then came back to life. But are they just fairy-tales? Tolkien believed that they were fairy-tales, but fairy tales which came true:

"The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels – particularly artistic, beautiful, and moving: 'mythical' in their perfect, self-contained significance; and at the same time powerfully symbolic and allegorical . . . But this story has entered History and the primary world . . . Because this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men – and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused" (Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader, 88).

The old stories are true! What an incredible realization. All the longings we have for meaning and goodness are fulfilled in these events from history. Tolkien shared these thoughts with a college of his: and atheist who was considering the Christian faith. After talking with Tolkien the man spent the whole night thinking about this concept and eventually decided to put his faith in Christ. That man became one of Tolkien's best friends. He also became one of the greatest defenders of the Christian faith in the last century. His name was C.S. Lewis.

He came to his faith by realizing that Jesus is the fulfillment of everything we have dreamed of. John 1:1 says that the "word became flesh." The dream, the concept, the ideal became real. 1 John 1:1-2 says it even more vividly: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it."

So the gospel is the fairytale that came true, and the little stories of our lives are part of the bigger tale that God is writing. Instead of the central character in a small story, you're a supporting character in the big story that encompasses everything and flows from the mind of God.

The citizens of Middle Earth had to understand that the legends were true, and that meant that the legendary evil was, in fact, real. Mordor wasn't just an imaginary land out of the old stories, it was a place on the map, a place that you could get to, a place that could get to you. Sauron wasn't just a bogey man you talk about to frighten your children, he was a real being, who hated all free people and wanted to destroy them. The same is true for us today. 1 Peter 5:8 says, "Be self­-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour."

Evil is real. How are we going to deal with this fact? We could try to ignore it. We could try to go to a safe place where it can't reach us and just pretend that life can go on like it always has. Frodo's friends Merry and Pippin had this option. They were told by Treebeard to go back to the Shire where they would be safe from evil. [Video: Merry: You must help. Please! You must do something. Treebeard: You are young and brave, Master Merry. But your part in this tale is over. Go back to your home. Pippin: Maybe Treebeard's right. We don't belong here, Merry. It's too big for us. What can we do in the end? We've got the Shire. Maybe we should go home. Merry: The fires of Isengard will spread, and the woods of Tuckborough and Buckland will burn. And all that was once green and good in this world will be gone. There won't be a Shire, Pippin.]

We can't ignore evil. It will find us. We can't walk around pretending that we're invincible and incorruptible just because we go to church. But we also can't compromise with evil as Gandalf's former friend Saruman suggests [Video: Saruman: You did not seriously think that a hobbit could contend with the will of Sauron? There are none who can. Against the power of Mordor there can be no victory. We must join with him, Gandalf. We must join with Sauron. It would be wise, my friend. Gandalf: Tell me, "friend", when did Saruman the wise abandon reason for madness?!]

To ignore or compromise with evil is to be overcome by evil. Romans 12:21 says, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Frodo's quest has evil behind it and evil ahead. It seems to be hopeless, yet at several points along the way, the hand of providence gives him a nudge in the right direction. When the Ringwraiths are about to overtake him in the village of Bree, Aragorn intervenes and leads the hobbits to safety. Just before Frodo dies from his poisoned wound he reaches Rivendell where he is healed. When Sam and Frodo are hopelessly lost after leaving the fellowship, Gollum arrives to guide them. These things could have been coincidences, or as Gandalf explains, they could be something much better. [Video: Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened. Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, 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 also were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.]

God doesn't always make himself obvious. Very often he works in the subtlest of ways and allows us to go on dangerous adventures, not because he couldn't accomplish the task himself, but because he wants us to grow and he wants to use us. It may not be obvious or even what you expect, but God is always working in your life, even if it's just keeping you alive and safe. 2 Thessalonians 3:3 "But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one." Even when we're surrounded by enemies and betrayed by our friends, God is that constant source of good and love in our lives. Romans 8:31-32 "What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" An that is a very encouraging thought.

Next week we'll consider the ring, which becomes a symbol for power, temptation and addiction, but for now I want you to think about these ideas: The legend is true, evil is real and there is good. God is guiding this world and providing a way for you make it through. He doesn't promise that we'll always be safe or comfortable. He doesn't promise that our closest friends won't betray us, but we are told that we can travel a road that is based on truth, beset by evil and ultimately guided and protected by a good and loving God. That is a very encouraging thought.

Go to Part II

Films © 2001-2003 New Line Cinema
Books © J.R.R. Tolkien



Just found this, thank you very much for taking the time to pen this!

Rich Foster [Visitor]05/25/06 @ 09:54

This is important, and beautiful, and convicting. Your heart and gifts remind me of Tim Keller!

Psalm 20:4-5

Lora [Visitor]11/28/09 @ 04:39

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