Cover Story

'Baptized imagination'

"'Baptized imagination'" Continued...

Issue: "Lord of the Rings," Dec. 20, 2003

Writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh made similar comments on the DVD commentary track for the second film in the series, The Two Towers, addressing the question of what these films were really "about." "It's about our need to feel that there are universal values of good. Whether or not that's true in the real world, who can say?" suggested Ms. Walsh.

When asked to expand on these ideas further, she told WORLD, "I think that stories do offer the comfort that we live in a moral universe, whether or not [we actually do]-as I said, who can say?-because the world here seems to be quite an amoral place and not founded on a great sort of underlying decency. Sometimes you have to question that." Not quite what Tolkien would say, but perhaps not too far off either: Ms. Walsh's doubts about humanity's goodness could begin to sound an awful lot like an awareness of original sin.

Some of the actors involved were a little less clear on Tolkien's key themes. Tolkien's concern for the stewardship of creation in the tales-which some take to be equivalent to modern environmentalism-was a recurring topic of discussion; many of the actors seemed to most easily identify with this aspect of Tolkien's work. When asked specifically about how he was influenced by Tolkien's worldview, Billy Boyd, who plays the hobbit Pippin, answered, "I think mainly, especially in his environmental messages that he was trying to follow through, that's what we definitely agree with."

Other actors brought more of their own presuppositions to the project. Answering a similar question, Ian McKellan, the renowned British actor who plays Gandalf, observed, "I would note that Hobbiton is a community without a church. There is no pope; there is no archbishop; there is no set of beliefs, no credo. I think what is appealing to human beings is to look inside yourself and look to your friends. Everybody brings their strengths."

On the other hand, John Rhys-Davies, who plays Gimli the dwarf, seemed to reveal a deeper understanding of at least some of Tolkien's themes. He related the Middle Earth myth to the rise of Islam in the modern world: "I think that Tolkien says that some generations will be challenged and if they do not rise to meet that challenge they will lose their civilization. That does have a real resonance with me.... What is unconscionable is that too many of your fellow journalists do not understand how precarious Western civilization is.... The abolition of slavery comes from Western democracy. True Democracy comes from our Greco-Judeo-Christian-Western experience. If we lose these things, then this is a catastrophe for the world.

"And if it just means replacement of one genetic stock with another genetic stock, I don't think that matters too much. But if it involves the replacement of Western civilization with different cultural values then it's something we really ought to discuss because ... I am for dead white male culture! If Tolkien's got a message, it's that sometimes you've got to stand up and fight for what you believe in."

One could argue that Tolkien's myth puts his ideas at a safe enough distance from real life as to be palatable to those who don't share his faith. The orderliness and hope found in his concept of providence, for instance, can prompt a sort of wistful admiration.

Ms. Walsh acknowledged that Tolkien "took from his own profound Christian beliefs" and that the filmmakers "attempted, as much as you can in film, [to] base them in the story. Certainly the values in them give you a sense of hope that [life] isn't chaos, and it isn't up a tree, and isn't without a point in the end. I love storytelling for those reasons; because so many things fall away as we charge forward in this new century-there's so much cynicism and such a lack of ritual and a kind of bleak belief system governing things. I like stories for that, because they still offer it."

Tolkien's myth is a forceful answer to such yearning. C.S. Lewis, Tolkien's great friend and admirer, spoke of a "baptized imagination" as one important step in his journey toward Christianity, allowing him to begin to accept the potential for truth in the One Myth.

Tolkien, through his books and now through these films, has given the postmodern world a profoundly Christian vision. It's a powerful picture, even if that world doesn't always have the proper terms to describe it.

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