EACH EPISODE OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS, AS IT came out year by year, resonated in an eerie way with current events. The Fellowship of the Ring showed terrifying Dark Riders breaking into the peaceful, complacent world of the Shire only a few months after Sept. 11, 2001, when ordinary hobbit-like Americans had to face up to the reality of terrorism.
The next year, The Two Towers showed the battle joined between the "free folks" and the forces of the Shadow, just as Americans were reacting to the destruction of their Two Towers by fighting the war in Afghanistan. This year, The Return of the King portrays a victory, in the aftermath of our own overwhelming but incomplete victory in Iraq, opening only a few days after the capture of the Dark Lord, Saddam Hussein. The movie even features a "spider hole."
A major theme of the trilogy, as the actor who played Gimli, John Rhy-Davies, told WORLD (Dec. 20, 2003), is the defense of Western civilization.
One of the reasons the novels and movies have the impact they do is that The Lord of the Rings is a compendium of Western culture. Its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, a professor of ancient literature, combined elements from the whole range of Western legends, epics, and heroic sagas old and new. The trilogy is filled with the images and atmosphere of Beowulf and King Arthur, with the cursed ring borrowed from the Germanic epic The Song of the Niebelungs and the character of Sam from Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers.
Audiences can relate to the heroism-including the theme of ordinary folks having to assume the mantle of heroism-and to the clash between good and evil and to the Christian symbolism because Tolkien is drawing from a deep and rich cultural heritage. Many people vaguely recognize it, though they may have forgotten what it is.
But the models are not just literary. The trilogy taps into cultural memories, evoking a history that many of our ancestors actually experienced. A massacring army outside the walls was commonplace from the time of the Old Testament, through the Middle Ages, to the 19th-century Napoleonic wars. The movie captured the wonder and the fear of the Roman legions when they were attacked by Hannibal's elephants, which were dealt with in similar ways. By far the most disturbing cultural memory, from both the movie and history, was the image of barbarian hordes sweeping through peaceful villages, with parents holding their children and running away from the slaughter as their homes were plundered and burned.
There was a time when Western civilization did collapse, when Rome fell, and barbaric tribes swept through Europe, raping and killing and destroying. During these Dark Ages, civilization-literacy, education, the arts, the preservation of the past, the further development of culture-was kept alive in and by the Christian church, which continued to copy out manuscripts, educate those who were interested, and promote a moral order to life.
The Dark Ages were ended not by war, though wars against the invaders were necessary, but by evangelism. When the church finally converted the barbarian tribes to Christianity, Western civilization came back to life.
Today, the "free folks" of the West are having to confront the violence and the worldview of the radical terrorists. The battle, though, is not just a military one.
In The Lord of the Rings, the civilization of the Elves and Men is exhausted. The Elves are weary, preferring to escape into their own reveries and to leave the world behind. The lands of Rohan and of Gondor have their glory years behind them and are now preoccupied with achieving political power and avoiding conflicts.
What makes Sauron so deadly is not only the Orcs but the way he has seduced into his service both "the wild men" and Saruman, the intellectual, the scientist and theologian, the head of Gandalf's order.
Similarly, the civilization that is under attack by the terrorists is also under attack from within, from its own intellectuals and its own seemingly liberal and cultured citizens who have come to hate their own heritage.
In The Return of the King, the tide of a major battle turns when Aragorn persuades the "army of the dead"-those who "have no beliefs"-to join the fray. These were traitors who refused to fight in the previous war against the Shadow and so were cursed. Aragorn gave them the chance to regain their honor, and this time they came through.
Perhaps those who refused to fight the Communists, the last threat to Western civilization, might be persuaded to abandon their current opposition to the war on terror. More importantly, perhaps the West will recover its nerve and its values. But this will require returning to the King.