Peter Jackson, Tolkien and the transcendental truths of ‘The Lord of the Rings’


Twenty years ago, Peter Jackson wowed moviegoers around the world with his adaptation of the first installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy, “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Aside from animated versions, there had been no real attempt to bring Tolkien’s masterpiece to the big screen before Jackson took it on, and his trilogy has since etched itself into the upper pantheon of film. Even now, 20 years later, the films are just as moving and sweeping as they were when they were first released, a masterful marriage of incredible special effects and powerful storytelling. Indeed, Tolkien himself likely couldn’t have envisioned better film adaptations of his life’s work, nor could he have foreseen the massive cultural impact his stories would have and continue to have nearly 70 years after they were first published.

The best storytellers are able to both capture and captivate their audience, thrusting them into another world and allowing them a brief respite from reality. However, any good story worth telling also draws upon reality and offers lessons and themes that can be carried into real life. Then there are stories like “The Lord of the Rings,” which completely transcend everything that a story can or ought to and become timeless tools of transcendental truth. They tap into the richest depths of human imagination and convey a message that would be insufficiently conveyed were it attempted in any other form.

Tolkien captured universal themes

Reading “The Lord of the Rings” 70 years later, or even watching the movies 20 years after the fact, it’s evident that Tolkien captured themes that are universal to the human condition: the eternal struggle between good and evil, the growth that comes from hardships and adversity, and the necessity of companionship with friends and family, among many others. Over the course of the epic journey to destroy the One Ring, many characters and subplots are introduced, but the brilliance of Tolkien’s craft lies in his uncanny ability to weave all of these moving parts together in a virtuosic display of irresistible storytelling that never strays from these core themes.

Of course, another major reason for Tolkien’s impact and the enduring power of “The Lord of the Rings” is because Tolkien was also intimately familiar with the story of his own salvation. Tolkien was a devout Catholic and a man of deep faith. His faith animated his life’s work, and one need not look very hard to find the direct parallels between “The Lord of the Rings” and Tolkien’s deeply held Catholic worldview. He once said that the Eucharist is “the one great thing to love on earth” and that in the Blessed Sacrament, one will find “romance, glory, honor, fidelity, the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: death.”

Take it from the man himself: there is no better choice of words to describe the epic and timeless tale of “The Lord of the Rings” than the very same words he used to describe the immensity of the Eucharist.

Tolkien was an extremely learned and well-read man. He studied English and literature in his youth, and after serving as a lieutenant in the British army during World War I, he enjoyed a fruitful career as a professor for University of Oxford, during which time he wrote “The Hobbit” and the first two volumes of “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s apparent that education was an important bastion of Tolkien’s life; it was rather unexpected, however, that Tolkien’s work should become an important bastion of modern education.

Education a fundamental pillar

Education is one of the fundamental pillars of a functioning and well-formed society, and a critical piece of any well-rounded education is the arts, which includes literature and film. Unfortunately, many modern educational methods and curriculums are simply trying to keep up with an ever-shifting “plugged-in” world and have begun to emphasize science, technology, engineering and math in their standard instruction, thereby placing less value on the arts. This presents an opportunity for educators, and especially Catholic educators, to ask themselves, “What role do the arts and great stories play in today’s world?”

Beyond simple entertainment, the best art should draw us into life’s deeper questions and reveal our own role in answering them. Even in Tolkien’s time, there were certainly more pressing issues that his time and energy could have been devoted to, but it was an innate and insatiable desire to tell the story of Frodo and his quest to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom that gave us one of the greatest literary works of the last century, and as a result, one of the great film trilogies of the past 20 years. A world without “The Lord of the Rings” is a world that would be hard to imagine; certainly, it would be a much duller one.

Countryside of the Hobbiton Movie Set on a beautiful spring morning.

Think of all the budding storytellers in Catholic schools right now whose imaginations are being formed and whose creative wellsprings are being carefully fostered and drawn out through receiving a Catholic education. More than just teaching students what to learn, education at its best teaches students how to learn, and it orients all they do in proper relation to their Creator. Indeed, God is the first author of all creativity, and in a very tangible way, God is the greatest storyteller there is, was and ever shall be. As such, he laid the foundation for the great stories we all know and love today, including the beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy. The great story of humanity’s salvation was ostensibly the first inspiration for the creator of Middle Earth to dream up all of the rich details to be found there, from the entire Elvish dialect he invented, to Bag End and the Hobbits, to the dark lord Sauron and the orcs in Mordor.

Providing fertile ground for a student’s rich imagination should be the highest aim of education, and to heed this call is of even greater importance in Catholic schools, where faith, imagination and intellect are formed in tandem. So, next time you turn on Peter Jackson’s films or pick up that worn copy of “The Lord of the Rings” to escape to Middle Earth for a time, say a prayer of thanksgiving for great stories and the ones who tell them, for they bespeak God’s creativity and serve as powerful – and essential – vessels for communicating divine truths across generations.

Aaron Lambert writes from Denver.

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