In 2001, my grandfather died. My parents announced their divorce. I hit puberty, developed my first crush. And in that same year, in anticipation of the incoming movie trilogy, I found The Lord of the Rings. It’s impossible to overstate Tolkien’s impact on my life, and I can’t imagine becoming a minister in the progressive United Church of Christ without his work and the films based on it.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.
The Lord of the Rings made a believer out of me because it was the first story that taught me the power of story to give shape and meaning to our lives. And I saw it do the same for my conservative Christian classmates.
These are the kids who blasted Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” from their Walkman headsets and told me I was going to Hell because I obsessively reread Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Yet their staunch Republican parents took us all to see The Two Towers when it came out, no questions asked. Why did the magic of Middle-earth get a pass from Christians who believed that “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live?” (Exodus 22:18)
One of the reasons I love The Lord of the Rings is its aura of tragic, heroic finality; one that felt comforting and familiar to American conservatives who mourned the loss of a world they once knew. The difference is, conservatives and I are grieving for very different worlds.
A survey of ex-evangelical friends, colleagues, and Tolkien fans on Twitter — plus a search through the archives of Christianity Today, America’s premier evangelical newsmagazine — suggests that while Peter Jackson’s films may not have been met with the same kind of full-throated approval as C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, many American evangelicals embraced them. This can partly be explained by the simple fact that J.R.R. Tolkien was, himself, a Christian (albeit the “wrong” kind, i.e., a Catholic). That doesn’t explain why they damned J.K. Rowling, a self-professed Christian who incorporated Christian themes and symbolism into her work. What was the difference?
Fundamentalists argued at the time that Tolkien’s moral vision was consistent with the Bible, whereas Rowling’s was not. In a 2001 interview, the right-wing polemicist Richard Abanes claimed that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings exemplifies so-called biblical values “like integrity, honesty, bravery, courage, forgiveness.” Which, hey, fair enough. Moreover, it takes place in a secondary world, distinct from our own. Prosthetic ears and cosplay competitions notwithstanding, no child can actually become an elf like Galadriel or a wizard like Gandalf. (God knows we tried.) Not so with Harry Potter.
Abanes and the fearful parents who read his book Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick were concerned that young readers who wanted to imitate Harry and Hermione could “easily go into a bookstore or a library and get books on [divination and witchcraft] and start investigating it, researching it, doing it.” If only they had waited a couple decades, they would have found in Ms. Rowling an unexpected ally in crusading against the basic human rights of transgender people.
I don’t doubt that the reasons evangelicals gave for watching and enjoying the Lord of the Rings movies were sincere. But in my experience as a minister, our religious rationalizations often reflect deeper social and existential questions we may not even be aware of. In that light, we have to remember that Peter Jackson’s trilogy was conquering the box office at the very height of the “War on Terror.” Viewers who believed that the virtuous Christian West was locked in a deadly conflict with the wicked non-Christian East could interpret the films to reflect their odious politics.
Witness the Arab-coded Easterling soldiers marching in eerie lockstep through the Black Gate of Mordor in The Two Towers, or the dark-skinned Haradrim astride their mammoth Mûmakil at the Battle of the Pelennor in Return of the King. The Lord of the Rings is a lot like the Bible: if you go looking for prooftexts to support your own xenophobia, imperialism, and Christian supremacism, you can find them.
I’d argue, however, that just like with the Bible, a fundamentalist reading of Lord of the Rings is neither the only, nor the most honest, nor indeed the most faithful one. J.R.R. Tolkien once described the saga as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” but he doesn’t bludgeon you with Christian allegories as nuanced as a cave troll’s club. (I’m looking at you, C.S. Lewis.) Tolkien’s Catholicism provides the spiritual matrix of Middle-earth without ever feeling the need to beat down your door and demand to talk about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
And what distinguishes the War of the Ring from any real-world parallels is its profoundly elegiac quality. Even if we win, we are forced to acknowledge that much that is good and beautiful will pass away in the process.
Peter Jackson captures this bittersweetness brilliantly onscreen: the abandoned majesty of Moria; the burned-out watchtower on Weathertop; the Argonath, the monumental statues of ancient kings which featured so heavily in Fellowship’s promotional materials. The civilization that could hew such figures from the living stone is almost incomprehensible in its remoteness. Scenes of the elves of Rivendell departing Middle-earth, intercut with the action-packed battles of The Two Towers and The Return of the King, only deepen the sense that, win or lose, the Third Age of Middle-earth is on its way out. The Elf-queen Galadriel calls it “the long defeat.”
You can see how this might resonate with conservatives who long to retreat to the 1950s heyday of White American Protestantism, when church sanctuaries were packed to the rafters, crowds of children ran through new-built Sunday School annexes, and marginalized people were kept safely at the margins. This is what the Religious Right means when it claims to want to “make America great again.” Yet as early as 1998, Paul Weyrich, the man who coined the term moral majority, observed, “I believe we have probably lost the culture war. That doesn’t mean the war is not going to continue […] But in terms of society in general, we have lost.”
More than two decades on, he’s more right than ever. Christianity is increasingly seen as an irrelevant, oppressive anachronism, especially among young people. A 2021 Gallup poll found that, for the first time in history, fewer than 50% of Americans are churchgoers. That trend shows no signs of reversing itself anytime soon. American Christianity is trudging through a Moria of its own making, drifting downstream past the crumbling feet of its own Argonath. Many churches stand empty; many that survive are hollow husks of their former selves. Even the liberal congregation I serve in Southern California, a formerly mighty “big steeple” church, reminds me of nothing so much as Minas Tirith at the beginning of The Return of the King: a once-thriving citadel now depopulated, a lonesome monument to a bygone era.
Perhaps this explains why the Religious Right prosecutes its culture war as if it were the War of the Ring itself. They know, at some unconscious level, that they cannot recover the past. But the prospect of admitting that is so traumatic, they’d rather fight an endless, unwinnable battle than face up to the reality that you’ve already lost. When I talk to Trump-voting Christians, the refrain I hear is, “I hardly recognize my country anymore.” Good! The conservative Christian political project spells disaster for the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants. All the same, I can empathize with their sense of dislocation and abandonment.
I can empathize, because when I found The Lord of the Rings in 2001, I hardly recognized my own life anymore. The events of September 11 shattered the sense of relative security I’d always known as a lower-middle-class White kid from a small town in rural South Dakota. Looking back, I can see that the story lodged itself so deeply in my psyche because I related to the poignant melancholy at its heart.
I can empathize, because in 2021, I hardly recognize my planet anymore. There is nothing original in comparing the Ents drowning Isengard to the climate catastrophe, but metaphors don’t need to be subtle to be true. Jackson’s cinematic spectacle eerily presages a climate-changed future in which our towers will be the ones reclaimed by the vengeful Earth.
This universality is part of what made The Lord of the Rings so powerful upon publication in 1954, when Tolkien mourned the passing of his beloved English countryside. It was still powerful when Peter Jackson brought it to theaters in the early 2000s, when the blithe certainties of a pre-9/11 world could no longer contain twenty-first century anxieties. It remains powerful today, when the U.N. Climate Report confirms that the ecological crisis is here to stay.
The Lord of the Rings and the Rings movies still grip us, not only because they looks backward with longing, but because they look forward as well. Tolkien, and Jackson after him, capture the elegiac quality of life at the end of an Age, even as it grants us courage at the dawn of another. In the face of the unknown, it teaches us to cling to one another and to the good we know: mercy, kindness, friendship, community. It inspires us to hope, not because victory is assured, but because without hope there can be no victory. It teaches us to be faithful, not to a sectarian deity, but to one another and to the world we share, because “even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
Are these Christian values? I suppose so — Christianity at its best. More importantly, they are human values that rang true in 2001 and ring true in 2021, no matter what you believe in or don’t. It’s why I read The Lord of the Rings aloud to my infant son and why we’ll watch the movies together when the time comes: To teach him, in the words of Sam Gamgee, “that there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”