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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Explore Tolkien's vision

Book delves into his Christian message

The three-movie series The Lord of the Rings is among the most popular and award-winning film phenomena of recent years. (The Return of the King, the last of the three, was released in December 2003.) Some enthusiastic viewers, especially younger ones, may not know that the movies are based on J.R.R.Tolkien's literary trilogy of the same title, published in 1954 to 1956. Many more people don't realize that Tolkien was imparting an implicitly Christian message in this epic.

The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-Earth (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) illuminates Tolkien's vision. Author Ralph C. Wood, who teaches theology and literature at Baylor University, Waco, Texas, writes about Tolkien's books — not the movies. Yet Wood's commentary helps clarify the films, as well as their source.

One of the author's most helpful analyses is based on the four cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, justice and temperance. These enable humans to live a moral life while acknowledging that the virtues come from God. Wood explains how these qualities inform various characters and societies in the Ring stories.

People often wonder how books or films featuring wizards can be anything but fanciful. Wood doesn't ignore the pagan or mythical origins of many concepts and characters. But he does clarify their relationship to Christian ideas. For example, he points out that the word "wizard" derives from the Middle English "wys," which means "wise" and doesn't necessarily involve magic. He explains: "While the Old Testament derives wisdom from God's good creation, the New Testament locates it in Jesus Christ himself."

Wood's treatment of related topics is equally illuminating. These include the origins and practices of evil, how the characters respond to it and, finally, Tolkien's vision of the redeemed life.


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