The Gospel in Return of the King
I almost didn’t want to watch the final installment of the Lord of the Rings because I didn’t want it to be over. We were privileged to be able to see it at the best theater in the Bay Area, the Tamalpais, which is one of Steven Spielberg’s favorite moviehouses (it’s also where I once sat behind George Lucas when I was a teenager–wish I could remember the film!).
But Lucas and Spielberg had nothing to do with this movie, or the entire trilogy, which surpassed anything they’ve ever produced, in my humble opinion. It was masterfully done, but the secret to its success was something we can all relate to–-a great writer. The makers of the films were faithful to Tolkien’s text and masterfully depicted the intricacies of his imagination.
What really made this movie special for me was how clearly Tolkien’s Christian faith played itself out on the screen. I’m sure most members of the audience were oblivious to the metaphorical imagery (not allegorical since Tolkien himself denied using that literary device). I gleaned more than I’m sure Tolkien intended, but I believe that when the hand of providence is involved, certain stories take on a life of their own.
I couldn’t help but see Christ in both Frodo and Sam. Frodo bore the ring, “his burden”, our sin on himself and endured something of a crucifixion of spirit. He knew he was the only one who could carry the cross, so to speak. At one point, Sam says something like “I cannot carry your burden, but I can carry you.” That reminded me of the poem “Footprints” which speaks of how we feel so alone in our hardest times because we only see one set of footprints, but the footprints are actually God’s because he is carrying us.
Christ’s humility was personified in the hobbit demeanor which was always humble and giving. Both Frodo and Sam were servant-leaders like Christ, but Sam was the best example. He always put Frodo before himself, even allowed Frodo to make the wrong decisions, and stuck by him even in the face of his betrayal (reminded me of Jesus and Peter). Sam even carried the ring, and wasn’t tempted by it, in order to protect Frodo and the rest of Middle Earth from it falling into the wrong hands. Sam also seemed like the beloved John, the disciple who was closest to Jesus.
In Gollum, I could see both Adam and Judas. He was the first ordinary person to take hold of the ring, even though it meant murder. Original sin brought death into the world. When he pretended to leave behind his sinful life, he was so steeped in it – his own pride and lust – that he betrayed the one who was kindest to him and the one who had the power to liberate him from his sin (the ring) eternally – Frodo as Christ.
Aragon too was a Christ figure, the King himself. That final battle was like Armageddon. The Bible says that when the Lord returns, the dead in Christ will rise up to be with the saints (all the Christians). That’s exactly what happened when they freed the dead spirits from the mountain (mind you, I’m not Catholic so I don’t believe in purgatory).
Everyone who was part of the fellowship of the ring was Christlike in their willingness to sacrifice their lives for the others. My memory might be deceiving me, but I think that in the earlier films, both Aragon and Frodo were brought back from the dead.
Bilbo resembled John the Baptist. He prepared the way for Frodo by acquiring the ring. He was also Frodo’s uncle which is interesting since John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin. He also lived in seclusion like John in the desert.
In the first film, Gandalf seemed like the primary Christ figure but as the story continued, he seemed more like the Father to me. He directed their every move and knew what the final outcome would be. Both Gandalf and Aragon constantly empowered and encouraged the people. They literally breathed life, in the face of death, into their hearts.
The concluding scene reminded me of Christ’s ascension and the bittersweet farewell with his disciples.
The most significant aspect of Return of the King was also probably the most obvious theme: courage. As a person who struggles with fear (I even whispered to My husband in the theater that if I was faced with those orks, trolls or any of the other hideous creatures, I’d kill myself on the spot), this film really spoke to me. Gandalf constantly stressed not giving in to fear. They all knew that in their own strength, they would be defeated, but that greater forces were at work. Ultimately, God’s goodness always triumphs over evil.
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