Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 3 – Providence

This is the third part of a multi-part post that I plan on putting up over the next few days.  This is an adaptation of one of the papers I wrote in seminary at Biblical Seminary as part of a course on Theology, Film and Culture.  You can read more about my approach to film at Finding Christ in Film.  Join me in this exploration of the epic films based on The Lord of the Rings.  Part 1 can be found here.  The second part can be found here. The paper continues now by delving into to Tolkien’s view of divine providence and the comparisons and contrasts between the books and the films.

Theological Analysis

While there have been a number of books written in recent years concerning Tolkien’s theology, those interpretations of the themes in The Lord of the Rings, because they are ultimately an individual experience of eucatastrophe in this epic fairy-story, are not necessarily my own.  To this end, my analysis of Tolkien’s themes should be considered as precisely that: my own analysis.  While I appreciate and recognize the validity of these other interpretations and even, in some points, agree with them, I can do nothing but use those other views to either enhance my own reading or to give me fuel for further consideration.  From this perspective, then, my analysis of the preservation of Tolkien’s theology in the recent films will draw primarily on my own observations and “joyful” turns or, in some cases, the lack there of.  In short, there are two main themes that I have chosen from my readings of Tolkien’s mythopoeia to examine within the film versions:  the invisible hand of providence and the redeeming work of mercy and love.

Invisible Providence

Of the themes present in the books, the presence of an invisible providential hand at work in Middle-Earth is reasonably portrayed in the films.  For me, this theological theme is most closely represented in Paul’s letter to the Romans as “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purposes.” Romans 8:28 (NIV).  Paul indicates through this passage that God’s will and Spirit are at work in all events in the world, either through His direct action or, due to His redemptive nature, adapted and sanctified for His will.  As I have read The Lord of the Rings, this idea of a benign force of will is present in the works.  While one needs to read The Silmarillion to understand the nature of this divine power (that of Eru Iluvatar), there is enough in the texts of the primary epic to extrapolate this presence.

There is one scene in the theatrical release of the films that corresponds with the books on this point.  In the first volume of the novels, in the chapter titled “The Shadow of the Past”, there is a period during which Gandalf is describing the history of the Ring of Sauron and recapping the salient points of that narrative from the book The Hobbit.  In this exposition, Gandalf reveals that Gollum’s loss of the Ring was due to the will of Sauron and that the Ring, in response to this will, abandoned Gollum.  However, instead of being rediscovered by some minion or other evil force allied with Sauron, the Ring was picked up by “the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!” (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 88) As an explanation for this, Gandalf indicates another force of will other than that of Sauron.

‘Beyond that there was something else at work, beyond any desire of the Ring-maker.  I can put it no plainer than by saying Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.   In which case you [meaning Frodo] were meant to have it.  And that may be an encouraging thought.’ (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 88)

With just a few sentences, Tolkien indicates that this is the result of there being “more than one power at work” (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 87).  While Tolkien does not explicitly indicate a benign being as the source of this will, the fact that it is in direction opposition to the obvious evil of Sauron makes the presence of the invisible providence of Iluvatar a surety.

This chapter of conversation is probably the most direct indication in all the books of this providential good will.  It also contains a foreshadowing reference that I will explore later in more detail.  Gandalf foresees the hand of providence in Bilbo’s pity of Gollum and his restraint from killing Gollum.  “My heart tells me that [Gollum] has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many” (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 93)  But this hand of providence is not just revealed to Gandalf.  Elrond, in his recognition of Frodo as being the best choice for the Quest, gives indication of this external force at work.  Elrond’s foresight is perhaps not as clear as Gandalf’s but he still gives credence to this eternal force. “’If I understand aright all that I have heard,’ he said, ‘I think that this task is appointed to you, Frodo” (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 354).  Ralph Wood points out in his book The Gospel According to Tolkien, in a discussion of the divine ordering of the universe, that through a variety of events during the Quest, the Fellowship has to depend upon the hierarchy of the created cosmos for their help.  “They have no sure knowledge or proof, but rather the risky confidence that Eru sponsors and directs the world.” (Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle Earth 122)

The films’ treatment of this theme of divine providence is muted.  Part of that is due to the nature of the medium.  When working with a medium that is primarily visual, the implications from the verbal syntax of the written word cannot be easily portrayed.  One of the ways that Tolkien implies the presence of God without stating it outright is in his use of the passive tense of the verbs in certain passages. Fleming Rutledge notes this in a review of the final film in the Trilogy.

All through the book there is this pervasive sense of a greater Mind, a greater Author, directing the events and working through human agents for a larger purpose than any of them can divine. Tolkien accomplishes this largely through syntax, frequently using the passive form of verbs (“Frodo was meant to have the Ring,” “time was given” to Aragorn), and through veiled references to “some other power,” “some other will”. (Rutledge)

However, the viewer is given this glimpse of the other power in the first film.  The conversation from the opening chapters of the books is moved to the scene “A Journey in the Dark” where Gandalf needs to determine the right path.  Long exposition is not conducive to a medium designed to entertain so these conversations needed to be broken up to make for a good movie.  So, while Gandalf and the company wait in the dark of Moria, Peter Jackson inserts this dialogue about the other forces at work in the world.  If Jackson had not included this part, perhaps this theme of divine providence would have been totally ignored in the film.  The inclusion of this, though, may have simply been a plot point for Jackson and the other screen writers in order to tie in the scene at the Cracks of Doom in the last movie.  Gandalf’s conversation with Frodo echoes in the minds of the viewers as they watch Gollum fall into the molten lava and thus destroying the ring.  Arguably, this could still be seen as fulfillment of the divine providence, but the manner in which it occurred is suspect.

In the books, the fall of Gollum was a happy accident or eucatastrophe.  The event was not pleasant to “watch” in the images of my mind.  Frodo failed to complete the quest.  Ultimately, he gave in to the lure of the Ring and fell victim to its coercive powers.  Frodo himself states “’But for [Gollum], Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring.  The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end.  So let us forgive him!” (Tolkien, The Return of the King 277)  The implication is that the finding of the Ring by Bilbo, his subsequent pity and mercy to Gollum, and all the seeming coincidences over the years, culminating with the coincidence of Gollum’s misstep, was all orchestrated and motivated by something else.  It is Frodo’s forgiveness that specifically points to this providence.  However, in the film, rather than it being a complete accident with no mortal assistance, Gollum’s fall was actually the result of “human” action.  Another reviewer of the films, Jeffrey Overstreet, gives an analysis of this scene.  Gollum’s accidental fall in the book “seems like the playing out of a great plan” while the action of Frodo in the film allows the viewers to have the “the option of interpreting Frodo’s final lunge as a heroic charge to finish his quest” (Overstreet)  While Frodo’s fall over the edge with Gollum could still be seen as providentially orchestrated, the strength of the image is lost when the event is no longer pure chance but the result of a mortal’s direct action.  Wood wrote his own review of this scene and he points out “nothing of [Tolkien’s] conviction that it was first Bilbo’s and then Frodo’s forgiveness of Gollum which enabled the final victory over evil.” (Wood, The Lure of the Obvious in Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King) In light of this, we can only conclude that Jackson’s use of the “Shadow of the Past” conversation in the films was simply a plot point rather than a preservation of Tolkien’s wonderful insight of this eucatastrophic truth of God’s hand at work in the world.

Do you agree that the “Shadow of the Past” is a plot point?  Or did the filmmakers try and preserve Tolkien’s themes?  Why or why not?


Cited works

Overstreet, Jeffrey. “Lost in Jackson’s Translation.” November 2004. Hollywood Jesus. 28 May 2008

Rutledge, Fleming. “Commentaries: The Return of the King: Best Picture, Perhaps, But Not Best Version.” 23 February 2004. Christianity Today. 28 May 2008

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.

—. The Return of the King. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.

Wood, Ralph C. The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle Earth. Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.

—. “The Lure of the Obvious in Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King.” 1 December 2003. Christianity Today. 28 May 2008

2 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 3 – Providence

  1. Pingback: Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 4 – Redemption: Overcoming Evil with Good « Abnormal Anabaptist

  2. Pingback: Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 5 – Conclusion: An Enduring Truth « Abnormal Anabaptist

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