Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Movie Review: “The Lord of the Rings – Fellowship of the Ring” (Mar-Apr 2002)

Filed under: — @ 1:22 pm and

by Linda King
March-April 2002

The place: Middle Earth. The time: long ago, at the end of the Third Age. The characters: elves, dwarves, men, monsters, orcs, wizards, and last but not least, hobbits. And the story line: the oldest of all, the battle between good and evil. The storyteller is one of the best—J. R. Tolkien, whose trilogy The Lord of the Rings has just been adapted to film. Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, is still enjoying a protracted first run, despite its arcane subject matter and its nearly three hour length.

Those unfamiliar with Tolkien< may have questions. Is this is a kid’s movie, a futuristic adventure, another marvel of computer graphics, long on special effects but short on story line, a dabbling in the occult? And the answer is No, none of the above. The Fellowship of the Ring is a faithful screen adaptation of Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece, an epic chronicle of hobbits in general, and Frodo Baggins in particular, in the War of the Ring and the overthrow of the evil Sauron.

From the movie’s opening prologue, where elven voices limn a few lines of poetic prehistory, you know there’s a long beautiful story about to unfold, and it’s going to be awful, wonderful, and terrible. Rather than explication, the ethereal narrator offers the barest of backgrounds with this warning about the Third Age: “Much was forgotten that should not have been forgotten, and much that was valuable was lost.”

The story opens in the Shire, a pastoral countryside inhabited by hobbits. Small, peaceable creatures, much like men but with shoeless furry feet, hobbits live in hobbit-holes, cozy burrows in the hillside, where they share a love of good (and frequent) meals, pipeweed, stories, and song. They are happy creatures, with little curiosity about the outside world, which has generally overlooked them for ages.

Nevertheless, danger and evil come to the Shire, in the form of a powerful ring, the One Ring of legend, which threatens all the Free Peoples of the World, including elves, dwarves, men, and hobbits.

Frodo Baggins reluctantly acknowledges the call to return the Ring to the evil stronghold of Mordor and destroy it by casting in the volcanic fires of Doom, where it was forged. Advised and protected by the good wizard Gandalf, Frodo, accompanied by three hobbit friends, makes his way from his safe little door in the Shire out into the greater dangers of a world at war. Along the way, he encounters monstrous foes, including ring-wraiths, trolls, orcs, and Uruk-hai.

But Frodo also learns that good remains, and that true and valiant friends may come from many quarters, including elves, beautiful angelic immortal beings who are fair and farsighted, and dwarves, coarse, bearded creatures who are strong but proud. Most bewildering, Frodo encounters men, whose natures are diverse. A little lower than the elves in most respects, men are the creatures whose dominion is rising. Among them are Aragorn, the wisest man of his time and heir to the throne, and Boromir, a noble warrior who is strong but proud and tempted by the power of the Ring. So this, then, is the Fellowship which will return the ring: 4 hobbits, 2 men, 1 elf, 1 dwarf, and 1 wizard.

In the movie version, the various creatures perfectly match Tolkien’s written portraits. The elves are tall, slender, wise, and good. Their home in Rivendell is idyllic. Legolas, the elf who accompanies Frodo, is delicate and serene, and his bow sings with accuracy and justice. Gimli the dwarf is a valiant warrior with his ax, a sturdy, simple being given to loyal friendships as well as the nursing of ancient grievances. And the men who are Companions of the Ring—Aragorn and Boromir—are depicted as genuine humans, heroic and flawed, ambitious and striving, noble but conflicted, with enormous potential but imperfect insight. Detailed best of all are the hobbits, whose endearing features and habits make them fun to behold and easy to identify with. We see Frodo’s wisdom and courage emerge over time, encouraged by his loyal hobbit friend, Sam Gamgee, and counseled now and then by wise old Gandalf. In the movie, the hobbit friends provide the comic relief: Pippin, Merry, and Sam complete the pleasing picture of hobbit strengths and foibles. The hobbits laugh even as they learn, and the movie invites the audience to do the same.

Equally well-drawn are the evil ones: the dreaded Nazgul—hooded ring-wraiths who once were men but whose insatiable lust for power has made them less than human—and the hoards of orcs, foul, blood-thirsty creatures bred by torture, haters of beauty who live to kill and destroy. The movie’s depiction of the treacherous wizard Saruman and his factory of orcs and Uruk-hai scouring the earth of trees to feed the fires of Isengard is surely the most vivid depiction of hell that the modern mind could imagine.

For Christians, The Fellowship of the Ring is full of Christian symbols, motifs, and overtones. The ancient battle of good and evil, the unseen forces of light and darkness, the need for a deliverer, the power of friendship, the call to tread the noble path, even if it proves arduous and sacrificial—these major themes of The Fellowship evoke a cascade of scriptural references and analogues from the Bible.

When Gandalf and Aragorn marvel at how resilient and courageous the little hobbits are, the Christian thinks of “God chose the lowly things of this world . . . .” When sage Gandalf tells the despairing Frodo that he needn’t look too far ahead to success or failure, that “All you must do is decide what you will do in the time that has been given to you,” it brings to mind the Christian’s call to choose whom we will serve, to walk by faith and leave the outcome to the Lord. And when the elven narrator explains that in the ancient ages, history became legend and legend became myth, it suggests an interesting hermeneutic with which to approach all ancient aural histories.

However, The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory, Christian or otherwise. It purports to be a history, whether true or feigned, of a world not all that different from our own. Tolkien himself declared a cordial dislike of allegory. Instead, he said, “Many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” The Fellowship of the Ring is an excellent movie, true to Tolkien’s vision. If it draws a wider audience to read the original trilogy, so much the better. Nevertheless, this film succeeds on its own. Rather than dominate its audience into a forced march, it frees the mind, heart, and imagination to consider all the possible varieties and choices in life and to decide what we will do with the time given to us.

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