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Reflections on Lord of the Rings
By Jason Burton

The Phantom Tollbooth isn't about to start a book club, but its staff has certainly noticed the up tick in J. R. R. Tolkien readers on its daily commute. Here are a few thoughts from a Middle Earth "newbie."--editor

I've never been particularly interested in science fiction/fantasy books and movies. I don't think I've ever made it through a whole episode of Star Trek in any of its incarnations, I can't name any but the most important characters in the Star Wars movies, and, until recently, I'd never read any of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Lest I be accused of letting pop culture dictate my reading habits I've never been one to pick up a book because of seeing or anticipating a movie based on it (books with covers featuring pictures from a movie are particularly offensive), but after seeing the early trailers for the forthcoming film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring (to be followed in subsequent years by films of The Two Towers and The Return of the King), I was intrigued enough to pull my unread copy off the bookshelf.

Years ago, as a high school student interested in "Christian" fiction, I had begun The Fellowship of the Ring but quickly despaired of my inability to follow the nuances of the vast history Tolkien unfolds as a background to the central quest of the story. Having also expected Christian analogy and clear spiritual lessons such as those I had encountered in the fantasy stories of Tolkien's friend C. S. Lewis, I soon disappointedly put the book aside.

To a person uninterested in the minute details of a fantasy-world, Tolkien' s trilogy can at times read like a Biblical genealogy, and as I approached the book this time, I still found it easy to get bogged down in the lore of Middle Earth. I pressed on, though, and discovered that in the same way the Gospel of Matthew's opening account of who begat whom is the starting point for the powerful message at the heart of the Gospel, so underlying all the mythological fancy and details of Tolkien's trilogy is a moving tale of people forced to step out of their comfortable, sheltered, lives and venture into an uncertain and often frighteningly evil world.

The story centers on the Hobbit Frodo and his quest to destroy an evil ring that has been entrusted to him. It didn't take me very long to recognize my close kinship to Frodo and the Hobbits, who as a race are generally petty, proud, and leery of the world outside their safe and familiar Shire. As Frodo bemoans his role in a situation not of his making and out of his control, I found myself constantly reminded of God's tendency, throughout the Bible and throughout my own experience, to choose those who don't necessarily want to be chosen, and push them into situations they would much rather avoid. As the wizard Gandalf explains to Frodo the need to destroy the ring, Frodo replies, "I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?" In Frodo's honest questioning one hears echoes of Moses, Noah, and Jeremiah as they questioned their role in God's plans.

There are few people, Hobbit or human, that jump at the chance to have their comfortable and familiar lives disrupted by a perilous task, but Frodo, in spite of his fears, accepts his calling and begins the journey. This is not a one-time act of bravery. Pursued by evil riders and constantly forced to venture forward into unknown and unsafe situations, Frodo repeatedly has to decide whether to give up or move ahead. He looks for easy escapes but again and again has to take the hard road. But it is in confronting his fears and these hardships that Frodo grows as a person. At the end of The Fellowship of the Ring the journey (and the trilogy) is only a third over, but Frodo is not the same Hobbit he would be if he had stayed home in the Shire. He has already discovered and developed strengths in himself that he never would have found if he had remained in his comfortable home.

So, come December, as we moviegoers hand over our $8 to see what Hollywood has done with Tolkien, I hope we're treated not just to another special effects extravaganza. While the public certainly may be satisfied by the spectacle of elves, wizards, and fierce battles, it is the story - of faithfulness in the face of fear and the unknown - that Tolkien built the mythology and action to serve. It is the story that can touch people at their deepest level. We all have a bit of Hobbit in us and my hope is that the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring will help us see it.


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