What made J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings an Oscar winner? Strangely enough, in an age that purports to be modern and secular, the Lord of the Rings is a success because its structure and vision focus the viewer on “wonder” and “grace.”
True, a common criticism of Tolkien’s work is that his Middle Earth lacks any formal religion. But that is to miss a larger truth. Tolkien, a devout Christian, a life-long Catholic, and a spiritual mentor to C. S. Lewis, insisted in a letter that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” but that he deliberately cut “all references to anything like religion…. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
First, The Lord of the Rings produces a sense of wonder, awe, fear and humility of the individual soul in facing the demands of transcendent reality. The greatest example of this occurs at the council of Rivendell, when Frodo makes the difficult choice to take the Ring – and the quest to destroy it. In facing the “great dread” of an unbearable responsibility, Frodo realizes that he is a very small part of a much larger story whose meaning he cannot begin to fathom. He submits to that awesome mystery “as if some other will was using his small voice.” In response he says: “I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.” Something – or Someone – is at work in Middle Earth, drawing its seemingly insignificant characters into His larger plan for good. Tolkien chooses to leave that “presence” nameless, but he continuously refers to it by intentionally using the passive voice. “Why was I chosen? asks Frodo. Gandalf responds, “You were meant to carry the Ring.”
Secondly, The Lord of the Rings teaches viewers about grace – based on Tolkien’s belief in the soul – and its potential for salvation and damnation. Frodo exhibits it in his pity for the despicable, clawing Gollum whose consuming passion is to get the Ring – “my precious.” But Frodo’s pity is profoundly spiritual: he sees in Gollum a portrait of himself. Frodo, too, has been corrupted by the Ring. Both are fallen creatures, so Frodo persists in believing that Gollum is not beyond redemption and that he – like Frodo himself – may have a purpose in the larger scheme of things.
Tolkien coined a new word to explain the kind of “miraculous grace” at work in such stories as his. The word is “eucatastrophe,” which Tolkien defines as the “good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’… and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.” This amazing grace “denies… universal final defeat… giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” Tolkien continues: “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.”
At the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings, the Black Gates of Mordor open, all Hell breaks loose, and Frodo, at the very edge of the Cracks of Doom, finds himself unable to complete his quest. But the grace that kept Gollum alive allows him to make one last appearance. He bites the Ring from Frodo’s finger and, dancing in maniacal glee, plunges into the fiery abyss, destroying the Ring and himself and purging Frodo and all Middle Earth of the evil that would have consumed them. In the face of “universal defeat” comes “sudden, miraculous grace” that emerges brilliantly from the very fabric of the plot and characterizations which Tolkien has woven.
The appeal then of The Lord of the Rings is its ability to reconnect 21st century theater-goers to two spiritual qualities for which their souls long. First, they regain a sense of wonder and awe that in one’s daily existence each person is part of a larger story whose full meaning one cannot know but whose call to sacrificial service to others and to God must be heeded. Second, by identifying with Tolkien’s characters, viewers come to witness approvingly the triumph of goodness, truth and beauty over evil, by means of a profoundly amazing grace.