Posts Tagged ‘Middle Earth’

Letters of TolkienA Jesuit priest with whom “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien had been friends noted, in a letter to the latter, a certain resemblance between the Lady Galadriel and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Tolkien responded by calling the Virgin Mary — “Our Lady,” as he put it — the standard or source (I forget which) of all of his conceptions of beauty, “great and small.”

Our Lady of LoretoThis was in my mind during my recent discovery (mea culpa, mea maxima culpa) one of the Church’s most time-honored Marian litanies: The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a.k.a. the Litany of Loreto, of which Tolkien was quite fond.  Here’s a snippet:

Virgin most prudent, (pray for us)
Virgin most venerable, (pray for us)
Virgin most renowned, (pray for us)
Virgin most powerful, (pray for us)
Virgin most merciful, (pray for us)
Virgin most faithful, (pray for us)
Mirror of justice, (pray for us)
Seat of wisdom, (pray for us)
Cause of our joy, (pray for us)
Spiritual vessel, (pray for us)
Vessel of honor, (pray for us)
Singular vessel of devotion, (pray for us)
Mystical rose,
pray for us (…)

– From “Our Catholic Prayers” (see link below)

Anyone interested in praying — or at least reading — the entire litany can find it here.

Book image from http://www.amazon.com; depiction of the Virgin Mary from Wikipedia

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I do find “Game of Thrones” enjoyable.  I find the characters, the world, and the story intriguing…if more than a little ambiguous.  Many people compare the show to “The Lord of the Rings,” some with attention to how its underlying worldview differs.  I want to take a look at that in this post.

The interesting thing about medieval fantasy is the time period that inspires the genre — and even more, the setting that inspires its settings: Northwestern Europe — especially Great Britain, which seems to be the prototypical setting.

England has a fascinating literary history.  The stories bound up with its ancestral traditions were, of course, passed on orally at first.  And when they began to be written down, they were given their Christian interpretations in translation.  Not only were the scribes immortalizing the great myths by committing them to the scrolls, they were drawing out what they perceived to be the “seeds of the Word” in these myths.

Tolkien_1916Now we turn to J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon language and literature.  Between his love for the lore and history of his country, his interest in how language is shaped by and shapes people’s lives and cultures, his tragic experiences as a child and as a young man, and his discovery of hope and solace in the faith given to him by the priests who cared for him as an orphan, he came to find a unique way of presenting Christianity to the modern world…not in a preachy or didactic way, but as something that speaks to the deepest heart, deepest hurts, deepest hopes and desires of mankind.

Hence, we have Middle-Earth and “The Lord of the Rings.”

George_R._R._Martin_signingLet’s admit that Westeros, the setting of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” is a little bit different.  On the surface, it does strike one as a “re-paganization” of fantasy.  We find ourselves in a world of many gods; and whenever a “true God” is proposed, this is usually regarded with great suspicion.

But I almost wonder if it is more of a postmodern fantasy.  Not that it necessarily adheres to the tenets of postmodernism, but it gives us a world that is deeply unsure of itself and groping for answers, albeit within a setting that reflects the genre’s pre-Christian roots.

Okay.  All that said, I can delve more deeply into “Game of Thrones.”

robb_stark_02The more I watch the HBO series, the more convinced I am (though I have felt this way from the start) that “Game of Thrones” does not celebrate spectacles of violence, savage lust, scheming, or betrayal.  The show can be difficult to watch at times, because our characters are living in a world rife with the brutality of old Europe and in which loyalty is fragile, people seek their own ends above all else, nearly no one can be trusted (at least not for sure), and there are almost no friends.

The Starks maintain a code of honor and goodness, but their family would seem to be an island amidst a great flood of divided loyalties.  Our friends in Westeros live in a dark and hard world, and no goodhearted person could be unaffected by that.

But there are here and there what I would like to call “moments of light,” shining intermittently and fleetingly like sunlight through passing storm clouds….


…whether it is Tyrion Lannister’s growing love for the prostitute Shae…

Tywin-and-Arya…Tywin Lannister’s father-daughter-like bonding with Arya Stark…

Cersei…Queen Cersei’s tender love for her children and regret over the grief her son Joffrey is causing everyone…

Tyrion-Lannister…Tyrion’s almost-effort to comfort her (or the “moment they almost have”)…

Stannis Baratheon…or Stannis Baratheon’s regret over killing his younger brother, who had been his opponent in the war for the Iron Throne.

Overall, I would say this: Good fiction, at its best, shows how the goodness of the human spirit can triumph even in the face of great obstacles, while at the same time not glossing over the ambiguity in human nature.  If we’re going to compare Tolkien and Martin, it seems we could say that “The Lord of the Rings” is more concerned with the former, and “Game of Thrones” with the latter.

Where there is life, there is hope, and the good always has a way, at least, of peaking its head in.  And I think we see that in Westeros.  So while it may not exactly resemble Tolkien’s vision of the Light of Faith illuminating the myths of men, it does give us shafts of golden dawn light illuminating the dark forest.

Top three images from Wikipedia; remaining images obtained through a Google image search

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Okay, okay…let’s start with a concession: This is a big time of year for the premiere of all kinds of movies.  But as a viewer, I have always felt it strangely appropriate that all three “Lord of the Rings” films came out at Christmastime.  And now the “Hobbit” films are coming out during the holiday season as well.  Somehow, it just feels right.

And maybe it’s providential…if for no other reason, because of the Hobbits.

TreebeardThere is an interesting scene in “The Two Towers,” the second book in Tolkien’s “Rings” trilogy, in which Hobbits Merry and Pippin tell Treebeard the story of their journey.  Here is Treebeard’s response:

There is something very big going on … By root and twig, but it is a strange business: up sprout a little folk that are not in the old lists (of creatures), and behold! the Nine forgotten Riders reappear to hunt them, and Gandalf takes them on a great journey, and Galadriel harbours them in Caras Galadon, and Orcs pursue them down all the leagues of Wilderland: indeed they seem to be caught up in a great storm. (‘The Two Towers,” Book III, Chapter 4 — bold mine)

I highlighted the bold section for a reason.  With “little people” appearing during the Third Age of Middle Earth, Tolkien’s Christianity seems to be peeping through the rafters.

NativityOne of the best commentaries on Christmas comes from C.S. Lewis, who said — I believe in “Mere Christianity” — that Christ’s coming into the world as an infant, born into poverty at that, was a deeply subversive act.  Coming to reclaim mankind and the world and to free them from the tyrannical power of the devil, he had to slip into enemy territory — behind enemy lines, as it were — unseen.

And, like the Hobbits, Christ was pursued by those seeking His death from the moment of His birth.  Those familiar with the New Testament will recall the slaughter of the innocents and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt.

The Third Age of Middle Earth, unbeknownst to its inhabitants, would witness cataclysmic events that would decide the fate of the world.  Against the threat of Sauron, the Dark Lord, the might of Men and Elves would not avail.

Perceiving the oncoming storm, Gandalf the Wizard intuits that Middle Earth will need the help of a people with a whole new “skill set.”  Hence, he gets the Hobbits involved.

Still from The Hobbit: The Desolation of SmaugWhether it is Bilbo Baggins slipping into the dragon Smaug’s lair as a “burglar” or Frodo and Sam slipping into Mordor, the Hobbits are perfect “weapons” by virtue of their smallness and ability to creep into enemy territory unnoticed.  In this way, they are able to overthrow the usurpers that possess, or seek to possess, what is not theirs.

As we approach Christmas Day, let us celebrate Hobbits…and the birth of the Little King Who slips into the lair to defeat our Smaug.

Images of Treebeard and the Nativity from Wikipedia; others obtained through a Google image search

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On December 15, I went into the movie theater prepared to be disappointed.

Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” has been criticized by some for essentially fitting Bilbo Baggins description of himself at the beginning of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”:

I feel … like butter scraped over too much bread.

Jackson, while remaining faithful to the story of Bilbo’s journey as depicted in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” has supplemented it with material from the appendices of “The Lord of the Rings” and from some of Tolkien’s other works.  The extra storylines deal with events that:

1) Are connected to Gandalf the Wizard’s involvement in Bilbo’s quest; and
2) Will lead up to the events of the “Rings” trilogy.

In consequence, what was a pretty lightweight book intended mainly for children is being brought to audiences in three films, the first of which is not far short of three hours long.

The question is whether this was a mistake on Jackson’s part.  Connecting with the title character is somewhat harder, to be sure, when his story gets swallowed up in the midst of all this other material.


But I would still defend Jackson’s choice.  I said I was prepared to be disappointed when I went to see the movie; happily, I was not.  Except for the sense of abruptness with which the ending struck me (which was probably unavoidable), I thoroughly enjoyed it.

For whatever flaws he has as a filmmaker (and all filmmakers have them), Jackson is a master storyteller.  As in the “Rings” films, I found that I was never let down by the narrative movements of “An Unexpected Journey.”  Like a grand symphony, the movie hits the “key notes” not in a bland progression from point to point, but in a way that calls attention to each “note” in a unique and exciting way.

As for the extra material, I would say that what it does for the story of Bilbo’s journey is place it within the context of a meaningful meta-narrative.

The notion of the meta-narrative is all-important in human life.  Many people in this age of isolation and groundlessness yearn for the reality of being part of something much bigger than themselves, sometimes without realizing it.  I think even the weird conspiracy theories we find here and there are driven by this innate hunger to give one’s life some sort of meaningful context.

This is another area in which the Catholic Faith can satisfy the hunger of the human heart.  We see everything — all of history, the story of each nation and unit of society, the life story of each person, all struggles momentary and enduring, and even the minutiae of our everyday individual lives — as part of the great Christian Meta-Narrative, which reaches both back and forward into eternity.

It is my opinion, then, that the theme of the meta-narrative has a broadly evangelical character.


In the case of “The Hobbit,” we have the scoop on how Bilbo’s journey fits into the whole scheme of events that will give rise to Sauron’s War on Middle Earth, the journey of the Fellowship, etc.

True, Tolkien never intended to introduce folks to Bilbo Baggins or Middle Earth in that way.  In fact, he wrote “The Hobbit” before “Rings” was even a twinkle in his eye.

In terms of the cinematic representation of these works, however, audiences already have been introduced to Tolkien’s world.  How people might have perceived the “Rings” trilogy if they had seen “The Hobbit” first, told in the simple style of Tolkien’s book (which I have heard is what Jackson and his team wanted, but were unable, to do at the outset), is something we will never know.

But I think that, having been immersed in Middle Earth with the “Rings” movies and having gotten to know its principle characters and races, audiences are probably ready for another romp through this amazing world and its history, regardless of the method of storytelling.

That said, I think it would be worthwhile to take a look at exactly what this meta-narrative means for Bilbo’s story.  He is the title character, after all.  I will return with thoughts on that within the next few days (no spoilers).

All images obtained through a Google image search.

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