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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Gimli takes on Aragorn

The highlight of the Christmas season for any major movie buff has to be the release of the final film of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I don’t think there has ever before been a movie event that quite compares to this. This is essentially a 9-hour-18-minute movie (10.5 hours, if you count the extended versions that were released on DVD and later in cinemas), that happened to be released in three segments over a two-year period (although it has seemed longer for those of us who have waited anxiously for each installment).

This series of movies is monumental, not only for its sheer spectacle and entertainment value. It is a classic piece of literature that has spoken to generations, both in book form and now in film. Beloved by hordes, The Lord of the Rings hasn’t completely gotten the respect it actually deserves because it falls into the fantasy genre. But the themes and characters it explores are every bit as important as any other work of literature you will find in the history of the world.

It is particularly interesting that the release of the three films has coincided with three turbulent years of world events. Shortly before The Fellowship of the Ring was released in December of 2001, the “war on terror” had been launched and the movies have more or less coincided with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the subsequent occupations of both countries. This coincidence is downright cosmic.

With the release of The Return of the King, it is particularly fascinating to listen to the opinions of the actors involved in the trilogy. This past week I happened to catch Scottish actor Billy Boyd, who plays the hobbit Pippin, on Ireland’s premier chat program, The Late Late Show. In discussing J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, he emphasized the same themes that struck a chord with myself (and probably the entire baby boom generation) when I first read the books in the 1960s. These would include the idea of various races overcoming their differences to unite and work together, as well as a distinct environmental theme, particularly in The Two Towers, in which trees (the Ents) retaliate against humans for their disregard for the forests.

But back in the 1960s, as now, there was no escaping the fact that The Lord of the Rings was a glorious war story. It was about peaceful people leaving their comfortable homes and enduring hardship and dangers to save the world. If we embraced this story in the 1960s, it was probably out of nostalgia for the clear-cut morality of World War II, as opposed to the incomprehensibility of the war in Vietnam.

Particularly weighing in on the question of The Lord of the Rings and war has been Viggo Mortensen, who plays Aragorn, the character who, apart from Frodo the hobbit (Elijah Wood), is the most pivotal and heroic of the trilogy. I’ve heard second-hand that Mortensen (for whom I have a healthy respect as an actor and a person) has been quite vocal in television interviews, presumably reprising comments he made last year on PBS’s interview show, Charlie Rose. On that occasion, sporting a “No More Blood for Oil” tee shirt, he vehemently disputed the notion that The Lord of the Rings could be seen as an allegory for the Bush administration foreign policy and went so far as to say that people on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq “see the US government as Saruman.” (In the trilogy Saruman, the character played by Christopher Lee, is a wizard who joins forces with the dark lord Sauron on the side of evil.) Mortensen, in effect, points out the main problem with making comparisons between literature and real life. We might all be stirred by the heroic warfare in The Lord of the Rings, but different readers will argue about who is best represented by the good guys and who is best represented by the forces of darkness. One reader might pick the US-British-led coalition to correspond to the Fellowship of the Ring, and another might see them as minions of Sauron.

Another point of view has been offered by John Rhys-Davies, who plays Gimli, the dwarf member of the fellowship. Three weeks ago Rhys-Davies was interviewed by a round table of film critics, led by Jeffrey Overstreet, and he made some extraordinary observations when asked how Tolkien’s Catholicism had resonated with him. He recalled being told, as a child in colonial Africa in the mid-1950s, by his father that the next world war would not be between the USA and the USSR, but between “Islam and the West.” He went on to insist that “true Democracy comes from our Greco-Judeo-Christian-Western experience. If we lose these things, then this is a catastrophe for the world.” He summed up by saying, “By and large our cultures and our society are resilient enough to put up with any sort of nonsense. But if Tolkien’s got a message, it’s that ‘Sometimes you’ve got to stand up and fight for what you believe in.’ He knew what he was fighting for in WW1.”

This is certainly a different message than we usually get from high-profile actors, and Rhys-Davies cannily prefaced these comments by saying, “I’m burying my career so substantially in these interviews that it’s painful.” To the extent that he is perceived as attacking Islam, which is after all, one of the world’s great religions, he can indeed expect to catch some flak. But on this important day for Christians, it is also worth remembering the value of the civilization that we variously call “Christian” or “Judeo-Christian” or “Western.” There must be some reason that, so far at least, democracy has flourished more successfully in Western Europe and North America than in many other parts of the world (along with a high standard of living). But to praise “Western” civilization isn’t necessarily to criticize Islam or any other civilization, which can boast of their own particular achievements.

While not blind to the fact that people in other cultures will see things differently than myself, I simply do not view the “war on terror” as a war between Islam and the West. After all, the main beneficiaries (and, it must be conceded as well, victims) of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been Moslems, and at a not insignificant cost of American and British blood and treasure. I tend to see it as a war between forces of freedom and democracy against fascist forces that would deny people religious freedom and democratic participation. The Taliban and Saddam Hussein don’t represent “Islamic culture” any more than Adolf Hitler represented “Christian culture.”

There is a school of thought, enunciated frequently in discussions of Iraq, that war itself is immoral and that in any war between two countries, ultimately, neither side is better than the other. You can’t fight evil with evil, goes the argument. If this is true, then Roosevelt and Churchill would be morally equivalent to Hitler and Mussolini. And, so while I would personally err on the side of peace rather than war, I can’t buy the proposition that war can never be waged for moral purposes.

Although a work of fantasy, The Lord of the Rings illustrates very well the grimmest of real-life conundrums. In any war many people will inevitably suffer and die, but sometimes, for the lack of a war, even more people will suffer and die.

But maybe I’m just brainwashed. Maybe the American government has pulled the wool over my eyes so that I can’t see how the U.S. has become a repressive and undemocratic country. How can one be sure? My best reassurance is the existence of Viggo Mortensen and plenty more like him, who regularly criticize the government vociferously without fear of any significant retaliation. And God bless them for doing so. It’s the continual and aggressive self-questioning from each country’s political opposition (as well as a critical press) that distinguishes Western democracies and keeps them functioning. Would Mortensen have been able to wear a slogan on his tee shirt criticizing the Taliban in Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein in Iraq? That’s the question that reassures me that in the current “war,” not between Christianity and Islam but between democracy and fascism, for the moment at least my country seems to be on the right side.

The bottom line in any event is that, if more people in the world read their Bibles and Korans and other holy books and actually understood and followed what they really have to say (rather than searching for specific passages to bolster their own pre-existing prejudices), then the world would be a much better place.

End of sermon. Now, allow me extend my warmest holiday wishes (and thanks) to everyone generous enough to spend some of their valuable time reading this modest website.

-S.L., 25 December 2003

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