In 1958, responding to a proposed screenplay of The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote: “The canons of narrative art in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.” David Rozema argues that Tolkien would say the same of Peter Jackson’s recent films: that Jackson and his screen-writers are guilty of “not perceiving where the core of the original lies,” leading to “exaggeration” and “the intrusion of unwarranted matter.” This is shown through a close investigation of the character—the cardinal and theological virtues, or the lack of them—of the main characters in the story, thereby revealing “the core of the original.” Mr. Rozema is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Film director Peter Jackson’s productions of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings have been praised widely by critics and public audiences alike. Although all agree that it would be impossible to capture fully the grandeur and detail of Tolkien’s masterpiece within the scope of a film, the majority consensus, even among many Tolkien scholars, is that Jackson has been as successful as any filmmaker could be in presenting the essence of the original story and the spirit of the original characters. The minority report, however, is that Jackson, despite his skills as a director and cinematographer, has failed to identify and present what is at the heart of Tolkien’s tale and, correlatively, fails to portray the true nature of the main characters in the story.
In this essay, I propose to make the case for the minority. My contention is that Jackson’s films leave out a moral-theological theme that is essential to understanding both the main characters in the story and the plot of the story itself. That theme is the interrelationship of moral virtue (specifically, the cardinal virtues of fortitude, temperance, wisdom and justice) with spiritual virtue (specifically, the theological, or “Christian” virtues of faith, hope and charity). My goal in what follows is to demonstrate that Tolkien himself considered this theme to be at the core of his original work (or, at least a large part of that core), and that Jackson completely fails to see it.
As I thought about how to approach this task, it seemed perfectly reasonable to seek the help of Tolkien himself. He was known to be a rather exacting literary scholar himself and was often his own harshest critic. So I asked myself, “How would Tolkien himself have responded to these films? How would he have pin-pointed the root of all the differences between the books and the films?”
Interestingly, we have an indication of how Tolkien might react. In Humphrey Carpenter’s selections from Tolkien’s letters, there are two letters regarding a proposed animated film version of The Lord of the Rings. The first letter records Tolkien’s initial reaction to the storyline for the film, written by Morton Grady Zimmerman:
[T]his document, as it stands, is sufficient to give me grave anxiety about the actual dialogue that (I suppose) will be used. I should say Zimmerman, the constructor of this story-line, is quite incapable of excerpting or adapting the “spoken words” of the book. He is hasty, insensitive, and impertinent. He does not read books. It seems to me evident that he has skimmed through Lord of the Rings at a great pace, and then constructed his story-line from partly confused memories, and with the minimum of references back to the original. . . . The introduction of characters and the indications of what they are to say have little or no reference to the book. . . . I feel very unhappy about the extreme silliness and incompetence of Zimmerman and his complete lack of respect for the original (it seems willfully wrong without discernable technical reasons at nearly every point).1
The second selection contains excerpts from a long letter to Forrest J. Ackerman, the company agent for the proposed animated film. In this letter, Tolkien comments in detail on the storyline for the film. He is clearly distressed:
If Z[immerman] and/or others [read the following commentary], they may be irritated or aggrieved by the tone of many of my criticisms. If so, I am sorry (though not surprised). But I would ask them to make an effort of imagination sufficient to understand the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds, increasingly as he proceeds, his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about. . . . The canons of narrative art in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.2
But where can we best find this “core of the original”? Tolkien says in another of his letters that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”3 This is the first clue in finding the core of the original. A second clue is found in the same letter written to Ackerman concerning the storyline for the proposed film:
I do earnestly hope that in the assignment of actual speeches to the characters they will be represented as I have presented them: in style and sentiment. I should resent perversion of the characters (and do resent it, so far as it appears in this sketch) even more than the spoiling of the plot and scenery.”4
Here, then, is the basis from which I want to offer a rational ground for my criticism of Jackson’s films—a basis derived from Tolkien’s own writings: The root of all the significant differences between Jackson’s films and the original Lord of the Rings is the “fundamentally religious and Catholic” nature of the latter, and the lack thereof in the former, as seen in the main characters of the story. The way Jackson portrays the main characters—the character of the main characters—is fundamentally different from Tolkien’s portrayal of them, specifically with regard to the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity—the “theological” virtues. In the original, Tolkien’s main heroic characters display these virtues clearly; in Jackson’s films they do not. Hence, insofar as these heroic character’s actions are motivated by these virtues, Jackson must (and does) suppose those actions to be motivated by something else. That is, he makes unwarranted intrusions to makeup for what he does not see in the original: the true Christ-like character of these heroes. Furthermore, given a Christian orthodox understanding of the relationship between the theological virtues (faith , hope and charity) and the cardinal virtues (wisdom, temperance, justice and fortitude)—a relationship Tolkien, as a devout and learned Catholic, clearly would have known—we have a touchstone for explaining the differences between how Jackson and Tolkien portray the main non-heroic characters, such as Saruman, Denethor, Theoden (before his transformation) and Boromir. Since Jackson does not see that the main difference between these characters and the heroic ones is their lack of the theological virtues, he must (and does) portray them as either darker, more evil—and therefore less pitiable—than Tolkien portrays them (e.g., Denethor, Saruman, and the pre-transformed Theoden), or as better, more compassionate and trusting—and therefore more pitiable—than Tolkien does (e.g., Boromir).
Theological and Moral Virtues
Before making a case specific to the characters in The Lord of the Rings, let us look at the theology Tolkien would undoubtedly have known and adhered to with regard to the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. In Question 62 of the first part of the second part of the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas asks, “Whether there are any theological virtues?” He answers that
Man is perfected by virtue, for those actions whereby he is directed to happiness. . . . Now man’s happiness is twofold. . . . One is proportionate to human nature, a happiness, to wit, which man can obtain by means of his natural principles. The other is a happiness surpassing man’s nature, and which man can obtain by the power of God alone, by a kind of participation in the Godhead. . . . And because such happiness surpasses the capacity of human nature, man’s natural principles which enable him to act well according to his capacity, do not suffice to direct man to this same happiness. Hence it is necessary for man to receive from God some additional principles, whereby he may be directed to supernatural happiness. . . .Such like principles are called theological virtues . . . 5
Aquinas, following the New Testament Scriptures and Christian tradition, identifies these theological virtues as Faith, Hope, and Charity, all three of which are acquired by “infusion”—such as gifts of the Spirit. In the third article, Aquinas explains the effects of these three virtues in attaining man’s “supernatural happiness” further:
First, as regards the intellect, man receives certain supernatural principles, which are held by means of a Divine light: these are the articles of faith, about which is faith. —Secondly, the will is directed to this end, both as to the movement of intention, which tends to that end as something attainable, —and this pertains to hope, —and as to a certain spiritual union, whereby the will is, so to speak, transformed into that end, —and this belongs to charity.6
Just as a life lived in accordance with the cardinal virtues of fortitude, temperance, wisdom and justice constitutes “natural happiness,” so a life lived in accordance with the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity constitutes “supernatural happiness.”
In the second article of Question 65 of the Summa (“Of the Connection of Virtues”), Aquinas asks, “Whether moral virtues can be without charity?” His answer is that
it is possible by means of human works to acquire moral virtues, in so far as they produce good works that are directed to an end not surpassing the natural power of man; and when acquired thus, they can be without charity. . . . But in so far as they produce good works in proportion to a supernatural last end, thus they have the character of virtue, truly and perfectly; and cannot be acquired by human acts, but are infused by God. Such like moral virtues cannot be without charity. . . . [O]nly the infused virtues are perfect, and deserve to be called virtues simply; since they direct a man well to the ultimate end. But the other virtues, those, namely, that are acquired, are virtues in a restricted sense.7
Thus, according to this understanding from Aquinas, the moral virtues of fortitude, temperance, wisdom and justice are virtues only in “a restricted sense”: they bring only a “natural happiness.” But the very same moral virtues can be a part of a “supernatural happiness” if they are “not without charity”: the perfection of charity is that it enables a person to attain a “supernatural happiness” in the practice of good works. In other words, charity is the virtue that makes it possible for a person to act virtuously in a consistent way, even in the face of conditions that would thwart other virtuous men. And, since Aquinas maintains also that the theological virtues are imperfect when separate from one another,8 we can infer that faith and hope are seen especially in such conditions as well, and are necessary, along with charity, to ensure the perfect practice of virtue.
In short, a person may possess the moral virtues of fortitude, temperance, wisdom and justice without possessing the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, but that person’s moral virtue will be imperfect. In practical terms, this means that under certain conditions such a person will be unable to continue acting in accordance with those moral virtues. And it will be under those conditions that the absence (or the presence) of the theological virtues in the soul of a person will be made apparent.
Under what conditions? As Aquinas implies, under conditions where evil forces are at work that are disproportionate to human nature, forces which man cannot resist by means of his natural principles; when the forces of evil are so great that doubt, despair and bitterness are the natural reaction even of the morally virtuous man, and the temptations to escape, to surrender and join the enemy, or to exercise one’s own powers of destruction are all but unconquerable. It is under such conditions that the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are revealed most clearly to be either present or absent in a person’s soul, for in such conditions only the theological virtues can sustain the moral integrity of that person. For in order to overcome such superhuman forces of evil, only supernatural virtues will suffice. And, as Aquinas indicates, the possession of these supernatural virtues constitutes a supernatural happiness.
What does all of this have to do with The Lord of the Rings? Plenty. The “fundamentally religious and Catholic” nature of the work is not explicit; rather, it is implicit in the events and characters of the story. Tolkien felt strongly that the artistic and spiritual effectiveness of stories, especially what he calls “fairy stories,” lies in the showing of truth—portraying it through plot and character—rather than in the mere telling of it. “That is why,” he says, “I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”9 Many excellent commentators have, of course, pointed out all of this. Barry Gordon, for example, has demonstrated how the offices of Prophet, Priest and King, as understood within Christianity, are reflected in the character and actions of Gandalf, Frodo and Aragorn, respectively. Tolkien himself agreed with Gordon’s thesis, but admitted that the correlation had been unconscious on his part.10 So far, none of this is original commentary. However, I would now like to propose another, further correlation between the main characters in The Lord of the Rings and the previously cited understanding of the moral and theological virtues.11
Similar to Gordon’s thesis, I propose that this understanding of the theological virtues and their relationship to the moral virtues is implicit in the characters of Aragorn, Gandalf and Frodo. Not forgetting that the theological virtues cannot be found wholly separate from one another, I would maintain still that in each of these characters one of the three theological virtues is prominent: in Aragorn faith is prominent; in Gandalf hope is prominent; and, since charity is demonstrated necessarily in personal relationships, we see the prominence of this virtue in both Frodo’s love for Sam and his pity for Gollum. Each of these characters possesses moral virtue (for the most part), and maintains that moral virtue even in the face of overwhelming opposition. They are each able to do so only through—only in virtue of—the faith, hope and charity that they have. This is not to say that these characters are idealizations: Tolkien is a masterful storyteller largely because he is realistic about human (and hobbit and elvish and dwarfish) nature. We can see that Aragorn, Gandalf and Frodo (and other characters, too, like Faramir, Eomer, Sam, Elrond, Galadriel, Merry and Pippin, and others) have some measure of all three theological virtues. Furthermore, we see all three of them face situations in which the theological virtue prominent in them is severely tested: Aragorn, at the breaking of the fellowship when he struggles with what to do; Gandalf, when he confronts the Balrog’s power at the door of the Chamber of Mazarbul; Frodo, both at the foot of the Emyn Muil when he wonders whether or not to kill Gollum, and again in the Tower of Cirith Ungol when he realizes that Sam has taken the Ring. These episodes show that Tolkien’s characters are both realistic and rich. Nevertheless, as I will attempt to show, Tolkien has constructed his story and these characters in such a way as to prominently portray the virtue of faith in Aragorn, hope in Gandalf and charity in Frodo.
I also want to propose that each of these characters have their tragic counterparts—characters who possess moral virtue initially, but which virtue fails in the face of such powerful opposition because they lack the needed theological virtue. Thus, in contrast to Aragorn’s faith we have Denethor’s self-destructive despair; in contrast to Gandalf’s hope, we have Saruman’s cynical ambition; in contrast to the mutual charity between Frodo and Sam and the mutual sympathy between Frodo and Gollum, we see the mutual hatred and distrust between Sam and Gollum.
There can be no doubt that Aragorn possesses, to some degree, all of the cardinal virtues—wisdom, fortitude, temperance and justice. Certainly he is learned in lore, and is second only to Gandalf in the fellowship with regard to wisdom: he leads the company after the fall of Gandalf in Moria. His temperance is evident as well: in his intervention between Gimli and the elves of Lorien when they insist on blindfolding the dwarf; in his restraint at Helm’s Deep when the orcs challenge him to come down from the walls and fight them, as well as his gentle way with Eowyn when he knows of her love for him; and in his not insisting on recognition as the heir of Isildur until the time is right and the evidences of his kingship have been given. His justice is revealed most clearly in his dealings with the people of Gondor (including Beregond) after he has become king. But perhaps his most evident moral virtue is fortitude. This virtue is highlighted especially in the relentless chase he and Legolas and Gimli give to the orcs who have hobbitnapped Merry and Pippin. But his fortitude extends far beyond this. It is evident in his long wait for the events to fall into place to claim his rightful place on the throne, and in his equally long wait to wed Arwen. Those years of waiting were spent in the thank-ess tasks of protecting the inhabitants of the Shire and other free places (including Gondor and Rohan, where he lived incognito for a time), and in even more troublesome tasks like hunting and capturing Gollum. The height of this virtue is seen, however, in his journey on The Paths of the Dead. Tolkien writes, “such was the strength of his will in that hour that all the Dunedain and their horses followed him.” Gimli admits, “I was held to the road only by the will of Aragorn.”12
Note, first of all, that clearly this event involved a confrontation with demon-like forces—the dead spirits of oath-breaking men. Others who had attempted this Path (like Brego) died of terror. Secondly, note that Aragorn was advised to take the Paths of the Dead, and was certain that he should and could do it, because of the prophecy that “the heir of Isildur” would one day pass through, calling the oath-breakers to his aid when darkness lies over the land and doom approaches Minas Tirith. He tells Legolas,
in this dark hour the heir of Isildur may use it [the Path of the Dead], if he dare. Listen! This is the word that the sons of Elrond bring to me from their father in Rivendell, wisest in lore: Bid Aragorn remember the words of the seer, and the Paths of the Dead.
Malbeth the seer had prophesied:
Over the land there lies a long shadow,
Westward reaching wings of darkness.
The Tower trembles; to the tombs of kings
Doom approaches. The Dead awaken;
For the hour is come for the oathbreakers:
At the Stone of Erech they shall stand again
And hear there a horn in the hills ringing.
Whose shall the horn be? Who shall call them
from the grey twilight, the forgotten people?
The heir of him to whom the oath they swore.
From the North he shall come, need shall drive him:
He shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.13
Aragorn (and Elrond, of course) is sure that this prophecy refers to him, and it is his certainty about this that strengthens his will. He understands the prophecy as a call to action and as an assurance of granted victory. Thus, we can see that Aragorn’s moral virtue of fortitude, when up against evil forces disproportionate to human nature, is active only because it is supported and maintained by his faith in something beyond himself, some cosmic authority. Without this faith, Aragorn would surely have failed.
Furthermore, it is clear in the books that the faith of Aragorn is active even in his trials against more natural enemies: he is patient in claiming his kingship, because he believes the prophecies and trusts the source of those prophecies to bring the time to pass. “Faith,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the certainty of things unseen.”14 In addition to the crucial example above, recall that Aragorn acknowledges, not with pride but certainly with assurance, that the voice in the vision of Boromir and Faramir, which said to “Seek for the Sword that was broken,” was referring to his sword, and that he would be the one to wield it. He says to Boromir,
For the Sword that was Broken is the Sword of Elendil that broke beneath him when he fell. It has been treasured by his heirs when all other heirlooms were lost; for it was spoken of old among us that it should be made again when the Ring, Isildur’s Bane, was found. Now you have seen the sword that you have sought, what would you ask? Do you wish for the House of Elendil to return to the land of Gondor?15
Aragorn also acknowledges fully that the prophetic verses of Bilbo—From the ashes a fire shall be woken/A light from the shadows shall spring/Renewed shall be blade that was broken/the crownless again shall be king—refer to him. And clearly he sees himself as being in the same position—with a similar goal and facing a similar task—as Beren, the greatest hero of old. This parallel is drawn by Aragorn himself, though subtly, when he tells the tale of Beren and Luthien to the hobbits, ending his narrative with these words:
So it is that Luthien Tinuviel alone of the Elf-kindred has died indeed and left the world, and they have lost her whom they most loved. But from her the lineage the Elf-lords of old descended among Men. There live still those of whom Luthien was the foremother, and it is said that her line shall never fail. Elrond of Rivendell is of that Kin. For of Beren and Luthien was born Dior Thingol’s heir; and of him Elwing the white whom Earendil wedded, he that sailed his ship out of the mists of the world into the seas of heaven with the Silmaril upon his brow. And of Earendil came the kings of Numenor, that is Westernesse.16
There can be little doubt, in light of later events, that Aragorn is here thinking of his own love for Elrond’s daughter, Arwen, and the similarities between the special destiny laid upon Beren and Luthien, and the special destiny he anticipates for himself and Arwen. Both are descended from Luthien (and Beren)—Arwen through her father Elrond, and Aragorn through the Kings of Numenor—and “it is said that her line shall never fail.” All of these cases illustrate the extraordinary faith of Aragorn: faith that the prophecies are true, and that they are true of him. Just as Aquinas sees faith as adherence to Divine principles revealed in the Scriptures, Aragorn lives his own life in adherence to the prophecies of old, firmly believing them to have application to himself.
Aragorn is not the self-doubting, hesitant, anxious, internally conflicted character that we see in the films. Rather, his faith, which manifests itself just as often as patience and courage (both constitute fortitude), makes him appear to those who do not understand it as a much weaker character than he is. And I will add here that it is Jackson’s blindness to Aragorn’s faith that leads him to make up the story about the tension between Aragorn and Elrond. Elrond knows and believes the prophecies at least as well as Aragorn. He was there when the prophecies were made. In his films, Jackson ignores the prophecies, including the crucial one, that “the hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and thus shall the rightful king be known.”17 This is a sure sign that he does not understand Aragorn.
But neither does he understand Aragorn’s counterpart, Denethor, and for the same reason. In the films, Denethor is an utterly unlikeable character—cruel, unjust and craven. It is not believable that such a man could remain the ruler of a city of good people (which may be why their goodness is not portrayed), for he could command no respect from good people. But in the books he is not so. He is stern, but he has not got a reputation as an unjust or cruel man. Rather, he is considered learned in lore and fair in his dealings with his people. Certainly he is respected,meven by Gandalf, who notes “in him the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true.”18Up to the point when Denethor began to use the palantir, and was thereby misled by Sauron, clearly he possessed the moral virtues of fortitude, wisdom, justice and temperance (he does not eat lavishly or indulgently as he does in Jackson’s film; he eats a frugal, simple meal, as his men do). In fact, it is because he does possess these virtues that the demonic force of Sauron’s evil does not overcome him completely; he is deceived so that he despairs, but he does not join actively with Sauron. This is what makes his downfall so tragic. He was a good man; but he lacked faith. He did not fully believe the prophecies—and by “did not fully believe” I mean he did not accept those prophecies. He did not desire that they come to pass in his The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien, Jackson, and “The Core of the Original” own time, especially the prophecy of the return of the King. His fatal flaw is his misplaced pride, which leads to a wrong desire. He lacks faith, and so, when face to face with Sauron’s demonic powers, he falls into despair. Thus Tolkien gets us to feel a sublime delight and desire from Aragorn’s character, and a poignant pity for Denethor.
Some might believe that Aragorn’s faith was really a form of pride—he is so certain of the prophecies and desires their fulfillment so much because it is he himself who is the fulfillment of them—but Tolkien offers by way of contrast Faramir and Boromir. In the books faith is prominent in Faramir’s character also, for he believes and desires the fulfillment of the prophecies too, but not because he himself is the fulfillment of them. He desires them for their own sake, and not because of any assurance that he will have any part in their fulfillment. Boromir, on the other hand, shares in both his father’s virtue and his father ’s flaw. Faramir tells Frodo that when he and Boromir were children, Boromir was always displeased that in Gondor, the Steward could never become the King, no matter how long the throne was empty. “If he [Boromir] were satisfied with Aragorn’s claim, he would greatly reverence him. But the pinch had not yet come. They had not yet reached Minas Tirith or become rivals in her wars.”19 And, indeed, the reader is never quite sure of Boromir’s faith in anything beyond himself, though there is reason enough to admire him: in the end he repents of his attempt to take the Ring and dies defending Merry and Pippin from the orcs. Faramir, on the other hand, clearly believes and has faith in the prophecies and in something beyond himself. This is why he lets Frodo continue (and even aids him in) the quest to destroy the Ring, and Boromir does not. It is also why Boromir would have seen Aragorn as a rival, whereas Faramir recognizes Aragorn immediately as his liege. He would have done so even if he were not to become the next Steward of Gondor (if, for example, Boromir had lived). Faramir, in fact, is the one character who comes closest to doing something overtly “religious”: before the meal, he and his men face the west (towards Elvenhome) in a moment of silence. In a letter to a reader, Tolkien says of Faramir that
He was daunted by his father: not only in the ordinary way of a family with a stern proud father of great force of character, but as a Numenorean before the chief of the one surviving Numenorean state. . . and [he] had a “bossy” brother. He had been accustomed to giving way and not giving his own opinions air, while retaining a power of command among men, such as a man may obtain who is evidently personally courageous and decisive, but also modest, fair-minded and scrupulously just, and very merciful.20
Jackson, of course, misunderstands Faramir completely. Rather than portraying him as a noble, stable and faithful man, he portrays him as indecisive, conflicted, and emotionally weak. He is cast as a pathetic son, always trying to please a father who plays favorites. He tries to bring the Ring to his father, just as Boromir had tried to do, so that his father will finally praise him for something he has done. He lets Frodo go only in a moment of desperation. Thus, we see neither the true heroic faith in Faramir, nor the true tragedy in Boromir ’s lack of the same.
After Gandalf falls into the abyss in Moria, Aragorn cries, “Farewell Gandalf !Did I not say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware? Alas that I spoke true! What hope have we without you?” He then turns to the Company and says, “We must do without hope.”21 When Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli meet Gandalf again, now in shining white and returned from near death, Aragorn says, “Gandalf! Beyond all hope you return to us in our need!” And Gandalf gives this advice to Legolas: “Have patience. Go where you must go, and hope.”22 Indeed, Gandalf not only gives this advice, he is the manifestation of it. He brings hope wherever he goes, and even more so after he is transfigured into the White Rider. It is Gandalf who speaks words of hope into Theoden’s ears, transforming the King of Rohan from a withered old man to a hale and hearty warrior and leader. It is Gandalf who arrives at Helm’s Deep with the rising of the sun, bringing hope for victory in a battle that seemed lost. It is Gandalf who rides through the streets of Minas Tirith during the siege of the city, lightening and encouraging the hearts of the people. It is Gandalf who assures the company that they can pass through Moria successfully. Indeed, it is primarily Gandalf who urges that the Ring be taken to the Fire. This “hopeless journey,” as Frodo calls it, would never have happened without the hope of Gandalf. Denethor calls it “madness,” “a fool’s hope.”23 At the same time, among the cardinal virtues there is no doubt that wisdom is the one Gandalf chiefly possesses. Even before his transformation he is considered high among the wise, but the significance of him becoming Gandalf the White—replacing Saruman, who was previously the head of the Council of the Wise—is clearly that his wisdom extends beyond nearly all the others (Elrond and Galadriel perhaps still exceeding him). So how can his “madness,” his “fool’s hope,” be wisdom?
As in Aragorn’s case, the clearest indicator of Gandalf’s defining virtue is when he faces the evil power of the Balrog—a malicious being as old and at least as powerful as Sauron himself: an evil force clearly beyond the power of human nature to contend with. Gandalf faces the Balrog alone on the bridge of Khazad-Dum when his strength appears almost spent. He has led the Company through Moriawith only the light from his staff and a great effort of memory. At the door of the Chamber of Mazarbul, he wove a closing spell, and then had to strive against the Balrog to keep the door closed. So by the time he comes face to face with the Balrog he is badly fatigued. There seems little hope for him stopping the enemy, and even less hope of his survival when the Balrog’s whip catches him around his feet and he is dragged into the abyss. After the ensuing battle, which began in the nearly frozen lake at the “uttermost foundation of stone” and ended on the high peak of Celebdil (reminiscent of Dante’s allusions to Christ’s ascent through hell), Gandalf says, “Then darkness took me and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell. Naked I was sent back—for a brief time, until my task is done.”24 Wherever it was that he wandered, and whoever it was that sent him back, we know that Gandalf, like all the Istari (wizards), was an emissary sent by the Valar to help combat the powers of Sauron in Middle Earth. As such, his sight and insight is informed by the knowledge and the glory of Valinor, and by the task given him there. Indeed, it is Gandalf who reminds Frodo that “There was more than one power at work” when Bilbo found the Ring.
Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.25
This hope lies behind Gandalf’s wisdom, which to those without that hope is foolishness, but which is grounded in the reality of a benevolence greater than Sauron’s malice. Thus, we can see that Gandalf’s moral virtue of wisdom, when exercised in the presence of superhuman forces of evil, is not foolishness only because it is supported and maintained by his hope in something beyond himself, some ultimate goodness. Without this hope, Gandalf would surely have failed in his task.
The device Tolkien uses to indicate the virtue of hope in Gandalf is his farsight and his “striving in thought” against Sauron. When he meets Aragorn and the others in Fangorn he has an immense knowledge of what has been happening all over the land; he seems to “see” the scattered men of the Westfold before the battle of Helm’s Deep and goes to gather them up; several times he gazes towards Mordor, as if he could actually see Frodo and Sam on their journey; his voice comes into Frodo’s mind at crucial moments of trial; and he is the one to go with the eagles to spot the falling bodies of Frodo and Sam—all of these are representative of Gandalf’s extraordinary vision. And what he has “seen”—the glory of Valinor—is his hope . . . and his joy. For Joy is the other child of Hope, the sister of Wisdom.
In one of my favorite passages, Pippin describes what he sees when he looks closely at Gandalf’s face: “In the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.”26
Does Jackson also fail to understand Gandalf? I believe he does, although it is not as clear a failure as with Aragorn. Certainly Jackson does not emphasize the vision of Gandalf, nor the voice of Gandalf in Frodo’s mind when on Amon Hen and again when taming Smeagol. Perhaps Ian McKellen’s portrayal of Gandalf overcomes the shortcomings in Jackson’s understanding of him. But one can measure the extent of his failure in the way he portrays Gandalf’s chief counterpart, Saruman.
As with Denethor, in the films Saruman is a thoroughly unlikable character. One wonders how Gandalf could ever be taken in by such an obvious deceiver. What is missing is any indicator of Saruman’s virtue, either former or present. Without such virtue, it is not believable that he could ever have become the Head of the Council of the Wise or been accepted as an ally by Elrond and the Elves, by the men of Rohan and Gondor, or by the other Istari (wizards). His wisdom (as well as other moral virtues) was undoubtedly genuine. He was Saruman the White, and for good reason: by his devices, Sauron was driven from Dol Guldur. But, like Denethor, that wisdom was overcome when faced with the demonic power of Sauron: Saruman, too, had gazed into a palantir stone, and was deceived by the Enemy. This means of deception is particularly significant in Saruman’s case, for the palantiri are “seeing stones,” giving a vision of what is happening in various distant places to those who gaze into them. In addition, what is seen in them is determined by the strength of will of the one who gazes. If, as I have suggested, wisdom is symbolized by Tolkien as far sight and striving with the Enemy in thought, then Saruman’s fall from wisdom is symbolized by his turning from the sight he possesses as a wizard to the sight gained by means of the stone, and, upon doing so, being unable to overcome the will and thought of Sauron. But why had he turned away from his wisdom and forsaken his more natural vision for the vision in the stone? He tells Gandalf, “A new Power is rising. Against it the oldallies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Numenor.”27 In short, he turns from both his nature and his task as a wizard because he has no hope, neither in Elves or dying Numenor, nor in the Powers beyond them, the supernatural powers of Goodness—the Valar. He can no longer see them, nor remember his origins.
Since Jackson ignores Saruman’s turn from moral virtue to vice, due to his loss of hope, he ignores the possibility of Saruman’s return from vice to virtue as well. The “defrocking” scene in which Gandalf strips Saruman of his wizardly authority and power is left out of the film completely—including Gandalf’s appeal, “Think well, Saruman! Will you not come down?”28 Gandalf would not make such an appeal if there were no hope for Saruman. So, ironically, there is hope for the one who has no hope. There is hope because Saruman was once wise. Who can read this scene and not wish for this returning? Yet again Jackson’s film deprives us of this beautiful longing for humility and the equally heartrending disappointment when Saruman, in his pride, refuses his last chance. As it is, Jackson’s interpretation of Saruman leaves us with nothing but unmixed hatred for him.
As a marvelous contrast to Saruman’s prideful rejection of hope, Tolkien gives us the story of Theoden. Under the constant, subtle whisperings of Grima, Saruman’s secret agent in Edoras, gradually Theoden had lost both his hope and his wisdom. He does not welcome Gandalf, and is suspicious even of Eomer, his nephew. But, in an inspiring scene, Gandalf removes his cloak, revealing his brilliantly white robe, and fills Theoden’s ears with hope—his “fool’s hope”—which in turn restores Theoden to wisdom, health, and action. Jackson’s handling of this scene is not completely inept, but neither is it what it should be. In the original, the “spell” that has been laid on Theoden by Saruman/Grima is not nearly so obvious nor “magical” as it is in the film, and Gandalf’s dispelling is likewise much more subtle than in the film. It is a different type of spell, and a different type of dispelling: the spell is Theoden’s distrust and narrow protectionism; the dispelling is Gandalf’s infusion of hope and greater vision. If Jackson had understood the true nature of this transformation, he would have portrayed it quite differently than he did.
In one of the most subtly botched scenes in the films, Frodo shouts over the heated arguments that have broken out between the members of the Council of Elrond, “I will take the Ring and cast it into the Fire!” The scene is effective, because it portrays the destructive and divisive power of the Ring (of Sauron); Frodo sees the raging arguments reflected in the shiny surface of the Ring and realizes its corrupting power. The actualization of that power even in the midst of Rivendell, amongst the wisest and best people of Middle Earth, prompts Frodo’s decision to take the Ring and attempt to destroy it. It is an admirable piece of artistry. However, it is crucially misleading: Frodo took on the burden of the Ring under different circumstances, and under a different compulsion. Here is the same scene a swritten by Tolkien, after Bilbo asks who will be given the task of taking the Ring to Mt. Doom:
No one answered. The noon bell rang. Still no one spoke. Frodo glanced at all the faces, but they were not turned to him. All the Council sat with downcast eyes, as if deep in thought. A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some great doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. “I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”
If I understand aright all that I have heard, I think this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will. . . . But it is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right . . .29
The crucial aspect of this scene in the book is the absence of any external compulsion for Frodo’s decision. His hand is in no way forced or prompted by the actions or expectations of anyone else. His motivation was, as it were, “pure”: disinterested. In fact, his decision is contrary to his own longing. But no other personal longing overcomes it; he wonders at his own words. As effective as Jackson’s version of this scene is, it obscures this crucial point.
The point is crucial because a sacrificial act taken under freedom—under no outward compulsion—and with complete humility, is a hallmark of the kind of love we call charity. Thus, what Tolkien shows us clearly (and Jackson does not) is that Frodo’s decision and subsequent journey is an act of charity. As Tolkien writes in a letter to a reader, “Frodo undertook his quest out of love—to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task.”30 It was because he first undertook the quest out of love that he was able to resist the almost constant temptation to use the Ring; it is also the reason he was able to endure the burden even to the very Cracks of Mt. Doom. Tolkien says,
Frodo was given “grace”: first to answer the call (at the end of the Council) after long resisting a complete surrender; and later in his resistance to the temptation of the Ring (at times when to claim and so reveal it would have been fatal), and in his endurance of fear and suffering.31
Again in Frodo’s case, we see that his moral virtues—chiefly temperance and fortitude, but also wisdom—are maintained in the face of the evil forces (surpassing man’s nature) of the Ring and its Lord only because they are sustained by his charity. Elrond affirms Frodo’s “appointment”’ to the task precisely because he takes it upon himself freely and humbly, out of love even for those whom he does not know and has no cause to love; for all the inhabitants of Middle Earth will be affected by his success or failure. And which is it? Success or failure? Here is Tolkien’s answer:“ Frodo indeed ‘failed’ as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to the end; he gave in, ratted.” But the simple-minded
do not perceive the complexity of any given situation in Time, in which an absolute ideal is enmeshed. They tend to forget that strange element in the World that we call Pity or Mercy, which is also an absolute requirement in moral judgment (since it is present in the Divine nature). In its highest exercise it belongs to God.
Pity, then, is another essential aspect of charity; it is Frodo’s pity for Gollum that results in the ultimate success of the quest. Furthermore, Tolkien writes,
I do not think that Frodo’s was a moral failure. At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum—impossible, I should have said, for anyone to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted. Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honour; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was re-dressed.32
It is important to see that this pity does not stem from any sort of assurance on Frodo’s part that Gollum cannot really do any harm. Sometimes we mistake such confidence for pity. But Frodo knows quite well that Gollum could, at any moment, betray him to the Enemy and all would be lost. After he recalls the conversation he had with Gandalf about how Bilbo acted with pity for Gollum in not killing him when the opportunity was there, Frodo says, “Very well, but I am still afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.”33 Sam, who most definitely does not share Frodo’s pity for Gollum (not until after Gollum has been destroyed), mistakes Frodo’s mercy for a kind of injustice: “It had always been a notion of his that the kindness of dear Mr. Frodo was of such a high degree that it must imply a fair measure of blindness.”34 Sam’s sense of justice would have Gollum killed, just as Frodo had believed earlier. But Sam is mistaken: in the end, the mercy of Frodo (and of Bilbo, earlier) leads to a more perfect justice than that of the unmerciful servant. Gollum “deserves [death]!”Gandalf had said, “I dare say he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.”35
These points about charity lead me now to comment on what I believe Tolkien would consider Jackson’s greatest transgression: the scene on the stairs of Cirith Ungol when Gollum returns from visiting Shelob and finds the two hobbits asleep. The passage reads,
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back toward the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee—but almost the touch was a caress.
When Frodo stirs, Sam awakes, and sees Gollum “‘pawing at master,’ as he thought. ‘Hey you!’ he said roughly. ‘What are you up to?’”36 Of this passage Tolkien writes,
For me perhaps the most tragic moment in the tale comes when Sam fails to note the complete change in Gollum’s tone and aspect. “Nothing, nothing”, said Gollum softly. “Nice master!” His repentance is blighted and all Frodo’s pity is (in a sense) wasted. Shelob’s Lair became inevitable.37
The passage reveals the fruit of Frodo’s mercy and patience towards Gollum: his repentance. Tragically, Sam’s lack of mercy towards Gollum blights that repentance, and the fruit is lost forever. Jackson inexplicably an inexcusably changes this entire scene into one of sickening deceit: when Gollum finds both hobbits asleep, he uses the opportunity to throw away their lembas bread, plant a few crumbs on Sam’s cloak to make Frodo believe he has eaten it all, and thereby drive a wedge of distrust between them. Unbelievably, Frodo falls for it; he sides with Gollum and sends Sam away. I cannot imagine a more gross alteration of this scene, nor one that would reveal any more clearly Jackson’s complete misunderstanding of Frodo. For even if it were the case that Sam had eaten the bread, Frodo, in his love for Sam, would never have condemned him for it. The last thing in the world he would do would be to send Sam away from him, unless he thought it were somehow for Sam’s own good. Certainly he would have believed Sam over Gollum, no matter what it looked like, but then, again, would have shown Gollum mercy even in his rebuke. But all of this speculation is still beside the point, for the really significant thing—Gollum’s repentance—is left out completely. Thus, we lose both the extraordinary wonder of Gollum’s repentance and the heart-wrenching tragedy of its dissipation.
In his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis draws this simile of the three natural loves—Affection, Friendship and Eros—and their relationship to the divine love of Charity. The natural loves are like the glorious flowers of a garden, but Charity is like the gardener with his tools. The flowers are beautiful, appealing, marvelous in their glory; but the gardener with his tools is homely, dirty, hardly noticeable in light of the flowers. And yet, without the gardener and his tools, the flowers would die and lose their natural beauty and glory. They cannot be what they were meant to be apart from the gardener’s practical, yet (in a sense) “supernatural” work. It lies outside the normal working of nature.38 I mention this here in connection with the charity of Frodo for two reasons. First, as many commentators and readers have noted, Frodo is not really a very “colorful” character. Compared to Sam (a favorite of many), Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Merry and Pippin, Gimli, or even Eowyn, Arwen, Treebeard and Tom Bombadil, Frodo’s character, though wholesome, seems a bit plain. He is not naturally the most interesting character. On the other hand, there are plenty of evidences that his charity has a salutary affect upon the other kinds of loving relationships in the story.
The chief example of this is how Frodo’s charitable love for Sam purifies and glorifies Sam’s devoted affection for Frodo. As Tolkien notes, even though Sam “was meant to be lovable and laughable,” he was also
cocksure, and deep down a little conceited; but his conceit had been transformed by his devotion to Frodo. He did not think of himself as heroic or even brave, or in any way admirable—except in his service and loyalty to his master. That had an ingredient (probably inevitable) of pride and possessiveness: it is difficult to exclude it from the devotion of those who perform such service. In any case it prevented him from fully understanding the master that he loved, and from following him in his gradual education to the nobility of service to the unlovable and of the perception of damaged good in the corrupt. He plainly did not fully understand Frodo’s motives or his distress in the incident of the Forbidden Pool. If he had understood better what was going on between Frodo and Gollum, things might have turned out differently in the end.39
Still, in the end, Sam’s loving affection for Frodo is manifested in ways that indicate a transformation from mere affection to charity itself; he sacrifices his own ration of food and water for Frodo; he carries Frodo up Mt. Doom on his back; and in the end, he pities and forgives Gollum too. The charity of Frodo both transcends and allows for the perfection of the affection Sam has for Frodo.
That charity also sustains the friendship of Frodo and Bilbo, and is the spark and catalyst for the friendship between Merry and Pippin, and between Legolas and Gimli. Without charity (probably from both sides), the friendship between Frodo and Bilbo would have been destroyed by a rivalry between them over possession of the Ring. Only the divine virtue of charity could overcome the malevolent effect of the Ring. Merry and Pippin, though friends before the quest began, would never have formed the inseparable bond between them if it were not for their mutual love for Frodo, which was, in turn, fed and fueled by Frodo’s deep love for each of them. Likewise for the bond of friendship that brought an elf(Legolas) and a dwarf (Gimli)—traditional enemies—together. Without the quest, which was undertaken as an act of love, this friendship would never have come to pass.
And finally, we can see that that same act of love allowed for the glorious fulfillment of at least two (possibly three) romances: Aragorn and Arwen, Faramir and Eowyn (and Sam and Rosie). What is left implicit is that these romances must be sustained by charity as well. As Lewis reminds us, the lofty promises and ideals of eros can only be fulfilled and kept by charity. It is a shame that Jackson’s films show us only one of these romances. And even in this case, we do not see—as we do in the book—the expression of debt owed to the Ringbearer for its fulfillment.
Earlier I mentioned Tolkien’s belief that the artistic and spiritual effectiveness of stories lies in the showing of truth rather than in the mere telling of it. He says of The Lord of the Rings, “the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” Thus, Tolkien purposely leaves out any explicitly religious elements. But his purpose for doing so was not to portray irreligious people or an atheistic world. As noted, Tolkien says his work is “fundamentally religious”—indeed, fundamentally Christian. So the Christian elements of the story are not explicit in the storyline or the dialogue, but are, rather, implicit in the symbolism and the character of the persons in the story. In short, although I have used Aquinas’s teaching and Christian doctrine to correct or enhance the understanding of Tolkien’s story, I am not suggesting that Tolkien was attempting to teach his readers doctrine, nor to proselytize them. He has written a work of literature, not a veiled theological treatise or evangelistic tract.
Having said this, I should also add that Tolkien’s tale is saturated in what might be called the Christian mythos—for example, a tradition and cultural heritage that is rooted in stories of Creation, Fall, Promise, Redemption and Restoration. Middle Earth is inhabited and shaped by beings whose present understanding of themselves and their world is tied inextricably to the history and pre-history of that world. And, as anyone who reads The Silmarillion can discover, that historyand pre-history is “fundamentally catholic”—Christian—in its symbolism. In the end, it is this underlying Christian mythos that is missing from Jackson’s films
I hope that now I have succeeded in doing what I set out to do: given adequate grounds for my criticism of Jackson’s films. But my greater hope and purpose has been to find the “core of the original” story. As in all reading of literature, ultimately such a discovery ought to have a universally individual application; it should touch and shape each of our souls for good.
This, then, is at least a large part of “the core of the original.” Through the main characters and the plot of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien shows us this truth: without the divine virtues of faith, hope and charity, the moral virtues cannot stand against the powers of evil that surpass the capabilities of man’s nature to resist; but with the divine virtues, there comes also a divine victory.
But Tolkien not only shows us this truth; he makes us feel it.
Cite this article
- Humphrey Carpenter, ed. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981),266-267; April 8, 1958.
- Ibid., 270; June 1958.
- Ibid., 172; December 2, 1953.
- Ibid., 275; June 1958; my emphasis.
- St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, trans.(New York: Benziger Brothers, 1948), I-II, Q.62, a.1.
- Ibid., I-II, Q.62, a.3.
- Ibid., I-II, Q.65, a.2.
- [F]aith and hope can exist indeed in a fashion without charity: but they have not the per-fect character of virtue without charity . . . without charity, they are not virtues properly so-called; because the nature of virtue requires that by it, we should not only do what is good,but also that we should do it well. . .” (ST I-II, Q.65, a.4).
- Carpenter, Letters, 172; June 1958.
- 0See Bradley J. Birzer, J.R.R.Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003), 69-70.
- As far as I know, this specific correlation has not been noted by other commentators. Books I am aware of that come closest topically to this essay are: Bradley J. Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’sSanctifying Myth (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003); Matthew Dickerson, Following Gandalf:Epic Battles and Moral Victory in Lord of the Rings (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003);Joseph Pearce, Tolkien: Man and Myth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998); several essays inJoseph Pearce, ed. Tolkien: A Celebration (London: Fount, 1999); Mark Eddy Smith, Tolkien’sOrdinary Virtues (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002); and Ralph C. Wood, The Gos-pel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle Earth (Louisville, KY: WestminsterJohn Knox Press, 2003).
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (London: HarperCollins, 1994), 769, 856.
- Ibid., 764.
- Hebrews 11:1.
- Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 241.
- 6Ibid., 189-90.
- Ibid., 844.
- Ibid., 742
- Ibid., 655.
- Carpenter, Letters, 323; circa 1963; my emphasis.
- Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 324.
- Ibid., 484, 489
- Ibid., 795.
- Ibid., 491.
- 5Ibid., 54-55.
- Ibid., 742.
- Ibid., 568.
- Ibid., 263-264.
- Carpenter, Letters, 327; September 1963.
- Ibid., 326; September 1963.
- Ibid., 326; September 1963.
- Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 601.
- Ibid., 626.
- Ibid., 58.
- 6Ibid., 699.
- Carpenter, Letters, 330; September 1963.
See C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960), 116-118.
- Carpenter, Letters, 329-30; September 1963.