When discussing movies that we can view through a Catholic lens, there is perhaps no better fit than The Lord of the Rings. Sure, there are movies that are more clearly Catholic. The Passion of the Christ, for example, is a brutal and moving portrayal of Jesus' passion and death. But there are few pieces of media that blend entertainment and subtle spirituality better than J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy masterpiece (and Peter Jackson's excellent adaptations of it).
First, a couple of disclaimers. Right upfront, I consider Peter Jackson's trilogy of films to be the single greatest piece of entertainment that mankind has wrought, so I'll admit I'm biased. Secondly, these films simply must be viewed as a single work, not as a trilogy of individual movies. Think of them as 3 acts of a play rather than 3 separate movies, and you'll understand this "Faith in Film" post a lot better.
With that out of the way, let's dive in. The Lord of the Rings begins with the Dark Lord, Sauron. He assumes a disguise and shepherds the creation of 19 "Rings of Power." These rings have the ability to prolong life, imbue the wielder with strength, increase wisdom, and a number of other things. 3 were given to the Elves, 7 to the Dwarves, and 9 to humanity.
But they were all them deceived. Sauron forged a Master Ring in secret, one much more powerful than the others. It gave him the ability to control the other rings and enabled him to launch an assault on the free peoples of Middle-Earth, the world in which Lord of the Rings is set. "One Ring to rule them all."
We see all of this in a prologue. Sauron is challenged by a last alliance of men and elves, defeated in legendary fashion, and the Ring passes through a number of hands over the millennia before coming to one Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit (Halfling) from the Shire. It is in the Shire that our tale begins in earnest...
This Ring is the central part of our story. The MacGuffin, if you will. The first film, in large part, centers on the "good guys" discovering the Ring's origin, learning of its power and danger, and resolving to destroy it. Who are these "good guys," you ask? For the most part, they are the Fellowship of the Ring.
The Fellowship contains 4 Hobbits: Frodo Baggins (Bilbo's nephew and the one who carries the Ring), Samwise Gamgee, Merry Brandybuck, and Peregrin Took (aka Pippin). They are accompanied by Gandalf the Wizard, Legolas the Elven prince, Gimli the Dwarf, Boromir the Prince of Gondor, and Aragorn, Ranger and heir to the throne of Gondor.
They set out on a journey to destroy the ring in Mordor, Sauron's domain. The Ring can only be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, the volcano where it was forged. It's also a heavy burden to bear; while it grants its bearer invisibility when worn, it also corrupts their will, bending them towards evil and weighing down their psyche.
There are a variety of obstacles to the Fellowship throughout their journey. Gandalf tragically sacrifices himself to defend the group, the Ring's corrupting influence causes Boromir to try to steal it from Frodo, and the Fellowship eventually splits up at the end of the first film. Frodo (and Sam, who joins him) thinks that they will be safer apart from each other.
We simply don't have time to go through all of the events of the 2nd and 3rd films (if by some miracle you haven't seen them, consider this your official reminder), but they are just littered with Christian symbolism. This is where Tolkien really, really shines from a Catholic perspective.
Gandalf rises from the dead, returned from beyond the grave because he had not yet fulfilled his purpose. Aragorn, a reluctant king, eventually assumes his royal mantle and becomes a just and courageous leader. Heck, there's even special Elven bread that keeps one fed for an entire week with just a single bite. If that doesn't sound like the Eucharist, I don't know what does.
To make a VERY long and incredible story short, our heroes eventually prevail. Frodo and Sam make it to Mount Doom (thanks in no small part to a brilliant diversionary attack from our other heroes), the Ring is destroyed, and peace is restored. Evil is defeated, and the world is truly a better place for their actions.
I cannot say enough about how much I'm compressing this. Seriously, this is the Cliffnotes version of all Cliffnotes versions. With that being said, how do we approach this work as Catholics? First and foremost, we need to appreciate that Tolkien very explicitly did not write The Lord of the Rings as a Christian work.
On the contrary, he detested direct allegories! Rather, this is an example of one's faith being so central to their life that it cannot help but bleed into all other areas. There is no one Christ figure in this tale. Gandalf, Aragorn, Frodo, and Sam all exemplify Christ-like qualities at different points in the story.
The aforementioned reference to the Eucharist, the consistent value of empathy and companionship throughout the films, the resistance to the temptation of the Ring by Frodo and others, and many other themes can clearly be viewed as being "infused" with Tolkien's Catholicism.
This is a lesson we can all learn in our own lives. Should we seek to shove Catholic dogma into all of our conversations, loudly decry every sin we see another commit, or set the daily record for most prayers seen by others? Absolutely not.
Rather, we should seek to have a faith like Tolkien. A faith so central to our lives that it cannot help but affect every part of our being. A faith that shines forth from us so brightly that others cannot help but notice. A faith that is inseparable from our very identity.
THIS is the beauty of Lord of the Rings (aside from its obvious entertainment value). It is the most Catholic non-Catholic work ever made. It draws us closer to Christ without beating us over the head. How can we affect this response in our own lives? How can we cultivate a faith like this?
How can we truly put God at the center of our lives? Perhaps the hymn, "Center of my Life" might have some insight: "O Lord, you are the center of my life. I will always praise you, I will always serve you, I will always keep you in my sight." Seems like a pretty good place to start to me.