"The Return of the King" is the third installment of director Peter Jackson's filming of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. In this final chapter, Frodo the hobbit, with his friend Sam, make their way to the Crack of Doom to destroy the Ring of Power, while the future of Middle Earth is settled with the crowning of Aragorn as king of Gondor.
I want to talk about how good and evil are portrayed in "The Return of the King." It's been suggested that Frodo and Gandolf come across as too pure and the Orcs so evil in the movie, where Tolkien's books depict all creatures as flawed. Do you agree?
Well yes and no. Those Orcs really do have bad teeth, true. But look at Gollum. He has really bad teeth too, but in this despicable creature is still something remotely lovable and some trace of dignity, and he has a very important role in the story. The great continuing flaw of Sam--probably the most lovable character in the whole story--is his inability to have compassion for Gollum.
In defense of the movie and the Orcs, though, I think revulsion is part of how fairy tales work. They teach us revulsion, which is underrated. We need to develop a sense of revulsion against the abuse of power, for example.
How do you think it compares to the Christian story, which Tolkien famously worked from. Does Christianity portray good and evil starkly?
In a "whodunnit," the bad guy is often the person you least expected. And there's that dimension to the story of Jesus, as you can see in the hot debate recently about Mel Gibson's film--Jesus, the good guy, is Jewish, but some of the bad guys are Jewish too. And the Romans are bad guys, yet there are a couple of Roman good guys in the story.
So the Gospels tell about the obvious kind of evil, but they have some surprises. A great example is Peter, when he makes the confession about Jesus being the Messiah. In the next breath, Jesus tells him '"Get behind me, Satan." It's just fascinating. Sermons tend to turn everything into a kind of a Sunday school moralism, but the Bible itself is a lot more ambiguous.
How did you understand that?
It's just realism, that happy endings have a little bittersweetness, and that there really are such a thing as scars, in this life anyway.
But doesn't Christianity promise that we'll be restored to a pre-Fall purity, that we're all be cleansed? And yet Bilbo and Frodo are still scarred.
One reason is that the movie is not the end of the story, but the end of one chapter in a very very long story. Frodo even leaves a few extra pages in his account for the next volume, and heads off to the Gray Havens, which is a new beginning as well. So that isn't necessarily un-Christian theologically. It's a refreshing correction to a kind of sappy, easy route to a happy ending that you find in an awful lot of Christian preaching and writing.
So how do you read the destruction of the Ring, with cracking earth and the lava is pouring down? It seems so apocalyptic.
This question is very alive in biblical studies right now. Medieval and modern Christian theology creates this very clear apocalyptic myth, if I can put it that way--this idea that history is about to be over and we'll all go to heaven. It's related to the Platonic invasion of Christian faith. The Platonic ideal is perfectly static. Nothing changes, because everything is in such a state of perfection that the only way it could change would be to get worse. We started with perfection before the Fall, and we can't wait to get back to it. It's as if we're given this experience of life that forms us and is then completely invalidated.
A number of very responsible biblical scholars are saying this is a gross misunderstanding of the Christian story. It's popular, and it's been brought into the heart of popular Christianity. But they look at the Book of Revelation and say, "This isn't some map of the End Time; this is a vision into deeper realities in the present." The things that we interpret as heaven in the Jewish prophets, for example, they interpret as a dream of justice coming to life on earth. Tolkien's work is more in tune with some of this serious theology than with this sort of pop Christianity.