In a 1954 effusion about his friend J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis had this to say:
Almost the central theme of the book is the contrast between the Hobbits (or "the Shire") and the appalling destiny to which some of them are called, the terrifying discovery that the humdrum happiness of the Shire, which they had taken for granted as something normal, is in reality a sort of local and temporary accident, that its existence depends on being protected by powers which Hobbits forget, against powers which Hobbits dare not imagine, that any Hobbit may find himself forced out of the Shire and caught up into that high conflict.
Hmm, sounds familiar. What is 9/11 and the current conflict in Afghanistan if not a deep reminder that the pampered and protected civilization we enjoy in the U.S., "depends on being protected by powers which [we] forget against powers which [we] dare not imagine?"? Just to get you prepared for the December 19th film debut of The Fellowship of the Ring -- which is going to make the charming but inferior Harry Potter books look like Waterworld -- here are two out of many passages from The Fellowship of the Ring that resonate with our current situation. The first is an exchange between Frodo and the elf leader Gildor, when they meet just as Frodo and his companions embark on their journey from the Shire:
'I cannot imagine what information could be more terrifying than your hints and warnings,' exclaimed Frodo. 'I knew that danger lay ahead, of course; but I did not expect to meet it in our own Shire. Can't a hobbit walk from the Water to the River in peace?'
'But it is not your own Shire,' said Gildor. 'Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you; you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.'
'I know -- and yet it has always seemed so safe and familiar.'
The second passage comes from a speech delivered by the character Aragorn during the Council of Elrond, in which he makes the Rangers (or "Dúnedain") sound kind of like the FBI or the CIA (at least according to the way they like to describe themselves):
'. . .What roads would any dare to tread, what safety would there be in quiet lands, or in the homes of simple men at night, if the Dúnedain were asleep, or were all gone into the grave?
'And yet less thanks have we than you. Travelers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names. "Strider" I am to one fat man who lives within a day's march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so. That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown.
'But now the world is changing once again. . .'
Frodo and Harry Together in Limbo. Note, by the way, that the themes I have chosen to highlight above are markedly secular ones. There's a push right now by religious right groups like Focus on the Family to claim Tolkien as one of their own -- and, simultaneously, to denounce J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series as a satanic. It's not an entirely wrongheaded approach: Tolkien was a devout Catholic, even if he would hardly have understood today's Christian Coalition. Still, there are some rather significant complications to this Middle Earth salvation narrative:
1) If you've read both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, you can't fail to notice how much Rowling draws upon Tolkien. What is the appearance of a black cloaked, wispy Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone but another version of Tolkien's horrific Ringwraiths? Moreover, the place where Tolkien and Rowling overlap most is their stark depiction of the struggle between good and evil (also a theme that George Lucas imported, largely from Tolkien, into Star Wars). Christians are now claiming this theme in Tolkien, but they ignore it in Rowling, presumably because they're too hung up on all the witchcraft.
2) Considering that it was written by a Christian, what's astonishing is how secular a book The Lord of the Rings is. Tolkien invented a vast imaginary world; he called it, religiously if unorthodoxly, a "sub-creation." Yet as many have observed, one of the core things Middle Earth's civilizations seem to lack, at least from an anthropological perspective, are religious beliefs. Indeed, Tolkien consciously modeled his book on his beloved Beowulf, which similarly eschews monotheistic religious content to convey a pagan tale of mythic heroism, even though its author was himself Christian. What's wonderful about Beowulf is the way its Christian author refused to judge the pagan world, about which he wrote, in Christian terms. On an aesthetic level, something similar is going on in Tolkien -- and it's something that groups like Focus on the Family miss out on.
Now admittedly, having said this, there is some godly stuff in The Lord of the Rings that's lacking in Harry Potter. At varying times both Frodo and Gandalf are depicted as Christ-figures. And as Tom Shippey points out in his book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, there's this song by the Lord of the Eagles near the end of The Return of the King, which is "composed, uniquely for Middle Earth, in exactly the language of the Psalms in the Authorized King James version of the Bible":
Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor,
for the Realm of Sauron is ended for ever,
and the Dark Tower is thrown down.
Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
for your watch hath not been in vain,
and the Black Gate is broken,
and your King hath passed through,
and he is victorious.
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.
And the Tree that was withered shall be renewed,
and he shall plant it in the high places,
and the City shall be blessed.
Sing all ye people!
This is a rarity, however, and it isn't the note on which the book ends. As Shippey continues, "The Lord of the Rings. . .contains within it hints of the Christian message, but refuses just to repeat it." Despite his ordeals, there's no salvation for Frodo at the story's close -- just awful, if noble, anguish as the wounds he has suffered from his journey fail to heal. Finally, Frodo has to leave Middle Earth, and with him go the elves and all the beauty they had brought into the world. The Lord of the Rings closes with the mythical passing of an age, depicted in starkly pagan (or classical) terms. It's an overwhelming portrait of loss, and unlike in the Christian tradition, there's no redemptive promise that any of the splendor of Middle Earth can ever be regained.
Indeed, the prolonged suffering of Frodo can't fail to remind you of the murder of Harry Potter's parents by Voldemort. Harry, too, has a scar that will not heal.