This is a review I wrote 18 years ago….seems such a long time…but as its no longer available on the Free Church website, where it was originally published – I republish it here. Still one of the greatest films of all time…
The Two Towers
Brilliant! Wonderful! Awesome! These were the words that best described the feeling as we returned from that latest Robertson family Christmas tradition – the visit to our nearest Odeon to see the current episode of Lord of the Rings. Admittedly it is only a two year old tradition and is likely to end after the third episode next year – but nonetheless Christmas would not be Christmas without it! And like many traditions there are so many questions.
How does one describe the Lord of the Rings to those who have no idea who Frodo, Gandalf, Merry, Pippin, Legolas, Aragorn, Gimli, Sam, Gollum et al are? Why does Tolkien’s trilogy have such a hold on the English speaking world – consistently voted the best book of the 20th Century? Is the whole fantasy genre, demonic escapism? Was Tolkien a racist white supremacist? Was it not insensitive and offensive to have a film called ‘The Two Towers’ just a year after the Twin Towers collapsed? And (here’s one for the FP ‘Protestant View’), does the fact that Tolkien was a devote Roman Catholic indicate a subtle Romanist plot?
Bigotry through Fantasy?
To Dr Stephen Shapirio, a self styled ‘expert in cultural studies, race and slavery’, the books and the films are dangerous because they glamorise bigotry through a fantasy world. According to our British Academic “Tolkien’s good guys are white and the bad guys are black, slant-eyed, unattractive, inarticulate and a psychologically undeveloped horde”. Tolkien was apparently concerned about mass immigration to Britain in the 1950’s and so he portrayed the Orcs as “a black mass that doesn’t speak the languages and are desecrating the cathedrals”.
Furthermore Tolkien was anti-Scottish – “the dwarves were his notion of what the Scots were like. It is like a southern England cliché of a dour, muscular race and that represents the Scots in the book”. Speaking of clichés I’m afraid that Dr Shapiro has become one – the stereotype of a PC liberal English academic who has little to do but generate self publicity by seeking racist demons under every stone. An academic whose knowledge of his subject is as limited as his ability to grasp different world views.
Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings long before the mid 1950’s. He was interested in the great Icelandic and Norse sagas and the Lord of the Rings was simply his attempt to tell his own story in that tradition. Shapirio does not seem to understand that that alliance against the dark Lord Sauron includes many different races (Human, Dwarf, Elf, Hobbit) and if anything, is much more a celebration of multi-culturalism than the desire to preserve a pure white race. Of course what Dr Shapirio has done, apart from holding self-respecting academics up to ridicule, is to give our white supremacists a reason to adopt the film and turn it into something evil.
Sexist and Beardist?
I wonder why he stopped at calling it racist. Why not sexist? After all it is mainly the men who do the fighting and the women who stay at home/retreat into the mountains/ provide the gentleness. What stereotyping! Didn’t Tolkien realise that women were just as capable of killing as men? And what about heightism/dwarfism/shortism? Why is Gimli, the only significant short person turned into a figure of fun? Why did we have to have the dwarf tossing joke again? Surely this indicates a lack of respect for short people? And whilst we are on this subject I feel I should sue the Odeon for trampling upon my civil rights – they ran an advert just before the film began which suggested that men with beards should be made illegal. This was beardist and deeply offensive. It’s no wonder that there is a desire to escape into a fantasy world which somehow seems more real than the surreality of what passes as modern life.
But leaving aside the fantasy world of Dr Shapirio, what about the reaction of Christians to the whole fantasy genre? Is it not demonic and linked with the occult? Is it not a distortion of reality and therefore not suitable for Christians who are concerned with the truth? Is it not escapism and therefore diverting the Christian from the very real spiritual battle that is going on in the world? These are important and large issues which would take up a lot more time than I have available in this column – but let’s have a go. Re the occult it does not necessarily follow that portraying means promoting. There are fantasy stories which are occultic but that does not mean that the whole genre should be condemned as demonic. Sometimes the fantasy genre is used to portray the battle between good and evil. Sometimes it portrays ideas of mystery and something beyond which can only be ultimately explained by the presence and power of God. Fantasy stores are not per se stories which promote evil and the occult.
The escapist argument is different. Maybe having some form of escapism is not a bad idea. We all have our escapist routes from our current realities. – some listen to music, others read fantasy. Some, like Martyn Lloyd Jones ‘escape into the 17th century’. It seems to me that whereas the fantasy genre is so obviously ‘fantastic’ that there is very little danger of it being mistaken for reality, so called docu-drams, soaps etc which deal with ‘reality’ are far more likely to lead to lead to a distorted and ‘fantastic’ view of the real world. Eastenders is much more influential and dangerous than The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
As well as concerned English anti-racist academics, The Two Towers, has also attracted opposition from another unusual source. There has been a petition going round which asked to have the name of the film changed because it was ‘insensitive’ and offensive to those who had died in the Twin Towers tragedy on Sept 11th 2001. When I first saw this I thought it was a bad joke in very bad taste. However it turns out that the organisers of this petition were for real. And it has been widely reported that the director of the film, Peter Jackson, had actually thought about changing the name of the film, but did not do so because of fear of what Tolkien fans might do to him!
What can one say without further trivialising a serious issue? The mindset behind this petition is deeply disturbing. It has no depth and sees things only from the perspective of the ‘now’ and the ‘here’. The now being the year 2002 and the ‘here’ being the US. It is not even American nationalism – it is the Hollywood version of life. It is the ‘world of CNN and docu-soaps. In its own way it is more fantastic and more dangerous than any fantasy genre. A world in which Harrison Ford really is President and there are such things as evil empires. A world which demands that everything be changed to suit its agenda and which fails to perceive anything outside of its time and space. A world which has no sense of history, art, or transcendence.
The Real Story
Which brings us neatly back to Tolkien. He did create a world in which there was history and mystery. A world in which there were no easy answers and where there was real and confusing conflict between right and wrong. It is a fantasy world. But maybe it is more indicative of the truth than much of what we perceive as reality. The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory and Christians should not be looking for the hidden meaning within. It is just a cracking good story which affirms many of the biblical presuppositions in Tolkien’s own life. It deals with issues of temptation, industrialisation, redemption, good and bad etc. I for one sat in the Odeon thanking the Lord for the gift of cinema, good story telling, great acting, wonderful cinematography, New Zealand and the gospel.
An RC Plot?
As for The Lord of the Rings being an RC plot – what can I say? Certainly nothing to those who even contemplate taking such an accusation seriously. I will leave them to their own fantasy world.