Heeding Tolkien's words

Frodo Baggins stands alone at the Great River Anduin, holding the one ring of power in his open hand as he prepares to go to the hellish land of Mordor.

Why was this task given to him? Then, in his memory, he hears the wizard Gandalf repeating words of wisdom to guide him at that moment. Frodo closes his hand over the ring and continues his quest.

This dramatic scene is not in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." Nevertheless, it appears at the end of episode one in director Peter Jackson's attempt to bring this epic to the screen.

"This scene is not in the book -- but it could have been. That's important. It is consistent with Tolkien's vision," said British scholar Joseph Pearce, author of "Tolkien: Man and Myth."

"We do not see this in the book, but in the movie we do. This is what happens when artists make books into movies. They have to visualize things. What is crucial is that the words Frodo hears are words Tolkien actually wrote and they express one of the book's great themes."

This is especially important to readers who worried that Tolkien's Catholic faith -- which is woven into this 600,000-word tome -- might vanish. Even worse, said Pearce, the moviemakers could have twisted Tolkien's words. For example, Frodo's reverie on the riverbank is worth closer scrutiny. Where did this come from?

Very early in "The Lord of the Rings," Frodo says he wishes the master ring had not been found in his lifetime.

"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

But what ultimate power is deciding what happens and when? By using these words -- twice -- near the end of the first film, the screenwriters highlighted this issue, said Pearce. They also linked this quotation with another that says it is not the evildoers who are in charge.

It was the dark lord Sauron, after all, who created the great rings to rule Middle Earth and the "One Ring to rule them all." In addition to asking why this ring was recovered in his time, Frodo asks why this ring found its way to Bilbo Baggins, his kindly uncle.

In both the book, and the movie, Gandalf replies: "Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-MAKER. In 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 were also MEANT to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought."

Tolkien wanted to write a sweeping myth that included Christian themes, yet he rejected all attempts to interpret his work as a parable or allegory. The symbolism is subtle, not preachy.

Clearly, the screenwriters tried to be faithful to the book while also going about their appointed duty of crafting waves of spectacular images to pull action-lovers into theaters over and over again. It is the myriad scenes of fury, terror and deadly skill that dominate the film. Yet there are beautiful moments that carry spiritual weight.

The warrior Boromir dies a brutal death sacrificing his life for others. As he dies, he seeks forgiveness from the future king. Aragorn bows his head, noted Pearce, "and makes what almost looks like a pre-Christian sign of the cross." The elf princess Arwen prays for the healing of Frodo. Gandalf fights to save his followers and then falls into an abyss -- arms extended as if on a cross.

"The big worry was that this would be some kind of Hollywood parody of 'The Lord of the Rings,' " said Pearce. "I have no idea if any of the artists involved in this project are Christians. I have no idea what their point of view is, in terms of faith.

"But it must have made sense, just from an artistic point of view, to leave much of the spiritual element intact. After all, that is what gives the book its depth and power. That is what makes it much more than a work of mere fantasy."