Vague faith in Middle Earth

LOS ANGELES -- Faced with the end of his world, even the cheery hobbit Pippin lost hope.

"I didn't think it would end this way," he tells Gandalf, as they watch the forces of evil advance in Peter Jackson's epic "The Return of the King."

"End? No, the journey doesn't end here," replies the wizard, who has already had one near-death experience and been reborn. "There's another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back and it will change to silver glass and then you see it."

Confused, Pippin asks: "See what?"

With a wry smile, Gandalf replies: "White shores and beyond them, a far green country under a swift sunrise."

This speech is based on some of J.R.R. Tolkien's most beautiful language at the end of "The Lord of the Rings" and poetically expresses his belief in a life to come.

Yet there are other ways to interpret this scene and the whole 500,000-word trilogy, noted the actor inside those wizard's robes. As an openly gay atheist, Sir Ian McKellen said he had no problem putting his own spin on Tolkien's visions. The key, he said, is that this is a work of cultural myth, not Christian allegory.

"The interesting thing about Hobbiton to me is that it doesn't have a church," said McKellen, during a blitz of interviews hours before the premiere of "The Return of the King" in Los Angeles. "It's appealing to me that people like these stories and yet there isn't an archbishop and there isn't a pope telling you what to believe. ...

"Despite being a Catholic, I don't think he was trying to write a Catholic parable, so I don't think we were meant to draw conclusions about faith from it. But I am sure that other people disagree."

Yes, they certainly do and the global success of these movies -- $3 billion at the box office is a safe guess -- only raises the stakes in such debates.

Many Christians quickly quote Tolkien's claim that his trilogy was a "fundamentally religious and Catholic work." Others criticize its lack of clear, evangelistic Christian content and distrust his love of magic and myths. Meanwhile, some readers prefer to embrace its elves, wizards and back-to-nature themes.

Almost everyone involved in the movies believes "The Lord of the Rings" contains "spiritual" or even "sacred" themes. But they struggle to define these words.

Facing a circle of reporters from religious publications, members of Jackson's team emphasized that they strove to avoid personal agendas that might betray Tolkien. Yet they also stressed they did not believe Tolkien had a dogmatic agenda.

The central "tenet that is underlying the story is his Catholicism, which is at the heart ... of the book," said Fran Walsh, a producer, screenwriter and mother of two children with Jackson. "In the end, if there is anything to be taken from the film it's that it's about faith." The story is also about death and the knowledge that its heroes "will endure in some form" after their passage to another land, she said.

So this is a story about "faith," "hope," "courage," "decency," "sacrifice," and even eternal life. It's about the triumph of "simple goodness." But it is not, as screenwriter Philippa Boyens put it, about moral absolutes that proclaim, "This is good and this is evil! And this is what you must do!' "

Yet the final outcome -- the destruction of the one ring of power -- depends on key characters making agonizing choices between good and evil.

The tormented Gollum chooses poorly and reaps what he has sown. The noble Frodo chooses poorly as well, yet is saved by his earlier acts of compassion toward Gollum.

"It was Frodo's destiny to accept this ring," said Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo. "But it's Frodo's mercy that actually destroys the ring. The ring is not destroyed by any person's will. I mean, it is the will of Frodo that gets it to where it needs to go. But it is indeed his mercy for Gollum that allows Gollum to meet them at the Crack of Doom and to stop Frodo."

The whole thing, said Wood, is "a bit of a puzzle piece."

The movie's director was asked if the word "providence" might apply to this mystery.

"Yes," said Jackson.

Comic book visionaries

LOS ANGELES -- The story has everything that a comic book needs, like rippling muscles, heaving bosoms, torture, seduction, superhuman feats of strength and moments of crippling guilt.

The story builds through pages of dramatic close-ups, epic slaughters and cosmic revelations until, finally, the hero faces his ultimate decision. Will he take a leap of faith and risk everything?

"Oh Lord God! Hear me please. Give me strength this one last time," he prays. "I am prepared! You strengthen me, oh Lord! ... Now let me die here with the Philistines!"

Anyone who knows comics knows what happens next in "Samson: Judge of Israel," by Mario Ruiz and Jerry Novick. What happens next is painted in giant, ragged, screaming letters that say "GRRUUNN," "CRAACCKK," "AAAIIIEEE" and one final "WHUMP!"

The great Bible stories -- such as Samson in the book of Judges -- are packed with the epic visions and good-versus-evil absolutes that fill the pages of classic comics and their modern, supercharged siblings known as "graphic novels" or works of "sequential art." But what is less obvious is that some of today's most popular and influential comic-book artists are drawing their inspiration from deep wells of faith and classic religious stories, according to Leo Partible, an independent movie producer, graphic artist and writer.

"Anyone who knows where to look can find plenty of examples of faith in the comics and the culture that surrounds them," he said. "There is darkness there, but lots of light, too."

Thus, in the influential "Superman For All Seasons," a young Clark Kent turns to his pastor for help as he struggles to discern what to do with his life and unique abilities. Hollywood writer Kevin Smith's "Daredevil" hero wrestles with guilt while leaning on his Catholic faith. The mutant X-Man Nightcrawler quotes scripture and talks openly about sin, penance and righteousness.

The mystery of the Shroud of Turin is woven into Doug TenNapel's sprawling "Creature Tech," which probes questions about faith and science. Artist Scott McDaniel's website ( mixes discussions of faith and art with its pages of Nightwing, Batman and Spider-Man illustrations. The graphic novel "Kingdom Come," which helped redefine the modern comics, keeps quoting the Revelation of St. John as it paints an Armageddon vision for the superheroes of the past.

The 36-year-old Partible can quote chapter and verse on dozens of other examples as he races through stacks of well-worn comics, tracing the spiritual journeys of heroes old and new. It's crucial to understand, he said, that comic books are not just for children. They are a powerful force in movies, television, animation, popular music and video games. Hollywood studies the comics.

"Comics offer a powerful combination of visual art, the written word and the imagination," he said. "For millions of people around the world, comic books are a bridge between literature and the silver screen. ... This is where some of our most powerful myths and iconic images come from, whether you're talking about stories that were shaped by the comics -- such as the work of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg -- or actual comic-book stories like the X-Men and Spider-Man.

"People have to be blind not to see this trend. It's everywhere."

Meanwhile, traditional religious believers who work in the comic-book industry face the same questions as believers who work in other mainstream media, said Partible. Should they be involved in artistic projects that dabble in the occult, if that is what it takes to land a job? How much sex and violence is too much? Should they flee the mainstream and start a "Contemporary Christian Comics" subculture that produces predictable products for Bible bookstores?

It's crucial, said Partible, that traditional believers stay right where they are in mainstream comics, helping shape some of the myths and epic stories that inspire millions. They also can help young artists break into an industry that needs both new ideas and old values.

"People are looking for heroes," he said. "People are looking for answers to the big questions, like, 'What in the hell am I doing here?' I asked that question when I was a kid and some of the comic books I read did a better job of answering it that many of the sermons I heard from preachers back then."

J.K. Rowling, Inkling?

Harry Potter froze in terror as the hellish Dementors rushed to suck out his godfather's soul. But he was not powerless, because he had learned the Patronus Charm for use against the evil ones. So the boy wizard focused on a joyful memory and shouted, "Expecto Patronum!"

Salvation arrived in the form of a dazzling silver animal that defeated the ghouls and then cantered across the surface of a lake to Harry. It was as "bright as a unicorn," but on second glance was not a unicorn. It was a majestic stag that bowed its antlered head in salute and then vanished.

If C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien had written this scene in "The Prisoner of Azkaban," literary critics and Christian apologists would know how to break the code, according to John Granger, author of "The Hidden Key to Harry Potter." They would parse the Latin charm and study author J.K. Rowling's delicate use of medieval symbolism.

"The key is that stag, which is often a Christ symbol. But she is not content to make it a stag. It's a stag that looks like a unicorn," said Granger, who teaches Latin and Greek in Port Hadlock, Wash.

"She's saying to the reader, 'A stag may be a reach for you. So I'll have it be a stag that looks like a unicorn, since that has been a universally recognized Christ symbol for ages.' It's almost, 'Let me make this clear for you.' "

But these symbols have eluded most readers who have bought 192 million copies of these novels in 55 languages. (Rowling requested Latin.)

This weekend bookstores are serving up the first 8.5 million copies of the 768-page fifth volume, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." The usual suspects will immediately say the usual things. Many Christians will quote Bible verses condemning magic. Academics will call the book a childish confection and analyze it as media myth and pop psychology. Librarians will give thanks that children are reading -- anything.

Granger believes they are missing the obvious: Rowling has baptized her work in medieval Christian symbols and themes that shape and define her tales of good versus evil. Potter's creator, he noted, received a superior education -- with studies in French and classical languages at the University of Exeter -- and has a working knowledge of ancient and medieval literature. She has made no effort to hide her admiration of great writers, especially Jane Austen and Lewis.

Granger has focused on her language and symbolism, in large part because of his similar studies in "Great Books" and ancient languages. He has also attempted to predict how these themes will play out in Rowling's future Potter novels.

"I started reading the Potter books as an Orthodox Christian father who had to explain to his oldest daughter why we don't read such trash," he said. "But once I started turning the pages the University of Chicago side of me kicked in."

Take that climactic scene in "The Prisoner of Azkaban," he said. The Latin "expecto," as used in the Apostles' Creed, is best translated "to look out for" or "to long for expectantly." And "patronus" means guardian, but can also mean "deliverer" or "savior." So Potter cries "I look for a savior" and a stag appears, one that looks mysteriously like a unicorn.

In the Middle Ages, noted Granger, stags were Christ symbols, in part because of the regeneration of their antlers as "living trees." A cross was often pictured in the prongs. Lewis uses a white stag in this manner in "The Chronicles of Narnia." Unicorns were also popular Christ symbols, portraying purity and strength.

Rowling repeatedly links Potter with creatures -- a phoenix, griffins, centaurs, hippogriffs, red lions -- used by centuries of Christian artists.

Her use of alchemy symbolism taps into medieval images of spiritual purification, illumination and perfection.

None of this is accidental, he said. Anyone who cares about Potter-mania must take Rowling more seriously.

"What we are seeing is a religious phenomenon taking place in a profoundly secular, profane culture," said Granger. "J.K. Rowling is pouring living water into a desert. ... She is mounting a head-on attack on a materialistic world that denies the existence of the supernatural and, so far, she is getting away with it."

Tolkien, creation & sin

NEW YORK -- Screenwriter Philippa Boyens gets a tired look in her eyes when she recalls the surgery required to turn "The Lord of the Rings" into a movie, even a sprawling trilogy of three-hour movies.

"It's so hard," she said. "It's hard, it's hard, oh God, it's hard."

One agonizing cut in the screenplay removed a glimpse of the myth behind J.R.R. Tolkien's 500,000-word epic. In this lost scene, the traitor Saruman is torturing the noble Gandalf. "What," asks the evil wizard, "is the greatest power?" Gandalf replies, "Life."

"You fool," says Saruman. "Life can be destroyed. Did I teach you nothing?"

Trying again, Gandalf says, "Creation."

"Yes," answers Saruman, "the power to create life."

Millions of readers and now moviegoers have seen "The Lord of the Rings" as an epic tale of good versus evil.

Many have tried to pin labels on each side. The dark lord Sauron and his minions represent Nazi Germany and the armies of Middle Earth are England and its allies. Wait, said scribes in the 1960s. The forces of evil were industrialists who wanted to enslave Tolkien's peaceful, tree-hugging elves and Hobbits. The dark lord's "One Ring to rule them all" was the atomic bomb, or nuclear power, or something else nasty and modern.

The reality is more complex than that, said Boyens, after a press screening of "The Two Towers." Director Peter Jackson's second "Lord of the Rings" reaches theaters on Dec. 18.

"This is not a story about good versus evil," she said. "It's about that goodness and that evilness that is in all of us."

Anyone who studies Tolkien, she said, quickly learns that the Oxford don rejected allegorical interpretations of his work.

Nevertheless, Tolkien was a devout Catholic and his goal was to create a true myth that offered the modern world another chance to understand the timeless roots of sin. Thus, even his darkest characters have mixed motives or have been shaped by past choices between good and evil. Even his virtuous heroes wrestle with temptations to do evil or to do good for the wrong reasons.

The dark lord Sauron, noted Boyens, "was your basic fallen angel. If you go back even further within this mythology, you have a world that begins with Iluvatar, who is the One, who is basically God."

Iluvatar created the world through music, noted Boyens. But one angel, Melkor, was "jealous of the power of creation" and struck a note of discord, shattering the harmony. Yet Iluvatar did not destroy his creation. Instead, he gave his creatures the freedom to make choices between darkness and light, between evil and mercy.

It is hard to put this level of complexity on a movie screen. Nevertheless, Boyens and Jackson stressed that the "Lord of the Rings" team tried to leave the foundations of Tolkien's myth intact. The ultimate war between good and evil is inside the human heart.

"We didn't make it as a spiritual film, but here is what we did do," said Jackson, who is a co-writer and co-producer as well as the director of the project. "Tolkien was a very religious man. But we made a decision a long time ago that we would never knowingly put any of our own baggage into these films. ...

"What we tried to do was honor the things that were important to Tolkien, but without really emphasizing one thing over another. We didn't want to make it a religious film. But he was very religious and some of the messages and some of the themes are based on his beliefs."

The goal is to retain the timeless quality of the books, said Jackson.

Most of the filming for this three-movie project was done before the events of Sept. 11, 2001, he noted. The director had no way to know his movies would reach theaters during such tense times. Once again, many want to match headlines with events in Tolkien's masterwork.

"You sort of get the impression -- which can be depressing -- that Tolkien's themes really resonate today and that they're probably going to resonate in 50 years and then in 100 years," said Jackson. "I don't think humans are capable of actually pulling themselves out of these basic ruts."