Archbishop’s review: “A serious misunderstanding of Tolkien’s intentions,” he says to criticisms “The Return of the King” is out of touch with reality

2004. I interviewed David Moxon (pictured above), the then Bishop of the Waikato (in New Zealand), about The Lord of the Rings movies that were released in the theatre. It seems quite timely to publish that interview in light of the latest ‘incarnation’ of the Lord of the Rings in the media in 2022. Here is David Moxon’s “review” of The Lord of the Rings movies by Peter Jackson and his view on the last film in the trilogy, “The Return of the King” in which he responds to critcisms that the film is out of touch with reality. This is an unofficial review from an interview I had with him in 2004.

David Moxon: With regard to Roger Ebert’s remarks:  This is a serious misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Tolkien’s intentions and skill, even as Peter Jackson has represented them on film. Roger has made the classic mistake of treating epic fantasy and fairy stories, in film or in text, as escapist and therefore not relating to real and contemporary concerns.   From a lecture on fairy stories that Tolkien gave at St Andrew’s University, Scotland, on 8 March 1939, we can summarise Tolkien’s philosophy about this kind of story. It is clear that he intended his use of fairy story to be very relevant and highly applicable to the life we know, by means of quickening the imagination for living in the real world here and now.

Tolkien and C S Lewis believed that a great story of the mythical type gives us an experience of something not as an abstraction but as a concrete reality.   We don’t “understand the meaning” when we read a myth, we actually encounter the thing itself.   For example, in The Lord of the Rings goodness itself is embodied in certain characters, like Legolas, Arwen and Gandalf.   Once we try to grasp a quality like goodness with a discursive reason, it fades.   We are meant to taste rather than “know”.   But what you are tasting turns out to be a universal principle:  while receiving the myth as a story you experience a principle concretely:  you are shown goodness living and breathing in the flesh, which of course is the gospel method.   The moment you state the principle, you regress back into the world of abstractions.

This is not escapism from this world, but a desire to use a fantasy world to create a better reality in the mind’s eye, in the heart, so that on their return from the story, the reader is inspired to be more heroic for example, or to see the beauty in ordinary everyday things and their specialness. This is to see in a new way, the imaginative potential of the world. This happens particularly well if the fairy story is believable and has details and places that make it seem to have a tangible relationship with the world in which we live.   C.S. Lewis said in a review of the Ring Trilogy:

“The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity … putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality, we rediscover it.  As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves.  This book applies the treatment not only to bread or apple, but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish and our joys.  By dipping them in the myth we see them more clearly.  I do not think he could have done it any other way.”

Middle-earth is simply an old fashioned word for the world we are living in, as imagined and surrounded by the ocean at a different stage of imagination.

Tolkien believed that all fairy stories eventually point to the greatest story of all, because their aspirations presuppose the existence of the resolution and consummation of all our highest visions.   While fairy stories are not history and therefore not in the primary world that we know, nevertheless their essential truth and the values they embody in a secondary world created by the author, point to the truths and values of the primary world in which we live.  The Gospels are the highest and most consummate example of a true story in this world.

“The Gospels contain…a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories…but this story has entered history and the primary world…desire and aspiration…has been raised to the fulfilment of creation” J R R Tolkien

There is nothing “silly” or emotionally lightweight about this approach in text or film,  in fact, to when Roger Ebert implies that a real masterpiece, by comparison, was Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” he displays his own lack of insight and education of the world of literature, compared to the depths and riches of an author/scholar like Tolkien and a sensitive and totally dedicated film producer like Peter Jackson.   Apocalypse Now was an important film, but it lacks the durable hope and the suffering love that can go on subtlety transforming our existence at the level of the spirit where everything begins and ends.   I think that the interest of audiences in Middle-earth will garnish and enrich contemporary lives in this world we know for decades to come.   Apocalypse Now has not and cannot do this.   That movie co-opted and applied a religious word to paint a story of the macabre consequences of war, which Tolkien was personally only too familiar with himself.   However, in Tolkien’s work, without co-opting religious language at all, we see the vindication of a light that the world cannot overcome, which Coppola’s story does not describe or believe.

As told to Peter Veugelaers.


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