Monday, January 25, 2010

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring -- power of friendship, darkness of heart

Director: Peter Jackson, 2001. (Extended Edition)

Peter Jackson and his cast and crew embarked on an epic task at the turn of the century: to film all three books of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic "The Lord of the Rings" simultaneously. Before The Fellowship of the Ring many fans of this best-loved book trilogy, including me, wondered if he could pull it off and bring the magic of the fantasy to life. It seemed impossible. But Jackson did it and created a movie masterpiece.

"It began with the forging of the Great Rings." Before introducing the key characters, Jackson gives us an extended prolog that sets the context of the coming three hours. Narrated by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), the elf Queen who will show up later in this episode, she tells the story of the rings of old while a fierce battle plays out on screen:
But they were all deceived, for a new ring was made. In the land of Mordor, in the fires of Mount Doom, the Dark Lord Sauron forged in secret a master ring to control all others . . . The Ring passed to Isildur, who had this one chance to destroy evil forever, but the hearts of men are easily corrupted. And the ring of power has a will of its own. It betrayed Isildur, to his death. And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.
With this opening we learn of the evil Sauron. Though apparently killed, Gandalf later tells Frodo, "The spirit of Sauron endured. His life force is bound to the Ring and the Ring survived. Suaron has returned."

The real beginning takes place in Hobbiton. Jackson has created a believable world of Middle Earth, in the times when men shared this world with elves, hobbits, and dwarves. Filmed in New Zealand, this is a world full of beauty and wonder. Hobbiton is a village of little folks with no more on their minds than their gardens, their women and their ales. Rural, time has left them alone. That is, until Bilbo Baggins' (Ian Holm) eleventy-first birthday. When he puts on the ring he found in The Hobbit, the prequel to this adventure, he disappears . . . and alerts the Dark Lord to the presence of the Ring he has been searching for. This propels Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the Grey Wizard, to entrust the Ring to Frodo Baggins (Elijah Woods), who finds himself accompanied by three fellow hobbits: Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) the gardener, Peregrine "Pippin" Took (Billy Boyd), and Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan).

The Fellowship of the Ring is well-paced and filled with memorable scenes. Jackson takes the time to show us this new world while bringing the characters to center stage. Early on, we see the Ring-Wraiths, dreaded dark riders, former kings whose rings led them to become trapped spirits under the control of Sauron. They send a shiver down the spine. Then there is the battle of spells between two wizards, Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) who has thrown his powerful magic in with Sauron, and has created a race of Uruk-hai, by crossing orcs with goblins. Jackson takes us up the snowy white heights of the mountains that cannot be passed and down into the dark dank Mines of Moria filled with dreaded creatures.

It is in the elfish land of Rivendell that the four hobbits and Strider (Viggo Mortensen), the night rider who has befriended them, are reacquainted with Gandalf. And it is here that the Fellowship is formed. A council of all peoples has been called and representatives listen to Elrond (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix), the elf prince. The Ring must be destroyed before Sauron finds it and destroys all of Middle Earth. To do this someone must carry it deep into the heart of Sauron's land and throw it into the fires of Mount Doom from whence it was formed. A suicide mission, no one wants to take on that mantle. When squabbling breaks out and tempers rise, it is small Frodo, the Ring-bearer, who quietly says he will take it. But a fellowship is formed to accompany him: there are the three other hobbits. Boromir (Sean Bean), from Gondor, and Stryder, who is actually Aragorn son of Arathorn, will represent men. The dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) pledge their axe and bow. With Gandalf the fellowship of nine is forged. There will be cooperation across cultures.

The first film focuses on the fellowship. They must put aside differences and unite in the common cause if they are to gain victory. Through forests and mines, they face trouble from orcs and trolls. But the power of friendship holds the upper hand.

Tolkien and Jackson remind us that friendship is a force to be reckoned with and a joy to be experienced. A man with friends is rich indeed. Proverbs says, "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity" (Prov. 17:17). Even "wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiples kisses" (Prov. 27:6). The picture of Gimli and Legolas, enemies before the council, forming a friendship so strong that later when facing the final battle in The Return of the King Gimli says, "Never thought I'd die fighting side by side with a Elf," Legolas corrects him, "What about side by side with a friend?" Life is full when friends are alongside.

The Fellowship is tested by the trials it faces. Along the way, some are tempted, some are lost. One thing is clear: the Ring is cursed. If it calls to its Master and Maker, it also affects the hearts of those around it. We see a glimpse of the creature Gollum, whose sad life has been poisoned by the power of the Ring. We feel it separating Frodo from his fellows. He is even told by Galadrial, "You are a Ring-Bearer, Frodo. To bear a Ring of Power is to be alone." We see it darken even this bright elf queen herself, and Gandalf understands the subtlety of its temptation. Most of all we see Boromir, the strong warrior craving its power for his people.

The Ring taps into the darkness in the heart. This resonates with the biblical truth, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9) We have a bent towards evil from birth, due to the presence of original sin (Gen. 3:1-6). Satan introduced evil into our world. Tolkien has said, "But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however 'good'; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us."

Yet Tolkien is not a pessimist, seeing evil victorious. He has also said, "And because evil is a perversion and distortion of the good -- never having any positive existence of its own -- no creature in The Lord of the Rings lies beyond redemption. Not even Sauron was evil in the beginning." The hope of salvation lies in the frail and tiny hands of Frodo.

At one point in Fellowship, Frodo sits down with Gandalf and says, "I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened." We can all empathize with Frodo. How often have we wished our troubles away. Couldn't they have gone to someone else? Why were we picked for this burden? But Gandalf sagely counsels the young hobbit: "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 to us."

This key point is apropos for our times. We all must choose how to use our time. Circumstances call us to rise and respond. Whether this is in a ministry, a vocation, a career, or a war. How will we respond? Pastor John Piper expands on this in his short book, "Don't Waste Your Life." Will we complain of what is laid on our plate? Or will we rise to the occasion, like Frodo? And who knows, perhaps God has put us in this very place for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14)

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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