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It’s like in the great stories

I’m listening to the soundtrack of The Two Towers right now. I was just reading some more of the book. Suddenly, in the past few weeks, I’m crazy about Tolkien again. I blame The Hobbit. Since I saw a trailer for the first installment a year ago, I couldn’t wait. To return to Middle-earth, and explore it further; to be reunited with familiar characters, and introduced to new ones. So when it finally hit theaters, right before Christmas break, I was at the midnight opening—I couldn’t wait a minute longer. (Now I can’t wait for the next one.) It had been several years since I last read The Lord of the Rings, and even longer since I’d read The Hobbit, and watching the new movie whet my appetite. So at the beginning of the break I started The Hobbit, and I’m almost done with The Two Towers now. I also watched The Lord of the Rings (the Extended Editions, of course) and the accompanying documentaries in the newly-added iTunes Extras. And I listened to all four soundtracks a bunch.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I love The Lord of the Rings. In recent years, I’m more into Christian literature than novels. I’m not a huge fan of the fantasy genre, in particular. But Tolkien is the exception. And while other movies have come along that I’ve really enjoyed and would consider among my favorites, these movies stand on their own. I’ve read the book several times (and many of his other books, which together tell the history of Middle-earth.) I’ve watched the movies again, and again, and again. There’s just something about them that captivates me. Certainly, Tolkien was a genius, creating this entire world, its history, its languages. Part of what makes Tolkien’s work stand apart from all the fantasy stories that have followed is the incredible depth. He didn’t write some stories, inventing aspects of a world as needed to fit the stories. He created an entire world, and then set his stories in it. And the stories themselves are incredible.

And then Peter Jackson and his team did an incredible job of bringing Tolkien’s epic novel to the screen. The movies themselves are stunning, but also impressive is the work that went into making them—from creating the illusion of the size of the hobbits and dwarves, to recreating battles on the scale of Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields, to bringing Gollum to life. Just as Tolkien’s work is a literary masterpiece, Jackson’s work is a cinematic masterpiece.

But I think there’s a deeper reason yet. They’re so relatable, and so true—not in the sense that they actually happened. But in the sense that they offer a glimpse into reality that we miss most of the time. Even though Tolkien was adamant that The Lord of the Rings was not allegorical, there’s still so much truth in them. Like the hobbits of the Shire, most of the time we’re completely absorbed in what we see around us, our own day-to-day, mundane lives, which don’t seem all that glamorous or that big a deal, really. We live our lives completely unaware of the bigger picture, and we need a reminder of the truth. The truth that, like Middle-earth, our world is locked in an epic war, where the forces of good and of evil battle for its fate, where the evil one will stop at nothing to have dominion over all life on this earth, and seeks to destroy all who oppose him. And so much of the time it looks like he is winning. The world seems dark and hopelessly evil when we hear news of the senseless killing of children, or when, from half a world away, I watch the country I call home falling apart because of extremists and corrupt politicians.

But in the midst of this battle, we see heroism where least expected—including in ourselves. We find ourselves called to a mission of utmost importance, and even deadly peril. We find fellowships that stand with each other through thick and thin to carry that mission out. But then those fellowships are broken, as friends, though eternally bound by friendship and love, must go their separate ways. We live in a tale of friendship, and loyalty, and sacrifice. Of danger, and betrayal, and darkness. Of epic battles, and courage, and hope. Of fell deeds and heroic ones. I see myself in these characters, and the story unfolding around me in theirs. And that gives me hope, and courage, and a desire to rise up to the calling on my life. Why do I love The Lord of the Rings? The best answer comes from the movies themselves. When hope seems lost for Frodo and Sam, captive in Osgiliath, Sam nails it:

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. Those are the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding onto something.”

“What are we holding onto, Sam?”

“That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”