A fool's hope

Posted: Dec 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Lo! (Cue heraldic music here.) Out of Hollywood rises an epic of courage and hope so thunderously wonderful that it is almost enough to redeem a year's worth of pop-culture detritus, to make us forget endless reality-show hot-tub scenes, "Gigli" and even Paris Hilton as we marvel at what can be wrought by the entertainment industry when it uses its powers for good.

The occasion for such effusion is "The Return of the King," the third installment of the movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." It is (with apologies to "Elf" and "Bad Santa") a perfect Christmas movie. Its themes of sacrificial love and redemption reflect Tolkien's Christianity and point to a Providence. But "The Lord of the Rings" is not a sectarian work. Some 50 million people have bought the books, and millions more will watch the movies, beguiled by the tale's artistry and its statement of human longing and purpose.

The story's outline is familiar: A great battle rages in Middle-earth over a Ring of Power. Two hobbits, Frodo and Sam, seek to destroy the ring to deny it to the Dark Lord, who fights to establish a reign of darkness throughout the land. For all the fantastic creatures -- elves, dwarves, giant spiders, etc. -- that prompt eye-rolling from cynics, the story has a ring of truth. Tolkien believed that fantasy was only a vehicle for a deeper reality, and grounded his work in what he thought were the fundamentals of our existence.

This gives "The Lord of the Rings," written in the 1950s and chronicling a time before history, a timelessness. Indeed, "The Return of the King" can seem shockingly relevant. You could be forgiven -- putting aside the anti-Bush ravings of some of its actors -- for thinking that the movie was released as pro war-on-terror propaganda. One character speaks of a "sleepless malice" rising in the East. Sounds familiar. The forces resisting the Dark Lord are arrayed in the West, and their leader's battle cry has a special post-9/11 resonance: "By all that we hold dear on this Earth I bid you stand, men of the West!" Hurrah!

But "The Lord of the Rings" resists easy political categories. Tolkien's work has always been rejected by the literary establishment, partly because its depiction of a battle between good and evil is supposedly too "simplistic." This is an egregious misreading. For Tolkien, evil is very real, but it is also pervasive, meaning it can tempt and corrupt anyone. Even the hobbit hero of his tale, Frodo, struggles with temptation, at times unsuccessfully.

The story's hobbits are meant to be like us, middle class and unprepossessing. At 4 feet tall or less, they seemingly stand no chance in a hostile world of wizards and monsters. But they soldier on and, in remaining true to their duty, help save the world. For all their weakness and failings, they are part of something larger that infuses their struggles with purpose. This is what we all want to believe of our own lives, and when we do, we have hope.

The word "hope" is studded throughout "The Return the King." The leader of the forces of the West is told: "The men have found their captain. They will follow him to battle. Even to death. You have given us hope." At a dark moment, a hobbit asks Gandalf, a wizard who has achieved a kind of saintliness: "Is there much hope for Frodo and Sam?" He replies, "There never was much hope, just a fool's hope." Ah, but the beauty of "The Lord of the Rings" is its message that such hope can be realized, that a beneficence beyond our understanding underpins the universe.

As the world pauses this week to celebrate a holiday marking the birth of a Savior born in a manger, it is the season for cherishing the hope of fools.