Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Middle Earth's Messianic Mythology Remixed: Gandalf's Death and Resurrection in Novel and Film

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Middle Earth's Messianic Mythology Remixed: Gandalf's Death and Resurrection in Novel and Film

Article excerpt

Mark D. Stucky

Elkhart, IN


In the mythology of the very influential The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien employed several Christ figures, the most obvious being the wizard Gandalf. In Tolkien's "fundamentally religious and Catholic" novel, the symbolism of Gandalf's "death and resurrection" scenes was implicit, but Peter Jackson's film versions visually made Gandalf's Christ-figure symbolism more explicit. This article will explore:

The cultural impact of Tolkien's mythology The meaning of myth to Tolkien The characteristics of a Christ figure What a Christ figure subtext may add to the psychological/mythological impact of a work of art How Gandalf's death and resurrection scenes portrayed him as a Christ figure How these two scenes in the films diverged from the book The possible meaning of that divergence (of the mythology remixed)

Cultural Impact of the Novel and Film

[1] One of the most influential works of literature written in the twentieth century was J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Forty-six years after the novel's initial publication, this appraisal appeared in The Kansas City Star: "Tolkien's epic trilogy remains the ultimate quest, the ultimate battle between good and evil. . . . Endlessly imitated, it never has been surpassed." [1] Tolkien's novel, originally published in three volumes (1954 through 1955), is still in print over a half century later and has been translated into at least 38 languages. [2] It has been adapted into other media, such as graphic novels, games, calendars, movies, and even a musical, [3] and it has influenced a generation of sword-and-sorcery and other fantasy novels and games. [4]

[2] Popular interest in Tolkien's work was rekindled in the twenty-first century by Peter Jackson's three film adaptations. [5] Filmed consecutively during 16 months in New Zealand with a 2,400 member crew, the combined trilogy (in terms of shooting schedule, crew size, and overall budget) was "the biggest film undertaking of all time." [6] The three award-winning films are all in the top 11 highest grossing films in history with a combined take in the billions. The films introduced Tolkien's world to multitudes of people who had never read the novel and provided a rich audio-visual banquet to Tolkien's literary fans. [7] In spite of great challenges in adapting Tolkien's text to the screen, the films remained remarkably true to Tolkien's vision. [8] Despite some reservations, literary critic and Tolkien fan Brian Rosebury wrote: "the impressive achievement of Jackson and his team remains the only phenomena [sic] in the cultural afterlife of The Lord of the Rings that could conceivably threaten to occlude the work itself in our collective awareness. . . . [It] is conceivable that, as generations grow up who have had ready access to both versions from childhood, the film's representations of place, character, incident and theme may be the ones normalized in popular consciousness." [9]

Tolkien and Myth

[3] Tolkien's story has become embedded in popular consciousness, in part, because it is deeply mythical. "Myth" denotes diverse things to different people. To some, myth is only a story that "isn't true." To others, myth offers meaning for life. "A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world. Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence," wrote psychiatrist Rollo May. "Myths are like the beams in a house: not exposed to outside view, they are the structure which holds the house together so people can live in it." [10] Similarly Frank McConnell wrote, "Dreams are the stories that get us through the night, but myths are the stories that get us through the day." [11]

[4] The definition, validity, and usefulness of myths has been argued since at least the days of Plato. Anthropologist Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty called Plato "the first great demythologizer [who] 'deconstructed' the myths of Homer and Hesiod. …

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