I have a terrible memory. I forget people's names. I forget people's faces. I forget classes I took and gatherings I've attended. I even forget the things I read and watch on television. The past twenty-four years are a swirling murk of fragmented memories that may or may not have actually happened--but every once in awhile sounds and images emerge from the brain swamp and I exclaim with glee, "Hey, I remember that!"
Like the time we went to see The Fellowship of the Ring in the movie theater.
I have no recollection of The Lord of the Rings prior to the release of the movie. I knew that the books existed, but I can't remember what I knew about them. All of that is as lost in the brain swamp as a shipwreck is in the Bermuda Triangle.
But we went to see the movie. I remember that. I was twelve years old. I don't actually remember watching it, but I remember that we got stuck in the very front row in the theater, so I had to crane my neck to see everything on the ginormous screen. I also recall that my sister, who was at that time approximately four months old, did not take kindly to orc battles and Ringwraiths and became rather upset.
I remember liking the movie. Then we bought it when it came out on VHS. (Remember those?) At some point I decided to sit down and read the book.
It was hard. The Fellowship of the Ring is a very long book, at least by twelve-year-old standards. Or was I thirteen by then? You guessed it--I don't remember. Then I eventually trudged my way through The Two Towers. I never read The Return of the King.
I do remember thinking that the books were mildly pagan in nature. Where is God in all of this? I wondered. None of the hobbits or elves or dwarves or anyone seemed to worship a deity of any kind. I think that maybe I was a little put off by that.
I couldn't have been any dumber.
Years later I learned that Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and that Christians of many denominations praise his works for the symbolism and messages they contain. I was surprised, but not so surprised. When I was thirteen, I wouldn't have recognized a symbol or an allegory if they had done the Gangnam Style dance naked in front of my face. I didn't understand that sometimes things have different meanings that aren't immediately apparent. That understanding didn't come until my late teens, and even then it didn't come to me quickly.
A couple of weeks ago I decided to reread the series. I'm close to finishing The Two Towers, so I still have never cracked the spine of Book 3.
But it's almost like I'm reading completely different books. The symbolism practically jumps off the page at me. Take Frodo, for example. He isn't anybody important, but he is the one chosen to bring the One Ring to Mordor so it can be destroyed. It makes me think of how Jesus chose a bunch of "nobodys" to be his disciples. Then there are the "lembas" that the elves give the members of the Fellowship so they won't starve out in the wilderness. The description of them sounds an awful lot like communion wafers.
Perhaps the biggest allegory I saw this time around was Gandalf's self-sacrifice in the Mines of Moria. Gandalf is battling a demonic creature called a Balrog while an army of orcs is after the Fellowship. In order to allow his friends to escape, he lets himself fall into a deep pit while still fighting the Balrog.
Everyone assumes Gandalf is dead. But later, after the Fellowship is disbanded, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli spot an old man in the woods whom they assume to be the dark wizard Saruman. They even speak with the man and don't recognize him at first. When they realize it's actually the very not-dead Gandalf, they rejoice, and Gandalf tells them how he battled the Balrog in the pit of the mountain before ascending a long flight of stairs out of Moria onto the mountaintop into the sunlight. (Anyone familiar with the Gospel accounts of Jesus's death and resurrection should see the symbolism here.) At least they didn't think that Gandalf was the gardener.
I also noticed that Saruman rhymes with Ahriman, which is the Persian name for Satan. I don't know if this was intentional, a coincidence, or the work of Tolkien's subconscious mind.
And what of the "Christian" mercy that Gandalf extends to Saruman and Frodo extends to Gollum? Instead of smiting the two very unsavory fellows, they are each given a second chance, regardless of whether or not they will choose to redeem themselves.
I could go on and on. I'm simply amazed by all of the things I missed when I first read these books. Was I blind, or what?
Oh, Internet, how I love thee.