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Jewish World Review Dec. 31, 2001 /16 Teves 5762

Don Feder

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A ringing affirmation of a moral universe -- THE WASHINGTON POST reports a surge in bible sales. The fantasy adventure "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" is the most popular film of the holiday season. Is there a connection?

Can mythology, or fairytales, lead us to faith?

In the wake of Sept. 11, people hunger for verities -- a universal order that makes sense. Once again, we grope for answers to age-old questions: Why do the innocent suffer? Does pain have an ultimate meaning?

Zondervan Corp., the nation's largest publisher of religious books, says sales of bibles and other inspirational works are way up over the past year. And the screen version of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic, which opened the week before Christmas, pulled in $45.3 million during its first Friday through Sunday in theaters.

By comparison, during the same three days of its general release in 1997, "Titanic" grossed $28.6 million.

It's not that moviegoers intentionally are flocking to "Lord of the Rings" to satisfy a spiritual yearning. Of course, there are the legions of Tolkien fans. (His books have sold over 50 million copies.) But even for those unfamiliar with his work, everything from previews to posters suggests this film -- with its elves and other fanciful beings -- carries a serious moral message.

The movie concerns an ominous ring of power forged by the Dark Lord, Sauron. Because absolute power corrupts, it must not be used, but destroyed. Coexistence with the Dark Lord is impossible. If evil isn't vanquished, the world will be plunged into darkness.

Tolkein's masterpiece was published in 1954, almost at the midpoint of the 20th century -- a century that saw more pure evil (and more powerful threats to free peoples) than any in history.

From the battlefields of World War I to the killing fields of Cambodia, humanity witnessed abominations to shrivel the soul. In the blasted landscape of Auschwitz was horror far exceeding Tolkien's shadow land of Mordor, realm of the Dark Lord.

With the end of the Cold War, the more hopeful thought we'd seen the last of mass murder and widespread suffering inflicted in the name of political dogma. Then New York's tallest skyscrapers were reduced to rubble, thousands died, America went to war with terrorism and we were haunted by the specter of biological warfare.

Like Hitler and Stalin, Osama bin Landen is another dark lord, seemingly possessed by demoniac powers, who would sacrifice millions of innocents on the altar of his insane ideology.

In a never-ending struggle whose latest installment is played out on the evening news, "Lord of the Rings" offers hope.

Against seemingly invincible evil are arrayed love, sacrifice and humble folk (Hobbits, short of stature and large of heart) who rise to heroic heights, just as ordinary Americans -- police, firefighters, soldiers, civilians -- have shown their mettle during the past four months.

In myths, we can see the glimmerings of eternal truth. Tolkien may not have set out to create a religious allegory. But a deep reverence suffuses his trilogy, as it does the film version of the first book (movies based on the other volumes will follow).

The Oxford don was a devout Catholic who brought his friend C.S. Lewis to Christianity. Lewis became the greatest Christian apologist of the past century.

"The Lord of the Rings" shows us nobility, devotion and mercy. All reflect the divine. When Gandalf the wizard tells Frodo (who bears the ring) that the Dark Lord learned of the existence of Hobbits and their possession of what he covets most from a loathsome creature called Gollum, Frodo bitterly comments it's "a pity" his cousin Bilbo didn't kill the thing when he had a chance.

"I dare say it was pity that stayed his hand," Gandalf replies. Here is a lesson for those, myself included, who've spent the past few weeks devising gruesome punishments for the American traitor John Philip Walker.

Movies have become our mythology. They are to us what cave drawings and folktales were to previous generations. Too often, Hollywood has offered stories of a chaotic creation, an existence without absolutes dominated by wretchedness and ugliness. "Lord of The Rings" presents an older vision that, by its nature, is eternally new.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. He is also available as a guest speaker. To comment on this column please click here.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate