By Danny Anderson
For the past several years, my family and I have made a tradition of watching through Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in the Thanksgiving window. In all honesty, the tradition wasn’t born out of an intentional act of religious devotion. Thanksgiving break simply provided ample free-time to luxuriate in the extended versions of the three films. The visual world-building, the spectacle, the soundtrack, and the inspirational story of redemption were why we have devoted this time to the films. Advent, in fact, has always been rather under-emphasized in my low-church, Protestant tradition.
This year, however, the season of Advent has taken on a new significance. The last few years has for us, like most people, been full of trials and fear. So the idea of dedicating the weeks leading up to Christmas to looking hopefully into the future is exciting. Additionally, our local church has begun a devotional dedicated to Advent. So for a number of reasons, Advent has become important in a way it hadn’t been to me before.
So perhaps all that is why this year, on the day before Thanksgiving, when we began our viewing of Fellowship of the Ring, I started noticing just how perfect these films are for the season. The Advent themes of Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy are fundamentally what makes the series work. As it turns out, my family and I have been celebrating Advent the past few years, faithfully, if not accidentally.
First, and probably least importantly, it occurred to me this time that we get two visions of Advent in these films. True, I make this observation mainly for the opportunity to invoke Pippin’s classic, always hilarious, line about “second breakfast.”
But still it’s at least mildly interesting that the trilogy opens with the Hobbits’ near-Utopia in the idyll tranquility of The Shire, millennia after an apocalypse. The world we see is already happy and at peace, the horrors of the past have become more myth than history. In fact, for me at least, Hobbiton strongly resembles a world I would hope for in a redemption yet to come.
No, what we see here is a kind of Advent in the negative. It is not a redemption and peace about to arrive, but catastrophe. The awakening of the One Ring and the threat of Sauron’s return to Middle Earth upend the loveliness of the Hobbits’ world. The film opens with an inversion of the coming of Christ in this way. This setup, this destruction of a beautiful normality, raises the stakes for the trilogy and makes its proper exploration of the themes of Advent all the more thrilling.
Frodo, Clarence Jordan, and “The Wilderness”
The Shire’s harmony is undone for Frodo and his friends by the discovery of the truth of Bilbo’s ring. In single, frantic instant, Frodo and Sam fly off into the wilderness on the perilous road to Mordor.
The dire situations and battles that Frodo and the entire cast of characters fight, always with slim chances of hope, in the trilogy are worth noting. Too often, we think of Advent as a time of merely waiting where we sit around sadly waiting to be saved. I love that Lord of the Rings dispenses with this view of hope. Our hope is a call to do the necessary work, not an excuse to huddle away until things are better.
Recently I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Frederick L. Downing, Professor of Philosophy at Valdosta State University, about his new edited collection of some of Clarence Jordan’s writings, called The Inconvenient Gospel. Jordan, many people know, famously founded Koinonia Farm in Georgia and was an early advocate for civil rights for African Americans, years before the “official” Civil Rights Movement began.
One essay in the collection seemed to me appropriate for Advent. In a piece called “No Promised Land without the Wilderness,” Jordan describes a situation similar to Frodo’s. Discussing the Exodus and the difficulties faced after Moses and this Israelites fled Egypt, Jordan describes the “wilderness,” writing:
Any step forward, spiritually, always opens out upon vistas where the entire terrain may appear to be new and unfamiliar. Life takes on aspects never seen before. Living becomes bewildering in new ways and in different places. And the strangeness is due to having taken steps upward and forward. Therefore, the next thing after having done anything significant is the wilderness (Jordan 30-31).
Jordan asserts here that wilderness is a necessary stage of spiritual growth. It also describes Frodo’s experiences in his season of Advent, when he must do things to bring about the coming reconciliation. This coincides with Jordan’s conception of the Promised Land. He writes:
“Promised lands of any kind are not so much places ready-made and waiting to be occupied; they are essentially institutions to be painstakingly and eventually achieved by folk who have acquired the feel of the preliminary wilderness and who have had some practice in pioneering and in conceiving and constituting new institutions to implement a new and higher way of life” (Jordan 34).
So in watching Lord of the Rings for Advent, let us be reminded that the season as dramatized in the films is decidedly not one characterized by passively waiting for a good thing to happen. The return of the King happens because of the work done in wilderness. It is through the struggles that Hope is realized.
Aragorn and Hope
Hope is the dominant theme of Advent and also of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Aragorn, the ranger from the North who eventually ascends to become the King of Gondor, returned to the throne, is heroic in large part because of his way of inspiring hope in those around him. His goodness is achieved not so much in battle, where he slaughters orcs by the score, but rather in the tender moments of inspiration he brings to the people he meets along the way.
One of the most powerful such moments is just before the battle of Helm’s Deep, when Aragorn notices a young boy drafted into what seems like a hopeless, apocalyptic battle. With just a hand on the boy’s shoulder, a firm, reassuring gaze, and the words “There is always hope,” Aragorn calms and inspires the boy, preparing him for the imminent battle. Just after this, a battalion of elves unexpectedly arrives and brings a glimmer of hope to all.
Aragorn’s part of the trilogy is filled with such moments where his steadfast hope carries other characters through dark moments of hopelessness, allowing them to fight for the good in the world. The climactic battle of Return of the King is the peak of this, where Aragorn inspires the remaining warriors to fight one last hopeless battle. He believes in Frodo, and his hope saves the world.
Gandalf and Light
Candles are a magnificent image of Advent, symbolizing the hope-giving presence of light in utter darkness. Light is yet another motif in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, providing it yet another point of reflection for the Advent season.
Frodo, for instance, is given a precious gift by Lady Galadriel, the Light of Eärendil, to shine light in dark places, a gift that will save him and Sam from the terrible spider later on.
But surely Gandalf’s resurrection as Gandalf the White is the film’s most powerful meditation on light and its relationship to the Advent theme of hope. When he returns in The Two Towers as the new white wizard, the film explicitly emphasizes light’s role in redemption. In the extended edition of the film Gandalf proclaims that he is Saruman “as he should have been.” This enigmatic line suggests that the White Wizard’s role in creation is to provide a hope-instilling light. When Saruman fails to do this, a new White Wizard emerges to fill the role.
And indeed, if Gandalf has a super-power, it is as a bringer of light. The victory at Helm’s Deep is sealed when Gandalf, arriving with the sunrise, ushers an army of riders to defeat the orc army. The scene is one of the most powerful in the trilogy and the victory is due as much to the sun shining behind Gandalf’s army as it is to the soldiers themselves. The bright light Gandalf brings blinds the orcs and makes victory possible.
Likewise, when Gandalf is able to release King Theoden from Sarumon’s possession, it is because of the light the shines as he reveals himself as Gandalf the White. The movies are filled with such images, so many that Gandalf’s role in the trilogy is practically that of a living Advent candle, shining a light into dark moments.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is so perfectly attuned to the themes of Advent that there are too many images of Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy to document here. So let me just conclude my suggesting that this trilogy of films, already beloved, could add a thoughtful and inspirational dimension to the reader’s season. It’s often considered corny to allow yourself to be inspired, but I have let these films inspire me, this year, more than ever.
I, for one, have grown a little tired of the memes of misery that dominate social media. It’s become cliché and hackneyed to refer to every year since 2019 as “The Worst Year Ever” and to withdraw into a vortex of cynicism and hopelessness.
Aragorn’s message in Lord of the Rings is that there is always hope. But what makes the films so profound for me is their understanding that redemption will not come ready-made, a pleasure dome rescuing us from the wilderness. No, it must be fought for, as Clarence Jordan suggests. That raises an issue, of course. We don’t have orcs in real life, i.e., obvious ogres to destroy. The people we meet in the real world are morally complex and our enemies are not literally monsters. So what does the fight look like for us this Advent season?
The answer is childishly simple, but then, so is Advent.
Light and Hope. Look for darkness, not to gnash your teeth over, and fill your social media feeds with still more darkness, but darkness to shine into like the Light of Eärendil. People hurt and are hopeless. Find some, even one, of these people and shore up their courage however you can. In all likelihood, it will be a small gesture; something as simple as your own hopeful presence, accompanied by a comforting hand on the shoulder, with the simple message that there is always hope.
Danny Anderson is a writer, teacher, and interviewer who lives in the Laurel Highlands region of PA with his family. He interviews people for the Sectarian Review Podcast, and writes for a variety of publications. He is also the author of a newsletter, UnTaking, an arts and culture Substack. All of his work can be found at his Authory page.
Jordan, Clarence. The Inconvenient Gospel: A Southern Prophet Tackles War, Wealth, Race, and Religion. Ed. Frederick L. Downing. Plough Publishing House. Walden, NY. 2022.