Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Read Mercer Schuchardt ’93 returned to campus, following last year’s talk on religion in the Matrix, to present his lecture “Religious symbolism in Lord of the Rings.” Schuchardt’s talk stretched over three hours and branched off to include other topics such as nature vs. technology, communication theory, and his own life.
Schuchardt, a professor of communication studies at Marymount Manhattan College, also runs the film critique site Metaphilm (http://www.metaphilm.com), which is devoted to creative film analysis. He argued in today’s society, cinema has almost replaced church–the two hour time span, popcorn and soda in place of bread and wine–saying, “The modern prophet shouldn’t go to seminary, but to Hollywood.”
First Schuchardt spoke about Tolkien’s background–he fought as a soldier in the first world war and went on to become a professor of linguistics at Oxford, where he befriended fellow author C.S. Lewis. However, Tolkien didn’t approve of the blatant religious symbolism found in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, saying “you can’t fictionalize the Christ figure.”
Instead, Schuchardt argued, Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings trilogy to explain the universal truths that are manifested through Christianity. Rather than having a central Christ figure, such as Aslan from Narnia, aspects of Christ were divvied up among a number of characters.
Schuchardt then asked the audience how many people thought God was cool–a few hands went up. When he repeated the question about Gandalf, even more raised. He pointed out that the stereotypic gray-bearded grandfatherly view of God is boring–but give him a staff and have him fight a Balrog, and he is immediately more interesting. Gandalf also is seen as a Christ figure in his death and subsequent rebirth.
Similarly, Aragorn also resembles Christ in his being a faraway king, destined to return and claim the throne that is rightly his. However, despite his greatness, Aragorn remains humble, protecting his companions, and is strong enough to resist the power of the ring. And like Christ, Frodo bears an incredible burden, yet goes through his task without complaining and leaves the “mortal” world shortly after completing it.
Schuchardt went on to talk about Tolkien’s views on nature vs technology, or more literally wood vs metal. In old times, he explained, Christians believed not only in praising God but also taking care of nature–a view which has since gone by the wayside. He pointed out that name for Isengard, Saruman’s stronghold, comes from the German “eisen” for iron–and Isengard is subsequently destroyed by the Ents, humanoid trees.
Schuchardt went on to develop the ideas behind the nature vs. technology debate, and to give his own views (“Burn your televisions.”), before digressing further into theories of communication, taking audience questions all the while.