Agendas in Middle-earth
There are vague higher powers who send Gandalf back to finish off the job, and there seems to be something that might be mistaken for heaven as the boat sails into the sunset. But it ain't very specific, is it?  

An Interview with Sir Ian McKellen


Sir Ian McKellen

This page was created on August 8, 2004
This page was last updated on July 17, 2005

An Interview With
Sir Ian McKellen
Edited by
Pastor Greg Wright

Greg Wright is the author of Tolkien in Perspective, and is in his fifth year of assembling the Rings coverage at Hollywood Jesus.   
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Last December in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to sit in on a roundtable interview with the venerable Sir Ian McKellen, who was one of the better interviews of the bunch: thoughtful, articulate and extroverted. As you read the partial transcript of that interview below, however, it's worth knowing that McKellen is a gay atheist, and that the interview was being conducted in a room full of journalists from the religious press—and that McKellen knew that we were all Christians of one brand or another.

McKellen wasted no time in getting down to his own agenda: attempting to demonstrate how Middle-earth was more sympathetic to his worldview than to our own (or to Tolkien's, for that matter). He was even aggressive, as if he expected to be attacked for being an atheist or a homosexual. Admittedly, there are elements of the Christian community that undoubtedly would go after McKellen for his beliefs even in such a context, but the journalists present weren't such folks. Sure, we know that many in Hollywood—just like most other places around the world—hold beliefs that are antithetical to orthodox Christian teaching. But if we were really interested in throwing stones, we wouldn't be doing press junkets, would we?

So bear in mind that the interview gets off to a bit of a prickly start due to some unfortunate misconceptions; but McKellen soon warmed up, and proved very communicative and open.

The questions in the interview are posed by press from a variety of publications, and McKellen's reponses are given verbatim. Where necessary, extraneous, unintelligible or profane remarks are indicated by bracketed ellipses, so: [...].

So many people equate your character with "the savior." And for people that are in the Christian community, that's Jesus Christ. How does that—

The interesting thing about Hobbiton is that it doesn't have a church. I think, as an atheist, it's appealing to me that people like these stories where there isn't an archbishop, no Pope, telling you what to believe. It's "look into yourself and discover what's the right thing to do." Be persuaded maybe by Gandalf, who has some wisdom, and a sense of what needs to be done. But it still amounts to Free Will. And it's a Fellowship—wonderful word—of good people who are trying against the longest odds to do the best they can. And they're not wearing any— Well, they do have totems which protect them, yes. But they haven't come from a deity. They come from the spirit and the forces of Elfdom and Wizards and so on. Despite being a Catholic, [Tolkien] was not trying to write a Catholic parable. I don't think we're meant to draw conclusions about faith from that.

I have a question about your theatre background.

But I'm sure you people disagree. Excuse me, it's the nature of [...]. He wasn't, I don't think, tabulating a series of creeds.

He said he was not writing a Catholic allegory but that he was writing a Catholic work. That is, he wasn't intending that people interpret it, "This equals this, this equals this," but he felt his beliefs were totally found within it.

Of course, The Lord of the Rings is just part of the mythology that he wrote, and I'm not familiar with the rest of it, but I do know it isn't very helpful in this story to refer to a deity or... Because there are vague higher powers who send Gandalf back to finish off the job, and there seems to be something that might be mistaken for heaven as the boat sails into the sunset. But it ain't very specific, is it?

What about leadership and community? Because I think what you're referring to with the community here is that some sort of ability and will to overcome evil comes from the community and their working together. But there are leaders, heirarchies of leaders, that embody different gifts.

Oh, the leaders are another matter. I would not say that those are an appeal to a catalogue of beliefs—


—or rituals that have to be observed in order for you to be blessed enough to acheive what you want. They're not religious in that—

It's more just the force of humanity.

Yes, that's what seems to be being appealed to. Well, of course some people have—are better fitted to do—certain jobs than others. But what Gandalf knew was that he could not have taken the Ring to the mountain.


It wasn't going to go on some winged prayer or a winged horse or an eagle's back. It had to be Frodo. And he gets very worried whether he's made the right choice. It's like every boy who's been sent off to the battlefield to die, which is what Frodo does. Dies for us all. It's for the little boy in Rohan, and the fighting now in Iraq. It breaks your heart.

I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you.

It's all right.

I know you've been trained as a Shakespearean actor, so you've had a lot of different... You've done centuries earlier, and now you're doing, like, a present story that takes place in an alternative time. Have you done anything—

Is that The Lord of the Rings?

Have you seen any universal values that pop up with your experiences?

That's a good question, isn't it?


There's a recurring line that runs through the movies—it's kind of one of the running gags: "Fool of a Took!" In The Return of the King you have a moment when you're talking to Pippin and you talk about the "fool's hope." A lot of people can mistake that to think that what Tolkien was saying is that hope is foolish. Do you feel that Tolkien was saying that?

No. No.

So what is Gandalf actually saying there to Pippin? Particularly since Pippin is a fool.

Well, Gandalf is probably thinking that he is the fool. [Hope is] not a strong characteristic if you make it to be foolish, isn't it? And I think what he's meaning is just that: that the circumstances are so extreme that only a fool could think that this is possible, for the plan to work, and for Frodo to survive—and of course, he doesn't survive. Frodo dies. Well, he leaves Middle-earth; and that, to Tolkien, is death.

Could you have saved Denethor? I asked John Noble that and he told me to ask you. It seemed like, at that point in time, you could have done something—now, I may just be dreaming something up in my creative little head—you could have done something but you allowed him to burn. And it seemed that he was so tormented, could you be thinking in your head, "It's better for him to pass on to this place of bliss. It's done now here."

I don't know how much the Denethor sequence, postulated and resolved as it is in the film, reflects the book; and you'd have to go back to the book. There are references. I just took it to be that Gandalf had a job to do. It was to save Middle-earth. He'd worked out his plan. If it worked, everything would be all right—and Denethor was in the way.

He even clubbed him down at one point.

Yes. I wasn't sure about doing that. [Much laughter.] Denethor's self-indulgence is so complete, and he's so adamant—and Gandalf does go and explain the situation in rather a nice way: friendly way, sympathetic way. And explains the possibilities. And the steward will not give way to the inevitable, which is that the King is going to return. And he's just... It's like the old [...], and who needs friends like that when you're in such—when the world is in—crisis? So I don't think... Gandalf isn't going around saving people's souls. He's just a commander on the battle field.

Jeffrey Overstreet, at Looking Closer, offers a transcript from another interview with Sir Ian, conducted on the same day.

LOTR Coverage Index here

E-mail Greg Wright here

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