LONDON (AP) -- Besides capturing readers' imaginations and thrilling moviegoers, the fantasy epic ''The Lord of the Rings'' has won high praise from religious groups for what they see as Christian values in the story.
While the extent of the trilogy's Christian parallels is a matter of debate, there's no denying that author J.R.R. Tolkien -- usually portrayed as a tweedy Oxford University professor -- turned strongly to Roman Catholicism following tragedies in his youth.
Interest in Tolkien and the religious element of his work has heated up since the release of the film ''The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,'' especially among Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants in the United States.
Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic weekly based in Indiana, devoted its entire front page to a picture of Frodo, the story's hero, and said Tolkien ''rooted his epic...in the fertile soil of his own deep orthodox Catholic faith.''
Baptist Press, the news agency of the Southern Baptist Convention, published a review of the film praising its ''spiritual overtones.'' And a new book, ''Finding God in the Lord of the Rings,'' co-authored by members of Focus on the Family, a conservative American group, praises the film for the ''transcendent truths of Christianity (that) bubble up throughout this story.''
The roots of those story elements may lie in the author's life.
Born in 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was only 4 when his father died unexpectedly in South Africa while the rest of the family was on vacation in England.
His mother died when he was 12, having raised her children in a rural village outside Birmingham that Tolkien loved. She had been shunned by her own relatives for leaving the Church of England to become a Catholic, so Tolkien and his younger brother became wards of a kindly priest, the Rev. Francis Morgan. Both boys became devout Catholics.
Tolkien flourished in grammar school, where his language skills allowed him to debate in Greek and Latin.
At Oxford, he became an expert in the Old Norse language, and emphasized the growth of English from its Anglo-Saxon roots. He also taught literary classics, including ancient mythology, rarely discussing works more recent than Chaucer.
He married and had four children, one of whom grew up to become a Catholic priest. In addition to being a devoted husband and father, Tolkien also formed several close male friendships.
Tolkien tried to convert C.S. Lewis, one of his Oxford friends, to Catholicism, but instead helped to move Lewis from atheism to fervent Christianity and loyal Anglicanism. Lewis later won fame as the author of ''The Chronicles of Narnia,'' a children's fantasy series that is widely seen as a Christian allegory.
''The Lord of the Rings,'' written at Oxford from 1937 to 1949, is a three-volume saga about Frodo, a hobbit from the homely and innocent shire, who must secretly carry an all-powerful ring across the ancient kingdom of Middle Earth to the land of Mordor and destroy it by throwing it into Mount Doom.
That has to happen before Sauron, the evil force who knows Frodo has the ring, can obtain it and rule a world that existed before magic disappeared and humans became Earth's dominant creatures.
Like Tolkien, Frodo is an orphan aided by his loyal male friends. During his quest, Frodo is helped and defended by a fellowship including Gandalf, the wizard; Gimli, the dwarf; Legolas, the elf; and Aragorn, the human.
The book's page-turning adventure of good versus evil, which has hooked millions of children and adults, has been interpreted in many ways by groups as diverse as hippies and pacifists, conservatives and nationalists.
Tolkien, who died in 1973, denied having written an allegory, saying: ''I dislike allegory when I SMELL it.'' At one point, he said he was only writing a fairy tale.
But at the age of 81, the author also wrote to the Rev. Robert Murray, a Jesuit priest, saying: '''The Lord of the Rings' is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work. ... The religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.''
Tokien's official biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, says the story reflects the author's personal religious beliefs but was written for a wide audience.
''The book can be seen as a Christian allegory, but that wasn't Tolkien's primary objective,'' Carpenter said in an interview. ''He set out to experiment with languages, real and invented ones, and the many themes he included in the novel simply reflected his own Catholic background.''
Many readers don't see religion in the series, which doesn't include churches, religious ceremonies or gods, and doesn't mention ''heaven and hell,'' ''Bible'' or ''sin.''
Still, some Christians believe Tolkien's faith is clearly reflected in the plot, characters and themes of the book, and in the first of director Peter Jackson's three films on the epic.
For example, Frodo is seen by some fans as a Christlike figure, who reluctantly carries the ring -- a metaphorical cross -- in order to save mankind.
Frodo's fellowship of supporters also has been seen by some Christians as an allegory for Christ's apostles. They include Gandalf, who comes back to life at one point in the story, and the human Boromir, who is tempted by the evil ring, tries to steal it from Frodo, then confesses his mistake and gives up his life for the fellowship.
In addition, the book contains little irony, no sexual relationships, and generally portrays its women as pure, innocent mother figures.
The story has been praised by Anne Navarro, the movie critic for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose reviews appear in Catholic newspapers around the United States.
''I don't think Tolkien meant it to be a Christian novel,'' she said in a telephone interview from New York. ''But there are values in his book that can be compared to values we find in the gospel.''
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