“The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered.” – Sam, The Two Towers
I’m an autistic queer nerd with many different interests. I love mecha anime, fantasy JRPGs, and 90’s/00’s indie bands no one listens to anymore. But there’s one fandom that I seldom talk about, but love possibly more than anything else. It’s the thing that made me want to be a writer to begin with. I’ve read the books more times than I can count, and I watch the movies every year around Christmas. This is a post about my Lord of the Rings obsession.
Disclaimer: I wrote this back in January, before anything about The Rings of Power had dropped yet. I have a lot of opinions on that series I’d like to share, but I would like to wait until at least the first season is done so I can assess it as a complete work.
It started in childhood, when I found a shiny golden copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit in a Toy’s R’ Us, of all things. (It was the 90’s all right!) I must have read that book at least 10 times back then, completely ignorant of its more popular sequel. But that wouldn’t last long. Shortly after my 12th birthday, The Fellowship of the Ring debuted in the theaters. I begged my parents up and down to take me to see it, and the film was love at first sight. From the moment I heard Galadriel’s opening monologue, recanting the brutal war with Sauron in the Second Age of Middle-Earth, I knew I had to learn everything about this dark, illustrious, beautiful world.
There’s so much to talk about with this story. Combined, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King are well over 900 pages, or like 12 hours of film (of course, I watch the Extended Editions). There are dozens of fascinating characters, intricately detailed lore, references to Celtic and Scandinavian mythology, and deep themes that defy rigid categorization. It’s a modern epic, one that snooty academics will probably study in 500 years like we do with Homer and Virgil today. But what resonates the most with me in the Lord of the Rings is what I think is the central theme, of optimism and hope in the darkness.
“We must take a hard road, a road unforeseen. There lies our hope, if hope it be. To walk into peril – to Mordor. We must send the Ring to the Fire.” – Elrond, The Fellowship of the Ring
Despite all the high-fantasy tropes, all the elves and orcs and magic rings of power, at its heart Lord of the Rings is an incredibly human war story. While Tolkien disliked obvious political allegories in his work, the narrative was clearly influenced by his service in World War I. He was drafted into the British Army at a young age and watched childhood friends die at the Battle of the Somme. He survived a deadly influenza pandemic after the war, and began writing Lord of the Rings during the horrors of World War II. He saw firsthand how violence and greed tear the world apart, and wrote Middle-Earth as a beautiful but fragile world, constantly on the brink of destruction.
It’s dark stuff, but the characters never give up hope. They keep fighting, even when they are all but certain they will fail. This is best shown through the main characters, Frodo and Sam. Frodo lacks a lot of traditionally heroic qualities; he’s not strong, crafty, charismatic, or brave. He doesn’t fight any major battles, and even carrying the One Ring seems too much for him at times. It seems ludicrous that he, of all people, was given the task of destroying it. But Frodo (and Sam, even more so, let’s be honest) is instrumental to the story, because he keeps going through the thick of it. Exhausted, starving, and scared, the two hobbits keep pushing toward Mordor. They are the only ones who can destroy the Ring, and their hope for a better world is what saves it in the end.
Frodo’s foil is not a dark lord, but the corrupted hobbit Gollum. Gollum lived for decades with the Ring, and it destroyed any semblance of who he once was. Selfish, nihilistic, and evil; Gollum is what Frodo could become, if he succumbs to the Ring’s temptations. But Frodo’s decision to spare Gollum is what ultimately leads to the Ring’s destruction. This small act of kindness, which happens long before the actual climax of the story, helps change the fate of the entire world.
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?… My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end.” – Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring
Of course, the other characters all have fantastic arcs in their own right. Gandalf brings the Fellowship together, and his leadership leads them to victory in crucial battles. Aragorn is inspired by Arthurian legend, wielding a legendary sword to claim his place as Gondor’s true king. Legolas and Gimli have a classic “odd couple” dynamic, showing even the disparate races of Elves and Dwarves can fight together as friends. But these battles are all a ruse – a distraction for Sauron, to keep his giant creepy eye away from Frodo and Sam’s plan to destroy the Ring at Mount Doom. They fight, knowing they will almost surely die, just to give our hobbit friends enough time to finish the main quest.
Throughout Lord of the Rings, our heroes are forced to persevere through intense suffering and the constant specter of death. The world is changed forever, and may never go back to the way it was – but it’s still worth fighting for, to protect whatever is left. This message hit home for Tolkien’s contemporaries, when the book inspired a weary post-war Britain and became a countercultural phenomenon in the 60’s. It hit home when the movies came out, too, as the U.S. had entered another long and terrible war in the Middle East. And I think it still hits hard today, when it feels like every day is a new catastrophe waiting to happen.
Many modern fantasy stories are derivative of Middle-Earth, and many movies since 2001 have tried to recapture the magic of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. But these imitations often miss what really makes this story great. They try too hard to be edgy or cool, or to shock the audience with graphic sex and violence. Lord of the Rings may be dark, but it is never cynical. Its grimmest scenes are contrasted by the beauty of the natural world and the love each of its characters have for it.
Sure, Lord of the Rings may be a huge multimedia franchise these days. But it started as a simple book, by a stodgy old English professor. A book about life, death, morality, nature, and most of all, hope. And the reason it remains beloved to this day, despite everything, is because that message has always mattered. The road goes ever on and on, and history repeats itself endlessly. No matter the age, no matter what happens to the world, hope is what keeps us alive. And no matter where that hope comes from, it is always, always worth it.