I was about nine when The Return of the King released on home video, and every year since then, my family has upheld a yearly tradition of marathoning the trilogy on New Years Day. Like every good movie marathon, this activity was always accompanied by plenty of good food, and over the years my mother and I have developed a sort of standard menu of meals and snacks that pair well with Tolkein’s high fantasy stories.
I’ve seen these movies at least twenty times, and I never get tired of them. They’re a comfort in hard times and a true joy in good times, and I always get something new out of every viewing. Over the years, as I’ve explored other high fantasy worlds, including The Witcher series, Game of Thrones, The Elder Scrolls, the Kingkiller books, and others, I often come back to the epic myth system to which so many others are indebted.
But this rambling laudation of The Lord of the Rings is not so much about the story’s legacy, considerable though it is. It’s January as I write this, and although I didn’t watch the movies with my family this year due to COVID, I did still manage a marathon this past weekend. Not only the stories, but the way they never fail to make me feel at this time of the year as well, are fresh in my mind.
This year, my spouse and I visited a close friend for our 14-hour marathon of the extended trilogy, complete with all seven hobbit meals: Breakfast, Second Breakfast, Elevenses, Luncheon, Afternoon Tea, Dinner, and Supper (and we’ll be eating the leftovers for the next week). I used my 15+ years of experience with LOTR marathons, my Hobbit Cookery (and Elder Scrolls and Game of Thrones) cookbooks, and the capacity for true extraneity in party planning that I inherited from my mom to plan and execute the menu for the day, and since this is my blog and I get to decide what’s in it, I don’t mind saying that it worked out extraordinarily well and I’m very proud of myself.
And as always, I have many thoughts. Here are some of them:
The Fellowship of the Ring
We began the day with breakfast:
Fellowship begins with Galadriel’s voiceover covering the climax of the Last Alliance of Elves & Men that takes place at the end of the second age: Isildur takes up Narsil and vanquishes Sauron, taking the One Ring for himself. And then foolishly deciding to keep it and reaping the consequences of that choice. This glosses over tons of history of Middle Earth and specifically, of the race of Men and of Isildur’s line, which makes a lot of sense for the movie, but is kind of a shame, too, because Aragorn’s character arc is much richer and more satisfying with all the context of his ancestry. I mention this not because I’m a massive fucking nerd (well, not only for that reason) and not because I’m an adaptation purist, but because this viewing gave me a lot to think about given the current state of, well, humanity, and Gondor’s redemption really spoke to me this time. But I’ll get to that.
Rather than in Gondor or in Rivendell or in Lothlorien, though, this story really begins in the Shire, and that’s for a very important reason that Peter Jackson’s later adaptation of The Hobbit sums up very explicitly: Early in An Unexpected Journey, Galadriel asks Gandalf why he chose Bilbo to join Thorin’s company despite the latter’s poor qualifications for war. His answer is, I think, very telling of what Tolkein’s world, and Peter Jackson’s interpretation of it, is all about. He says, “Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I’ve found. I’ve found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay, simple acts of kindness and love.”
I think this is a beautiful idea, and while it’s pounded in perhaps a little hard in The Hobbit, it’s present throughout the entirety of The Lord of the Rings, as well. In fact, it’s one of the principle lessons that many characters, including Théoden and Éowyn and Boromir and Denethor (though he, of course, fails spectacularly), must learn through the course of the story. And hobbits are the embodiment of this idea that everyone has the ability (and the responsibility?) to fight against the evils of the world, regardless of their physical or psychic or magical strength.
Tolkein served in World War I, and while I’m not a biographer nor an expert on that conflict, I’ve read enough British poetry to feel that this theme that runs throughout his stories makes a lot of sense.
One thing that I noticed much more this time than ever before is the tension between Boromir and Aragorn during this first installment (the theatrical cut of which does Boromir so dirty I can’t even believe it was released that way). Sometimes Boromir can seem self-involved, and definitely very cocksure, but his sincere concern is the people (and glory) of Gondor. Osgiliath, the ruined river fort he has just liberated before he joins the Fellowship at Rivendell, is right next to Mordor, and it seems to be under frequent siege. The kingdom of Gondor feels the wrath of Mordor the hardest, and first, whenever Sauron sees fit to send his forces out to fight with Men, so Boromir has seen a lot of suffering firsthand. He genuinely (however misguidedly) means to use the Ring to help the people of Gondor (I mean, yeah, there’s a lot of complicated stuff with his father and brother, too, but no one is perfect).
Boromir’s distrust of Aragorn makes perfect sense. Aragorn is the heir to the throne of Gondor, but as far as Boromir knows, Aragorn has never even been to Gondor. He hasn’t spent his entire life living among the people there and his entire adulthood fighting to defend them. And worse, he immediately, vehemently, and repeatedly shoots down Boromir’s requests to use the Ring as a weapon of Gondor.
On the other side of things, Aragorn doesn’t trust Boromir because he is of the race of Men, which Aragorn believes to be corrupted with weakness (himself included!) At first, I don’t think he believes that Boromir’s intentions with the Ring are selfless at all, and he sees in Boromir everything that he fears in himself.
Over the course of Fellowship, though, they slowly come to trust each other and to understand that they’re both in internal conflict over their desire to help their people and their belief in their own fallibility and in the fallibility of Men in general. Boromir dies respecting Aragorn as a kinsman and as a king because they’ve finally come to this understanding about each other. And it is this vital moment with Boromir, the resolution of their conflict with each other, that starts Aragorn on the path to accepting his destiny as the rightful king of Gondor.
The Fellowship splits up at this point, with Frodo and Sam setting off for Mordor by themselves and Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli pursuing the orcs to rescue Merry and Pippin (one of these days I could write an entire treatise on how great Pippin is, but for now I’ll endeavor to remain focused).
The Two Towers
Something I have noticed for several years now is that while almost no one will name The Two Towers as their favorite LOTR movie, almost everyone, when I ask them what their favorite scene from the trilogy is, will name a scene from Two Towers (often Sam’s speech toward the end in Osgiliath, but sometimes Gandalf’s confrontation with Saruman through Théoden, the return of the Rohirrim at the battle for Helm’s Deep, Aragorn tracking the hobbits across the field and into Fangorn, the meme-ified “taking the hobbits” scene, Gimli and Legolas starting to count their kills, our first sighting of the Nazgul, or the Ents’ sacking of Isengard).
This time, while paying extra close attention to Aragorn’s development, I found the events of Two Towers to be vital in his transformation from Strider, the ranger from the North, into Elessar, the King of Gondor.
In this film, like in Fellowship, Aragorn navigates tension with another leader of Men regarding his methods and his beliefs, but this time it’s Théoden of Rohan. Théoden is grieving his son, and he’s also pessimistic at heart and, worst of all, a little too interested in glory and renown (a trait shared by his niece, Éowyn). He’s also in a bit of denial about the severity of the situation. “I will not risk open war,” he says, ignoring Aragorn’s warning that he no longer has a choice of whether to participate in the war for Middle Earth. Instead of driving Isengard’s force away from the women and children of Rohan, Théoden insists on taking his people to Helm’s Deep because the fortress has always protected the horselords in the past, and he won’t believe that it will fail.
And even when it does, Théoden is ready to abandon hope (we judge Denethor so much more heavily for making the same mistakes in Gondor in Return of the King, but these characters both represent the failures of the race of Men…the difference is that Théoden has Aragorn to advise him). Aragorn convinces Théoden to ride out to face the orcs, despite the impossibility of success, and even then Théoden’s acquiescence has more to do with earning renown for himself than with protecting his people or buying them time. He says, “For death and glory,” and Aragorn corrects him by saying, “For Rohan.”
This is the lesson that Aragorn learns during The Two Towers: if a king prioritizes the safety of his people (and all people), he can be a good leader, no matter the mistakes and failings of his ancestors and his neighbors. Théoden gets it by the end, I think, but more significant is the fact that Aragorn both comes to understand this and to trust himself through his experiences with Théoden (and through Gandalf’s encouragement).
During all of this, Merry and Pippin are also learning that they must care about not only themselves and their own home but also about all the other people of Middle Earth. They must convince the Ents of this, too, that every race of Middle Earth share the same fate if they fail to fight against the evil of Sauron (who represents, more than just inherent evil, selfishness and lust for power at the expense of valuing the lives of other people).
Meanwhile, Sam and Frodo are tested again and again through their interactions with Gollum and then with Faramir. Sam’s speech to Frodo at the end of the movie after Frodo almost loses the ring to the Nine and then nearly kills Sam is one of the most iconic moments of all LOTR, and it’s for a good reason. The whole thing bears quoting:
It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of dark and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?
But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now.
Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding onto something.
And Frodo asks, hopelessly, “What are we holding onto, Sam?” and he replies, perhaps the best and most summative line of the entire series:
“That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”
This is it: this is the hope that, as grave and as dark as The Return of the King gets at times, sustains all of the characters (and us as we watch) through the end of the war. It’s simple, and it’s articulated simply, which makes it all the more powerful, because this idea is applicable at every level. From (basically) gods like Gandalf to kings to soldiers all the way down to hobbits (and even Gollum; one of the best things about Sam’s speech here is Gollum’s absolutely rapt attention and the ensuing conflict with himself over whether he’s really going to feed the hobbits to Shelob), this hope–or the loss of it–is everything. For us, too, not just as viewers of LOTR but as citizens of our real, broken world…as we move into a new year (and since I always watch this at New Years), this line resonates with me most especially.
The Return of the King
This final installment is probably the most satisfying, which makes sense because so many subplots and character arcs get resolved here.
Again, for me, Aragorn’s choice in this film was the most satisfying for me on this viewing. From the start of the trilogy, Aragorn has no faith in himself because he is a descendent of the royal line of Numenor. Without going into detail, Numenor was a favored kingdom of men during the Second Age, but they fucked up big time and almost everyone in the kingdom died. And then Isildur, Aragorn’s direct ancestor and the son of the last king of Numenor, fucked up even further by betraying his people again in refusing to destroy the One Ring. When Aragorn says to Arwen, “The same blood flows in my veins, the same weakness,” he has a good reason to feel this way.
It would be easy, I think, for Aragorn to see Théoden’s objectively terrible choices and despair of any hope for the future of Men, or to dismiss Boromir as a failure like Isildur. But remarkably, and because of the hope Sam is talking about, he doesn’t. He takes heart at the bravery he sees. The young boy whose sword he swings at Helm’s Deep, Éowyn (even though she, too, is a little too worried about glory…”a time will come for valor without renown,” Aragorn tells her), the loyal Rohirrim, the people who stick around even though Aragorn yells at Legolas that he’ll die with them…these are all people who help prove to Aragorn that Men have the potential for as much bravery and honor and service as the Elven kings he idolizes.
There are two major moments for Aragorn in deciding who he is. The first is when he takes Anduril into the mountains to summon the Oathbreakers to fulfill their promise to aid Gondor in war. “Set aside the ranger,” Elrond says, “Become who you were born to be.” But regardless of destiny, it is Aragorn’s choice to take the sword and to wield the sword–and so, so importantly, to honor his word as king and release the Oathbreakers from their curse–that really makes him king. The second moment is when he picks up the Palantir to confront Sauron in order to taunt him into sending forces to the Black Gate of Mordor. Confronting Sauron is huge for Aragorn because Sauron is the cause of most of the suffering of Men, from corrupting Numenor in the first place to sending hoards of orcs to burn down the kingdoms of Men in Middle Earth. By confronting Sauron, Aragorn casts away some of his fear of the shadow’s influence and of the inherent evil of men; if he (by ancestry, the most likely to be taken in) can reject Sauron, then there is hope for the race of Men.
He hesitates, of course, because Sauron uses his concern for Arwen as a weapon. But by now Aragorn has learned that love for others is not a weakness, but rather his greatest strength. So while he is startled, this tactic does nothing to keep him from marching on the Black Gate anyway.
I’ve rambled on and on long enough, but the final thing I want to mention is, again, Sam. Sam’s character develops subtly. Of all the characters, he is perhaps best able to maintain hope–probably because part of his role is trying to keep Frodo’s dwindling spirits up. Frodo is damn right when he says that he wouldn’t have gotten far without Sam’s help and encouragement. This optimism comes to boil right before the hobbits reach Mount Doom. They stop to rest on the side of the mountain, and Sam asks Frodo if he can remember the Shire.
It’ll be spring soon. And the orchards will be in blossom, and the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?
Frodo replies that he can’t. He doesn’t remember anything, can feel nothing except the pull of the Ring and the utter agony of his burden; he is losing touch with his “humanity.”
And even now, even though Sam has given up his hope of personally surviving to see that summer barley reaped, he is still holding onto the hope of other hobbits enjoying strawberries and dancing at weddings and watching birds and whatever else. He’s still fighting for the good in the world even though he fully believes that he himself will never see any of it again. And he’s still fighting to save Frodo from the Ring, even if he’s given up on the idea of saving his life. This is the famous moment when he carries Frodo, but it’s really just the metaphorical made literal.
At the same time, Aragorn is coming fully into his role as king and, similarly, willing and even intending to die to protect this hopeful future he envisions for his people. He beheads the Mouth of Sauron, taking away the last bit of power the past has on him and instead focusing on creating a better future and empowering future Men to do better. He is choosing to stop letting the guilt of his ancestors’ failure immobilize him and use what he has learned from their mistakes to fight not just for his own race but for all races of Middle Earth (a lesson that resonates with me a lot after the events of 2020, as well).
I love this story. Despite its limitations (especially in terms of diversity and representation, which are definitely worth talking about), it always gives me something that I need. This viewing came after a year in which hope has, at times, felt in very short supply, so stories like this one have been an especially effective source of comfort for me (and also a validation of, like, my career choice). If you happened to read this all the way through, thanks–that was very kind of you. And I hope that my adoring ranting has been helpful or entertaining. Happy New Year!