You’ve now officially learned many of the basics for fantasy films and television, whether it’s been a rundown of fantasy-themed shows or Game of Thrones or Harry Potter. But there is still one to be uncovered for you, and it’s by far the biggest one of all: Lord of the Rings. These books (written by J.R.R. Tolkien) are widely considered to be some of the most important books of our time, and the very foundations of what is known as ‘high fantasy’. The same rings true (pun intended) for the Lord of the Rings films: when it comes to ‘epic’, these Oscar-winning movies are always at the forefront of filmmakers’ minds. They contain stories of hope, of friendship, of struggle, of love–and they do it all with amazing actors, incredible music, and the most wonderful scenery (courtesy of New Zealand’s North and South Islands). There is nothing quite so all-encapsulating in the world of film as this series, because it really does come down to the resilience of the spirit–with side-dishes of comedy, grand-scale action, magic, intensity, and many perfectly-timed doses of the bittersweet.
With such an auspicious reputation, it’s no wonder that you’ve balked at the gate to Middle Earth’s films. But take heart, wary traveler, because the deep simplicity in this story’s messages means that it can also be understandable plot-wise. So, with cloaks and furry feet in hand, here we go!
The One Ring
In the land of Middle Earth, where this story takes place, there was once a “dark lord” called Sauron. He lived in Mordor, one of the least hospitable parts of the continent–a place that becomes synonymous with evil, and that serves as a necessary destination for our heroes. Centuries before Lord of the Rings takes place, Sauron forges several powerful rings. He gives seven to the dwarves, three to the elves, and nine to mankind. These rings can enhance the abilities and strength of the wearer (the lovely elf Galadriel is one of these ring-bearers), make the wearer invisible, even lead to immortality–but Sauron also secretly made a “master Ring” for himself, a far more powerful one teeming with ill intentions and malevolent forces. It is Sauron who serves as the main enemy in the story (although there are several other enemies to be defeated as well, including the Orcs and the Uruk-hai, his grotesque soldiers); the Ring was separated from him after he created it, and the protagonists must try to destroy said magic jewelry before he can regain it.
Gandalf the Grey
This wizard is, without a doubt, one of the most recognizable figures in the series. With a long grey cloak and a tall grey hat punctuating his immense height–as well as a truly spectacular portrayal in every film by Sir Ian McKellen– Gandalf is a steady and beloved fixture for the other heroes. As a wise, capable, and humorous old man, he is also a fan favorite. There is another wizard in the films, played by Sir Christopher Lee: Saruman, Gandalf’s superior–but he becomes one of the enemies after he betrays Gandalf to help Sauron. During his journey with the other protagonists–a group known as the Fellowship of the Ring–Gandalf has a face-off with a Balrog, a fiery demon (this is the battle in which his famous proclamation “You Shall Not Pass!” is uttered). During the battle, he falls (presumably to his death), leaving the Fellowship disheartened. However, having presumably transcended said death, he rejoins them later as Gandalf the White–ready to retake the lead and fight in all of the gloriously epic battles to come.
When it comes to recognizable figures, this hobbit is another individual who fits the bill. Frodo is, essentially, the main character in the story. Hobbits possess an inherent purity and pleasure in their lives (in part, perhaps, because they were not among the peoples to receive rings from Sauron); they love their homes, and their green lands, and their pipe-weed, and their dinners. Since he is one of these hobbits, Frodo truly loves his home, and he is also very small and hairy-footed, just like all hobbits are. He lives in a happy little village in the Shire–a most wonderful and beautiful place. But his peace is disrupted when an old family friend (Gandalf) comes to town. Gandalf discovers that Frodo’s uncle, Bilbo, had discovered the One Ring during his own travels (see The Hobbit, also based on a wonderful book by Tolkien), and that he’s been keeping the Ring for himself in the Shire all these years. Now that it has been rediscovered, Sauron is on the hunt for it–and he sends his nine ghostly Nazgûl, or Ringwraiths (who had originally been the men that received the nine rings) after the Ring-bearer. Since Frodo now bears that oh-so-lucky title, Gandalf takes both him and his trusty gardener-friend Sam on the run, to a tenuous safety with the elves in Rivendell. But problems arise, of course, and along the way Frodo, Sam, and two more of their hobbit friends come under the protective wing of Aragorn (who is up next). Despite his ‘hero’ status, Frodo is the most soft-spoken of the hobbits, and while he does maintain his quiet and thoughtful nature for most of the series, he also starts to become more violent and distraught as the Ring manipulates him in the story.
One of the best things about this saga’s characters is their individuality: each character is so different, and makes such an impression visually, that the band of travelers (remember, they’re known as the Fellowship) easily comes together as an incredibly distinct, memorable, and charming group for us viewers. Aragorn and Gandalf are the leaders of this Fellowship, and while Aragorn might not have the mystical gravitas of Gandalf, he does have the bearing and background of a tough, noble, and surprisingly poetic soldier. Known as “Strider”, Aragorn helps escort the hobbits–including a seriously injured Frodo–to Rivendell with the help of his love, Arwen (a woman of the elvish nobility). It is revealed during the first movie that Aragorn is actually an exiled prince of Gondor (a neighboring kingdom), and that his ancestor Isildur was the first man to succumb to the Ring’s temptations. Aragorn fears that he, too, will fail to resist the Ring in its presence–but he vows to help all the same when it is decided that the Ring must be destroyed in the volcanic lava of Mordor’s Mt. Doom. Throughout the story, Aragorn serves as mankind’s banner-man; humans are often seen in the films as the weakest of the races in Middle Earth, and he is a constant example of that belief’s inaccuracy. If Gandalf represents the world of faith and higher powers, then Aragorn represents the indomitable nature of the human spirit. He’s also a clever foil to the naivete and open vulnerability of the four hobbits.
Sam, Merry, and Pippin
In the interest of efficiency, let’s go over these three hobbits in one section. Sam is, like Aragorn, a flawed individual who is unafraid to show his own frailty. When he wants to weep, he does, and if he wants to recognize the simple beauty of a flower, he will. This courage also makes Sam incredibly stalwart; in the end, it is he who carries Frodo to Mt. Doom to destroy the Ring, and it is he who refuses to give up hope. While he may seem like a bumbling follower in the Fellowship, Sam proves himself many times (and let’s not forget Bill, his pony). The same can be said of Merry and Pippin, who are often the comic relief. Merry may be the more discerning of the two, while Pippin tends to be far less so–but when they face hardship, both hobbits really do step up to the plate.
There’s a considerable amount of symmetry in the solution to the One Ring; just as dwarves, men, and elves were involved in its beginnings, so too are the three races involved in its end. Gimli is the dwarf in the Fellowship, and, as a feisty individual, he is often at odds with the elf Legolas. He is also the son of Gloin, a dwarf from The Hobbit. Like Merry and Pippin, Gimli serves as a bit of comic relief–and a bit of perspective. When there’s been an unbelievably massive battle, or when something mystical occurs, or even when a little extra endurance is required–he’s always there to point it out, and he’s always there to exhibit the ‘normal person’s’ reaction. In essence, Gimli is to Lord of the Rings as Ice-T’s Tutuola is to Law and Order SVU ; without him, where-ever would we be?
Legolas of the Woodland Realm
Aragorn may be the handsome and hard-worn leader of the Fellowship, but the elven prince Legolas (portrayed by Orlando Bloom, in his first role) is by far the most beautiful. With bright blue eyes, perfect flaxen hair, and the supernatural agility of his forefathers, Legolas serves as a skilled and stoic member of the Fellowship. His stoicism decreases, however, as the Fellowship’s members are tested further and as the story progresses. In the end, Legolas has established a deep connection to his new friends, especially Gimli–and while his tremendously entertaining archery and combat skills are crucial to his part in the Fellowship, it’s his comedic rapport with Gimli that really makes Legolas charming. Also, the hair.
If Aragorn is the straight-A student of Middle Earth, Boromir is the wonderfully normal one. Both men are from Gondor, but since Aragorn originally rejected his status as king-to-be, Boromir has taken on the quasi-princely title for now–an illegitimate fact of which he is extremely aware. Bothered by Aragorn’s superiority in, well, almost everything, Boromir is often antagonistic towards him during their travels. He does, however, form a strong bond with Pippin and with Merry–and his heroism during the journey soon becomes both apparent and iconic. His specific story-line won’t be revealed here, but if you know anything about the actor Sean Bean, then you may have guessed already. Boromir’s brother Faramir comes into play in the story as well, so keep an eye out for him!
Before Frodo’s uncle Bilbo acquired the Ring, it was Gollum who had it–and he, too, had been a hobbit. In fact, his name was Smeagol, and he is a more poignant example of the Ring’s capacity for destruction than anyone else in the movies. Disfigured, isolated, and constantly at war with himself, Gollum’s never-ending obsession with the Ring (or, as he calls it, “Precious”) has been cultivated over years and years of cave-dwelling–meaning that he is a constant follower of the Fellowship, intent on getting his jewelry back. While Gollum may be a disturbing and frightening enemy sometimes, the broken Smeagol is still there as well–making the character a sad one more than anything else (and a very relevant warning to Frodo, the current Ring-bearer).
Now, this Rivendell elf is not technically from the Tolkien stories; a fan had watched the film, said to herself “Frodo Is Great Who Is That” when he came on screen , and the acronym Figwit was born. You’ll catch him in some of The Lord of the Rings and in some of The Hobbit movies, and while he may not be a big character (or even, really, an official character), your knowledge of his ‘name’ will always boost your score with Middle Earth fans. Side note: If you want to additionally increase your expertise, make yourself familiar with the song “They’re Taking The Hobbits to Isengard” (both the original version and Orlando Bloom’s version, in that order).
If there’s any one reason for the Lord of the Rings movies’ universal awesomeness, it could perhaps be the messages between their lines (messages that are sometimes even directly alluded to). The hobbits teach us the value of adversity and adventure, as simultaneously as they teach us the uniquely magical value of home. Legolas and Gimli teach us the value of friendship, and Pippin teaches us the value of a laugh. Virtually every character in the films (be it Eowyn, the Rohan noblewoman, or Treebeard the Ent, or the tragic victim that is Smeagol) can be seen to mean something to the human viewer. So grab some blankets, rustle up some snacks, and settle in–because you’re about to start watching Lord of the Rings, and it’s going to be a (wonderfully-long) while.
If you’re still finding that you need a warm-up (and/or if time allows for prequels), then watch The Hobbit series! It has a simpler plot overall, but also has the same beautiful Legolas, the same Gandalf, and a marvelously-done Bilbo Baggins to boot (as well as a few ‘strangely attractive’ dwarves.