Why The Lord of the Rings Is the Perfect Comfort in Times of Crisis
The road goes ever on and on
Last Friday, it all finally got to me. I’d been doing well with life in the time of COVID-19. I’d been staying positive and cheerful, getting walks outside and trying to garden when I could. I knew and still know that I’m lucky to have a job and to be healthy. But for some reason on Friday, the darkness and loss of this time hit me pretty hard and I, as they say, fell into despair.
And so, I took a break and across Saturday and Sunday I set up snacks and a comfy spot and turned on a trilogy of movies that always seem to help me out of dark times: Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. And, my friends, it worked.
Now, from a practical perspective, of course The Lord of the Rings is the perfect quarantine binge. The three extended editions (which are the only versions I acknowledge) clock in at around 12 hours total. You can spend an entire day, or even two, lost in the gorgeous scenery and fantastic design of Middle Earth. You can even dive into the special features which are their own masterclass in filmmaking. Nearly twenty years after The Fellowship of the Ring hit theaters, these films remain vital, pristine, and the pinnacle of cinematic storytelling.
But that’s not why these movies are perfect for dark times. These films succeed, and remain so inspiring and comforting, not because they are entertaining and epic (though they of course are) but because of the story they tell. The Lord of the Rings is not just about wizards and orcs and battles. It is, at its core, about hope and the perseverance and bravery of normal folk in the face of darkness.
The real brilliance of J.R.R. Tolkien’s published works is that, though elves and kings and dragons are important characters, the story centers on the literal little folk, the hobbits. They are simple, normal people who like a good meal and to be home amongst their friends. They aren’t made for adventure. The hobbits are, well, us.
These movies (and books) work so much better than so many other properties because they aren’t about the high and mighty, they are about regular people who decide to do the right thing and be brave when adventure and dark times find them. Our hobbit heroes don’t get special powers or find out they are chosen ones or become kings, they just keep going because they care about their home and the people they love.
This is true not just of Frodo, but of all the hobbits. I maintain that The Return of the King is the best in the trilogy because it crystallized the stories of all the smaller members of the fellowship. Both Merry and Pippin find their bravery when they are forced to confront the big world alone, and even though they are scared, they unflinchingly just do what is right and grow from it. And because of that, they triumph.
And then there’s Frodo and Sam. Is there a better pair out there to inspire us through our own land of shadow? They keep going. They fight and care for each other. Sam is the bravest hero in the trilogy, not because he’s a great fighter, but because he understands that there’s good in this world worth fighting for. And Frodo, he teaches us about endurance and compassion, because it’s his compassion–the sparing of Gollum’s life–that ultimately saves the world.
None of us asked to live through a pandemic that’s upended nearly every aspect of our life and that will change the world forever. We all wish this had never happened. But as Gandalf says, “So do all who live to see such time, but that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
The Lord of the Rings is not just about hope, it’s about choosing to hope in the face of terrible darkness. It’s often been said that Sauron isn’t a great villain because he’s so ill-defined, but that’s another reason this franchise remains to resonant. Evil is not a person to be redeemed, it is an idea that is part of this world. Evil and darkness will always be there, there will always be a shadow looming on the horizon. The point is not to defeat it but to pass through it and to keep going when it seems all is lost.
And this is not to say that darkness does not change us. The Lord of the Rings is also a story about trauma, make no mistake. Frodo never truly recovers from his journey, and like so many who struggle with PTSD and loss, he finds he never quite fits in his old life. That seems like a dark message and it’s understandable given J.R.R. Tolkien’s own time in World War I, but there is still hope even so. Because Frodo can still find peace in the Undying lands. His struggle allows him to get to a place he would not have been able to see without it. It’s not home, no, but it’s still hope.
So, if the darkness is weighing on your heart right now, I get it. We all feel it and it’s so easy to think that little hobbits like us (and, friend, I am a Hobbit) can’t do anything to make this better. But we can. Even the smallest person can make a difference, simply by staying brave and true.
The road goes ever on and on, and it matters not where it leads you, only that you continue to walk it.
(image: New Line Cinema)
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