It is a quirk of history that we didn’t lose J.R.R. Tolkien to a global flu pandemic. In the plague year of 1918, the author was 26, with a recurring illness keeping him in and out of the exact place the virus was at its hottest: army hospitals. He was an orphan married to another orphan, father to an infant son born in, as he would write in 1941, “the starvation-year of 1917 […] when the end of the war seemed as far off as it does now.”
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary — and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy with just one piece. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.
Tolkien didn’t catch influenza. He lived to see the Great Depression and a second devastating global war before he put the final touches on The Lord of the Rings, a sword and sorcery epic where hard-fought victories turn on the smallest choices. The story’s thousands of pages endured in the minds of readers for half a century before Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh’s painstakingly adapted smash-hit film trilogy brought it to moviegoers.
Stripped down to its basic themes, The Lord of the Rings is a guide to keeping hope in the face of hopelessness. More than that, it’s a dictum: Hope doesn’t just keep us going in hard times — it gets us out of them. It was a maxim that J.R.R. Tolkien, a pessimist in a cohort of pessimists, lived throughout his life.
The Lost Generation
Imagine the trials of a Dickensian orphan, then drop a senseless global war, a pandemic, and economic depression on top of it, and you’d have an approximate biography of Tolkien’s early life. When Tolkien was 3, his father died while the family was, essentially, thousands of miles away on vacation, leaving them destitute in England. His mother’s family disowned her for converting to Catholicism, leaving her to support her two children alone despite her uneven health. Tolkien blamed this rejection for her early death from undiagnosed diabetes when he was 12, describing her as “a martyr […] who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.”
In addition to offering all that a loving mother could, Mabel Tolkien was her son’s first teacher, introducing him to the study of plants and languages before he was 7. In his biography of the author, Humphrey Carpenter underscored her passing as a turning point in Tolkien’s personality.
“Her death made him a pessimist; or rather, it made him capable of violent shifts of emotion. Once he had lost her, there was no security, and his natural optimism was balanced by deep uncertainty.”
That uncertainty was indivisible from his Catholic faith in the Fall of Man — the belief that history is a story of decline, not progress. “When he was in this mood he had a deep sense of impending loss,” Carpenter wrote. “Nothing was safe. Nothing would last. No battle would be won forever.”
Tolkien scraped through school mentored but unparented, dependent on scholarships and the kind but strict guardianship of his mother’s favorite priest, who at one point forbade him from speaking to his future wife for three years. He served in World War I, in which half his closest friends died in a single week during the Battle of the Somme. He survived the 1918 pandemic, which particularly ravaged the young and able-bodied. He raised four children during the Great Depression, and saw some of them serve in World War II.
Tolkien was a member of the Lost Generation, a cohort of literary greats whose work is generally characterized by disillusionment, both with society as a whole and with optimism as a principle. And that’s no great wonder, given the political, economic, and natural disasters that formed the bounds of their lives.
So it’s interesting that Tolkien’s work is one of the most illusioned texts of his time. Tolkien spent most of the Great Depression years writing The Hobbit, which debuted in 1937. By the time he’d finished The Lord of the Rings, which was published in the mid-1950s, it was an epic of hope in the face of relentless devastation.
A light from the shadows shall spring
The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy did a heroic job of bringing the struggle of Tolkien’s heroes and villains to the mainstream consciousness. But without the books’ omniscient narrator to get inside the heads of characters, and with the omission of certain plot elements — all natural choices for the medium of film — the viewer misses some things that the reader cannot ignore.
By the beginning of The Return of the King, one thing is abundantly clear: The world is a hair’s breadth from ending. In an event referred to as the Dawnless Day, Sauron sends dark clouds out from Mordor, covering the skies of Gondor and Rohan so thickly that it is as dark as night for nearly a week. Death is so certain to characters like Theoden, Eomer, Éowyn, Denethor, and Faramir that they feel it is simply up to them to choose the manner of it. And then, of course, there’s Sam and Frodo and Gollum, three hobbits (ish) taking their first steps into the impossible dangers of Mordor.
The only reason that all the land of Middle-earth is not covered in, as Gandalf puts it, “a second darkness” is because most of Tolkien’s characters choose to act as if — in defiance of all available evidence — their actions are not futile. Gandalf and Aragorn make a huge wager on the chance that Frodo still lives and is making his way to Mount Doom, by revealing Aragorn’s identity as the scion of Isildur and bluffing that they have the ring. They call Sauron’s wrath down on Minas Tirith, and later march an army to Mordor to keep up the illusion.
At no point do they have any certainty of their success; rather, they feel they are making a simple choice: Either the race of Men can fall defiant in front of the Black Gate, or it can fall cowering behind the walls of Minas Tirith. It’s just a matter of time and dignity.
And their choices — Theoden’s decision to come to Gondor’s aid, Gandalf’s plan to draw the Eye of Sauron out of Mordor, the bluff of marching to the Black Gate — turn out to have been the only possible path to victory. Even Frodo’s choices, made from hopeful empathy for an obviously untrustworthy creature, become instrumental in the destruction of the Ring, when he himself fails to cast it into the fire and Gollum wrests it from him and falls.
The movies translate this well, even if they don’t turn the lights off for two-thirds of The Return of the King (and, really, who can blame them?). But their most famous omission from the original text — no, I’m not talking about Tom Bombadil — elides the other half of the epic’s ending. Choosing hope in the face of hopelessness wins a victory, but not a clean one.
By the end of Tolkien’s The Return of the King, Frodo is broken by the Ring Quest. He swears never to carry a weapon again, but is browbeaten into doing so for a triumphant ceremony in honor of his achievement — an achievement that he ultimately failed at and which was accomplished by happenstance. He strives to free the Shire from Saruman’s takeover without bloodshed, but he fails at that, too, and lives to see even his idyllic home marred by the War of the Ring.
Less localized to Frodo, the destruction of the Ring also means that Middle-earth’s last great sanctuaries must fade, with Galadriel, Gandalf, and Elrond reduced in their power. They give up their long watches to cross the Western Sea, and Frodo goes with them, constitutionally unable to enjoy the fruits of his victory.
Tolkien believed that the history of mankind was a story of a decline from paradise, and the legendarium of Middle-earth is a reflection of that. Evil begets more evil, good begets just enough good to stop it, and both are always dwindling in power. The world changes for the worse in ways that cannot be undone.
There and back again
Both the Lord of the Rings books and movies end with the same almost hilariously simple scene. Sam returns to Bag End after saying farewell to a good deal of the principal characters of the saga, including a resurrected wizard, an elven witch queen, and his beloved Master Frodo, who saved the whole freakin’ world.
… Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.
And then the book ends. It’s hard not to chuckle awkwardly the first time you read it, especially if you’re a teenager to whom the entire joy of the story was the wizards and witch queens and world-saving heroes.
Tolkien’s celebration of the mundane was not the mark of a guy who didn’t know how to end a story (he was very bad at finishing stories, but that’s perfectionism for you). And “Well, I’m back” was not meant as a cheerful motivational poster yelping “count your blessings” or “appreciate the small things.” It was an ending written by a man who’d brought his life to a point of hard-won stability, who relished finding joy in mundane moments in part because he could never be certain those moments would last.
“He was never moderate,” Carpenter wrote in his biography. “Love, intellectual enthusiasm, distaste, anger, self-doubt, guilt, laughter, each was in his mind exclusively and in full force when he experienced it; and at that moment no other emotion was permitted to modify it. He was thus a man of extreme contrasts. When in a black mood he would feel that there was no hope, either for himself or the world […] but five minutes later in the company of a friend he would forget this black gloom and be in the best of humor.”
The most important thing that the Lord of the Rings movies grabbed from the books wasn’t any particular plot detail, but an earnest belief that hope can coexist with despair, so long as we never surrender to it. Boyens, Jackson, and Walsh took the emotional themes of their subject entirely seriously and sincerely, imbuing the trilogy with humor that never pointed back on itself, no matter how operatic.
Hollywood took many lessons from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, reframing big-budget film ever since. Fantasy adaptations could make truly enormous amounts of money. Audiences would sit through a three-plus-hour action film. And they would return year after year for the next installment of a story.
But blockbuster film didn’t embrace the sincerity of the Lord of the Rings movies — the way they elevated deep and pure emotions to the level of an adult epic — in the same manner. There are still a few films of that kind that break into the cultural consciousness, either as cult favorites (Pacific Rim) or unexpected successes (Mad Max: Fury Road), but they are the exception to the Marvel Studios/DC Films/Sony Pictures/HBO rules of self-referential, self-effacing, sometimes-even-fully-cynical fantasy and hero tales.
In a way, the Romantic blockbuster is kind of like the ending of Tolkien’s magnum opus itself: diminished, and gone into the West. But that’s why the movies are so good for our moment. Now is not the time for a story that winks and says, “All this drama is a little silly and unrealistic, isn’t it?” — not in the most depressingly realistic 12-18 months in living memory.
We need a story about when times were hard and showed no sense of ever getting easier, and the heroic path was to believe against all evidence that they would. A story about the fact that there is nothing trite about everyday happiness, and that such happiness persists even when everything else declines. That the Dawnless Days will be followed by a sunrise if we just keep going, keep going, keep going.