The Fellowship of the Ring

Before this summer, I had never seen the Lord of the Rings. I hope I haven’t shocked you too much with this admission, and that you will keep reading, instead of closing the page with disgust. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to watch them, but perhaps it can be explained by my habitual lack of interest in fantasy and action. However, as time went on, I understood that Tolkien’s work is so much more than this, that it transcends these genre boundaries and certainly any prejudice against them. I understood this and found that I wanted to explore Middle Earth, but as with many things where one is so far “behind” the cultural pace, the opportunity never seemed to arise, or, more likely, I held onto the idea that it was just too late for me to “join the club.”

And yet I finally made the plunge, after reading The Hobbit in a Children’s Literature course, and then with the encouragement of my brother, whom I consider quite an expert in the area of Tolkien. I confess I haven’t yet read the books (and apologize for this blasphemy), but they are now placed firmly on my to-read list for the imminent future. The point of all these ramblings is that I have finally watched The Lord of the Rings, and what follows is my review of the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring.

So, if I am such a cultural latecomer, and if my knowledge on this subject is so very incomplete, why should you bothering reading my thoughts on these films? Perhaps the things I am going to say have been said already or said better, but I think that every individual expression is unique, and that different voices can help us to see things in new ways. Knowledge is important, and yet perhaps it is not the most important thing; perhaps it is not deserving of the exalted position we so frequently give it. The purpose of these reviews is not to provide critical evaluation of the movies. In fact, they might be more accurately labelled as reflections instead of reviews. Based on my first impressions and my initial (and mostly untainted by other commentaries) experience with this powerful story, I want to reflect on the themes and ideas that seemed to me most prominent and profound.

Although I am the one writing these reflections/reviews, the ideas that form their content are not exclusively my own. This project is a collaboration between me and my brother, Jeff, since we watched all three films together. As I indicated above, Jeff is a very ardent Tolkienite. He has read the books and watched the films multiple times, as well as having read many other resources about them and about Tolkien. After watching the films, Jeff and I engaged in discussion about what we had seen, and it is this exchange of ideas and of perspectives that I think is really interesting. We are really coming from opposite ends of the spectrum, with my lack of experience and his wealth of it, and in this contrast I think there can come a really valuable interchange. And so, these reflections are the fruit of our discussions and of the things that came up when we both shared our thoughts on Tolkien’s story. With all that in mind, I think it’s time that I got started with the actual content of this review.

The major themes that really sprung into my focus from the first movie were fate, hope and weakness. They are, I think, an interesting assortment. Fate might be the most obvious, considering it dictates the central journey of Frodo to destroy the ring. The fact that someone as small and insignificant as Frodo would be implicated in this great battle of good and evil is surprising. It is also presented as the workings of fate; Gandalf tells Frodo that he was meant, or destined, for this vital role. And yet fate is portrayed as a mixture of both chance and choice. Instances of chance occur constantly: it is chance that the ring fell into the river; chance that Gollum happened to find it; chance that in the endless maze of caves, Bilbo would encounter Gollum and gain possession of the ring. But there is also an element of choice. After bringing the ring to Rivendell, Frodo is no longer responsible for what happens next. He has done what he needed to do. He is not so “important” that he must stay and contribute further to this quest for good. Despite all this, Frodo volunteers to be the ring-bearer when he see all the contention that this unfilled role is breeding. He is willing to sacrifice himself, his safety and his comfort in order to promote peace.

To me, one of Gandalf’s conversations with Frodo was especially striking. In it, Gandalf said that though we cannot choose or control exactly what happens, we can choose what to do with the time that is given to us. This is really at the crux of the story: it is the relinquishing of control that leads to true courage, heroism and good. While there is choice and chance involved in the course of events, Frodo does not want this fate; he did not set out to be a hero. However, he does not resist or fight against what is; instead, he accepts things as they are, embracing both his lack of control and the choices he is able to make in the present moment.

Mentioning this absence of control brings me to the theme of weakness. Although Frodo is obviously weak in many ways, we see throughout that all the characters (and all people) are weak. The ring is able to tempt and corrupt even the wise and the good, even those with true and noble intentions. Boromir is a prime example. He shows great zeal when he first appears onscreen, expressing a desire to use the ring in order to fight the forces of evil. This makes me think about the idea of the Greater Good (something that surely rings a bell for fans of Harry Potter). Since Boromir does not have sufficient faith that good will triumph, he is willing to use an evil weapon (the ring) for the sake of vanquishing a “greater evil.”

Yet Boromir is still motivated by power, ambition and dreams of personal glory. His mind is captured by grandiose visions, of himself as the one to unite and save the fallen kingdom of Gondor. So long as he is a captive of this desire for power, he is not able to accept his own weakness nor the corrupting power of evil. Similarly, Aragorn bears the weight of his descendents’ past and of his people’s future, but he responds differently to this pressure than does Boromir. Aragorn is afraid rather than eager to bear power (evident in his rejection of his name for the alias of Strider). This is because he recognizes both the danger of power and his own weakness.

Gandalf and Galadriel are also aware of their weakness, and this, I think, is what most contributes to their wisdom and their goodness. They accept that the ring is an evil and corrupting force, without deluding themselves that they are strong enough to overcome its evil on their own and wield it for good. By choosing not to take the ring when they have direct access to it, Gandalf, Galadriel and Aragorn come to terms with their own weakness. This makes me think of Socrates’ statement that “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Boromir, on the other hand, does not possess this “true wisdom” when we first meet him in the movie. Before he can accept himself and his inheritance, he must directly confront his own weakness. This happens when he tries to take the ring from Frodo and can no longer deny that he is susceptible to corrupting forces of power and evil. Although this realization initially brings pain and shame, it also gives Boromir the true courage displayed in his final battle, and leads to Aragorn consoling him that despite his weaknesses, he is not a failure. Indeed, even with full knowledge of his shortcomings, he is still a son of Gondor and still a king.

So if the ring is such a force for evil, why is Frodo able to carry it without the stain of corruption? I think the answer to this question also lies in weakness. It is clear from the beginning that Frodo does not have any ulterior motives, expectations, or selfish ambitions. Rather, he seeks to protect something he loves (the Shire) and to preserve the good. Because of this, Frodo has great humility: he does not seek self-glorification and does not think himself superior or more powerful than those around him. The fact that Frodo is “weaker” than others is made constantly clear in the movie. Being a hobbit, Frodo is often belittled by bigger, stronger creatures, referred to as a “little fellow” or a “halfling.” During battle, he is frequently powerless. External things or other people save him. He must depend upon other people, and if he does not rely on their help, the quest will fail. Since Frodo is not motivated by self-interest and is aware and at peace with his weakness, he is able to bear the ring without becoming enslaved to it.

Speaking of hobbits and of weakness, I think also of Merry and Pippin. These two seem to have entered on this journey by accident. They do not have a specific role to play; they are not especially skilled, brave or strong. In fact, more often than not, they are simply getting in the way. It seems it would be “easier” if they were not there at all. And yet, when they are captured by the orcs and Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are no longer bound by their mission or by duty, they still choose to go save Merry and Pippin. This is a choice made out of love, and rejects a kind of utilitarian evaluation of worth. People thus do not have value only based on how useful or productive they are. Their decision and inclusion of Merry and Pippin as an integral and important part of the Fellowship affirm the equal dignity of all life. Even in the face of impending evil, life on so small a scale is still significant. This aligns with what Gandalf says to Frodo about Gollum. Gandalf calls Frodo to empathy and mercy, without desiring to be the judge of good and evil, and of which lives have value. Instead, Gandalf’s counsel indicates that we should respect and empathize with all life, because we do not know where each individual comes from, where they are going, or how they will work into the larger story of fate.

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