May the Fellowship Be Unbroken, By and By: A Lord of the Rings Appreciation Post

I don’t know if anyone is aware of this “really old movie,” but The Fellowship of the Ring is a 2001 film adaptation of the 1954 book of the same name by J.R.R. Tolkien. The book is the first volume of the larger work The Lord of the Rings, which helped define an entire genre of fantasy, bringing it its “high” status with epic themes of heroism and corruption across ages of rich history and culture.

I just recently watched the entire LOTR film saga again with my brother. While on rewatch it is ever-popular to focus on catching things like Orlando Bloom’s changing eye-colour or the ubiquity of Peter Jackson’s children first as Hobbits, then Rohirrim children, then Gondorian children, I found other things catching my attention that I never noticed before. So here is my The Fellowship of the Ring appreciation post, just in time for the twentieth anniversary of the movie’s first release in December of 2001.

A mythology of magic

Firstly, I was again reminded about how The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien’s Middle Earth world in general, works on such an incredibly soft magic system. For those who aren’t super familiar with the fantasy writing terms, a soft magic system is a system of magic that does not operate within rigid structures and rules for use, as opposed to a hard magic system, which functions in a specific and limited manner that is spelled out and usually non-negotiable. There are definitely pros and cons to both systems, as well a sliding scale of how hard or how soft a magic system is.

One of the cons to a very soft magic system is that, by leaving how magic works and what it can do vague, it tempts a writer to use magic as a, literally, magical solution to any problem that crops up for the characters, rather than making the characters problem-solve. It can easily become a plot convenience that lowers the stakes and risks.

It can also be incredibly over-powered. If you never say what exactly magic is capable of in your world, you can suddenly decide it has the power to raise the dead or reverse time and nobody can say that that isn’t how it worked all along. You see how this swiftly can become a problem; any time characters get stuck in a situation and something bad actually happens, the question becomes “Why didn’t they just magic themselves out of it? They did it over there, why can’t they do it over here?” So then, anytime you don’t use magic, you have to justify why it wouldn’t work in that situation. It becomes arbitrary and nonsensical very quickly.

So, I have said Tolkien’s works have what I would consider a very soft magic system. Why does it work?

I think the answer to this question came to me while watching the infamous scene with Gandalf and the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm again. Gandalf claims to be a “wielder of the flame of Anor” which the Balrog, as a “flame of Udûn” cannot stand against. This is the first we hear of it, at least in the film, and while I have read the book three times, it’s been a while, and I can’t say if there was any mention of this prior. So, we have an out-of-context reference to some powerful forces that Gandalf is evoking. By itself, this seems like a bit of a random non-plus for viewers, as it doesn’t provide real explanation for what is happening or the powers at play. However, even without knowing Tolkien’s lore, you can infer a history and a legend at work in the background from this one line. It’s nonspecific and unexplained, but it is rooted in the collective consciousness of the world’s culture. This comes up in various ways throughout the films, as it does throughout the books—Legolas later identifies the Balrog as being “of Morgoth,” but we don’t get an extensive backstory on who Morgoth is, though his name comes up other times.

This interwoven integration of the world’s history and legend is what I think makes the magic system work. Magic is part of the worldbuilding. The world’s history and culture cannot exist apart from the magic that runs through it: through the elves, through the nature, through the crafting of magical talismans.  There is no magic “system” because The Lord of the Rings is a part of a mythology. What mythology can you think of that has a hard magic system governing it? Mythologies are fluid. There is no definitive limitation to what can happen. But don’t take this as carte blanche to throw a soft magic system into your story and call it “mythos” so you don’t have to put in the work. Tolkien built an extremely detailed and comprehensive mythology to set as the backdrop to his legendary stories, and that mythology is what governs the happenings within those stories, including the magic.

Also, the magic that does come up out of the woodwork is never a plot convenience. Back to the Balrog confrontation, Gandalf’s evocation of the Secret Fire does not completely obliterate the Balrog and let the wizard walk away without even the scent of smoke on his pointy hat. He defeats the Balrog, yes, (spoiler alert) but after a hard struggle and at the cost of his life. It also signals the beginning of the breaking of the Fellowship, which has significant impact on the other characters. Magic doesn’t come without a cost; you can’t just summon the eagles and go on your merry way. There are consequences, and they’re not all good. Because Tolkien uses his magic so sparingly (except in its more passive form as a force or quality of being that runs through certain objects and people) he keeps it impactful when it is used, while also maintaining its “softness.”

The unreluctant hero

Secondly, Tolkien takes the “reluctant hero” trope and completely subverts it. We’ve all seen the character: they are young, they are naïve, they are the chosen one, they don’t want to be the chosen one, they want to stay on their farm which they’ve never left in their life and subsist in obscurity. Oh no, angst and unworthiness. What will ever convince them to claim their rightful place as the hero of the saga? Probably the death of a love interest or father figure, if you were to give me odds.

Then, behold: Aragorn son of Arathorn.

Hear me out—Aragorn does not actually fall into the frame of the reluctant hero though on first glance he might seem to. Bilbo in The Hobbit is a type of reluctant hero: with a little squinting, Frodo is a type of reluctant hero: Aragorn is not. I would argue he is part of an older tradition of competent heroes who are pushed into new and higher stakes circumstances that their prior experiences nevertheless have prepared them for to some extent. And I don’t know the term for that.

Aragorn is Isildur’s heir, the heir of Elendil, and rightful claimant of the throne of Gondor. By this rubric, you might say he is a type of “chosen one” hero. But you know who else was Isildur’s heir and heir of Elendil, rightful claimant of the throne of Gondor? Arathorn, Aragorn’s father. By making Aragorn a descendant of a powerful race, he is also not one-of-a-kind: any one of his forefathers in direct line were just as “chosen” as he and could technically have gone and claimed the throne, but they didn’t. (I feel like there may have been more reasons for this given in the books, such as timing, support, etc., but we’re mainly dealing with the portrayal in the movies here.) This displays that there are more established barriers to him fulfilling his destiny that do not originate in his own personal, unfounded feelings of “reluctance” or inadequacy.

Instead, there is a different type of obstacle that is rooted in fear. This is not a fear of realising his full potential and this is not a fear of responsibility… well, it is a fear of responsibility in a sense, however, I’ll come back to that. The fear is explicitly stated in the movie when Arwen says, “You are Isildur’s heir, not Isildur himself,” and Aragorn’s reply is that he has the same weakness as Isildur. Now, this is a pretty obvious statement of the core fear of repeating the mistakes of the past and being unable to break the mould, etc., but I never fully understood the depth of it and how it is built up until I watched The Fellowship of the Ring again and paid attention to Aragorn’s manner as he tells the hobbits the origin of the Nazgûl, or Ringwraiths, in the village of Bree.

With some of the best cinematic choices, the exposition is framed like a creepy horror story, preceded with the shots of the Ringwraiths infiltrating the town accompanied by jagged blades and rolling fog. After they break into the Prancing Pony to assassinate the hobbits, Aragorn gives their backstory, providing context for these nightmarish creatures. Aragorn begins slowly, opening by humanizing them—“they were once great kings of men”—lingering on their fall into darkness and their tortured existence as slaves to Sauron. Their screams when they don’t find the hobbits and the shots of the Nazgûl on dark roads, trapped together yet alone in their never ending pursuit of an elusive power, all set the tone for Aragorn’s melancholy voice. Viggo Mortensen makes it sound like he is narrating a tragedy. And that’s because he is.

To him, the Ringwraiths represent a definite possibility in his future—he understands them, is sad for them, because he could become them. When men reach positions of power, the Enemy makes a concerted effort to corrupt and subjugate them, as he did with the kings, and as he does with Denethor the Steward of Gondor. Aragorn understands the weight and vulnerability of claiming his right as the king. He does not want to go into it lightly, overconfident, only to fall and doom his world to darkness. In that sense, he has a fear of responsibility—he does not want to be responsible for his world’s ending. This is no unfounded fear—we are shown the very real possibility of just how bad it could be in the fate of the Ringwraiths, underscored by Isildur’s succumbing to the power of the Ring.

But in another sense, Aragorn is also not afraid of his responsibility—unlike our usual reluctant hero type who begins by being footloose and fancy-free, taking no responsibility for their own lives or those of others, carelessly and selfishly pursuing their own agendas, Aragorn is a leader of the Dunedain Rangers, his kinsmen in the North. He takes up his responsibility to his people and participates in the conflicts of the world, protecting the wilds and generally just doing his job. He is not a spoiled prince sitting around in Rivendell moping about the great responsibility that he never asked for, begrudgingly getting up off his couch when the Fellowship is formed. No, he’s already been up and doing for 80 years. This is not as fleshed out in the film, which I missed a little bit, because the arrival of the Dunedain Rangers to join in to fight the battle near the end is actually one of the cooler parts of the book, as it gives some insight into Aragorn through his interactions with them. Even if he did not take his place as king and fulfill his destiny, he wouldn’t be a useless member of society by any means. He could still make a difference, however short lived and futile it would be without the defeat of Sauron by the destruction of the ring. Point is, Aragorn is not “reluctant” because he’s actually already doing something, already actively choosing to participate in the betterment of his world.

This preparation is what makes his eventual pursuit and achievement of his destiny believable and compelling. The precedent is set for him to not fulfill his destiny, the stakes of him fulfilling his destiny are displayed in terrifying realness, and the capability he has of fulfilling his destiny is established by what he is already doing. It’s really the perfect set-up for this type of hero and I stan.

Boromir, gifted kid

Thirdly, Boromir is one of the most brilliantly acted and fleshed-out characters in the entire trilogy, and there is nothing you can say that will convince me otherwise. (Disclaimer: I am going to be analyzing how Boromir’s character appears in the film, not necessarily the book, so if you see discrepancies, that’s why.) Sean Bean absolutely puts out the microexpressions and subtle gestures that combine to build Boromir’s multidimensional portrayal.

Others have long pointed out the establishment of Boromir’s character as compassionate and caring, particularly for those who are weaker. In the Fellowship, it is the hobbits; he takes time to teach Merry and Pippin to spar, he points out the danger to the hobbits in particular when attempting to climb Caradhras, he begs Aragorn to give the hobbits time to grieve for Gandalf… I don’t think I need to go on with this laundry list. It is generally acknowledged that this establishment of Boromir as a protector of the weak makes his break at the end particularly tragic and twisted: because the ring’s evil influence exploits Boromir’s good impulses, his impulses to protect and defend the weak. It tells him it is his chance to keep his people safe, to defend those who can’t defend themselves. And in order to do that, an arguably good thing, he has to do a worse thing by attacking Frodo, a weaker being who can’t defend himself. It’s messed up, and it’s brilliant, because you can see how it happens.

I will just point out one more thing, and then I will leave this refrain of touting Boromir’s protective, caring nature. I’m sure someone else has pointed it out, but I haven’t heard it spoken of much, that Boromir was also the one to place a comforting hand on Gimli’s shoulder when he is on his knees weeping before the tomb of Balin in Moria. Everyone else is concerned about the danger they’re in, and Boromir takes the time to empathize with Gimli’s grief in that moment. It’s very subtle, but it’s just another reinforcement of Boromir’s character. Go back and watch it—there’s a close-up of Gimli when someone puts a hand on his shoulder, then in the next wide shot of the whole room, you can see that it’s Boromir standing next to him on that side. Beautiful.

Okay, on to my main point. Boromir is the hero of his family and his people. His father cannot say enough of him and his fighty antics, saving the day when his supposedly incompetent younger brother lets the enemy walk right in and take the ground from under him. Do we get the idea that Boromir has been favoured his entire life, without ever having to really prove himself? He’s a natural and, even though he does demonstrate his skills and prowess in battle, those attributes are just assumed by Denethor, who wouldn’t expect anything less because his sunshine boy can’t do anything but be super awesome in every way. And even if he wasn’t genius at everything he does, he’d still be better than Faramir, amirite? Point being, due to his skewed family dynamic, Boromir has never really been in a position where he was anything but worshipped and held in high regard. He’s the hero to his little brother, he’s the apple of his father’s eye, he’s Gondor’s protector. Boromir hasn’t let that turn him into an arrogant asshole who feels entitled to everything, but you know what it has turned him into? Someone who can’t stand not having others’ approval.

And then he runs into Aragorn.

And then Aragorn turns out to be the rightful king of Gondor.

And then the rightful king of Gondor doesn’t seem to think that much of him.

Oh snap.

Even before Boromir knows for sure who Aragorn is, he seems eager to make a good impression when he encounters him in Rivendell before the Council. In the extended version, Boromir has a short interaction with Aragorn which is curiously hesitant, as if Boromir has never before had to win someone’s trust and friendship and doesn’t know for sure what he’s doing.

Then, when he picks up the hilt of the shards of Narsil, his side-eye glance toward Aragorn is not his first notice of Aragorn sitting there, but Boromir thinking that it might turn out to be important what this guy thinks of him. Boromir doesn’t know who Aragorn is, but he is in Rivendell, sitting right by the shards of Narsil. Suddenly, Boromir’s demeanour changes and he’s fighting against his impulse to please, his impulse to need someone’s approval. He seems to remember his position as son of the Steward, and disrespects the line of kings by carelessly tossing the hilt back on the stand so that it clatters to the ground, trying not to appear weak and threatened as he suddenly feels.

This is reaction is compounded when Legolas reveals that Aragorn is Isildur’s heir at the Council. Boromir is incredulous for a moment, unable to believe what he already half-suspected is true, but quickly retreats into a defensive state, showing loyalty to his family, and maybe even retaliating a bit for how unimpressed Aragorn seemed at their first meeting, despite all Boromir’s attempts to be friendly.

Yet, despite his salty proclamation that Gondor does not have nor need a king, Boromir continues to seek Aragorn’s approval at every turn. It’s like he can’t help himself—whether it’s his own need to be seen in a good light, or a compulsion of loyalty to the rightful king, or a combination of the two. When Boromir returns the ring to Frodo after his tumble in the snow, he looks at Aragorn as though for approval. Yes, he could probably see Aragorn is one wrong move away from cutting a bitch, but it’s more than that. Boromir makes an effort to seem amiable. He doesn’t give the ring back grudgingly, but with a smile, ruffling Frodo’s hair, then looking to see how his display of goodwill is received by Aragorn. In the extended scenes in Lothlórien, Boromir already envisions returning to Gondor in the company of Aragorn, referring to them together as the lords of Gondor. He wants to be associated with Aragorn and held in good esteem by him—seen as a companion and equal.

It’s a really unique aspect of his character that also leads solidly into his development at the end as he formally acknowledges Aragorn as his king, winning Aragorn’s respect even as he confesses his failure. This is something very different than Boromir has ever experienced, as he has witnessed how his own father treats those who display any kind of weakness. It’s a really strong payoff; Boromir has been hiding his weakness or denying it the whole time in order to try and impress Aragorn, to no avail, only to have his ultimate failure be the thing that leads to his redemption in Aragorn’s eyes. And this is something that feeds into what has already been established about Aragorn.

The lords of Gondor

Remember how we said that Aragorn doesn’t go after his destiny lightly, overconfident? That’s exactly how Boromir comes off in his attempt to be affable. And that, I would argue, is why Aragorn treats him with such seeming disapproval. Sure there are flashes of camaraderie, particularly in fighting, where they seem to make a very good team. But more frequently, Aragorn shuts Boromir down or dismisses his ideas without an attempt to be gentle about it (not that he’s particularly gentle in general, but he’s not so unapologetically rude to anyone as he is to Boromir). He thinks Boromir doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation and is too overconfident about the whole thing, which he knows is a recipe for disaster. I think this is because he holds Boromir, as someone in a position of power, to a higher standard, as he would himself were he to take on the mantle of king.

It comes to a head when Aragorn definitively says he would not bring the ring within leagues of “your” (Boromir’s) city. It seems pretty harsh and Boromir appears crushed. Not just by the sentiment of insult to his home, but because it is coming from Aragorn, who he is trying so desperately to get onside. Boromir, by nature of his experience and his genuinely good heart, is a bit of a short-sighted optimist who wants to do immediate good, not considering how it might negatively impact the future; Aragorn has the bigger, grimmer picture of long-term effects, informed by his many years in the world and the heavy weight of his inherited guilt.

Neither understands the other very well, and they have drastically different ways of going about things. Only in Boromir’s death do they seemed to come to an understanding and mutual respect, when Boromir realises the stakes that Aragorn was conscious of the whole time, and Aragorn honours Boromir’s nobility in recognizing and rectifying his mistake at the cost of his own life. The complexity of the characters and how the actors manage to bring them through this shifting dynamic to the final, beautiful scene of brotherhood and make it seem fitting, rewarding, and believable… it just makes me so sad that it came at Boromir’s death, and they weren’t able to go on as brothers in arms, returning to Gondor to “the clear ringing of silver trumpets.”

The breaking of our fellowship

Well, this went on longer than expected. Just think of it as the Extended Version of a conversation my brother and I had while hiking on a mountain after watching The Fellowship of the Ring again. If you’re looking for the theatrical version of anything, you may need to find another blog. Thanks for sticking with me if you got this far, and I hope you enjoyed nerding out over one of the greatest films of our time as much as I did.

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