Books

The Time That Is Given Us: Fandom, Myth, and the Narrative Power of Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’

BY Dustin Fisher TIMEMarch 12, 2022 PRINT

There is a beautiful moment in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Return of the King” that emphasizes a key, reoccurring motif throughout the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy: In the deepest, darkest depths of despair, hope can still be found.

After rescuing Frodo from the clutches of orcs in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, Samwise begins the slow trek up Mount Doom to help destroy the Ring of Power. Frodo, having lost his physical and mental fortitude to continue the trek, collapses.

In this moment, Sam looks skyward and witnesses the clouds parting to reveal one bright star: “The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

This gleaming metaphor seems to have vanished from the current discussions that surround Tolkien’s masterpiece. However, considering the contemporary state of much of the world, it is becoming ever more necessary to expound the universal positive virtues that the books emphasize through the narrative devices of the hero’s journey, myth, and folklore.

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The One Ring, a replica from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. (Yudi Angga Kristanu/Shutterstock)

Fans Defend ‘The Rings’

Recently, “The Lord of the Rings” has been the center of online debates after Amazon Studios released a brief trailer of its upcoming series “The Rings of Power.” Almost instantly, social media was ablaze with angry fan reactions countered by “journalistic” defense of the studio.

One scathing article against the backlash comes courtesy of the Milwaukee Independent titled, “A Non-White Fantasy World: Why Tolkien’s ‘The Rings of Power’ Is No Less Authentic With a Cast of Black Characters.” The piece’s unending barrage of straw-man fallacies is intended to delegitimize fan reactions, and it misdiagnoses the source of frustration that stems not specifically from casting but from the mishandling and lack of respect for the source material.

Several insider interviews and recanted publicity videos from Amazon show a focus—but not on the heroic journey to disband tyranny and uphold a civilization’s lost values and culture. Instead, as the show’s producer Lindsey Weber told “Vanity Fair”: “It felt only natural to us that an adaptation of Tolkien’s work would reflect what the world actually looks like.”

The power of “The Lord of the Rings” lies more in the universal struggle against tyranny that threatens the harmony of a race has become consumed by greed and power. Within the narrative, the race’s myths, legends, and culture are threatened by an all-encompassing evil. The weight of this struggle is placed upon the unlikely shoulders of two small hobbits: Frodo and Sam.

Through this heroic journey, the audience experiences not only the universal struggle between good and evil but also the mixed cultural history of Middle-Earth. This history showcases a variety of failures, tragedies, and heroic success that exemplifies the unending renegotiation of good and evil as a cyclical wheel, worthy of retelling and reexamining.

In “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Frodo is handed Bilbo’s ring and he laments that such perilous times have befallen him. Gandalf reassures him and states: “So do I … and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” This speech, one of many hopeful instances, stresses the reoccurring moments throughout all history that must be faced by the unwilling. Yet many rise to the occasion—such as Frodo and Sam—and muster the fortitude to thwart such tyranny.

Myth, Culture, and Narrative World Building

Countless academic articles and books have been published on Tolkien’s influences for “The Lord of the Rings.” His endeavor to inscribe a mythology for England and its people borrowed from Norse, European, Greek, and Roman legends. These tales, woven into the expansive narrative world, establish a highly rewarding reading experience. Middle-Earth’s history and struggles are intermittently encountered by the audience through poems and songs regaled at various moments. They not only help structure and ground Tolkien’s world but also generate deep characterization and tone.

Throughout the course of the three books, there is an overwhelming tenor of struggle, loss, and decline. The elves—who have been in Middle-Earth for thousands of years—are departing en masse; the dwarves’ once great Mines of Moria are abandoned and desolate; and the ancient Ents are saddened by the loss of their Entwives.

This motif of cultural regression is felt in the landscape of Middle-Earth and is also experienced through the oral traditions of song, poetry, and myth-telling. Tales of tragedy, of once great kings and kingdoms, are all woven into the very foundation of the narrative, which gives the main struggle profound weight and power.

The decadence and failure of eras predating most of the protagonists is the burden they all now bear. It is a painful lesson for every generation that reads the series, and a reminder to celebrate in the shared heritages that bind cultures and societies together or potentially face darkness that thrives on cultural decay and rot.

This painful reminder strikes the hearts of Tolkien’s fans who are criticizing Amazon’s series. For them, “The Lord of the Ring” is more than a corporate money-grab to cash in on the success of the fantasy genre and extol contemporary social issues.

Instead, it is a mythic retelling of history, culture, and lore that should resonate with all humanity. The hero’s journey that forces one from the comfort of the status quo to face adversity and return changed is a tale that transcends race and skin color. It is universal to the human spirit.

Frodo and Sam’s perilous trek through Middle-Earth to Mount Doom forces them to leave comfortable lives in the Shire and encounter true struggle and tyranny to defend all they hold dear.

It is a story of legend, culture, myth, friendship, moral obligation, and triumph of good over evil. Focusing solely on the surface-level “fantasy” element and suturing it to contemporary culture wars was Amazon’s grave misstep, and the fan community is holding them accountable.

Dustin Fisher is a writer and educator. He has penned multiple articles on film and popular culture as well as given lectures and presentations at universities in both the U.S. and UK. Currently, he is teaching at Edison State College while completing his doctorate in film studies and American literature at the University of Cincinnati.
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