Bryant Tyler’s review published on Letterboxd:
Lord of the Rings
J.R.R Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings intermittently between 1937-1949, and the book was published in 1954 & 1955. Despite popular misconceptions, the Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy: it was always considered one book, and was intended to be published as such, however the publisher divided the work into three volumes due to post-war papershortages.
It can be easy when reading fiction to view the work in an allegorical light. Tolkien strongly disliked allegory, asserting in his forward to the second edition of LotR that his work is not allegorical, "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” Peter Jackson added that "Tolkien himself was horrified at modern analogies being placed on his work, he always rejected the notion that his stories were based on WWII and the rise of Hitler. I think that to apply modern political thinking on a story that is over 50 years old is a little bit inappropriate."
To clarify, what Tolkien meant by 'allegory' is to have a one-to-one substitution where, for example, the Ring would directly represent nuclear energy. That kind of simple-minded interpretation is what he aimed to avoid. Tolkien instead affirmed "applicability", which in a broader sense enables the reader to fill in precise meanings from their own experience.
Furthermore, Tolkien did affirm that the Lord of the Rings “is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like "religion", to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism."  By design The Lord of the Rings is not a Christian allegory but rather an invented myth about Christian and Catholic truths.
Tolkien was also fond of something he called “arresting strangeness”, which causes the reader to reflect on the material. Fiction should not captivating for its own sake, like a pandora’s box. The film Avatar (2009) is a good example of this having gone awry - after audiences initially saw the film, they were experiencing withdrawal syndrome from the fantasy world (appropriately called Pandora) and they had difficulty acclimating back into the real world. This is “arresting strangeness” for its own sake. Tolkien said that it should awaken you to the real world, causing you to notice reality with fresh eyes. The “arresting strangeness” of fiction should not only allow the reader to reassess their relationship with the true created world of reality, and also allow them to listen to the spiritual realm to a greater degree.
Tolkien also emphasized how man has a responsibility to create stories, because through storytelling man creates a secondary world through which to populate reflections of truth from the primary world, which makes people reassess those truths in a new light (arresting strangeness) in ways that an audience may more readily accept then when listening to a sermon or lecture. Tolkien said “we have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic 'progress' leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil."
Jackson’s film adaptations have strongly preserved and translated the essence and themes of the original work, honoring Tolkien’s imagination and achievement in a way that no literal visualization could. While omissions, additions, rearrangements, and conflations when translating to another medium are sometimes necessary, because what works literately on the printed page doesn’t always work dramatically when acted out exactly as written. I will discuss the books and the films interchangeably to discuss some of the themes and meaning of the work, unless the differences are stark or worth noting.
In his excellent lecture “Tolkien Book to Jackson Script,” Tom Shippey (Tolkien scholar and consultant to Jackson) explained that the target audience for LotR was teenagers, and had been from the start. For example, the moment when Legolas surfed on a shield down the stairs at Helm’s Deep. It’s a moment when adults shake their heads but it’s also a moment which allowed the movies to happen in the first place. Compromise is a part of life, and New Line Cinema had to finance the films, and to do so broaden the accessibility. Tolkien wrote his books for fun with no promise of great wealth, but for Jackson and the production crew it was a job (albeit a labor of love) with financial backing and exceedingly high expectations. Ultimately there were changes that were made in the films, but they were done to give each character a journey and a story arc. When articulating the differences in adaptation, Shippey’s top questions were “is the overall effect of the movies different from the overall effect of the books? And, next: how far is this an inevitable result of different media? and next, how much of it is a result of deliberate editorial or scriptwriter decision?” These are important questions, particularly for the fans who agonized over even the smallest changes.
Through his ambitious task of translating the Lord of the Rings to film, Peter Jackson understood the mythological essence of Tolkien’s work, approaching it not as whimsical fantasy, but as actual history. Jackson said “I want to think that Lord of the Rings was real, that it’s actually history, that these events happened. And more than that, I want us to imagine that we have been lucky enough to go on location and shoot our movie where the real events happened.”
Jackson probed deeper, saying that “[adapting] the themes of Tolkien are another way of honoring the book, because there is so much detail that you can’t recreate the world of Lord of the Rings with everything in the books, but the thematic material is critically important [when] translating from book to film because the themes are ultimately at the heart of any book, and Tolkien’s themes in particular were in his heart.” Furthermore, speaking to a group of Christian journalists at the Return of the King press tour, Jackson affirmed the story’s religious underpinnings, commenting, "I’m not a Catholic, so I didn’t put any of that personally into the film on my behalf, but I certainly am aware that there were certain [religious] things that Tolkien was thinking of… We made a real decision at the beginning that we weren’t going to introduce any new themes of our own into The Lord of the Rings. We were just going to make a film based upon what clearly Tolkien was passionate about."
Since its release, there hasn’t been a production quite like Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings”: an intense project that both adhered so closely to the source material and did not inject a modern, politically-correct ideology.
Peter Jackson began filming the ambitious project in October 1999, with all three films of the series shot at the same time in New Zealand (over a 438-day shoot), shooting on location made the scenery appear both otherworldly and intimately familiar. And with Howard Shore composing an intricate score, using creative leitmotifs that incorporated and enriched the various cultural histories (both real and fictional).
Jackson and the writers found an efficient way to introduce Tolkien’s world in the new medium, through a montage conveying a compressed history lesson. The film begins in a dark void with a voice (spoken by Galadriel): “The world is changed. I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live to remember. It began with the forging of the great rings.”
The opening prologue relays the events from the Silmarillion with the forging of the rings of power and the Ring, the Battle of the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, Isildur taking the Ring from the fallen Sauron, Isildur rejecting Elrond's demand that he destroy the Ring, Isildur's death and losing the Ring in the Anduin, and then through to the events of the Hobbit with Gollum finding the Ring, which is then later found by Bilbo. This introduction establishes the Ring as a character in the film: furthermore, this is emphasized as the Ring is overtly and continuously described as sentient. The Ring "betrayed" Isildur. It then "came" to Gollum, "waited", and later "abandoned" him. It "perceived" that its time had come. Something happened that it did not "intend". It has been "trying" to return to Sauron. According to the film, it "ensnared" Gollum, gave him "unnatural long life" and "consumed him".
The story revolves around how the beings that populate the world are affected by this object. If a person possesses the Ring of power would they choose a moral life? Would the use of a ring entail any moral or ethical limits? Is there a morally right or wrong way to use a ring?
Plato’s dialogue, The Republic, was concerned with this central issue: the justification of a morally good life. The major sections (Books II-X) depict Socrates defending the moral life against Glaucon and Adimantus, who argue for the life of immorality. Glaucon and Adimantus argue that the immoral life would be most rewarding, leading to wealth, power and fame, in contrast to a morally virtuous life which leads to poverty, powerlessness and abuse.
To illustrate his argument, Glaucon tells a story of Gyges, a shepherd who finds a magical ring that makes him invisible. Gyges uses the ring for selfish gains: he seduces the Queen of the Kingdom, slays the King and becomes ruler of the land. For Glaucon, this is what all men would do when presented with the opportunity. Glaucon expanded on this saying there were two rings, one held by a just man, and the other by an unjust man. He asserted that anyone would succumb to the temptation of power in the ring: “no one could be found . . . of such adamantine temper as to persevere in justice and endure to refrain his hands from the possessions of others . . . though he might with impunity take what he wished . . . and in all other things conduct himself among mankind as the equal of a god.” (Republic II, 360 b-c)
For Glaucon, people behave morally only because they cannot act with impunity - they merely fear punishment/retribution for immoral actions. Morality then, he argued, is merely a compromise by the rational people in a community to limit their selfish behavior and not harm others, which indicates that there is nothing truly good about the moral life.
Plato refutes this cynical conclusion by positing that the immoral life is worse because it corrupts the soul of the immoralist. Plato refuted that the immoral life leads to fundamental unhappiness: mental anguish, the loss of friends and loved ones, and emotional bankruptcy. All the power in the world cannot compensate for the psychological emptiness of the path of the immoral. However the moral person lives a life of integrity and personal fulfillment, even if they are limited in wealth, power and fame.
In earlier ancient myths, there were other stories of magic rings (in addition to the ring of Gyges) - for example in Arthurian Legend, Sir Gawain was given an invisibility ring, and Sir Percivel also received a ring that made him invulnerable. In Norse mythology, there was the magic ring, Andvaranaut, which could help find sources of gold. There was also Richard Wagner’s opera, the Ring of the Nibelung, which retold the story of Andvaranaut, depicting the ring as the focus of desire and the cause of downfall. Tolkien (as well as Chesterton and Lewis) was fond of George McDonald, who’s fairy tale The Princess and the Goblin (1872) also featured a magic ring. Also to note, Tolkien’s Ring functions like an inverted Holy Grail - the object of everyone’s desire, though not for the personal challenge or enlightenment it would bring. Although to note in one of his letters, Tolkien specifically denied any relation to Wagner’s ring “both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.'' (Letter 229) Nevertheless, all of these ‘rings’ were in the literary lineage, and as an expert in mythology Tolkien would have been aware of them all. Nevertheless, Tolkien’s Ring clearly resembles the ring of Gyges, and the philosophical exercise within the story, perhaps best summarized through the well known truism: “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Following Plato’s challenge, it becomes easier to see how Tolkien’s characters form responses to his question: would a just person be corrupted by the possibility of nearly unlimited power? Through the thoughts and actions of his characters, Tolkien conveys why one should be moral and live a virtuous life.
Those who come into possession of the one Ring become vulnerable to delusions of grandeur. The Ring does confer great power on its wearer, though not as much power as the wearer believes: thus the wearer ends up abusing, misusing and eventually losing that power, to their undoing and great harm to others. The Ring is infinitely valuable, because it promises the possibility of completely dominating everything in their environment, although the Ring’s promise is an illusion, as only some beings are strong enough to master the Ring’s powers (and even that takes time). Otherwise, the Ring will answer to its master’s (Sauron) call.
It was beyond Sauron’s consideration that someone would try to destroy the One Ring. Not only did Tolkien say that Sauron himself would not have the will to destroy it, but Isildur had a chance to destroy it when Sauron was vanquished and he still failed to do so. Over the years it took Sauron to grow, no one walked into Mordor and destroyed the Ring. This leads Sauron to believe that no one could. Gandalf elaborated on this: "he is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered into his darkest dream." (TT book 3, chapter 5)
Gandalf further tells Boromir: “we cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil. Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who already have a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier power. The very desire of it corrupts the heart.”
The Ring Wraiths (or Nazgul) were once Kings who became corrupted and are now personified by vacuity and emptiness, they have become invisible and wear cloaks because they have no body left. They no longer have lives of their own: they are entirely dependent on Sauron and the One Ring. This is shows Tolkien’s view of evil, that it is a moral vacuum and lacks independent life. As Tom Shippey said “people of Tolkien’s generation had a problem identifying evil, they had no difficulty recognizing it, they had to live through it, though the puzzling thing was the evil of the war was carried out by normal people (by “ordinary men”). The nature of evil in the 21st century has been curiously impersonal, it’s as if no one in particular wants to do it, in the end the major atrocities of the 20th century are carried out by bureaucrats: these are Wraiths. They have gone through the wraithing process, they don’t know what’s good and evil any more, it’s become a job or a routine. You start out with good intentions, but somehow it all goes wrong, it’s a very distinctive image of evil and it’s also an unwelcome one, because it says ‘it could be you’ - under the right circumstances, it would be you. People say that this kind of fantasy fiction is escapist and evading the real world, well I think that [perception] is itself an evasion, because [the work] is trying to confront something that most people would rather not confront.”
The story begins in the Shire: a peaceful sanctuary resembling the Garden of Eden before awareness of evil and vulnerability. Before knowledge of the Ring (it’s existence and corrupting nature), the Hobbits were unaware of the tension of opposites: for them, the world had been one singular experience. Another way to look at this psychologically, as the inhabitants mindset resembles Carl Jung’s first stage of life called Unconscious Paradise. Jung believed that people naturally desire a life that is safe, uncomplicated, familiar and unchanging. Though such a life is ultimately constricting: as it inhibits the possibility of learning, growth and ultimately developing a "wider and higher consciousness." This awakening process is a natural progression experienced in childhood with gradual knowledge of change, impermanence, suffering and death. The process of moving out of unconscious paradise and facing the unknown (potential) is the natural archetypal process for individual development.
Another image conjured in the Shire is that of a spiritual home, illustrated in the film by Howard Shore’s score which integrated the classical hymn “This Is My Father’s World”, written by Maltbie Babcock.
Gandalf reveals the true nature of Bilbo’s Ring to Frodo and Frodo courageously embraces this transformative process by volunteering to take the Ring into his possession and alleviate suffering (for himself, and others).
In the Shire, both Frodo and Sam are childlike (vulnerable). Sam is too timid to ask Rosie for a dance and Frodo physically pushes him in her direction. Sam stops when they reach the border of the Shire, telling Frodo "If I take one more step, it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been." He then steps into the unknown with Frodo’s encouragement.
When the Fellowship are traveling through Moria, Gandalf comforts Frodo by revealing a higher authority guiding his fate, “there are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil: Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you also were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.” This is the first explicit reference to a God-like presence (implying the characters act within the context of an unseen force working towards its own purpose). Frodo then laments “I wish it need not have happened in my time” “So do I,” Gandalf replies “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.”
Soon after, there is another reference to spiritual forces when the Fellowship are confronted with the demon Balrog, Gandalf contrasts two kinds of fire proclaiming, "I am a servant of the Secret Fire! Dark fire will not avail you!" According to Tolkien, the Secret Fire is similar to the Holy Spirit of the Bible. Therefore the "dark fire" represents a false, unholy counterpart. Thus this scene depicts a spiritual conflict between Holiness and unholiness, and Holiness has the clear advantage. When the Balrog swings it’s sword at Gandalf it shatters, unable to harm Gandalf. The bridge then collapses under the Balrog, fulfilling Gandalf’s prophecy. Gandalf (by service of the Secret Fire) has won almost effortlessly. Though Gandalf lowers his guard when he turns his back and is caught by the Balrog’s whip. This scene shows that someone who is aligned with the Holy has a strong foothold against evil, unless they lower their guard.
The spiritual realm of Tolkien’s work is expanded on in The Silmarillion, where it is written that Middle Earth exists in the universe created by a singular God, named Eru Iluvatar, meaning ‘The One’/’Father of All’. Iluvatar created the Anur (His angelic spirits) and all the living beings in Middle Earth, and kindled within them the Secret Fire, also referred to as the Flame Imperishable, which is the gift of an independent existence, containing self-awareness and most importantly free will. This is the greatest gift given by Iluvatar, because as Matthew Dickerson writes “it is this freedom that allows them to participate in Iluvitar’s Music and to themselves assist in sub-creating new beauty. In fact, so great a gift it is that none other than Eru Iluvatar Himself can give it.”
Boromir, the eldest son of Denethor, is the most distinctly human character in the Legendarium. He is beloved captain, respected leader, and tales of his skills and conquests have spread throughout Middle-earth. People in other kingdoms (notably Eomer) have heard of him and deeply respect him. He has been damaged by the war, endured great loss and sacrifice for his country and holds a firm belief that military power is the avenue for Middle Earth’s salvation. He and his forefathers have been defending Gondor against Mordor for ages, and it had taken its toll. A heavy burden of expectations has been placed upon his shoulders by his father, and this is something that never leaves his mind, as he desperately confesses to Aragorn “my father is a noble man, but his rule is failing. And our people’s faith. He looks to me to make things right, and I will do it. I will see the glory of Gondor restored.” The duty is unfairly thrust upon him and not his to bear, and thus the Ring (like Isildur and Smeagol before him) is able to seduce Boromir. Boromir believes that the One Ring should be used by Gondor as a weapon against Sauron, though when the Council decides that the Ring cannot be used as a means to defeat evil, he joins the Fellowship to protect the Ring bearer. He wants to give hope to his people and make his father proud. When meeting Galadriel in Lothlórien, Boromir is made uncomfortable by her mind-reading abilities, indicating he already feels tempted to take the Ring for his own purposes. When he looked into the Ring, it played on his desire in its temptation and showed him the salvation of his home. In the book, Boromir justifies his belief (akin to anyone when temptation is on their doorstep) to Frodo that the Ring should be used by Gondor to turn the tide of the war: “oh, Aragorn, the heir, is clearly entitled to the Ring of course . . .but if he doesn’t want it, why not Boromir? How I would drive the hosts of the Enemy from me, until I were at the dark tower, face to face with Sauron himself! It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it against him.” (FR pg. 517)
Boromir attempts to take the Ring from Frodo by force, showing that the Ring can corrupt even the purest of motives (the defence and salvation of Boromir’s people). After he fails to steal the Ring, Boromir is immediately remorseful and begs Frodo to forgive him for the moment of weakness. However, the damage has been done; as Frodo, fearing the influence that the Ring has on his companions, decides to travel on to Mordor alone. Shortly after, the fellowship is attacked by Saruman’s orcs, who kidnap Merry and Pippin and fatally wound Boromir. For Tolkien, moral victory is more important than military victory, and this is how Boromir is redeemed through a moral victory.
In the book Boromir’s death was presented through a flashback at the beginning of The Two Towers. This worked well in literary form where a reader can read the books back-to-back, though as a theatrical feature, released a year apart, it provided closure and strengthened the dramatic impact to see Boromir’s heroic action and depict his death in full at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. Aragorn arrives, defeating the remainder of the Orcs, and rushes to Boromir’s side.
Boromir’s first words from to Aragorn are for the well-being of the Hobbits, showing his priorities. Borimir believes he failed: Merry and Pippin were captured, he failed to resist the Ring, he drove Frodo away (likely to death), and now he is dying, leaving his home of Gondor unprotected. Except that’s not what Aragorn tells him. Aragorn tells him, “no. You have not failed. You have conquered. You have won. Few have ever gained such a victory.” Aragorn affirms to Boromir that he escaped the falsehood of temptation, he gave his life protecting the weak proving his repentance in an effort to undo his error. Boromir is leaving the world a better person, and he leaves it in hope. Aragorn affirms this as well by telling him he did not fail, that “[he] fought bravely [and that he] kept [his] honor”.
Boromir’s death is the first moment that Jackson’s Aragorn decides to embrace his role as Isuldur’s heir. He refers to the Gondorians as “our people”, this has a powerful effect on Boromir and the unity gives him peace.
Aragorn: “I do not know what strength is in my blood, but I swear to you I will not let the White City fall, nor our people fail.”
Boromir: “Our people? Our people.
Boromir can take solace by trusting his “brother”, his “captain”, his “King”, to help him (and his people) restore their kingdom; as he wondered with Aragorn earlier “
His moment of weakness did not render his contribution to the fellowship meaningless. It is not an indictment of Boromir that he fell, what is most important is that he realized his mistake and made atonement. Boromir got up, took responsibility and aimed to make things right: that is the measure of a man. Through his noble sacrifice, he inspired confidence, raised spirits and left a lasting impact on the fellowship.
After Boromir dies, Aragorn gives a Catholic penance, and kisses his forehead saying “be at peace, son of Gondor.” He then picks up Boromir’s bracer and wears it. He is now accepting his lineage and choosing to embrace his true identity for the first time. This scene moves Jackson’s Aragorn closer to an authentic depiction of Tolkien’s Aragorn.
In the book, Gandalf also comments on the importance of this when he learns of Boromir’s death, saying, “he escaped in the end (meaning, ‘escaping evil and the temptation of the Ring’), I am glad. It was not in vain that the young hobbits came with us, if only for Boromir’s sake." (Additionally without Merry and Pippen, the Ents may never have been roused, nor Faramir rescued from the pyre nor the Witch-King slayed by Eowyn).