The Fellowship of the Ring and the Memes of Middle-earth

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The other day, I opened Facebook and saw a Boromir meme. You know the one. Fingers and thumb forming a circle, golden light about him, the words “One does not simply [something something]” embossed over the image. This one has the Center for Disease Control logo below that, with the PR announcement, “Fully vaccinated people may now simply walk into Mordor.” Below that, Boromir rubs his temple in frustration. Twenty years on from the debut of The Fellowship of the Ring, and that line from Sean Bean’s Boromir, and I think we can safely say that the “One does not simply” meme is, like the Eldar, immortal.

As befits their popularity, J.R.R. Tolkien’s works are full of lines and turns of phrase that have embedded themselves in our collective consciousness. The Hobbit’s first sentence is among the most famous opening lines in English literature. I don’t even need to write it out for you: you know what it is. Gandalf’s sage wisdom about what to do with the time that is given to you has graced countless email signatures and Facebook bios. My wife Ayako is particularly good at sneaking up on my son and me, and then menacingly whispering, “My precioussss.”

As I mentioned in my previous review covering the first half of the film, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens used this to their great advantage in writing their Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Rather than write entirely new dialogue, they often take it from the mouth of one character and put it in another’s when it suits them. It’s an effective strategy, especially since Tolkien isn’t the voiciest of writers, and the cast of the movies is superior. A line originally written for Gandalf could well come from Wormtongue, especially if Wormtongue is played by a master like Brad Dourif.

So it’s slightly ironic that the most famous line from the entire film trilogy isn’t in the book at all. In fact, I’d wager many people think it is a line from the book, given how ubiquitous it is (compounding the confusion, the image usually associated with the image, of Bean making a circle with his fingers, is from slightly later in the monologue when he says, “the great eye is ever watchful.” Cultural memory is a slippery thing).

Of course, a lot of the line’s popularity comes down to the skill of Bean’s acting. He puts so much frustration, quiet rage, and an edge of sorrow into the line that it seems natural that it became a meme. Here’s a beleaguered warrior, desperately worried about the fate of his country, who’s just been shown a miraculous sliver of hope, and then told that hope has to be thrown into a volcano. Boromir’s weariness tells us everything we need to know about this world and this war, and his eventual fall into treachery, due to his desperation and despair, feels real and heartbreaking. There are a few moments here and there, like Boromir’s “One does not simply walk…” monologue, when the movies manage to even outdo the book in conveying Tolkien’s themes and message about the corruptions of power and the necessity of hope. Then again, it also has Elrond spouting lines like, “Men are weak,” to add conflict and tension to a plot that has plenty of that already.

The touch of realism from the casts’ performances is especially important in the back half of The Fellowship of the Ring, when the movie transforms from an intense chase into a true fantasy quest. Whereas before we mostly had four hobbits and Strider on the run from terrifying horsemen in black robes, now we have Dwarves, pontificating Elves, octopus monsters, fire-demons, and a whirlwind tour of multiple realms with their own deep histories and cultures: Rivendell! Moria! Lothlórien! The later movies will keep us more firmly grounded in the lands of Men, but “The Ring Goes South” as Tolkien titled it, is Lord of the Rings at its most fantastical.

If the Shire is the home we must leave behind in order to save, the lands of “The Ring Goes South” are the places that are fading away as the Age of Men dawns. The plot of Lord of the Rings cleverly mimics its own conceit of the magical giving way to the mundane as the realms of halfings, Elves, and Dwarves give way in the narrative to the lands of Men. It’s not a perfect overlap (obviously, we end back in the Shire and at the Grey Havens) but it’s part of the story’s power. Tolkien and Jackson lead the characters—and readers/viewers—on a grand tour of all that our world has lost. And what a tour! Rivendell is an autumnal wonderland, Moria a terrifying labyrinth, and Lothlórien a heavenly and potent vision of Elven power.

We begin in Rivendell with the mother of all fantasy exposition scenes, the Council of Elrond. Jackson’s impulse to ramp up character conflicts works well here, as we speed through the scene and quickly establish the stakes for the world, and most of the characters. Frodo’s volunteering to carry the Ring is beautifully done, with the little hobbit, his face full of both determination and anguish, interrupting the arguments of the Wise and powerful to offer his life to save the world. Not to mention the fact that “You have my sword” is nearly as iconic a line as “One does not simply walk into Mordor.” The scene falls a little flat with the climax as the music swells and Elrond gives them a team name, though I do enjoy Pippin taking the wind out of the affair with, “You need people of intelligence on this mission…quest…thing.” It’s maybe a little too comical, but it’s also very funny.

Jackson also shows off his horror chops again as we get a legitimately terrifying jump-scare out of Bilbo Baggins of all people, as he briefly turns Gollum-like and tries to snatch the Ring from Frodo. The films do a remarkable job of seeding the idea—one that will really come to the fore in the next two movies—of Gollum as a twisted image of Frodo: a vision, like Galadriel’s mirror, of what may yet come to pass for a hobbit in possession of the Ring.

Then Jackson shows off his helicopter budget with a number of lovely aerial shots of the Fellowship weaving their way across the gorgeous New Zealand countryside, with a few superimposed ruins here and there for good effect. We get a nice scene with Boromir teaching Merry and Pippin to sword fight before they’re interrupted by Saruman’s crows, and so head to the Redhorn pass to cross the Misty Mountains. Saruman sends a storm to bury them, knowing they’ll have to take the path through Moria as a last resort and come face to face with the Balrog, “a demon of the ancient world.”

After barely escaping the monstrous Watcher in the Water (an exemplary and horrifying creature), the Fellowship are trapped in the “long dark of Moria.” They find the tomb of Balin (a tragic end for the lovable, wise character we’ll meet in the Hobbit movies) and are attacked by Orcs with a cave troll. The Fellowship manages to kill the attackers, but even after its brutal assault on Frodo (giving Elijah Wood his second of many “anguished face after being stabbed” close-ups), the cave troll’s death is given genuine pathos. It groans and stumbles, and pulls at its lips as it falls over and dies. The film goes quiet. Here again, Jackson has invested the film and the world with depth. It’s hard to watch that scene and not wonder more about the troll: what motivated it? What intelligence level did it have? Did the Fellowship just kill an innocent creature that maybe didn’t know any better? The sense that there’s more than meets the eye is underscored by the reveal that Frodo survived the troll’s spear thanks to his mithril shirt, gifted from Bilbo.

Then there’s a creature I can only describe as My Favorite Goblin. After fleeing Balin’s tomb, the Fellowship are surrounded by goblins that come shrieking and scurrying out of the floor and down from the ceiling like spiders. The camera cuts to one goblin with big cat-like eyes who cocks its head, bulges its eyes, and hisses. That image has been in my head ever since I first saw it twenty years ago. I love that goblin! Its image is so distinct, with its ugly face and beautiful eyes, and its movement so menacing and yet, like the troll, childlike. In only a second of camera time, we get all these suggestions of a deeper personality and world. The goblins are more than mere fodder. They’re a horde, but not a faceless one.

The Fellowship are saved by the timely arrival of the Balrog, and where Bakshi’s Balrog fell flat, Jackson’s soars (well, not literally, despite the wings). It’s perfect, a volcano made flesh, and ornery. It’s here that we find the movie’s other much-parodied and copied line, one that marks the high-water mark of High Fantasy on film. While Sean Bean brings a weary realism to his lines as Boromir, Ian McKellan outright roars, “You shall not pass!” and brings his staff down on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm with the power of a billion 20-sided dice rolls. It’s pure cinematic catharsis.

The line is still a useful pop cultural shorthand. A few months ago, we rented a cottage near a beach in Michigan. At a small cafe nearby, my son spotted a sign that read: “No mask? You shall not pass!” with a drawing of a gray wizard underneath. It’s been parodied countless times, not the least by McKellan himself in Ricky Gervais’ Extras. Whereas the Boromir meme is endlessly mutable to express the sense that a task is harder than it looks, the Gandalf one delights in the iconic, unapologetically Genre nature of the scene, and the power that brings with it. There’s no winking here, no “once upon a time…” narrative distance, no meta commentary, no subversive smirk—that came later. No, there’s just a wizard, a demon, and a pit, and a moment of raw power, imagination, and emotion that perfectly sums up why people love the genre. This is Fantasy! It’s that moment that marks the dawn of the Golden Age of the Geek. There’s no going back now: the bridge is forever broken.

After Gandalf’s fall, the music and action slow down, and there’s a beautiful, quiet scene where the Fellowship mourns. Aragorn wisely urges them on, even as Boromir begs them for a moment to grieve, “for pity’s sake!” It’s a terrific exchange, letting Boromir be the voice of compassion, even as Aragorn is the voice of reason, and showing that character conflict can come from more than clashing egos or ideologies. Sometimes everyone is right, and all choices before them are wrong.

Jackson’s horror background shines through again as the Fellowship comes up against the two powerful, magical beings set against each other in their regard for the Ring: Saruman and Galadriel. Saruman, in his lust for the Ring, breeds Uruk-hai soldiers out of the mud, and their birth scenes give Frankenstein and Alien a run for their money in images of pregnancy and childbirth distorted into abject horror. This imagery is original to the movie, but here again Jackson gives us a startlingly unique scene that also underscores and serves Tolkien’s themes. Saruman corrupts the earth, Mother Earth, with his industrial furnaces, in order to give birth to monsters. It’s Jackson’s own moment of true mythopoeia.

Galadriel, meanwhile, refuses the Ring, but not before turning a distinctly Wicked Witch of the West-ish green to show what would happen if she didn’t. Cate Blanchett rose to fame playing Elizabeth I, the allegorical model for Edmund Spencer’s Faerie Queene, and here she plays Tolkien’s rendition of the Fairy Queen perfectly, a vision of power and wisdom that is beautiful, but remote and ancient and not a little scary: “tempestuous as the sea, stronger than the foundations of the earth.”

Galadriel sends the Fellowship on their way with a few gifts, and they paddle down the Great River, past the colossal Argonath, to the ruins of Amon Hen and the borders of the realms of Men. Boromir succumbs to the Ring, but Frodo manages to escape. The Uruk-hai attack and kidnap Merry and Pippin, but not before Boromir is able to redeem himself by becoming a pin-cushion. Frodo and Sam set off alone for Mordor. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli vow to save Merry and Pippin from “torment and death” and set off after the Orcs.

The film ends with Frodo and Sam seeing Mordor for the first time, and then walking towards it. It’s a fitting end to the film, with Frodo and Sam again on a perilous quest into unknown lands, with only each other for company. The story has come, in a way, full circle—only the characters are now wiser and sadder, perhaps finally truly aware that one does not simply walk into Mordor. It gives me chills every time I watch it.

The Fellowship of the Ring is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s a triumph of adaptation, and an enchanting masterpiece full of memorable scenes and moments, as evidenced by how many are quoted and meme-ified today. To my mind, the staying power of “One does not simply walk into Mordor” and “You shall not pass!” in the cultural firmament reveal the ingredients in the film’s particular magical spell: its combination of lived-in performances and unashamed fantasy. It’s a spell that still has a hold on Hollywood, and our imaginations, all these years later.

Austin Gilkeson has written for Tin House, McSweeney’s, Vulture, Foreign Policy, The Toast, and other publications. He lives just outside Chicago with his wife and son.

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