In December of 2003, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens’ Return of the King—the third and final film in their trilogy adapting J. R. R. Tolkien’s beloved fantasy epic Lord of the Rings—premiered to a gigantic opening weekend and critical acclaim. I half-remember its sweep at the Oscars the following year, the tides of fanfiction that flooded the internet, the memes, the sudden swelling of fantasy’s cachet. I wasn’t yet Online enough, so to speak, for that vast boom in the world of internet fandom to register for me.
What I do remember is Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) leaning brow to brow on the erupting slopes of Mount Doom, their quest at an end, their last comfort one another’s reassuring presence. I remember sitting next to my father in the theater, fourteen years old, still closeted and locked in boyhood, trying to hide that I was crying. I was moved to tears then not by the valorous, death-embracing charge of the Rohirrim, nor by Gandalf’s (Ian McKellen) rumination on the peaceful release of life after death. No, I was crying because Frodo and Sam were allowed to touch each other.
As a queer trans girl growing up in rural New Hampshire, I was marked out as a faggot early on. My friends mocked and bullied me relentlessly for my high voice, my readily evident mental illness, and that intangible quality of “gayness” kids seem to know instinctively how to sniff out and brutalize. I was forever trying to manufacture intimacy within my small, cruel circle of young men, initiating heartfelt conversations during sleepovers, desperate to bond, to have my hand held, to rest my head on someone’s shoulder. The Lord of the Rings gave me a world where that kind of love between men was not just permissible, but precious.
A Society of Men
The Lord of the Rings gets a hard rap for its nearly womanless cast of characters. It’s criticism well-deserved, with just three women—Éowyn (Miranda Otto), Arwen (Liv Tyler), and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett)—boasting more than a few minutes of screentime apiece across all three films, but it’s not a particularly insightful stopping point for discussing the films’ representations of men. Tolkien largely excluded women from his stories—I don’t think there’s a single one in The Hobbit—but he had genuine insight into not just the male society he belonged to, but its differing permutations passed down out of classical and Anglo-Saxon legend and historical record.
The men in Lord of the Rings are—in some ways—recognizable to modern American audiences. They hold courage on the battlefield in high esteem, leave housework and child-rearing largely to women, and control laws, armies, and wealth throughout most of Middle Earth. In other ways, though, they are a world apart. They grieve without pretense, express love and fealty to each other in romantic terms, and think deeply on the beauty and terror of the world around them. They are, in fundamental ways, connected to each other.
In Pippin’s vow of fealty to Boromir’s bereaved father Lord Denethor (John Noble), King Theoden’s humiliated grief over the death of his son during his own bewitched enfeeblement, and Denethor’s younger son Faramir’s (David Wenham) fatalistic desire to prove himself to his father we see clearly the interconnection of masculine emotion and affairs of state on a continental scale. At every level, from the comic relief of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli’s (John Rhys-Davies) competitive friendship to the tragic wreckage of Lord Denethor’s relationships with his sons, Jackson’s films depend on the bonds between men.
Far from focusing on relentless action in the absence of feminine drives and stories, Jackson lingers on an older idea of homosociality, which is to say a society in which men bond and interact primarily with other men. Their relationships are rich and varied, complicated by class (Sam is Frodo’s gardener and refers to him exclusively as “Mr. Frodo.”), culture (Gimli, a dwarf, and Legolas, an elf, initially despise one another), and family ties (Denethor’s favoritism for his eldest son, Boromir, over his youngest, Faramir). In the world of the films, how the characters feel toward one another is as or even more important than whether or not they can swing a sword or wield magical power.
Loss and Love
In The Fellowship of the Ring, after Gandalf’s apparent death in the Mines of Moria, the remaining members of the fellowship stop to grieve. As Aragorn urges them to get to their feet, Sam breaks down in tears while Merry holds a sobbing Pippin. “Give them a moment, for pity’s sake!” cries Boromir, but it’s clear from the way his voice breaks that he needs it as much as they do. This protracted mourning sequence, which stretches from the Bridge of Khazad-dûm to Sam’s touching poem about Gandalf’s fireworks in the elven city of Lothlórien, takes up nearly as much screen time as the entire Moria sequence. The simple centrality of it is a tremendous departure from genre cinema focused on men. It would be roughly equivalent to Die Hard spending forty minutes on Bruce Willis’s relationship with Reginald VelJohnson.
Significant portions of both The Two Towers and The Return of the King are devoted to Sam, Frodo, and Gollum (Andy Serkis) wandering through Gondor and Mordor on their way to Mount Doom. These sequences are driven less by heroism or action than by the relationship between the two hobbits and their deceitful, damaged guide—a complex web of love, mistrust, and sympathy which leads ultimately to the salvation of Middle Earth. In shots of Sam and Frodo resting propped against each other, the camera hovering close, the lighting low, we see a kind of cinematic language of platonic romance. Their bond, fraught by the malevolent influence of the Ring and Frodo’s growing connection with Gollum, is arguably the trilogy’s central relationship.
It’s Sam’s faith in the goodness and joy of the world, represented by his love for the Shire, which gives Frodo the strength to carry on when his hope flags. In the end, Sam carries Frodo up the broken rocks of Mount Doom’s slope himself. The Shire, too, occupies a good chunk of The Fellowship of the Ring’s runtime as Jackson dwells thoughtfully on goodness and peace, making us far more invested in the survival of Middle Earth than we’ve ever been in whether or not some costumed Marvel supervillain is going to blow up New York. That sense of reality, of home, is a major force in all three films, even after it fades from view.
In a genre so often defined by heroic violence and steadfastness in the face of overwhelming peril, The Lord of the Rings draws its meaning from a different well. Near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, Boromir is mortally wounded in battle defending Merry and Pippin from Saruman’s troops. As Boromir lies dying, Aragorn kneels beside him to hold his hand and offer him comfort in his last moments. “I would have followed you, my brother,” says Boromir, his voice breaking. “My captain. My king.” He’s not just making amends with a fellowship he briefly betrayed, but accepting every existing facet of the relationship between himself and Aragorn as his final act. Aragorn accepts Boromir’s love, and his own destiny to rebuild the Kingdom of Gondor, with a gentle kiss and a promise to protect their people.
Jackson’s trilogy may not delve particularly deep into male psychology, but it depicts a world in which art about men is vibrant and bursting with emotion, not sterilized and grim. It gives us a chance to see openness between men, to experience the love they share. For genre art it represents a way forward more fulfilling and involved than winks and quips and derring-do. For fans of fantasy and action, it’s a chance to see friendship and love in a new light. For a lonely little boy, it was a lifeline.