Inspiration – Classic Storytelling with Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien's three-novel series, "The Lord of the Rings", was recently adapted into a series of three feature length, live action films.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s three-novel series, “The Lord of the Rings”, was recently adapted into a series of three feature-length, live action films. (Photo by Filipe Rodrigues via Flickr)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s three-novel series, The Lord of the Rings, is perhaps his best known and most well-loved work, with The Hobbit, the prequel novel, coming in at a close second. When Peter Jackson, a relatively new director on the Hollywood scene, announced that he was directing, writing, and producing a film version of the books, the curiosity of many movie-goers were peaked. When the first film, The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, was released in December of 2001, it was an immediate blockbuster. That year it was nominated thirteen times at the Oscars, and won four of those nominations. But what was it about this film that captured the imagination of audiences world-wide? When you push aside all the special effects and on-location shooting that made this film so special, what you are left with is the most classic of all story forms: The Hero’s Journey.

A painting of one of the oldest examples of a hero, Sir Galahad of the Round Table. Painting by George Frederic Watts.
A painting of one of the oldest examples of a hero, Sir Galahad of the Round Table. Painting by George Frederic Watts.

There are twelve basic steps in the structure of the “Hero’s Journey”. When one compares The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’s story line to these twelve steps, remarkable similarities and differences occur. First let us examine steps one, two, and three. In step one, the “Ordinary World”, we begin to see some of these differences. While it is true that “the hero”, in this case, Frodo Baggins, “exists in a mundane routine”, he seems to enjoy the security this sort of life brings, rather than yearn for excitement. He is interested in the outside world, and even admits to his Uncle Bilbo later in the film to daydreaming he was off on an adventure; but he does not hate his life, or actively seek to be uprooted from it, like many “heroes”. Step two, the “Call to Adventure”, comes off without a hitch as Frodo is called upon to take the “One Ring” from the Shire to keep it from falling into the hands of the Dark Lord Sauron. Just as the “Hero’s Journey” steps predict, Frodo embarks on this journey not for himself, but to save the Shire, and indeed the world from Sauron’s evil. Step three is also completed seamlessly, as Frodo tries to push the Ring onto his friend and mentor, Gandalf the Grey, feeling that he is not the right person for this task.

Steps four, five and six occur throughout the plot of the film, happening not just once, but many times. For example, one could argue that step four, “Meeting with the Mentor”, occurs early on in the movie, during step one, when Gandalf appears to the audience as a guiding force in Frodo’s life. However one could equally argue that it takes place after steps one through three, when Frodo first meets the mysterious ranger, Strider, who takes him and his companions under his protection. There is yet another option that one might consider: that this step does not occur until the Council of Elrond is called and the full Fellowship is formed. Each of these characters teaches Frodo something important and guides his steps; they are all his mentors. Similarly, one could argue that step five, “Crossing the First Threshold”, occurs three times within the film: once when Frodo first sets out from the Shire, again when he goes into the wilderness with Strider (later revealed to be Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor), and a third and final time when he volunteers to take the Ring to Mordor. All of these are valid “first steps into the new world of adventure”.  As for step six, “Test, Allies, Enemies”, this occurs throughout the film, from beginning to end. Frodo is constantly acquiring new allies and confronting different tests set against him by his enemies.

The Fellowship of the Ring as portrayed in Peter Jackson's film, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The Fellowship of the Ring as portrayed in Peter Jackson’s film, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Out of all of the steps, it is perhaps steps seven, eight and nine which do not fit within the plotting of Fellowship of the Ring. This is not because these steps never occur in the wider story arc, but simply because this is the first film in a three film saga – some of these steps have simply not been reached. For step seven, “Approach”, Frodo does make a huge approach on the supreme enemy, getting much closer to Mordor than he would have alone, but it is not the final huge approach that must be made. Step eight doesn’t truly occur within this film, because while agents of the enemy are defeated, the enemy himself remains unscathed. Therefore, step nine cannot logically occur because while Frodo has acted heroically and conquered, he has, in essence, won a battle, not the war.

Keeping this in mind, I feel that one could still argue that steps ten, eleven, and even twelve do occur in a pared down way. For example, one could interpret the movie’s final battle against the Uruk-hai as the “final, and near disastrous, final confrontation, in which the hero is nearly destroyed” and “all seems lost”. It is the final confrontation of, at least, this film and is ‘near disastrous’. Many of the characters think, for a moment, that the fellowship has failed, that it was all for nothing. But then step eleven, the “Resurrection” comes in, both for the Fellowship and for Frodo personally. The Fellowship resolves to go after Merry and Pippin, who were captured in the skirmish, and Frodo, through memories of Gandalf and the companionship of Samwise, “revives” and “overcomes his near-death experience”. It is simply not the last time in the larger story arc that this step will have to take place. Step twelve is fulfilled much more metaphorically in this film. While Frodo is not “returning”, he does, in this first segment of story, find a gift that benefits all and promises a shining future: the gift of loyalty and friendship in his relationship with Sam.

However much this classic story may have resonated with viewers though, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring did not win one of its four Oscars for its screenplay – though it was nominated. The Fellowship of the Ring won it’s Oscars in the categories of Best Cinematography, Best Effects: Visual Effects, Best Makeup, and Best Music, Original Score. But, would the film have been just as good without its rousing score, astounding visual effects, cunning make-up and visionary cinematography? It’s hard to say. While these effects made it easier for audiences to believe and get lost in the story presented to them, the low-tech effects used in films such as The Wizard of Oz achieved the same end. Perhaps it is the story, not the way it is dressed up, that makes a movie an icon.

This is an important point to remember when sitting down to pen our own stories. The “Hero’s Journey” has been done in literature countless times, and will continue to be presented again and again. Just because an idea isn’t wholly original, doesn’t mean it’s bad. Some of these tropes and archetypes have survived for a reason. Artists shouldn’t be afraid to embrace tradition, though they certainly shouldn’t be bound by it either. Take something old and make it our own, through the language you chose, the main characters you create, and the settings you explore. It’s all any of us can do.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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