It’s weird to watch The Lord of the Rings in 2020

As mentioned in our Twilight film rankings, I recently made a deal with my wife in which I would watch Twilight with her in exchange for her watching The Lord of the Rings with me. This past week, we watched the entire extended trilogy. Though I have seen the trilogy several times, it’s been a few years since my last viewing. So, much of the films were fresh to me. However, I could not help but view these films through the lens of this terrible year. I’d like to share with you my thoughts about what it was like to watch this series in 2020. This will not be a super politically charged rant like our Chernobyl piece, but I do have things to say about the state of the world we are in. 

The beauty of any true masterpiece of art is that its meaning can change throughout your life. I learn new things every year when I watch A Christmas Carol, for example. The same principle applies to LOTR. Many elements of the story are told in parable. Characters, places, plots, and items can represent any number of things. This results in endless applicability to a viewer’s life. Let’s talk about how this trilogy struck me during this viewing.

Also, full spoilers for the films will follow.

So small a thing…

The One Ring is a symbol. It can represent a variety of things at different times and to different people. The most obvious is that it is a symbol for power and control. Everyone wants it and it corrupts all who wield it. Also, the bigger you are, the harder you fall. The strongest and wisest will become the most corrupted by power and do the most damage to others. Where the humble and meek will do much less harm and have less to lose themselves.

Another way to look at the ring is that of an addiction. It’s an overwhelming, omnipresent desire for something that is unhealthy to you. It drives you to hurt yourself and others. Some people are more susceptible to addiction than others are. But ultimately, anyone can find themselves in a position where they are addicted to a substance or behavior. And if not kept in check, addiction can ruin their relationships and even their lives. People need support systems (fellowships, you might say) to overcome these challenges.

More broadly, I think the ring represents a burden in general. Any burden that a person is faced with. This is stated most plainly on the slopes of Mt. Doom by Sam: “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.” We can’t shoulder the pain and suffering of other people, but we can lift them up and help them nonetheless.

But in 2020? The ring is none of these things. 

Okay, it’s some of these things. But primarily, it’s the coronavirus. It is SARS-CoV-2. The virus is omnipresent. No matter how I try to distract myself and dive into escapism, I can only do so much. The danger the pandemic poses is always present. It always lingers in my mind. The threat is global in nature. There will be no safety in the Shire if Sauron uses the ring. There will be no safety in my own home if the virus progresses too quickly. 

Fear and Anxiety

In the films, various characters react to the ring in different ways. The two most common are the belief that the ring should be destroyed, or that it should be used as a weapon against the enemy. In our world, reactions to the pandemic run the gamut. Some want to do all in their power to eradicate the disease. Others use it for personal, economic, or political gain. Countless others don’t understand what the big deal is. It’s just a piece of jewelry, or it’s just like the flu. As Boromir said, “We’re all afraid, Frodo, but to let that fear drive us to destroy what hope we have, don’t you see that is madness?” Many people are reacting this way to the pandemic. They say we can’t let fear and anxiety rule the day. And that’s a fair point.

But as we watch the films, we know that Boromir is ultimately in the wrong. He says we shouldn’t be afraid, but his opposition to fear is misguided. He says we shouldn’t be afraid to use the ring as a weapon. And yet, fear for the safety of his people is what drives him to say this. In my country, some say that we can’t let fear stop us from living our lives. They fear for the safety of the economy and the education of our children. These are reasonable things to be concerned about. But we shouldn’t disregard the danger the ring poses just because we seek to protect these parts of our society. 

In the end, Boromir realizes he is in the wrong. The damage is done, however. The Fellowship is broken. He has put his friends and comrades in danger. Finally, he dies as he seeks to save them. I can’t help but see how this applies to living in a pandemic. We want to protect very important parts of our society and our culture. But if we fail to address the danger in front of us, we may find ourselves paying a massive price.

Reckless Hate

Beyond the virus, my country is dealing with another colossal challenge: systemic racism. We are trying to grapple with the reality that vulnerable people are hurt, taken advantage of, and even killed just because they live in our society. There are foul people in positions of power that hate them for the color of their skin, or the letters in their chromosomes, or who they happen to be attracted to. As Theoden says, “What can men do against such reckless hate?” The solution that Aragorn offers is to “ride out and meet them.” We must not cower. We must not hide. We must face bigotry, racism, sexism, and hatred head-on. We must challenge the powerful who would hurt our fellows.

So what can we do?

As with Frodo, I wish none of this had happened. Gandalf answers with words of wisdom: “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 to us.” So, we have a choice before us. We can’t rewind the clock. We can’t prevent the virus. We can’t prevent racism and hatred. We’re here. We’re in the thick of it. What shall we do?

Well, there are no easy answers. But I think the key lessons are that we must fight to destroy the ring (or virus) with all of our strength. We must be prepared to make sacrifices to do so. We must fight against hatred and evil, without shame. 

We must also recognize that you can never really go home. At the end of the films, Frodo returns home. But his wounds never heal, both literal and figurative. Some people will have long-lasting health effects from the virus. Others will die. But no matter what happens, none of us can go back. We can never return to 2019. The impact this year has had on us will linger for years, perhaps decades. 

Finally, and most importantly, we must listen to Sam. 

Samwise Gamgee: “I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.”

Frodo Baggins: “What are we holding onto, Sam?”

Samwise Gamgee: “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”

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