Day 6

Why Lord of the Rings endures as a pop culture touchstone

It’s been over twenty years since audiences watched Frodo Baggins and the fellowship of the ring set out on their quest to destroy the evil ring, and even longer since the release of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy novels, but the world of Lord of the Rings continues to endure as a major piece of pop culture.

It’s been 2 decades since the Lord of the Rings graced movie screens, but fans are just as passionate today

Lily Radford, an aspiring movie maker, says The Lord of the Rings is one of her favourite movies. Though Radford says the adventure aspect of the series may be what grabs people initially, the themes of friendship and loyalty are what keep them coming back. (Philip Drost/CBC)
Rings of Power, a streaming series prequel to the Lord of The Rings, has debuted — nearly 20 years after the movies debuted and 70 years after the original novels were published. So why do J.R.R. Tolkein’s stories endure?

It's been over twenty years since movie audiences watched Frodo Baggins and the fellowship go forth on their quest to destroy the evil ring, and even longer since the release of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy novels, but the world of Lord of the Rings continues to endure as a major piece of pop culture.

"I think every moment is my favourite. There's not a part that I don't love," said fan Sydney Driscoll-Davies. 

Amazon Prime is hoping to capitalize on that love. Thursday the streaming service released the first two episodes of The Rings of Power, a series set in Middle Earth, thousands of years before the events of Lord of the Rings. And Amazon has invested big — the first season reportedly cost $465 million US to make. 

Ahead of the show's release, fans flocked to Toronto's Fan Expo, not to see some of the upcoming new faces from the streaming series, but to greet old ones. The event played host to the four actors who portrayed the hobbits in the movie trilogy released between 2001 and 2003: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan. 

The actors were inundated with fans hoping to get their Lord of the Rings books or box sets signed. But Driscoll-Davies and her father, Greg Davies, took it a step further. The pair created an elaborate costume featuring themselves as hobbits Merry and Pippin being carried by orcs, soldiers of the Dark Lord.

Sydney Driscoll-Davies, right, and her father, Greg Davies, came to Fan Expo Canada this year dressed as hobbits Merry and Pippen being carried by orcs, a scene made famous in 2002's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. (Philip Drost/CBC)

"A lot of leather jackets were sacrifice for this costume. It's everything. Wood, metal, a lot of foam, Styrofoam, glue, a lot of paint, a lot of sweat, a lot of tears," said Davies. 

For them, The Lord of the Rings has been a family affair for almost everyone, though Driscoll-Davies says her mother "doesn't get it."

Growing up, Davies would tell his two daughters the story of Tolkien's The Hobbit before bed, all from memory. He says part of what makes Lord of the Rings iconic is that the story isn't all about the great swordsmen and archers. 

"They're a really good adventure story. But the heroes are the small people. It's not the fighter or the warriors that are the heroes. It's these small creatures doing the best they can. And that's what makes the difference in the world. And it's really impressive," he said.

"A lot of us aren't warrior princes, right? We're simple people, and it's an escapism and it's inspiring. It's just a great message." 

A banner for the Amazon Prime series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power hangs at Fan Expo Canada in Toronto last month. The streaming series aims to capitalize on the passion that Lord of the Rings still ignites in many fans. (Philip Drost/CBC)

For fan and aspiring movie maker Lily Radford, Lord of the Rings is about friendship. When she watches the movies, extended edition of course, she can't help but notice the fellowship among the characters. 

"There's something about the value of friendship, the fellowship of the ring, just a group of people going through life, no matter how crazy or funny or wild it is," she said. 

"The adventure part of it is fantastic. I think that's often what grabs people. What keeps them there, I think, is the values that are … presented through those characters of friendship and what that's really like."

Influential work

Thalia Godbout attended the Fan Expo, reprising a role she first took on as a small child. When Godbout was three years old, she was dressed as Frodo Baggins for Halloween, with her father as the wizard Gandalf. 

"My dad was a big fan of Lord of the Rings and he would lend me his books and I would read them," she said. "I would watch it with him every year."

Many years later, with a Frodo costume that was a bit more elaborate, Godbout is once again wielding the one ring to rule them all. 

Friends Aria Guthrie, left, and Thalia Godbout came to Fan Expo this year dressed as hobbit friends Sam and Frodo. Furry slides to represent hairy hobbit feet didn't make the picture. (Philip Drost/CBC)

"Lord of the Rings and Tolkien was super influential on fantasy media and fiction now, even after so many years," said Godbout.

The movies certainly made their mark on the film industry. The trilogy won a total of 17 Oscars, and its finale, The Return of the King, took home best picture in 2004.   

And the books influenced the fantasy genre as we know it, according to Anna Smol, who studies Tolkien's works, and is a professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.

"A lot of fantasy stories followed on after The Lord of the Rings," said Smol.

Anna Smol has done research on author J.R.R. Tolkien's unpublished manuscripts in the Weston Library at the University of Oxford in the U.K. (Submitted by Anna Smol)

"It's such an expansive world that [Tolkien] built … there's room for everybody and all kinds of different interests. And I think that's one of the things that can draw people. And it's one of the things that interest scholars, because there's so much that you can work on."

From movie fellowship to real-life friendship

Actor Dominic Monaghan can attest to that aspect of the films. Monaghan was part of that fellowship, through the role of hobbit Merry Brandybuck. He starred alongside Billy Boyd, who played Peregrin Took, better known as Pippin. 

As the two played the roles of best friends, the lines between acting and reality blurred. Now the pair are so close, they even have a podcast together called The Friendship Onion, which aims to "peel back the layers of their friendship, both on screen and off."

Monaghan said the films have been able to endure because they tell a classic story in a powerful way.

"Tolkien said there's only so many stories that you can actually tell. And this story, The Lord of the Rings, is just the classic hero's journey," said Monaghan. 

"You have a diminutive lead character who cannot achieve a mission without surrounding himself with facets of his personality that he doesn't have; bravery, speed, quickness, guile, wit, sense of humour. And they fight a common enemy."

Actor Dominic Monaghan, who played Merry in the trilogy, signs an autograph at Fan Expo. He says the story of Lord of the Rings tells the classic story of the hero's journey in a complete way. (Philip Drost/CBC)

Monaghan says that while The Lord of the Rings is best in class, it's not a new type of tale. 

"That story has been going on since we've all been telling stories. There are stories like that in the Bible; there are stories like that in every single culture that you can think," he said. 

"Tolkien, being a master storyteller and a master of language, was able to create a very rich world that isn't our world. And we want to know those stories. It's simple in its essence."

Time will tell if The Rings of Power captures that same essence, but fans say they are cautiously optimistic, and ready for the new adventure. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Philip Drost is a journalist with the CBC. You can reach him on Twitter @phildrost or by email at philip.drost@cbc.ca.

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