When All Other Lights Go Out – The Comfort of ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ (2001) 20 Years Later

I rewatch movies all the time. When given the choice between watching something new or revisiting an old favorite, I often retreat to the familiar. There’s comfort in that, like a pillow or blanket past its shelf life, but you hold onto it anyway. My go-to comfort movies are ‘80s & ‘90s Spielberg and anything starring Jackie Chan. In the midst of the pandemic though, there’s one movie I’ve been retreating to above all others— Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

I never would’ve expected a 2001 fantasy epic to take on a new meaning in the throes of a global crisis. Fellowship of the Ring became my blanket as the world got darker, and my cinematic companion in search of the light.

I was nine years old when I saw Fellowship in theaters. My sister, home from college for winter break, had read the books when she was my age. She wanted to see it opening night, but her friends were too cool to see a movie about hobbits, wizards, dwarves, and elves. At that age, I only ever wanted to be at the theater. The movie posters lining the walls were like peeking at the wonders of the world, and nothing smelled better than theater popcorn. I was more than delighted when my sister asked me to go with her, but I had no idea what I was in for.

Gandalf arrives at the Shire.
Image courtesy of New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

The prologue hit me like Sauron’s Warhammer. I was dropped in a war between men and elves versus Orcs and the dark lord Sauron, unfamiliar words strung together in a fictional place I had never heard of before — all of it tied together by the fairytale majesty of Cate Blanchett’s voice. Galadriel’s opening narration of “In the land of Mordor, in the fires of Mount Doom…” did more to expand the possibilities of the world for me than looking at a globe. It set my brain on fire.

I went from cheering along as Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), and Pippin (Billy Boyd) stumbled through Farmer Maggot’s (Cameron Rhodes) crops, to cowering in my seat as they hid from the Ringwraiths who heralded the shadows of a far bigger and more dangerous world. It was thrilling, funny, charming, and terrifying all at once. I didn’t know a movie could be so many things simultaneously, and filled with so many characters that the screen could hardly contain them.

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) fast-traveling to and from the Shire, Aragorn’s (Viggo Mortensen) cooler-than-hell intro at the Prancing Pony, to Arwen (Liv Tyler) in her full-tilt sprint to Rivendell; Fellowship felt massive because of how far we ventured moment-to-moment, and how much more there was left to explore by the end. I kept whispering to my sister in the theater, asking how they could possibly make it back to the Shire before the credits rolled. She kept shushing and telling me to “just watch.”

The hobbits encounter a Ringwraith on the road.
Image courtesy of New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

Three hours ago, I didn’t know about J.R.R. Tolkien or Middle-earth. Suddenly I was yearning for the fireplace in Bag End, I was crying for Gandalf (I didn’t know he comes back) and my heart bled for Boromir (Sean Bean) in his last stand. I could have stayed in that theater through all of the second breakfasts and side quests needed to finish the epic journey.

I talked my sister’s ear off on the drive home. What happens next? Do they make it? Will the Fellowship ever see each other again? “Just wait and see,” my sister would tease. I remember looking out the window and truly wishing I could go out there and see for myself. Our tiny island in the Pacific didn’t feel so small anymore. I thought if I trotted past the cane fields, wandered off the dirt paths and into the mountains, that I’d miraculously stumble upon Middle-earth. The promise of adventure felt like it was out there waiting for me like an open hand.

Lord of the Rings was the last thing on my mind as the pandemic dawned on us in 2020. I was working from home, then I was furloughed, and then I was let go. Admittedly, I was naïve in the early days of the crisis. I thought I could get my job back somehow when it seemed like COVID would only last the summer. When it became our “new normal,” I panicked. I was out of work and working overtime to find another opportunity, forge a different career path, though the possibilities seemed to shrink. Soon, I ceased being present in the moment doing the simple things I loved like watching movies because I was trying to outrun the feeling of being stuck in place.

Netflix was on in the background while I worried about family across the islands and my sister on the mainland. I worried about the future, my career, and starting over again. I worried my resume and cover letters weren’t impressive enough, because what does my years of freelancing matter when applying for service jobs? My life revolved around job pages and case counts. When I couldn’t sleep from all the worrying, I sunk deeper into social media for reassurance that wasn’t there. Everything had been filtered through the tiny windows of our phones. I was doomscrolling for an end that was nowhere near in sight.

In the midst of so much uncertainty, I turned to Fellowship of the Ring in the dead of night. I wanted to do anything besides scrolling for a few uninterrupted hours, and Peter Jackson’s three-hour odyssey sounded like a vacation. The days had blurred together so seamlessly that time didn’t seem to matter anymore. There was just… time. Infinite and dark, yet also winding down. Here I was at 29— burnt out and death-gripping my phone all day. It sounds corny to say that I leaned on movies to get me through this pandemic, but I needed the comfort. I needed a reminder that the world wasn’t such a small place.

Gandalf, Frodo, and Sam embark into the woods
Image courtesy of New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

Fellowship’s opening narration set to a black screen wasn’t quite the escape as I remembered: “The world has changed… much that once was, is lost.” I felt the timbre of Galadriel’s voice in my marrow. Admittedly, it’s gotten tougher to lose myself in fiction when viewing everything through the lens of the pandemic. Dialogue hits like cold hard truth, and scenarios seem too similar for the comfort of separation, like when Galadriel says, “You cannot go back.” But these moments, too, can shine like revelations.

The great wide open of Middle-earth felt unbearably cinematic to me at nine years old. This time, it was Frodo’s resilience that spoke to me on a molecular level. When he finds himself burdened with the gravity of the One Ring, he’s so frightened of the legend coming true that he hands it to Gandalf: “You must take it.” He’ll soon discover it’s a burden only he can bear. And then Frodo says rather than asks, “What must I do.

When Frodo and Sam reach Rivendell, they’ve essentially completed their journey. The initial task is to get the ring into Elvish hands, so it ought to end there. It’s been nothing but terror since Frodo left the Shire. He tells Bilbo mournfully, “I spent my childhood pretending I was off somewhere else, off with you on one of your adventures. My own adventure turned out to be quite different.” He has no place in the story among giants and magic and power. But Frodo is shortchanging himself. He carries the ring when no one else can, and this gives him unexpected courage.

“I will take the ring to Mordor,” Frodo finds the will to say, so small amidst the bickering council that he could easily go unnoticed. He’s not a man or an elf or a dwarf. He’s a hobbit with an extraordinary resilience to the ring. He endures, and that’s more than enough. He’s just faced one long and perilous journey; now, he faces a longer and harder one. “Though I do not know the way,” Frodo adds, and one by one, nine hopeful companions line up to find a way together.

Frodo and Sam begin the next step of their journey
Image courtesy of New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s been easy to feel defeated in this pandemic and having to start all over again. I tried my hand and lost, so why bother? Except the days kept on coming despite my life grinding to a halt. Untethered from a work schedule, I had to relearn what to do with time, and not knowing what to do each day filled me with fear.

When the Fellowship reaches the mines and is stuck at a crossroads, Frodo laments everything that had come before: “I wish none of this had happened.” Gandalf says rather poignantly, “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.

I’ve had to learn how to see the victories in the small things. Sometimes it’s getting out of bed. Sometimes it’s getting a freelancing gig that’ll keep me busy for a few days, and the next job is a problem for another week. Other times it’s making sure I’m breathing okay, or going for a walk when I feel like it. These little victories amount to one step, followed by another, and so on. I don’t know if it’s a way out, but it feels like a way forward. “On your feet,” Aragorn tells a grief-stricken Sam, addressing the broken Fellowship at large. Sometimes getting up requires courage, and that’s never felt more true.

If there’s one thing I regret over the past two years, it’s that the pandemic nearly made me forget my love of movies. It’s the one thing I can do without failure— put on a movie, dim the lights, and behold. These days I need a bit of escapism more than I’ve ever needed it. Movies were there for me at my lowest long before the pandemic. 20 years later, when all other lights seemed to have gone out, The Fellowship of the Ring was there to blot out the darkness.