I guess this turned into a love letter

I thought I was writing about hobbits and 9/11

I guess this turned into a love letter
I’ll never really get over movie theaters. Or the stories I learned in them. Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

One of my Christmas presents from Riley was a movie theater marathon of the extended versions of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Our local dine-in theater is showing the trilogy over the course of three weekends in January. The gift is a union of my three great loves - movie theaters, comfiness and food being brought to me. In a nice touch, he included a print-out of the movie theater menu along with the three tickets. I took a few days to decide what to order.

We saw the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, last weekend. I ordered the pickle fries and a cheeseburger. This weekend, I am doing pickle fries, popcorn and a cookie shake. The final movie? Anything could happen, but pickle fries will definitely be involved.

Frodo feels like a homemaker helping to save a world that pretends it doesn’t need her.

My love of dine-in theaters makes sense. But my love of Jackson’s version of The Lord of the Rings is a little harder to parse. I am the kind of nerd who thinks Peter Jackson got the books wildly wrong. The only thing he seems to agree with Tolkien on is that the Ring of Power needed to be destroyed.

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men, doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie. - J.R.R. Tolkien

The two men get to the ring’s destruction in very different ways. Tolkien wrote about a long, hard, wandering walk. Jackson filmed an action movie. His characters are all radically different from the books. In the movie, Frodo’s freely chosen, humble odyssey is often ceded to Aragorn’s destiny. The man who should be king, Aragorn is one of many necessary heroes in the book. But in Jackson’s hands, Aragorn becomes a lone figure cut from Joseph Campbell’s cloth

In the book, Frodo feels like a homemaker helping to save a world that pretends it doesn’t need her. And in the movie, Aragorn feels like pick up artist fan fiction. That’s really the best way I explain the tension I feel between the two versions. 


In the rest of the narrative, Jackson emphasizes everything I think Tolkien would not, and cuts out the parts I think Tolkien treasured most. He also adds plenty that never existed in the books. Some of the additions are harmless. And some are not. 

But the movies came out during the last years of my childhood. And seeing each of them for the first time in theaters is one of my favorite memories. I always went to the opening day with my dad and siblings. We sat and ate popcorn and gasped and cheered.

The first movie came out in December 2001. I was sixteen. Just a few months earlier, I’d sat in my math class and watched the Twin Towers fall. I felt sick and frightened all the time. Of course, some of this had to do with my first big breaks from childhood. I was already in the process of learning that the world was not peaceful or fair before 9/11. But since that morning, I’d felt like the earth was beginning to be covered in a new shadow. 

The Red Eye of Sauron, as designed by Tolkien

I thought the shadow was being cast by anti-democratic forces. I was right, in a way. But I didn’t understand that those forces were inside my country. In Lord of the Rings, evil Sauron has an all-seeing eye. The shadow I felt growing strives for the same kind of vision. The Department of Defense and Silicon Valley used 9/11 as scaffolding for framing of the surveillance state and its economy, surveillance capitalism. The viral misinformation that now sways elections and convinces people vaccines are tainted with microchips is just one shade of the long shadow their structure casts.

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In the books, Frodo is 50 years old when he finally begins the long walk to Mordor. He’s not been out in the world much, but he knows of it. He’s spent years learning from books and the figures passing through the Shire. In the movies, Frodo is still in his last bloom of childhood. Elijah Wood was 18 when he started filming, and looked younger. He knows little of the world and what little he knows leaves him flustered and frightened. 

At sixteen, I could see myself in his Frodo in a way I had not seen myself in the book’s Frodo. While Frodo was on his way out of the Shire, I was on my way out of my childhood. The second movie came out as I felt stuck in the middle of childhood and adulthood. There seemed to be no good place to go. And then as Frodo walked into Mordor, I was walking into the uncertainty of living away from home for the first time. The last movie came out just a few months before I turned nineteen. My first semester of college had been confusing, and richer with failure than I liked to admit. 

It was a relief to go home for Christmas. I ached for narratives that made sense. When my dad said he got tickets for opening night of Return of the King, I clapped. I saw it a second time that week with Riley. We’d grown up together. And living away from him had been harder than I expected. He was still living at home, getting ready to leave on an LDS mission. I wouldn’t see him again for two years. We were just friends. But I loved him. 

The end of the last book and the end of the last movie are very different. But in both, Sauron is vanquished. Sam returns to the Shire, to marry and have children. Frodo goes to the Undying Lands, to finally find peace. Sitting next to Riley, I thought how much I preferred Sam’s choice over Frodo’s. I wondered if Riley agreed. And I wondered if we’d find each other again after two years apart. 

Want to see a photo of us in high school? Riley asked me to a dance the fall of our senior year. I thought he’d for sure realized he loved me. Finally! But he wanted to go with a friend so it would feel “low pressure.” Poor heartsick little Meg. But also look at my 2002 Betsey Johnson coat!

Maybe that’s why I cried during the opening credits in between bites of pickle fries. Because we did find each other again, and we’ve been walking together ever since -putting things down and gathering others up along the way. 

Or maybe I cried because I haven’t watched these movies since my dad died nearly nine years ago. It seemed wrong, somehow, to watch them in a world where he’s not eating popcorn somewhere. 

Or maybe…well…

It seems necessary to admit that I might have cried because some past part of me liked Peter Jackson’s version better than Tolkien’s. 

I still thought there was a way for men’s power to keep me safe, for certain.

In the books, Aragorn is not shy about his claim to the throne. And his sitting on it is no guarantee of anything. But in the movie, Aragorn is reluctant about his claim. He shies away from power, only laying his hands on it when he understands the preservation of the kingdom depends upon his rule. At the end of the movie, Aragorn becomes the King he was ordained to be. And so the safety of Gondor is certain. When I first saw the movies, I still thought there was a way for men’s power to keep me safe, for certain. And I wanted to be safe, for certain. I still do.

Jackson’s Aragorn looks like he is dancing away from power even as he marches toward it. It is a choreography that looks like the movements of men in my first religion. Men were not supposed to desire priesthood power, but the safety of the family and community depended on them wielding it. They only claimed the power to preside because there was simply no other way. I didn’t just see this dance in the halls of my church, it was performed in my country’s halls of power too. I thought each practiced step was holy.

As a teenager sitting next to Riley in the theater, I wanted to know if he preferred a life in the Shire over eternity in the Undying Lands. But in my heart I thought his destiny was closer to the cinematic Aragorn’s than the book-bound Sam’s. Maybe I felt like a hobbit, but he was a man. The preservation of God’s kingdom and our country depended on his willingness to rule.

Concentrating power in men’s hands guarantees many things but safety isn’t one of them.

Almost twenty years later, I understand that concentrating power in men’s hands guarantees many things but safety isn’t one of them. Still, I can’t pretend I don’t miss thinking the world could be protected by the ordained few. I won’t infantilize my past self by saying that version of the world was an easier place to live in. It wasn’t. But itwas a world with a storyline that cut a straight path through the curving wilds.

Riley and I stepped off that straight path awhile ago. I don’t think we left it behind us, that implies some sort of forward progression. Instead, I feel us circling in and out, like we’re walking a labyrinth. I can’t see its center, but I can feel it. We aren’t ahead of, or behind, anyone. We’re just together. Each halting step feels holy.

It was nice to see The Fellowship of the Ring in theaters again. And not just because of the fried food and comfiness. Jackson’s movies are beautiful. All these years later, it was still thrilling to see the Shire depicted with such care. The movies don’t spend nearly enough time there. I think that’s part of what Jackson misses, really. Jackson wants to get the viewer on and into the adventure. Tolkien wants the reader to remember that this journey started at home.

In the book and the movie, Frodo and Gandalf have a conversation that’s become very famous. The dialog is pretty similar in each. Referencing all the evil that’s about the descend on Middle-earth, Frodo says, 

“I wish it need not have happened in my time.”

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and 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 us.”

In the movie, this conversation happens long after Frodo embarked on his walk to destroy the ring in the fire of Mount Doom. He and Gandalf are sitting together, under a mountain, in a mine full of orcs. The entrance to the mine is blocked. Frodo has no choice but to move forward. 

But in the book, this conversation happens in Frodo’s home in the Shire. The decision is put to Frodo when no entrance or exit is obstructed. The fire is crackling. The plates are full of cheese and bread. The cups are full of tea. I think that all matters. Frodo can choose to become one of the thousands of pinpoints of light that break the shadow. Or he can choose something else. 

Frodo is still warm at home when he decides what he’ll do with the time that’s been given to him. He decides he’ll do what he can, with what little he has. Isn’t that the most any of us can pledge from our kitchens?

A Shire scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, look at that pottery!

It’s this part of the story that now resonates with me the most. The homemaker hobbit who decides to do what he is too small to do. Maybe that’s why I so cherish Jackson’s short scenes in the Shire. I glimpse, for a moment, a hobbitized version of the domestic spaces where so many of us have to make our hardest, most lasting decisions. 

I kept thinking about how white supremacy is so much like Tolkien’s Ring of Power.

There is something else. As I watched those domestic scenes in the theater this go around, I kept thinking about how white supremacy is so much like Tolkien’s Ring of Power. Many are seduced by its promise of power, but it destroys everything, including the person who tries to wield it. I wonder what it will take for more white people to sit in their kitchens and make the decision that Frodo made - today is the day I set out to destroy the ring.

White people can’t fling it from us in one grand gesture, there’s no fire of Mount Doom that can melt white supremacy. Instead, we need to chip away at its power each day, at home, at school, at work. It’s a lifelong work. And it’s not the calling of lone heroes. Instead, millions of regular people need to decide what they’ll do with the time given to them every day. Unlike Frodo, we get to come home most nights. And each morning is a new chance to make the decision again. 

I am reading Lord of the Rings again right now. The books aren’t perfect, but I think I’ll always carry them. I don’t think I’ll watch Peter Jackson’s movies again after this movie marathon. I am looking forward to the next two weekends. And afterwards, I’ll be ready to put Jackson’s version of the world down, for good. It’s kind of a tender realization. Thanks for letting me work it all out with you here. 

This weekend, I’ll probably cry again during the credits. But the pickle fries will comfort me. And when I walk out of the theater, Riley will be walking beside me. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.