In the beginning, there was the Ring. One Ring to rule them all.
Forged in the fires of Mount Doom, the Ring gave its creator, the Dark Lord Sauron, ultimate power. And yet an ensuing battle between Sauron and the nations of Middle-earth left the Dark Lord defeated. The Ring was lost for many years, eventually discovered by a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, who goes on to prove that “the time will soon come when Hobbits will shape the fortunes of all.”
And so begins The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment in director Peter Jackson’s original trilogy, adapted from the novels by J.R. R. Tolkien. The film series follows Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and his motley fellowship of protectors as they travel to Mordor to destroy the Ring, which Frodo has inherited from his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm). On their trail: demons, Orcs, and Sauron himself, who has dispatched a horde of deathly hunters called Ringwraiths to track the One Ring down.
Fellowship functions as a Genesis story, with many tropes taken from the first book of the Bible: paradise, temptation, fraternal conflict, the fall of humankind. The film not only depicts familiar archetypes of scripture, it also helps to expand our reading of God’s word. Like Genesis, The Fellowship of the Ring establishes the line between good and evil, detailing the repercussions for those who choose to cross that line.
We are presented with Eden in the form of the Shire, a bucolic Hobbit community and home to our hero. The Shire is as close to paradise as anywhere, with its sunlit skies, butterflies, and birds perpetually singing; a landscape laden with tall grass, bright flowers, and babbling streams, and dotted with Hobbits at work, play, and leisure, all with smiles across their faces. As Bilbo puts it, “Where our hearts truly lie is peace and quiet and good, tilled earth.” An innocence runs through the Shire that also lends it its Edenic quality, its residents seemingly free from conflict. “Life in the wide world goes on,” says Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the visiting wizard who will send Frodo on his journey, “scarcely even aware of the existence of Hobbits.”
Once the Ring is introduced into this idyllic scene, however, Frodo and friends are forced to leave the only home they’ve ever known. In a way, the journey to come—both in the film and in the book of Genesis—represents an attempt to return to this state of tranquility.
TC Podcast: Tolkien Theology
Like the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, the Ring is a forbidden totem whose procurement poses an imminent threat to all. As Gandalf explains, Sauron “needs only this Ring to cover the world in a second darkness.” The wizard insists that Bilbo give up possession of the Ring. “For your own good,” he implores. Similarly, Genesis 3 details the consequence of disobeying God, as well as humanity’s first test of free will. Adam and Eve have the opportunity to reject evil, precisely for their own good.
In Fellowship, we soon see the effect the Ring has on Bilbo, who snaps at Gandalf with a bestial snarl. “What business is it of yours what I do with my own things?” Bilbo's rebuffing of Gandalf recalls Cain’s response to God after killing his brother, Abel; it’s a response rooted in fear. We see a similar reaction in the film from Boromir (Sean Bean), a member of the fellowship and a prince of the Kingdom of Gondor, who turns against Frodo while under the Ring’s control. He sees the Ring as “a gift to the foes of Mordor,” a weapon to wield against his enemies, so that Gondor may rise again. As he chases Frodo through the woods, frothing, yelling, “It should have been mine!” we’re reminded of another scene in Genesis, in which Esau curses his brother, Jacob, who has stolen his birthright and his father’s blessing. In each of these tales, the assailant seeks divine favor, lashing out when it’s not received. Each is a cautionary tale about the thirst for power and the threat of temptation. For temptation breeds fear, and fear makes monsters of us all.
This temptation (ahem) stems from the apple in the Garden of Eden. As with the Ring, the Tree of Knowledge promises divine power: “when you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil,” the serpent claims. In both instances, that power proves too much for its bearer to handle. This may be the point: to not only affirm God's sovereignty, but to appreciate the boundaries of our own humanity. God warns Adam and Eve that if they eat from the tree they will “certainly die.” But what happens is more involved than immediate death. And when the couple’s eyes are opened to realize that they’re naked, the revelation isn’t necessarily about shame for the human form. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite.
In the film, the Ring renders the wearer invisible. What at first appears a mere parlor trick is revealed to be more sinister once Frodo slips the Ring on himself. He vanishes, and finds himself on an alternate plane of existence—a windswept void steeped in shadows. Further, he finds himself directly in Sauron’s crosshairs, the Dark Lord’s gaze “a great eye, lidless, wreathed in flame.” It’s in this void, too, that Frodo sees the Ringwraiths for who they really are: the souls of fallen kings, corrupted by Sauron, slaves to his will, and forever lost to the darkness. In them, we see the end result of this temptation for power; we learn that true knowledge of good and evil comes at the loss of our humanity. “There is no life in the void,” the Dark Lord growls. “Only death.”
But there is hope.
The fellowship includes Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), heir to the throne of Gondor and an example of the type of king that the Ringwraiths could have been: one who resists the Ring’s temptation. In Aragon we see another shot at free will, another opportunity to choose good over evil and humanity over dehumanizing power.
And in Boromir, who is slain during an Orc attack, we ultimately see that choosing humanity may require sacrifice. Freed from the Ring’s spell, he gives his life to protect Frodo, the Ring-bearer. In death, Boromir is remorseful for his greed, begging forgiveness for failing the fellowship. Aragon insists that what matters is how his countryman ended his journey, not how he began it. “You fought bravely,” he assures him. “And you kept your honor.” As with Genesis, Fellowship of the Ring is only the beginning. While each successive story chronicles the effects of the Fall, they also set the stage for the possibility of redemption.