“Courage is not the absence of despair; it is, rather, the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair.”
- Rollo May
The Lord of the Rings is my favorite film, and for 16 years I’ve been too embarrassed to admit it. During high school, the eager announcement drew disdain from the peers I longed to impress. Only “nerds” liked it, and back then, nerd was akin to a curse word. During college, it drew sneers from the faculty I longed to impress. The film department saw no value in Hollywood, and Rings was the worst example of blockbuster self-indulgence. It was too long, too lumbering, and too emotionally artificial. In their minds, I didn’t have the proper taste in cinema.
The problem was, I’d always been drawn to the fantastical. Even as a young 20-something discovering (and appreciating) the realism of independent film, I found myself drawn back to the mythical things I loved as a child. Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Terminator. Fictional worlds bursting with imaginative implausibility, they unspooled from my heart as easily as a dropped spindle.
I was ashamed. For a time, I tried to erase my love for fantasy, dismiss it as a childish phase. If I didn’t have the “proper taste” in cinema, why was I devoting my life to a filmmaking degree?
That’s nonsense, of course. Certain technical standards are necessary in order to create a coherent, effective narrative, and our cultural consensus on masterpiece versus disaster is a relatively fixed point. Citizen Kane is the former, Battlefield Earth the latter. Yet one of art’s greatest beauties is its subjectivity. Each time a publication condemns today’s era of superhero films as a danger to independent cinema, another praises their subversive power. There are no rules for what constitutes a “proper taste” in cinema. A film’s level of exposure guarantees neither its quality nor its emotional resonance en masse. You love what you love.
I love all kinds of films. I happen to love fantasy the most because it’s a narrative hat trick of healing, inspiration, and recognition. The best examples, like Rings, amplify the baselines of the human condition—fear, desire, loneliness—against the backdrop of a mythological world, and in so doing grant viewers the safety to dissect and process those feelings. It’s far from a new concept. Fantasy sprang from the same roots as fairy tales and folklore, and ancient mythology used exaggerated metaphors to impart wisdom, empowerment, and caution. Hercules’ success lay in his resilience, not his inhuman strength. Icarus’ wings caught fire because of his arrogance. Confronting our fears and failings directly is necessary, but often terrifying; why not elevate ourselves without risk and shatter ourselves without lasting harm, often cathartically? We may not be hobbits, but they serve as a narrative shorthand for us to understand ourselves, the world, and our place within it. Their struggle against despair, their blind push toward unseen joy, is universal. Seeing yourself on screen is a revelation, even if the image is refracted through a broadly stroked distortion.
In Tolkien’s own essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” he summarizes it thus: “Creative fantasy…may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds.”
The Lord of the Rings is a true fantasy wrapped inside a $280 million budget. Flawed heroes vanquish a world-consuming evil. Themes of valor, hope, and love for our fellow man are its pillars. Published in the aftermath of World War II, the converging influences of the war and author J.R.R. Tolkien’s Catholicism are clear, albeit filtered through the lens of the Hero’s Journey methodology. A fairy tale, spun from and rooted in an eternal yearning for betterment, and one of Hollywood’s most ambitious, successful, and influential accomplishments.
I love fantasy because The Lord of the Rings showed me myself.
The way I describe mental illness is having a rat’s nest for a brain. Beneath my skull skulks a mess of a thing: vagrant, incoherent emotional scraps thorning into a makeshift bed. The intersections, the processing, the lobes and hemispheres and neural pathways we memorized for a biology test, are all wrong. The most simple tasks (breathing, walking, smiling) require Herculean effort. Common niceties—a coworker’s whisper, a stranger’s glance, a call going to voicemail—trigger a cocktail of imagined scenarios, all of which are disastrous. I’m never optimistic, despite logic to the contrary.
It’s as ingrained a routine as brushing teeth or folding laundry. From the moment I convince myself (6:15 a.m., Monday through Friday) that driving to work is worth leaving the safety of home, I’m walking through landmines trying to suppress a dozen mental fires that pirouette into dozens more. Some burn themselves out naturally; with most, the kindling sparks wild.
Adulthood is an extended lesson in surviving a hostile world. I’m still learning how to survive myself.
At its core, anxiety is living with fear. Constant, paralyzing fear of the unknown, and of pain. What kind of pain? Well, there’s social humiliation on one end of the scale, and death on the other. Someone I care about might hate me; my car may crash. Thoughts drag behind me like phantom limbs, weigh down my throat as if they were a mythological beast blocking the pathway to calm. They always taste of vomit.
“What are you afraid of?” people ask.
As his story begins, Frodo Baggins (the luminous Elijah Wood) has never known fear. Not true fear—cold and prescient, like the air before a storm. Its weight hasn’t hunched his spine into a bow. Ash has never lined his stomach, nor ice his lungs. He cannot fathom the existence of a trembling exhaustion so bone-deep, his body becomes empty baggage.
What Frodo does know is the love of home, of family; of function and predictability. The forest greenery tickling his hairy toes. A warm hearth fire, ale in a clean glass, fresh ink on an empty page. Unlike most archetypal protagonists, Frodo is content in his repetitive life. The world can only bring him good.
When true fear descends in the form of an innocuous family heirloom (The Ring, of course) it slices swift and merciless; a paper cut to the atria. Frodo shrinks in the firelight as he learns his world is threatened by the dark wizard Sauron, an evil so ancient Frodo assumed him a legend. The Ring must be destroyed, for if Sauron finds it, he will use its immense power to conquer and kill.
It would be easy for Frodo to run away. Giving into fear is far easier than choosing to combat it. After 28 years of anxiety, my mental surrender is almost a procedural memory. Fighting demands effort. Walking, pushing, crawling into the future’s uncertain dark because someone’s obligated to wash the dishes, feed the pets, keep my heart beating, regardless. Why try, when you could run and not look back? Hide? Ignore?
Frodo is terrified, yet he does not run. He meets evil’s gaze, and his crushed spine unfurls. His hand, browned by bright sun and tilled soil, snaps springtrap-firm over the Ring in his palm.
“What must I do?” he asks.
He binds danger to him, pushes into the uncertain dark, and does not hide.
I was 12-years-old, mousy, unremarkable, and barely four feet tall when I first saw The Fellowship of the Ring. Even that young I pressed myself into corners to avoid attention and stifle noise. I learned to insult myself before others could, to wear the words (weird, short, fat) as a shield. The fantasy stories I adored never lacked heroes for me to aspire to, but they arrived on-screen already so powerful, so courageous. I never saw myself: Human and meek, flawed and failing, and therefore saw no hope. How could I survive if the fear I daily felt wasn’t acknowledged?
In a crowded movie theater on Christmas Eve, 2001, I saw The Fellowship of the Ring. After, I began calling myself a hobbit.
It would be another decade before I knew the scientific terms, but as a descriptor, hobbit was close enough. Small, unremarkable, and afraid. For the first time I saw a hero who sang recognition in my heart, and in tandem, I finally saw hope.
Today I know the assembly of my parts. I take prescribed medications. I plan. I compartmentalize and repress. I assert my emotional limits and curl my body inward. I function in sprints, not marathons, all for my psychological well-being.
Here’s the secret: it doesn’t make living with mental illness easier. Despite knowing it doesn’t make me less worthy of acceptance and treatment, the truth is difficult to internalize. The world’s preached the opposite too often, and it grants little room to the marginalized. Even friends prove unfriendly when you’re “too sensitive.”
Too sensitive. Too emotional. Too difficult. In general, just too much. Calm down. Get over it. What’s wrong with you?
Another secret: I haven’t moved more than 50 miles from my childhood house, a place scented of pine trees and bonfires. It was the quintessential midwest, but I called it Middle Earth: the curving hills of farming town, a woods at our back, a house overlooking a lake so sheer it blinded in sunlight. I boasted scraped palms and calloused feet. Our acreage was small, but nothing seemed vaster.
Now, I leave my precisely constructed apartment, the only place my mental wasps quiet, only when required. I’m not overstimulated from noise and bodies, my skin flaking off in strips. I exist on my own terms within a calculated routine. Newness sickens me.
Surviving your mind is an ongoing process. I have yet to realize the line between protecting myself and allowing fear to rule me into paralysis. I may never. The crux of each day is whether I fight or hide. You never get used to your body chemistry trying to destroy you.
Much like a Ring’s silver chain chafing your neck; swelling a finger raw.
As the world-wise Bilbo (Ian Holm, humane and heartbreaking) passes to Frodo: “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door...there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Frodo learns this first-hand, through drawn blood and steel knuckles.
His fear metastasizes in shades. Rain-drenched nights, suffocating silence. Black cloaks, phantom horses, agonized screams. Hiding from Sauron’s Nazgûl hunters underneath an outcrop of rock, Frodo’s selfhood contracts. Everything has gone small, except the world. That is vast, and Frodo insignificant within.
The Ring sips his terror and finds it exquisite.
Frodo’s honesty of reaction is precious for its rarity. On the surface there isn’t anything impressive about a hobbit; their diminutive size and earthy living fail to impress. Frodo’s best friend, Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin, impossibly earnest), hasn’t traveled farther than a neighboring corn field. None are destined for this quest because of an advantage that makes them different, better, special.
Which means they fall. Cower. Weep. Heroes are rarely allowed a full emotional canvas beyond square-jawed determination, especially men: they mock fear and dismiss tears, so immune are they to “softer” emotions. Admitting fear means weakness; weakness is the ultimate failure. (Be a man. You fight like a girl.) Frodo’s fallibility marks him unique by the very nature of its averageness. His youthful features chip down into hollowed bones. His eyes rim dark. His heart hangs ragged. Near the end, he cannot even crawl.
Frodo’s fear, his pain, is not a flaw to be overcome or eradicated. It must be survived. He rings in me as true and harsh as a wet finger skimming a glass rim.
And it remains a process of survival, a continual struggle. Pale and wearied and hopeless, despite longing for home, Frodo forges ahead. He walks not around or above his fear, but through. The only deus ex machina is his resolve.
“I know what it is I must do,” he admits to the elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett, ethereal and ancient), “it’s just…” Shame pauses him. “I’m afraid to do it.”
Galadriel bends toward Frodo, smile transcendent. She tells him: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
An optimistic, uplifting sentiment we hope is true. We have little proof it is. But this is a story, so our smallest hero does just that.
For 16 years I have lain awake at night, heart emptied out, sculpting that phrase into a lifeline.
Ultimately, Frodo succeeds...in a way. Sam carries his near-lifeless body to the gaping mouth of Mount Doom’s flames, where Frodo faces one final choice: destroy the Ring or possess it.
He chooses possession.
Sometimes we fail even with the best intent. We reach the end only to discover there’s nothing left inside. We shatter. We relapse. It does not make us lesser, but human, in the purest, most pain-suffused sense. Sauron’s defeat occurs through ironic accident, and the happy ending at cost for Frodo; a pale half-moon scar from the Nazgûl blade that pierced his shoulder, a reminder within every throb of pain. The world celebrates while he stumbles a step behind. Even though he survived, tragedy marked him inexorably. It always does.
No one I care for is untouched by trauma. Different kinds, but the results of assault, illness, and loss remain carved into their bodies, their spirits—visible wounds, invisible scars. My own tragedies I inflicted upon myself in the self-destructive hope of relieving my anxiety. Even on our best days we move through the world with pain, and on our worst, we cannot move at all. Survivors are haunted, every hurt a sword-stab of memory.
“We set out to save the Shire,” Frodo tells his friends. “And it has been saved. But not for me.”
He departs the home that was once his sanctuary wearing a beatific smile. Gold light bleeds through the horizon to guide his way. We know this symbolism means a heaven. A land where his hurt will cease, and he will breathe lighter, move without ache.
The Lord of the Rings doesn’t end with evil’s departure. Our heroes’ wounds will scar, and the scars will overwhelm. But despite the cold snap of grief, hope blossoms.
I don’t need to explain how much darker the world has become since November 8th of last year. Terror is cyclical. Before, I walked through the world with a fear often irrational, unfounded. It is now very rational, unbearable, and inescapable.
I’ve always had a stubborn streak despite my anxiety. It’s familial, running in a deep vein from my great-grandmother, to my grandmother, to my aunts and my sister and my mother. We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.
Since November, I’ve questioned if it’s worth even trying. Trying to get out of bed, trying to fight, trying to live. What was the point, if harm could and will befall so many?
Hide. Run away. Be consumed. It’s easier.
I needed a specific kind of escapism. I know The Fellowship of the Ring so well I paid it little mind, tending to chores as it played in the background.
Until Frodo stood weeping at a riverbank and Gandalf’s words rang back to him from death.
“I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
“So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”
Hands full of wet dishes, I wept. I broke apart until I didn’t know how to come back. When I did, sliver by sliver, those words crystallized into something more than a personal mantra. A quasi-salvation revealed by fire, like the Ring’s hidden writing.
I know the state of our world, yet I have no personal resource except to cling to hope. The most sensationalistic, naive hope that the actions of the overlooked, the oppressed, the massacred, and the forgotten matter. That we are not small at all, but great. That we were not destined for greatness, but forged our bodies into flaming armor regardless. That courage is continuing through fear step by step, day to day. That at the end of all things, the pain of this life will have been worth it.
There’s a famous speech at the end of The Two Towers that, between time, quote, and parody, seems to have lost its greater resonance. Sam, muddy face streaked with tears, reminds a faltering Frodo of the “best” stories. The ones where despair seemed unconquerable, but eventually the sun “shined out the clearer.” Those were the stories that mattered.
The Lord of the Rings is the story that matters most to me. As a 12-year-old, as a teenager, through my 20s until now, I’ve shackled its words to my ribs. Its example of how to survive this life with compassion, love, and fortitude has carried me when I cannot walk, and continues to lift me into the uncertain dark of our future. A group of creatures with curved ears and hairy feet taught me that everyone has worth, that the struggle for deliverance is worthwhile, and persisting against the wide eye of evil is a choice. Whether that evil is one’s own mind, or a threat to the world we share.
“It is the mark of a good fairy-story,” Tolkien wrote, “that however wild its events...we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”
This is my gleam.
I don’t know if I could take the Ring to Mordor, though I do not know the way. All I can do is choose.
Kelcie Mattson is a writer and multimedia editor based in Missouri. She graduated with a BFA in Digital Filmmaking, and her work has appeared in Women and Hollywood, Bitch Flicks, and Panel & Frame. She writes about nerd culture, horror, and the intersection of cinema and feminism at her website Cinephile Daydreaming. She really loves cats and tea, but not combined.