Frodo “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
Gandalf “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.”
That conversation between Frodo and Gandalf, held deep within the Mines of Moria, is probably my single favorite moment of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. It shows a young hobbit, feeling inadequate to shoulder the incredible weight of the historic moment that has been thrust upon him, feeling overwhelmed by the associated suffering that this evil device of Sauron has wrought in his world, being met with the reassuring wisdom of the wizard, Gandalf, whose stirring words help Frodo to find his courage to rise to the challenge and continue to bear this burden. But Gandalf’s words do not serve that moment alone; one of many things I appreciate about Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of the story is that, when faced with the choice of how he could possibly go on with this quest without the support of the rest of The Fellowship of The Ring, when he believes he must go to Mordor alone to destroy the Ring or risk the seductive power of the Ring destroying the entire Fellowship, Frodo remembers these words, and they give him the strength he needs to move on.
And it’s not just Frodo who is heartened by Gandalf’s encouraging speech. When I feel like I can’t possibly measure up to a task that has been set before me, I often fondly return to these words, remembering that it serves no purpose to wish that something was not as it is, nor to wish myself out of my own responsibility to act within a certain context. All I have to decide is what to do with the time that’s been given to me. And in recent months, with all of the turmoil that has left our nation and our world reeling, I have witnessed many others sharing this moment from The Fellowship of the Ring on social media to express how small they feel compared to their circumstances – small, but at the same time, empowered to act. As The Lord of the Rings also reminds us in the words of Galadriel to Frodo in Lothlorien, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
Why do we return, over and over again, to quotes from our favorite movies? Why do we find them so inspirational, memorable, and powerful? Ultimately, I believe it is their capacity to capture, in a line, the essence of a story, of a philosophy, of a worldview, which resonates with our hearts. They enable us, like Frodo, to stand in the face of the darkness and the chaos of our world, and instead of shrinking back into regret and despair, to step forward with renewed courage to play the role of the unexpected hero of our own story. Naturally, as I stand upon the uncontested claim that The Lord of the Rings films are the greatest movies of all time, I will draw exclusively from their brilliant screenplays and source material to illustrate why we love movie quotes and how they can fill our lives with both wonder and wisdom at who we are and how we understand the world around us. There are so many reasons to love the stories, but I have attempted to narrow them down to a handful of iconic quotes which evoke certain core themes that get to the heart of what we appreciate about our adventures in Middle Earth.
Nature as Refreshingly Beautiful
“I want to see mountains again, mountains Gandalf!” – Bilbo Baggins
When Bilbo tells Gandalf that Frodo is “still in love with the Shire: the woods, the fields… little rivers,” the film invites us to sit in wonder at the beautiful world he lives in. Every time I hear Bilbo get lost in that line as his mind wanders through the marvels of the Shire, my heart is carried away right along with him. From the moment we set foot in the Shire, we are captivated by the little hobbit holes and the simple life that the hobbits lead within the comfort of their own borders. But this scene also arouses our own affection for the beauty of the natural world in our own humble surroundings – that, and a longing for adventure outside of our books and maps. One of the favorite lines my wife and I will often quote to each other is Bilbo’s confession that he wants to get away from the mundane to explore the wide world of Middle Earth once more: “I want to see mountains again, mountains Gandalf!” And this is, in fact, what Tolkien believed fantasy is supposed to do for us. Peter Kreeft, in his book The Philosophy of Tolkien, reveals, “One of the main uses of fantasy, Tolkien says in [his essay] “On Fairy Stories,” is ‘recovery,’ the ability to see the natural world more clearly by dipping it in myth and strangeness.” Tolkien describes this principle of recovery as a tool that empowers us to be “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them.”
Some people have a hard time getting into The Lord of The Rings because it seems like a flight from reality: talking trees, wizards and hobbits, dark powers and magic rings. However, Kreeft brilliantly counters this criticism with the claim that, in fact, Tolkien’s “fantasy is a flight to reality.”After a journey in Middle Earth, we can’t help but see our own world as more glorious and full of awesome majesty. Having been defeated by the mighty Caradhras, our own mountains appear more lofty and perilous. Having ventured through the Mines of Moria, our own caves seem more mysterious, their unfathomed depths more full of untold wonders. We are all invited to embark upon a journey and stand in awe with the rest of the Fellowship as Gandalf says, reverently, “Let me risk a little more light. Behold! The great realm of the dwarf city of Dwarrowdelf.” We do not leave reality behind when we enter Middle Earth. Rather, Middle Earth permeates our reality and infuses it with more life, and thus it becomes more truly real. G.K. Chesterton, a formative influence in how Tolkien understood fantasy literature, put it this way in his book, Orthodoxy:
“The fairy-tale philosopher is glad that the leaf is green precisely because it might have been scarlet. He feels as if it had turned green an instant before he looked at it. He is pleased that snow is white on the strictly reasonable ground that it might have been black. Every colour has in it a bold quality of choice; the red of garden roses is not only decisive but dramatic, like suddenly spilt blood.”
In short, The Lord of the Rings reminds us that nature ought not to be taken for granted. The colors and shapes of our world are meant to strike us in such a way that we see them anew, so that their beauty washes over us and refreshes our souls. Middle-Earth, saturated with Tolkien’s Christian worldview, is for us a taste of the fulfillment of the promise God gives in Isaiah 55:12: “The mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”
The Great Escape From Death
“Is everything sad going to come untrue?” – Samwise Gamgee
A significant character dies in each of The Lord of the Rings film, and one of the Fellowship barely escapes from death in each film as well: Gandalf is thought to have died in the Mines of Moria, Aragorn during the retreat to Helm’s Deep and Frodo on the far side of Shelob’s tunnels. But facing death is not just a significant part of the narrative. Kreeft observes that “Tolkien himself considered the fundamental theme of The Lord of The Rings to be death and immortality.” According to Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft, Tolkien expresses his belief that “the highest purpose of fantasy, or the fairy tale, is the satisfaction of deep desires, and most especially the desire for immortality. In “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien wrote that immortality is “the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: The Escape from Death… Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it,” and I would venture to assert that The Lord of the Rings is the most complete fairy-story that has ever been written.
There is a wonderful scene in The Return of the King, after the ring is destroyed, where Sam awakens to find that Gandalf is not dead. The last he had known, he and Frodo had collapsed, exhausted, in the shadow of Mt. Doom as the world was falling to ruin all about them in the wake of Sauron’s defeat. Overjoyed, Sam bursts into tears and asks, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” While this line did not make it into the film, it very much reflects Tolkien’s understanding of death as a Christian, and in it we can see hope for the end of our own stories as well. For the Christian, everything sad will ultimately come untrue. We believe that Jesus made The Great Escape from Death by conquering sin and death through his sinless life, his death, and resurrection. We are promised eternal life through the finished work and person of Jesus Christ; you might say he has invited us all to follow him in his Great Escape, so that anyone who believes in him can know, as Gandalf says, that “the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver-glass, and then you see it… White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
Everything sad will come untrue because we are not doomed to be forever parted from those we love, nor will our souls simply turn to dust and fade with the memory of those we leave behind. And while this particular image of the afterlife most accurately describes the passage that Gandalf would soon take to The Blessed Realm of Valinor, the fundamental concept is in line with many of the Biblical pictures we see in the book of Revelation: beautiful, transcendent images of a new Heaven and a new Earth, the joy and glory of which will make this present world pale in comparison. Amazingly enough, Gandalf’s quote, given to Pippin as words of comfort in The Return of the King, came from a description of the landscape that Frodo observes after a hard rain at Tom Bombadil’s house in The Fellowship of The Ring. I think this shows how much Tolkien’s worldview permeated every word he penned, that the screenwriters could take a descriptive passage of the landscape and turn it into one of the most hope-filled images about life after death ever to grace the silver screen.
Things with Personalities
“Never put it on, for the agents of the Dark Lord will be drawn to its power. Always remember, Frodo. The Ring is trying to get back to its Master. It wants to be found.” – Gandalf
In Tolkien’s world, everything is imbued with magic, such that it is all alive in a way that we may not expect from our own world. The Ring is the most obvious example of a thing which has taken on a personality of its own; not only that, but having been infused with Sauron’s power and his will to dominate all life, it also has the tremendous ability to exert power over others. For this reason, the wise will not touch it, while those with a little too much pride, i.e. Saruman and Denethor, believe that they could bend it to their wills. But it is Gandalf who sets the tone for us in this matter and helps us to realize the terrifying power that the Ring has to corrupt even the best and most well-intentioned character. When Frodo, discovering that the Ring is evil, tries to give it to Gandalf to take care of it, he is met with the firm warning, “Don’t tempt me, Frodo! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe. Understand, Frodo. I would use this Ring from a desire to do good… but through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.”
Of course, it is not only the Ring that reveals to us how things can be more than they seem. The Ents bring trees to life for us and personify the forest in a way we’d never imagined before. Treebeard’s poignant lament of the loss of the great forest surrounding the fortress of Isengard, prompted by his discovery of the desolation of Saruman, both portrays and stirs in us a deep affection for all living things: “Many of these trees were my friends. Creatures I had known from nut and acorn. They had voices of their own… a wizard should know better! There is no curse in elvish, entish or the tongues of men for this treachery.”
It is also Treebeard who reveals to us the greatest secret of how the things in Tolkien’s world live and breathe in a way seldom experienced in other worlds: they have names. Weapons, too, have a special power because of the mighty deeds they have done, and the characters revere the ancient, storied artifacts they come across. One of my favorites of these moments is when the mighty, proud warrior, Boromir, stands in awe of the fragments of the broken sword of Elendil, the blade that cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand at the end of the Second Age: “The shards of Narsil… still sharp!” Tolkien, who was both a Christian and a philologist, was likely inspired in part by the Hebrew language and culture, in which the naming of things is intended to reflect their nature – so much so that when various Biblical characters have a life-changing experience with God, they then go by a different name because they are essentially now a different person. Abram becomes Abraham after God makes the covenant with him; Jacob becomes Israel after wrestling with God. In the same way, Narsil becomes Andúril after the blade has been reforged, and by accepting the sword in The Return of the King, Aragorn the Ranger finally assumes the mantle of King. As Aragorn is Elendil’s heir, the power of the blade he wields is able to summon the terrible army of the Dead and even strike fear into the heart of Sauron. As Aragorn receives Andúril from Elrond, he reflects, “Sauron will not have forgotten the sword of Elendil.” Nor will we.
Courage in the Midst of our Greatest Fears
“A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day… this day we fight!” -Aragorn
The stakes are high. There is nothing less than the fate and freedom of all Middle Earth hanging in the balance. Frodo is allowed a prophetic look in the Mirror of Galadriel at the horrors of what will come to pass if he should fail, and it couldn’t be more terrifying. Galadriel warns The Fellowship, “The quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little, and it will fail, to the ruin of all.” Many times throughout the story, our heroes face overwhelming odds and seemingly impossible, no-win scenarios. But heroes they remain, precisely because they do not give up. Despite being confronted with their greatest fears, they not only find the courage to continue, but also inspire courage in the hearts of others.
In fact, the magic ring that Gandalf wears, called Narya, was created to give its bearer the power to inspire courage. “For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.” There is no one in Middle Earth whose presence and words kindle that courageous fire in the hearts of others more than Gandalf. And there are none who put out that fire quicker than the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths of Sauron. Their primary weapon is the fear they strike into the hearts of men with their presence, and it is Gandalf who is able to prevent the soldiers from abandoning their posts when the Nazgûl attack Minas Tirith in The Return of the King. As the soldiers gaze towards Mordor’s advancing armies and frantically ask whether or not Rohan will come to their rescue, Gandalf remarks, “Courage is the best defense that you have now.” And when Gandalf is talking about courage, of course he does not mean that one ought not feel fear in the presence of the Nazgûl, nor that the tens of thousands of orcs, trolls, and wicked men who were set to besiege Minas Tirith should be dismissed out of hand. In contrast to Denethor, the steward of Gondor, who truly has given in to fear of the Enemy, Gandalf is determined to stand and fight. His courage is that which Mark Twain spoke of when he said, “courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” It is Gandalf’s work to make sure that others are not paralyzed by fear, to empower them to choose to resist. Aragorn says it best: “The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others… There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.”
There are so many moments in The Lord of the Rings where a character’s courage is the defining attribute which turns the situation from a certain doom, where all hope has faded, to having a chance, however slim, of victory. But one of my favorites is Eowyn’s choice to fight to defend Rohan. In The Two Towers, a conversation with Aragorn at Edoras reveals where she finds her courage:
Eowyn: The women of this country learned long ago that those without swords can still die upon them. I fear neither death nor pain.
Aragorn: What do you fear, my lady?
Eowyn: A cage. To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.
What gives Eowyn the courage to fight is her defiance of a world in which no courage to do so remains. That is not the kind of world she is willing to resign herself to live in, and her bravery inspires us, like Merry, to follow her into battle.
Of course, our battles often look quite different than Eowyn’s. Few of us will ever have our valor tested by something like fighting the Lord of the Nazgûl in single combat; however, all of us will face dangers so deadly and so strong that “they say no living man can kill” them. For the Christian, there is the battle without and also the battle within, both of which require great courage to overcome our most powerful fears. The apostle Peter warns us to “be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith” (1 Peter 5:8-9). The apostle Paul reveals the treacherous state our sinful hearts are in; it takes great courage to confront your conflicted desires and submit them to God so that he can transform you into who he meant you to be. Paul laments, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.” But take heart: Christ has won the victory over both sin and the devil so that the same Spirit that is alive within us can achieve for us that same victory. We are no mere mortals. In Christ, we have become sons of God (Ephesians 1:5). Therefore, we are called to “be strong and courageous,” for God is with us and he will never leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6).
Faith, Hope, & Love in the Midst of our Heaviest Burdens
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” – Haldir
Our world is dark and full of peril. That is one of the strongest reasons why we feel so at home in Middle Earth. We see a fantastic reflection of our own epic struggle between good and evil, between life and death, played out for us, and we welcome the escape – not from reality, but from a mundane world which does not fully participate in the greater reality we find in The Lord of the Rings. Haldir is speaking to the Fellowship particularly of the beauty of Lothlorien, which shines especially bright in spite of, or perhaps because of, its contrast with the spreading darkness and evil of Sauron. And our hearts resonate deeply with his words – isn’t it true that some of the most wonderful things you’ve experienced in life were in the midst of your greatest sorrow? That the times you’ve laughed the loudest, loved the fiercest, or cried the most tears of joy were highlighted in part because of some other great burden or emotional weight that you were able to take off your shoulders, if only for a little while? Lothlorien is not only a safe haven for the Fellowship after their narrow escape from the Mines of Moria. Because “no shadow lay” on the realm of Galadriel, the Fellowship was able to truly rest there for a while and to grieve for Gandalf, who had fallen. A place of breathtaking beauty in its own right, Lothlorien must have been that much more full of splendor for the travelers given its juxtaposition with the darkness and terror they had just endured.
I discovered the truth of Haldir’s words on a deeply personal level a few years ago, when my father-in-law died of a sudden heart attack. He had just visited us in South Korea to celebrate the birth of our first child, and two months later he was gone. But the incredible thing was just how much life and love our little daughter showered upon our grief, and how – in some ways – our love for this new life became that much more precious as she grew out from under the shadow that his death had cast upon our hearts. In Lothlorien, Haldir is encouraging a downcast Fellowship with a glimpse of the larger story in which they find themselves. His words reflect the apostle Paul’s encouragement to the church, that we “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). For there is a form of grief from which there is no recovery – one in which there is no resurrection of the dead. If death is the final word, then we must suffer grief without hope, grief that diminishes our love for life because of the crushing weight of the loss we’ve experienced. But Tolkien believed that death was not the end; therefore, we may experience the beautiful juxtaposition in our own lives of deep sorrow mixed with rivers of joy. Instead of crippling us, our grief may actually help to cultivate in our character the virtues of faith, hope, and love that are necessary to continue to carry our heaviest burdens.
The best embodiment of each of these virtues in The Lord of the Rings exists in the friendship of Frodo and Sam, in part because of the incredible difficulties that they must face while bearing the burden of the Ring. By the end of The Two Towers, after a great trial in the ruins of the city of Osgiliath, Frodo, in his utter exhaustion, expresses to Sam that he fears he cannot go on. Sam encourages Frodo, helping him to remember the context of their struggle by imagining it to be a part of an epic tale:
Sam: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened… Folk in those stories had a lot of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo! And it’s worth fighting for!
This quote, paired with the scenes of the unexpected victory at Helm’s Deep and the Ents’ revenge upon Isengard, is one of the most hope-filled, heart-swelling moments in all of the films. And as Kreeft astutely observes, for Tolkien, “hope’s object is always a person, not an idea or ideal, not even the fulfillment of [a] task.” Frodo and Sam have hope for their quest not just because of their ethical conviction that they ought to give their lives, if necessary, to destroy the Ring so that good can defeat evil. They have hope because they believe in the wisdom and love of Gandalf, who appointed them for this task, and because they have each other. Their trust in one another is bone-deep, and that is one of the only parts of the story in which I have a serious bone to pick with Peter Jackson’s films. No amount of Gollum’s mischief could have caused Frodo to lose faith in Sam. In the book, Frodo and Sam face the dark terror of Shelob’s tunnels together and then Gollum’s betrayal comes between them as Sam tries to fight off Gollum while Frodo is ambushed by the great spider. And what greater love could be shown than when Sam, on the slopes of Mt. Doom, seeing that the Ring-bearer’s strength is utterly spent, says, “I can’t carry it for you – but I can carry you. Come on!” Sam’s love for Frodo was now mingled with grief, but it had certainly been tested and revealed to have grown the greater because of it.
Light that No Shadow Can Touch
“Farewell, Frodo Baggins. I give you the light of Eärendil, our most beloved star. May it be a light for you in dark places when all other lights go out.” -Galadriel
When I first watched The Fellowship of the Ring as a 13 year-old boy, I must admit that I was a little puzzled why Galadriel would choose to give Frodo a phial full of starlight. Legolas was given a sweet new bow, Merry and Pippin got ancient elvish daggers… why would the Ring-bearer be given a crystal vessel of luminous water? However, looking at the light of Eärendil in the context of Tolkien’s story as a whole, I began to see that this gift was in fact the greatest of them all. The most compelling part of The Lord of the Rings for me, the reason I return to it over and over again, is that the story itself is like the light of Eärendil to me; its narrative beauty and truth has served as a light for me in dark places when all the other lights in my life have gone out, refreshing my soul and enabling me to recover my view of myself and the world around me as they were meant to be seen. For there is a deeper magic at work in the heart of Tolkien’s story. This recurring theme we see of light shining into a great darkness, of challenging that darkness and prevailing over the forces of evil, is a narrative that is woven into the fabric of the cosmos from the very Beginning:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” –John 1:1-5
The orcs abhor sunlight, so much so that Sauron creates a dark cloud to cover their passage as his armies pour forth from Mordor to begin their attack. Likewise, Gollum’s corruption by the Ring drives him into caves in the Misty Mountains and leads him to despise both the sun and the moon for their brightness. Shelob hates the light. The spider cannot abide its presence in her lair and must retreat before it. Gandalf the White uses light to confront the poisonous hold of Saruman over King Theoden and to drive back the Nazgûl from harrying the hasty retreat of the soldiers of Gondor from the fallen city of Osgiliath.
But it is not merely the use of light as a metaphor for the great conflict between good and evil that is truly inspirational. What we are really drawn to is the affirmation that light will triumph over darkness in the end, that the darkness has not and will not overcome the light. As Sam says in his rousing speech to Frodo: “In the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer.” We long for that day when the sun will shine out the clearer and we will fear no darkness because it will be vanquished once and for all. As Christians, we stand with Tolkien in hope for when that day will come, when Jesus returns in judgment of evil and it will trouble us no more (Revelation 20). In the meantime, we will keep a tenacious hold on the phials of light that we have been given, and echo Sam’s words as we catch our own glimpses of the stars above the darkness in our skies: “Mr. Frodo, look! There is light and beauty up there that no shadow can touch.”
What are some of your favorite movie quotes? Why do you love them so much? I hope that our journey through Middle Earth together has provoked a desire within you to explore the philosophical foundations of the stories and the worldviews that your favorite quotes represent. And I hope that through that process, you will be empowered to enjoy them on an even deeper level than you had before. Most importantly, I would love to connect with you about which Lord of the Rings quotes are most impactful for you – so reach out and leave me a message! I’ll leave you with Bilbo’s parting farewell to the Shire folk on his 111th birthday, which is as true for us in this moment as it was for him: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve… I’ve put this off for far too long. I regret to announce this is the end. I am going now. I bid you all a very fond farewell. Goodbye.”