How Lord Of The Rings offers up the perfect antidote to toxic masculinity

The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King might be celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, but it still feels every bit as revolutionary as it did at the time of its original release.     

This year – somewhat terrifyingly – marks the 20th anniversary of The Return Of The King, aka the final chapter in the sweeping fantasy saga that is the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Yet somehow, despite the fact that two whole decades have whizzed by since I first saw it on the big screen (“I’m old, Gandalf”), it’s a film that somehow still feels new to me, no matter how many times I watch it.

Now, I’ll admit it; I’m a big rewatcher when it comes to LOTR. In fact, the winter lockdown of 2020 gave me more than enough time to indulge in all 692 minutes of the trilogy’s extra-special extended editions (because if you’re gonna do it, do it right). And, yes, I cried noisily, tears shooting from my eyes in the manner of a cartoon character, when Sam gently informed Frodo that this shadow is “only a passing thing… [and] even darkness must pass” because… well, because it felt so wholly applicable to our pandemic-addled world at that exact moment, I guess. Plus, it was Christmas and I’d been at the Bailey’s. So sue me.

Still, though, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I love it so much. Is it the stellar cast, maybe, or the sheer scale of the whole thing? The evocative music, the costumes, the still-brilliant special effects? The emphasis on good triumphing over evil, perhaps? The reminder that there’s always, always, always still cause for hope?

Well, it’s almost definitely a combination of all of the above. But I believe that my enduring love for this franchise is also largely down to the fact that – and don’t you dare judge me for saying so – it offers up a beautiful antidote to the toxic masculinity we so often see on screen.

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Now, there’s no getting away from the fact that the Lord Of The Rings trilogy is, largely, a tale about men. Yes, we have our Galadriels, our Rosies, our Arwens, and our Eowyns (JRR Tolkien had a thing for very similar-sounding names), but they are not the beating heart of this franchise; rather, it’s our central Fellowship. As in, yes, the nine men who stepped up to deliver the One Ring (I don’t have time to get into plot, really, but it’s essentially your basic gold band with your not-so-basic evil powers) to Mordor and destroy it in the fiery pits of Mount Doom, before it’s too late.

This means, then, that the films are largely devoted to the adventures of Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Boromir (Sean Bean), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), and Pippin (Billy Boyd). 

John Rhys-Davies, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Sean Bean, Dominic Monaghan, Sean Astin, Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, and Orlando Bloom take the lead in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

It’s easy to assume, at first glance, that each of these men adheres to the classic stereotype of the male fantasy hero; after all, they’re equipped with weapons, they’re constantly covered in grime and dirt, they’re riding horses (or ponies) into certain peril, and they’re seemingly ready for battle at a moment’s notice. And yet…

These men are tender, too, and completely unabashed by their emotions. Indeed, when Aragorn (sorry for the decades-old spoiler) finds Boromir dying, he lets his tears fall as he gently holds his friend in his arms, before kissing the fallen steward’s forehead and wishing him peace in the next life. And when Gandalf (again, sorry – but you’ve had 20 years to watch this) seemingly plummets to his death, Peter Jackson dedicates full minutes to everyone’s grief; we watch the men’s faces go blank with shock, before the full impact of the loss hits them and they sob piteously.

The men of the Fellowship refer to one another as “my friend” and “dear”. They support one another, they hug one another, and kiss one another without embarrassment. They are kind, attentive and affectionate. They argue, sure, but they always speak honestly and air their feelings afterwards – and forgiveness is never far off. They forage for flowers, and cook hearty meals, and lift their voices up in song at a moment’s notice. They never demean one another. They are faithful to their partners, and loyal to their friends. They’re willing to admit when they are wrong. And they engage, too, in non-sleazy banter (the only kind of banter this writer is here for, to be honest). 

Perhaps most beautiful of all, however, is how these men treat the women they meet during their journeys through Middle-earth. 

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When Arwen (Liv Tyler) informs Aragorn that she is the better rider, and therefore the far superior choice when it comes to getting Frodo away from the Nazgûl, he doesn’t argue the point; he simply nods and urges her to be careful. When Eowyn (Miranda Otto) decides to go against King Théoden’s wishes and gallops into battle, Merry joins her with nary a murmur – and welcomes her offer to protect him with a smile. And when Sam falls for the Shire’s resident barkeep, Rosie (Sarah McLeod), he doesn’t drunkenly leer at her, or heckle her, or pursue her endlessly; instead, he’s endlessly cordial and polite.

There are a thousand more examples I can offer up; a thousand seemingly tiny moments that feel far bigger when you hold them up against the usual checkpoints for masculinity – the stoicism, strength, virility, and dominance – that we continue to be served by films and TV shows. But, essentially, the well-written men of the Lord Of The Rings have given us a beautiful example of healthy masculinity; one that allows men to cry without shame, to experience deep love and affection, to treat women and girls with the same thoughtfulness with which they like to be treated, to create and maintain friendships, to express themselves, and to treat all others with the kindness and respect that they deserve. 

Some 20 years later, this still feels every bit as revolutionary as it did at the time, and its impact is still being felt, even now. Which, I suppose, proves the film’s central message 100% correct: even the smallest person can change the course of the future.

This article was originally published in 2021, but has been updated to celebrate the re-release of The Lord of The Rings: The Return Of The King in cinemas for its 20th anniversary.

Images: Shutterstock/Getty

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