Gandalf the Grey roamed Middle Earth for 11,000 years, which is about how long the last two decades here on real Earth have felt. But against all odds, we made it to 2021, which marks the 20th anniversary of Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” which premiered on December 19, 2001. The first installment of Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning trilogy, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved novels, forever changed the face of popular entertainment, ushering film and television into a new age of high fantasy. (“The Fellowship” walked so “Game of Thrones” and “The Witcher” could run.)
If you found your way to this article, you’re probably already a Ringer (that’s insider parlance for a “Lord of the Rings” superfan). But just in case, here’s a primer on the first chapter: Tolkien’s book and Jackson’s movie center on Frodo Baggins, a hobbit who comes into possession of the One Ring, an all-powerful piece of jewelry under the sway of the dark Lord Sauron. Frodo must take the ring to Mordor to destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom, and he’s accompanied on his quest by a multi-species band of adventurers: a wizard, two humans, three hobbits, an elf, and a dwarf.
With those basics out of the way, we present a deep dive into the lore behind “The Fellowship of the Ring,” from Tolkien’s first conception of his novel in the trenches of World War I to fascinating — and strange — behind-the-scenes trivia from the film.
The Legend of Tolkien
Born in 1892, legendary British writer Tolkien has come to be known as the father of high fantasy literature — but that was never his intention. The Oxford don was first and foremost a lover of languages. While serving as a lieutenant in WWI, Tolkien took his mind off the monotony and trench warfare by writing an early work that would evolve into “The Silmarillion,” his lifelong opus about the mythology and history of Middle Earth. (Tolkien’s experiences at the Battle of the Somme were said to inspire his depictions of the bleak landscape of Mordor.)
An avid philologist, Tolkien would go on to invent around 20 languages for his sprawling world. The novels that sprung from it, beginning with “The Hobbit” and followed by “The Lord of the Rings” books, were merely created to “provide a world for the languages,” per the author. He would dedicate 12 years of his life to writing the trilogy, typing the entire series with two fingers. “The Fellowship of the Ring” was finally published in 1954, when Tolkien was already in his sixties. It would go on to become the second-most-read book of the 20th century, after the Bible.
The Origins of the Film
When Peter Jackson set out to create his sprawling epic, at least as difficult an undertaking as writing the books themselves. Others had attempted a live-action “Lord of the Rings” adaptation before the Kiwi director — most notably (and weirdly), the Beatles. In the 1960s, the Fab Four pitched a version of the film to be directed by Stanley Kubrick, with Paul McCartney as Frodo, Ringo Starr as Samwise Gamgee, and George Harrison as Gandalf, and John Lennon as Gollum. (Both Tolkien and Kubrick responded with a resounding no.)
Likewise, when Jackson began casting his film, there were many versions of what could have been. Nicolas Cage, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Russell Crowe were all offered the role of exiled royal Aragorn, with the part eventually going to first Stuart Townsend and ultimately Viggo Mortensen when the former was deemed too young. Sean Connery, Patrick Stewart, and Christopher Plummer were considered for Gandalf. (Connery turned it down because he “didn’t understand the script.”) David Bowie wanted to play elf lord Elrond; Tim Curry and Jeremy Irons were considered for evil wizard Saruman; Jake Gyllenhaal auditioned for Frodo; Lucy Lawless was nearly Galadriel, and Liam Neeson said no to the role of Boromir.
The Real-Life Fellowship
The cast that was eventually assembled — Elijah Wood as Frodo, Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Mortensen as Aragorn, Sean Astin as Samwise, Billy Boyd as Pippin, Dominic Monaghan as Merry, Orlando Bloom as Legolas, John Rhys-Davies as Gimli, and Sean Bean (AKA Ned Stark!) as Boromir — had never met each other before production began on the first film. But they soon became as close as the Fellowship itself, so much so that eight of the actors got the number 9 tattooed on their bodies in Elvish script. (Jackson, for his part, got the number 10 inked.)
Trivia about the cast in production abounds, but here are a few of our favorites: The late Christopher Lee, who played Saruman, was a lifelong “Lord of the Rings” superfan who reread the books every year and once met Tolkien at a bar in Oxford. (Mortensen said Lee was “like the ghost of Tolkien on set.”) Rhys-Davies, who played a dwarf and therefore one of the shortest members of the party, is a towering 6'1" in real life. Bloom was only two days out of graduating drama school when he was cast as Legolas and got the master class of his life working on the films. Bean, who was terrified of flying, hiked two hours in full costume to the snowy mountaintop of Caradhras while the rest of the Fellowship arrived via helicopter. And in his iconic scene fighting the Balrog near the end of the movie, McKellen was actually acting opposite a ping-pong ball.
The most dedicated cast member by far was Mortensen, who joined the film on short notice without having any familiarity with Tolkien’s novels at the behest of his 11-year-old son. But he soon got so into his role that he became an expert swordsman, performing with a real steel blade and carrying the sword with him at all times, even when he was off-set eating dinner at local restaurants. A linguistics lover himself, he learned Elvish for the role.
Behind the Scenes
To create the showdowns in “The Fellowship,” Jackson employed a renowned fight choreographer: Robert James Gilbert Anderson, a former Olympic fencer who also oversaw the swordsmanship of “The Princess Bride,” “Highlander,” “The Mask of Zorro,” and “Barry Lyndon,” among others. He also was the man behind Darth Vader’s mask in lightsaber duels with Luke Skywalker in the “Star Wars” films.
The “Lord of the Rings” films have become synonymous with Jackson’s native New Zealand, with the movie employing the island country’s diverse landscapes as Middle Earth locations. The movies boosted the local economy so much that the nation installed an official Minister of Lord of the Rings. Today, tourists can take set tours of Hobbiton outside the town of Matamata, where the film’s “hobbit holes” remain intact. About those dwellings: Two different versions of Bilbo and Frodo’s home, Bag End, were built for production — one life-sized for the hobbit actors, and a miniature version for Gandalf, who is meant to tower above the halflings.
Dressing the actors was an even bigger undertaking than the sets: According to IMDb, costume designer Ngila Dickson employed 40 seamstresses to create the film’s 19,000 costumes. For the elves, 1,600 pairs of pointy latex ears were fabricated; for the hobbits, 1,800 hairy feet made it across the production line.
The Rise of "Figwit"
And finally, here’s our favorite weird “Fellowship” fact. Fans of HBO’s “The Flight of the Conchords,” the work of Kiwi musical duo Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, may recognize a familiar face in the city of Rivendell: a clean-shaven McKenzie, playing a nameless background elf. But he didn’t remain nameless for long: Enterprising fans dubbed him Figwit, short for “Frodo Is Great…Who Is That?!” Something of a cult developed around him, leading to a documentary on the subject. Due to his character’s popularity, McKenzie again made a cameo in Jackson’s “Hobbit” films years later.
So next time you find yourself at the Green Dragon around a pitcher of the Gaffer’s Home Brew, consider sharing some of these morsels of “Fellowship” trivia. We guarantee you’ll be more popular than Gandalf putting on a fireworks display at Bilbo’s farewell party. (Just don’t let any of those infernal Sackville-Bagginses ruin your evening.)
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