THE LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, Sean Astin, Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, 2001
CNN  — 

They weren’t meant to be heroes. Frodo Baggins, his steadfast companion Samwise Gamgee and their accidental journey-mates, jejune cousins Merry and Pippin, could have been content living out their days in the Shire with their fellow hobbits, feasting and smoking in pastoral comfort.

But when a mission that would determine the fate of their little world and the much wider one was foisted upon them, they heeded the call. They journeyed through the most treacherous terrains of Middle-earth for years on the word of a wizard. They joined a band of bellicose strangers who’d become their brothers. They looked evil in the eye more than once. They made dangerous mistakes and witnessed innumerable tragedies.

They persevered and ultimately made good on their promise, returning home, forever changed by what they’d seen and done

“Lord of the Rings” is the story of unlikely heroes who rise to the occasion, who give up the joys of first and second breakfasts to do what’s right. Theirs is a world of hobbits and elves and orcs and Ents and the Nazgûl and humans who do terrible and beautiful things.

Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, Boromir, Gimli, Samwise, Frodo, Merry and Pippin -- heroes and friends.

But it’s also a story that is ours – we who have lived through a pandemic that’s irrevocably changed the world as we knew it, forcing us to make choices and upend our lives in ways we likely never considered. Sam and Aragorn, characters we wished were our friends, have become our avatars. Because that’s the power of “Lord of the Rings” – the story never changes, but the meaning transforms into what we need it to be, and in turn, transforms us.

Peter Jackson’s theatrical adaptation of “The Fellowship of the Ring” was released 20 years ago this month, just three months after the September 11th attacks. It was a light then for Americans and global filmgoers alike, a winning depiction of friendship and good people doing impossible things that could make even the most fantasy-averse viewer weep.

And it’s been a light for viewers throughout the pandemic, too, a soft place to land when the pain of reality overwhelms and a font from which to draw strength to keep going.

Behind the scenes of how "Lord of the Rings" makes movie magic.

“The story and the characters tell the truth about what it means to be human,” said Sean Astin, whose Samwise is the heroic heart of the films, in emailed comments to CNN. “The journey is an immersive and complete tour through the spectrum of ideas and emotions we all share.”

We can’t always control the darkness we’re dealt. But it’s like Gandalf says in “Fellowship,” when Frodo laments that he wishes he’d never encountered the ring and endangered his friends: “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 us.” And, as a fictional road map for how to live throughout unprecedented times, “Lord of the Rings” is one that will endure.

‘LOTR’ is escapism with a purpose

Though Middle-earth mastermind J.R.R. Tolkien took his worlds and the characters within them seriously, he also intimately understood the escapist inclinations of his readers and the power of his stories to transport, inspire and save.

Tolkien defended escapist fantasy fiction in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” In that essay, Tolkien stated that escapism is “very practical, and may even be heroic” – readers and viewers who engage with fantasy stories aren’t abandoning the real world, but preparing themselves to better face it.

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” he wrote. “Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”

“Lord of the Rings” fans, by engaging with the story, “do for a time escape from our own world and our own troubles, but then, of course, we may also return to them better equipped to handle them; strengthened by the respite and perhaps even inspired to face the difficulties and evils that confront us,” said Corey Olsen, a scholar known as the “Tolkien Professor” for his in-depth study of Tolkien’s works, and president of the nonprofit Signum University.

Corey Olsen analyzes Tolkien's works with students at Signum University.

Tolkien started writing while recovering in a hospital bed from an illness he contracted during the Battle of the Somme in World War I. The world was wedged between wars when the first volume of “Lord of the Rings” was published in 1954, and the aftershocks of 9/11 were still loud when its adaptation, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” hit theaters.

What keeps Olsen returning to the story, both the books and films, he said, is what he’s learned about himself and the world throughout his life. The lessons the characters impart, he said, have been “a major part of the fabric of my worldview since long before I understood what that means.”

“I have learned as much about life, about doing the right thing, about facing adversity, about interacting with others from Tolkien than I have from almost any other source,” he said.

Viewers discovered ‘LOTR’ for the first time or fell deeper in love during the pandemic

For all the series’ acclaim, it took a pandemic for some would-be fans to finally enter the fantasy world they’d long been encouraged to visit.

Olivia Simone, a voracious reader who hosts the YouTube channel iLivieSimone, spent part of the pandemic finally dusting off the unread books on her shelf, including Tolkien’s works, and then watching their adaptations to compare.

Olivia Simone finally read and watched the full "Lord of the Rings" trilogy this year and loved what she found.

She wanted to finally understand the memes she’d been seeing everywhere – remember when it was impossible to escape variations of Sean Bean’s Boromir saying “one does not simply walk into Mordor”? And so she read “The Hobbit,” a prequel novel that follows Frodo’s uncle Bilbo and his own dalliance with the One Ring (and Gandalf!), and the “Lord of the RIngs” and then watched all six films based on the books. She and her sister plopped down on the couch and devoured the extended editions of the movies, filmed their reactions and posted them on her channel.

The verdict? She loved them. The characters and locales she visualized while reading were brought to life immaculately in the film, she said in her YouTube review. But what affected her the most was the unsinkable friendship between Sam and Frodo. Even when the ring’s corrosive power starts to wear down his dear “Mr. Frodo,” Sam is his staunchest supporter, saving his life and restoring his faith to finally destroy the One Ring.

“I found it so moving that those two had endured so much yet were still continuing on despite how hard it clearly was to take even one step forward,” she told CNN. “In the context of the pandemic, friendship and just putting one foot in front of the other even when things are rough rings even more true, for sure.”

The pandemic also provided the time – plenty of it – for Tolkien devotees to delve even deeper into his world. Take Matt Graf, who first fell head-over-heels with Tolkien’s world when he watched “Fellowship” on DVD in 2002. In January 2020, on a whim, he started a YouTube channel – “Nerd of the Rings” – where he dissects esoteric elements of “Lord of the Rings” and the wider world of Middle-earth.

Matt Graf has found a community of Tolkien fans through his YouTube channel, "Nerd of the Rings."

Within two months of the channel’s founding, “Nerd of the Rings” would become a social lifeline, connecting Graf to other Tolkienites who devoured his analyses.

“As someone who is a natural worrier, there is no doubt in my mind that spending extra time in Middle-earth during those challenging days was a great comfort through it all – not just for me and my viewers, but for millions around the world,” he said.

For years, Graf said, he’s taken solace in “Lord of the Rings” through health issues and unmooring personal losses. Now, he shares histories of supporting characters like Shelob the giant spider and even interviews cast members like John Rhys-Davies, who played the stubborn and loyal Dwarf Gimli in Jackson’s films.

“Despite overwhelming odds and knowing there is only a fool’s hope at success, our heroes resolve to do what they can – should they ultimately fail, they will fail while trying,” he said, a message he carries with him off the page and screen.

Fans’ connection to ‘LOTR’ changes as they grow

As fans and stars of “Lord of the Rings” live with the story and return to it throughout their lives, they find their understanding of it has changed.

Astin said major events from the January 6 insurrection, the Covid-19 pandemic and the growth of his children “make each passage in the story or moments in the film a sort of talisman … a divining rod that resonates differently in different moments.”

“I continue to learn things about Sam that I never knew,” he said, noting that he thinks about what being an honorary ring bearer meant to the hobbit. “My sense of that journey and what it means to him, and what death means to me are reexamined in my life daily.”

For Graf, the character of Théoden, king of Rohan, affects him more deeply now than it did when he he first fell in love with the series.

“As a father who has experienced the heartbreak of miscarriages, Théoden’s grief at the loss of his son and his declaring ‘no parent should have to bury their child’ cuts directly to my core,” Graf said. “As a father of a newly adopted daughter, I relate to Théoden’s relationship with Éowyn in an entirely different way. I now realize exactly what Théoden means in the books when he calls Éowyn ‘dearer than daughter.’”

The timeless adventure of ‘Lord of the Rings’ endures

We’ve lived with the “Lord of the Rings” films for 20 years and the books for nearly 70 years. It’s a testament to the strength of the story that all of them still hold up – and that new members are still being drawn to its substantial fellowship. Soon, there will be new stories to tell with Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings” series.

Graf found a community of like-minded Tolkienites with “Nerd of the Rings,” which has now grown to more than 400,000 subscribers. He’s harnessing their support now to inspire young people to love Tolkien, rallying his viewers to donate copies of “The Hobbit” to children’s hospitals.

Graf interviewed Gimli himself, John Rhys-Davies, on his YouTube channel.

Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd, who play Merry and Pippin respectively in the films, have a relationship that mirrors that of their characters. This year the pair launched a podcast, “The Friendship Onion,” where they recall their time on set, trade stories and pal around with castmates (including Astin). The results are giddy and delightful – in one episode, Astin, Monaghan and Boyd collapsed into giggles remembering how excited Jackson was to show them a CGI preview of Middle-earth’s foliage when the jetlagged cast first landed in New Zealand.

Olsen, meanwhile, is leading classes on Tolkien’s works at Signum University and hosting weekly programs that dissect the books. He said his model of leadership is inspired by the characters he’s known for years: the confident Aragorn, the good-natured Gandalf, the faithful and humble Sam.

“If at the end of my career I prove to have been a good leader or entrepreneur, I will owe most of that to Tolkien’s influence,” he said.

And Astin is embarking on his fourth “cover-to-cover journey” through Middle-earth, this time with members of his book club on the app Fable. The books are a commitment, he said, but one he’s willing to make with readers who love the series as much as he does.

“We will feel and think and dream our way through it,” he said.