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The entire Lord of the Rings story finally explained

The sheer scope of Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy is mind-boggling. The story rises from humble beginnings in Hobbiton to epic events in Moria, Rohan, Gondor, Mordor, and other fantastic locations. Strange names of people and places pop up at every turn and confusing lines are spouted off in everything from Elvish to Dwarvish, Entish, Orcish, and so on. 

In fact, there's so much going on in The Lord of the Rings that it can be overwhelming trying to keep track of it all. Even in The Fellowship of the Ring, the story is complex, and that's with all of the protagonists generally sticking together. Once they part ways in the second and third acts, keeping a coherent timeline of events as you go along is much more difficult. Even those who watch the films after having read the books aren't necessarily better off, as Jackson's version features a myriad of plot changes, character swaps, and scenes that don't take place in the book and vice versa. 

If you've watched Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and felt a bit confused by the time the credits started rolling, fear not. We've tackled the problem of finally laying out the entire story (including the extended editions) in as orderly and digestible a manner as possible. Let's start at the beginning, shall we?

Setting the stage

The primary Lord of the Rings narrative has roots that go far back into the history of Middle-earth. While the entire backstory is far too long to fit into a condensed account, there are several important historical facts that are covered at different points throughout the films, each of which impact the story significantly. 

The essential elements, in brief, are as follows. At the end of the Second Age, Men and Elves join together into the Last Alliance in order to resist the growing power of Sauron. They defeat him in open battle and, after a long siege, the Dark Lord is temporarily destroyed when Isildur cuts the One Ring off of his hand. Not long after the Third Age begins, Isildur is killed in an ambush near the Gladden Fields. He attempts to flee to safety by swimming across the Great River, Anduin, but is shot by archers, losing the One Ring, which sinks to the bottom of the river.

Roughly one millennium later, the Istari "wizards" begin to arrive in Middle-earth with the express purpose of helping in the fight against the resurgent Sauron. Another millennium and a half pass, at which point the Hobbit-like creature Smeagol gains the One Ring by killing and taking it from his friend, Deagol, who found it at the bottom of the Anduin where it had been lost thousands of years earlier.

An Unexpected Journey

Three thousand years after the events of the Last Alliance, the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins celebrates his 111th birthday with a party of special significance. After disturbing his party guests with his antics, he departs from the Shire, convinced by the wizard Gandalf the Grey to leave his magic ring behind for his nephew, Frodo Baggins. Frodo proceeds to hide the ring and lives for many years in relative peace. 

In the meantime, Gandalf discovers that Frodo's ring is actually the One Ring that Sauron forged. He returns to Hobbiton and immediately tells Frodo to take the corrupted jewelry out of the Shire. He sends his gardener, Samwise Gamgee, with him and the pair are joined by their friends Merry and Pippin as they escape eastward, pursued by mysterious riders dressed in black. 

Gandalf goes to Saruman the White in search of help, only to learn that the black riders are the Nazgûl, nine of the most terrifying servants of Sauron. In addition, Gandalf finds that the Dark Lord has corrupted Saruman, who imprisons the Grey Wizard in his tower of Orthanc. 

Once the quartet of Hobbits arrives in Bree, they meet Strider, a ranger that is none other than Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir to the throne of Gondor. He helps them through their remaining dangers, including a close shave when they're attacked — and Frodo is stabbed — by the Nazgûl on the hill of Weathertop. Eventually, the Elf Arwen arrives and helps them reach safety in Rivendell.

A council, a fellowship, and a balrog

Safe in the Elven haven, the hobbits attend a council called by the Elven leader Elrond. There, the One Ring is revealed as the key to victory or defeat and, after much deliberation, Frodo volunteers to take it to the only place where it can be destroyed: Mount Doom, a fiery mountain in the heart of Sauron's kingdom of Mordor. A fellowship forms to help Frodo in his quest, including Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, Aragorn, Boromir (heir to the Steward of Gondor), Legolas (prince of the Elven kingdom of Mirkwood), and Gimli (son of the Dwarvish hero Gloin).

The Fellowship of the Ring sets out from Rivendell and heads south. At first, things go well, but when they attempt to cross the Misty Mountains by the pass of Caradhras, Saruman uses the weather to block their way. As an alternative, they take the dark, dangerous path under the mountains, through the ancient Dwarvish kingdom of Moria. After being attacked by a tentacled monster at the gates, they rush inside and begin a long, puzzling journey through the dark to the other side.

Just when it appears they're going to get through the mines in safety, they're attacked by goblins and a cave troll, all of which they kill or scare off. However, not long afterward, a balrog arrives; the fiery demon attacks Gandalf on the slender Bridge of Khazad-dûm, causing the pair to tumble into the abyss below. The rest of the fellowship flees out of the mines.

Lothlorien to Rohan

Having escaped from Moria, the eight remaining members of the Fellowship head to the nearby Elven kingdom of Lothlorien. They're captured by guards and brought to the Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel, rulers of the realm, who allow them to rest and recover there. During this time, Galadriel shows Frodo her magic mirror, explains that it is his fate to carry the One Ring, and gives him the magical "Phial of Galadriel" as a parting gift. 

From there, the Fellowship heads down the Anduin in three boats until they set up camp at Parth Galen. There, Boromir, blinded by temptation, attempts to steal the One Ring from Frodo. He fails and then redeems himself by dying while protecting Merry and Pippin from a sudden ambush, sent by the traitor Saruman and composed largely of a new orc hybrid called Uruk-Hai. Frodo, meanwhile, decides to continue the journey on his own — that is, until Sam finds him and insists that the two travel together.

With the Fellowship officially broken, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas give Boromir an impromptu funeral and then head off in pursuit of the villains that have kidnapped their friends. They chase the band of orcs into Rohan, where they discover that a troop of local warriors, led by Éomer, have destroyed their prey. They did so while en route to leaving the country after being banished by Éomer's uncle, King Théoden, who was under the influence of Saruman and his servant, Gríma Wormtongue.

Gandalf the White and Helm's Deep

The trio's search next leads them into Fangorn Forest. There, they meet Gandalf, who is now Gandalf the White, discovering that he ultimately defeated the balrog and returned to finish the fight against Sauron. The four companions head to Edoras, where Gandalf heals King Théoden from the spells of Gríma and Saruman. The king, accompanied by Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, decides to gather his people and head to the stronghold of Helm's Deep in order to protect themselves from an unfolding invasion by Saruman's armies. 

Once they reach Helm's Deep safely, 300 old and young Rohirrim prepare to defend the fortress against 10,000 Uruk-Hai. Even after a force of Elvish warriors from Lothlorien reinforces them, the situation appears hopeless. However, Aragorn and Théoden bravely lead the defense — while Legolas and Gimli play "who can kill the most orcs" — until things become so desperate that they decide to make one final charge. 

At that point, Gandalf appears again, having fetched Éomer and his forces, and they destroy Saruman's army. The last Uruk-Hai flee into a forest of Huorns — living moving trees that hate the orcs — that suddenly appears behind them and ensures that none of Saruman's army returns home. 

Treebeard, Isengard, and Saruman

Merry and Pippin spend the days leading up to the Battle of Helm's Deep in Fangorn Forest. There, they meet Treebeard, an Ent or "shepherd of the trees." During their time with him, the pair of halflings attempt to convince the tree folk to join in the war against Saruman. 

The Ents hold a council, called "Entmoot," and initially decide that they should stay out of the fighting. However, Pippin leads Treebeard to a part of Fangorn that has been deforested by Saruman. In a fury, the old Ent calls aloud and charges at nearby Isengard with an army of angry Ents behind him. They tear up Saruman's entire operation, with the exception of his tower, Orthanc, which they're unable to destroy. 

Not long afterward, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and the Riders of Rohan arrive at Orthanc in search of Saruman. There, they reunite with Merry and Pippin, meet Treebeard, and confront Saruman in his tower. After failing to convince Théoden to join him, the treacherous wizard is stabbed by Gríma Wormtongue and falls to his death, dropping a seeing stone — or "Palantír" — in the process. Later Pippin gives in to the temptation to look into the seeing stone and is confronted by Sauron himself. The event spurs Gandalf to ride with Pippin to Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor, before war with Sauron begins. 

Frodo, Sam, and Gollum's journey

After Frodo and Sam leave the broken Fellowship at Parth Galen, the two Hobbits head into the barren, rocky country of the Emyn Muil. There, they meet Gollum and Frodo tames him, convincing the miserable wretch to become their guide through the Dead Marshes — the swampy land between them and Mordor. Gollum faithfully leads the trio through the marshes, arriving on the other side roughly around the time that the Battle of Helm's Deep is about to take place. 

At Gollum's insistence, the trio doesn't try to sneak through the impenetrable Black Gate; instead, they head south into the green land of Ithilien in order to find another path into Mordor that their guide claims to know about. As they travel, they're captured by Gondorian Rangers. Their leader, Faramir, brother of Boromir, discovers that Frodo carries the One Ring and decides to bring it home with him as a mighty gift for his father, Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. 

When they reach the ruins of the Gondorian city of Osgiliath, Faramir relents, realizing that he must allow the Ring-Bearer to complete his quest. He releases his captives, who head for Gollum's "secret" entrance into Mordor. At this point, Gollum is actively planning to betray his companions to the monstrous spider Shelob. They arrive at the entrance to the Morgul Vale, a mountain pass that leads to Mordor, roughly when Gandalf and Pippin arrive at Minas Tirith.

The Siege of Gondor and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields

Back in Rohan, the host of the Rohirrim musters and then rides off to save Minas Tirith. However, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli stay behind, opting instead to take the Paths of the Dead, a haunted mountain road filled with fear. Aragorn, the rightful king of Gondor, summons the dead army and leads them toward Minas Tirith, which by this point has come under assault by a massive army led by the Witch-king, the chief of the Nazgûl. 

Denethor's will breaks; he leaves Gandalf to lead the defenses, and eventually kills himself. The garrison fights on for a time, but the attacking army is too strong. Just as the city is about to be captured, however, the Rohirrim arrive, charging into the side of the besieging army and initiating the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. 

In the resulting fight, Théoden is killed by the Witch-king, who is then killed by Théoden's niece Éowyn, along with some timely help from Merry, both of whom had ridden to the battle in disguise after being told to remain behind. Finally, with the fate of Gondor in the balance, Aragorn arrives with the army of the dead, bringing total victory.

From Shelob to Mount Doom

Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam follow Gollum up towards Shelob's lair. After Gollum frames Sam, Frodo sends his faithful gardener away, continuing on with his deceptive guide, only to be surprised and captured by Shelob herself. However, Sam faithfully returns to his master's aid in the nick of time and beats off the monster using his master's sword and the Phial of Galadriel. Frodo is then captured by orcs, before he is once again saved by Sam, who also keeps the One Ring from falling into the hands of the enemy.

The pair then head into Mordor, where they spend the next several days slowly creeping closer to Mount Doom. As they go, the One Ring gains more power and Frodo struggles to control its hold on his mind. Sam focuses on the physiological, just trying to keep them fed and hydrated enough to make the journey. Eventually, they reach the mountain and struggle up its slopes, nearly at the end of their quest.

A final distraction

After the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Aragorn, Gandalf, and their fellow leaders decide to attack the Black Gate in order to distract Sauron as the Ring-Bearer finishes his journey. Aragorn leads the Men of the West in the desperate attack, and soon the outnumbered army finds itself surrounded and trapped in front of the entrance to Mordor. 

They meet with a representative of the Dark Lord named The Mouth of Sauron, who taunts them before being beheaded by Aragorn. Left to play their part to the end, the soldiers of Gondor and Rohan prepare to fight to the last, inspired by a speech given by Aragorn before the hordes of orcs, goblins, and trolls reach the army. 

As the Men of the West fight, the Eye of Sauron remains fixed on the event, completely missing the two small Hobbits who are slowly but surely creeping up the slopes of Mount Doom. However, the pair of heroes are at the end of their rope — especially Frodo — and eventually Sam has to carry his nearly incapacitated friend on his back in order to continue up the mountain. 

The Cracks of Doom

Within sight of the end of their journey, Sam and Frodo are suddenly assaulted by Gollum, who appears from out of nowhere and attacks Frodo in a fury, scrabbling all the while to get his hands on his "Precious." Sam intervenes and sends Gollum packing, while Frodo, filled with a burst of newfound energy, runs the rest of the way to the Cracks of Doom, where he stands on a cliff above the lava-filled chasm. 

As Sam catches up, he sees Frodo fall victim to the lure of the One Ring, claiming it as his own. At that point, Gollum reappears yet again, grappling with Frodo and biting off his ring finger. While dancing with joy at regaining his prized possession, the withered creature is tackled off the ledge by the injured Frodo. Gollum falls to a fiery death, still holding the One Ring, which melts in the heat, while Frodo is pulled back up the cliff by Sam. 

With the world collapsing around them, Sauron destroyed, and the Dark Lord's armies fleeing in terror, the two Hobbits head out onto the slopes of Mount Doom, prepared to die knowing they fulfilled their quest. However, back at the Black Gate, the eagles have arrived in order to help in the battle. Gandalf quickly commandeers several of the flying beasts, with which he rescues Frodo and Sam before they perish.

Ending(s)

Frodo wakes up in a room in Gondor and is greeted by the surviving members of the Fellowship. With the war ended and the One Ring destroyed, the crew celebrates in a number of different ways. First, they attend Aragorn's coronation and marriage to Arwen in Minas Tirith.

After that, the four Hobbit adventurers are shown arriving back in the Shire, where they realize that they're quite out of place in their splendid attire. They attempt to fit back into their previously quiet lives, which Sam, in particular, does quite well. He marries his sweetheart, Rosie Cotton, and the two settle down together.

Frodo, on the other hand, realizes that the wounds he received from his adventures have permanently scarred him, and he decides to leave Middle-earth. He travels with Sam, Pippin, and Merry to the coast where the Ring-Bearer boards a ship along with Elrond, Galadriel, Celeborn, Bilbo, and Gandalf, and they sail into the west towards the Undying Lands. Meanwhile, the three remaining Hobbits return home. Sam, arriving back on the steps of Bag End, brings the story to a close with the suitably simple declaration "Well, I'm back."