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False facts about the Lord of the Rings you've always believed

The Lord of the Rings remains a full-on cultural phenomenon. The beloved, decades-old books exploded into an international pop culture sensation with the release of Fellowship of the Ring back in 2001. The original trilogy of movies was followed by a much weaker trilogy of Hobbit films, and there are constant rumblings that a prequel Silmarillion movie may one day see the light of day. Because of all of this pop culture exposure, it's easy for people to think they know everything there is to know about rings, elves, and orcs. However, some of the secret truths about this series couldn't be more hidden if Peter Jackson put a ring on them.

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That hobbits are a weak race

Perhaps the biggest misconception regarding the world of Middle-earth is that hobbits are, as a race, pretty weak. Readers and viewers can certainly pinpoint individual moments of heroism from hobbits like Bilbo and Frodo, but those are usually dismissed as exceptional examples from exceptional characters. That is, these hobbits are not really thought of as any more an honest representation of their entire race than Boromir is of humanity.

However, the truth is that hobbits can be quite sturdy and quite fierce. This is most evident in a key part of The Return of the King that is actually omitted from the cinematic adaptation. The event in question is called the Scouring of the Shire, and it involves a bizarre plot twist in which a de-powered Saruman leads a group of human ruffians to take over the shire. By the time Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin return home, they find the humans have cowed the hobbits into subservience. However, under the leadership of the heroes, the rest of the hobbits are able to drive off the humans. In fact, when 100 humans come to try to reclaim the Shire, 70 of them are killed in combat with the hobbits, many of them cut down by axes (wielded by people less than half their height) as they tried to climb the steep nearby banks. Why, then, did Peter Jackson omit this from his hit movie? It's possible the universe would collapse under the weight of yet another ending being added to that movie, so the hobbits get a more traditional happy ending.

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That Sam is a comedy relief pushover

One of the misconceptions about The Lord of the Rings is that Samwise Gamgee is little more than a source of comedic relief. Most of this can be laid at the furry feet of Sean Astin, who imbued a great deal of comedic charm into his performance as the erstwhile hobbit sidekick. And while it's true that Sam has some brave moments from time to time, he is mostly remembered for bickering with Gollum, giving weepy soliloquies, and his meme-worthy slow-motion phrase "share the load."

However, the most badass Samwise Gamgee moment is one that is very easy to miss. In fact, most people overlook it. When Sam thinks that Frodo has been killed by Shelob the giant spider, he liberates the ring from him, presumably to continue their quest. When he finds out Frodo is alive, he helps to save his friend and then simply gives the ring back to Frodo. Why is this a big deal? There are almost no other instances of the ring being freely given away by anyone other than Tom Bombadil. Remember, it's a huge deal when Bilbo does it at the start of the trilogy, and he is only able to do so by Gandalf exerting all of his influence. And at the end of the tale, Gollum inadvertently saves the day when he nibbles it off of Frodo because, as it turns out, Frodo was unable to willingly give it up. However, Samwise does without a wizard or any prodding except sheer loyalty to his friend.

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That they could have just flown to Mordor

A common criticism of Lord of the Rings is the fact that Gandalf didn't just summon some of those giant birds to carry the Fellowship to Mordor. The truth is that using the Great Eagles in that way was never an option. 

First, there's no reason to think Sauron wouldn't be ready for an enemy to approach Mordor from the air. There were no paths into Mordor left unguarded. To assume he had no way to detect and counter any incursions from the sky is ludicrous. Not to mention that it's possible that by time the Fellowship left Rivendell, the Nazgul may have already been flying.

Second, and much more importantly, it's a flawed assumption that Gandalf could summon the Great Eagles at will. Gandalf did not summon the Great Eagles; they came of their own accord. Tolkien often portrays animals in his stories as being blessed with as much intelligence as humans. As early as the Great Eagles' first appearance in The Hobbit, Tolkien made it clear that the Great Eagles did not like most two-legged things and would rarely get involved with them. They respected Gandalf and would occasionally help him, but they were never at his command. Part of what's so dramatic about their appearance at the Battle of the Black Gate is that, as much as they can't stand people, they recognize the battle's importance so they show up anyway. 

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That it's virtually impossible to travel to Valinor

One of the things that the Return of the King movie doesn't completely flesh out is the significance of the boat trip that Frodo and Bilbo are taking at the end of the movie. They are at the Gray Havens, an area where the elves build ships to send other elves to Valinor. What is Valinor? Think of it as Heaven on Middle-earth, a place where the gods of the land reside with their immortal children, the elves. As such, it's primarily inhabited by elves, but they make an exception for all of the surviving ring-bearers to go. Thus, Frodo, Bilbo, and eventually Sam visit Valinor.

Based on all this, it would seem it is very difficult to get into this earthly, elven Heaven. The characters themselves even allude to this, often implying that once the last of the elves have gone home that there will be no way to ever see them again. However, buried in a note in the appendices of Return of the King is an interesting trivia fact: Legolas simply builds a boat to travel there, and he takes his hetero life-partner Gimli. The footnote is a little sparse on detail, but would highly imply anyone who can build or buy a boat can eventually travel to the Undying Lands, which is a Columbus-sized misstep just waiting to happen.

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That losing the ring leads to instant aging

Another misconception about Lord of the Rings that can be blamed entirely on the movies is that losing the ring leads to instant aging. This is dramatized by the extreme contrast of Bilbo's relative youth at the beginning of the first movie when he is celebrating turning 111 years old, and his extremely elderly appearance when they encounter him in Rivendell. Now, the movies are deliberately cagey about the timeline, but the books tell us that 17 years pass between that birthday celebration and Frodo's quest. In that time, Bilbo has seemingly aged quite a few decades. By the time he appears at the end of Return of the King, he looks even older and is moving very slowly as his body is now acting its age.

Given all of these visual clues, the only seeming conclusion is that while the One Ring suspends the aging of its bearer, losing it leads to the body immediately starting to catch up: to be frank, Bilbo looks like he could die at any moment on the ride to the Gray Havens. However, this is canonically the opposite of the truth, and we know this because of Gollum. Gollum was pushing 600 years old by the time he died, and he had been without the ring for over 60 years by the time that happened. Despite this, he is spry enough to climb all over Mordor and back, wrestle Sam and Frodo, and generally disrupt their adventure. This doesn't add up at all with Bilbo's physical appearance; if losing the ring leads to the body's age catching up, Gollum should have been dust well before he could be tortured by Sauron and find out about the Shire.

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That elves were at Helm's Deep

Among diehard Lord of the Rings fans, there are four words almost guaranteed to instigate a blind rage within them: "elves at Helm's Deep." This, of course, was a major part of the climax of The Two Towers movie, with a small company of elves arriving to help the beleaguered humans drive off an entire host of invading orcs. And because these are adaptations of a beloved series of books, many people figured this, too, was in the books.

This event was not only not in the books, it was canonically impossible in the books. Peter Jackson made the bold decision to start his film adaptations by showing audiences a pivotal moment in the history of Middle-earth: humans and elves standing together to defeat Sauron. This was notable not just because they defeated Sauron but because this was the last alliance between the two races. They went back to each doing their own thing, and by the time the main events of the modern plot are unfolding, the elves are fading in prominence from Middle-earth. Remember, this is actually a major plot point that big, important Elrond has assembled a team of humans, hobbits, a dwarf, and a wizard, with only one elf in attendance. The elves are supposed to be leaving this world behind and letting the mortal races deal with their own problems, so having elves show up at Helm's Deep violates a major theme of the entire series.

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That Sauron is a giant eyeball

Part of what any movie adaptation to a book must do is make the implicit explicit. While books are perfect places for allusions and metaphors, it is the job of the movie to visually spell everything out. Peter Jackson took his role very seriously when it came to Return of the King, leading to one of our primary misconceptions: that Sauron is a giant eyeball.

When audiences first see Sauron, he is a towering warrior in the flashback battle sequence at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring. When they next see him, though, he is seemingly a giant eye, one that Aragorn resolves to distract with a flashy battle sequence while Sam and Frodo finish their task. This giant eyeball is a creation made especially for the movie, and it makes many people think that that is Sauron. However, Tolkien's own letters clarified that Sauron had a physical body by the time the ring was physically destroyed. Why did his letters have to clarify this? Sauron's physical body is surprisingly absent from the novels. So, the giant eyeball is a clumsy attempt to both bring the main antagonist directly into the narrative and to dramatize his watchful gaze over the heroes. However, if that giant eye were to actually watch Return of the King, it would be closing its eyes at its own painful scenes as much as the audience does.

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That Aragorn is not that old

Thanks to Viggo Mortenson and the face that launched a thousand fanfics, it's easy to take Aragorn's age at face value. After all, he was 43 years old when Fellowship of the Ring came out, and it seemed a reasonable age for a seasoned warrior who can still kick orcish ass. However, the character of Aragorn is supposed to be twice that age at the time of their adventures, and the character lives to be 210 years old before peacefully passing away. Eagle-eyed viewers can catch a deleted scene from Two Towers in which Eowyn is highly confused when Aragorn tells her that he fought in battle alongside her grandfather.

So, what's up with this exceptionally long age? Aragorn was not like mortal men, exactly: he was a Numenorean, and the last of them. This was once considered the greatest race of men until they angered the god of Middle-earth, Eru Illuvatar, which eventually led to the destruction of their island, Atlantis-style. Many of them died and their race continued to dwindle as the years went on, leaving Aragorn as the last of their number. This is part of the tragic history the character often bears with him and is part and parcel of his concern that he may repeat some of the same errors that his ancestors did.

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That Faramir is internally conflicted

Faramir is a character whose fans were quite annoyed by his film portrayal. This is because it led to this kind of widespread assumption that Faramir is like Boromir Lite. That is, he's just another corrupt and greedy human who is eager for glory and power, and he only changes his mind at the eleventh hour. (Those Samwise speeches will do that to you.)

However, the Faramir of the books is the polar opposite of Boromir. Through a combination of intelligent interrogation and Sam's inability to keep his mouth shut, he finds out that they are carrying a powerful weapon against Sauron, one that Boromir greatly desired for humanity to have. And when the Faramir of the books finds this out, he merely reiterates his promise to help the hobbits out because he had made a vow. While the movie changes are understandable because Jackson wanted to give a flat character a more traditional arc, it meant that most people walk away from Faramir feeling a little cold, until his dad tries to set him on fire.

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That Eowyn was the only reason the Witch-King dies

One of the most powerful and oddly progressive moments from Return of the King, and one that is repeated rather fatefully, is when Eowyn the shieldmaiden defeats the Witch-King. The Witch-King feels quite confident because of a prophecy from Glorfindel the elf that "no living man may hinder me," at which point Eowyn, disguised as a male warrior, reveals that she is a woman and stabs him in the face. It's a powerful moment, but the misconception comes in when people believe that she did almost all of the heavy lifting. It turns out that Merry the hobbit shares at least half of the kill, though he likely had no way of knowing what would happen.

Before Eowyn gets her awesome killing stroke in, audiences see Merry stab the Witch-King with his blade. The movies glossed over the importance of these blades, with Aragorn simply handing them out at Weathertop. The books, however, made clear that Merry's blade was forged by the Dunedain (those Rangers that Aragorn runs around with) years ago with magical enchantments specifically made to hurt the Witch-King. Thus, by what is likely happenstance, Merry stabs the Witch-King with one of the only weapons that can hurt him, opening the door for Eowyn to complete the prophecy.

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That Gandalf is a wizard (and he IS, but not the kind you're thinking of)

Gandalf is a wizard, but he's not the kind of wizard we're used to. Gandalf isn't a wizard in the same way that, say, Harry Potter is a wizard. He's not someone who showed aptitude for magic as a child and so was sent to some wizard school and given a big tome and taught a bunch of spells. Gandalf was created as a wizard and sent to Middle-earth to protect it. 

The Valar were essentially the gods of Middle-earth, and they sent Gandalf there — along with Saruman, Radagast, and two other wizards who remain unseen in Tolkien's fiction. These wizards originally existed as beings called Maiar who acted as servants to the Valar. Once they were sent to Middle-earth, they were made to look human and given magical and physical abilities beyond normal men. They existed for millennia; even longer than the elves. This is why Gandalf knows so much. It's why no matter where the Fellowship goes, he's already been there and always seems to know someone — he's been alive long enough to travel to every corner of Middle-earth and back again hundreds of times over. It's why, after he dies during his battle with the Balrog, Gandalf returns to life. It isn't some magic spell that resurrects him; the Valar send him back. It's why even though he looks like an old man, he can carve his way through as many orcs as Aragorn. 

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That Denethor was just an evil, crazy coward

Denethor was portrayed as a vengeful and cowardly madman in Peter Jackson's Return of the King. John Noble played Denethor to perfection, but there was a lot of information missing from the movie that would have added more depth to the character. 

In the novel, Tolkien makes it clear Denethor wasn't insane because of a lust for power or war. Denethor was driven mad by an outside magical influence — by a Palanthir. If you don't recognize the word, you may remember that in Fellowship of the Ring — before he realizes Saruman has gone to the dark side — Gandalf is gravely concerned when Saruman reveals he has been using an orb with mystical energy swirling inside it. Saruman's orb was one of the Palanthir, and Denethor also had one. Before the events of Lord of the Rings, he started using the Palanthir to try to ferret out something he could use against Sauron; instead, Sauron's influence on the Palanthir drove him mad. Even in the extended version of Return of the King, while it's eventually revealed Denethor had a Palanthir, it's never made clear that it was the stone that drove him bonkers.

While Denethor ultimately failed as Steward, his fall is tragic. He was the leader of a besieged kingdom searching for a way to stop an unbeatable enemy. He failed and the consequence was madness, but he went mad trying to save his people, and that's got to count for something.

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That Gondor stood alone

Peter Jackson's adaptation of Return of the King may give you the impression that Gondor was the only place where Sauron's armies laid siege, but that's far from true. This is alluded to briefly in the extended version of Return of the King, when Legolas tells Gimli he believes the dwarves are busy with their own battles. But we don't hear any specifics.

The appendices of Lord of the Rings make it clear that at the same time Sauron's armies were smashing into the walls of Minas Tirith, the elves, dwarves, and humans of greater Middle-earth were dealing with their own invasions. Sauron's armies in Dol Guldur — the abandoned city where Gandalf, Saruman, and Galadriel encounter Sauron in the Hobbit movies — attacked Lorien three times. Once Sauron was finally defeated, Galadriel and Celeborn traveled to the city and destroyed it. Thranduil (the elf king played by Lee Pace in the Hobbit films) and his Wood Elves were waging war against the orcs in their own forests, and eventually they managed to expel them.

The humans of Dale (the city at the foot of the Lonely Mountain) weren't as successful as the elves, though they were aided by the dwarves of Erebor. Sauron's armies attacked Dale and overwhelmed its defenders. Humans and dwarves alike took shelter in the Lonely Mountain and the orcs laid siege to its gates. Once the One Ring was destroyed, the combined armies of humans and dwarves were able to rout the orcs, but not before King Brand of Dale and King Dain of Erebor were killed.

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That Boromir was just a weak traitor

By the time Sean Bean played Boromir, he hadn't yet earned the reputation of dying in every movie, but there was another noteworthy common thread in his roles; more often than not, he either played a traitor (1995's GoldenEye), an incompetent (1990's The Field), or both (1998's Ronin). So in one sense he was perfect for Boromir, but in another, he was the worst choice since it meant you knew right away he was going to screw things up.

Tolkien makes it clear in his novel that Boromir is a noble and powerful warrior. He's one of the most skilled swordsmen in the Fellowship, and possibly the strongest. In battle scenes, he performs better than most, with the possible exception of Aragorn. He's flawed, but he's not the mess of nerves Peter Jackson depicted in Fellowship.

Except for his last stand, Boromir is hardly seen in Jackson's Fellowship battle scenes, but the extended edition of the film revealed a number of cut scenes and lines that showed him in a better light. In a Lothlorien scene, when the rest of the Fellowship is silent, Boromir is the only one to reach out and tell Frodo not to blame himself for Gandalf's presumed death. Toward the end of the film, during an argument about what to do with the Ring, Aragorn actually acts like more of a jerk than Boromir. Perhaps Jackson was simply being pragmatic and decided since Boromir wouldn't survive the first film, he should spend more time on those who would.

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That hobbit feet are disproportionately large

At some point it just became an unquestioned truth that hobbit feet — along with being hairy and necessarily resilient — are disproportionately large. Like if you took a clown and magically turned his floppy clown shoes into exceptionally hairy feet — that's what hobbit feet look like in the films.

The truth is that Tolkien never wrote anything about hobbit feet being particularly large. In Fellowship of the Ring he wrote that hobbit feet had "tough leathery soles" and that they were "clad in a thick curling hair, much like the hair of their heads." He wrote nothing about the feet being particularly large, though that would explain why hobbits went barefoot — because making shoes big enough to fit their feet would be so labor-intensive there would be no one left to do any other kind of job, like making food or stealing neighbors' food.

Sean Astin — who played Samwise Gamgee in Peter Jackson's adaptations — would likely have preferred a more faithful interpretation. In the "A Day in the Life of a Hobbit" special feature on the extended edition of Fellowship of the Ring, director Peter Jackson revealed that Astin — annoyed at the time it took to apply the hobbit foot prosthetics — kept Jackson up to date on his personal tally of how many days the prosthetics were applied versus how many days the feet appeared in shots.

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That the elves are all supposed to be pointy eared and blond

Partly due to the enduring popularity of The Lord of the Rings, elves remain a staple of high fantasy, and their physical appearance tends to follow specific rules. They're all stunningly beautiful creatures, with men and women sporting equally long and often blond hair, and they have pointy ears.  

Tolkien never wrote that blond hair was a dominant feature of his elves. In fact, many of them — such as Elrond and Arwen — have black hair. Though Legolas is almost always portrayed as having blond hair, Tolkien never describes his hair color. Legolas' father Thranduil, however, is one of the few elves to explicitly be described as blond. Tolkien also never wrote anything to the effect of elf men having the same straight, long hair as women so that a bunch of elf men and women together look like a line of actors waiting for a L'Oréal commercial audition.

In fact, believe it or not, Tolkien never wrote in any of his books that elf ears were pointy. Maybe he never meant for them to be thought of as pointy, or maybe he thought elves were common enough in legend and myth that the detail wasn't needed. Regardless, unless someone shows Tolkien's elves baking cookies in trees for Keebler or making toys for Santa, we can probably all agree they've gotten a pretty good deal in pop culture so far and don't have a lot to complain about.