Here at Motion State, we don’t f*ck around. We’ve got it figured out. We hang ’em high, we die harder. We bring you the head of Alfredo Garcia. We learn to stop worrying and love the bomb. We’re not afraid of Virginia Woolf and never have been. Hell, we even self-bleep our f*cks. Suffice it to say that we’re professionals.
On those infallible grounds, we’re confident in the fact that the best character in the entire Lord of the Rings saga-on-film isn’t the noble wizard Gandalf nor the noble badass Aragorn; it’s not the against-all-odds Frodo nor his tagalong everyman Samwise. It’s certainly not Legolas, despite his superpowered eyesight and epic acrobatics, and it’s not Gimli despite his…it’s not Gimli. Are we about to try to convince you that it’s one of those comic relief companions
C-3PO and R2-D2 Merry and Pippin? Maybe pull one of those fast ones where we tell you that it’s the Ring, man, the Ring is the best character, or that we are the best character because Tolkien allowed us to roam free throughout wondrous Middle-Earth…nope. No such luck: the best LotR film character is Isildur, a guy with a fraction of the screentime of the aforementioned candidates, a jerk by all standards of fantasy heroism, dead long before the story really begins.
The Lord of the Rings is about a lot of things, one of which — go figure! — is the Ring and the various Lords-a-leaping over it. If you want to get technical, Sauron is really the only true Lord of the Ring. Gandalf says as much in the films, but Tolkien spells it out even more directly:
“Hurray!” cried Pippin, springing up. “Here is our noble cousin! Make way for Frodo, Lord of the Ring!”
“Hush!” said Gandalf from the shadows at the back of the porch. “Evil things do not come into this valley; but all the same we should not name them. The Lord of the Ring is not Frodo, but the master of the Dark Tower of Mordor, whose power is again stretching out over the world.
Still, the power of the Ring is that it entices pretty much anyone with the prospect of being Lord. We see this in many different ways as it tempts Gollum, Bilbo, Boromir, Faramir, Frodo, and so on and so on. More on that in a second. Inside that “Lord” technicality is another, that of “Ring-bearer”, which isn’t just someone who’s touched the Ring but someone who has possessed it. We won’t ignore this in its entirety, but the point actually doesn’t reside in either of these titles.
Let’s consider the path the Ring takes:
- Sauron forges the One Ring and pours into it his teenage angst, his rancor for his boss, his discomfort after stepping out of a hot shower into a cold room earlier that morning.
- Isildur, second King of Gondor and Arnor, cuts the Ring from Sauron’s hand. He’s advised to destroy it by Elrond but elects to keep it instead, leading to his eventual demise after the Ring’s “betrayal”. The Ring floats to the bottom of the river Anduin and remains there for thousands of years.
- Déagol, hobbit, finds the Ring by chance at the bottom of the river.
- Sméagol, fellow hobbit, kills Déagol and takes the Ring. It poisons his mind and he becomes Gollum.
- Bilbo, another hobbit, happens upon the Ring during the events of The Hobbit.
- Frodo, yet another hobbit, inherits the Ring from Uncle Bilbo in Fellowship of the Ring. He takes it to Mordor to destroy it.
- Samwise, continuing this pesky hobbit trend, plays Ring-bearer for a bit while Frodo’s incapacitated.
- Frodo, still a hobbit, takes the Ring back from Sam.
- Gollum, in a last-ditch effort to wrest the precious back from Frodo, finally destroys the Ring and destroys himself in the process.
Yeah, yeah — Gandalf handles the Ring as he throws it into the fire at Bilbo’s place, and Tom Bombadil wears the Ring in the book even though he’s not in the movie at all. But isolating the specific progression of beings who can say they possessed the Ring, however briefly, certainly highlights a pattern. And as with anything, a pattern is most interesting when it breaks.
The surface pattern is simple in that Isildur forms the gap between the all-powerful, far-reaching evil of Sauron and the non-powerful, short-reach innocence of the hobbits. He’s king of the greatest realm of men, but he’s really just a man. Beyond that, though, there’s another pattern of relationships that each possessor of the Ring encounters, relationships rife with jealousy and rivalry. Déagol would still have the Ring if not for Sméagol; Sméagol/Gollum would still have the Ring if not for Bilbo; Bilbo would still have the Ring if not for the pressure from Gandalf and the youthful, willing presence of his nephew Frodo; Frodo and Sam go back and forth between the two of them, and you could argue that Frodo would still have the Ring if not for Sam and vice versa. In every instance there is another being battling for possession of the Ring, fighting to wrest it away, and that’s before considering the fact that the threat of Sauron Reincarnate is fighting for the same. Every Ring-bearer or contact of the Ring has someone to compete with.
…except Isildur. It’s just him. He cuts the Ring from Sauron’s hand and no one really challenges him. A council recommends he destroy it in the book, and Elrond implores him to “cast it into the fire!” (“put the thing in the thing!”) in a Fellowship film flashback. There’s not really a comparable instance, though, as neither the council nor Elrond want the Ring for themselves. They don’t even pose a real threat to his possession of it. Lo and behold, Isildur still takes the ring anyway. His possession of the Ring thus represents more than jealousy or envy and instead approaches pure pride, which in the larger context of Lord of the Rings is arguably a far more important theme than jealousy.
And unlike Boromir or Faramir or Gandalf or Aragorn or Elrond — those tempted by the Ring out of an ostensible desire to use it for good — Isildur doesn’t even plan to use the Ring for much of anything. It’s a weregild in Tolkien’s novel, restitution for the deaths of Isildur’s father and brother at the hands of Sauron. It’s little more than an heirloom, a prideful symbol that his line defeated the ultimate evil. Add to that the fact that Isildur came into possession of the Ring at almost the exact moment he technically became King of Gondor, right there on the slopes of Mount Doom, and the theme of pride seems wrapped up in his character with a nice little bow on it. Though he was ambushed by orcs and killed in another Fellowship flashback, Tolkien’s depiction of the scene in The Silmarillion captures this more clearly: Isildur slept in his tent, having set no guards at all, for in his blind pride he wrongly assumed all his enemies to be vanquished.
Isildur is alone in this, and in that sense he’s the best representation in the entire Lord of the Rings saga of what power the Ring actually contains. “You are a Ring-bearer, Frodo,” says Galadriel, “and to bear a Ring of Power is to be alone.” Frodo feels that only he can carry the burden, but it’s never actually true — Samwise is there every single step of the way, and then some. Even would-be temptees Boromir and Faramir, men of Gondor like Isildur, have Big Papa Denethor and a dozen other relations throughout the story. Isildur has no one, and in fact the Ring as weregild even reminds us that his father and brother are gone. As soon as he hangs that Ring around his neck, Isildur becomes the loneliest guy in Middle-Earth.
We’re operating on that aforementioned assumption that a pattern is most interesting when it breaks, and we’re also operating under the assumption that one of the primary aims of Lord of the Rings is to depict the classic Good vs. Evil epic. On both of these counts Isildur is right smack in the middle, a good man turned instantly toward evil not by others but just by himself. He is utterly alone in that, hard as he might try to attend a Ring-bearers Anonymous meeting. He’s it.
Anyway. Arguments aside, the entire reason this article is even on your screen right now is because the world lost an incredible talent last week in LotR cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who worked frequently with Peter Jackson and played a vital role in bringing us to Middle-Earth in the first place. Conversations like this are largely possible because Lesnie made the fantasy land so accessible, and he’ll certainly be missed for that. We’ll be rewatching the saga again soon in his honor, hoping to rediscover what we found in Isildur: a minor player that turns out to be at the heart of everything.