One cannot simply separate the Lord of the Rings movies from meme immortality

Image: New Line Cinema
2021 marks the 20th anniversary of The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. In honor of these enduring classics, we’re exploring every aspect of Peter Jackson’s trilogy, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s source material to the films’ best scenes and moments, along with the continued influence of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King on modern pop culture.

In Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Elrond calls a secret meeting with representatives of the three free races in Middle-earth — humans, elves, and dwarves — to discuss what to do about the One Ring. As Elrond commands that the ring must be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, Boromir utters a line that has since become one of the most iconic Lord of the Rings memes of all time: “One does not simply walk into Mordor.”

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.

Sean Bean, who plays Boromir, delivers the line with the gravitas necessary for the movie’s pivotal scene. However, the contrast between his serious line reading and the fact that the quote comes after a brief pause and almost out of nowhere caught the attention of Lord of the Rings fans. A screencap of the scene, featuring Boromir making a circular hand gesture, overlaid with the famous line quickly became a popular meme, spreading across major social sites of the time.

When the first film was released in 2001, memes were just beginning to find their footing online. They had been around for years — one of the first modern memes, a dancing CGI baby, became popular in 1996 — but the landscape was rapidly evolving. At the same time, fandoms were thriving on websites and forums meant to connect members around the world.

Lord of the Rings memes arrived in the digital space at a moment where dedicated fanbases were purposely trying to share as much content with as many people as possible. The fun of making memes attracted people who hadn’t seen the movies, who watched the movies so they could make better memes, which attracted more people and ... the rest is history, a symbiotic relationship that has kept the Peter Jackson trilogy front and center in online consciousness for two decades.

From Éowyn’s iconic “I am no man” scene in The Return of the King, to a line about menus, uttered by an Uruk-hai in Two Towers, which has captivated and confused the internet for years, there are dozens upon dozens to choose from. An online search of “Lord of the Rings memes” produces hundreds of articles chronicling the best and most known. Pages have popped up on almost every social media site to allow fans to share their love of the memes, from Reddit’s r/LOTRmemes to Instagram’s @danklotrmemes and Tumblr’s LOTRreactionmemes.

Boromir’s Mordor meme isn’t the only Lord of the Rings meme in rotation, but Walking to Mordor is one of the oldest and most recognizable from the franchise. While the image became part of the internet’s meme lexicon after the movie’s release in 2001, one of the first noted uses wasn’t until 2004, when a user on the forum Something Awful posted an image of Boromir in a car with the text “One does not simply drive into Mordor.”

The original moment from the film was itself popular, but this adaptation of the line rocketed it to another level. The edited version of the meme situated it as a snowclone, a formulaic phrase that can be customized but still convey the same origin. Other iterations, like “One does not simply insert a USB on the first try” and “One does not simply hit the snooze button just once,” began popping up across the internet, cementing the meme’s status in the digital space. It was a straight-forward template that could be adapted to any phrase, making it an easy format for seasoned and new meme users alike to enjoy. Ultimately, it helped pave the way for similar snowclone memes to thrive.

Search results for “one does not simply” on Reddit, July 14, 2021.

“It’s just an easily digestible, low-effort meme from a simpler time,” Redditor and member of r/LOTRmemes u/bottle_O_pee says. “That being said, that meme became so popular [that] it started a sort of renaissance in the meme world.”

Now, though, the meme’s purpose has drastically changed. The humor behind it has evolved from being a funny, culturally-relevant twist on the meme to an indicator of someone doing something inane or ridiculous. While its widespread use was a major factor of this change, it also became common knowledge that the line in the meme isn’t actually what Boromir says at that moment in the film — he’s actually talking about the great Eye of Sauron, hence his curled hand — contributing to its absurdity. Meme humor has also majorly evolved, favoring smarter topics or formats and directly contrasting with the meme’s uncreative, template-like layout. To use the Boromir meme nowadays is to understand that it has been run into the ground, but that it’s too integral to internet culture to ever really die.

“Lord of the Rings memes are popular because the series is popular,” says u/bottle_O_pee. “Sometimes [the] simplest answer is the best.”

A post on r/lotrmemes from u/RSforce1.
Image: New Line Cinema/Unknown

While the breadth of memes that the franchise has spawned is impressive, what’s more is how long the memes have stuck around. Boromir’s line, for example, has been passed around the internet for 20 years, long surpassing the typical four-month life span of a meme.

In many ways, the longevity of the trilogy’s memes is a reflection of its fandom. Lord of the Rings fans have been around since the first book’s publication in 1954; Fanlore even published a 100-year timeline of the fandom. What solidified the fanbase as a major cultural group, though, was its passionate dedication to the franchise and to Tolkien himself. Fans have created clubs around it, lined up for hours to see the films, and just like the Year of the Ring project is doing, dissected every single aspect of the source content through articles, podcasts, and documentaries.

That commitment to the trilogy is as strong today as it’s ever been, thanks to the stories’ launch into the mainstream by the films and the internet’s ability to deliver Lord of the Rings content to almost anyone anywhere at any time. The Reddit page r/LOTR has seen its subscriber count increase by over 4600% since just 2013, and an unfathomably detailed wiki continues to chronicle every corner of the trilogy and its fans — and these are just a small sampling of the fandom’s growth and dedication.

“It doesn’t matter that it came out 20 years ago,” says Cates Holderness, head of editorial and trends expert at Tumblr. “[Fans are] rewatching it every couple of weeks, and they have found a community of people who also love these movies. They can engage forever with this one entertainment property.”

This increase can also be attributed to circulation of Lord of the Rings memes online. As they spread across the internet, anyone who interacts with the memes also engages with the films, regardless of how far removed from the content they are. For non-fans, they’re a gateway into a fantasy world that otherwise requires an immense amount of time to get into. Memes allow a person to dip their toes into the Lord of the Rings, without putting in the considerable effort to unpack its story. It’s a constant cycle; as new fans are introduced to the story through memes, they become meme creators and circulators themselves, pulling in more new fans as they go.

The Lord of the Rings films have also managed to become a cultural keystone in their two-decade-long existence. Even those who haven’t seen or read the trilogy have heard of it, typically knowing at least some general plot points. The major characters themselves have become entities separate from the story. Referring to Gandolf or Frodo nowadays doesn’t always pertain to the Lord of the Rings books or movies; to many, the former is just a funny, slightly neurotic wizard, and the latter is a small, furry-footed hero, both fully removed from their original context.

Because there is now such a widespread cultural understanding of the trilogy, Lord of the Rings memes can be used and comprehended by everyone — not just fans. “One does not simply walk into Mordor” is funny because fantasy heroes can never just waltz into the climax of the story; it’s a universal story element, rather than one tied to a specific world. Neither the character of Boromir nor the line he utters are important to the meme at all; instead, it’s the cultural perception that propelled it to the top of the meme charts and has kept it there ever since.

“There’s a low barrier of entry when it comes to memes, because so much of the language and the cultural understanding of memes is ubiquitous,” says Holderness. “The context is there without having to have seen the movies.”

The films themselves are also infinitely quotable, from Samwise Gamgee proclaiming “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for” in The Two Towers, to a visibly sober Legolas saying “I think it’s affecting me” after a drinking competition with Gimli in The Return of the King. Because of the number of memorable lines that Jackson and co-writers packed into the script, almost every scene has at least one moment that could easily be transformed into a meme.

Image: New Line Cinema/Unknown

“In general, the movies are long, and there are several of them, […] so we have that much material,” says Holderness. “It’s just a lot of fodder for memes. It’s fun, it’s interesting, the characters are complex but also funny at the same time. I think that kind of all builds out a great base for people to just riff on and make things out of.”

That ability to explore such a large amount of content means that Lord of the Rings memes can feasibly cater to everyone. You don’t have to look far for a meme that fits what you’re trying to convey — from the joys of drinking with friends to the aftermath of cleaning a messy room to simply a funny joke based on a specific scene. Not only does the vast material allow for constant meme creation, but it also encourages continuous circulation; you can always find at least one Lord of the Rings meme out there to relate to or that you find funny.

One does not simply use a Lord of the Rings meme casually — there’s a rich story behind every image and line, and at least part of it has to be understood in order for the joke to make sense. These memes level the playing field, though; those who only vaguely know the stories because of cultural importance can enjoy the memes just as much as those who harbor a deep passion for the story behind them.

In the same way that the series is so profoundly embedded in our culture, the memes that come from it have garnered their own kind of fame. At this point, for example, the Boromir meme is a living legend. It was created in a time of image macros — memes that consist of an image with top and bottom text in the Impact font — and it survived the transition into what we consider memes today.

Thanks to dedicated digital fans and a constant adaptability in the changing internet landscape, Lord of the Rings memes have been circulating for 20 years, squarely situating themselves as a major part of internet culture. These memes have so much to be enjoyed, and to be, and to do, and — like Samwise Gamgee — their part in the story of The Lord of the Rings will certainly go on.


Where to pre-order MTG’s new Doctor Who and LOTR-themed sets


Lord of the Rings’ studio is gently coming for my throat with ‘cosy Hobbit life’ game

Magic: The Gathering

Post Malone has bought Magic’s $2M One Ring card

View all stories in Lord of the Rings
Back to top ↑