Tommasina Domel reflects on her feelings of belonging and peace from growing up with ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and a lifelong friend.
When the screen of my phone lights up, so do a pair of solemn blue eyes, staring into my own with a gaze unwavering and gentle. They are centered above the digits that mark the time, nestled between the battery life and the network signal. Directly below the face to which those eyes belong is the hilt of a sword, engraved with the elegant sweep of Elvish script, and beneath that is the hand that holds it— forefinger adorned with a sturdy but sophisticated silver ring.
This image has been the background of my phone for more than half a decade. The assured countenance featured within it belongs to Aragorn, one of the protagonists from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The art is from the promotional poster for the 2003 release of The Return of the King, Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of the final book in the classic trilogy.
I lost count long ago of how many times I’ve seen this movie and the series in general. I was 11 when the first one came out, and I have been watching it regularly since then. My love for Tolkien’s universe is deep-rooted and abiding, the kind of love that first bloomed in a heart unsettled by the strange, new cruelties of middle school and found itself retreating for shelter among the creatures of a different world.
I recognized even then that I wasn’t alone in this search for refuge, this adolescent desperation for the escape offered by Tolkien’s story. I wasn’t alone in a universal sense, in the way many teenagers sought a haven within it, nor was I alone in the sense of my actual reality at the time — because I had Taylor.
Long before Aragorn peered out from my phone, he held court from the wall of my bedroom. The poster was a Christmas gift from Taylor the year the movie was released. I can’t remember why she even bought it for me, to be honest. We have only occasionally and randomly exchanged gifts for birthdays and holidays in all the years of our friendship, which is quite a number of years now— 24, to be exact.
We met in preschool. I don’t remember much about our early days together, only that I can’t remember a life at all before Taylor was in it. She has always been there in the patchwork of my memory, threaded into bright episodes of each era of my life. The two of us navigated the stages of growing up side-by-side — sometimes within the same classes and sometimes not, sometimes within the same group of friends and sometimes not. We were always orbiting each other, always acting as the spine to hold each other up, as unfailing as the constancy of the gaze on Aragorn’s self-possessed face.
By the time Taylor gave me The Return of the King poster at the end of seventh grade, she and I had long since sunk into what would become a shared lifelong obsession with the series. We watched the movies together endlessly, ruining copies of the DVDs from overuse, until we could quote long scenes of dialogue back and forth like a nightly prayer. They were words of solace to us, born of a well-worn familiarity and a sense of belonging. We knew we always had a place in this strange world because we knew we always had a place with each other.
The Aragorn poster was plastered behind my bed during middle school and high school. One of the corners ripped a bit when I took it down to bring to college, where I stuck it with blue tack next to my desk. I told myself I brought it because no college dorm would be complete without posters on the walls, and because I adored The Lord of the Rings with such a steadfast devotion that it deserved a place of honor in my new habitat. While both of these things were valid, neither was the most important reason it was one of the first things I unpacked my freshman year.
The truth is that the poster came with me as a way to bring a piece of Taylor with me. We had lived three miles apart our whole lives, and now we were going to have 300 miles between us. I wanted to take our shared home to my new one — and I don’t mean the Midwest town we grew up in, but the home we had found together in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In this foreign place where I had no community, Aragorn’s inscrutable stare, so soothing in its benign solemnity, was a steady source of reassurance.
After many years watching over me, the poster had eventually endured a longer lifespan than the manufacturer had intended for it. Today it is safely stored away with other sentimental items from my college years, but Aragorn’s eyes and beard and sword still accompany me daily in digital form as my phone’s lock screen. He has now been my companion for over half of my life.
Taylor has been with me for much longer than that—through milestones painful and exultant, through silly fights and hard years and special days. Our friendship is among the greatest treasures of my life. I cherish it because of how we have worked for it and tended to it, protected and nurtured it. I recognize the rarity of it: how precious a thing it is for someone to know you with the intimacy that only this many years can bring, a friend by choice rather than by blood.
For our 30th birthdays, we plan to go to New Zealand and tour all the places The Lord of the Rings was filmed. After all these years of living there in spirit, we will finally get to experience our very own journey to Middle Earth. I have little doubt Aragorn will still be safeguarding my phone even then, and so he will join us, too. He will continue to tag along on all my travels, to witness the progression of my days, to be a friend I can look to for stability and comfort — just like the person who gave him to me all those years ago.