‘The Rings of Power is a ripping good fantasy show, but it’s not Tolkien
Every member of the Tolkien Trust, which manages the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien and thus controls his intellectual property, should be dying of shame, now that Amazon has loosed The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power upon the world. Having sold Amazon the rights to the Appendices (not the novel proper, mind you!) to his masterwork The Lord of the Rings for scads of cash, they proceeded to give the corporation’s streaming service carte blanche to make a TV series that riffs on the characters, settings, and imaginary history contained within.
The resulting show is fine if you like generic fantasy, complete with breathtaking scenery, spectacular stunt-work, fight scenes to best the best of them, and sympathetic characters struggling within their respective societies against cultural and political strictures that restrain them from doing what they know is right. The problem is that, apart from the settings and the names of a lot of the characters, it’s not much to do with Tolkien. The writers and the show-runners made up most of it themselves. So your enjoyment will most likely depend on your devotion to the Tolkien canon. If you just like a ripping good fantasy show, this is probably for you.
Set in the Second Age of Middle-Earth, thousands of years before the events of the novel, the show bops back and forth, within these first two episodes, primarily amongst three characters: Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), High-Elf and warrior, who has taken up the sword after the death of her brother Finrod; Harfoot healer Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh); and Silvan-Elf ranger Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova). Galadriel is the series’ protagonist, driving its main conflict: where is the Dark Lord Sauron, who waged war on Elves and Men but disappeared, he and his armies of trolls and orcs, without a decisive defeat?
This question propels not just her journey, but that of Nori and Arondir as well. And if Galadriel suffers for her insistence on seeking an answer to that question, her friends and even her High King just wanting to get back to enjoying the apparent peace that they have earned—well, who does she have to blame but herself, for her obsession?
The Rings Of Power establishes its world quite well, not just with sweeping, panoramic shots of its landscapes, but also with presentations of details regarding the societies of the various peoples of Middle-Earth: Elves, Men, Dwarves, and the proto-Hobbits, the Harfoots. If there’s a hierarchy in Tolkien’s original (and there does seem to be), it’s in that order, with the Elves in their grand palaces, and having the promise of eternal life and joy in Valinor, the land of Middle-Earth’s god’s, the Valar. Men, through the rulers of their preëminent kingdom of Númenor, are related by heredity to the Elves, and have a more ambiguous eternity ahead of them, after their inevitable deaths.
So, too, the Dwarves, who were not part of the god-creator Eru Ilúvatar’s master plan, but whom he suffered to exist. They just are. Hobbits/Harfoots? There’s not much an explanation for them in Tolkien’s cosmology. He just found them a good foil to the rest of them all, it would seem. In any case, here in the show, so far, Dwarves and Men have swapped rank, with Men no better than the Harfoots, really, quite similar in culture and home-brewed medicine, ready to pack up and migrate at the first hint of threat from the old dark forces that still linger in their collective memory.
But we shall see: we’ll probably get to Númenor before a few more episodes (or seasons?), and that should be appropriately grand. Not to give too much away, but if this show ever does get around to coming into closer harmony with the Appendices, this will be its best chance. There are, after all, some rings to be forged, and given to unsuspecting Men, the better to corrupt and control them.
With Men, we don’t get much to go on. There’s a scene in the first episode, “A Shadow of the Past” (echoing, of course, the second chapter of the novel, “The Shadow of the Past”), in which certain Men, whose backgrounds the show doesn’t reveal, scour the grassy plains for the Harfoots, whom they think dangerous. In episode two, “Adrift,” Galadriel, having refused a punishment disguised as a reward, swims alone in the open sea. A raft of Men-folk rescue her. Before long, though, there are none left but her and mystery-man Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), who, though he may mistrust any Elf on principle, is willing to risk his life to save hers. One way or another, Men seem to be a pretty ragtag bunch in The Rings of Power.
The Harfoots get a more tender treatment, as we follow Nori in her happy little settlement, through her days picking berries and smart-mouthing her mother – right up until a meteor, it seems, plummets from the sky. Yet is almost unconscionable, to her best friend, that she would assist the “giant” (as the friend calls him) they find in the flaming crater. They are the smallest of Middle-Earth’s peoples, and live in fear, experts at concealment. To speak, to feed, to provide shelter to one of the Big People: you just don’t do that.
Yet Nori does, insisting that she was meant to do so. It’s almost as though someone wrote the part for her, in order that she should bring this Stranger into the storyline. (Who could he be? He has a long gray beard. He can do some magic. Hmm….) Nori is a pleasant-enough character, balancing very well the coy and the willful. But so far, it all adds up to–we shall see.
Of all the peoples, the Dwarves get most lavish treatment of any of Middle-Earth’s peoples. The detail, in episode two, in which the show depicts Khazad-dûm (a.k.a. Moria), is like nothing else. Ferns grow off a rock next to a cascade of water. A cleverly manipulated elevator goes up alongside a cliff. A tree, of perhaps immense spiritual significance, spreads its yellow leaves within a blue-lit grotto. Arches span over arches over bridges, all within the depths of an underground cavern so vast as to seem without limits. It’s lovely. And we also get our first hint, from an uncanny blue glow emanating from a little box, that the Dark Lord, Sauron, is indeed still at work, as Galadriel has insisted all along.
Yet the writers can’t resist the temptation (inherited from Peter Jackson, perhaps) to treat the Dwarves like a silly bunch of soccer hooligans, whooping and hollering at something so petty as a rock-smashing contest. There is none of the deep seriousness, the martial gravity, with which Tolkien imbued that race. Durin IV (Owain Arthur), prince of Khazad-dûm, may be sympathetic enough in his grievances against his friend, the Elf-lord Elrond (Robert Aramayo), but he still comes off like a dolt. And his wife, Princess Disa (Sophia Nomvete), reads more like a politer sort of barmaid, rather than the spouse of heir-apparent to a glorious realm.
The show gives us this grand scenery, here in Khazad-dûm, and peoples it with louts who seem in no way worthy of their kingdom or capable of having created such a wonder. The Appendices have little to say about the Dwarves, as a race, but the writers and show-runners would have done well to have kept their source in mind: “They are a tough, thrawn race . . . secretive, laborious . . . lovers of stone, of gems, of things that shape under the hands of craftsmen.” No mention of their being oafs.
Elf-ranger Arondir also gets hints, and more than hints, that Sauron and his armies of orcs are up to their old tricks. There’s some almost-compelling forbidden romance between him and human healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), but it’s when they go hunting in underground tunnels for the missing populace of a village that things get interesting. Darkness and distant eerie sounds, quick cuts of the camera from a close-up of bulging eyes to an indistinct shape up ahead, along with some suitably spooky string-music, all make for a nice bit of tension. But both characters are, as one would say, non-canonical. And they are not, in the end, all that interesting in and of themselves, but instead are rather rote fantasy tropes we’ve all seen before.
The Human-Elvish romance does, of course, have its history in Tolkien’s works (Beren and Luthien, Aragorn and Arwen) – but here there’s little at stake except perhaps the disapproval of Bronwyn’s people, who don’t like the pointy-eared Elves. They don’t have to make a moral choice, only a social one. The show could redeem their story if it leads into canonical plotlines, tied into the forging of the Rings of Power, or perhaps the succeeding war. Like Nori’s relationship with the Stranger, and perhaps even that between Elrond and Durin IV, at the most it illustrates a grasping beyond xenophobia to forge real, personal ties. That, at least, is a theme that Tolkien drew out within his writing. Whether the story itself becomes Tolkien’s, after it gets around to telling a proper story, remains to be seen.
That, in the end, is the show–so far. It’s there. It’s nice to look at. It is–so far–a bowdlerization of Tolkien, utterly lacking in moral import, though it does manage to grasp at least a sliver of his vision. But he no doubt would hate it, his son Christopher would hate it, and his grandson Simon (a member of the afore-mentioned Tolkien Trust) ought to be ashamed of himself for serving as a consultant for it. Perhaps this judgment is too hasty. Maybe it’ll get there, to the story Tolkien himself told. But when the most compelling scene is a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style fight in which Galadriel stabs a troll in the head, even though there’s no mention in the Appendices of her ever taking up a sword–you have to wonder.