So naturally I was slightly interested in the upcoming news about the upcoming Amazon series The Rings of Power. It’s from a relatively unknown period of Tolkien’s history, so they have a lot of free reign to work with and the usual concerns about “it’s not like that in the book” no longer apply. Instead, criticisms must be focused on the more amorphous concern of “it’s not in the spirit of Lord of the Rings.”
But what is that spirit? And how serious is it if it’s not in the “spirit?” Some of the criticisms focus on the series multi-racial casting, claiming the series has gone “woke.” Others focus on the lack of dirt and grime in the trailers, pointing out that the overly sanitized scenes don’t feel grounded in the same way that Jackson’s famous trilogy did. Some even (somewhat jokingly) pick at the dwarf-queen’s lack of a beard.
I’m not too worried about that last one, to be honest. I doubt anyone is. It’s a fun little detail, but not much more.
There’s varying amounts of validity to these concerns. Tolkien’s original was written in the style of an ancient Old-English medieval epic. In that sense, dirt is actually not so important, as these stories tend to be highly idealized. Actually, while concerns about multi-racial casting are often rooted in racism, there’s some validity to the argument that as Tolkien’s epic was meant to be reflective of a distinctively Anglo-Saxon tradition, the cast at least of central Middle-Earth should be likewise Anglo-Saxon, with diversity added via sympathetic “Haradrim” or “Easterling” characters, or additional dwarf kingdoms. It’s the same principle as, say, Mulan hiring largely actors of Asian origin to tell a distinctively Chinese legend. (though apparently that wasn’t enough to protect the director from being attacked for a lack of Asian origin. Cancel culture is weird)
But then, what’s the ultimate point of an epic like Lord of the Rings? Is it to depict a specific cultural vision, or to tell a iconic story that all can enjoy? The role of diversity in films is often not realism, but relatability, where multiple demographics can identify with the protagonists. Stories about America have diversity because America is diverse. High school dramas may depict an unrealistic percentage of minorities in high schools/typical friend groups, but that’s because the intent is to show emotions and dilemnas that American teens face all across America, regardless of race or background.
Similarly, dirt. Maybe it didn’t show up in the original legends, but maybe that’s just because medieval listeners assumed its presence. They didn’t have the same sense of absolute cleanliness we do.
My concerns are more rooted in two points: the characters’ personalities don’t jive with the heroic models presented in Tolkien, which is particularly noticeable in the returning characters like Galadriel and Elrond.
Vanity Fair, who did an early preview of the series, described Galadriel as:
…thousands of years younger, as angry and brash as she is clever, and certain that evil is looming closer than anyone realizes.Vanity Fair, “Inside the Rings of Power”
That’s a danger sign right off. Galadriel certainly is “thousands of years younger,” but she is also “thousands of years” old, and having lived through the wars of the Silmarils, would almost definitely not be “brash.” The background of her character is that she mostly stayed within Eregion during the wars, which again is not the behavior of someone being “brash.” There’s nothing particularly wrong with the shots of her in armor carrying a sword, except that she’s routinely shown to be more of a magic user.
What will most likely be the explanation for this is that Galadriel at this stage is an Eowyn-like figure, someone who thirsted for combat and glory while being kept “penned up” in Eregion by her brother Finrod. But again, this seems awfully foolish with someone who must have seen what the quest for glory earned her uncle Feanor and her cousins.
Then there is the character of Elrond. Elrond is described in the same article as: “a politically ambitious young leader” and elsewhere as “a canny architect and politician”. Simply the mention of “politics” is alien to Tolkien’s world, which relies heavily on lineages and lines; kings passing on their titles to princes; vows and promises. Elrond, the son of Earendil, brother to Elros founder of Numenor, would have little need, frankly, of politics. He would have a sizeable following, more than enough to found the valley of Rivendell. “Ambition,” at least political ambition, means little in the world of heroic epics, where knights are loyal to their lords and their sons. In Tolkien’s world, elves do not lie, steal, or manipulate, and the sole occasions where they backstab is held as one of the greatest evils in Middle Earth.
What this all points to is a world that deliberately echos the political orientation of a series like Game of Thrones. Vanity Fair describes the first few episodes as: “a lavish, compelling mix of palace intrigue, magic, warfare, and mythology,” and while all of these are present to some extent in Tolkien, the foregrounding of “palace intrigue” here is telling. So is the fixation of the marketing thus far on the various characters of the series, which do not seem to correspond to the eventual bearers of the Rings of Power, but instead of different political figures.
This could make sense. Tolkien’s Great Rings (the artifacts) are about the thirst for power and domination, which could play well into political intrigue, though I think there are other meanings of “power” which might work better. It could be intriguing to show the lesser rings of power mentioned by Gandalf gradually appearing in the world as “power buffs” on random warriors. (But I fear it will not.)
Moreover, Jackson’s famous adaptation also took liberties with the heroic conventions. Specifically, Aragorn is nearly the opposite of how he is presented in the book, where he is a grim, lordly man impatient to be king and fully willing to claim his birthright. Viggo Mortensen is a more modern king–a man who doesn’t want to lead, who doesn’t want to take charge or claim any sort of birthright. He doesn’t take greatness, he has greatness thrust upon him. He’s nothing like Tolkien’s Aragorn. But it works–Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn is one of the most compelling characters in the movies.
Or take Gimli. Tolkien fans often lament that Gimli, who in the books is a badass dwarf warrior with distinctly dwarf views, is reduced in Jackson’s trilogy to mere comic relief. But as comic relief, Gimli is magnificent, and adds a touch of humanity and relatability to the movie that, arguably, it could not succeed without.
Another fear of mine plays into this–the showrunners, Patrick McKay and JD Payne, have never directed a show before. They’ve been writing for 13 years but barely ever been even credited in any projects. They’re leading partly through the endorsement of JJ Abrams–who while certainly a successful director, is not a Tolkienesque one. Still, wasn’t Peter Jackson an indie horror filmmaker before embarking on one of the most ambitious fantasies of all time? Yes–though still a filmmaker, who could be expected to have experience with stuff like basic cinema.
There are points in their favor–they met personally with the members of the Tolkien estate to pitch their idea (though it’s uncertain how much that means anymore, with Christopher Tolkien dead). They have, or profess to have, a deep love of Tolkien, to the extent of developing different accents based on the nation’s likely inspirations. But the Tolkien scholar attached to the project, Tom Shippey, has left–fired or resigned or simply done with the project, depends who you ask.
How to navigate this?
Other fans of Tolkien are likely familiar with the “Shadow of Mordor” series of video games, set likewise in a “fuzzy” period of Tolkien’s history, prior to The Hobbit. Likely, also, they are familiar with the extraordinary violence it does to Tolkien’s themes, presenting protagonist Talion’s quest for power and vengeance as a good and necessary end. Talion even acquires another “great ring” to fight against Sauron, a device nearly explicitly decried in the text. There’s nothing heroic about Talion or his goals, he does not follow the conventions of any heroic epic.
Also Shelob is a sexy lady for some reason.
Here’s the thing. Shadow of Mordor is not just an enjoyable game. It’s an enjoyable game with a compelling fantasy world. It just so happens thatas a Tolkien adapation, it’s trash. There is something really pretty cool about Talion’s wraith world and the backstory of the game’s Celebrimbor; even if that Celebrimbor is utterly different from how he’s described in the text. I finally decided that it was best to enjoy Shadow of Mordor on its own terms, thinking of it as a wholly separate world unconnected with Tolkien, just happening to share some of the names in its lore.
This is going to have to be my approach with the Rings of Power television series. And not just because it’s unlikely to be true to Tolkien’s themes–because in reality, I don’t want this series.
I realized something when flipping through the character posters and discovered an unidentified one–a hand clutching a sword with the pommel of a white horse. No name was given, but I instantly knew who this was. Eorl the Young, father of Rohan, who bore the original Horn of the Mark from Scatha the Wyrm’s hoard and came to the aid of Gondor in their dark hour. He’s referenced a few times in the canon, but mostly appears as a figure of song and the subject of a colorful statue in Dunharrow.
And here’s the other thing I realized. I didn’t want to know anything more about him. I was always fascinated by Eorl, but I was fascinated by him as this semi-legendary founding figure, a heroic figure whose deeds were hinted at. I didn’t want more than the hints. I didn’t want an identified face or a personality or a backstory. I wanted Eorl to stay legendary and unknowable.
But I was going to get a depiction of him whether I wanted it or not. I’m going to. That mystery is going to be diminished, even if I decide not to accept it, and no matter how awesome the adaptation of him is, it’s going to be diminished.
So I’ll watch Rings of Power. I probably wouldn’t watch it if it wasn’t claiming to be Tolkien-ish, but I’ll still do my best to consider it not part of Tolkien’s world. It almost definitely won’t be in Tolkien’s tone or have Tolkien’s themes. I suspect, given the inexperience of the directors and the sheer complexity indicated, that it will be no good.
But I might be wrong.