So a while back I posted on my thoughts on Rings of Power–or rather, my expectations, since the series hadn’t actually come out at that point. Well, it’s come out now. And while prudence would probably advise that I wait a little longer before judging the show, I thought I’d get out my thoughts while it’s still a hot topic.
(I actually started typing this up after the first week, and I’ve added to it as the weeks rolled on)
I’m always surprised by the stupidity of the internet. I first heard not complaints, but complaints about complaints–lots of people talking about how vapid and meaningless all the complaints about the series’ diversity were. And while I didn’t doubt them, I wasn’t hearing any of that myself, so I sort of assumed that it was a fringe opinion. But then I went to visit the reddit lotr forum. And saw retweets on Twitter. So now I am forced to confront the fact that, yes, many people are ticked off for no other reason that there are black people in it. (or for very flimsy reasons that may well disguise less socially acceptable views).
As I argued in my first post, there is a case to be made, certainly, that as Tolkien’s vision is based on Anglo-Saxon myths and legends, that the cast ought likewise to be reflective of that, in the same sense that a movie on Mulan ought to reflect its background on a Chinese myth. But as I also said, there is a case for the reverse, for making a universal myth that all can see themselves inhabiting, which I believe is what Rings of Power is aiming for. And more to the point, none of the criticism of the casting seems to have any consideration beyond “it didn’t use to be that way and I don’t like it,” and “if you say I’m wrong you should feel bad about yourself.”
(TBF the reverse also seems to be true in some areas, where any criticism of the castings is interpreted as racism. An acquaintance seemed to be taking my complaints of Gil-Galad’s body weight a trifle more… aggressively than it seemed they merited.)
ANYWAY. Complaints that the diversity casting reflects a “too woke” stance are simply not paying attention to the actual show. There’s very little of an obvious or aggressive political agenda here; there’s no didactic lessons on sexism or racism. Speciesism, true, where men distrust elves and elves are snobbist toward men, but that’s a clear and present theme in Tolkien’s own work, so it can hardly be called “woke” or revisionist. Instead, it seems evident that the multiracial casting is simply to appeal to all demographics and give everyone a stake in the story. Different races within the same area and even within the same people group pass without comment. It’s a Middle Earth with the demographics of America. And honestly, I have no complaints with that as such. If they were aiming for a specific cultural vision, maybe, but they’re not, so no biggie. It’s a fantasy world. I can take multi-racial cities alongside giant flying fire-lizards.
INCIDENTALLY. People have a different times argued that Tolkien was a bit of a racist, due to him at one time characterizing the dwarves as Jew-like. This misses the point that (a) the dwarves are some of the coolest people in Tolkien’s world, and (b), Tolkien is in the excerpt clearly speaking of subconscious influences on his work. One could, certainly, make the argument that the homeless dwarves seeking to retake their homeland had definite modern-day parallels to the Jewish population, but they had just as many parallels to ancient legends, which Tolkien tended to be more familiar with.
It’s worth throwing into the mix the story of when Tolkien’s The Hobbit was being published in 1937 to different nations, and he received an inquiry from the then-in-power Nazi publishers as to whether he had any Jewish blood in him. Tolkien’s answer:
Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.
Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.
I trust you will find this reply satisfactory, and remain yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien
Translation: “Your stupid ‘Aryan’ fixation makes no sense linguistically or historically and is going to make people hate you if you keep asking stupid questions like this. No, none of my ancestors belonged to the Israeli nation, which is a pity because they’re awesome.”
(Tolkien did also write a more polite response, but his publisher decided to send the snarkier one, presumably because his publisher also thought the Nazis should pound sand.)
So people on the internet are being stupid. Nothing new about that. How is the show, actually?
The overwhelming response I’ve heard from actually intelligent people has been, “ehhhhh…” To quote the supervisor of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, “not great, not terrible.” Which is by itself something of a surprise, honestly, since money was on the show being either really good or really bad. And it’s neither.
The big worries–that the showrunners were going to go with a “grittier” or “woker” interpretation–that they were going to try and copy Game of Thrones, or put a lot of political gaming into Tolkien’s universe–have proven to be groundless. The show retains the aesthetic of Peter Jackson’s movies, and retains the slight sense of unreality in their proceedings. Moria, especially, is a triumph of the show, which looks very much like Jackson’s vision, but in a wholly new and fresh way–the way the kingdom was supposed to look in its prime. Similarly for Numenor, which echoes Minas Tirith in all the right ways (I could, perhaps, have wished for a touch more Gothic instead of Egyptian, but that’s a private preference.) Visually, the series is on point.
The characters are decent. Galadriel and Elrond bear little resemblance to their Peter Jackson counterparts, but after a while you get to like them simply on their own terms. (Also apparently the warrior-woman persona of Galadriel is not as far-fetched as I thought) Elendil, as a disgraced Faithful adherent of the old ways, is appropriately grim and awesome. Disa is amazing. Nori is fun. Meteor Man is intriguing and has a great balance of power and naivete. Even Arondir, who I expected to hate as some sort of romance-bait character, has really impressed me.
Music-wise, too, the series shines. Bear McCreary does an excellent job of following in Howard Shore’s impressive footsteps. (Howard Shore was brought on to do the song for the intro, another excellent decision.) It’s a lot easier to believe in the world when music so forcefully reminscient of the orginals is playing in the background.
The costumes are a… mixed bunch. It’s probably not a coincidence that my favorite designs are for my two favorite groups: the Numenoreans (which are a little light, but understandable for the early period) and the dwarves (which are appropriately grimy and solid-looking.) The elves, though, are… less good. Their armor looks a bit rubbery, and their gowns are simplistic to the point of almost being nightgowns. Galadriel’s wardrobe is decent, but Elrond’s looks less impressive, and Gil-Galad, who I assume is supposed to look iconic in his simplicity, just looks like a lazy king who spends too much time in front of a television.
The dialogue too is mixed, though it leans a bit on the cringeworthy side. This is, on reflection, little surprise. Tolkien’s dialogue emulates an older style of speaking–a style that people may not have spoken in at all outside of epic poems and ballads. A style, moreover, that is largely parodied today. Simply trying to match the language of a lifelong scholar of Anglo-Saxon language, and a hyper-fan of Nordic literature from across Scandanavia, is either going to work or it’s going to sound laughable.
Though even so, one would think that a line like “If darkness is gone, why is it still in my heart” would be obviously cheesy enough that someone would discard it.
All of these contribute to the general “meh” reaction. It’s not terrible, because it is trying to be Lord of the Rings, and it succeeds on some key fronts. It’s not even really as false-feeling as the Hobbit movies, which had far too much ridiculousness to feel anything other than slapstick. But it also fails in some crucial parts, and that keeps it from being great.
My own issue, truthfully, is something more subtle, and that’s that the world doesn’t have a medieval sensibility.
I don’t mean in the historical sense. I mean in the sense of the poems and epics of the time, the works that Tolkien studied and loved, where every knight was the greatest knight of all, every lady was the most beautiful lady that there ever was or shall be, and everything began and ended with honor. The historical medieval world, of course, was not quite like this–George RR Martin pulls some of the most horrifyingly amoral moments from his A Song of Fire and Ice series directly from history–but the heroic literature was what they aspired to–and I would argue what motivated many.
One of my favorite Anglo-Saxon poems, The Battle of Maldon, tells the real-life story of a thane who agreed to move his army away from the narrow bridge they were holding against the numerically superior Vikings, just so that they could have a “fair fight.” It also tells the possibly fictitious stories of the many servants of his who decide to stick around after the thane is (nearly immediately) killed, just so they can battle to the death in vengeance for their lord.
Tolkien’s writing is full of stuff like this. Theoden decides to charge out of Helm’s Deep and die in glorious combat because he’s sick and tired of sitting around in his castle. Eomer, in an unglimpsed moment, jumps off his horse so he can battle Ugluk, commander of the orcs who kidnapped Merry and Pippin, in hand-to-hand combat. Fingolfin, in the Silmarrilion, is an elf lord who walks right up to Thangorodrim and challenges Morgoth, Sauron’s bigger half-god boss, to single combat. And Morgoth agrees. Everything began and ended with honor. Anyone who lied was a cheat, anyone who deserted comrades was a coward, anyone who hid something was ashamed and/or afraid.
This is not, though, the world of Rings of Power. The elves, the pinnacles of Tolkien’s mythology, are lying and scheming, pressuring Elrond to break oaths, decieving Galadriel so that she will leave. Durin is unspeakably offended because Elrond missed his wedding, of all things. The hobbit-like Harfoots, we learn, leave behind anyone who is disobedient or even injured to presumably die alone (bizarrely, their cry of remembrance is “we wait for you” when that’s in fact the reverse of what they did). The mysterious Halbarad deserts his companions on the raft when he realizes they’ll die, Galadriel swims away from the same group without warning them.
The Numenoreans hiding things, actually, I’m fine with. Part of the point with Numenor was always that they became corrupt and power-hungry. But I’m less fine with Elendil, future high king of Gondor, telling his children: “The past is dead. We either move forward or we die with it.” That’s not just counter to Elendil’s character in the books, not just counter to the world of Middle-Earth. That runs counter to Tolkien’s entire ethos in creating the Lord of the Rings to begin with–that the past is alive, and worth remembering.
Elrond makes a comment that “it is difficult to know what is right when friendship and duty are intermingled.” A medieval hero might struggle with the choice, but having made it, would stick to that unapologetically.
Here’s the hope: It’s possible, even likely, that these issues are matters within the show that the heroes will learn to move on from, develop to a purer and more Tolkien-ite understanding. Elendil, obviously, cannot keep saying they should move on from the past–at some point he is going to become king of Gondor and an ally of Gil-Galad. The Harfoots are not going to be survivalist forever, because we know they eventually settle down and become the simple hobbit-folk of the Shire. The elves… I’m not sure about them, since Gil-Galad is still around by the time of the battle against Sauron, and historically that plot line is likely to result in the elves and the dwarves hating each other. Just generally, the elves disappoint me. But maybe the eventual corruption of Celebrimbor and the forging of the Rings will lead to an epiphany that they were wrong.
If Rings of Power can correct this flawed worldview, there is much I can forgive. Heck, I can forgive a great deal already just for it being a beautiful fantasy series that for once doesn’t involve a lot of nudity and gory backstabbing. If they directly take on the modern survive-at-all-costs mentality and strike it down, I might very well love them, though it’s going to be difficult if corny lines and contrived premises keep breaking the immersion for me.
In any case, I’ll keep watching, because a part of me definitely wants to see this series make it to the truly epic moments of the Second Age.