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Seeming fair and feeling foul

Review of "The Rings of Power" on Amazon Prime.

It begins, once again, with Galadriel telling the story of an ancient war. This time it is the story of the First Age – the story of how the elves left paradise in Valinor to journey to Middle Earth and to take revenge upon the fallen angel Morgoth. These battles are bigger of course, and the enemy more terrifying. Dragons and eagles duel in the sky while legions of high elves battle uncountable hordes of orcs. This tale is also darker. In one breathtaking montage Galadriel, clad in ethereal white, adds the bloody helmet of her fallen brother, Finrod, to a mountain of other elven helms. In Middle Earth, she laments to the soaring strings of another Howard Shore-esque composition, “we learned many words for death.”

I speak, of course, of the new Amazon Prime spectacle, The Rings of Power, which was forged in semi-secret by the dark lord Jeff Bezos during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, this story will be told in five seasons, and will cover the rather thinly catalogued Second Age of Middle Earth. According to the Appendices the show is based on (which can be found at the back of most copies of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King), the main highlights will include the rise of Sauron, the Atlantis-like demise of the human kingdom of Numenor, and the forging of the titular rings by the elven smith Celebrimbor. These rings feature prominently in the LOTR trilogy, and are mentioned by an older and wiser Galadriel at the beginning of the The Fellowship of the Ring. “Three were given to the Elves,” she explains, “Seven to the Dwarf Lords. . . and nine were gifted to mortal men.” The most powerful ring, of course, was forged not by Celebrimbor but by Sauron himself, and would eventually cause a lot of bother to two intrepid hobbits with the surname Baggins.

The rings, like a younger and more tempestuous Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), and a downright nerdy Elrond (Robert Aramayo), are the familiar connections binding this new series to the silver-screen canon created by Jackson almost two decades ago. Yet Amazon’s production, despite these connections, has not measured up in the eyes of many Tolkien fans.

THIN THEOLOGY, BETTER EQUITY

The best feature of the show is its jaw-dropping, chest-aching beauty – the sort of seamless CGI that fantasy cinema could once only dream of. Yet within this beautiful, glittering husk is a confusing and rather tedious script which becomes more insulting the more one knows of the source material. The show begins with elven children fighting in Valinor, which is akin to Adam and Eve squabbling in Eden before the Fall. It continues with Finrod lecturing a young Galadriel about the importance of a little darkness in one’s life, beginning a trend towards theological dualism that is entirely inconsistent with Tolkien’s work. Later in the first episode the elven high king Gil-Galad “grants” Galadriel passage back to Valinor, which is like St. Peter charging admission at the pearly gates. It is obvious that when screenwriters promised “to maintain the spirit of the book,” they didn’t mean Tolkien’s theological depth or cosmogony.

This is not to say that the best adaptation is a perfectly canonical one. There were cries of outrage when Jackson sent elves to Helm’s Deep after all, and eliminated Tom Bombadil and the barrow-wights. Consequently, the proliferation of women and people of colour in The Rings of Power should be viewed as both important and positive – the argument for doing so is incontrovertible on the grounds of equity and representation – even if it creates some head-scratching genealogies on screen. It is also important to note the source material for the show runs only a couple hundred pages of sometimes contradictory text, and includes very little dialogue. There are many instances where the show cannot remain true to the text because Tolkien wrote nothing on the subject, a failure which cannot really be blamed on Amazon.

HIRING! ELVES ONLY?

Other failures, however, are indeed tragic. The best fantasy worlds are living, evolving, dynamic systems in which even the biggest tales are simply branches on a larger tree of story. Yet too often in The Rings of Power the action onscreen feels like the only interesting thing occurring within elf-sight. The first humans we meet are living in squalid little villages in the Southlands, and seem to exist only to harass the star-crossed lovers Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and Bronwen (Nazanin Boniadi) and to be ravaged by orcs. It is implied that a stranger may return from wandering in the wilderness to be their king but this simply seems inevitable rather than exciting. The human kingdom of Numenor is far more vibrant, but once again suffers from a profound lack of narrative direction. Tolkien described the descent of Numenor and its rift with the elves as a direct result of humanity’s fear of mortality, yet the show’s Numenoreans instead fret that the immortal elves will…steal their jobs. Queen Muriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) rules for her father Tar-Palantir (Ken Blackburn), the last faithful king, who wastes away into senility. Ironically, clinging to life in such a manner would have marked Tar-Palantir as a heretic in the canon and was done only by kings that feared death and hated God.

The elves are sitting on their impossibly pretty thumbs in various picturesque locales waiting for Sauron to return. Only in the fifth episode are they finally given their own (rather nonsensical) plot arc. Elrond is presented as Gil-Galad’s speechwriter, which is a baffling failure of imagination regarding elven culture. The dwarves are busily mining in Moria, although a wingless demon is presumably imminent. The hobbits (ahem, I mean Harfoots) are the most lively of the bunch. These lovable little firecrackers are conducting triannual migrations, apparently for the purpose of ridding themselves of the crippled and elderly. Only Galadriel and the orcs seem to have any transformational vision for the future in a world which remains remarkably flat and anemic.

Cheap Tricks

The Rings of Power disappoints (so far) because the world is sterile and thin, because the plot keeps writing itself into corners, and because the theological roots of Tolkien’s universe have been hacked away. There are glimpses of magic, such as the terrifying first encounter with an orc in the second episode, and the delightful stone-cracking competition between Elrond and a disgruntled Durin IV (Owain Arthur). Yet these are, to quote a wizard who cannot be named for copyright reasons, a conjuring of cheap tricks. Perhaps the series will eventually find its furry feet, or perhaps it will continue to stumble from implausible coincidence to baffling contradiction. I have my suspicions, but it is hard to condemn five seasons of a show on the basis of five episodes. Even the very wise cannot see all ends, right?

Author

  • Paul Esau

    Paul Esau is a PhD candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University, a lapsed fantasy writer, and the owner of a Galadriel action figure (silver ewer included!)

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