By Hannah Matis

Caveat lector: The series is available to stream on Amazon Prime. I will do my best to avoid spoilers internal to the series, but miserere mei as I reckon with the nature of prequels.  

Having finally attained the near-mythical land of inbox zero, I spent a good deal of my fall break immersing myself in Amazon’s 90-million-an-episode investment in some of the more esoteric corners of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. I like to think that Professor Tolkien, who never did understand his more enthusiastic American fans, would be at least bemused by the spectacle of a multi-billion-dollar empire chronicling, well, the origins of another multi-billion-dollar empire.

That the company who helped our very homes to surveil us is telling a story which we all know will lead us, at some point, to a dark tower with a giant flaming eye on top is, to say the least, ironic. However, irony notwithstanding, certain pockets of the American corporate technocracy today feel that a strong affinity exists between them and  Tolkien’s universe — at least, that universe as mediated via Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films — not least because its New Zealand scenery is the billionaire’s bolt hole of choice in the oncoming apocalypse. These days, Anduril is not only the name of a famous sword, but also the tech company whose technology patrols the U.S. border.

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Peter Jackson’s films democratized Tolkien’s universe and expanded its circle of fans beyond the Oxford don’s wildest imaginings. Shot simultaneously, the three films were, according to some metrics, low-budget at the time, but like their precursor Star Wars, served as the impetus to invent much of the technology and special effects still dominating cinema today.

Jackson was also, to a degree almost incomprehensible to GenZ today, fighting a constant, desperate battle for his audience’s limited attention span: the first theatrical release of each film represented the bare minimum of what he felt an uninitiated cinema audience could handle, with subsequent extended editions incorporating more specialized material for the fans. I had many friends in college and graduate school who watched these extended editions practically on a constant circuit, as well as all the hours of interviews, making-of documentaries, and cast commentaries. I would be very curious to know to what extent Jackson’s trilogy, even more than Harry Potter, laid the internal groundwork for binge TV today.

The shadow of the past — ahem, of Peter Jackson — falls very heavily on this new production, which is at least partly produced by New Line Cinema and is likewise shot in New Zealand. I was surprised to what extent The Rings of Power incorporated the visual language of the earlier trilogy, while evolving new and creative forms of its own, and all on a budget that aims to stupefy. The Rings of Power is, quite simply, gorgeous: every frame is lovingly detailed, color-saturated, and lit to dazzle. Perhaps the most exquisitely realized set and location in all of The Rings of Power, as well as its most original, is the island stronghold of Númenor, the parent kingdom of Gondor in the later books. In Tolkien’s universe, Númenor was the essential bridge by which the wisdom and knowledge of the immortals of Valinor passed to Middle-earth and specifically to men. As always in Tolkien, true status, even the claim to royalty, ultimately derives from being an outsider poised between the world of elves and men, of being an “elf-friend,” “half-elven,” or a mortal literally and figuratively in love with the elves and the memory and knowledge of the “high beauty” of Valinor.

In his preface to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien famously dismissed allegory, but acknowledged that he found history to be a much richer source for inspiration. Perhaps in ways he could not have foreseen, this vision of history, while as detailed and complex as the rest of Tolkien’s thought-world, was inevitably value-laden. What united the Inklings — most explicitly Tolkien and Charles Williams, but including C. S. Lewis as well — was a shared fascination with Constantinople and the Byzantine kingdom as a fusion of Greek thought and philosophy with Christianity.

To transport Byzantine learning to the early medieval English kingdoms Tolkien so loved, to marry Gondor and Rohan, so to speak, was Tolkien’s preoccupation and a form of scholarly wish-fulfillment. It is a structure, however, with a definite teleology, particularly if one “allegorizes” the world of Middle-earth back into the present and presents his work as a straightforward narrative of the superiority of Western — that is, Greco-Roman meets European — Civilization, particularly over and against the Islamic world.

I think, as always, that Tolkien is his own best critic here, not least because nothing in Tolkien is ever straightforward. The histories of both Númenor and Gondor are meant as deeply tragic cautionary tales. The Rings of Power is clearly aware of these ambient concerns: in its décor, Númenor evokes Minoan Crete, even Phoenicia and Carthage, rather than classical Athens, and the cast includes Puerto Rican and Persian actors. The rage and furore directed at these cast members by certain troll-like corners of Tolkien’s fan base is, I have to say, its own argument for why such a creative decision was necessary. My only criticism of the cast is that their accents, like the Ewok-hobbit-Harfoots, wander continually and are occasionally left behind altogether. Lenny Henry is an actor of tremendous gifts and range, but I have to say, his Irish gypsy shaman was a new experience for me.

I have two fundamental criticisms of The Rings of Power: one structural and one theological. As well as being shot at the same time, Peter Jackson’s trilogy was anchored to a script lovingly and agonizingly condensed from its source material by the director, his partner Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. In short, script and direction existed in intimate symbiotic relationship — to an exasperating degree, if you were one of the cast members tasked with learning last-minute rewrites. Howard Shore’s musical score was another profoundly unifying mechanism across all three films.

The Rings of Power, however, was written the way most American TV is written today: with single writers credited with individual episodes. You can almost smell the hours of committee meetings that went into its creation. As we move back and forth between its different storylines and its different geographical locations within single episodes, I found myself sincerely hoping Amazon paid their editorial team a not-so-small fortune. The score by Bear McCreary, so adept in Battlestar Galactica, is here, in my opinion, fairly unmemorable.

Ultimately, the sheer centripetal complexity of the story Rings tries to distill from Tolkien’s appendices, combined with the vastness of the machine responsible for its making, leaves us all, like its heroine Galadriel, more than a bit adrift. While it asks significantly more of its audience than the Jackson films ever did — and for all that it is, in a way, a series made more for its fanbase and those accustomed to other fantasy series like Game of Thrones — I find it difficult to believe that the series and its characters will be loved in anything like the same way.

Which brings me to what I will call its core theological problem: namely, that The Rings of Power is drawn from profoundly theological source material, yet cannot use that material except in the vaguest and most generic of ways. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is the creation of a loving God, Eru, the One, whose governance and co-creation he grants to the Valar, the “gods” of Valinor, thus fusing monotheism and polytheism in a more than slightly Neoplatonic schema.

The title sequence in Rings of Power is a clear nod to one of Tolkien’s greatest works, the Ainulindalë from The Silmarillion, creation hymn and theodicy wrapped together in one gorgeous synthesis. By my reckoning, the only Valar mentioned explicitly are Varda/Elbereth and Aulë, the creator of the dwarves, but neither are explained. Galadriel is told she will be put on a ship for Valinor, but what that entails is never described, except that it is a region of light. Small wonder, then, that she, and we, decide it’s not for her, any more than heaven sounds appealing when described as a land of harps and fluffy clouds.  While the complexity of her character is, very properly, given its due, there is no foil, no more admirable character to counteract her intensity, and other than her lineage and comparative immortality, it is difficult to see what being a High Elf gets or gives you.

The most obvious editorial casualty in all this is the high king of the elves, Gilgalad, who I feel deserved rather better than the enigmatic, even incoherent motivations attributed to him and the rather pompous stiffness his character never quite overcomes. By comparison, Lee Pace’s Thranduil from the Hobbit trilogy is a much more cohesive and compelling, if flawed, personality. Tolkien’s Númenor is a profoundly Old Testamental parable of the perils of idolatry; I have a hunch, in this and the next season being filmed, that the writers, whoever they are, will stick with political satire pure and simple as a safer and more accessible “way in.”

When I first saw Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring, I asked a Presbyterian pastor friend what he thought of it. His reply, succinct but entirely accurate in my view, is that he thought that Jackson was much better at depicting evil than goodness. In inheriting so much of Jackson’s world, The Rings of Power also inherited some of its flaws: one of which was that only hobbits and dwarves, the low comedy, are allowed to be funny, while the elves are always Very Serious even when they are being good. The sole exception to this rule, ironically and briefly, is Jackson’s Galadriel in Fellowship of the Ring.

As I re-read those chapters in the book I was struck again by how complex and multi-layered a character Tolkien creates in only a few pages; as Frodo and Sam discuss her afterwards, Galadriel’s leading characteristic, almost, is her changefulness, from goddess to girl and back again. In The Hobbit, elves are laughing, knowing teases, which Tolkien later had to “grow up” for adult fantasy. But their essential lightness of tone — their courtoisie, to use the medieval term — remained. It is part of Tolkien’s more profound recognition that, particularly in a society of many races, manners matter, and are one way of creating space to recognize the dignity and “humanity” of the other across profound difference. Tolkien and Lewis both shared the imaginative conviction that it is heaven which has the sense of both humor and freedom, while hell is characterized by solipsism, self-absorption, and control. It’s a serious business, working for the Great Eye.

About The Author

Hannah W. Matis is an associate professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary. She is a graduate of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of The Song of Songs in the Early Middle Ages. She is an avid amateur singer, particularly of early music, and can be relied upon to promote the causes of good Latin, good literature, good food, and good company.

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15 days ago

Wonderful – thank you. Great counterpoint to Ross Douthat’s NYT take on The Rings of Power