The Rings of Power is a series on Amazon Prime which should have caught your attention. If it hasn’t I’ll start by saying that I highly recommend giving it a watch.
Galadriel and the Great Prologue
One of the things that made my heart glad in this return to the Lord of the Rings universe was that Galadriel opened out entry to it, just as she does during the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There is nothing necessary in this, but it starts from a point where those of us who grew up on the trilogy can find familiarity.
Thankfully, the series dropped two episodes when it premiered and not only the one: the first episode is HEAVILY prologue. As a lot of writers of fantasy will tell you: prologues can be dangerous and deadly to a work. Audiences don’t have the longest attention spans and the time you have to hook them is increasingly tiny.
BUT, if you’re going to give us a prologue, this is a solid way to do it. The visual effects are beautiful and (knowing much more of the lore is glossed over) as concise as possible. AND something would likely be lost if this early information was skipped over– if all we had was Galadriel wandering around the far north, there could be dialogue which slowly revealed the history of thousands of years, but the audience would be immediately divided between those who already knew what was going on and kept pointing out the breadcrumbs to those around them and those who were completely lost. At least this method gave everyone a firm timeline and basis to work from– including new interpretations of history than we had before.
Yes, those who have read LOTR may have a leg up in some ways, but there are aspects of the lore that are already DISTINCTLY different. (People will complain about this, but it’s important that the work define itself for its audience.)
The Peoples of Middle-Earth
Elves. Dwarves. Humans. Orcs. Halflings (proto-halflings?).
If you’ve read the books, watched the LOTR trilogy, Hobbit trilogy, played the Shadow of Mordor or Shadow of War games– or basically interacted with this material in any way before, you already have a good idea of who you’re going to see here.
What is interesting is that most fantasy is human-centric; this tale is NOT. It is primarily focused on the elves. (Something I admire already about the series.) As the show displays the grand elven culture of Middle-Earth– it’s important to remember that it is an empire we already know will fall. By the time LOTR happens, most of the buildings and cities have eroded and fallen into ruin. They are a culture and people destined to lose power.
Dwarves are still the best miners (and the description of stone-singing in the second episode is a beautiful addition) and some of the best smiths.
Orcs are still monsters. This is in line with Tolkien’s creations and separate from the interpretations of orcs in more modern works. Orcs don’t appear to build culture; orcs aren’t born, they are made. These are monsters to be terrified of, created by a capital E Evil figure. The one seen for the first time in the second episode succeeds in showing just how terrifying they can be– even more than the original orcs from the LOTR.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the show is the Harfoots– the proto-halflings of the world. For most of history, halflings of all kinds were supposed to be hidden and not really seen or discovered until much later. The harfoots deliver on this in the first scene: a pair of hunters wander across a field and shortly thereafter an entire village emerges from underground, in trees, and around bushes. True to form, the harfoots view the world in simple, innocent terms. They are a people who embody the sense of wonder we as the audience are meant to be swept away by. (And they have the best colloqial dialogue additions.) We also soon discover that the harfoots are not a culture who stays in places and builds– they are a wandering, nomadic culture. This also aids in the fact that we know they are starting out far from where we know the Shire will exist and why people might not find them– they leave little trace as they wander from place to place, avoiding outsider interactions as much as possible.
The humans are one of the most interesting aspects of the series as they are shown to be the most complex. Depending on who is relaying the history, all, most, or some humans sided with the forces of darkness in the age before. They now live in small towns regularly patrolled by elven scouts, who both ensure that there are no signs of the forces of darkness and that the humans are kept under control– a deep distrust of them almost innate to elves after centuries. And the humans who are shown are varied: a human woman who is kind hearted and cares for her people; a boy who is already tempted by a dark artifact; a man who is frustrated with the elven patrols. For humans, all of the history that the elves use as reasons for occupation is ancient history.
And this difference in understanding history and interactions is a great point to linger on in this series to understand elves. One of the critiques you could place against a lot of fantasy works is that there is often a terrible event which happened centuries or millenia before the events in the text or movie or series which appear to drive the action; why does such a difference still drive the plot? In this case, the elves keep this alive. The fear of the elven high-king is that Galadriel will actually bring about the return of evil by seeking it out as she does. The elves see humans as forever tainted by their touching the darkness (perhaps a reason that Galadriel can’t bring herself to cross into Valenar, elven heaven). And this goes beyond large theme-level effects: Elrond arrives to see the dwarves, he is not the welcomed ambassdor he thought he would be after decades away– he missed the wedding and children of his friend, a dwarven prince, a hurt which divided them for most of the second episode. I’m hoping that we see more and more of this sort of interaction; the elves of LOTR can come across as infallible and remote– this series has the chance to show all the damage the elves did before, the fall of their culture due to terrible mistakes, and why those who remain are withdrawn (even as they are still obviously interested in the stake of good and evil).
A World Mythology
One of the worst criticisms the show recieved from before it even aired was that it included people of color in a world which has mostly been shown in previous works as populated by white people. There is an aspect of this in which Tolkien wrote as a man of his time, seeking to create a English Mythology.
Thankfully, the show thus far has not made any mention of the existence of racial differences (besides the fantasy ones). In doing this, the show defines this aspect as not unusual– this is the world of Middle-Earth as it has been; people of all skin tones exist. And this beautifully shows that LOTR is making a transition, moving beyond original intent in the same way Shakespeare is capable of. The claims that he was trying to create an English Mythology or that the previous depictions of Middle-Earth as an exclusively white space would be similar to someone saying that Shakespeare originally wrote with the intention that men were the only actors and that no women should play in his works.
When defining the genre of Fantasy, it would be nearly impossible without Tolkien’s work. Tolkien thought he was sitting down and creating an English mythology– but he actually created a WORLD mythology, one which has captured the imagination of the world in ripple effects beyond what he could have dreamed of. Because of this, Tolkien continues to go through history as one of the most influential and important writers of all time.
Perhaps, a Wrong Choice
My only qualm is somewhat a spoiler: it feels like Galadriel’s story arc has a contrived inciting incident.
So far, I’ve only watched the two episodes, but it feels like the writers said, “We need to have Galadriel meet this human– and we want to show Valenar. Let’s have her go all the way to Valenar and then meet the human on the sea.”
As soon as she leapt overboard I turned to my wife and said, “Well, we’ll see her return at the end of the season, I guess.”
My main qualm with this is that Valenar is REALLY far away from Middle-Earth. An ocean away. It would be like sailing from England to America, seeing the shoreline of New York City, and then leaping out of the ship to swim back. It is a fool’s errand; one that Galadriel would know she would probably die from before ever arriving back on Middle-Earth’s shores. The fact that she then, at the beginning of episode 2 meets a human who is surviving on a raft feels like the writers are REALLY trying to force that meet-cute.
It’s easy to pick at the works of others, but this is one decision which feels like it isn’t as grounded as the rest of the series. It feels inconsistent and raising Galadriel to the level of living myth akin to the Old English Beowulf (also famous within his tale for swimming an entire ocean). Perhaps having her get on the ship, someone taking away her brother’s dagger on shore or as they went aboard, and having her jump off while the coast was still in view would have been better?
This is my one issue with the series so far.
If you haven’t started watching it yet, it is a visually captivating show with so much rich lore it can be overwhelming, but it does a good job by episode 2 of balancing this exposition against the current events of the world.
All images belong to Amazon and the Amazon Prime show, The Rings of Power.