The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022)

Christopher Tolkien is known to have disliked Jackson’s films, finding them too action-packed and corny. According to recent reports, the Tolkien Estate then negotiated for Jackson not to be involved in the production in any way. It’s a wonder that Rings of Power, which so far captures the magic of Tolkien’s world far worse than the brilliant trilogy, has their blessing. But more on that below.

As I have written in many thematic articles, The Rings of Power takes place during the so-called Second Age of Middle-earth, during which the forging of the Rings of Power, after which the series takes its name, the war with Sauron and the rise and fall of the island kingdom of Númenor took place. In the planned five seasons, the series will take us through the prologue of Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring. The Second Age gives the creators a lot of leeway, as it is the period least described by Tolkien. Creators Payne and McKay come up with their own characters and stories that tie together the roughly sketched events in The Lord of the Rings Appendices (they don’t have the rights to The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, or only rarely). So they will not only have to populate the series with their own characters, because there simply aren’t enough of them to create a functional drama, and come up with their own plots, but also with their own language, since Tolkien wrote almost no dialogues for the Second Age.

The first episode is called Shadows of the Past and thus refers to the chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring in which Gandalf explains the history of the One Ring to Frodo. The series begins with a prologue narrated by Galadriel, similar to Jackson’s, but while there she was omniscient and spoke of events she could not have known, here she may well prove to be an unreliable narrator. We first see young Galadriel with her brother Finrod in the Lands of the Undying, near the showcase Elven city in Valinor, Tirion on Tún. We witness the destruction of the Two Trees that bore light long before the first rising of the sun and moon, and the long war of the Elves with the Dark Lord Morgoth. He was eventually defeated and bound, but his evil work continues to corrupt Middle-earth. His servant, the warlock Sauron, was not caught. And we don’t know where it is. However, Galadriel is obsessed with tracking him down.

It’s unclear how much time has passed since the War of Wrath in which Morgoth was overthrown, and what year we’re in, the creators will want to be very vague about the timeline as they try to narrate two thousand years of Tolkien’s chronology within one human lifetime. What is certain is that Galadriel will not rest. She is looking for any traces of Sauron and her journey leads her to the northern wastes. However, a group of elves who are attacked by an ice ogre refuse to follow her there. After her involuntary return, she is honored by the High King of the Elves, Gil-galad, by sending her to Valinor as a reward. It’s a political move on his part, as he believes that Galadriel will inadvertently summon the evil she so doggedly pursues. Elrond, perhaps Galadriel’s closest ally, assures her that if her evil premonitions materialize, he will fight Sauron for her as well. However, Elrond is sent by Gil-galad to the Eregion (the capital of Ost-in-Edhil is not explicitly stated here) to assist the great elven craftsman Celebrimbor. This mission takes him all the way to the dwarven kingdom of Khazad-dûm, later known as Moria, back when barley beer still flowed and fires roared.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Misty Mountains, a tribe of proto-hobbits called Fluffy tries to survive unseen thanks to effective camouflage. The hobbit Nori is curiosity herself – and this trait leads her to a mysterious man who fell from the sky, nicknamed in Internet circles the Meteor Man. Will it be Gandalf, one of the blue wizards whose fates are little known, or someone else entirely? We’ll see. Further south, in the region that would later become known as Mordor, elves patrol the cities of humans whose ancestors sided with Morgoth in the past. However, they are now ordered by Gil-gal to withdraw. And that’s at the very moment when worrisome signs appear. A nearby village is completely deserted and the cattle that have run in that direction are giving off a hideous dark liquid instead of milk. So there is a bad foreboding in every storyline…

However, that bad premonition did not come true within the series itself. This is by no means a disaster. I was undecided throughout the trailer campaign – a lot of it looked promising, no less unsettling. However, I’m still torn after watching the first two episodes. The Rings of Power absolutely shows their budget, the number of fully realized locations is unprecedented by television standards (although the late Game of Thrones still looks better and more cinematic to me). It’s a feast for the eyes, but not so much for the mind. The rings of power are very soulless in something. I welcome fantasy, where the world is also something other than longing and lamentation. And the nights are not only dark and full of horrors, but also fireflies and magic. So far, I think the series works better as a fantasy than a Tolkien adaptation, as the limited rights turn out to be a significant problem, but more on that later.

Although Tolkien is sometimes said to be a better world-builder than writer and storyteller (strongly disagreed!), his characters have original motivations and the mystery of their motivations, and almost always defy the classic Hollywood formula. When Galadriel was offered to return to Valinor after the War of Wrath, she refused out of pride, refusing to bow before the gods and at the same time desiring to have her own realm where she could rule as she pleased. Here her motivation is revenge on Sauron for her dead brother. Tolkien hardly uses the primitive motivation of revenge (one could perhaps argue with Fëanor’s Oath, but that too is a matter of Fate). What touches me so much about his stories is the fact that instead of revenge and family ties, he puts voluntary communities and a sense of duty, not from a higher authority in the military sense, but from an inner conviction.

Although the creators try to “correct” Tolkien and add diversity to him (which is something I absolutely do not mind), they are often paradoxically more conservative than the dead author. Tolkien was very egalitarian in many ways in his work, the elves are basically a classless and very fluid society, whereas in Rings of Power it is not so. Both elves and dwarves in Tolkien have significantly less gender-differentiated features – male elves are gentle, beardless and wear long hair, while dwarves’ faces are covered with beards. In the show, the characters are fundamentally gendered – the elves have their hair cut short, the women wear veils over their faces (wtf), and Disa not only has a smooth face, but according to the promo photos, she also has perfectly smooth legs. Diversity is obviously desirable only in some industries.

As I mentioned, Galadriel’s prologue is somewhat different than in The Fellowship of the Ring, where she provided objective information that she could not have known herself, while here she talks about her childhood and adolescence. The whole prologue is from the elven point of view and feels like the bogus story that Galadriel gives to Melian in The Silmarillion. There is no mention of kin slaughter, and the whole departure from Valinor and the war with Morgoth is painted as a noble affair. Not a word of the Doom of the Noldor, of their great shame and even greater mountain. If not rectified later, it flattens the history of the elves unacceptably. Finrod, of course, did not fall trying to capture Sauron, but more valiantly, fighting Sauron’s werewolf while protecting the mortal Beren. I hope Galadriel in Númenor learns of the brother’s true fate.

Another unpleasant thing that I foresaw, however, is the fact that the creators do not bother to give the names of the cities in which we are located, and merge them with the names of entire kingdoms. So the capital of the elven empire Eregion Ost-in-Edhil, where Celebrimbor resides, is introduced here as just “Eregion”. Gil-galad’s kingdom of Lindon suffered a similar fate. Unfortunately, we don’t see the map of Beleriand and its being swallowed up by the sea in the prologue (apparently for rights reasons), so an uninitiated viewer might wonder where the destruction is that is repeatedly mentioned in connection with the trains of the First Age.

It is surprising how little position of influence Galadriel enjoys, which brings us to another oddity, the age of certain elves. The problem isn’t that Celebrimbor is older than in the books. The problem is that no elf should look sixty, not even in the Third Age, let alone now. It’s distracting, but maybe just for me. Elven fireworks over the woods in Lindon are no other than raised eyebrows. Shouldn’t the elves be in an extraordinary symbiosis with nature, not try to set fire to the ancient trees and scare the forest animals?

A major issue in any Tolkien adaptation will inevitably be language. Jackson’s films were able to use archaic language and make it sound believable. The lines in The Lord of the Rings are both natural and extremely quotable – and screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens deserve all the credit. The creators of the Rings of Power have it more complicated, because Tolkien left them with a minimum of direct speech, so they have to write all the dialogue themselves. Although the second episode, written by the screenwriter of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, comes up with some great metaphors (and I really like the dwarves singing to the stones), the series has so far only met with occasional success in the field of language.

I also find the decisions regarding two names strange: Nori and Theo. Nori is short for Elanor, which is the curious proto-hobbit who discovers Meteor Man, and readers of the books may remember that’s what Sam named his daughter after. But Elanor is not some traditional hobbit plant name like Rose, but a very special name that Sam chose after the elanor flower growing in Lórien. It is basically impossible for any hobbit in the Second Age to be called that. The abbreviation of the name Theo is also incomprehensible to me – Tolkien consistently avoids similarities between our names and names in Middle-earth and almost never shortens names so that they sound familiar (Sam as Samwise is an exception). Theo sounds very un-Mediterranean indeed.

Although I’m going to focus on the things I don’t like about The Rings of Power, the truth is that it’s not a bad series. I’m very happy with the art of almost all new and old locations, and I have no problem accepting the look of Lindon, Erigion, and Khazad-dûm as canon. The Rings of Power has its own look that harkens back to Jackson’s films, but maintains its own identity and looks unlike any other series. They manage to materialize the metaphor of Light and Darkness, so important to Tolkien, and several images stuck in my memory (especially the prologue, Lindon – Elrond with Galadriel around the golden leaves is almost Klimtian!, the opening sky, Celebrimbor’s study). The grove at Lindon where Galadriel gazes at the statues of her dead ancestors is beautiful (Silmarillion readers, pay close attention to one of the statues that appears to be of Lúthien with Huan!)

It’s just a shame that we’ve already seen most of the strongest images in the trailers and that our questioning of what events could be about was pointless because the series doesn’t give us any more information. They last just as long as in the demos and there’s no story around them! It reminds me of the disappointment of The Force Awakens when it turned out that one scene of Luke and R2 was all we’d see. In some ways, it is very cheap.

Despite the budget, which is evident in the scale, design and visual effects, everything feels rather sterile. The image definitely lacks more film patina (as I already wrote in the preview, I lack film grain). It is unnaturally, televisedly sharp – Boromir would cut against it in the same way as the fragments of Narsil – while compositions often lack greater depth of field.

In the review, I focused on various deviations from the original. However, the problem is not the deviation from the original in itself, but its oversimplification (changes can be for the better, for example, the movie Boromir is a many times more interesting character than the book Boromir). Serial Galadriel, serial Elrond, serial Gil-galad simply have fewer dimensions than their book counterparts. So far, I haven’t found anything here that touches me more deeply. One of the themes of The Lord of the Rings is that the servants of the enemy may appear nice to the eye, but they are ugly to the touch. So far, the Rings of Power offer us a lot of beauty to look at, hopefully the inner beauty will be added to it in the next episodes. And we will be able to say with relief that this is not a servant of the enemy.

Author: Tomáš Krause

Photo: Amazon Prime

The article is in Czech

Tags: Lord Rings Rings Power

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