Much has been said about The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, Amazon Prime’s new series set in the Second Age of Middle Earth. Some fans are enthusiastic about the idea, others skeptical. (I can understand the latter after recently watching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies.) Even before it was released many fans damned the series as a money-grab by Amazon. The reasoning being that it was not based on a work of fiction, but the Appendices found at the rear of The Return of the King, which was basically a series of reference articles for the trilogy that had hints of stories in them. It was this material, purchased separately at a 2017 auction, the producers intend to flesh out, which has purist fans up in arms.
It’s certainly not the usual way to create a fantasy series, especially one by Mr. Tolkien, who was, when he was alive, adamant that LoTR not enter cinematic territory. (The much-ballyhooed Beatles version that never came to fruition happened because Tolkien reluctantly sold the rights to fulfill a tax bill.) Tolkien was even unenthusiastic about the children’s stage versions of The Hobbit that took place in his lifetime. He was not alone in this; peers P. L. Travers (the Mary Poppins series) and C. S. Lewis were also resistant to having their books commercially adapted. His ideas about the sanctity of his creation, echoed by his son Christopher, carried over to many fans.
The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and the multi-volume History of Middle-earth were not part of the deal, even though the Appendices included some of their material. Then again, all of the former are appendices of a sort, or were, until edited by Christopher into a more coherent form from his father’s sometimes-conflicting notes. (Christopher Tolkien has passed away in 2020, so what will happen with that material now is up for grabs.) Tolkien always considered the Appendices an integral part of LoTR that added to and enhanced the work. They weren’t something stuck in just for padding, so any arguments that the Appendices aren’t viable enough for adaptation are just wrong. The Rings of Power fleshes out that material, using a team of writers to create an overarching plotline and new characters.
If I could describe the first two episodes in one word, it would be “charming.” Kudos to the writers! The bare-bones plot has been expanded into several: Galadriel and her search for Sauron; a young Elrond, who’s sweet on her but also helping Celebrimbor the artisan with a mysterious metalsmithing project (hurr, we know what it is); Durin the Dwarf and his wife Disa, who Elrond visits in their city for help with the project; an elven soldier named Arondir and his human honey Bronwynn, who are investigating the destruction of a human village; and a band of Harfoots, proto-Hobbits, who encounter a meteor with an aged, human-looking “giant” inside of it, who has mysterious magic powers but the intellect of a young child.
How all of this will come together as the story of how Sauron returns to Middle Earth, causes the rings to made, and makes another play for power intends to be seen. Oh, and somewhere in there is the fall of the Numenor, Tolkien’s Atlantis analogue. Five seasons are planned.
The production design is both lovely and familiar, having been generously based off the Peter Jackson movies, which in turn were based on the artwork of Alan Lee and John Howe. There were lots of spectacular mountains, spectacular fjords, cozily rustic villages, and Elven cities built in and around giant trees, with architecture resembling Seattle’s Pacific Science Center. The producers have even revisited New Zealand for studio and location shoots. As with other modern fantasy series like The Wheel of Time and The Witcher, the CGI doesn’t look 100% real yet, but boy was it pretty. All of Middle Earth was.
On to the costume design. I especially liked the loose, natural-fiber garments of the Harfoots, which looked to have been dyed with berries and bark extracts with bits of moss, twigs, and lichen woven into them, and into Harfoot hair, as camouflage. The dwarves sported heavy metalwork cuirasses, helms, and jewelry, every dwarf different, and some had braided beards like Durin. I also like the chainmail ensemble Galadriel wore: very fine, Elven chainmail that almost like a fabric, but had encrustations of diamonds, tiny starfish, and silver flowers.
The human race did not fare as well aesthetically, looking like extras from the mud-slinging, Socialist peasant scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The exception was Bronwynn, whose loose blue chemise dress, wore over leggings and boots, looked modern yet archaic. Its shade of blue was unique to the series, a dark earthy teal, more blue than green, that brought to my mind the color of a mineral rather than sea or sky, and a variation of the same blue is wore by some of the Elves. Bronwynn’s young teen son is not so fortunate fashion-wise; he looks like he teleported in from a 1970s episode of Dr. Who or The Tomorrow People. It’s implied he’s up to no good when he steals the hilt of a sword left over from the previous war; shortly after that, orcs and other fell creatures start tunneling beneath a neighboring town’s buildings.
Even the silly parts of the show, and there were more than a few, had a charm to them. There’s one scene where some elves are headed to Valinor for their warrior’s reward, and they’re standing stock-still in formation on the heaving deck like children about to say the Pledge of Allegiance – having presumably remained so for all of the many days required to the other shore. Not only that, they’re all wearing their Elven armor, which is symbolically removed as they near Valinor to show they’ve renounced their warrior aspects. It must have sounded great on paper, and would have looked great in a two-second glimpse, like Crusaders headed home. But to think of them striking that pose for weeks, not eating, sleeping, or going to the bathroom – that was hilarious!
On to nitpick. The handling of Valinor itself was not consistent in these two chapters. Valinor is and is not the Christian idea of heaven. It is part of Middle Earth in that it’s attached to it physically, like Aslan’s Country that lies just beyond the standing wave of the Eastern Sea in C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It’s a combined Paradise and Garden of Eden for the elven race, the place they originated from, and can go back to if they want, where they live immortal lives free of want and fear. Yet, not just anyone can go there; there’s a gatekeeping system that Tolkien never explains.
In the first moments of episode one Valinor was depicted looking a lot like Middle Earth, but talked about as if it was better, which was a little ridiculous as all of Middle Earth looks, thanks to CGI, like an attractive place to live. Later when the virtuous elves, including Galadriel, approach it by boat, it’s represented as an overwhelming glow on the horizon, which is at odds with child Galadriel happily romping around its normal, earth-like hills. Jackson, of course, avoided this problem because neither The Hobbit nor the trilogy dealt much with it.
As for Galadriel herself, it was an interesting choice to make her warrior, and to me, it fits. I also liked how the Harfoots structured their society around cooperation and concealment, living alongside the world but not exactly in it. There were a few new monsters, like a tusked ice troll and a warg (?) that looked like a cross between a prehistoric reptile and a hyena. Like The Witcher and The Wheel of Time, the cast was multiracial, which had some fans up-in-arms, assuming that Tolkien meant for his world to be English-Germanic-Nordic, and that meant white. But, respectfully, the guy’s dead. Who knows what he really wanted, or would have wanted, any more than Shakespeare, who left no casting directions for his plays. Visually, everything and everybody fit, that’s what is important. I suspect too that CGI magic played a part in the actors’ complexions so they did not look too white or too black, opposed to the more refined versions of the Third Age races.
Now on to the meteor and the “giant” — very obvious, that’s a newly born Gandalf. He was one of the five Iskari created by the Valar to help its races resist Sauron’s pull. Being newly formed, doesn’t know anything and has to be taught. That’s why he had such a high regard for Hobbits in the LoTR — because they were the ones who discovered him and helped him, so he imprinted on them. Of course, the Tolkien lore says the wizards don’t appear in Middle Earth until the Third Age; but, Gandalf isn’t quite a wizard yet. He’s got lots of learning to do.
Some have speculated the meteor man is Sauron himself, which I think is ridiculous, but to each their own, I guess.
Overall, it was clear to me the show’s creators are Tolkien fans themselves and have handled the material with respect. I definitely recommend this. Just ignore all the brouhaha about it.