THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RINGS OF POWER

As it hits the midway point of its first outing, Amazon’s colossally-expensive fantasy epic is picking up steam, after initially landing in choppy, divided waters.

This Hobbit Day, Tolkien super-fan Kyle appraises the show’s debut season so far…

_OP-ED.   it’s about _TV.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
network _PRIME VIDEO.   showrunners _J.D. PAYNE, _PATRICK MCKAY.  episodes discussed _1-4. 

September 22, 2022

images © Prime Video.

The proclamation rang through the streets and courts of Armenelos, proud City of Kings, and glistening jewel of the island kingdom of Númenor. By order of its Queen Regent, Miriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson, seemingly dropping the ‘Tar’- prefix, perhaps owing to licensing complications), those willing and able would sail East to aid recent ‘guest’ (see: unwelcome portent of doom) Galadriel’s (Moffyd Clark) claims of a rising darkness in the Southlands. For the first time since the ruin of Beleriand, the men of the West would be returning to Middle-earth.

The closing moments of The Rings of Power’s fourth episode, ‘The Great Wave’, are fairly stuffed with meaning and resonance for fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythical world. Google this particular writer alongside terms such as ‘The Hobbit’, ‘Peter Jackson’ or ‘New Zealand’ and you’ll see I fall fairly comfortably within that fold. Sure, as has been the case from pretty much its opening minutes – and as was equally true of Peter Jackson’s cherished take on the core Rings novels – Amazon’s gargantuan, unfathomably costly visit to Middle-earth (and beyond) has crushed timelines, streamlined (and in some cases, even expanded) family trees and geopolitical connections, and hardly been coy in churning the author’s magnum opus through its adaptation engine. Events, characters and the like who place decades, if not centuries, apart, in the Tolkien legendarium here gladly share screen and scene alike. By this loosely-defined point in the Middle-earth timeline, Clark’s Galadriel should be happily wed to husband Celeborn (Marton Csokas in the Jackson outings, here missing entirely so far) and already ruling over a kingdom or two of their own, not globetrotting a la Lara Croft on a one-woman mission to avenge her brother and seek out hidden evil.

But much of the transformation here has been born of necessity, both narratively and contextually, the latter of which a contingent of fans seem hell-bent on wilfully overlooking.

Upon acquiring the rights to the central Rings novels, including their fairly taut but broad-in-scope appendices, the Tolkien Estate explicitly barred Amazon from including anything solely found within the pages of Tolkien’s companion uber-myth The Silmarillion, itself a sprawling pre-history of the First Age of Middle-earth and slightly beyond. Inevitably, murky grey areas ensue – see, giant spider-demon Ungoliant, briefly name-checked in the Rings novels (and in the first Hobbit movie, to boot) as the ancient forebear of The Two Towers’ monstrous arachnid Shelob. In The Silmarillion, we learn the full account of how it was actually she who drained the light from Laurelin and Telperion, the two ethereal and luminous Trees of Valinor seen briefly in Powers’ opening monologue (and one of the first promotional images released for the show). Given the no-fly zone stamped upon all things Silmarillion, showrunners (and episode one writers) J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay instead understandably frame pre-Sauron big bad, Melkor/Morgoth, as the shadowy figure hovering above the Trees as their power fades. It’s thematically, and even canonically, in keeping with Tolkien’s work, though, given that Ungoliant’s attack on Valinor was directly under Melkor’s request and facilitation.

“To this day, even for those with full access to all published works, letters and opinion, there remain whole wedges of the Middle-earth mythos open to debate, re-interpretation and fan disagreement.”

Throw into the mix the complication that much of Tolkien’s broader brush strokes – Silmarillion included – and much of his writings of the Second Age (when Rings of Power is set) were left to be meshed together into something of a whole posthumously by his son, Christopher, and the picture muddies further. Add to this the fact that much of Tolkien’s inter-novel lore receives only sporadic clarity, or even contradiction, solely from many of the author’s countless letters, notations and revisits, much of which is, again, outside of Amazon’s reach and mandate. To this day, even for those with full access to all published works, letters and opinion, there remain whole wedges of the Middle-earth mythos open to debate, re-interpretation and fan disagreement.

Considering all of this as a whole, anyone going in to Rings of Power expecting a definitive, doggedly faithful and ‘pure’ transplant of Tolkien to the screen will not only be disappointed, but perhaps deservedly so. And even scrubbing all such labyrinthine complexities and practicalities of licensing, permission et al aside, the comparative lightness of what Payne and McKay were left to work with – itself utterly outscored by the enormous ‘do not touch’ pile of lore and material leaning precariously beside them – meant it was always going to be a heady challenge crafting a satisfying, quasi-faithful story that at the same time works as a contemporary series of a standard expected of the current ‘golden age’ of television drama.

 Short hair, who cares? – Much has been made of ‘Rings of Power‘s decision to feature mostly shorter-haired Elves. Many seem to overlook. this was already fairly common in Tolkien adaptatons, such as the above realisation of Elrond in Ralph Bakshi‘s animated take on The ‘Lord of the Rings’ (above, © Saul Zaentz co.)

A complex challenge then, even before adding online febrility into the mix. Much has already been written, and will continue to be so, about the politics of fandom in balking at the show’s release thus far. Let’s push aside the fact that, were Peter Jackson’s movies to be released today, their creative liberties with the source material would likely provoke the same extent of standard-bearing, stewarding ‘not my Rings’ nonsense. It remains, as ever, easier to throw scorn and dole out infantile, reactionary one-star reviews on IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes and other such platforms, than it is to try and understand some of the broader context of the show’s perceived ‘unfaithfulness’.

More sinister undercurrents yet bubble away at the fringes and just beneath the surface of fan discourse, too. Amazon initially placed an understandable moratorium on audience ratings for the show, after the recent trend of ‘review bombing’ landed at their door in the show’s opening days. My friend Darren Mooney recently penned an excellent piece for The Escapist, exploring why user scores are easily – and routinely – exploited, and perhaps no longer fit for purpose. Grumblings about Galadriel being a ‘Mary Sue’ lazily persist, glibly glossing over the very patent flaws, scrappy bullishness and recklessness the younger yet still-powerful elf clearly exhibits. It’s a term many with half an ounce of sense are agreeing has become bastardised into redundancy.

Dispiriting focus is routinely drawn, too, to issues such as the race and ethnicity of certain cast members, and seldom underpinned or elaborated upon by much in the way of substantive or meaningful argument.

Marry many of these issues, and you don’t need to look far afield to see them factoring in to the recent online response to Viola DavisThe Woman King, by all accounts a brilliantly executed film, that has nonetheless faced the ignominy of being the latest target of the one-star avalanche brigade.

So where does that leave Rings of Power? A fiendishly difficult adaptive route, legal shackles firmly locked upon its narrative fidelity, all unleashed upon an increasingly fickle and febrile ‘fan’ environment where takedowns are fast, coordinated, merciless, and very easily swayed by the most base and neanderthal of prejudices.

 Short hair, who cares? – Much has been made of ‘Rings of Power‘s decision to feature mostly shorter-haired Elves. Many seem to overlook. this was already fairly common in Tolkien adaptatons, such as the above realisation of Elrond in Ralph Bakshi‘s animated take on The ‘Lord of the Rings’ (above, © Saul Zaentz co.)

Let’s leave any latent malice and bigotry aside. Let’s push aside the fact that Amazon had their hands fairly rigorously tied by the Tolkien Estate. ‘If it was that prohibitive, why make the series in the first place?’ is a fair counter to whinging about rights and restrictions. ‘Yes, the internet can be horrible, but plenty of shows end up loved.’ Touché. ‘Game of Thrones changed a lot of things, but that is still seen as a brilliant TV adapta-

…Okay, let’s not get carried away.

Peter Jackson once somewhat famously quipped he wished that he could have his memory wiped, so that he could watch his Oscar-gobbling Rings trilogy with completely fresh eyes and objectively get a sense for what worked, and what didn’t.

In a way, as a very seasoned and invested fan of the Tolkien oeuvre, particularly as defined by Jackson and co., the same would perhaps help when appraising the first series of Rings of Power so far. It’s difficult, at times impossible, to not feel the clunk of this shiny, new adventure in Middle-earth grinding its gears sometimes awkwardly, occasionally seamlessly, into place with the timbre and tone of Jackson’s offerings. At times, the wheels coalesce perfectly – see, the serpentine Fell Beast seen in the flashbacks to the legendary War of Wrath in episode one, or the show-stopping denouement of a Balrog raising its fiery head at the close of one of the show’s final trailers. Both are identical in appearance and design to their Rings trilogy counterparts. Even a brief glance at the the organic, floral stylings of Lindon as a predecessor to Rivendell, or the stunningly realised architecture and aesthetic of Númenor, which tallies fairly harmoniously with what is to come in Gondor. From the winged crescents adorning its ships and soldier’s helms, through to the central outcrop of Armenelos’ courts and palace, which, if airlifted to sit alongside eventual spiritual successor, Minas Tirith, would not look a jot out of place.

“It’s difficult, at times impossible, to not feel the clunk of this shiny, new adventure in Middle-earth grinding its gears sometimes awkwardly, occasionally seamlessly, into place with the timbre and tone of Jackson’s outings.”

Elsewhere, conscious deviations seem, for many, to jar. Much has been bemoaned of the decision for many of its elven characters, such as Charles Edwards’ hugely important Celebrimbor, to sport a cropped mullet, rather than the trademark silky, straightened locks of Jackson’s Third Age denizens. For many, it appears to be even more pronounced, or even problematic, when dealing with characters we already know, such as Robert Aramayo’s fantastic take on young Elrond.

Personally, the decision to take on a slightly ‘period’ approach to even immortal beings and their stylings works just fine, and lends the slightly cookie cutter elves of Jackson a neat historic bent here. Sure, they may live forever, but this is thousands of years before the events of Frodo and friends, and even within our puny human lifetimes, hairstyles can change radically (and unforgivably, just look at the 1980s) over the course of, say, a decade. Furthermore, you don’t need to look very far to find plenty of Tolkien artists and interpretations who had their depiction of elves bearing such trimmed mops long before Jackson – take a glance at either of Elrond’s animated appearances for good measure.

It’s difficult to shake the feeling that people are somewhat missing the Fangorn from the Ents, here.

In reality, though, it is impossible to completely divorce Amazon’s outings from what has indelibly been set down on screen before it. The Rings trilogy in particular are, for a significant swell of the show’s intended audience, the definitive realisation of Tolkien’s works in a visual medium. And, in fairness, all involved seemed to have realised this, hence the aforementioned stylistic unity with much of the creature and costume design work, and the wider aesthetic framework of the cinematic Rings experience so far. It’s important to note, too, that Jackson’s films were already aided in no small way by the talents and perspective of artists such as John Howe and Alan Lee, whose work was already seen as fairly seminal visualisations of the source material.

So with all of these gargantuan levels of context and world-grasping factored in, considered and neatly put to one side, what are we left with? How does Rings of Power hold up as an engaging viewing experience in its own right?

There’s a reason I prefaced this whole piece with the climactic moments of episode four, for it feels like, after some essential world-building and character establishment, ‘The Great Wave’ swept in and truly kicked Amazon’s series into gear. We know who (most of) our players are. The threat of the darkness that is returning is real, and has now, through some brilliantly redemptive prosthetic Orcs (washing away the memory of the Hobbit trilogy’s ineffective CG nasties), shadowy emissaries, genuinely terrifying wargs and more, cemented itself as something dangerous and to be feared. Mysteries abound (just who is Daniel Weyman’s star-fallen, enigmatic ‘Stranger’?), and we even have some endearing Hobbity ancestors in the Harfoots to remind us of the innocent, pastoral good in the world that is worth fighting for.

To quote Ian Mckellen’s Gandalf the White in The Return of the King, ‘The board is set. The pieces are moving.’

There’s potentially some merit in the claims of those who found the opening episodes, whilst tightly directed by JA Bayona with his trademark flair for opulent storytelling, nonetheless a trifle meandering and lacking clarity of purpose. Despite opting for a Game of Thrones-esque approach of myriad plot points and character groups (right down to the fact that we can go whole episodes without visiting some of them), the central thrust of Powers’ narrative is undoubtedly the quest of the closest thing it has to a central protagonist, Morffyd Clark’s Galadriel. Given that her story is all that we follow for the first chunk of the show’s premiere, a slightly goofy fumble with a troll and a few scenes of elven bickering don’t afford tremendous screen agency to a character whose entire purpose in the first episode seems to be insisting upon something that we, as an audience, already know will come to pass.

Still, finally getting the chance to watch as ‘the grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back’ is depicted on screen in the closing moments of the premiere was a sumptuous moment for any Tolkien enthusiast.

It isn’t until the character arrives in Númenor in the third episode – by way of some high-sea shenanigans and an encounter with Charlie Vickers’ shadowy Halbrand in the interim – that we truly get a sense of where things are going. And whilst the politics and power plays between Galadriel and the island kingdom’s Queen Regent and family feel somewhat Martin-lite, fans of the source material know it’s all underpinned by tendrils of both potential tragedy and destiny to come, something that episode four doesn’t shy away from glinting at. Names and faces such as Elendil and Isildur, and a handful of cameos from important pieces of lore (including even objects and weapons) pop up in the background to enrich things further for eagle-eyed viewers.

It has taken until the debut season’s midway point, but the course is set, and our heroine and her new allies are finally set for a collision course with the darkness we’ve seen creeping back into this earlier Middle-earth.

“Like any good prequel, Power is able to wield what we know is to come to either emotive or engaging effect.”

Back on the shores of Middle-earth, it’s in the Southlands, realms that will eventually go on to become the barren, oppressive wasteland of Mordor, that we’ve been privy to what they will be up against. Whilst the first episode or two are full of ominous glances and hushed whispers, by episode three and a visit to a grim Orc prisoner camp, the ‘enemy’ becomes far more present. Perhaps one of Powers strongest plays so far is in how it toys with the audience’s pre-existing knowledge. DiCaprio memes already abound of the numerous contenders to be Sauron. Joseph Mawle’s ‘Adar’ from episode four seems, for now at least, more of a sinister red herring than likely culprit. Elsewhere, Galadriel’s part-time accomplice Halbrand has been revealed as royalty in exile (or is he?), and purists will be itching in the knowledge that Sauron comes to do much of his most sinister and catastrophic work sewing division and mistrust in Númenor, which fits with what we’ve seen of the character so far. Still, there’s no fewer than nine Nazgul-to-be – Witch King included – that will have to be swayed over and accounted for when the titular rings are forged, along with emissaries such as the Mouth of Sauron, so Power will likely keep us on our toes with its malevolent game of ‘Guess Who?’ for several series to come.

Like any good prequel, this is a show able to wield what we know is to come to either emotive (the great wave) or engaging (the Sauron identity parade) effect.

A common gripe seen online comes from those who bemoan the series for not ‘feeling’ like The Lord of the Rings. It’s an argument that’s a little nebulous in target, and difficult to quantify – the litmus seems to fluctuate between Jackson’s films, Tolkien’s books and, let’s be honest, the fact that visually and technologically we’re a number of decades since both. Power can very occasionally feel a little too clean in places – even the sun-kissed glow of Númenor doesn’t quite excuse Isildur’s sea-faring scenes from feeling too clinical and studio-bound. But, for the most part, it completely convinces as a Middle-earth of an earlier epoch. Bear McReary’s gorgeous score helps immeasurably; distinctive enough with its own thematic motifs to be its own beast, yet sweeping and rousing enough to be resonant and familiar with Howard Shore’s tentpole work (Shore being called in only to craft the show’s disappointingly slight and forgettable main theme).

Waves crashing against the golden cliff faces of Lindon. The earthy, rooted glow of the Harfoot forests and caravans. The sheer majesty and scale of Númenor. And, perhaps best of all, the triumphant realisation of a living, breathing, working Khazad-Dûm, already relegated to ruin and abandonment by the time we see it in Fellowship of the Ring. Every penny Amazon have thrown at Rings of Power is on screen and writ large. This is Middle-earth, and it is, for the most part, gloriously and awe-inspiringly brought back to life.

In fact, Khazad-Dum highlights what may be part of the issue at hand – unlike The Hobbit films, which doubled down on the familiar, bringing the likes of Orlando Bloom‘s Legolas, Christopher Lee‘s Saruman and even Elijah Wood‘s Frodo into the fold beyond the scope of the novel itself to unify the two trilogies, Rings of Power is far more limited in what ties it can bind to the more familiar characters and locations we know. A lot of the dissastisfation seems to stem from a sense of disconnect, yet all involved should perhaps instead be applauded for not leaning lazily on the known and familiar.

Where the ties exist, they work. An early scene of Galadriel and Elrond conversing in Lindon had me immediately sold that these were the same two characters we see pondering over their comparative inaction, and what they should do about the same darkness, as during their telepathic phone-in midway through The Two Towers. Owain Arthur’s fantastic Durin IV channels enough of the bullish, proud dwarven culture as established by John Rhys-Davies and co to further strengthen the already-excellent Khazad-Dûm scenes. He’s beautifully met not only by a winning and well-observed dynamic with Elrond, but also by Sophia Nomvete’s instantly engaging Princess Disa, who is a tremendous, characterful addition, and potentially the show’s finest original character. Whilst episode four clumsily introduces, complicates and resolves a Moria mystery in disappointingly rapid succession, rendering the whole thing slightly redundant, scenes such as Disa and her kin singing to resonate with the stone of the Mountain, in the hopes of freeing trapped Dwarves, feels like Tolkien.

It’s observed character moments such as this, such as Ismael Cruz Córdova’s elf Arondir taking a moment to lament a tree he is being forced to take an Orc axe to, or the delicately tearjerking naming of those who have fallen within the Harfoot’s wandering cadre (beautifully performed by Lenny Henry and Megan Richards) that capture the spirit of melancholy, soul and heart of Tolkien’s work and world. Miriel’s vision of the fall of Númenor taking place as she semi-christens its newborns only compounds the devastation.

Sure, Clark’s Galadriel is a bit steely and scrappy, but that’s kind of the point, and the show has gone to pains to show how she keeps making enemies and hitting setbacks because of it. She’s seen some shit, and isn’t about to let it happen again, but is rubbing even her own kind the wrong way in the process. Besides, we’ve got Markella Kavenagh’s utterly lovable Nori and family to lend the show an adorable, relatable heart as Galadriel delivers its ‘tempest’. Arondir feels the most distant and aloof of all, and yet already the show is bringing us on side as he proves himself honourable, brave and determined in a distinctly Tolkien-esque fashion. Not to mention, the relationship he shares with Nazanin Boniadi’s Bronwyn and her son (their son?) who is dallying with powers he ought not, is becoming more involving with each passing episode, after seeming slight and perfunctory at first glance. By the time Arondir and Theo’s escape from a fallen village in episode four slipped into slow motion, and Bonidai’s Bronwyn came running into frame, the palpable fear that she was about to meet an orc arrow or two had me realising just how surprisingly invested I was in the characters and their arc.

“…it has taken until the midway point for me to truly realise the extent to which the relatively slow-burn of its character work and world building has taken hold.”

In fact, the same is true of Rings of Power as a whole. Immediately visually impacting and an undeniably gorgeous feast for the senses, it has taken until the midway point for me to truly realise the extent to which the relatively slow-burn of its character work and world building has taken hold. The thought of a demon of shadow and flame wreaking any sort of havoc on this glorious rendition of Khazad-Dûm has my stomach in knots. Woe betide any Balrog that should bring harm upon Disa. The notion of Nori and her family ‘falling behind’, and becoming named at Lenny Henry’s next In Memoriam campfire isn’t worth contemplating. Thank heavens (quite literally, perhaps) for the Stranger. And, like many, every mention of deception, of forging, of Mithril, of Palantíri, and every potential candidate for the cunning and cruel sorcerer himself, triggers a wee nerve of Middle-earthian excitement.

Take any even half-popular source material, and there will inevitably be gatekeepers and self-appointed caretakers balking at what they perceive to be even a comma out of place. Apply it to something as beloved as Tolkien’s catalogue, and ‘you can’t please everyone’ becomes an understatement beyond measure. And yet, those immediately disregarding The Rings of Power run the risk of missing out on what is shaping up to be an oft-stunning, frequently compelling, occasionally captivating adventure that runs adjacent to, yet routinely honours the spirit of, Tolkien’s writing. Doubly so if they tap out for any of the puerile reasons completely disassociated with the quality and merit of the show itself. With very little familiarity to lean on, Payne and McKay have taken their time to establish this earlier Middle-earth, its geography and key players. It hasn’t been seamless, or without the occasional fumble, but for the most part, they’ve created a sumptuous fantasy sandbox with a lot of headroom to play around with.

Time will shortly tell as to whether or not the second half of Powers debut season, and what lies beyond, can maintain the drive and purpose that its most recent couple of episodes have injected. Given that the show runners currently boast a five-season plan, there’s a good chance major elements of lore won’t materialise potentially for years to come. In the interim, though, from what has been seen so far, there’s every hope that this new adventure in Middle-earth will give fans and newcomers alike plenty to be theorising, debating and ‘Tolkien’ about for years to come.

Bring it on. Long live the Rings.

Episodes 1-4 of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power are now streaming on Amazon Prime.

New episodes are released every Friday.

Whilst still finding its footing, and occasionally stumbling on the way, ‘Rings of Power’ is proving a gorgeously realised return to Middle-earth that, after some initially measured character and world building, looks set to forge a compelling fantasy epic stuffed with high stakes, loveable characters and intriguing dynamics.

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