|Directing||J. A. Bayona, Wayne Che Yip, Charlotte Brändström|
|Producing||J. D. Payne, Patrick McKay, Lindsey Weber, Callum Greene, Justin Doble, Gennifer Hutchison, Jason Cahill, J. A. Bayona, Belén Atienza, Eugene Kelly, Bruce Richmond, Sharon Tal Yguado, Ron Ames, Chris Newman|
|Writing||J. D. Payne, Patrick McKay, Gennifer Hutchison|
|Starring||Morfydd Clark, Lenny Henry, Markella Kavenagh, Robert Aramayo, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Daniel Weyman, Nazanin Boniadi, Charles Edwards, Owain Arthur, Benjamin Walker, Sophia Nomvete|
|Platforms||Amazon Prime Video|
The Rings of Power explores the Second Age of Middle-Earth. With sweeping visuals and cinematic special effects, it feels like Tolkien but is a fresh tale penned for the series. As the producers were only permitted to use The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings, the story glosses over events told in The Silmarillion and other works. However, Tolkien experts advised on the writing and the Tolkien estate oversaw and approved the process. Hopefully, the series will satisfy new and old fans.
Violence: Fantasy violence – we see a war between Orcs and Elves, an Orc is shot through the head with an arrow.
Sexual Content: None
Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters drink alcohol.
Spiritual Content: Tolkien’s world is full of spiritual allegory. Tolkien himself was a devout Catholic and it’s hard to ignore the Christian themes. The primary antagonists, Morgoth and Sauron, are akin to fallen angels. The realm of Valinor is a sort of heaven on earth. Magic and magical creatures exist such as dragons, Dwarves, Elves, wizards, sorcerers, and other mythical beings.
Language/Crude Humor: None
Other Negative Content: The evil creatures in Middle-Earth may be frightening to younger viewers.
Positive Themes: The heroes of Middle-Earth fight to end the evil threatening the world, even if it costs them their lives and happiness. Friendship, honor, loyalty, kindness, and not judging others are all themes explored in the first two episodes.
In the beginning, Eru Ilúvatar the creator created the Ainur, angelic beings who were with him before the creation of all other things. Eru composed a theme and charged the Ainur to adorn the theme and create a Great Music. This music the Ainur and Eru sang to create the universe, Ea, and the world, Arda. Then Eru showed the Ainur the purpose of the music and Arda. The world had been created for the Children of Ilúvatar, Elves who would awaken under the light of the stars, and Men who would awaken later under the light of the sun. The Ainur loved the Children of Ilúvatar as they most reflected Eru himself, and went into the world to make it habitable for them. Most powerful among these was Melkor, who had sought many times to wrest the power to create life for himself. He deceived himself into thinking he wished to help the Children of Ilúvatar, but in truth, he wished to rule Arda as his own. After the creation of Arda, its shaping by the Ainur, and the initial efforts of Melkor to bring chaos and destruction, the Elves awaken and thus begins the First Age of Arda.
The Rings Of Power follows the events of the Second Age of Arda, thousands of years before the Third Age and the events of The Lord of the Rings.
As in Peter Jackson’s first film trilogy, The Rings of Power begins with Galadriel.
“There was a time,” she narrates. “When the world was so young, there had not yet been a sunrise. But even then, there was light.”
The child Galadriel and her older brother Finrod dwell in Valinor, the Undying Lands, a paradise on the Western edge of Arda. There the Ainur dwell with the Elves who came from Middle-Earth after awakening. Valinor is lit by the light of two trees, Telperion and Laurelin, for the sun and moon do not yet exist.
A group of Elven children bully Galadriel and use stones to sink a paper ship she has made. Finrod comforts her and tells Galadriel to keep her eyes upward, focusing on the light, instead of sinking into the darkness like the stones. Galadriel points out dark water can deceive and reflect light with equal brightness. She questions how she is to know what light to follow.
“We had no word for death,” Galadriel continues, “for we thought our joys would be unending.”
Melkor, now the evil Morgoth, destroys Telperion and Laurelin and plunges Valinor into darkness before fleeing east to Middle-Earth to wreak havoc there.
Galadriel, Finrod, and a band of Elves follow Morgoth, thinking they will defeat him quickly. The war, however, lasts centuries and Middle-Earth is forever changed. Morgoth is defeated, but his orcs have overrun Middle-Earth, and his most powerful servant, a sorcerer named Sauron, has risen to take his place. Finrod vows to destroy him but is found and killed by Sauron instead.
“Now, we learned many words for death.”
Taking up her brother’s cause, Galadriel swears to find Sauron and end the threat to Middle-Earth. More centuries pass, and many of the Elves believe the threat is over. Galadriel remains unconvinced but struggles to persuade the other Elves, including the Elven king Gil-Galad. Even her friend Elrond attempts to convince her to set aside her quest for vengeance. Gil-Gilad declares a time of peace, despite Galadriel’s fears, and gives Galadriel and her company the honor of returning to Valinor.
Elsewhere in Middle-Earth, a group of nomadic Harfoots (one of three races of Hobbits), keep themselves hidden from humans and live in simple harmony with the world; never straying from the places they know. The elders note strange occurrences in nature and disruptions to the natural rhythm of the normally predictable seasons. Nori, a young and curious Harfoot, wonders what lies elsewhere in the world, beyond the well-worn paths her people travel.
In the Southlands, Silvan Elves (those who did not travel to Valinor) keep watch over the descendants of men who sided with Morgoth. Tensions between the men and Elves are relieved when Gil-Gilad recalls all Elves to Lindon, the Elven capital. Arondir, an Elven soldier, is distressed at this news as he has fallen in love with a human healer named Bronwyn. There have been rumors of cattle that have been poisoned by bad grazing land nearby, and Arondir is suspicious there is a darker reason behind this. He and Bronwyn set out to investigate. They discover a nearby village has been utterly destroyed, with tunnels beneath that suggest orcs may be responsible and Bronwyn’s village is the next target.
In Lindon, Galadriel fears being forever burdened with her pain and the horrors she has seen if she returns to the Undying Lands. Elrond convinces her that she will instead find healing in Valinor, and promises to take up the cause of defeating Sauron in her stead if need be.
Gil-Galad believes Galadriel may indeed be right – Sauron may, in fact, be a threat. He also believes she may inadvertently stoke the very flame she seeks to quench. This is his reason for sending her away. As the ship nears its destination and the way to Valinor opens, Galadriel remembers Finrod’s answer to her question as a child. He told her she would know which light to follow after touching the darkness.
A meteor streaks across the sky as Galadriel jumps overboard, cutting herself off from Valinor, determined to return to Middle-Earth.
The meteor falls near the Harfoot village and Nori goes to investigate. In the crater it makes, she finds an old man in possession of frightening powers but unable to communicate.
How did we get here? In 2017, Warner Bros. and the Tolkien estate settled a lawsuit and began shopping the television rights to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Jeff Bezos became personally involved in negotiations and secured the rights for Amazon for an astronomical $250 million…and then everyone lost their minds.
When it was revealed that The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and other works were not being used, Tolkien enthusiasts were convinced the series would be taking gross liberties with the source material.
There were a number of restrictions placed on the series by the Tolkien Estate, and the show could not directly continue the film trilogies. The writers were only permitted to use The Hobbit and The Lord the Rings as source material. No one has ever been able to purchase the rights to material beyond those books. This means every adaptation has been hamstrung by this, unable to access the full breadth of Tolkien’s world, and precautions must be taken to not use names and events discussed in other works. It was likely deeply frustrating for those doing the adaptations and for fans who want to see other beloved aspects of this world brought to life.
Much of The Rings of Power is pulled from the encyclopedic appendices to The Lord of the Rings.
The synopsis of the creation of Arda that opens this review is found mostly within The Silmarillion. So Eru, the Ainur, and even the names of the two trees cannot be used for The Rings of Power. Imagine trying to film the book of Genesis and not having access to multiple chapters of the book, or even the use of the words Adam, Eve, Eden, or God.
Simon Tolkien, the grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, serves as a consultant, and every part of the series is closely scrutinized by the Tolkien estate. While the story told is a new one, everything was carefully constructed to seem Tolkien-esque in tone and dialogue. Tolkien scholars helped craft the narrative, and the estate held veto power for anything that violated Tolkien’s vision. If you cannot have a story penned directly by Tolkien himself, this would seem to be the next best thing.
This didn’t stop people from trashing the series before it even premiered. The hiring of an intimacy coordinator stoked fears the show would take Middle-Earth and make it more like Game of Thrones with graphic violence and sex. Sensationalized media coverage did not help. The producers assured everyone the show would be family-friendly.
Then the first images emerged showing Dwarves, Hobbits, and Elves portrayed by actors of color. Racist vitriol followed. Many insisted only white people would be in Middle-Earth, as Tolkien was trying to create a purely British (aka white) mythology.
Amazon, in a not-so-subtle drag, released a trailer about BIPOC Lord of the Rings fans and it was glorious.
Many die-hard fans were determined to hate the series before it even began. They were upset that the Dwarf princess Disa didn’t have a beard (she has thin mutton chops), or that the Elves don’t all have long hair (Tolkien never said they did). Amazon had to suspend viewer ratings for three days due to an excess of review bombs trying to tank the series.
So how is it?
I am not a Tolkien expert. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings and I am currently reading The Silmarillion. I loved the movies, and have done a fair amount of deep-diving into the world and mythology Tolkien built like a good little nerd.
We’re only two episodes in, but I loved it.
Visually the series is beautiful, with special effects on par with the films. Yes, there are moments where it’s not quite as clear or tight, but it’s stunning nonetheless.
Morfydd Clark’s rendition of Galadriel is a younger and more impulsive version of the character. People have balked at this, but it fits with how she was described in her youth: ambitious and rebellious. Perhaps this armor-wearing, sword-wielding incarnation isn’t completely accurate, due to the aforementioned rights restrictions. But it seems to capture the same spirit, even if the events that land her in Middle-Earth are a bit different.
Robert Aramayo as Elrond captures some of Hugo Weaving’s scowling aloofness and brings an uncertain vulnerability to the character. A near throw-away line in the first episode hints that, despite Elrond’s exalted position in the court of the Elven King, his human heritage still marks him as something of an outcast, if no one will quite say that.
Benjamin Walker plays Gil-Galad. Charles Edwards plays Celebrimbor, ruler of Eregion, who will one day forge the eponymous Rings of Power.
Ismael Cruz Cordova plays Arondir, a new character for the show. Arondir is a Silvan Elf in love with the human healer Bronwyn. The star-crossed lovers theme was resoundingly successful in The Lord of the Rings films, with the expansion of Arwen’s character. Peter Jackson sought to recreate this with the odd Tauriel/Kili pairing in The Hobbit trilogy to less success. Arondir and Bronwyn echo other human/Elf romances in Tolkien’s legendarium and provide an interesting window into a less open-minded age of Middle-Earth. Cordova’s casting was among those most heavily criticized. In response, Cordova threw himself into the creation of his Elven character, determined to portray Arondir as accurately as possible.
Owain Arthur is the Dwarf Prince Durin IV. His father, Durin III, rules Khazad-dûm, here in the height of its power and splendor and well before the unearthing of that Balrog Gandalf had to fight. Durin is friends with Elrond, but bitter toward him as the Elf has missed twenty years of his life. The Elves’ immortality gives them a certain blindness to the passage of time. Elrond arrives in Khazad-dûm to request help in building a forge Celebrimbor has designed, and he finds a cold welcome from the Dwarves. Durin III is also hiding something and suspects the Elves have ulterior motives.
Sophie Nomvete plays Disa, the wife of Durin. The stunning first look images published in Vanity Fair were also met with backlash at Nomvete’s casting…and strangely the apparent lack of a beard. Disa is warm and forthright and, along with Durin, provides some comic relief, keeping with Tolkien’s tone in the books. She also has the ability to sing to rock, and I’m excited to see where this goes.
Markella Kavenagh plays a wide-eyed Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot, an inquisitive Harfoot, who wonders what lies in the larger outside world. Megan Richards plays Poppy Proudfellow, Nori’s reluctant friend who is pulled into caring for the Stranger they find in the meteor crater.
Harfoots are the largest in number of the three groups of Hobbits. Tolkien described them as smaller and darker of skin than the other two groups, the Stoors and Fallohides.
Lenny Henry plays Sadoc Burrows, one of the Harfoot elders, who is disturbed by changes in the natural order and rhythm of things. Henry’s casting, like Cordova’s and Nomvete’s, was met with backlash, but his performance, like theirs, is delightful.
Events have been condensed or rearranged to fit the constraints of a television series. Unfolding a story over centuries or millennia would necessitate a new cast portraying the mortal characters every episode or two. Thus, the writers have opted to shorten the timeline a bit.
That said, The Rings of Power offers glimpses of places not yet seen on film. Valinor, Lindon, Eregion, Numenor, and Khazad-dûm before its destruction are all featured within the first two episodes.
Stylistically, the series connects to Peter Jackson’s films, but not entirely. The Elves have pointy ears (it’s been hotly debated whether Tolkien intended them to be) but not all of them have long hair, a stylistic choice Jackson made. The costumes are simpler, perhaps what Elven fashion would have been thousands of years before The Lord of the Rings. Architecture, too, is familiar, but a somewhat more primitive version of what we’re already familiar with. Peter Jackson showed a world of ancient ruins – now we get to see those places before they fell into decay.
There and Back Again
For newcomers, this will be a fun foray into the world of J.R.R. Tolkien. For those who have been here before, it’s a delightful return to Middle-Earth. Hardcore fans will have to accept the inaccuracies and contradictions.
I will write a full review at the conclusion of the season, but for now, I’m excited to return to Middle-Earth. I have seen nothing yet that makes me groan with frustration or disappointment. I had one squeal-worthy moment when I realized one of the most iconic characters Tolkien created is also in the series, but I’ll leave that for you to discover. To quote River Song (and jump franchises)…spoilers.
The Bottom Line
The Rings of Power is a beautiful return to Middle Earth. It does not, and cannot, get everything right. However, if we can’t get a story penned by Tolkien himsElf, this would seem to be the next best thing. The first two episodes are promising - let’s hope the rest of the season lives up to its potential.