Can you believe that Halbrand insulted Miriel, queen regent of Númenor, by saying she was either blind or an elf-lover? What about all the drama at Princess Rhaenyra and Ser Laenor’s wedding? And how excited are you to meet Radovid, King Vizimir’s dastardly playboy of a brother?
If you’ve mistaken any or all of the names above for affordable sectionals at IKEA, you must be one of the very, very few Americans not tuning into one or another of the season’s favorite TV genre, the Very Big Budget Epic. For the traditionalists, there’s The Rings of Power, a prequel to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which cost Amazon’s Jeff Bezos a pile of gold that would’ve made Smaug the dragon lick his scaly lips. Those who love shows with an extra helping of carnage and cleavage can turn to House of the Dragon, another bloody entry in the Game of Thrones universe. And then there’s The Witcher, The Sandman, The Wheel of Time, and dozens of other shows involving a smattering of magic, some swords, and the good fighting the bad.
Actually, scratch that last bit. Today’s epics aren’t interested in morality, the beating heart of the epic genre ever since some Greeks sailed to Troy to resolve that nasty business with history’s first Real Housewife. Instead of good and evil, we get a heaping dose of strong and stronger, because it’s power, and power alone, that moves our modern-day, made-for-streaming epics. The characters we see on screen may be clad in the latest wolf-skin fashion, but close your eyes and you’ll be forgiven if you mistake them for bratty graduate students having intense conversations over soy chai lattes. In these shows, all anyone talks about and cares about is who was victimized and who was aggrieved and who is at fault. Ask any longtime viewer to answer what any of these characters actually believe, and you’ll draw blank stares.
Somewhere in Middle-earth, Tolkien is turning in a cairn-topped barrow.
“The Lord of the Rings,” mused its author in a letter to a friend,
is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion”, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.
Mercy and grace, death and resurrection, self-sacrifice and repentance, free will and fellowship—not only is Tolkien’s world thick with virtue, but it’s precisely virtue that makes the plot hum along. Our investment in the story is deep and real and passionate because we’re rooting for Team Frodo to trounce Team Sauron in the midterms and we’re also witnessing a young man struggle mightily, bearing a cross-like object representing both the sins and the hopes of all living things. There is even a Eucharist, the Sacrament Tolkien himself told his son was “the one great thing to love on earth.” His brave ring-bearers sustain themselves on their arduous journey eating lembas, a kind of bread that is preternaturally nutritious. Elaborating on how they’re able to march for so many miles across such arduous terrain while consuming nothing but, Tolkien wrote that the lembas had healing powers as well as “a much larger significance, of what one might hesitatingly call a ‘religious’ kind.”
He was explaining all this in a letter to his friend, the American magazine editor and literary agent Forrest J. Ackerman, in 1958, by which time his epic was selling briskly, and in hardcover no less. The critic Edmund Wilson, taking a break from his preoccupations with Freud and Marxism, titled his review “Oo, Those Awful Orcs!” and concluded that The Lord of the Rings trilogy was little more than “juvenile trash.” But another reader, C. S. Lewis—whom Tolkien sought to convince to become a Catholic—had other thoughts. “Here are beauties,” he wrote, “which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book which will break your heart.”
Lewis understood, as the usually brilliant but parochially modern Wilson did not, that the most profound human emotions are what linguists call “floating signifiers,” words that have no universally agreed-upon meaning. We can’t merely experience “love”; we must love something or someone specific and real. We don’t just feel “pain”; we writhe in a very personal, and almost never describable, sort of suffering. And there’s no such thing as “hope,” but rather the intimate conviction that a set of particular occurrences will soon come into play.
The fact that our most indispensible and fundamental words take on their power in the flow of life is why imagination—indeed, all great art—is, by default, a thoroughly religious undertaking. The upsurges of love and pain, joy and dread, outstrip the ordinary, and the imagination turns upward. This is not to say that non-believers are incapable of plumbing the depths of their soul and producing something great—here’s looking at you, Charlie Parker! But great, instructive, long-lasting, and truly beloved works of art tend to share religion’s core premise, namely that there’s a force in the world greater than ourselves; that it guides us toward a more perfect form of being; and that to get there we need the support and comity of others who believe the same things and walk the same paths. Religion, in other words, is an epic journey, one only made possible by the company of others.
How sad, then, it is to see our pinched, modern imaginations—to say nothing of bloated production budgets—fall so short of the timeless tradition of storytelling that casts men and women onto a larger-than-life stage. Amazon’s new Rings aren’t the Rings of Truth or the Rings of Beauty; they’re the Rings of Power. And while the show is (very, very loosely) based on Tolkien’s notes, the outcome runs against the grain of his imagination. You don’t need more than a few minutes to understand what kind of world you’re watching. The original Lord of the Rings kicked things off in the Shire, an Eden-like refuge, absent any government or greed or conflict, from which a hero will emerge and to which, more importantly, he longs to return. The newer show begins in medias res, with thirty-one flavors of intrigue. Royal courts simmer with tension; alliances are formed and broken and reformed; and the engine moving everything along, apart from the hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of gorgeous imagery, is political perfidy. You might as well be watching MSNBC.
When Rings of Power debuted, some of our dimmer commentators took issue with the fact that a number of the characters are played by black actors. There’s absolutely no problem with Middle-earth being populated by folks of all levels of melanin. It’s the content of their character, not the color of their skin, that we should worry about. When our new heroes—and their creators—care only about who wins some tedious contest for more resources and sinecures, when they expound no beliefs and experience no soul-searching, it means that a threat far more menacing than even the Dark Lord Morgoth is upon us: the threat of living a life drained of all faith and hope and meaning. Reckoning with the glamor of an evil that knows what it is about is far better than being seduced by reality TV dressed up in archaic costume.
Forgive this Tolkien nerd, then, for tuning out these shouty shows. Who will sit on the Iron Throne of Westeros? Who is the mysterious Stranger, last seen traveling east, toward the Sea of Rhûn? I could hardly care less. Instead, I fix my children some hot cocoa, pick up the tattered old paperback, and begin reading: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” We’ve read the book many times now. A story of finding courage, friendship, and truth never gets old. I hope my kids take that journey.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.