It is too soon to tell if Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will be a satisfying season of television. From the two episodes that have aired so far, it is clear the showrunners J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay are taking some liberties with the timeline as they adapt scanty notes from the appendices of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings into a fantasy epic set in Middle-earth’s Second Age. What I care most about, however, along with many other fans, is whether the series fits with the spirit of Tolkien’s legendarium. My answer, so far, is a tentative yes.
The Rings of Power evokes Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films in its world design, costuming, and even its main musical theme by Howard Shore. Unlike that movie trilogy, it is charting its own storyline and inventing many original characters to fill it. The show’s events are set many years before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The original dark lord, Morgoth, has fallen after an age of war with the Elves. Morgoth’s lieutenant Sauron is unaccounted for, but most Elves want to focus on peacetime pursuits, fostering a glorious springtime for Middle-earth.
Galadriel (a magnetic Morfydd Clark), driven by an oath to her fallen elder brother, is not ready to give up the fight. We find her leading an expedition to the ice-bound edge of the world, pushing herself and her companions to their limits. Her zeal for hunting Sauron annoys the Elves under her command and worries her friend Elrond (Robert Aramayo). Is she spending her ageless life on a fool’s errand? We the viewers know, of course, that Sauron will rise again, but Clark’s Galadriel has the steely obsession that illustrates why the other Elves think she might be overzealous.
The series spans Middle-earth, with a number of plotlines that will (presumably) converge as the story unfolds. In the Southlands, the Elf soldier Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) investigate evidence of Orcs re-emerging. Elrond is dispatched to Khazad-dûm on a diplomatic mission to his old Dwarf friend, Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur), but meets with a chilly reception. And in the plains of Rhovanion, a curious young Harfoot named Nori Brandyfoot stumbles on a confused stranger (Daniel Weyman).
The Harfoots are the show’s biggest innovation and most charming element. Tolkien is silent regarding Hobbits in the Second Age. The showrunners depict Harfoots as nomadic precursors to the Shire-dwelling Hobbits we know, a close-knit band of small-statured travelers specializing in camouflage. In a delightful introductory scene, the Harfoots and their entire settlement emerge from behind cleverly constructed screens and covers made of foliage. The idea seems to be that the history of the Second Age has no record of Hobbits because they were just that good at hiding.
Nori Brandyfoot has that rare taste for adventure that will, in a future age, distinguish Bilbo and Frodo Baggins from their Hobbit kin. It leads Nori to follow a falling star and find a wild-eyed, clearly magical man. Defying Harfoot norms of avoiding contact with outsiders, Nori offers the stranger shelter, food, and clothing as she tries to learn what he is and where he came from. If I am reading the show’s clues aright, and the stranger turns out to be a force for good in Middle-earth, then the Harfoot story will offer an extremely Tolkien-esque appreciation of the importance of humble acts of kindness and hospitality.
Galadriel and Arondir’s stories pick up another key thread of Tolkien’s thought: his depiction of evil. The majority of the Elves, to Galadriel’s frustration, are ready to move on from their concern over Sauron and his forces of darkness. This is a grave error—the type of forgetfulness and complacency that allows evil to rise again and again.
Recently I had the pleasure of leading high school students in a seminar on Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia.” We took note of the seemingly contradictory ways Tolkien speaks about evil in the poem. Early on, he writes, “of Evil this / alone is deadly certain: Evil is.” But near the end of the poem, he says of the eye in Paradise:
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God's picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
Which is it? Is evil something with substance of its own, or a mere lack in our perception of or response to the world? Of course, Tolkien would tell us both are true: from eternity’s perspective, yes, the Shadow is a passing thing, and even Morgoth’s discord cannot mar the song of Ilúvatar. But in this world, we should not expect evil to vanish of its own accord. History, rather, is a “Long Defeat” in which evil often seems triumphant; but we must struggle anyway and hope for one of those blessed foretastes of the final victory.
“Mythopoeia” commends the “legend-makers” as true realists because they have not forgotten the power of evil and the necessity of standing against it: “It is not they who have forgot the Night, / or bid us flee to organized delight.” Galadriel’s reminder of the Night is what the Elves least welcome and most need.
This isn’t the only echo of “Mythopoeia” in The Rings of Power. The Elves have appointed themselves the guardians of a settlement of Men that, generations ago, were servants of Morgoth. Arondir now patrols this territory. The Men are inclined to see the Elves as occupiers, and one disagreeable fellow in a tavern tries to provoke Arondir by saying that someday their “true king” will rise again and overthrow the Elves.
The king in question must be Morgoth or Sauron; these Men waiting for the return of their evil lord are a dark inversion of the Gondorians awaiting the return of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. It is also an ominous counterpoint to Tolkien’s image of the faith-filled imagination in “Mythopoeia”:
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.
How do we determine whether our legend-making is drawing us toward Aragorn or Sauron, the light or the shadow? How do we judge which manner of “beleaguered fools” to be—where does resolute loyalty shade into a politics of bitterness? I do not know yet how The Rings of Power will answer these questions. But the fact it is raising them indicates that the showrunners are examining deeply the things Tolkien cared about most: not just Elves and Dwarves and magic rings, but the moral and spiritual stakes of man’s capacity for legend-making.
Alexi Sargeant is a cultural critic, writer, and editor.
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