I confess here and now to a heresy of the gravest theological and ecclesiological ramifications.
I enjoyed The Rings of Power.
Perhaps I should define my terms before the villagers get their pitchforks out. On a basic level, perhaps the most underrated, “enjoyment” means fun to watch. On a deeper level, I value a piece of art that makes me care about its story, characters, and themes after the last page or the credits roll. The Rings of Power does these things, albeit imperfectly.
In our polarized age, the only two acceptable responses to a piece of art seem to be violent revulsion or unquestioning exultation, depending on whether it attacks or supports one’s political beliefs. There is a place for both feelings, but I feel that The Rings of Power is not one of them. Why has this particular series incited such extremity of emotion?
J.R.R. Tolkein’s works are special. His writing is among the most significant, popular, and moving of the twentieth century. He wrote the great English prose epic which will, God willing, be revered for centuries to come. His fanbase is vast and passionate. The themes he explores are of eternal significance. If that were not enough, the Peter Jackson adaptations of The Lord of the Rings are Oscar-winning exemplars of the craft of movie-making. So, no pressure.
I fear that the echo chamber nature of online discourse has disincentivized original thoughts. No one wants his friends, real or online, to think less of him. This fear of social exclusion is far more potent than fear of breaking rules. It saddens me that many Tolkien fans have expressed an excessive rage at this new series, showing an unpleasant sense of possessiveness and entitlement. One may be disappointed that the series didn’t turn out as hoped, or else regret the wasted opportunity, but belligerent rage cannot be right or healthy.
The Scale and the Beauty
None of this is to say that The Rings of Power is above reproach. There are many faults, not least some of the dialogue and the narrative structure. It is not, like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, a focused yet intricate quest. This narrative flab hampers the relationship between audience and character that has always distinguished Tolkien’s work. Other flaws include the title sequence, which resembles a thrift store version of The Crown. Lastly, given the claims that it would be a show for the whole family to watch, I was sorely disappointed by the sometimes needless and graphic violence.
With regards to the characters, you may recall the elf Galadriel (“Instead of a Dark Lord, you would have a QUEEN!”) from The Fellowship of the Ring. She was noble, ethereal, and radiated elven power. Replacing her with a “Galadriel Warrior Princess” concept was tedious in the extreme; she features a set concerned facial expression like Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games but without the charm. Galadriel’s companion (and non-canon character) Halbrand does not quite work. The acting is strong, but the Northern English stereotypical accent grates. The overall conception of his character struck me as someone trying too hard to be clever.
On the other hand, the visuals in scale and details are breath-taking. My standard size (that’s UK standard, not US!) television cannot quite capture the scale and the beauty of Middle Earth or Numenor, the island given to brave mortal men by the gods for their service in war. I can only imagine the effect of Mordor and Khazad-Dum (the dwarf kingdom) on the big screen. The soundtrack itself is reasonable, but we must remember what we are comparing it to. Howard Shore’s soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings, especially the extended version, is truly a masterpiece.
Characters to Weep For
I found the greatest joy of the series in the relationships between the characters. Here it follows in the tradition of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, by foregrounding the significance of fellowship. In a world that mocks or discards strong male relationships, the deep bond between Elrond, an elven leader, and Durin, a prince of the dwarves, stood out. The characters are likable by themselves, but Durin’s anger when Elrond misses his wedding and the birth of his children is particularly moving. Anyone can relate to Tolkein’s work, but perhaps especially for men he presents us with heroes to admire. In an atomised society that too often sees men as a problem to overcome, we desperately need characters like Aragorn and Faramir. Equally compelling is the whole dwarf realm, especially Disa, Durin’s wife. We don’t see many dwarf women, but she is exactly how we would want them to be: witty, bold, strong, and loyal. She sings a potent prayer for those trapped in the mine, and how often do we see prayer so prominent in a contemporary series? The bonds of fellowship are alive in Khazad-Dum.
Many Tolkien fans were understandably keen to see Numenor. It is imperfect, like most things, but again the writers create a culture that feels real with characters who are fully realized and inhabit their roles. The actress playing the Queen Regent of the island, Miriel, offers a strong performance, and her later blindness is an engaging twist. Perhaps it could have underscored that this land is the great settlement of men fallen into corruption but not yet fully corrupt. Nonetheless the sense that great heroes dwell there, not yet arrived at their moment in history, gave me hope for future seasons. They are characters whom we will celebrate with and weep for when they meet their fates.
Therefore I did enjoy The Rings of Power and very much look forward to the next season. I vastly prefer it to the three The Hobbit movies, low threshold though that is. Perhaps we ought to consider how we reframe our responses from the extreme to the healthy. We gain nothing from rage or hatred or vengeance. Disappointment, sadness, regret are healthier responses — or maybe, even, recognition that the Rings of Power is good after all.