By now you’ll both have gathered that I have a passing interest in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, so I hope you won’t mind that I attempt a review of the first two episodes of The Rings of Power, a televisual emission by Amazon Prime. The take-home message is that I enjoyed them very much and I am looking forward keenly to how the story develops. In what follows THERE ARE
SPIDERS SPOILERS so if you don’t want to know the plot, please find something else to read forthwith fifthwith.
The story takes place thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but in the same fictional universe, and one or two of the characters will be familiar. It starts with Galadriel (yes, that one), but as a child, playing with her friends in the eternal bliss of Valinor, the Blessed Realm. Even then we see that she’s a member of the awkward squad, and has to be consoled by her beloved elder brother, Finrod. When Galadriel grows up, the Great Enemy, Morgoth, ravages the Blessed Realm; kills the two shining trees that illuminate it; and escapes to Middle Earth. He is chased by Galadriel and many of the elves, and after a long war in which many elves, including Finrod, are killed, Morgoth is finally defeated. All this is delivered in a long spoken preamble by Galadriel herself.
Many elves go back over the sea to Valinor, but some remain in Middle Earth in the kingdom of Lindon, ruled by the High King, Gil-Galad. Everyone is convinced that evil has finally been expunged from the Earth, but, oh no, not our Gal. She is especially concerned that Sauron, Morgoth’s greatest servant, was never found, and that he might still be around somewhere, fomenting general disorder and brouhaha. (Aside: why is Galadriel so keen to find Sauron? It could all be to do with avenging the death of Finrod, who, in the Silmarillion, is killed by werewolves in Sauron’s dungeons).
The action starts — eventually — with ‘Commander’ Galadriel leading a posse of increasingly reluctant elves to the Far North in search of signs of Sauron. She finds a distinctive trident-shaped sigil which she believes is a sign of his passing, but it appears to be very ancient. After a battle with a snow troll, the elves retreat. Back home in Lindon, Gil-Galad honours the Elvish commandos with a one-way trip to Valinor (this really doesn’t ring true: going back to Valinor is a much bigger deal than a prize in some kind of competition). Galadriel, persisting in her belief that evil still walks, jumps ship just before Valinor is reached, and, in a scene perhaps inescapably reminiscent of The Raft of the Medusa by Gericault, falls in with shipwrecked sailors. After encounters with sea monsters and storms, only one man is left. He confesses to Galadriel that he has escaped the ravages of Sauron’s orcs — not in the Frozen North, but in the ‘Southlands’, the area that will one day become Gondor (there are helpful maps). Galadriel and her new friend are rescued by a passing ship, which I guess belongs to the seafaring Numenoreans, but that’s for the next episode. Back in Lindon, Gil-Galad confesses to his herald, Elrond (yes, that one) that Galadriel might well be correct that evil still walks, but that her agitation might stir up things that would be better left undisturbed.
At the same time, we see humans living in the Southlands. Just as the elves are relaxing their guard, various disturbing events show that orcs are still about, and there is a sequence of truly spellbinding horror as a human woman, Bronwyn, confronts and kills one in her own home.
But back to Gil-Galad, who sends young Elrond to the elven city of Eregion, in the shadow of the Misty Mountains, where the noted elven smith Celebrimbor requires help with a new project (no prizes for guessing what that will be). In Celebrimbor’s workshop Elrond admires the hammer with which Fëanor, greatest of all elven craftsmen, forged the Silmarils, the three great jewels wherein the only remaining light of the Two Trees is captured — and which were stolen by Morgoth. (Elrond and Celebrimbor discuss this, but we aren’t told that Fëanor was Celebrimbor’s grandfather). Celebrimbor, however, doesn’t have the manpower. Elrond decides to recruit dwarves from the nearby Kingdom of Khazad-Dûm — the ruins of which we see as the Mines of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring — but which is then at its height. He has a hard time of it, though, and has to work hard to convince an old friend, Prince Durin, heir to the throne, of his plans.
Then, there are the harfoots. These proto-hobbits live a wandering life east of the Misty Mountains, by the Great River, and we focus on one group in which a small girl called Elanor Brandyfoot cannot help poking her nose into things she shouldn’t, and so is irresistibly drawn to the site of a fallen meteor that appears to not to be a meteorite, but a man, understandably dishevelled and incoherent, but capable of powerful magic. His identity is a mystery. (I think he’s Sauron).
And that’s as far as we’ve got.
It’s a slow start, perhaps inevitably, as we have to get up to speed with the underlying back story. However, after A Game of Thrones we are used to having to deal with several different stories happening at once, some of them rather complicated, so that’s not as much of a problem as it might be.
The acting is okay. Morfydd Clark has to carry a great deal as all-action heroine Galadriel, and does a fine job of it, too. Perfectly cast, one can just imagine her maturing and blossoming into the magisterial version of Galadriel played by Cate Blanchett in Peter Jackson’s films. Most of the cast is unknown (at least to me) but the sharp-eyed will have fun spotting well-known names beneath all those prostheses, notably Lenny Henry as a harfoot village elder. But hey, this is genre fiction, not Shakespeare, and I am reminded of an anecdote told by the late Leonard Cohen who, just before he was due to go on stage, admits to his lawyer (his ‘plus one’ – but, you know, maybe everyone else was busy) that he was worried about his inability to sing. ‘If I wanted singing’, his lawyer says, ‘I’d have gone to the Met’.
But don’t mind the quality, feel the width — The Rings of Power looks beautiful.
It sounds beautiful, too, with a title score by Howard Shore (Peter Jackson’s musical consigliere for all the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films) and incidental music by Bear McCreary (Outlander).
But is it true to Tolkien? My short answer — who cares? I do not subscribe to the more purist tendency among Tolkien fans that views any deviation from the canon as sacrilege. In one of his letters (I haven’t yet discovered which, someone will surely remind me) Tolkien said that he once had this grandiose scheme (‘my crest has long since fallen’) to create a vast mythology in which some parts are described in detail, but others merely sketched, and that others would come along to add their own contributions in various media. In which case, any adaptation has to be criticised on its own terms, and not with reference to the material on which it is more-or-less loosely based.
If pressed though, I’d say that yes, it is consistent with Tolkien’s legendarium. At least, so far. After all, the action in The Rings of Power takes place in the Second Age, perhaps the most sketchy part of Tolkien’s own mythology, so there is plenty of scope for invention that is not part of the canon, but which does not violate it.
Some might baulk at Galadriel as a kind of Xena Warrior Princess, but if they do, they shouldn’t. This is entirely canonical. Even in the Hobbit she is seen as fairly ferocious (Tolkien describes Galadriel’s take-down of Sauron in a few lines, offstage), and the young Galadriel, in the Silmarillion, is described as vigorous and strong-willed. Her initial search for Sauron in the far North makes sense, too — for that was where Morgoth’s stronghold was originally located.
My only niggle is why the harfoots speak what sounds like an Irish brogue. Even Lenny Henry, who I know for a fact comes from the West Midlands. To be sure, one somehow expects the rough-and-tough dwarves to speak Glaswegian, but to have the twee leprechaun-like harfoots speaking the way they do might seem just a little bit patronising, perhaps even racist. Perhaps I am over-thinking it. But then, as a Jew, I was concerned that J. K. Rowling had depicted the goblins in the Harry Potter universe as caricatures straight out of Nazi antisemitic propaganda — clever, but selfish, wizened and ugly; adhering to the letter of the law but not the spirit; with not an ounce of compassion; are entirely concerned with money, and (of course) run all the banks. And that was even before she blundered, entirely unnecessarily, into a debate about transgender rights. The cast of The Rings of Power is refreshingly diverse, but as diversity is increasingly embraced, sensitivities are only magnified.