Review by Tim Robins
Between them, HBO Max and Amazon Prime have just completed the first seasons of two major fantasy series, Game of Thrones: House of Dragons and Lord of The Rings: The Rings of Power. But only The Rings of Power had me running out to talk excitedly about the final episode with friends.
There, I’ve said it; I enjoyed The Rings of Power, despite a tidal wave of YouTube channels telling me not to. Honestly, all I did was watch YouTube videos to fill myself in on bits of Middle Earth lore and the next day I was bombarded suggestions for videos with thumbnails reading: ‘The Rings of Power show runners are DELUSIONAL!’, ‘The Rings of Power: A Complete Disaster’, ‘A Billion Dollar Nightmare’, ‘It’s Over!’, ‘A Terrible Finale to a Terrible Show’, ‘The Rings of Power: A Lesson in Failure’ and ‘How Rings of Power Exposed Amazon’s Evils’. And, thanks to YouTube’s algorithm, I am being served similarly titled offerings, weeks after the show ended.
Even before The Rings of Power was screened, the series had attracted criticism just on the basis of its cast. I’ll spare you the details, although I will observe that such critics tied themselves in knots by asking me to believe two things: firstly, that Tolkien’s vision of Middle Earth was not in any way racist and, secondly, it is totally inappropriate to cast black actors as anything except, perhaps, Orcs, Goblins and Uruk-hai. Hmm.
Take, for example, criticism of a Hobbitish troop of Harfoots, led by Lenny Henry as Sardoc, a ‘seer’ or spiritual leader. For me, this role veered close to the stereotype of the “Magical Negro”, and seemed a little tokenistic. According to The Hobbit, the Harfoots were the most numerous type of Hobbits and “browner of skin”. so I do feel the casting of the Harfoot folk could have been much more ambitious in using more, rather than less, actors of colour.
Amazon Studios does not have the rights to adapt The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Rings of Power is focusing on material about the ‘Second Age’ to be found, principally, in Appendix B of The Lord of The Rings, “The Tale of Years (Chronology of the Westlands), The Second Age”.
Despite Tolkien’s world building for his books, The Rings of Power has scant material on which to draw and a lot of history to fill, 3441 years, to be exact, from the flight of Sauron after the defeat of his master, Melkor, to the rise of Sauron becoming the titular ‘Lord of the Rings’, and his eventual defeat by an alliance of Elves and Men. One of the many difficulties the show runners faced is the different life-spans of various races – the Elves living thousands of years, humans live normal mortal lives except that Númenóreans are said to live between 200 to 350 years, depending on their lineage.
I found attempting to fit the events of the TV series into a chronology of the Second Age was totally mind boggling, and it’s best not to try. However, The Power of the Rings has the blessing of the Tolkien Estate, no mean achievement considering that, like Peter Jackson’s films, the show invents characters and changes the order and time of events. For this series, show runners, J.D. Payne and Patrick McKaygive us new Elves, Humans, Dwarves and Orcish characters. So we get a not particularly interesting romance between an elf and a human, Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), although the pair are caught up in many of the show’s most spectacular events.
Markella Kavenagh is thoroughly engaging as “Nori” Brandyfoot, a Harfoot who develops a taste for adventure after teaming up first with her wide-eyed friend Poppy Proudfello (Megan Richards), then with a mysterious stranger from the stars (Gandalf – or is he?).
The elven cast includes Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), whose travails are the centrepiece of the series. We meet her as a child being bullied by elves(!). This scene only serves to set up a convoluted metaphor about paper boats floating, because they look towards the light and stones thrown at them sinking because they look down into the dark. Except sometimes one needs to touch the dark to know the light and PLEASE DON’T JUMP OF THE BOAT JUST BECAUSE THE SUN IS REFLECTED IN THE WATER! Too late!
We also meet Gil-Galad (Benjamin Walker), The High King of the Elves in a high garden in Lindon (snicker) and Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards), the elven smith with an eye to building a large, towering forge. Caught up in their machinations is Elron, the half-elf (Robert Aramayo), who serves as our entry into Elven politics. These echo the machinations of the Game of Thrones without degenerating, as that series did, into a soap opera in frocks. The Rings of Power also demonstrates its difference from Jackson’s films by dressing the elves as a cross between original Star Trek alien ambassadors and preppie San Franciscans.
One of the joys of Tolkien’s “secondary creation”, as the author described his published and unpublished works, are the names he gives people, places and things. These can be wonderfully allusory and roll playfully across the tongue or tumble around the ear. ‘Morgoth’, Minas Tirith, Khazad-Dum, Rohan, Gondor, Sauron and The Sundering Sea have a built in air of myth and mystery. On the other hand, elvish words often end up sounding like the names of fonts such as Calibri, Granjon, and Arvenir. For some reason, simply saying ‘Lindon’ makes me titter uncontrollably. It is all very fey, but great fun nonetheless.
The much publicised billion plus dollar budget has certainly helped bring the world of Arda (Earth’s mythic past) to life. At times, The Rings of Power is as spectacular as anything on a TV screen can be. The characters’ costumes are dazzling and the locations are awesome, particularly the entrance to the island of Numinor and the underground waterfalls and steps of KhazadDum. It helps that season one was filmed in New Zealand, itself a magical landscape, and so captures much of the spectacle of Jackson’s films.
Of course, there are limits to the extent that Tolkien’s words can be rendered for the screen. I was particularly disappointed by Galadriel’s appearance. Here is how she is described on The Tolkien Gateway: “The gleaming of her hair was not a mere poetic reference: her hair was held a marvel unmatched. It mingled and surpassed the gold hair of her father and the star-like silver of her mother, so the Eldar said that bothlights of the Two Trees were captured in her tresses”. In the TV series, Galadriel is blonde.
The series does take full advantage of a distinctive television format, that allows a larger and more disparate central cast than would a film. Meanwhile, the lands and peoples of Arda can be explored through multiple story lines. This is a key difference to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which are focussed on quests, with few digressions (yes Tom Bombadil, I’m talking about you!).
The structure of a quest gives stories a direction, a sense of moving forward to a single goal that motivates the characters and carries readers along to a prescribed end. The Rings of Power attempts to create a quest narrative and opens with Galadriel’s hunt for Sauron. But Galadrial’s quest can’t organise all the other events and quests going on: the Harfoots just seem to meander along grassy slopes, the Dwarfs sit around bitching about the elves, the orcs are searching for something, and take a deep dive into politics on the doomed island of Númenor. The multiple plotlines certainly can give the series a lack of focus, but more so if you expect it to conform to the conventions of cinema, rather than television. The cast and locations, too, are far more wide ranging than a film could handle.
At the same time, unlike quest narratives, television works well when its characters don’t have to go anywhere, sitcoms being the best example. It’s hardly surprising that the bickering between The Dwarf Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur) and his wife, Miriel (played by the golorious Cynthia Addai-Robinson), are among the most engaging and welcome scenes. And I don’t think it is a surprise that the created-for-television character of Adar (Joseph Mawle), an Uruk, is one of the more compelling characters. He has a moral complexity that is unusual for Tolkien’s world. Watch out for a deliciously layered moment when Adar is trapped at sword point by the mysterious Southland King Halbrand (Charlie Vickers). Halbrand asks whether Adar recognises him, and Adar smiles. His reply works on more than one level.
There are many ways of telling the same story. The misdirection around which character was Sauron held my interest, but it would have been more suspenseful if the audience knew who Sauron was from the start. A lot more foreshadowing would also signpost the more significant and spectacular events of the final three episodes.
The Rings of Power deliberately evokes Jackson’s films but is contractually obliged not to imitate them – which may explain why Jackson was “ghosted” by the show runners after an initial approach. Legally, it appears, they just can’t go there. And the show really needs to hove in the face of the critical storm while giving viewers a better sense of direction. We know where all this is going, so the scripts can give events a more powerful sense of destiny.
The season ends by forging some of the Rings of Power, albeit the wrong ones, in the wrong sequence, according to Tolkien’s lore, or so I am told. Then again, is Tolkien’s ominous poem, adapted and eerily sung by Fiona Apple over the end credits, really a set of Idea assembly instructions? Perhaps not. I do think it would have been a good idea to foreground the forging of the rings more than the first season does.
Also, what exactly do all these rings do? Yes, the One Ring enthrals the wearer to Sauron but how do they really impact the Dwarves, or even the Elves? Future seasons have some useful explaining to do. And I’ll be there for it.
As for the online critics, there are a few useful YouTube channels but leave the rest to their fantasies – including inventing lines of dialogue that are never actually spoken. For example, “The elves will not replace us!” – eyeroll.
These critics really are thicker than a garden party of rock trolls. It’s better to watch The Rings of Power and judge the show for yourself.
Where to go on your next jaunt to Middle-Earth
When can we expect Season Two?
When Amazon bought the television rights to Tolkien’s works in 2017, it made a five-season production commitment worth at least $1bn. Production on The Rings of Power season two began on 3rd October 2022, just as the first season was drawing to a close. It’s not expected to air until early 2024, perhaps later, again running for eight episodes
25 million viewers watched the first episode within 24 hours of its release, Prime Video’s biggest ever premiere.
The second and subsequent series in the UK, for reasons economic (Amazon has invested heavily in UK studio space) and sentimental – the Tolkien estate preferred the series to be filmed in the country that originally inspired the writer.
Dear reader, a review is an opinion, and other opinions are always available
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie,
One Ring to rule them all, one Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.