Look, I get the criticism. The creators of Rings of Power are playing fast and loose with lore: Gandalf shouldn’t be here yet, Galadriel is in Numenor for some reason, the rings are supposed to take much longer to make, and dwarves are singing to rocks.
I get that the timeline is off.
And to some extent I even sort of understand a part of you being ever so slightly wanting to scratch your head at the technicality of an elf having a skin color other than “fair.” After all, even Tolkein had a gene of bigotry that loved an imaginary Nordic race above all. (But we’ll come back to that.) Of course, it’s just as much canon to assume that elves have pointy ears, as this is said nowhere in any Tolkien book.
Rings of Power, being launched from the company Amazon, of all places, is a risk in storytelling. Do we want a hugely problematic billionaire behind one of our most beloved pieces of literature? Well, he’s not. They ignored his show notes. Tolkien still wrote LOTR. Nothing will change that. And even Peter Jackson’s two trilogies had issues.
So despite some glaring in continuities in lore, I’m ok with the series. As someone who has read the source material, I saw the show and I still like it. I’ll explain why.
It’s an interpretation. Of history. Mythical history.
I watched the show as if it’s being retold. Or as if through a seeing stone. People have different takes on history, after all. And that’s part of what made the story fun to see.
From a writer’s standpoint, besides the legal limitations at play—not being able to use any of The Silmarillion or The Hobbit or LOTR—putting the Second Age on screen is a near-impossible task unless you take a lot of liberties. There are also huge gaps in the history that do not translate well to a single storyline across a visual medium like television or film. We also don’t have a novel to work from. None. All we have is a history book, “Lost Tales.” Y’all, the tales have been lost. They’re recovered. Who’s to say the documents we have are the exactly true version?
Yep, Tolkien himself even said in a letter that what he created should leave room for creative interpretation. “The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.”
With all these limitations in play, I’m actually very impressed with Rings of Power. Great effort was taken to give us a sense of continuity with our established visual experience. It feels much like Jackson’s movies in terms of the music, the sets, and the dedication to detail. Howard Shore was even brought in. But this is a wholly different age.
And speaking of different age, it’s time we add some racial nuance to Tolkien’s simplicity, if we want to redeem it. Perhaps his biggest problem is the racial construction of his world. Elves are a master version of men, the good ones are Western/European-derived, Eastern, elephant-riding men are prone to evil, and a demonic race speaks in “black speak.” It makes us cringe some. So if I want future generations to celebrate this amazing world, I think having brown hobbits walking around should be a no-brainer concession. Just go with it. It’s fantasy.
Yes, sometimes the writing is a little bad. I was just waiting for Elrond to come out and say, “maybe the real precious metals are the friendships we made along the way!”
But other times, the writing is pretty clever. I mean, despite the star man obviously being Gandalf (why else would the Valar send a comet man to meet proto-hobbits? and played by the British version of Jim Caviezel?), the show at one point got me thinking that maybe we’re supposed to think he’s Gandalf, only to find he’s a pupal Balrog. My instincts were right a lot, but it made me doubt them.
And you’ve got to admit it’s keen of the writers to have the Harfoots sing about “not going off the path” (you know, the path of the source lore), only to discover new and amazing things off the path—like an Istari in the 2nd age, and also peril. It’s a lesson in trusting a new direction for storytelling.
Then there’s the whole device of Miriel, daughter of the far-sighted one, losing her vision and then trusting the far-seeing stone. We know that won’t bode well.
And when Celeborn spoke of coaxing the alloys together in order to forge them as one, rather than forcing them together, that was actually fantastic writing. After all, Sauron is himself trying to softly coax the races of Middle Earth into serving him by serving their own desires. Then he can bind them together under his will. And yet, the forces of light prefer to work by convincing and empowering people to be brave and unite against evil. It’s what makes Sauron so good at appearing to be an angel, plotting us against our better natures.
Which leads me to my last note of commentary: Galadriel’s theme of touching darkness to understand good. I think her story has been hard to tell, because the backstory is lacking an arc we can capture. I bet the writers went over and over this. So they came up with her being a servant of light who wants to confront darkness even when her kin are so focused on bathing in light. She knows darkness is out there. And it’s what makes her so fierce and relentless. She knows light and dark.
And this happens with all our characters. Nori confronts danger off the path. Comet man discovers he is capable of much evil with his power. Durin can defy his father. Southlanders can serve their old dark lord. Elves can bend to their own vanity. And fans their toxic fandom.
It’s an interpretation I’m totally ok with. The mythology is here to stay. But for it to matter to generations down the line, we’ll sometimes have to reinterpret it.
And listen y’all: That power rings true.