“There are powers beyond darkness at work in this world. Perhaps on days like this, we have little choice but to trust to their designs and surrender our own.”
So says Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) in episode 7 of The Rings of Power to young Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin), son of the healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), following the devastating Orc attack on his displaced community. When Theo asks where the “design” is in this calamity, Galadriel must admit, “I cannot yet see it.” This is an exchange with resonance, not just for J.R.R. Tolkien fans, but for any person of faith.
It’s also an exchange with a limited secondary application, perhaps, for audiences of fiction, especially serial storytelling unfolding over months or years. A fictional world, for Tolkien, is a “sub-creation,” and the creativity of the human author is in some way a reflection of, and participation in, the creative activity of God. In the case of a derivative work like The Rings of Power—or even a relatively direct adaptation like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films—we might say that, if Tolkien is the “sub-creator” of Middle-earth, perhaps storytellers adapting and expanding on his work, or artists visualizing it, are “sub-sub-creators.” Only what Tolkien wrote or drew himself is actually his own sub-creation; anyone else’s efforts (even artwork approved by Tolkien, such as some of Pauline Baynes’ illustrations for The Adventures of Tom Bombadil) are at best a reflection of Tolkien’s creative work.
A viewer watching the first episode of a series, or even finishing the first season of a multi-season show, cannot yet see the design of the sub-creators (or sub-sub-creators). While the audience has no obligation to surrender their own ideas and trust to the storytellers’ designs, even here there is a partial analogy. Any fair assessment of an artist’s work must at least begin with a provisional willingness to let go of one’s preconceptions and an open-minded receptivity to whatever the artist is trying to do. We must judge stories for what they are, not what they aren’t, or what we would have liked them to be. Stories succeed or fail first of all on their own terms.
Given all of this, what can we say about The Rings of Power at the end of season 1?
We may not yet see the storytellers’ designs in full, but at this point we can at least see enough to say with confidence that some things fall flat. Flattest, for me, are the two revelations at the end of season 1’s preoccupation with J.J. Abrams-style “mystery boxing.” From the outset the biggest mysteries have been “Where is Sauron?” and “Who is the Stranger/Meteor Man?” One obvious suggestion, of course, was that the two questions were the same, but online speculation regarding the second question especially ran wild. Was Meteor Man good or evil? Could he be Gandalf or Saruman? How about one of the less familiar Istari: Radagast or one of the elusive Blue Wizards? One of the wildest ideas, pulling together esoteric strands of Tolkien lore, proposed that he was a Maia called Tilion — or, as he was known in Hobbitish doggerel, the “Man in the Moon.”
The problem with the ultimate reveal in episode 8 isn’t any real problem with the actual identification, which, within the show’s conflated, fast-and-loose take on the pre-history of The Lord of the Rings, makes more obvious sense than any of the other candidates. The problem is that the candidate that makes the most obvious sense is also, unsurprisingly, the most obvious candidate — any Tolkien fan watching the end of episode 1 must have thought immediately of Gandalf — and so a season-long mystery ends in anticlimax. Right to the end, there’s a sense that the showrunners are trying to keep us guessing, even attempting an eleventh-hour fakeout, before revealing (or at least heavily implying) that, well, there was never much of a mystery in the first place. Well, then, why try to make a puzzle out of it? (Technically it’s still possible for the show to pull a twist and make it one of the other Istari, but the level of misdirection this would involve would be lamer than the reveal as it stands.)
As for the revelation regarding Sauron, here the problem is less anticlimax than missed opportunity. The character ultimately identified as Sauron — Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), the castaway turned king of the Southlands — was more intriguingly linked in fan speculation to other candidates. At the end of the day, the Stranger makes more sense as Gandalf than anyone else, but there were more interesting possibilities for Halbrand than Sauron. Say, the king of the People of the Mountain who refused to join the Last Alliance, and were cursed by Isildur as oathbreakers — the king of the Dead who led the Shadow-host that were ultimately released after answering the summons of Aragorn. Or one of the lords of Men who were ensnared by Sauron through the power of the Nine Rings and became Ring-wraiths (perhaps their leader, the Witch-king of Angmar). At this stage, at least, these seem like potentially more interesting story choices than the one the showrunners actually made.
Another problem, for me, with the revelation of Halbrand as Sauron (or, for that matter, the king of the Dead or one of the Nazgûl) is what it implies for Galadriel’s earlier invocation of higher power — one in which she does claim insight into the designs of “something greater.” Back in episode 3 Galadriel tells Halbrand that their meeting “was no chance meeting. Not fate, nor destiny, nor any other words men use to speak of forces they lack the conviction to name.” There’s certainly a rationale for such dramatic language, for Galadriel was adrift in the Sundering Seas and would have died if not for a chance convergence with survivors of a shipwreck, one of whom was Halbrand. (Will we now learn more of Halbrand’s back story, and exactly what he was doing in that flotsam?)
The vanishing improbability of such an extraordinary meeting all but demands one to see a higher power at work … but what sort of power, if Halbrand is Sauron? Halbrand tells Galadriel that it was her faith in him that set him on his present course (for more on Sauron’s ambiguous status between the fall of Morgoth and the rise of the shadow in Mordor, keep reading). On this accounting, it would seem that “something greater” was at work specifically to turn Sauron back to evil designs and bring about his reign in Mordor, leading first to the War of the Last Alliance and ultimately to the War of the Ring. It’s one thing for a higher power to allow wicked choices or dire circumstances, but to orchestrate them by extraordinary means — only to later orchestrate their undoing, as by the finding of the One Ring by Bilbo and the Ring’s destruction in an accident — seems capricious. On the other hand, the revelation of the Stranger as (presumably) Gandalf offers some vindication for young Nori (Markella Kavenagh) the Harfoot’s sense that she was “supposed to find” the Stranger, who “could have landed anywhere” but landed practically at her feet. Though briefly persuaded that her mother was right to scoff at the notion that “the stars reached down and touched” her, Nori regains her faith, and even her mother is persuaded. The case is even more compelling to viewers, who see here the beginning of Gandalf’s long association with Hobbit-folk, which will be instrumental in the providential finding and destroying of the Ring.
Given the prominence of the Gandalf and Sauron reveals (among other elements) in the finale, I have to say season 1 ended for me closer to the quiet end of the whimper-bang spectrum than I had hoped. Yet the highs of the season’s second half offer ongoing reason for sustained interest. Among these is the exploration of conflicting ideas about the nature of the Orcs — as seen, at least, through the eyes of Galadriel and the Orc leader Adar (Joseph Mawle). Adar’s name in Elvish Sindarin means “father,” and he is said to be one of the first fathers of the Orcs: an Elf captured, tortured, and corrupted by Morgoth to produce a warped race of slaves. Adar tells Galadriel that he rebelled against Sauron and that he wants the Southlands as a home for Orcs to live in freedom. Delightfully, he also repeatedly indicates that the Orcs “prefer Uruk,” their name in the Black Speech, to the Sindarin form “Orch,” or Orc.
This is a fascinating development. The nature of the Orcs was never definitively settled by Tolkien, who over the years offered various accounts of their origins. His first notion was that Melkor (or Melko) used sorcery to fashion them of rock and slime, with a subsequent gloss that he made them “in mockery” of the Elves. Later Tolkien decided that Melkor could not create life, and proposed that Orcs were somehow bred from tortured and corrupted Elves. Still later he conceived of them as soulless beasts, or perhaps a mixed breed with some Elvish or human heritage. These conflicting ideas joust with one another in the dialogue of Galadriel and Adar. “Your kind was a mistake,” Galadriel charges, “made in mockery.” But Adar maintains that “we are creations of the One, Master of the Secret Fire, the same as you. As worthy of the breath of life — and just as worthy of a home.”
One of Tolkien’s guiding ideas was the Christian understanding of evil as a corruption of the good, and of fallenness as the corruption of originally good creatures. But of course corruption means very different things for fallen angels and fallen men. In standard Catholic theology, the sin of the fallen angels was an absolute choice that is without repentance or conflict, whereas good and evil struggle in the fallen human heart, and repentance and change are possible even for wicked human beings. Tolkien explored corruption and the possibility of redemption in connection with many characters and races: most prominently Boromir and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, but also, in the larger legendarium, many of the Elves involved in the rebellion against the Valar (including Galadriel and the sons of Fëanor, leader of the rebellion). Even Melkor was pardoned by the Valar after feigning repentance, suggesting that he was at least theoretically capable of repenting. And Sauron himself, after Morgoth’s defeat in the War of Wrath, actually repented, though in fear rather than humility (Catholic tradition calls this “imperfect contrition” or “attrition”), and went half a millennium before returning to evil.
The idea of Sauron going through a period of remorse and self-exile — a surprising notion to many Lord of the Rings fans — is central to his portrayal so far in The Rings of Power. Yet while Tolkien allowed for the possibility of some degree of moral complexity even in his most villainous, even demonic characters, Orcs he was content to treat as very nearly the moral equivalent of demons. Or rather, if “content” is too strong a word, since he did have concerns about it, at any rate he did so. What makes this queasy is that we do glimpse signs of a kind of humanity in them; for example, Tolkien allows Orcs to dream of a life with “no big bosses,” i.e., the sort of freedom Adar wants for them. In an unsent letter Tolkien conceded that “it would be going too far” to call Orcs “irredeemably bad,” but in practice he treated them as if they were. So far The Rings of Power hasn’t gone beyond Tolkien in its actual depiction of Adar’s children, but the complexity of Adar’s views raises the possibility that it might.
Among other strengths, I continue to enjoy the friendship of Elrond (Robert Aramayo) and Durin (Owain Arthur), and Durin’s wife Disa (Sophia Nomvete) remains a welcome presence. Yet there’s a subtle evocation of Lady Macbeth in her last conversation with Durin, and in her closing words about the mithril (“That mithril belongs to us, to you and me”) is a hint of the covetousness of the Dwarves “delving too greedily and too deep” — a connection overtly underscored by a dramatic shot swooping down into the depths of the earth for a glimpse of Durin’s Bane, shadow and flame. Battle sequences and combat — Arondir’s ambush trap at the Elven tower, followed by the Orc attack at the village of Tirharad and the last-minute arrival of the literal cavalry, the Númenórean army — are inventively staged and immersively filmed. (Note how director Charlotte Brändström and director of photography Alex Disenhof make striking use of torches in the distance as the Orcs cross a bridge or come over the crest of a hill. I did have one problem with the battle scenes: the near infallibility of the archers on both sides. Virtually every arrow hits its mark, and virtually every hit kills the victim instantly.)
The best of the dialogue places us persuasively in Tolkien’s world. “Despise not the labor that humbles the heart,” Galadriel tells Theo, adding that “humility has saved entire kingdoms the proud have all but led to ruin.” (I had to chuckle at a phrase borrowed from the Song of Songs — “terrible as an army with banners” — which has a completely different resonance if you know the context.) On occasion the writers draw directly from Tolkien, with uneven results. I liked (though I can certainly see why someone else might not) Bronwyn’s domestic ritual utterance of a line of narration from The Lord of the Rings: “This shadow is but a small and passing thing; there is light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.” (When she goes on to say “Find the light, and the shadow will not find you,” I was reminded of Galadriel’s brother Finrod’s whispered saying about not knowing which light to follow “until we have touched the darkness.” Do Finrod and Bronwyn have contrasting ideas, or is this a lack of thematic coherence from the writers?) And while the Stranger’s “To shadow, I bid you return” is warranted both narratively and expositionally (to identify him as Gandalf), “When in doubt, always follow your nose” is a major groan moment.
The Rings of Power is not great television. At its best it’s interesting, and at times it’s less than that. As an adaptation of Tolkien, it does a few notable things — I’m particularly intrigued to see where they go with Adar and the Orcs — but there’s a lot that fans must at best overlook. None of the episodes have left me on the edge of my seat needing to know what happens next. And yet I appreciate its sincerity of spirit, its lack of cynicism, irony, or deconstruction. I don’t love it, but I enjoy it. In this sub-sub-creation is a real reflection of Middle-earth that I’m glad for having experienced, and I continue to be open to what the storytellers are trying to do.
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Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.