I reviewed the first four episodes of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” in September 2022.
The first series is completed and is available on Amazon Prime. In this review I shall make a number of observations about the series which could amount to “spoilers”. Readers are warned.
By the end of the first series we have seen the creation (or ruin) of Mordor by a bizarre combination of fire and water, the creation of the three Elven Rings (Vilya, Nenya and Narya) and the appearance of Sauron (who had been present for some time in the guise of a Deceiver). In addition the Stranger who fell from the sky, and who is possessed of enormous power, has decided to head east of the Greenwood in the company of Nori the proto-hobbit. The forces of Numenor lead by Tar-Miriel the Regent Queen and Elendil, prompted by Galadriel, have landed in Middle-earth, encountered and overcome the Southern band of Orcs and have installed Halbrand as the Returned King of the South. However, in the creation (or ruin) of Mordor Tar-Miriel has been blinded and the future of her rule is therefore in question.
I expressed some concern in my earlier review about the truncation of the time line. I was prepared to allow for narrative flow and the nature of adaptation in my earlier review, but the compression of events creates its peculiar difficulties with Tolkien’s chronology which demands a scope of centuries. What has happened is that everything seems to have tumbled in on top of one another without an opportunity for the audience, or indeed the characters, to react to the impact of the various events.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that Tolkien aficionados will be aware of the content in “The Silmarillion” and “Unfinished Tales” along the “The Children of Huirin”, “Beren and Luthien” and “The Fall of Gondolin”. Then there are the various retellings and narrative developments in the multi-volume “History of Middle-earth”(The “Fall of Numenor” which is directly relevant to the series and edited by Brian Sibley has only very recently been published).
Because of the arrangements that were made between Amazon and the Tolkien Estate only a very limited amount of material is available for use, and the show-runners have to fill in some rather large gaps – gaps for which information is available but because of licensing arrangements cannot be used.
Thus we get hints of a deeper time, a long past history, an enormous conflict between the Elves and the powers of Evil in the form of Morgoth, but as to the detail of Morgoth’s villainy, the making of the Silmarils (and what they were) by Feanor, their theft by Morgoth and the fearful acts of Feanor seeking the Silmarils driven by deep revenge there is but a hint. But these aspects are vital to an understanding of the events of the Second Age.
We receive hints of the Bliss of Valinor, a land without stain and a place of retreat for the Elves but we are not informed of the fact that while Elves have a duality of nature, the Race of Men have the Gift of Men – death – and cannot pass into Valinor – with one exception.
The glory of Valinor is hinted at when Celebrimbor is attempting to make the Three Elven Rings. He requires metal of a quality unknown in Middle-earth. Galadriel surrenders the knife given her by her brother Finrod (she did in fact have three other brothers and she was a niece of Feanor himself) which is melted down and provides the purity of material required.
At the beginning of the series Galadriel is on a quest for Sauron whom she believes survived the overthrow of Morgoth – but of that overthrow once again we get a hint. Importantly we are not told that in fact the land of Numenor was granted to the faithful Men as a reward for their part in the overthrow of Morgoth. Nor are we told of the prohibition on the Men of Numenor sailing westward to Valinor the peaks of which can be seen over the ocean.
In the First Age one man only set foot on Valinor – Earendil, bearing a Silmaril who sought the aid of the Valar in the war against Morgoth. That aid was forthcoming, but Earendil was not permitted to return to the land of the living and was places as a Star in the heavens by the Valar – The Flammifer of Westernesse.
Earendil is of critical importance in the “back story” to the Rings of Power yet because of the paucity of material in “The Lord of the Rings” that back story cannot be developed as it should be. Earendil was married to the elf-princess Elwing the White. They had two children – Elros and Elrond. After the defeat of Morgoth the children were given a choice of the race to which they wished to belong. Elros chose his “Race of Men” side and became first King of Numenor, taking the name Tar-Minyatur. Elrond chose his Elven side. Once again this is hinted at in comments by the way, but the familial connection between Elrond and the Royal House of Numenor has fallen by the wayside.
From time to time this deeper background is mentioned but only in passing. We are thrown into a sequence of events that obviously has a significant precursor, but the details of that precursor are unknown. Once again the problem lies in the fact that the show runners are limited in the material that they can use. It must be very difficult, I suppose, to have references to Earendil in LOTR and be limited to using those but knowing that there is a huge trove of information available in material elsewhere. But that material is unavailable because the rights have not been purchased.
This then demonstrates the first major difficulty that the first season and indeed the series faces – the material that they can use is very limited indeed. The hints that appear in LOTR and in the Appendices requires a large amount of imagination to fill in the gaps. I suppose a further difficulty lies in the fact that imagination cannot be let to run riot, especially when much of the material which could fill in the gaps is available elsewhere but unusable because of licensing arrangements.
One of the critical questions that the first season answered was “who was Sauron?” The show runners posed a number of tantalizing alternatives. Was he the Stranger, possessed of considerable power, who fell from the sky and was taken in by the proto-hobbits? Was he one of the curious menacing three white witches? It turned out that in fact they were Seekers for Sauron who mistakenly identified the Stranger as Morgoth’s servant, and the Stranger eliminated them.
Was he, then, the master of the Southern Orcs – the fallen elf Adar. That was fairly easily dismissed. The final revelation that Halbrand was Sauron was a little hard to work out. Part of the problem was that Halbrand didn’t exactly have the charisma (or maybe a better term is menace) for the Dark Lord and Morgoth’s most faithful lieutenant.
But upon reflection finally identifying Halbrand as Sauron was in the nature of finally revealing a deception. That is consistent with the approach that Sauron adopted when he manifested himself as Annatar – the Bringer of Gifts. His entire approach was one of deception, even to the point of claiming to be the lost King of the Southern Lands (which later became Mordor). At one stage, while working as a smith in the forge of Celebrimbor, he makes reference to a gift – a subtle hint to his identity as Annatar.
It is a bit difficult to work out what Sauron is about. What are his objectives. That he was involved at least in the early stages of Celebrimbor’s quest to find a solution for the problems that beset the Elves in Middle-earth is a little concerning, yet he was not in any way involved in the creation of the Three Rings. And indeed the creation of the Three seems to be more a matter of accident than of part of a greater ring-making design.
Tolkien tells us that the Elves of Eregion made the Three in secret, but I always had the impression that this was contemporaneously with Sauron’s master-plan to create Rings for the peoples of Middle-earth that would be linked to the One that was forged in the fires of Mt Doom.
So far there is no sign of the Seven Rings for the Dwarves nor the Nine for Mortal Men. And indeed the last episode of the first season ends with Sauron entering the newly formed land of Mordor which was previously the South land of which he claimed to be King.
Clearly there is a lot more to come and I imagine that subsequent seasons will address the issues of the forging of the Seven, the Nine and the One. It must not be forgotten too that Sauron is humbled and taken to Numenor where he works his evil and his deception that brings about the downfall of the Land of Gift.
Clearly there is more scope for this in subsequent seasons, but one of the problems that the show runners are going to face is one of their making and that is the one to which I have made reference – that of time compression. How they will be able to fit all that is to come within their time scale and yet maintain the integrity of Tolkien’s vision will be a challenge.
The Dwarves and the proto-hobbits caused me some problems in the sense that the way that they were portrayed had elements of a caricature to them. Clearly the visual appearance of the Dwarves owed much to the way in which some of them were portrayed in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” films, particularly to the large proboscis-like noses. I thought that this was a bit overdone.
The proto-hobbits too had elements of caricature to them. We know from the Prologue to “The Lord of the Rings” that the hobbits began as a migratory people who ended up in the Shire. We know that they were based on the archetypal English yeoman based in the country rather than in a larger town or village. But the prot-hobbits were not only bucolic but downright eccentric. They seemed to bumble about in a chaotic manner with very little structure in what they did. Their attitudes were those of extreme rustic primitivism to the extent of having foliage in their hair. This may have been designed to bring a light-hearted element to the show but there is humour on one hand and downright caricature on the other. If the proto-hobbits are going to play a role – and I suspect that they are – it might be better if they “wise-up” a bit and drop the bucolic caricature.
As things stand by the end of the first season the split between the main body of the proto-hobbits and the adventurous Nori has taken place as Nori accompanies the Stranger to the East. The Dwarves maintain their tenuous relationship with the Elves – especially the friendship between Elrond and Prince Durin and the discovery of mithril (and the existence of the Balrog in the dark depths of Khazad-dum) has become the central feature in that relationship.
I wonder if the mithril has been invested with a bit too much significance in “Rings of Power”. In “The Lord of the Rings” it was a thing of wonder, often hinted at when it was discovered that Frodo was wearing a suit of mithril mail.
However, the “Rings of Power” took the significance of mithril to an entirely different level and not one that I am sure is justified. There is a suggestion that somehow mithril has within it the light of a Silmaril or perhaps even of the Two Trees of Valinor.
It is dealt with in the following way:
Elrond recounts an apocryphal tale called The Song of the Roots of Hithaeglir. This song claims the origin of mithril to be when an Elf-warrior and a Balrog fought over a certain tree in the Misty Mountains that contained the light of the last Silmaril. It was then that lightning struck the tree, sending out tendrils of ore into the roots of the mountains beneath. Gil-galad and Celebrimbor believe this tale to be true, and furthermore that the remnants of the Silmaril’s light in mithril could save the Elven race from fading and being forced to return to Valinor.
This is an interesting concept but has no substance in the sources. There is no suggestion anywhere in Tolkien’s writings that there was a tree in the Misty Mountains that contained the light of a Silmaril – nor anywhere else for that matter. The light of the Trees of Valinor was captured by Feanor in the Silmarils and that is as far as it went.
The closest one could get to any suggestion of ethereal light is that the Elves of Eregion made an alloy from mithril called ithildin (“star moon”), used to decorate gateways, portals and pathways. It was visible only by starlight or moonlight. The West Gate of Moria bore inlaid ithildin designs and runes.
The Elven Ring Nenya (The Ring of Adamant) was described as being made of mithril and set with a “white stone”, presumably a diamond (this is never stated explicitly, although the usage of the word “adamant”, an old synonym, is strongly suggestive). The ring was wielded by Galadriel in Lothlórien, and possessed radiance that matches that of the stars. Frodo Baggins was able to see it by virtue of being a Ring-bearer.
So the first season ends with a number of pieces in play. The scene has been set for further developments in following seasons. It would be idle and unprofitable to speculate on what might happen although we do know that Pharazon the Numenorean Chancellor usurps the throne of Numenor, becomes Ar-Pharazon the Golden, humbles Sauron and brings him to Numenor. He falls under Sauron’s sway and leads an expedition to Valinor, the Undying Lands, whereupon his fleet is destroyed and the Valar call upon Iluvatar to destroy Numenor which sinks beneath the waves.
Sauron in spirit form returns to Mordor and resumes residence in the Dark Tower, Barad-Dur. Seven ships, bearing the Faithful, Elendil the Tall, his son Isildur and their followers, sail to Middle-earth to establish the Kingdoms in exile. The Seven Dwarven Rings and the Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die are yet to be crafted, as is the One.
I have focused in this review upon certain aspects of the first season. As I suggested in my earlier review of the first four episodes there are beautiful moments in the series that capture my imagining of Tolkien’s creation. This continues throughout the first season. The visual renderings are remarkable and the wreck that leads to the formation Mt Doom of Mordor is quite spectacular. As I observed in my earlier review, much is owed to Jackson’s earlier visualization.
The rendering of Numenor – a civilization of power and magnificence – is excellent and some of the scenes in Lindon capture the Elvish interrelationship with nature. The Dwarf realm of Khazad-dum is likewise magnificently rendered and the series succeeds visually if nothing else. As earlier observed there are some casting issues that I have which grate a little. I didn’t see Celebrimbor as a somewhat effete alchemist – rather a hands-on smith and inheritor of the craft skills of Feanor. Gil-Galad remains a disappointment.
The cast and crew went back to work in early October 2022 filming this time in the UK rather than in New Zealand. Although Covid interrupted the first season filming which took 18 months to film, there can be no doubt that many of the special effects and other production values would have taken time.
The head of Amazon Studios Jennifer Salke has said they are not willing to rush and she told Variety
“We want the shortest time possible between seasons, but we want to keep the bar just as high. So it’ll take what it takes but there’s been some urgency around moving quickly, which is why these guys have been writing all through their hiatus. We’re moving fast.”
Season 2 may be out in late 2023 (one wonders if like the release of the books Amazon holds to a September release date) but early 2024 would probably be more realistic. It will be interesting to see how Season 2 develops the story.