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An earlier version of this article was published on Tumblr in November, 2022.
I am a Tolkien nerd. I have read everything published as primary (or quasi-primary processed by his family) of Tolkien, as well as a selection of biographies and other secondary materials. I liked more than I disliked in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and even found things I liked in “The Hobbit” trilogy. I went into “The Rings of Power” wanting to love it. I did not. However, I think it is interesting to look at what worked and what did not from a writing standpoint.
My first complaint was in the opening moments of the show. I understand fully that they wanted to enter the story in the midst of events and not rely on exposition. However, in an 8-hour-plus series heavily reliant on the stories and creation of the world I think a three-minute explanation of the creation of things would have been a good idea. Why? It would have helped establish an epic tone, a sense of continuity that this story stretched back to the creation of Arda itself. If nothing else Rings should be an epic, something it consistently failed at.
I will also disclaim that I have no major issue with the condensing of timelines as a narrative necessity, but I do ask a question. If they had found a way to entertain those long stretches of time instead of events happening in what appear to be mere days, would that not have also helped create a sense of epic struggles and events? Would that be really, really hard? Absolutely, but it was also a billion-dollar production. When you spend more than a billion dollars creating a show tackling big challenges should be something you are prepared for.
Now, let us break down the parallel threads that establish the story and see what worked and what did not. The choice for this narrative structure can be a powerful one for telling a wide-reaching story. And beyond here lay blatant spoilers. You are warned.
First, the hobbits. They avoid the terms hobbits or halflings and simply call them harfoots. This is in my mind the single most successful of the storylines. We get to like a young harfoot named Nori who could potentially be an ancestor of Bilbo and Frodo. We see a migratory race quite different from the staid Shire-folk we know. I saw that Brandon Sanderson referred to their callousness about not being burdened by those who can’t fend for themselves as Grim Dark Hobbits. I have not listened to his comments yet, instead choosing to write out my thoughts first. I agree, however, that the callousness implicit in some of the statements was not what I wanted out of proto-hobbits, and other elements build the idea that these are not the hobbits we know without going that far.
Central to this thread is the Stranger, who is Gandalf, the Maiar who arrives to become one of the five Istari. The attempts to paint Gandalf as Sauron were misguided and ridiculous. I did at times second guess myself and wonder if it could be Saruman but that was silly, the elements all pointed to Gandalf. But that does beg the question – where were the meteors for Saruman and Radagast? Did they come earlier or later? Do we not get a brief image of the Blue Wizards? I understand leaving the Blue Wizards out as obscure but the Brown and the White are not, both are featured in the Peter Jackson films. Some questions add depth to a literary or cinematic world. Those are good to leave open. Some are just distracting.
Also distracting – I had understood that, aside from condensing the timeline, nothing would contradict Tolkien’s sources, only add to them. But after finishing the series and thinking about it I realized that was not true. At least one major thing, the arrival of Gandalf, clearly contradicted the appendices of Lord of the Rings when it is said that Gandalf arrived on Middle Earth by boat in the Gray Havens.
The inclusion of the Ascetics was simply a poor choice. They wanted something weird and to further create ham-fisted confusion about whether it could be Sauron. Also, Gandalf’s sudden mastery of language at the very end? Really? And before I leave this thread, the amount of exposition was annoying and often unnecessary as it was shown. Don’t tell the viewer when you can show them. And if you have shown them don’t tell them too! Still, this was the best of the threads.
Now let us look at Galadriel. Tolkien himself wrote contradictory things about Galadriel so there was plenty of room to work. The actress has presence and I’m willing to ignore the ridiculous elven martial acrobatics. Look, I’m a fan of the Shaw Brothers’ kung fu films, I have a strong capacity to suspend disbelief for fantasy. However, my biggest gripe is that Galadriel is a dumb ass. Spirited, yes. Sincere, yes. Correct even. But dumb as a fucking brick. And what is it with elves and boats? I… I just can’t. From the boat sizes to their design to STANDING IN A FUCKING ROW BOAT ON A DANGEROUS OCEAN!?!?!
It looked very poetic, which is important but when something is screaming stupid the poetic element gets lost. When Galadriel then jumped to swim back across AN OCEAN I started calling her AquaGal. However, it is here that her storyline starts to include Halbrand/Sauron. I actually liked how they handled Sauron himself, but… Why was he on a raft in the middle of the ocean? I can only imagine he was trying to reach Numenor to infiltrate it, but there didn’t seem to be much of a plan there. And why save Galadriel? There is a compelling story to be told if he really believes he is making the world a better place, or even once did, but we don’t see any of that. The reveal at the very end was an opportunity for flashbacks and explanations that we didn’t get.
Royalty – apparently you act like royalty if you have Mithrandir’s staff up your arse.
Gil-Galad. Oh my god, the stupidest fucking elf in the universe and they made him high king. The argument for why he wanted to banish Galadriel is ranked among the stupidest things ever put in a script. It completely pulls you out of the narrative.
The Numenorians. I was salivating for this. The nobility! The grandeur! The race of Numenor! What I got was a bunch of xenophobic small-minded idiots. Essentially, they are Tolkien’s MAGAites. This is a problem as it is one of several places where modern motifs of class conflict and socio-political narratives are overlaid on Tolkien’s world in a way that does not fit naturally. It will also date The Rings of Power, while Tolkien attempted to make The Lord of the Rings timeless. We can debate whether some issues stemming from WWI did or did not enter anyway (they did) but he tried, and those issues of desolation from the Great War still work as technology for warfare has only become more powerful not rolled back.
They’re going to have to work hard to make me give a shit about Isildur too. Elendil actually worked really well too, and had too small a role for his charisma. All in all the writing of this narrative is good but misguided at times.
The third narrative late in the series intertwines with Galadriel’s and that is the story of Elrond and Durin. This is a clear attempt to do a call back to the Gimli / Legolas BFFs that worked for many fans of Jackson’s first trilogy. Having Elrond be a speech writer didn’t sit well with me at first, but his story arc won me over. The arc that is building to Durin’s Folly works for me as well. However, the ‘we must clothe ourselves in mithril or we must leave Middle Earth’ bit… Methinks the writers didn’t actually understand why the elves had to leave Middle Earth eventually, but that is a debate for another time. What is not debatable is that it wasn’t going to be WITHIN ONE YEAR!
There were a number of moments of mind-numbing stupidity in the writing that disfigured a lot of good surrounding it.
And that brings me to CelebrImbor – the elf needs to go back to Blacksmithing 101 if Sauron’s advice is insightful to him. Seriously. I’ve never done blacksmithing, just read and watched a few things casually and this is fucking obvious to me.
But hold on, we still have another storyline to look at – the black elf and the south men. Just to be clear I doubt Tolkien thought of elves or hobbits ever being black, but he was a pretty good soul and if you’d pointed it out to him I think he would have endorsed it. He was guilty of cultural racial biases, but he also showed the ability in his life to have his own assumptions challenged and get past them. Plus, I’m very much in favor of things that piss racists off so bring it on!
The good news is that I’ve saved the best for last and I mean that sincerely. This storyline caused no bewildering rage until the very end. The dialogue was good, the action was good, and the characters were not stupid. I could have had the medic get a couple more points in Wisdom and Intelligence, but she wasn’t dumb either. The complaint has to do with Theo, a young teen introduced who steals a MacGuffin tied to Sauron. This leads to the good kind of questions, and speculation that makes you think about the story rather than pull you out of it. Could Theo become the Mouth of Sauron? Could he become the Witch King? These could be great tragic arcs and Tolkien’s epics are born of heroism and tragedy – neither of which we see any of in this season though with five seasons to work with hopefully this is simply building blocks.
Now to the bewildered rage – the Macguffin gets used and its role is apparently complete, so it won’t lead to a tragic arc for Theo. This is a shame, as I was getting engaged by that and liked the kid – which makes the knife really twist when the tragedy kicks in. But it did lend itself to a lot of questions about Elven intelligence, since for time untold they left the key to igniting Mt. Doom sit around unmolested in THEIR OWN WATCHTOWER!
“Hey, Bob, we have the key to unleashing hell on earth here, think we should take it apart?”
“Nah, it’s kind of pretty.”
“But it’s a statue of the Dark Lord and we’re the good guys.”
“I was always more into Grim Dark you know.”
“Okay, okay, how about the key then, let’s fill it in so that no one could actually turn it and unleash you know, the hell on earth.”
Sigh. “That would be work. Let’s go get some wine and see if we can pick up some of those human chicks instead. I’ll grab my black mascara.”
“Fine, let’s do it.”
I mean it’s so mind-numbingly stupid I’ve come to the conclusion that an intentional theme of this work is that everything Tolkien painted as noble – Numenorians and Elves are all so dumb I wouldn’t trust them to watch my dog while I’m on holiday.
Still, I’m going to watch season two. Fingers crossed.
ABOUT LETO ARMITAGE
Leto Armitage was born in America under a set of circumstances that prophesied that he would one day unite the lost tribes and return the Ever Summer. Somewhere around twelve, he realized he had been left unsupervised and binged too many Arthurian movies in his formative years and that he was just another kid who accidentally got an education while reading above his age level.
By the time he turned old enough to get a passport, he started finding excuses to travel determined to find out what culture, food and women there were to experience. After learning to grill in Oaxaca, do kinbaku in Japan, and being banned from several former Soviet block countries, he returned home to settle down and see what damage he could do locally.
After working jobs including being a short order cook, bodyguarding strippers and professionally doing reader’s advisory for erotica he realized the most reasonable path forward was to become a writer. Today he lives with cats, dogs, and humans who seem to like him despite actually knowing him. He prefers to sit on his back deck, listening to the birds and Barry the Bumblebear bee, while he writes cozy, uplit romance and raunchy erotica.