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Jim McDermottSeptember 01, 2022

When I was a kid, my mother used to take my siblings and I into the city to see my Grandma. While the adults talked in the kitchen, I would explore my grandmother’s house, looking for secret rooms or hidden treasure.

One of my most thrilling finds was the bookshelf in the closet of my aunt Pat, who lived with my Grandma. It was filled with paperbacks by authors I had never heard of, people like Stephen King, Larry McMurtry and Kurt Vonnegut. I would spend all afternoon looking through those books, trying to decide which one I wanted to convince my mother I was old enough to read.

On one such day my aunt pulled out a book with a cover painting of blue and black mountains, green trees and a blood-red sun. It had a funny name: The Hobbit.

“Start here,” my aunt told me.

For a lot of us who read J. R. R. Tolkien as kids, there has been a certain mirroring between his stories and our experience of them.

I think for a lot of us who read J. R. R. Tolkien as kids, there has been a certain mirroring between his stories and our experience of them. His books were the journeys we went looking for; they held the treasure we sought. And Tolkien himself was our Gandalf, the wise friend who walks with us through the darkest of woods.

The film adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings changed the experience of Tolkien in some ways. As much as it was filled with all-seeing demons, eye-popping wars and perilous journeys, at their heart “The Lord of the Rings” films were about an idea from Tolkien that was as small and easily overlooked as a hobbit: the power of friendship.

But as moving as the films were, they lacked some of the spooky and thrilling wonder of Tolkien’s books, the child-like sense that absolutely anything might wait around each next corner.

When Amazon announced some years ago that it was producing a prequel to “The Lord of the Rings,” I think a lot of people feared disaster. Tolkien had written a lot about the ages that came before his main story, but beyond The Silmarillion, much of it was in bits and pieces here and there. And a lot of it read less like a story than a history textbook.

But in the first two episodes of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” which debut on Amazon this weekend, any such concerns about the quality of the storytelling are very quickly answered. “The Rings of Power” is a confident, well-conceived and often gorgeous addition to the previously adapted work of Tolkien. Beginning about 5,000 years before “The Lord of the Rings,” at a time when Middle-earth has known centuries of peace (after a terrible, centuries-long war), the series follows the creep of evil back into the world, which will eventually lead to the formation of the rings and the destruction of much of the splendor of the world’s civilizations.

The salvific power of beauty is an essential part of Tolkien’s belief system.

At the center of the story stands the elf Galadriel. In “The Lord of the Rings” she had been the narrator of the story (elves live pretty much forever), world-weary and kind. But here Galadriel is a fiery young warrior utterly driven in her mission to hunt down Sauron, the ur-evil of the Tolkienverse, though he hasn’t been seen for hundreds of years. The Welsh actress Morfydd Clark brings tremendous boldness and intensity to the role; the character is iconic almost from the moment we meet her.

Alongside Galadriel’s quest other stories run in parallel—the elf Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) seeks an explanation for a strange disease affecting cows in the South of Middle-earth where many humans live; the elf Elrond (Robert Aramayo) goes to his dwarf friend Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur) for help on a project and finds the dwarves thriving in a way that doesn’t seem possible; and the bright and curious Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), a member of an itinerant band of harfoots (ancestors of the hobbits who stay hidden from others at all times), befriends a strange and potentially dangerous man.

Nori’s story in particular has a charm and innocence that harks back to the recent film adaptations’ take on hobbits, and Tolkien’s work itself. It also adds interesting ideas about the cultural traditions of the Harfoot people, some of them quite severe. If a member of the community for some reason can’t migrate when the elders decree that it’s time, they get left behind. There has always been a darkness within Tolkien’s take on hobbitdom as a people (a.k.a. the English), a distrust of other races and a deep resistance to helping when others are in need. It’s interesting to see “The Rings of Power” pick up that idea, particularly in this post-Brexit era.

Nori’s story also fits a bigger theme of the series (so far) and Tolkien’s work: the struggle between individuals and their communities. By the end of the first two hours, nearly all the main characters we meet find themselves in conflict with their community. And in every case, the community is in the wrong; they refuse to face hard truths, consider the needs of their least or trust other races. Even as Tolkien’s stories almost always turn on societies eventually agreeing to work together to defeat the forces of evil, usually they begin as places where evil has already quietly taken hold. Prior adaptations have been able to touch on such ideas, but it looks like this series may allow for a deeper level of reflection, which is intriguing.

There is a lot about “The Rings of Power” that calls to mind the other big budget fantasy series that has just begun airing, “House of the Dragon,” a prequel to “Game of Thrones.” Both series feature strong female characters and seem interested in telling the story of a stable society slowly falling apart. But what is most striking is the ways in which they differ. Though the creators of “House of the Dragon” promised that their show would no longer depict sexual violence against women, in the first two episodes we have already watched a pregnant woman cut open against her will during childbirth and then bled to death, and have also seen two girls made to offer themselves up in marriage.

Meanwhile “The Rings of Power” gives its female characters compelling storylines and action without threatening them sexually. The “Dragon” creators like to point out that their world is nasty and patriarchal, as though every fantasy society has to be fundamentally violent and sexually aggressive toward women. “The Rings of Power” highlights the nonsense and misogyny of that argument.

One of the most promising aspects of “The Rings of Power” is the degree to which it has me wanting to return to Tolkien’s books once again.

“House of the Dragon” thus far is endlessly bleak. Beyond lead Princess Rhaenyra, who when we first meet her seems like she just wants to hang out with her friend and ride her dragon, there is no joy here, just contest and aggression. Meanwhile one of the most interesting aspects of “The Rings of Power” is the series’s exploration of the healing power of beauty. In the first episodes the topic comes up repeatedly, and it is fitting for the series, which (like the films that came before it) takes so much pride in its craft.

Every detail of the “Rings” world is richly realized. More so than one might even imagine, in fact: Ema Horvath, who plays the apprentice architect Eärien in the series, told me in a phone interview, “I got to spend three hours a week drawing with Daniel Reeve, who created Bilbo Baggins’s handwriting and a lot of the maps that Tolkien himself didn’t draw.” Similarly, in learning her dialect for the series, Ms. Horvath described the depth of thought that went into its creation: “We didn’t only learn the English accent, we learned the history behind these sounds, why these people talk this way.”

Tolkien’s interest in beauty as not something static but active, something that renews the spirits of those brought into its presence, was not easy for me to understand as a child. The sections of “The Lord of the Rings” where he describes the architecture of different kingdoms or the shape of a forest seemed endless. Get me to the next dragon, the next battle.

But the salvific power of beauty is an essential part of Tolkien’s belief system. Faith for Tolkien is not simply hope in things unseen, as we read in Hebrews, but the remembrance of things that have been seen, touched and tasted. And the deepest depths of despair come when those memories are lost. “I can’t recall the taste of food,” Frodo tells Sam near his lowest point in “The Return of the King,” “nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark. There’s nothing—no veil between me and the wheel of fire.”

It may be that it’s impossible for any adaptation of Tolkien to recreate the experience of turning the pages of his books as a child, the sense of mystery, the feeling of mist licking at your ankles. But one of the most promising aspects of “The Rings of Power” is the degree to which it has me wanting to return to Tolkien’s books once again. Based on its first two episodes, it seems poised to wear his mantle well, and offer a rich and thought-provoking ride.

More: TV / Literature / Film

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