Is it OK to just sit back and enjoy Amazon Studios’s lurchingly entertaining, absurdly big-budget streaming series “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”?
That depends on what you want it to be — and what it actually is.
If you’re looking for a canonical extension of Tolkien’s legendarium, full of poetic power and the deeply felt moral insight of a veteran of WWI’s trench warfare, you’ll be disappointed.
You could, on other hand, just relax and go with it.
“Rings of Power” is, first and foremost, fan fiction — and I don’t mean that pejoratively. It does all the things that fan fiction does. It works with the artifacts of an established fantasy mythos. It imagines possibilities, challenges assumptions, explores unanswered questions, and engages in conversation with the source material.
About that source material: As fan fiction, Amazon’s white-elephant of a fantasy serial is not canon, and can never be, even given the scrupulously researched Tolkienian appendices and the stamp of approval from his estate. John Ronald Ruel Tolkien is dead, and with this passage he took Middle-earth with him. All anyone can do is embroider and speculate about his gift of stories — which is exactly what fan fiction is best at.
This is not to say that credible and scholarly cases can’t be built around what Tolkien imagined. His notes were extensive, and his son Christopher devoted his life to building that out into an authoritative body of research and posthumous literature that adds depth and breadth to the original works.
Alas for Amazon: Authorized access to these literary treasures has given them neither a canonical extended universe, nor a consistently enthralling fantasy serial. Rather, “Rings of Power” is serviceable, made-for-TV entertainment.
There’s good and even great TV out there, and at its best, “Rings of Power” achieves exactly that, particularly the barnstorming season 1 finale. There’s also some really bad TV out there — and I’m happy to report that at its worst, this show is no worse than the best Syd and Marty Krofft adventure on a Saturday morning of yore. That is to say: Ridiculous, but fun!
I mean, that harfoot village and caravan? It all looked like a set. And those elves could have easily passed as insurance salesmen and auto-dealership owners at your local country club. Who knew the Noldor had hairspray and ‘80s cuts so dialed back in the Second Age?
The notable difference here is that Syd and Marty Krofft knew exactly what they were making — Saturday morning TV for kids — and they had a sense of humility and humor about that. They achieved what they did on their own merits within the scope of their production values and budget, and their shows had no pretensions otherwise.
The same cannot be said for Amazon’s billion-dollar baby. Its reach profoundly exceeds its artistic grasp, which may in part be because “Rings of Power” is ultimately a simulacra — a copy of a copy.
That’s right: Although it uses Tolkien’s notes and appendices, and is helpfully able to consult with his grandson Simon, “Rings of Power” is actually Peter Jackson fan fiction.
This includes visual tropes. Consider the appearance, in episode 7, of Durin’s Bane, the Balrog of Morgoth, in the depths of Moria.
As depicted here, it’s a character right out of Jackson’s “Two Towers,” which was itself criticized for representing the monstrosity as something far more prosaically demonic, and a far cry from Tolkien’s vividly Old Testament depiction of a “great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.”
Likewise, note the reflection in the water of Sauron revealed at the end of the season 1 finale — again, right out of Jackson, spiked helmet-crown and all. We also observe the portentously unsubtle pacing of key lines (“If you can’t do this — no one can”), and the duplication of essential scenes, such as Galadriel and Theo hiding out under an overhanging log while a suspicious orc sniffs the air above them. In this, Jackson himself was referencing Ralph Bakshi’s memorable, and criminally neglected, “Lord of the Rings” animated feature film.
So we have several generations of duplication here — a progression that moves from admiration to tribute to a rote gesture.
Each generation of a copy loses resolution, and so it is with “Rings of Power” that Tolkien’s poetry-in-prose, and nuanced observations of character, suffer greatly. Jackson, to his credit, worked hard to preserve that poetic power, whereas Amazon’s simulacra rarely — indeed, almost never — is able to drop a line like J.R.R. did.
Likewise, the plot elements are degraded, unsubtle, reduced in some cases to mere video game tropes. Consider the Whatever Blade that something-somethings your blood so that it can become black and menacing enough to Turn a Switch in The Living Rock that opens a sluice gate somewhere else so as to cause a flood that superheats the lava under Orodruin causing it to erupt and thereby create Mordor.
As a video game device, it’s neat! Yet even given the ham-handed, dutifully ironic cross-reference to the Key to the Side-door of the Lonely Mountain, it sure ain’t a poetic creation myth germinated from the darkly layered subconscious of a traumatized WWI trench medic-cum-Oxford don immersed in Scandinavian and Old Germanic epic poetry.
In this, “Rings of Power” profoundly lacks Tolkien’s poetics and moral power. It is quite threadbare in that regard. I actually wonder if its producers really understand those elements of their reference material.
On the other hand, Amazon’s series is at least dutiful and definitely affirmative in its development of an inclusive narrative, which is important, given Tolkien’s problematic treatment of race. “Rings of Power” asks questions of its source material — pointedly, regarding race, racism, co-existence and suchlike — and engages in a critical conversation with the original text.
This is perhaps the highest aspiration of fanfic. We desperately need the opportunity to dream, imagine, and respond to these works in our own ways. Yes, we get more and more abstracted from the source material the further out we travel, and yes, fan service and product marketing alike further degrade the creative endeavor.
Yet I’m going to go half-full here. The “Rings of Power” cast, crew, writers and directors do a workmanlike job. As TV, most of the series spins its wheels, but it really, finally, gets some serious traction in the bangin’ season 1 finale.
And throughout the preceding episodes, despite the overall schleppiness, our encounters with Orc-Papa/Dark Elf Adar, Elendil the Stoic Numenorean, lover-boy elf Arondir, the muppet-like Harfoots, and the spooky Three out of Rhûn, were all enjoyable and even provocative, in all the best ways.
I mean, we’ve all wondered just what exactly is all the way out there in Rhûn, right? Thanks to this ambitious, if uneven, fanfic, we get to have a little fun speculating about that.
There’s enough in “Rings of Power” that is just fine. It’s not perfect — but can these things ever be? Even Tolkien’s books are far — very far — from perfect, laden as they are with the native bigotry of late-imperial England, and some damnably leaden prose in the final volume.
What makes his work so extraordinary is that the moral power, scope of imagination and real human insight of his story utterly transcends its failings.
It’s definitely absurd that Amazon Studios dropped a billion smackers on such a lumpy television serial. It is the product of a bidding war between big studios that want to make money off a great work of the imagination, and it is most definitely a vanity project for Jeff Bezos.
Despite this, “Rings of Power” is, mostly, an enjoyable diversion, one that succeeds in using the methods and power of fan fiction as a means of continuing conversations around Tolkien’s work.
Likewise, its nature as simulacra is a warning to us: that it is not canonical, that it is artistically constrained by its very nature, and by the needs of the big money that brought it to the small screen — and, most importantly, that it can never replace your own reading of the original prose trilogy, its appendices, The Silmarillion, etc.
“Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” is best enjoyed, like cheese and crackers, as a savory, and occasionally surprising, supplement to the main course.