Courtesy of Amazon Video

November 15, 2022

‘The Rings of Power:’ Forged in Controversy

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At once praised for its stunning visuals and lambasted for its deviations from lore, Amazon’s Rings of Power has sparked debate among fans, inspired a new generation of Silmarillion readers and been the object of racist vitriol. It follows the radiant, vengeance-fueled quest of Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), from the spires of Elven cities to the island kingdom of Númenor, to confront ancient evil rising without and within. (Spoilers ahead!) 

Much of the emotional heart of the story in truth lies under the mountains, with Prince of the Dwarven kingdom, Durin IV (Owain Arthur), and Half-Elven herald Elrond (Robert Aramayo), whose friendship illuminates the magnificent darkness of Khazad-dûm. Durin’s wife and resonator of the deep earth, Disa (Sophia Nomvete), is also a beacon in her warm and queenly presence — and Lady Macbeth-ish monologues. Alas, the Khazad-dûm plot veers into ominous Mithril Mystery, and is left for later stories. 

Elsewhere amidst the artful visuals of orchards, wastelands and Sundering Seas, some especially standout moments are Adar’s (Joseph Mawle) quiet grief for his fellow Uruks, the feathery ships of Númenor sailing into the dawn, the eruption of Mount Doom and the finale’s mind-bending confrontation between Galadriel and Halbrand/Sauron (Charlie Vickers). In his gentle respect for green and growing things, Silvan Elf Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) is also particularly grounding, and gets the best action scenes of the series in his defense of Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) and the Southlander villagers. I confess I found the Harfoots and the Stranger, though intriguing at first, overwrought.

Bear McGreary’s incredible soundtrack is the golden thread that binds the series together — from the winding, processional grandeur of “Númenor,” to the proud march of “Khazad-dûm,” to the deftly twofold hope and sorrow of “Elrond Half-elven.” Faced with the daunting task of following in Howard Shore’s footsteps, McGreary resorts to pure musical alchemy, deploying character motifs with such skill that one might discern from them whispers of the plot. For example, the acoustically elegiac “Halbrand” is in fact a major key echo of “Sauron.” (It might have been an obvious twist, but I enjoyed it, along with Halbrand’s theatrics.)

Much ink has been spilled on the show’s shortcomings, but like the Elven Rings forged (rather too hastily) at the end of the season, I think we have been exerting an incendiary degree of pressure on the apparent alloying of the legendarium with new creations. The showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay are setting up a story that will span five seasons, which they have said will henceforth lean more heavily on canon. In the meantime, they have laid the groundwork by compressing time and creating (mostly) compelling characters to reacquaint us with Middle-earth. Adaptation is always in part creation, not wholly mimicry. 

For me, pacing is the main issue. Slow burn, exposition-driven elements are productive; it is rather that the writers seek a deeper narrative haste without taking much time to build the wheeling scale of epic. Númenor in particular falls victim to this, where we see only inklings of the all-consuming desire for eternal life that will eventually drown them. But where the Númenor storyline falters, it is rescued by the gravity of Elendil (Lloyd Owen) and Queen-regent Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), as well as their trials of faith. 

As for Galadriel, I enjoyed her strength and vulnerability. At first I was worried that she was going to be consigned by poor writing to seem vaguely motivated by kicking ass. Then, at last, I got confirmation that this was a deliberate arc — she swears to Adar that she will eradicate orcs, but in the ashes muses bleakly on war’s poisoning of the heart. All at once, the writers’ vision of Galadriel began to materialize for me like dawn, the flickering reflection of a Queen that all might love and despair. We must first see the roots of her rage, and struggle with her desire for absolution, before we can see her rise to be Sauron’s great equal and enemy. 

Legally, the writers can only draw on the material of The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and its appendices; one might wonder why tell a tale of the Second Age without rights to The Silmarillion. For the readers that have not encountered The Silmarillion, it is a mythic collection of stories recounting the origins of Middle-earth, the rise and fall of Morgoth (Sauron’s predecessor), the strife over jewels called the Silmarils and many other beautiful tales besides. 

Although cloaked in concern for the lore, some so-called criticism has in fact drawn on a sleepless racist malice, roused not only since the casting of Black and Brown actors in Rings of Power, but since the beginning. Tolkien himself employed racist imagery of monolithic antagonist orcs as “black-skinned” and once described them as “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes,” going on to use specific, degrading anti-Asian language. Fans often claim Tolkien was only a product of his time — that he was speaking from a place of profound (and self-admitted) Eurocentrism. In Lord of the Rings, however, we see narratives that foreground and criticize racism, especially between Elves and Dwarves. Tolkien’s letters also strongly denounced “race-doctrine” and Nazism. We cannot, and should not, absolve Tolkien of his racism, but we can take account of his complex attempts to condemn it. 

Indeed, many BIPOC fans do choose to engage with Tolkien’s works, an embattled resistance to those that claim a “white” Middle-earth (for further and more in depth reading, I recommend an article by Christina Warmbrunn, “Dear Tolkien Fans: Black People Exist”). In a recent Instagram caption, Arondir’s Ismael Cruz Córdova spoke of growing up as a poor Puerto Rican boy with an “impossible” dream of being an Elf. Despite embodying Elven beauty, lethal grace, and love of life, as one of the only Elves played by a POC Córdova has faced waves of hatred

“But I believed in my right, and our right, to exist. Just like the rest,” Córdova said. “To see ourselves, to imagine ourselves and to occupy the spaces that we rightfully deserved.”

Needless to say, the right to claim and reclaim Middle-earth is contested territory, and more condemnation of racism needs to come from white fans who, like myself, may have grown up without having to question or defend their part in the tale, and its telling. Although there is room for improvement, Rings of Power is a worthwhile reminder to hold fast to the commonplace acts of love and courage at the heart of the legendarium. 

I look forward to the next season, where we can probably hope for Sauron machinations, more Khazad-dûm, more Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards) and ring-forging. And perhaps (fingers crossed) a more arcane Galadriel seen for the being of immense inward power that she is. 

The show is not a dilution but an adaptation — flawed, but a luminous selection of organically piecemeal lore, as though of stories and songs half-remembered, long-loved. There is a sense of shifting myth, the labyrinthic tapestry of memory, that I hope future stories will rely on and embroider more boldly. As Aragorn describes an ancient song of Beren and Lúthien to the Hobbits: “It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.”

Charlee Mandy is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].