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It’s fair to say The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is the most anticipated TV show in recent years. In development for five years, the Amazon Prime Video series is the most expensive show ever produced for television, with Season 1 alone costing $465 million (by comparison, the budget of the entire Peter Jackson–directed Lord of the Rings trilogy was $281 million). With the high cost and the high stakes of pleasing hordes of J. R. R. Tolkien fans (few intellectual properties have a more devoted fanbase than that of LOTR), could The Rings of Power possibly live up to expectations?
For Christian fans of Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories—which are rife with biblical allusions and theological ideas—the more important question has been: Will that heritage, and Tolkien’s Christian faith, be present in Amazon’s series? Or will the series be closer in kin to Game of Thrones? Will this be a series that captures the theological undertones of sub-creation and eucatastrophe, leading viewers to what Tolkien describes as “a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame”?
I had my doubts—and I still do. But after watching the first two (of eight) episodes, I’m cautiously optimistic and eager to see how the series plays out.
TV World-Building as ‘Sub-Creation’
In contrast to C. S. Lewis, who incorporated Christian allegory into his literary fiction, Tolkien’s integration of faith into fantasy writing hinged on his concept of “sub-creation.” It’s the idea that because humans bear the image of an artistic God who creates—and enjoys creating—elaborate worlds, it’s natural that we do as well. Even aside from the messages our creations might communicate, the very act of creating is an invitation to glorify God by offering little microcosms of his infinitely grander creation. Tolkien saw sub-creation as validating the project of creating elaborate worlds like Middle-earth—which has its own languages, histories, and consistent inner logic—without needing those worlds to be “this means that” allegories of other worlds.
This isn’t to say these fantasy worlds have no purpose for us in our real world. On the contrary, Tolkien saw a potential for fictitious worlds to re-enchant us to the real one. Tolkien expert Colin Duriez describes it this way:
In sub-creation, Tolkien believed, there is a “survey” of space and time. Reality is captured in miniature. Through sub-creative stories—the type to which The Lord of the Rings and The Tale of Beren and Luthien the Elf-maiden belong—a renewed view of reality in all its dimensions is given—the homely, the spiritual, the physical, the moral.
Because sub-creation is a crucial idea for Tolkien, any adaptation of his work must live up to the potential of elaborate construction of enchanting, sprawling worlds—pulsating with their own inner magic and logic. On this score, Power is impressive thus far.
Drawing inspiration from Tolkien’s legendarium (particularly the appendices to The Lord of the Rings), showrunners Patrick McKay and John D. Payne set Power in Middle-earth’s Second Age, several millennia before the Third-Age events of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. This timeline distance allows the show’s creators to build a world both unfamiliar and familiar, with some creatures and characters we’ve seen before and many we haven’t.
Tolkien saw a potential for fictitious worlds to re-enchant us to the real one.
Largely following the aesthetic of Tolkien illustrator Alan Lee (who also inspired the look of Jackson’s films), the show’s visual beauty is formidable. I wish I could have watched it on the same giant screens on which I first experienced Jackson’s trilogy. It’s lamentable that a work of such grand artistic ambition will, for vast swaths of its audience, be experienced on tiny cell phone screens.
In the first two episodes we criss-cross all over Middle-earth, from the ice cliffs of Forodwaith to the elaborate mines of Khazad-dûm, the regal Elven forest of Lindon to the verdant Harfoot villages of Rhovanion. Filmed in New Zealand, Power evokes the same landscape awe that Jackson’s films did, though I missed the soaring musical score of Howard Shore, which amplified the visuals in a way the music in Power so far hasn’t.
I worried that the show’s “money is no object” budget would lead to world-building that felt excessive but not interesting, showy but not beautiful, as so many blockbuster franchises do today. But so far I’m encouraged. The show’s gorgeous sub-creation is something I suspect Tolkien would’ve enjoyed.
Fidelity to Tolkien’s Worldview?
Even if Power is, thus far at least, aesthetically faithful to Tolkien’s source material, is it thematically faithful? Does the storytelling reflect Tolkien’s sensibilities? Here, too, I am so far optimistic—though with greater caution than I have on the aesthetic front.
From its opening moments, the show—which features 20-plus recurring characters but focuses on Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) as its “star”—positions itself as a “good vs. evil” epic, where light and dark vividly clash and audiences root for truly good heroes who battle truly evil villains. Will the show fall into the contemporary trap of psychologizing baddies as “merely misunderstood” victims of past trauma? It remains to be seen. But I hope the show follows Tolkien in letting evil be unambiguously evil and virtue unapologetically good (and believable).
I loved the opening scene of Episode 1 (“A Shadow of the Past”), set in the heavenly “blessed realm” of Valinor, with Galadriel as a little girl (Amelie Child Villiers) floating a paper boat down an idyllic stream.
“Nothing is evil in the beginning,” we hear adult Galadriel say in voiceover. “And there was a time when the world was so young, there had not yet been a sunrise. But even then there was light.”
The Edenic, pre-fall paradise described here was shattered by the great enemy Morgoth (basically Lucifer), whose legacy (future dark lords, orc armies, and the corrupting dark arts of the titular “rings,” which symbolize sin’s insidious pull) catalyzes the story’s dramatic momentum.
The opening dialogue scene between young Galadriel and her older elf brother Finrod (Will Fletcher) uses the paper ship image to probe the nature of moral life. Finrod asks his young sister,
Do you know why a ship floats and a stone cannot? Because the stone sees only downward. The darkness of the water is vast and irresistible. The ship feels the darkness as well, striving moment by moment to master her and pull her under. But the ship has a secret. For unlike the stone, her gaze is not downward but up. Fixed upon the light that guides her, whispering of grander things than darkness ever knew.
Galadriel responds, “But sometimes the lights shine just as brightly reflected in the water as they do in the sky. It’s hard to say which way is up and which way is down. How am I to know which lights to follow?”
Finrod whispers something to her that is inaudible to us, and we don’t find out what he said until the end of the episode. It’s a brilliant narrative framing device that launches Galadriel’s character arc.
Yet the substance of what Finrod whispers (spoiler alert)—which inspires Galadriel’s theologically loaded decision to jump off the ship to Valinor (heaven) and swim back to save Middle-earth (soon to be a hell of sorts)—is questionable: “Sometimes we cannot know until we have touched the darkness.”
Is this right? Are we unable to locate virtue until we have sufficiently experienced vice? Do only those with a résumé littered with sin and trauma have a clear view of true north? I hope this isn’t a sign that the show’s narrative will be driven more by tropes of the trauma plot (past pain) rather than a telos of eucatastrophe (future hope). Yet there are moments in the show already when Galadriel seems to wear her trauma as a badge of honor, in one scene basically competing against the victimhood bonafides of Halbrand (Charlie Vickers): “It would take longer than your lifetime even to speak the names of those they have taken from me.”
Glimpses of Joy
Still, I’m hopeful that in both Galadriel’s character arc and the show at large, goodness and light will be more compelling and interesting, in the end, than evil and darkness. For me, the most enjoyable parts of the show so far are not the ominous ones but the jolly ones: Elrond (Robert Aramayo) and Durin (Owain Arthur) replaying the elf-dwarf frenemy dynamic which was so enjoyable in LOTR between Legolas and Gimli; or Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) and Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards) capturing the playful innocence (and penchant for “in over our heads” danger) of Hobbit/Harfoot life, echoing the Frodo-Sam friendship in LOTR.
Sure, the battle scenes are cool and the growing sense of peril and cancerous evil will be engrossing to watch. But, for me, the interludes of goodness, truth, and beauty—whether in landscapes and worlds, loving relationships, or poetry and song—are the heart of Middle-earth’s enduring appeal. These are the moments that offer those “piercing glimpses of joy” Tolkien described, and I hope The Rings of Power values them as much as he did.