J.R.R. Tolkien would not enjoy The Rings of Power.
Wait! Before you roll your eyes and seek out a piece with a less whiny opening line, know that this is a generally favorable review of the Amazon series inspired by Tolkien’s creations. Much has been written already about the liberties taken by showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, and sure: there are diversions, detours and a significant condensing of the timeline of Middle-Earth throughout the show’s first season, some of which result in frustrating missed opportunities. Entire diatribes have been dedicated to lamenting the fact that the Rings of Power elves have short hair, or that the Númenóreans should technically be like nine feet tall, or that mithril or the palantíri work very differently here (Erik Kain at Forbes has basically made a career these last few months mewling about what a “betrayal” the series is, at least when he’s not writing hard-hitting articles about Today’s Wordle Hints). So enough has been laid in print already detailing Power‘s departures from Tolkien’s source material, and yes, it’s all technically accurate.
And yet I have a hard time believing Tolkien would really give a shit about that. Before diving into why — and before getting to what the author’s real beef with the show would probably be — we’ll first issue a spoiler warning for The Rings of Power‘s first season.
While The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (both set in the Third Age of Middle-Earth) are the most fully-realized of Tolkien’s works, the “prequel” Rings of Power is most directly drawn from the Second Age-set tales from the LoTR appendices and The Silmarillion. The latter was edited and published posthumously by J.R.R.’s son Christopher, and it’s generally considered a far more dense read than the Third Age stuff. Stylistically, while Tolkien is still prone to long and detailed sentences throughout The Silmarillion, his word choice is decidedly more complex (and even archaic) when compared to younger-skewing Hobbit. But it’s Tolkien’s masterful usage of certain literary devices and techniques, rather than his diction or structure, that concerns us here, particularly for their interplay with the primary literary device used in the first season of Rings of Power.
That latter device has been termed the “mystery box”, first coined by J.J. Abrams in the context of Lost to describe a mystery story in which we are effectively as in the dark — if not more so — than the characters we’re watching. Of the multiple primary storylines in Rings of Power, two of them are mystery boxes from the first episode to the last: Galadriel’s hunt for Sauron and the Stranger/Meteor Man’s travels with the Harfoots. Who’s Halbrand? Who’s the Stranger? Both storylines hinge on this withholding of information such that they would be totally different if we knew the answers ahead of time. Granted, now that the season finale has sort of answered both, it’s possible that the entire season takes on a fresh timbre…but if that’s the case, one might ask what the benefit of the mystery box was in the first place.
Again, the key element of that device is that we know as much or less than the characters. Compare that with dramatic irony, one of the techniques Tolkien uses so well throughout The Silmarillion, in which essentially the opposite must be true: we know more than the characters. It’s risky, in a way, to have your reader be a “step ahead”, because there’s the possibility they become bored or simply indifferent with knowing bits of plot ahead of time. But as far as character is concerned, it’s one of the best tools in a writer’s toolbox. When Túrin strikes down a figure he believes to be an enemy in the “Children of Húrin” portion of The Silmarillion, we feel distress instantly because we know this perceived enemy is actually his best friend. That distress turns to pity and then sympathy for Túrin as he realizes his folly, and the compassion elicited from this single instance of dramatic irony thereby carries us into the rest of the character’s story with considerable propulsion.
If the mystery box prevents us from knowing who Halbrand or the Stranger are, and if we’re forcibly less knowledgeable than these characters and the characters around them, how can we really get emotionally connected to them? It’s no mistake that a third primary storyline of Rings of Power, featuring Elrond and Durin engaging in a bromance for the ages, is the one in which we actually feel emotionally invested in the characters. There’s no mystery box in this plotline, and if anything our superior knowledge of the contentious history between dwarves and elves lends a bit of that tragedy to their friendship. Plus, if you’ve read Lord of the Rings or seen the Peter Jackson films, then the entirety of the mithril/Khazad-dûm/Balrog plot is basically one huge instance of dramatic irony. Unlike the well-meaning characters, we know where Elrond and Durin’s machinations will ultimately lead.
So I think the storytelling, when boiled down to the way in which Power chooses to tell its story, is far more jarring to Tolkien’s original works than the fact that Elrond’s hair is short instead of long. I don’t even think Tolkien would have minded some of the more significant changes to his canon, like the power of mithril being ostensibly linked to the Light of the Valar. But it’s possible he would’ve been somewhat more put off by being forced into a narrative mystery box, particularly when another device could have been utilized to greater effect.
Crucially, though, the man would have at least respected Rings of Power for adding a voice to the chorus he created. Many critics have derided the series as “fanfiction”, ignorant of the fact that Tolkien literally encouraged other artists to partake in his world:
I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story…I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.
Fantasy, sci-fi, comic-book and franchise fandoms these days seem to have inherent issue with the “other minds and hands” part. For my money, an exploration of the Lord of the Rings universe from a completely new voice is exciting, even if it’s not perfect. It’s the same reason why Andor is the most exciting Star Wars has been in years, or why Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 or Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen work so well. Yes, the mystery box thing was overdone here — but now that the box is open, The Rings of Power has vast new adventures to set out on. And adventures aren’t undertaken by single individuals, to paraphrase one of the show’s characters. They’re shared.