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What’s Wrong with Rings of Power on Amazon?

Rings of Power
Rings of Power. Amazon image handout.

Amazon Prime has dipped its toe into Middle Earth, and the results thus far are uneven.

Rings of Power is astonishingly beautiful, its daylight glows a welcome contrast to the grim shadows of HBO’s House of the Dragon. The depictions of the island kingdom of Numenor and the dwarf city of Dwarrowdelf are vibrant and astonishingly detailed. However, the social world that it depicts remains incomplete and at times even awkward, with motivations seemingly imposed by the need to keep episodes moving rather than emerging organically from well-constructed world-building. The problem may lie in how the series has approached the deep logic behind the source material.

The strategic and political thinking that underlies Lord of the Rings is subtle, but it provides necessary space for allowing the character-driven stories to flourish. Bilbo may join Thorin Oakenshield’s company on a lark, but the purpose is deadly serious. The mission to destroy Smaug is a high adventure but also a contingent step to establishing several kingdoms that will fight against Sauron in the war to come. Worried about collusion between Smaug and the Necromancer (Sauron) Gandalf hatches a plan to destroy the one and drive the other forth, opening space for the reconstruction of three northern kingdoms that will play key roles in the War of the Ring. Much of this happens off the page, but the roles played by the characters make sense against this subtle, almost implicit strategic and political background.

Similarly, in Lord of the Rings the tension is not driven a hero bent on revenge, but rather by a series of careful political and strategic calculations made by important players. Aragorn (heir to the ancient throne of the northern kingdom of Arnor) fully appreciates the political difficulty that his person represents; tensions between the ruling stewards of Gondor and the lost claimant to the throne are subtle but evident and they drive the interpersonal tension between Boromir and Aragorn, making that relationship richer. Similar concerns motivate the hobbits, the Rohirrim, and the other characters that people the world.

A veteran of World War I and a scholar of medieval warfare, Tolkien constructed his battle scenes with painstaking care, making certain that the actions of the combatants on either side make sense within their own stories. The Battles of Helm’s Deep and Pelennor Fields are carefully choreographed to demonstrate the qualities and expertise of the main characters. Moreover, because the political and military elements are well thought-out if only subtly demonstrated, we are encouraged to believe that political structures undergird the rest of the world as well. We don’t know much about the coalition that Sauron has assembled to defeat Gondor, but it probably involves a series of political deals that would make sense if Tolkien had taken the time to provide them in detail. Indeed, it is this depth that gives Middle Earth its enduring power as a fantasy backdrop. Although Peter Jackson takes liberties with some of the detail in his adaptations, he retained most of the basic political and strategic arguments that animated Sauron, the Fellowship, and the rest of the players.

In Rings of Power these considerations are less evident. The political substructures of life in Middle Earth are less than clear, in part because Tolkien did not leave a well-constructed description of the relationship between the kings and peoples of Middle Earth. The dwarves, elves, and humans each have a kingdom, but the political nature of the relationships between them is thus far shallow, seemingly animated at this point only by rote descriptions of racial animus. Of the orcs and of Sauron’s allies we know little. The main driver of the story is a vengeance-obsessed Galadriel (an extra-canonical intervention) hunting Sauron across the massive landscapes of Middle Earth, but with little grounding in the politics of the world. This has made it difficult for the series to mine the deep strategic and political logics of the world to good effect, which correspondingly makes the characterizations feel hollow and one-dimensional.

It is of course early, and those familiar with canon certainly appreciate Amazon’s preference for using time and space to build up characters rather than thrust them immediately into the action. We want real gardens for our imaginary toads, and it is not yet obvious that the showrunners of Rings of Power have a sense that world-building has a social and political component in addition to the great cities and extraordinary landscapes that they’ve depicted thus far. Four hours into Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring we firmly felt a part of the war for Middle Earth; Rings of Power has yet to meet that standard.

A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Elijah’s Ghost

    September 22, 2022 at 9:03 am

    It’s a work joke and JRR would spit upon it.
    With it’s hat tips to ‘ climate change ‘, ‘ white supremacy’ and ‘ 4th Gen femNaziism ‘ the great CGI can not overcome its overtones and undertones of ‘ propaganda spew ‘ that causes it to result in the shutting down of its own consumer rating system due to overwhelming disapproval to the tune of millions of dislikes.
    A colossal waste of time for Tolkien fans.

  2. GhostTomahawk

    September 22, 2022 at 10:47 am

    It’s a boringly slow girl power show choked with leftist ideologies. I’m gagged to death of them. Know your audience and tailor your product to them.

  3. BigCheese72

    September 22, 2022 at 10:47 am

    The show certainly throws you into middle earth with not much historical perspective, short of Galadriels quest to stomp out Morgoth and Sauron. There is a wealth of background history developed for the Middle Earth Role playing game (MERP) going back to 90’s developed by the I.C.E. Company that had rights to the Toiken material back then. Numerous compendium guides that go into great detail of middle earths history. They did a nice job with it, but this is truly some deep MERP nerd stuff. These books are very rare to find now and are out of print. Regardless, if you can find them they are a great read and do fill in interesting politics between the realms of elf, dwarf and humans.

    It will be interesting to see how the series works out if you follow those books. This Rings of power storyline covers almost 500+ years before the rings are actually crafted, presuming you want to follow those MERP books. Of course the TV series, like the movies will certainly take some creative liberties. Certainly annoy hard core middle earth folks, but I am just happy to enjoy a new fantasy show in this world of middle earth for at least 3 seasons.

  4. Lemmings on Parade

    September 22, 2022 at 11:10 am

    Personally, I have enjoyed the return to Middle Earth the series has offered. While I agree with many of the points you raise regarding the deeper motivations of the world driving the characters and the story I’m also more than willing to allow the series the room to grow. Tolkien himself recognized the need to allow future contributors the necessary space to fit their own vision of Middle Earth into the story.

    As to the repeated cries of wokeness being propagated throughout the series I have to say stop looking for them in every word and phrase and just enjoy what’s being offered. Are they subtly feeding the narrative? Sure. They are. But I’d much rather have the exceedingly soft wokeness of Rings of Power than have it shoved down my throat at every single opportunity in the script as She Hulk and other titles have taken to doing. Just my 2 cents…

  5. abraham lincoln

    September 22, 2022 at 11:30 am

    You know America is going down the tubes when supposedly scholarly publications put out pieces on the latest fantasy movie – as if it were important. This is like George S. Patton, before World War II, writing an extended article on “The Wizard of Oz” and telling us whether it was faithful to the Frank L Baum canon.

  6. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    September 22, 2022 at 1:32 pm

    Go woke, go….you know.
    Most intelligent, moral individuals have had their fill of virtue-signaling idiocy.

  7. Rich

    September 22, 2022 at 3:23 pm

    As a Tolkien fan, (read LOTR 3x long before the movie came out), I would say that this latest effort fails on a number of fronts. Yes, the female centricity evidenced in the first 4 episodes is woke and divergent from T’s original works where more realistic male characters were supported by strong female roles. But the reality of it is the story line is disjointed, slow, and at times just downright boring. Other than a vehicle for introducing Gandalf (I think), the whole sub-plot of the “pre-Hobbits” seems totally without purpose. The relationship of Elrond and Durin is developing excruciatingly slowly with the latter’s wife, seemingly thrown in simply to add another female character to the mix. I could point out numerous other weaknesses that add up to this series just not meeting a standard warranting continued interest. I guess, at this point, what keeps me involved is just the simple fact that as a Tolkien fan, I’m willing to give this latest foray into Middle Earth lore, more leeway than is actually warranted.

  8. Roger Bacon

    September 22, 2022 at 3:33 pm

    I heard it was a big steaming pile of Woke so I avoided it.
    Back in the 80’s my friends and I played Rolemaster, a tabletop game similar to, but far superior to, Dungeons and Dragons. For whatever reason, the company that owned Rolemaster, Iron Crown Enterprises, had the rights to everything Tolken so the setting was Middle-Earth. The adventures we had playing with friends could never be equaled by Hollywood trash. Miss those days.

  9. HAT451

    September 22, 2022 at 5:05 pm

    I read the original Tolkien books, and seen the movies. The further in time we travel from the original stories as Tolkien wrote them, the worst the it is. Graphically, the productions are stunning, but content wise crappy. The best way to describe the current productions, is a beautiful apple, shinny and aromatic on the outside, enticing to eat, but a worm infested and rotten from just beneath skin all they down to the core.

  10. Frodo Baggins

    September 22, 2022 at 8:52 pm

    I knew this was gonna suck when I saw the first trailer. I read LOTR 3x’s too before graduating high school, and even named 2 of my cats Legolas and Aragorn. HA! Read the Silmarillion too, and that Huron book and the Hobbit.

  11. KR

    September 22, 2022 at 9:09 pm

    Thank you for writing this and thanks for the comments.

    I was trying my best to like it, but with the exception of the one male elf that is captured by Orcs, the rest of the cast is just simply boring. The main female elf character is annoying to the point I don’t want to watch it. I get wanting to put a strong female character in play after all the male characters in the movies, but com’mon I feel like I am watching a feminist speech when she does her lines.

  12. Mario DeLosa

    September 26, 2022 at 10:45 am

    Having read the Silmarillion, the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, I started watching this Amazon offering with low expectations. With that being said I have found it entertaining. My biggest head scratcher has been the totally invented origin story of Mithril; totally unrelated to anything that Tolkien ever wrote as far as I know. Regarding the nay sayers that have their collective skivvies tied into a knot over the “wokeness” of the Rings of Power all I have to say is, give it a rest. Of course Tolkien’s books were not “inclusive” or about “girl power.” Tolkien was born in 19th Century Britain, what did you gentlemen expect? Do I need to recap Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” to illustrate Victorian attitudes towards inclusiveness or women? Accept the “Rings of Power” for what it is, a modern day “Lord of the Rings” prequel. You really do not need to advertise what a bunch of troglodytes you are. A simple “I did not like it” will do fine.

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