This is not a film review, per se. While I’d like to think I’ve a firm grasp of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, I’m not familiar enough with the additional source material—namely the appendices to the LOTR—to opine with any authority on whether or not the bazillion-dollar Amazon original series is faithful to Tolkien. For what it’s worth, when I asked a friend—who is a Tolkien scholar—whether the series is keeping canonical with holy writ, he assured me that in as much as there is a character named Galadriel, another named Elrond, and a big place called Middle Earth that the series has been very faithful indeed! Snark aside, he also suggested that he has not seen anything yet (two scant episodes in) that significantly undermines the basic spirit of Tolkien’s world.
This seems, to my mind, a fair enough assessment. To be sure, there are small hints that the story might get distracted by a preoccupation with diversifying the Tolkien universe. It’s implausible and a bit silly, for instance, that in the one melee we’ve seen that seemingly none of the elves of Galadriel’s company are capable fighters except her. But, in the main, there’s no reason not to happily applaud the elevation of powerful minority characters so long as, first, they are credible and, second, the cost isn’t the dumbing down or emasculation of everybody else. I’m also heartened to see that the early concerns about the hyper-sexualization of Middle Earth—in an alleged effort to attract Game of Throne fans—have not yet borne out. While rumors that an “intimacy consultant” was hired and that casting calls sought actors who would be “comfortable about sensitive physical exposure” were never discounted, I don’t see any indication that we are going to be subject to an episode centering on, say, the begetting of Gimli.
That’s good. Some things just can’t be unseen.
In any case, in place of a full-throated review I want to reflect instead, on what I take to be a pair of central themes developing through the first two episodes and to consider how they might be viewed through the lens of Christian realism.
The first theme grounds the second. Except for a brief introduction, The Rings of Power plays out in Middle Earth’s seismic Second Age, which began following the successful termination of the War of Wrath and the defeat of Morgoth, the satanic antagonist of the First Age. Morgoth’s chief lieutenant, Sauron, was himself greatly weakened. He fled and hid, slowly reconsolidating his power over more than a millennium. Our story begins here, with Galadriel, known to LOTR fans as the Lady of the Woods of Lothlórien, leading a company of elven fighters in search of Sauron, who she rightly believes remains a threat to Middle Earth . As she puts it in a voiceover, “For though Morgoth fell an age ago, some feared a new evil would rise from his shadow.” Not everyone agrees with Galadriel’s dire assessment that Sauron is still alive. She laments:
The trail grew thin. Year gave way to year. Century gave way to century. And for many elves, the pain of those days passed out of thought and mind. More and more of our kind began to believe the Sauron was but a memory, and that the threat at last was ended.
Galadriel knows such lulls might prove deadly. “Evil does not sleep. It waits,” she warns. “And in the moment of our complacency, it blinds us.” In this, she voices a principle that runs through much of Tolkien: the need to maintain constant vigilance against the advent or rekindling of evil. Considering his beloved hobbits, for instance, it is emphasized at several points in LOTR that the hobbits’ insular lifestyle of quiet normality is made possible only because of the watchfulness of valorous men who stand guard outside their borders, entirely unbeknownst to the hobbits themselves. It’s reasonable to think this sentiment was fortified by Tolkien’s own combat experience. Shortly after being married in 1916, Tolkien was sent into action at the Battle of the Somme, during which he lost several close friends and was himself invalided to a hospital for trench fever. Surely this sharpened his appreciation of the tenuous fragility of life’s keenest joys. Like Galadriel, Tolkien was intimate with the knowledge of the great sacrifices too often required to preserve things that are true, beautiful, and good. As Frodo would verify deep into Middle Earth’s Third Age: “It must often be so…when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”
Outside Middle Earth, nowhere would the necessity of vigilance be better proved, nor its lack more keenly felt, than in fumbled early responses of the Allied powers in the build up to the Second World War. Wishing against all right to wish, Neville Chamberlain and too many others abdicated vigilance and stood flaccid in the face of the coming storm. They refused to see what was plain to see. But I should slice this a bit thinner. Chamberlain, it must be granted, acknowledged the threat of Hitler. It’s just that he, naively, did nothing effective to counter it.
So, too, in Rings of Power we see a range of responses to the coming storm. In the centuries following the War of Wrath, the elves, under the lordship of the High King Gil-Galad, maintained outposts throughout the Southlands of Middle Earth. From these strongholds, companies of warriors stood vigilant against the prospect of returning evil. As our story begins, hints abound that things are amiss. Farmers and herders share stories of failing crops, poisoned pasturelands, and—in what seems a nice nod to postlapsarian consequence—weeds that choke away produce. Hunters complain of a lack of game, while wolves seem present in every thicket. For those with the eyes—or willingness—to see, the signs are there for the reading. Instead, most complain about those Cassandras who make too much of a patch of grass.
Others, like Gil-Galad himself, appear to recognize the rising evil but choose other means than confrontation to counter it. Like Chamberlain, Gil-Galad appears to want to avoid an immediate offensive. Openly declaring that the days of war are over, he recalls the garrisons and outposts. Why he does this remains to be seen. But there is much here for the Christian realist to ruminate on. Committed to avoiding the cousin naivetes of both idealism and cynicism, the Christian realist strives to simply call balls and strikes, taking the world as it really is, not as we want it to be. With as accurate a description of the facts of the ground as we can muster in hand, we can calibrate our response accordingly. In light of possibility of Sauron’s return, the Christian realist would applaud the elves’ commitment to maintain the watch. Martial readiness is essential. In our world, readiness—characterized not simply by vigilance but also by the capacity to project sufficient power against our adversaries coupled by the credibility that we would use it—can sometimes flat out deter rising evil, preventing conflict from happening in the first place. When it proves insufficient for this, well, the ready sword will prove its own value.
But this emphasis on vigilance seems merely the ground for The Rings of Power’s more significant point of focus. While being watchful is essential, knowing what to watch out for can be harder than it seems.
In an early dialogue in the beginning of the premier episode, a youthful Galadriel is speaking with her older brother about good and evil. He says to her:
Do you know why a ship floats and a stone cannot? Because the stone sees only downward, the darkness of the water is vast, 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 on the light that guides her. Whispering of grander things than darkness ever knew.
On the one hand, the image has much to say about resisting temptation—a perennial issue in Tolkien’s universe. But Galadriel offers an important insight: “But sometimes the lights shine just as brightly reflected in the water as in the sky. It’s hard to say which way is down. How am I to know which lights to follow?”
How indeed? Fans of the LOTR know that what might seem like light is actually darkness. The Ring of Power itself is like the darkness of Galadriel’s brother’s invocation. It beguiles its victims into believing that it is a desirable thing, drawing them down beneath its power—possessing them until they abandon all good things in life to devout themselves to this false divine.
In the second episode we are introduced to Celebrimbor, an elven smith who professes his desire to make things so beautiful that they will transform Middle Earth. Grounding this belief in the power of beauty, he recounts the story of Morgoth stealing from the elves the Silmarils, crystalline jewels containing some of the primordial light of the Trees of Valinor—whose last fruit and flower would eventually become the sun and the moon. Morgoth, Celebrimbor tells us, found the jewels so beautiful that for weeks all he could do was to stare into their depths. While the reverie was ultimately broken and Morgoth consecrated to his evil, Celebrimbor is nevertheless moved by the possibility that beauty had “nearly turned the heart of the great foe himself.” As an alternative to war, he wants to fill Middle Earth with beautiful things. Echoing the sentiments of another character, Celebrimbor believes that beauty can save the soul.
It is this desire, Tolkien’s more well-versed readers will know, that will be responsible for much heartache and grief. Celebrimbor, for all his elfish wisdom, really ought to have known better. Beauty corrupts as much as it inspires. Beautiful things can inspire both gratitude and charity, as well as covetousness and envy.
As with Galadriel’s observation about light, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between true beauty and that which masquerades as beautiful but is not. One of the consequences of humanity’s fall is the problem—crisis, really—of perception. Our ability to know anything with confidence is hamstrung. We find it difficult to make reliable distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and the like.
In The Rings of Power, this epistemological dilemma appears hard at work and will be enhanced by deceivers intentionally taking advantage of this difficulty. We know, for instance, that Sauron is going to enter the scene at some point. Some viewers are suggesting he’s already done so—only in disguise. In the Second Age, Sauron was a shapeshifter. Some fans already know that Sauron will disguise himself as a benevolent friend and will tickle Celebrimbor’s aspirations, seducing him and other elven smiths into forging the rings of power. These rings, we already know from LOTR, will be controlled by the One Ring To Rule Them All—forged in secret by Saruman in betrayal of the elves. Is Sauron already hiding in plain site? Two mysterious figures are at the center of this speculation.
The first has fallen the sky like a meteor—which hardly ever bodes well—landing among a tribe of hobbit predecessors. While presently mute and generally incommunicative, some think Meteor Man might be Gandalf. While there are many things that give this thought some credence, there are other rather more sinister details about the stranger to give warrant to the belief that he is up to no good. Given that hobbits will play a key role in Sauron’s final destruction there is a bit of appreciable symmetry in the idea that their ancestors might have played a role, however inadvertent, in his preceding return to Middle Earth.
The other possibility is the mysterious, and non-canonical, Halbrand, who rescues Galadriel in a moment of crisis. While the storyline appears poised to give us a developing friendship between the two, perhaps even a romance, there are—as with the Meteor Man—some decidedly unsavory qualities about Halbrand—to say nothing of his name sounding suspiciously close to Hell Brand.
The point in all of this is that it is one thing to give oneself to beautiful things and another thing entirely to know what beauty is. As with Galadriel’s light, the true, the good, and the beautiful are objective. If they are not, in fact, good, true, or beautiful they are wicked, false, and ugly. But not simply so. It is rare for one thing to stand against another as simply good versus evil. Most everything now is a marbled thing of truth and falsehood, goodness and corruption, beauty and horror. Add to this that human beings have so disordered what we love that we love as beautiful things that are not and it becomes easy to recognize how we have proved so often inept at distinguishing which is which. So if nothing else, the commitments of the Christian realist face essential challenges from the very beginning. Our ethics are hamstrung if we can’t get the facts right. And the facts are hard to get right.
Intellectual humility is an asset seemingly in short supply nowadays. Humility doesn’t mean we don’t make judgments. Judgements have to be made. It does mean that even as we declare right as we are given to see what’s right, we recognize that we might be wrong. It also means that we take seriously our responsibility to test our judgements by the assessment of experience, authority, and reason. “Faith” in anything is insufficient if it is not sufficiently grounded in these three sources of knowledge.
There is one additional note worth mentioning from the opening episodes of The Rings of Power. Throughout Tolkien’s works, we are regularly reminded that though Middle Earth might be home to many a being, it is a temporary, transitory home. Something more glorious awaits. Galadriel is urged by Elrond to cease her pursuit of Sauron and to return to Valinor—elven paradise. But she believes that paradise will be a torment for her. Her many centuries of battle have bruised her soul. She fears that the joys of Valinor will render that realm a place “Where song would mock the cries of battle in my ears.” To Elrond she laments, “You say I have won victory over all the horrors of Middle Earth, yet you would leave them alive in me: undying unchanging, unbreaking into the land of winterless spring?” Galadriel’s error is in believing that it is only by destroying Sauron that her soul can find peace.
But Elrond understands that there are some wounds too deep to be healed by this world. He encourages her, “Only in the Blessed Realm can that which is broken in you be healed.” This is a truth worth repeating—both in Middle Earth and everywhere. In this world, beauty, however transformative it might be, will always ultimately be insufficient. As with justice, we can only ever approximate goods such as beauty. It is the business of another world to bring all good things to their full fruition.
In the meantime, the business of this world is to do what we ought. Galadriel’s work in Middle Earth is not yet done. So, for her, she chooses to remain at her post until properly relieved.
The war drums are sounding.