My Precious? Review of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

Erik Eklund reviews Amazon’s new mega-budget Lord of The Rings spin off for Transpositions, addressing the controversy around the creation of the series. 

J.R.R. Tolkien had his fears. Mortar shells, for instance, and HMRC. That Tolkien sold the film rights to The Lord of the Rings for £100,000 to help settle a tax bill does more than merely suggest that Tolkien was less afraid that his beloved fantasy should suffer adaptations than that a grey suit should show up at his doorstep with a score to settle on the Queen’s behalf.[1] Having signed a deal with Amazon to the (reported) sum of $250 million, his literary estate has merely retraced his steps.[2] Amazon, of course, was quite happy with the deal, and I would imagine the estate is equally pleased. Meanwhile, the lament of a whole cloud of viewers rises unto the altar of the great Author. But these are not the supplications of saints in white satin. For while it is surely ironic that Amazon (of all companies) is behind a work that disavows the all-seeing eye of philistine mediocrity and other evils, we must not forget that those who have viewed the show, and especially those who have been disappointed and have even become enraged by it, are in an uncomfortable spot because they are faithful subscribers to the eye.

But none of this really matters because it misses the point. Indeed, such critiques only misdiagnose the very real problems in Rings of Power. Instead, this review begins by considering the scandal that this series is in the first place, before proceeding to run a diagnostics on the show as it comes to us. We are reviewing the show, not the company, and so we may say not only that Tolkien is dead, but so is Amazon. Of course, one can complain (as does Nathanial Blake of The Federalist): ‘Amazon wanted a big-name fantasy series, not a tragic tale of man’s sinful rebellion against God, and it shows.’ While it is clear, as regards ideology, that Amazon and Tolkien differ, I very much doubt that Tolkien ever wanted what Blake says he did. ‘As for any inner meaning or “message”’, writes Tolkien, ‘it has in the intention of the author none’.[3] There are Christian themes, of course,  but to charge Amazon with emptying Christianity from Tolkien’s work ignores the fact that Tolkien had already done the emptying in his attempt to create a proto-‘English’ myth that goes behind Christianity, behind Christ, behind Moses and the rock and God’s very back.

The problem that interests me is the unique set of mythopoetic circumstances that give the Rings of Power reason to be. According to the poetics of authorship in the legendarium Tolkien is not its author but their reader, translator and most recent redactor (he would say ‘subcreator’).[4] For within their metatextual frame, the texts we might want to call Tolkien’s are only interpretations and translations of prior, more or less original variegated texts within a fictive cosmos (red book, blue book, etc.), to which Tolkien also added.[5] While we may disagree about the ‘faithfulness’ of one interpretation against another (i.e., Amazon’s Rings of Power v. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings), the poetics of authorship in the legendarium disavow dismissing any interpretation as ‘non-canonical’, since there is no canon; and if there is, there is no getting back to it. Built for endless reinterpretation, the originality of Tolkien’s texts is in being from the beginning translations and interpretations.

Matt Glasor, lawyer to the Tolkien Estate, is quoted in an Amazon press release as saying that the new series will consist of ‘unexplored stories based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s original writings’.[6] He is referring to The Silmarillion, a posthumously published collection of short stories revised and later published by Christopher Tolkien in 1977. Viewed from within the metatextual frame of the legendarium, Christopher thus becomes another compiler, another author of Middle Earth, and The Silmarillion, as we actually have it, is no longer one of Tolkien’s ‘original writings’. (Mytho-)poetically, Christopher is no nearer to the ‘original’ texts then any of us, not least Amazon. He may be more faithful to what Tolkien would have wanted, but to think exclusively in this way is (again) to act as though there is only one meaning in any given text and that the true meaning of the text is determined by the author, whereas the legendarium in fact requires speaking of open texts and of (mostly) anonymous authors.

Rings of Power is not a masterpiece, but that has little (if anything) to do with whether it is in all its peculiarities warranted. The dialogue is painfully contrived at times, as when Arondir speaks to Bronwyn of his love for her: ‘I have said it already, a hundred times over, in every way but words.’ Words are not the only way to communicate, of course, but they are the only means we have of saying anything. There is no sense in saying something a hundred times over if one does not actually say anything. Yet the writing does seem to improve with each new episode, though it always tends towards faltering. Thus, in the fourth episode (‘The Great Wave’, air date 15 Sept.), the men of Númenor complain of ‘elf workers . . . taking our trades’. ‘Elves will not replace us!’ they yell. It is hard to maintain willing suspension of disbelief when the realm of contemporary politics is less smuggled in through the back door than pronounced from on high like a petulant politician perseverating from atop a shoddy parade float pulled by a McLaren. It is pretty, to be sure, but the message it tries to tow is so anachronistic that it distracts from what might otherwise be a quite beautiful lie.

The question (as I think it should be formulated) is not so much whether Rings of Power is an admirable, permissible or otherwise forgivable adaptation, but whether enough of the legendarium endures intermedial translation. This is difficult, and I doubt that the matter can be settled, since, in any translation (whether across medias or languages), one must determine what is most ‘Tolkienian’ and thus most essential against what can be set aside in the name (perhaps innocent, perhaps dubious, perhaps both) of ‘applicability’ and subcreation, which, Tolkien reminds us, ‘resides in the freedom of the reader’.[7]

The question is not so much whether Rings of Power is an admirable, permissible or otherwise forgivable adaptation, but whether enough of the legendarium endures intermedial translation.

I cannot help but see all of this as a crisis of a perversely religious sort. If we are to be offended, it should be at nothing but the seemingly irreparable rupture between form and content in Rings of Power. To paraphrase a controversial statement from C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle: Amazon—and, by depositing the cheque, the Tolkien Estate—is interested in nothing nowadays except in the latest Kylie Lip Kit.[8] Nevertheless, Amazon, like Melkor, yet remains a subcreator. Even the worst of us can join the fun, and insofar as it is, Rings of Power refracts something of the ‘Flame Imperishable’. We will not find it in Rings of Power, of course, though neither will we find it in Tolkien, ‘for it is with Ilúvatar’.[9] The myth is strong enough to yet mould the Melkor of Amazon into something of partial albeit purloined beauty, which is all earthly beauty is. Let them finish their music.

[1] Matthew Moore, ‘Tolkien family in quest for Lord of the Rings TV rights’, The Times 8 Nov. 2017; retrieved from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/tolkien-family-in-quest-for-lord-of-the-rings-tv-rights-amazon-netflix-6shrcdbsg.

[2] Shaun Gunner, ‘Does it matter what Tolkien would have thought of The Rings of Power?’, The Tolkien Society, 28 Aug. 2022; retrieved from https://www.tolkiensociety.org/blog/2022/08/does-it-matter-what-tolkien-would-have-thought-of-the-rings-of-power/.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Mariner, 1994), xiv.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien on Fairy-Stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London: HarperCollins, 2014), passim.

[5] See Giuseppe Pezzini, ‘The Authors of Middle Earth: Tolkien and the Mystery of Literary Creation’, Journal of Inklings Studies 8, no. 1 (Apr. 2018): 31–64. See also the scene of the fox, in Tolkien, Fellowship, 71. Many have pointed out that it is impossible that any of the authors of Middle Earth could have known of this event except someone who is less an author (in the conservative sense) than an editor with an overactive hand. Like Peter Jackson, like Amazon, someone has introduced into the texture of a supposedly original, stable canon something new.

[6] Amazon, ‘Press release: Amazon to Adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s Globally Renowned Fantasy Novels, The Lord of the Rings, for Television with a Multi Season Production Commitment’, 13 Nov. 2017; retrieved from https://press.aboutamazon.com/news-releases/news-release-details/amazon-adapt-jrr-tolkiens-globally-renowned-fantasy-novels-lord.

[7] Tolkien, Fellowship, xv.

[8] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 169.

[9] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Link (London: HarperCollins, 2013), 4.

Author

  • Erik Eklund is a PhD candidate in Theology and Literature at the University of Nottingham and Graduate Fellow with the Northwestern University Research Initiative for the Study of Russian Philosophy and Religious Thought. His doctoral thesis charts the theological contours of the dialectic of repetition and identity in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and his earlier work—on eschatology and theurgy in Lolita, in conversation with the thought of Nicolas Berdyaev—earned him the inaugural Dieter E. Zimmer Prize for Best Postgraduate Work from the International Vladimir Nabokov Society. He holds a dual appointment in the Department of English and College of Ministry at Northwest University, and his peer-reviewed articles appear in Journal of Inklings Studies, Literature and Theology, Nabokov Online Journal, Nabokov Studies, The Nabokovian, and Partial Answers (forthcoming). He graduated with an MLitt from ITIA in 2018.

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