Tolkien and the Age of the Machine: A Review of Rings of Power Season 1

‘Well the first War of the Machines seems to be drawing to its final inconclusive chapter – leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines. As the servants of the Machines are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful. What’s their next move?’

J. R. R. Tolkien
30 January 19451

Near the end of World War II, J. R. R. Tolkien shared a moment of reflection with his son Christopher about the outcome of the war and the direction life would take after so many years of calamity. It’s clear Tolkien was concerned about a growing mechanisation, both materially and spiritually, and would spend the next decade finishing The Lord of the Rings and reworking The Silmarillion in the hopes of both texts being published and read in a single volume. As one continuous tale, they constitute a history of the forgotten Ages of Faerie.2 From the mystical songs of creation to the final passing of the great stewards of enchantment into the Undying Lands, Tolkien’s Legendarium is about fall, mortality, and the machine.

By ‘the Machine’, of course, Tolkien does not simply mean mere instruments of combustion or circuit boards but a way of being in the world that betrays the true anthropology of human beings. He would famously lay out his anthropological vision in the 1931 poem Mythopoeia, saying that human beings are made by the law of making and refract the divine light of this law in our own making: ‘… man, sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single White. . .We make still by the law in which we’re made’.3 Mythopoeia was Tolkien’s first volley in a series of works spanning the 1930s and 1940s that would constitute a de facto linguistic philosophy of art and craft rooted in the recovery of an ‘ontological semantic unity’ not unlike the later work of Martin Heidegger.4 More than a mere literary endeavour, Tolkien sought to exhume long-forgotten forms of life and connections echoed in language and myth and lived throughout history—forms that the Machine threatens to obliterate.

Amazon Prime’s recent production, Rings of Power, is yet another chapter in this great struggle between the mandated gift of subcreation and the discordant machinations of power. After nearly a billion USD and eight episodes, it’s clear that power, the seduction of expediency, and the tyrannous reforming of the ordered creation are the defining features of the series. Despite a seemingly unlimited budget for special-effects, the end result feels like small television. Most scenes feel disposable, dated upon second and third viewings. Its close-ups feel curiously staged, with interiors that spectacularly fail to match the grandeur of the expensive exterior vistas. One need only look to such films as Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winning The Tree of Life ($35 million) or Denis Villeneuve’s Dune ($165 million) for examples of great filmmaking at a fraction of this budget. Rings of Poweris truly proof that money cannot buy good judgment, taste, and certainly not subcreation.

Each episode is also burdened by uneven writing, tenuously wavering between hamfisted grandiloquence and stilted plot devices. Although legal limitations may be partially to blame—rights were granted only to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit—Amazon was also allowed use of The Silmarillion if the production could show that it would protect the integrity of the Legendarium. The end result, however, was a complete rewriting of the Legendarium, sacrificing elemental truths of Tolkien’s work for the sake of algorithm driven entertainment convention. The writing team crafted an awkward mystery centred around three unimaginative principles: 1) Galadriel is an empowered Cassandra; 2) which character is really Sauron?; 3) who is the ‘star-man’? All of the inexplicable narrative threads lead to distracting, embarrassing, and confounding decisions by the production team that makes for a viewing experience on the scale of St. Anthony’s torment by the demons.

Rather than beginning the series with a sweeping prologue that recounts the essential thematic and historical background of the making of the Rings of Power, arguably the greatest achievement of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, we are offered an odd quotation from The Fellowship of the Ring pulled out of context, ‘nothing is evil in the beginning’. We are introduced to young Galadriel and her gallant brother Finrod who is eventually killed by Sauron. Following an incident involving the cruelty of other younger Elves, Galadriel admits her fear of not knowing the true light. This is a preposterously distracting, pseudo-theological invention that ignores the fact that Galadriel was born in Eldamar in the Blessed Realm. The Elves at this time live by the Undying Light of creation captured in one of Tolkien’s quintessential images of imaginative craft—The Two Trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurelin. Why the elemental detail of craft and light in relation to the Silmarils and the Rings of Power is ignored is seemingly inexplicable.

The consequence of such an omission leads to a crucial scene between Galadriel and Finrod. Galadriel says, ‘It’s hard to say which way is up and which way is down…How am I to know which lights to follow?’ To which Finrod responds, ‘Sometimes we cannot know until we have touched the darkness’. This, of course, is utter rubbish and an imported device of angst-ridden scriptwriters. In Tolkien’s Legendarium the stars, lights created and set by Varda, are decidedly untouched by Morgoth’s malice—they draw us further into its cosmological aesthetics of light.5 Ultimately, Tolkien believed that we are called to continue the work of the Valar who were tasked with shepherding the Music of the Ainur. We are either in league with Eru Ilúvatar, embers of the Flame Imperishable, or we are in league with Morgoth and his Dischord. The lights of Varda and the Star of Eärendil remind us the work is not in vain.

The Rings of Power, however, use this device to drive their own Miltonian point home. Galadriel, married according to the Legendarium but not Amazon, encounters the handsome but somewhat shady Halbrand. She then has an emotional affair with this man—basically Milton’s Satan—who turns out to be none other than Sauron. Thus our great takeaway from the Rings of Power is that a 3000-year-old woman, who has basked in the divine light of the Blessed Realm, is scammed in a random encounter with a man who happens to be tall, have good hair, and appears to have need of being ‘fixed’. This reveals everything we need to know about Amazon’s shallow, disappointing vision.

I’ve long believed that a proper presentation of Middle-earth would look and feel something like Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005), with its scenes of human living that demand we reorient our disposition to the world and the seemingly ordinary experiences we have in and through it. This is the way of re-enchantment. If, however, we only think of Tolkien’s work in terms of fan obsession at worst—as with Rings of Power—or fine literary appreciation at best, then we’ll always ever be held at bay from the possibilities of cultivating a new disposition of being in the world. It’s time we come to see Tolkien’s Legendarium as something akin to Dante’s Divine Comedy for a 21st-century Machine Age, rather than another option in the Fantasy aisle.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston 1981), 111.

[2] At the heart of Tolkien’s Legendarium is the artistry of the Valar, whose chief work is to sing creation and then to craft that divine song into the stuff of being. As in the Corpus Areopagiticum, God—the keeper of the secret fire of life—is hidden, and only known in the manifold illuminations of the created order. This tale of the creative bringing-into-being in Middle-earth constitutes the saga of the Silmarills and the tale of the Rings of Power. In both tales, the gift and right of subcreation run headlong into the discordant tones of seductive power that seeks to dominate, bulldoze, and coerce.

[3] Echoing the ontological poetics of Pseudo-Dionysius and St. Maximus, which undergirds the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon Golden Age.

[4] Reno Lauro, ‘Beyond the Colonization of Human Imagining and Everyday Life: Crafting Mythopoeic Lifeworlds as a Theological Response to Hyperreality’, PhD diss., University of St Andrews, 2012. http://hdl.handle.net/10023/3207. 38 note 68.

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 294, 393. Something as simple as Elrond’s goodbye to the company, ‘May the stars shine upon your faces!’ are subtleties often overlooked. Later in Fellowship, Galadriel’s gift to Frodo of a phial with the very light of Eärendil cosmologically bridges the narratives of Galadriel and Elrond with the work of the Valar and that of Elves and Men.  ‘May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out’. ‘And you, Ring-bearer,’ [Galadriel] said, turning to Frodo. ‘I come to you last who are not last in my thoughts. For you I have prepared this.’ She held up a small crystal phial: it glittered as she moved it, and rays of white light sprang from her hand. ‘In this phial,’ she said, ‘is caught the light of Eärendil’s star, set amid the waters of my fountain. It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out’.

Author

  • Reno Lauro received his PhD from the University of St Andrews' Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts and spent the better part of two years working for Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life and Voyage of Time. He has taught film, literature and philosophy in graduate, undergraduate and secondary classes for the last ten years. Reno lives in Texas with his wife Melissa and their four sons where he runs the Substack and Facebook page Tolkien’s House of Being.

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