One September day in 1914, a young J.R.R. Tolkien, in his final undergraduate year at Oxford, came across an Old English advent poem called “Christ A.” Part of it reads, “Éalá Éarendel engla beorhtast/ofer middangeard monnum sended,” which he later rendered: “Hail Éarendel, brightest of angels/above the middle-earth sent unto men!” Safe in his aunt’s house in Nottinghamshire while battles raged on the continent, Tolkien took inspiration from this ode to the morning and evening star and wrote his own poem in modern English, “Éarendel the Mariner.” That poem was not published in his lifetime, but after it came the stories that would become The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, which in turn inspired, to varying degrees, Earthsea, Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter, The Wheel of Time, The Witcher, Game of Thrones, and so on, an apostolic succession of fantasy.
The latest in the line is The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Amazon Studios does not have the rights to The Silmarillion, the posthumous collection of Tolkien’s mythology that serves as a sort of bible for Middle-earth, nor is it adapting The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s 1954 novel about the hobbit Frodo’s quest to save Middle-earth by destroying the One Ring, which holds the power of the Dark Lord Sauron. Peter Jackson’s film trilogy still looms too large. Instead, the showrunners, J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, have crafted a prequel, set thousands of years before the events of the three-volume novel and drawn from bits of lore in its prologue, “Concerning Hobbits,” and extensive appendices on Middle-earth history and culture. It’s an undertaking not dissimilar from Tolkien’s own reworking of “Christ A,” spinning out a narrative from a few textual scraps—the kind of academic exercise an Oxford professor of Old English could appreciate.
It’s a pity the show doesn’t extend the same scholarly pleasures to its viewers. Its narrative conceits are those of big-budget TV: the so-called mystery boxes popularized by shows like Lost. What is the sigil that the elf warrior Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) finds carved in her dead brother’s flesh? Who is the stranger (Daniel Weyman) who falls from the sky and ends up living among a nomadic clan of proto-hobbits? Which character is really Sauron? Will the mortal Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) and the elf Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) kiss? The show hurries along toward the inevitable revelations: the sigil turns out to be a map of Sauron’s realm of Mordor; the magical stranger is almost certainly the wizard Gandalf; Sauron himself is the roguish drifter Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), who has a Forrest Gump–like ability to accidentally be in the right place at the right time. Beyond a few delightful glimpses of ancient hobbit culture, there is little sense of a deep past that can be excavated through careful reading.
This is partly a problem of translation. Contemporary television drives its narratives with its characters, by their arcs and inner conflicts. Tolkien’s characters remain largely static; it’s the world around them that changes. The concerns of the novel are civilizational rather than individual. What Aragorn thinks or wants in his personal life matters far less than the fact that he is descended from kings of Arnor, and before it Númenor and Beleriand. His fitness for the throne of Gondor is never in doubt, neither to himself nor to the reader. He’s simply the last pebble in a royal landslide that has been slowly rolling over Middle-earth for millennia.
The reader encounters this history in ruins and snippets of legendary songs. Galadriel speaks of her wanderings before the fall of the kingdoms of Nargothrond and Gondolin. Treebeard, an ancient tree-like creature, reminisces about long-lost forests and departed Entwives. Merry, whose hobbit-memory is not as long, wonders at the strange, weather-worn statues that line the path to Dunharrow in Rohan. Even the earthy Samwise sings about the death of the elf-king Gil-galad (played by Benjamin Walker in The Rings of Power). The songs, in particular, may seem like digressions or page-fillers, especially those sung in fictional languages, but they also provide a sense of Middle-earth’s cultures and history, stretching back into “the deeps of time.” The effect is like Tolkien’s description of the mines of Moria, where, “in the pale ray” of Gandalf’s illuminated staff, Frodo sees “glimpses of stairs and arches, and of other passages and tunnels, sloping up, or running steeply down, or opening blankly dark on either side. It was bewildering beyond hope of remembering.”
The novel evokes a wanderlust to go back and take those untrodden paths, but since its world exists only on paper all further discovery must be textual. In other words, it requires research. Payne and McKay understand the academic aspect of Tolkien’s work. Twice during the season, Galadriel goes to archives (one in the mortal kingdom of Númenor, another in the Elven Eregion) in search of the truth about Sauron. But there will be no flipping through card catalogs or paging through dusty tomes for our heroine—she has orcs to eviscerate. Galadriel has librarians pull the scrolls for her. Like the show itself, she’s afraid to sit still.
Tolkien’s books feature plenty of battles, but they also reflect the joys and pains of academic work. The Lord of the Rings is a novel “in which the scholarly rituals [are] observed; in which you flipped from index to text to appendix, cross-referring to maps,” as Jenny Turner wrote in 2001 in the London Review of Books. The book becomes, in her words, “a machine for the evocation of scholarly frisson. The thrills are the thrills of knowledge hidden, knowledge uncovered, knowledge that slips away.” Tolkien’s wizards are scholars first and sorcerers second. They each have areas of expertise and are renowned for their wisdom. And unlike Amazon’s Galadriel, they do their own research. Gandalf seeks out the history of the One Ring in the “hoards” of Gondor’s archives (a scene Jackson wisely kept in The Fellowship of the Ring, having Ian McKellen smoking a pipe and shuffling through piles of musty pages), while the arrogant Saruman turns traitor to the forces of good after delving too deep into the archives in an attempt to learn “the arts of the Enemy.” Tolkien’s greatest paean to academic pleasure is in the sprawling elf haven Rivendell, run by the “lore-master” Elrond and hidden in an alpine valley, which in The Silmarillion is described as “a refuge for the weary and the oppressed, and a treasury of good counsel and wise lore.” In Tolkien, refuge and research are bound together.
Tolkien’s brief respite at his aunt’s house, where he wrote “Éarendel the Mariner,” could not last. He belonged to what Angela Carter later described as “that generation for whom history [had] already prepared a special, exemplary fate in the trenches of France,” and soon he was on his way to the front. He fought at the Somme, a battle in which nearly 20,000 British soldiers, including one of his closest friends, were killed on the first day. He got lucky: he soon contracted trench fever in the lice-infested dugouts and was sent home to recuperate.
The Somme haunts Middle-earth, which is pocked with broken and drowned lands. “This is Mordor,” Frodo remarks on the ruins of his beloved home Bag-End when he returns to a scarred, occupied Shire at the end of The Lord of the Rings. After the war, Tolkien transformed Éarendel the Mariner from a celestial sailor into a warden on eternal watch, sailing over the Walls of Night to guard against the return of Morgoth, the Great Enemy, from out of the Void. The Rings of Power alludes to these wartime experiences. Early in the first episode, Galadriel wanders a devastated battlefield reminiscent of the Western Front. “We learned many words for death,” she says, and the show takes pains to demonstrate some of them in detail: stabbings, hackings, slashings, burnings, and decapitations. This is the visual language of contemporary prestige fantasy shows like Game of Thrones. Galadriel dispatches a snow-troll with John Wick–like elan—a far cry from the more measured violence of the novel, in which the soldier Faramir tells Frodo, after a battle against Sauron’s forces in his homeland of Gondor, “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”
After the war Tolkien returned to academic work, first at the Oxford English Dictionary as a researcher and then as a professor at Leeds and Oxford. Besides enthralling some students, like W.H. Auden, and boring others, like Kingsley Amis, with his lectures on Old English, he translated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and other Middle English texts. His greatest contribution to scholarship remains his 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which recast the Old English saga as a work of art rather than a historical document that served only as “a quarry of fact and fancy.”1
To ennoble history and legend was also part of Tolkien’s fictional project: his books are stuffed with allusions to Old English texts. Bilbo’s burglary of Smaug’s hoard in The Hobbit mirrors a scene in Beowulf. Aragorn quotes a poem from Rohan that echoes the elegy “The Wanderer.” Elrond’s father is none other than Eärendil the Mariner. They also provide their own store of fictional lore. You can stop reading The Lord of the Rings when Samwise says, “Well, I’m back” by his hearth, or you can keep going, depending on how much you want to know about various elvish scripts and runes, or the differences between the calendars used in the Shire and the ones used in Númenor, or the fact that Merry Brandybuck’s actual name, in one of Tolkien’s invented languages, is “Kalimac Brandagamba.” “By the time the reader has finished the trilogy, including the appendices,” Auden wrote, “he knows as much about Tolkien’s Middle-earth, its landscape, its fauna and flora, its peoples, their languages, their history, their cultural habits, as, outside his special field, he knows about the actual world.”
This lore is essential to the structure and ultimate pleasure of the novel. Tolkien’s great theme is loss, the “inevitable overthrow in Time,” as he put it in his Beowulf lecture, fated for all cultures and civilizations. The reader can hardly be expected to feel that loss without some sense of its width and depth. Even the most casual reader can feel, as Frodo does in Galadriel’s forest of Lothlórien, that she has “stepped over a bridge of time…and was now walking in a world that was no more.”
The appendices are only the first step out the door. In the years after Tolkien’s death, in 1973, his son Christopher compiled, edited, and published a huge quantity of his father’s writing, starting with The Silmarillion in 1977 and later the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth. These books are labors of love. Much of what Tolkien left behind was disorganized and incongruent. He frequently switched characters’ names, rewrote and then left unfinished parts of stories and poems that contradicted what he’d written before, and changed his mind about such fundamental concepts as the origin of orcs, the nature of the sun and moon, and even the shape of the earth. Out of the drafts and notes, Christopher could have created any number of Silmarillions.
Tolkien’s original aim in his fiction was to craft a “a body of more or less connected legend…which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country,” which he felt lacked one beyond, as he wrote in a 1951 letter, “impoverished chap-book stuff.” This mythology would not be a political project like Virgil’s Aeneid, which tied Rome’s foundation to ancient Greek civilization, but an artistic attempt to capture “the tone and quality I desired, somewhat cool and clear…redolent of our ‘air.’” It was a particular and old air. The Englands of Dickens, Austen, Fielding, Milton, or even Chaucer are nowhere to be found. Instead, Tolkien’s is the England of the anonymous poets who wrote Beowulf and Pearl, largely bygone even by the time the English language settled into a familiar form, swamped by the Norman Conquests, great vowel shifts, gunpowder, and paper. There was no returning to that England, Tolkien knew, just as his characters could never return to the drowned lands of Beleriand and Númenor. “As the poet looks back into the past,” he wrote of Beowulf, “surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’) ends in night.” His project was to delay that night while he could—to preserve, not restore, what he felt was that older country’s “elusive beauty.”
In the course of a few decades Tolkien achieved, quite by accident, what the Old English scribes, singers, and poets had taken centuries to create: a large, confused, and contradictory body of myths and legends. The mythology is unstable, snapping into whatever form one happens to be reading. Far from being frustrating, this has allowed for nearly endless exploration and debate: academic Tolkien journals, conferences, and societies—not to mention fan fiction, up to and including The Rings of Power—have sprouted around the world.
Amazon wants its own mythology, but for the same reason that Disney purchased Marvel and revived Star Wars and HBO spun off Game of Thrones into House of the Dragon: there’s money to be made. However good their intentions, the showrunners’ ultimate task is to mine Tolkien’s works in order to create and expand the franchise. Tolkien’s “machine for the evocation of scholarly frisson” has been turned into an assembly line. The goal is to keep the machine running for as long as it is profitable, with no natural end in sight.
The Rings of Power does add its own bit of lore. In the fifth episode, Elrond (Robert Aramayo) recounts the legend of “The Roots of Hithaeglir,” according to which a lightning-struck tree creates the ore mithril, a powerful metal used in weapons and armor like the mail-shirt Frodo wears. Elrond calls the story “apocryphal,” a nod to the fact that it was invented whole-cloth for the show. It’s one of the writers’ attempts to tie various parts of Tolkien’s unwieldy legendarium together, in the same way that the show has Galadriel share a sea-tossed raft with Sauron and witness the creation of Mordor. Mithril, it is explained, is suffused with the light of a Silmaril, a holy jewel that can prevent the downfall of the Elves, who are otherwise due to suddenly “fade” in a matter of months (the show never tells us why or how).
This is an imperative of the contemporary franchise: everything must be connected somehow in an endless feedback loop (or ring). This is usually achieved through “fan service,” knowing winks and nods to characters and events the audience already knows, but an overreliance on such references seals the worlds off, and the air in them soon turns stale. There is no room for the organic happenstance of real life, for the inexplicable and strange, like Tolkien’s immortal weirdos Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, who were jettisoned from Jackson’s adaptation.
The show’s conceit about mithril also misunderstands the elegiac character of Tolkien’s novel. In the final episode, the elves create three rings—“Three Rings for the Elven kings under the sky,” in Tolkien’s lore—from mithril to stop the cataclysmic fading of their race (a fate clumsily literalized by diseased leaves falling from a magic tree). The Rings provide a convenient cure to the season’s contrived crisis, whereas in the book they were created, in Elrond’s words, for “understanding, making, and healing, to preserve all things unstained.” The tragedy is that the destruction of the One Ring, the only act that can save Middle-earth, will also mean the destruction of the Three, and “many fair things will fade and be forgotten.” The elves, like their creator did, understand that dwindling is inevitable. They just want to slow it and enjoy their works while they can, before they become, as Frodo thinks of Galadriel, “present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.”