The Rings of Power: Season 1 at the halfway mark

Four episodes in, the lavish Amazon Prime series is delivering on at least some of its promise, but there’s room for improvement.

(Image: Amazon Prime)

Halfway through the eight episodes of the first season of Amazon Prime’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the pieces are starting to fall into place.

A story that started with such familiar names as Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), Elrond (Robert Aramayo), and Durin IV (Owain Arthur) might in principle have gone in many directions. With the introduction of Elendil (Lloyd Owen), here a ship captain of the island kingdom of Númenor, and his son Isildur (Maxim Baldry), the shape of the drama is suddenly more definite. Elendil, if the series follows Tolkien, will become the last lord of the Númenorean port city of Andúnië before Númenor is destroyed and suffers the fate of Atlantis, while Isildur is doomed to fall under the spell of the One Ring after cutting it from the hand of Sauron in the War of the Last Alliance.

Episode 3 (“Adar”) introduces us to Númenor in its glory, while episode 4 (“The Great Wave”) begins to presage Númenor’s downfall in connection with a strategically deployed Tolkienesque device. A sword is placed in Elendil’s hands in episode 3; is this Narsil, the blade that will be broken? The reason for the suspicious hostility of Durin and his father, King Durin III of Khazad-dûm (Peter Mullan), to the overtures of the younger Durin’s friend Elrond is satisfyingly unveiled in episode 4, and there are at least foreshadowings of how the Dwarves will eventually be driven to delve too greedily and too deep, and what will follow.

Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), a capable human thrown together with Galadriel in episode 2 (“Adrift”), is revealed to bear a burden strikingly reminiscent—maybe too reminiscent—of more than one later Tolkien character. Halbrand hails from the Southlands, a realm of men that will come to be known as Mordor, the domain of Sauron. The Southlanders are viewed with disdain by occupying Elven forces as historic collaborators with the enemy, and even Galadriel regards her companion as a different breed from the Númenoreans, who allied with the Elves in the last war—though today public opinion in Númenor has turned against Elves. Meanwhile, in the doomed Southlands, the Elf warrior Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and his human love interest, the healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), do their best to weather the rising tide of evil, which coalesces in the enigmatic figure of Adar (Joseph Mawle), leader of the Orcs marauding through the Southlands looking for an uncanny artifact.

Of all the series’ divergent storylines, only the Harfoot thread, following young Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) and her nomadic clan’s encounter with a mysterious stranger from the heavens (Daniel Weyman), has yet to resolve around a definite storyline or theme from Tolkien’s legendarium. Is the stranger, best known on the internet as “Meteor Man,” a member of Gandalf’s order, or of some other breed of wizard? Is he something altogether different? Fan speculation ranges from Tom Bombadil to Sauron himself. Neither suggestion is particularly plausible, but if he isn’t Meteor Man, who and where is Sauron? He might, of course, be Adar, with his ominous musings about not being a god capable of bringing about “the creation of a new world…at least, not yet.” But Sauron is also supposed to wear fair guises at this time to lead many astray, and Adar certainly isn’t one of those.

Rituals and the religious

One of the more interesting elements of the show’s world-building is its depictions of ritual and orison in its various cultural settings. The Harfoots mark the eve of the start of their migration with a memorial litany of the Left-Behinds, i.e., those lost to various dangers on the road; to each name read from the Book of the Left-Behinds, the community says in unison, “We wait for you.” (There’s a brutal irony to this litany, because the Harfoots do not wait for those too slow to keep up.) In Khazad-dûm, in a moment of crisis, we see Durin’s wife Disa (Sophia Nomvete) singing to the mountain, a Dwarven practice mentioned in episode 2 that here effectively takes the form of a plea for mercy. In a traumatic scene, Arondir, captured by Orcs and pressed into service as part of a chain gang, is compelled to chop down a venerable tree, and murmurs to the tree the Quenyan (Elvish) words “Ánin apsene,” meaning “Forgive me.” (Writing for Collider, Patrick Lyon points out that Tolkien, translating the Our Father into Quenya, used the word “apsene” in rendering “Forgive us our trespasses.”)

On Númenor there’s a sort of glimpse of a blessing ceremony for newborn babies—with Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), here portrayed as queen-regent, presiding—and we hear repeatedly about “the gods” and the Valar, the heavenly powers who are the first and highest beings created by Eru Ilúvatar. Of Eru Ilúvatar himself there is so far no mention. This might be considered in the spirit of The Lord of the Rings, from which Tolkien deliberately excluded explicit religious references, preferring instead to express the work’s religious themes in metaphor. (Indeed, Tolkien’s reticence about religious language in The Lord of the Rings means that the storytellers, who have rights to The Lord of the Rings with its appendices but not to the extended legendarium, probably can’t use the name Ilúvatar, meaning “all-father”—though, following references in Appendix A, they could call him “the One,” the meaning of Eru.) Yet the absence of religious references is one thing among the lowly Hobbits of the Shire in the Third Age; among the Númenoreans in the Second Age, not to mention Elves, it has the potential to be awkward.

The idea of Providence continues to echo in the dialogue. In episode 2 Nori expresses her impression that she was “supposed to find” the stranger; now her mother (Sara Zwangobani) cross-examines this idea: “Do you think the stars reached down and touched you? You’re just a child.” Galadriel’s speech to Halbrand is even more fraught than the excerpt heard in a trailer:

Ours was no chance meeting. Not fate, nor destiny, nor any other words men use to speak of forces they lack the conviction to name. Ours was the work of something greater.

This “something greater” is, ironically, unnamed by Galadriel herself, strikingly echoing Gandalf’s halting explanation to Frodo that he “can put it no plainer” than to say that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. Again, the ultimate import of this line will depend on how Galadriel and Halbrand’s story plays out—and, particularly, where the storytellers go with Halbrand, an Aragorn-like heir to the throne of the Southlands, but one doomed not to come into his kingdom.

Symbolism and visuals

In the sphere of symbolism, sunlight and shadow have a potent significance going beyond what Peter Jackson’s films managed. In Tolkien, sunlight is anathema to Orcs (except the Uruk-hai, who are possibly part human), and at the Battle of the Hornburg the rising sun is a harbinger of hope and victory. (“Rede [counsel or wisdom] oft is found at the rising of the Sun,” according to Legolas, and Aragorn tells the enemy that he “looked out to see the dawn.”) Episode 1 of The Rings of Power opened with what could be called a Johannesque meditation on “light” and “darkness,” and the power of the sun over Orcs is shrewdly deployed in episodes 3 and 4. The shadow of a cloud at sunset is like the hand of Sauron, and the rays of the dawn bring salvation. In an inspirational speech, Queen-regent Míriel calls on the valor of her people “to burst forth as the rising sun.”

Symbolic weight also hangs around Nimloth, the White Tree of Númenor, ancestor to the White Tree of Gondor (and, in this story, another white tree planted by Durin in Khazad-dûm). When the petals of the White Tree fall, according to Queen-regent Míriel, the faithful of Númenor see in them the tears of the Valar, “a living reminder that their eyes and judgment are ever upon us.” Slow-motion God’s-eye shots are repeatedly used to invest this portent with revelatory force. The White Tree is also connected to love. “Where there is love, it is never truly dark,” Elrond says of the tree in Durin’s home; “how could it not grow in a home like yours?”

These are good lines, but not all the language is at home in Middle-earth. Anti-Elven sentiment in Númenor is expressed in chants against the queen-regent calling her an “Elf-lover,” and Harfoot use the clunky term “de-caravaned” to mean excommunicated or shunned. I can see a case for the slogans of the Númenorean mariners (“The sea is always right”) and the Harfoots (“Nobody goes off trail / And nobody walks alone”), but I don’t buy the latter as an antiphonal chant for the Harfoot caravan.

The series continues to look gorgeous. I’ve long harbored a deep love for fantastic cityscapes and imaginary architecture, and Númenor, with its tiered, cliffside architecture, docks and waterways, immense statues and arches and pillars, is as majestic and awe-inspiring as one could hope. Tolkien once invoked Númenor after visiting Venice, and the production designers drew inspiration from that analogy; there are also echoes of Assisi’s hillside construction, a partial inspiration for Minas Tirith, which was built by former Númenoreans. Director Wayne Che Yip (who directed episodes 3–6) finds beauty in smaller things too, most strikingly in a joyous sequence in which Galadriel, for perhaps the only time so far, forgets her all-consuming quest in the thrill of riding a horse. There’s some clever action choreography, notably involving Arondir. (“The ultimate Elf flex” is how one of my kids described Arondir’s best move; it’s simultaneously cooler and less contrived than nearly all of Legolas’ crowd-pleasing stunts in Jackson’s films.)

Will the series succeed in making Sauron both malignant and persuasive, both dangerous and attractive? Will the downfall of Númenor be clearly connected to succumbing to temptation: to hubris, worship of Morgoth, oppression of the Men of Middle-earth, human sacrifice, and finally open war on the Valar? Or will the Valar remain an idea present only in metaphor? Perhaps the rest of season 1 will begin to answer these questions.


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About Steven D. Greydanus 34 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, and the founder of DecentFilms.com. He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.

20 Comments

  1. Wow, this website is going from bad to worst!!!
    What has catholicism and God to do with a TV series which does nothing than to promote PAGANISM?
    Catholic websites aren’t films guides, and actually Hollywood and TV in general are huge vehicles of indoctrination, which cunningly steer people away from God!
    Sorry, but Steven D. Greydanus is either very ignorant of what paganism or is another wolf or pseudo catholic cunningly fooling people.
    No wonder these are the end times! A “catholic” website promoting paganism… yes, end times – not because it’s “my opinion” or “what I think”, but what Jesus Mother has stated many, many times!!!

    • I do not see how it promotes paganism. Tolkien’s legendarium is fiction and he was a believing Catholic — there is no way he thought of his myths as an alternative to Christianity. Does the Iliad or the Odyssey promote paganism? As for your general condemnation of television as a medium, the same could be said about printed books, or even oral fairy tales.

      • It’s pseudo-Catholic, developed heavily with suggestio falsi. You misdirect yourself saying “alternative to Catholicism” on what Tolkien was meaning to do. It can happen easily because within Tolkien is found many repressed or hidden intents, suppresio veri.

        Flannery O’Connor named out the lies, a long time ago.

        “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.”

        – Flannery O’Connor

        https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/flannery_oconnor_403709

    • Twice today I encounter a Luis, here on the website and where I work, another man who will be painting one of our offices tomorrow.

      Luis here has very good points I thought, ones that I would wholeheartedly endorse.

      Criticism of fiction must follow objective criteria. Part of being objective is being able to stand apart from cult-following and give the latter its proper exposition as well. But falling in with it raw does not supply what is required either way. Dishing it back up to add to the perpetration, is celebration not criticism.

      Modern criticism also tends to carry the taint present in modern fiction, of indulgence. One mirrors the other, the fiction indulges itself and the audience and the critic makes allowances for the fiction and venerates the indulging.

      And if you can pick out bad art, you will not be able to overlook the errancy in the critic!

      There are a number of negative issues with Tolkien. They have to do with him, with his idea of art, with his basic style and with the concept of originality. Then, if you consider the art work in itself separated from its creator and his intentions, with its own life and impact in culture -here is a whole universe where I would show you Tolkien disasters and indurations.

      As in “indurate”. It’s a big essay to do it; but whether it causes controversy or is ignored, it will have to happen.

      Members of the Inklings group understood it and for them it is a sort of secret.

      Jonathan Van Maren laments that the queer movement has taken hold of Tolkien for their own purposes. I believe he is misinformed about Tolkien. I believe the real problem lies inside the fabric of Tolkien’s project and the mind of Tolkien.

      See the link at his site THE BRIDGEHEAD. The POLYGON link is carried in Van Maren’s essay.

      https://thebridgehead.ca/2022/08/17/the-queering-of-j-r-r-tolkien/

      https://www.polygon.com/lord-of-the-rings/22550950/sam-frodo-queer-romance-lord-of-the-rings-tolkien-quotes

          • I asked because I was curious. Your condemnation of Tolkien’s work is unusual, and I wondered if there was any fantasy fiction that could meet your standards. Also, I didn’t understand what you meant by “Members of the Inklings group understood it and for them it is a sort of secret.” Do you mean that members of the Inklings kept secrets about Tolkien’s beliefs?

          • I do not reserve judgment on them and I recommend you do the same. They had their time and they proved what they lived. See below, response to robertrchase, I already said you need a supernatural aid. What Tolkien and Inklings have passed on, continues; so if you want to embrace Tolkien and entertain skepticism about sharpened critics, do so at your own risk.

          • Well, I asked you some honest questions and you didn’t answer them. Your statements are too obscure to make sense. I suppose this discussion is over.

    • Calling anyone, much less a deacon, pagan is a serious charge. It should not be made without evidence. Without the presentation of such evidence, it is mere libel and verbal abuse.

      • “….. much less a deacon …..” ???? Try again.

        There is paganism going in parallel with Tolkien; and, I hold, inside Tolkien not only parallel. You at least have to address the former, the paralleling. If you are going to get at the part that’s inside, you have to be prepared to suspend “belief” or ordinary acceptance and your subjective attractions; and go at it soberly.

        There is a third aspect and it is to do with occult. Tolkien like Conan Doyle and many others in those circles were mixed up with occult. Tolkien asserts that fairies and the like were talking to him and gave him the “inspirations”. Bringing Tolkien to right terms can not just be a work of reason, it needs a supernatural aid.

        A deacon has to exercise much more care than throwing art around for fun.

        • “Tolkien asserts that fairies and the like were talking to him and gave him the “inspirations”. ”

          This is nonsense. Either you’ve taken an out-of-context quote or two and allowed yourself to be convinced he meant something entirely different from what he really believed, or you have *purposely ignored* his many, many, MANY other statements about his faith and sources of inspiration which directly contradict your assertions, in order to promote your weird Tolkien hatred.

          Either way, your perspective is wisely skewed and not to be trusted.

  2. A Southerner thrown together with Galadriel? What next? Why do script writers have to augment Tolkien’s story with additions that he never wrote?

  3. It would be nice if CWR featured more writing about movies and TV shows that weren’t so mainstream. I’d love to read a Catholic perspective on Jean-Luc Godard’s life and legacy, but all we seem to get are articles about big-budget blockbusters. And frankly, after Peter Jackson got so much so right, there’s no reason for a lesser adaptation to even exist. Spend $200 million remaking something that didn’t work well the first time around.

    • (Note: Frankly, Bussy, you’re right. It would be nice to see more coverage of non-mainstream fare. I’ve done some writing about non-mainstream subjects (see my pieces on Cyrano de Bergerac, Petite Maman, Robert Eggers, the Spanish faith-based documentary Vivo/Alive, and the NatGeo documentary The Rescue (along with the mainstream Ron Howard movie Thirteen Lives), but I’d like to do more.

      Something else that would be nice is if the comboxes in my pieces about non-mainstream films were anything to compare with my more mainstream coverage. (I don’t know what kind of traffic my pieces get, but I assume pieces with lots of comments generally get more traffic than pieces with almost no comments.) As a friend who is an editor for a mainstream website recently said, part of the responsibility for what gets written and published is on us, the content providers—but also if you, the reader, click on the clickbaity or popular stuff and not on other stuff…guess what. — SDG)

  4. Hi Stephen,

    I’m surprised by your love of the visuals in Rings of Power. To me, they read overly effects heavy and too colorful; this is Amazon’s brand in general for their streaming shows and Lord of the Rings has not been spared. On top of this, the costuming and blocking are strangely staged. It holds no candle to The Fellowship of the Ring (excluding Two Towers and Return of the King for some of their CGI effects), and it’s immersive and raw world. I can imagine the world created by Peter Jackson existing in real life. This show I cannot. In some ways feels like it was created for virtual reality. Add in a 750 million dollar production budget and the look and feel are even more head scratching. Such excess spending I do not believe is wise or useful. Still, I’m left thinking, what did they spend it on?

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

    Best,
    Jim

  5. Jim, since you ask for my thoughts: Sometimes one man’s meat is another man’s poison; while you consider the series “too colorful,” one of my few complaints with the show’s look so far is that (like the vast majority of productions over the last 15-odd years) it’s not colorful enough—too desaturated and dominated by the overused orange/teal color scheme. (More reds, greens, and yellows, please!) Beyond that, did you read my first piece, particularly the section on “Spectacle and atmosphere,” which details some aspects of the production design that I appreciate? Add to that my comments on Númenor in this piece, and the gorgeous slow-motion images in episode 4 of Galadriel’s horse-riding sequence. In terms of cinematography and camerawork, both Bayona in the first two episodes and Yip in the next two emulate Jackson’s swooping camerawork while adding notable motifs like the God’s-eye shots described above. For more perspective, see insightful comments from other critics, some favorable to the production as a whole (Daily Beast, Paste, Guardian), and others who are more mixed (NYTimes, RogerEbert.com, Time), but share my appreciation for the show’s look.

  6. Dear Steven:

    Thanks for another excellent review!

    I think your insights on providence (I think it’s a kind of “gentle providence”) and the “light motif” are spot on. As you likely know, the medievals (like Bonaventure) often employed the “metaphysics of light” and I think this is a key element in Tolkien that some commentators miss; certainly, it’s neo-Platonic, but it’s also decidedly Christian (James 1:17). I think there are other Bonaventurian themes like “The Tree” and “The Itinerarium,” as well (which I think provides another helpful catholic lens for viewing T’s work).

    And your pointing out Elrond’s line about “love and light” made me think of the passage in LOTR (in the chapter titled “The Land of Shadow,” where Sam is encouraged by the sight of the star). So, I think they are getting some of this right. . . and I hope they continue to improve the dialogue.

    Please keep up this helpful and thoughtful approach. Thanks!

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