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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