The Two (opposing) Towers | Marco Shakes


 Amazon’s ‘The Rings of Power’ fails because it tries to serve two masters.  

J.R.R Tolkien was one of the last western men of old. Certainly, he was the last western writer of old. It is thought that he knew 12 languages, and was familiar with eight more; he was so at ease with the world of language, that he came up with enough vocabulary and grammatical rules to flesh out two of his own. He was a child of the empire and retained the worldview that stemmed from being as such; he was worldly – he went to war. As was almost standard of a man of literature during his time, he was versed in philosophy, theology and the classics. He was motivated in life, as well as in his creativity, by Christian faith. Through his works he sought to create a monument to the light of the Lord, worthy of the Lord – probably in full awareness that this could never be fully achieved – and that consecrated his love for the English countryside, the archetype of western man and the western canon. In summary, he was not a man of modernity. With this being understood, the question then becomes: how do you honour the works of Tolkien? What exactly does it mean, to bring to people, the world of Tolkien? This is a question that, at best, ‘The Rings of Power’ fails to properly comprehend, or, at worst, ignores entirely; and consequently, the project trips over – and is undone by – its answer.

For The Rings of Power seeks to be a mouthpiece to modernity. Galadriel, a character that, while not directly a fictionalised substitute for the Virgin Mary, served for Tolkien to reflect many attributes of her; as Middle Earth’s “Lady of Light” and “Mother of Perpetual Help” who intervenes to give aid to those in need; intermediary to, and symbolisation of, a greater, unseen order. Here, hers is a gritty and sometimes abrasive personality, interchangeable with any rote human warrior; in order to echo and affirm contemporary sensibilities regarding womanhood. As a collective, the elves are shown to lack vigilance, be seditious, and at times be boorish and colloquial. On paper, these are Tolkien’s elves; but behind the pointy ears and the glistening armour, the paragons of grace and spirituality – encompassed by an upright ethereality – whom so lit up Tolkien’s world, and pointed towards a humanity previous to the biblical Fall, are not to be found. Think back to the Legolas of Peter Jackson’s trilogy, select in his words and shown, at points, to be slightly separate to those around him; attuned to a different frequency: ‘Legolas, what do your elf eyes see?’. Yes, he gave way to a few modest, appropriately placed quips, in the later films, but these left a smile on our faces because of the how character’s personality was first firmly established.

To break up the monotony, the show, injects a few action-focused set pieces. These are greatly needed for the overall experience of it, however, these are components that would satisfy in a standard heroes journey type story; which Tolkein’s isn’t and they – for example, a struggle with a sea monster – are not enough to capture his essence. Elements of the books are drastically non-cinematic, the films, to their credit, sought to create moments to honour this, and did so even more in the Extended Cuts. In both, long diversions from the central events of the stories are made while the characters listen to a song, or a tale about something or the other; remark on the bitterness of war, their grief, or talk about home. These provide the richness and majesty that are the crux of Tolkien’s unique creation, because they contain the richness of the man; his melody and his colour palette, as it were; his faith, his loves, and his ideals. These are not relatives, some aren’t even universal; they have specific objects, consistent with a time, place and mindset. Attempts are made at recreating some of which I’ve mentioned within the show, but they fall short because the show has its gaze fixed on a modern point of orientation, rather than Tolkien’s own, because his is markedly at odds with the great majority of what is now contemporary.

Greatly needed for the overall experience of it, however, these are components that would satisfy in a standard heroes journey type story; which Tolkien’s isn’t and they – for example, a struggle with a sea monster – are not enough to capture his essence.

If the focus of the Rings of Power truly was to present Tolkien’s world to audiences, the Harfoot girl looking to break out from her provincial environment and explore a vast world, would be a young male coming to grips with the call of manhood and his destined role to be a defender of all which he holds dear. Galadriel would be an exemplar of millennia-old associations related to beauty and femininity. If this sounds extreme in its anti-modern sentiment, that is because that’s exactly what the mission of manifesting the fruits of Tolkien’s passion calls for. If it seems austere, that is because, compared to contemporary views of life, Tolkien’s world was.

What does it mean, to bring to people, the world of Tolkien? It doesn’t mean populating a Marvel-like, fantasy universe full of dwarfs, elves, some beloved characters – in nominal form – and some beloved character archetypes. It means presenting to people the world of the past; the world of the 19th and early 20th century, with its affections, and its sensibilities. Its renewed enthusiasm for medieval ideals like chivalry, for example. Of honourable, masculine orders of daring knights; of natural beauty. Yes it’s true, that is no longer our world. There is, however, much that would be edifying for modern people, in being brought through and immersed in it; indeed, this is what, in part, the unique cultural response to the Peter Jackson trilogy can be attributed to, as much as that world of the past was a presence there.

It is known that Tolkien feared the consumerism of “Americo-Cosmopolitanism” as well as the heedless, corporate greed of what he referred to as “The Machine”; as much as he feared the triumph of the Third Reich. Ultimately, what is apt, is that the first two episodes are called: ‘A Shadow of the Past’ and ‘Adrift.’ 


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