Welcome back to an amateur Tolkien scholar’s analysis of The Rings of Power. I’m looking at how the material differs from the books, gathering speculation and offering my own analysis based on years of reading all of Tolkien’s writings. Previous episodes here.
So. Episode 5. This is it. Just past the halfway point, we’ve built up the conflicts and the set-up, time to put it all into action.
Time to go absolute HAM on just making shit up.
Despite being a huge, huge Tolkien nerd, I’ve approached The Rings of Power with an open mind. I’m not going to go nuts when they have to change the story for dramatic effect, or an Elven host bears the wrong sigil. Changes just for the sake of change…well, I’m trying to be open minded, because it is obvious that the show is being made by Tolkien lovers. But they have a huge handicap: they can’t tell the real story of what happened in the Second Age of Middle Earth. Amazon only has the rights to The Lords of the Rings, the Hobbit and the appendices – none of the thousands of pages of Tolkien lore written after (and before) that are available to them, which is most of the meat of the story.
How, it is a factoid floating around the Tolkien fan-verse that the showrunners can use some information from the rest of the legendarium, on a case by case basis, as allowed by the Tolkien trust. This information piqued my interest, as I haven’t seen it expressly stated anywhere, and after asking around, this document (fascinating in its own right) was linked to. It’s TORN’s (The One Ring,net, #1 Tolkien site) timeline of ROP developments, and they give the deal notes between Tolkien and Amazon:
In a surprise announcement nobody saw coming, Amazon and the Tolkien Estate announce a new alliance — the TV series rights to The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings books, and everything contained in them. The deal included tons of stipulations:
- Only a TV series, no films or made-for-TV-movies
- Five-season commitment
- Multiple TV series are OK
- Must be in production within two years (to avoid development issues like what happened with The Hobbit films)
- Cannot retell what’s been told on screen
- Tolkien Estate or family must be involved
- Additional rights to characters and stories may be available on a case-by-case basis
- $1 billion budget for Season 1 (including the rights purchase price)
It’s important to note that The Rings of Power exists because when JRR Tolkien signed one of the all time worst deals with United Artists/MGM, selling film rights to LOTR and the Hobbit for PERPETUITY, but the deal left a single carve out: a TV series of more than 8 episodes.
Thus the Tolkien Estate was able to make this separate deal with Amazon for a 50-episode streaming series.
I mean, they could have made a deal for EVERYTHING – LOTR, the Hobbit, the Silmarillion. But instead they just went for the works that had already been adapted. The media rights to The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The History of Middle Earth – literally massive amount of information about The First and Second ages of Middle Earth, the War of Morgoth, the fall of Gondolin, the story of Beren and Luthien, Numenor…all that amazing stuff – remains locked in an IP vault.
The avaricious among you may think this is because the Tolkien estate wanted a separate $1 billion deal with some other studio for those rights, but I think it’s because they just don’t want to sell them. The family hates all the adaptations of the trilogy and remains bitter (as they should) over the horrible deal Tolkien signed with UA. Given his feelings about treatments expressed in his Letters, Tolkien himself probably wouldn’t have liked any of this stuff, either, but maybe if he’d signed a better deal the money would have eased the sting?
I feel that it is a little bit inevitable that someday the Silmarillion rights will be optioned in some way. As Tolkien’s most Peter Jackson-hating relatives slowly die off, other relatives who enjoy more $250 million payouts may come to rule the trust that runs the family business. There’s also copyright and all that, but The Silmarillion won’t become public domain until everyone reading this is dead or very very old.
Sweden’s Embracer Group (also owner of Dark Horse) recently purchased the regular LOTR/Hobbit rights, and they also have “matching rights” to the rest of the legendarium, meaning if the Tolkien Trust decides to sell the Silmarillion rights, Embracer can put in a matching offer, uniting the three Silmarils at last.
All of which is to explain, I knew showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay would need to make stuff up to fill out those 50 episodes, but….I just ask that it not be terribly stupid.
Which is what I fear has happened in Ring of Power Episode 5 “Partings”.
This episode is really frustrating – it has some of the best writing yet in a series not overburdened by such, but also the weirdest additions to canon, and, to be frank, some of the worst characterization I’ve ever seen in a fantasy show.
This episode was enough to make me throw my remote control across the room and scream “no more!” – at least metaphorically speaking.
I’m so mad I can’t do a real recap so let’s just bullet point it with what’s going on with all our various storylines.
The Harfoots/Meteor Man: The Stranger is learning some Common Speech words, and sitting on hills companionably. His bestie Nori gives an exposition laden monolog explaining how the Harfoots are migrating to a place with more resources, like fruit. Harfoots, as we’ve noted, are a nomadic people without agriculture, but with a frankly disturbing love of eating raw snails. They don’t seem to like hunting either. Just peaceful folk who like to sing songs, as Poppy does in a tuneful montage. The montage is good because songs about wondering and traveling are very Tolkienish, and it is shot against scenes of actual Middle Earth, i.e. New Zealand, and it is a very very beautiful place that once again places the Harfeet in their place in nature.
I’m by no means an anthropologist, but how the Harfeet transition from the hardships of nomadic life to a real multiple-breakfasting civilization would be an interesting story in itself.
Anyway, this idyllic life is interrupted when Poppy finds Warg footprints. The party is attacked by not wargs but more prehistoric type creatures, which The Stranger repels with a shout of power, resulting in a wounded arm. He seeks to soothe it in a pond, which promptly freezes, rebuffing Nori’s offer of beeswax…and then he gives a shout that sends her flying across the forest floor. Nori is frightened – it’s like when that cute puppy you found turns out to have teeth when you pull its tail the wrong way. Nori’s pet Stranger is no harmless pup, but a fanged wolf, indeed.
Just who is the Stranger has been a subject of much internet speculation, which I laid out in part 2 of mhy recaps. In an earlier scene in this episode he’s caught staring wistfully up at the moon, just about confirming that he is Tillion, the Moon Maiar – or else it’s a red herring bigger than Ancalagon, the greatest of dragons. BUT!!!!
We cut back to the Meteor Man’s crater where he landed, now cold and ashen and being investigated by three white clad figures. They are identified in the credits as “The Dweller” (Bridie Sisson), “The Nomad” (Edith Poor) and “The Ascetic” (Kali Kopae.) A still of the Dweller from the trailer was thought to be Sauron for a long time, but the identity of this trio – or their place in Tolkien’s work – is TOTALLY a mystery. They are shown carrying items with the same star pattern that The Stranger has been obsessed with, and are obviously tracking him. But who are they? Well, episode director Wayne Che Yip delivered a strong clue in an interview with Screen Rant:
Wayne Che Yip: What I fear [is] that anything that I say is gonna give that bit away, just because there’s because… It’s meant to be a little tease for the second half of the season. And so, I don’t feel I can say anything without massively spoiling what’s to come. But needless to say, it was exciting to introduce a different culture and a different race of people that have been mentioned in the text but never seen …we will know exactly who they are and where they come from, which plays a big part in that particular storyline.
“exciting to introduce a different culture and a different race of people that have been mentioned in the text but never seen”!!!!!!!!
Color me intrigued. In another interview, executive producer Lindsey Weber deliver more information about the trio:
“We are enjoying all the speculation online and can tell you Bridie Sisson is an incredible actor,” Weber said. “We also thought fans might like to know that her character is traveling from far to the east—from the lands of Rhûn…”
Rhûn, new race…following man in the moon. Are these the Blue Wizards, or other minor Maiar coming from Aman to track Tillion? According to producers we’ll find out this season, so look for revelations later this week.
Arondir/Bronwyn: Meanwhile back in the Southlands, Bronwyn delivers the Braveheart speech to the rabble ensconced in the Tower of Ostirion. The ill-favored Waldreg, who undoubtedly makes YouTube videos complaining about Star Wars casting in his spare time, is having none of it. He says he’d rather live and surrender to the encroaching orcs and promptly takes half of the humans off to Adar’s camp.
Arriving, Waldreg prostrates himself, vowing eternal allegiance to Sauron…which causes corrupted Elf Adar to emit a metaphorical mirthless chuckle…and Waldreg to utter the much-screencapped line “You are Sauron, are you not?”
Adar is not, and promptly asks Waldreg to sacrifice one of the human youths to prove his loyalty. Bad deal, Waldreg.
Back at the tower, Arondir is teaching Theo how to shoot arrows properly. Theo protests, leading Arondir to explain that although he has long been a warden of these humans, he has grown to love their ways…and (unspoken) at least one Braveheart emulating healer woman.
While we haven’t seen Bronwyn and Arondir canoodling, it seems pretty strongly implied here that they already canoodled, and Theo is the result – although he looks mixed race and not half-Elven. Maybe Theo has already figured this out, since he’s not a doofus? Maybe another red herring.
Touched by Arondir’s perhaps fatherly concerns, Theo opens up about the Morgul blade he’s been concealing and Bronwyn and Arondir discover that the hosts of Morgoth, like everyone in Middle Earth it seems, loved to carve shit in stone, and there is a conveniently nearby carving of a similar Morgul blade. Ominous!
Elrond & Durin: Durin 4 has traveled to Lindon for dinner with Elrond, Celebrimbor the great smith, high king Gil-Galad and some unnamed Elven women in sparkly snoods. The Eregion project is going well! Yet, Elves and dwarves are naturally distrusting of one another, and there are some tensions in the dinner, especially when Gil starts quizzing Durin on why mining operations have picked up in Q4. Snoopy elves again! Durin is offended and makes up a story about their dinner table being made from sacred stone. After dinner Gil hassles Elrond about the true nature of his mission to Khazad-Dûm: to find out what the dwarves are working on. And then comes a line from Gil-Galad that will long be spoken of in shame: “Can you tell me “The Song of the Roots of Hithaeglir?”
Elrond stands up for canon-lovers everywhere and dismisses it as mere obscure legend but Gil-Galad insists.
In an admittedly impressive cutaway scene, we see an elf battling a Balrog atop the Misty Mountains (Hithaeglir in Sindarin) near…a silver tree? In the middle of their magical battle, lightning strikes the tree, melting the silver into the mountain and making….mithril.
Needless to say, this is not canon. (The battle itself is reminiscent of one between Glorfindel and a Balrog in The Silmarillion, though.) Nowhere near it. Mithril was mined in other places, including Numenor. And while it was super silver, strong and flexible, it was not magical. Why is Gil-Galad so hot for Mithril? After displaying a moldy tree leaf, Gil-Galad reveals that the Elves are going to die by Spring and need to bathe in the light from the MIthril in order to live! (Unwanted images of Elvish taint tanning arose in my mind during this exchange.)
This is sort of canon. It is true that Elves in Middle Earth do fade gradually, becoming shadows of the spirits they left in Valinor, which is why they must go over the sea eventually. Those who remain, like Arwen in Lord of the Rings, do fade away to nothing. But it takes a long time.
I understand that Rings of Power is TV show and it needs a ticking time bomb, but “The Elves must leave by Spring” is a bit hasty. Surely the decay affecting Lindon is part of Sauron’s rising power in the world, and could have been a bit more subtle. There are many options for motivation.
In The Silmarillion it is revealed that Elf/Dwarf tensions arose over gold and gems. Dwarves are naturally gold hoarders, elves like shiny things, and back in the First Age there was a major kerfuffle over something called The Nauglamír, a jeweled necklace made by the Dwarves of Nogrod from a dragon’s hoard, with the lone surviving Silmaril set in it. Such was its beauty that the dwarves wanted it back and many deaths and strife arose from it, including the Battle of Sarn Arthad where a host of Dwarves were slaughtered by an army of Ents and sylvan elves led by the human, Beren.
None of this can be referred to in RoP, but simple lust for gems and gold is a powerful motivation throughout myth and Tolkien’s story, as is the fading of the Elves. While something had to be made up to give more urgency, this tale seems clumsy – and where are all these White Trees coming from?
BUT THAT IS NOT THE WORST THING, NO IT ISN’T.
Númenor: Back on the island, now unified Miriel and Galadriel are preparing to sail to Middle Earth with five ships and 500 of the best soldiers to break up the Sauron threat. This recap is already way too long so suffice to say that we learn that Pharazon is quite the schemer – while he’s generally anti Elf, he is also pro colonizing Middle Earth so he’s letting the mission go on, despite protests from his weasel son Kemen and Eärien of all people.
Galadriel still has to visit Halbrand in his smithy and persuade him to pick up his kingly mantle and accompany them, however, and this leads to the closest scene we’ve yet had to explaining why Galadriel is such a jerk. Halbrand basically calls her on her shit, and asks “
Why are you always being such a jerk? Why do you keep fighting?” and she replies “Because I cannot stop.”
Oh, that explains it all. Motivation, people!
This horrible line aside, Galadriel and Halbrand DO bond over both of them running away from the past back in Middle Earth – Halbrand recently with some horrible deeds he can’t even talk about, and Galadriel with all her memories of the wars and sorrows of the Great War. Now this, I like! Galadriel’s characterization has been a huge problem – though this angry warrior Galadriel is very much part of canon, when it isn’t explained any better than “I can’t stop!” it’s weak writing. Even with the parts of the story they can’t detail, writers can allude to Galadriel’s suffering in the First Age and how it has left her scarred.
Still, Halbrand and Galadriel do
shove the tools on the floor and smash come to an understanding of sorts. He’s going to be on the boat!
There is one more plot to be described and this is the one that made me hurl my remote across the room with a cry of anguish.
Isildur keeps fighting with pops Elendil over dropping out of the marines, but now he wants to go on the Middle Earth mission. Why? Because he cannot stop! One minute he wants to “go to the West” the next he’s dying to go to Middle Earth. Talk about an aimless Millennial who doesn’t know what he wants but wants it delivered on a silver platter. He even tries to get his buddy Valendil to get him a place on the ship but no dice.
But later on Kemen decides that despite HIS pops telling him not to thwart the Elf-Numenor alliance, he will sneak onto one of the ships and set it on fire. A sensible, measured course of action. While spraying combustibles here and there, Kemen finds Isuldur was stowing away on the ship! In the scuffle that ensures the fire is set, but the two jump off just in time as not one but TWO ships blow up in spectacular Battle of Blackwater fashion.
Seeing the commotion, Elendil races to the dock, to find Isildur dragging an unconscious Kemen to shore. “I found him in a rowboat!’ says Isildur.
There is so much wrong with this I can barely type.
Two ships blow up and two people just happen to be in the bay at that very moment and…no suspicions raised? Is Elendil a nincompoop?
Even worse is Isuldur covering for Kemen and not calling out a dangerous traitor who destroyed property and just about sabotaged the mission that Isuldur was all hot to go on. Isldur lies for a potential murderer and that is not okay.
Isildur is one of the characters that Tolkien nerds such as myself were most waiting to see brought to life. He’s a complicated, tragic figure whose actions bring about much of the story of The Lord of the Rings.
But he’s also high and noble and valorous. Tolkien is big on all those words. His heroes are noble and wise and do deeds of valor. They hold their swords high and they get things done. They ride out of the dawn like thunder with proud war cries. People like…Isildur! I can see him being a bumbling kid who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, and a kid who makes bad choices, but covering up a dangerous crime for no real reason? Betraying his family and his people? Absolutely not. This is not the person whose subsequent, far greater and canonical betrayal will come as a tragic mistake. He’s just a total fuck up at this point.
This is not my Isildur!
I guess after all that Elendil relents and Isildur gets a spot on the mission after all, now reduced to just three ships. In an admittedly stirring and memorable scene, the hosts of Numenor and Galadriel, Miriel and Halbrand ride their steeds to the ships, in their splendid armor, to a rousing score, setting off for a mission in Middle Earth that will brings about great deeds…and great tragedies. It’s a lovely scene. But it’s not enough to assuage my annoyance about Isildur the betrayer. When the host of Numenor arrive in Middle Earth, they’d better bring some stronger writing.
Well see, as a teaser, here are some images for Episode 6 which starts streaming tonight at Midnight! The last one in particular promises some big doings!