Welcome to a very very nerdy recap of The Rings of Power from the viewpoint of an amateur Tolkien scholar.
And there are going to be hundreds and hundreds of spoilers, so proceed at your own peril!
I say amateur because there are indeed professional Tolkien scholars out there and I am nowhere near their level – but I have read all the regular books – LotR, Hobbit, Silmarillion – and nearly all of the 12 volume History of Middle Earth. If you want to really dig deep into the lore of Middle Earth and the history of hobbits, elves, dwarves and men, you need to have digested this series – because the showrunners of Rings of Power, J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, surely did.
HoME is the work of Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who devoted his life to going through his fathers papers. This took decades because a) Tolkien wrote a lot of notes and b) his handwriting was quite small and hard to read.
HoME contains the raw materials that CJRT (as we call Christopher Tolkien) pored over to fashion both The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, as well as the standalone versions of the tales of Beren and Luthien and Turin Turambar and the upcoming The Fall of Númenor. The books start out pretty well organized but get messier and messier as CJRT got older and the raw materials got shakier. It even has two appendices to the appendices – a 400 (!) page index and a 13th volume full of tables and charts too nerdy even for CJRT.
Still, as you will see, there is a LOT of stuff in there that has left some mark on The Rings of Power – even those tables and charts. Shadows of the Past indeed!
For, you see, Amazon only has rights to the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, LotR and The Hobbit. They can’t use the material from The Silmarillion or the rest….however they are also not allowed to contradict the material in these books. Kind of a true test of tiptoeing around things.
I’m not going to get into the ridiculous bleatings of racists over casting people of color in RoP, at least not yet. Suffice to say, Tolkien’s works are full of discussions of races and peoples and lands, and he was well aware that humans came in different colors. He hated Nazis and apartheid, and although his work contains unfortunate allusions to race that any privileged white man of his time might have made, I have no doubt that he would be disgusted by the “racialism” (his word) of the reaction to having the beings of Middle Earth more than one color. In other words, stuff it, racists.
Anyway, this first outing will be kind of a broad recap with notes. Because, by Durin’s beard, I have a lot of notes.I’ll catch up with Episodes 2 and 3 over the next two days, and be all caught up with the sure to be radical Episode 4 on Friday.
Again, SPOILERS! Not just for the show but the whole narrative.
Our show begins with young Galadriel narrating a tale of her youth in Aman, aka Valinor, the Undying lands. Valinor is ruled over by the Valar, a pantheon of sorts of godlike beings that include a smith, a god of war, a goddess of the harvest, the sun, the moon and so on. Very Mt. Olympus – but they are ruled by Ruop, the One, because Tolkien did not want to contradict anything in his Catholic beliefs.
Valinor in those days didn’t have a sun or moon, but was lit up by two huge magic trees, golden Laurelin and silvery Telperion. Tolkien was a total treehugger who loved nature and you’ll find trees have a central place in a lot of his writing.
Galadriel’s headstrong youth is depicted when she makes an origami boat out of…well I dunno if they had paper in Valinor, so lets say a flat white substance. The other elf kids surprisingly act like kids of every race and species and mock her efforts! These bad kids are undoubtedly related to Fëanor, the greatest of the Noldor in prowess (Galadriel’s elf house), but also the worst – he was involved in something called The Kinslaying which is just as bad as it sounds.
Following the bad Elf kids destroying her ship, young Galadriel is comforted by her brother, unnamed in the dialog but confirmed in credits and subtitles to be Finrod, another one of the great Noldor. Flashing forward, we learn that Sauron, second in command to Morgoth, the great big bad of the First Age, was responsible for Finrod’s death, and branded him with a sigil that Galadriel is obsessed with.
So here is a real break in the lore.
First off, Finrod’s name means “hair (fin) power (rod)” in Sindarin, one of Tolkiens’ two invented Elvish languages. He’s from the house of Finwë, elves who were known for their golden hair and pale looks.
I am NOT in favor of short haired elves! Especially Finrod! I dunno where this concept comes from, but I guess after spending $1 billion, the wig budget was washed.
More worrisome, in The Silmarillion, Finrod’s death comes alongside his friend, Beren, in the dungeons of Morgoth (although he did have a tussle with Sauron first.) Tolkien makes a point of saying how Finrod, one of the most noble elves of them all, dies nearly alone in these dark dungeons, so Galadriel getting to grieve over his body is a bit of a stretch.
But OKAY, we have a story to tell here, and given the paucity of material about the First Age that the RoP showrunners have at their disposal, they had to take a shortcut to explain why Galadriel is SO set on vengeance against Sauron. ANd I’m okay with the mystery sigil as a MacGuffin.
Cut to adult Galadriel, clad in mail, climbing an icy cliff in Forodwaith (northernmost Middle Earth) searching for signs of Sauron. This is a smart move on her part since Morgoth’s HQ was way up north in a place named Thangorodrim which was probably just as bad as it sounds. However, after finding evidence of Sauron and fighting a snow troll, Galadriel’s men refuse to go any further, as she is alone in thinking Sauron is still around to make mischief.
A word about warrior Galadriel: despite grousing from infantile trolls, this is absolutely canon. Tolkien was pretty much obsessed with Galadriel and elf-society in his later years, and she got more and more powerful the more he thought about her. The most relevant passage is from the section that has the rather shockingly on the nose title “The History of Galadriel and Celeborn” – yep that’s right A WHOLE HISTORY. Unfortunately Tolkien never really decided on some of the details of this tale, and CJRT had to smash together a bunch of texts for The Silmarillion. However this part seem pretty definitive:
Her mother-name was Nerwen (“man-maiden”), and she grew to be tall beyond the measure even of the women of the Noldor; she was strong of body, mind, and will, a match for both the loremasters and the athletes of the Eldar in the days of their youth. Even among the Eldar she was accounted beautiful, and her hair was held a marvel unmatched. It was golden like the hair of her father and of her foremother Indis, but richer and more radiant, for its gold was touched by some memory of the starlike silver of her mother; and the Eldar said that the light of the Two Trees, Laurelin and Telperion, had been snared in her tresses.
…She was proud, strong, and selfwilled, as were all the descendants of Finwë save Finarfin; and like her brother Finrod, of all her kin the nearest to her heart, she had dreams of far lands and dominions that might be her own to order as she would without tutelage. Yet deeper still there dwelt in her the noble and generous spirit of the Vanyar, and a reverence for the Valar that she could not forget. From her earliest years she had a marvelous gift of insight into the minds of others, but judged them with mercy and understanding[.]
BAM: Guyladriel is officially canon. And this explains a lot of Galadriel’s stubborn and hasty motivations in the first three episodes.
Although as a devout Catholic, Tolkien definitely believed that women had their place at home, he didn’t see them as second class citizens, and male and female elves were equal in their society. He also believed that women were noble, wise, strong and fully capable of defending their homes when needed, and some of them were full on Amazons. Here’s a Reddit post that goes into all of it, but a relevant excerpt:
The revolt planned and assisted by Marhwini had indeed broken out; desperate outlaws coming out of the Forest had roused the slaves, and together had succeeded in burning many of the dwellings of the Wainriders, and their storehouses, and their fortified camps of wagons. But most of them had perished in the attempt; for they were ill-armed, and the enemy had not left their homes undefended: their youths and old men were aided by the younger women, who in that people were also trained in arms and fought fiercely in defence of their homes and their children.
BAM: female warriors absolutely a thing – TRAINED IN ARMS. Galadriel fought in the wars of the First Age, and not just using her magic powers.
Returning to the lands of Gil-Galad in Lindon, Galadriel meets up with Elrond, her great friend – also her distant nephew, although their relationship is yet to be revealed. The High king, Gil-Galad is also her nephew, descended from another brother.
Another sort of break from the lore here though: Galadriel was already married to Celeborn by this time in the books MAYBE. Tolkien dithered a lot about when they hooked up, but for sure they had met by the time this story takes place – pretty close to the end of the Second Age. I’m OK with this change since the whole point is to show the younger, more headstrong Galadriel in action. I’m sure Celeborn is lounging around seductively somewhere, and we’ll probably meet him before this series is done.
Unfortunately for Galadriel’s orc-hunting hopes, Elrond, Gil-Galad and everyone else are just convinced that Sauron is no longer a threat and Galadriel is being a pest about it. Of course, how wrong they are, but such are the wiles of evil in this world = blinding the just to their machinations.
Gil-Galad declares war is over, if you want it, and sends Galadriel and some other loyal Elves back to Valinor as a reward. As seen in the ending to Return of the King, the boat carries them into a sheet of light, as the closer they get, a bunch of …. comely elf maidens remove their armor???? What the heck? Not sure where this came from – clearly I need to brush up on my Elvish sociology texts.
But the restless Galadriel realizes she can’t just go live an unending life in a land of eternal sunshine and peace. No, She must return to the storms and dangers of Middle Earth so she jumps off the ship, first obtaining a knife, and starts…swimming.
Galadriel is a hell of an athlete but swimming back to Middle Earth seems a feat too great for anyone. Not sure what her plan was here, but….okay. Plot points, people.
Back in Lindon, Elrond and Gil-Galad converse and we learn that Gil-Galad is ALSO not so certain that Sauron is gone….and introduces Elrond to the great Elven Smith Celebrimbor with the most portentous intro since “Have you heard the story of Darth Plagious?” Do you know the great Celebrimbor? Elrond and C are about to take up a mighty task – one that will change Middle Earth forever.
OTHER MEANWHILE, back in Middle Earth…meet the Harfoots! A nomadic tribe of early Hobbits, brownish of skin, their participation in Second Age deeds is not canon but you can’t have Lord of the Rings without hobbitses. This tribe is led by Lenny Henry, as Sadoc, because, also, there cannot be a British fantasy without Lenny Henry in it. (He’s also appeared in The Magicians, Doctor Who and The Witcher.)
But our focus is little Nori Brandywine, a teen (?) girl who yearns for adventure and wonders what is out there in the wide world. Along with her friend Poppy Proudfellow, she’s always getting into cute Hobbit troubles and will make a major discovery in this episode.
I found these Ewok-like little folks with Irish accents a bit twee for my tastes, with flowers in their hair, and cute wagons and eating berries and snails and all. But sure. It didn’t make me throw my Roku remote across the room in rage and Nori comes about as close to a classic “I want” song as you can in a non musical.
PENULTIMATE MEANWHILE, over in the Southlands….the far west of what we now know as Mordor, we find a human village, and Bronwyn, one of their healers. These folk are typical humans, drinking in the tavern and calling their local elf policeman “Pointy ears.” This watcher is Arondir, a Sylvan elf sent to these lands with a company to watch over these lands where humans were long loyal to Morgoth and fought on his side in the great war.
Arondir has been in his post for 79 years and he’s a bit lonely. Bronwyn is a single mom to a teenaged son – Theo, whose dad scarpered a while ago. These two lonely folk are having a sort of romance, although just how far its gone we don’t learn, and maybe that’s a good thing.
Now I am going to lay some Middle Earth science on you.
Elf-human hook-ups are known throughout history. Two very famous ones took place in the first age, Beren and Luthien, and Tuor and Idril – both human males who fell in love with Elven princesses, a trope very much from fairy tales and myth. And one very common in Celtic myths, which were too wild for Tolkien’s taste.
But there were other pairings. Tolkien wrote a lot about Elf Human relations and in fact one of his weirder writings in HoME is something called The Arthrabeth, and it is nothing less than a wartime dialog between Finrod (!!!) and Andreth, a human healer from a noble house. These two spend all their time talking about Elf/Human metaphysics because (dum dum dum) Andreth is in love with Aegnor, an elf-lord who is brother to Galadriel and Finrod.
That’s right, kids, TOLKIEN WROTE HIS OWN FANFIC.
Aegnor refuses Andreth’s love because one of them is immortal and the other isn’t and a bad case of the sads are sure to follow. However, there are a LOT of echoes of the Bronwyn/Arondir romance in this tale, an example of how the RoP showrunners took tropes from the Tolkien material they don’t have rights to, and remixed it. Confession: I haven’t read the Arthrabeth in a looong time (it’s kind of a slog) but obviously I need to refresh on that as well.
At any rate, Arondir and Bronwyn go off on an adventure to investigate the fate of the village of Horden, where she was born. They find it a smoking ruin, atop sinister tunnels. Evil has returned to MIddle Earth for sure!
FINAL MEANWHILE, Sadoc is poring over a giant book of lore and facts – a clear precursor of the Red book of Westmarch, a book of Hobbit lineage and records – when Nori and Poppy spy a giant meteor hurtling through the sky – and so does everyone else in Middle earth, from Galadriel out at sea to Elrond and Gil-Galad. Approaching the site of the meteor landing, there’s a mostly naked man in the middle….and the whole thing looks very much like the Eye of Sauron from the Peter Jackson movies, with echoes of Sauron’s sigil.
Is this naked smoking giant Sauron? Is he Gandalf? Is he some other wizard?
That’s what we’re going to find out in Episode 2 – maybe.
- We see some ents during the meteor’s fall leading me to hope we may see Entwives before this is all over.
- You can read my regular review of this here.