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A Tolkien scholar dissects our first glimpse of Amazon’s The Rings of Power

14 February 2022 | The Telegraph } John Garth

When Amazon Prime announced that it would be adapting the backstory to The Lord of the Rings for the small screen, there was much talk and excitement in fandom.

Now the teaser trailer, aired at the Superbowl last night, gives the fullest glimpse so far of what the show will look like. Aimed squarely at the millions who loved Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth, it begins with the words: Haven’t you ever wondered what else is out there?”

The voice belongs to the first character up on screen – a harfoot” played by Markella Kavenagh. This will be reassuring for fans nervous that there would be no hobbits, because harfoots are simply a hobbit people. They’re the first to be mentioned in J.R.R. Tolkien’s historical appendices to The Lord of the Rings, the primary source for the series.…


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When Amazon Prime announced that it would be adapting the backstory to The Lord of the Rings for the small screen, there was much talk and excitement in fandom.

Now the teaser trailer, aired at the Superbowl last night, gives the fullest glimpse so far of what the show will look like. Aimed squarely at the millions who loved Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth, it begins with the words: Haven’t you ever wondered what else is out there?”

The voice belongs to the first character up on screen – a harfoot” played by Markella Kavenagh. This will be reassuring for fans nervous that there would be no hobbits, because harfoots are simply a hobbit people. They’re the first to be mentioned in JRR Tolkien’s historical appendices to The Lord of the Rings, the primary source for the series.

Tolkien himself knew that their absence from his histories – notably the First Age sagas of The Silmarillion – would be a problem for readers. Their presence in The Rings of Power, set in the Second Age, and due to be released 2 September, shouldn’t upset too many purists. It’s clear the cosy Shire of the Third Age does not yet exist and that harfoots are as yet a nomadic people.

So what else is out there for fans of Middle-earth, and how will it play for those who love the movies and – a trickier proposition – for devotees of the books?

In The Return of the King, you’ve seen Gondor, with its monumental city of Minas Tirith. Now we see a glorious seaport in Númenor, the Atlantis-inspired island kingdom from which Gondor will ultimately spring, with its central mountain rising in the background. There’s even a colossal statue hewn from the rock face, like the Pillars of Kings that flank the Great River in The Lord of the Rings. Númenor’s tragic decline and fall will be at the heart of the human storyline in The Rings of Power.

When it comes to creatures and characters, the trailer promises a canny mixture of familiar and unfamiliar. Amazon does not have the rights to The Silmarillion or any of Tolkien’s other posthumously published books, which provide considerably more detail about Númenor and other matters. And even those books fall far short of the close focus of The Lord of the Rings itself. A phenomenal $1bn-plus projected budget rides on the show keeping audiences hooked. So it was inevitable that new characters and storylines would be needed for a five-season show.

The next shot shows a couple of hillwalkers sporting what look like giant elk horns on their backs – a cumbersome sartorial choice that the practical-minded Tolkien seems entirely to have overlooked in his books. According to a Vanity Fair interview with the showrunners, these people are human wanderers, but that’s a pretty broad category. We will have to wait and see what role they and their elk horns play.

After Kavenagh comes one of Tolkien’s best-loved characters in a wholly new guise – Galadriel before she becomes the elf-queen of forest Lothlórien. She appears repeatedly in the trailer, and unlike Cate Blanchett’s solemn enchantress, Morfydd Clark’s Galadriel is all action.

Gil-galad’s kingdom of Lindon

Gil-galad’s kingdom of Lindon Credit: PA

In steel gauntlets, she swings from a spike stuck into a dizzying ice cliff. Skip ahead and she’s on screen again and again, galloping on a charger in plate armour, and swinging a blazing brand at a tusked, troll-like monster. This kickass elf-woman isn’t so far from Tolkien as you might think. He was determined to give Galadriel a more active and tempestuous role in her distant past (one of his names for her means man-woman”).

Next up is a wholly new screenwriter invention, Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), a human warrior broadly in the mould of Aragorn or Boromir, adrift on a storm-tossed raft. Later we see Galadriel on what looks like that same raft, on which Vanity Fair says she and Halbrand will meet.

Halbrand’s name raises the question of whether the writers have bothered with Tolkien’s invented languages. So does Arondir, the name of a Silvan elf seen letting off arrows, Legolas-like, in the next mini-scene. Both names sound a bit like Sindarin, used extensively in subtitled Jackson scenes, but neither quite fits that language. 

If these names come from other dialects that Amazon has developed for the show, that would reflect the primacy of philology for Tolkien, who devised his entire mythology to give a home and history for his invented languages. It would also help to satisfy the widespread current interest in conlangs’ such as the Dothraki devised for Game of Thrones. Or the writers may simply have made up a load of names that sound a bit Tolkienesque.

Ismael Cruz Córdova as Arondir

Ismael Cruz Córdova as Arondir Credit: Amazon

The casting of Latino actor Ismael Cruz Córdova as Arondir, like that of Sir Lenny Henry as a harfoot (not seen in the trailer), raises a point that’s bound to stir up more hoo-hah, though. Jackson’s elves and hobbits are all conspicuously white European, and a few loud twitterati clearly prefer it that way.

There are undoubtedly troubling descriptions in The Lord of the Rings. A suspicious migrant at Bree has a sallow face with sly, slanting eyes”. Such descriptions hark back to Tolkien’s 19th-century literary roots – his orcs sometimes sound like the medieval Huns as depicted in William Morris’s romances. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields features black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues”. Tolkien may well have intended this to reflect the views of beleaguered Gondorians rather than his own, but still the line understandably sickens the semi-autobiographical hero of Dominican American author Junot Díaz’s 2007 novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

But Tolkien’s depiction of race is much more nuanced than these lines suggest. Actually his mythology involves many different elvish ethnicities, with not much guidance on skin colour. And his harfoots are indeed browner of skin” than other hobbits. Diversity underpins his stories. So does the need to overcome racial and cultural difference in the face of existential threats to all.

Córdova’s casting suggests that Amazon’s actor choices are not colourblind but colour-conscious. White actors play Galadriel, the young Elrond (Robert Aramayo) and King Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker), who is seen here gazing upward contemplatively from beside dark waters. All these characters come from the dominant elvish tribe, who see themselves as naturally superior to their distant silvan kindred.

A race-conscious approach fits Tolkien’s vision most clearly. One of the key signs of Númenor’s decline is its cruel imperialism, including the treatment of native peoples as if they were wild beasts.

A brief aerial shot of an elven conclave, presumably in Gil-galad’s kingdom of Lindon, plunges us into a breathless sequence of shots.

Markella Kavenagh as a curious harfoot

Markella Kavenagh as a curious harfoot Credit: Amazon

There are two dwarves, also diversely cast. Owain Arthur plays Prince Durin IV, whose father rules the underground kingdom of Khazad-dûm – which the show will portray in the glory days before it became the stygian Moria of orc, troll and balrog. Sophia Nomvete plays an imposing Princess Disa, who breaks the mould as Middle-earth’s first black female dwarf. Though Tolkien described dwarf-women as so similar to dwarf-men that other peoples cannot tell them apart”, Nomvete has mercifully been spared the indignity of sporting a beard.

Between these dwarf shots we see Elrond, his piercing eyes looking out from under curling locks. It’s a relief to see that not all the Amazon elves have the long, lank haircuts favoured by their Jackson counterparts and by Afghan hounds worldwide.

Amazon chief Jeff Bezos is an avid Tolkien fan and has been spotted at an exhibition of Tolkien’s art and manuscripts. Where he differs from the average fan hungry for deeper immersion in Middle-earth – someone who might dress up as a hobbit, learn Elvish or write fanfic – is that Bezos is a rival for the title of the world’s richest billionaire. So he can afford a rather more ambitious realisation of his favourite fantasy fiction. The landscape, action and visual effects suggest strongly that the money will be up there on screen.

It remains to be seen how limiting the source material restrictions will be. But it would clearly be absurd for the show to use wildly inappropriate material to fill the holes left by the exclusion of genuine Tolkien material that deals with the Second Age – such as Akallabêth and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, narratives published posthumously as codicils to The Silmarillion. The Tolkien Estate perhaps recognise this, and will have assented to points deemed essential to remain true to the Professor’s vision.

Robert Aramayo as Elrond

Robert Aramayo as Elrond Credit: Amazon

All the same, much will ride on the screenwriters’ ability to keep things true in spirit, and that will be a big challenge with 50 hours of screen time to fill. Jackson’s bloated and often absurd expansion of The Hobbit into a Lord of the Rings-sized trilogy should stand as a clear warning of what could go wrong here.

One avenue to avoid is the Game of Thrones formula, which comes from a style of fantasy far different from Tolkien’s. One of the most obscure moments in the teaser trailer features one figure, perhaps a harfoot, as if trying to haul another out of a conflagration. The poor chap is near-naked, but it is clear that the show will wisely avoid GoT servings of sex and depravity – despite a flurry of consternation after the hiring of an intimacy coordinator”. The showrunners say The Rings of Power will be for everyone from 11 upwards.

But don’t worry; there will be violence. Other snippets indicate combat aplenty – a human warrior leaping into action with a battleaxe, elves battling orcs. Yet the trailer ends on a close-up of two hands – one of them surely harfoot-sized – touching in fellowship. It’s reminiscent of Gandalf and Bilbo or Frodo. Even though it certainly won’t be them, this is obviously aimed at evoking the feeling of warmth and fellowship that is vital to any vision of Middle-earth. And as much as the epic action and scenery, that bodes pretty well.


John Garth is the author of The Worlds of JRR Tolkien, and a biography, Tolkien and the Great War

[Full text is provided here in the event that the original news story is no longer available. If possible, please read the original story at The Telegraph.]

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