Edits, 8/2021: corrected my mistake about the etymology of “Isengard” since “gard” also originally comes from German. Changed material disagreeing with Tolkien’s belief in evil defeating itself to be sad instead of just mean, reflecting my own growth.
Yes, yes, it’s early days. Not that many details revealed. Give them a chance. Please, throw out any abstract ideal you wish to present so as to pretend this whole affair doesn’t reek of coming disaster. I’m sure I’m just being unfair to one of the largest corporate entities on the planet. It’s not as though the venerable storytellers at Amazon.com could ever even slightly be motivated to put profit before quality, right?
Look, you: if I’m wrong about this, feel free to rub it in my face later. I would rather you rub something sexier there, but I digress.
Question: can you tell me what made The Lord of the Rings good?
This isn’t intended to trap you. And if you’ve not read the books or seen the movies, then please allow me this chance to convince you about the virtues of the series. Not with the idea you’ll want to experience it after this. Not every story will have value for every person, nor in every era. (Stick a pin here. It’s relevant later.)
I just want to express to you what I believe makes this story so powerful for those who have enjoyed it over the years. I want to express this so all of you, fellow Tolkien fans and abstainers alike, will understand why I say this upcoming Amazon series was doomed to abhorrence from its inception. So that you’ll understand me when I say our best-case scenario is an absolute disaster which sees this project cancelled after its first season and never touched again.
The worst case is the one I fear may be more likely. That Amazon’s Second Age cash-in will be exactly that: a serviceable but ultimately bland effort which makes enough money to justify continuing. It will appeal to people who care only for something that scratches some of the same itches A Game of Thrones did before its directors murdered any sense of meaning and coherency along with most of its character arcs.
Click here if you’re already fond of The Lord of the Rings, don’t need further arguments for its value, or have other reasons why you would rather skip to the evidence and analysis I give as to why I’m convinced this series will, at best, be a disaster.
Look, if you’re that person on the web who saw there might be sex scenes in this series and said, “Well, now I have a reason to be interested, lol”–please listen to me. You have my blessing to be what you are, you strange, horny wanderer. Go forth! Inhale all the porn you desire. Burn your eyes and your nethers alike with ten million words of erotica. Wash out all semblance of self-discipline from your brain.
Hell, if you can bear to wait until I’m far enough in my transition to be comfortable with it, I might even be willing to help you with that little ache of yours in a more direct way. Ahem… point being, if all you want from media is to titillate you, go right ahead. I’m not shaming you for that. Quite the opposite. Life’s exhausting. I’m not about to judge you for wanting simple indulgence.
But please, please, please don’t let that draw you to this soul-crushing exercise in corporate exploitation. There’s so much art and video out there that will be a hundred times better than this. That fetish you have? There’s a creator out there right now who will happily cater to it in exchange for your money. And you won’t have to slog through jilted misinterpretations of the Silmarillion to enjoy it!
Also, you, um… you do know that NSFW fan art, fanfiction, and porn parodies exist. You know that. Right? And that they’ll be much more satisfying?
I mean, come now, do you really think the sex scenes in a series produced by Amazon are going to be anything but the blandest, most vanilla material conceivable? Sure, the Dark Lord in Mordor, where the shadows lie, may indeed be hankering for some of that sweet Númenórean bussy. I very much doubt this series will actually contain any. And if it does?
Well, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Part One: Songs of the Ainur and the Passing of a Mythic Age
Let’s return to that opening question: what makes The Lord of the Rings good? Is it the lore? I mean, not really. Most of the events in the Silmarillion are never mentioned in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings except as transient footnotes. I enjoy the lore, but I enjoyed the stories just as much when I was a child and knew none of it.
If I had to pick three elements without any of which The Lord of the Rings just wouldn’t have reached me the same way, they would be these:
1. Tolkien’s tone. I don’t care if you think it’s overwriting. The simple truth is that he could not have created the same poetic, hypnotic tone if he wrote “efficiently”. I’ll further note that “efficiency” is relative to what one wishes to achieve. The fact that Tolkien didn’t write The Lord of the Rings with the terse, to-the-point-voice your DM uses to describe your character dying from a boss’s Nat 20 is not incidental to The Lord of the Rings‘ success, it’s part and parcel to it. Sometimes a story is more fulfilling when you can see the writer’s passion at work in it. Tolkien’s style, inspired by older hero-tales, is the epitome of that.
And if that’s not for you, that’s fine! It’s COMPLETELY FINE for The Lord of the Rings to just not resonate with you. Go be you! Be your own person! Just please don’t hate the series for not resonating. Hate the people who try to guilt you for it.
2. The story, at its core, is just a really good story. Not perfect! Not one hundred percent meticulous or empty of arguable plot holes. Yet its flaws are vastly outweighed by its merits. An unprepared group of friends must leave their comfortable lives when the snowballing faults of a decaying world finally bring evil to their doorstep. They’re joined by more powerful companions who, in the end, are important mostly for enabling the two most pivotal friends of this group to get where they need–not for anything said movers and shakers do on their own with might and magic.
3. The themes of the above story, which inform its events, its emotions, and yes, its tone to an extent that I still haven’t seen matched anywhere else. The Lord of the Rings, to a greater extent even than The Hobbit, is firmly invested in a world whose most glorious ages have already passed. The Lord of the Rings ends with an argument for letting itself go.
Frodo’s passing into the West, the bittersweet soft-spoken ending to this momentous quest as it asks us to accept that great things, in the end, must pass as small ones–honestly, it only becomes more poignant to me as the fantasy genre becomes increasingly obsessed with stories that refuse to end even at their ending. Which insist on promising us more adventures to come so that we’ll stay engaged with the universe. Or rather, with the franchise.
What we really need at the close of a great adventure is a chance to rest. It’s only now as an adult that I realize, for that very reason, how vital the end of The Lord of the Rings is. It hits the right notes, and it. Just. Ends. It’s in that moment of closing, as the surviving members of the Fellowship reach their journey’s end, that the shared sense of that ending makes us feel as close to them as we will ever be.
In fact, I’d say that’s where the entire soul of the fantasy genre lies: that moment when the story ends, definitively, and sends the reader back to their own world. That emotional journey, that return, can feel as solid and tangible as though we’d physically traversed time and space to make it. So you see, by ending, the tale allows us to carry a piece of it back to our own world. By ending, a fantasy feels, oh so briefly, real.
A story can run for millions upon millions of words and fail to have that same resonance because the writer refuses to let us have this one moment. When they’re too obsessed with promising us another story to let us feel, by the end of the one we just experienced, that it was real.
Looking at you, The Wheel of Time.
I don’t agree with all of Tolkien’s themes. The idea that evil will always defeat itself is, I’m sorry to say, just not true–that is, not in the sense that evil defeats itself before it destroys everything innocent and good. (Pin here? Pin here.) But I often reflect on why that idea remains so popular in a world rife with poverty, injustice, and needless suffering. It’s nice, isn’t it, to imagine those problems will just solve themselves without action from you? Irresponsible, to be sure. Childish, though that’s less troublesome if we embrace it for being so. But nice. Comforting.
Never mind that for the moment. There’s something deeply beautiful about a series which can be read, in many ways, as the result of a writer making peace with his own passing at the end of his own age. Tolkien was 62 when The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954. He’d lived through both World Wars, having served as a signal officer in the First and then having to wait out the Second while his son Christopher served in the RAF. To put that in perspective: in his lifetime he saw most of the great empires which dominated the 1700s and 1800s fade out, collapse, or be destroyed outright by rival powers.
Of course, empires are not kindly or moral institutions. Tolkien’s work does not reckon with such things, nor does the worldbuilding of The Lord of the Rings permit doing so. (Pin here. Important later.) But taken purely as the creation of a person who recognized that his time in the world was running out, and finding worth and meaning in passing that world and its stewardship to others–yes, that makes The Lord of the Rings deeply beautiful to me.
To discuss all of these three in harmony: the poetic, often somber tone created by Tolkien’s painterly prose works in direct tandem with the interwoven sense of wonder, fear, and determination experienced by the hobbits going into the midst of their era’s great conflict. The great battle of their time. Tolkien’s style, lyrical and often spiritual in its emotion, helps blend this with the melancholy the characters feel on recognizing that, even though this is their first great adventure, it’s taking place in their world’s last great age of myth.
Everything over-the-top and epic that populates worlds such as those of the Forgotten Realms, all the dragons, great cities, world-reshaping magic–these things did exist in Tolkien’s legendarium. But they passed from the world long before its final story began. I can’t overstate what a powerful feeling it was to read these books as a child and be told, “This is not Middle Earth’s biggest story of magic and myth, but it’s the last. You get to be here to witness it.”
There’s a powerful temptation to keep revisiting such stories. And hey, guess what, you can! Just reread The Lord of the Rings or rewatch the Jackson trilogy.
Thank you for bearing with me. This has been nice. It’s been nice to gush a little about why I loved… oh, what’s the use, why I still love Tolkien’s work.
Well. Time to lay out all the evidence as to why this whole Amazon series is directly anathema to everything I’ve ever found good and beautiful in The Lord of the Rings.
Part Two: So do you figure Amazon’s more Isengardian or Mordorian in persuasion?
Alright, let’s not waste time here. If you think for a second that Amazon.com is undertaking this series for anything other than pure, unadulterated profit motive, I don’t know what to tell you.
Ha! Just kidding! Here’s all my proof.
First, members of the project have said in the past that they do, in fact, want this to be the next Game of Thrones. That angle’s been quietly shunted out of Amazon’s releases since Season 8 crashed, burned, and pissed itself to death while screaming about continuity errors. Can’t imagine why.
But, to be perfectly honest, I’m staggered at the shallowness of analysis going on elsewhere. It’s not exactly subtle that whoever’s handpicking talent for this project, they’re doing it with a view to creating their own Game of Thrones. Occam’s Razor, no? All other things being equal, any odd choices involved in a corporate project are the result of executives mindlessly deciding what to do based on what’s made money in the past.
I will mention that salacious rumors notwithstanding, what we know is that Amazon has hired intimacy coordinators and is canvassing actors based on whether they’re willing to appear nude in front of cameras. So, probably sex scenes, and if not, then they clearly feel that the rumor of sex scenes is good enough as free marketing that they’re not going to shut it down until they absolutely must.
Enough about that. Here’s what we do know.
First, J.A. Bayona has been chosen to direct the first two episodes and serve as executive producer. He’s worked on a number of films. Key word, films. I liked The Orphanage, but that movie was released in 2007 and I have no experience with his more recent filmography. All I’m saying is that, um… Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is related to The Lord of the Rings only in that both have made large amounts of money. As far as I could find, his only episodic television experience is that he directed two whole episodes of “Penny Dreadful” back in 2014. That’s already scant, and he’s not even going to direct the bulk of this series.
I’m not sure what else to say if that doesn’t alarm you. Don’t pick a relative novice to a style of storytelling to adapt the work of a master. That should be intuitive, shouldn’t it?
Then, the chosen, erm… “showrunners” Patrick Mckay and J.D. Payne. I’m not clear as to what their qualifications for this project even are. Neither of them has any substantive writing, directing, or producing credits whatsoever.
Just take a minute to process that. I know I needed one.
Now then, writers: aside from Mckay and Payne themselves… I can’t seem to find any. There’s some serious writing cred buried in the small army of executive producers, with people such as Gennifer Hutchison–of “Breaking Bad” fame–and Jason Cahill of the “Sopranos”. So that’s all well and good, but let me save you the effort: to the present, no writers have been announced for this project who have any experience in fantasy.
Bryan Cogman, a former assistant writer on “Game of Thrones” will join the series as a consulting producer, not a writer. Not that I’d trust anyone who had a hand in that debacle to deal with writing of any kind in the first place.
I want to once more draw your attention to the fact that The Lord of the Rings was the result of a single writer’s absolute dedication to his passions. Now, yes, of course Tolkien collaborated with many other writers. He was quite close with C.S. Lewis, creator of The Chronicles of Narnia. Many of Tolkien’s ideas about allegory, and his cordial dislike for it, have obvious parallels by contrast with C.S. “Aslan is Jesus, did you get that Aslan is Jesus?” Lewis.
Yet whatever lessons Tolkien learned through this, whatever elements and suggestions he adopted from his peers, they still passed through the filter of Tolkien’s own mind, intent, and writing style. It’s that cohesion, that skill in weaving together disparate bodies of myth, that makes The Lord of the Rings feel so complete. Not every element is explored in utmost detail, but the story’s perfectly consistent in where it lingers to attribute value and where it passes on in respectful quiet.
So to adapt the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, a fantasy writer who stood out even among other famous fantasy writers for his ability to blend aspects of different tales, a total nerd who included references to medieval hero-poems in The Hobbit, we have… a bunch of people whose combined body of work shows no prior interest in the shared history of the fantasy genre whatsoever.
Look, I’m absolutely of the opinion that any creator can learn to work in any medium with enough effort, let alone changing genres within a medium they already understand. But that process takes time! SciFi and fantasy thrive on different approaches. True, there are compelling links between the two and many of the same skills can be adapted between them. I’m an SF/F writer myself!
So as someone who understands that process, I am telling you this straight: no human writer has lived or ever will live who can do this as a jump on the spur of the moment. It’s a long, long journey–you might say its road goes ever on and on–and in a project like this, mistakes made in the early stages by writers who didn’t take the time to learn will snowball to disaster at the end. Also, the Silmarillion is a prose archive of lore whereas this will be an episodic TV series. It’s not even the same medium.
Having a bunch of big names in the room does not make up for the clear lack of any strong central voice to focus this burgeoning disaster. This isn’t a series that can be brought off by shoving a bunch of talent into a room with no regard for how their past experience fits together.
Again, the simplest explanation for this is that a bunch of executives at Amazon have chosen these people with the logic of, “They worked on a thing that was successful in the past, soooo–“
Some people have voiced approval because the series will be filmed in New Zealand. In a few paragraphs we’ll come to why I personally consider that cause for dismay, but first… look, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but major corporations are 100% capable of finding surface-level ideas to which fans of a franchise attach too much importance, then mentioning those surface-level ideas in every press release.
If CD Projekt Red can make a cyberpunk game that is just plain called Cyberpunk 2077 while burning out their employees with crunch to make up for falling behind schedule due to incompetence higher up the corporate ladder–cyberpunk as a genre is explicitly about rebellion against capitalism and authority, that’s what the “punk” part means–and running edgy marketing campaigns that mock and diminish the very marginalized groups cyberpunk is meant to uplift, then obviously Amazon can make surface-level gestures like claiming to adapt the Second Age and choosing to film in New Zealand while discarding all the soul and substance from every deep, valuable part of Tolkien’s legendarium.
Yes, I know. I know it hurts to realize the Amazon corporation might be lying to you.
Also, not to put too fine a point on this, Amazon is making this damn show–Amazon! What is a corporation as large as Amazon if not the very fire of industry in which the old world shall burn? And yes, that line comes from the Jackson films, but it’s a perfect distillation of Tolkien’s own views about industry and industrialized warfare. The sort of distillation that can only be achieved by storytellers who truly love and understand the work they’re adapting. And as far as I can tell, Amazon’s team hasn’t even talked to the guy.
That’s not a matter of just “making their own way”. That’s blatant disregard for the depth of insight gained by other storytellers. You know, that thing which was essential to the very body of work they say they’re going to adapt?
Since I chose to bring it up, let’s take a minute to consider Isengard as inadvertent allegory. And yes, this is relevant to my wider points. Please be patient with me, I swear this will be worth it. Now, there are some interesting insights to be gleaned from Isengard as to what elements of his own identity and past experiences whose influence Tolkien may have underappreciated or attempted to deny, and how that denial may have manifested in his work. Isengard in the books is still an industrial power defined by deforestation, brute machinery, and explosive devices. It’s also, uh… also named Isengard.
Sorry, I mean “Eisengard.”
Eisengard is German for Iron Guard.
Isengard is a newly-industrialized power that, under Saruman, betrays its past alliances and becomes a threat to those who once trusted it. You know. Much the way the German Empire, formed as a direct result of Prussia’s military success, betrayed the longstanding legacy of alliances between the Prussians and English against the French.
This is what happens when you finish your book before caving and admitting how much allegory there is in it. Our beliefs and psychology inform the works we create. Denying their influence does not remove that influence. It only prevents us from seeing it and accounting for it. And yes, this is still relevant to Amazon’s developing atrocity of a series.
To the present we’ve been told only that this series takes place during the Second Age. That is a 3,400+ year period of Middle Earth’s history. The press releases mention this. I, a woman who actually read The Silmarillion, will tell you what the press releases do not: the bulk of the Silmarillion is dedicated to the First Age, the Age when Melkor of the Ainur turned against Eru Ilúvatar and his kin. In shorter terms, we might simply call it the Age of Morgoth and have done.
It’s an era packed full of grand events far larger in scope than anything featured in The Lord of the Rings. Most of it makes little impact. You see, it’s all delivered in bland terms because The Silmarillion was polished up and published by Christopher Tolkien out of respect for his father’s legacy. Few who read The Lord of the Rings go on to read The Silmarillion. Out of all the bodies of lore I’m familiar with, I’d say it’s the single most difficult choice to adapt into a classic, PoV-centric narrative.
Do I really need to tell you to stick a pin in that part?
So, that’s the First Age. But what of the Second? Well, the Second is presented largely as glorified footnotes. Whether that’s because Tolkien didn’t regard it as essential to flesh out, or he simply died before he could finish, I won’t pretend to know. What I do know is that its events are set at the pace of extraordinarily long-lived men, immortal elves, and the endlessly-patient malice of Sauron. Centuries pass with only a few climactic events. From Sauron’s return to Middle Earth in the aftermath of Morgoth’s defeat, it takes him almost three thousand years to worm his way to the fall of Númenor.
Even as an anthology series, there is not. Enough. Here. If you take every key event from this stretch of the Silmarillion and make a full episode out of it, you’d have one season at best, and it would bear absolutely no resemblance to any series any of the project leaders have worked on. It would bear little resemblance to anything ever made in the history of film.
Events such as the rise to power of Ar-Pharazôn, last and mightiest king of Númenor, his march against Sauron with a host numbering in the hundreds of thousands and the Dark Lord’s subsequent (deceitful) surrender are presented in The Silmarillion as mere sentences. Clearly-staggering events such as Sauron’s corruption of Númenor to the extent that he persuaded Ar-Pharazôn to gather an armada and attempt to invade the Undying Lands across the ocean to the west receive, um… about as much development as I just gave them.
If you’re not already familiar and it’s not abundantly clear by now, this is the direct allegorical equivalent of listening to a demon who persuades you to assault the gates of Heaven. Tolkien was an ardent Catholic, of course, so the Valar sank Númenor for this. But that was alright; all the remaining Númenóreans were unambiguously evil and deserved it, because every good person had either been murdered or fled the empire long since.
I’m afraid Tolkien wasn’t very good at understanding how oppressive power systems actually come to fruition, nor how they truly treat the innocent people caught under their bootheel.
So with this context, I want you to understand how clearly batshit it is that Amazon already has two twenty-episode seasons queued up for writing and production, all set in an era of Middle Earth which Tolkien barely wrote about. There isn’t enough material to adapt for this, people! I could see doing movies here and there about individual pieces of The Silmarillion, but an ongoing series? You would need a think-tank of the most formidable writers and worldbuilders the fantasy genre has ever known to have a shot at making something even vaguely reminiscent of what Tolkien might have created himself.
I mean, you know. If you wanted to tell stories that would actually capture anything that was worth capturing from The Lord of the Rings, and not just a big flashy project that you hoped would rake in a ton of money. Also… anyone skilled enough to do that should be allowed to do it with their own original work instead. We’ll come back to that ere the end. Let’s move on for now.
I don’t think it’s coincidence that this project uses the Second Age for its fodder. I think it’s a very calculated decision, in its soulless way: whether Payne and Mckay or someone higher up, Amazon’s chosen pilferers see what they believe is a sparse area of Tolkien’s legendarium. One with enough years and little enough narrative that they can dredge up whatever shallow tripe they wish to fill its void, and claim that it makes sense.
But there is no life in the Void.
Look, if we accept my admittedly overwrought analogy that George R.R. Martin is the Melkor/Morgoth of the epic fantasy old guard, how can an Amazon production attempting to wring money out of The Lord of the Rings by imitating Game of Thrones be anything other than the most direct, painful allegory for Sauron? You know, the chief lieutenant of Morgoth who carried on the fallen Ainur’s legacy as Dark Lord in his turn.
Sauron the Deceiver who in many regards succeeded where his master failed, destroying much of the beauty that remained from the great ages of Middle Earth’s past? Now we watch as he passes into the gates of Númenor. He promises a new height of glory. He promises that he’s here only as friend, counsel, enabler, the one will merely help us use our own fervor to seize for ourselves the vanished majesty of the Undying lands.
Can you not hear it? The story itself screaming out in warning to you?
This series cannot have been born from any true respect for Tolkien and his writing, nor from an earnest desire to do right by his fans. If it did, it wouldn’t exist.
If you’re convinced enough of the above and that’s all you came to read, feel free to click away now. These last two thousand-some words will mostly be an author making herself feel terribly old, and reconciling herself to the end of an age. If you’re up for some melancholy, well… you see the bolded text there below.
I’m glad to have you with me as we approach the end.
Part Three/Final: Why do you seek the horse and the rider when you know they have passed?
A question for you, reader, at this bitter hour. Why tell the story of the Second Age at all? I suppose it would make for a potent cautionary note, this is true. Only, The Lord of the Rings already does this. Its own narrative tells us in a much more personal way: be wary of power and those who offer it. Be wary of accepting evil gifts and claiming you’ll do good by keeping them.
More basically, this narrative would be served best by starting this series in the pre-corruption empire of Númenor. And for what it’s worth, I could see genuine value in a bolder take on the lore which puts forward the idea: hey, maybe Númenor was a little corrupt from the start because it was an empire, and nothing that large and power-hungry can be wholly good?
Somehow, I doubt any media produced by the Amazon corporation will contain a message like that. It might lead people to question Amazon, y’see.
Funny thing about that. I mentioned at the start that Númenor was inspired by Atlantis. Númenor is a lost continent. Númenor would not, logically speaking, have had the same geography as Middle Earth. Because, you know, it’s a different continent.
What I’m saying is that regardless whether the series will feature Númenor or not, the decision to film predominantly in New Zealand reeks of appeal to the acts people associate with Peter Jackson’s trilogy. If Númenor is a central narrative focus, I don’t see how anyone in this production can have put enough thought into the implications of that focus to bring it off well, yet failed to recognize, “hey, maybe thousands of years of difference in climate and world-history as well as completely different in-narrative locations mean we should film somewhere different too?”
And if Númenor has already fallen? If this entire series consists of Elendil, Anárion, and Isildur putzing around Middle Earth while they defend the nascent kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor from Sauron’s forces? Then… what’s the point? Why does seeing any of that matter? Elendil dies against Sauron. Isildur fails to destroy the Ring. Anárion dies in the sixth year of the seven-year siege of Barad-dûr.
Ah, yes, by the way: the siege of Barad-dûr lasted seven years. Are you all excited for that? Excited to see episode after episode of slow attrition warfare until Sauron finally emerges for that single pivotal battle we see at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring?
Do you begin to see, to understand? These events were not meant to be depicted save as allusions long after their fading. Tolkien himself wrote them to serve as history, with history’s cadence of events. He made a conscious, very intelligent decision to set the climactic narrative of his books after all this.
Do you know why? I should hope you do by now. “This is not the biggest story of Middle Earth, but it’s the last. And you get to be here to witness it.” Tolkien’s greatest strength as a storyteller was his skill in recognizing when something should come to the narrative fore, and when it should remain in the background as history, legend, myth.
The single most compelling aspect of The Lord of the Rings is its wistfulness for bygone ages and the glories that might have been. Can you not see how all that will be lost if those ages are actually depicted? The irretrievability, the unknowability, of a past we arrived too late to partake of–that Tolkien took something so depressing and turned it beautiful if bittersweet is still one of the greatest feats in literature.
At its core, Amazon’s series cannot be good because its very existence contradicts the function of that which it purports to adapt. And it’s here at the end that, if you’re still excited for this series, I need you to ask yourself why. What is there, truly, that you might find here that you won’t find elsewhere?
I won’t claim to know your reasons. I’ll just tell you the ones that tempt me. Through my headset I’m looping The Grey Havens from Howard Shore’s still-spectacular soundtrack for the Jackson films. Let’s make an end.
There is a part of me, reader, that wants to return to the child of the early 2000s sitting on the family couch and watching The Fellowship of the Rings for the first time, entranced. You might say, “Why not in theaters”, but honestly? I’m glad I didn’t watch Jackson’s trilogy in theaters.
Sitting in the faintly-musty room of a countryside home on a faded, comfy couch with gentle afternoon light through the windows–that’s the best way I can think of to watch those movies. Not the clamor of strangers, but the warmth of family and dearest friends.
You know. Surrounded by fellowship.
My life was easier back then. Of course I’m tempted to reclaim that time somehow. To demand a return of the simplicity I knew as a child. But I’m not a child. I’m a grown woman who knows something of the world. And in truth, the simplicity of childhood is illusion. The world around a child is still complicated. But if the child’s lucky, as I was lucky, then they’re spared any need to witness or confront it. The same injustice and ills that wrack this Earth now existed when I was a child. Simplicity existed for me because I was young, and not yet called to fight.
Please, reader, please listen to me. You’re not at fault for desiring a return to a simpler time. There’s no shame in seeking moments for yourself when you shut out the world and pretend you’re back in some happy, halcyon moment. Only…
… only, we’re not children anymore. We have known the bite of the Morgul blade. Its hurt goes too deep. We cannot continue as though it never found us. If we ignore its chill poison, it eats us away until only the poison remains. Only poison, and a shell, a shadow, a wraith professing still that it wishes to do good while it wreaks nothing but evil.
When I started writing this article I did it with a joking spirit. The whole ordeal seemed so superficial to me. Now…
Now I think we all need to ask ourselves why we keep insisting on more of Tolkien’s writing, or writing that reminds us of it. I can’t help but think of the words from one of Amazon’s press releases, which tries to pretty itself up by claiming that Tolkien’s world is “epic, diverse, and full of heart.” You know as well as I that that middle word just isn’t true.
Well, I suppose Middle Earth can be presented as diverse if you count the men of Rhûn and Harad as POC representation. Yes, the Men of the East, of whom we know only that they come from the East, that they do not match the pale-skinned beauty of Gondor, Rohan, or the Elves, and that they serve Sauron. They align with his goal of seeing the White City of Minas-Tirith, and all the legacy of the Men of the West, laid low.
I said near the start that there’s something deeply beautiful about a writer making peace with the passing of his own age, and his own great deeds, through his writing. But Tolkien was a white man writing about the passing of white men’s empires. Whether or not he shared the biases and bigotry those empires fomented over the centuries, they found their way into his work. Because Tolkien refused to see this, or did not care, he did nothing to cleanse his work. The Eru of the euro-centric high fantasy genre was deceived by evil purely because he didn’t think to look for it.
And the Uruk-hai… how much trouble could Tolkien have averted in the Jackson films if he simply decided to specifiy that the Uruk-hai were ghastly pale? It would’ve made for more visually striking designs, that pale flesh against black armor, every Uruk the white hand of Saruman made flesh. Tolkien admitted that allegory was inevitable. Well… we must deal with inevitabilities, mustn’t we? You can’t just acknowledge that problems exist and then expect them to sort themselves out. Problems are, by definition, problems because they don’t solve themselves.
But, if you truly wished to live in comfortable quiet without wondering if there was something left undone, I suppose you might convince yourself that’s just what your problems will do. That evil’s undoing will come by evil’s hand, not by the great pain and sacrifice of countless good people too often unrecognized. If you pretended that such heroes did not exist, did not suffer, did not strive, then yes… I suppose with them erased from the picture, their achievements might look as simple as “evil defeats itself in the end.”
In Tolkien’s legendarium, the fall of Númenor comes about when Sauron subverts the worship of Eru into the worship of Melkor by exploiting the Númenórean fear of death. This is a clear projection of a white, Christian man’s terror about the loss of his faith–a faith which, historically, fears this violent unmaking because that’s precisely what it has always done to other faiths when it can.
In reality, the worship of the Christian God was corrupted by the very white men who propagated it. Terrified not of death, but the loss of power they saw as their birthright, they kept their faith’s whispers just as sweet to the faithful while turning them into poison against those they saw as lesser.
Sacrifices were made, but not from among the worshippers nor in the temples. They were made of the people to the west, east, and the south. For their very resistance to these sacrifices demanded by empires that deemed themselves the peak of civilization, inheritors of some purer ancient knowledge, these outlanders were slandered as tribalistic, heretical… twisted, ruined forms of life. Evil that began and came only from outside.
It’s no coincidence that alt-right figures can sometimes be seen unironically referring to themselves as “Men of the West”. Tolkien himself was not strong enough to confront the corrupt institutions whose thinking informed his own. So even though he fought the German Empire and the Central Powers, even though his son fought the Nazis, Tolkien baked many of the very ideas that serve as fascism’s fodder into his own great work.
The fact that Amazon has hired a fair number of BIPOC actors for this series’ cast isn’t going to erase faults that run this deep. Sexifying the work with nudity or outright sex–though again, I’m sure said sex will only count as “steamy” if you’re something besides ace or demisexual and in the first stages of escaping your prude shell–won’t do anything about Tolkien’s blind spots. And given that the press release purports to deal with these difficulties by just saying “the setting was diverse all along”, I fear its writing won’t do so either.
There are serious issues endemic in Tolkien’s lineage to this day. To confront and defeat them is a worthy effort. Done well enough, it might even be a little heroic. But to do that requires the insight, frequently painful, of creators who grew up with fantasy and want it to mature with them–to elevate the good they know it can contain and put to rest the evils it has carried with it for too long.
I’ve run out of new ways to tell you this, so I’ll just repeat it: a mass-marketed adaptation of the Silmarillion by a disparate band of people with no real background in fantasy wouldn’t be able to do that even if there wasn’t a small army of Amazon executives breathing down their necks and demanding they turn a profit.
The Lord of the Rings had its time. It has shaped an entire sector of the fantasy genre for over half a century. It was beautiful while it lasted. But much of that beauty has faded. The longer we force it to rebirth and serve us in our own time, the further we allow the evils of our time to corrupt what beauty might yet remain.
So, why do we go back? If nothing new will be unearthed, if we do not return to Middle Earth to confront our past selves who seek refuge there and refuse to meet the changing of the world by the changing of the self, yet still demand a share of the newborn age’s life, passion, and power… then why?
For some of us, those who can see ourselves in Tolkien’s monolithic Men of the West… perhaps for us it’s nothing more than that lie of simplicity. For a return to a time before we knew that we must think about race, culture, and creed. A time when the world was simpler… but we’ve already been over that. It was always complex. We were merely spared that complexity at the expense of others.
We’re grown now. And if we do not carry the burden, someone else will be forced to. Someone who already carries too much, and will be crushed by it.
I don’t write this to you as some flawless heroine, a daughter of kings who will not be caged. I write it as a worn-down author grappling with the weight of her own wrongful decisions. Decisions I could easily have averted when they were small poisons. But I did not want to admit there was any poison in them. Some of my denial was hubris. Much was fear of humiliation. Most of all was because the poison came from works I loved where I did not wish to see evil lurking.
I wanted to believe that The Lord of the Rings, the epic that served me as companion and comfort from my childhood through college, was fundamentally perfect. It took many years to admit the truth. It took me until these past few months as I contemplated the folly of Amazon and the reasons why so many seem willing to embrace it. The truth that The Lord of the Rings’ flaws were simply subtle enough that I could ignore them for a long time.
A crack in a white-stone façade begins as a small thing. Left unmended, it spreads. One generation after another may patch it without looking to the ground beneath. Thus none find how hollow and worm-eaten the foundation has become because the one who first built the city didn’t care to think of such things. It’s easy to pass the labor to a new generation until one day the rot is completed below and all comes crashing down. Would that those who came before had done this, that we need not.
Would that we could pass it to those who come after, that we need not… no. No, that I shall not wish.
The Ring hangs heavy, doesn’t it? Such a potent thing for its small size. Such power it promises. Why discard it when we could claim it? Why end the age when we could rule?
Gollum isn’t here, readers. There is no lesser, petty evil that will save us from our own worst instincts.
If you can still find beauty and good in The Lord of the Rings, that’s wonderful. I still do. The work was published sixty-six years ago by a man already growing old and out of his time. He’s long dead. As far as I’ve heard, he leaves no legacy of deliberate evil behind him. There’s still much of worth in his tales. To see and cherish that worth, to be thankful that we had the chance to taste of it–there is no evil in allowing ourselves that much.
Tolkien’s battles were not our battles, nor was his time our own. We must grow, and our stories with us. The First Age has passed. The Undying Lands are sealed.
I feel as though I should close with some call to action here, and yet… and yet I do not know what to ask, or what words to ask it with. I don’t expect you, reader, to somehow overthrow one of the largest, wealthiest corporations on Earth. I suppose, here at the close, I ask only this.
Let the passing age keep whatever grace remains to it. We must make our own. The great battle of our time is ours to fight. We cannot look to the great names of the past to fight it for us.
If you’ve come this far, read these seven and a half thousand words all the way to the end, then I hope that you see why I felt driven to write so much.
And please, just… don’t watch this thing Amazon has devised. It may be many things, but it will not be good. If I’ve convinced you of nothing else, I hope I’ve convinced you of that.
Farewell, readers mine. I hope you find a gentle sunset this night, and rest from whatever burdens you must resume with the dawn.