By Ken Mondschein
The first season of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power both moves away and stays close to Tolkien’s words in ways that make the series better.
The two genres subsumed into the “speculative fiction” envelope, fantasy and science fiction, are like the two faces of Janus. Both, in their own way, are fundamentally eschatological. What is Star Trek other than the Kingdom of the Saints, where technology has eliminated want and human beings become as the angels, zooming around the heavens and righting wrongs like the gunslingers of a cheesy Western? What is Asimov’s Foundation or Herbert’s Dune, other than a prophecy that we can know—and escape—the forces of History, at least as they were as imagined by the “scientific” historians of the 19th and early 20th century? The Enlightenment promises us that we will achieve the Kingdom of the Saints through Reason; science-fiction realizes this dream.
Fantasy takes the opposite tack. Whereas science fiction buys into the myth of Progress, telling us that technology and cleverness will lead to a better world, fantasy is ultimately conservative or reactionary, looking to the past and the mystical as its source of authority. It is the heir of Romanticism, the counter- (if not quite anti-) Enlightenment tendency that Peter Gay called the “re-enchantment of the world.” Here, we really have one ur-narrative: The Lord of the Rings, an epic composed by a pious philologist whose view of the past had been tempered in the fires of the great calamity that ended Europe’s confidence in Progress, and which essentially tells the tale of a country squire and his batman taking a long walk through nature to throw Modernity in the form of the Ring of Gyges into a volcano — and then, in an anticlimax ignored by Peter Jackson, going home to reverse the Industrial Revolution. For all his idealism, Tolkien is more Burke than he is Hegel.
Beginning in the 1970s, as pessimism about modernity waned in the face of economic crises, the Cold War, social conflicts, and environmental fears, science fiction started to take a dark turn. Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, Blade Runner, and their ilk showcased greedy corporations, overpopulation, and Huxleyan dystopias. In other words, the future possible depicted in so much of is contemporary science fiction is one of doubt of the Enlightenment, Hesiod’s narrative of decline from a Golden Age to an Age of Iron. Its view of history is Spengler’s, not Rousseau’s.
Fantasy’s imagined Middle Ages has changed in much the same manner. I could point out a lot of predecessors—the existential nihilism of some of Michael Moorcock’s work comes to mind—but the one that has entered the pop-culture consciousness in the same manner as Tolkien’s Middle Earth is the A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones franchise. George R.R. Martin’s Westeros is not a land of light and hope. There are no beneficent higher powers watching out for the protagonists. There is no reversing industrialism; rather, there is an environmental catastrophe; base instinct rather than nobility; incest rather than love. Dragons are neither good nor evil, just a tool of power. His world is Hobbesian in the extreme, with social contracts such as guest-right only existing to be broken. We could argue that any pseudo-medieval setting does this — the message being “look how we’ve evolved!”—but contrasting Martin’s imagined past with Tolkien’s gives this the lie. The medieval setting is not a time of noble virtue; it is Foucauldian, a fairy tale whose moral is that history is nothing but the machinations of a power-discourse.
What I like most about The Rings of Power is that it applies this to Middle-Earth: the series, for better or worse, changes Tolkien’s narrative to be in line with our current concerns. In this, it is in a long, long line of changing canonical source material to suit the needs of the present, a tradition we can take back to medieval hagiography. “Orc,” the name for the racially tainted minions of evil, become a slur; they prefer to be called “Uruk,” and their depredations are the resistance of the oppressed. Elves are not anodyne near-angels, but imperialists; Galadriel, in particular, has layers of moral complexity that Tolkien only hinted at. Even Sauron becomes, in a way, a relatable character rather than an unknowable Panoptic villain. Sure, for the narrative’s sake, events that took generations are compressed and liberties are taken (Galadriel’s armor appearing in Númenor being, to my mind, more egregious than diverse hobbits and elves), but Amazon has given the Martin treatment to Tolkien’s legendaria. Rings of Power is not Tolkien precisely because it is a human drama, and it is better thereby.
Yet, at the same time, it is in Tolkien’s spirit: Much like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, The Lord of the Rings is, at least in part, about change and the acceptance of change. The Elves cannot stand the fading of time; their power is to preserve Middle-Earth unchanging. The power of the three elven rings is to preserve. The leaves of Lothlórien change, but do not fall. Yet, in the end, the elves go to Valinor, Arwen becomes mortal, and time in Middle-Earth moves on into history. Even if there is no healing for Frodo in Middle-Earth, Sam, Merry, and Pippin hang up their swords and become fathers and grandfathers. In the same way, we need to let what Tolkien created changes with the times, rather than preserving it in amber as eternal nostalgia.
Ken Mondschein is a scholar, writer, college professor, fencing master, and occasional jouster. Ken’s latest book is On Time: A History of Western Timekeeping. Click here to visit his website. You can also fellow Ken on Twitter @DrKenMondschein
Top Image: Photo by Ben Rothstein/Amazon Prime