At the heart of the culture war surrounding Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power comes a timeless invitation for those willing to look deeper.
The best characters in fiction aren’t a literal mirror of ourselves. Rather, they reflect our shared humanity—our limitations and weaknesses and our hopes and dreams. Today, as our ongoing culture wars rage on, Amazon finds itself in the unenviable position of both stepping into the shoes of Tolkien AND navigating the opportunities and pitfalls of what it means to be “woke” with the debut of the Rings of Power series. I think there’s an important discussion to be had here, but likely not the one the showrunners intended. And whether you’re a fan, a writer, or leading a team, there’s an opportunity to stop and reflect on what’s going on and what it might mean.
If you aren’t aware of the controversy surrounding the new Rings of Power series, it goes something like this:
- The show contradicts or ignores established lore.
- There seems to be an emphasis on forced diversity when the source material is largely based on Norse, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon folklore.
- Many view the Tolkien “scholars” on the show to be social justice revisionists.
- The new series looks to subvert rather than build upon Peter Jackson’s high bar for Middle Earth adaptations.
- A leaked report detailing the show had hired an intimacy coordinator and asked that actors be comfortable doing nude scenes evidenced just how far the showrunners had moved from Tolkien’s vision.
- The series is described by writer and showrunner Patrick McKay as, “the novel Tolkien never wrote [done] as a mega-event series that could only happen now.”
- There is a sense this is simply a money-grab for Amazon with little or no thought to the legions of loyal fans and the rich history of Tolkien’s work known the world over.
The new series places the mystical elf Galadriel front and center. Not so much like the Welsh water nymphs who serve as guardians of sacred fountains, wells, and grottoes, or in the Arthurian tradition of Vivien, the Lady of the Lake who presents Excalibur to the rightful king. In the Rings of Power, Galadriel is portrayed as a masculinized armor-wearing and sword-wielding martial combatant (at least in the trailers). Tolkien purists see the rewriting of her story as simply subversion for subversion’s sake with an eye toward turning a prophetess and “gift-giver” who took no direct role in the wars into the Action Girl TV Trope.
On the other side of the argument, in a 1973 letter, Tolkien wrote of Galadriel: “She was then of Amazon disposition and bound up her hair as a crown when taking part in athletic feats.” In The Unfinished Tales it says, “[Galadriel] looked upon the Dwarves also with the eye of a commander, seeing in them the finest warriors to pit against the Orcs.”
For the record, I love a kick-butt female using the pointy end of a sword (or gun) to get things done. Imperator Furiosa is one of my favorite characters from Mad Max: Fury Road. And I enjoyed watching Naru, a young Comanche woman in 1719, fighting it out with the alien Predator on safari.
So what’s my point in all this?
My love of Tolkien stems from what he has to say about Mercy and Pity (he often capitalizes both words in the text). And yes, he was a Christian writing through a Catholic lens. He intentionally used the Christ descriptors of Priest, Prophet, and King as Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn. Thus, sacrifice and faith, death and return, and humble service are all given their due. These are ideals that resonate deeply in me, even though I am not a hobbit, a wizard, or a king. The physical traits of these characters aren’t important—that the weakest can be the strongest, the wisest the most steadfast, and the entitled the humblest servant are much more substantial. How these characters have and will be portrayed through gender, skin color, age, or race should not supplant the deeper insights such art can produce. In my mind, a thoughtful leader, writer, or fan can do both.
Mercy should be our primary concern.
In Tolkien’s books, Gollum is a twisted and cannibalistic ghoul (not unlike Sote the Outlaw in the Icelandic narrative poem Vǫlundarkviða who steals a cursed ring and buries himself alive to sleeplessly guard it with his weapons drawn). Yet Bilbo (and later Frodo) shows the wretched creature Mercy: “He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering.”
Gandalf later tells Frodo who wished his cousin Bilbo (yes, they’re actually cousins) had slain the creature: “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.” Then in one of the most memorable moments of the book Gandalf says, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.”
Frodo would later show Mercy to Gollum even when he had every right not to. When Faramir had the monster in his sights, Frodo tells him not to shoot: “‘Let me go down quietly to him,’ said Frodo. ‘You may keep your bows bent, and shoot me at least, if I fail. I shall not run away.’” Not only does Frodo show Mercy, but he’s willing to trade his life for Gollum’s! That’s not just Mercy but love.
There is a lot you can unpack here, but one of the major insights from the Lord of the Rings for me is that we all succumb to evil (some sooner than others) and that the only real way to combat it is through caring about (loving) others and showing mercy even when it’s unwarranted. In the end, evil—which is a diminishing and cannibalizing force—will ultimately destroy itself. Our job is to resist and find opportunities for love and mercy at every turn. This is the great invitation for all us as human beings, expressed through one that measured “half” in all the ways that don’t matter.
Like Galadriel, the showrunners in the Rings of Power have an opportunity to take us into her mirror. Are they obsessed with what we see on the surface or do the insights pierce deeper? If the emphasis is just the surface reflection, then I think Amazon will have missed the mark. Because the Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s world was never about seeing your own, recognized reflection staring back at you. Rather, it was (and hopefully remains) about seeing the less tangible but infinitely more important us. An us not with a line drawn between but a circle around.