Rings of Power cost $60 million dollars per episode while House of the Dragon cost $20 million dollars per episode. These are astronomical figures, but RoP is arguably the most expensive television show in history. They are now approaching the ends of their season 1 runs, and we can make some evaluations and observations.
First, though I am aware of the fan hate on RoP before the first episode dropped, I thought it was a little overdone. I wanted the hold off judgment. And, some Tolkien fans were screened ahead of time and raved about what they saw, and I also listened to mainstream media people give props to what the showrunners did. I have no idea what these people were thinking. As someone who doesn’t follow media and how publicity is generated I now accept the validity of all the conspiracies about pay-for-play. There is no way that a genuine Tolkien fan would enthuse about RoP, and I assume the media coverage was due to identitarian factors. The show spends money on special effects, as there are some pretty intense scenes and unlike HoD it doesn’t make as much recourse to dark lighting to mask the CGI because it’s presumably of higher quality. But the writing is horrible, the world-building is a disaster, and the demographics of the Southlands and Numenor resemble a Midwestern American city in 1990. Mostly white. A large black minority, and a scattering of Asians and Latinx. Also, even though Numenor was populated mostly by the House of Hador, there are very few blondes among the Numenoreans (I am aware that the Lords of Andúnië ruled over a region that a lot of Beorians settled in).
But that brings up the issue of the “lore.” RoP is basically a fork, a Tolkien-themed show, but it does a bad job of creating something new. The character development is lacking, the plotting is weak, and the writing is often mediocre or even cringe-inducing. What did they spend all this money on? This is like the Fire Phone all over again. Bezos demands, and Amazon hops to, but there’s no execution.
HoD is not perfect. Because Fire and Blood outlines the whole plot in broad brush those of us who have read George R R Martin’s attempt to do the Silmarillion know what will happen. But there are many details to be worked out, and Fire and Blood couldn’t make the characters vivid in the way that narrative television can. Episode-by-episode HoD pales in comparison to RoP when it comes to special effects. The massive budget differential is on display in the darkness of HoD scenes and the relatively small number of shooting locations. HoD is to a great extent up until this point mostly people talking. But the plotting is serviceable, moving from torpid early on to acceleration in the last few episodes, the character development is good, and the lines delivered are usually not cringe-worthy. HoD is no masterpiece, but it illustrates that you can do this sort of show well, and with a far smaller budget than RoP and arguably less rich source material.
In fact, HoD is subject to even more crass representational changes, as the Velaryans are now black Valyrians of “pure blood” (as they declare over and over) as opposed to the Targaryens who are white Valyrians of “pure blood.” What pray tell is Valyrian blood then? The show positively seems to demand that we not notice this by alluding to blood constantly without clarifying if the Valyrians were a biracial civilization. No matter. Because on the whole HoD is a good show, people have ignored these incongruences.
RoP will be a case study in the fact that money can’t buy quality.
– they spent much of the massive budget on decent special effects. The scenery and setting were often great
– the Hobbits are weird, but the main Hobbit character I kind of like, probably because everyone else was often so ponderous and self-important. The Hobbit was the only human central character
– wasn’t soaked in contemporary wokeness. The race stuff was just tokenism
– lots of little comments that deviate from well-known stuff in Tolkien. For example, an elf says that the two known elf-human couples died. Beren and Luthien experienced a lot of tragedy, but Tuor and Idril ended up in Valinor. They don’t have access to the Silmarillion so they just change things? I could go on and on about how they changed the “history” of Middle Earth
– they transformed Galadriel in a lot of ways. Her husband and daughter don’t exist in this timeline and they turned her into an elven Joan of Arc
– lots of wooden lines for the elves. Rings of Power is convincing me that elves should be seen but not heard. Especially Galadriel, who is probably the biggest character in the show
– the “star man” is super annoying and out of place tonally compared to the rest of the show (is it Gandalf?)
– the people seem racially diverse like a mid-sized Midwestern American city. Mostly white people, but a fair number of black people, and someone you might think is perhaps South or part East Asian here and there. It doesn’t make much sense and doesn’t even play a role in the story at all, which is probably better than the alternative, but it’s still weird
– Many people sound like they grew up in Manchester or something
Overall, my contention that this is what Taco Bell is to Mexican Food was too harsh. More like Chipotle. Fast casual.
Since Amazon is working on new Tolkien products, we’ll be hearing about the author and his works more. Most of the scuttlebutt is that the new series, set in the Second Age, is going to align with the cultural Zeitgeist. For example, the Hobbits, who don’t show up in the legendarium before the Third Age, are going to be multiracial. That’s to be expected. Part of me wonders if they didn’t draw on the Silmarillion because it is so clearly fleshed out it didn’t provide the level of freedom from the source text they wanted.
Deviation from stuff like correct anthropological description and ‘race-bending’ or whatever isn’t a killer in my book. For example, to my knowledge, none of the adaptations of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea universe correctly depict the racial characteristics which are quite explicit in the series. Le Guin wanted to do a bit of inversion, and the central characters and protagonists were brown-skinned, while some of the marginal characters and antagonists were white-skinned (with the European-looking Kargads being barbarians). But the fact is there is was no way that a major production in the 2000’s was going to cast Ged with dark-brown skin, because they wanted the audience to identify with him, and the audience was mostly white.
That being said, the problem with deviations from Tolkien’s legendarium is that his world-building was essential to many aspects of the story, and too many deviations are going to really cause objections. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if it is popular, but I suspect at some point it won’t “hang together.”
But more generally, as Tolkien’s work comes back into the spotlight, you are going to get really strange comments and interpretations. I’m thinking here of a bizarre but widely read Medium post, No, Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” isn’t Christian. The author, to be candid, seems kind of dumb. Titles like “Did Tolkien believe in the Bible?” indicates that the author interprets Christianity in such a manner that the religion is basically just a form of sola scriptura Protestantism (I am aware that Catholics have nuanced views regarding the Bible, and am not saying they don’t believe in the Bible!).
One can quibble with Tolkien’s contention that the world he created was “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” The author can say what he thinks, but the way others take his creation is clearly much broader than his Roman Catholicism, and critics have argued that he was muting the pagan influence. But that’s a very different thing from saying Tolkien wasn’t Christian. If Tolkien wasn’t Christian then I’m not an atheist. By any reasonable definition J. R. R. Tolkien was a very devout Roman Catholic, but expect a lot of unreasonableness in the next few years.
Christopher Tolkien, the son of the writer J.R.R. Tolkien, who guarded his legacy and brought forth monumental posthumous works, like “The Silmarillion,” based on his father’s writings, died on Wednesday in Provence, France. He was 95.
The younger Tolkien became notable in his own right over time. J. R. R. Tolkien died in 1973. Over the last 50 years, it is his son, Christopher, who carried the torch for the vision of the father. Though the older Tolkien would have been notable and known as a minor historical figure without his son’s efforts, I think it is highly likely that he would be a much more marginal figure by now. We would probably remember J. R. R. Tolkien mostly as one of C. S. Lewis’ acquaintances, who also wrote an expansive fantasy series that achieved some success after World War 2.
Without Christopher Tolkien The Silmarillion and the various follow-up works would likely have never been published. Though he did not appreciate the films directed by Peter Jackson in the early 2000s, I think it is highly likely that the viability and interest in the films was a consequence of Christopher Tolkien’s effort in keeping his father’s legacy a living thing for generations which grew up after the 1960s.
So it’s confirmed, the new Amazon Tolkien series will be set during the Second Age. This seems like a fine choice, since some of the characters that we know and “love,” such as Sauron, Galadriel, and Elrond, will be major players, and the framework for the Third Age which is the backdrop that we’re familiar with will be set.
Additionally, as noted in the reactions, the fact that much of the action could take place on Numenor is probably a good thing for character development and dramatic tension. Numenor is the byword for hubris in Tolkien’s legendarium and opens up a path for a more complex and realistic take on character development than may have been possible during the more mythological First Age.
And of course, the series could culminate in a set-piece battle to end all battles.
Even if marginally, A Storm of Swords is the highest rated of George R. R. Martin’s books on Amazon. In the judgment of many people, which includes me, it is the best of his books. It was also the highpoint of interest in the series. For various reasons, it was published several months earlier in the UK than in the USA. So I special ordered the UK edition and received it in June of 2000, about 1.5 years after I began reading the series in the last weekend of January 1999.
Since I began writing this blog, in 2002, I have written now and then about my interest in the series, and frustration and patience with the delay in the books being published. The first three books were published in 1996, 1999, and 2000. The fourth book came out in 2005. The fifth, 2011. We’re now eight years along, and Martin is still working on book six.
For the longest time, I had no interest in watching the television show, since the books were far ahead of them, and I planned on watching the HBO series after George R. R. Martin wrapped up A Song of Ice and Fire. I had long assumed that the penultimate book would be published ~2016 so that the gap between the end of the HBO series and the novels would not too drawn out. Obviously, that did play out.
With the show Game of Thrones to conclude this year, there is a bittersweet aspect to those of us who have been reading the books for nearly a generation. There has been something of a “fork” so that many details of the show now differ from the books, and the HBO series, in fact, outrun Martin’s writing so much last year that much of the storyline was somewhat improvised. But the conclusion is said to be broadly the same between the television series and the book. Which means if and when we read the books we’ll know where it ends.
A reader in the comments pointed me to Vice and Fire (though I’d already seen it on Twitter), a rumination on 20th century and 21st century fantasy literature by Peter Hitchens in First Things. Hitchens is the religious and politically conservative brother of the late Christopher Hitchens.
The piece is curious because it reflects more about Hitchens than the material which he is describing. First, he begins with perplexity that J. R. R. Tolkien’s secondary world seems to lack a moralistic high religion, as we’d understand it. To Hitchens this is confusing in light of the fact that Tolkien was a very religious Roman Catholic in his own life. But it isn’t as if Tolkien scholars haven’t noticed this juxtaposition, or the contrast with C. S. Lewis’s style, who was extremely heavy on Christian allegory.
I think the most plausible explanation is that Tolkien had something of the same issue as L. Sprague de Camp. An aeronautical engineer by training, Isaac Asimov in his autobiography In Memory Yet Green recounts that de Camp made the shift to explicit fantasy away from hard science fiction because his professional background made it difficult for him to engage in the suspension of disbelief necessary to write plausibly about faster-than-light travel and other such things. In fantasy his own background did not get in the way of his creativity.
Like de Camp, Tolkien was gifted with knowing too much. This was a man whose legendarium was an attempt to create for the English people a mythology similar to what the Scandinavians and Irish took for granted. A philologist who was a scholar of Beowulf, Tolkien knew the whole cultural corpus of the ancient pagan Germanic people well. He mined their mythos in constructing the world in which he set his fiction. As such, he was aware of the violent brutality which characterized pre-Christian, and frankly pre-civilized, Northern Europe, and how its folkways were at variance with Christian morality. If Tolkien applied his scholarly skills to creating religions for the Men of the West, it seems unlikely that he would have been comfortable sanitizing what he knew their practices would be. On the other hand, as an invented secondary world of the imagination, it was not plausible that they would be Christian, and in any case, Tolkien was a sincere and devout believer in the Christian religion and may have been uncomfortable mixing his imaginative fictional world with the metaphysical truths he held sacred.
And yet this does not mean that the ethical monotheism which J. R. R. Tolkien personally adhered to did not bleed into his work. In Return of the King, there is a well-noted reference to “heathen kings” and their practice of burning the dead. The Men of the West may not be Christians, but nor were they pagans.
Which brings me to Hitchen’s diatribe against George R. R. Martin’s attitude toward religion. Unlike Tolkien, Martin seems irreligious. Some fantasists, such a Anne McCAffrey and Ursula K. Le Guin, have created worlds where theism is understated or nonexistent (the Kargads in Earthsea do have something that we’d recognize as a religion grounded in gods…but they are the “bad guys”). Not so with Martin. His world exhibits a great deal of religious complexity and verisimilitude.
Perhaps too much verisimilitude for Peter Hitchen’s taste. Let me quote at length a description of the religions as from the piece above:
Some readers of Martin’s stories see a kind of Christianity in the worship of “the Seven.” This is the most official of several religions in Westeros, described in this way: “Worship was a septon [priest] with a censer, the smell of incense, a seven-sided crystal alive with light, voices raised in song.” There are a Father, a Mother, and a Smith. Then there are the Crone, the Maiden, the Warrior, and finally the Stranger, who represents death. Although the Seven faintly echo the Trinity, there seems to be no equivalent of Christ or the Holy Ghost among them, let alone of the One God. This is not Seven in One and One in Seven but Seven in Seven. I would say that the Seven are much more like classical or Nordic pantheons than like the Trinity…The worship of the Seven is exactly what atheists think Christianity is: an outward vesture.
A rival older faith, officially tolerated, survives in silent groves of ancient trees. There is also a rather nasty Drowned God, who seems to encourage piracy among seafarers (which suits them very well), and a highly intolerant Red God with a touch of the Cathars, but which (unlike the others) manifests itself in acts of violent wizardry and second sight. This is the deity that flourishes in the sweltering, cruel east, and no wonder. So we have on the one hand a vague expression of civic virtue, empty of real force and truth, and on the other a manifestation of supernatural might, quite unconnected with goodness and very ready to ally itself with earthly power if it suits them both. This recalls the way in which, in our time, science and power walk hand in hand, often destructively and dangerously.
This is where it strikes me that the author had a hammer, and everything was a nail. There’s some truth to what he’s saying. The religion of The Seven is never outlined in great detail in comparison to other quasi-medieval aspects of Martin’s world. But there is a backstory to this: apparently the religious institutions were subordinated and suppressed to some extent by the previous Targaryen dynasty (who were clearly only nominal converts in any case). The fact is that the Faith of the Seven is monotheistic, where each god is a manifestation of the single ultimate God. And, it is a religion derived ultimately from revelation to the Andals in Essos. This is not a naive and organic tribal paganism.
As for the religion of the Red God, Martin has admitted that its spread to Westeros is modeled explicitly on the spread of Christianity. It is intolerant, but so was the spread of the religion which Peter Hitchens is a personal devotee of. On the Isle of Wight the last pagans were mostly killed by invading Christians due to their reluctance to adopt the new religion. He claims to have read the books, but he gives no indication that the Red God is a favorite of the Brotherhood Without Banners, who fight to defend the common people against the depredations of warring lords. Though the Red Priest Melisandre commits evil, like those Protestants who burned witches in Northern Europe, she believes that any suffering is ultimately to further the good. The brutality of the followers of the Red God is the other face of the fact that they are zealous and on fire for their faith, and believers who have faith that they walk in the path of virtue. The Cathars who Hitchens allude to were persecuted and then slaughtered by the orthodox Christians.
What explains Hitchen’s bile then? I am being pedantic on the points he makes about Tolkien and Martin in part because not all readers of the above essay will have read the source material, and will take his misrepresentation at face value. But it is true George R. R. Martin’s worlds exhibit a high level of brutality and perversion. When I first read Martin’s work I just finished Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, which is a retelling of the Arthurian legend fixedly in post-Roman Dark Age Britain. I decided to email Martin to ask him if he was perhaps influenced by this work, and he did admit that he was a great admirer of the Warlord Chronicles. Martin has said repeatedly that his work attempts to show that just because someone takes a vow of knighthood does not necessarily entail that they are virtuous. As a point of fact many knights in the European Middle Ages were little better than mercenaries and brigands. Codes of conduct and broad ethical frameworks exist in part to tame, constraint, and smooth out the rough edges of military elites who rule by force of arms.
Additionally, like fantasist Robin Hobbs, Martin does not engage in plotting where your precious ones will always come out unscathed. This is a painful feature, not a bug. The idea is to humanize the protagonist, sometimes uncomfortably verging on creating anti-heroes, and to contrast the highs of the payoff with some major lows. The way Martin does this bothers many people, and I think it’s within their rights to be bothered. But for those of us who have read more anodyne and more juvenile fantasy works, encountering Martin’s work was a bracing shock and made us want more precisely because of the rougher texture and sharper edges.
Finally, there is one aspect where George R. R. Martin explicitly attempts to mimic J. R. R. Tolkien, and this is in creating a “low magic” world. More honestly, Martin’s magic is actually magic, rather than a different form of science and engineering. When Martin’s series began to gain prominence, fantasy had fallen into a period where formulaic magical elements resembling Dungeons and Dragons had saturated the genre, to the point where lazier authors often made recourse to magical deus ex machina. If you remember back to Tolkien you observe that there really wasn’t that much magic, and you never saw Gandalf cast spells like a carnival act.
Ultimately George R. R. Martin is attempting to pull off several things at once, and obviously he isn’t always doing it well, nor does he fulfill all the expectations of his readers. The broader framework of the world he is creating does exist in a sort of good vs. evil paradigm with dark magical forces. But Martin enjoys shades of gray, and coming from a background as a Hollywood screenwriter, he worked hard, perhaps too hard, to give his characters moral complexity. They are often both saints and sinners. Finally, though A Song of Ice and Fire is epic high fantasy, he has injected into its veins an element of dark historical fantasy. This does not not always work, and I suspect readers keying in on the high fantasy elements are easily repulsed by the frank brutality and amorality of the historical fantasy. To make an analogy, the flavors clash. Your mileage may vary on whether this is good or bad.
If you’ve read The Silmarillion these novels are not going to be original. Rather, they’re for the Tolkien completists. But though Tolkien was a traditional conservative who did not look kindly upon the forces of the free market, I think the fact that Amazon is going to use his work, his world, as source material means that old stories are going to be recycled. Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who at over 90 years of age is nearing the end of his time guarding his father’s legacy. I wonder if these last novels are parting salvos by him before he loses total control.
The films in the 2000s were pretty good in my opinion, but what Amazon will do is probably going to totally reimagine how Tolkien’s vision is perceived by a new generation. Reading these novels might be a way to reacquaint oneself one last time with what these works of fantasy meant to people and were meant to be.
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was striking in the mid-1990s when the first book debuted because it combined the epic aspect which suffused J. R. R. Tolkien’s work with a gritty realism in regards to sex and violence more appropriate for HBO. So it was entirely unsurprising that Martin’s vision has translated reasonably well to HBO.
This wouldn’t work as well with other epic series’ from the era. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time was certainly epic, but its characters were the sort entirely comprehensible to a twelve-year-old boy.
Now that Amazon has confirmed that the new Tolkien series is going to be based around the early life of Aragorn, some are highlighting what they see as a likely problem with the new series:
While Game of Thrones is often held up as grittier and more cynical than Lord of the Rings – often by people who see the latter as a simplistic, morally two-tone tale of good vs. evil – the biggest difference, when it comes down to it, is the titties (and the characters’ filthy fucking mouths). Lord of the Rings is darker than it’s often given credit for.
There is something about the mood and ambiance of Tolkien’s work which Peter Jackson captured in his first three films. This, despite the fact that the exterior scenes in lush and green New Zealand did not properly reflect the ancient decay of the landscape of the fallen civilization to which Aragorn and his companions were the heirs to.
George R. R. Martin begins A Game of Thrones in a brutal manner. Additionally, the perverted sex is frontloaded. HBO really didn’t have to do much to sensationalize the material that Martin gave them. In fact, I’ve stated many times that some characters, such as Ramsay Bolton, were cleaned up quite a bit for the small screen. Not only is the actor who plays Bolton more handsome than the character described in the book, but he’s less depraved and cruel in comparison to the one Martin sketches out.
But as highlighted in the write-up above, and suggested in my title, I think an epic television show based on the world of Tolkien will stumble in how to depict sex and romantic feelings. A scene where Arwen Evenstar is getting railed by Aragorn from behind would seem a bit out of character. And, the way Tolkien writes about them, I’m pretty sure that his elves did not have anuses, so the real kinky stuff is off the table.
But if the show neglects sex altogether, I suspect many adult watchers will perceive it as a juvenile. In three films it was reasonable that due to time constraints the characters were depicted in a relatively chaste manner. But over five episodic seasons?