“The Rings of Power,” the new and outrageously expensive prequel to J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” saga, opens slowly. Amazon, perhaps the only corporation on earth that can throw this kind of money around with ease, committed to spending a billion dollars on the series, across five seasons, without any of the new plotting established in advance. The first three episodes dwell on texture and on story setup, delineating a world that is close—but not quite familiar—to the half-dozen films directed by Peter Jackson. As in the movies, they have slow-motion scenes of horses galloping in high resolution along beaches, sunlight glinting off idyllic fields, creatures with nasty teeth, and plenty of quality sword fights.
The show is set in Arda, the world Tolkien invented, during its Second Age, several thousand years before the action of “The Lord of the Rings.” But Tolkien’s elves live for millennia, and he fitted Arda out with a nine-thousand-year history, so familiar characters (the elves Galadriel and Elrond) and places (Middle-earth, the dwarves’ mountain capital of Khazad-dûm) abound. Galadriel, who was played by Cate Blanchett in the movies, is brought to younger life by Morfydd Clark with the same ferocity that Clark delivered in her breakout role as a demented nurse in the startling horror movie “Saint Maud.” She is, thus far, the ambivalent hero of the series. It’s an interesting choice; similar to Jackson’s movies, the show imagines Tolkien’s elves as emotionally intense and mannered in their movements, which leads to some stiff staging, as when a group of elves travel by boat together, standing motionless in perfect formation, like pieces on a chess board.
Galadriel is on a quest to understand and root out the forces of darkness. The primordial source of evil in Arda is an ancient entity called Morgoth, the more powerful forebear of Sauron, the antagonist in “The Lord of the Rings” who spied on Middle-earth with his big flaming eye. Morgoth and Sauron are ultimately manifestations of the same eternal nastiness; in “The Rings of Power,” evil has come to Arda in the form of a creature named Adar, whose face finally appears in Episode 4, as the pace of the series begins to quicken.
The oliphaunt in the room is “House of the Dragon,” HBO’s “Game of Thrones” prequel, which began airing eleven days before “The Rings of Power” arrived and which shares with Tolkien’s saga that romanticized, old-timey formula “of the,” conjuring visions of tunic-clad people prancing in sunny dells. Both of the new series are backstories, and both are medieval-style fantasies that take full advantage of the love modern folk have for the imaginings of the European past. George R. R. Martin, the author of the “Game of Thrones” books, is openly indebted to Tolkien, and you have to pay careful attention if you want to keep Valinor and Velaryon separate in your mind, or remember who is Otto and who is Ontamo.
In this age of intellectual property über alles, it was perhaps inevitable that Amazon and HBO would end up on a collision course. It’s a bit unfortunate; both shows suffer by comparison. “House of the Dragon” makes “The Rings of Power” seem sexless and low on jokes, whereas the latter makes the former’s landscapes and battle scenes look cheap beside its wild mountain ranges and glorious ocean scenes. Both shows have also suffered the predictable slings and arrows from the sorts of fans, or quasi-fans, who think that only white actors ought to be cast in such stories. Medieval-style fantasy fiction always runs the risk of redoubling the racisms of the genre’s past; many of the conventions of the knights-’n’-ladies genre are the stuff of fanciful nineteenth-century visions of a Europe before the age of heavy industry and mass migration. The Black actors Steve Toussaint, who plays Corlys Velaryon on “House of the Dragon,” and Ismael Cruz Córdova, who plays Arondir on “The Rings of Power,” have spoken of being deluged with racist hate mail. They are among the most magnetic members of their ensemble casts, and the dull uniformity of the racist response exemplifies the manner in which prejudice occludes good taste.
Tolkien, for all his world-building prowess, had a tendency to flatten communities into sets of certain traits, which makes the attempt to imagine his world in contemporary racial terms particularly awkward. There is a value attached to the individual lives of elves, for instance—on account of their longevity, and also, perhaps, their seemingly congenital seriousness—that is not equalled by those of the Harfoots, the tiny, cheerful ancestors of the hobbits. When the Harfoots migrate, in the new series, they never wait for any of their company, and therefore lose a handful of folks every season. Life is fleeting for them, and their happy itinerant agrarianism evidently makes this all right, in a way that it isn’t all right for Galadriel to lose her brother.
The villain in “The Rings of Power,” Adar, is—like the plot and many of the other characters—new. Eventually, the showrunners J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay have said, the show’s narrative will arc toward the creation of the ring we know and love; though there’s been little obvious sign of that connection yet, Adar’s début drips with signifiers. His underlings, the monstrous orcs, have been capturing humans and elves in Middle-earth and forcing them to dig strange tunnels in the earth. Along with the regulation locks that flow down any good fantasy villain’s shoulders, Adar sports suspiciously long ears. Is he an elf gone bad? A well-coiffed ogre? The best hint we have is a translation of his name, apparently a Sindarin word, which we learn when an elf named Arondir gets the chance to ask Adar a question. “Why,” he says, “do the orcs call you ‘father’?”
Tolkien was a professor of medieval studies, and the style in which he wrote his “histories” of Arda reflects that. During the early medieval period in what is now Great Britain, people seem to have had a sense of history that was more concerned with echoes and recurrences within timeless mythic cycles than with history in the modern sense. Scholars have argued that early medieval Britons understood the exile of the Jews, recounted in the Bible, as a kind of parallel to their migrations from mainland Europe to the British Isles, for instance. Scholars call this kind of relationship typological.
In 1931, Tolkien wrote a poem titled “Mythopoeia.” The word means “mythmaking,” and he composed the poem to defend the honor of traditional legends against his colleague C. S. Lewis’s accusation that myths are “lies breathed through silver.” In heroic couplets, Tolkien rejects the idea that modern literature has any claim of superiority to myth. “I will not walk with your progressive apes, / erect and sapient,” he writes, insisting on the real spiritual value of old-fashioned art. “There is no firmament, only a void, unless a jewelled tent myth-woven and elf-patterned.” “Mythopoeia” is a grand word to invoke when describing one man’s fiction, but it captures the relationship between Tolkien’s books and the prequel series well. This is why, when Adar informs Arondir in Episode 4 that he has been told many lies, some that “run so deep even the rocks and roads now believe them,” it is still a thrill. Tolkien succeeded in creating a mythic world, one that has now grown vast enough through acts of typological repetition and imitation to conquer television, too. ♦