I had to dig through my site’s archives to find the first post I wrote about Gollum, but even so I was shocked to discover that it’s been over two years since the first footage from the game was revealed to the public. I can just barely remember feeling disappointed with the titular character’s unexpressive face and janky movements at the time, but it seems I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, because Daedalic Entertainment has spent the last two years reworking the game. I would have probably forgotten about it entirely, were it not for a new full-length trailer for the game released on Thursday that tentatively hints at a 2023 release date and urges gamers to add it to their wish-list now.
Gollum follows the character’s circuitous journey across Middle-earth in pursuit of Bilbo Baggins during the sixty-year interlude between The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, a journey that takes him from the Misty Mountains to Mordor, where he is detained in the dungeons of Sauron and tortured until he reveals who took his precious Ring, and then to Mirkwood, where he is detained in the dungeons of Thranduil and tortured until he reveals what he revealed to Sauron, and then back to the Misty Mountains to continue his long-delayed original mission, only to unexpectedly run into the Fellowship of the Ring led by Bilbo’s nephew Frodo Baggins and begin hunting them. The game promises to flesh out these events with new material and original characters to keep Tolkienites and casual gamers alike on their toes, but Gollum’s goal, the player’s goal, is the same – survive, and find the Ring.
With everyone and everything in Middle-earth out to get you, this goal can only be achieved by being strategic about when to lean into the character’s violent tendencies as Gollum and when to unlock their deeply suppressed better qualities as Sméagol, something that is sure to be one of the game’s most interesting and unique features. Reinforcing the idea that Gollum stands in the middle of the rift between Middle-earth’s cosmic forces of light and darkness, the character’s potential allies come from both sides of the conflict, including an Elven woman named Mell who appears to hail from Mirkwood and Shelob, a monstrous demon in spider-form.
Even though many of the game’s characters are recognizable by name to even the most casual Tolkienite, including Shelob, Gandalf, Thranduil, and the Mouth of Sauron, their designs are remarkably…original, borrowing far more heavily from the bizarre, whimsical Rankin/Bass 1977 animated adaptation of The Hobbit and Ralph Bakshi’s borderline-psychedelic 1978 animated adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings than from either of Peter Jackson’s hyper-realistic film trilogies or Amazon’s The Rings Of Power. Gollum‘s Elves, for instance, are sinuous, reed-thin creatures with hooded eyes, drowning in layers upon layers of voluminous fabric and enormous, ornate headdresses. It’s the kind of game where a Tom Bombadil cameo wouldn’t seem entirely out of place, and that’s saying something.
Whether the gameplay matches the quality of the visuals remains to be seen, but I’ll leave that to professional gamers to determine: for me, as a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works who simply enjoys analyzing new adaptations and debating the thematic consequences, great and small, of making changes to the source material, the main appeal of Gollum is the agency it gives to the player to make choices that will decide Gollum’s ultimate fate. I don’t know yet if the game allows you to go running off in any direction, with alternate endings depending on how you choose to play, or if it eventually forces you back on the path that leads Gollum to his canonical confrontation with the Fellowship of the Ring, but I’m excited to see how the developers at Daedalic have integrated the character’s internal struggles into every aspect of their game from the narrative to the actual gameplay.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOR THE RINGS OF POWER SEASON TWO AHEAD!
New year, same niche interests.
Amazon’s The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power has been lingering in the back of my mind ever since its epic season finale, which saw the human Southlander Halbrand revealed to be the Dark Lord Sauron in one of his many fair-seeming forms. With his plan to conquer Middle-earth unknowingly set in motion by the characters of Adar, Celebrimbor, and Pharazôn, the stakes are higher than ever – and the only thing standing between Sauron and his ultimate goal is Galadriel, to whom Sauron’s ambitions were made terrifyingly clear when he offered her a place at his side in the new world he intends to build from the old one’s ashes. Heading into season two, the Three Rings forged by Celebrimbor will come into play, giving the Elves an apparent advantage over Sauron that the Dark Lord will seek to circumvent by approaching Celebrimbor in a new disguise and persuading him to create more Rings with his help; Rings through which he can control the other Free Peoples, Men and Dwarves.
With a grand total of nineteen Rings of Power floating around in season two (minus the One Ring forged by and for Sauron alone), audiences can look forward to appearances from the future owners of the Seven Rings made for the Dwarves and the Nine Rings destined to enslave Men. On top of that, the first season came to an abrupt end before the Elves gathered to witness the forging of the Three Rings could decide who among them should wield these precious artifacts, leaving open the possibility that multiple high-ranking Elven-lords and ladies will vie for a Ring of their own before they inevitably come to rest on the hands of Galadriel, High King Gil-galad, and Círdan the Shipwright. The books and posthumously published writings of J.R.R. Tolkien are largely unhelpful for theorists, offering only a vague account of how the Rings of Power were distributed – which means there’s no predicting how Amazon’s adaptation of this story will play out.
At one point, Tolkien toyed with the idea that the Rings of Power had originally all been made for Elven wearers, and that it was Sauron who later went amongst Dwarves and Men, handing out the sixteen Rings he had stolen from Celebrimbor’s forge when he sacked the city of Eregion. I can easily believe that Men, with their short lifespans and shorter memories, would fall for that trick, but it’s never made much sense to me that the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm, who promptly closed their doors in Sauron’s face after Eregion was sacked, would reopen them for any mysterious stranger bearing Rings that could only have been made in Eregion. I’ve always preferred the account passed down by the Dwarves themselves; that Celebrimbor himself presented a Ring of Power to King Durin III, making at least one out of the Seven a true token of friendship between Elves and Dwarves.
The identities of the other Ringbearers also eluded Tolkien, or else he never gave the matter much thought. It is generally assumed, for good reason, that the rest of the Seven Rings were given to the heads of the seven Dwarven clans (Longbeards, Firebeards, Broadbeams, Ironfists, Stiffbeards, Blacklocks and Stonefoots), but I do not believe that this is actually confirmed anywhere. It’s theoretically possible that two or more Dwarf-lords of a single clan each received a Ring, and that some clan leaders steadfastly refused to accept Rings at all. Seeing as the Dwarves were generally far more resistant to the corrosive powers of the Rings than Men or even Elves, it would not surprise me if that were the case. The names of the nine Men who became Sauron’s Ringwraiths were either lost to time or suppressed, all save one; Khamûl, the Shadow of the East, who was second-in-command to the Witch-king of Angmar.
That’s the story we’ve been told, anyway. Amazon intends to tell their own, and it seems to me that there are already a few original characters (i.e. characters invented for The Rings Of Power, who didn’t exist or weren’t named in Tolkien’s works) that have been set up in season one to become Ringbearers in season two, amongst them Durin IV and Disa of Khazad-dûm, Bronwyn and Theo of the Southlands, and Kemen of Númenor. The concept alone may offend some Tolkien purists, but allow me to lay out the argument for each of these non-canonical candidates.
Representing the prestigious Longbeard clan as the main Dwarven viewpoint character in the series, Prince Durin IV is the most obvious choice to receive the Ring of Power given to his father by Celebrimbor in the semi-canonical version of the story only sketched out by Tolkien. He is, at any rate, far more likely to accept the gift without questioning its origins than his father Durin III, who in Amazon’s retelling is deeply distrustful of the Elves and all their handiwork. The Ring, with its tendency to “inflame [the bearer’s] heart with a greed of gold and precious things”, would bring out the worst qualities in Durin IV, who unsuccessfully sought for six episodes to convince his father that the value of mithril (a precious metal coveted by the Elves, but only found in narrow crevices deep below the foundations of Khazad-dûm) far outweighed the dangers of mining it. With a Ring on his finger to assure him of his own infallibility, he would become insistent upon digging ever deeper in search of mithril, inevitably awakening the monster nestled in wait at the mountain’s roots.
I see these tragic events unfolding in Durin IV’s future as clearly as if they were already filmed, but whether his wife Disa make it out alive or not will depend entirely on whether she learns too late what Gandalf told Saruman in The Fellowship Of The Ring; that “only one hand at a time can wield [a Ring of Power]”, meaning that its bearer will soon become possessive of it and irrationally suspicious of anyone who offers to share it, even if only to ease the mental and physical toll it exacts. I fear that this once inseparable power-couple will break under pressure, and that while Durin is dragged down by the weight of his Ring to a dark and terrible place, Disa will be put in an extremely difficult position where she can choose to stick by his side, either for true love’s sake or in the naïve hope that she can make the Ring work for her too, or she can get out before she’s buried with him beneath falling monuments to their selfishness and greed, the only thing they ever truly shared.
We have yet to see any Dwarf-lords from the other six clans scattered across Middle-earth from the Ered Luin to the Iron Hills, and I doubt that The Rings Of Power will ever find the time or space to flesh out their stories anyway, but I imagine we’ll see the other Dwarven Ringbearers gathered in at least one scene, solely so that Amazon can replicate that iconic moment in the opening sequence of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship Of The Ring, where the seven nameless Dwarf-lords hold up their Rings as one. Personally, I’m hoping for a little more diversity in Amazon’s version, because if Galadriel can get grouped in with the “Elven-kings” in the famous Ring-verse despite being a woman (and explicitly not even equivalent to a king amongst her own people), then there can be some Dwarven-women among the “Dwarf-lords” mentioned in the next line.
That brings me to the next character I believe might be tempted to get her hands on a Ring – Bronwyn of the Southlands, a humble human apothecary who became unexpectedly crucial in deciding the fate of Middle-earth after leading her people to a victory against the Orcs that was only overturned when Orodruin suddenly erupted, forcing her to flee to Pelargir with her family and other refugees at the end of season one. Not only is she now acquainted with the Dark Lord Sauron (albeit in the fair form of Halbrand, long-lost king of the Southlands), giving her the means to obtain a Ring of Power, she also has the motive to want one: she’s in love with an immortal Elven warrior named Arondir who has been around since the First Age and will still be around long after Bronwyn’s great-grandchildren are dead, which is sure to pose a problem in their relationship as they start to wonder what’s next for them now that they’re comfortably settled down in Pelargir.
By a complete coincidence, the nine Rings of Power given to Mortal Men have the side-effect of extending their bearer’s lifespan long beyond its natural endpoint, something that sounds really appealing until you realize that the Rings can’t do anything to preserve your physical body or your mind, but will continue to puppeteer your undead husk for centuries until even that has crumbled away and finally all that remains is an overworked and exhausted soul tied to the world by the Ring on its nonexistent finger. If that fate awaits Bronwyn, it will be far worse than dying of old age, for death would come as a sweet release after an eternity of numbness.
Frankly, I’ve always felt that Middle-earth needs more women who are morally ambiguous in all the ways that men have always been allowed to be, so I wouldn’t necessarily object to Bronwyn becoming a Ringwraith, but I do have concerns that if her story goes down this route, it might gradually become the story of Arondir’s attempts to save Bronwyn from herself, rather than remaining focused on her – very relatable, and extremely Tolkienesque – struggle with the fear of death, so I’d like to hear opinions from women about how (or whether) it can be depicted without that happening.
Bronwyn’s son Theo has a rather more straightforward motive for desiring a Ring of Power. Ever since Waldreg stole the mysterious sword-shaped key that Theo had been using to stab himself so he could get high on blood loss and used it to activate Orodruin (why was the key shaped like a sword, anyway? I still have far too many questions regarding the key, the keyhole, and Sauron’s bizarre plan to anti-terraform the Southlands for there to ever be good enough answers), Theo has spoken about feeling powerless without it and wanting revenge on the Orcs to fill the gaping void in his life. While Sauron might not allow him to go that far, he can offer Theo something else – an even stronger drug that will silently kill off the parts of him that are good and innocent, reducing him to a vacant vessel ready to be filled with Sauron’s malice. The alternative, in my opinion, is that Theo becomes the King of the Dead, and either way he’s going to be trapped between life and death for a long time before getting peace.
Kemen, the weakly rebellious son of Pharazôn, is by far the least interesting and least sympathetic character who could potentially end up wearing one of the Nine Rings, but I have to believe there was a reason for writing him into the series, and this is the only one that makes any sense to me. Throughout the first season, in the few and far-between glimpses we caught of Kemen and his father interacting, we watched with second-hand embarrassment as the young man almost reluctantly matured – though only after his puppy-like attempts to please his father (“I was only trying to be clever”) were met with contempt. Kemen’s guilty anger emboldened him, and he thwarted his father’s imperialist agenda by blowing up a ship intended to set sail for Middle-earth, although he barely made it out of the conflagration alive. In season two, I expect Kemen to go to even greater lengths to sabotage (and at the same time, subconsciously impress) his father, and it would be most ironic if he only succeeded in enslaving his will to the Dark Lord.
Besides Kemen, it’s possible – though very unlikely, in my opinion – that another Númenórean, Eärien, will become a Ringwraith. I personally believe she will be lured to the dark side not by promises of power or eternal life, but by the opportunity to build the Temple of Morgoth in Armenelos where Sauron and Pharazôn will sacrifice prisoners-of-war and members of the Faithful arrested on false charges of treason, including Eärien’s own family. I will support her every step of the way, mind you, no matter what unspeakable crimes she commits to become the greatest architect in Middle-earth for one brief shining moment before it all comes crashing down around her, but for that climax to be truly satisfying I believe Eärien must surely die in the building she designed to last for centuries, like Thomas Andrews going down with the Titanic.
With the cast of The Rings Of Power expanding in season two, there’s a very strong chance we’ll soon meet other future Ringwraiths from Númenor, Middle-earth’s Southlands, and the currently uncharted regions of Rhûn and Harad. But I don’t know anything about these characters, and Tolkien left nothing for me to work with, so this is where I must sadly end. Of course, there is one more Ring, one of which I have not yet spoken, but that One was made for the Dark Lord’s hand alone, and it was only by chance (which some might call the divine intervention of Eru) that it was cut from his finger and later lost in the murky waters of the Anduin, only to be picked up by a hobbit or something akin to one, anyway. For the record, however, I do believe the One Ring will be forged in the season two finale, concluding Sauron’s irreversible descent into darkness.
So…which of the characters I’ve mentioned will actually get their hands on a Ring of Power when all is said and done, and which will become corrupted, transforming into horrible Ringwraiths? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE RINGS OF POWER EPISODE EIGHT AHEAD!
“‘In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!'”
– The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, The Mirror Of Galadriel, p. 366
The iconic passage quoted above is from a pivotal scene in The Lord Of The Rings where Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), hosting the Fellowship of the Ring in her home as honored guests, is freely offered the One Ring by Frodo Baggins. In shock and disbelief at the suggestion, she is forced to confront the Ring’s tempting power for the first time, and even after training for just such a moment for over three-thousand years she can’t resist breaking into a classic evil villain monologue before finally gathering her wits and prevailing. Her success in that moment ensures that she can eventually leave Middle-earth and find peace in the Undying Lands across the Sea.
It’s a moment that The Rings Of Power‘s writers have obviously tried to foreshadow in the first season’s final episode, with…moderate success. In a sequence invented for the series, which takes place roughly three-thousand years before the events of The Lord Of The Rings, Galadriel is offered a place at the side of the Dark Lord Sauron and wavers for a minute, torn between her duty to the light and her obsession with the darkness, before rejecting him and his half-baked philosophies so thoroughly that a reunion of their hearts seems inconceivable. It’s supposed to be a moment of catharsis for the protagonist, the moment that her storyline has been leading towards throughout this entire season – and yet it falls flat for two crucial reasons.
Put simply, Galadriel’s epiphany in the finale belongs to a totally different version of the character. I would even wager it was specifically tailored to fit the version of Galadriel who appears in the published Silmarillion and in one of the most frequently-quoted essays in Unfinished Tales – the version widely considered “canonical”, who left Valinor because “she yearned to see the wide unguarded lands [of Middle-earth] and to rule there a realm at her own will”. I myself have long adored the canonical, complex, morally ambiguous version of young Galadriel who seems so at odds with the serene and wise character we meet thousands of years later in The Lord Of The Rings, and there was a time when I had hoped to see her onscreen in The Rings Of Power. But when it became clear that Amazon didn’t have the rights to either The Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales, I resigned myself to the fact that we would probably never get to see a truly ambitious Galadriel in the first season.
And we never did…until the finale, which I have to assume was written very early on, for a version of Galadriel who actually lusts for power, and was never rewritten even after the writers were denied access to the rights they obviously wanted. Maybe they thought it would work as an homage to the canonical version of the character that most fans wanted to see all along, but it doesn’t track with what we learned about the version of Galadriel we actually spent time with in The Rings Of Power; a battle-hardened warrior who has never been shown to crave either power or status in Middle-earth, who scoffs at politicians and seems unaccustomed to dealing with kings and queens, who desires one thing and one thing only: vengeance for her brother’s death. And that, ironically, is the one thing Sauron never offers her when he makes his impassioned plea.
Of course, that’s because Sauron himself is responsible for the death of Finrod (Will Fletcher), and both he and Galadriel know it, but it would have made sense for him to appease her in the moment by promising her vengeance on those ultimately responsible for all the suffering her family has endured – the Valar, Middle-earth’s pantheon of gods. That suggestion may seem bizarre to some, blasphemous to a few, but hear me out: in The Silmarillion, which contains the closest thing to a “canonical” account of Galadriel’s life that Tolkien ever wrote, it is said that Galadriel rebelled against the gods in her youth and refused their pardon after the downfall of Morgoth, hence why she remained in Middle-earth long after the other “chief actors in the rebellion” had died or departed. I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say that her relationship with the gods is complicated; something that Sauron could and arguably should have exploited when he had the chance.
And frankly, what better moment to test the limits of her faith than when she’s face-to-face with the enemy she’s hunted relentlessly for centuries, whom she befriended, grew to trust, and even began to love? It didn’t actually happen that way, so there’s no sense in me veering off on a tangent, but I do wonder why the writers went down the path they did if their stated goal was to humanize Sauron and force the audience to empathize with him against our will. How can we, if all we know of him is that he craves power? We’ve heard it said, once or twice in the show, that Sauron plans to heal Middle-earth’s hurts (an idea fleshed out fully in Tolkien’s letters), but what we see of him tells a very different, and in my opinion far less interesting, story.
The somewhat genericized version of Sauron we’re introduced to in The Rings Of Power‘s season finale wears the ruggedly handsome face of a mortal Southlander, Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), and strangely never sheds that disguise even after revealing his true identity to Galadriel. The showrunners must have their reasons for sticking with Vickers, and if commitment to the role was one of their criteria I can see why he was chosen to continue as Sauron, because you can’t fake the kind of extensive research that Vickers has done for this role, not just into the lore and into Sauron’s backstory, but into Tolkien’s own thoughts on the nature of good and evil, as well as those of his contemporaries and close friends like W.H. Auden.
Unfortunately, someone in the writer’s room either betrayed Vickers or hugely overestimated his improvisational skills, because Sauron is inexcusably underwritten in the finale and little to none of Vickers’ research shines through his stolid performance. On top of that, the hairstyling and costuming departments failed miserably when constructing his look – between his dirty, uneven reddish-brown wig and the plain garments he wore throughout the season, every styling choice that befitted the persona of Halbrand feels out-of-character for Sauron in retrospect, and the fact that he willingly keeps this form even after parting ways with Galadriel warrants an explanation in and of itself (some of that is probably my headcanons speaking, but I really am bewildered by a number of styling choices made on this show).
But whether in spite of his scruffy appearance or in part because of it, Charlie Vickers exudes sexuality – and the unconsummated tension between him and Galadriel, which can be variously interpreted as sexual, romantic, or entirely platonic, doesn’t entirely dissipate even after he’s revealed as Sauron. Yet I could wish, were it of any avail, that Galadriel had not been so quick to reject him – her haste to assert her moral superiority over the charismatic Dark Lord seems to be for the audience’s benefit rather than her own, echoing moments in dozens of other books, films, and series’ where pure-hearted heroines have spurned their villainous love-interests, with Alina in Shadow And Bone and Rey in The Last Jedi coming to mind immediately. I’m not the best person to examine why women’s wrongs are vilified by writers while men’s are romanticized, but I would very much like to see this trope subverted someday and The Rings Of Power has already failed in that respect.
If the show’s version of Galadriel was even half as politically ambitious as her counterpart in the books, she would have rejected Sauron’s offer not because it was the “right” thing to do but because it would mean sharing power with someone else. And all I have left to say on the subject is that it would have made for a far more compelling scene than the one we got, which is unsurprisingly sexy and well-shot (props to director Wayne Che Yip) but also…unsurprising. When a master manipulator like Sauron is on the game-board at last, you’d think that there would be some twists and turns in store but the finale instead takes the most direct path to its destination, leaving me to once again wonder whether showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay should maybe leave the writing to others.
The highlight of this mostly average episode, for me, is the scene where Halbrand introduces himself to Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards), the Elven jewel-smith with whom he will go on to forge the first Rings of Power…in the span of about fifteen to twenty minutes. Though the writing is nowhere clumsier than when Halbrand explains the concept of alloys to Celebrimbor, Edwards’ performance is nowhere more lively than when he’s shyly blushing at Halbrand’s compliments, or when his fingertips and Halbrand’s brush against each other for a moment as they exchange a piece of mithril silver. Many fans felt dissatisfied by the lack of interactions between these two characters and criticized The Rings Of Power for blatant queer erasure as a result, but I wouldn’t be so sure that in season two, with Galadriel no longer susceptible to manipulation, Sauron won’t turn all his attention on Celebrimbor.
And just to be clear, I too would have liked to see the queer undertones in Sauron and Celebrimbor’s story brought to the surface when they were first onscreen together, but nowhere near as much as I wanted Elanor Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) and Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards) to kiss in the final minutes of the episode, as Elanor set off on a new adventure into the unexplored east of Middle-earth while Poppy led the nomadic Harfoots in the opposite direction. I knew then that their story wouldn’t parallel Frodo and Sam’s, or even Merry and Pippin’s, but for a few moments, I actually wondered if they might just be our queer parallels to Sam and Rosie – and when Poppy screamed “Wait!” my heart soared, only to drop again when I realized they were just going to hug and cry before saying goodbye. I wish I could say I have no problem with theirs being a sweet platonic relationship, but in a story as vast and sprawling as this one, to have no queer characters at all is…suspicious, not gonna lie.
In season two, it seems that Elanor’s screentime will once again primarily be shared with The Stranger (Daniel Weyman), now revealed to be one of the five Istari or “wizards” sent to Middle-earth to combat Sauron between the Second and Third Ages. Which one, exactly, remains a mystery; but of the five, only two are ever said to have journeyed east into the lands of Rhûn, where the Stranger is currently headed – and those two are, conveniently, the enigmatic Blue Wizards whom Tolkien wrote the least about in his lifetime, which could make them particularly appealing to writers looking to expand on the legendarium. Alternatively, he’s just Gandalf, but surely that or one of his many other names would have been used in the episode if that were the case, no?
Either way, the Mystics from Rhûn somehow recognized him as an Istar immediately after discovering the full extent of his power, but they’re dead now (much too soon, if you ask me), and the Stranger hopes that in Rhûn he can learn whatever it was they knew. But he already knows the most important thing: that he is good, and not because of what he was told but because of what he chose to be. I can imagine the eye-rolls that will have induced from some, and yes, it’s clearly intended to be heartwarming, but aren’t all stories involving Hobbits, to some extent? Isn’t that what we love about them, that they always voice their true emotions without reservation even at risk of sounding overly earnest? And isn’t it beautiful that the Stranger, who didn’t speak at all when he first descended from the sky, is learning to speak what he truly means and feels from the best teachers in Middle-earth?
Of all the characters crammed into The Rings Of Power‘s first season, I dreaded the Harfoots the most, largely out of fear that they would slow down the story – and yet in the end, theirs was the only subplot that consistently moved slowly enough for my tastes. While the Rings of Power themselves were forged in a matter of minutes by characters who’ve had barely any screentime throughout the season, abruptly resolving a story that had only just gotten started, the Harfoots required eight whole episodes to build up to their own extremely satisfying cathartic moment in the finale; the moment where they band together to defeat the Mystics, pelting the ethereal antagonists with small stones – possibly alluding to how Bilbo defeated the ravenous spiders of Mirkwood (which is incidentally also where this scene takes place, although in the Second Age it’s still known as Greenwood the Great).
So yeah…definitely didn’t go into this expecting to want more non-canonical Harfoots and less of Sauron the literal Dark Lord, but I have a feeling Tolkien at least would be pleased to know that the light can be more interesting than the darkness, and sometimes all it takes is someone like an Elanor Brandyfoot or a Poppy Proudfellow, the most quintessentially Tolkienesque characters to have never flowed from the author’s pen.
If The Rings Of Power can’t yet commit to telling the darker stories of the Second Age with the nuance they deserve (I’m still not sure where and when exactly the writers lost the thematic through-line of mortality and the fear of death, but by the time they find it the story of Númenor’s downfall will be over at the rate we’re currently speeding through major plot-points), at least it doesn’t lack for wholeheartedly magical subplots that make this first season worthwhile despite a disappointing (and to be fair, only temporary) conclusion to Galadriel and Sauron’s intertwined character arcs.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE RINGS OF POWER EPISODE SIX AHEAD!
“”The Eagles!” cried Bilbo once more, but at that moment a stone hurtling from above smote heavily on his helm, and he fell with a crash and knew no more.”
– The Hobbit, The Clouds Burst, p. 260
“‘The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!’ For one moment more Pippin’s thought hovered. ‘Bilbo!’ it said. ‘But no! That came in his tale, long long ago. This is my tale, and it is ended now. Good-bye!’ And his thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more.”
– The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, The Black Gate Opens, p. 893
For as much as J.R.R. Tolkien’s great tales, The Silmarillion and The Lord Of The Rings in particular, are stories set in times of war that deal with related themes, they are not about the act of warfare itself. Wherever he possibly can, Tolkien simply avoids having to write about battles entirely by knocking his viewpoint characters unconscious in the first five minutes of combat and having them wake up hours later after the fighting has concluded – see, for example, the two passages quoted above. Where he cannot fall back on this trick, he nonetheless still pulls back from the heat and intensity of the action to give readers a concise play-by-play of the battle from the distant perspective of a narrator. I suspect that as a veteran of the First World War he had difficulty writing about bloodshed in great detail.
Going into The Rings Of Power‘s sixth episode, therefore, my worst fear was that it would be, from beginning to end, an interminable action sequence devoid of the microcosmic, quiet and emotionally-charged moments between characters that Tolkien generally preferred to settle on between more vague descriptions of military movements – to name just a few examples, Aragorn leaning wearily on his sword to chat with Éomer at Helm’s Deep and again on the Pelennor Fields; Éowyn trading blows with the Witch-king while protecting the body of her fallen king; Merry and Pippin stumbling through the streets of Minas Tirith to the Houses of Healing. The opposite extreme would have been a battle robbed of even a pretense at weight and consequence by characters stopping every five seconds to make some witty remark in Marvel-movie fashion.
Happily, my fears did not come to fruition. Under the direction of Charlotte Brändström (only the second female director on this franchise, at least to my knowledge, after Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson’s wife and co-director on The Lord Of The Rings), The Rings Of Power‘s largest and longest action sequence to date strikes a balance between being entertaining and engaging for its audience and absolutely exhausting for its characters. Indeed, the violence is more brutal than anything in the first five episodes – and at times, more than anything in either of Peter Jackson’s two trilogies, which generally refrained from showing human characters die gruesome deaths. Brändström seems to have no such qualms, pushing the limits of the TV-14 rating about as far as I think is possible.
But the most intense moments in this episode occur amidst lulls in the fighting, such as when the village healer and de facto leader of the Southlanders, Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), is wounded in battle by an arrow and has to try and remain still while her lover Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) pulls the shaft from her shoulder, all while she’s losing lots of blood and watching wide-eyed as her fellow Southlanders are dying in droves without her assistance. I’m squeamish about gory injuries, so the fact that I had to turn my face away from the screen both times I watched the episode may say nothing about how brutal it actually is, but it’s not just the bloodiness of the scene or the sound-effects of the arrow sliding through flesh that made me physically shudder – Boniadi and Córdova’s tortured expressions and frantic performances help to ensure the scene is difficult to watch, in the best way.
But in an episode that also features the very first kiss between their two characters, it’s a bit of a shame that Boniadi and Córdova’s portrayal of mingled pain resonated with me, while their halfhearted attempts to convey romantic interest in the other fell flat. I simply don’t understand, six episodes into the first season, why they’re in love beyond the fact that they share an interest in nurturing and healing – plants in Arondir’s case, people and animals in Bronwyn’s. I appreciated that they finally confessed their love for each other at the same spot where they rendezvoused in episode one, hands clasped over the living woods of a tree growing in the middle of Tirharad, thereby connecting them to Middle-earth and to the Vala whom Arondir claims “watches over growing things and those who tend them”, Yavanna Kementári (her name, sadly, cannot legally be used by Amazon, as it never appears in The Lord Of The Rings or its Appendices), but the heavy emphasis on this one surface-level aspect of their attraction doesn’t make up for an absence of anything else deeper to it.
Their most touching moment comes when they plant the alfirin seeds Bronwyn gave Arondir back in episode one, to ensure the survival of one new life before the imminent death of hundreds, if not thousands. It’s a beautiful ritual, one we also see the enemy leader Adar (Joseph Mawle) partake in at the beginning of the episode, subtly indicating to the audience that, while he no longer identifies exclusively as an Elf, he has retained many of the memories and customs he learned before he was turned to the darkness. The question of what Adar is and whether he and his Orcs have any claim to the respect they say they’re owed is one that looms heavily over this entire episode, which sees Adar leading his armies into battle with the intention of taking the Southlands – not for political purposes, but to establish a homeland for the Orcs, his “children”. He sees them as living beings whose creation, though apparently unnatural, was nonetheless permitted by the One (i.e. God or Eru Ilúvatar as He is called in Middle-earth) for a reason, in the same way Dwarves and Ents were created by other Valar and then integrated into Eru’s plan.
Adar’s nuanced opinions on this controversial subject stand in stark contrast to how Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) describes her enemies bluntly as “a mistake”, made in mockery of Elves without the blessing of the One, rendering them devoid of even the semblance of sentience and free will. Adar insists that his Orcs are masterless, following him out of genuine love, not fear or domination of the spirit. Galadriel retorts that they are still bound to Sauron, their true master, whom Adar believes he killed long ago. The argument between these two characters is one which J.R.R. Tolkien had with himself many times throughout his later life, as he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the theological implications of an evil race and began to explore alternative origin stories for the Orcs – though ultimately he was never able to settle on one he liked, and instead fell back on the excuse that the original Elven authors of the great tales were biased and unreliable, so their account of events, which was nonetheless published in The Silmarillion, might well have been a fabrication.
Where The Rings Of Power has leaned most heavily into the unreliable narrator trope, I have a suspicion it’s for many of the same reasons: the showrunners and writers either haven’t settled on the answers to this and other confounding questions, or simply don’t want to make irreversible choices that could be divisive within the fandom. Leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions once too many times can easily lead to frustration, although at least in this case there’s plenty of evidence in the writing and in Mawle’s charismatic performance that Adar is exactly what he says he is: a living person driven by the beatings of his own heart, deserving of love, respect, and a home.
Love and respect he has earned from his children many times over through countless personal sacrifices, but a home can only be earned by winning the respect of Middle-earth’s other Free Peoples, either through diplomacy or conflict – and seeing as Galadriel speaks for most Elves and Elf-friends when she says Orcs should be eradicated without mercy, Adar recognizes that diplomacy is useless and prolonged conflict will force his children to make unnecessary sacrifices. He is left with just one option: to cause a volcanic eruption that, apart from turning the tide of the battle in his favor, also leads to the sun being blocked out by a cloud of volcanic dust and ash…which, for the Orcs, means they can at last walk freely across the surface of Middle-earth in the daytime without fear of burning alive. Unfortunately, it also means those seeds Adar planted right before the battle will probably never sprout, but that’s a small price to pay in his mind. He loves his children deeply.
Paternal affection is a thematic undercurrent throughout this episode, which sees the Númenórean ship-captain Elendil (Lloyd Owen) paired up with his wayward son, Isildur (Maxim Baldry), throughout the battle. The two narrowly avoid death by Orc, death by geyser, and death by volcanic rock fragments (properly known as tephra), to come out the other side with a much stronger appreciation for each other – Isildur finally sees his father in action, casting off the disguise of the world-weary widower that he’s worn for so long in a well-intentioned effort to keep his family safe back in Númenor, now fighting fiercely to protect his loved ones. And at the same time, Elendil realizes that his attempts to stifle his son’s interests for the boy’s own sake will never succeed, for Isildur is most reckless when he feels caged-in or cornered.
Now, on that note, we have to talk about Tar-Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), who watches dispassionately from the sidelines as soldiers under her command give their lives for the cause she loudly endorsed from the comfort of her palace. Either she’s self-important or a coward, and in a world where kings lead by example, it is definitely a Choice by the showrunners and writers to make the first ruling woman of color (and one of the few ruling women, period) in Middle-earth’s history a mere bystander to her first battle. If the writers want to deconstruct antiquated monarchist tropes (that’s me playing devil’s advocate, but it’s plausible given The Rings Of Power‘s other writing choices), then they need to be less subtle about it.
In-universe, I think Míriel made a terrible choice: if my predictions for the finale come true, she’ll already be returning home to find that Pharazôn has accumulated more power in her absence and is now vying for the throne with the support of the citizenry; last thing she needs is for her own troops to weigh in by revealing she did nothing in the battle. She’ll be blamed for what is quickly shaping up to be an unprecedented military disaster, and Pharazôn will effortlessly seize power before either forcing her into a politically-motivated marriage (the canonical sequence of events) or banishing her to the tower in Armenelos where her dying father is confined. Ah well, at least she looked cool in her gilded scale-mail armor and impractical radiate crown.
Despite my fear that Galadriel would be slowed down by her own heavy suit of armor, that proved not to be the case – in fact, a short clip of Galadriel swinging gracefully off the side of her horse to mow down orcs before righting herself in the saddle has been making the rounds on Twitter for the past few days after one viewer complained that it was “unlikeable” and rightfully got piled on in the the quote-tweets and comments for not only ignoring or excusing all of Legolas’ gravity-defying stunts in The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit (not to mention descriptions of Galadriel outperforming all the athletes of the Noldor in her youth), but for completely missing the point that The Rings Of Power has been trying to hammer home for a while now, which is that Galadriel is unlikeable.
Her arrogance is explicitly shown, more times than I can count on two hands, to be her greatest character flaw and a hindrance at every turn, yet annoying dudebros online act like it’s a “gotcha!” moment when they point it out – no, FirstNameBunchOfNumbers, it just means you have no concept of how positive character arcs work because the idea of bettering yourself is fundamentally abhorrent to you. And Galadriel is working on being more humble: it’s not easy for her, because she always saw arrogance and ambition as a strength (almost like she grew up surrounded by Fëanorians), but she’s slowly learning from Halbrand (Charlie Vickers) that there’s value in treating other people as equals and negotiating with them instead of always using her titles to get what she wants. She relapses when confronted by Adar, who sees right through the new persona she’s been trying to build with Halbrand’s help, but the learning process continues.
And as it does, Galadriel and Halbrand continue to grow closer…and closer…and closer, until they’re sitting mere inches apart from each other in the middle of the forest, trading shy glances and stumbling over their words. Halbrand coyly suggests that fighting alongside Galadriel, basking in her light, he felt for the first time that he could be free of guilt for all his past misdeeds, and Galadriel responds that she felt it too – which is a big deal coming from an Elf, to whom mortal Men are typically insignificant. Compare her intimate conversation with Halbrand to the chat she has with Isildur at the beginning of the episode: with Isildur, she was aloof and distant, as an adult is to a child, but with Halbrand she is present, so near they could believably kiss in that moment. And unless Halbrand is not a mortal, I don’t know how he could get Galadriel feeling butterflies (I mean, he’s good-looking, don’t get me wrong, but Elves don’t just fall for humans or crush on them, either).
Halbrand and Galadriel don’t actually kiss, hold hands, or even embrace in that moment, and I doubt they ever will, though the tension between them is palpable, and everyone – from the actors to the audience – can feel it. If The Rings Of Power had come out in the mid-2010s, these two would have been extremely popular on Tumblr and there’d be no shortage of fan-art and fan-fic dedicated to this ship (“Galbrand”, “Haladriel”, or “Halatáriel”, the latter an amalgamation of Halbrand and Alatáriel, a Telerin name ironically given to Galadriel by her canonical husband, Celeborn). But the fact that they’re still pretty popular even without the boost that Tumblr in its heyday would have provided is a testament to the writing, the chemistry that Clark and Vickers have…and the fact that they’re both very attractive, which is all it takes for us mere mortals to become obsessed, admittedly. I feel for the actor cast as Celeborn who will have to try and one-up Vickers.
In the meantime, the question next week’s episode will have to answer is whether any bond of love born in fields of battle can survive when nourished not by the fear of imminent death, which has a way of loosening tongues that would otherwise remain silent. There’s no hope for Galadriel and Halbrand in the long run, not unless Celeborn is open to a polyamorous relationship (I would not be opposed, Tolkien might be but who can say for sure?), and there’s plenty of time for death to come between Arondir and Bronwyn – not that I believe Bronwyn will die anytime soon, but I’ve always wondered if she might grow resentful towards her immortal lover, and now her near-death experience in battle has allowed that seed of fear and doubt to germinate in her heart.
And keep in mind, all of this was derived from an episode that’s largely comprised of people hacking each other to death with swords and spears. That’s the sign of a good script, a good director, and showrunners who understand that Tolkien uses violence not for shock value and never to gratify, but to say that which cannot be said by any other means. That is exactly the purpose this episode serves, and the fact that it just so happens to be one of the most action-packed hours of fantasy television I’ve ever seen is a happy coincidence, if you ask me.