Having watched the first three episodes of The Rings of Power, I can, with relief and delight, say that I love it so far. It has its problems, which I may or may not talk about in future posts, but the end of episode three left me wishing I could binge the whole season in a day. Always a good sign. Whether it rises to the level of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films remains to be seen, but it has that potential.1
So, I won’t be talking about the episodes in detail. Nor do I particularly want to talk about the entirely predictable furor that has become commonplace when something like The Rings of Power is released—namely, the howls of protest that arise from the revanchist precincts of a given fan community when the new product is perceived to have been tailored for “woke” political sensitivities. That particular drumbeat has been pounding since the release of the first Rings trailer revealed that the series would feature elves, dwarves, hobbits, and, yes, humans who were not white—something perceived by the usual suspects as a rank betrayal of the source material in the name of political correctness.2
I don’t want to talk about that backlash … but given what I am talking about, I can’t ignore it entirely. Not that it should be ignored, mind you—but there have been enough good pieces dealing with it that I would just be repeating other people’s principal points.
For the moment what I want to try and do is articulate some thoughts on fantasy and mythology, and the perennial compulsion to adapt, refine, revisit, revise, and expand upon stories that are profoundly meaningful to us one way or another. These thoughts are at the front of my mind for two reasons, the first being the recent embarrassment of riches on television of stories meaningful to me: The Rings of Power’s illumination of earlier histories of Middle-earth; House of the Dragon’s return to Westeros; and just a few weeks ago, Netflix’s release of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the only comic book I’ve ever read obsessively.
The second reason is that this fall I’m teaching a first-year English course called “Imagined Places.” My variation on its theme is modern and contemporary rewritings of Greek myths.3 As part of my preparation I’ve been rereading The Iliad and The Odyssey, which started as an exercise in refreshing my memory of their finer points and has become a joyful reunion with texts I first read in high school, and then again in an intro to classics course I took in my first year of university.
Few works in the history of western literature have inspired quite as much imitation and revision. Keep that in mind as we go, because it’s something I’m going to circle back around to.
My entry point to this discussion is a recent New York Times column by Tolkien scholar Michael Drout, titled “Please Don’t Make a Tolkien Cinematic Universe.” I’ll get into the particulars as I go, but the gist of his argument is that the subtle complexities of Tolkien’s moral universe are beyond the scope of contemporary film and television; unfortunately, the franchise model of cinema that has come to dominate the current entertainment market likely sees Tolkien as a wealth of source material to be exploited. Should Amazon (or, presumably, any other corporate media entity) turn Tolkien’s legendarium into something akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it will inevitably miss, mangle, or pervert the moral vision at the heart of Tolkien’s work.
To be clear, that last sentence is my extrapolation from Drout’s argument—he does not himself say as much in so many words, but it is an accurate summary of his concern. “Is it fair to the legacies of writers like Tolkien,” Drout asks, “to build franchises from their works without their knowledge or permission?” There were attempts to adapt The Lord of the Rings to film while Tolkien was still alive; initial, wary interest on Tolkien’s part turned fairly quickly into antipathy to the whole idea as he rejected one spec script after another, finally declaring that his work was unsuited for film. His biographer recounts a time Tolkien attended a staged version of The Hobbit, at which he frowned every time the play departed from the novel. “So it is hard to believe,” Drout concludes, “that he would have approved of a team of writers building almost entirely new stories with little direct basis in his works.”
Here of course Drout means The Rings of Power, which is drawn from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings.4 It is true that the series is taking a big swing, building out a multi-season story arc from some short summaries and chronologies of the Second Age. Such a sketchy basis, Drout suggests, is a poor foundation on which to build—but then, from what he says, it’s a reasonably good chance Tolkien would similarly have disapproved of Peter Jackson’s films (whose absence from his discussion is an odd omission to which I’ll return). Tolkien’s imagined approval or disapproval is at least somewhat beside the point, however; it is strange to suggest that adaptations and retellings of a given author’s work are somehow “unfair” to their legacy, considering that entire cottage industries thrive on adapting authors like Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Possibly Austen might have liked Clueless, but would probably have looked askance at Pride and Prejudice with Zombies. Does a spectral Shakespeare burn with anger at all the distortions of Hamlet, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to The Lion King?
Or is fifty years not long enough? (Tolkien died in 1973). Must we wait for copyright to expire?
I pose these questions with my tongue only partly in my cheek: I’m trying to read Drout’s concerns generously but can’t help but find them a little disingenuous. Especially considering—as I mentioned above—that he elides any mention of Peter Jackson’s films, except to acknowledge that they exist. This omission is passing strange if for no other reason than that we already have a Tolkien cinematic universe, helpfully spanning the extremes of good and bad—with The Lord of the Rings films displaying both profound respect for their source material and moments of brilliant filmmaking, while The Hobbit films are a hot mess of poor directorial impulse control.
There have also been a handful of animated adaptations, most notably Ralph Bakshi’s somewhat trippy 1978 Lord of the Rings that blended traditional animation with rotoscoping.4
There is also a Lord of the Rings stage musical—of which I was somehow unaware until one of my students in my Tolkien class last year sent me a YouTube link, destroying my blissful ignorance.
And while we’re at it, there have also been a significant number of video games set in Middle-earth, perhaps most notably Lord of the Rings Online, an MMORPG in the mold of World of Warcraft, whose fidelity to the geography, story, and lore of Tolkien’s work would probably impress even Michael Drout.
And though Drout’s quibble is with the prospect of a Tolkien cinematic universe, there is also the inescapable fact that there has always been the Tolkien expanded universe. Created initially of course by the man himself with his “mythology”—into which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were folded—it was then enlarged with The Silmarillion and the further eighteen volumes edited by his son Christopher that provided readers with world-building akin to that of the mad encyclopedists of Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”
Given this already-existing critical mass of material, it makes me wonder why Drout draws the line at The Rings of Power; why choose this moment to stand athwart the expanding Tolkien universe to yell stop?
The uncharitable reading would be to suggest that this is of a piece with the more overtly revanchist backlash, just more delicately articulated; the more generous reading is to take him at his word and presume that he’s concerned that Amazon will take Tolkien down the same road as Marvel comics have gone, or—and this was a pretty widely shared worry, though now mostly allayed—that The Rings of Power showrunners would feel compelled to create a Game of Thrones clone. Drout, indeed, alludes to both these apprehensions while asserting that “the groupthink produced by the contemporary ecosystems of writers’ rooms, Twitter threads and focus groups” of the “Hollywood of 2022” is innately out of step with Tolkien’s unique sensibility:
The writing that this dynamic is particularly good at producing—witty banter, arch references to contemporary issues, graphic and often sexualized violence, self-righteousness—is poorly suited to Middle-earth, a world with a multilayered history that eschews tidy morality plays and blockbuster gore.6
Citing the fact that the quest of The Lord of the Rings is not the attainment of power but its destruction, and that in bearing the Ring Frodo is too wounded, physically and psychically, to return to his life as it was before, Drout asks, “Can a company as intent upon domination as Amazon really understand this perspective—and adapt that morality to the screen?” While I’m not unsympathetic to anyone taking issue with Amazon as a cultural and societal blight, I find this line of argument bewilderingly obtuse—as if Jeff Bezos were the one writing, casting, costuming, and doing art direction.7
Ultimately, however, my interest in Drout’s argument is that its inconsistencies speak to a broader, more significant issue with Tolkien’s mythology—or rather, with Tolkien as mythology. In the end, whether or not Amazon does a good job with The Rings of Power, or whether they do attempt to build out an expanded cinematic universe on par with Marvel, really matters very little for a fairly simple reason: that Tolkien in fact succeeded in realizing his lifelong goal. He created an enduring mythology.
I will come to that in a moment. But first, for the sake of argument, let’s take some of the protests over The Rings of Power casting of nonwhite actors on their merits. One strain of the “I’m not racist, but—” arguments is that Tolkien’s world is explicitly modeled on Northern European geography, cultures, and ethnicities, and so introducing obviously non-European-looking characters disrupts Tolkien’s design and intent. A refinement on this line of thinking says “OK, sure, introduce Black elves, but make it clear how it serves the story!” In other words, offer an explanation of how there came to be Black elves (and hobbits, and dwarves, and humans).
To be fair, I’ve seen such concerns offered with all appearance of sincerity and earnestness,8 and there are, if one has the patience for it, substantive counter-arguments, some of which are based in Tolkien’s own lore. One example that has gone viral is from none other than Neil Gaiman:
There is also the fact that medieval Europe wasn’t quite as monolithically white as is often assumed or depicted, given the vestiges of the multi-ethnic Roman legions left behind after the western empire imploded; there was also, more significantly, brisk trade that brought people from Moorish Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East into regular contact with Europeans of all shades.9
But again, this is all at least partly beside the point I want to make. To be generous, I’ll say that the idea that the casting choices in The Rings of Power are somehow transgressive resides in a vague understanding of the original story as sacrosanct, or that there is an “authentic” Tolkienian vision to which it behooves all adaptors to hew. Leaving aside the simple fact that “authenticity” in this context is always going to be illusory and chimerical, is it really even desirable? Are we obliged to honour every boundary, real and imagined, that an author places on interpretations of their work?
Fortunately such a myopic approach is not practical or feasible. Neither the creative arts nor literary criticism have anything like the legal doctrine of originalism, something of which Tolkien was well aware. He might have gotten stroppy over prospective filmic adaptations or a staged version of The Hobbit, but his lifelong project was to shape a mythology—something he was at his most candid and open about in a long letter to the publisher Milton Waldman. Tolkien was at the time (the letter is undated but most likely written late 1951) shopping around The Lord of the Rings; he was having some difficulty finding a publisher because he was still insisting that LotR should be published in a single volume with the prehistory that would eventually become The Silmarillion. Given the already-epic length of LotR, publishers were understandably reluctant at including the dense mythology. But Tolkien had not yet reconciled himself to jettisoning the narratives of Middle-earth’s First and Second Ages, and he attempted to persuade Waldman by explaining the import of the project to him. “I do not remember a time when I was not building it,” he says. “I have been at it since I could write.” His aim, he says, was not merely to make up stories, but to build a mythology that could supplement what he saw as a lack in his native country:
I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found … in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, and Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing.
He goes on to explain that his own mythopoeic project was precisely an attempt to replace what he felt to be missing:
I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story—the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths—which I could dedicate simply to: to England: to my country.
Not exactly a humble ambition, something he self-deprecatingly acknowledges as he pleads “Do not laugh!” and adds at the end “Absurd.” But one is put in mind of John Milton’s determination to write an epic poem in English that would be the equal—or the superior—of Homer and Virgil,10 or James Joyce, whose own grandiose ambition was voiced by his alter ego Stephen Dedalus at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when he says, absurdly, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
But like Milton and Joyce11, Tolkien succeeded in his seemingly hubristic ambition—he did create a mythology that has taken on its own life as it captured people’s imaginations, albeit not perhaps as he thought it might. His vision, it turns out, was too modest: Middle-earth has transcended England and become the world’s mythology. And like all such mythologies, it is futile to try and contain it.
This is where we come back around to my first-year English class: as I said, we’re looking at modern and contemporary poetry and fiction that reimagines and revisits classic Greek myth, often in ways that give voice to those figures who are ancillary to the main action, or disposable in the name of advancing the plot. The modernist poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) writes “Eurydice,” in which the title character excoriates her husband Orpheus for consigning her to Hades—again!—when he couldn’t help but look back at the last moment (you had one job!). Or Canadian poet Don McKay’s reimagining of Icarus as an unapologetic adrenaline junky aiming to get that fall from on high just right.
And then there’s the story of Briseis: The Iliad, long considered the origin point of Western literature, begins when the great warrior Achilles and High King Agamemnon quarrel over Briseis, a Trojan woman who is Achilles’ spoil of war, whom Agamemnon takes from him. In a fit of pique, Achilles retires to his tent to sulk and withholds the forces he commands, allowing the Trojans to turn the tide and bring the fight all the way back to the Greek ships, forcing Agamemnon to swallow his pride and send Briseis back to Achilles. In her novel The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker retells the events of The Iliad from Briseis’ point of view. This shift of perspective makes explicit the brutality of the war and the way it envelops non-combatants in its implacable, bloody logic: the trauma visited on ordinary people, the slaughter of innocents, the enslavement and rape of the women taken captive. Barker’s novel is harrowing, brilliant, and faithful to The Iliad; it would also, I am certain, be considered a “woke” attempt to tear down the edifice of classic Greek literature if read by those who view a Black elf as a profound betrayal of Tolkien’s legacy.
A thought I’ve had a lot lately is what low esteem Tolkien purists have for Tolkien’s work, given that they seem to believe the slightest deviation from what they perceive as the original or authentic vision is somehow mortally damaging to Tolkien’s legacy. The opposite is the case: Tolkien’s peculiar genius lies in the very capaciousness of his vision. It contains multitudes. Not even Amazon can dent it. And that, of course, is the nature of mythology: if the ancient Romans had had Twitter, there would have been endless arguments in the Greek myth fan community over the Latinizing of the gods’ names; Ovid would have been excoriated for the liberties he took, Virgil for being an Augustan propagandist; and legions of toga-clad hipsters would sniff into their wine (locally sourced, of course) that Hesiod was the only truly authentic mythographer.
But none of the Roman emendations and transformations of the Greek myths had a deleterious effect on Homer, any more than do contemporary novels by Pat Barker or Madeline Miller. And no more than The Rings of Power, Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, or even Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit have had on Tolkien’s mythos.
Indeed, in his letter to Milton Waldman, Tolkien is quite clear about how he wants his mythology to be picked up, adapted, and transformed by others: “I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.” And so it has transpired. Whether Tolkien would have liked any of the scholarship, cinema and television, fan fiction, video games, and indeed the whole raft of imitative works that came to comprise the genre of fantasy as we now know it is irrelevant. Such is the risk you take when you create something transcendent.
1. I suppose we should appreciate that Jackson established a spectrum of quality against which all future Tolkien adaptations can be measured, with the Lord of the Rings films establishing the high-water mark and The Hobbit films as the nadir.
2. One thing I will say on this point is that two of the things giving the anti-woke crowd the nativist vapours are my favourite parts of the show: namely, the young, impetuous, warrior version of Galadriel played by Morfydd Clark, and the EOC (elf of colour) Arondir, played by Ismael Cruz Cordova. Cordova is veritably mesmerizing as Arondir, playing the character with a tightly controlled mien that just barely hints at a tumult beneath; when in the third episode he breaks out the Legolas-like balletic combat, I don’t think his expression changes. Not that I would want to typecast him, but he’s all set to play a Vulcan should he want to stick with the SF/F thing.
Meanwhile, the complaints about Galadriel are as predictable as they are exhausting, starting with whinges about making a female character the show’s main focus and filter. Beyond that, (some) people can’t seem to reconcile Clark’s smouldering rage and badass combat skills with the cool reserve with which Cate Blanchett endowed the character … never considering, presumably, that that degree of imperturbable self-control is something one earns.
Also, it’s probably mere coincidence that the first thing Galadriel does in the first episode is kill a troll. I’m sure that wasn’t something the writers did in anticipation of the backlash the character would inevitably face.
3. We’re starting with Rick Riordan’s YA novel Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief; then Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which is a retelling of The Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, the Trojan woman over whom Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel; Circe by Madeline Miller, which tells the story of the titular witch who plays a small but significant role in The Odyssey; and The Just City by Jo Walton, a novel in which the goddess Athene creates Plato’s Republic out of curiosity, to see if it would actually work. We’ll also be doing a bunch of poetry (Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” for example, and William Carlos Williams’ “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”), as well as reading the relevant myths as recounted in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (I would have actually preferred to use Stephen Fry’s book Mythos, which is an arch and elegant compendium, but it is too expensive and too long to justify including it, especially when my students would only be reading a fraction of it. I’ve been listening to it on audiobook off and on all summer—read, of course, by Fry himself—and it is a delight).
4. For legal reasons I haven’t entirely parsed, Amazon has the rights to The Lord of the Rings—and its appendices—but not The Silmarillion.
5. The Bakshi LotR was just the first half—that is, all of Fellowship and parts of The Two Towers. He’d planned the film to take place in two parts, but the second film never got made … for reasons that become clear when you watch the first.
6. If current film and television was in fact limited to these possibilities—which seem to be delineated here as Marvel’s archness, Game of Thrones’ sex and violence, and the self-righteousness of a vaguely imagined wokeness—he might just have a point. But I don’t have to reach back fifteen years to The Wire and The Sopranos and the rest of prestige television’s first glut of great work to refute Drout’s characterization. In just the past two or three years, Severance, Better Call Saul, Our Flag Means Death, The Mandalorian, The Plot Against America, Succession, The Good Place, Sex Education, Slow Horses, Yellowjackets, and countless other series have shown the depth and breadth of the subtlety and sophistication that is out there.
7. I’ve written previously on this blog about the contradictions inherent in Bezos’ avowed love of Star Trek, given that Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future was utopian in part because it imagined a future in which a billionaire class was unthinkable … but this isn’t really what Drout’s on about.
8. Though, really, any time you feel compelled to preface a statement with “I’m not racist, but …” there’s about a 100% chance you’re about to say something racist.
9. Also, not for nothing, but it’s not as if The Rings of Power is doing for the Tolkien expanded universe what Black Panther did for the MCU, in which Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis were the sole Tolkien white guys (get it?). The “diversity” of The Rings of Power, in the end, is a handful of dark faces in a large cast that is otherwise still overwhelmingly white. The fact that so many people are reacting as if the showrunners had put a sign saying “Caucasians need not apply” on the audition room door is perhaps the most telling point.
10. Interestingly, Milton had about as much regard in the end for Arthurian legend as Tolkien did—which is to say moderate regard, but like Tolkien he found it wanting. In the early days of considering what the subject for his epic would be, Milton considered King Arthur, but discarded the idea as too parochial.
11. The rumbling you hear is Harold Bloom spinning in his grave at me mentioning Tolkien in the same sentence as Milton and Joyce.