The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Roundtable at Strange Horizons

At the beginning of this year, I participated in a Strange Horizons roundtable on the unexpectedly entertaining first season of Amazon's adaptation of the Wheel of Time books. In that discussion, I was present as the token non-book reader, the person who enjoyed the show but had no idea what greater significance its events, setting, and characters foretold.

Now at the close of the year, I'm taking the opposite position on another roundtable about another Amazon show, the Lord of the Rings prequel series The Rings of Power. The other participants are author and reviewer Will Shaw, Strange Horizons coordinating editor Gautam Bhatia, and reviews co-editor Aishwarya Subramanian. The discussion was ably organized, led, and edited by reviews co-editor Dan Hartland.

Abigail Nussbaum: I’d say my main issue with the show is its bifurcated approach to its storytelling, and especially how it filled in the source material. Yes, sometimes it felt incredibly imaginative and creative. I really liked the Sauron reveal, for example (not least because it did something interesting with what was until then my least favorite character). It's technically true to the canon—we know that Sauron appeared to repent during the Second Age, and may have even been in earnest, and that he spent time in Númenor—without feeling beholden to it. And I liked that it didn't take the classic form of the prestige drama twist that forces you to rewatch the season to catch all the scattered clues. It's not that Sauron had an evil scheme that Galadriel fell into. He was genuinely out of sorts—he probably would have been perfectly happy to play the Southlands king, for example, at least for a while—and what he clings to is the sense of connection he has with Galadriel. I like the idea of these two characters finding something in each other, even if she ends up rejecting it. The image of them as evil lord and queen is a great twist on the established canon because it's entirely plausible—once again, it's true to the text while still being its own thing.

But at its worst, the show feels depressingly mechanical, driven by the sort of thinking that gave us "how Han Solo got his blaster." I don't think we needed a Mordor origin story, for example (and especially not one that hinges on such dodgy geology). And the actual process of crafting the three elven rings felt depressingly literal-minded, transforming what in the original text was almost a religious mystery into a matter of ores and alloys. It sometimes feels as if there are two shows, and I’m not sure which one will eventually win out.
Check out the full discussion to see our varied reactions to the show, our race to see which of us is the biggest Tolkien nerd, and our surprising consensus on what element should absolutely appear in the show's second season (spoiler: it's Tom Bombadil).


nullhypothesis said…
Slightly off-topic but you mentioned you had a review of the Station Eleven miniseries in the works.
John said…
Super interesting, as always.
One point of view on Rings of Power, (put forward most strongly by Prof Bret Devereaux on is that the show lacks the grounding in a quasi-reality which Tolkien (as a historian, philologist and ex-soldier with years to work in) was able to create. This leads to continuous oddities which unconsciously grind away at suspension of disbelief. Stuff like the world's best metalsmith not having to be reminded about alloying, like conquering a continent with 100 riders in 3 boats and the orc army in episode 6 appearing and disappearing as per the requirements of the plot. It also makes it harder to understand the stakes - how much risk is Galadriel taking jumping off the boat, or Queen Miriel taking in making her nobles do something they don't want to?

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