Return to Middle-Earth – Review of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” Episodes One and Two

When I was six or seven years old, my mother handed me a worn paperback copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. After devouring the adventure of Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, I asked if there was another book from that author. My mother, proud that she had piqued my interest in something, handed me The Lord of the Rings, which for a seven-year-old is difficult reading. Over the years, I’ve revisited Middle-Earth many times, both through the books and the Peter Jackson films (not so much The Hobbit trilogy, though).

Then came the announcement that Amazon was producing a live-action streaming television series set during the Second Age of Middle-Earth. I was initially skeptical, largely because much of the events of that age are recounted in The Silmarillion, which is an even more difficult read than The Lord of the Rings. Titled The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, this epic series seeks to provide some of the substantial backstory that led to the original trilogy of stories that became the second-most read book series of the 20th century.

Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched the first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

Let’s clear up one thing right off the bat. There’s a ton of open and hidden racism rolling around on the web regarding the casting of people of color in this show. If the ethnicity of the actors in the series is a sticking point for you, kindly and with as little respect as possible, take yourself out of the LOTR fandom. You are not wanted in this space. If you care more about the cast being nothing but white people, you have far bigger problems than this series and you need to work on that without spewing vitriol online toward the actors and actresses in this show.

Now, on to the actual review of the episodes.

The first episode, titled “A Shadow of the Past”, starts of with an idyllic vista of something I honestly thought I wouldn’t see in live-action: Valinor (aka the Grey Havens) during the period of Middle-Earth’s history when the light of the Two Trees still shined. The visuals of the first few minutes of the episode are breathtaking and also gives us an early introduction to Finrod and a young Galadriel. Much like The Fellowship of the Ring film adaptation, we’re treated to a short prologue, with Galadriel once again serving as the narrator. In this case, we see a truncated version of the War of Wrath, the world-shattering conflict between the Elves, the Valar, and the original Dark Lord Morgoth. We also learn that Finrod, Galadriel’s beloved brother, dies sometime after the War of Wrath ends and he dies at the hands of Sauron, the chief lieutenant of Morgoth.

The remainder of the first episode (and much of the second episode) serves as a great deal of set-up, introducing us to our principal cast of characters (so far). Morfydd Clark brings a resolute intensity to her portrayal of the young Galadriel. This is not the ethereal, queenly elf portrayed by Cate Blanchett in the film series. Instead, we are given an obstinate, hardened Galadriel who has spent centuries hunting down the last remnants of Morgoth’s forces but still feels that Sauron has escaped justice. Through Galadriel’s story arc in the first episode, we are also introduced to Elrond (portrayed by Robert Aramayo) and Gil-galad, the High King of the Noldor Elves (portrayed by Benjamin Walker). Both Elrond and Gil-galad are stoic characters, Elrond less-so in some ways, but both are wary of the intensity with which Galadriel pursues her quest. The idea that Galadriel is to be sent back to Valinor (considered an honor by the Noldor) felt hollow to me, largely because it’s a foregone conclusion that she will remain in Middle-Earth for several millennia. There was a nice amount of character work on Morfydd’s part with portrayal, even if this is a sharp departure from the character book readers know. We also get a brief moment at the end of the episode where Gil-galad introduces Elrond to Lord Celebrimbor, the Elven smith who will one day forge the Rings of Power.

Another story arc that appears in the first episode is the introduction of the Harfoots (aka proto-Hobbits), specifically the character of Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot (played by Markella Kavenagh). Similar in characteristics to both Meriadoc Brandybuck (played by Dominic Monaghan in the film series) and Frodo Baggins (portrayed by Elijah Wood), Nori is a mischievous and curious Harfoot. Not content to just live within the isolated confines of her traveling village of Harfoots, Nori makes it a habit of travelling beyond the normal boundaries set for young people in her village. I found myself liking Nori almost immediately. She’s the type of character who will probably make poor decisions but she doesn’t strike me as someone who will be carrying the “idiot ball” simply to progress the plot. Her discovery of a strange man who literally fell from the sky leads me to believe her story arc will intersect with the other arcs at some point in the future. 

The last story arc introduced in the first episode is in the Southlands, where an outpost of Silvan Elves has been watching over the human population of the area for decades. The reasoning behind this is due to these tribes of men having once been supporters of Morgoth. It’s clear from the start that the Elves are not welcomed by the humans but the humans are too scared to do anything about it. Our main point of view characters are Arondir (portrayed by Ismael Cruz Cordova), one of the Silvan Elves patrolling the Southlands, and Bronwyn (portrayed by Nazanin Boniadi), a human healer and single mother. It’s clear that these two are deeply attracted to each other, which is forbidden in both of their cultures. There are allusions to the history of the book series where couplings of human and Elves did not end well, specifically the story of Beren and Luthien. Out of all the three storylines introduced in the first episode, this one is the one I’m least intrigued by. Cordova and Boniadi do have a good amount of chemistry together but Cordova’s sometimes stilted performance leaves much to be desired.

The second episode of the series, “Adrift”, picks up where the first episode left off, with Galadriel swimming in the Sundering Sea after abandoning her ship that was being accepted into Valinor. The sequence with the sea monster was quite terrifying to watch, with the musical score increasing the dread of the sequence at every turn. Eventually, Galadriel finds herself saved by Halbrand (portrayed by Charlie Vickers), a traumatized human man who is running away from the destruction of his home at the hands of Orcs. Bereft of other options, the pair work together to survive on the open seas, nearly losing their lives during a terrible storm. In the end, they are saved by a passing ship, which will lead to the introduction of Numenor, the great island kingdom of humans in the Sundering Sea. Aside from the sea monster sequence, I can’t say I found this beat in the story all that interesting, despite the performances of the two actors in it.

In the Southlands portion of the episode, we see Arondir and Bronwyn encounter a destroyed village not far from where Bronwyn lives. We also learn that Theo, Bronwyn’s son, has recovered a cursed blade from somewhere that bears the mark of Sauron. The reveal at the end that a drop of Theo’s blood (from an injury where an Orc attacked him and his mother) began restoring the blade is ominous as hell. Given how things could potentially play out, I wouldn’t be surprised if Theo becomes corrupted by this weapon, since foul magic and weaponry go hand-in-hand with the evil beings of Middle-Earth. I’m still not fully on board with this particular storyline, at least for the time being. Arondir and his new quest to investigate the dark goings-on of the area just doesn’t grab my attention in the same way the other story arcs. Perhaps this will change in future episodes but for now, it feels like the weakest portion of this show for me.

The subplot with the Stranger who fell from the sky and Nori Brandyfoot of the Harfoots is the most intriguing out of all of them. Nori tries unsuccessfully to communicate with the Stranger, who clearly has unspecified magical powers. There’s a heavy musical theme used with the Stranger that sounds deeply ominous. I can’t say for certain who this Stranger is just yet. Part of me thinks this could be one of the Maiar, a group of spiritual beings who took on the forms of humans to aid in the defeat of Sauron (who is also one of the Maiar). Whether this individual is Saruman, Gandalf, or some other character created for the show is left up in the air. What is shown, though, is that the Stranger is looking for a specific constellation of stars, which intrigues Nori (and could potentially lead to her leaving the confines of the Harfoot village as the story continues).

Lastly, we have the introduction of the Dwarves, through the political machinations of Elrond and Celebrimbor. Celebrimbor seeks to build a tower to house a forge capable of creating power items. The Silmarils and Feanor are name dropped in this portion of the show, which is something as a fan of the book series I found most appealing. The Silmarils are one of the key artifacts of Tolkien’s saga and served as the first major McGuffins of the books before the forging of the Rings of Power. And much like the Rings, the Silmarils brought nothing but grief and heartache to those that would possess them.

To build this new edifice, Elrond convinces Celebrimbor to seek the assistance of the Dwarves of Khazad-dum, the stronghold first seen as an abandoned ruin in The Fellowship of the Ring film. In The Rings of Power, we get to see this grand stronghold in all its glory and it is magnificent to behold. Whatever issues I may have with the characterizations and slow pace of this series so far, the visuals alone make it worth watching. Elrond seeks the aid of his old friend Durin IV, the crown-prince of Khazad-dum. While Durin is upset with not seeing Elrond for nearly twenty years (and based on his reaction, it’s clear Durin considered Elrond a dear friend), it is Durin’s wife Disa who manages to help mend the broken friendship over a meal. I loved Disa, portrayed by Sophia Nomvete. Durin may be the Crown Prince but it is apparent immediately that Disa runs their household and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. The tease at the end that Durin and his father have found something worth keeping secret in the mines of their city is an intriguing idea but I’m not sure where that particular subplot is going to go.

With this adaptation, the showrunners and writers are compressing thousands of years of Middle-Earth history into a story that will take place in a single lifetime. Characters such as Elendil and Isildur (who’ll be introduced in the next few episodes) were born thousands of years after the forging of the Rings of Power. I’m willing to give the creators a great deal of leeway in this adaptation, though, largely because I’m interested to see how they adapt these stories. While there are subplots I’m not totally invested in, I feel that for the most part The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power succeeds more than it fails. My one major gripe about the series after viewing the first two episodes is that the pacing is glacial slow. The first two episodes involve a great deal of setting the stage for what is to come but we haven’t even been introduced to the Numenoreans as of yet (which will be in the next episode), so there’s still more setting up that needs to be accomplished. Given that the first season only has eight episodes, my hope is that the pace will pick up sooner rather than later. For now, I’m enjoying this trip in the history of Middle-earth and look forward to seeing what comes about as the series progresses.

My book series The Atalante Chronicles is now live on Amazon for Kindle, Paperback, and Hardcover Print-On-Demand. Your support is greatly appreciated.
Blood And Stone, Book One in my series, is also available on Smashwords (Affiliate Link)
The Crone and The Curse, Book Two in my series, is also available on Smashwords (Affiliate Link)

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