The Rings of Power Teaser Shines a New (and Alternate) Light on Middle-earth

Well, The Rings of Power teaser trailer sure has been polarizing among fans, with a fair number of us waffling between the two extremes of excitement and trepidation. For some, it’s thrilling just to see a new vision of Middle-earth; they await the new series with open eyes and minds. For others, it’s been outrage from the get-go and the certainty that the show is going to suck…without, you know, waiting to see. Outside of Tolkien fandom, I assume that the general reaction after seeing the teaser has been either “oh, neat, another nerds-and-hobbits thing” or “was that a naked bearded man in a meteor?”

If you ask me, here’s what we should all do: Avoid window shopping at the Knee-Jerk Store in downtown Freak-Out City. That place is full of Orcs, you know? We’re allowed to just be excited in any which way.

That said, I’m as anxious (and sometimes as grumbly) as the next nerd, and I have my sticking points, too. But it helps to remember that teaser trailers are not regular trailers. Teasers have only one job: to get potential viewers excited about something. Not to forecast a plot or introduce the cast. In less than a minute, it barely tells us what to expect: Some of those scene snippets could be seasons away, they’re not likely in chronological order, and they’re not exactly loaded with exposition. And this teaser aired during Super Bowl LVI, casting as wide a net as possible. You can’t get any more public than that.

Keep in mind one overarching truth: Amazon Prime wants more subscribers out of this. It’s trying to make a TV show for mass appeal first, and a faithful Tolkien tie-in second. Or third, or tenth. Satisfying existing Tolkien book fans has got to be low on the executive producers’ priority list. Does that mean that all the people involved in this show are twirling their mustaches and pulling out money sacks with a big $ symbol on them? Hardly. We can only hope there is still a lot of heart and dedication and meaningful effort in what’s to come. Maybe it is a fool’s hope.

Consider this. In a follow-up audio interview with the authors of the Vanity Fair article “Amazon’s Lord of the Rings Series Rises: Inside The Rings of Power,” Joanna Robinson was asked straight-up about what rights Amazon has for this show. This was her answer, and she starts by quoting the showrunners directly.

“We do not have the rights to The Silmarillion, to the Unfinished Tales, to the History of Middle-earth…. We have the rights solely to The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, and the Appendices, and that’s it. And The Hobbit.” Basically this exploration of the Second Age, as you know, is not just in those Appendices but in a few chapters, like “The Council of Elrond,” or Gandalf speaking to Frodo, or in songs or in poems, or any of those nooks and crannies where they could dig out that Second Age information, they did.

On the one hand, as a book fan, that means all that extended Tolkien legendarium material is “safe” from getting adapted for now.

But on the other hand, it’s also kind of devastating. If they have no Silmarillion rights, how can they stay true to the events related to, for example, the Akallabêth—that is, the actual full story of the rise and fall of Númenor. Does that mean the new series has to reinvent the whole Númenor story, along with most of the plot of the Second Age (from “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age” at the end of The Silmarillion“)? Ostensibly. And that’s kind of horrifying. But then it was pointed out to me that there are place names on the Amazon maps that are not named at all in The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. Like Belegaer (the Great Sea), Ost-in-Edhil (the capital city of Eregion where the Rings of Power are made), or Lórinand (the early name for Lothlórien). So that means Amazon has got to have some kind of rights to some bits and pieces beyond LotR—how much, we won’t know until we see it.

So for now, let’s stick with some teaser trailer speculations. Everybody’s doing it, so why can’t we?

Such as, hey, where the heck is this frigid cliff and waterfall where Galadriel is doing some Legolas-style Elfobatics, climbing in armor and using her Two Trees dagger as an ice axe?

Screenshot: Amazon Studios

Well, according to Vanity Fair’s own follow-up to the teaser, this is “clearly the Forodwaith,” where Galadriel is “leading an expedition to track and destroy any remnants of Morgoth or Sauron, who went into hiding after the fall of his master.” Hmm. Not to be confused with the Helcaraxë, Forodwaith is a cold region at the top of Eriador, due north of the future site of Rivendell. Why Galadriel herself would lead such an expedition is unclear. In The Silmarillion and elsewhere, Gil-galad, the last High King of the Noldor, is the one who is most suspicious of the Shadow that’s returning to Middle-earth. Here Galadriel is the “commander of the Northern Armies,” whose “mission is to eradicate any trace of the evil that cost so many lives, including that of her brother Finrod, during Morgoth’s tyranny in the ‘first age.'” Finrod, hmm?

So why is the commander leading a mountaineering team to such a remote place in search of traces of evil? I suppose we might as well wonder why the captain of a starship and his senior officers would be the first ones to explore a mysterious and potentially inhospitable planet.

Speaking of traces of evil… I guess she finds some!

Screenshot: Amazon Studios

Surely this is a snow-troll, or some other ice-themed monster out of Morgoth’s old workshops. Snow-trolls are named only once in The Lord of the Rings, when in Appendix A a white-clad Helm Hammerhand is compared to one, “fierce and gaunt for famine and grief” as he stalks his enemies with his bare hands. Which, in turn, suggests that Helm’s ancestors, the Northmen of Rhovanion, have passed down tales of such monsters from the mountains. Whatever this thing is, is it trying to upstage the wampa Luke Skywalker meets on Hoth?

Okay, so this is our first look at the island of “Númenor in its prime.”

Screenshot: Amazon Studios

This is probably the eastern port city of Rómenna, from which mariners would set sail for Middle-earth. That lonely mountain in the background is surely Meneltarma, at the island’s center, upon which a place of worship is built. Devoted to Eru Ilúvatar (the singular god of Tolkien’s legendarium), it is a hallowed site open to the sky, and visitors were forbidden to speak there. In the latter, corrupt days of Númenor, the holy mountain will be deserted. And on the nation’s final day, Meneltarma will explode with flame. Like, y’know, a volcano. Meanwhile, uncoincidentally, Sauron will be sitting pretty in his little Melkor-worshipping temple, pleased with his efforts. Until he realizes the divine response to Númenor’s temerity is more than even he bargained for.

Anyway, that big statue of a man holding his hand up dramatically sure has an Argonath vibe, doesn’t it? Since Gondor was founded by the Númenóreans who survived the downfall, the style is no accident.

Meanwhile, something’s really got Durin IV upset here.

Screenshot: Amazon Studios

In the Appendix A, we’re told…

Durin is the name that the Dwarves used for the eldest of the Seven Fathers of their race, and the ancestor of all the kings of the Longbeards.

Dwarves can be cagey about their own traditions, but basically, the heirs of Durin the Deathless so strongly resembled him in every way that they kept the name going, and the Dwarves treated each one as if he were the original Durin. A king in Khazad-dûm (Moria) during both the “happier times” and war times of the Second Age, he’ll certainly be an important character in this series and likely to get one of those fancy Rings of Power that’ll be handed out. Khazad-dûm was founded in the First Age, but will have only grown in wealth and power by this point in time. It’s not until two Durins later in the Third Age when the Balrog comes busting through the wall like an evil Kool-Aid Man.

But what popped out to me in this shot were the terrifying effigies in the background. Or are they statues? Masks? Petrified corpses? They’re scary.

Given the orangey, fire-lit cavern background, I think this next shot is meant to be from the same venue.

Screenshot: Amazon Studios

So, Elrond Half-Elven. This is going to take some getting used to. Vanity Fair cites him as “a canny young elven architect and politician,” which will also take getting used to. That’s all fine, even intriguing, but it’s weird to have those be his main identifiers… as opposed to, oh, being the son of Eärendil (who is now endlessly flying over Middle-earth as the Evening Star with a Silmaril strapped to his head!) and the brother of Elros, the first king of Númenor, and the descendant of some of the most important Men, Elves, and even Maiar of the First Age. No big deal.

To my eyes, this Elrond looks much too much like some teenager from Dawson’s Creek or Cobra Kai (pick your decade), but I’m less concerned by how young he looks than what his arc will be. I’m worried the series is going to give him daddy issues or just family issues in general. Eru knows, he’ll have reason enough in the future to be angsty (the fates of his wife and his daughter). No one on Middle-earth should feel so bitterly the differing fates of Men and Elves. Yet none are also as likely to appreciate the value of different races joining together to oppose Sauron. In this sense, calling him a politician could be suitable. I just hope the show’s writers establish him as much more than just some punk kid, even in the beginning. This image of Elrond, presumably visiting Khazad-dûm, makes him seem angry or frustrated. Perhaps he is on a diplomatic mission there in Khazad-dûm, visiting the Dwarves.

As far as other Elves in the teaser, we see the Silvan Elf that Vanity Fair has identified as Arondir.

Screenshot: Amazon Studios

This far back in time before the Third Age, anything goes. Silvan Elves will one day people the Woodland Realm of Mirkwood and even Lothlórien. Silvan Elves, in proper Tolkien lore, are Moriquendi, a.k.a. Dark Elves, which just means they’re Elves who never reached Valinor and beheld the light of the Two Trees (like Galadriel and all the Noldor did). They’ve been in Middle-earth the whole time. They’re still Elven through and through, but loved the world too much to be led away to the paradisiacal Undying Lands even the first time.

However much this show is setting itself apart from Peter Jackson, it sure seems like they’re taking the superhero-speed-of-Legolas approach with its Elves, or at least its protagonist Elves. Personally, I associate catching arrows with high-level D&D monks or martial arts films. But all right, why not here?

Then there’s Goldy Frocks here, who’s doing no such arrow-catching. Stargazing, yes.

Screenshot: Amazon Studios

This is apparently Gil-galad himself, High King and leader of the Elves of Lindon. Given that Gil-galad, tag-teaming with Elendil the Tall (Isildur’s father), will one day bring down Sauron in close combat (even while the Dark Lord is wearing his Ring!), he’s got to be formidable indeed. This show seems to be setting up Galadriel as the real mover and shaker, though, so we’ll see how or if Gil-galad comes into his own. He should be leading armies at some point, but so far we’re only seeing him stand around and look concerned. Or like maybe he shouldn’t have had that fish taco earlier in the day.

But now I need to talk about Finrod. I know people tend to have their favorite characters in The Lord of the Rings. I never have; I suck at picking favorites. But if we’re considering all of Tolkien’s books, to me there is no Elf cooler than Finrod Felagund, Hewer of Caves, Friend-of-Men. And since he’s apparently been cast (Will Fletcher) and for some reason shows up in this teaser, I’m a bit worried about what they’re doing with him.

Screenshot: Amazon Studios

First, he can only be in flashbacks, surely! He died in a very noble/metal fashion in the First Age, wrestling one of Sauron’s werewolves with his bare hands—in the famous Beren and Lúthien tale—after a long and storied career of just full-on making Middle-earth a better place. The Silmarillion treats us to the only bit of conversation he has with his little sis, Galadriel, but I think it’s fair to assume their connection will be an important one in The Rings of Power. If part of her drive is seeking vengeance against Sauron, I do hope they make that clear in a convincing way. The Silmarillion gives us nothing about her reaction to the deaths of all her brothers; but then, The Silmarillion is not written in a mode that would relay such emotional information to us.

In any case, I am hoping that the show’s creative team knows what it’s doing here. This shot seems to depict an anguished Finrod in the crash of battle between Elves and Orcs. Now, that would make sense if this scene is in the Fen of Serech, as part of the Dagor Bragollach (Battle of Sudden Flame), where Barahir, father of Beren, swoops in and saves him (though many lives of Elves and Men are lost). That would help set up the friendship between Finrod specifically and Barahir’s line, which will carry all the way through the thousands of years of Númenórean history and on through the surviving Dúnedain.

I also just have to say, I’m not wild about short-haired Elves. To be fair, that’s a personal choice, not a textual Tolkien mandate, though I feel it’s strongly implied throughout his writings that Elves had long or at least longish hair. (At least from the point of view of an Oxford professor in the early nineteenth century.)

So, Harfoots.

Screenshot: Amazon Studios

They’re the hobbit stand-ins for this show. They seems to have taken what Tolkien wrote in his “Concerning Hobbits” prologue—that Harfoots were one of the three “breeds” of hobbits established east of the Misty Mountains—and turned them into a tribe with its own varied breeds. I don’t quite understand it, but I’m willing to see where they go with that. I want these proto-hobbits to stay under the radar entirely, whatever they do. I daresay Elrond better not catch wind of them, or witness them doing anything heroic, or else Bilbo and Frodo will not seem so remarkable to him a few thousand years later.

But employing them as a kind of framing device isn’t a bad idea, or at least using them as point-of-view characters. Tolkien did this for much of The Lord of the Rings, where we watched the wider world unfold through the eyes of Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry. And they do tend to make friends easily; friends who end up drawing them into the story.

All right, next up we have Raft Man.

From Vanity Fair‘s first article on the topic, we’re told this storm-tossed chap is named Halbrand, “a new character who is a fugitive from his own past.” We see him connect with Galadriel, and so I expect we’ll be spending some time with them traveling together. We really know next to nothing about this guy, like what culture he’s part of—is he Númenórean or just a man from one of Eriador’s coastal lands?—but I do have a theory of my own. This is a shot in the dark, maybe.

See, I think that  early in the story we’re going to see very little of Sauron directly. The whole point is that he’s in hiding, far from ready to reveal himself, and with Galadriel searching for him. Now in The Silmarillion and even Appendix B, it’s established that Sauron is only unmasked when he forges the One Ring. But before he even kickstarts the Rings of Power project, he’s actually far away to the East, growing his power among Orcs and Men. If Amazon has the rights to, and uses, the name Annatar—which is the fair disguise that Sauron adopts so he can go among the Elves and manipulate them—then every book fan is going to see him coming a mile away. But what if Amazon wants to introduce us to Sauron much earlier without us realizing it’s him? It’s not until the sinking of Númenor that Sauron loses his Maiar ability to change his shape and assume fair forms. Up until that point, he’s all about dissembling. He was a shapechanger even in the Beren and Lúthien story.

I really don’t know what to make of Meteor Man here. This might be something entirely new, I suppose (which sure feels risky). All the theories I’ve heard sound far-fetched or just silly. The only meteorite in established Tolkien lore is mentioned early in The Silmarillion, and it’s from said space rock that Eöl, the Dark Elf, makes a pair of awesome swords. But a hairy naked dude hitching a ride on such a meteorite? That would be weird. Some are calling this one of the Istari (meh) or even the means by which Annatar shows up (eh). Neither of those feels right. Apparently the Harfoot girl we saw earlier is also here, reaching out a hand to this hairy fire-hobo. Who the heck knows?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Screenshot: Amazon Studios

I was there, Gandalf. I was there, three thousand years ago, when the very first teaser for Peter Jackson’s films dropped. I lost a night of sleep out of sheer excitement. A whole new door was about to open up in pop culture. People who scarcely knew anything about the books were going to hear names like Éowyn and Sméagol and goddamned Gríma Wormtongue (!) projected loudly from big movie speakers right into their ears. Names devised half a century before by a professor of philology who was a fanboy of fairy tales. Names that a bunch of us already knew so well in the nerdy quiet spaces in our lives.

But now? The whole moviegoing, Super Bowl–watching world has known who Sauron is for a long time now. Hobbits, Elves, wizards—everybody already knows the basics. So this teaser for The Rings of Power merely serves to stir the pot and bring both familiarity and some new flavors to the top of the pop culture soup. Let’s wait and see how it tastes when it’s actually ready.

Jeff LaSala can’t stop making metaphors, nor leave Middle-earth well enough alone. He is responsible for The Silmarillion Primer, the Deep Delvings series, and a few other assorted articles. Tolkien nerdom aside, Jeff wrote a Scribe Award–nominated D&D novel, produced some cyberpunk stories, and works in production for Macmillan and Tor Books. He is sometimes on Twitter.

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