J.R.R. Tolkien’s world is so rich and multifaceted, no single artist can quite fully encapsulate it. And yet each can shine with an expertise, style, and niche all their own. For example, when I think of the panoramic landscapes of Middle-earth, Ted Nasmith’s paintings comes instantly to mind. When I think of the ancient halls or brooding forests, Alan Lee’s work is at the forefront. But when I consider, say, the Elves of the First Age and many of the dramatic, emotion-charged moments of The Silmarillion, I think first of German illustrator Jenny Dolfen, whose beautiful and award-winning watercolors have been on display across Tolkien fandom for years now.
The first season of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power sure has been polarizing. One thing this show has been, across the board, is big and bold, both in its story choices and its character depictions. I give them credit for doing nothing hesitant or halfway. It’s been an extravaganza of sight and sound and feeling, for good or ill. And in the finale, episode 8, long-running theories were dashed and/or confirmed; identities were revealed or further teased; fans were elated, impressed, or thoroughly bummed out. It’s all in there, and all out there.
Many critics (a term I am applying only to those who went in with an open mind) like to say things like “The Rings of Power has gone off the rails.” But I don’t think so. It didn’t go off the rails because it was always on a different set of tracks than the book(s). It’s been weaving this way and that over new landscapes, through new plot tunnels, over conflict bridges, and through narrow character canyons. Sometimes the narrative landscape actually resembles one of Tolkien’s, but mostly not. Once we square with the layout of these new sets of tracks, we can try to make sense of it. I struggle with it myself.
So let’s get to it. To say this discussion has spoilers in it would be a serious understatement. But I won’t lie, a lot of this is criticism.
Looks like orc-origins are back on the menu, boys! Thanks a lot, Adar, “Lord-father.”
Well, these last two episodes didn’t lack for big movement and bigger drama. Battles, volcanos, tears, way more blood than expected, and even long-lost husbands! We finally have the great war for the Southlands… which, well, didn’t really seem that great, after all. I guess I was expecting a series of campaigns (even if we didn’t walk through them in great detail), not a single skirmish in a small village. Neither the Númenóreans nor the orcs were particularly numerous. Still, it could be argued that the outcome of this battle would determine the future not only of the Southlands, but all of Middle-earth.
Some new revelations have come to light, and I will tackle some of them in the spoiler-filled discussion below.
These last two episodes of The Rings of Power sure did some things, didn’t they? Have they changed my overall opinion of the show? Only a little, because I’m still compartmentalizing this thing. Have episodes 4 and 5 made my trust in the showrunners waver somewhat? Yes. Do I retain hope that the show will “survive” this recent stumble, and go on to still be excellent overall? Yes, I’ve still got some hope. But it’s Amdir hope, not Estel hope. I’ll explain.
So here follows another opinion-riddled discussion of the last two episodes, filled to the brim with spoilers.
Do I love The Rings of Power? Go not to me for a final opinion, for I will answer both “definitely” and “not wholly.” We’re three episodes in now, out of eight for the season. Am I enjoying it? Absolutely. For general TV viewers or fans of fantasy, it’s a worthy show on its own merits. For Tolkien book-nerds, who know much more about the Middle-earth lore that the show can’t or won’t include, some contextual adjustment is necessary for proper enjoyment. It’s difficult but not impossible to do.
The Rings of Power is an adaptation of the compressed latter phase of the Second Age, based on the relatively sparse text about that period of time—as specifically referenced in The Lord of the Rings and its Appendices. It is very definitively not The Silmarillion, nor can it be, and reminding oneself of this fact is important. Casual fans of Tolkien or even just fans of the Peter Jackson films—who are largely unfamiliar with the legendarium beyond the famous trilogy—are probably enjoying it now. If they’re open-minded.
Here follows an opinion-riddled discussion of the show so far that’s also thick with spoilers. Be warned.
When I was writing up my recent Second Age Primer article, I kept wanting to say more about Galadriel. But here’s the thing. Her role in the events of the Second Age is nebulous. Even in The Silmarillion, which is mostly about the First Age, we don’t have very much. We’re introduced to her in Valinor, where she is already grown. She is one of the children of Finarfin and Eärwen. As such, she is royalty, the granddaughter of Finwë, High King of the Noldor. She is also there at the Darkening of Valinor, when Melkor and his gal-pal Ungoliant murdered the Two Trees that gave power and light to the Blessed Realm—before there was even a Sun and Moon.
I have written about Galadriel before—five years ago in “The Trial of Galadriel,” with an emphasis on her long-term arc—but here I’d like to focus on her actions in the Second Age. You know, just like Amazon’s The Rings of Power is doing. The new series is taking liberties with the character, as will become quickly apparent. In fact, they have to. But it’s still worth knowing what Tolkien had in mind in his “continual refashionings” of Galadriel’s narrative, if only because the showrunners are well aware even of material they cannot use.
It could be asked, who has it in for Sauron the most? Where? And with what? Was it the Lady of the Golden Wood, in the Lórinand Conservatory, with the Lead Pipe?
Do Balrogs have wings? Does Carcharoth, the personal watchdog of the Dark Lord, have a big leonine mane? Are Gandalf’s eyebrows really longer than the brim of his hat? (That’s crazy!) Sometimes the answer is yes, but usually the answer is… only if an illustrator wants it so.
This interview started with a wolf: Carcharoth, the Red Maw, the Jaws of Thirst, is the “mightiest wolf that would ever walk the world” in Middle-earth, and he features prominently in that classic Tolkien love story of monstrous cosplay and dismemberment that we know as the tale of Beren and Lúthien. When I reached that chapter in The Silmarillion Primer, I wanted to show the dread Wolf of Angband, so I reached out to studio artist Justin Gerard because I came across his version of the beast. It was fortuitous timing, since he was just then working on another version of Carcharoth, and he even allowed me to weigh in on it before it was finished.
It took a few emails with Justin to realize that this was a guy I wanted to know more about and possibly interview for a future piece. He’s an easygoing and friendly-as-all-heck painter who’s done some excellent Tolkien—and plenty of non-Tolkien fantasy—art with a style all his own. And I’m betting some of you have certainly seen his work before (such as in the annual Spectrum anthology of contemporary fantasy art). There’s a storybook quality to his work that I struggle to articulate but love all the same. Meanwhile, we got to debut his dramatic action piece “The Hunting of Carcharoth” in that Primer installment.
We’ve known for some time now that Amazon’s Rings of Power series is going to be set during the Second Age. But in this article, I intend to walk through the basic events of the Second Age according to what Tolkien wrote. Did he detail the Second Age much? Nope. Is there still plenty to read through? Totally. He still sketched out the basics.
But let’s be clear. This article isn’t about what showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay’s are doing in their show. Which could well be awesome, even though it’s likely to be quite different than what Tolkien devised for that same age of Middle-earth that brought us the sea-kings of Westernesse, the rise of Mordor, and a batch of perilous magical rings. We’ll just have to wait and see about the show, and talk about it another day. Again, this article will focus on Tolkien’s own ideas and plots for the Second Age of Middle-earth, spare as they may be compared to the First Age (the bulk of The Silmarillion) and the latter Third Age (The Lord of the Rings).
When I visited Venice last year, I was overcome by the quality and quantity of the art filling the great halls of the famous Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). The works of Italian Renaissance painters like Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto surround you and nearly overwhelm you in that place. Saints, kings, soldiers, philosophers, angels, and gods throng the walls, ceilings, and frescoes. But you know, if someone could sneak in an armload of paintings by artist Donato Giancola—paintings like “Gandalf at Rivendell,” “Boromir in the Court of the Fountain,” or “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”—and scatter them around the palace, I bet it would take a good long while for some snooty art historian to notice and complain.
Hell, I probably wouldn’t double-take, either, because those paintings would be perfectly at home there among the masters. I suppose if you put up enough of Donato’s masterpieces in the Louvre or the Met, maybe tourists would eventually wonder why Satan looks an awful lot like a Balrog or ask who all those stressed-out, grey-robed, pipe-smoking old men are, and hey, what’s that blonde lady doing with a sword and, whoa, is she facing off against a headless, mace-wielding black knight who’s just been unhorsed from some kind of pterosaur? What Greco-Roman myth is that even from?!
Personally, I was sold on Donato Giancola’s work the moment I first saw his illustrious and mesmerizingly expansive “Beren and Lúthien in the Court of Thingol and Melian.” I later contacted him to ask if I could include some of his art in The Silmarillion Primer. Not only was he cool with it, he turned out to be a surprisingly down-to-earth fellow, and it was only a matter of time before I roped him in for an interview. Good timing, because he’s got a great new book out, too.
Recently, I was one of the guests of honor at Mythmoot, an annual speculative literature conference hosted by Signum University. That is a sentence I still feel like I haven’t squared with properly. I was asked to give a keynote, to share the metaphoric stage with Dr. Faith Acker, Dr. Michael Drout, Dr. Tom Shippey, and of course Signum’s president, Dr. Corey Olsen (aka the Tolkien Professor)—all scholars, professors, and industry luminaries. I can scarcely wrap my head around it all even now. In that same company were dozens of attendees and other presenters who gave illuminating and well-researched talks. It was an amazing experience and a memorable weekend.
Mythmoot rolls around every June and is usually hosted at the National Conference Center (NCC) in Leesburg, Virginia. If you’re interested in future conferences but can’t make it, you can attend digitally. They’ve been making it a hybrid (in-person and remote) event for two years now. Signum University also hosts a number of smaller regional “moots” throughout the year—like Mountain Moot (CO) in September, New England Moot (NH) in October, or even their first overseas one coming next January, OzMoot (Brisbane, Australia). Well worth looking into!
So anyway, this year was Mythmoot IX, and the theme was Remaking Myth. With Signum’s blessing (and of course Tor.com’s own approval), here follows a contextually adjusted writeup of my Mythmoot keynote on this theme, which I titled “Dungeons & Dragons & Silmarils; or, The Modern Mythologizer.”
Well, here it is, two and a half minutes of Middle-earth… and even some Valinor! Amazon Prime is calling this the “Main Teaser,” for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, which means maybe a regular trailer is still to come? It’s a more thorough stage setting this time and a better introduction to our protagonists. And maybe—just maybe—a glimpse of some of our villains. But mostly the former.
It seems the welfare of Elves, Men, Dwarves, and Harfoots are on the line. We also get a few new glimpses of places: Lindon (where the Noldorin Elves who remain in Middle-earth have settled); the kingdom of Khazad-dûm (Moria), the most famous and wealthy of Dwarven realms; the island kingdom of Númenor, where the Men who have been blessed with many gifts have been established; possibly even Ost-in-Edhil, the capital of Eregion. Not to mention Belegaer itself, the Great Sea, which isn’t a realm but Elves and Númenóreans do sail across it often enough.
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.
Amazon has done a pretty good job tossing up tantalizing nuggets about their upcoming 5-season Lord of the Rings series. First it was those varying maps of differing time periods. Then there were some casting announcements with a batch of unfamiliar faces (always a good thing, if you ask me). More recently we saw the “teaser” video announcing the title of the thing: The Rings of Power.
Then on February 3rd, they dropped twenty-three character “posters” depicting hands (some clean, some grimy, some in between), lots of clothes, armor, assorted trappings, weapons, and even some beards. And, of course… rings. These images offer a slew of new details to consider—but mostly for us to speculate about and guess at. And obviously for us all to talk about, because publicity is a thing. Nervous as I am about the whole venture, I’m still happy to see glimpses of some actual Númenóreans, aka the Dúnedain, aka the Sea-kings of Westernesse, aka Aragorn’s ancestors…
So let’s dig into some of this.
The long-awaited book The Nature of Middle-earth, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has newly awakened into the world like Quendi by the shores of Lake Cuiviénen! Fans hungry for more Middle-earth are scooping up their copies and… making Aragorn beard-memes? Just what is this new posthumous Tolkien book exactly, how “canon” is it, and what things do we learn about J.R.R.’s legendarium that we didn’t know before? Here is everything you need to know…
Fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings who aren’t much into Tolkien’s other Middle-earth stories may only find a few curiosities here. Answers to burning questions like: Were there any ursine entertainers on Númenor? Could Legolas talk to horses? Who in the Fellowship actually had facial hair? Come 5 o’clock, did a shadow gather about Aragorn’s cheeks and chin? Did Gollum actually go about buck naked? Was Galadriel a natural blonde? CELEBORN TELLS ALL!
In this scattershot series, we’ll be delving “too greedily and too deep,” prying gems out of the glorious rough that is the extended legendarium of Tolkien’s world. This includes drawing on The Lord of the Rings itself, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and the History of Middle-earth (or HoMe) books.
What are little orcs made of?
Heats and slime
And Utumno’s vile grime
That’s what little orcs are made of
Maybe? Well, only at first.
This, then, is my final installment on the topic of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Orcs, whereas the professor himself was never final about it. Orcs were, for him, the subject of “prolonged interior debate” (so wrote his son, Christopher) after the publication of his most famous work. This time we’re leaving The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales all behind and going right to the 12-volume series known as The History of Middle-earth (or HoMe), to see what information we can scare up.
Let’s hunt some Orc-lore!
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