Of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit, a trilogy that takes longer to watch than it does to read or write The Hobbit, nobody ever said: “It could have been longer.” The Rings of Power, the new television prequel to that prequel to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, on Amazon Prime Video, is going to be at least eight hours long, but it will be even longer if Jeff Bezos, our dimension’s Eye of Sauron, has his way.
The Rings of Power is based on the endless appendixes of the original books (Tolkien had pretty serious appendicitis) and apparently not the stuff he put into the Silmarillion. Which is probably just as well. The latter is a book in which Tolkien rambles endlessly in ye-olden-tymes English about the backstory to various Lord of the Rings myths, while the reader starts wondering whether it might be nice to have a boyfriend/girlfriend, play sports and forsake this life of nerdful drudgery. They should have called it Look Who’s Tolkien.
It’s a fair cop. The harfoots are hungry all the time, buffeted by larger powers, weirdly thrilled with themselves and in possession of a completely ridiculous accent. All intellectuals writing on Irish identity could just replace their whole output with that sentence
So I’m quite enjoying The Rings of Power even though, five episodes in, it’s still a bunch of subplots orbiting an evolving master narrative.
My favourite subplot involves a large befuddled man finding himself among a bunch of whimsical, Irish-accented little people called harfoots (they’re hobbits). He’s basically Darby O’Gill and these people are basically “the Irish”. Look, it’s a fair cop. The harfoots are hungry all the time, buffeted by larger powers, weirdly thrilled with themselves and in possession of a completely ridiculous accent that they’re obviously just pretending to have. All intellectuals writing on Irish identity could just replace their whole output with that sentence.
“Darby” is a lanky long-bearded chap who plummeted to earth like a falling star, only to be discovered by Nori (Markella Kavenagh), a plucky young harfoot. The latter is instantly filled with questions. One of them is: What’s going on? “I don’t know! I just got here!” says Darby, lying in a burning crater. Except he doesn’t really speak recognisable words – he just groans and grunts – so I’m extrapolating.
One of the mysteries to be solved is: who is this grey-bearded magic man with a strange affinity for hobbits? The obvious answer is, of course, that he is Baby Gandalf, this franchise’s answer to Baby Yoda. Ah yes, Baby Yoda, the premier acting talent of his generation, this era’s Dean, Brando and Hasselhoff in one, a chatshow raconteur, a philanthropist, a leading man (or muppet). Frankly, I’m sad Baby Gandalf isn’t played by Baby Yoda, such is the latter’s range. Unfortunately, I believe the talented sprog is currently playing Richard III at the Old Vic.
The dynamics around Baby Gandalf aren’t quite the same as those involving Baby Yoda in The Mandalorian. That show involves a hunky bounty hunter who must juggle work and parenting duties to care and murder for that little green angel. In The Rings of Power, Nori is a teenage girl and Baby Gandalf is a bearded man found sleeping in a fiery pit in the nude. Yes, the Second Age of Middle-earth was a very different time. Over the course of the past five episodes Nori basically tames Baby Gandalf much like in the films Kes or Call of the Wild, and she is soon using him like a packhorse to push her family’s cart around. I suspect that he’s not really Baby Gandalf at all. It feels too obvious. Possibly he is Baby Eye of Sauron (though in my head Baby Eye of Sauron would just be a really cute googly eye with big lashes… sponsored by Optrex).
The bigger and cleaner and grander the CGI city, the more I hear echoes of Terry Gilliam saying ‘It’s just a model’ in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
I like all the subplots so far. I like the plot about another elf (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and a human healer who smoulder romantically while trying to spread the word about a bunch of angry orcs tunnelling their way through Middle-earth while trying not to get sunburned due to their delicate skin (another analogy for the Irish, probably). And I like the one about war hungry Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) deciding not to go to elf heaven but instead staying in Middle-earth to kill people, which means getting abandoned at sea, which means a chance meeting with a defrocked human king on a raft who hates her in a sexy way and then going to a lost CGI island city of humans whose whole culture is built on distrusting elves. There’s a sitcom spin-off in this, and the theme tune is Opposites Attract by Paula Abdul featuring MC Skat Kat.
There are flaws. The grand CGI stylings of contemporary epic TV make it all feel a little weightless. The bigger and cleaner and grander the CGI city, the more I hear echoes of Terry Gilliam saying “It’s just a model” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The fact the creators have also decided to give different races on Middle-earth specific accents – Irish (hobbits), Scottish (dwarfs), posh English (elves) and Northern English (humans) – is also a dubious, though quite funny, decision. But for the most part the show works. The likable heroes have clear goals and real obstacles to overcome and intriguing mysteries to uncover. It feels wholesome and like it has a point. In contrast, the drab political intrigues of the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon make me feel like I have a really confusing and nihilistic new job with Paddy Considine as the hapless David Brentesque line manager.
For some angry social-media orcs, the fact that some black actors have been cast as elves and hobbits is a bad thing because – read this next clause carefully – there are no such things as black elves and hobbits
And I didn’t even mention the friendship between the grizzled ginger dwarf Durin (Owain Arthur), who has made a discovery deep in the mines that will probably eventually be shut down by Magic Thatcher (Sauron), and the foppish posh elf Elrond (Robert Aramayo), who’s planning to leave the elf civil service to set up a jewellery business making ornate rings. (I can’t see it going anywhere.) This is the writers sampling from the Gimli and Legolas relationship in Lord of the Rings. For Lord of the Rings fans such homosocial friendships between elves and dwarves symbolise how the different races of the world can transcend their differences and get along.
But do you know what apparently doesn’t do that for a minority of cranks? Hiring people from the different races of the actual world to star in your Lord of the Rings spin-off. Yes, for some angry social-media orcs, the fact that some black actors have been cast as elves and hobbits is a bad thing because – read this next clause carefully – there are no such things as black elves and hobbits. Yes, this is the sunless hill some have chosen to die on: the relative realism of Caucasian elves.
They get very angry about it on the internet, gibbering about what long-deceased Tolkien would make of his anti-fascist parable being made less appealing to fascists. And this despite the fact that being more inclusive when it comes to makey-up fantasy worlds is both fairer to everyone and also clever if you want access to a wider swathe of talented actors. I advise not even arguing with these people. Just say “Look Who’s Tolkien Too”, then slip on your ring of invisibility and throw away your phone.