The term “legendarium” — first used by Tolkien to describe those writings in which he labored for much of his life on the mythopoeic backdrop to The Hobbit and, later, The Lord of the Rings — suggests a literary collection of folkloric accounts, often from different hands and of varying historical value. As this term suggests, Tolkien’s role in his creative process, imaginatively speaking, was less as a creator or author than a curator or literary scholar: a role which, in time, passed to his son Christopher, who edited, emended, and ultimately published several works of Tolkien’s legendarium, including The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales.
To put it another way, Tolkien imagined himself not so much telling a story as assembling a library of disparate texts from various hands. The Hobbit he saw as the memoir of Bilbo Baggins, who also began the work on The Lord of the Rings before leaving it to his nephew Frodo to consolidate and complete it, with some additional work by Samwise Gamgee. Some materials from The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales are presented as Elvish tales collected and translated either by a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon mariner called Ælfwine (also known as Ottor Wæfre and Eriol) or by Bilbo himself.
Perhaps that’s a helpful point of entry to a project like The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the ambitious new Amazon Prime Video series from creator-showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay. Set during the Second Age in the build-up to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it’s a fundamentally new narrative woven around historical background from the appendices and the works themselves (but not from The Silmarillion or other works of the legendarium, the rights for which Amazon wasn’t able to obtain). The Rings of Power might be imagined, then, as an adaptation of some previously unpublished text from the diverse literature of Middle-earth, partly overlapping with known material, but also partly diverging from it. It is not meant, for example, as a literal portrayal of the Second Age, for the plan is to conflate events unfolding over thousands of years into a much shorter period of time. If it doesn’t all feel like something Tolkien himself might have written — and, based on the first couple of episodes, at least, it seems to me a mixed bag on this point — perhaps even serious Tolkien fans might keep an open mind whether that’s necessarily a bad thing.
The Lord of the Rings ranks for me among the greatest literary works of all time. Along with The Hobbit, I’ve read it more times than I can count, from childhood to several readings aloud, complete with character voices, to successive subsets of my children. It would be hard to overstate the influence of Tolkien’s moral universe and cosmology as well as his aesthetic and cultural sensibilities on my thinking and imagination. This doesn’t prevent me from acknowledging limitations and areas of concern in Tolkien’s work with respect to areas like racial issues (in spite of Tolkien being personally antiracist and working antiracist themes into his work) and the portrayal of women. It’s not just that the noble Elves, for example, are fair-skinned while orcs are “swart” (dark-skinned) or “sallow” (an ambiguous term that can mean either “dark” or “sickly/yellow”). Even among strains of humans, the noble, wise, long-lived Númenóreans are tall and fair, while lesser, more suspect groups of men who allied with Sauron include the dark-skinned Haradrim (also called “Swertings” or “Swarthy Men”) and the swarthy/sallow Easterlings.
Four episodes in, the lavish Amazon Prime series is delivering on at least some of its promise, but there’s room for improvement.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.