In a word: mixed.
In a sentence: rich, sumptuous but oh, so slow.
In more detail: read on to see.
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For the positives, this is a series I very much want to like. I love that they are showing Numenor, Khazad-Dum and Lindon at their heights, places which even Tolkien only really documents in historical, rather than proper narrative, descriptive form. These depictions are, for the most part, superb, conveying a lost age of glory that has faded by the end of the Third Age. The dwarves are not just comic relief, the harfoots excellent as a very plausible rendering of the hobbits before they settle down in the Shire, with a culture that is recognisably related to that of the Shire’s, albeit different. The elves are…OK.
Numenor is particularly spectacular and meets the test of showing a human kingdom unrivalled by anything before or since (for those not familiar with the lore, Numenor is explicitly intended to be the origin of our legends of Atlantis and Gondor – particularly when we see it at the time of Denethor and Boromir – a much diminished remnant). I love the architecture, the sense of history, the ships. The period they’ve chosen to show (though see below), in which Ar-Pharazon usurps the throne from Tar-Miriel after Tar-Palantir’s death, ending the brief restoration to the old ways and then proceeding to turn against the Valar is an innately interesting one – and an all-too-human story of monarchs contending for power. Particularly if, as I assume they will, they take it to the end, with the capture of Sauron and his corruption of Numenor, and then the downfall, it is a superb story to tell (and one which I’d previously suggested as the culmination of a ‘Silmarillion’ trilogy(1)). I can forgive that they’ve made it entirely isolationist, for simplicity. My one quibble is the fact that – as often seems to be the case in our age of democracy – film-makers seem to be unable to cope with the fact that a monarchy – certainly one as grand as Numenor is portrayed to be – will have an extensive court of nobles and courtiers with whom the monarch will interact; instead, we see the Queen apparently primarily interacting with commoners and personally seeking volunteers for a military expedition in the market place. But that doesn’t really impact my enjoyment. This also plays into the puzzlement as to why they’ve made Elendil a random sea captain rather than the Lord of Andunie, descendant of kings.
But oh, is it slow. Almost nothing has happened with the harfoots, to the extent that we still know little more about the mysterious star figure after episode 5 than after episode 2. The plot in Numenor is hardly pacy and, while things happened with the dwarfs, it is hardly gripping. About the only area where things actually are happening with any pace is the subplot with Arondir and Bronwyn, which has drawn me in. There is only so much time you can enjoy looking at the scenery before wanting some plot and tension, whether that is action or interpersonal matters.
A more fundamental problem, for me, is the extent to which they’ve played fast and loose with the timeline, compressing 2000 years into a single time period. Of course, I don’t expect perfect fidelity; I could even cope with them transplanting the balrog from the Third Age to the Second. I do recognise that the number of people who know Second Age lore is so small it doesn’t impact viewing figures, but for someone who does, I genuinely don’t know how to think about when it’s set – and I think it plays heavily into why I can’t feel this is in any way a canonical depiction – or even a meaningful interpretation – of the events of the Second Age. To give an example, imagine you were watching a Roman drama which opened with Hannibal crossing the Alps, before shifting to Rome, where Brutus and Julius Caesar were arguing about the latter’s ambition. We then shift to Constantine, dreaming before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, with the image of the cross in the sky and ‘In this sign thou shalt conquer’ – before a final scene showing the gallant defenders of Constantinople arrayed on the Theodosian Walls, bracing for the final onslaught of the Turkish hordes. That’s the sort of time compression we’re talking about. The series would have a Roman flavour, certainly – but it wouldn’t be meaningfully about Rome.
Or, to pick a more fictional example, I’ve read and enjoyed many different interpretations of King Arthur, from the classic Mort d’Arthur to more ‘historical’ Celtic versions, and even one which fused the legends or Arthur and Atlantis (the refugee Atlanteans were the fair folk). But I’d find it really off-putting to have one where Arthur met Robin Hood and even more so if he turned up to play a decisive role in the English Civil War.
The character, though, who most fundamentally exemplifies my mixed feelings is Galadriel. I love her personality: headstrong, ambitious, strong, defying those around her even when doing so is folly – that is Galadriel to a T. But in terms of her capabilities, it’s terrible the way they’ve reduced her to a simple fighter. What’s most frustration is that I’m fairly sure they were trying to make her seem more ‘bad-ass’ or ‘feminist’ or ‘powerful’ by making her a strong fighter – but, let’s be blunt, we’ve not seen any evidence on screen to show that she’s any more powerful than Arondir, who is just a random elf, albeit a heroic one. But this is Galadriel – of, as the show reminds us, the golden-haired house of Finarfin. To be precise, she’s Finarfin’s daughter, the granddaughter of Finwe, first High King of the Noldor, who saw the light of the Two Trees in Valinor and has spent more than half a millennium studying and perfecting her art under Melian the Maiar. We can’t say exactly how old she is, for the reason that we have no idea when this is meant to be set, but what we do know is that she’s not a contemporary of Elrond, she’s his great-grandmother’s cousin and about 2000 years older than him. She’s a generation older than Gil-Galad and Celebrimbor, too. She should be one of the most powerful beings in Middle Earth – and I’d have loved to see her bring the ice troll down by the power of her will alone, or standing upright against the mast in the storm, undaunted, commanding the winds to blow her to land(2). More, to be honest, the way she was portrayed in The Hobbit trilogy (bad though that Trilogy was in many ways). Not just another fighter.
In terms of other quibbles, I’m annoyed that they’ve fallen into the trap of so many characters being unsympathetic. Why is Gil-Galad underhanded and deceitful? Does Isildur have to be a complete jerk? The 11-year olds in Stranger Things show more maturity than the heir to Isildur. Do we need another lost heir to the throne? Couldn’t we actually show Eregion and Moria as having a long and genuine friendship, as they are noted for having? Oh, and while we’re at it, why are they making up a bizarre subplot about mithril and the ‘light of the Eldar’, which not only has no basis in canon but is simply unnecessary to any plot?
That’s a lot of complaining for a series which I am, despite everything, enjoying – and which I know I’ll watch the rest of. But is it unreasonable to expect it to have stayed closer to the lore? Well, I can think of at least two ways it could have done.
Firstly, they know – perhaps unprecedentedly – that they have five seasons, so why not use them? They could, for example, have had one season with the first stirrings of Sauron (i.e. how this opens), two on the forging of the rings and the war of Sauron and the elves and then two, heavily focused on Numenor (but also bringing in the elves and Galadriel if they wanted), for the downfall of Numenor. I recognise that the mortal characters would die between the three main time periods, but (a) you’d have a core cast of elves going across all five, including Galadriel; (b) one or three series is actually fine for a main character to have a strong arc; and (c) they could have always done the whole ‘descendant of X, who happens to look and act very similar to them’ which so many books do in this circumstance(3).
The other alternative would be to do what I’d always hoped they would do, which is to adopt the approach when we’re telling stories about real history. When we tell a story about the Napoleonic Wars, we don’t have Wellington or Nelson as the main character; instead we have Sharpe, or Hornblower, or Aubrey and Maturin; when we tell a story of World War Two, we don’t feature Churchill or Patton, but rather we have Saving Private Ryan, or ‘Pug’ Henry. In other words, characters significant enough to be interesting and heroic (and who somehow always seem to find themselves in the heat of the action, in the most exciting places of the war, and meeting the people who are famous) but junior enough that their adventures don’t conflict – or only marginally conflict – with the settled historical record. If they’d adopted this approach, then we’d have Arondir and Bronwyn as the main characters – and maybe Nori – who would then end up meeting and going to Eregion, Khazad-Dum and Numenor, rather than the kings and queens.
Overall, I’m glad they’ve made it, if only for the settings and scenery. There is enough of interest to keep me watching, even if the plot, thus far, is failing to draw me in. But it is hard for it to go beyond that for me, or for it to be more than a story inspired by the world of Tolkien, rather than a genuine depiction of it.
(1) The first two being the tale of Beren and Luthien; and of the Fall of Gondolin and the voyage of Earendil.
(2) This would also solve the suspension-of-disbelief-breaking coincidence in which she gets picked up by a ship in the middle of the ocean not just once (it’s a story, coincidences happen) but twice in the same voyage.
(3) I’m looking at you, Menion Leah of Shannara.