Sunday, September 4, 2022

The Rings of Power • Review by Bruce Bethke

Let’s establish this right up front: if you ever paid cash money for a Dragonlance™ book or a Terry Brooks novel, you have forfeited your right to complain about this one. That this series exists at all is your fault. 

If you’re one of those people who worship at the shrine of J. R. R. Tolkien and believe he could do no wrong, you’ve obviously never read anything beyond The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Especially, you clearly have never attempted to plod through The Silmarillion

[In fairness to J.R.R., The Silmarillion wasn’t so much written by him as Frankensteined together after his death by his son, Christopher Tolkien, assisted by Guy Gavriel Kay, working from the vast pile of notes, wreckage, and rough drafts J.R.R. left behind when he died.]

If you’re one of those people who finds it disturbingly symbolic that this series premiered on the exact date of the 49th anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien’s death… okay, I’m with you there.

If you’re one of those people who thinks this series is an abomination and an affront to Tolkien’s legacy, know that it’s been made with the participation and full cooperation of Simon Tolkien, Christopher’s son, J.R.R.’s grandson, and with Christopher’s death two years ago now the current custodian of the Tolkien legacy. So let this be a lesson to you: unless you’re a total control freak with a prescience not given to many mortals, you have no control over what your grandchildren are going to do with your intellectual property 49 years after you’re dead. Think you can stop them from bulldozing the old family farm and building a tacky theme park and hotel on the site? Guess again.

If you’re one of those people who is really bothered by the fact that there are Black and Hispanic actors in this series playing elves, dwarves, hobbits and whatnot: why? It’s fantasy, for Chrissakes. Isn’t great fantasy supposed to be for all people? Think very carefully before you answer this question, especially if you’re one of those writers who has objected to other people leveling the charge of “cultural appropriation” whenever a non-[whatever] writer writes a [whatever] character or lifts an idea from the [whatever] body of history and folklore.

Now, with all of the foregoing established, it’s time for the real question:

Is The Rings of Power any good? 

Nah. Not really.

Not that long ago there was a raging argument in the SF/F writing community, to the effect that the people who were making big bucks writing formulaic elfie-welfie novels were driving out the serious fantasy and science fiction writers, and this trend somehow needed to be reversed, as if it could be. There was a time, back when there were these things called “bookstores,” when you could walk into any typical mall bookstore and find that well over half the SF/F shelf space was being taken up by novels that could at best be described as Imitation Tolkien—and many didn’t rise even to that level, but were better described as Dungeons & Dragons fanfic. The “serious” SF/F writers hated this market reality, but the bookstore owners and publishers loved it, as millions of Yet More DragonDreck books were being churned out, bought, read, and loved by customers.

Little did we suspect, in the last years of the 20th century, that we were living in the good times, and that paranormal romance was about to come along and reduce what was left of the SF/F marketplace to smouldering rubble… 

Sorry. Digression. Never mind.

So that is how you should view The Rings of Power: as Lord of the Rings fanfic; as yet more dragon dreck; as formulaic derivative Imitation Tolkien. If you loved the way Peter Jackson turned The Hobbit into a trilogy of overwrought and over-long movies, you’ll probably like this one, even if it doesn’t star Orlando Bloom. Instead, you get Puerto Rican actor Ismael Cruz-Córdova as the hunky brooding piece of elvish eye-candy, Afinitor—excuse me, that’s a cancer medication—Arondir, Morfydd Clark as Galadriel, Warrior Princess—

“No,” my wife interrupted as we were discussing this, “she’s Mary Sue, that annoying blonde cheerleader you knew in high school who was always sure she was always right about everything and never ever shut up about it.”

A bunch of amusing Renaissance Fair cosplay with a bunch of adorable hobbits, except they aren’t called hobbits, they’re called harfoots, and they all speak with an Irish accent, nicely foreshadowing the events that are distant history in The Lord of Rings, when the legends speak of the Great Migration that came after a shadow fell upon the land and caused the potatoes to grow no more.

Yes, even the Black hobbits speak with an Irish accent. And given how the female hobbits tend to be named after food or flowers, the presence of a female hobbit named “Nori” suggests that there are Japanese hobbits who we will meet in a future episode, selling sushi by the seashore.

A bunch of similarly amusing cosplay with dwarves, a bunch of scenes of elves being their usual stiff-necked elvish selves, or perhaps Vulcans, a bunch of scenes with humans looking like extras from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a bunch of scenes of Arondir wandering around and striking handsome and brooding male-model poses—gee, I hope they’re planning to give him something to do in future episodes—a bunch of scenes that plod, I mean really plod, especially whenever Mary Sue Galadriel is onstage and her mouth is running… 

There is a Big Mystery: a character referred to in the credits only as “The Stranger,” who makes an entrance that’s half Man Who Fell to Earth and half Terminator, and who is so heavily and consistently foreshadowed as being the future Gandalf that he obviously can’t be. My money’s on him turning out to be Saruman.

And more. Much more. There are so many subplots and side-plots and characters and jump cuts between plot threads that after a while I quit bothering with trying to keep track of them. Except for Galadriel. By the middle of the second episode I was beginning to wish she’d hurry up and die already, even though I know that doesn’t happen.

In short, if you’re one of those people who just absolutely loved The Lord of The Rings and wished it would never end, to the extent that you cheerfully bought any derivative thing that was vaguely like LOTR just so you could keep getting your elfie-welfie fix, this series is the answer to your wish.

As for me: will I be watching it next Friday, when the next episode drops? 

Nah. I think I’ll have something more interesting to be doing then. Like laundry. 

—Bruce Bethke


Barbara V. Evers said...

We watched it today. I fell asleep during the first episode. Yikes! It dragged. I did manage to stay awake during the second one. My grandson got into it, so I’ll probably watch with him until he gets bored.

Leatherwing said...

After your prologue, I started to hear everything in the voice of the Critical Drinker (Youtuber, real name Will Jordan). The tone and analysis fit perfectly (except yours was missing the profanity).