Kalevala Comments: Tolkien Influences and the Translations

For the first time in nearly twenty years, I’ve been reading through Kalevala, or at least an English translation thereof. Back then it was the old Kirby translation (1907), having swapped over from Crawford (1888). Now I’ve finished reading Bosley (1989). I have some thoughts to offer about these translations themselves, their stylistic choices, and their overall readability, but I shall get to that presently. As Kalevala is commonly cited as one of the key influences for the Tolkien legendarium, I also thought I would comment on that too. For now, I would suggest that Kalevala was more important for sparking Tolkien’s imagination than for being discernably present in the actual literature – an ingredient more apparent in the early stages than a feature of the final result.

For the unaware, Kalevala (or “The” Kalevala) is the Finnish national epic. It is a curious beast, in that it is one of those works that manages to be both simultaneously ancient and a mid-nineteenth century construct. Researcher and Philologist Elias Lönnrot basically went around the backwoods, collecting oral traditions from rune-singers, and writing those songs down. Lönnrot’s thesis was that these oral traditions were originally part of one big tradition, which he decided to reconstruct in the most nineteenth century manner imaginable – he smooshed the collected poems together into an overarching narrative of fifty Runos, added his own bridging material, and published the results in 1835 and 1849. This means that while Kalevala can feel like a window into a strange and alien world, one cannot take the text at face value, and it is of dubious value in making sense of real pre-Christian Finnish traditions.

But Kalevala’s social effects, especially in terms of nineteenth century Finnish nationalism, were immense. Culturally, it birthed copious art, and was a major influence on musical composer, Jean Sibelius. The Finnish language, hitherto the language of the peasant class (under Swedish-speaking elites) would grow into a respectable literary language, with the first major Finnish-language novel, Aleksis Kivi’s Seitsemän veljestä (‘Seven Brothers’)* eventually appearing in 1870, albeit Kivi’s work is realist and not fantastical like Kalevala. A later pivotal piece of Finnish literature, Väinö Linna’s Under the Northern Star trilogy (1959-1962), pokes fun at the phenomenon of romantic nationalism, featuring middle-class Finns naming their children after Kalevala characters, and affecting a peasant heritage when in reality they are thoroughly bourgeois.

*The seven brothers in question bear little resemblance to Tolkien’s own Sons of Fëanor.

But back to the translations. Comparatively little Finnish literature has appeared in English translation, because most translators are translating material into their native language… and comparatively few English speakers have been inclined to learn Finnish. Although things have changed more recently (and indeed there are far more resources for Anglophones to learn Finnish than there once were), it used to be the norm for English translations of Finnish literature to be made via a third language. Generally German. So you wound up with translations of translations, which is alas not exactly a recipe for accuracy. Kalevala itself is a particularly awkward beast, since it does not use modern Finnish, but rather the language in a much more archaic form.

This is how you got the first English translation of Kalevala, Crawford’s in 1888. Unlike Kirby and Bosley, I have not read this one in full, but I have read a decent chunk of it. Crawford was translating from a German translation… and following what has become the convention in terms of replicating the unique Kalevala meter, he represented the verse as trochaic tetrameter. The alliteration of the original gets dropped, but we are left with a pounding, rhythmic beat.

DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da.

(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously borrowed this trochaic tetrameter from the German-translated Kalevala, and applied it to his Song of Hiawatha (1855). Trochaic is a very distinctive form of verse, an inversion of the more common iambic meter, and can sound like chanting, especially if you leave the last unstressed syllable on the line. Another example of trochaic verse in English would be the Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas… whose tune, but not the words, also started out in Finland. As a Spring Carol, oddly enough. Tempus adest floridum: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zv8PgukSLX0).

Which brings us to Kirby. Kirby’s translation is notable for actually being a direct Finnish-to-English translation, which I think does recommend it over Crawford, and his naming conventions are not as weird (Crawford spells Väinämöinen with a W and Joukahainen with a Y. Sure, Finnish J is pronounced as Y, but Youkahainen just looks odd). Crawford is also more archaic generally, so I find Kirby more readable, which is why on my previous read, I gleefully took the opportunity to swap from online Crawford to physical-copy Kirby. But since Kirby also replicates the meter via trochaic tetrameter, he does take some liberties in order to make it all fit. Tolkien in Letter 163 refers to “Kirby’s poor translation”, though whether this refers to accuracy or to the translation as literature is unclear. It may have been been one of Tolkien’s periodic bouts of hyperbole.

For comparison, compare Crawford and Kirby’s versions of Kullervo’s death scene (Runo XXXVI). One of the most famous episodes in Kalevala, I am sure Tolkien fans will see the influence on a certain First Age story, and the role of the talking sword.

Crawford:

Kullerwoinen, wicked wizard,
Grasps the handle of his broadsword,
Asks the blade this simple question:
“Tell me, O my blade of honor,
Dost thou wish to drink my life-blood,
Drink the blood of Kullerwoinen?”

Thus his trusty sword makes answer,
Well divining his intentions:
“Why should I not drink thy life-blood,
Blood of guilty Kullerwoinen,
Since I feast upon the worthy,
Drink the life-blood of the righteous?”

Thereupon the youth, Kullervo,
Wicked wizard of the Northland,
Lifts the mighty sword of Ukko,
Bids adieu to earth and heaven;
Firmly thrusts the hilt in heather,
To his heart he points the weapon,
Throws his weight upon his broadsword,
Pouring out his wicked life-blood,
Ere he journeys to Manala.
Thus the wizard finds destruction,
This the end of Kullerwoinen,
Born in sin, and nursed in folly.

Kirby:

Kullervo, Kalervo's offspring,
Grasped the sharpened sword he carried,
Looked upon the sword and turned it,
And he questioned it and asked it,
And he asked the sword's opinion,
If it was disposed to slay him,
To devour his guilty body,
And his evil blood to swallow.
Understood the sword his meaning,
Understood the hero's question,
And it answered him as follows:
"Wherefore at thy heart's desire
Should I not thy flesh devour,
And drink up thy blood so evil?
I who guiltless flesh have eaten,
Drank the blood of those who sinned not?"
Kullervo, Kalervo's offspring,
With the very bluest stockings,
On the ground the haft set firmly,
On the heath the hilt pressed tightly,
Turned the point against his bosom,
And upon the point he threw him,
Thus he found the death he sought for,
Cast himself into destruction.
Even so the young man perished,
Thus died Kullervo the hero,
Thus the hero's life was ended,
Perished thus the hapless hero.

The poetic repetition comes through more powerfully in Kirby here, emphasising that beneath the nineteenth century editing, this text reflects an oral tradition, where such repetition served an important purpose in memorisation. I also prefer Kirby’s word-choice over Crawford’s, in that “wicked wizard” sounds both cheesy and overly judgmental about Kullervo. In truth, original wording aside, neither “wicked wizard” nor “hapless hero” necessarily fit the characterisation of Kullervo over Runos XXXI-XXXVI. He’s not a malevolent schemer, but rather an angry and mentally ill young man who lashes out against the world. On the other hand, no-one was forcing him to abduct random women, so he could fuck them in his sled. Maybe hateful (or hate-filled) hero? Albeit such tinkering would be venturing outside the scope of a translation, in terms of accuracy. Crawford’s excuse is that he’s translating German, not the original Finnish.

For comparison, Bosley – another direct Finnish to English translation, this time the work of a poet, rather than a scholar – drops the trochaic tetrameter altogether, preferring a looser form that allows him to concentrate on accuracy of meaning. Here is his rendering of the death of Kullervo:

Kullervo, Kalervo's son
snatched up the sharp sword
looks at it, turns it over
asks it, questions it;
he asked his sword what it liked:
did it have a mind
to eat guilty flesh
to drink blood that was to blame?
The sword followed the man's drift
it guessed the fellow's chatter
and answered with this word: 'Why
should I not eat what I like
not eat guilty flesh
not drink blood that is to blame?
I'll eat even guiltless flesh
I'll drink even blameless blood.'
Kullervo, Kalervo's son
the blue-stockinged gaffer's child
pushed the hilt into the field
pressed the butt into the heath
turned the point towards his breast
rammed himself upon the point
and on it he brought about
his doom, met his death.
And that was the young man's doom
the Kullervo fellow's death -
the end for the fellow, death
for the ill-fated. 

“Ill-fated fellow” is a much better fit for what Kullervo is, of course, and while still being a synonym for hapless, I personally feel it carries a slightly darker connotation than Kirby, which strikes me as appropriate.

Overall, while I miss the haunting chant of the trochaic tetrameter, I also do appreciate the clarity with which Bosley gets across the story – his version feels more fast-moving than the older ones, and once one gets used to the flow, the immersion is strong. In the case of actually reading Kalevala all the way through, I think this makes the world of difference during the dreaded Runos XX-XXV. Here the previously exciting story grinds to a halt as we get a very long and very dull description of a wedding – it really is a matter of pushing on through, until you get back to the good parts. Because don’t worry. There are good bits coming up – Lemminkäinen’s antics are awesome.

(On that subject… Kalevala’s protagonists are a world away from the grand and doom-laden heroics of Norse and Germanic myth. They might be considered a collection of roguish magical Bards with a fixation on finding love, or at least getting women into their beds. Heroism as a bride price is a recurring theme, albeit so is failure).

If I really had to criticise Bosley, it is that I don’t like his use of terms like Devil and Jack Frost to connote concepts within this world. By switching Ukko to God, Hiisi to the Devil, and, well, Frost to Jack Frost, he is not trusting his reader to make sense of this alien world. Instead, he is using terminology that feels anachronistic in the setting – both dumbed-down and Christianised, rather than something that both respects the reader’s intelligence and the authenticity of the setting. Christianity does creep into the original text in Runo L, but that is outside the control of the translator. This problem is within the control of the translator. Crawford and Kirby (particularly the former) might be tougher to read, but neither fall into that particular trap.

So much for the translations. Now to the Tolkien connection.

Tolkien famously stumbled across Kirby’s translation in his youth, and from there tried to teach himself Finnish to read some of the original. As Letter 163 and Humphrey Carpenter’s biography make clear, the young Tolkien was sufficiently mesmerised that he nearly failed his student course-work at Oxford. The result was that his invented languages took a rather more Finnish turn*, and he produced at least one bit of Kalevala fanfiction, eventually published posthumously as The Story of Kullervo (edited by Verlyn Flieger).

In an ironic twist, that fanfiction might actually serve aspiring writers better than those curious about Tolkien’s legendarium – The Story of Kullervo might be the earliest piece of Tolkien fiction yet published, but it also is not very good when viewed on its own terms, and as such demonstrates that even literary greats have to start somewhere. Yes, Tolkien himself started out writing mediocre Kalevala fanfiction – it’s enough to cheer up anyone who is depressed about their own literary aspirations. Anyone else, however, would probably be better off reading Kalevala, or at least Runos XXXI-XXXVI, which deal with Kullervo.

*For a look at Quenya’s relationship to Finnish, see here: http://www.sci.fi/~alboin/finn_que.htm

This is also the point at which someone will suggest that, based off Kalevala, Tolkien started musing about creating a mythology for England. That phrase that does, however, need to be treated with caution. Firstly, the expression is that of biographer Humphrey Carpenter and not Tolkien himself. Secondly, it only ever referred to the later-abandoned Book of Lost Tales, and not to subsequent works, especially not to The Lord of the Rings. It might be more accurate to say that the legendarium started life as a means of giving his Finnish-influenced Elvish language somewhere to live, whereupon it took on a life of its own.

But leaving aside Quenya, Tolkien’s fondness for Finnish remained. The Father Christmas Letters has the real name of the North Polar Bear being Karhu, and the Bear’s nephews are Paksu and Valkotukka. The names are Finnish for Bear, Fat, and White-hair, respectively. In short, Polar Bears.

And then there are the story influences, which are clear, but can possibly be overstated. I think it best to see Kalevala as a starting point for Tolkien’s imagination, rather than as something that profoundly shaped his invented mythos. But for the sake of completeness, let us examine the influences in question.

(i) The Power of Music

The world of Kalevala is both profoundly magical and profoundly musical. In contrast to the setting of Norse stories, where magic-use is rarer and often sinister, in Kalevala magic is everywhere – recall too that Lapland magicians had quite the real-world reputation. It shows up in Olaus Magnus’ History of the Northern Peoples (1555). It even shows up in English Jacobean drama, with an allusion to wind-ropes in The Chances, by John Fletcher (1617):

 “… his Devil Comes out of Lapland, where they sell men Winds For dead drink, and old Doublets.”

Kalevala magic commonly takes the form of singing, or of powerful words. Knowing the origins of something is of great assistance in controlling and mastering it. Smaller wonder then, that when Väinämöinen and Joukahainen face off in a magical battle of supremacy (Runo III), it takes the form of what amounts to an Epic Rap Battle, with Joukahainen literally being sung into a swamp. These roguish Bards are powerful because knowledge is power, and magical song is how they exercise that.

In the case of Tolkien, one might note that his world is literally sung into the existence during the Music of the Ainur, and that the Vala Ulmo – associated with the sea – is deeply instructed in music. Music is a cosmic underpinning to Tolkien’s world, the blueprints from which the world was built, so it is of little surprise that Tolkien throws in plenty of his own songs and poems into his narrative.

But though there is even the occasional magic singing-battle, Kalevala-style, there is not as many as one might expect. None of them actually involve Tolkien’s wizards, nor even the two greatest in-universe Bards, Maglor and Daeron. But there are at least three major incidents that spring to mind. Finrod Felagund versus Sauron from The Silmarillion, and Tom Bombadil versus Old Man Willow and the Barrow-Wight from The Lord of the Rings.

Finrod Felagund versus Sauron:

He chanted a song of wizardry,
Of piercing, opening, of treachery,
Revealing, uncovering, betraying.
Then sudden Felagund there swaying
Sang in answer a song of staying,
Resisting, battling against power,
Of secrets kept, strength like a tower,
And trust unbroken, freedom, escape;
Of changing and of shifting shape
Of snares eluded, broken traps,
The prison opening, the chain that snaps.
    Backwards and forwards swayed their song.
Reeling and foundering, as ever more strong
The chanting swelled, Felagund fought,
And all the magic and might he brought
Of Elvenesse into his words.
Softly in the gloom they heard the birds
Singing afar in Nargothrond,
The sighing of the Sea beyond,
Beyond the western world, on sand,
On sand of pearls in Elvenland.
    Then the gloom gathered; darkness growing
In Valinor, the red blood flowing
Beside the Sea, where the Noldor slew
The Foamriders, and stealing drew
Their white ships with their white sails
From lamplit havens. The wind wails,
The wolf howls. The ravens flee.
The ice mutters in the mouths of the Sea.
The captives sad in Angband mourn.
Thunder rumbles, the fires burn —-
    And Finrod fell before the throne.

This is a literal battle of magical power, as expressed through the form of singing, but Tolkien definitely puts his own spin on things, and departs from Kalevala for his own purposes. Väinämöinen defeats Joukahainen because he is the wiser and more knowledgeable sage. Finrod versus Sauron is rather a contest of wills, where Sauron wins because he is able to manipulate Finrod's guilt, and so breaks him. 

Tolkien's choice strikes me as artistically sound. If Finrod were losing because he knows less than Sauron, that would not carry quite the same poetic effect - it would make the battle about Finrod as an individual, rather than about the Elves as a people. Moreover, Finrod (unlike Joukahainen) is not an egomaniac. He would not dispute Sauron's mastery of lore, but only his moral status. Finrod is battling on behalf of others, and not himself - he is motivated by desperation and not by pride.

(Moreover, Tolkien does not serve up a regular meter here, much less trochaic tetrameter, and the reference to the wolf howling is much more Norse than Finnish. But he does at least have four beats per line...).

Tom Bombadil versus the Barrow-Wight:

Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:
never more to wake on stony bed,
never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.
In the black wind the stars shall die,
and still on gold here let them lie,
till the dark lord lifts up his hand
over dead sea and withered land.

Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!
Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,
Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!
Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!
Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,
Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.

Tom wins the battle, of course – his power as expressed through song is simply greater than the Barrow-Wight’s. As is the case with Finrod and Sauron, Tom is battling on someone else’s behalf, but this time the bad guy is overcome. Tom indeed expresses such magical power on other occasions too, such as when he sings Old Man Willow into submission, to rescue the hobbits:

“What? Old Man Willow? Naught worse than that, eh? That can soon be mended. I know the tune for him. Old grey Willow-man! I’ll freeze his marrow cold, if he don’t behave himself. I’ll sing his roots off. I’ll sing a wind up and blow leaf and branch away. Old Man Willow!”

Singing a tree’s roots away? Clearly the arboreal equivalent of singing one’s opponent into the swamp. But again, the emphasis on tunes, song and music is very clear, as is the ability of song to manifest real-world effects. Unlike the Barrow-Wight, we don’t hear the Willow’s own attempted enchantments, but Samwise Gamgee does make a side-comment in The Old Forest, that quietly fills things in for us:

“I don’t like this great big tree. I don’t trust it. Hark at it singing about sleep now!”

So Tom isn’t simply singing at a malevolent-but-dumb enemy. He’s responding to the Willow’s song with his own, which puts the Willow – like the Wight – into the role of Joukahainen. The foolish challenger that gets curbstomped by their older and wiser opponent. Tom Bombadil may be luckier in love than Väinämöinen, and a good deal sillier, but he is not to be trifled with.

The Old Man Willow example is also broadly interesting in that Tom’s domain seems to operate on a much more animistic basis than the rest of Middle-earth. Creatures, flora, and objects alike have an individual identity to them, with personalities to match. Closer to the world of Kalevala, perhaps, and while we do not have characters talking to roads and expecting them to talk back, it is worth noting the hobbits in Bombadil’s house find singing more natural than talking. As though for three chapters, our protagonists stumble into a setting quite different from what comes before or after. An oasis of Kalevala, if you will.

(As an aside, in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Tom has another of these confrontations, this time with a badger. Which invites delightful parallels with Finrod versus Sauron – Tolkien’s later etymology has ‘Felagund’ as meaning ‘badger’).

(ii) Eagle-rescues

Perhaps the most straight-forward Kalevala “trope” in Tolkien is the conception of eagles rescuing protagonists. Indeed, it is present in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, with Gandalf alone making use of it no less than four times. Tolkien himself was aware of the deus ex machina potential too, going so far as to label the eagles a “dangerous machine” (Letter 210), on account of how they affect the internal logic of his story.

The literary source for this is Runos VI and VII. As revenge for his humiliation in the song battle, Joukahainen shoots Väinämöinen’s horse out from under him, and the old sage is swept out to sea. Väinämöinen drifts around for a while, before being rescued by an eagle:

Came a bird from Lapland flying,
From the north-east came an eagle,
Not the largest of the eagles,
Nor was he among the smallest,
With one wing he swept the water,
To the sky was swung the other;
On the sea his tail he rested,
On the cliffs his beak he rattled.
Slowly back and forwards flying,
Turning all around, and gazing,
Soon he saw old Väinämöinen
On the blue waves of the ocean.
"What has brought you here, O hero,
Wandering through the waves of ocean?"
Väinämöinen, old and steadfast,
Answered in the words which follow:
...
Said the bird of air, the eagle,
"Let thy heart be free from trouble;
Climb upon my back, and seat thee,
Standing up upon my wing-tips,
From the sea will I transport thee,
Wheresoever thou may'st fancy.
For the day I well remember,
And recall a happier season,
When fell Kaleva's green forest,
Cleared was Osmola's famed island,
But thou didst protect the birch-tree,
And the beauteous tree left'st standing,
That the birds might rest upon it,
And that I myself might sit there."
Then the aged Väinämöinen
Raised his head from out the water,
From the sea the man sprang upward,
From the waves the hero mounted.
On the eagle's wings he sat him,
On the wing-tips of the eagle.
Then the bird of air, the eagle,
Raised the aged Väinämöinen,
Through the path of wind he bore him,
And along the east-wind's pathway,
To the utmost bounds of Pohja,
Onwards to the misty Sariola,
There abandoned Väinämöinen,
Soared into the air, and left him.

If one plays up the parallels between Gandalf and Väinämöinen – and as we shall see, such parallels exist – the fact that Gandalf is the eagles’ most regular customer do strengthen the connection between Tolkien and Kalevala. Especially because in The Hobbit, it is explicit that Gandalf did the eagles a favour earlier, via healing their lord from an arrow-wound. Here, Väinämöinen has previously done the eagle a favour – in a different context – and also earns a rescue out of it.

However, I have mentioned that Tolkien’s Kalevala influences can be overemphasised, so once again, the point needs some qualification. The major issue is that Kalevala uses eagles – both real and artificially-constructed – in a variety of contexts. Lemminkäinen has to deal with a malevolent fiery eagle on his way to the Lapland wedding, and only once in the entire epic does the narrative serve up a Tolkienian-style rescue. Tolkien, by contrast, largely reserves his eagles for deus ex machina situations, invariably to get a protagonist out of a mess. So while he is making a literary reference to Kalevala, the way in which he uses the trope is decidedly non-Kalevala. The eagle-rescue may have started out in this text, but Tolkien transformed it into something quite different from his source.

(iii) Smithing and Avian Transformations

I have previously noted that Kalevala is very alien in character and sentiment to Norse material. Far more magic, and far more lowbrow heroes. Or rather anti-heroes. But one rare area where the Finnish and the Norse overlap is in the importance placed on the role of smithing and crafting. Norse myth throws up Dwarven artisans – who are sufficiently horny that they would fit right into Kalevala – and the grim legend of Wayland. Kalevala serves up a single supreme smith, Ilmarinen, who is responsible for forging the sky and the Sampo. Ilmarinen also serves as one of the big four hero characters of the Finnish epic, along with Väinämöinen, Lemminkäinen, and Kullervo. He is genuinely important.

Tolkien clearly wanted to have his cake and eat it too, so far as smithing goes. Not only does he have artisan Dwarves – minus the horniness of their Norse counterparts – and a Wayland analogy in Eöl of Nan Elmoth, but rather than just having lots of little smiths, he also runs with a collection of supreme smiths, more akin to the Finnish Ilmarinen. Hence Aulë, the literal god of smithing (and note that there is no such god equivalent in Norse mythology. The Aesir hired others to do the work). Hence Fëanor, creator of the magical artifact that drives everyone crazy (why, yes. Kalevala has one of those too. It’s called the Sampo). And hence poor sad Celebrimbor.

Well and good. But once again, Tolkien goes places Kalevala does not – this time in terms of theme. Specifically on the theme of smiths as creators, and associated moral issues.

In Kalevala, Ilmarinen’s creative activities are unproblematic. He can forge the Sampo, or a new Sun and Moon, or whatever items the other heroes need in a hurry… and the text does not treat it as morally wrong. It is merely an act of creation, to be admired for the benefits it brings people. The most morally dubious thing Ilmarinen creates is a woman of gold and silver, to replace his previous wife, who (courtesy of Kullervo) has been murdered by bears and wolves. Turns out, such a bride is not really an appropriate substitute, and in his second-funniest ruling in the book, Väinämöinen declares that no man may marry such a woman in future. More charitably, it is an assertion that gold and artifice cannot replace the important things in life. Cue analogies with Thorin Oakenshield’s deathbed words to Bilbo in The Hobbit.

(Väinämöinen’s funniest ruling? That vipers may henceforth not drink beer. I defy anyone to read Runo XLIX and not chuckle at that. But speaking of Väinämöinen… the old man is no slouch at creativity himself. Not only is he in the boat-building business, but he also crafts a kantele – a musical instrument – out of a pike’s jawbone, and then another out of birch and other materials. That replacement kantele actually involves him asking a woman for strands of her hair to use as the strings. A touch of the Fëanor there, minus the egomania. But like Ilmarinen, and unlike Fëanor, nothing Väinämöinen creates is treated as problematic).

Tolkien uses smithing for a quite different thematic purpose. Namely that smithing – like all acts of human or Elven creation – is but a reflection of the Primary Creation, that of Eru Himself. And to love too dearly the work of one’s hands… that runs the risk of ignoring one’s own place. The Silmarils may be the creation of Fëanor, but their light is not, and this is a setting that treats property relationships less as an absolute despotism, and more as a matter for stewardship. In a sense, Fëanor is falsely claiming divine authority over these objects, as well as withholding the benefits from the wider Elven community – and creator or not, Tolkien treats that as wrong.

By contrast, when the Kalevala protagonists resolve to steal the Sampo back from Louhi, they are doing it because they want to help their people. The resulting struggle is portrayed positively… because these people are our protagonists. It’s nothing more complicated than “our people versus the Laplanders,” and even though the Sampo is accidentally destroyed, the people still benefit from the fragments, so the struggle is “worth it.” The comparison with Fëanor and his blood-drenched sons, who slaughter innocents in pursuit of their precious gems, could not be more stark. That is not treated as an heroic struggle on behalf of one’s folk, but rather a tragic mess, one that can only be resolved via penitence and a desperate pilgrimage across the Sea.

From this, one can see that while Tolkien is happy enough to steal the concept of a supreme smith from Ilmarinen, he actively plays with underlying moral themes in a manner that his source material does not. Is there an influence there? Certainly. But it is the influence of a foundation – something to be built off – and not a shaping or an artistic homage. Tolkien was using something old to create something new, rather than writing the sort of pastiche (or fanfiction!) that he started out with.

Further on Ilmarinen, one additional aspect of his story that parallels Tolkien is the fate of the woman he claims as his replacement bride (Runo XXXVIII). Having discovered that the gold and silver woman does not work, he heads up to Lapland, and asks the sister of his first wife to come with him. She refuses, so he straight-out grabs her into his sled – and, yes, the protagonists of Kalevala all need a bit of education on sexual consent. Even Ilmarinen, hitherto the sane man of the bunch. The woman reacts badly, until she finally drives Ilmarinen to turn her into a seagull.

The analogy here would be Elwing fleeing Maedhros and Maglor after the Third Kinslaying. Not only are these two villains the sons of a smith, and making rather pointed demands of Elwing (albeit for the jewel she is withholding, and not her hand in forced marriage), but Elwing avoids those demands by literally being turned into a sea-bird. A strange and highly supernatural development for that part of The Silmarillion – which Tolkien handles by making it the work of Ulmo. Ulmo, as noted, also happens to be the Vala most instructed in music, and Kalevala is all about the magic of music.

It is definitely an interesting potential Tolkienian shout-out to Kalevala, but the major problem is that this sort of thing is not unique to Kalevala. It is a trope that is all over the sort of ancient literature Tolkien knew so well. Prior to this re-read, I had thought Elwing’s avian transformation was a reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where countless hapless victims end up as birds after finding themselves on the receiving end of divine power. While Tolkien knew his Kalevala, he knew his Ovid too… so in a sense, this would be less about an individual reference to a specific text, and more about a homage to multiple influential texts.

(Furthermore, Tolkien does not simply use the episode to reference Kalevala and Ovid. He is a more creative writer than that. He also uses the episode to advance both his own plot and themes. Plot-wise, Elwing becoming a bird allows her to take the Silmaril to her husband, Eärendil, prior to his great voyage to Valinor. In terms of themes, this once more drives home the tragic futility of the Oath sworn by Maedhros and Maglor. The closer they come to their goal, the more success eludes them. So, again, we see Kalevala playing the role of an ingredient that Tolkien used for his own literary purposes. The lesson to aspiring writers is clear – references can be neat and all, but try to do something original with them).

(iv) Väinämöinen as Gandalf

Gandalf is one of the most iconic characters in Tolkien’s legendarium, and indeed in all of fantasy literature. He is simultaneously a mentor to Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and an archetype of the benevolent and wise wizard – an old man with a long beard, who is more than he seems. Well and good. But in contrast to, for example, the hobbits, this is not a character that appeared out of Tolkien’s imagination whole-cloth. This is a character with many literary antecedents. Tolkien himself called Gandalf an ‘Odinic wanderer,’ (Letter 107), and there exists a famous picture postcard, which Tolkien considered an origin of the character (https://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Der_Berggeist). But it is difficult to read Kalevala and not conclude that Väinämöinen was another particular ingredient in this soup.

Väinämöinen is an elderly bearded man – indeed in Kalevala it is clear that he has always been old, much like Tolkien’s own conception of Gandalf and his fellow Istari. He also plays the narrative role of wise old sage, a benevolent mentor to his people. As noted earlier, he performs a favour for an eagle, and earns himself a rescue from a tight spot as a result. And in Runo L, he leaves in a (copper) boat across the Sea, anticipating perhaps the eventual departure of Gandalf from the Grey Havens – just as Gandalf leaves, to make way for the Dominion of Men, so our Kalevala hero leaves to make way for the arrival of Christianity in Finland. Like Gandalf, Väinämöinen might be a mighty loremaster and magician, but he also eventually becomes a relic of a bygone age, and while the Christianity in Runo L feels a tad intrusive, it is also a comment on the End of an Era. A Tolkienian theme if ever was one.

The comparison is a valid and interesting one. It is, however, necessary to make two caveats:

Firstly, Väinämöinen has certain elements to him that do not carry across into Gandalf. As per the Kalevala setting, Väinämöinen is distinguished as a mighty Bard. Multiple Runos are devoted to his construction of his kanteles – the pike one and the birch replacement, and he is able to mesmerise anything that comes near with his beautiful music. In contrast to, say, Tom Bombadil, there is nothing musical about Tolkien’s Gandalf, and in contrast to the enchanting voice of Saruman, Gandalf comes across more as a gruff splash of cold water. One is actually reminded about how Plato’s Socrates compares himself to his Sophist opponents – as a doctor, rather than as a cook serving up sweet-treats to children.

Moreover, as befits a Kalevala character, Väinämöinen is appropriately horny, and age has not dampened his desire for companionship. Unfortunately, his age does interfere with his ability to actually find a willing partner, as both Joukahainen’s sister and Louhi’s daughter reject him, never mind his respected status. We are talking about a character whose love-interest winds up as a salmon, rather than marry him. Ouch. By contrast, sexuality is simply not an element of Tolkien’s Gandalf. Tolkien’s Maiar are capable of romantic love and children (Melian), and the mysterious Tom Bombadil* has Goldberry, but such activities do not befit the story role of Gandalf. He is there to inspire others against Evil, not to start his own family. Besides, the future belongs to Men.

*There is the point that Tom Bombadil – noted musical character, victor in singing battles, and older than anyone, would himself serve as a decent Väinämöinen. One who actually gets the girl, perhaps. It is just that Tom does not play an analogous story role. He’s an isolationist, uninterested in the wider affairs of Middle-earth. He is not a guiding mentor, and is also too fundamentally silly.

The other caveat with Väinämöinen/Gandalf is that Väinämöinen is clearly only one of many ingredients for Tolkien’s character. Gandalf is the Wizard with a Thousand Faces, if you will, and with that number of antecedents, it becomes difficult to clearly separate out and discuss a single influence. Tolkien himself drew analogies with the Norse Odin – though while the appearance of the character as an old man in a battered hat fits, Gandalf utterly lacks Odin’s sinister nature. John Boorman’s infamous 1970 Lord of the Rings screenplay sees Merlin in the character. The wise old bearded mentor and magician, who is also ultimately side-lined once he has outlived his usefulness.

Perhaps, but Gandalf bears very little resemblance to the mad forest-dweller that appears in, say, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century Life of Merlin. So among this myriad of wizarding archetypes, Väinämöinen is as solid a reference as any. It is just important to remember that he is not the only one.

(v) Kullervo as Túrin Turambar

Now we turn to the epicentre of Kalevala influence on a mature Tolkien story: the connection between Kullervo and Tolkien’s Túrin Turambar. In a sense, Tolkien fills out three of the four major Kalevala protagonists with his own legendarium characters. Ilmarinen the smith influences Fëanor, Väinämöinen the sage influences Gandalf, and and now we have Kullervo the hapless informing the ultimate fate of Túrin son of Húrin. Only a Lemminkäinen analogy is missing to complete the quartet, though the idea of Tolkien putting a lecherous, charismatic playboy into his world would no doubt raise some eyebrows. Maybe the fanfiction can be seen as filling that particular niche.

Anyway, as noted earlier, Kullervo garnered sufficient interest from the young Tolkien that the tale sparked his own fanfiction efforts. Even into the actual Túrin tale, as it appears in the published Silmarillion, the shadow of the Kalevala is long indeed:

  • Kullervo and Túrin both lose connection with their biological family early in life, and grow up in a fostered setting – albeit Kullervo is a slave, and Túrin is pampered.
  • Kullervo and Túrin are both moody, angry young men with a tendency to over-react to slights. Kullervo arranges for Ilmarinen’s wife to be torn apart by bears. Túrin throws a goblet in Saeros’ face, then later strips him naked and chases him through the forest at sword-point.
  • On killing their immediate tormentors (Ilmarinen’s wife and Saeros), both Kullervo and Túrin flee the perceived wrath of a Reasonable Authority Figure (Ilmarinen and Thingol of Doriath).
  • Kullervo and Túrin are both innately talented individuals, skilled at magic and fighting respectively. It is just that everything they do seems to end badly for them.
  • Kullervo and Túrin both wreak bloody vengeance (against Untamo and Brodda’s Easterlings respectively).
  • Kullervo and Túrin both run across their sister unknowingly. The sister had wandered away from their mother, and basically gone missing.
  • Kullervo and Túrin both commit incest with aforementioned sister.
  • Aforementioned sister discovers the incest and immediately drowns herself in a river.
  • When the weight of their sins grows too much for them, Kullervo and Túrin pull out their creepy black swords, and have a chat with them. The swords talks back, and are perfectly fine with killing their owners.
  • Kullervo and Túrin force their sword-hilts into the ground, and then both characters commit suicide by impaling themselves upon the blades.
  • Túrin is buried under the Stone of the Hapless. Kullervo is referred to as “the hapless hero” in the Kirby translation, and then later as “Kullervo the hapless” by Tolkien himself in Letter 163.

Quite the list of parallels. But even here, there needs to be qualifications, which I might list as follows:

  • Tolkien’s Túrin is an altogether grander figure than Kullervo. He is the heir to a powerful lord of men, and a celebrated warrior whose martial abilities are remembered for millennia afterwards. He wins the esteem of not one but two Elven kingdoms. Kullervo, by contrast, is a backwoods bumpkin, whose misfit status aligns with prodigious magical talent to cause disaster. In fact, Kullervo’s early life in slavery is arguably a better fit for Túrin’s cousin, Tuor, than for Túrin himself.
  • Appearance-wise, Túrin is handsome, earning the name Adanedhel and the attention of Finduilas in Nargothrond. Kullervo’s appearance is unclear – he’s described as handsome in Runo XXXV, but in Runo XXXVI his brother says he would prefer another brother, one more handsome. Kullervo is also terrible with women, to the point where he only gets sex with his unknown sister after he forces her into his sled and reveals his collected tax money. In Tolkien’s own fanfiction, Kullervo is explicitly described as ugly and unattractive to women.
  • Not only is Túrin grander, but the root of his calamities is accordingly more mythic. Túrin’s family has been cursed by a literal Dark Lord, and the character devotes much effort to escaping the supposed curse. Kullervo, by contrast, is considered to be the product of bad parenting.
  • Túrin is given a series of opportunities by friendly voices, most notably Beleg, to back away from his destructive path. Túrin has several genuine friends over his lifetime. Kullervo, by contrast, is a friendless pariah, who finds himself disowned by his entire family, save his mother. The effect is that the role of personal choice and culpability in Túrin’s story is emphasised, in a way it is not in Kullervo’s. Túrin is far less evil on paper, but he also has more control over his own predicament, which allows for a greater sense of tragedy. Kullervo’s tragedy is that (via upbringing and mental illness) he never really learned how to act as a functional human-being within society.
  • The incest takes place under very different circumstances. Túrin finds Nienor in the forest, rescues her, gets to know her… so they marry, and she gets pregnant. Kullervo abducts a random woman on his journey, in the name of casual sex under dubious consent.
  • There is no analogy to Glaurung in Kullervo’s story. Not only does the slaying of Glaurung make Túrin a bona fide hero, but the dragon’s memory-wiping allows for the incest plot to take place at all. Kullervo’s situation would be more analogous to a situation where Túrin goes straight from Doriath to Brethil, forces himself upon a random woman, and only finds out who she is during the post-coital chat.
  • Túrin’s response to learning of the incest is to go into denial, then snap and kill himself. Kullervo – unlike his sister – does not commit suicide immediately on learning the truth. The suicide comes in the following Runo, when the guilt finally gets to him.
  • The talking sword is much more unremarkable in Kalevala than it is in Tolkien. The world of Kalevala is dripping in animism. One can talk to roads, trees, and celestial objects, and they can talk back. Small wonder that a sword can. In Tolkien, Gurthang is another matter, allowing for a much stranger and creepier scene. There is the logic hole of how the narrator was aware of Gurthang’s speech, given Túrin was the only person to have heard it… but it is still a delightful artistic flourish.

From this, one can ascertain that Tolkien had to perform a fair amount of surgery on Kullervo in order to turn him into Túrin Turambar. Once again, I feel that Kalevala ought to be seen as a foundation ingredient to Tolkien’s legendarium, rather than as something that enables us to say that Túrin son of Húrin “is” Kullervo, or even that Kullervo defines Túrin. In my earlier discussion of suicide in Tolkien, I also noted that Tolkien the writer was turning this particular story into the grandest tragedy he could concoct, even if it meant throwing ethics or metaphysics to the wind. In the present discussion I thought I would elaborate on that process of building a grand tragedy.

I would summarise Tolkien’s literary method here as follows:

  • Start with the bare bones: Kullervo, as he appears in Runos XXXI-XXXVI of Kalevala.
  • As per Aristotle’s Poetics, tragedy portrays Men as better than they are, in order that we might feel the magnitude of their Fall. Rather than a backwoods bumpkin, Túrin ought to be something grander. Eliminate the ugly cow-herder, and replace him with the famed Black Sword of Nargothrond, a handsome and esteemed warrior. Eliminate the mere background of mistreatment, and replace it with a powerful Dark Lord’s curse. Cue a thematic exploration of Free Will and Fate. And eliminate Kullervo’s toxic attitude towards women, in favour of something more sympathetic (or at least tolerable).
  • Inject elements from classical Greek tragedy. Rather than starting out a slave, Túrin starts high – he attains the high favour of Thingol of Doriath, before squandering his position through poor choices. Indeed, Túrin has plenty of opportunity to make poor choices, with other characters trying to talk sense into him. Túrin has a clear tragic flaw here, and in accordance with tragic conventions, his efforts to flee from his fate only bring him closer to it. He is not simply lashing out at the world like Kullervo.
  • Following on from the above, the tragic trope of Dramatic Irony is in full effect. The reader of Tolkien knows who Túrin’s wife is before he does – with all the associated dread – whereas the reader of Kalevala merely finds out with Kullervo himself. It is the famous distinction between Suspense and Surprise.
  • Raise the stakes. Kullervo’s sister drowns herself after a single night with her brother. Túrin’s sister is married and pregnant, so her suicide is even more horrifying.
  • The dragon allows the introduction of Dramatic Irony, via Glaurung’s mind-wipe on Nienor. It also shifts Túrin away from Finnish material, and into Norse and Germanic material. Sigurd the Dragonslayer is now the other great influence on Túrin. The central character is thus allowed to achieve a great and unparalleled feat before his doom catches up with him.
  • Túrin’s suicide follows Dramatic Irony out of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex – extensive denial, followed by terrible realisation. Knowledge of the incest itself is enough to drive Túrin to these tragic steps, whereas Kullervo delays his suicide significantly.

In essence, Tolkien adapts Kullervo’s story, and bolsters its tragic elements by importing influences from outside Kalevala, specifically the Greek (Oedipus Rex) and the Norse (Völsunga saga). It is a solid artistic choice, and one that speaks positively of Tolkien’s instincts as a writer. Túrin might no longer be the Kullervo of Kalevala, but he is an artificial Kullervo, imbued with sympathetic grandeur, and alloyed with other metals to strengthen him for the purpose of The Silmarillion. I wonder if Ilmarinen the smith would approve.

Thus concludes my extended thoughts after finishing Bosley’s translation of Kalevala. There is much to recommend Bosley, at least in comparison with the other translations of my acquaintance, though I will always retain a soft-spot for Kirby. Never mind strict accuracy, I just happen to enjoy the effect of trochaic tetrameter. I have also sought to explore Tolkien’s engagement with this nineteenth century Frankensteinian Monster of a text, looking at the ways in which the Finnish epic sparked his creative imagination. Linguistically and conceptually, it was unquestionably a pivotal point in the development of his legendarium. Kalevala’s shadow does hang over Tolkien’s work, in at least an indirect sense.

But as indicated, I think it is easy to overstate the direct influence of Kalevala on the stories themselves. Yes, Tolkien borrowed from Kalevala, but be borrowed in a creative way, as fuel for a wider story, and not merely in a referential way. Even in the case of Túrin’s debt to Kullervo, that most commonly cited example, I think there is a genuine transformation of the character, away from the Finnish roots and towards both the classical and the Norse. And artistically, I think Tolkien’s instincts were pretty sound here, at least in the sense of what he was trying to achieve. On the other hand, next time you get irritated by the arrival of deus ex machina eagles, you know what to blame.

Crackpot Theory: The Real Sauron in The Rings of Power

The Rings of Power has yet to unveil Annatar. Or, as you might also know him, Sauron. As it currently stands, the invented Adar is the major on-screen villain, while the show has been gleefully dangling potential Annatar candidates in front of the viewer, to the point where “Everyone is Sauron,” “You are Sauron,” and “Sauron is the friends we made along the way,” have become bona fide memes.

Currently, the show is gratuitously piling on evidence that Halbrand is Our Man. But suppose in best Agatha Christie fashion, this is all just a red herring. Suppose instead we are looking for someone no-one will ever expect. Someone who can operate in plain sight, under the noses of both viewer and characters alike. And someone who has clear evidence towards their candidacy, if only people bothered to look…

I believe there is just such a character in The Rings of Power.

It is…

Ereinion Gil-galad (Sauronicus Caesar).

An examination of the evidence:

(1) He dispatches Galadriel to Valinor. Show-Galadriel is obsessed with hunting Sauron. Getting rid of her makes perfect sense from Sauron’s perspective.

(2) He controls access to the Havens, and him granting passage to Valinor is a great boon. A great gift to recipients. Would that not make him a Lord of Gifts? Or, to use the Quenya, an Annatar?

(3) He sabotages the relationship between Elves and Dwarves by withholding crucial information from Elrond, and being overtly rude to Prince Durin. Sauron does not want his enemies to trust one another.

(4) The conception of Sudden Elvish Fading Syndrome makes perfect sense as a lie spread by Sauron. He wants to have Celebrimbor start his work on the Rings as soon as possible… but why should Celebrimbor believe this nonsense? Simple. Celebrimbor would believe it if the message came directly from the High-King… and this is a message Gil-galad is currently pushing very strongly.

(5) Only two named Elven characters currently know about Celebrimbor’s real plan. Gil-galad and Elrond. Elrond is too damned nice to be Sauron, which leaves Gil-galad as the more dangerous confidante.

(6) Show-Gil-galad is drenched in gold. As per Morgoth’s Ring, the element of gold contains a significant amount of corruptive Melkorian influence. Very appropriate for Melkor’s chief lieutenant then…

(7) Show-Gil-galad is highly manipulative. How very Sauronian…

(8) Show-Gil-galad is shown as an authoritarian control-freak. Another Sauronian trait. Indeed, what would otherwise be blatant character-assassination is really a genius hint at Gil-galad’s real identity.

(9) As Halbrand says, appearances can be deceiving. No-one expects Sauron to be the High-King of the Noldor.

(10) You never see Sauron and Gil-galad in the same room at the same time.

A quite comprehensive case, I would think.

The Last Alliance was an Inside Job!

A Crystal Mith Problem: A Review and Analysis of The Rings of Power, Episode 5

Well. That was something else. Hot on the heels of The Rings of Power’s first unapologetically good episode, we now encounter its first unapologetically bad one. As you might have noticed, I have been generally positive – or at least charitable – about the show, but I cannot in good conscience go to bat for Episode 5. It was bad. It was very bad. If I had to sum it up – two of the four plotlines make no sense when viewed on their own terms. A third has zero progression to justify the screen time, and the fourth is more interesting for the villain(s) than for the protagonists. Not to mention my inherent tendency to bristle every time the words “stand and fight” are uttered in a Tolkien adaptation.

It’s an ugly situation all round, dear reader. And it particularly pains me because I still want the show to succeed. I hate seeing certain Internet Suspects crowing about its impending failure – not least because my objections to this episode remain a world away from theirs. The issue is not that the show is betraying the source-material – there is vanishingly little source-material to betray, of course, though at times things felt a tad Shadow of Mordor. Nor is it about the cast or supposed politics.

(Worst of all, I think, are the online natterings about needing to bring in Peter Jackson to rescue the show. That just bugs me – as though Jackson, who was adapting complete novels not summaries, didn’t make a pig’s ear of his own invented storylines. Remember Alfrid, for goodness sake – in a fanfiction show like this, Jackson is not the answer).

No, the issue really is the episode breaching Willing Suspension of Disbelief, in a manner more associated with late-season Game of Thrones than anything else.

The four broad plotlines this week:

  • Elrond and Durin at Lindon
  • The readying of the Númenorean Expeditionary Force
  • The Harfoots
  • The Southlands

(i) Elrond and Durin at Lindon

This one hurt. It really did. The hitherto best storyline in The Rings of Power has suddenly turned sour. It is not because of Elrond and Durin themselves, of course. They remain as awesome a pair of friends as ever. Nor is it because the show is making Durin into undignified comic-relief like Jackson’s Gimli. He’s amusing, but clever – though the table gag invites the question of why it never occurred to the Elves to ask about why the Dwarves would ever want to part with such “sacred” stone. Nor is the real problem even because of the icky character-assassination of Gil-galad, though we shall get to that.

No, it’s the Mithril Problem.

There are two parts to this. The first is the bizarre Song of the Roots of Hithaeglir – an account of an Elf and a Balrog battling on a mountain-peak over a tree. A tree with a Silmaril in it, because why the hell not? (one discord community I am involved with has been concocting Twelve Days of Christmas parodies already). Lightning strikes the tree, sending Divine Light, essence of Elf, and essence of Balrog down from the roots, into the mountain. The result? Mithril.

Now, on one hand this is yet another example of the show giving us The Silmarillion without giving us The Silmarillion. In this case, it’s a reference to Glorfindel versus the Balrog. On crack. I mean, the notion of a Silmaril in a tree is just mad – but the show knows it is mad, and makes it clear this is an apocryphal legend. The writers are getting Elrond to point out its absurdity to cover their arses. On the other… while there is foreshadowing of the eventual association between mithril and Balrogs (Durin’s Bane), this raises questions as to why Elves would be quite so keen to be involved with a substance reputed to contain essence of Balrog.

Which ties-in with the second, and much more deal-breaking, point. The show decides to link mithril with Sudden Elvish Fading Syndrome. Supposedly, if the Elves don’t bask in mithril by next Spring, their souls will shrivel up from deprivation of Divine Light.

Ugh.

At least with the Song of the Roots of Hithaeglir, we were dealing with a mad-but-harmless addition. We could dismiss it as a silly conceit, a playful shout-out to Glorfindel. Here? The sheer heavy-handedness at work beggars belief. Now, the Rings of Power (both the objects and the show) will eventually be about combatting Elvish fading. It’s an important Second Age theme. But hitherto, the passage of time issue has been explored in a comparatively subtle and intelligent manner. Durin. The Southlands. Here, the issue is a sodding sledgehammer.

Worst of all, the show’s handling of the concept does not even make sense on its own terms.

  • Plenty of Elves have never been anywhere near the Two Trees or the Silmarils… and they haven’t faded.
  • There is a canonical source of Silmaril light literally floating around – it’s Eärendil. Elves can canonically collect such light (c.f. the Phial of Galadriel), so surely they would be focusing on that, rather than dosing themselves with crystal mith?
  • Why next Spring? The suddenness is just odd.
  • Celebrimbor already has a nugget of mithril to analyse – where did he get it? Unless mithril was already a known substance… in which case the earlier portrayal of the Dwarvish discovery feels a bit weird.
  • The response of Gil-galad here makes no sense. He ought to have fully informed his diplomat (Elrond), and frantically kowtowed before King Durin III. And built ships while he’s at it. Instead, he tries to kick Galadriel upstairs, and he’s cold and vaguely antagonistic to Prince Durin, alienating the very people he needs so desperately.

Gil-galad’s characterisation really hurts here. Now, it’s a perfectly fine adaptive choice to make him an aloof and distant High-King. It’s also fair to allow for a weight of worry to affect his mood. But making him into an incompetent bully, who tries to get poor Elrond to break an Oath? Oaths matter in Tolkien, and I must say how profoundly happy I was that Elrond at least acted correctly here, by not only refusing to break his promise, but also doing what Gil-galad should have done earlier… and actually confessing the difficulty to the Dwarf like an adult.

(That is not to say that Gil-galad approaches the sort of character-assassination we saw with Jackson’s Denethor. But it’s a definite and noticeable problem – at least we know show-Galadriel will evolve).

Now, in fairness, there is an optimistic interpretation one can put on this mess. Perhaps a certain Annatar is already assisting Celebrimbor in Eregion. Perhaps Annatar is the source of the story about mithril, and the impending Fading. After all, the purpose of the Rings of Power is to stop time – inducing panic in the Elves would make sense. But that not only would require Celebrimbor to attain ever-more impressive levels of gullibility, but would also ignore the sick tree in Lindon, a sure sign that something is indeed up. And hovering around in the background is the possibility that Halbrand is actually Annatar – something I am now very much hoping does not turn out to be true.

So yeah. Ugly stuff. And again, it is not lack of adherence to Tolkien that inherently bothers me here. I am no Purist. It’s just that the show – while grasping the themes perfectly well – periodically feels the need to make sure we haven’t missed Deeper Meanings, to a level where it is willing to sacrifice coherency of plot, or even Suspension of Disbelief. First we had Galadriel leaping overboard and running across Halbrand (but it’s Providence!). Then we had the Harfoots (they’re conformists!). And now we’ve got Sudden Elven Fading Syndrome, to be treated by dosing oneself with crystal mith (hence the inevitable Forging! And maybe the Balrog!). It’s all so awkward. And all the sadder, given that the first four episodes had represented a steady improvement.

(ii) The readying of the Númenorean Expeditionary Force

So we have the Númenoreans training up soldiers, and organising their military intervention in the Southlands. Well and good, albeit the one young fellow musing about how it “will probably be over by the time he’s gotten off the boat” carries a whiff of “It’ll be over by Christmas!” Not a hopeful sign…

What I do not like about these scenes is the notion that Númenor – supposedly the greatest of the realms of Men – is only capable of sending five ships and five-hundred men to the Southlands. Recall that when Aragorn leads six-thousand to the Morannon, he notes that it would have only sufficed as a vanguard force in the days of Gondor’s might. Really, this force ought to be more like two-hundred ships, and twenty-thousand men. A certain bearded Chancellor might dream of Empire, but he’s not getting an Empire out of a pathetic five-hundred. The Peace Party might actually be right here, if only because this appears a recipe for getting this band of volunteers killed and/or stranded – they need to send more troops.

Moreover, the fact that the Númenoreans need to be trained up to fight begs a question – what the hell does the sea-service actually do? I had previously run with the impression that the island engaged in copious trade with the Men of Middle-earth, and needed a navy to keep the sea-lanes free of those pesky Corsairs – after all, what exactly are the Corsairs trying to steal if there are no trading ships around? I accepted that there is (as yet) no Empire, so I can understand the lack of a large standing army on home soil.

But now? It looks like the island was far more isolationist and pacifist than I had thought. Those five-hundred aren’t veterans, but rather volunteers. There are some dubiously (in)competent Guards, the odd armed noble like Elendil… and very little in the way of fighting men. To what purpose, then, does the navy sail around the seas, in a setting (so far) without cannon? To what purpose does the Blacksmiths Guild have the ability to forge weapons? When are these things actually needed? And speaking of the Blacksmiths Guild, how is it that Halbrand gets caught stealing a Guild badge in one episode, only for him to be working happily as a smith in the next? Surely the Blacksmiths Guild would want nothing to do with the guy – he’s a direct threat to their power, and a criminal to boot!

It’s all a bit of a headscratcher, and I do not like it. It makes for a setting that does not “make sense” on its own terms, and that brings one back to the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. If one is left wondering about worldbuilding – and where the hell the rest of the soldiers are – that rather takes away from Isildur and his fellows making their triumphant departure. It jolts one out of the story, when one should be immersed.

And then there is the way in which the Peace and War parties align to the King’s Men and the Faithful respectively (a tad ironic, given their portrayals in Tolkien, but let us run with it). Isildur is enthusiastic about the War, whereas his more King’s Mannish sister finds the idea reprehensible. As indeed does her boyfriend, Kemen – who castigates his father for taking orders from an Elf, and later tries to destroy the ships. Cue a Silmarillion reference to Losgar, with Isildur playing a luckier Amrod. But the show also tries to add some nuance here. Pharazôn (King’s Man) argues that the War will have political benefits beyond helping Elves, and old Tar-Palantir (Faithful) warns his daughter to not go to Middle-earth. I think Pharazôn’s stance is appropriate, and shows his political nous, but I think the Tar-Palantir scene is a mistake. Miriel has agreed to the War because Providence – via the White Tree – has spoken. Having the old visionary King warn against it? That muddies the waters, and subtracts from the themes. Oh well.

(And as a final pot-shot at this episode’s handling of the plotline… the training scene. I liked the reminder that whatever show-Galadriel’s political weaknesses, she’s got skill with a sword. Problem is, if this is training, why aren’t they using wooden swords, and decent protection? I’m having to head-canon that the training swords were blunt, but even so… those would be perfectly capable of killing or maiming).

(iii) The Harfoots

The Harfoots were back this week. And in something of an indictment on the show… nothing meaningful happened. Our Dear Little Friends are still migrating, down to Mordor by the looks of the map, and they are still getting help from Meteor Dude. We knew Meteor Dude was magical, and his sorrow over the fireflies testifies to him having a good nature, but really? There was so much unnecessary filler here. Albeit it was at least pretty filler – Poppy’s song was gorgeous, and as a New Zealander, I cheered the tussock grass. And Meteor Dude staring at the Moon would cheer that faction of fans who think he’s Tilion. But alas, it was all style over substance.

So far as the Harfoots themselves go, we once more got a look at their sociopathic side, with one of them urging Sadoc to de-caravan the Brandyfoots. Again. Thankfully Sadoc is a decent guy, even if he looks rather uncomfortable with the situation.

On the bright side, the Creepy Cultists have at last shown up – so we know the context – and they are clearly hunting down Meteor Dude. So at least we have a fresh conflict in the storyline.

(iv) The Southlands

The Southlands wins my vote as the strongest storyline this week, simply by virtue of not being the others. It is also a curious one, in that Adar and Waldreg (antagonists) are infinitely more interesting than Arondir and Bronwyn (protagonists).

From the safety of the Elven watchtower, Bronwyn gives us the generic Jacksonian stand-and-fight nonsense – which I disliked – but to the show’s credit, it actually adds nuance to the situation. You see, Waldreg, Creepy Old Dude that he is, points out that the Southlander ancestors – the ancestors who aligned with Morgoth – at least survived. Standing and fighting will just get everyone killed, whereas agreeing to Adar’s terms will get them out of this mess. Waldreg himself is a survivor, and has spent all his life bowing before Arondir, so such pragmatism is in his character, though we also know he has a sincere ideological commitment to Sauron. It is what makes him such a Creepy Old Dude.

Then in a marked subversion of other such heroic scenes, half the village population actually defects over to Adar, to acknowledge the power of the one they think is Sauron. We are seeing the foreshadowing of the Haradrim and Easterlings from The Lord of the Rings… but something very, very different from Jackson, where there is no such nuance whatsoever about dealing with enemy forces. In what is otherwise a poor episode, I did appreciate the intelligence of this scene. My only objection is that Arondir really ought to have been more surprised by Waldreg’s sudden betrayal – he’s presumably known him for decades, and drunk his ale many times.

(On the other hand, Adar rather resents the implication that he is Sauron, and forces Waldreg to kill Rowan to prove his loyalty. Adar may be interesting, and he might not be Sauron, but he is not cuddly. Rather, he is genuinely sadistic. What, exactly, Adar’s current intentions are remain unclear, though there is the previous episode’s reference to godhood aspirations. In this episode he demonstrates that he is probably a rival to Sauron, rather than an ally, and he has a scene where he talks about how he will miss the sun. Whomever he is, Adar is quite mad. It is glorious to watch, and he seems to perk up even a weak episode like this one).

**

Such are my thoughts on The Rings of Power, Episode 5. Highly critical thoughts, as you might have noticed, a reflection perhaps of raw disappointment. The previous four episodes had, after all, given me cause for thinking the show was improving, so to run into a brick wall of badness like this was quite disconcerting. And who knows – perhaps this episode will represent an ugly blip, and the improvement will resume in the follow-ups. Perhaps the really ugly parts of the episode will turn out to be misleading as all hell, in terms of their supposed exposition. Perhaps Gil-galad has a character arc to match Galadriel’s. I am not going to write The Rings of Power off yet. Just please, please let Halbrand not be Sauron.

Owlbears in Valinor: D&D Silliness with The Silmarillion

Some weeks ago, I finished DMing a three-session D&D outing with my usual circle of acquaintances. I had never actually DMed before, so it was a fun learning experience. Overall, I think I’m pretty decent at serving up a vaguely engaging story… my biggest weakness being combats. I am far, far too generous to my players, who tend to slaughter their way through anything I throw at them. But in fairness, I was a bit hamstrung by the nature of the setting, which meant that my choice of combat options was a tad limited.

You see, I was running with a home-made Tolkien campaign. Specifically, I decided to set the thing in First Age Valinor, during the time of the Two Trees – after the exile of Feanor to Formenos, but before the Darkening. I got the players to pick D&D Elvish subraces, and then reskinned them as Vanyar, Noldor, or Teleri (amusingly, there were no Noldor in the party. Everyone went Vanyar or Teleri). They could do as they pleased with classes, though Moon Druid got renamed Druid of the Silver Tree, and so on. Note also that none of the group (apart from me) knew anything about The Silmarillion, so the fact that everyone seems to have thoroughly enjoyed the outing was a positive sign. In fact, they now know their way around some of the major First Age characters, including all the Feanorians and their infamous preference for Þ over s… which is a delightful bonus.

The plot-hook?

Maedhros wanted to give his father a present he’d actually appreciate, so he hired the Level Three grouping to fetch a lock of Galadriel’s hair.

They started off in a tavern in Tirion, so I threw a bar-brawl at them. It became a tad anti-climactic courtesy of one of the players using Fog Cloud, but I was at least able to have Caranthir and Angrod as the brawl instigators. Turns out the Shibboleth really is serious business.

Next up… the party went looking for Galadriel at Finarfin’s house. They didn’t find Galadriel, but they did find Finrod instead, who proved a most affable host. He did, however, have one minor favour to ask… could the party dose Maglor’s wine with laxative, ahead of the upcoming Tirion musical competition? Finrod (with his harp) wants to win for a change. In return, Finrod offered generous rewards. After verifying that Finrod was not malicious, they agreed to that as well. I think some of them really took a shine to Finrod, which is nice.

This little side-quest and resulting misadventures took up the remainder of the first session. Well, that, and Melkor – who was quite the recurring villain – followed them around, offering rewards if they could get hold of the blueprints for Feanor’s palantiri. The party was suitably distrustful of the Dark Lord, even if he is on probation. Because this is Melkor, he eventually switched from bribery to blackmail. Not that that worked either.

They found Maglor at Nerdanel’s house… though not until after the statues out the front had fooled the party into thinking they were real. Maglor took a shine to one of the party performing on the lute, which allowed sufficient distraction to dose Maglor’s wine. Maglor then took his new friends to an expensive wine-bar to talk some more.

This is where things went a bit haywire. You see, Maglor really, really likes to talk music with his fans. But the party wanted to get back to Finrod. To provide a convenient escape-hook, I had bruised and bloodied Caranthir turn up as a distraction… but unfortunately, one of the party (one of the Teleri, who, as we shall see, will become quite the recurring character) decided to cast Suggestion on Caranthir.

Specifically, he suggested that Caranthir punch Maglor. And Caranthir failed his Wisdom save. Oh dear.

The Telerin player was later apprehended by the Tirion City Guard, and spent a few hours in the cells underneath the Royal Palace. To prevent further unpleasantness over a Telerin Elf using hostile magic against the Princes of the Noldor, Maedhros also had a chat with Fingolfin, the Acting King. Then Maedhros and five of his brothers (Celegorm was back at Formenos) went down to the prison cell, and each took turns at beating the hapless player up. Talk about sowing seeds for the later Kinslaying…

But Finrod proved as good as his word, offering everyone money and healing potions. This Finrod has a hobby of potion-brewing. He also explained that Galadriel was currently visiting Formenos herself, to spend some time hunting with Celegorm (and presumably dodging her creepy uncle). So it was off across country, with the Two Trees in their full splendour to the left.

I threw three boar at the party, but the boar didn’t last a round, even with a hit-point tweak. So I threw three Giant Boar at them too. That was a bit tougher, but honestly, they found that one easy too. Bastards.

Under the eaves of a large forest, the party ran across a Noldo coming the other way. It turned out this Noldo was Feanor’s old laboratory assistant, who has now been made redundant – and who proved perfectly willing to spill the beans. According to the assistant, Feanor has become quite paranoid at Formenos. He spends all his time in his laboratory with huge bronze automatons as servants, and he has filled the forest with strange, modified creatures to protect his fortress. That, and the modified creatures make for great hunting for Celegorm.

(Why, yes. I am justifying Owlbears in Valinor. Blaming Feanor seems as good a handwave as any).

The party persuaded the Noldo to accompany them to Formenos.

Along the way, they found the paw-prints of a bear on the road. So they opted to follow the trail into the woods, reasoning that they wanted to find it before it found them. They found it, sure enough. But rather than fight it, they managed to talk to it instead. After feeding it with some of the boar-meat, it even became quite docile. Cue, the second Owlbear I had up my sleeve, along with a couple of adorable cubs. The party rolled well on Animal Handling again, which made the critters less homicidal. Fair enough. The Owlbears were just hungry.

The party decided to pay the Noldo to lead the Owlbear family back to Tirion, on the basis that Finrod might want them. How very thoughtful… though I had some evil plans there.

Despite well and truly mangling the art of cooking an eel, the party arrived at Formenos and initially claimed to be hired staff. Then they decided to declare themselves as messengers from Maedhros. Luckily for them, Galadriel and Celegorm were in the drawing room, and currently engaged in some friendly cousinly arm-wrestling. So the “messengers” got to deliver their message in person.

To cut a long story short, the party rolled an excellent persuasion effort on Galadriel, asking for a lock of hair, while managing to successfully convince her that they were not really agents of her Mad Uncle. Which, to be fair, they weren’t, even if aforementioned hair will wind up with aforementioned Mad Uncle. Galadriel’s price for a lock of hair? She wanted the party to bring her some Giant Spider Eyes. Finrod apparently needed some for his potions, and this way she doesn’t need to fetch the Eyes herself.

After dinner (introducing King Finwe, whom in hindsight I should have given a mistress or two), I threw some Animated Armour, Animated Swords, and a Flying Rug at the party while they were about to sleep. The explanation here was that this was another of Feanor’s misguided burglar alarms… which didn’t prove overly threatening on account of the Rug rolling terribly. Damn it. I had high expectations for that Rug – a lesson that it is perfectly OK to tinker with spell-save DCs as well as Hit Points.

One of the party had to temporarily leave, so I ret-conned that they stayed a few more days at Formenos. The remaining party took a rowing boat up a river towards the spider-infested mountains (I’ve decided that the Pelori have a northerly extension that passes reasonably close to Formenos). Along the way they had a battle with a beefy Water Weird/Elemental, which was made even beefier by its resistances. Not that any of them were under real threat. But I’d suggest that such critters are a reasonable combat idea, given that this is sodding Valinor.

I also took the opportunity to troll the party. Having already thrown Owlbears at them, I had them hear – and then encounter – a regular Owl.

The party befriended the Owl – this was really one of those outings where Rangers got a chance to shine – and had it lead them to a narrow crevice in the mountains, where they could find Giant Spiders. The Owl was promised something to munch on in return.

Yes, I made the Spiders a bit beefier than normal, in terms of Hit Points, but as ever I was extremely generous to my players, keeping the arachnids in batches of three, and some distance apart. I console myself that while the result of the fight was never in doubt, I allowed everyone copious chances to use their class abilities. Which they definitely enjoyed.

So they collected the requisite Spider-Eyes, and wandered back down to the boat… only to be confronted with the arrival of Celegorm and the remaining player. Celegorm brought news that Melkor had been seen heading in this direction…

I hadn’t really anticipated this thing running three sessions, but it somehow worked out that way. As we shall see, I also took the opportunity to include certain fandom in-jokes, which the players – despite not being familiar with The Silmarillion – latched onto gleefully. One of the highlights of my DMing experience thus far.

So anyway… Celegorm had taken to boring his hapless travelling companion with his endless and repetitive hunting stories. But now that he was here… I had the fun of making Celegorm (of all people) a sort of DMPC. Not that the party strictly needed him for protection, but I thought it made more narrative sense if he’d been sent up from Formenos with a warning from his father. It also provides more Silmarillion flavour if the party deal with the House of Feanor in that sort of manner.

So the party started boating back (and walking: there wasn’t room in the boat for everyone, so Celegorm and our infamous Telerin friend walked on the bank beside the river).

Then the mist appeared.

Specifically, three lots of Vampiric Mist. In hindsight, I could have chucked four at them, since it turned out that the Mist had the same problem as the Rug – that spell-save DC was simply too low. Though when the Mist connected with the players, the result was suitably satisfying. Reducing maximum Hit Points is nothing to be sniffed at.

I also had a nice convenient off-screen fight to take Celegorm out of the picture. Alas, our Telerin friend decided to follow him, so in addition to the Mist, the party also had a Shambling Mound to deal with. I also suddenly had to estimate what Celegorm’s stats actually were, since, yes, the Shambling Mound did roll well enough to engulf Celegorm… and poor Turko kept failing his saves to escape.

In the end, the party successfully rescued Celegorm son of Feanor from a walking compost heap. A concept so funny I keep smiling about it. One imagines that this will not make its way into those extended hunting stories…

Then Melkor turned up.

The Dark Lord congratulated the party on their ingenuity, and made another attempt to bribe/threaten/cajole them into helping him. Which failed. Melkor stormed off back into the surrounding forest, while the party explained to Celegorm that the Dark Lord was after his father’s palantiri. Celegorm replied that his Dad would be delighted to have his paranoid tendencies confirmed.

Alas, our Telerin friend decided to follow Melkor into the forest. Melkor realised he was there, of course, and pulled a Hold Person, followed by Suggestion. The Suggestion actually failed, so the Dark Lord contented himself with knocking the player out. This led to the following exchange:

  • ME: “You awake hours later, with a bump on your head and a terrible headache.”
  • PLAYER: “Was I violated?” [Seriously: why would you ask a DM that?]
  • ME: “You also notice that your posterior feels sore, and that you are wearing a red wig, black eye-liner, and red-and-black-themed jewellery. Someone has removed your pants.”

Why, yes, dear reader. I threw Angbang (https://fanlore.org/wiki/Angbang) at them. But Melkor had other plans.

The rest of the party were surprised by their Telerin friend emerging from the forest. The bastards were instantly sceptical… but no, it wasn’t Melkor. It was actually a re-skinned banshee, cloaked in disguise, since necromantic ability allows one to manipulate and control houseless Elven spirits. And if Sauron can do it, surely Melkor can do it. As I have said, finding appropriate enemies for a Valinor campaign requires getting creative with interpretations.

In the event, the banshee’s wail only knocked out one of the party before the players tore it to pieces. In hindsight, I could perhaps have included the banshee in the Vampiric Mist fight, though one has to be careful in case the players roll poorly.

Anyway, the party (and Celegorm) had to go looking for the poor Telerin muppet, whom they found with little difficulty. Having Rangers and Celegorm in the party helped there, and I dare say our Son of Feanor was looking for a chance to redeem himself after his misadventure with the compost heap. For the Teler’s part, he had managed to antagonise a Water Weird/Elemental all by himself, one which had just wanted to be left alone.

From there, it was back to Formenos. Galadriel was so delighted by the party’s story that she gave them two locks of her hair. This being a D&D party, they promptly went down to Feanor’s laboratory, and sold one to the Man Himself… though not before setting off a Fireball trap that did some 62 points of damage. Feanor gave them all rich rewards, even agreeing to take on the Telerin Elf as an apprentice in exchange for the hair (why, yes, dear reader. This episode puts the Kinslaying in an entirely different light…). To troll Melkor, Feanor also drew up some blueprints for a palantir that would not work, and gave that to the party to on-sell to the Dark Lord.

Then it was back over to Tirion. The party noticed the well-picked skeleton of an Elf on the road back… and Owlbear tracks leading away. Such was the fate of the poor laboratory assistant.

Once back in Tirion, the party gave the other lock of hair to Maedhros, who coughed up the promised reward too. There was, however, one truly glorious moment there, where one of the party – no, not the Teler this time. He couldn’t go near Maedhros because of the Suggestion incident with Caranthir – piped up with the following question:

  • PLAYER (one with notably low Charisma): “Tell me, is it true you fuck your cousin?”
  • MAEDHROS: “….”

Recall that none of these players have read The Silmarillion (or even encountered Tolkien outside the movie adaptations). Having them interact with fandom weirdness – even if I don’t subscribe to that weirdness myself – makes for a fun experience, I think, and as DM I appreciated them latching onto those particular nuggets. Introducing them to the craziness of Angbang and Russingon in a D&D social context… why not? I’ve already introduced them to the Shibboleth and other bits and pieces.

As an Epilogue, the party found Melkor, and gave him the useless palantiri blueprints. He gifted them gold in return… which turned out to be bags of chocolate coins. Because of course it was. A fluffy way to end a thoroughly fluffy campaign.

THE END

So that went well, I thought. Some DMing lessons for me, but a fair bit of fun for everyone involved. As an aside, I have an idea for a follow-up: Across the Ice, where the party has the fun of taking part in Fingolfin’s trek across the Helcaraxe. If that goes well, I might look at putting them in Beleriand, for something a bit meatier.

Patterns in the Sand: Guessing References in The Rings of Power Opening Sequence

It is now generally accepted that the peculiar opening sequence of The Rings of Power is an extended reference to the Ainulindalë, the Music of the Ainur, the Creation Myth of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium. Recall that this myth – the first chapter of the published Silmarillion – consists of Eru Ilúvatar creating the Ainur, and then having the Ainur sing the Universe into existence. The show attempts to represent this by so-called Chladni Figures (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernst_Chladni#Chladni_figures), whereby sound vibrations create patterns out of sand… literally music giving birth to meaning, and the shaping of existence out of raw material.

Well and good. Can we be more precise about these representations? Some parts are obviously clearer than others, but I figured I would make an heroic stab at making sense of it.

I don’t think this is the Ainulindalë in a literal sense, but something broader… a representation of Tolkien’s universe from the Beginning to the World as we find it, a comment on Creation as represented by Music on Matter.

..

  • 0:01-0:12: The stirring of the sand, and the formation of nine circles. I do not know what the individual image of 0:06 is supposed to represent, if anything, but my interpretation of the nine circles is that this is a representation of the Valar. Potentially the central one is Melkor as originally conceived, plus the eight most powerful Valar, the Aratar.
  • 0:13-0:27: Out of the work of the Valar comes the Two Trees (we’re skipping the Lamps).
  • 0:28: The Awakening of the Elves.
  • 0:29-0:35: The Princes of the Noldor, as represented by the series of eight-pointed stars.
  • 0:36-0:40: Out of the Noldor comes a representation of the three Silmarils.
  • 0:41-0:48: I am uncertain about the diamond-shape with the four lines coming out at right angles, but I think its dissolution into two rival shapes might represent the dissolution of the House of Finwë into the Fëanorian and Fingolfinian factions. At a stretch, also the divide between Aman and Middle-earth, with the Helcaraxë between?
  • 0:49-0:53: Further generations of Elves?
  • 0:54-0:58: The snaking line of black sand is a clear-cut reference to the Discord of Melkor worming its way into the heart of creation. The change in the music is also noticeable.
  • 0:59-1:04: A representation of the Awakening of Men?
  • 1:05-1:11: The world of Arda itself, the Marred Creation… but nevertheless Our World.

Overall, perhaps not as striking or familiar as the molten metal in a mould from the Title Announcement, but an exceptionally clever piece of work nonetheless. Potentially too clever.

Of Guilty Guilds: Addressing Anti-Immigration Populism in The Rings of Power, Episode 4

As per my Episode 4 review of The Rings of Power, I noted that the Men of Númenor objecting to Elves on a “they’ll steal our jobs!” basis feels a tad weird. Of all the things these people have to throw at their pointy-eared brethren, the show settles upon that? It is not merely profoundly petty, considering the wider cosmic themes of Death and Mortality at work in the source material, but also carries with it a whiff of on-the-nose contemporary commentary. Recall that the real reason Tolkien’s Númenoreans fall out with the Elves is over envy at immortality. Jobs never come into it.

Now, for me, this is not a deal-breaker. Pharazôn – who both dampens down the crowd and harnesses it for public relations purposes – is posing as a Man of the People. The guy is weighed down with Guild badges like Leonid Brezhnev with self-awarded medals, and is interested primarily in maintaining excellent political relationships with the people of the island. Given his populist political tendencies, the addition of certain sinister overtones is not completely outlandish. It’s not exactly Tolkien, but I’m prepared to live with it.

However, certain other commentators are not prepared to live with it, asserting that this is the show imposing modern politics on Tolkien. Now, such people do have a case. Immersion matters in art – if it is broken, that is the fault of the creator. However, this might also be a Mountebank and the Farmer situation from Aesop’s Fables, whereby the audience incorrectly thinks the real thing is a fake. Or as TV Tropes calls it, Reality is Unrealistic.

You see, tempting though it is to imagine that pre-moderns had other concerns, to think “they’re stealing our jobs!” is purely modern politics is to ignore history. Indeed, stirring up the rabble over “immigrants stealing jobs” is a time-honoured tradition. In 1517, the so-called Evil May Day resulted in anti-foreigner riots in London.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evil_May_Day

The phenomenon even shows up in English Elizabethan Drama, with Sir Thomas More (the play of 1591-1593, not the person) explicitly featuring it – the scene where More tries to reason with the crowd is
now often thought to be the work of William Shakespeare himself. In an uglier variant, Robert Wilson’s xenophobic Pedlar’s Prophecy (1595) actively runs with the notion that Migrants are the Problem. So such
rhetoric is not simply the domain of twentieth and twenty-first century societies, nor even democratic ones. This stuff is as old as it is ugly.

But putting it in Tolkien is still a bit weird, right? I mean, Tolkien deals with myth, not in economics or politics. Well, in that case I would suggest the show is guilty of trying to ground Tolkien’s worldbuilding in reality.

You see, Tolkien likes having Guilds in his world. Aldarion’s Guild of Venturers might be the most famous one, closely followed by the Gwaith-i-Mirdain of Eregion. More obscure – but arguably more relevant
for the present discussion – is the Guild of Weaponsmiths in Númenor (Unfinished Tales, p.219.). And what Tolkien’s Guilds all have in common is that they are communities of like-minded individuals, devoted to preserving or expanding knowledge. Less charitably in the case of Aldarion, his Guild is just a club for rich boys who like to muck around with ships.

Tolkien the academic is interested in these institutions preserving and expanding knowledge. What he does not consider is the economic implications of the Guild system. Because in historical reality, the purpose of Guilds was to strictly regulate economic activity in a given location – the regulation in question being tantamount to a price-fixing Cartel. The Guilds kept their membership exclusive and their prices high, and jealously maintained their monopolistic privileges. Heaven help you if you wanted to work as a smith in a given city without Guild approval. That sort of economic competition could not be allowed.

(While the Guilds themselves are gone today, or at least have been de-fanged, their legacy still survives in various odd little legal quirks, like council by-laws).

So while Tolkien probably did not imagine the Gwaith-i-Mirdain turning up on some innocent Elf’s doorstep and demanding that they stop making jewellery for their neighbour “or else”, that is actually what the situation implies. In theory. Cue fanfiction about Celebrimbor running his Guild like a Mafia boss.

It is also what The Rings of Power itself runs with, at least in the case of Númenor. In Episode 3, we have Halbrand being told that he cannot work as a smith without Guild membership, and Eärien’s entry into the Builders’ Guild is seen as a big deal. Pharazôn’s collection of Guild badges testifies to his ability to curry favour with political interest groups, all of whom are interested in one thing – preserving their economic power.

Well and good. Now put yourself in the shoes of one of these Guildsmen. You have a comfortable, protected livelihood. Your customers pay premium rates for your products, but then you pay premium rates for everyone else’s products too. You have your well-established place in the economic hierarchy, and your Guild-Master is one of Chancellor Pharazôn’s drinking-buddies. Your son will follow in your footsteps, and you know that he too will enjoy a comfortable, protected livelihood.

Now suppose that you learn of a new arrival in town – an arrival who turns up with an Elf, no less. You hear this arrival has tried to steal someone else’s Guild-badge – a direct economic threat to everyone associated with Guilds. Why, who knows what mediocre work an unlicensed smith might turn out, quite apart from the likelihood that he will be undercutting Guild prices too – if he’s low-quality (of course he’s low-quality. He’s not Númenorean!), he’ll want to sell-off his stuff cheaper than the fixed price to ensure he gets customers. He must be stopped, clearly. And that Elf associated with him… why that makes it worse. Imagine if the Elves started filling the key crafting roles, or start infiltrating your Guild. No chance now of advancement – those bastards live forever!

So given the in-universe situation, the Guildsman’s Quendiphobic rhetoric actually makes self-interested sense, albeit he ought to be going after Halbrand more than Galadriel. Is the scene remotely based in Tolkien’s own work and thought-processes? No. But Tolkien was not interested in economics, and he gives zero thought to how his Númenorean Guild of Weaponsmiths would actually behave in practice. The show is actually making a stab at this, and in the process trying to inject allusions to Elven immortality being an issue for Númenoreans. Is the result a bit on the nose, given modern political debates? Yes, I think one can make that case – and the immersion argument is a fair one. But the show is not being stupid about this, given the worldbuilding details Tolkien left them to work with.

Alas, in this case I think The Rings of Power might have been too clever for its own good.

An Idle Ode to Adar the Elda: A Review and Analysis of The Rings of Power, Episode 4

Half-way through the first season of The Rings of Power, we have run into our first unapologetically good episode. Not merely one to feel positive about, whilst grumbling about perceived flaws real or imagined. No, I think the fourth episode is sufficiently good that hunting around for flaws to comment upon becomes a matter of hunting, rather than sitting and commenting. We have some more character-introductions, fleshing out the remaining major cast members in an interesting fashion, while the plot generally comes across as less awkwardly forced. So yay.

This week, there were either three or four plotlines, depending on how one counts the action on Númenor. For ease of commentary, I am putting them as four:

  • Galadriel and Miriel on Númenor
  • Elendil’s Family and Associates
  • Adar and the Southlands
  • Elrond and the Dwarves

While I think the short scenes with a certain mysterious corrupted Elf steal the show, it was an episode dominated by the affairs of the Island Kingdom. No Harfoots this week, and to be horribly honest, I did not miss them.

(i) Galadriel and Miriel on Númenor

The chief conflict of this storyline, as personified by Galadriel and Queen-Regent Miriel, is over Númenorean military involvement in the Southlands. Galadriel is in favour, Miriel opposed. But once again, while the notion of Let’s Fight Sauron ought to be a straightforward sell at the moral level, the show does its level best to introduce complexities. Rather than isolationism being portrayed in the Jackson fashion, with isolationism being the mark of Quislings (Wormtongue), the short-sighted (Jackson’s Treebeard), or insane incompetents (Jackson’s Denethor), here Miriel’s reluctance to get involved is rooted in something much more interesting and sympathetic.

Via dreams and palantiri visions – a clever reference to Tolkien’s own famous Atlantis dream, and to the Notion Club Papers – Miriel believes that the destruction of Númenor is nigh. For her, to borrow a phrase, Galadriel’s coming is as the footsteps of doom. Prudence, then, would dictate that Miriel keep her realm out of trouble… which is what she does. Show-Galadriel being show-Galadriel proceeds to throw a reference to Miriel’s Elf-friendly father, Tar-Palantir, at her, complete with “there is a tempest in me,” which is one of those lines that sounded clunky in the trailer, but much better here. Alas, it is only enough for our Elf to wind up in prison – an amusing conclusion, were it not for the slight question of whether Galadriel would actually allow herself to be detained, given her subsequent prison-break. But I’ll overlook that. It is a rare bit of humour in what is otherwise a serious plotline.

Halbrand, her prison colleague, points out that Galadriel’s driven obsessiveness has gotten her nowhere, and that she ought to try a different tack. Namely that she ought to identify what the other person fears. This, incidentally, is one of the episode’s two big pointers towards the “Halbrand is Sauron” theory, since that is exactly what Sauron does to the Elves and Men in the Second Age – identify the former as fearing time and the latter death. The other pointer is that Halbrand is able to manipulate Pharazôn (of all people) from a prison cell. If that isn’t a grim piece of foreshadowing, I do not know what is.

And speaking of such Machiavellian antics, it is perhaps worth remembering that one of Niccolo Machiavelli’s maxims is that a ruler ought to be both a lion and a fox. He cites the example of Roman Emperor Pertinax, who refused to play corrupt games, and got himself murdered by the Praetorian Guard for his troubles, while he goes on to praise Septimus Severus, one of Rome’s more magnificent bastards. Show-Galadriel will never stoop to such levels – The Rings of Power has a quite different underlying morality to Game of Thrones – but there is a case for her military-derived habits being a poor fit thus far for political interaction. “I command soldiers, not appease them” is a trap Show-Galadriel would be inclined to fall into, whereas we shall see Pharazôn play the political game much more astutely.

(On the subject of Roman comparisons, it is also very clear that the show’s representation of Miriel is modelled off the famous Zenobia painting shown above. There’s also the additional comparison that Zenobia – ruler of a Near-Eastern Empire – was a powerful woman acting on behalf of her son, whereas Miriel – ruler of an Empire showing its share of Near-Eastern trappings – is a powerful woman acting on behalf of her father. Better yet, Zenobia was ousted by Emperor Aurelian, whose name means “the Golden” whereas Miriel will be ousted by Pharazôn the Golden. This is a very, very clever show sometimes).

Galadriel breaks out of prison, and has another encounter with Miriel at Tar-Palantir’s bedside. Ailing or not, Tar-Palantir brought a massive smile to my face – file this under something I never thought to see on television. Miriel forces Galadriel into a promise to keep the King’s health a secret, paralleling Elrond’s own sacred promise to Prince Durin, before showing her the vision of the palantir. The vision of the impending Downfall.

As noted, Miriel is portrayed highly sympathetically here, coming across as eminently reasonable in her opposition to Galadriel. Not something one would see in the Jackson movies, outside the tormented and unfortunate Boromir. But what brings Miriel around to a military intervention is not Jacksonian “Stand and Fight” rhetoric, nor threats of what Sauron will do if left unopposed. No, what brings Miriel around is an appeal to Providence. The falling petals of the White Tree, and the notion that Galadriel arrived on the island for a reason. Miriel ultimately agrees to go along with Galadriel’s plan because she realises that this is not simply Galadriel’s plan… if one catches my drift. An excellent portrayal of Tolkienian themes here – I just wish the manner of getting Galadriel to the island had been less ham-fisted.

(I would also note that Miriel shows enough political sense to market this to the public as an intervention on behalf of Men).

(ii) Elendil’s Family and Associates

Elendil himself takes more of a backseat this episode, but his family still have their own little developments. We also now have confirmation that Elendil is a Widower.

Isildur the Daydreamer – he has a whiff of the slightly mad about him – screws up his admission to the sea-cadets, and manages to get two of his friends expelled too. Aforementioned friends ultimately opt to join in the impending military intervention, and Isildur signs up too, much to his father’s evident discomfort.

Anarion remains off-screen, but there are some hints that he might actually be the most traditionally Faithful of the family, opting to remain in the ancestral Quendiphilic West.

Eärien, the invented daughter… she starts off at the bottom of the builder’s guild (though I dare say she has ambition), and gets involved with Kemen, Pharazôn’s invented son. In light of later events, this carries with it an air of Montague-Capulet tragedy, but thus far the show is downplaying the political problems of the relationship. Structurally, of course, it would suggest that Eärien is the most King’s Mannish of her Faithful family, whereas Kemen is the more Faithful of his King’s Man family… assuming Kemen is actually sincere, which is something of a question mark at this point.

(Kemen himself actually comes across as quite the charming Casanova, perhaps the only such character ever seen in a Tolkien adaptation, and while we have no reason to suspect that he is truly a philanderer, the premium he puts on “cleverness” is noticeable. A cynic would also note that on first meeting Eärien, he tries to give her wine. Almost as though he were more interested in her bed than her family’s politics).

And then there is Pharazôn himself, brought into this little social grouping via the connection of his son and Elendil’s daughter. If the show presents Miriel as reasonable and sympathetic, it presents Pharazôn as competent and an extremely gifted politician. Book-Pharazôn might be a charismatic charmer who wows the crowds with his good looks, riches, and military victories, but Show-Pharazôn is a retail politician, who makes a point of paying attention to every little issue affecting his people (“statecraft is about caring as much about small matters as great ones,” or some such – a sentiment more closely associated with modern democratic politics than a traditional monarchy). We also see him cleverly harness Quendiphobic populism, while dampening its potential threat to public order – albeit, the fact that Pharazôn has free drinks ready to hand might suggest that this entire thing was cynically staged for the Chancellor’s own advantage.

(One objection to this scene: while it does emphasise that Quendiphobia is tied-up with mortal envy about the Elves not growing old or dying… tying it to concern about Númenorean jobs is a tad weird. Almost as though they were trying too hard to compare Pharazôn to real-life populism. Sure, Pharazôn does harness popular support to his own advantage – it is the basis of his eventual coup, after all – so portraying such things in a vaguely sinister light is decent foreshadowing. It’s just that one can be a bit too on-the-nose about such things.

On the other hand, among the shout-outs to Elros Tar-Minyatur and the naming of Armenelos, I am not too bothered).

Addendum: More thoughts on that particular scene – https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2022/09/18/of-guilty-guilds-addressing-anti-immigration-populism-in-the-rings-of-power-episode-4/

(iii) Adar and the Southlands

We get our first look at the only named on-screen villain of the series thus far, Adar, the corrupted Elf. For me, it was the high-point of the entire episode – short though the scenes with him were, they successfully conjured up mystery, tragedy, and yet more Silmarillion allusion.

I have noted previously the show’s tendency to give us The Silmarillion without giving us The Silmarillion. Certain events or things from Tolkien’s First Age stories have been repurposed for the Second Age show, and inserted into a different context while preserving the allusion. The most clear-cut example of this is Forodwaith being a stand-in for the Helcaraxe, though there are various other examples scattered around these episodes… a way of evading the limitations of rights issues.

Adar, for rights reasons, will almost certainly have to be treated as an original character, but he is quite clearly channeling two First Age Elves in particular. Thankfully, leaks notwithstanding, neither are Galadriel’s brother:

  • Maglor. I have previously expressed extreme annoyance at the “Adar is Maglor” theory, on the basis that Maglor would never be associated with Orcs, and he has frankly suffered enough. But in seeing the performance of Adar… yes, I can see the Maglor in him, and it is not just the long, dark hair, which gives him a more conventional Elven look than the other show Elves. Adar clearly carries with him the weight of long torment and bitter memories. Never mind Galadriel’s PTSD, she has nothing on this character, who has quite clearly seen things no Elf was meant to see, and who now carries with him a strange sort of madness. In short, what Maglor might have looked like after a few centuries wandering the shores of Middle-earth, being trapped in a cruel limbo of loathing, pain, and regret. The allusions to Beleriand and the mouth of the river are just nightmare icing on a very dark cake, what with Maglor’s role in sacking the Havens.
  • Maeglin. Also fits the long, dark hair criteria, while having much more reason than Maglor to associate with Orcs. The Orcs – who adore him – are his only family now, and one cannot help but think that in his reference to the lies of Middle-earth, he could just as easily be alluding to the published Silmarillion, which presents Maeglin as the great villain of Gondolin. One rather gets the feeling that Adar wants to put the world out of his misery. Bonus points in that Maeglin, unlike Maglor, was explicitly tortured by Morgoth, and apparently “died” amid the fires of the Fall of Gondolin, which makes the burn scar on Adar’s face more reasonable. On the other hand, Maeglin would not have reason to refer to the Mouth of the Sirion.

So all very mysterious and exciting, and honestly, one character whom I think everyone wants to see more of. Sharp-eyed internet commentators have also pointed out the second figure from the right in the Elros-Elrond tapestry:

Of course, if Adar were already a Maeglin or a Dark Maglor, one wonders about why the tapestry would actually portray him…

Adar’s strange fatherly relationship with the Orcs under his command is also worthy of note – we see him euthanise an injured Orc in what does actually pass for a curious bout of compassion. The show is clearly putting quite a unique spin on the Orcs, by not only making them far more formidable in a combat situation, but also by giving them a sense that they have a community and a culture beyond being mere killing machines. These are not the faceless, easily-fought foe of the Jackson movies, a fleshing-out we also see with the Dwarves, though the show is definitely playing up the importance of their sunlight aversion. Definitely interesting adaptational choices.

While Adar does overshadow the Southlands storyline, we also see the return of Theo, who bravely ventures back to the village to recover food. His arrival at the village is played for the horror-angle, with the sense that one has stumbled into a sort of zombie apocalypse – empty houses, with the fear the foe might appear at any moment. Bonus points for the evident terror the characters feel when the sun vanishes, because that’s when the Orcs come out to play…

We get confirmation that the Orcs were (unsurprisingly) looking for Theo’s sword, though, more surprisingly, Theo is actually keen on using this sword as his go-to weapon. While one might quibble about the Orcs attacking Arondir when Adar supposedly sent him back to the tower with a message, they are only attacking Arondir because they want to get at Theo. Arondir has rather taken the risk upon himself at this point.

And then there is the revelation that the Old Guy from the tavern is really a Creepy Old Dude who knows far more about Sauron than he had been letting on. We have not yet seen the cultists yet, but this storyline – the darkest of the plots so far – is definitely veering into The New Shadow territory.

(iv) Elrond and the Dwarves

I noted previously that one of the nice things about this episode was that the plotting felt less forced. Less about shunting the characters from point A to point B with little regard to organic motivation, and more about having a plot that made sense on its own terms. Well, alas, there was an element of that dreaded forced plotting in the Dwarven plotline. A shame, because I really like the show Dwarves, and continue to like them.

Specifically, the problem is that Elrond – isn’t he also technically supposed to be banished – proves excessively nosy about delving into Durin’s delving. Rather than politely hanging around with Disa, like a good respectful diplomat, he ventures down into places he really shouldn’t. Sure, he’s following up Celebrimbor’s query, and he clearly knows his way around underground, even after twenty years, but given Durin getting upset with him earlier, it would have been safest to wait. They can talk about Hill Trolls or something in the meantime.

But Elrond ventures down to the places below. And there he discovers that the Dwarves have found mithril. Durin makes him swear an Oath on the Mountain – poor Elrond – to never reveal this to outsiders. Which Elrond indeed swears, on the memory of his father (we get several references to Eärendil in this episode, including one from Celebrimbor, who might be alluding to the eventual War of the Elves and Sauron). One might, of course, joke about what Elrond’s foster-fathers would have said on the subject of Oaths, though it is clearly being set up as a character-test for Elrond. His duty to Gil-galad, versus his duty to Durin. It really ought to be no contest, but we shall see.

The Dwarven secrecy about mithril proves something of a headscratcher, to the extent that Elrond himself brings it up, though it is clear there are some dark forebodings about where this new discovery could lead. Forebodings that even casual viewers ought to realise are justified. Disa has previously alluded to places the Mountain ought to be left alone. Durin III appears to be suspicious on two levels – the sense that there are places they really shouldn’t be mining (c.f. Balrog allusions), as well as a more innately Dwarven suspicion that outsiders (in this case, the Elves) are trying to take advantage. Tolkien’s Dwarves are a secretive people, which is not something that ever came through particularly well in the Jackson adaptations. Again, I really like the Show-Dwarves.

*

Such are my thoughts on the fourth episode of The Rings of Power, which again I would emphasise is the best episode to date. Not perfect, of course, but far fewer things to complain about, and we now have a clear direction lined up for the remaining four episodes of the first season, specifically a Númenorean intervention against the mysterious Adar in the Southlands. While this is going on, we have the prospect of Elf-Dwarf shenanigans in Lindon and Eregion too. Overall, I appreciated the Silmarillion allusions – either explicit or implicit – and I think the establishment of the various characters continues to be well-done. I would prefer Halbrand not to be Sauron, however, even if the show keeps teasing us in that direction. As it currently stands, I do not think we have seen Sauron yet.

Not Since 1955: Bringing Serialisation to Middle-earth

A curious thought has occurred to me. Specifically about how The Rings of Power represents serialised storytelling in Middle-earth, and about how damned unusual that actually is.

You see, in the Tolkien fandom, the books are there on the shelf, the story complete. Posthumous publications might provide details on the invented world, or on the development of those stories, but no-one is hanging on a future update to tell us how a narrative ends. At most, it is a case of hoping some obscure page of manuscript will shed some light on another obscure page of manuscript. So far as the story of Middle-earth goes, one might call it a closed-book situation, and if new stories or essays appear, it is only because they are unfinished – not a matter of serial updates.

The exception to this rule is fanfiction. But while The Rings of Power can certainly be considered fanfiction, it carries with it a degree of formal authorisation – Amazon did purchase television rights from the Estate – that your average Maedhros/Fingon ship-fic lacks. This is also fanfiction backed by untold millions of dollars, and brought to a truly gigantic media audience. Middle-earth for the masses, if you will. And yet unlike adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, The Rings of Power is not rooted in a complete novel, but rather in notes, summaries, and outlines – we know the story in broad strokes, but so much is show-invention that we cannot say (for now) what will happen at a more micro-level.

Put this all together, and we have a situation where theories and speculations about character and plot suddenly become the norm. And a critical mass of fans are now around to debate such theories as we await coming confirmation or refutation.

In the case of, say, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – a serial novel series a quarter of a century old – this is normal. People speculate on the meaning of prophecies, or the ultimate fate of a given character, all the time in the Martin fandom. But not so with the Tolkien fandom. Here we are dealing with something quite new, and not even the appearance of the published Silmarillion in 1977, which clarified things like the mysterious Valar, can really compare. After all, The Lord of the Rings would be a complete story even if Christopher Tolkien had opted not to publish his father’s additional work.

In fact, I would argue that the only true analogy to the current situation is that time period between the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring in July 1954 and the publication of The Return of the King in October 1955. The point at which the reading public had no idea how Tolkien’s story would end, or as to the fate of individual characters. The Two Towers (November 1954) even ends on a brutal cliff-hanger, whereby Frodo Baggins is captured by the Orcs of Cirith Ungol and Samwise finds himself locked out. For someone who read The Two Towers in November 1954, they would have to wait nearly a year for a resolution.

(Sure, some of that uncertainty might have been felt by people who only watched the Jackson movies as they came out in 2001-2003 and 2012-2014, and refrained from reading the books… but such people knew the books were there if they wanted).

Put it this way: when was the last time spoilers truly mattered in the Tolkien fandom? Not for many a year, I’d warrant. Serialisation carries with it many a quirk, and spoilers is one of them.

And this in turn creates a further interesting dynamic – it dramatically levels the fandom playing-field. There is something of a learning-curve, so far as getting into Tolkien goes. There are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and then there is The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and so on, until you wind up with the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth. Discussions about Morgoth’s Ring or The Book of Lost Tales are quite different from discussions about The Hobbit, and the number of readers equipped to take part in such discussions is far more limited.

But in the case of The Rings of Power? Not only are the broad-strokes accessible to anyone who has glanced at Appendix B of The Lord of the Rings, but the micro-level plot and character is often completely up in the air. The world’s greatest Tolkien scholars are no better equipped to know the identity of Halbrand or Meteor Dude or Theo or Adar than anyone else. Sure, they might use their knowledge of the texts to guess, but the operative word here is “guess.” They cannot know for certain, and there is no guarantee that the show hasn’t simply changed something to suit itself. So scholars must watch the episodes each week, just like everyone else, as their guesses are confirmed or refuted. A democratisation of the fandom, if you will. A curious development, and I think one worth noting.

Númenor Rule the Waves: A Review and Analysis of The Rings of Power, Episode 3

I have discussed the first two episodes of The Rings of Power. Time to take a look at the third episode – one I felt avoided the lowest lows of its predecessors while also not quite managing to match the highest highs. On average I think it is the best of the episodes thus far, with the operative words being “on average.” The show has grown more consistent and overall more assured, a good sign for later perhaps. There is nothing in here comparable to Galadriel’s jump into the sea, and there are some nice shout-outs, both to Jackson and to The Silmarillion itself. On the other hand, I’m still not entirely sold on some of the details, and the absence of the Dwarves and Celebrimbor meant that I felt I was missing the best of what the show has to offer.

Here we follow four storylines, including one new one:

  • Galadriel and Halbrand in Númenor.
  • Elendil’s family.
  • The Harfoots.
  • The Southlands.

Considering them each in turn…

(i) Galadriel and Halbrand in Númenor

This is our first ever on-screen look at Númenor, and the visuals are suitably glorious. We have a monstrous statue of Earendil in the port city of Rómenna… well, it might be Rómenna. It appears to have been merged with Armenelos, something I am not overly bothered about. This is a setting reliant on the sea, so it makes sense to have the seat of political power be coastal. Between the statue (reminiscent of the Argonath), the flowering White Tree, and some of the architecture, I think there are enough signs that this is the forerunner civilisation to Gondor, while at the same time it feels like something more Mediterranean, more based on trade, and certainly more classical than medieval. Appropriate Atlantis-vibes, I think, with the sun symbolism – yellow on blue – being quite deliberate. Galadriel and Halbrand turn up in the light of the noon-day sun, reflective of encountering this civilisation at its zenith, while I think it no accident that the show places great emphasis on the Orcs not abiding sunlight. This is a show that cares deeply about symbolism.

Galadriel fills us in with some exposition to Halbrand here. There is a case for this feeling a tad forced, a tad As You Know, Bob, as TV Tropes would call it, since if Halbrand is floating around at sea, he really ought to know about Númenor. But Halbrand is as good an audience-surrogate here as any, and I did like the contrast of Halbrand being descended from Morgoth’s allies, whereas Númenor is descended from Elvish allies. Just as the Southlands storyline carries with it a thematic exploration of the Sins of the Fathers, Númenor is the opposite – an exploration of a Prodigal Son, a case of a people abandoning their noble ancestors for evil.

An issue with this storyline is the way in which Galadriel shows her inability to act the least bit diplomatically, with our Elven protagonist going so far as to make threats to Tar-Miriel’s face. I understand that they are drawing a conscious contrast between hot-headed pseudo-Feanorian Galadriel and the smooth-talking sensible Elrond, and that the character of Galadriel will grow and change over the course of the show. We will see her develop away from this. It’s just that for now, this really is a gender-flipped Celegorm, rash to the point of reckless, to a degree where you wonder whether anyone ever knocked any sense into her. The entitlement runs strong in this Galadriel. Good for drama, perhaps, but she is damned lucky that Miriel and Pharazôn find her antics more amusing than irritating.

(As an aside, Galadriel’s declaration of her identity is pure iambic meter.

“Galadriel of the Noldor. Daughter of the Golden House of Finarfin. Commander of the Northern Armies of High King Gil-Galad.”

“GaLADriel OF the NOLDor. DAUGHTer OF the GOLDen HOUSE of FINarFIN. ComMANder OF the NORTHern ARMies OF High KING Gil-GALad.”

In what amounts to a pissing match between Galadriel and Miriel, Galadriel is not pulling punches. This Galadriel never pulls punches. At least Miriel’s haughty “Name thyself” is justified in the circumstances. She’s the ruler, after all, and talking down to her Elven visitor is a politically savvy move of performative Quendiphobia. Recall that “thyself” is the familiar form).

But if Galadriel is Female-Celegorm, Halbrand at least makes a serviceable Curufin. A very serviceable Curufin (sudden thought – does this make Miriel into Orodreth?). It is abundantly clear from a variety of clues that Halbrand is not to be trusted, but he at least is capable of articulating himself out of awkward situations… having bailed out Galadriel and gained them both a few days to play with, he manages to return Galadriel’s precious dagger too. Turns out he is an adept thief. Then he tries to ingratiate himself with the smithing guild (more Curufin!), only to wind up in prison after a street-fight.

There are a couple of neon-lights hanging over Halbrand, neither of which I like very much. On one hand, his scruffy demeanor and eventually-revealed royal ancestry make him into a sort of Dark Aragorn (ironically earning the contempt of Aragorn’s own ancestors, who are in full hegemonic flight here with their “low man” insults). Dark Aragorn meets Bronn from Game of Thrones, perhaps. But the notion of Halbrand being the true, hidden King of the Southlands is just so damned hackneyed, it practically screams subversion. Will he be a failed Aragorn? An evil Aragorn? Some combination of the two? The fact that we are in a position to see the subversion coming at this stage… I think is a bit weak.

The other neon-light over Halbrand is that he is one of the major candidates for hidden Annatar. The show has presented us with several possible Saurons, and is currently dangling them in front of the audience like characters in an Agatha Christie murder-mystery (Mordor on the Orient Express?). We knew of Halbrand’s candidacy already, but having him established as a decent talker and now an accomplished smith? Combined with his view that Númenor is a “paradise rife with opportunity”? That is definitely a massive hint. So massive that I think it falls into the “too obvious” category. I have read my share of Christie, and she would never do this sort of thing this early, except as a red-herring. Which means we are likely in for another subversion. There is such a thing as being too clever for one’s own good.

There are a couple of other things to comment on, so far as this storyline is concerned. The first is that Miriel is not yet technically Tar-Miriel. Her father, Tar-Palantir, is still alive, but is confined to his tower after an apparent Palace Coup. All this, of course, is pure show-invention, but in light of the King’s Men working against him his entire life, I don’t find it completely outlandish – albeit I do smile at the seeming lack of ruthlessness in said Coup. Merely locking the King in his tower, and making the daughter Queen-Regent? How very non-Roman of them.

What I do find curious is that Miriel is shown to be working with Pharazôn in public – and engaging in performative Quendiphobia – while still communicating with her imprisoned father in private about highly confidential issues. It is worth remembering that Tolkien wrote a couple of different versions of Tar-Miriel, one where she was deposed by Pharazôn, and another where she adored her cousin and married him on her own accord. Having a Miriel who is quiet Faithful and public King’s Man would be an interesting take… her real loyalties perhaps being hinted at with her comments on the White Tree.

(Oh, and when Miriel is talking about Elves being unwelcome, she refers to her grandfather’s great-grandfather. If you check the family tree, that’s a reference to Ar-Adûnakhôr. Very, very clever. The plotting might be hit-or-miss, and they might not be able to access texts, but contrary to certain criticisms, this show knows its lore and loves its easter-eggs).

The other comment on Galadriel’s storyline surrounds her little venture into the Tower of Records with Elendil. Here we discover that the eye-sigil Sauron has been using is just a stylised map of the Southlands. Or as we would know it, Mordor. Some might suggest that this telegraphs Sauron’s plan, and make our Dark Lord look like an idiot. Perhaps it does, but honestly, it’s there for the benefit of the casual viewer, and to emphasise the narrative importance of the Southlands. One can handwave that it still also looks like an Eye. But no, my major interest with the Records scene is that we encounter an interesting tapestry:

This is a lovely reference to the differing choices of the two Half-Elven brothers, Elrond and Elros. Galadriel cites her familiarity with both brothers in one of those “the Elves have a different conception of time” moments – for Elendil this is ancient history, even allowing for a show that has timeline smooshing. But in terms of symbolism, it also evokes the famous School of Athens image of Plato and Aristotle:

Recall that Plato and Aristotle have two contrasting views of reality. Plato’s view is that this world is derivative of a changeless World of Ideas. Aristotle’s view is that this world is the “real” world. Plato points up in the painting, to evoke transcendental timelessness, whereas Aristotle points outwards, in favour of grounding his ideas.

Applying this to Elrond and Elros, one can either focus on the position of the brother, or on which direction they are pointing. Here Elros is standing in Plato’s position, perhaps arguing in favour of the Gift of Men – the ability of the human spirit to transcend Arda, and leave the Circles of the World. Elrond is standing in Aristotle’s position, perhaps arguing in favour of the Elvish state, whereby one is bound to the world for the course of its existence. Alternatively, Elrond is pointing upwards, perhaps a comment of the Eldar being the People of the Stars, whereas Elros is pointing downwards, perhaps in reference to Men living a more grounded existence during their time on Arda.

It honestly is a very clever symbolic representation of the root conflict that will engulf Númenor – the philosophical divergence between Men and Elves. I think it a shame that this symbolism is as much as we get in this episode, so far as actually explaining the source of Númenor’s Quendiphobia.

(ii) Elendil’s Family

In addition to Galadriel and Halbrand’s little adventures on the island, we are also introduced to a certain Númenorean family – one that will have substantial plot significance going forward. For the present, it is not so much a storyline, and more a series of character introductions, but one has to start somewhere. Show-Elendil has been downgraded significantly from his book counterpart, being a respected ship-captain, rather than a high-ranking nobleman. Sure, Book-Elendil is a sea-captain too, but the point is that he’s rather more than just that. In another piece of As You Know, Bob, Pharazôn explains to Miriel (and thus the audience) who this fellow is.

Show-Elendil is presented as a dutiful, respectful and perceptive fellow (c.f. his comments on Galadriel’s personality), with roots in the more Quendiphilic western part of the island. It enables him to speak Quenya to his guest. But in contrast to his book counterpart, he is not some sort of leader among the Faithful – not yet anyway, and there is a case that Miriel finds his factional loyalties a matter of current interest. After all, why would he bring an Elf to the island, if he weren’t at least somewhat sympathetic? Her interrogation of Elendil over the etymology of his name – and the potential double-meaning – is very well done. Another affirmation that the writers know the material.

Show-Elendil also has a strongly pragmatic streak, what with his “the past is dead” line, and his decision to move the family away from the west. Not quite something Book-Elendil would say, and I thought it ponderous and stupid in a trailer, but I think it works here, now that we have some context. It is also clear that Amazon has not licensed the regional names of Númenor, hence the reference to “west side”, rather than Andustar.

His son, Isildur, by contrast is good-hearted – he rescues a fellow sea-cadet during training – but he has the potential to daydream, and he is less dutiful than his father, thinking of deferring his admittance. And speaking of the Númenorean sea-cadets… while the visuals were nice and all, I honestly cringed at “the sea is always right” line. Sure, it’s simple, and iambic trimeter (which makes it ironically Elvish), but I think it would have been far better to have translated the proverb into Quenya. One could excuse it as tradition, analogous to Latin phrases in a legal context, and Elendil could have translated the line for us later, in his conversation with Miriel. At least in Quenya, it would sound pretty. In English, it sounds trite.

We also have Elendil’s invented daughter, Earien (‘Sea-maiden’ in Quenya), with whom Isildur has a warm sibling relationship, and another off-screen son, the canonical Anarion. We will probably not see Amandil in the series.

(iii). The Harfoots

My view last week was that the show has handled the proto-hobbits as well as they reasonably could have, given the constraints of the story. I think they are still making a decent fist at it – it’s just that the individualism versus conformity theme they had hitherto been addressing intelligently has now been sledgehammered into the brains of the audience. Worse, the downsides of the Harfoot collectivist mindset have been emphasised to a degree where the warm, community life they had been promoting (“we have each other…”) feels outright hypocritical – a dark and insincere lie better suited to Shirley Jackson’s Lottery than Tolkien.

“Nobody goes off trail. And nobody walks alone” is a decent-enough summary of Harfoot conformity and collectivism thus far, albeit a heavy-handed one. Keep to the old ways, ensure your survival, and work together for the common good. Well and good. It’s just that this ethos does not extend to helping the struggling Brandyfoots with their heavy cart – we literally see other Harfoots further up the trail with light burdens. Smiling Harfoots at that.

One can rationalise it as the Brandyfoots currently suffering social stigma, but I really, really do not like it. Nor does the excuse of primitive society hold water – we know, based off archaeological evidence, that ancient peoples did actually care for disabled members of the community. Notwithstanding their strange, and quite dark, ritual about remembering the Left-Behind, those they could not help, the Harfoots come across as little monsters here. Finger-wag all you want, but at least lend a bloody hand. “Nobody walks alone” and all that.

In fact, between the role of social stigma and Sadoc Burrows’ speech evoking Bilbo Baggins’ Birthday Party, I do think the show is running with the notion that social customs – that today seem humorous – can have a much darker origin. Interesting concept, but I think the show might be overdoing it. Oh well, at least they have Sadoc as a Reasonable Authority Figure, as opposed to the nutters who literally want to de-caravan (and hence banish, and hence kill) the entire Brandyfoot family for Nori’s kind-hearted curiosity. Sadoc might be an old stick-in-the-mud, but he’s not a sociopath, and there were a couple of lighter moments involving him too. An easter-egg allusion to Earendil (“I’ve heard of people becoming stars”), and his quibbling over the details of his speech. Like Elrond’s earlier speechwriting, this does come across like a meta-joke on the part of the screen-writers.

Further on the bright side, I do think it is increasingly likely that the Stranger is not Sauron, given the various shenanigans of this episode. Amnesia would only go so far towards explaining his behaviour, which is currently the antithesis of Sauron. And as a New Zealander, I did like the toetoe grass, a reminder of where this first season was actually filmed.

(iv). The Southlands

I sung the praises of this storyline last week. This week, I felt it a good deal weaker. There is no Bronwyn or Theo or Old Guy at the tavern. There is no cursed evil sword to drink blood. Only Arondir and his Elven fellows from the watchtower, and a gaggle of sun-averse Orcs. Specifically, Arondir has been captured, and thrust into the role of digging dirt and destroying trees. Potentially even looking for a certain sword. The ugly landscape of Mordor as we know it is starting to appear.

The issue here is that with the sole exception of Arondir himself, we have little or no reason to care about these captured Elves. They are just random dudes – and yet the show seems to think we should care when the Orcs kill them. Which is the basic (and unfortunate) recipe for melodrama. A call-back to Jackson’s Boromir being hit with arrows rings a bit hollow, given that we cared about Boromir and can’t even name this guy. He’s the one Arondir thinks smells like rotten leaves, right?

Then there is the warg fight. People seem to hate the CGI on this critter. As with Galadriel and the Ice Troll they might have gone a bit overboard with Arondir’s acts of extreme dexterity too, but then Arondir is basically a sort of Show-Legolas, and Jackson served up far more questionable feats there. Myself, I’m putting this one down as an evocation of Finrod Felagund fighting the werewolf in Sauron’s dungeon, another case of the show giving us The Silmarillion without giving us The Silmarillion.

For unknown reasons, the Orcs decide not to kill Arondir, and instead take him to Adar. The episode wants us to think this is Sauron, but we know from earlier online leaks this is probably not the case. Adar – an invented character – is a corrupted Elf, whom the Orcs now enthusiastically follow (Adar is Sindarin for Father). I would love it if Adar were one of the original captured Avari, and hence a literal father of the Orcs, but the leaks suggest otherwise. He is actually supposed to be Galadriel’s brother. Not Finrod, thankfully, but another one. I suppose we will get a better idea next week. For now, all we have is a brief and blurry image of someone with long, dark hair. A tad ironic, given that the episode is named after the guy.

*

Such are my thoughts on the third episode of The Rings of Power. I think both the Harfoot and the Southlands storylines are a bit weaker this week, and as noted earlier, we’re sorely missing the Dwarves, but I think the adventures on a certain Island Kingdom more than make up for it, and as always I appreciate the clever use of symbolism and lore-references. So nothing too egregious overall, even if there are bits to grumble over. Show-Galadriel continues to be a hothead, too hotheaded for anyone from the House of Finarfin, but at least other in-universe characters are now calling this feminine Celegorm up on her behaviour. I would also point out that while we are nearly half-way through the first season, the show will span a full five seasons, and the screen-writers have written accordingly.

Addendum: As if the show weren’t making this Galadriel Feanorian enough… someone else has just pointed out that Galadriel threatens violence in order to get her hands on a ship. Just like her Mad Uncle. I’d completely missed that. Another very clever inside joke, albeit one that any version of Book Galadriel would rather frown at.

Losing the Wallpaper: Musings on the Death of Queen Elizabeth II

Quite the late night development – a development that will no doubt dominate all parts of the media for weeks to come. The death of Queen Elizabeth II. Head of State of not just the United Kingdom, but also of my own country.

As a preamble, I am not a monarchist. Rather the opposite. However, whereas I always took a dim view of Prince Phillip, I did actually respect the Queen as a person. One can differentiate an institution from the flesh and blood person behind the mask. To a New Zealander, she was always a remote figure – a face on coins and banknotes, and the ostensible reason behind a public holiday in June, but little more. But remote though she was, the Queen was enduring. Neither myself, nor even my parents, have ever known another Head of State. The Queen was always there, an eternal and unchanging fixture, a sort of social wallpaper. Without her? The world feels a stranger and more alien place. I am reminded of a passing line from the 1939 film Goodbye Mister Chips, where one schoolboy says to another how odd it is having a King, on the death of Victoria. Yes, it does feel like that.

Wracking my brains to think of the Queen as something more concrete, there is her cameo literary role in The BFG by Roald Dahl – an author I adored as a child. But I also recall something else.

The year was 1990. New Zealand was celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi, and our distant monarch was visiting our shores in person. I was seven, and attending school in Palmerston North. I remember our entire class having to walk from Shamrock Street down to Fitzherbert Avenue – then lined with trees – and wave as the Queen’s limousine drove past. I still remember much nattering between myself and my classmates about which one was the Queen and which one was the Queen Mother. But wave we did, just as our teacher told us. Looking back, it feels like one of those things you see in sepia photos, something from an older era, a residual memory of Empire.

Speaking of Empire, I suspect a fair amount of New Zealand’s impending discourse will be about whether we ought to have a referendum on a republic. The notion has been floated for a long time, though I think pinning such things on the death of the Queen was really tantamount to putting the issue in the too-hard basket. New Zealand has a time-honoured tradition of clinging to the vestiges of the Empire because our constitutional arrangements work on a “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” basis. By kicking the can down the road, we didn’t have to think about the matter until some indefinite future date.

Now? Now, the moment has actually arrived. The bluff has been called… and yet I think the public appetite will merely be for another bout of can-kicking. I really don’t think there is much public outcry for chucking out our brand-spanking-new King Charles III. It just means a bit of novelty as the new coins start getting minted, even as we deal with more concrete issues like pandemics and food prices. But life, as they say, rolls on, and I suspect that (republican though I am) I will get used to the new wallpaper along with everyone else, and there will be a new irrelevant – and yet strangely enduring – fixture in the background of our lives. King’s Birthday in June, and an old man on the coins, rather than an old woman. The song becomes God Save the King, legal QCs become KCs, and that’s really it. I might not like the underlying symbolism, but symbolism doesn’t pay the supermarket bills or fuel the car. Can-kicking it is.