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.

3 thoughts on “Not Since 1955: Bringing Serialisation to Middle-earth

  1. The discussion about the show in a way reminds more of something like…discussing the secondary media like video games set in the universe with ‘original’ stories, so Shadow of Mordor, it’s sequel, one also can add to that the upcoming Lotr: Gollum game (after all it will be the ‘untold story of Gollum’ so just like Rings of Power is untold story of Second Age or Monolith’s games were untold chapter in between The Hobbit and Lotr hehe). One can have discussion and try to compare what those ‘entries’ will be like in comparison to book lore, whether they will utilize this lore in any meaningful way. One can have a discussion whether the alterations or lore changes or different takes of Shadow of War identities of Nazgul was a good or bad creative choice (making Isildur and Helm Hammerhand Nazgul, or making Nazgul sisters from an invented kigndom of Shen or something :)), the discussion about those is the same thing one can do with the MERP or similar, we can also add the discussions about previous takes of ‘adaptations’ Rankin Bass Hobbit, Bakshi Lotr, or the upcoming War of the Rohirrim animation, some will be closer some further away and some complete alternate universe that barely fits in Tolkien’s ideas :).

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    • One thing I would actually mention… casting my mind back to the first season of Game of Thrones in 2010, I was participating in the A Song of Ice and Fire fandom at the time. I don’t think people realise that anti-show Martin Book Purists were a thing, even though the material being adapted was much more TV friendly than anything in Tolkien. And that is well before Thrones’ infamous decline and fall.

      I think these discussions are something every fandom goes through every time some new media is added to the stockpile. It’s just Rings of Power discussions attract crazy Culture War stuff too – something present in earlier cases (XenArwen), but not quite at current levels.

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      • Culture war always was a thing, and it’s not the first nor the last time this will appear, not without a reason, always whenever there is some sort of ‘adaptation’ or the like ‘reimagining’ and all that there will be attempts at altering the source material in such a way that is controversial. And of course no adaptation is perfect, not even Peter Jackson films, and so on, but recently stuff done by various makers of those new entries becomes really ridiculous, needless race swaps for no other reason than diversity, changes that are to “reflect the world that we live today” or other such bullshit reasons (I for one am against any sort of race swapping for no reason, no work or adaptation should have any required quotas to fulfill because that is pointless, the same thing with diversity in Amazon show, all they could have done to introduce it would be use of actual lore, invent few Haradrim characters, then nobody would bat an eye if Ismael Cruz Cordova played a young Haradrim warrior, Cynthia Addai his girlfriend, Lenny Henry his old father and tribal chief, Sophia Nomvete some village witch or something, it woul be both interetsing to explore the southern culture showing also the complexity of the Tolkien’s world which his critics shortsightedly denied exists, it would be interesting to see them use that subplot in more natural way in the Second Age, having the positive as well as bad characters interacting wiht the growing shadow of Sauron and Numenorean colonialism and oppression, with the colonies like Umbar on the shores of Harad as plot relevant location!), it’s natural there will be strong reaction to such things. I personally always was a bit of book purist because frankly it’s natural that if something is not broken don’t fix it 🙂 staying true to source or as close as possible is a good thing when done in proper way, obviously there always will be criticism, some entries do deserve critique, take the Hobbit films for instance, lots of wasted opportunities, questionable creative choices (certainly I don’t think anyone will disagree that focusing so much on Alfrid was bad thing to happen to the third movie 🙂 various things like the White Council subplot could have been carried better, also Tauriel and the needless quasi romance, love triangle with the hot dwarf, also her role in the story….one change or creative decision to involve her in story in other way would have sufficed….make her one of the elvenking’s spies that he send out in book and voila, the character gets actual agency and stuff to do in the story other than being there for the very sake of being), there are always ways to make the stuff somewhat better than it gets. Tolkien himself famous letter about so called Zimmerman’s script shows he was mindful of details, in some cases like the radio adaptation Tolkien also gave his thoughts on those:

        “Frodo: What has happened? Where is the pale King?

        Sam: We lost you, Mr Frodo. Where did you get to?

        Frodo: Didn’t you see them?– the wraiths, and the King?

        Aragorn: No, only their shadows…

        Tolkien gave a description of the wraiths to the narrator, who linked the scenes: “At once the shapes became terribly clear. He could see under their black mantles. In their white faces burned merciless eyes…”

        Lee said: “Without the freedom allowed to him in the novel, he considered the best way to convey a description of the wraiths, first rather clumsily getting Frodo Baggins to say ‘I… I put the ring on. Then the shapes became terribly clear, and I could see under their black cloaks. Their faces were white with cruel bright eyes…’ But he rejected this, favouring instead the use of the narrator.”

        So fans being critical of stuff is a good thing, it’s certainly more interesting than blind praise, some things came close but there is never a true perfection, still one does not need to stop trying to grasp the true essence, the fidelity to the story, world, characters as much as possible.

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