[WARNING: THIS POST DISCUSSES EPISODE 8, “ALLOYED”, OF AMAZON’S SERIES THE RINGS OF POWER]
I’ve been watching with a mixture of boredom and annoyance Amazon’s The Rings of Power, telling myself there was no point in writing about it to vent my indignation as a Tolkien reader (though not a big fan). I agree with the many who have concluded that the series is not truly an adaptation but ultra-expensive fan fiction, a conclusion which helps to put up with the heavy distortion of Tolkien’s characters (and I don’t mean here in terms of race) and the slow-moving plot. A good adaptation needn’t be faithful to the original and certainly the best adaptations offer rich readings of their sources, even surpassing them in interest. What Amazon is offering is not, however, an enriching, fulfilling adaptation, as Peter Jackson’s films were, but a reinvention which only tangentially refers to the essence of Tolkien’s universe. In fact it corrupts it, as I will argue.
If I am writing today about The Rings of Power this is because whereas Tolkien knows very well where the boundary between good and evil lies, the series’ finale contained a scene in which that distinction is being blurred, and I find that extremely dangerous in the context of the rise of fascism we are seeing today. As I have mentioned here, I published in 2020 a book called Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort, which makes me a sort of world authority on villainy (there are actually very few volumes on this topic). The book has a chapter on the villains Morgoth and Sauron, whom Tolkien presents as relentless evildoers. In my reading, Morgoth, originally named Melkor, is in part a victim of his creator Eru/Iluvatar’s restrictions in the use of his power of creation, which is expressed through music. Nothing excuses Morgoth’s later use of that power for destruction and domination and my reading is very critical of the inefficiency of the divine Valar to curb down their sibling’s power. Sauron, a Maiar (like Gandalf or Saruman) who becomes Morgoth’s most trusted lieutenant, decides to display all his villainy once his master is sent to eternal prison (for both are immortal). He has a moment of doubt, prompted by the fear of being caught, but once he realises that the Valar are rather useless and he learns to control Elves, Men and Dwarves through the Rings, and though the machinery of war, Sauron tries by all means to stay in power. Until, as we know, Sauron’s Ring falls in Frodo’s hands and the villain gets his come-uppance, at it must happen.
In the American narrative discourse, however, villains are no longer the monsters of evil they used to be in the classic discourse, a trend perhaps started by Darth Vader in Star Wars. George Lucas not only redeemed his villain, but also used the second trilogy (Episodes I-III) to explain how Anakin Skywalker fell to the dark side (tellingly, the real archvillain, Emperor Palpatine, was played by a British actor, Ian McDiarmid). Disney has contributed to this trend of defanging the villain by re-writing dark fairy Maleficent as a victim of a form of brutal rape. For you to see where I am going, please remember that J.K. Rowling, a British writer and a clever Tolkienian reader, has no doubts that Voldemort is a monster of evil and never thinks of condoning him, even though she offers an origins story to explain where he comes from and to theorize why he is evil. The British, I am arguing, who saw evil face-to-face in WWI and WWII, have created very potent fictions of villainy as warnings against the rise of fascism. The Americans, in contrast, have been falling in love with the villain for a very long time, and Episode 8 of The Rings of Power contains a scene that encapsulates that tempting love. Yes, I mean the infamous raft scene.
The show’s Galadriel (who is most emphatically not Tolkien’s Galadriel), dupes herself into believing that handsome Halbrand is the King of the Southern Lands, and even though he never confirms her assumption, the deluded Galadriel convinces the Númenóreans to launch an attack against the Orcs pestering Middle Earth. This misguided enterprise results in the creation of Mordor, but not content to have caused that disaster, Galadriel, who is half-besotted with Halbrand, takes him to Lindon, the main Elf city, to be cured of his life-threatening wounds. There, Galadriel finally thinks of checking the historical records, only to discover that the line of kings to which Halbrand purportedly belongs died out one thousand years before. The spectators who had long suspected that Halbrand might be Sauron are finally rewarded for their patience with a revelation scene set on the raft where Galadriel first met Halbrand, when both were castaways. Sauron spirits her magically to that primal scene after failing to approach her embodying her dead brother who, by the way, was killed by his henchmen (henchorcs?).
I grant that actors Morfydd Clark (as Galadriel) and Charlie Vickers (as Sauron), do a very good job in the few minutes the scene lasts, possibly their best performance in the whole series. I am interested here, however, in the dialogue, which I am quoting in its entirety. The scene (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=47mywI-8mlQ) begins with a chagrined Galadriel refusing to look at Sauron; both are standing on the raft, as the wind whooshes and clouds gather:
SAURON: Galadriel. Look at me! Galadriel. Look at me. You know who I am. I am your friend.
GALADRIEL: You are a friend of Morgoth’s.
SAURON: When Morgoth was defeated, it was as if a great, clenched fist had released its grasp from my neck. And in the stillness of that first sunrise, at last, I felt the light of The One again. And I knew if ever I was to be forgiven… That I had to heal everything that I had helped ruin.
This should set all the alarms ringing. Tolkien’s Sauron is known as the Deceiver and Amazon’s Sauron has been deceiving Galadriel all along, and it might well be he is still deceiving her by pretending that he was enslaved by Morgoth and, once he was gone, he started looking forward to being forgiven by The One (Eru/Ilúvatar). It is important, however, to note that Mairon (Sauron’s original Maiar name) was not enslaved but suborned (or persuaded, or seduced) by Tolkien’s Morgoth. In the British discourse on evil there is willing subordination that cannot be forgiven; this is replaced in the American version with forced enslavement open to forgiveness, for Sauron is not really evil but made evil by greater forces (i.e. Morgoth). The scene continues:
GALADRIEL: No penance could ever erase the evil you have done.
SAURON: That is not what you believe.
GALADRIEL: Do not tell me what I believe.
SAURON: No. You told me. After our victory, you said that whatever I’d done before I could be free of it now.
GALADRIEL: You deceived me.
SAURON: I told you the truth. I told you that I had done evil, and you did not care. Because you knew that our past meant nothing, weighed against our future.
Amazon’s Galadriel is here exposed as an utter fool. That she was deceived is true enough, but that she was also easy to deceive, given her feelings for Halbrand, is another inescapable truth. You cannot ‘free’ a person from the evil they acknowledge having committed, without asking what that evil consisted of. Just please try to imagine this is not Sauron but Hitler, and see how indefensible Galadriel’s position is, and how it benefits Sauron. Let’s move on, as the storm gathers:
GALADRIEL: There is no such future.
SAURON: Isn’t there? All others look on you with doubt. I alone can see your greatness. I alone can see your light.
GALADRIEL: You would make me a tyrant.
SAURON: I would make you a queen. Fair as the sea and the Sun. Stronger than the foundations of the earth.
GALADRIEL: And you. My king. The Dark Lord.
SAURON: No. Not dark. Not with you at my side. You told me once, that we were brought together for a purpose. This is it. [Sauron passes her brother’s dagger to her] You bind me to the light. And I bind you to power. Together, we can save this Middle-earth.
GALADRIEL: Save? Or rule?
SAURON: I see no difference.
GALADRIEL: And that is why… I will never be at your side. [she puts dagger to his neck]
Deep sigh… I was horrified by how many on Twitter found this segment of the scene romantic, particularly the reflection on the water showing Sauron in kingly armour and Galadriel by his side. To begin with, this is NOT romantic. Sauron is flattering Galadriel to control her. Instead of plunging the dagger straight away into his heart, however, she imagines what their union would be like, even suggesting that she could be transformed by him (‘you would make me a tyrant’). Sauron uses cliched florid language knowing how foolish she is, and then offers the argument that they have a ‘purpose’ together because ‘You bind me to the light. And I bind you to power’. Another big NO: light (=good) and power as Sauron understands it (=evil) are NOT compatible. Benevolent absolute monarchy has NEVER existed.
But let’s move on. Galadriel shakes herself out of her musings about absolute power and reacts by threatening Sauron (still not attacking him). Here the ‘romantic’ villain shows his true colours, as thunder rumbles. Sauron ends the scene yelling:
SAURON: You have no choice. Without me, your people will fade. And the shadow will spread and darken to cover all the world. You need me.
GALADRIEL: I should have left you on the sea.
SAURON: A sea you were on because the Elves cast you out. They cast you out for deigning to beg them for a few petty soldiers. What will they do when you tell them that you were my ally? When you tell them that Sauron lives because of you? And you will die because of me.
I do wonder what those who read the scene as a romantic moment see in it. Here’s a strong, intelligent woman who has the chance to destroy the enemy she has been seeking, and who instead rescues him, not once but twice: from the raft and from his mortal wounds after battling Adar’s Orcs. I do not know whether she can actually kill Sauron in this scene, as this is a vision happening in her mind controlled by him, but why doesn’t she try? (yes, I know: Season 2 is being shot already).
What irks about Galadriel, as she is written by the showrunners, is that she helped Halbrand because she had a crush on him, which she disguises to herself as a preposterous, silly mission to return a lost King to his land. Incidentally, for her crush to be ‘legitimate’, the showrunners made their Galadriel a widow, killing off her husband Celeborn. A Twitter user wrote about how surprised Tolkien would be seeing contemporary audiences invested in ‘shipping’ Galadriel and Halbrand, but beyond the stupidity of always wanting to include romance in all narratives, what worries me is that the series has made the villain attractive. Charlie Vickers is not as beautiful as Sauron is in his incarnation as Annatar, the Lord of Gifts, a persona he assumes to trick the Númenóreans into submission, but the series has presented him as an erotic object of general interest for the spectators and in particular for Galadriel, which is never the case with Annatar. Indeed, Halbrand often recalls Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn in Jackson’s films, where, by the way, Sauron never speaks and is always seen in armour (the only naked thing we see about him is his eye). This is, in short, a dirty trick to play. Every comment enthusing about how hot Charlie Vickers/Halbrand/Sauron is helps villainy. I shudder to think what would happen if Vladimir Putin were a handsome man, though I am sure you have noticed that no powerful man is handsome. That’s so for a very simple reason: handsome men need not seek absolute power to compensate for any deficiencies.
I don’t know how The Rings of Power is going to progress, and how the showrunners are going to rewrite Tolkien’s Annatar subplot (visions of Númenor’s destruction, for which the villain is indirectly responsible, have been already included in the series), unless another actor plays Sauron in disguise. My request is that the lines are kept clear and that audiences are not lured into rooting for handsome men who turn out to be appalling villains. This is what Sauron did to the Númenóreans, and look how they ended. Tolkien sent a potent warning many decades ago about allowing yourself to be deceived by attractive false appearances and it’s time we heed it. And also that we finally understand that the villain is NOT a romantic character, no matter how handsome he may be.