Skin-Deep Secularism: Thoughts on Amazon’s Lord of the Rings Series

If you haven’t heard, the Middle-earth series that Amazon is dropping an unbelievable amount of money to produce is called The Rings of Power. Its first trailer came out a few weeks ago, and it was met with a sizable negative response. In fact, most of the positive reactions that I have encountered essentially amounted to saying, “Looks cool. Let’s see how it turns out.” Not exactly a groundswell of fan hype.

Speaking of fans, I very much am one. The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are annual reads for me, and The Lord of the Rings films are quite easily my favorite movies of all time. I even named my eldest daughter Éowyn. While I know that there are plenty of Tolkien lovers that easily surpass my knowledge and affection of all things Middle-earth, I believe that my fandom credentials are sufficient for discussing the few concerns that I have with Amazon’s series.

More importantly, however, as both a Christian and a pastor, I long to know and love the Scriptures more and more, while also helping others to do the same. Thus, while the concerns that I have about The Rings of Power are nothing that countless other Tolkien fans have said, I do believe that this topic can lead us into a valuable conversation about God’s good designs and how our secular society falls short of them.

To begin, let me give a brief explanation about where in Tolkien’s lore this new series will take place and why that is important. Middle-earth’s history is marked by three ages, and the series will be set in the Second Age. The events of The Lord of the Rings close out the Third Age and usher in the Fourth with the final defeat of Sauron. The First Age is recounted in The Silmarillion and is largely focused upon the elves long war against Sauron’s master, Melkor (who is essentially Tolkien’s version of Satan). At the end of the First Age, Melkor is defeated and imprisoned by a vast army of Valar (think archangels), elves, and men. As a reward to the men who fought alongside them, the Valar created an island between their land, Valinor, and Middle-earth. Upon the island paradise of Númenor, these men were also given extended lifespans, living for several centuries.

The Amazon series is set during the Second Age and will depict the downfall of Númenor. To be honest, I think that was a great choice. Tolkien wrote the least about the Second Age, so that gives creators a bit more room to go their own route. But I most love the potential that the story of Númenor has to reflect upon our own secular age.

You see, over their millennia on the island, the people of Númenor essentially grew into the greatest kingdom ever seen. Toward the end of the Second Age, Sauron rose to power and began to conquer Middle-earth, yet when the Númenóreans brought their fleet to the coast of Middle-earth, Sauron surrendered himself without battle, “for he perceived that the power and majesty of the Kings of the Sea surpassed all rumour of them, so that he could not trust even the greatest of his servants to withstand them.”[1] Not even the Dark Lord could stand before the might of the Númenóreans.

Their downfall, however, was not external but internal. For all of their unsurpassed might and glory, the Númenóreans were still mortal, and even centuries of life did not dull the sting of death. Faramir gave a fitting description to Frodo and Sam as he compared the kings of Gondor to their ancestors in Númenor:

Death was ever present, because the Númenóreans still, as they had in their old kingdom, and so lost it, hungered after endless life unchanging. Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars. And the last king of the line of Anárion had no heir.[2]

In a sense, the tale of Númenor is the story of a semi-utopian society collapsing in on itself. In their desperation for immortality, they gave themselves to making elixirs and studying the stars, hoping to prolong their existence through chemistry and astrology rather than strengthening the next generation.

This is precisely where a Second Age tale would have the ability to hold out a mirror to our present day in ways that only stories are able to do. You see, for the past several decades, the West has been in a place rather like Númenor. Of course, we do not have centuries-long lifespans, and disease, crime, and accidental deaths continue onward, but even still, the period of time from the conclusion of WWII to the present has been a good deal more utopic than most of us realize. If that sounds strange, just imagine the reaction that one of our ancestors from, say, the 1700s would have to being told that in the 21st Century obesity would be a greater health risk than starvation. To those of the past who knew that scarcity could easily be lurking behind seasons of abundance, such a fact would seem as impossible as space travel.

And the abundance of food is only one of many staples of modernity for which we ought to rejoice. Indeed, we could add to that list air conditioning and heating, automobiles, airplanes, refrigeration, indoor plumbing, antibiotics, vaccines, etc. All of these things have become so ingrained in our daily lives that we almost never pause to remind ourselves that most were not invented, not discovered, or nor affordable only 150 years ago. Add to this the relative global peace (at least between world powers), and nearly anyone from any other time in human history would have likely considered the past several decades in the West to be as close to utopia as any society has achieved.

Yet in our comfort and ease, we began to cast off all restraint. Just as the Númenóreans sought to liberate themselves from the shackles of mortality (even though in Tolkien’s lore death was mysterious gift to man, enabling them to be unchained from the world), we too have strained to liberate ourselves from our creaturely limitations, specifically three core distinctions that are rooted in the very opening chapter of the Bible (which are likewise gifts to us). First, we sought to erase the Creator-creature distinction by denying God’s existence and worshiping ourselves instead. Second, we also erased the human-animal distinction by declaring man to be nothing more than a highly evolved animal. Finally, we have presently been attempting to erase the male-female distinction by severing the concept of gender from the reality of biology.

Also, like the Númenóreans (as well as the Gondorians after them), this preoccupation with making ourselves great by defying the divine has resulted in a rapid decline in birth rates. We too are becoming childless as we focus not upon building a world for the coming generations (as well as actually giving birth to the coming generations!) but upon making the most of our relatively brief lifespans. Indeed, the core of the matter is the same; we too are wrestling against the sting of death, grasping at immortality. But while the Númenóreans built a fleet of warships to assail the gods, we throw divine revelation to the ground and declare that we will live our own truth. Sure, Tolkien was writing fantasy, but his writings resonate with us only because they express real-world truths beneath the imaginary settings.

While I will be overjoyed if I am proven wrong, it does not appear that the producers of Amazon’s series understand the heart beneath the story of the fall of the Númenóreans. Two statements from a recent Vanity Fair article on the show are the reasons for my concern.

First, we have this paragraph:

In the novels, the aforementioned things take place over thousands of years, but Payne and McKay [the showrunners] have compressed events into a single point in time. It is their biggest deviation from the text, and they know it’s a big swing. “We talked with the Tolkien estate,” says Payne. “If you are true to the exact letter of the law, you are going to be telling a story in which your human characters are dying off every season because you’re jumping 200 years in time, and then you’re not meeting really big, important canon characters until season four. Look, there might be some fans who want us to do a documentary of Middle-earth, but we’re going to tell one story that unites all these things.”[3]

I completely understand the showrunners reasoning here. It would certainly be very difficult to make a series that spanned thousands of years with human characters constantly dying off and needing to adjust the settings to show the passing of time. But that is the story that they accepted the task of telling, and they dismiss Tolkien’s timeline by noting that they are not making a Middle-earth documentary. Now although I might actually find such a documentary interesting, the problem here goes deeper than simply staying true to the exact dates of the Tolkien’s legendarium. Without the generation after generation of long-lived Númenóreans dying, how will this series properly convince us of the desperate hunger for immortality which led to their destruction?

Second, we have this paragraph:

Amazon’s series will also broaden the notion of who shares the world of Middle-earth. One original story line centers on a silvan elf named Arondir, played by Ismael Cruz Córdova, who will be the first person of color to play an elf onscreen in a Tolkien project. He is involved in a forbidden relationship with Bronwyn, a human village healer played by Nazanin Boniadi, a British actor of Iranian heritage. Elsewhere, a Brit of Jamaican descent, Sir Lenny Henry, plays a harfoot elder, and Sophia Nomvete has a scene-stealing role as a dwarven princess named Disa—the latter being the first Black woman to play a dwarf in a Lord of the Rings movie, as well as the first female dwarf. “It felt only natural to us that an adaptation of Tolkien’s work would reflect what the world actually looks like,” says Lindsey Weber, executive producer of the series. “Tolkien is for everyone. His stories are about his fictional races doing their best work when they leave the isolation of their own cultures and come together.”[4]

My concern here is not so much that the showrunners are bringing more “diversity” to Middle-earth as why they are attempting to do so. They seem to believe that Tolkien’s writings only “reflect what the world is actually like” and are “for everyone” as long as they have the proper ratio of skin tones on screen. This indicates that their understanding of both Tolkien and the what the world is actually like are both skin-deep.

They seem to hold to the current Hollywood dogma that people can only resonate with the characters that look most like them. But Frodo and Sam are not beloved characters because of the massive population of short, curly-haired, large-footed, white men that “identify” with them. Instead, the journey of Frodo and Sam is enduring because they are a story of companionship striving through and triumphing over hardship and evil. Likewise, Éowyn’s story is not merely for equestrian-loving, blond-haired, white women; rather, all who have ever yearned for the glory of doing something great while feeling trapped by the ordinary can see themselves in her.

Stories work by speaking to us at the heart-level, illustrating deep truths that we know to be true. Through the story of Númenor, Tolkien probed at mankind’s yearning for eternity, the lengths to which we will go to defy divinely established limitations, and the destruction that inevitably follows. Such a tale is a fitting parable of our secular age, though I doubt that the creators are self-aware enough to see it.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 271.

[2] Tolkien, The Two Towers, 662-663.

[3] Amazon’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ Series Rises: Inside ‘The Rings of Power’ | Vanity Fair

[4] Ibid.


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