The Rings of Power: Upholding Tolkien’s Christian themesWritten by Subby Szterszky
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It’s been 20 years since director Peter Jackson’s classic film adaption of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and a decade since his less successful follow-up with The Hobbit. So the time felt ripe for another cinematic foray into Tolkien’s rich fantasy world of Middle-earth.
Rather than returning to the big screen, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is a streaming series set to run for five seasons of eight episodes each. Based on Tolkien’s notes and appendices, the series is set during Middle-earth’s Second Age, thousands of years before the Third Age shown in the theatrical films. The show’s goal is to fill in the details of that earlier history and chart the crucial events that led up to The Lord of the Rings.
Only two characters from the movies appear in the show: younger versions of Elrond and of Galadriel, who is the series’ protagonist. Several pivotal characters aren’t from Tolkien’s writings but were invented for the show. Nevertheless, The Rings of Power is faithful to the spirit, if not always the letter, of Tolkien’s work. More important, it brims with Tolkien’s Christian themes and in some cases adds depth and nuance to them.
[Spoiler alert: This article discusses themes, plot and characters from The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. If you’re planning to watch the series and haven’t yet, you may wish to do so before reading further.]
Light and darkness
“In him was life, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).
Tolkien considered his Middle-earth saga to be a religious work. However, unlike the Narnia books of his friend C.S. Lewis, Tolkien’s writing is not a Christian allegory. There’s no overt Christ figure, no direct correlation to biblical events. Instead, Tolkien infused his work with allusions to spiritual truth, to the realities of God’s creation from its initial perfection to its current fallen state and ultimate redemption.
The Scriptures use light and darkness as metaphors for good and evil, for life and order overcoming chaos and death. This imagery suffuses all of Tolkien’s work, and The Rings of Power is no exception. In the face of gathering darkness, characters remind one another, and themselves, to seek the light, find the light, and discern the true light from mere reflections. The young Galadriel’s older brother tells her that stones sink because they look down into the watery abyss, while ships float because they look up into the light of the sky.
In contrast to other fantasy stories, light and darkness aren’t presented as equal opposing forces. The darkness may be omnipresent and overwhelming, but it can’t stand up to the light or overpower it. Even in the direst moments, there’s the thread of hope that goodness and light will overcome darkness and death in the end. The show’s aesthetic design reflects this. The use of light is always warm and inviting, never harsh or glaring. Scenes of darkness are still clear rather than murky. Both can be seen and appreciated for what they are.
The peril of complacency
“Be sober-minded, be alert. Your adversary the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
The Second Age of Middle-earth is an era of general peace and stability. The cataclysmic war at the end of the First Age is a distant memory. With the defeat of Morgoth (essentially a fallen angel) most everyone believes evil is gone from the world for good and are living their relatively uneventful lives.
The Elves are biding their time in their idyllic forest kingdom, waiting to return to their original home, Valinor, or the Undying Lands, where there’ll be no more suffering, death, or concerns about the outside world. The Dwarves are busy mining away in their mountain home of Khazad-dûm. The Harfoots, an earlier branch of Hobbits, are happily gathering apples and not getting involved in anything. One group of humans is luxuriating in their beautiful island kingdom of Númenor, making sure to keep foreigners away from their prosperous land. Another group, whose ancestors served Morgoth, is living in squalor in the Southlands under an occupying force of Elves, but at least they’re alive.
The last thing any of these folk want to hear is that darkness is coming again to rock their world. The Orcs are on the move, and evil is rising again in the person of Morgoth’s former lieutenant, Sauron. Even when a Stranger falls from the sky in a fiery meteor, leaving a crater that looks ominously like a flaming eye, hardly anyone seems to notice or care. This is Tolkien for the 21st century, offering a daunting sketch of a complacent society, accustomed to comfort, stability and material wealth, reluctant to acknowledge that real evil exists in a fallen world and must be resisted.
The agency of women
“In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the main roads were deserted because travelers kept to the side roads. Villages were deserted, they were deserted in Israel, until I, Deborah, arose, a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:6-7).
The resistance against complacency in the face of creeping evil is led by a handful of female characters, each speaking truth to power in their respective cultures.
Galadriel is the main character of The Rings of Power, an immortal Elf who’s been around since the First Age. Still youthful by Elven standards, she’s a dynamic war leader who tries to convince her people that Sauron still exists and is on the move. She eventually forms and leads a coalition army to rescue the humans in the Southlands from an Orc onslaught.
Míriel, the human regent queen of Númenor, gradually comes to realize that her people’s isolationism and indifference to the outside world is potentially dangerous for everyone. Laying aside her ingrained prejudices, she partners with Galadriel, providing troops and supplies for the relief of the Southlands.
Bronwyn is a human healer who lives in a village in the Southlands and is in a secret relationship with Arondir, one of the occupying Elven soldiers. Practically alone against the apathy of her people, she’s the first to recognize the early dangerous effects of the Orc presence. She becomes a leader who rallies her people to stand up for themselves and fight the evil descending on them.
Princess Disa, wife of Prince Durin IV of the Dwarves, is the voice of compassion and reason in her husband’s ear. Despite the antipathy between the Dwarves and the Elves, Disa helps Durin reconcile with his old friend, Elrond, and persuades her husband to aid the Elves in their hour of greatest need.
Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot and Poppy Proudfellow are a pair of young Harfoot girls who discover the Stranger that fell from the sky. Driven by their sense of adventure and strong moral compass, Nori and Poppy defy Harfoot tradition to take in the Stranger and care for him, thereby affecting the future of Middle-earth.
Fans of the original movies remember Éowyn’s iconic shout, “I am no man!” before she drives her sword through the Witch-king. This group of women from The Rings of Power, defying social convention to lead the fight against evil, are a welcome expansion on that. They underscore the value and agency of God’s image bearers, both women and men.
The cost of doing good
“I am torn between the two. I long to depart and be with Christ – which is far better – but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for your sake” (Philippians 1:23-24).
Doing good can be costly. Jesus told those who would follow him that we must deny ourselves daily and take up our cross to do so. This doesn’t just mean facing potential ridicule at the office or tension around the family dinner table. It might mean losing our health, our families, our livelihood, even our very lives.
Contrary to her people’s beliefs, Galadriel persists in claiming that Sauron is still alive, and that evil is about to descend on Middle-earth. In response, the Elven leadership decides to send her off to Valinor, the original home of the Elves, where she’ll enjoy eternal life and be free from concerns for the world. As her ship approaches the Undying Lands, Galadriel jumps into the dark stormy waters, giving up her place in Valinor because she’s still needed in Middle-earth.
When Míriel sets herself to join Galadriel on her mission to defend Middle-earth, she’s given a prophecy that the venture would end in darkness. This comes to be realized on a large scale when Mount Doom erupts and plunges the Southlands into eons of darkness, eventually to be renamed Mordor. But it’s also fulfilled as Míriel seeks to rescue a family from a burning home and is blinded by a falling beam.
Doing good isn’t always rewarded with safety and success. Amidst the ashes of the Southlands, Galadriel tries to console Bronwyn’s teenage son, Theo, with her faith in providence, telling him there’s an overarching design behind even the most catastrophic event. Pondering the destruction of everything he knows and loves, Theo wonders what the design in that could be. This is the classic problem of evil, and Galadriel gives the wisest answer anyone can in such a situation: “I can’t yet see it.”
Good and evil in disguise
“And no wonder! For Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no great surprise if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15).
Unlike a lot of contemporary fiction, fantasy or otherwise, Tolkien didn’t blur the lines between good and evil. He didn’t glorify antiheroes who were morally indistinguishable from their foes, nor did he justify villains as misunderstood victims of a traumatic past. In Tolkien’s fictional world, good is good and evil is evil; readers are expected to know the difference and root for the right side.
The Rings of Power maintains this moral ethos, albeit with some modern nuance. It’s virtually impossible to sympathize with the Orcs or see them as anything but fodder for the heroes to slay. Yet their leader, the Dark Elf Adar, insists that they, too, are a people with a right to live. Even so, this in no way justifies their abominable acts of cruelty and violence, and the show never tries to do so. By contrast, the heroes are portrayed as noble and earnest without a hint of irony, and the audience is led to root for them with no reservation.
That said, evil often disguises itself as something attractive, compelling, or even righteous, to deceive and ensnare its potential victims. The series illustrates this spiritual truth in the person of Halbrand, a human shipwreck survivor who joins Galadriel after rescuing her from the sea. Supposedly the rightful king of the Southlands, Halbrand turns out to be Sauron in disguise, right under Galadriel’s nose the whole time and ready to take over Mordor at the end of the show’s first season.
At the same time, the most forbidding exterior is often a shell for the good within. At first, all signs point to the Stranger who fell from the sky being Sauron. However, at the end of the first season, he’s revealed to be one of the Istari, or Wizards, possibly Gandalf himself. Only Nori the young Harfoot had seen him as anything other than a threat. Their growing friendship and mutual trust may have laid the foundation for Gandalf’s future affection toward the Hobbits, which would be instrumental to the final defeat of Sauron. People see the exterior but God looks at the heart.
Truth, beauty and goodness
“Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable – if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy – dwell on these things” (Philippians 4:8).
When news first came of a streaming series that would revisit the world of Tolkien, there was concern that it would feel more like Game of Thrones rather than the source material or even the earlier films. Current fantasy works tend to favour moral ambiguity and focus on the darkness in the world and in the human heart. Would the spirit of Tolkien still be discernible in this new adaptation?
One glance at the finished product put to rest such misgivings. Instead of the onscreen murk and mire that often characterizes Game of Thrones, the visuals in The Rings of Power are crisp and clear and beautiful, even in the darkest scenes. There’s no moral ambiguity on display here, either in the story or in how it’s visualized. Darkness may be returning to Middle-earth, literally and metaphorically. But light is also shining in that darkness, ready to resist it and ultimately triumph over it.
The Rings of Power is the most expensive TV show ever filmed. The first season cost nearly 500 million dollars to make, and the entire series is budgeted for a billion – and every dollar shows onscreen. The cities and landscapes, the costumes and lighting, the battle scenes and character moments, all inspire a sense of awe and wonder. Despite its fantasy setting, the show is realistic about the nature of evil and the fact that good doesn’t always come out on top. But at its core, the story is about truth, beauty and goodness, reflecting Tolkien’s own Christian ethos behind his work. It’s a marvel in itself that such a series got made in our present cultural moment.
Tolkien considered his writing to be a work of what he called sub-creation. Since humans are made in the likeness of a creative, imaginative God, we reflect that likeness with imaginative, creative work of our own. It’s not essential for that work to be overtly religious or allegorical, but only to reveal something of the goodness, truth and beauty of our Maker and his work. Tolkien also coined a term, eucatastrophe, to describe the overarching theme of his writing. Catastrophe is a Greek word that means downturn, but by adding the prefix “eu” which means “good,” Tolkien suggested an unexpected upturn, hope emerging from despair, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. He described the birth, death and resurrection of Christ as the ultimate eucatastrophe of human history.
Tolkien’s Christian world view and spiritual allusions lay at the heart of his fantasy world. The Rings of Power, made with the blessing and supervision of Tolkien’s estate, is preserving that legacy even while adding details and nuance of its own. All in all, it’s shaping up to be a five-year journey worth enjoying.
[Note: This article does not constitute an endorsement of the series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power by Focus on the Family Canada. Consult the full review at Plugged In to help you determine whether The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is appropriate for you or your family.]
Sources and further reading
Paul Asay, “There’s a touch of Tolkien’s faith in The Rings of Power,” Patheos, September 1, 2022.
Daniel Blackaby, “The Rings of Power (Season 1 review),” The Collision, October 15, 2022.
Cole Burgett, “Tolkien reimagined: A series review of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” Christian Research Institute, March 7, 2023.
Mark Greene, “Rings of Power is deeply spiritual and brims with timeless themes,” Premier Christianity, October 28, 2022.
Roxana Hadadi, “The Rings of Power Looks on the bright side,” Vulture, September 8, 2022.
Brett McCracken, “Tolkien would love the ‘Rings of Power’ world. But what about the story?” The Gospel Coalition, September 3, 2022.
Paul D. Miller, “A moral primer on Amazon’s ‘Rings of Power’,” Christianity Today, September 1, 2022.
Robert Rivera, “Rings of Power and the persistence of evil,” Think Christian, October 18, 2022.
Fleming Rutledge, The Battle for Middle-earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings, Eerdmans, 2004.
J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories, Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, editors, HarperCollins, 2014.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2023 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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