How The Rings of Power Got Tolkien’s Moral Vision Wrong (Guest: Dr. Ben Reinhard)

The billion-dollar Amazon series Rings of Power is said to be based on the world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But is it a faithful representation of Tolkien’s worldview, or is it a modern bastardization profiting off the Tolkien name?

Crisis Point
Crisis Point
How The Rings of Power Got Tolkien’s Moral Vision Wrong (Guest: Dr. Ben Reinhard)
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Eric Sammons:

The billion-dollar Amazon series Rings of Power is said to be based on the world of J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But is it a faithful representation of Tolkien’s worldview, or is it a modern bastardization profiting off the Tolkien name? That’s what we’re going to talk about today on Crisis Point.

Hello, I’m Eric Sammons your host and Editor Chief of Crisis Magazine. Before we get started, just want to encourage people to like this video, subscribe to the channel, let other people know about it. We really do appreciate that.

So today we’re going to talk about Rings of Power. Our guest is Dr. Ben Reinhard. He is an associate professor of English at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

His new translation of Beowulf is available from Clooney Press. He lives in Steubenville, Ohio with his wife and five children.

And most importantly for this discussion, he has written two of the most popular articles at Crisis this year, and both of them were about Rings of Power. I’ve been amazed by the response to your articles at Crisis on Rings of Power.

I just thought it’s something people might be interested in. I did not expect though, like I said, I think of our top five articles for the year, both of those I think make the top five at this point. So some reason people are very interested in Rings of Power.

But welcome to the program anyway, Ben. Okay, so the first thing I want ask is, this is obviously a show that’s based upon J.R.R Tolkien, Lord of the Rings. Let’s talk about that first.

What first got you interested in Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien and that whole world?

Ben Reinhard:

So why I’m interested in that world?

Eric Sammons:

Right.

Ben Reinhard:

Yeah. Oh gosh. For so many reasons, right? Tolkien is one of the very great authors of the 20th century, and I think he’s one of only a handful who’s actually created something that is new and that will endure into future centuries.

Tolkien set out to be a myth maker and he set out to make a myth for his country in the modern world, and he succeeded tremendously.

So in Lord of the Rings, you’ve got something that C.S. Lewis compares it to lightning out of a clear blue sky, right? There was nothing and then there’s Lord of the Rings.

And like all great myths it has a way of expressing what it means to be human, of helping people find their way in the world and capturing the imaginations and the hearts of an audience.

So that’s why I’m drawn to Tolkien and that’s why I think so many people are. And of course, also as a Catholic, I delight in the thoroughly Catholic imagination that Tolkien has.

I delight in the ways that he brings his orderly and moral imagination to bear on these questions of fantasy and wonder and romance. And that’s a huge part of, I think, what Tolkien was able to accomplish.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah, I think that’s important that we understand exactly what he was trying to accomplish. Now you were saying how he created a myth for his country, of course England.

And I know, of course, you’re a professor of English and if I’m not mistaken, you have some focus on the Anglo-Saxon world. Obviously you translate Beowulf, so you had to have some interest in that.

What is the connection between Tolkien’s, myth generation, and what he’s doing in Lord of the Rings and the Anglo-Saxon world? Because of course that was something Tolkien really, really did love.

Ben Reinhard:

So Tolkien was a professor and he specialized in old English language and literature. That was what he spent most of his professional time doing.

Now, he was dismayed when he surveyed the history of English literature and the English imagination that there was no really integrated national mythology that the English could look back to.

The Greeks have Homer and the Romans have Virgil, but he said there’s a poverty of imagination for England, for his own country.

So he wanted to make something that would be this grand spanning mythology that felt at home in England and northwest Europe. It felt like it had their air in it because there was nothing else in English literature up to this time that would do that.

The Arthurian legend is probably the closest thing, and Tolkien played around with the Arthurian legend for a while, but he found that it didn’t quite work to be a expressive mythology for England.

If you go back beyond the Arthurian legend into Anglo-Saxon stuff, the problem is there’s so little there. You’ve got Beowulf, which is the great narrative poem.

You’ve got some biblical poetry, but biblical poetry is biblical, not English, right? And then you’ve just got fragments. So he wanted to piece together things into a cohesive mythology for people in his world.

Eric Sammons:

So he created this world, which I think people who are maybe just have seen the movies, read the books, read Lord of the Rings only.

You read Lord of the Rings, you realize it’s a pretty well drawn out world, Middle-earth is, but it’s far more than Lord of the Rings.

And so describe for us the world of Middle-earth. What is Tolkien trying to show us in the world of Middle-earth that he’s creating?

Ben Reinhard:

Oh boy, that’s a very, very big question. But you’re right. It goes far beyond Lord of the Rings. It starts for him in World War One when he’s in the trenches.

He’s playing around with languages, he’s playing around with mythology. A few things spark his imagination. And so the first stories come in the Great War, and then this process extends for Tolkien from his time in the trenches all the way till his death.

He’s still tinkering with his mythology in the last years of his life. So he’s engaged in this really, really ambitious project.

What he’s trying to do in it, most fundamentally, I think it’s project that’s attempting at re-enchantment, right? The modern world has a way of disenchanting things.

And as you imagine Tolkien right there in the trenches, he tells his son, he’s sitting there in miserable squalid huts, full of smut and blasphemy, right?

He’s trying to raise his mind and trying to raise his imagination to other things and to better things. So he creates a whole mythology, starting with God’s creation of the world.

Spanning through these early ages, the ages of the elves and of men, with even hints of the apocalyptic end of time battle, the Ragnarok or Armageddon.

So he’s trying to create a whole mythology that will span from creation to the last judgment, ultimately compatible with Christianity without just being the Christian story.

The gospel is for him, the great story, the gospel is the great story that ultimately lies at the heart of every happy ending in every fairy story. So he’s playing with that idea without just representing the gospel.

Eric Sammons:

So in Lord of the Rings, one of the things I think that comes out clearly, and I believe this reflects Tolkien’s worldview, is you have, first of all, you have the Shire with the hobbits, which is this very agricultural, very simple type of existence.

And then there’s a contrasting with Saruman who destroys the trees, industrial, things like that, and Sauron as well.

What is Tolkien trying to say with this comparison between the Shire as almost idyllic world, which very much does harken back to some agricultural England, things like that, versus the industrialization of the world.

It seems to be a pretty modern message that he’s trying to tell there.

Ben Reinhard:

It certainly is. And a letter to Milton Waldman, Tolkien said, anyhow, all this stuff, all this Lord of the Rings stuff, is primarily concerned with the fall, mortality and the machine.

And the machine for Tolkien is this great bug bear. God creates us. God creates us in the time and the place where he puts us and he gives us limitations to our natural powers.

Our job is to respond to that in gratitude and to accept the limits he gives us, right? The great danger that a creature can face is when we desire to be little gods of our own.

When we desire to rewrite what God has given us. When we grow impatient with God’s designs. When we decide to try to force God’s hands.

So the hobbits represent this very idealized version of pre-industrial England, right? Everyone’s happy, it’s prosperous, they have the simple life. It’s merry Old England in a lot of ways, right?

On the other hand, you’ve got the magic in the machine of Sauron and Saruman. These are impatient people. They aren’t willing to accept the limits of time or mortality or the constraints that God has placed upon their nature. So it’s always this grasping after power.

And that’s why the Rings of Power are the Rings of Power. It’s Augustine’s lust for domination because you want more power to make the world be the way you want it to be.

And you don’t care about what people you break, what laws you break or how you torture nature to make that happen. And that’s the fundamental error that leads Saruman to destruction.

He’s somebody who actually wanted to do good to begin with. He’s impatient with the limitations that he has and so he turns to the machine. He turns to magic and attempts to cheat basically.

He attempts to cheat to force his will on the world around him and that leads him to all the abominations that he does in the end.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah. And I think a key point there that Tolkien is making is that the means to the end really does matter because you look at somebody like Boromir who is fundamentally a good leader, a good person and everything.

He’s my favorite character, by the way, so I had to bring him up somehow in this whole discussion. But he clearly wants good and he’s thinking the glory of Gondor and he’s a valiant character, yet like you just said, he’s impatient.

He wants to grab the ring to make it happen. He wants to take the ring from Frodo to make it happen. And then of course, the same thing with Gandalf, how he resists, because he’s like, “I can’t have the ring,” and Aragorn the same thing.

This idea of are you willing to work within yourself, as you put it, rather than try to use a cheat code in the video game world to get what you want. So yeah, I think that’s a very important point there.

Ben Reinhard:

No, that’s central, right? So I think in some ways the two great characters of Lord of the Rings are Boromir and Faramir, right?

So Boromir is your favorite character. Faramir was Tolkien favorite character, and he’s the one who Tolkien says more than anyone else, this is just me written into my work.

He didn’t plan on putting Faramir in there and then all of a sudden Faramir pops into his head. He’s like, “Oh, all of a sudden I’ve got this character and he became my mouthpiece.”

But that thing that you expressed, Boromir wants the good, he wants the good and it’s absolutely tragic. Here is somebody who has focused on this legitimately good end, the political success of Gondor.

He hasn’t become as corrupt as his father has before him, but he’s starting down that road where he’s got this second order good. The survival of free Gondor and the freedom of the West, which is a very good thing.

But then he makes that his primary good, he puts a lower good as his highest good and so he doesn’t care about how he gets it. Take the ring and prosper, right?

Faramir, by contrast, stays really rooted in first things first. He doesn’t love the sword for its sharpness or the arrow for its swiftness or the warrior for his strength. He loves the things that they defend.

We can have peace and peace is ultimately ordered in Tolkien towards the peace of God, right? And that’s always the first thing that it comes back to.

This is a rant, but it’s an important rant. For Tolkien, all the conflict in his world ultimately can be reduced almost to a crusade.

Why do we resist Sauron? Most people would say it’s for freedom, free Middle-earth. Tolkien says that’s actually not what’s going on. The resistance to Sauron is at its heart about only giving worship to God.

Elves and the good men know that you only worship God. Sauron wants to become a God king. So the first and most important thing is your duty to God, your duty of gratitude towards God.

And if you stay rooted there, then this limits you. What you can do, what you can accept, what you can’t accept. The characters who go astray forget that first primary duty, the first primary duty of worship.

And that’s where they go wrong because then they can accept things like the ring or the machine or the lust for domination. And that’s the conflict at the heart of everything that Tolkien writes.

Eric Sammons:

Right. And the character I think that best expresses this idea of knowing your place in the world and sticking with it has to be Samwise.

Also, every time I ask my kids, when my kids first read Lord of the Rings, I always ask them, who’s your favorite character? I think every one of them has always said Sam, they immediately like him.

Ben Reinhard:

Got smart kids.

Eric Sammons:

How can they not love him? And I think though, but he expresses that the difference also is the humility versus pride.

That Sam has a very innate humility. He understands his place. He’s just a servant of Frodo, Mr. Frodo, that’s all he is. And of course he’s so much more than that, but that’s what he recognized by being just that.

Whereas somebody like Boromir, there’s a certain pride that obviously gets in because he’s going to be the one that saves Gondor with the ring because he can wield it for good and things like that.

Of course, Saruman and Sauron are obviously very much pride. So I think this pride versus humility is another aspect of Tolkien’s world that is a very important part of the moral code of the whole universe, right?

Ben Reinhard:

Absolutely. And here, how perfect is it that Sam is a gardener, right? Because humility is literally being like the earth or of the Earth.

He’s attached to the earth where he comes from. That’s what he always longs to get back to and this is where he always accepts the limits that he has.

When he turns away from the ring, he says, “No, no, no, my own little garden, my own little garden works by my own hands. That’s all I have my right to and that’s all I want. I don’t want a legion of slaves to enact my grand vision. I just want my own little plot of earth.”

So we draw the grand themes of romance and quest and adventure, and we draw that back down and root it in that fundamental Christian humility.

Because after all, our god’s the one who exalts the humble and cast down the proud as the Magnificat says. And that is really everything for Sam and in many ways it’s everything for Tolkien too.

Eric Sammons:

Right. Now we could of course have a whole semester series on the vision of Tolkien and Middle-earth, things like that. But I wanted to at least establish for a few minutes at beginning here what Tolkien’s message was.

What the fundamental moral code was of Middle-earth, because now we’re going to start talking about the various Hollywood adaptations of it, particularly Rings of Power, of course.

But first before we get on Rings of Power, let’s talk about the one that most people are very familiar with, which is the Peter Jackson adaptations.

When Lord of the Rings came out, the trilogy, it’s been 20 years now, I think since they came out. That of course was a big deal.

First, let’s just say, what did you like about the Lord of the Rings adaptation from Peter Jackson?

Ben Reinhard:

There is a lot to like there. There’s a lot of good in it. It’s not perfect, but there’s a lot of good. And if you rewatch the trilogy now, it’s almost remarkable.

We were at a perfect inflection point when those movies were made, when there was still enough cultural cohesion that you could make them in a straightforward way without undermining everything.

You had special effects, advanced just far enough that you could make the movies credibly and look good. And then what Peter Jackson did, what Peter Jackson tried to do was a good thing, right?

Some characters like Sam and Boromir, I think he brings to life in a particularly beautiful way. The loyalty and the devotion of Sam. The conflict at the heart of Boromir, those things are very, very well done.

Also, it’s clear that that project was a labor of love. The effort that they brought into making everything real, right? Bag End is real and you can tell the care that they lavish on making those round doorways and making it feel just like it should, or the buildings they built or the sets. Visually, it’s a feast.

And then Lord of the Rings is a big enough book that if you’re trying to be faithful to Tolkien and you’re really trying, the book itself will guide you.

So the main plot is largely preserved. The main themes are largely preserved, not perfectly, but all in all pretty well with some real anchor performances.

Ian McKellan as Gandalf. Rudy as Samwise, right? Sean Aston is Samwise. Sean Bean is Boromir. All those are really, really excellent. So those are the things that I like.

It does make a faithful attempt at capturing Tolkien’s imagination as best as it can. They did in fact exercise considerable care in making sure that they weren’t adding too much new.

And then they also really brought great characters to life in a convincing way. Andy Serkis’ Gollum would be another one that they did I think an exceptionally good job with. So, so far those are the good things.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah. Oh, just by the way, I’d agree with that. I think it felt like to me that Peter Jackson was trying the best he could to be faithful to the books. He was trying.

Yes, because he’s a Hollywood director, he’s obviously unlikely to really capture everything and understand everything himself. But it did seem like he was trying in that Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I give him a lot of credit for.

But where would you say he fell short in not necessarily one little thing like not having Tom Bombadil in there or something like that, but just overall, where do you think he fell short of Tolkien’s vision when he made the movies?

Ben Reinhard:

So I think the worst thing I could say about Peter Jackson is that his understanding of goodness is itself a little bit deficient. And the weak understanding he has of goodness limits him in what he can do.

So you see this to an extent, even with the hobbits. The hobbits are, aside from Frodo and Sam, you’re in the Shire. The hobbits, they’re clowns, right? They’re buffoons.

They just love to eat and to drink, and you don’t see the labor, and you don’t see the discipline, and you don’t see the effort that would be required to keep that world running.

So the hobbits become clownish and goofy, right? Because you don’t understand the very real virtues of simple agrarian folk. I think that’s one problem.

If you look higher, he has even greater difficulties when he tries to capture these higher goods. So Aragorn gets very much reduced under Peter Jackson’s treatment.

He’s the reluctant hero. He doubts himself. He needs to be pushed continually into doing what he’s supposed to do and that’s not who the character is at all in Tolkien.

The problem is that Peter Jackson personally, and our modern age generally, doesn’t do well with confident, noble and truly good characters. We live in a cynical age.

So if you’re going to be the hero, you’ve got to be the reluctant hero. The worst problem I think is probably with Jackson’s treatment of the elves.

The elves become simply weird. They’re weird, they’re ethereal, they’re aloof, they’re unnatural. They’ve got this alien quality to them.

Galadriel is the best example. She’s supposed to be as noble as any queen, but as merry as any girl you ever saw with flowers in her hair. She’s supposed to be natural beyond what we can imagine.

But they all walk around as though they’re doped up on sleeping meds and they’re all aloof because we can’t handle the awful majesty of goodness.

And I think that’s the worst thing is that Peter Jackson can’t handle the awful majesty of goodness. And so we always, always, always bring it down a notch.

Men become ineffectual. Every time you encounter a kingdom of men, whether it’s Rohan or Gondor, these people are just hanging on by a thread and they’re utterly incapable of doing anything good on their own, which is very, very far from what Tolkien wanted you to understand about the heroic striving against evil that his works present.

So because we don’t understand good, we can’t get the battle of good and evil quite right. Characters get degraded and the themes of the work don’t get presented quite the way they should be. That’s probably the central critique.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah. And I particularly appreciate the critique on Aragorn because I do think Jackson’s just a product of his culture. He almost couldn’t help himself, that we just cannot have heroes that are truly noble.

I was reading not too long ago, I’ve been reading about Alfred the Great, in fact one of the best biography’s I read was written by a Protestant not too long ago.

And it was because he was basically saying, “Yes, this was a great man. He was noble. He was a philosopher king.” All these things that are the myth about him are actually what he was.

Whereas all scholars try to do is downgrade him, say, “No, he’s not really that great. He didn’t really do this. He didn’t really do that.”

And we do that with everybody. Anybody who has a myth surrounding, of course we do it most of all with Jesus Christ, because the secular scholars try to downgrade him but we do it with everybody.

And so it’s almost like just instinctive, because that is the one character that I think if you read in the books compared to the movies, Jackson’s movies, Aragorn probably is the most different.

Not in his actions. A lot of his actions end up being the same but in his internal drive and how he thinks of things. I’m not trying to defend Jackson, but I just think almost he couldn’t help it because that’s what you do in Hollywood particularly.

Ben Reinhard:

No and I think that’s absolutely right. And it’s such a sadness because one of the great things that comes with the Christian literary tradition is we get heroes who can suffer.

We get heroes, with Christ as the archetype, who can become suffering servants. This is where Aragorn is really, really great.

He’s not just a knight and shining armor. He’s scorned, he’s mocked and he’s excluded and he has a very hard life because this is something that the Christian tradition gives us fully.

But then when you get to the modern tradition, it’s not enough to have a hero who’s physically vulnerable. He has to be spiritually vulnerable too.

Because you can’t have that single minded pursuit of the good because do we even believe that there is a good, right? So they’ve got to doubt themselves, they’ve got to be wrapped with insecurities, they’ve got to be unwilling, they’ve got to resist, right?

Because we don’t have the clear sense of the good to anchor heroism in. So that is the great, great betrayal more than anything else in the Jackson trilogy of what Tolkien was trying to do.

Eric Sammons:

Right. Now I was thinking about also reviewing a little bit of The Hobbit trilogy, but I think what you said in your article was best. The less said the better about that trilogy. We’ll just push that aside because that was a travesty.

So let’s get to the Rings of Power here, this film adaptation. So as we said, the Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy, not terrible, not bad. It had some very good points to it and some flaws.

Now we’re going to go to Rings of Power. And just so everybody watching this, you have been watching it, I have not. So thank you for doing that for the rest of us.

But I wanted ask you, what story is it trying to tell in the sense of, let’s just take a step back, because okay, in the Middle-earth, I’m a Tolkien fan, Lord of the Rings fan, but I have not gone to the level of the super fan.

So I sometimes might not always remember, but I believe the Third Age is Lord the Rings is similarly in the First Age mostly.

And of course the Fourth Age is after Lord of the Rings, the Reign of Man and all that stuff. So where is the Rings of Power situating?

Because I’ve heard people say, in fact, I don’t think I told you this, but I got an email that just railed on your last critique of Rings of Power.

And it was completely focused on the fact that Rings of Power is supposed to represent Silmarillion, telling the story of Silmarillion, and you didn’t understand some of that. And I’m pretty sure he was wrong about that.

So tell us, what’s the story at trying to tell in Tolkien’s Middle-earth?

Ben Reinhard:

All right. So the one minute Tolkien mythology goes like this. You’ve got the First Age, which is dominated by the elves, and it’s the battle between the elves and Morgoth.

And they’re fighting over the Silmarils, which is where you get the name Silmarillion, right? The elves lose this battle because they began it against the will of God, essentially, and they began it in an evil way.

So all sorts of evil fruits come from a bad beginning. They’re trying to fight evil, but they’re themselves clouded. They lose. They’re only saved in the end by the intercession of a Earendil, who’s a Christ figure, whose name is actually drawn from an old English advent lyric. We’ll put that aside.

They’re saved then by this great War of Wrath when the angelic guardian spirits of the world release wrath on Morgoth and the great enemy is defeated, that ends the First Age.

The Second Age is like 3,400 years, and it goes from the War of Wrath all the way to the battle of the Last Alliance, which is where the movie trilogy begins, right? Elendil and Gil-galad fighting against Sauron.

So in the Second Age you have the Kingdom of Numenor. Eventually Sauron resurfaces and we forge the Rings of Power. Then we have the battles against Sauron, then Numenor falls, then finally you get Elendil Gil-galad casting down Sauron and Isildur taking the ring.

Finally then you get to the Third Age, which goes from that battle through a few millennia to the time of Frodo and Sam and Aragorn. So those are the three ages.

What the Amazon series is trying to do is to tell the story of the Second Age, which is to be fair, a real challenge. To tell the story of the Second Age you’ve got 3,400 years.

Now, if you’ve got a character who is like Galadriel, maybe you can do that because she’s an elephant, she doesn’t really age. But you’ve got dozens, hundreds of generations of men in that time. How do you tell a story with such a cast of character?

So what they decide to do is compress all 3000 years of that history to a single point in time and tell you the aftermath of the War of Wrath, the forging of the rings, and the downfall of Numenor and the War of the Last Alliance.

They’re trying to tell you those four stories, which are separated by millennia, in a single point of time in a single series.

And to your point, they’re actually not doing the Silmarillion. They don’t have the rights to the Silmarillion and Amazon doesn’t have the rights to the larger mythology.

They’re basing what they do off of the appendices primarily to Return of the King. That’s what they’ve got access to. So they’re building out this world on very, very slender evidence.

If you look at your volumes of Lord of the Rings, you’ve got a 1000 pages and then you’ve got those 200 pages at the end, which are mostly stuff about language and names and genealogies. That’s what they’re building off of.

Eric Sammons:

Okay. So there’s not a lot of source material. So the First Age, your source material is similarly and the Third Age, your source material is really Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. And then your source material for the Second Age is mostly just appendices to Return of the King, which isn’t a story as much as just more facts what happened.

Ben Reinhard:

Yeah. It’s facts and it’s background information. And again, you could tell a much better story if you had the rights to some of the unpublished stuff.

If you had the rights to the Silmarillion, which does do some Second Age stuff, the Tolkien estate is releasing a new book on the fall of Numenor this month. If they had rights to that, they could tell a much fuller story. They don’t have rights to that, so.

Eric Sammons:

They have a challenge of basing a billion dollar series on an appendix basically is what they’re doing.

Ben Reinhard:

Exactly. And so their hands are in some ways tied, right? Where they can’t reference a lot of stuff that they would want to reference.

On the other hand, they’re completely free because they can make up whatever they want and that does seem to be what they’re doing.

They take the names from Tolkien, they take the broadest contours from Tolkien, and then they just mash it all together.

So it is not I think a project Tolkien would be happy with. I referenced this in one of my articles. He was obsessively detail oriented.

He complained when a director wanted to adapt Lord of the Rings. He would complain about the number of steps on the Tower of Orthanc.

He would complain that, “Well, they shouldn’t be eating a sandwich at this point. I say they’re smoking a pipe.” He was obsessively detail oriented and wanted things to be done his way.

Now we can allow for some departures, right? But to take 3,400 years of imagined history and to put them all into a span of a week, that’s probably not what he would’ve been okay with.

Eric Sammons:

Right. So before we get into some more specific criticisms of Rings of Power. How many episodes have been released so far, by the way? Is it like five or six, something like that?

Ben Reinhard:

I think it’s five.

Eric Sammons:

Okay.

Ben Reinhard:

That feels right. Five. I’ve watched them all. I think the sixth episode drops tomorrow. Yeah.

Eric Sammons:

Okay. So let’s try to be as positive as possible here first. What would you say are the good things about the series? Whether it be production values, whether it be characters, whether it be story, whatever. What would you say you’ve enjoyed maybe about the series, if anything?

Ben Reinhard:

So there are some things that are enjoyable, right? It’s nice to go to Khazad-dum, to go to Moria, and see that place alive rather than just a ruin. It’s nice to see what $60 million an episode can do in terms of bringing this imagined kingdom to life. That’s nice.

Some of the dwarfish characters can be pretty enjoyable. There are nice father son interactions between Durin, the king of Khazad-dum, and his son also Durin. So you get some good stuff there.

We meet the character Elendil and Numenor. So this is Aragorn’s great, great, great, however many great grandfather. While they do a lot of violence to the character, you’ve still got a good, honorable man who’s trying to make good, honorable decisions. I enjoy his character.

And then I would say some of the set design, some of the world building is enjoyable in its way. Those are, I think, the higher points of the show.

Eric Sammons:

Okay. So across the internet there has been a lot of criticisms of this series. If you just search on Rings of Power YouTube, it’s unbelievable amount of videos have been made criticizing the series and the criticism spans a lot of different aspects of the show.

From the promotion of woke ideology, to the portrayal of Galadriel, to the races of the various characters, to violence, to Tolkien’s vision, all that stuff.

What would you say is probably your number one? If you had to say one thing that’s the main thing that troubles you about this series, what would it be?

Ben Reinhard:

I think I would say it’s the anti traditionalism that lies at the heart of it. It’s the anti traditionalism, it’s the pride, it’s the overreaching that’s at the heart of the series.

So we talked 20 minutes ago about Samwise Gamgee and the humility that characterizes Tolkien’s vision. That’s the heart of Tolkien.

What you get in the Rings of Power in almost every scene, among almost every people, you’ve got characters, almost always heroines, who are convention breakers who strike their own path, who won’t be bound by what their elders or their superiors tell them and who are committed to living their best life or fill in whatever modern cliche you want.

The most recent trailer, the last trailer that dropped, began with the song that says speak your truth. And that sappy, modern proverb is very much what’s going on in the show.

So rather than accepting your limits, rather than accepting who you are in this chain of creation, they’re always reaching to attain self actualization.

The worst moment of this is when Galadriel is going into the West, right? Galadriel’s going into the West to Valinor, which is the place of rest. It’s heaven-ish for the elves.

And the eternal light opens for her. She’s going in and she turns her back and dives into the darkness because her brother once told her to understand what the true light is you must touch the darkness.

So she’s going to go on this quest of self actualization. She’s going to touch the darkness and learn what her real light is.

And the idea of touching the darkness, the idea of turning your back on the light to be true to yourself, is as far from Tolkien as you could possibly get. That’s the first big problem.

Eric Sammons:

Okay.

Ben Reinhard:

The second big problem is we talked about Tolkien as an exercise in enchantment, right? He’s trying to give us something that’s an alternative to the sordid griminess of the modern world.

This is not a series that’s as bad as Game of Thrones. It doesn’t have the sex or the violence of Game of Thrones, thank goodness.

But it does degrade just about every character. Elrond becomes a scheming political manipulator, right? Gil-galad, the Great King, is insecure in his kingship. He’s insecure about how he’s going to rule and he treats his subjects poorly.

And everyone’s bickering and everyone’s arguing. And the idea of nobility or grace or beauty, I don’t see where you find it in this series.

So you asked for one thing, I gave you two, but those are the two things that gall me the most about the series.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah, I think that anti traditional, I had heard some complaints about that. The anti traditional aspect of it seems to be the furthest thing from Tolkien’s mind, because the whole point of Tolkien, obviously being a Catholic, he’s going to be seeped in tradition.

But the whole idea is, for example, in the Shire, ideally they live the same now that they did 1000 years ago. There’s no real change in their community and there’s no trying to break out.

The hobbits are not trying to break out and be free, but that really is the modern ideal now. How many movies have made about the guy who grows up in the small town, but he’s got to get to New York or something like that?

The idea that New York or LA, that’s the center of action and you have to get out of these backwaters. Well, the Shire’s, the backwater, yet it also is the idealized world in Tolkien’s mind.

Because it’s very traditional. That’s the thing about the Shire, it’s very traditional. And so this idea of breaking free of what your fathers did or your mothers did, it just seems to me completely antithetical to Tolkien’s moral vision of Middle-earth.

Ben Reinhard:

I think that’s right. Absolutely. And you know will have Bilbo, he’ll go there and back again and Frodo will go there and come back and he won’t be able to stay in the Shire.

And the Shire’s not perfect, right? But it’s good and we love it. It’s good and we love it and you don’t have to scorn it. And you certainly don’t set off to create your own reality.

That’s what gives you the scouring of the Shire in the end. The people who say, “No, I’m going to go live my truth. Be my best self.”

That’s what leads to Lotho Sackville-Baggins chopping down the trees and turning people out because you’re going to create the new world. That’s not how Tolkien works. Right.

Eric Sammons:

Right, right. Now let’s talk a little bit about the portrayal of Galadriel. Because I know there’s a lot of characters in the show, but my understanding is at least she’s been promoted as the main character based upon the promos, the trailers and everything.

But I think that’s also the one that’s the most criticized from the actresses terrible acting, at least from the clips I’ve seen. It does look pretty bad. But really the portrayal of Galadriel.

Tell us how Tolkien pictured Galadriel compared to how Rings of Power is portraying her?

Ben Reinhard:

That is a massive, massive question because Galadriel is one of the characters who most captures Tolkien’s mind. And he will, from the time Lord of the Rings is written, he keeps revisiting her and tweaking her backstory and monkeying with things here and there.

So it’s hard to say exactly here’s what Tolkien thought about Galadriel because it does evolve a little bit. But the dominant note is this.

In the whole Tolkien corpus, we start off with her youth in the West, in Valinor, where she is undeniably great. He does say at one point in one of his letters, she had an Amazonian disposition in her youth in the West.

So she does have warlike and athletic qualities, that is actually Tolkien, right? But then that’s as far as it goes because throughout the mythology she becomes someone who turns from the idea of feats of arms or feats of athleticism, and she becomes a healer, she becomes a preserver, and she becomes this idealized maternal femininity is what I’d call it.

So she becomes and is in the Lord of the Rings, this image of feminine grace and beauty. To the hobbits, she has a quasi Virgin Mary feel, right? Just a little bit.

To Gimli, she’s almost more like the courtly lady who inspires him like you would have in a courtly love romance. But she has that very, very pronounced feminine grace and beauty and all the rest.

She is for all this a complicated character because in the dominant stream of Tolkien mythology, she’s actually a penitent because she’s one of the elves who rebelled way back in the beginning. She’s one of the elves who ascribed in some ways to the pride of the rebellion.

So when she goes back to Valinor, she’s going to be in some ways a penitent. So those are the two streams. The feminine idealized queen, but also the penitent sinner that make the dominant vision of Tolkien Galadriel.

The show gets none of this and it’s the weirdest thing. They want to make her a greater hero. What they do is they demote her. They take her from being one of the highest and most noble and most respected elves, and they make her a mid-level army commander who’s so obnoxious that her soldiers mutiny against her.

She’s oppressive to her underlings, she’s snotty to her friends, she’s rebellious to her king. Truly she’s just about the least likable character I’ve seen anchoring a show.

And again, in the attempts to elevate women or whatever they think they’re doing, they make a character who’s much less interesting, much less noble and much less powerful and important than the one that Tolkien actually gave you. So it’s one of the more curious failures of the show I’d say.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah. So moving on from her, what about the accusations that it’s just racism to be against the portrayal, like for example, we have Black elves, I think there’s Black dwarves as well, women dwarves without beards and stuff like that.

So what do you think about all that? Does this matter? Does it matter to have a Black elf or not, and if so, why not?

Ben Reinhard:

All right. So in some ways I think it does matter, but I want to qualify this very, very carefully. So there are two ways where it matters.

First of all, if you’re telling Tolkien’s story, I do think acknowledging that he’s primarily doing a mythology for England and a mythology that’s supposed to have the feel and the air of Northern Europe, I think that’s important.

And I don’t see the need to update it or to make it look what our modern world looks like. I think that’s hubris. That being said, Tolkien’s world is a multiracial world.

Not only elves and hobbits and men and dwarves, but there are different ethnicities of men. If you go around to various points, you would find if you go into Harad, you would find men who are more Arabic. You’ve got the Easterlings. You’ve got all this.

You could have done something really, really interesting there. But instead the showrunners just opted for the cheap virtue points and also the cheap advertising that comes from saying, “We are promoting diversity. “

So we’re promoting diversity, which gets you all sorts of laudatory articles written for you and gets you all sorts of negative attention and it allows you to push your show, right?

But they did it poorly. They did it really poorly. The dumbest thing, the thing that is most insulting to the intelligence of the audience.

You’ve got these hobbits, they can’t call them hobbits, so they call them hard foots, but they’re hobbits. They live in a group that seems to be about 30 people.

This small tiny village has the ethnic makeup of modern day Brooklyn and this is just not how agrarian societies work. They’ve been living this way of life for 1000 years.

You can make them look however you want, but you can’t pretend that this small, tight knit tribe of hunter gatherers has maintained an ethnic diversity that only happens in modern times, or only happens in ancient realm. It just makes no sense.

So how are we supposed to accept this as viewers when you watch and say, “But that’s not the way the world works.” If you go to a small farming village 200 years ago, you’ll find Englishmen or you’ll find people from Spain, or you’ll find people from Palestine. But you will not find this.

So it’s sloppily done, it’s sloppily done. It’s done for virtue points, but it’s not done in an artistically convincing manner.

Eric Sammons:

I saw a video at some point saying how Hollywood, a lot of this diversity casting it is to do what you just said, it’s to get the attention on both sides.

You get all the laudatory press from the corporate Hollywood press. But then you also get all the negative attention from people who are going mostly just point out how stupid it is when they do it and just attack it and you get people over the top attacking it too and stuff like that. You can just call it racism.

And also it protects you. Any criticism of the show at all, no matter what it is, is either racist or misogynist or something like that. And so that helps protect them as well when they do that.

I just saw this scene and I don’t know the context of it and I hope it’s not as bad as I think it is, but supposedly there was a scene of men who were protesting elf workers and it was supposed to be like a MAGA rally or something like that.

Did this really happen because it looks so cringe worthy. I was like, “You can’t tell me they actually put that in there.”

Ben Reinhard:

No, this is one of the many, many cringe worthy modern scenes, and this is one of them that makes me just about the angriest. Yes, so Galadriel arrives in Numenor where of course she’s never supposed to be in the books. This does not happen.

And the men don’t like the idea of these foreign workers coming to take our jobs. That’s exactly what they say. These elven workers are going to come and take our jobs because the show runners interpret the fall of Numenor as a turning into sort like this nationalistic xenophobic and that’s what leads to Numenor’s fall.

This is nonsense, right? Numenor falls when people reject the mortality that God gave them, grumble against the limits God has imposed on them and start turning to devil worship. This is actually what happens. They turn to devil worship to try to prolong their lives.

That’s the fall of Numenor. It’s the fall of a noble society that was rooted in the worship of God and acceptance of what God has created to devilry.

Or if you want, it’s taking a nice multicultural society who becomes xenophobic and nationalistic and they wear MAGA hats, right? That’s now what the fall of Numenor is apparently going to echo. And it was every bit as cringe worthy as you thought.

Eric Sammons:

Okay, I was afraid of that. Well, I’ve heard some people say, “Listen, it’s just Tolkien nerds who are upset about this.” That really there’s nothing wrong with bringing some of the modern sensibility into it and it’s well produced and all that stuff.

What would you say that argument of why it is that it shouldn’t just be Tolkien nerds, so to speak, who criticisms of this. What will be a deeper criticism than just the fact that it’s not faithful to Tolkien himself?

Ben Reinhard:

Oh, so many. One, I would say it’s not well produced, it’s not well done, it’s not well acted. It’s none of this. I would reject the initial assumption that it’s just good to have it out there. It’s a garbage show. That’s the first thing I would say.

The second thing I would say is that if we take it as an artistic production, if we take it as this work of art, whether or not it’s faithful to Tolkien, I don’t think it’s actually something that’s much good for the soul, right?

T.S. Eliot, almost 100 years ago said that the works of art that exert the strongest influence on the minds and the hearts of their patrons are the ones that we engage in just for pleasure. We say, “Oh, I’m just going to relax and enjoy this work of art.” You let all your guards down and you let it wash over you, right?

But what’s in this show? What washes over you if you turn to this show? It’s the ideology of the modern world. It’s the idyllic imagination, tending towards the diabolical imagination, create your own truth, follow your own path.

It’s actually not a unified moral vision that you would want in your head, so I’d say that. So it’s not a particularly good show. I would say it’s not a particularly edifying show.

And then the final thing I would say in response to that critique is it’s an unfortunate element of our modern pop culture that we’re always itching for our next fix, always chasing the next thing.

And it’s a sad thing to see a high work of art turned into this, right? To always be chasing the next product, always be chasing the next sensation.

And that’s, again, I think something that we can all be concerned about. So it’s not just that it’s not true to Tolkien, it’s just that it’s not very good.

Eric Sammons:

Right. Okay. So now I’m going to put you on the spot with my last question here. So you are given the opportunity to do a TV series or a movie about let’s say even just say the Second Age. So let’s call it a TV series because I don’t know how you can cover Second Age.

And what would you do if you were given that opportunity? How would you approach, obviously I know you’re not a film director and all that, but how would you approach the project itself?

Ben Reinhard:

So I think it would be a mistake to try to tell the story of the Second Age together in a single nutshell. I think the thing to do would be to break out elements of it that are particularly well suited to cinematic adaptation and to treat these each in their own right.

So you could absolutely do an interesting series about the forging of the rings, right? That’s going to primarily focus on the elves, so you don’t have to worry about your aging actors. And you’ve got a very clear, tragic, tragic arc in the forging of the rings. That’s a complete story.

The fall of Numenor is a story. So if you look at the last generation of Numenoreans, you could tell a concrete story there that would be perfectly satisfying.

If you wished you could look at a few of the little vignettes of Numenor in history that Tolkien gives you that also would be susceptible to that treatment.

And that’s I think the way that you move forward. You don’t try to tell the story of 3,500 years of history in a bottle episode.

Instead you hit the high points, give them each the treatment that they deserve and then you can fill in the other things by flashback, by montages, right? Much as they did with the Lord of the Rings.

The Lord of the Rings gives you a sense of the history that came before but it doesn’t have to show you all of it. And it doesn’t have to bring in things from a time that absolutely don’t fit. So I think that would probably be the way forward for a future adaptation.

Eric Sammons:

Okay. And I said that was last question, but I just thought of something else I wanted to know. So that the title of this series is Rings of Power, but I’ve seen nothing in any of the trailers or discussion about the rings. Is the forging of the rings actually part of this story or not?

Ben Reinhard:

So I don’t know if we’re going to get to the forging of the Rings of Power actually in this mini series. That might be something that weighs towards season two.

They have started to set it up where they’ve introduced Celebrimbor, the elf who does forge the rings. They’re constructing this massive forge right now. But I don’t know if we’re actually going to get to the Rings of Power in the first season of the Rings of Power.

Eric Sammons:

Okay. So maybe that’s going to be a thing where they end the season on just pointing towards the forging of the rings, which I get that.

Ben Reinhard:

That might be, yeah.

Eric Sammons:

Okay. Well great. Well thank you very much. I appreciate this. I appreciate the articles you’ve written for Crisis and Rings of Power.

I’ll put links to that in the show notes so people can go back to them if they haven’t already read, which I imagine everybody has already read them because it seems like everybody read them, which is great.

I also appreciate you taking one for the team by actually watching the series so the rest of us don’t have to and I appreciate that as well.

And one last thing is there any adaptation, obviously we could rewatch Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson’s and that would give us something.

Is there anything else that we could do to really understand Tolkien other than just obviously read Lord of the Rings, read Silmarillion. Is there any other good resource to really understand Tolkien’s vision?

Ben Reinhard:

Oh boy. Honestly, just about my favorite thing to do is to read his letters. So he’s going to explain his own vision and his letters and you get a lot about his faith and you get a lot about his life. I’d start there.

Holly Ordway has a new book out on Tonkin’s faith, which I haven’t had a chance to read yet. Actually that’s coming out next year, I take that back. But Holly Ordway’s work, I would recommend.

Tom Shippey is also a very good author if you want to understand how Tolkien craft works. So I would plug those. And hope people have time to check them out.

Eric Sammons:

Okay, great. Well again, thank you very much. I really appreciate you coming onto the program today.

Ben Reinhard:

Thank you so much.

Eric Sammons:

Okay. Until next time everybody. God love you.

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