The Lord of the Rings: Metaphors of Power

by Jack Slinkman

Television shows tend to have a small footprint like those of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbits and Harfoots, and, consequently, as with the diminutive race, they constrain themselves to worlds and stories equally as small. An epic adventure, one that traverses the heights and depths of Middle Earth, is typically outside of the means, the ambitions, and (frankly) the imagination of the average Halfling and the average showrunner. Grand narratives come at great cost for characters and production teams - better to leave the perils of world building and exploration to bigger races and bigger industries (i.e. the movie industry). But what would offset the cost of such a steep buy-in? For Bilbo Baggins and Amazon Prime Video, it only took a dragon’s hoard to sustain the journey. The first season of Amazon’s The Rings of Power weighs in at $456 million and aims to go punch-for-punch with its big brother, the wildly successful The Lord of The Rings movie trilogy. This essay calls to question not how Amazon amassed its budget, but how the show spent it. No doubt a large portion of the budget was lavished on visual effects and set design, each scene smoothing out the world like a cartographer unfurling a map. Just as vivid, though, is the language that the show’s writers have chosen to use. More lush than its scenery is the show’s script, a script that is as rich and colorful and human as Numenor (the greatest civilization of men) and as deep and structured and resonant as Khazad-dûm (the dwarven kingdom of tunnels and mines).

At the very beginning of the show, a young Galadriel creates a paper boat and floats it down a river, setting a season-wide metaphor in motion. One boy throws stones at it, eventually sinking her ship. It takes the boy less effort to undo Galadriel’s work than it takes our protagonist to create the work - in Galadriel’s eyes, this is an injustice that can be answered, a wrong that warrants righting. So in reply to the sinking of her ship, Galadriel sinks her fists into the boy’s face, her older brother interrupting to teach her a lesson by first asking, “do you know why a ship floats and a stone cannot?” and then answering, “because the stone sees only downward, the darkness of the water vast and irresistible.” The villains in Rings of Power act as stones aiming to sink our heroes’ efforts to stay afloat. Elsewhere in the season, Orcs, like the boy with the stone, work to destroy a human creation, in this case a man-made village, by, effectively, drowning it in water. What separates hero from villain, hope from despair, and ship from stone is a moral compass, “for unlike the stone,” a ship’s “gaze is not downward but up. Fixed upon the light that guides her, whispering of grander things than darkness ever knew.”

Galadriel replies, attempting to wrap her words around this concept, “But sometimes the lights shine just as brightly reflected in the water as they do in the sky. It’s hard to say which way is up and which way is down. How am I to know which lights to follow?” The lesson of ships and stones is packaged not as a top-down lecture, but as a profound conversation, one that extends well beyond Galadriel’s childhood memory and into her adult life. As if it were the mouth of a river, our childhood shapes our character. However our character bends or stagnates or flows, it is first set in motion by our most significant childhood experiences. To redirect our character is, in many ways, to fight against our childhood, to swim upstream against a lifetime of foregone conclusions and longstanding habits. Galadriel’s childhood memory teaches us that anger, unintuitive though it may seem, is born from optimism denied as opposed to pessimism fulfilled. Hope is a delicate thing, never more fortified than a paper boat. When tragedy, like a stone, hits, it wrecks this delicate aspiration, forcing us to rehome our passions. Galadriel never lost her passion, she merely learned that anger is a safer place for it than hope is. Ironically, though Galadriel’s boat never made it beyond her childhood, it’s actually the impact of stone that journeyed down the riverbed, rippling across Galadriel’s adult life.

Episode one, aptly named “A Shadow of the Past,” reminds us that, concurrent with the metaphor of ships and stones, there is also a metaphor of light and darkness at play. Downstream from her childhood, the episode finds Galadriel still discerning “which lights to follow.” At first glance, it is not so hard - we know the light of the sun by its warmth, brilliance, and nurture, but darkness is cunning in its deceit: the depths of the water project a mirage of true light that, to the untrained eye, proves equally as enticing. If episode one began with ships and stones and light and darkness, then it also folds these metaphors back in at the denouement. In the distant past, evil, as symbolized by a stone, led the boy to strike down Galadriel’s boat. In the more immediate past, evil, as personified by Sauron, led an army of darkness to strike down Galadriel’s older brother. Now in her adulthood, Galadriel leads a company of Elven soldiers to punch this new bully in the face, but as she tangles with Sauron’s dark army, one questions whether the character is putting darkness in its place or giving ear to it, whether she is putting her anger to use or giving in to it.

Galadriel’s insatiable bloodlust causes her company to dissent and disband, and it causes king and country to punch her ticket to a forcible retirement in Valinor - which, traditionally, is to Elves as Valhalla is to Vikings, but in Galadriel’s case is received not as a reward but an insult - “The company I led mutinied against me. My closest friend conspired with the king to exile me. And each of them acted as they did because, I believe, they could no longer distinguish me from the evil I was fighting.” As episode one closes and Galadriel’s company sails off to a Valinorean sunset, the character is unable to set her hopes on the horizon. She rejects the paper boat. That’s not to say that she embraces the sinking stone. Perhaps it’s best to think of her as something in between. Season long, she toes the line between light and darkness, still lifted by her hopes, but always in threat of being pulled down by her anger. She is yet undecided. She is a skipping stone. Each time showrunners return to the metaphor, we are given another touch point, another insight into the trajectory of her character.

It is simple enough to tell a well spent visual effects budget from a poorly spent one - a good render passes the eye test and thus allows us to suspend our disbelief - much the same with a well phrased script - every word should have been spent well, thus allowing us to immerse in the story and suspend our disbelief. The Rings of Power crafts a compelling story. Top to bottom, I buy it. And largely, I think, that’s because the show parses deep truths about the human experience into a multilayered conversation. On one level, Galadriel and her brother are conversing with nature, their human concepts like paper boats adrift in Tolkien’s created world - the beauty and danger of nature teaching the characters about the extremes of their inner nature. On another level, though, the show sounds like Tolkien in its speak, compacting theologically dense ideas into small sound bites, inspired by nature to the tune of a biblical psalm and pocketed with wisdom in the vein of a biblical proverb. The effect: what starts as a conversation between Galadriel and her older brother, a ship and a stone, light and darkness, expands to shape the character of the protagonist, the character of the show, and, with any luck, the character of the audience. In this way, Galadriel, though she is an Elf, learns very human lessons in the conversations that she holds, and in the same way, the world that The Rings of Power creates, though it is a fictional world, is well poised to teach us about the world we live in.

Works Cited

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Directed by Bayona, J. A. Performance by Clark, Morfydd. Amazon Studio, 2022.

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