Elvenhome the Green and Fair: “A Shadow of the Past”
“But if of ships I now should sing, what ship would come to me,
What ship would bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?”
―Galadriel’s “Song of Eldamar”, “Farewell to Lórien”, The Fellowship of the Ring
As I promised last week, this is my analysis of the first episode of The Rings of Power, albeit a bit later than I had hoped. The second should follow soon, hopefully not long after the third episode airs, and I will try to catch up with the third episode before the fourth airs. I am not particularly interested in recommending that others either watch this series or not watch it, nor am I interested in assigning each episode a more-or-less arbitrary numerical score. I will say that I watched the first two episodes in the company of several close family members, and the consensus we came to was that we liked it, and are interested enough to continue watching. That’s good enough for me.
I make no claim to be a television or film critic, so I will keep discussion of plot, pacing, acting, dialog, cinematography, special effects, and so on to a minimum, if I can help it. That said, I must add my voice to the voices of many who have said before me: this is a beautiful show. My principal aim here, though, is to examine the question: what were The Rings of Power production team given to work with by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and how well have they made use of it? There are millions of Tolkien fans around the world. Many of us like to think that we could have, if given the opportunity, come up with a brilliant story set in the Second Age (or some other time preceding The Hobbit), but for some reason that lot fell to Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne, and the various writers, concept artists, directors, actors, etc. they and the Amazon Studios executives decided to hire. The story these people are telling is not quite the story I would have told if somehow I had managed to make a pitch that was accepted by Amazon Studios and the Tolkien Estate, if for no other reason than that I am not J.D. Payne nor Patrick McKay. However, I hope not to dwell too much on what I would have done, or how I believe Tolkien would have done things (though I will do some of both), but look at what Payne, McKay, et. al. have done, and try to tease out why they may be doing things that way.
Please be informed that everything from here until the end of the article likely includes spoilers for the show.
The episode begins in the earthly paradise of Valinor (also called Elvenhome), in the Years of the Trees. We meet a feisty child Galadriel, her brother Finrod, and some other unidentified Elf children. Then the Two Trees are killed by Morgoth, and the Elves leave Valinor for Middle-earth to take revenge on Morgoth. The war ends up lasting longer than they expected. We see a series of images vaguely depicting the events of the First Age. Eventually Morgoth is defeated, but his lieutenant, Sauron, remains to become the new Dark Lord and leader of the Orcs. Finrod dies in an encounter with Sauron, and Galadriel takes up his dagger and vows to keep his cause alive.
Hundreds of years after the beginning of the Second Age, Galadriel is still pursuing Sauron’s servants with a small company of Elves. On an expedition north to Forodwaith she finds evidence that Sauron is still around. She wants to continue the hunt, but she finds that she is alone, that everyone else wishes to enjoy their time of peace even if some of them know (as High King Gil-galad does) that it is temporary. Gil-galad and Elrond persuade her to leave the Elven kingdom of Lindon and take a ship to Valinor. Gil-galad also dispatches Elrond to help Celebrimbor, Lord of Eregion, with a task he has that will be of great importance to the Elves who remain in Middle-earth.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to the Harfoots, a predecessor tribe of the Hobbits, who are living in a temporary settlement somewhere in Rhovanion south of Greenwood the Great. Their singular virtue is that they stick together to ensure that everyone remains safe.
In the Southlands the Elf Arondir checks up on the residents of the village of Tirharad. These are the descendants of Men who once served Morgoth, a fact the Elves have not forgotten. Arondir inquires concerning rumors he has heard of poisoned animals, and a drunken youth confronts him, speaks of a king who will one day return, and almost gets in a fight with him. Returning to the watchtower of Ostirith, Arondir learns that Gil-galad has declared peace, and the Elves will soon leave the area. Arondir goes to the cottage of Bronwyn, with whom he is in love, to see her again before he leaves. While he is there, a villager also arrives at the cottage to ask Bronwyn for help healing his cow. Arondir squeezes black sludge from the cow’s udder and asks where it had been grazing. When he learns that the cow (which some have dubbed “Cowron”) had been grazing eastward near Hordern, he immediately sets off, and Bronwyn goes with him. Meanwhile Bronwyn’s son Theo goes with his friend Rowan (the drunken youth who confronted Arondir) to a barn, where Theo finds a broken sword containing the mark of Sauron. Arondir and Bronwyn arrive at Hordern to find that the village has burned down.
As Galadriel’s ship approaches Valinor, the Elves have their armor and weapons removed, though Galadriel is reluctant to part with Finrod’s dagger. A curtain of clouds parts to reveal the light of Valinor. Galadriel is not ready yet. She shrinks back from the light, stepping backwards as the boat passes into Valinor.
A meteor passes from west to east, over Middle-earth, and is seen by Galadriel, Gil-galad, Elrond and Celebrimbor, Arondir and Bronwyn, an Ent family, and Nori Brandyfoot before it finally crashes into the ground.
Before her ship passes completely into the light of Valinor, Galadriel picks up Finrod’s dagger and jumps into the sea.
A leaf falls from a great, gold-leaved tree in Lindon. Gil-galad picks it up to see a black rot infesting it.
In the center of the crater left by the meteor is what appears to be a man.
The Passage of Time
From beginning to end, this episode covers what I believe will be the longest period of time covered by any episode of The Rings of Power, not counting any flashbacks in future episodes. The episode begins in the Years of the Trees, and continues into the Second Age. Assuming that it begins shortly before the darkening of Valinor (by the destruction of the Trees), the episode covers some 500 years of the First Age. We are also told that after Morgoth’s defeat (which came at the end of the First Age), Galadriel pursued the servants of Sauron for centuries. In addition, Rowan indicates that the Men who served Morgoth all died a thousand years earlier. So all told, the episode must cover some 1500 years or more, with perhaps a millennium of that taking place in the Second Age, and the rest occurring earlier. We are not given any exact dates, however. In addition, if we assume that all events will follow the canonical timeline (which is probably not a safe assumption), then we must put the date of most of the episode at after S.A. 750, because that’s when Eregion was founded, and we are told that Celebrimbor is Lord of Eregion.
So far the compressed timeline has had little effect. Very little is said about passage of time, apart from Galadriel’s aforementioned quest of several centuries, the fact that Arondir has been at Ostirith for 79 years, and Rowan’s statement that the people who had served Morgoth died a thousand years ago. The perspective of the Elves is shown when Rowan asks why the Elves can’t let the past go, and Arondir says, “The past is with us all, whether we like it or not.”
The show introduces us to Valinor, and to several locations in Middle-earth: Forodwaith, Lindon, Rhovanion, the Southlands, and the Sundering Seas. Very little is said regarding the passage of time while traveling. Perhaps the most notable issue is that the Elves returning to Valinor seem to be standing and wearing plate armor all the way from Lindon to the borders of Valinor. Given that they’re on a transoceanic voyage in an age of sail, I would think they would make themselves a little bit more comfortable.
Maps were used to good effect. One notable issue, though, was the omission of Beleriand from the map when the Elves are sailing from Valinor back to Middle-earth to fight Morgoth. Perhaps Amazon does not have the rights to produce a map of Beleriand, or perhaps they figured it would be confusing to casual viewers to see a map of Beleriand in the prologue, and then shortly thereafter see a map of Middle-earth with Beleriand missing. Also of note is that the area labeled “the Southlands” appears to be in the far east of Mordor, but the village of Tirharad is actually near the western edge of Mordor. Finally, the Golden Wood that was Galadriel’s realm in the Third Age is called Lórien on the map, rather than any of its more obscure names. This may be because more people are familiar with “Lórien”, or it may be because the other names are only found in publications such as Unfinished Tales, to which Amazon does not have the rights.
Language and Names
I will leave to others to analyze the meters of the dialog, or decode all the Elvish or other languages and scripts. My interest here is primarily in the meaning and consistency of proper nouns, and the translation conventions used by the show.
Most of the dialog is in Modern English, in various dialects. The Elves speak a standard Southeastern English dialect, whereas the Men of the Southlands speak a Northern English dialect, and the Harfoots speak an Irish dialect. Whether these dialects represent different languages is not specifically stated, but the Elves stationed in Ostirith appear to speak a Southeastern English dialect even when conversing with Southlanders, so perhaps they are only intended to be mere dialectical differences after all, or indicative only of racial differences.
In the early scene in Valinor, Galadriel, Finrod, and the other Elves are presumably speaking Quenya. Finrod is actually speaking Quenya during the battle scene in the First Age. In Lindon, however, I at first assumed that everyone was speaking Sindarin, since Sindarin had become the lingua franca of all the Elves of Beleriand, and after the First Age, of all the Elves of Middle-earth. Now, however, I am not so sure. In the scene in which we meet Elrond, he is speaking Quenya, which then changes to English on the word “home”. We also see him writing on a scroll in Tengwar. Later on we realize these same words are part of a speech that Gil-galad gives. If Sindarin is the “official language” of Lindon, it seems odd that Gil-galad would be giving a speech in that language, rather than Quenya, even if it is a formal occasion. It would seem even more odd to me that Silvan Elves or Sindar would speak to each other in Quenya, so I assume that the Elves stationed in Ostirith are speaking Sindarin (or Nandorin). I don’t know that the people of Tirharad would pick up Sindarin, though, so perhaps they are all speaking a Mannish language, possibly one related to that of the Gwathuirim (ancestors of the Dunlendings) and the people of Haleth. The Harfoots likely have their own language, of which we may know nothing. On the other hand, given their location, it is possible that they have picked up the language of the Silvan Elves who live in Greenwood the Great, and which seems to be not very different from Sindarin. Sindarin is also spoken in some places on Númenor, so potentially it could be the great lingua franca point-of-view language of the Second Age. That does not seem to me to be the case, however. Instead, I believe there is no equivalent of the Common Speech in the Second Age here, and the point-of-view language changes depending on the characters and setting.
Before the show was released, some people speculated that there would be some sort of framing device, such as a familiar character from The Lord of the Rings telling the story, perhaps in the early Fourth Age. Instead, the episode begins with the voice of Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) introducing past events at some unknown time and place. It is uncertain if there is some source of the narrative other than Galadriel’s memories. However, given Tolkien’s statements about Hobbits, it seems unlikely that Galadriel would be aware of them this early. Therefore, I propose that the Harfoot story line comes from a different source, possibly Sadoc’s book, or perhaps a traditional song, such as “This Wandering Day”. I also look forward to the introduction of Eärien, since she has been pictured holding a book. Perhaps this book contains a history of Númenor, and is also a potential in-show “source” of the narrative. However, it doesn’t look like there will be one all-encompassing text from which this show will be supposed to have been drawn, as the Red Book of Westmarch was for the Peter Jackson films.
Themes and Philosophy
Death is a strong theme of the first episode. Yet the fear of dying so far is not, perhaps because of the focus on the Elves for now. Another strong theme seems to be change and stasis. The Elves hope things will never change (for the worse). I suspect this is the motive behind Gil-galad’s decision to dispatch Elrond to Eregion with Celebrimbor. But perhaps change is already here, as indicated by the decayed leaf. In the Southlands the Elves expect (rather than hope) that the Men who live there will never change. The past seems to be another important theme, with Galadriel unable to forget the conflicts of the First Age and the death of Finrod, the Elves guarding the Southlands holding past actions of ancestors against the Men who live there now, and the Men seeing the same past as ancient history not necessarily relevant to their own lives. Related to change and decay, one thing this episode seems to want to impress on us is the fragility of paradise. Just because it’s paradise doesn’t mean children are well-behaved, nor does it automatically make one a better, wiser person. Galadriel seems to understand that any sufficiently negative feelings she brings with her to Valinor will simply fester when she has time and leisure to ponder them, and she will regard Valinor as a cage holding her back from fulfilling her oath to Finrod. She will become like Fëanor, who first brought the Ñoldor out of Valinor to fight against Morgoth and take back the Silmarils he had stolen. (This is essentially the story of The Silmarillion, to which reference will be made in the second episode.)
The Source Material
Very little in this episode is taken directly from the source material. Perhaps the most lore-accurate sequence in this episode is the tale of the First Age from the darkening of the Trees by Morgoth until his final defeat, although even there some liberties are taken. About a year ago, Tolkien fans were encouraged by the image of the figure in white (who we now know is Finrod) gazing at the Two Trees. Some even hoped that the first two episodes of the show would be a prequel all about the First Age. (I also speculated it would be a prequel, but mostly about the early Second Age, as I knew Amazon’s rights to First Age material was sketchy.) As it turned out, this sequence tells the story of the First Age in very broad strokes, as well as in an extremely abbreviated and simplified manner. In particular, the prologue makes no mention of the division of the Ñoldor between Fëanor and his sons, and the followers of Fëanor’s half-brother Fingolfin. Finrod and Galadriel, the children of Finarfin, would be followers of their uncle Fingolfin rather than their half-uncle Fëanor. Only Fëanor and his sons swore an oath, yet it appears in the prologue that Finrod is swearing an oath with other Ñoldor. Also, Fëanor took ships to Middle-earth and left Fingolfin’s host to march north and cross over an icy wasteland similar to that crossed by Galadriel’s company when they discovered Sauron’s fortress in Forodwaith. There were several distinct battles in the First Age, which are sort of run together in the prologue. Also, Finrod did die, but not because he directly sought out Sauron, but rather because he swore an oath to help the Man Beren in his quest for a Silmaril, and was captured by Sauron and killed by one of his werewolves. (Note the scratch marks on Finrod’s arm in the show.)
From the Second Age, very little indeed seems to come from the source material, other than the fact that the early Second Age was a time of peace. However, the episode seems to make it appear that peace was “declared” only some thousand years after Morgoth’s defeat at the end of the First Age. Geographically things seem right. Lindon was a powerful Elven kingdom during the Second Age, ruled by Gil-galad, the High King of the Ñoldor. Lindon is in fact the remnant of the much larger region of Beleriand, most of which was sunk during the War of Wrath at the end of the First Age. Eregion was a land also settled mostly by Ñoldor Elves, and Celebrimbor was its lord. Hobbits did exist (though Tolkien wrote nothing about them from the Second Age), and Rhovanion does seem to be a reasonable place for them to be found at this time. The Southlands story is largely made up; however their story does seem to be vaguely reminiscent of “Tal-Elmar”, a brief narrative Tolkien wrote about the Númenóreans as seen from the point of view of the natives of Middle-earth. However, the eponymous character Tal-Elmar lives fairly near the coast (probably of what later became Gondor) rather than within the borders of what will someday be Mordor. Speaking of Mordor, it indeed did not exist as such at the beginning of the Second Age, but Sauron chose it as his headquarters during the course of the Age (and obviously before he forged the One Ring in Mount Doom).
Amazon promised us characters we knew and loved. For those familiar mostly with the Peter Jackson films, a story in the Second Age was inevitably going to focus on Galadriel, Elrond, and Sauron. But because the story is about the rise of Sauron, and because he has the ability to change his shape, it makes sense that he would be a shadowy figure whose identity is secret at first. There has been much speculation about Sauron’s identity, and many theories, but so far Amazon is holding its cards close to its chest.
Elrond is an important character to have, of course. However, at this point in time he is a rather different person than the one we meet in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. In particular, he is a fairly young and unmarried Elf who is serving Gil-galad. He will gain in importance later on, of course, but right now his identity seems to be somewhat subsumed by that of the High King.
Inevitably then, Galadriel would be one of the main characters in this series. The problem with that is that she was a fairly late addition to the legendarium, and Tolkien had trouble deciding what to do with her in the First and Second Ages. He wrote several conflicting accounts of her travels in the Second Age, but didn’t really write any narrative featuring her, or have her really doing anything. One could argue then that a show that is faithful to Tolkien should have her doing almost nothing. However, that would make for poor television, and while you can fairly complain of any addition to the lore that Tolkien did not write it, it is still the case that if Tolkien had written a detailed narrative of Galadriel’s doings in the Second Age, rather than a glorified chronology, he would have been compelled to add new plots and story lines (not to mention dialog) that had not occurred to him previously. Of course, whether those new plots would have overlapped with anything the writing team of The Rings of Power has developed is anyone’s guess. But then, if he had written such a tale, there would have been something more for Amazon to draw from.
I have not been too bothered by the changes to the First Age, nor to the decision to make Galadriel a warrior. Galadriel is supposed to be able to compete even with male Elves in contests of physical strength. (Of course, she’s also supposed to be unusually tall for a female Elf.) She’s also supposed to be proud and ambitious. In some versions of her story she refused to return to Valinor out of pride because she felt she had done nothing wrong, and also because she was only offered a home on the island of Tol Eressëa, rather than Tirion where she had lived before. Notably, she is supposed to be at a point in her life in which if someone offered her the One Ring (which, to be clear, it seems hasn’t been forged quite yet), she would gladly take it and use it to overthrow Sauron. More concerning to me are her lack of a family. In some accounts Galadriel married Celeborn in the First Age, and in others they married early in the Second Age. But it seems the showrunners have a plan for Celeborn, so I suppose we will see their love story. Which does seem kind of odd. I had been expecting to see the love story of Elrond and Celebrían, but now I’m not sure how likely that is. For those who know the lore, having Galadriel and Elrond be unmarried friends does seem a little strange.
The purpose of the Southlands plot seems to be to show the rise of Sauron. I’m mostly fine with it, but the idea that Elves are watching a group of people who live a very long way from where Beleriand was seems odd. Perhaps in show canon the War of Wrath was fought all over Middle-earth, but even so I’m not fond of the idea of Elves surveilling Men. Also, I was taken aback to learn that these Elves are ultimately under the command of Gil-galad. I guess the show doesn’t want to distinguish between the Ñoldor, Sindar, and Nandor (Silvan) Elves too early. Possibly the other Elven kings defer to Gil-galad in matters such as this. However, in the lore Gil-galad was concerned about the forces of evil coming through the Gap of Calenardhon, but the Southlands here are far to the east (and south) of there. Gil-galad has a very long reach in this show.
Others have commented on Gil-galad handing out tickets to Valinor as a reward. In Tolkien’s writings it seems anyone who wanted to could go. This situation seems to have two major purposes. One is to get Galadriel to Númenor. The other is to showcase Galadriel’s state of mind and what she is giving up. Of course, Galadriel could have absolutely refused to go to Valinor and asked to go on a diplomatic mission to Númenor instead, but that would have been a less dramatic choice. I think it works fairly well here, although jumping off a boat into the middle of the sea is usually not a good idea. However, it seems Galadriel was more afraid of the light than the cold and darkness of the sea.
Two thoughts I had, both in relation to the long conversation between Elrond and Galadriel. One is regarding the White Council. According to the timeline it was first called late in the Third Age. However, Tolkien later had the idea of a sort of precursor council being formed just after the War of the Elves and Sauron. It occurred to me that Elrond’s promise to Galadriel is a sort of precursor even to that council:
If but a whisper of a rumor of the threat you perceive proves true, I will not rest until it is put right.
Also, Galadriel says:
And in the West, do you think my fate would be better? Where song would mock the cries of battle in my ears? You say I have won victory over all the horrors of Middle-earth. Yet you would leave them alive in me? To take with me?
To me this seems to parallel Boromir’s own discomfort in Lothlórien in the Peter Jackson film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring:
I will find no rest here. I heard her voice inside my head. She spoke of my father and the fall of Gondor. She said to me, ‘Even now, there is hope left.’ But I cannot see it. It is long since we had any hope.
She being, of course, Galadriel. Interesting.