The stories we tell ourselves matter, even if you’re an immortal elf. The first season of Rings of Power, Amazon Studios’ new 8-episode prequel to The Lord of the Rings, opens with the scene of a young Galadriel, the Elvish royalty who will refuse Frodo’s offer to wield the One Ring thousands of years in the future.
The young Galadriel sets a paper boat on the water, where it unfurls into an origami swan.
“Nothing begins evil,” adult Galadriel’s voiceover insists while we watch other children mock her paper swan, destroying it with rocks. Galadriel’s brother fishes her destroyed boat from the brook and asks his little sister if she knows why a ship floats and a stone cannot.
“A stone sees only downward, the darkness of the waters vast and irresistible. The ship feels the darkness as well, striving moment by moment to master her and pull her under,” he tells her. “But the ship has a secret, for unlike the stone, her gaze is not downward but up, fixed upon the light that guides her, whispering of grander things than the darkness ever new.”
The corruption of goodness is not an unfamiliar theme in The Lord of the Rings. Young Galadriel’s plight introduces what may be the first season’s central concern: How do we recognize evil in the world?
J.R.R. Tolkien’s most famous entry into Middle-earth, The Lord of the Rings, is set at the end of the Third Age. Sauron and his orcs present a threat so clear it unites the races of Men, Elves, and Dwarves despite ancient prejudices. In the First Age the Elves were against Morgoth (Sauron’s master and the Lucifer figure of Tolkien’s world). But Rings of Power is set at the beginning of the Second Age. Morgoth has been defeated and chained in the Void; Sauron is in hiding. So while children throwing rocks isn’t a fallen angel waging war on the creator’s world, the small cruelties aren’t nothing either. If nothing begins evil, then Sauron and Galadriel embody different outcomes of the same potential.
Young Galadriel is not convinced by her brother’s powerful and poetic image of hope. She asks, “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?”
Cut to the show’s present day (several thousand years before The Lord of the Rings). Adult Galadriel (a terrific Morfydd Clark) leads a war party into the far Northern wastes in search of Sauron. The war party eventually turns back, convinced High King Gil-galad’s story has it right: Sauron is no more.
But Galadriel insists on a different story: She’s convinced Sauron still lurks in Middle-earth. On her return, she is “rewarded” with a return to the West — essentially Middle-earth’s version of going to Heaven — and she receives this “reward” as a political maneuver designed to silence her. We meet Galadriel very much as Tolkien imagined her; in his lore, Galadriel is self-assured and anti-authoritarian to the extent that she is disqualified from returning to the West (until she refuses the One Ring in The Fellowship of the Ring).
The audience knows Galadriel is correct, that Sauron is defeated but not vanquished, that to ignore him is to allow him to regain his power, as he will twice more before his final defeat by Frodo, Samwise, and Gollum. But without that foreknowledge, I’m sympathetic to High King Gil-galad and the other Elves who are weary of long fighting. Their ancient enemy has been cast down, and there are no further obvious signs of corruption in the world. Can’t Galadriel just let it go? Can’t she just relax and enjoy her retirement?
A clear evil like Sauron (and Morgoth) makes faithfulness easy. But after they’re gone, faithfulness becomes much more difficult to navigate, precisely because binary categories like good and evil become less relevant.
We also see clear binaries in Christian stories. Latin American liberation theology, first developed by Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, often employs binaries, like the Israelites against Pharaoh in Exodus, to organize Indigenous resistance against colonial powers. By the early 1980s, many nations in Africa and Central and South America had won their freedom with help from these stories of resistance.
In his book From Liberation to Reconstruction, Kenyan liberation theologian Jesse Mugambi called for a transition from liberation theology to reconstruction theology. He argues that the binary categories of oppressor and oppressed that were so vital and useful during colonial occupation were equally hurtful and confusing in its wake. Liberation theology works best with a Pharaoh, but many liberated countries faced scandal after scandal from their new leaders.
Mugambi argues that casting leaders all as wicked Pharaohs belies the complexity of post-liberation healing. His solution was to make a conscious shift away from the Exodus story to the “Ezra-Nehemiah” narrative — where exiled Judeans return to their homeland and join with those who still lived there to rebuild their nation. Now that the colonizers are gone, Mugambi argues, Indigenous people must work together to rebuild society, culture, and country. We need a different story.
It has become fashionable of late for American Christians to claim we are in exile, self-consciously drawing on the story of Judah’s fall to Babylon. But what if that’s the wrong story? What if we’re more like God’s people before the Exile, making our bed with idolatrous politics in a desire to preserve a mythic past? What if the story we tell ourselves keeps us from seeing the story we’re in?
This sort of challenge is precisely what Rings of Power promises with its first episode. And the story isn’t all to look forward to: Rings of Power is visually incredible — we can see all $715 million that went into making this the most expensive TV show ever created. The two episodes made available to critics showcase everything fans are going to want from a Lord of the Rings show — antagonistic elves and dwarves who become unlikely friends, jaw-dropping settings, orcs, evils, and yes Hobbits (though we follow the Harfoots, the Mountain-dwelling race of Hobbits, in this distant past).
In Galadriel, we find a heroine who’s not afraid to run headfirst into the darkness if it means a chance to vanquish evil. She can’t turn her back on (Middle) earth and just sail off to (the West) heaven. Not until she’s sure the great enemy is truly gone. As the first episode draws to a close, we learn the answer Galadriel’s brother gave her: “Sometimes you cannot know until you have touched the darkness.” This, it seems, will become Galadriel’s story.
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