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In the Perilous Realm: Tradition and Memory in “The Rings of Power”

December 21st, 2022 | 6 min read

By Leah Libresco Sargeant

At the waning of the year, looking ahead to the blaze of Christmas, I’ve been reexamining Amazon’s adventures in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium. The first season of The Rings of Power was a moral muddle, but the story was strongest when it was wrestling with two themes: time and authority.

The antagonist of the first season was ostensibly Sauron, but, since the villain was held back in the shadows, the real foil for many of the protagonists were the Elves. Elves, because of their immortality, are alienating, whether they be allies or enemies.

Across the show’s (many!) subplots, the immortality of the Elves was an irritant to other peoples. The appearance of Elves was sometimes gadfly-fruitful, but sometimes just destabilizing. The Men of the Southlands resent the Elven peacekeepers who patrol their lands. The Elves have remained, partly as sentries, partly as occupying force, after being betrayed by the long-dead ancestors of the present Southlanders. The sting of the Southlander treachery is fresh for the Elves, while it is long scabbed over for the men of those lands. For the Men, it is the unearned hostility of the Elves that is an open wound.

Durin, a prince of the Dwarves, feels abandoned by his half-elven, fully immortal friend Elrond, when Elrond drops out of contact. The span of years is a short time for Elrond, but for Durin, that gap is large enough to contain a marriage, several children, and a secret he wishes he had shared in its newness with his bosom friend.

Across the waters in Númenor, Galadriel’s visit to the island is as disorienting as the return of King Arthur might be for modern-day Britons. The people of Númenor have never seen an elf in the flesh, and their fluency with the language of the elves has become atrophied—a matter of scholarship or religion, not conversation. But, for Galadriel, the halls are familiar and the Númenoreans’ choice to break off friendship was recent and still rankles.

If the past is another country, Elves are its living ambassadors. For Men and Dwarves, their history speaks from living, foreign tongues. The Elves are, in essence, hyperobjects—“massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” in the coinage of Timothy Morton. Morton needed the term to describe ecological phenomena like climate change that are too large for humans to grapple with directly. We need statistics and other tools to image what we can see only as thin, MRI-like slices of the whole.

Fantasy stories often help us see our own world with new eyes, by showing us our familiar conflicts played out in high relief. Buffy the Vampire Slayer recast many of the quotidian conflicts of high school in the life-and-death stakes of the gothic. The elves of Rings of Power put a face to our own difficult relationship with the weight of tradition—particularly tradition we have been shaped by, but aren’t steeped in.

Like the people of Númenor, we live in a house shaped by faith and habit that have atrophied in our time. To be a Christian in America can feel like living in the ruins of the previously lively Kingdom. At this time of year, the secular, consumerist Christmas is in full swing, and then, in the Christmas season proper, the trees and tinsel come down and everyone is back to work before Epiphany has even come. To fully embrace what we’ve ostensibly committed to marks us out as strange, and what was intended to be communal becomes individual.

In Númenor, Elendil is a soldier who has retained a faith in Elven friendship, but, when confronted with a real Elf, he fumbles his words and is unsure how to respond to Galadriel. A tradition of friendship can’t be kept fully alive in isolation. For Elendil and for all of Númenor, the arrival of Galadriel poses a question—even if they choose to return to friendship with the Elves, how can that friendship be re-rooted when the Men have become strangers? Returning to their traditional relationship cannot mean falling back into the same patterns; the Men and the Elves have rounded off their formerly complementary shapes. First would come a period of reformation, and, when the relationship is restored, the exact shape of the interlock might be different than before.

Unfortunately, although the show poses some of these interesting questions, it is too scattered to explore them deeply. The set up on Númenor is eclipsed by the show’s need to race through shallow conflict (including a baffling moment where Númenorean Men worry that Elves “will take our jobs”) so that the ships can set sail to get to Middle-Earth in time for the finale. Throughout the season, the show undermines its Elves by spending too much time with them on screen. When the Elves are in counsel with each other, they don’t appear as immortals anymore, but as Men with pointy ears, and, for the male Elves, the hairstyles of junior executives at ElfCorp and the flabby dialogue to match.

Tolkien anticipated this kind of storytelling problem. In his essay “On Fairy Stories” he wrote, “Most good ‘fairy-stories’ are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches. Naturally so; for if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them, then this also is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet.”

It’s when the Elves are absent that we get the strongest sense of their strangeness, as we see the other races reflect on what the existence of Elves changed about their own relationship to time and tradition. Durin’s plotline excels here, since he is torn between two conflicting loyalties to something larger than himself—his Elven friend Elrond and his father, the Dwarven King.

Elrond comes to his friend Durin asking for help—the immortality of the Elves has become fragile, and they are fading. Elrond believes his people need to be anchored to Middle Earth in a new way, otherwise they would have to abandon the land they hoped to steward. For Durin’s father, this isn’t a problem that necessarily merits a solution.

The king explains to his son that Dwarves are formed of rock and fire, “The rock that lives within us hungers for the eternal, resisting the pull of time. But the fire embraces the truth: that all things must one day be consumed and fade away to ash.” The Elves had been the burning bush, unconsumed and illuminating, and the Dwarven King seems to find a kind of reassurance in the fact that even they have reached a natural limit and will gutter out.

The King is right to be cautious about stretching something beyond its natural strength and limitations. His fears about unnatural augmentation are given shape by Rings of Power itself, which is attempting to coax five seasons out of Tolkien’s appendices. But it is his son, Prince Durin, who is the more faithful, wanting to approach the things that are larger than himself with awe and tenderness.

To serve the Elves, he disobeys his father, breaking one faith to be true elsewhere. From King Durin’s point of view, the deepest betrayal wasn’t giving away a secret ore, but the claim Prince Durin made openly to his father—that Elrond is as much his family as his father is. For the King, the claim is equivalent to saying that they are not family, since King Durin sees family as the deep foundation upon which other structures are built. He hears his son as erasing the relationship when he attempts to widen it.

Meanwhile, the young Durin feels stunted in his attempt to grow into kingship. He wants to be loyal to his father, but is unsure whether that means obeying his office or correcting his errors. He longs to be, in Tolkien’s words, a sub-creator; trusted with something to steward. To care for his people, he wants to be able to take some risks for them, especially risks that are buttressed by hope.

Not all of his risks are wise ones, and Durin has a tendency to react to his father’s corrections with spite. But, even when he errs, he does so for the sake of offering himself to something worthy of his love. Despite his father’s ultimatums, Durin has faith that his loves can be reconciled. Both traditions, of kingship and of the Elves, have soured slightly, such that they can’t comfortably lie alongside each other.

An American Christian might feel the same aching sense of our loyalties coming out of alignment. As a Catholic in America, I frequently feel frustrated like Durin, longing for bishops to act with urgency and love in addressing abuse. I want to be a good citizen of my nation, but it’s hard when the logic of our laws treat me as merely a citizen, a lone individual without meaningful ties to family, church, or neighborhood.

I don’t have to wait for the arrival of Elves to refresh our relationship. In the sacrifice of every Mass, all times are one, and I can be present with the saints of all ages. Away from church, I can read outside my present time, inhabiting a little more of the hyperobject of tradition, and, even if I can’t grasp its full scale, I can remind myself that my small slice is not the whole.

Where our loves and loyalties are in conflict today, stewardship requires us to try to bring them back into right relationship, until amity can be restored. We may not see reconciliation in our lifetimes but, as Gandalf warns, “that is not for [us] to decide, All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

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Leah Libresco Sargeant

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option.