“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Thus, in 1937, began J.R.R. Tolkien’s chronicles of Middle-earth, with the tale of Bilbo Baggins, enticed by the wizard Gandalf from his home, Bag End, to help Thorin Oakenshield and his fellow dwarves reclaim their treasure from the dragon Smaug.
Now, 85 years later, and almost half a century since the author’s death, the fantasy world that was launched by The Hobbit – essentially a children’s book – is expanding yet again in the most expensive television series ever made: The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the first two episodes of which will be available to stream on Prime Video from 2am on Friday 2 September.
The $1 billion project, overseen by J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, is set in the Second Age of Middle-earth, thousands of years before the story of Bilbo, and his nephew Frodo’s epic mission to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom – a mission recounted in Tolkien’s three-volume epic The Lord of the Rings (1954-55).
Though the core text of the Tolkien universe has sold more than 150 million copies, it is a safe bet that many of those who stay up to watch the first instalments of The Rings of Power will have been introduced to the world of hobbits, elves, dwarves, dragons, and rings by Peter Jackson’s blockbuster movie trilogies: The Lord of Rings (2001-03), the final episode of which won the Oscar for Best Picture, and The Hobbit (2012-14). To date, the six films have grossed more than $6 billion worldwide.
How to follow that? Spending around $90 million on each of the eight initial episodes, the creators of The Rings of Power have crafted an aesthetic experience worthy of the elven forges of Eregion: a sensory feast that dazzles from the opening seconds with impossibly beautiful landscapes, beasts of the air and sea, fiery scenes of battle, murderous Orcs and palatial fortresses.
As ever with high-budget movies and prestige television, there is a danger of confusing state-of-the-art spectacle with true drama. But The Rings of Power elegantly side-steps this elephant trap by investing quickly and deeply in the character of the elven princess Galadriel (Morfydd Clark). Played in the Jackson movies by Cate Blanchett as the diaphanous, Timotei-fresh Lady of Light, she is depicted in the prequel series as a restless battlefield commander, convinced that Sauron, the evil Maia (a spirit or angel in Tolkien’s cosmology) and lieutenant of the vanquished overlord Morgoth, is still at large.
In a period of peace, the warrior Galadriel is the voice of martial vigilance. “Evil does not sleep,” she warns Elrond (Robert Aramayo). “It waits…until the moment of our complacency”. Meanwhile, in the Southlands, her fellow elf, Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova), ordered to stand down from his 79-year watch over the Land of Men, senses the same danger and sets off in pursuit of Sauron’s forces.
Do we get hobbits? Yes and no. The bucolic bliss of the Shire – the “Merrie England” idyll of Tolkien’s imagination – is still millennia away. But, as he himself explains in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings there were three original varieties of hobbit – Harfoots, Stoors and Fallohides – and it is the first that we encounter in The Rings of Power: an itinerant tribe that includes Sadoc Burrows (Lenny Henry), who frets that “the skies are strange”, and the adventurous Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), who witnesses a mysterious, lanky, bearded stranger (Daniel Weyman) fall from the heavens, encased in a blazing meteor. Who could he be?
As Chris Taylor observes in his definitive book on another fantasy universe, “true fans hate everything about Star Wars”. The same pathology applies to many of those for whom Tolkien’s legacy is less a cultural phenomenon than a way of life: already, unappeasable trolls on social media and fansites devoted to the Master of Middle-earth are readying themselves to loathe The Rings of Power. (For a primer on Tolkien’s work, try Tom Shippey’s excellent The Road to Middle-earth: How J. R. R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology; Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, first published in 1977 is still useful.)
For starters, it must be admitted that the new series is not strictly “canonical”: as far as I could tell from the first two episodes, it draws eclectically from the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, from The Silmarillion (1977), from Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (1980), and from Tolkien’s Letters (1981). The official chronology – often laboriously spelt out in his posthumously published work – is undoubtedly contracted to make the saga practical for a television drama. There are characters and events that do not feature in Tolkien’s writing.
But, really, so what? The Lord of the Rings and all the satellite works that orbit around it do not amount to holy scripture. Though a Roman Catholic by conviction, Tolkien the author was a mythographer who drew like a mischievous magpie upon Norse, Old English and medieval legend. He, better than anyone, understood the plasticity of myth. To claim that there is an immutable canon of Middle-earth, from which it is heretical to deviate, is to miss the point entirely.
Which is why all the preemptive fuss about the alleged “wokeness” of The Rings of Power is also so pathetic. The cast is indeed more ethnically diverse than that of any previous Tolkien production. But, again, why should that even be an issue in 2022? You have to be truly, madly bigoted to care about the skin colour of a fictional elf or a dwarf.
The opposite charge, of course, is that Tolkien’s saga is a barely-concealed expression of white supremacism and an allegory for the division of the real world into races and tribes. Much has been made of the author’s decision as an Oxford don not to supervise the studies of the great Black intellectual Stuart Hall.
It is true that Hall’s love of modern critical theory was not to Tolkien’s taste. But the charge of racism does not stick. “I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones,” said the South African-born author in his 1959 address to Oxford, “and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature.”
In 1941, he wrote to his son Michael that “I have in this War a burning private grudge – which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler.” In a letter to Michael’s brother, Christopher in 1961, he again deplored the “treatment of colour” in South Africa.
Tolkien was certainly a conservative, on some matters a reactionary, and a self-declared “anarchist” in his recoil from modern state control which he regarded as the enemy of tradition, heritage and community. But he was no segregationist.
Indeed, one of the binding themes of his saga is the need for nations and tribes to co-exist – a universal challenge that is often dramatised in plotlines such as the love of the leader of the Men of the West, Aragorn, for the half-elf Arwen, daughter of Elrond. The Rings of Power stays true to this preoccupation: Arondir falls for Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), a village healer and mortal woman. As always in the world of Tolkien, the elves and dwarves struggle to collaborate: in episode two, we see Elrond, despatched to the underground kingdom of the dwarves, Khazad-dûm or Moria, to rekindle his friendship with Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur), yielding scenes that are both affecting and funny.
Soaring over the series like a dragon of the Withered Heath is the perennial question: why has Tolkien’s mythology dug its claws so deeply into the collective psyche, and for so long? It has been portrayed in every conceivable medium: radio; cartoon (Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 version of The Lord of the Rings being an honourable failure); film; music; and games. Indeed, the Swedish gaming giant, Embracer, has just bought Middle Earth Enterprises which owns the intellectual property rights to much of Tolkien’s writing, reportedly for something in the region of $2 billion.
It is odd to reflect that the world of Dungeons & Dragons, rival fantasy franchises such as Game of Thrones, and an astonishing amount of heavy metal would be unthinkable without the inspiration of a stick-in-the-mud Oxford don whose lectures the undergraduate Kingsley Amis found “incoherent and often inaudible”. Even Tolkien’s greatest admirers would not claim that his work is ambitious as literature per se. How then has it achieved such cultural dominion?
Part of the answer, I think, lies in his profound belief in fellowship, home and the quest for human connection. At King Edward’s School in Birmingham, he and his friends founded the T.C.B.S. or “Tea Club, Barrovian Society”, devoted to fun, friendship and story-telling – a tale recently dramatised in the movie Tolkien (2019), starring Nicholas Hoult. Two of the society’s four founding members, Robert Gilson and Geoffrey Bache Smith, died in the First World War – a trauma that shaped the rest of Tolkien’s life as it did the lives of so many of his contemporaries that survived (on this, John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth is masterly, and perhaps the best book yet written on the author).
As an Oxford scholar, Tolkien was at it again, forming the “Inklings” with C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams, who famously met at the Eagle and Child pub in St Giles’ Street. As Philip and Carol Zaleski recount in their comprehensive account of the group and its influence, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (2015): “They were twentieth century Romantics who championed imagination as the royal road to insight and the ‘medieval model’ as an answer to modern confusion and anomie.” They sought “to reclaim what Lewis called the ‘discarded image’ of a universe created, ordered and shot through with meaning.”
What seemed urgent to intellectuals in mid-century Oxford is now a central concern of cultural politics and polemic in 2022. It is no surprise that the author who invented the Shire should have resilient appeal in a world fraught with a sense of dislocation, impermanence and insecurity.
At the same time – and paradoxically – Tolkien’s imaginative universe meshes naturally and energetically with the new digital landscape. The author himself was almost Luddite in his suspicion of technology (“It is not unlikely,” he wrote in The Hobbit, “that [the Orcs] invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them.”). Yet, in its sheer enormity, level of detail, wealth of categorisation, multiple layers and levels, and boundless possibilities, the ever-expanding mythology of Middle-earth seemed to anticipate the scale and scope of the Internet.
Certainly, Tolkien’s work has obsessed and enthralled the tech generation; notably the billionaire entrepreneur, Peter Thiel, who named Mithril Capital after a precious metal found only in Khazad-dûm. Palantir, the data analytics giant founded by Thiel, Alex Karp and others in 2003, takes its name from the crystal globes wrought by the Noldor in Eldamar. It used to give “Save the Shire” T-shirts to visitors.
“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them”: The Rings of Power is the story behind that story, and, on the evidence so far, set fair to keep us richly entertained along the way. There is a little of Gollum in all of us: we still love our “precious”.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Official Competition (selected cinemas, video on demand)
From the very first moments of Official Competition, accompanied by Satie’s Gnossienne No 1, directors Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn lead us into a world of unhinged narcissism and paranoid ego. Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez) is an aging pharmaceutical tycoon, convinced that he is held in general contempt and that he must leave something of public worth behind him. What safer route than to finance a great movie? Er…
Enter the feted director Lola Cuevas, winner of the Palme d’Or, played with thrilling mania by Penélope Cruz in one of the performances of her career. Agreeing to make an adaptation of a novel which Suárez has not read but for which he has paid a fortune, she recruits two lead actors who could not be more different: Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), a big movie star who is always late and scorns fancy “method” acting, while Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez), is a self-consciously thespian believer in his art who refuses first-class travel (“I hate being forced to have privileges”).
Feeding on the two performers’ instant hostility towards one another, Cuevas proceeds to try to break them with her bonkers rehearsal techniques – which include suspending a boulder over their heads, and wrapping them together in cling film while she feeds their respective awards and trophies into a meat grinder (“Trust, trust, guys! I want you to love all autonomy, all of it!”). To reveal more of the plot would be criminal: but this is one of the funniest films I have seen in years.
The Boys from Brazil: Rise of the Bolsonaros (BBC Two, 5 September; all episodes iPlayer)
Will Jair Bolsonaro win a second term as president of Brazil? This terrific three-part documentary series is an excellent preparation for the first round of voting on 2 October, and shows to compelling effect how much is riding upon the contest between the far-right incumbent and his old foe, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva: not only the political complexion of the Brazilian government but the confidence of the global populist Right (witness the interviews with Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon) and the fate of the Amazon forest (Bolsonaro believes that Brazil’s national interest “isn’t in the Indian or the fucking tree. It’s in the minerals”).
Like Trump and Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro made his name as an entertainer, appearing on knockabout television shows that other politicians wouldn’t go near. Constrained by the rules governing political advertising, he made highly effective use of YouTube and WhatsApp, appealing to the “Big Interior” of the nation with his authenticity, opposition to élite corruption and ferocious traditionalism, presenting himself and his allies as “the doctors who will cure Brazil”. In Bannon’s words, he offered “an immediacy that you had not seen in politics in any nation on Earth.”
Before and after his triumph in the 2018 presidential election, Bolsonaro conducted himself like a poundland Vito Corleone, surrounding himself with three of his sons: Eduardo, Carlos and Flávio, all of whom have held political office but exercise much greater power as close advisers to their father. While Flávio has been embroiled in money laundering and embezzlement scandals, Eduardo (presently a federal deputy for São Paulo) is regarded as the heir-apparent: mobilising dreams among Brazilian nationalists of four consecutive presidential terms for the Bolsonaro clan.
The footage of ash from forest fires in the Amazon in 2019 shrouding São Paulo in darkness is a chilling omen of how bad such a dynastic ascendancy would be for Brazil, and for the world. More immediately, the series identifies a clear and present peril: if Bolsonaro loses next month, will the great admirer of Brazil’s military dictatorship really accept the results?
Ridley (ITV Hub)
Deep in a northern forest, the dead body of a farmer is discovered – and former detective, Alex Ridley (Adrian Dunbar) is called out of retirement by his friend and protégé DI Carol Farman (Bronagh Waugh) to help crack the case.
Dunbar is, of course, best known for his portrayal of Superintendent Ted Hastings in Line of Duty, the scourge of “bent coppers” and master of one-liners such as “Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey!” (he was also terrific as Claudius in the Young Vic’s outstanding production of Hamlet last year: see Creative Sensemaker, 7 October, 2021). As Ridley, he gets the chance to play a very different kind of character: reflective, worn through, broken by the death of his wife and daughter in an arson attack.
As the creator of Vera, writer Paul Matthew Thompson knows the tropes and tricks of the police procedural inside out and the first episode of his new series includes a fine twist. Each of the four instalments is a stand-alone two-hour story, sacrificing the power of the cliffhanger for the satisfaction of plot resolution. Fair to say that the biggest surprise for most viewers will be the excellence of Dunbar’s singing voice: in the first episode he performs ‘The Mountains of Mourne’ and ‘Coles Corner’, enriching our sense of Ridley’s damaged soul with the melancholy of the club crooner.
The Story of Russia – Orlando Figes (Bloomsbury)
One of the many strengths of this splendid primer is the skill with which its author identifies connections across centuries of Russian history. Thus, in his portrait of Catherine the Great, Orlando Figes explicitly compares the declaration of the Empress in 1767 that “Russia is a European state”, with the notion of a Europe “from the Atlantic to the Urals” proposed by Mikhail Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday.
As Figes notes, that idea now seems “utopian”, so comprehensively has Vladimir Putin unpicked Gorbachev’s legacy. “No other country has been so divided over its own beginnings,” he writes, or so buffeted by an ongoing identity crisis that is now being played out with horrendous consequences in Ukraine.
As a master of Russian and European history – try, for instance, his acclaimed Crimea: The Last Crusade (2010) – Figes is perfectly placed to trace the many ways in which its rulers have exploited the malleability of its past, weaving myths to serve their particular purposes. Putin, as he shows, is a historical jackdaw, borrowing whatever he needs from the past to buttress an increasingly paranoid and defensive version of Russia’s destiny:
“Russia appears to be trapped in a repeating cycle of its history,” he writes. “Slowly, [it] is retreating from Europe. An outcast from the European world it sought to join for much of its past, it must now find a new role as a large but fossil-fuel-dependent regional power between Europe and China.” As he concludes, “[Russia’s] history will never be the same again” – not least because, in his demented bid to conquer Ukraine, Putin has ensured that its own sense of nationhood and independence is stronger than ever.
And Finally: Matters of Life and Death – Henry Marsh (Jonathan Cape)
In the first two volumes of his memoirs – Do No Harm (2014) and Admissions (2017) – Henry Marsh began to do for neurosurgery what the late Oliver Sacks did for the sister discipline of neurology: guiding the uninitiated into a world of scientific complexity, challenging ethical decisions and the churning humanity that lurks within the impassive professional wielding the scalpel.
The story takes a dramatic turn in And Finally as Marsh is diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. At that moment, he soon grasps, he has unwittingly passed through a checkpoint: “Ah, I thought, I have crossed to the other side. I have become just another patient, another old man with prostate cancer, and I knew that I had no right to claim that I deserved otherwise.”
Now a member of the “underclass” of patients with treatable but probably incurable illnesses, he undergoes aggressive hormone treatment to deny the tumour the testosterone it craves, and then the additional unpleasantness of radiotherapy. As he takes stock of his new situation, “my former patients became reproachful ghosts who came to punish me”.
Naturally, his thoughts turn to mortality, and, in this respect, the book is a match for the late Paul Kalanithi’s extraordinary When Breath Becomes Air. With characteristic candour and eloquence, Marsh offers his reflections on assisted dying, and an admirably scientific case for clinical optimism in general: “Hope is a state of mind, and states of mind are physical states in our brains, and our brains are intimately connected to our bodies (and especially to our hearts).” One finishes the book full of admiration for his wit, empathy and accomplishments, hoping that his remission enables him (amongst much else) to keep publishing.
Nailing It – Rich Hall (Quercus)
Rich Hall has long been a familiar figure on British panel shows, especially QI, and a popular draw at comedy venues in this country. Like the late Bill Hicks, the Virginia-born comic is arguably more deeply cherished here than in the US.
What is still insufficiently appreciated is his prodigious talent as a writer. Like David Sedaris, Hall has a genius for finding humour and pathos in the everyday, and for unpacking the often hilarious undercurrents that flow beneath apparently routine conversations. In this memoir, he recalls moments in his life when he was required to “nail it” – not always succeeding, of course, but always conscious of what he stood to lose or gain.
Having trained as a journalist and hating the business of obituary writing (“cryptic, necrotic noodlings”) he ended up on a campus in Kansas pretending to be pastor, and baptising dogs (“…do you believe in the redemption of flea dip? The sanctity of the fire hydrant? The final squirrel?”). Thence he took to the road as a regular stand-up, staying “at cheap motels, the kind the Gideons Bible people bypassed, with stained bedspreads and carpeting as hideous as Bill Cosby’s sweaters.” He was hired by David Letterman, and lasted a season on Saturday Night Live. From such experiences were forged the priceless memories that fill these pages. Catch Rich Hall on tour from next Wednesday.
Refugees – Jimmy Cliff
One of the cinematic treats of the summer was the theatrical re-release of The Harder They Come (1972), in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Perry Henzell’s classic tale of Jamaican life, music and subcultures. The movie was widely credited with introducing reggae to a global audience. Half a century later, Its 78-year-old star, Jimmy Cliff is still producing fantastic music – and from its opening track, ‘Money Love’, Cliff’s first album in a decade draws the listener into a sonic world of infectious dance tracks, soulful lyrics and joy laced with serious political content. The man who wrote such all-time greats as ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ and ‘You Can Get It if You Really Want’ and helped to launch the career of Bob Marley has never rested on his laurels, and this 13-track release included collaborations with Wyclef Jean, Dwight Richards and his own daughter Lilty Cliff. True to its title, the album is intended to draw attention to the plight of the world’s dispossessed and displaced, in partnership with the UNHCR.
Mahler: Symphony No 4 – François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles
“What the Fourth Symphony does is to extend Mahler’s narrative of the simple life in two directions,” writes Norman Lebrecht in Why Mahler?, “attacking prejudice on earth and cruelty in heaven.” Such is the scale of the composer’s ambition in this, one of his most popular symphonies, here performed by Les Siècles, the orchestra founded in 2003 by French conductor François-Xavier Roth. The use of period instruments is especially striking in this case, allowing Mahler’s subtle phrasing to shine through – as is not always so with modern, more powerful instruments.
Composed in 1899 and 1900, the symphony is inspired by both the enchantment and trauma of childhood, and Roth’s reading gives full weight to both sides of this creative ambiguity. The final movement famously – and controversially – hinges upon a song, ‘Das himmlische Leben’ (‘Heavenly Life’), drawn from the early 19th-century collection of Germanic folk Lieder and poems, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. In which respect, this fine recording is much enhanced by the performance of celebrated soprano Sabine Devieilhe in its finale. (For more on the meaning of Mahler’s symphonies, check out David Vernon’s tremendous study, published earlier this year, Beauty and Sadness: Mahler’s 11 Symphonies.)
Will of the People – Muse
“Welcome to the desecration, baby/ We’ll build you right up and we’ll tear you down”: and welcome back to Muse in top form, after their disappointing metaverse experiment, Simulation Theory (2018). This is pure dystopian bombast with pretensions to rock opera – and all the better for it.
Hailing from Teignmouth in Devon, Matt Bellamy, Chris Wolstenholme and Dominic Howard have been plying their musical trade since 1994 and it is much to their credit that, as a band, they are still so enthused. In its anthemic stadium-readiness and political content, Will of the People hovers somewhere between Pink Floyd’s The Wall and vintage Queen. When Bellamy sings “I guess we should thank you… For playing your part in our liberation”, he sounds as though he is trying to channel the spirit of Freddie Mercury (and almost certainly is). But such creative cheek is, of course, the essence of successful pomp rock.
The album benefits, too, from its clear debt to heavy rock: the guitar solo on ‘You Make Me Feel Like It’s Halloween’ would not disgrace Eddie Van Halen, and the influence of AC/DC on the band’s ninth album is clear. But there are also imaginative strains of EDM on ‘Compliance’ and homage to Giorgio Moroder on ‘Euphoria’. The final track ‘We Are Fucking Fucked’ lives up to its title: ‘We’re at death’s door/ Another world war/ Wildfires and earthquakes I foresaw/ A life in crisis/ A deadly virus”. Yet, paradoxically, this is an exhilarating album: Armageddon with a smile on its face.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to email@example.com.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy Amazon Prime, Warner Bros, BBC, Alamy, Getty Image