Three episodes into the Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power, it's very clear that the writers of this show are trying to capture the central theological framework of Tolkien in their story. Tolkien's view of providence and the portrayal of the faithful remnant in Numenor is simply getting him right, at least so far. I was expecting this to be completely insensitive to Tolkien's major themes, perhaps even contradicting them, as Peter Jackson did numerous times in his original trilogy (less so in the Hobbit, ironically, given how much more hate there is from Tolkien fans about that). I could list numerous things:
1. Aragorn as reluctant king rather than biding his time for the right moment to assume his rightful throne while working behind the scenes to meet his kingly responsibilities, as in the books
2. Eowyn as seeking the second-wave feminist goal of trying to make women be like men rather than Tolkien's view of recognizing differences between men and women as something to affirm in women as equally good to any virtues more typical of men
3. Faramir's reduction to being a second-rate Boromir rather than the faithful remnant within Gondor who valued the right things
4. the Ents' motives for helping at Helm's Deep being presented as a hasty decision, completely contrary to their character
5. the presence of any elves besides Legolas at Helm's Deep running contrary to the entire theme in Tolkien of the elves in the Third Age largely hiding and avoiding the evil that was on the rise
I don't see anything as egregiously offensive as that in this show.
Some are upset that this show has been forced into inventing their own details to fill in, because the Tolkien estate refuses to let them use Tolkien's actual second-age materials outside the appendices, but that is the fault of Tolkien's heirs, not the creators of this show. What matters more is whether it is consistent with the world Tolkien gives us, and so far it mostly is. And what matters even more than that is whether the moral and theological framework is compatible with Tolkien's, and it seems from the third episode that they are actually trying hard to get it right.
Now there are a few things they could do to alienate Tolkien fans that I sure hope they do not do. If Meteor Man turns out to be any of the Istari other than Alatar or Pallando (or whichever other names Tolkien used -- I know there are several versions, and one version does have them appearing in the Second Age), then there is reason to be outraged. I think he is more likely to be Sauron than Gandalf, though, but we'll see.
If they don't follow through on the promise they have made that this is a transformation of a very imperfect Galadriel into what we see in the Lord of the Rings story, then that would be bad. But I am taking them at their word on this and thinking the claims of critics are simply premature. This is the Galadriel who becomes that Galadriel, and these experiences will serve to explain why she would know herself well enough to think Frodo's offer of the ring to her would play to all her bad tendencies. They have to had existed sometime in her long life for that whole scene in the Lord of the Rings to make sense.
Some I see are complaining that the show is woke, which of course is a stupid term at this point in its unclarity and lack of precision. I can think of a couple things that the now-orthodox social justice movement in our society wants to see that this show is doing, but they seem hardly concerning to any healthy conservative on social justice issues. There might be some issues on faithfulness to Tolkien's world, but I'm conflicted on that, even.
I just read a thoughtful post on the Pop Culture and Philosophy blog about the concept of balance in the Force in Star Wars. I’ve been struggling to understand that concept myself as I’ve been reading through a lot of the Star Wars comics, both Legends canon and new canon, and thinking them through in light of the movies, Clone Wars show, and Rebels show. I don’t think the post I linked to has it right, but I’m linking to it as a thoughtful piece trying to come to grips with this issue. A quick Google search revealed quite a number of other views on this, again none of it seeming to me to get things quite right. So I wanted to put some of my own thoughts on this into writing, however, so here are some rough musings attempting to put many months of thought on this into something somewhat digestible.
Here are several things that didn’t make a lot of sense to me, when put together:
We were at the bookstore yesterday looking through the science fiction and fantasy section, and I decided to get the one-volume Chronicles of Narnia edition, given that several of ours are falling apart or not even around anymore, mostly because of the efforts of one particular child. Most annoyingly, it has the wrong order of the books, so I had to write the correct order in the table of contents so the kids know what order to read them in.
Now I have good friends who like to support the publisher’s chronological order for reading these books, and I don’t really hold it against them, but they’re simply wrong. The books should be read in the order of publication. Sometimes people point to a letter Lewis wrote suggesting that it can be read in chronological order, and there really are times when you can appeal to authorial intent to establish something in the canon of the fiction. For example, Dumbedore is gay and always was. How do we know that? The author said so. Period. She made the fiction, and she can tell us what’s true in it. It’s her intellectual property, and she has the right to say what’s true in her fiction.
But this is a separate question. Lewis was trying to dissolve a dispute between a mother and child about what order to read the books in, and the reason he gave was silly. Here is the letter he sent to the child who wrote to ask about this:
I was thinking last night about the new show Once Upon a Time, and it occurred to me that it might provide a really good illustration of the difference between externalism and internalism in epistemology. (I haven't seen last night's episode yet, so please no one spoil it for me.)
Internalism holds that what justifies our beliefs or makes them rational or what grounds our knowledge must be something internal to our thinking, in other words something where the reasons why it is justified, rational, or grounded are accessible to our conscious thought. We have to be able to see why our beliefs are grounded for those beliefs to be grounded. We have to be aware of what makes it a good belief for it to be a good belief. It wouldn't be enough to have reliable belief-forming mechanisms (such as senses that reliably give me the right information).
Externalism holds that there might be things make our beliefs justified or rational or grounding our knowledge that are not accessible to our conscious thought. We don't have to be aware of what justifies us in thinking something for it to be a justified belief. For it to be well-grounded knowledge, we don't have to know that our knowledge is grounded in reliable practices and thus why it is well-grounded knowledge. It just has to be grounded in the right sort of ways.
Perhaps the biggest place of disagreement comes over how to respond to skepticism. If internalism is true, I would have to prove that my senses are reliable for them to ground my knowledge, which of course I can't do, because I might be in a virtual reality for all I can know by internalist standards. There are internalists would would disagree, but a lot of philosophers have concluded that internalism leads hopelessly to skepticism, because I can't prove that my senses are reliable, and just having reliable senses isn't enough. I'd have to be able to prove it, which I can't do. But externalism can handle skeptical arguments by pointing out that I can know all sorts of stuff even without being able to prove it. It doesn't mean I can prove I know things. It just means that skeptical arguments fail, because the skeptic has to show that my senses are unreliable to show that I don't know things. With internalism, all the skeptic has to show is that I don't know if my senses are unreliable. With externalism, the skeptic has to show that they are in fact unreliable. So the burden of proof on the skeptic is higher with externalism.
Once Upon a Time provides a nice illustration of externalist epistemology. The basic premise of the show is that the Evil Queen has cursed all the characters in the Enchanted Forest by bringing them to a terrible place where there are no happy endings except for her. That terrible place is Storybrooke, Maine, in a world otherwise very much like our current day. The Evil Queen is the mayor. The story shifts back and forth between events in the characters' lives back in the Enchanted Forest and events in their lives now in Storybrooke, where no one is supposed to remember their previous lives except the Evil Queen.
Snow White and Prince Charming are the Evil Queen's primary targets. She wants revenge against Snow White for something we haven't seen yet (as least as of last week's episode). She wants to ensure that they are not together. They have no memory of each other, certainly not of having been married to each other. He was in a coma when the show began, and apparently he had been since the curse began. She has no memory of him. When he awakes from his coma, he has no memory, until the Evil Queen at some point seems to have interfered to give him memories of being married to someone else, someone who turns out to have been engaged to him in the Enchanted Forest before he broke it off to marry Snow White. But when they meet up, they feel such a longing for each other, as if they have always been meant to be together.
Prince Charming tries to rebuild his marriage, but he can't ignore his feelings for Snow White. This woman whom he (falsely) thinks is his wife brings out no current feelings, but he seems to have memories of feelings for her, and he tries to make it work. Technically, he's living in an adulterous relationship with her while thinking his feelings for Snow White are the adulterous ones. But Snow White is really his wife, and some process within him is leading him to think he should be with her. But he has no access to what would be leading him to that. An externalist would say that he has some process within him that he can't understand that's leading him to know that Snow White is the one for him, and his false beliefs about his past do not interfere with that knowledge. An internalist has to say that his most justified beliefs are the false ones.
So suppose there's some reliable process whereby his body's memories of his love for Snow White are leading him to know that she's really the one he's supposed to be with. His resistance to this woman who isn't his wife, whom he believes is his wife, is then grounded in processes that he has no access to. An externalist could say that his belief that he should be with Snow White (whom he knows now by another name, of course) is justified by these processes he's unaware of, and it's bogus to rely on his memories for the belief that he's married to the other woman. An internalist would say that his belief that he is married to the other woman is in fact false but is justified. Which belief is justified, then, depends on which epistemology is correct.
Which view you adopt would seem to have significant moral implications. He's doing something clearly wrong, according to internalism, by having clandestine romantic interactions with Snow White. But what if he has knowledge on some level that can somehow cancel his seeming knowledge (that isn't knowledge at all) that this is adultery? Those are false beliefs, based on false memories. If he doesn't know those things but falsely believes them, and he also knows on some level that Snow White is his true love, is it enough to remove the wrongness of the adultery? Perhaps that's too much, but it does seem to be ethically different in some ways.
In a paragraph in my dissertation, I explain a (supposedly) pre-theoretical approach to mixed race that made sense to me when I was a kid. It seemed to me that a helpful way to explain what I would have thought (and what many Americans seem to me to think) is sort of parallel to the way Tolkien speaks of half-elves in his fictional world. In the process, I realized how Tolkien speaks of this is much more complicated than I'd though, and I couldn't in good conscience leave it the way I had initially stated it, so it led to a long clarificatory footnote that I thought a number of the readers of this blog might appreciate for its geekiness.
Here is the sentence in the text of my dissertation that led to this:
"I confess that this is how I thought of these matters in my unreflective, supposedly-pretheoretical analysis of things in high school. I would have taken a Barack Obama to be half-black in the same way that I took Elrond in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings to be half-elf, his daughter Arwen to be three-quarters elf, and her children with Aragorn to be three-eighths elf."
I realized there was a complicating factor, though. Aragorn had an elvish ancestor as well, and I wanted to check to see how far back it was. In the process, I was reminded that Elrond himself wasn't the product of a full elf and a full human, and it led to a much longer and much geekier footnote than I ever expected to be putting into my dissertation, but it's hard to be fair to Tolkien without acknowledging this, and it turns out to illustrate a different phenomenon in how racial classification works in some places outside the U.S. Here is the footnote as it stands now:
"Tolkien buffs may quibble here, and they would be right to, for two reasons. (1) Aragorn was the sixteenth in the line of Elros, Elrond's brother, and thus he himself has elvish ancestry, even if minuscule (I believe one over two the thirty-second power). (2) Elrond and Elros themselves weren't exactly half-elves to begin with. Their father was actually half-elf, and their mother was one-fourth human, one-eighth Maia (a kind of lesser angelic-like divinity), and five-eighths elf. That would make Elrond and Elros nine-sixteenths elf, three-eighths human, and one-sixteenth Maia. Arwen's son twenty-five sixty-fourths elf, by these measurements, not the three-eighths that would result if Elrond were literally half elf. But we get the language of half-elves for a number of Tolkien characters with mixed ancestry, regardless of actual percentages. What this suggests is that the culture of Tolkien's world seems to treat someone as half-elf for having any level of mixed ancestry, eschewing a one-drop rule in either direction but insisting on little expression of nuance or gradation among those labeled half-elves. This would presumably operate something like the label 'brown' in some Latin American and Caribbean countries, applying to anyone of mixed heritage regardless of the particular number of ancestors of each race."
This doesn't (at this point) make it into my dissertation, but compare Rowling's terminology in the Harry Potter books. There are two systems of classification, the one that is dominant until Voldemort's rise to power (and presumably again afterward) and the one operating during his reign of terror. In the method of classification that we learn throughout most of the series, someone with a magical parent and a Muggle parent is a half-blood. Harry's mother, Severus Snape, and Voldemort himself are half-bloods. Someone with no magical parentage but who has magic is called a Muggle-born. But in the generation after a half-blood, if the other parent is magical, there is no discussion of being a half-blood. Harry himself is never called a half-blood by anyone in the mainstream of wizarding society. There's no one-drop rule in either direction, but there's a sufficient-drop rule apparently, because once you get to three-fourths magical parentage you're no longer consider partial, and even if you have no magical parentage you're treated as magical in one sense. It's what you can do and not your parentage that makes the difference in terms of the law.
But then there's Voldemort's regime. Muggle-borns are Mudbloods by the pureblood mindset even before Voldemort's return to power, but once he takes control of things they simply become Muggles. They're assumed to have stolen their wands, because they're not magical. Half-bloods (other than Voldemort and Snape) are sometimes called Mudbloods, and Harry (who had a full magical parent and a Muggle-born magical parent) is considered a half-blood, because his mother was a Muggle.
There's something more like the one-drop rule operating here, although not quite. But neither of these systems of classification works out quite like Tolkien's. And keep in mind that elves in Tolkien don't think of humans as corrupting or impure. A half-elf can choose to be mortal or to be an elf in ways that don't involve just legal status. It affects whether they become mortal. Arwen, with much more elf ancestry than human, still could chose to become mortal. There's nothing parallel to that in Rowling's classifications. Perhaps if we had enough evidence for how half-orcs were classified (there are only a couple suggestions in Tolkien that there are such things but no clear cases where it's more than just simple one-human, one-orc parentage). If he treated three-fourths orcs as half-orcs in a case where the human is mixed with something seen as corrupting, we'd have a good test case for whether his principle would expand to other cases of mixing. But I know of nothing in his fictional world that gets any more complex than simple one-one mixing except when it comes to elves (and the one Maia in the line of Elrond).
This entry will spoil one of the major plot elements of the new Harry Potter film, The Prisoner of Azkaban (and I assume the book too, though I haven't read it), so don't read any further if you don't want to ruin it. It might also ruin my favorite episode of Andromeda and one of the most interesting elements of Babylon 5, but you can avoid that by skipping the last part (when I address other movies and TV shows) if you just want to read what I have to say about Harry Potter and the philosophy of time involved.
Now that I've had a couple weeks to think since having seen the third episode in Peter Jackson's visualization of the best novel in history (Tolkien saw it as one novel), I've finally put together my thoughts on the overall project. I haven't seen every extended scene in The Two Towers extended edition yet (but have seen all the completely new scenes), and the final version of The Return of the King isn't done yet, but here's what I've come up with.
I should say that almost all of what I say in this is a critical evaluation of what I didn't like, focusing on the more deep and meaningful things Jackson left out or ruined. I haven't focused as much on things I did like (which I should probably do at some point just for balance, though that sort of thing is much harder for an ISTJ inspector/troubleshooter), so it might be easy to get the impression that I didn't like these movies. That would be a mistake. I enjoyed them thoroughly. The Two Towers was the most disappointing of them all, and I still look forward to going through the special features of the extended edition with a fine-toothed comb when I get it, as I did with The Fellowship of the Ring.
I also haven't bothered as much with things I was just disappointed not to see. The important stuff that really should have been there is my focus in these reflections, including significant character-twisting, huge Tolkien themes that were ignored or contradicted, and major plot points that were dismissed as unimportant but were in fact crucial to the storyline. As always, feedback and evaluation are welcome.
I have to say that I very much enjoyed Peter Jackson's take on The Lord of the Rings, and I think he did an excellent job capturing the feel of most of the books. The casting was largely excellent, the look of Middle-Earth was far better than I could have imagined, and the visual effects, of course, were stunning.
What I've been wanting to write up for a while are the things that disappointed me. These fall along a few different axes, with some of them more important than others, and I wanted to compare how Jackson did with the different films in terms of how devastating his changes were to the story and the world of Tolkien. Some of them were downright awful, and others were just annoying. I should say before I start that I am a Tolkien purist in the sense that Tolkien created an entire world, with the relations between the races, the character of each character, and the events throughout the story all contributing to grander themes and what might be called the over-story to the whole epic. Any change that sacrifices on that gets my condemnation. Any change irrelevant to that is merely an annoyance at missing a fun component of the story, sometimes a particularly endearing piece.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.