There is so much inherent virtue built into Middle Earth that even an outline-based narrative, such as Rings of Power, should allow some beauty to bleed through. While it will never repeat the moral depths of the original narrative, I will watch and hope for more.
Rings of Power is unquestionably a beautiful TV show. You can see where the enormous budget went – production quality. After watching the first two episodes, I was in awe of the visuals. The elven kingdoms and dwarf mines are captivating. They are as good as, if not better, than Peter Jackson’s masterpiece from the turn of the century (my favorite film of all time). Yet, for all of the visual splendor that Rings of Power yields, the story thus far feels a bit hollow and manufactured for this Tolkien fan. I think it’s because the writers are products of a generation that doesn’t understand the substance and significance of transcendent virtue.
My theory is bolstered by the initial reviews for The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power are mixed. While critics seem generally pleased, Tolkien fans remain cynical. As of writing this article, Rotten Tomatoes presented 84% approval from critics but only 39% approval from fans; this is a notable disparity. Why? Because whether they know it or not, the devoted Tolkien fan craves the depth, soul, and virtue that only the narrative based on the original novels can produce; the bar is set very high.
Recently, I was challenged to compare and contrast the terms “values” and “virtues”. While the task seemed trite at first, after some consideration, I was struck by how opposing the two words are and how interchangeably they are used in our current day. Admittingly, I have been guilty of treating the two as synonyms in many cases. Yet, in Western Philosophical Classical thought (which Tolkien would have been very skilled in) virtue is understood to be an alignment of the person’s will and actions with that of the divine. In contrast, values are things a person believes. The former is vertically aligned, and the latter is horizontally focused, a byproduct of our post-modern age.
Why does this matter? Because what makes Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings, work so well is that the primary thrust of the narrative is guided by virtue and not personal pragmatism. Subsequently, Jackson’s films did a wonderful job of capturing this. Consider for a moment the virtues that drove the actions of the primary characters in Tolkien’s narrative. Aragorn sought justice, peace, and honor. Samwise displays unwavering fortitude. Frodo exhibits self-sacrifice, temperance, courage, and wisdom. The characters often do the right thing, because it is the right thing as defined by God’s law and objective moral code. In the face of pure evil, they maintain a deep conviction that goodness and providence will prevail over darkness. It is these virtues (and many others I didn’t name) that make the novel so influential, timeless, and epic.