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What ‘The Rings of Power’ Criticism Really Shows

photograph of The Rings of Power TV series on TV with remote control in hand

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The Rings of Power, a prequel to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, has come in for a barrage of criticism. Much of this is not simply about, say, the content of the series taken in isolation, but how it relates to Tolkien and – more nebulously – how it relates to current social issues.

Concerning Tolkien, Alexander Larman, writing in The Spectator, called this series “artistic necrophilia.” He seems to worry it’s expensive and lacks star power, while also suggesting that Tolkien’s Silmarillion, which this is based on, is not coherent enough. His worry, which he expresses more clearly elsewhere, is that Tolkien’s work is being diluted and we should avoid that.

Perhaps there is something to this, we might worry that too much Tolkien is a bit like producing new versions of Monet by using some AI tool; at some point, this wouldn’t have much to do with Monet’s vision and would lack something that his originals possess.

Though I disagree we have reached this point, I can see his concerns.

Ben Reinhard, writing in Crisis, thinks that, in the hands of these writers, “Tolkien’s moral and imaginative universe is simply gutted.” His concern is that the plot lines and characters are new – perhaps, supposedly, based on Tolkien, but failing to capture the true meaning of Tolkien. It is, he thinks, stripped of the values Tolkien cared about.

This evidence for this, though, is mixed at best. He has a problem with Nori, the Harfoot (a proto-Hobbit), transgressing boundaries and showing a disdain for her staid and conservative society. (Well, he might want to meet some of the Hobbits in Tolkien’s trilogy.) And is Galadriel just some modern Girl Boss for those whose political engagement goes about as far as having a Ruth Bader Ginsberg bobblehead? Maybe. But we can’t judge that off of a few episodes. He complains that she isn’t the serene vision she is in the Lord of the Rings, but it shouldn’t surprise us that a character has to age into such grace (the show is, after all, set five thousand years earlier).

Perhaps the most contentious criticism concerns race and other social justice issues – and how these should relate to Tolkien’s original work.

Brandon Morse, in a couple of pieces, alleges that this show is just another example of something being “ripped out from the past in order to be revamped and remade for modern times, and this always includes an injection of woke culture and social justice values.” He wrote this based on the trailer, which appears to be “woke” simply because it features a female warrior and people of color.

Morse’s claim that when diversity is the focus, the storyline suffers amounts to sheer speculation – three episodes in and there is certainly a story developing. And I have no idea how anyone could determine how good the story might be from a few minutes of trailer.

But these complaints haven’t been taking place just in the pages of magazines on the right of the political spectrum. Plenty of mainstream ink has been spilled about the relationship between this show and social justice issues – some of it more worthy of discussion than Morse’s screed. At CNN, John Blake has documented the culture wars breaking out over the show, surveying many of the opinions I discuss here. But even his framing of the debate is more contentious than it need be: “Does casting non-White actors enhance the new series, or is it a betrayal of Tolkien’s original vision?”

Why does enhancement need to be the issue: why can’t we just cast non-White actors and expect them to be no more or less enhancing than White actors?

Here are some other ways of putting the question. Ismael Cruz Cordóva plays an elf in the new adaptation. He said he wanted to be an elf, but people told him “elves don’t look like you.” But is there any reason why elves shouldn’t look like him? They should be tall, they should be elegant and enchanting, but why would they need to be white? Even if they are white in the books, does that whiteness play any particularly important role?

Some think so. Louis Markos thinks we lose our ability to suspend disbelief when we see a non-white elf. It somehow jolts us out of the story. But I’m not sure why this should be true, beyond a personal view that this is what elves should look like.

We all face issues about what characters should look like – we read a book and have an image in our mind, then we see the character on screen and they look very different. For many of us, most of the time, we can easily adapt.

(More pointedly, Mark Burrows, also cited in the CNN article, is confused by people who can accept walking tree-people but who think “darker skinned dwarves are a bit far-fetched.”) It seems to me that if we don’t think whiteness is essential to elves being elves, then we shouldn’t have any problem with non-white actors playing elves. Add to this that representation is important – a kid who looks Cordóva, too, can dream of being an elf – and the argument doesn’t get us far.

And if we do think elves are essentially white, we might face bigger issues: is Tolkien, in presenting elves as superior, a racist? There is certainly an argument to be made here, but we would like to hope not, and we would like to hope that even if this were the case, his art needn’t be bound to those attitudes.

Part of my concern here is with knee-jerk responses to a show that’s just getting started. As Adam Serwer of The Atlantic notes we’re beginning to see “reflexive conservative criticism of any art that includes even weakly perceptible progressive elements.” And our own A.G. Holdier has demonstrated how this conservative nostalgia – for a whiter media – can lead to moral risks.

Reinhard admits that his more “paranoid and conspiratorial” tendencies – which he does his best to keep down – show him “Luciferian images and undercurrents.” I wonder whether, if he could keep those thoughts at bay, he, and other critics, might try to watch the show in a slightly more generous mood. When all you have is a hammer, everything might look like a nail – which is why those who go into this show expecting to see wokeness everywhere might not have all that much fun. Better to suspend both belief and your commitment to the culture wars, you might enjoy watching it a bit more.

Jane Austen and Moral Instability

portrait engraving of Jane Austen

“Instability” is not a word many would associate with Jane Austen. Film and television adaptations have cemented her reputation within pop culture; we picture rolling hills, country balls, and restrained drama played out in charming domestic interiors. She seems uninterested in the Napoleonic wars, which were playing out just across the channel, or any of the weighty political matters that concerned the more “serious” writers of her day. She does seem interested in social unity, usually represented by a wedding, which punctuates the end of each narrative. Just desserts are always doled out by the narrator, and we always know which characters to root for. For these reasons, her name has become a byword for moral stability, and her version of the English countryside has come to represent a time when society wasn’t subject to rupture and confusion, as it is today.

If the wide array of contemporary Austen-themed conduct books indicates anything, she’s still seen as a touchstone for moral behavior. Her words have been used to demystify cooking, sex, and everything in between. This flourishing industry casts her as a sweet and world-savvy aunt, and further suggests that her novels can be pulverized into idiomatic quotes without context to serve a unified (if somewhat patchwork) Austenian ethic of the everyday.

And yet, beneath this seemingly tranquil surface lies a battleground for radical and conservative academics. Looking more closely at her works, it’s easy to see why; what at first appears a unified moral vision is anything but.

Attributing a single moral philosophy to Austen is notoriously difficult. There are overarching moral messages that connect her novels, but what may be the subject of mockery in one text is celebrated within another, or even within the same text. The unstable positioning of the Gothic in Austen’s first published novel, Northanger Abbey, is just one example. The novel’s heroine, Catherine Morland, is a voracious reader of pulpy romances, which leads her to commit a series of social blunders. She suspects that her love interest’s father murdered his own wife, in a plot lifted directly from the sensational literature of her day. But even though Catherine’s suspicions are proven false, the widowed gentleman proves to be cruel in other ways, which indicates that there is a glimmer of insight in even the most ridiculous Gothic fiction.

Even Austen’s engagement with class is hardly as black-and-white as it may appear. Often cited as the most fundamentally conservative element of her fiction, social and economic distinction are generally portrayed as the natural state of society, even beneficial to those at the bottom. Members of the landed elite like Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice and Mr. Knightley from Emma especially embody this paternalism. And yet Austen’s final published novel, Persuasion, celebrates the meritocratic royal navy, and denigrates the landed elite as undeserving of their wealth and privilege.

Academics from both sides of the political spectrum have claimed her as one of their own, a conflict which came to a head with queer theorist Eve Kosofky Segwick’s groundbreaking article on Austen, “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” in which she explores the cultural history of masturbation through Austen’s Sense & Sensibility. The mere title (the actual paper had yet to be published) prompted conservative academic Robert Kimball to write Tenured Radicals, a pearl-clutching polemic on the moral bankruptcy of leftists in the academy, who dared link a bulwark of old-fashioned English morality like Austen with such a depraved topic. Kosofy’s article, and Austen by association, clearly came to represent something much larger within intellectual discourse. Both Kosofky and Kimball had completely different views of this body of work, which again speaks to Austen’s versatility as a writer and as a moral touchstone.

Like all great literature, her work opens the way for a myriad of interpretations. She was a novelist, not a philosopher, and was therefore not obliged to lay out her understanding of the world in treatise-form. As Thomas Keymer mentions in his book Jane Austen: Writing, Society, Politics, Austen recoiled from moralizing novels of her contemporaries, like those of Hannah More, for their Evangelical zeal and purely didactic approach to fiction. She herself wrote to her sister Cassandra, “I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.” She is not calling for moral and imaginative complacency, but for wide-ranging sympathy and understanding.

Helena Kelly’s 2016 book Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, is described by Google Books as “A brilliant, illuminating reassessment of the life and work of Jane Austen that makes clear how Austen has been misread for the past two centuries and that shows us how she intended her books to be read, revealing, as well, how subversive and daring — how truly radical — a writer she was.” The impulse to claim her as a “secret radical” is perhaps as misguided as Kimball’s attempt to claim her for conservatives, compelling as Kelly’s interpretation may be. We can never completely reconstruct how Austen understood the world through her novels and surviving letters, but we can understand her as a three-dimensional person who may have had radical thoughts while still being a product of her time. When we move past our preconceived notion of her as a fixed moral touchstone, we can engage with her work in exciting new ways, which ultimately sharpens our understanding of how to be a person in an increasingly complicated world.

How Should Progressives Talk Trump?

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States has further divided an already deeply divided country.  Specifically, the question of how, precisely, to respond to the election result has fractured a large group of deeply despondent progressives.  One segment of this population maintains that the behavior of Donald Trump, not only during the election, but also throughout his entire lifetime, demonstrates a profound lack of respect and regard for the well-being of women, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, Muslims, impoverished individuals, and members of the LGBTQ community.  They argue that, because Trump supporters don’t seem bothered by this behavior, and because some of them even engage in it themselves, Trump supporters should be called out for what they are: racists and bigots.

Continue reading “How Should Progressives Talk Trump?”