How Faithful Is The Rings of Power to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Anti-Statism?
Film and TV adaptions of literary works typically take one of two paths.
They either try to be faithful to the events and themes of the source material, or they creatively reinvent the work to make a different point or even mock the original story. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune would be an example of the former. The 1997 adaption of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is in the latter camp.
Sitting somewhere in between these two poles is Amazon’s new The Rings of Power, which debuted earlier this month. The show depicts J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings about the pre–Lord of the Rings history of the fictional Middle Earth’s Second Age.
As someone who has only skimmed the appendixes at the end of The Return of the King, and not read the much lengthier, posthumously published Silmarillion, I can’t weigh in on the show’s fidelity to the Second Age’s history and characters.
The consensus seems to be the show is mostly succeeding at presenting a Middle Earth in its Second Age, in the words of National Review‘s Jack Butler, “at once familiar to viewers and novel.”
I can, however, weigh in on its faithfulness to a theme that bookends the story in The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien’s celebration of freedom against arbitrary government interference. Here too, it appears that The Rings of Power echoes the books’ anti-statism, but from a novel angle.
Notwithstanding all the wars and kings and whatnot, The Lord of the Rings is not primarily a political text. The real conflicts in the books either transcend the political to focus on a more elemental war of good and evil or center on internal personal struggles of virtue and vice.
Fleshing out any political themes requires some interpretive license.
It’s not helped by Tolkien’s real-world politics defying easy characterization beyond anti-modernism. The author described his own views as somewhere between anarchy and “unconstitutional” monarchy. One Twitter user speculated recently that the author would be a swing Green-Tory voter in the U.K.
Tolkien did rail explicitly against the evils of statism, something almost totally absent from his idyllic Shire. It’s a close-knit, largely closed community that manages to run itself in a remarkably anarchistic fashion.
“The Shire at this time had hardly any ‘government.’ Families for the most part managed their own affairs,” reads the prologue in The Fellowship of the Ring.
There’s a mayor, but it’s mostly a ceremonial position. A police force of “Shirriffs” exists, but they wear no uniforms and don’t seem to do much policing either. They’re described as “more concerned wit
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