The saga begins, perhaps intelligently, with a glimpse of the familiar. A girl with hair that can only be described as golden sits beside a stream, so picturesque in its rural aesthetic that it feels more like a dream sequence than a memory. We don’t know this girl, this Galadriel, but of course we do Galadriel—and this girl is immediately, undoubtedly, Galadriel, the eventual royal elf played by Cate Blanchett in Peter Jackson’s Honor Lord of the Rings movie. As her brother teaches the young elf a lesson in hope and perseverance, Amazon’s monumental fantasy series That Rings of power makes its intent clear from the start: the series will use every possible resource, both monetary and narrative, to evoke the hand of author JRR Tolkien guiding its production. But emulation can only accomplish so much.
What made Jackson’s film so unique was Jackson’s ability to evoke Tolkien’s sensibilities without trying to be Hi M. His films felt both reverent and separate, unique, enjoyed apart from the books. (Lots of fans, including the man who played Frodo Baggins, will admit they’ve never even read the original series.) Perhaps a religious analogy best explains the complicated nature of this endeavor: LotR fans want communion, a unique encounter with the object of their devotion, but not for any interpreter to function as God himself. That would be blasphemy. Where is the line between worship and invention Rings of power will either stagger or fly. And – to top it all off – the show will have to reassure viewers who may not know about Middle-earth at all.
And so this opening sequence is essential, in which an elderly Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) recounts the beginning of the Second Age, a period many years before the events of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. She describes the rise of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord and his predecessor LotR‘s primary antagonist, Sauron. After he destroys the trees Laurelin and Telperion in the elven home of Valinor, aka The Undying Lands, the elves—including Galadriel’s brother—set sail for Middle-earth and battle Morgoth’s orc forces in a war that killed thousands and lasted for centuries. After Morgoth’s defeat, the wizard Sauron rose in his place, and after her brother fell at Sauron’s hand, Galadriel swore (literally) to take up her sword. But after leading her battalion on a wild goose chase around Middle-Earth, her followers have grown weary.
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In the icy lands of Forodwaith, she and her party explore a deserted orc citadel where they discover Sauron’s mysterious sigil carved in ice. “He was here,” Galadriel says, demanding that her party rest before chasing the wizard father north, where it will surely be even colder. Her guard protests; the company exceeded their orders months ago. But she insists, however deeply she yearns to go home, that she cannot give up her quest until “every vestige of our enemy is defeated.” Unfortunately, Galadriel has to interrupt her inspirational speech to kill a snow troll, which proves the last straw for her comrades. They lay down their weapons; if she wishes to pursue Sauron further, she must go alone.
Galadriel is stubborn, but she is no fool. She will not survive among the blizzard alone, nor can she face Sauron with anything but her brother’s dagger. And so she temporarily leaves her mission to travel to Lindon, the capital of the High Elves, where she meets an old friend: Elrond (Robert Aramayo), whom many will recognize as the eventual Rivendell Elf ruler and father of Arwen. But here he is young, many years from the birth of his daughter and the Third Age Fellowship of the Ring. To Galadriel, he reveals that High King Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker) is not entirely happy with her insistence on hunting Sauron, risking not only her own life and limb, but that of the army. She has repeatedly transgressed every limitation placed in her path, making the king’s praise for her victories a grace rather than a true congratulation.
At the ceremony, Galadriel struggles to stifle her instincts. When the king bends to place a gold wreath on her head, she resists bowing to him, and their gazes wage a silent battle for dominance. When he finally announces that she and her fellow warriors will be rewarded for their bravery with a trip to Valinor, to the immortal lands, even Galadriel cannot hide her feelings. Valinor is her home; she has longed for it for centuries. Perhaps only Elrond understands the position this puts her in: fulfill her heart’s deepest desire, or carry out the mission she promised her brother’s corpse she would complete?
Elsewhere, in Tirharad in the Southland, the relationship between elf and human hangs on a razor’s edge. We are introduced to Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova), a Silvan Elf from Mirkwood, tasked with scouting the Southlands and essentially keeping an eye on the humans, many whose ancestors fought on Morgoth’s behalf years ago. The people feel suffocated and unjustly oppressed on behalf of old grudges; for the elves, who live far longer than humans, the past does not feel so distant. “One day our true king will return and pry us right out from under your pointed boots,” a tavern patron spits in Arondir’s face. But his insolence does not offend the elf, who has been given fairly close with some of these underlings – particularly the human woman Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), with whom he has developed an Arwen-Aragorn-like flirtation. (Though it’s hard to call it flirting; for most of episode 1, they exchange little more than uncomfortably long looks.) Arondir’s fellow elven scout is convinced that this battle will end in death, as will the pitiful pair of goblins-and- men before it , but Arondir has no chance to defend his feelings until news arrives from the High King: Now that Galadriel and her company are sailing to the Undying Lands, the war is deemed over. The outposts will be disbanded, meaning the elves will leave the southland and return home.
Arondir’s warden insists that the patrolman should be thankful that he never has to see humans again, as “the blood of those who stood with Morgoth still darkens their veins.” But Arondir does not believe that humans are so inherently evil; if so why is he attracted to bronwyn? Of course, that could be because her son is probably, maybe, definitely hiding an evil sword in the floorboards of the barn, but she seems cute too!
As they scout out the nearby town where Bronwyn grew up – and where mysterious dark forces are at work – Arondir gently confronts Bronwyn about her people’s connection to Morgoth. She is offended by mere association with the villain’s name. Her people are good people. Arondir agrees, but then again, he doesn’t know about that sword yet.
Meanwhile, miles away, in the land of Rhovanion, the nomadic Harfoots – ancestors of hobbits, with the hairy feet to match – emerge from their hiding places in a lovely scene of cottagecore whimsy. Their faces are flushed and smeared with dirt, their hair tufted and uncombed, their baskets and wheelbarrows and bowls filled with root vegetables and berries and snails, the lush vegetation of their surroundings woven—literally—into their clothes and furniture. Here we first meet Nori (Markella Kavenagh), our Bilbo/Frodo stand-in, the only one among her relatives who seems keen on – as any Baggins would support – a good adventure. Her laughter punctuates the glorious score by Bear McCreary, sure to become a favorite among study groups everywhere.
Her fellow Harfoots dismiss her insatiable curiosity, but Harfoot elder Sadoc Burrows (Lenny Henry) finally drops a juicy bit of neighborhood gossip: The heavens and their stars are looking strange these days. And the travelers who passed by with giant antlers on their backs? An unusual sight at this time of year. There is something wrong. Something is about to happen.
And something truly remarkable happens as a meteor tumbles across the sky, visible from all corners of Middle-earth. Landing with an explosive blast in Rhovanion, it brings The Stranger (Daniel Weyman), a man who was asleep and surrounded in a quivering wheel of fire inside the rock’s crater. Whether it’s a human or a giant or a wizard, we don’t know yet – only that his grand entrance is a blatant rip-off of Stardust. Neil Gaiman, cut a check.
But back to the girl with golden hair. In the realm of the elves, Galadriel finally sets sail for the immortal lands, while Elrond worries about whether he convinced her to make the right choice. Gil-galad brushes off her worries, convinced that if she had continued her quest for Sauron, Galadriel would have only perpetuated the evil she sought to eradicate. Instead, he assigns Elrond a task: Work for Celebrimbor, the esteemed elven smith who is “about to embark on a new project, one of singular importance.” Gil-galad isn’t revealing what this important project is, but we can take an educated guess based on the show’s title. (Book readers, I know you know. Let’s not ruin it for everyone else.)
Still, Galadriel won’t let Gil-galad and the rest have it that easy. As Valinor opens before her, its eternal light bathing her company in radiance, she turns to stare at her brother’s dagger resting on the ship’s deck. IN LotR lore, Valinor is a form of heaven, a place of eternal peace and beauty where the gods invited the elves to rest millennia ago. But the elves who chose to stay too long in Middle-earth – and those who left Valinor to fight within Middle-Earth – risked becoming “Lingerers” who disappear until the afterlife catches up with them. This is important to understand, to understand what Galadriel is giving up here: it is nothing less than the possible dissolution of her soul and an eternal separation from her home.
But she wouldn’t be the leader so respected in the film series’ Lothlorien if she had to give up a battle before it’s won. As Valinor welcomes her company with the heartbreaking harmonies of a sacred choir, Galadriel dives off the edge of the boat, left alone to navigate the troubled waters ahead. (And to presumably swim across an entire ocean?)
Rings of power‘s first episode is, like its much-talked-about budget, big. It is beautiful to look at. It’s a bit slow and not all the characters feel as intimately put together as Galadriel. Not all the dialogue is written well, nor is it delivered elegantly. But the episode is immersive in a way that few other fantasy series have achieved, including the new one Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. House of the Dragon has another advantage: Its source material mastermind is placed neatly in a co-creator’s chair. Tolkien is not so within reach Rings of power.
But even having Martin so close may not be enough to restore Thrones to its full glory. And sometimes a student has to take up the teacher’s mantle. With the right group of stewards handling its precious artifacts, Rings of power can only do as it dreams.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers news and culture.