Television

One Way The Rings of Power Outdoes the Lord of the Rings Movies

Imagine how cringe “I am no man” would read today.

Morfydd Clark as The Rings of Power's Galadriel.
Morfydd Clark as The Rings of Power’s Galadriel. Matt Grace/Prime Video

In The Rings of Power, the women of Middle-Earth are no longer left behind. It’s no secret that J. R. R. Tolkien wasn’t that interested in women—you can count on your hands the number of female characters in The Lord of the Rings, and that includes Shelob the spider. Tolkien’s portrayal of masculinity is far from toxic; the men of his three-book epic heal, garden, feel emotions deeply, and show strength in many ways. He just forgot, perhaps, that women make up 50 percent of the population—ent-wives and dwarvish women have mysteriously gone missing—and are usually up to some stuff. Peter Jackson’s films attempted to course correct Tolkien’s perceived “woman problem,” but Amazon Studios’ The Rings of Power has truly succeeded.

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Jackson’s films, which he co-wrote with Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, made various changes to incorporate more women into Tolkien’s tales. Some are innocuous, like in Fellowship of the Ring, when it is Arwen who rescues Frodo from Ringwraiths instead of an elf named Glorfindel. Others are embarrassing, like the newly added character Tauriel in the Hobbit trilogy. Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly, is all style and no substance, ultimately existing to provide a reason for why Legolas distrusts dwarves—because one stole his girlfriend. (Adding insult to injury, the love triangle was added in reshoots, over Lilly’s objections.)

Then there’s Eowyn, created by Tolkien in response to a request from his daughter, and easily the most complex female character in the trilogy, both on page and on screen. But when you compare the films to Tolkien’s text, it’s the former that have aged less well, creating the sense of a more toxic patriarchal society than the author perhaps intended. For example, an offhand line in the book from Gandalf about how Grima Wormtongue “haunts her steps” becomes a chilling scene where he verbally and physically harasses Eowyn.

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In Tolkien’s The Two Towers, Eowyn is not present at the battle of Helm’s Deep because she has been sent to lead the people at another Rohan fortress called Dunharrow. “Let her be as lord to the Eorlingas while we are gone,” says a captain named Háma. This is condensed in the films, presumably so that Eowyn does not disappear for the remainder of The Two Towers. On screen, Eowyn goes to Helm’s Deep, but she’s ordered to stay in the caves with the women and children—instead of side-questing, she’s sidelined. Why label her as “a shieldmaiden of Rohan” if we don’t see any other shieldmaiden? Tolkien does not describe every soldier, but Jackson missed the opportunity to show diversity in his armies. Instead, there are extended sequences where boys and men who are too old or too young to fight suit up while able-bodied women shelter in place. Eowyn becomes an exception that reinforces the rule, a “not like other girls” stereotype.

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Eowyn does, in the text, accuse Aragon and the others of misogyny, but it happens after she has been left behind at Dunharrow for 17 chapters. In The Return of the King she asks to accompany Aragon to the Paths of the Dead. He says her duty is with her people. She balks at that, citing not only gender but her position. “All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman.” It’s a solid burn, and not one written by a wholly sexist man. Tolkien often forgot about female characters, but he doesn’t abuse the ones he has.

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Unfortunately only the quippy parts of that scene, such as where Eowyn says that she “fears neither pain nor death,” only “a cage,” made it into the films—The Two Towers, specifically, prior to the battle she sits out at Helm’s Deep. When the films’ Aragorn leaves for the Paths of the Dead in Return of the King, Eowyn begs him not to go because of an unrequited crush. (Siri, play “On My Own” from Les Miserables.) Speaking of quips, Eowyn’s “But no living man am I. You look upon a woman,” a reference to Macbeth in the book, becomes a Girl Power catchphrase moment in the film. Jackson’s punch-up was meme-worthy and empowering at the time, but imagine how cringe “I am no man” would read in a blockbuster today.

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The films are not outwardly offensive (except perhaps for Tauriel) and do retain Tolkien’s positive masculinity. They would not have found such a diverse fanbase otherwise. We had a different idea about what good or feminist female representation on film was 20 and even 10 years ago. It’s natural to look at them differently now. But what Rings of Power does is so simple that it puts The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit trilogy respectfully to shame.

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First, the show passes the Bechdel test multiple times over. I firmly believe that that particular metric should be viewed as a guideline, not a rule, but one of the ways it is most effective is when comparing works or trends within a time period or genre, or a franchise like Lord of the Rings. The vast number of female characters on the show, which represent all of Middle-Earth’s races, means that no character has the burden of representing an entire gender. None of the women on Rings of Power could be defined as “not like other girls,” like Eowyn in the films, because they make up a range of personalities, strengths, and weaknesses.

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Miriel is not told that she cannot be her father’s heir in Numenor because she is a woman. Halbrand does not neg Galadriel by saying that she’s pretty good at fighting for a girl. The reason some Southlanders follow Bronwyn and others turn against her is not motivated by her being a woman. Eärien is not the first female apprentice in the Builder’s Guild. Nori is scolded by her family all of the time, but never for being unladylike. Disa does not use feminine wiles to drive a rift between Durin and Elrond. Gender is not presented as something that these characters have to overcome on The Rings of Power. They don’t need to be exceptional to be noteworthy. They make choices, succeed, and fail on equal grounds as the male characters.

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Galadriel, who appears onscreen for roughly 11 minutes in all three Lord of the Rings Extended Editions, is, for all intents and purposes, the protagonist of The Rings of Power. She has been the subject of a range of bad-faith complaints. Similar complaints have also been lodged against The Rings of Power for casting actors across racial backgrounds. You would think the cis, white, blonde Galadriel would not ruffle too many bigoted feathers. However, search “Galadriel” on Twitter and you’ll see that she’s apparently “too skilled,” “too incompetent,” “too smart,” “too stupid,” “too kind,” or “too mean” depending on the person and the day. All I see is a complex character with flaws and lessons to learn before she becomes the wise (and still spooky scary) woman the Fellowship meets in Lothlorien. She’s had a long life, after all, with time for many careers and changes of pace.

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In the final arc of the season, after many debates with Queen-Regent Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) and Halbrand (Charlie Vickers) in a relentless pursuit of Sauron, Galadriel vented the anger she’d been feeling into the orc leader Adar (Joseph Mawle), threatening to eliminate his kind while he watched. But in the next episode, when Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) reflected that aggression back to her she tempered and reflected on who she was before her life became war. She also advises him not to blame himself. One might say that guilt has been one of the things driving her rage for the entire season. “Do not take the burden of this day upon your shoulders,” she says. “You may find it difficult to put it down again.” It’s self-reflective, and layered, and a lovely moment on top of that.

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The series’ adaptation of Galadriel has been cobbled together from various tales, stories, and notes in Tolkien’s appendices in addition to her handful of scenes in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. For example, there are a handful of instances in Tolkien’s letters and stories in which Galadriel is described as having fought with the elves. One of the pieces of evidence that showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay cite in interviews comes from one of those letters: “[Galadriel] was then of Amazon disposition and bound up her hair as a crown when taking part in athletic feats.” So they are, as Jackson and his team did with Eowyn, bringing her into the action using these breadcrumbs as a guide. But they aren’t bringing her there just to let her idle in the background or push back against a misogynist society. She drives the action and, most importantly, is making a lot of mistakes.

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Good, three-dimensional characters have to mess up in order to grow, but when one character represents an entire group in a narrative they risk reinforcing a stereotype. We don’t have to worry about that with Galadriel because she’s not the only woman on screen. When she’s infuriating it’s because she’s being infuriating. When she saves the day it’s cool because she’s cool. In fact, we know she’s going to make mistakes. Every character on The Rings of Power is going to. In the words of Tolkien himself, “they were, all of them, deceived” by Sauron. Failure is inevitable.

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It’s the smaller touches in The Rings of Power that make all the difference. For example, the Southlanders designate their makeshift keep for “wounded and children,” not “women and children.” There are no all-male armies—except, perhaps, for the Orcs. It may seem like nothing, but when watching Eowyn stand alone in The Two Towers or tuning into other fantasy shows that have unrealistic magical creatures as well as painfully realistic medieval sexism that remembers women exist only to torture them, you start to wonder whose fantasy it is. The Rings of Power stands out because it is a true escape no matter who’s watching, even if we know a certain someone is lurking in the shadows, waiting to rule them all.

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