Nearly 25 years ago, a British bookstore chain, Waterstones, ran a poll to find out what their readers thought was the Book of the Twentieth Century.
George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm were beaten by JRR Tolkien’s epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Six years later, Tolkien topped the BBC’s Big Read poll for Best Loved Novel.
The Lord of the Rings is as popular today as it was then. Three blockbuster movies have been succeeded by three Hobbit prequels. And Amazon’s ‘pre-prequel’, The Rings of Power, based on The Silmarillion, looks like a hit. It attracted a colossal 25 million on opening day, obliterating the 10 million set by HBO’s Game of Thrones spin-off, House of the Dragon just over a week prior. Since then, the series is said to have pulled in close to 100 million viewers.
Amazon hoped for figures like this. Why were they so sure The Rings of Power were the way to get them? Like artefacts on a mythical quest, the clues are lying around in different locations, and often where we least expect…
Clue #1 can be found where we began: Waterstones’ list of Books of the Century. The next two books, both by George Orwell, are about tyranny and power. Animal Farm demonstrates how power corrupts. 1984 shows how evil power plays out and is impossible to defeat.
In contrast to Orwell, Tolkien, a gloomy fellow in life, was more optimistic in fiction. His heroes in Middle Earth triumph over evil. But at what cost? This was a thoroughly relevant question to ask when Tolkien was writing his epic. Allies were fighting the Nazis, wrestling with the idea of bombing civilians. This was of course rebranded ‘dehousing enemy military workers’ to avoid the awful truth of the evil done to defeat evil. The terrible firestorm of Dresden was the result.
And this conundrum has never gone away. Russia, already accused of thousands of war crimes against Ukrainian civilians and soldiers, has just escalated shelling of Ukrainian cities. Reports of retaliatory violations committed by Ukrainian forces are certainly far fewer, but are they justified? How does one resist an unjust invasion? Or stop a social evil? Does the end ever justify the means? The question is neatly put by Wendall Berry in his poem, Questionnaire:
“For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favourite
evils and acts of hatred.”
The theme emerges in the first episode of The Rings of Power, when Gil-galad says of Galadriel’s quest, “We foresaw that… she might have inadvertently kept alive the very evil she sought to defeat. For the same wind that seeks to blow out a fire may also cause its spread.”
Later on in the series, Theo admits the Hilt (Sauron’s sword) still has power over him. Given the chance, would he have thrown it into the sea to release himself of its grip? Or would the power have consumed him? In the next episode, he celebrates killing orcs, but Galadriel replies, “It darkens the heart to call dark deeds good. It gives place for evil to thrive inside us. Every war is fought both without and within—of that every soldier must be mindful. Even I. Even you.”
One wonders what the finale will bring, but normally, the answer is in self-sacrifice. The refusal to do evil to fight evil often requires the ultimate price, a core theme of Western literature for centuries.
That culture is, of course, based on the Christian story in which we find more clues as to the appeal of the Lord of the Rings. The Bible tells us how Jesus Christ set aside his divine power and rejected the tension to get his hands dirty in order to do good. Instead, he defeated evil without the use of evil. He defeated evil, ultimately, with sacrifice.
More clues are hiding in plain sight in the biggest TV event of the year; not The Rings of Power but the funeral service of Queen Elizabeth the Second. The Archbishop of Canterbury preached that “those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are long forgotten.”
This idea was crystalised at the end of the final hymn when the congregation sang “till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.” It paints a powerful picture when one imagines Queen Elizabeth doing just that…
So why did Amazon bet big on The Rings of Power? Why were they so sure the series would draw people in? Perhaps the answer lies not just in the beauty of self-sacrifice but in the dark warning of the perils of power. At the end of tonight’s season finale, we’re left with the disturbing question; when standing in the face of tyranny, how low we will go for the sake of the common good?
For the sake of goodness, how much evil are we willing to do?
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