Season 1 of the Amazon Prime series ‘The Rings of Power’ was released to critical acclaim from 1 September 2022 and I have been avidly watching each episode and reflecting on the rich, complex fantasy world created for Middle-Earth’s Second Age. The series carefully crafts antecedent and predecessor landscapes, architectures, monuments, material cultures and costumes for the different cultures and peoples of the world familiar to film audiences through Peter Jackson’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
We follow four parallel stories which emerge and interact, following a simplified First-Age backstory for Galadriel from her childhood in Valinor to her joining her kin in combatting Morgoth in Beleriand.
First, we have the adventures of Galadriel as she seeks out Morgoth’s lieutenant Sauron in Forodwaith and then how she ends up in the Sundering Seas, sailing to the island kingdom of Numenor and from there to the Southlands and Eregion.
Second, we have the exploits of Aronondir and Bronwyn in the Southlands as evil creeps back into the world.
Third, we have the dynamics of the elves of Lindon and Eregion with the dwarves of Khazad-dum, specifically the interactions between Elrond and Prince Durin.
Fourth and finally, we enter Rhovanion east of the Anduin and meet the proto-halflings, the migratory Harfoots, who meet The Stranger who crashes to Middle-Earth in a meteor.
In each of these stories, we see careful and considered choices regarding how to portray not only the material world of Middle-Earth’s Second Age, but a range of heirlooms and ruins inherited from the First Age. Indeed, it is around ancient things and ancient monumental places that the story is configured and driven. The ancient cities of Numenor, Lindon and Eregion as well as Khazad-dum are still inhabited, whereas in Rhovanion and the Southlands the landscape is peppered with the ruins of First-Age men.
So my ‘Archaeology of The Rings of Power’ series of TikTok videos have sought to explore key dimensions of the material culture and built environment – less regarding their formal and stylistic inspiration and more about how their roles in the story reveals inspiration from early medieval archaeological, historical, legendary and mythological sources, often mashed up with ideas regarding materiality and landscape from the modern era.
Also, I explore the material world of Middle-Earth in its own right, as well as archaeological themes regarding the portrayal of the peoples of Middle-Earth, notably orc-aeology, the dwarves as archaeologists, and Galadriel as a shield-maiden crossed with an archaeological adventurer and antiquarian investigator.
A further particular focus of my review is the mortuary and memorial dimensions. For while no single funeral is shown, with the exception of the carrying off of the body of a slain orc with reverence, the memorial practices of the Harfoots and the Numenoreans, and the curation of ancient famed items by the Elves, are explicit and prominent dimensions of series 1.
Here’s my opening introductory video in which I emphasise the medieval archaeological elements, but I want to qualify this by stating that many of the inspirations for Rings of Power are far far broader from prehistoric and ancient societies as well as the modern world too:
I then move on to the flashback to the First Age for part 2 where Galadriel is shown as a mourner on a battleground in which helmets operate as cenotaphic material culture. This striking visual spectacle of mass-death in war melds the Silmarillion‘s many First-Age colossal battles with ancient, medieval and early modern battlefields of Europe, and then also with the landscapes of 19th and 20th-century war, particularly the First and Second World Wars.
Like a shield-maiden of saga fame, Galadriel takes up her brother’s blade as a token and implement of her quest for vengeance against Sauron. Finrod’s cadaver and his dagger become the inspiration for her many centuries of exploration. Check out part 3:
Next, in part 4 we address how material cultures of mourning and memory extend from Finrod’s dagger to her becoming an archaeological adventurer seeking out traces of Sauron in Forodwaith:
In part 5, we look at the archaeology of Sauron in Forodwaith and its significance. Part torture chamber, part laboratory, part smithy, Sauron has been experimenting with the powers of the unseen world. Again, we see the allusions spanning from Gothic horror and medieval allusions to torture to the worst genocides and human rights violations of our era:
So we continue to explore the archaeology of Sauron, but now move beyond Forodwaith to the Southlands. Here, a fragmented ancient heirloom features, but less a token of vengeance to be enacted and more a key to unlocking Sauron’s long-laid plans for return and dominion. So, in part 6 where we explore the necromantic broken blade curated by Waldreg in the Southlands and discovered by Theo beneath the floor of his barn:
In part 7, we look to the prominent representation of Elven woodland memorialisation in Lindon and how it is used as a rhetorical context by Elrond to shift Galadriel’s thinking on the past to considering her feud ended. In this setting, amidst a memorial wood in which living trees are carved with statues of dead elves, an open-air memorial cathedral to the First Age, Elrond convinces Galadriel to turn her back on the past and give up her quest for Sauron:
The ability of Elves to vainly curate heirlooms without recognising their ambivalent legacy is tackled via the hammer of Feanor in part 8. Celebrimbor is shown as vain in his antiquarian curation of the hammer; he cannot see the dangers in creating beautiful things, only the ‘good’ he can do for others and his desire to match the achievements of Feanor:
Next is a response video which attempts to explain the power of the Silmarils; this constitutes part 8.2:
Warning: plot-spoiler for part 9 – looking to the deception of the heraldic symbol of the king of the Southlands. Another heirloom but this time without magical power or has resulting from or enacting famed deeds, instead it is an item of deep-deception:
I follow this up with a specific speculation regarding the inspiration for Halbrand’s pendant from a mid-10th-century coin of a Hiberno-Norse king of Jorvik:
Having dealt with Elves and Men, in part 13, we look at orc-aeology! First up, we address them in terms of costume and material cultures, particularly regarding Uruk as adaptive recyclers of the material cultures of Men and Elves:
The second part of orc-aeology focuses on orc-aeological excavations as they craft channels for water to Orodruin and seek out the broken sword of Sauron. Orcs are ‘archaeologists’ too in a fashion!
Having explored the world of elves, Southland men and orcs, we next turn to the Harfoots in Rhovanion in part 15. Here, the Harfoots are shown as hiding amidst a world of Men and living in and around their ruins:
For part 16, we look at the archaeology of the Harfoots themselves: their abandoned caravans:
The memorial culture of the Harfoots – from book to performance – is a focus of part 17:
In part 20, we move to the island kingdom of Numenor and discuss their complex self-aggrandising and elven-inspired architectures:
Finally, in part 21 we consider the tomb of Tir Palantir in preparation through Earien being commissioned to draw his deceased likeness to inform the carving of his effigy: