Tolkien and History

Unless you’ve been lost in Moria, you know that Amazon’s streaming series The Rings of Power has been the most-watched show in America (and much of the rest of the world) the last few months. What does this have to do with history? Well, J.R.R. Tolkien himself said that his world–whence came The HobbitThe Lord of the RingsThe Silmarillion and several other volumes of fiction–may not entirely, well, fictional. “This history is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 220); also “Mine is not an ‘imaginary’ world, but an imaginary historical moment….” (Ibid., p. 244). He even posits Middle-earth as the precursor to the actual history of places like Troy, Babylon, Nineveh and Rome.

RoP has come in for quite a bit of criticism, on a number of levels. Many of us who love Tolkien’s books and know them well have taken issue, in particular, with the egregious departures from the creator’s canon. I did so, a few weeks ago. But a much more in-depth critique of Amazon’s show hit yesterday. Ben Reinhard, an English professor at Steubenville University (OH), published “There and Back Again: A Rings of Power Postmortem” at Crisis Magazine. Read it yourself. It’s trenchant.

What’s particularly striking, for anyone enamored of history as well as Tolkien, is the following from Reinhard’s piece: “There is Tolkien in the show, to be sure–but only because the writers treat Tolkien’s work like the emperor Constantine treated classical Roman monuments. When he sought to erect a triumphal arch to rival those of his forebears, the great emperor found that he lacked workmen skilled enough to the task. the solution? To strip reliefs and figures from earlier monuments and use them to adorn his own: thus, the earlier monuments served not a a model for an inspiration but merely a quarry. The Rings of Power writers do precisely the same thing…. The result is, as Gibbon said of Constantine’s Arch, “a melancholy proofof the decline of the arts, and a singular testimony the meanest vanity.”