As the conclave of bishops closed the Second Vatican Council in Rome in the sixties, they returned to their dioceses in all the corners of the world with a mission of “aggiornamento” to bring the Catholic Church into a fruitful dialogue with the modern world. As Amazon builds up anticipation for its new billion-dollar, 5-season “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” (premiering September 2nd) showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay claim an aspiration for timelessness whilst also trying to reach new audiences in the contemporary world.
While it may seem comical to draw parallels between a Catholic Council and a television series, there are some surprising similarities, not least in the scandalous reputations they hold in some circles. Indeed, I would go so far as to surmise that something deeper is emerging from the discussion around the “Rings of Power” show—something that tastes of the Divine. For, as Hilaire Belloc has written of the energy behind sacramentally-envisioned institutions (or, dare I say, sacramental intellectual properties),
The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine—but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.” G.K. Chesterton made a complimentary point that is helpful for understanding each aggiornamento when he wrote, “Now here comes in the whole collapse and huge blunder of our age. We have mixed up two different things, two opposite things. Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision.”
Critics of the Second Vatican Council point to the decline in numbers of the faithful and those entering vocations to the priesthood and religious life that marked the Church’s entrance into the second millennium, they highlight the liturgical iconoclasm as a symptom of this deeper malady; they say that, in attempting to become relevant, the Church lost her transcendent zest, vital sense of mission, and appeal. Similarly, critics of the forthcoming “Rings of Power” show believe that the adaptation has bastardised J.R.R. Tolkien’s work by attempting to unify it with progressive politics. However, in both cases I believe the power of men to do evil pales in comparison to the power of God to do good.
The disturbing and mysterious power of timeless art
Although Tolkien himself famously despised allegory, the reception of “The Rings of Power” by online Tolkien fandom seems like a perfect allegory for the reception of the Council. On paper, this skepticism might seem like an appealing argument, and the data is in (for both the Council and the initial response to the new adaptation of Tolkien’s work). However, I have never fully accepted the premises of those who reject Vatican II outright, and neither do I fully accept those who are refusing to even watch the new “Rings of Power” show, as it seems to me to contradict the reality of the strange and unlikely guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit as St Augustine understood was a
beauty so old and so new…. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.
So when I first heard Elendil’s line in the third Amazon teaser trailer for “The Rings of Power,” “The past is dead, we either move forward or die with it,” I was profoundly disturbed. This seemed to be an egregious violation of a hermeneutic of continuity with Tolkien’s vision of literary history and the whole sense of his project to create a mythology specifically as a gift for England. It seemed exactly as Chesterton had warned, that “Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision,” and Tolkien markedly despised such a move, as he defiantly wrote in his poem “Mythopoeia”:
I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends –
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
Feeling disturbed for several weeks as if “Mythopoeia’s” alarmbells rung through me to the core in violent juxtaposition to having heard these seemingly brazenly inappropriate words for a Tolkienian mythopoetic protagonist (none less than Elendil!), I became fixated with the whole carnival surrounding Amazon’s billion dollar creative venture—how could it be that J.R.R. Tolkien, a Tridentine-Mass-loving skeptic of modernity was providing the aesthetic and imaginative fuel of woke intersectionalists and activist ideologues in Hollywood?
The shocking scandal of Tolkien’s saviour
The carnival context in which every single Amazon trailer for “The Rings of Power,” marketing video or PR interview was getting ‘ratioed’ that is, every one is receiving more dislikes than likes on YouTube around the world (a fate that even the new Star Wars films avoided), was enough of a scandal to instill a deep curiosity as to what all this was about.
As a Roman Catholic like Tolkien, my faith teaches me that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that his life’s ministry was surrounded by a cartel of controversy and raucous scandal wherever he went. He seemed to be at the cutting edge of relevance: providing outrage, shock, transcendent insight—the promise of Eternal Life! This cutting-edge power was described by Christ as “the sword” which is rooted in a deeper tradition concerning the cutting edge prowess of Wisdom itself, which was made incarnate in Christ, as He himself explained: “Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). St. Paul similarly writes in Hebrews 4:12 that “The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
There’s so much division (akin to reception of the Second Vatican Council) in response to the new “Rings of Power” that one might imagine that Tolkien himself (the historic catalyst of all this controversy) was very much caught up with the Divine movement of the cutting-edge swordplay of Wisdom itself. Indeed, the Professor said of this work that its origin lay in the transcendent mystery of Divine authorship of which he was a ‘subcreator’ receiving the illumination of Wisdom itself. He wrote of this experience in almost mystical terms, saying “The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), ‘that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named.’”
This is a startling comment by Tolkien, a comment that cannot be overlooked, although it is said so simply that its magnitude is easily missed. Tolkien here indicates the pervading sense that he was a recipient of a gift of Divine Illumination through his sub-creative imagination of the whole opus of Middle Earth itself—a creative imagination at the service of the Creator. This is perhaps why we should not be surprised that Amazon’s venture cuts so deep and brings forth such a vicious dialogue across the division with both sides seemingly shouting anathema and blasphemy! It seems that crossing the line in the sand of Tolkien was a step too far. The butchering of Star Wars and Wheel of Time did not inspire ratioing online, but with Tolkien the outcry has tasted of a sacral violation. The very man who refused to respond to the Novus Ordo in the vernacular is now whimsically the source of inspiration for modernity’s creative rebels, for God’s wisdom is foolishness, etc. etc.
As if a perpetual troll had been unleashed, a troll that competed with the very tides that brought Numenor to its knees, every Amazon “Rings of Power” trailer or promotional release is met with thousands of comments paraphrasing Tolkien’s sentiment that malignant forces cannot bring forth new epiphanies of beauty but rather can only make a mockery of the good and the true which they reject without sufficient replacement. As if the zealous disciples of Tolkien were out to refute a new heresy of the woke-ists and mark out the boundaries of pure canon and a hermeneutic of continuity rooted in tradition. Together they cry out in thousands of memes echoing each other again and again:
Evil cannot create anything new, they can only corrupt and ruin what good forces have invented or made.
This poignant paraphrased quotation of Tolkien goes hand in hand with many humorous memes. All seek to demonstrate the perceived hubris of “The Rings of Power” showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay in thinking that Tolkien’s work can be subject to revision, invention, and reinterpretation in the light of arguable modern political concerns and perspectives as well as kitsch clichés unworthy of Tolkien’s vision. As one commenter jokingly put it, “The part where Harry Potter put on sunglasses and said ‘I’ll be back,’ then jetpacked to have tea with Darth Vader, brought me to tears. Tolkien would be so proud of how you upheld his legacy.”
This line of criticism by the dissenters has been met with a direct rebuttal by the showrunners J.D. Payne and P. McKay themselves, who have claimed that they want to honour Tolkien by staying close to the lore and not politicising his material:
Every single choice we’ve made at every turn of making this show has been to be faithful to that aspiration, because that’s what we want as viewers. We don’t want to adapt the material in a way that might feel dated. We aspire to being timeless. That’s why these books still speak to people so much, because so much of what’s in them has not aged a day. And we aspire to do the same thing. And I think we feel that once people see the show, and see what the stories and characters and worlds are in context, they’ll feel the same way.
The dissenters cry out ‘liar’ and return to the Tolkien’s text, characters, and timelines to point out inaccuracies, gross and flagrant revisions that have allegedly murdered the Professor’s Art. They point to Tolkien’s letter to Zimmerman the filmmaker as a verbatim response of the Professor from the grave to the sacrilege akin to Macbeth’s exclamation at Duncan’s murder:
If [Zimmerman] and/or others do so, they may be irritated or aggrieved by the tone of many of my criticisms. If so, I am sorry (though not surprised). But I would ask them to make an effort of imagination sufficient to understand the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds, increasingly as he proceeds, his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about.
He has cut the parts of the story upon which its characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends… The last and most important part of this has, and it is not too strong a word, simply been murdered.”
These are strong words. For me, they bring to mind a few lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth which have sometimes been interpreted as expressing the public sentiment in England towards the Reformation’s dissolution of the sacramental life:
O horror, horror, horror!
Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee!…
Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord’s anointed temple, and stole thence
The life o’ th’ building!
This finds an echo in the barrage of backlash against “The Rings of Power,” although this time the perceived sacrilege is against Tolkien’s sacramental vision. This sacrilege, though, is no worse than that of the violence by the orcs against the ents, and Tolkien knew the ents fought back, as he had read Macbeth until the end and knew that story could be improved!
Tolkien had always resented the fact that Shakespeare did not bring real trees to war. As he put it,
[The Ents’] part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill’: I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war.
The new fabrications of “The Rings of Power” are orcspeech, say the dissenters, and Wisdom, as with the ents, will have her vengeance against such mockery.
Curiously, the well-established Tolkien Society has backed Amazon’s new venture amidst all this backlash. While the Tolkien Society has recently come under fire for their own attempts to colonise the professors works with their progressive politics, it is worth considering how they argue in favour of supporting the new adaptation. In defending the show, the Society has quoted Tolkien’s “letter to Milton. They argue for a sort of hermeneutic of continuity between Tolkien’s works and these new aesthetic ventures and political priorities. The showrunners and the public relations campaign have also relied heavily on this quotation from Tolkien to justify their creative project:
I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story—the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. … I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.
Whilst Tom Shippey was controversially dropped from the project by the showrunners allegedly because he opposed the series’ modern and revisionist trajectory, it might be argued that Howard Shore and Weta Workshop (called upon by “The Rings of Power”) provide an organic interplay with the cinematic cannon of Jackson’s trilogies. Let us not forget that “The Rings of Power” is by no means the first creative project to attempt to express Tolkien’s visions; early cartoons and animations verge on the absurd in their ransacking of the canon, but they still retain a cult following, especially Bakshi’s work that Peter Jackson saw when he was young and inspired him to pick up the books, not to mention Soviet version of the trilogy (with Tom Bombadil!), the outrageously bizarre Spock musical rendition of Bilbo’s Song, myriad console games and titles playing with the canon, and let us not forget the whimsical carcrash of the Hobbit trilogy. “The Rings of Power” is but one echo of the Tolkien tradition amidst many other waves, and perhaps it would be best to see it as fan-fiction midrash. John Garth thinks that what Tolkien achieved was this very dynamism of bringing the past and the present into creative dialogue to prevent cultural amnesia. As he put it,
Tolkien’s gift to us is his love for older traditions, particularly the epic and the fairy tale, which he transformed with a masterly hand into a narrative for his own time. He has jogged the world’s memory.
Guarding the Tradition with Tolkien
As a saintly sage and artist versed in philology, J.R.R. Tolkien was hurt by the reform of the liturgy in English parochial expression after the second Vatican Council, famously continuing to respond in Latin, to the embarrassment of his grandson Simon. Tolkien’s perception of the seminal importance of Tradition as captured by language was perhaps awoken by his continued sense that many aspects of modernity were robbing any sense of transcendence from the public life of the individual. Tolkien believed this transcendence was rooted in communion with the past and Tradition, which enables the individual to imagine wise new horizons for the future. Indeed, this was arguably the project of the Inklings in general and of the project of creating Middle Earth in particular.
Tolkien’s lifetime was perched on the threshold of post-modernity, and he witnessed first-hand the erosion of hope and joy under the two world wars. This certainly all acted as a crucible through which Tolkien’s distinct imaginative and theological vision emerged as a wise catharsis. Within this project, the tradition held within the Latin language remained a positive force for communicating meaning., as for example when he told his son Christopher of the power and beauty of prayer in Latin:
Joy as a fruit of the Holy Spirit emerges out of even the darkest situations and for Tolkien could be found within Latinate expression. Those committed to the Reform of the Roman Rite in accordance with the dictates of Sacrosanctum Concilium will find sagacity in Tolkien’s Latinate roots and impluse, remembering that this was the oasis of permanence (in a context of cultural upheaval and chaos) from within which his imagination became free to find new horizons of Hope … and Amazon’s series is paying billions of dollars just to hold a small nugget of that vision and use it to their own ends; it is so deeply attractive that they cannot deny its power despite it being deeply rooted in the Western canon and the Catholic tradition, two of the greatest enemies of contemporary corporate dominance of the arts!
Tolkien’s intuitions perhaps hold an important insight into how tradition is continually giving life and joy to the world. I hope that this same spirit continues to sustain those who have worked on Amazon’s project.
Avoid assuming malice, but wait in joyful hope
I have been taught not to assume malice unless necessary, a lesson I think all conservatives should take to heart. This lesson can be applied not only to the Second Vatican Council, but also to “The Rings of Power”’s showrunners. All is not as it seems, and we are yet to see the precise consequences of this arguable Divine tale, the footnotes of which have been bought at the billion-dollar mark.
Conservatives and Liberals have long tried to tame Jesus Christ, either by hemming him in a box, or taking the box away entirely, but neither of these strategies work, as Christ was the one who walked through the box’s walls. Walking through walls is the centre of Tolkien’s sacramental vision, for it is a Divine movement. If we look for the strange and unlikely presence of the Holy Spirit at work in the Council and in this new “Rings of Power,” then the ensuing scandal makes sense. If, as the joke goes, ‘Vatican II opened the doors to the world, and the people walked out,’ then the same could be said of “The Rings of Power,” as the backlash shows that nobody wants the new adaptation to ‘update’ Tolkien’s perennial tales.– the real question, however, is what treasures will come forth from the vital movements of the Spirit that animates those who left, those who have encountered something new, and those who sought the original author’s heart, all for the sake of truth and conscience?
Christ’s walking through the ‘box’s walls’ is one foundational argument for His Divinity. According to the Catholic faith that animated Tolkien’s work, that Divinity is found in the sacraments and the institution of the Church, through which the Holy Spirit pours forth its light and truth to the nations. Tolkien, who was enamoured by the Tridentine Rite of the Mass, from the time he began altar serving as a boy, would have been deeply familiar with the following lines spoken by the priest at the beginning of Mass:
Emitte lucem tuam et veritatem tuam ipsa me deduxerunt/ Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam. (Send forth Thy light and Thy truth: for they have led me/ To God, Who gives joy to my youth.)
God, who is timeless, brings the joy of youth to all who seek Him, and it is my hope that “The Rings of Power” will give enough glimpses of this ‘timeless’ quality as the showrunners claim they intended, and that any malicious detraction might be woven into the greater whole, just as Tolkien famously described in his Silmarillion:
And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.