Rings of Power and the Loss of Transcendent Virtue

Rings of Power and the Loss of Transcendent Virtue September 6, 2022

Rings of Power is unquestionably a beautiful TV show. You can see where the enormous budget went – production quality. After watching the first two episodes, I was in awe of the visuals. The elven kingdoms and dwarf mines are captivating. They are as good as, if not better, than Peter Jackson’s masterpiece from the turn of the century (my favorite film of all time). Yet, for all of the visual splendor that Rings of Power yields, the story thus far feels a bit hollow and manufactured for this Tolkien fan. I think it’s because the writers are products of a generation that doesn’t understand the substance and significance of transcendent virtue.

My theory is bolstered by the initial reviews for The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power are mixed. While critics seem generally pleased, Tolkien fans remain cynical. As of writing this article, Rotten Tomatoes presented 84% approval from critics but only 39% approval from fans; this is a notable disparity. Why? Because whether they know it or not, the devoted Tolkien fan craves the depth, soul, and virtue that only the narrative based on the original novels can produce; the bar is set very high.

Recently, I was challenged to compare and contrast the terms “values” and “virtues”. While the task seemed trite at first, after some consideration, I was struck by how opposing the two words are and how interchangeably they are used in our current day. Admittingly, I have been guilty of treating the two as synonyms in many cases. Yet, in Western Philosophical Classical thought (which Tolkien would have been very skilled in) virtue is understood to be an alignment of the person’s will and actions with that of the divine. In contrast, values are things a person believes. The former is vertically aligned, and the latter is horizontally focused, a byproduct of our post-modern age.

Why does this matter? Because what makes Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings, work so well is that the primary thrust of the narrative is guided by virtue and not personal pragmatism. Subsequently, Jackson’s films did a wonderful job of capturing this. Consider for a moment the virtues that drove the actions of the primary characters in Tolkien’s narrative. Aragorn sought justice, peace, and honor. Samwise displays unwavering fortitude. Frodo exhibits self-sacrifice, temperance, courage, and wisdom. The characters often do the right thing, because it is the right thing as defined by God’s law and objective moral code. In the face of pure evil, they maintain a deep conviction that goodness and providence will prevail over darkness. It is these virtues (and many others I didn’t name) that make the novel so influential, timeless, and epic.

I will add that, one does not have to be a Christian to glimpse the beauty in this. Such truths resonate deeply with us because we are humans made in God’s image. I think this is part of what Paul meant in Romans 1 when he says, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world” (20-21). The narrative is great because it connects us to the eternal, objective truths of the world that God has created. We naturally love heroes.

For Christians, these incredible truths reverberate even deeper. I am also reminded of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:8. He writes, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” We are moved by Frodo and Sam because their actions are honorable, true, and pure. Virtues speak to us because they are rooted in transcendent ideals.

Jonathan Edwards once wrote in Religious Affections that “True Christian fortitude consists of the strength of mind, through grace, exerted in two things; in ruling and suppressing the evil and unruly passions and affections of the mind; and in steadfastly and freely exerting and following good affections and dispositions, without being hindered by sinful fear or the opposition of enemies”. This quote actually reads like it could be a commentary on Lord of the Rings. This is how well that narrative captures biblical, transcendent virtue.

Sadly, our modern age has done all that it can do to undermine divine, transcendent virtues for the sake of individual values. For example, how often do we hear children being taught the importance of self-esteem and not self-sacrifice? This reality is tragic on so many levels; we have forgotten how to properly evaluate entertainment. Objective truth has taken a back seat to feelings, and it is ruining great art and narrative. When everything is seen through a morally relativistic lens, entertainment becomes little more than a means of indulging our penchant for lack of critical thinking. Well-written, virtuous narratives challenge our human condition and cause us to ponder upon the beauty of Christ.

This is why Rings of Power feels so hollow. For all its stunning visuals, it has been written by and for a generation that struggles to appeal to the transcendence of virtues. The main character, Galadriel, does not appear to be driven by courage, justice, or wisdom. Instead, she is motivated by revenge. She hunts Sauron because her brother was killed by him. While revenge stories can be entertaining, they are often shallow and self-absorbed. In the end, it’s cheap storytelling with some fireworks.  I hope that the writers add some substance to her character as time goes on, but thus far, it appears her motives are somewhat self-serving and one-dimensional.

Having said all of that, I remain optimistic that as the series continues some measure of transcendent virtue will develop – maybe even some wonderful redemptive arcs. There is so much inherent virtue built into Middle Earth that even an outline-based narrative, such as Rings of Power, should allow some beauty to bleed through. While it will never repeat the moral depths of the original narrative, I will watch and hope for more.

I recently recorded a podcast discussing this theme and reviewing Rings of Power. You can listen to it HERE or wherever you get Podcasts.

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