THE RINGS OF POWER and Realism
I waited until the whole season of The Rings of Power had dropped on Amazon Prime before watching it, as I do with all TV series I follow. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t eager to see it. On the contrary.
I’m one of those people who watches the extended version of Lord of the Rings every Christmas. I’ve read all the books, and can recite most of the poetry that appears in them.
So I was fairly vibrating with anticipation over The Rings of Power. I watched the trailers and sneak peeks, and didn’t object to Galadriel apparently being an action hero, for that fit with her history as I knew it. I was dying to know how Amazon were going to develop stories and characters, for they couldn’t use The Silmarilion, and Unfinished Tales was…well, unfinished. There were the appendices in Lord of the Rings, which I was very familiar with, but that left very large gaps in Middle Earth history.
I wasn’t worried about Amazon “messing” with storylines, for the material they were permitted to draw from didn’t have stories or characters. It was all dry history. So, to my mind, any stories and character built upon those histories could only make the history itself more palatable and easier to consume.
I would much rather watch Lord of the Rings than read it, these days, because of the structure of the books. Full 50% of each book is devoted to one storyline; either Frodo’s or the remnants of the Fellowship, before jumping to the other storyline approximately in the middle of the book. Modern storytelling jumps between points of view and storylines on a continually rotating basis, and the movies follow this practice.
The constantly rotating point of view of the movies avoided the terrible structure faux pas in the books, where halfway through the Return of the King, the ring is dropped into Mount Doom from afar, the war is ended, Gandalf victorious…and then the second half of the book winds back a dozen days or more to show Frodo and Sam facing Minis Morgul. I’ve never read that transition and not been jolted by the awkwardness of it.
So I watch the movies, instead, and only occasionally read (some) of the books, to remind myself of all the details the movies just couldn’t squeeze in.
My theory was that The Rings of Power would also provide a more easily digested early history of Middle Earth, and the trailers seemed to promise that.
As I said, I was very much looking forward to seeing it, but made myself wait until the full series was available. I’m glad I did, for I ended up watching the entire series in four massive nights’ viewing, and emerged feeling a bit punch drunk.
A number of days have passed since my first viewing and I’ve been trying to determine how I feel about the series. I’ve read a lot of rabid vitriol about how Amazon completely ruined everything about the series, which I disagree with. They were working with limited material and I think they handled the storylines and characters marvellously, within those limitations.
I’ve decided, I think, that the series gets a thumbs up from me. The first five minutes of the series gave me serious concerns, for it covered such a huge swathe of history and events I was overwhelmed. If the series had continued in that vein (which felt very much like one does when reading The Silmarilion), it would have been a disaster.
But the show did settle down and focus on key characters, much to my relief.
One of the primary reasons I’m giving the whole series a firm thumbs-up is because of a technicality that they got right.
At the end of episode 6, the mountain that would become Mount Doom erupts in a spectacular fashion, and belches fire and destruction down upon the humans, elves and Númenóreans below. The cloud of death races across the land, while Galadriel stares at its approach, measuring the depth of her misjudgment.
Now, I have a thing about volcanoes. They fascinate me, and I’ve studied them a little from the scientific perspective. I’ve watched documentaries, read books, and researched the history of famous eruptions. There is a theory, for example, that the French Revolution happened when it did because of a volcanic eruption that cut off the sun and ruined crops, intensifying the famine and misery of the poor. It was enough to push them into action.
I’ve featured volcanic eruptions in my own fiction, too (Shield of Agrona, for example).
I’m very familiar with the overwhelming power and destruction of volcanic eruptions, especially pyroclastic clouds, which race across the land at unimaginable speeds, and destroy everything in their path. Everything. The temperature, the lava, the toxic gases that roil within a pyroclastic cloud are lethal. Period.
So you can imagine my disbelief when at the beginning of episode 7, Galadriel wakes, covered in ash, rolls over and sits up to see who else has survived…and dozens of people, many of them not immortal elves, are running through the ash, some of them still fighting the enemy.
I very nearly turned off the TV at that point. I was astonished and bitterly disappointed that the writers had made such a ghastly gaff. It put the quality of the entire series in jeopardy. I ended up watching the rest of the episode, though, but I watched it with my arms crossed, my bullshit meter set on extreme sensitivity. If there had been another break in realism in that episode, I would have been done with the show.
The next day I did something I’ve never done half-way through a series. I dipped into fan sites, reading about the unrealistic handling of the eruption of Mount Doom.
A few links and references later, I learned that the writers hadn’t screwed up at all. Far from it. They’d out-researched even me.
Volcanoes can erupt in a number of ways. The type we are most familiar with is a Vesuvian eruption – an explosive venting of lava and a pyroclastic cloud that destroys everything for miles. This is the type of eruption that destroyed Pompeii. Mt. Saint Helens, in the 1980s, erupted the same way.
Vesuvian eruptions are the most spectacular and most dangerous, and are the eruptions most frequently portrayed in fiction, including one of my most favorite movies of all time, ever, Dante’s Peak. (The race at the end to escape the pyroclastic cloud never fails to steal my breath away.)
But there are other types of eruptions, including the continual oozing of lava you see very often from volcanoes in Hawaii.
One of the least common types of eruptions happen when a body of water collides with the lava in the magma chamber of a volcano. This type of eruption is called a phreatic eruption. It generates a cloud that looks and behaves like a pyroclastic cloud, but there is no lava in it. The cloud is mostly ash, and some overheated rocks, and it is considerably cooler than a pyroclastic cloud.
There is historical proof that your chances of surviving such an eruption are far better than a typical Vesuvian eruption; In 2019, the volcano on White Island, off the coast of New Zealand, went through a phreatic eruption. At the time, there were people walking about the rim of the volcano and many of them survived.
In The Rings of Power, we were shown a huge mass of water rushing through the tunnels the enemy had built, then dropping onto the magma chamber of Mount Doom. It was very, very clear that this was a phreatic eruption.
That put Galadriel’s survival, along with everyone else in the village, into the plausible and realistic range.
After I had learned this, I had to recalibrate my reactions to the whole series. Now I had faith that the writers weren’t half-assing it, that they had done their homework. It told me that they had most likely handled the original LOTR materials with the same integrity and thoroughness.
I found I could relax and enjoy the rest of the episodes, knowing I was in good hands.
When I go back to rewatch the series, I suspect I will enjoy it even more, knowing this. And I, for one, am looking forward to season 2.