Have y’ heard of him, lad? Have y’ heard of Sauron?*

Warning: spoilers for “The Rings of Power”

Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne’s Rings of Power is really, really good — as visual art, in weaving together strands of story, and in its sheer semantic depth. Not to be unnecessarily comparative, but I find it surprising that there’s even a live debate along these dimensions about whether the Peter Jackson films or the current series better capture the spirit of Tolkien. I have to confess I don’t like the Jackson films much at all–particularly the Lord of the Rings trilogy … and that’s not even on the grounds that Jackson weaponized New Zealand competition law against workers, leading to what came to be known as the anti-union “Hobbit Law.”

In Rings of Power, the central Sauron-Halbrand/Galadriel drama is especially well done. Tolkien is sometimes associated with a simplistic Battle of Good and Evil, and obviously that’s an important theme. But I think the show captures (and perhaps, highlights) the actual complexity of that vision — weaving it together with the equally Tolkienian theme of Large (the world-stage, the great wide beyond, the single road into which all roads converge) and Small (the local, the quirky hobbit neighbors, the homely hobbit hole). My reading of the plot is that Galadriel’s crusading zeal to eradicate evil, in which she enlists Halbrand, really does draw him back into his aspect as the Dark Lord … after he genuinely sought to leave the world stage behind by descending into his equally essential aspect as a metal craftsman (breaking into the Numenorian smiths’ guild using only minimal and mainly defensive violence).

Also, though, even after he re-embraces his “larger” identity as Sauron, the deal/marriage proposal that he offers to Galadriel in the finale is still pretty morally ambiguous, in my opinion. Remember that Sauron sought to “heal” Middle Earth after the defeat of Morgoth –maybe a false and insufficient (not to mention harmful, and dominating) penance … but it still came from, as far as we know, a genuine healing impulse. Now, he seems to be re-embracing that impulse, and it is Galadriel’s “light” that inspired him to do so. This alone indicates the complexity of the light-dark/good-evil relationship in the story (and, I think, in Tolkien’s vision). But while it may be wrong to try to “bind” the light to him in the first place, notice how he framed the other side of that quid pro quo: “You bind me to light. And I bind you to power.” Not “the dark”, not “evil” … but power.

A pretty straightforward interpretation of this statement is that Sauron seeks to empower the light (or good). (And as he rightly points out to Galadriel during this same dialogue, he has been truthful with her throughout their relationship so far.) Does empowering the light require a touch of the dark? Per the Tao Te Ching, “The brightness of the Tao seems like darkness, the advancement of the Tao seems like retreat, the level path seems rough, the superior path seem empty, the pure seems to be tarnished, and true virtue doesn’t seem to be enough.” One obvious way this theme appears in the fantasy genre is that characters must sometimes undertake morally complicated actions in order to achieve a necessary good. This doesn’t always go well, and it sometimes corrupts, but simply refusing to ‘get one’s hands dirty’ doesn’t seem like an option either.

Anyway, the basic idea that even the Dark Lord sought to heal Middle Earth –as twisted as that impulse became by the individual will to power– is an important idea in Tolkien. And it’s evident everywhere. Simple corrupt motives don’t entirely explain all of the battles we are called to fight. Most people, when motivated to concern themselves with things “out there” in the first place, think they are seeking the good on some level or another. Presumably Peter Jackson thought so in pursuing his anti-union campaign relating to The Hobbit. The problem is how often this impulse turns to domination and condescension, and how it often then seeks to justify domination on the ground that it will most efficiently bring about the ‘greater good’– even one in which too many are robbed of their agency, in which the small quirks of the shire are completely destroyed, and power ultimately becomes self-justifying. Galadriel is almost as much a cautionary tale as Sauron is.

*Waldreg says this to Theo in Episode 4 of Rings of Power

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