Rings of Power Episode 3: Postmodern high fantasy comes of age

Critics of Rings of Power accuse it of woke idealism in comparison to the earthy realism of House of the Dragon. ‘No one kneels in Numenor,’ the third episode opens. The iron throne demands that we kneel. There are, it seems to me, five ages of fantasy:

1. The classical age (Homer’s Odyssey, the Iliad),

2. The medieval age (Dante’s Inferno),

3. The neoclassical age (C. S. Lewis’ Narnia, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings),

4. The modern age (George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, Stephen King’s Dark Tower),

5. The postmodern age (House of the Dragon, Rings of Power).

From Rings of Power, episode 3.

The postmodern age is founded on the immediate preceding ages, but ultimately traces its origins to the classical age it is seen as reinvigorating. The risk is that the medieval age so transformed our collective unconscious that it is hard to even imagine a world before the Axial Age religions. These ‘moralizing high gods’, as Whitehouse et al. put it, stand between us and a less moralistic, more real age of human consciousness.

House of the Dragon tracks the ruthless aspects of its predecessor series Game of Thrones and Martin’s Tolkien-esque lore in an explosion of characterful narrative. For all its long episodes and steady, patient pacing, the series is a remarkably exhilarating watch. It is tempting to say this is all the best aspects of Game of Thrones condensed around a smaller number of meticulously acted characters.

That being said, the series only comes into its own in the middle, episode 3. At the time I criticised Rings of Power, of which two episodes were released. Now the third episode is out, and the much more questionable and outright objectionable interpretation of high fantasy is coming into its own. It reminds me of the reinterpretation of science fiction in the Star Wars universe.

In particular the film The Last Jedi received vitriolic criticism for merely inverting George Lucas’ story structure, in a manner that echoes the middle episode of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, in which Lucas delegating scriptwriting and directing under pressure from the film distributor. By the time he established Lucasfilm as a distributor in its own right, he released some of the worst and best films of the Star Wars universe in the prequel trilogy. Revenge of the Sith stands alongside these earlier and later films as a tragic magnum opus, except that it concluded its trilogy, while the other films stand in the middle. At the end of Game of Thrones, tragedy besets the people and lead characters of Westeros alike as the messianic hopes surrounding Daenerys Targaryen turn out to be all but nought. The tragedy is clumsily told, for sure, but echoes the tragedy that is set to befall the kingdom two hundred years before in House of the Dragon.

It is said of Shakespeare plays that there are three types: tragedies, histories, and comedies. But history-writing itself is, by historians’ own admission, a form of storytelling about the past — and often becomes a form of tragicomedy. A little over a decade ago, I played the younger Richard, Duke of York, nephew to the tyrannical Richard, Duke of Gloucester. The excellent director made sure the play, usually interpreted as a tragic history, brought out the comedic elements of Shakespeare’s original. My introduction to Shakespeare followed my watching David Tenant’s BBC performance of Hamlet, which moves beyond the overly serious tones of Laurence Olivier’s earlier televised version. Comedy is perhaps the defining feature of postmodernity, although the underlying reality of tragedy is unavoidable, even now, in this future history we are writing.

House of the Dragon episode 3 depicts the rise before the fall of Matt Smith’s character, echoing the violence sidelined by his career-defining performance of the Eleventh Doctor a little over a decade ago. The tragedy to come is sewn into the very fabric of the present reality. Or to bridge to contemporary popular music, ‘what goes up must come down’ (Rosé, On the Ground, co-produced by era-defining musician Jon Bellion).

Rings of Power is starting to come down to earth in its third episode. Galadriel’s youthful frustration at her inability to realise her power mirrors that of the young Targaryen heroes and heroines in Martin’s fantasy universe. There is something forced about the diversity in Rings of Power that contrasts with the free-flowing nature of the House of the Dragon. Woke politics forces us to confront the equality we all have by nature, anyway, artificially returning us to our primordial roots. It is meant to ‘awaken’ us from our dogmatic slumber, in the Enlightenment tradition of Kant’s philosophical critiques of impure reasoning. In that sense, postmodernity transports us even beyond the classical realm towards a whole new world, with a fantastic point of view. No one to tell us no, or where to go, or say we’re only dreaming —

Of course, the title of Rings of Power, episode 3, being ‘Adar’, the elvish name for Sauron, enemy of the free peoples of middle Earth, the dream is already met with its counterpart of nightmare. The best fiction shows that nightmare to be immanent in the dream itself, rather than entirely separate from it. For from the womb of hope is born the child of despair. And what goes up must come down. I hope this series, for all its moralism, realises this. Indeed, while C. S. Lewis’ Narnia and George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire each concern themselves with the extremes of light and darkness, respectively, the enduring power of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings lies in its engagement with the mist in between. For the real power of high fantasy is tethered to that of reality, and the virtues of art and politics boil down to the same element: balance.

But for all that, art needs a spark to light the fire, a spark that goes beyond mechanical mediation between extremes. A spark requires balance but is itself a priority, like a candle in a dark. To recover the lost unity of old, we must forge the sword of balanced priority in this new world. Then, the distance between our fallen worlds will be bridged, and we may truly awaken from our sceptical slumber. Perhaps it is worth one last try.

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