I have this weird mental block where, in my head, August is the middle of summer, like the summeriest bit of summer, and then September is the middle of autumn (not quite the most autumny bit of autumn, that’s October because of Halloween) and I really feel like there should be more than zero days between them.
Also I swear the climate in my country agrees because the last week of August was sweltering and then the first of September clicked around and it’s like the country went “fuck, it’s autumn now, say goodbye to the sun for another nine months.”
Anyway this is going to be one of my semi-rare long-form TIL posts (um, that’s “Things I Liked” not “Today I Learned”) because August was a big month for fantasy-themed pop culture releases. And I’m going to chat about them in a fairly freeform way because I’m in a freeform mood because it’s Autumn now and Autumn is great.
Possibly best season? Spring has that whole “cruelest month” thing against it and Summer can properly go fuck itself so it’s kind of between Autumn and Winter and I sort of feel autumn has all the advantages of winter, plus the objectively cooler holiday.
Although I suppose technically that’s not a thing I liked in August, so consider it a sneak preview.
Anyway I said this was a big month for Fantasy releases and you probably know what two of them are: House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power (or LotRtRoP for short, also it looks fun to type and feels fun to say). You might have missed the other major fantasy release this month, which is the Immortal Empires patch for Total War: Warhammer 3.
I am embarrassingly bad at strategy games. I sort of feel like I should be good at them because I like the idea of having a cool fantasy / space / hex-based-regular-world empire, but I’m way too flaky and easily distracted to actually ever get good at them. But I have sunk absolutely hundreds of hours into the Total War Warhammer franchise because even though I suck, I’m a British nerd and am therefore legally obliged to be into Warhammer, Terry Pratchett, and Fighting Fantasy books. During the runup to the release of the new patch (which is a huge map that lets you play everything from all three games all together in one campaign) I listened to a fair few YouTubers and streamers and it was oddly moving to hear all these people talking about how this was the Warhammer game that they’d wanted since childhood and how it was kind of a literal dream come true. I mean obviously at its heart it’s still a game about making your army of zombie pirates shoot orcs but there is a kind of magic to that kind of nostalgia and I have shot at a lot of orcs with a lot of zombie pirates in my time. (I mean not literally, the zombie pirates are a relatively new addition to the game, but metaphorically I’ve shot a lot of orcs with zombie pirates).
But anyway, Most Important Fantasy Release of 2022 aside, I should probably talk about HotD and LotRtRoP.
I said at the start of this post that I’d be discussing the shows (and the all-important video game patch) freeform, but I was at least a bit tempted to just break this post down into subheadings and talk about the two shows separately, because on one level I do think that comparing them does them a disservice. On the other hand the production companies seem to be actively angling for a head-to-head comparison to boost ratings (after all, it boosts name recognition of both franchises if every review that mentions HotD also mentions LotRrRoP and vice versa) and they have just enough in common that playing the compare and contrast game is actually possibly useful.
Where to start?
Okay, the subheading here is deliberately obtuse but I wanted an oblique way of saying “gee, some people sure are angry about there being Black people in a fantasy show, huh” and I while I was originally going to talk about Bridgerton (and I might still, in a bit), the first time I can remember people losing their shit about this specific issue is when Angel Coulby was cast as Guinevere in the bobbins-but-I’d-watch-Tony-Head-in-literally-anything 2008 show Merlin.
And I think that’s worth talking about for context. Because I think it’s worth pointing out that in that show the guy playing King Arthur looked like this:
And before I say anything else I should stress that “race” isn’t a scientific concept and trying to treat it as one goes to some very, very bad places, so I don’t want to go too far down the “look at this person’s phenotypical characteristics and deduce their ancestry” route because heritage doesn’t work that way. But the dude has blonde hair and blue eyes which are traits that at least traditionally code Anglo Saxon.
You know which two groups of people definitely didn’t arrive in England until centuries after the time King Arthur was supposed to have lived? The Anglo Saxons.
Like given that the Romans have just left and their empire was largely based in the Mediterranean it’s genuinely more realistic for a blacksmith’s daughter to have African heritage in this era than for the son of an explicitly Celtic king to have Anglo-Saxon heritage.
Yet somehow people didn’t have a problem with this. Possibly because a lot of the people who would normally complain about that kind of “race swapping” have Anglo-Saxon heritage themselves and don’t think twice about projecting a face that looks like theirs onto a mytho-historical figure who actually would have looked very different.
I feel like there’s a lesson to be learned here, but somehow I can’t tell what it is.
The other thing I’d say very briefly about the casting of HotD and LotR:tRoP is that while I do think it’s a step in the right direction I think it’s important to remember that it’s quite a small step. It’s very noticeable that pretty much all recent adaptations of, well, books that white people wrote about white people have included PoC supporting characters but have generally stuck with white main characters. And I think it’s also worth pointing out that this is a smaller step than we saw with, say, Bridgerton or for that matter Hamilton. It’s also important to remember that casting PoC actors in white-centric stories isn’t a substitute for adapting stories that are actually by and about people from diverse backgrounds in the first place.
Anyway tl;dr there are PoC actors in both House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power (honestly I just love that it literally has “the Rings: the Rings” in the title) and it shouldn’t be a big deal but it completely is.
Hair and Beauty
Another interesting parallel between the two less important fantasy properties released recently is that they’ve both had massive hair-based controversies.
The Targaryens of HotD and the elves of LotR:tRoP are actually quite similar in a lot of ways, to the extent that people sometimes describe the distinctive Targaryen look as “elvish” (there might also be some influence from Elric here, because while Melniboneans aren’t elves they’re quite elf-like and Elric has the whole white hair thing, but I digress).
Anyway point is both shows had major groups within their cast that, in the source material, had a striking, distinctive “look” that would both be hard to translate to screen and would make characters hard to tell apart.
LotR:tRoP responded to this by saying “right, well there’s no reason all the elves have to have long hair, the ones we see in the books do but it’s been over a thousand years and hairstyles are an important way to differentiate characters visually.”
HotD responded by saying “fuck ‘em, they can google it.”
Honestly I kind of wound up respecting both choices.
For House of the Dragon the issue is that Targaryens are almost always presented with long, flowing white hair making them all look a teeny little bit like Sephiroth from FFVII. And that’s cool for one villain but a house full of Sephiroths gets needlessly fiddly. But while I’ve seem some complaints from reviewers, the Targaryens make up a small enough fraction of the cast and are different enough from each other the admittedly-sometimes-silly white wigs don’t actually make things that difficult. When you get right down to it there’s only actually one full-on Sephiroth-looking character and the rest are well enough characterised that you can tell them apart without too much trouble.
For Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power I think the problem probably cut deeper. Like there are far more elves than there are Targaryens for a start. Half the cast are elves. You have ambassador elves, warrior elves, an elf king, an elf smith, minor background elves, and elf off trying to romance a human lady. If this lot had all looked like the elves from the movie, it would have been incredibly hard to keep them apart. So while I will admit that short hair on elves feels wrong to me on kind of a visceral level, I do completely understand where it comes from.
The other big criticism that both adaptations have got, although it’s worse for LotR:tRoP for obvious reasons is that characters who should be unearthly beautiful (all of the elves, some of the Targaryens) aren’t.
And I do sort of get that criticism—some of the elves in LotR:tRoP do look kind of just like random dudes. But on a lot of levels it’s very silly. Tolkien’s elves are supernatural beings of superhuman wonder and radiance. No human actor can actually reasonably portray that. Liv Tyler, Orlando Bloom and Cate Blanchett did a pretty good job but even for the movies there were some outliers. Like the guy playing Haldir was fine but I don’t think you could look at him and sincerely say “ne’er did I think to behold such loveliness on earth”.
The thing is the books set an essentially impossible standard here. Like the description of Celeborn and Galadriel from Lord of the Rings is this:
Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold, and the hair of the Lord Celeborn was of silver long and bright; but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory
And, like, okay how do you actually cast that? And even if you can find one or two people who have the exact eyes-as-keen-as-lances-in-the-starlight you’re looking for how do you find enough for every elf you need to portray? Like there really just aren’t enough elf-looking actors out there.
Incidentally I think this is another example, were any needed, of why people really need to get over the idea that elves need to be white. It’s hard enough to find actors who have that mix of “grave and beautiful” that codes elvish if you aren’t also requiring them all to have European ancestry.
Of course hair isn’t what really matters in an adaptation of a beloved fantasy series to the screen. What really matters is the acting, the production values and whether it’s independently enjoyable as an entertainment product in its own right how nerdily accurate to the lore it is.
Incidentally Tolkien scholars kind of hate people calling the contents of Tolkien’s legendarium “lore”, possibly because it’s a term so strongly associated with modern fandom and, to be fair, I can see why people who make a serious academic study of a particular, well-respected writer’s life and works might be a bit peeved at their source material being discussed in the same terms as, say, the backstory of the Mortal Kombat franchise.
(Incidentally if you’ve never looked into Mortal Kombat lore, do, it’s brilliant, and by brilliant I mean absurd).
Both HotD and LotR:tRoP relate to their “lore” in unusual ways, but for radically different reasons. HotD has direct involvement from the actual creator and is based on a specific published book, and it keeps to that book very closely. LotR:tRoP is … weird. Weird enough I’ll stick a pin in it for now and come back to it in just a second.
The interesting thing about the relationship between HotD and its lore is that the book it’s based on, Fire and Blood is written as an in-world text compiled years after the event and drawing on multiple conflicting sources, so although fans are pretty sure we know how things go overall, who lives and who dies and who ultimately winds up on the (much bigger, much spikier) Iron Throne at the end, they don’t necessarily know all the details, like what really went down between [SPOILER] and [SPOILER] or whether [SPOILER]’s [SPOILER]s are really [SPOILER]. There’s also a certain amount of ambiguity over whether the events of the show are supposed to represent the real version of what happened or just a possible version of what happened (what side of that debate people come down on will, I suspect, ultimately depend on whether they ultimately like what happens).
The interesting thing about the relationship LotR:tRoP and its lore is … oh dear me, where to begin. So Amazon has the TV rights to the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit but they don’t have the TV rights to the Silmarillion, but eagle-eyed readers/viewers might have noticed that the TV series is set in the Second Age of Middle Earth (mostly described in the Silmarillion). As far as I can tell from my very in-depth research methods of briefly checking the Wikipedia article, Jeff Bezos was a huge LOTR fan so once Game of Thrones made fantasy TV popular again he put a lot of weight behind snagging the LOTR TV rights for Amazon and then they decided what to do with those rights after they’d acquired them. And what they decided (I’d argue fairly) was that they didn’t want to just do, like, a spinoff or a close prequel or sequel or, I don’t know, the Further Adventures of Gimli and Legolas or something. They wanted to do a proper Tolkieneque epic.
And in a lot of ways that’s exactly the right call. Middle Earth is not the setting for a moody introspective show about intrigue and politics. It’s the setting for a mythic tale of light against shadow. And so wanting to tell a story that isn’t the story of the War of the Ring but also isn’t just something that exists in the shadow of the War of the Ring makes a lot of sense except for the tiny, tiny, insignificant detail that they didn’t actually have the rights to the book that’s actually about the bits that aren’t the War of the Ring.
But what they do have access to are the appendices and anything that’s mentioned in a song or poem that’s part of the text of the books they do own. So LotR:tRoP is this strange Frankensteinian thing stitched together from references in the appendices, lines from songs, and shit the showrunners just straight made up.
Basically it’s fanfic.
And let’s be clear, I’m a big supporter of fanfic. I don’t read much of it because I’m tremendously busy and it’s just kind of never been my thing, but I have absolutely no problem with a team of modern writers doing something completely new with the setting of a nearly seventy-year-old novel. Riffing on old stories in ways their creators wouldn’t have expected is good and healthy. Obviously when Amazon does it for profit it also has some difficult undertones but it’s not like New Line Cinema was a charity.
The basically-made-up quality of LotR:tRoP does lead to some weirdness, because it seems like it’s going to be compressing the entire Second Age of Middle Earth (approximately 2500 years) into five seasons of TV. I do see the creative reasons for it: it allows you to have characters in more than one episode who aren’t elves, and it means that you can see a reasonable chunk of Middle-Earthy things happening and still have familiar (mortal) characters like Isildur and familiar events like the Last Alliance.
The other thing I think I want to mention about the route to production of The Rings of Power is—and I appreciate it’s going to look like I’m deliberately doing this in every subheading but it’s just kind of worked out that way because these issues don’t exist in a vacuum—that it highlights another important point about the casting controversy.
One of the things I said above is that putting PoC characters in white-centric stories shouldn’t be a substitute for telling PoC-centric stories. Sometimes people who actually are complaining about the casting phrase this more confrontationally as “well if you want to be represented so bad make your own series” but the route-to-screen of both the HotD and LotR:tRoP highlights quite how important first mover advantage is in this marketplace.
Jeff Bezos was born in 1964. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were born in 1970 and 1971 respectively. If my lifelong fondness for a silly tabletop miniatures game from the 80s and 90s tells us anything it’s that people’s tastes get set very early in life, usually around their teens and twenties, so maybe in the late 1980s for Bezos and the 1990s for Benioff and Weiss. And if they didn’t have a pre-existing fondness for the source material, it’s very unlikely that Amazon would have dropped 250 million dollars on securing the rights to Lord of the Rings without even having much of a plan of what to do with it, or that Benioff and Weiss would have reached out to George R. R. Martin in 2007 with their pitch for the original Game of Thrones TV adaptation.
So if the solution to representation on TV is for people of colour, or or LGBTQ+ people or, for that matter, women to just “write their own stories” and get those made into TV then … yeah that would be good too. But the most effective way to do that, if we go by the examples of Game of Thrones and Rings of Power, seems to be to go back in time, get your books published in the 1980s or 1990s, and hope that they get popular with young men who grow up to be either billionaires or TV executives.
Okay But Are They Good?
Yes, basically. I mean I know this has been a lot of waffling and musing about random things because that’s how my blog usually works, but this is still a Things I Liked post. And it’s not really a review exactly. Like chances are you already know if you’re going to want to watch both of these series?
Did you like Game of Thrones? Did you especially like the politics bits of Game of Thrones or the dragons bits of Game of Thrones? Then you’ll like House of the Dragon.
Did you like the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies? Did you like them enough that you’re weirdly specifically nostalgic for sweeping shots of New Zealand and the camera zooming out while people tromp across wilderness, but also not like them quite so much that you consider any portrayal of Middle Earth that isn’t exactly the way Peter Jackson did it to be literal blasphemy? Then you’ll probably like Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power.
They both have things that will put people off them. If you’re a lore purist then you’ll probably hate Rings of Power because it does take some liberties (there’s a character in it who is so strongly hinted to be Gandalf that he probably isn’t, but if he is he’s in Middle Earth about a thousand years too early, as are the Hobbits) but if you’re happy to watch it as, well, very very very very high-budget fanfic then it’s good fun.
As for House of the Dragon. If what put you off later seasons of Game of Thrones was that they deviated too much from the books or that they just made no fucking sense, then you’ll be good here. If what put you off Game of Thrones was … well … any one of the various things that often put people off Game of Thrones, then you might well have the same issues.
So that’s what I’ve liked this month.
Although it has just occurred to me after three and a half thousand words of waffling that this is meant to be “things I liked in August” and Rings of Power actually released on the 2nd of September, so I have broken my completely arbitrary and self-imposed blogging format. Ah well.
But that does mean I can put “Autumn” back on the list. Which is nice.
As ever, let me know what you’ve been liking this month (up to and including the second of September if you like) in the comments. Or, as ever, don’t.