Much like Frodo taking the ring to Mount Doom, my journey to the precipice of The Rings of Power has been filled with both hope and despair. At times, I’ve thought the show would faithfully capture the spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world. In darker moments, I’ve assumed the show would use Middle Earth as a vehicle for themes that run as contrary to Tolkien as Isengard is to Hobbiton.
But, like the unlikely hobbit carrying the fate of the world, I have found hope for the show in the strangest of places, most recently in the words of an atheist Game of Thrones writer.
Starting a Middle Earth journey
For some, their connection to J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world began in childhood. My children have that experience. For me, Middle Earth will always be intertwined with my marriage. Months before we walked down the aisle, my now wife introduced me to The Hobbit, after which we both immediately read The Lord of the Rings. The Peter Jackson films released early in our lives together, so we saw them in theaters and bought the DVDs for our home. Our children barely escaped being named after Tolkien characters.
After that romantic introduction, I delved even better into Tolkien because of the connection he had with C.S. Lewis—helping to lead him to Christianity through a discussion of the True Myth.
These Middle Earth stories are woven into the tapestry of my relationship with my wife and now my children. And the creator of that mythic world helped the most influential author in my life to the faith that would inspire him to create his own mythic world. To say it another way, J.R.R. Tolkien is precious to me.
Because of the deep personal connection I felt toward him and his lore, the announcement that Amazon had bought the rights to his works concerned me. The company that had taken the name of a river flowing through some of the most remote areas on our planet and turned it into a symbol of commercialism and consumerism would oversee a series that challenges industrialization and our insatiable desire for more. One does not simply walk into this much irony.How an Atheist 'Game of Thrones' Writer Gave This Christian Hope for 'The Rings of Power' Click To Tweet
With the literal billions of dollars Jeff Bezos’ company was funneling into this project, I had no doubts they would be able to display the grandeur of Middle Earth. I worried they wouldn’t be able to capture the heart.
Rumors emerged the show had hired an “intimacy coordinator” for potential nude and sex scenes, which raised numerous concerns that Amazon was not and could not make the story in a way that honored Tolkien’s vision.
Amazon all but confirmed they wanted to use the husk of Middle Earth to create their own Game of Thrones when Bryan Cogman, a writer and producer fresh off of Thrones, was hired as a consultant for The Rings of Power.
There it was. The atheist Cogman would be the Grima Wormtongue whispering into the ears of the showrunners to convince them Middle Earth needed more smut, less salvation, more grim, less grace. Cogman couldn’t possibly craft the darker world of George R.R. Martin and contribute to the hopeful world of J.R.R. Tolkien. After hearing him talk about the series, however, it seems I have misjudged this seemingly brooding ranger in the blackest corner of the Prancing Pony.
A Ray of Hope From Westeros
Leading up to the premiere, I’ve been reading through the appendixes of The Lord of the Rings books, which serves as the basis for the story of The Rings of Power. I’ve also been watching videos and listening to podcasts to get a better understanding of, I’ll be honest, part of the Tolkien lore that I’m not as familiar with.
One podcast frequently discussing the show has been the Ringer-Verse. The Ringer network show about all things fandom recently released their primer episode for The Rings of Power. Their guest? Bryan Cogman. My elvish ears perked up. This would either confirm all my darkest fears or give me the light of Eärendil to complete this journey.
Somehow, in between swear words and his dislike of heaven, Cogman calmed my anxiety and gave me renewed hope The Rings of Power would capture the heart of Tolkien.
Cogman made it clear he came to Middle Earth from a different faith perspective. As an atheist, he didn’t see the world the same as Tolkien or me, but he still recognized and appreciated the aspects of the work that flow from Tolkien’s faith.
After Game of Thrones, Cogman said he wasn’t thinking about moving straight from Westeros to Middle Earth. He was exhausted after the 10 years he spent on Thrones, and even cynical of Amazon buying the rights, but they convinced him to meet with J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, the showrunners and executive producers for The Rings of Power.
Their pitch for the story and how deeply it was tied to Tolkien’s text convinced him to become a consulting producer and part of the writers’ room at the beginning of the show’s development. On the podcast, he repeatedly described his time going deeper into Middle Earth as “life-affirming” and “life-giving.” This time, no one delved too deep.
Cogman said he was exhausted after his work on Thrones and noted the darker notes involved in that story. Because of that, “diving into this [Lord of the Rings] legendarium and this mythology and this sensibility, something that has its heart on its sleeves in a way Thrones doesn’t” was exactly what he needed. “There’s a different tone, a different vibe, a different feeling to the world of Tolkien and it was one J.D. and Patrick were adamant we embrace.”
Repeatedly in his discussion of Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings and The Rings of Power, Cogman referenced how devoted Payne and McKay were to the text and themes of Middle Earth. He revealed the duo read him a passage from The Lord of Rings that served as the kernel of The Rings of Power and unlocked the story.
“It was very important to J.D. and Patrick that we all absorbed not just the stories, but the philosophies and fanatic resonances of the stories. And it was important to them that that informed all aspects of the storytelling,” he said.
And this ever-present, life-giving philosophy inherent in Tolkien’s work is what brought Cogman comfort. “When you live in this world [of Middle Earth], for all its violence and all its intensity and all its melancholy aspect, it makes you feel good and hopeful and optimistic about the world,” he said. “Certainly, in this day and age, it’s necessary. That’s why I think this show will have an impact when it premieres.”Even those who do not share J.R.R. Tolkien's faith cannot help but be impacted by the life-affirming nature of his stories. He helps them see "there's some good in this world and it's worth fighting for." Click To Tweet
As a Christian, I’m struck by how Cogman, as an atheist, recognizes the “life-giving” nature of Middle Earth and why it brings with it such an affirming perspective. Obviously, I would say that flows directly from Tolkien’s faith, but clearly it still shines for those who do not share this faith.
As the wait for The Rings of Power comes to end, Cogman’s words provide me with the hope of a longed-for dawn at Helm’s Deep. In The Two Towers, enduring the long night battle, Aragorn asks, “This is a night as long as years. How long will this day tarry?” “Dawn is not far off,” Gamling, a Rohan warrior responds. “But dawn will not help us, I fear,” said Aragorn. “Yet dawn is ever the hope of men.”
Every good story needs hope that emerges in those darkest moments from surprising sources. For this Christian, the atheist Game of Thrones writer gave me hope that The Rings of Power would present the essence of Tolkien’s vision. Now we wait for what the dawn brings.
The Rings of Power premieres Friday with two episodes on Prime Video.