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This week, we enter a new era of Tolkien storytelling with the premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, Prime Video's sprawling, ambitious new series that promises both a prequel to the main Lord of the Rings saga and a chronicle of a bygone age in Middle-earth. As the title suggests, it's a show that will tell us how and why all those dangerous rings came to be in the first place, but as the cast of the new series explains, when we meet them there's a calm hanging over Middle-earth.
Set in the Second Age of J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium, the series developed by J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay begins in the centuries following the War of Wrath, when the great enemy known as Morgoth laid waste to much of the world. Morgoth is defeated, but the Elves who remember that war are still facing the ripple effects of its devastation, even in peacetime. For some, that means that even the quietest moments carry an air of potential menace, particularly for Gil-galad, the High King of the Elves and de facto protector of Middle-earth.
"One of my favorite characteristics about him in Tolkien's text is that he's ahead of the curve," Benjamin Walker, who plays Gil-galad, tells SYFY WIRE. "He's always had his finger on the pulse of the rise and fall of evil in a way that is unique. He can anticipate the rise of evil. It makes sense that he's king, but in spite of that, we meet him in a peace time. And for him, that must be incredibly unsettling, that there is an exorbitant amount of vigilance and care that must take place to preserve peace because he understands that it's tenuous. So it's a horrifying stillness in a way for Gil-galad where he's listening for every creak in the wind."
While Gil-galad is certainly listening, other Elves are taking a more active role in an effort to root out every last shred of evil, chief among them Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), the legendary Lady of Lothlorien who we meet in a much more battle-centric era of her long life. Still wracked by the losses of the war, Galadriel devotes herself to hunting for Morgoth's chief lieutenant, Sauron, even as other Elves assure her the enemy is long gone. It's a burden she carries even as celebrations erupt around her, and the looming glow of the Undying Lands offers a potential respite for Elves who long to return home.
"I was lucky that I had months and months to think about the character before I was filming, which I really needed, because immortality is such a thing to try and comprehend," Clark says. "And something that was kind of useful for me was when I suddenly realized, 'Wait, she's meant to be immortal in Valinor, she's not meant to be immortal in Middle-earth.' And then there's a Welsh word called hiraeth, which is a longing for somewhere you can't return to, or somewhere you never necessarily were, but kind of an ancestral longing of sorts. And I thought about that a lot. [She has] almost an addiction to longing."
But the Elves in leadership roles aren't the only beings in Middle-earth who sense a rising evil. In the Southlands, where the descendants of humans once loyal to Morgoth have been scraping by for centuries, something dark is on the horizon, threatening the fragile way of life these people have cared out for themselves. Within that landscape, and its looming threats, a human healer named Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) and an Elven guard named Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova) have found a secret love all their own, a love that's threatened by the turbulence looming just outside their home.
"Bronwyn resonates with me deeply because I was inspired by the brave women of my homeland, Iran, who risked everything for a better tomorrow, for the fight for democracy and freedom," Boniadi says. "And that's exactly what Bronwyn brings to the table. She wants to sort of lead the charge towards redeeming the Southlands, breaking them from the shackles of their past and bringing hope. I think she's a character filled with hope."
Cordova adds, "Arondir's in an in-between place, in a limbo between Elves and men, and the impact that his relationship with a human has had on him has pulled him to this center. There's conflict, there's moral conflict, there's so much movement between those two places. And I think as a person who's experienced complexity in their own life and quite a bit of struggle and traversing through that, I was able to bring my life into this character. And, I don't know, I hope it shines behind his eyes."
But it's not all conflict and rising darkness in the Middle-earth of The Rings of Power, at least not at first. In the Dwarven realm of Khazad-dûm, best known as a ruin depicted in The Fellowship of the Ring, things are as prosperous as they've ever been. Amid all the wealth and power of the kingdom, Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur) and his wife Disa (Sophia Nomvete) have built a life together, one that both actors hope will shed some light on how Dwarves live in a way we've never seen before.
"He's next in line to the throne, and he has a gorgeous wife, and you can expect to see how Dwarves, male and female, communicate with each other," Arthur says. "And it'll be a different take on how we usually see Dwarves because of this relationship, because of the presence of Disa. You'll see a family man who's devoted to his wife, to his kids, to his father, and to Khazad-dum, and he's very popular. I mean, Durin was a very famous name back in Middle-earth, right? So he's kind of like a rockstar, isn't he?"
Nomvete adds, "I think there was so much to hook onto with all the narrative that Tolkien has given us. But equally, there was a freedom in how we created Disa, and also a freedom in Disa and Durin's relationship. How does a female, as Owain said, function with a male Dwarf? What are the similarities? What are the differences? And everything was for the taking, everything to play for. And so having the opportunity to immerse myself in a world unknown and unseen was a dream."
That sense of immersion in an unknown world extends into the lives of the Harfoots, solitary creatures who are the predecessors to the Third Age's Hobbits. While we know Hobbits as creature comfort-loving people who live in cozy holes, the Harfoots have a very different way of life as The Rings of Power begins. They're migratory people, living in tight-knit communities of hunter-gatherers who keep themselves hidden through years of camouflage expertise from any wanderers who might stray into their homes. Most Harfoots seem quite comfortable with this tradition of living, but not Elanor "Nori" Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh). A young Harfoot with a sense of adventure, Nori is eager to learn more about the wider world beyond her community and its guarded way of life, and she's all-too-happy to drag her best friend Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards) along for the ride, even when the ride starts to involve a mysterious stranger who drops into their lives.
"When we meet her in the series initially, she's just asking the question, 'Why? Why is the tradition the way it is? Why do we continue to live the way we live? And what can we do to improve our quality of life?'" Kavenagh explains. "She's at this point in time where she's questioning a lot of their rules and wanting to subvert the tradition. She leads with the idea that sometimes the fear of a risk can be greater than the risk itself, so she's just balancing a dedication of family and responsibility with an interest in adventure. And sometimes she pulls along Poppy, who's her best friend, and they get up to mischief together."
As the show's trailers and its many new characters have suggested, The Rings of Power is attempting to carve out its own place within Tolkien's world, never contradicting the creator of Middle-earth but using the absence of detailed knowledge from the Second Age to fill in the blanks as creatively as possible. Still, that didn't stop many members of the cast from returning to the source, using Tolkien's words to inform not just their characters, but the way they related to the entire universe the series built around them.
"If ever I stumble, I return to the source material," Walker says. "Even if it's not specifically about Gil-galad, if it teaches me something about context, if it teaches me something about the experiences of others and how that would inform the time period in which he's becoming king or what the experience of war and destruction must have been like, it's just a treasure trove of a resource. It's like a spiritual text. Every time you return to it, something new is gleaned. So, I've managed to finagle my way into a job where they pay me to read Tolkien. I've won."
The first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power premiere on Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern on Prime Video. Check back next week for more of SYFY WIRE's coverage from the show.