My First Trip to Middle-earth: Why I Read The Lord of the Rings for the First Time (Guest Post by Michael)

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Hope and Courage. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!

Oh what a night, late December back in 2001.  The cold and the snow.  Being bundled up tight in our winter coats as we walked to the car.  The excitement and joy as my freshman year of undergrad reached Christmas break and Missy, my best friend from high school, was home on leave.  But what I remember most from this particular night is turning to Missy – who had the same stunned look on her face – as the credits started to roll on The Fellowship of the Ring.  We were absolutely certain we’d missed something.  That couldn’t be the end.  Frodo and Sam crest the ridge, see Mordor, and the movie just…stopped.  It would be six years before Iron Man made post-credit scenes a thing but we stayed in our seats until they turned the house lights on.  You see, we were “those people,” watching Peter Jackson’s film never having read Tolkien’s novels.  So Missy and I were expecting a trilogy like Star Wars with three distinct chapters but found ourselves at the beginning of one loooong story whose ending we wouldn’t see until December of 2003.

You may be a bit surprised by that last sentence, given the title of this piece. You may’ve expected I’d go out the next day, buy the books, and begin reading Tolkien’s epic for the first time. I’m not sure why I didn’t. I never shied away from large books and I enjoyed reading fantasy (Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series and Steven Brust’s The Book of Jhereg were favorites). Maybe it’s as simple as sometimes we define ourselves by what we don’t watch or read. For example, I’ve never seen Titanic or Avatar (unless you count Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas or Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest or any movie where a white soldier from an industrial society befriends a group of indigenous people and fights alongside them against the military machine out to destroy them) and I’m okay with never seeing them. But that wasn’t the case with reading The Lord of the Rings.

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Missy and I on that Christmas break – it may be the very night we saw The Fellowship of the Ring! Note the retro time stamp on the picture ;D. / Photo Credit – Um, Mom most likely

I really enjoyed The Fellowship of the Ring and I excitedly watched The Two Towers and The Return of the King, marathoning the other films before seeing the newest.  But I never felt the urge to read the books.   In college a good friend told me the first sixty pages or so of The Fellowship of the Ring just described rolling Hobbit hills and the action really doesn’t pick up until they get to the Prancing Pony.  That felt like…a lot when I already had – and enjoyed! – the films.  (I should note, in no way am I judging anyone who just loves The Lord of the Rings as movies.  Go you!  I see you, appreciate you, and validate you :).  Heck, I was you until…well, that’s what this story is all about.)

I grant this is an odd setup for a piece that’s part of Pages Unbound’s Tolkien Reading Event.  But the reading’s coming!  Trust me!  In fact, it’s in the very next paragraph.  See?  Your patience paid off!

I would find a reason to finally read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings about seven or eight years later.  After undergrad I was working as a youth minister (take that everyone who questioned my religious studies degree! I was employed with that (and still am) before my social studies ed. certificate got me anywhere).  I had completed an epic six week Theology of Star Wars event with my youth group kids.  Each week we’d meet in the basement of the church, watch a Star Wars film (The Phantom Menace through Return of the Jedi (judge me if you want but the story works so much better – especially theologically – in that order)), have pizza, and deconstruct all the theology and mythology in the movies.  The kids LOVED it and our conversations ran past our meeting end time every week.  Once we were finished, they asked to do it again and I said I’d be happy to – I just needed another theologically rich film series.  Several kids suggested The Lord of the Rings!  It was a great idea…with just one problem.

I still hadn’t read the books.

And yes, it was a film discussion and not a book discussion, but could I – in good faith and with academic integrity – teach films based on books when I hadn’t read the books myself?

No, it turns out I couldn’t.  But I was intimidated!  It wasn’t the size of the books but their reputation.  Even writing as a part of the Tolkien Reading Event has me antsy.  Briana and Krysta are amazing people and I know I’m welcome here :).  And I know the readership they’ve cultivated on Pages Unbound is warm and welcoming, too!  But I judge myself based on my sense of my knowledge of the world and mystique of Tolkien.  It was jumping into that world more than those books that had me a li’l anxious when I decided to finally read The Lord of the Rings.

Does that make sense?  Maybe you can sympathize.  Or maybe it’s just a “me thing.”  My therapist once remarked she was surprised, given the way my anxiety disorder presents itself, that I didn’t become a therapist myself.  She said when someone’s anxiety is like mine, they often choose therapy as a profession to help redirect some of that anxiety around their own life into thinking about others’ lives.  But for me, I redirect that anxiety by diving into popular culture and deconstructing and analyzing everything.  The way I think, write, and teach about Marvel, Doctor Who, DC, or Star Wars refocuses my anxious parts and lets them obsess over something else.

But The Lord of the Rings has never been one of the narratives I do this with and thus I always feel like a stranger in a strange land when it comes to talking about The Lord of the Rings. And I definitely felt that way about teaching the films! However, for my youth group kiddos and in the service of great discussions, I opened The Fellowship of the Ring for the very first time, pen and notebook beside me, and was off.

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Me looking skeptically at the length of all three novels…except imagine me doing this FOURTEEN YEARS AGO before teaching through Covid had taken so much of the light from my eyes. I don’t have a picture from that very night. / Photo Credit – Kalie, best friend, photog, fellow blogger about literature and horror and all that good stuff

As will come as no surprise to anyone reading a Tolkien Reading Event piece, I really enjoyed it!  As will also come as no surprise to anyone reading a Tolkien Reading Event piece, I was blown away by how much more was in the books than in the films!  (See?  I’m doing it again, presuming everyone who will read this is far more knowledgeable with Tolkien than I am.  This is what gatekeeping yourself looks like.)  When it came time to discuss the films with my youth group kids, a lot of the conversations began with our talking about what we saw in the movies and then my adding some of the more detailed theology Tolkien did with the books.  We compared and contrasted.  We discussed the (potentially) different aims of Tolkien and Jackson.  We discussed the different narrative natures of novels and films.  I remained far less comfortable with The Lord of the Rings than I was with Star Wars but that’s part of what made it so memorable for me.  The kids who’d read Tolkien loved it!  And for those who didn’t, who knows?  Maybe I helped plant the seeds for their own reading adventure someday.

Though some kids were straight-up just there for movies and pizza XD.

To quote Obi-Wan Kenobi (hmm, should I be quoting Gandalf?), finally reading The Lord of the Rings was like, “taking [my] first step into a larger world.”  I felt the way I did when I first watched Doctor Who or Star Wars or first read Kurt Vonnegut or Arthur Conan Doyle.  Here was this HUGE piece of culture with legions of devoted fans which has influenced SO MANY THINGS I love and I was finally experiencing it for myself!  I had parts holding anxiety around this for sure.  And I had parts which doubted my “academic qualifications” only having read the books once.  But most of all I felt excited to finally know, to have finally read my way through Middle-earth myself.  Of course the worldbuilding was as complex and complete as I’d heard.  Of course the characters were more developed than in the films and had adventures I never knew of.  Of course there were people like Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, Old Man Willow, the Barrow Wight, or Glorfindel who I’d never met before.  All I’d heard about the books was true.  But now I had experienced it for myself.

For all my self-criticism and self-judgment around my knowledge of or comfort with Tolkien’s world, The Lord of the Rings has given me two uniquely wonderful memories.  I will never forget wading into all that anxiety in the service of learning something new and having a better conversation with my youth group kids.  Nor will I ever forget that snowy night when Missy and I, still kids ourselves, first entered the world of Middle-earth together.  For all the anxiety I put on myself about “knowing” or “understanding” or “belonging in” the world of The Lord of the Rings, at its heart it’s just a story.  Stories pull us in, bind us together, ignite our imaginations, and fill our hearts.  That’s why we think, talk, and write so much about the ones we love!  That selfsame love and all it produces can make jumping into a beloved universe a li’l intimidating.  But it isn’t a hindrance, not really.  It’s certainly not a reason to avoid a brilliant story. 

No matter how out of the loop you may feel, the story can still do it’s job, all your anxieties aside, if you’re open to it. It did for me! No matter how hard I tried to “judge” my relationship with Tolkien’s work, it pulled me in. The memory of reading The Lord of the Rings binds me to my time as a youth minister just as the memory of seeing The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time binds me to Missy. Opening that book for the first time, just like settling down into the theatre on that cold December night, left a mark on my imagination and filled my heart with beautiful memories. What a very special time for me, as I remember what a night.

About the Author

Michael J. Miller is the author of The Heart of a Superhero: Considering the Prophetic Dimension of Modern Superhero Comics, an upcoming volume in Claremont Press’ Religion and Comics Series. When not teaching courses on religion and popular culture, you can find him at My Comic Relief where he writes and rambles about comics, Doctor Who, books, movies, TV, and whatever else pops into his head. Should it be your thing, you can also follow him on Twitter @My_ComicRelief.

My Thoughts on Episode 5 of “The Rings of Power”


I’ve been on the fence with my feelings on Amazon Prime’s “The Rings of Power” series. I’ve been straightforward that, skeptical as I am about how much the writers needs to make up plot-wise, I’d probably like the show if it kept to the spirit of Tolkien. After watching episode 5, however, I don’t know how optimistic I can continue to be about the show. This is definitely the worst episode so far (in my opinion, of course), from the illogical plot to poor dialogue and motivations for the characters.

I will admit 1) the show is still breathtaking and I love seeing Middle-earth on screen and 2) the show has its moments. There’s a reason I haven’t thrown up my hands and stopped watching entirely, and that’s because there are certainly characters and scenes that have been able to arrest my attention. Adar is a dark and compellingly complex villain, for instance, and I love the relationship between Elrond and Durin. And Elrond in general, to be honest. I wasn’t sure about his portrayal initially, but I do love the emphasis on his kindness, and he does seem wise where others sometimes are not. Episode 5 also made me laugh out loud a couple times, with the table scene and with Waldreg’s being utterly baffled that Adar is apparently not Sauron.

But I didn’t love the episode.

The big issues, as many other people have been complaining about, is the completely bizarre plot line about mithril supposedly containing the light of a Silmaril and the Elves needing mithril so they can “saturate” themselves in the light of the Valar before spring, lest they diminish and dwindle away to nothing. What? This obviously makes no sense in terms of what Tolkien actually wrote about the Silmarils, mithril, Elves, etc. And the scenes were made even odder by the fact that Gil-galad and Celebrimbor both apparently know that the Dwarves have found mithril but seem weirdly fixated on having Elrond admit it’s true. Someone on Twitter suggested to me that what they really want is for Elrond to find out details about mithril, which makes slightly more sense, but Gil-galad definitely had a weird fixation with trying to get Elrond to say, “Yes the Dwarves have mithril,” when he already knows they do regardless of what Elrond says. Also I don’t understand how the mechanics of this is supposed to work. How much mithril do the Elves need to “saturate” themselves?

The running theory, of course, is that this completely bonkers plot isn’t true. Perhaps Sauron is already in Eregion, off-screen, and he has put this idea into Celebrimbor’s head, and Celebrimbor has put it in Gil-galad’s head. So the Elves believe mithril contains the light of a Silmaril and they need mithril to stave off the evil that is decaying the tree in Lindon, but it’s all a falsehood and this will be nicely cleared up by the end of the series.

I honestly hope this is the case, but it wouldn’t completely save the show for me. I really dislike the idea that the show has been written in such a way that fans are left thinking for weeks that it has completely ignored Tolkien’s lore and being annoyed about it. That is, it’s not an enjoyable experience to see something that seems horrifyingly against canon in episode 5 and see everyone being upset about it and discussing to have it (possibly) all cleared up, three weeks later, in episode 8. I’d enjoy the show much more if I felt confident the entire time that it was trying to be faithful to Tolkien. Right now my confidence has been shaken.

Other than that, I was annoyed by some minor things in this episode. Galadriel still isn’t a standout character for me, and I wish she’d been given better dialogue and stronger characterization. For instance, Halbrand finally fully confronts her about what her deal is being obsessed with hunting down Sauron and when Galadriel really digs deep, when she says it’s not just about her brother and that there’s something more and greater at stake, her explanation for why she keeps fighting is . . . she just can’t stop. I don’t think I’ve ever heard something so underwhelming. Isn’t the whole question WHY she can’t stop?

I was also a bit baffled by the Harfoots here. Again, there were some nice moments. I liked seeing the Stranger talk with Nori and test out the idea of whether he’s a peril or whether he’s good. And I really like the walking song. I want to listen to it over and over. EXCEPT . . . the song makes no sense for the Harfoots. The line, “Not all who wonder or wander are lost,” is lovely and ties into The Lord of the Rings, of course, but how is this a song the Harfoots would sing? They have made it exceptionally clear that wondering is frowned upon and makes you a weirdo and that you are not allowed to do any wandering that is not approved by the group in the context of their official migrations. No one goes off path, you know.

So, unfortunately, I just think the show is badly written. Gorgeous visuals and strong scenes here and there keep me just hooked enough I keep watching to hope things get better, but the show as a whole is letting me down right now. I don’t know if the final three episodes can save it for me or not.


My Thoughts on Galadriel in “The Rings of Power” after the First Two Episodes

Although there were only 8 voters, this is the post that won my Twitter poll when I asked what I should write about relating to The Rings of Power. So here they are: some of my rambling thoughts on how Galadriel has been portrayed in The Rings of Power so far. (All RoP content on the blog is tagged with “Rings of Power,” if you want to see more!)

Spoiler Warning!

Is the RoP Galadriel “Faithful” to Tolkien’s Work?

If you’re a casual Tolkien fan, the first thing to note is that there is no “definitive” version of Galadriel before her appearance in The Lord of the Rings in the Third Age. Tolkien left several versions of how he envisioned her and her story earlier in her life, and they are sometimes contradictory. So there’s no real way to say what the “canon” version of Galadriel in the Second Age would be.

But Does It Bother You She’s a Warrior in the Show???

There are a couple references to the fact that Galadriel competed in great feats of athletics in her youth, and Tolkien once describes her as “Amazonian,” and fans have pointed to these quotes as justification for the fact Galadriel is a warrior in the show, the Commander of the Northern Armies. To which I say . . . meh. I think her great athleticism would describe why she would be a good warrior if she were a warrior, but one can be athletic, muscular, strong, etc. without being a soldier. Obviously.

I don’t 100% hate this interpretation of her character, however. The showrunners clearly draw on the fact the Elves fought Morgoth for a very long time, and Galadriel would have seen the loss, in addition to the loss of her brother. She would have seen how evil Morgoth and Sauron were, and it is canon she felt obliged to see the eradication of this evil through. So who’s to say she didn’t pick up a sword at one point in her life in order to help hasten the defeat of her enemies?

Tolkien doesn’t specifically describe her as spending the Second Age doing wise Elvish mystical acts either, so really anything the showrunners came up with would have been made up. My reaction to her being a soldier is kind of just to shrug at this point.

What Actually Bothers Me about Galadriel

My real problem so far is that absolutely no other character in the show seems to respect her. Galadriel is supposed to be incredibly wise and powerful, plus she comes from a highly respected Elf family. People should be as impressed with and as in awe with her as they are in The Lord of the Rings.

Instead, the show opens with young Galadriel appearing as some sort of outcast mocked by the Elf children, then moves on to show her troops mutinying and refusing to follow her orders. She next appears in Lindon, where Elrond emphasizes their friendship and obviously likes her as a person but also seems to think she’s delusional that Sauron is still alive and stupid for defying Gil-galad. And Gil-galad also implies she’s a fool. Next, we see her on the boat to Valinor, where the other Elves clearly think she’s crazy for not being excited to go to Valinor and clinging to her knife, and then we see her jump off the boat when she clearly is too far from any land to actually swim anywhere without dying.

Tolkien certainly characterizes Galadriel as rash and proud in her youth, as she chose to leave Valinor in the first place and was interested in ruling a realm of her own, so the hotheadness the show is leaning into makes sense. But at no point do I really feel that Galadriel is majestic and wise; her hunt for Sauron comes across as some crazed personal vendetta rather than something she’s pursuing because she’s farsighted and wise and can see the evil that’s hidden while others cannot.

It’s very probable the writers are aiming for Galadriel to have some sort of character arc where she becomes more like the stately Galadriel we know in The Lord of the Rings, but I’m not really asking for her to act stoic and wise and unperturbed at all times. I’m asking for other characters to respect her instead of clearly believing she’s a fool.

What are you thoughts?


Who Is “The Stranger” in “The Rings of Power?”: Here’s My Prediction

Spoiler Warning for the First Two Episodes of The Rings of Power

Introduction: The Stranger

After the first two episodes of The Rings of Power, one of the major mysteries for viewers is the identity of a character currently known only as “the Stranger” (or, well, “Meteor Man” as a joke among fans). He comes to Middle-earth in a meteor, crashes, and is found by the Harfoot Nori. He seems to have no memory of his own name or other mundane things like what food is or how to eat, and he only gives Nori (and viewers) a glimpse of his purpose/plans when he shows Nori and Poppy a constellation; Nori guesses he wants to go somewhere on Middle-earth where he can see it.

So . . . who is he?

My personal guess is Gandalf, though he’d probably go by the name Olórin in the Second Age.

Why the Clues Suggest the Stranger Is Gandalf

Nori and Poppy clearly establish for viewers that the Stranger is not of any the races they are familiar with: Men, Elves, Dwarves, or Harfoots. He survived crashing from a meteor and possesses some type of magic, and the Harfoots describe him as “giant,” apparently meaning he’s taller even than the Big Folk they’re used to seeing. This would imply the Stranger is probably one of the Maiar.

And there are several hints that he’s specifically Gandalf:

  • Gandalf has a particular affinity for heat and light, displayed in his love of fireworks in LotR, and the Stranger seems to control the fire around him after the meteor crash.
  • Nori talks about how she believes she was “meant to find him,” a line reminiscent of when Gandalf tells Frodo in LotR that Frodo was “meant” to find the One Ring.
  • The scene where the Stranger speaks to the fireflies calls to mind the scene where Gandalf speaks to a moth in LotR.
  • Gandalf has a soft spot for and interest in Hobbits that no one else in Middle-earth seems to, so the writers could be creating a situation where his love for them originates with the Harfoots saving him upon his arrival in Middle-earth.

But Is Gandalf in Middle-earth in the Second Age?

Both the Valar and the Maiar are spiritual beings and can take various physical forms as they choose (though Sauron eventually cannot assume a beautiful shape), and according to some writings from Tolkien, it’s possible Gandalf was in Middle-earth earlier than the Third Age, simply not in a form that anyone recognized him in. (Which may explain why the Stranger is described as “giant,” when Gandalf in the Third Age is never described as notably tall.)

See the quotes from tweets below:

Could the Stranger Be One of the Other Istari?

Sure, he could be. I’ve seen fans hoping it’s Radagast or one of the Blue Wizards, but I think this would be a bit strange considering all the connections to Gandalf that I pointed out above. The only connection I really see to Radagast is that he’s good with animals, and the Stranger spoke to fireflies, but that’s a bit tenuous. And we don’t know much about the Blue Wizards in general, so I don’t know what clues would point to one of them.

But Could It Be Sauron???

I don’t think this theory makes sense. I’ve seen people suggest the Stranger is Sauron because early in the first episode, Galadriel says one of Sauron’s old hideouts is a place so evil that it sucks the heat from the Elves’ torches — and then fires around the Stranger aren’t actually hot, so it’s as if the heat is being sucked away. This is an interesting point, but I don’t think it’s enough.

There’s no reason Sauron would be in a meteor. Certainly it’s kind of ridiculous anyone is in a meteor, but I can see it as a weird way of transportation between Valinor and Middle-earth. There’s no reason I can think of at all that Sauron would have been in a meteor when the whole premise of the show seems to be that Sauron is hidden away in Middle-earth actively building an orc army and planning world domination.

I also don’t think it works narratively for Sauron to be the Stranger. Tolkien’s work is generally not about crazy plot twists. So, even though this point of the plot was created entirely by the showrunners and not by Tolkien himself, I take it at face value when Nori says the Stranger is important and she feels she was meant to help him. I believe, because of this, that the Stranger is someone good, and these Second Age Hobbits are not accidentally enabling Sauron.

What’s your theory?


My First Impressions of “The Rings of Power,” Episodes 1 and 2

No Spoilers in This Section!

A few days ago, I posted about why I was finally excited to watch Amazon’s adaptation of Middle-earth’s Second Age, The Rings of Power, after being skeptical for so long. But now that I have actually watched the first two episodes, I’m not really sure what I think. Definitely a lot of the plot and characters are made up, and at times it seems obvious (as in, it doesn’t feel like something Tolkien would have written). But I don’t hate the show either, and all the fears that the show would be some horrific affront to Tolkien and his work seem a little overblown. Mostly I feel neutral at this point, and that’s disappointing.

The first episode took a while to get going, and while it’s definitely pretty and most of the actors are great, this installment probably suffered from how much background information it had to get through and how many characters there are. I didn’t love the prologue, which seemed to want to cover a lot of The Silmarillion without actually getting into any details about The Silmarillion. I understand this is likely a combination of the studio not having the rights to discuss some events and of wanting to get through things on a basic level so people unfamiliar with the plot could follow, but I still felt underwhelmed by it. However, there was some decent imagery, and you can tell the writers are trying hard to work with what they have.

I decided to keep watching because, frankly, the first episode of a lot of shows leave something to be desired. I think the first episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender is a snooze fest, for instance, but the show as a whole is great! So I kept up my optimism for episode two.

It did deliver, a little. The second episode made me more invested in the characters, as I saw more of them, and I got more invested in the plot. To be fair, the general plot of the series *as a whole* still seems unclear besides “Galadriel thinks Sauron is coming back, and he probably is,” but I got invested in what some of the characters are doing in their own little plot lines, and the writers seem to have a thing for ending on cliffhangers to keep viewers hooked.

My only real issue is that I’m not feeling as if I’m sucked into Middle-earth. The show certainly looks like Middle-earth. The scenery is beautiful. I want to go live in Lindon now. But I don’t know about the story, even if I haven’t quite pinpointed why. Is it the dialogue? The plot? The places where the show deviates from Tolkien? I want to give the show more of a chance to see if it can grab me, but I’m disappointed my general feelings are, “This show is okay, but I don’t know if I would rewatch it for fun or go out of my way to recommend anyone else watch it.”


Here are some random thoughts I have about some details in the show so far:

  • I don’t know that the Harfoots as a whole are doing anything in particular in the show (i.e. that they’re “necessary”), but I’ve decided I kind of love Poppy, who doesn’t want to be adventurous or take risks but does so for love of her friend. She wants to pretend she’s not a good person sometimes, but she is. And she has a hidden sense of wonder.
  • I think the Galadriel plot line is causing a lot of issues. Like with the writers having Gil-galad send her and the other Elves to Valinor. (Uh, why is this his decision?) And then the weird portrayal of the journey to Valinor itself. I thought it seemed like Valinor was already outside the circles of the earth due to the magical protective cloud wall and the light that seems to assume people into it, but I don’t know if that’s what the writers were going for.
  • Durin and Disa are very fun. I want to see more of them.
  • I don’t love Arondir as much as other people seem to. He comes across as rather stiff to me.
  • It’s so awkward everyone just calls Finrod Galadriel’s brother all the time, instead of his name.
  • Celebrimor seems promising as a character. I like his story about Morgoth and the Silmarils, even if it isn’t canon.

Why I Am (Finally) Excited to Watch Rings of Power

Yesterday, the Orangutan Librarian published a post on why she will not be watching Rings of Power, which made me realize that, while I had initially been skeptical of the series and had no intention whatsoever of watching a show that is based on so little canon material that the writers inevitably must be making up much of the plot, and which was early-on plagued by rumors that made it sound like it would try to copy Games of Thrones in tone . . . I actually am, at last, excited to see what this show will bring. *Ignoring the minor difficulty I am not currently a Prime subscriber. I have a 30-day free trial which will expired after 3 episodes are released, so you will know I like the show if I actually pay to watch more.

I know the show is not going to be “perfect.” It’s certainly not going to be 100% “accurate,” if we look only at the fact the showrunners do need to fill in some gaps Tolkien left in the events of the Second Age, and they have already stated they need to compress the timeline rather than try to tell a story that takes place over more than 3,000 years. But no film adaptation of a book can ever adhere to that book perfectly, so what is left for viewers to decide is: What changes are they willing to live with? And what changes are dealbreakers?

For me, the most important thing is for the show to capture the tone/spirit/worldview of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Details are nice, and characterization is important, but I want the show to feel like something Tolkien might have created, to have clear spiritual undertones and a sense of what is right and wrong. (And to be very clear, this does not mean, “I want a world with no POC actors and no ‘woke’ feminism stuff,” like all the online trolls are going on about; that doesn’t describe Tolkien at all and would not be in line with what Middle-earth is built on.)

And based on what I have seen from all the Tolkien scholars and influencers who were invited to an exclusive sneak peak of the show and then to the two episode premiere in NYC, the feeling of Middle-earth and Tolkien’s philosophy is there. Some of the reviews I saw seemed carefully neutral, like, “The costumes are gorgeous and the actors did very well,” but a lot were more glowing. And this gives me hope. I also saw people specifically mention there seems to be a sense of Ilúvatar in the show and of a deity’s guiding hand.

But the details seem to be in place, as well, from what I’ve seen from early reviews, from the language to the hand gestures characters are using.

The early advertising for the show was awkward (“Not your father’s Middle-earth”, whatever that was supposed to mean) and raised a lot of concerns for me and other fans, but the fact that so many people so familiar with Tolkien’s work have seen something promising in the show leads me to be optimistic. I explicitly saw people state that the advertising they had seen and the show they had seen seemed to have little to do with each other, and this will be a show avid fans will find something to like about.

Will I like everything about the show? Probably not. I don’t even like everything about Peter Jackson’s trilogy (hello, changes to Faramir), even though I like the movies as a whole. So I have gone from complete lack of interest to having an open mind. I hope I enjoy the show.


Why Did Aragorn Let Grima Wormtongue Go?

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Love and Friendship. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting several days of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!

Today I answer a somewhat common question that has been Googled about The Lord of the Rings:

Why does Aragorn spare Wormtongue’s life after he is exposed as an agent of Saruman and cast out from Edoras?

In the Book

The first thing to note here is that Aragorn only saves Grima’s life in the movie adaptation. In the book, it is Theoden who spares Wormtongue, at Gandalf’s advice:

“See, Theoden, here is a snake! With safety you cannot take it with you, nor can you leave it behind. To slay it would be just. But it was not always as it now is. Once it was a man, and did you service in its fashion. Give him a horse and left him go at once, wherever he chooses. By his choice you shall judge him.”

“Do you hear this, Wormtongue?” said Theoden. “This is your choice: to ride with me to war, and let us see in battle whether you are true; or to go now, whither you will. But then, if ever we meet again, I shall not be merciful.”

The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien

The theme of mercy runs throughout The Lord of the Rings, even as John pointed out in his guest post that capital punishment is still the norm in Gondor (and likely Rohan, too, since Eomer threatened in the past to kill Grima, and Gandalf suggests taking his life wouldn’t be entirely out of line).

Yet Gandalf’s general teaching is that lives should not be taken lightly. Early in the story, he defends Gollum and tells Frodo:

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”

The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

He implies it is not the prerogative of humans (or Elves, Hobbits, Wizards, etc.) to take someone’s life because they “deserve” it, but rather that this is the job of a higher power (Ilúvatar).

There is also the running theme that offering such mercy pays off unexpectedly later. Readers see that sparing Gollum’s life is the reason the Ring is finally destroyed. And sparing Grima’s life is the reason Gandalf and company acquire the palantír that had been in Orthanc. Grima also ultimately rids Middle-earth of Saruman.

In the Movie

So why is it Aragorn who saves Grima’s life in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation?

In the film, King Theoden advances ominously on Wormtongue after he is thrown down the stairs of Edoras, raising his sword to smite Rima where he lies. Aragorn leaps from off-screen and catches Theoden’s sword with his own, saying, “No! No, my lord! Let him go. Enough blood has been spilt on his account.”

Watch the scene here.

In general, I would say the themes here are the same. Aragorn believes in mercy (very likely a quality he himself learned from Gandalf in the past, though Gandalf does not comment in this scene), and he makes a vague statement about how enough violence has been done, and Theoden shouldn’t perpetuate the cycle. There’s no discussion of how Grima might redeem himself if he chooses, as there is in the book, however. Grima simply spits on Aragorn’s offered hand and runs away.

My guess is that the writers were trying to incorporate the theme of mercy but also wanted to make this scene more “dramatic” somehow. Theoden and Aragorn’s crossing of swords certainly is more exciting than Gandalf’s and Theoden’s mild discussion of what might be done with Grima. The scene also really emphasizes the idea that Theoden was weak and under Grima’s spell and hasn’t quite recovered yet; his walk down the stairs towards Grima looks a bit crazed, as if some of the spell has yet to wear off. The scene basically highlights Aragorn’s nobility at the expense of Theoden’s.

There is also the awkwardness that the scene shows Aragorn disagreeing with Theoden’s judgement in his own kingdom, which the film attempts to compensate for by having Aragorn immediately cry, “Hail Theoden King!” and initiating everyone else’s kneeling to Theoden. One could argue it doesn’t entirely work as, later in the film, Theoden feels the need to explicitly tell Aragorn that Aragorn is not the king of Rohan and should keep some of his opinions to himself.


The fact that Grima’s life is spared is consistent with Tolkien’s theme of mercy and not dealing death in judgement that runs throughout his work. The choice to have Aragorn specifically save Wormtongue in the movie seems done for drama and to emphasize that Aragorn in particular is wise and merciful.


The Rohirrim Name Generator

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Love and Friendship. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting several days of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!

Discover what your name would be in Rohan by following the directions below!

Format: [Name] of [Place]

What is the first letter of your first name?

A: Eorl
B: Morwen
C: Thengel
D: Théodwyn
E: Mildwyn
F: Guthlaf
G: Grimbold
H: Hama
I: Gamling
J: Erkenbrand
K: Ceorl
L: Eothain
M: Dunhere
N: Estmund
O: Merefled
P: Eowyn
Q: Cenric
R: Helm
S: Darwise
T: Eomer
U: Adgith
V: Theoden
W: Elflhem
X: Grima
Y: Wilrun
Z: Theodred

What is your favorite color?

(Of those listed. I know I can’t include every possible option!)

Red: Aldburg
Orange: Westemnet
Yellow: Edoras
Green: Eastfold
Blue: Fenmarch
Purple: Westfold
Pink: Eastemnet
Black: the Folde
Brown: the Wolde
White: West-March
Other: the White Mountains

Tell us your name in the comments!

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An Inside Look at an Amateur Tolkien Collection (Guest Post by Nicole @ Thoughts Stained with Ink)

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Love and Friendship. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!

Tolkien Collection

I am so excited to guest post today at Pages Unbound! Thank you so much for having me, Briana and Krysta!

For those who might not know me, my name is Nicole and I blog at Thoughts Stained With Ink. I’m a queer SFF writer, blogger, reader and editor who owes my lifelong love of the fantastic, in great part, due to the contributions Tolkien made in my childhood. I grew up with the films as they were released, which caused me to fall in love with the books. It created an obsession that I still love to this day, as you can see with what I’m going to share with you all: my amateur Tolkien collection.

One quick caveat: you do not need to own a lot of collectibles to consider yourself a fan, no matter the fandom. It is also okay to collect things, while also recognizing that not everyone has the means to (and, most of my own collection has been gifts given by my family for over a decade). So, please be kind.

For my collection, it’s split into a couple of different areas: books, art and figurines, memorabilia and other miscellaneous artwork.

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As an arguably life-long fan of Tolkien’s work, it might not surprise you that I own a lot of books written by him. But, thanks to the worldwide fame that Tolkien’s work gathered, there is also plenty of other works: whether it’s books diving into his world and writing process, scholarship or the History of Middle-earth series, continued by his son, the late Christopher Tolkien; well, there’s plenty to choose from. Hence, the entire bookcase’s worth of books.

Some of the favorites that I own include:

  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy, illustrated by Alan Lee
  • Four book set I got while visiting Oxford, where Tolkien was a professor
  • An omnibus edition of LOTR that a friend gave me in college


So, I may rip away my status as a Tolkien fan as soon as I’ve declared it, but I love the films more than the books. (I said what I said.) So, when Weta started making memorabilia for the films, these became very coveted items in my mind, many which I couldn’t afford (and still can’t). To the Christmas list they went and my parents (i.e., my Mom) very kindly try to get me one thing a year. Some of the most affordable things were the art prints, which I am so thankful for. They are gorgeous and some of my

favorite things I’ve ever owned. They feature artwork from both the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit trilogies.

My favorite has to be my Smaug and Balrog prints.


As you can see, I also have a smattering of random collectibles! Some are precious beyond gold, like the two different cross stitches two different friends made me—one of a hobbit hole and one of the sigil of Gondor. Not to mention the homemade hobbit door my sister made me!! Others are more common, like Funko Pops (I didn’t think I’d like Funko Pops at first, but I’m into them!), the One Ring replicas or really cool random artwork from small creators I’ve collected from places like the Renaissance Festival or Etsy. No matter their rarity, however, they all mean the world.

But my favorites, once again, are from Weta Workshop (and courtesy of my Mom). I saved up a lot of money to get a display cabinet for the most “collector-y” of the bunch, but it brings me nothing but absolute joy every time I’m in my office.

In Sum

I hope you enjoyed this very brief glance into some of the things that make me an absolute nerd, while also highlighting my love for Tolkien. He’s by no means an unproblematic author. His racism and his lack of female or queer characters stain his legacy and his character. Yet, his stories and their messages of hope are foundational to me and will always hold a place in my heart, helping me fall in love with stories and choose to (attempt) to break into an industry where we work to create more inclusive stories than the father of fantasy himself ever did.

Thank you so much for reading and thank you, Briana and Krysta, for hosting me once more. Namárië!

Capital Punishment and the Shadow of Númenor (Guest Post by John @ Tales from Absurdia)

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Love and Friendship. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting several days of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!

Capital Punishment and the Shadow of Númeno

At the time of the War of the Ring in the Third Age, the Free Peoples of Middle-earth are in a bad way.

The Dwarves are beset by the forces of Angmar in the North, whilst the power of the Elves is waning. Meanwhile, the Hobbits have their own domestic feuds to resolve – not helped by the appearance of Sharkey (né Saruman).

The race of men is in a general disarray with Theoden of Rohan under the thrall of Saruman. Meanwhile, Gondor faces its own issues, with the forces of Mordor crossing the river Anduin. And barring a handful of southern provinces such as Belfalas where Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth resides, Minas Tirith is arguably the last great city of men – its piercing white walls facing outwardly proud in defiance against the shadow of Mordor.

And yet, from within the great walls of Minas Tirith (and Gondor at large), there lurks a dark, deep, brooding menace.

The death penalty.

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Gondor’s Use of the Death Penalty

Gondor’s death penalty is alluded to in both the novel and movie adaptation of The Two Towers, though in a somewhat non-committal manner.

In the novel, Faramir says the following:

‘I should now take you back to Minas Tirith to answer there to Denethor, and my life will justly be forfeit, if I now choose a course that proves ill for my city. So I will not decide in haste what is to be done.’

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

His life, we’re told, is ‘forfeit’ if he allows Frodo and Sam to part from his company. Because of the vague use of language, these lines pass by largely unaddressed. Even in the movie, Mardil – one of Faramir’s men – proclaims the following:

Madril: You know the laws of our country, the laws of your father. If you let them go,
your life will be forfeit.

Faramir: Then it is forfeit’

Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

This line is delivered in a languid, almost throwaway manner – as if it’s an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of Faramir’s own irresponsible actions.

But let’s strip away the metaphor, obfuscation, and trivial language. Faramir’s life being ‘forfeit’ means only one thing – the Kingdom of Gondor is willing to slay its own in accordance with pre-ordained laws, written up and ratified by the Steward Denethor (Faramir’s father no less!).

This is pretty dark, especially for Tolkien.

But why exactly is Faramir’s life ‘forfeit’? What laws could he have possibly broken to be threatened with such a grizzly punishment? Especially in a time where his presence is essential in order to stem the tide of Sauron’s forces.

Are there laws surrounding the finding of Isildur’s Bane (the ring)? This is unlikely. Save a very small handful of loremasters, nobody in Middle-earth knew of the ring after it passed out of history.

Could his death sentence be a result of allowing Frodo and Sam to depart without prior approval of Denethor? This is potentially more likely. After all, Pippin was not allowed to leave Gandalf’s side until he had the blessing of the Steward Denethor.

But even so, allowing a couple of travellers to continue on their journey seems hardly a court martial offence – even if Gondor is at war.

To properly understand the existence of capital punishment in Tolkien’s work, it’s worth delving into the history of the Númenorians; the ancient race of Men.

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A Brief(-ish) History of Númenor

Númenor was a Kingdom of Men based upon an island in the western seas of Middle-Earth, between the mainland of Middle-Earth and the haven of Valinor (also known as the Undying Lands).

As is alluded to throughout The Lord of the Rings, the Númenorians were wise, battle-hardy, and brilliant craftsmen. Some such as Tar-Palantir even possessed supernatural-like abilities such as the ‘farsight’, allowing them brief glimpses into the future. Incidentally, Denethor appeared to have retained some of this farsightedness, even without his use of the Palantir seeing stone.

After Tar-Palantir died, his brutish nephew – a man named Ar-Pharazon – forced Tar-Palantir’s daughter, Muriel (rightful Queen of Númenor) into marriage, thus usurping the throne.

Ar-Pharazon was ambitious and a leader of a populist group called the King’s Men who, as the power and riches of Men grew, wanted more. Coveting Elven immortality and the storied beauty of Valinor, The King’s Men resented both Elves and Valar, blaming them for deliberately obstructing the growth of men, and by extension, Númenor.

As part of his burgeoning ambition, Ar-Pharazon first turned his gaze towards the Middle-Earth – and Sauron, his enemy:

‘Ar-Pharazon the Golden was the proudest and most powerful of all the Kings, and no less than the kingship of the world was his desire.

He resolved to challenge Sauron the Great for supremacy of Middle-earth, and at length he himself set sail with a great navy, and he landed at Umbar.’

Appendix A, The Lord of the Rings

Sauron’s forces fled at the oncoming of the Númenoreans, so he turned to his next best trick – deception. As a shapeshifter, Sauron had the ability to make himself appear fair and beautiful before the Númenoreans, humbling himself and begging forgiveness. He then sought to manipulate the civil strife between the King’s Men and a group called ‘The Faithful’ (later known in The Lord of the Rings as the Dunedain).

‘It was not long before he had bewitched the King and was master of his counsel; and soon he had turned the hearts of all the Numenoreans, except the remnant of the Faithful, back towards the darkness.

And Sauron lied to the King, declaring that everlasting life would be his who possessed the Undying Lands, and that the Ban* was imposed only to prevent the Kings of Men from surpassing the Valar. ‘But great Kings take what is their right,’ he said.

At length, Ar-Pharazon listened to this counsel, for he felt the waning of his days and was besotted by the fear of Death.’

Appendix A, The Lord of the Rings

In short, the King’s Men, encouraged by Sauron, began to hunt down the Faithful who fled to Middle-Earth (Isildur amongst them), and embrace the death-cult of Morgoth. Worshipping Morgoth, and spurning the Valar, temples were erected in the name of Sauron’s dark master, corrupting a once great line of men.

The end of Númenor was brought about by Sauron, convincing an elderly Ar-Pharazon to make war upon Valinor. This was the last act of Númenor, with their forces drowned in the sea, and the island itself destroyed by Eru (literally God).

Many of the King’s Men, those now loyal to Sauron came to be known as The Black Númenorians. Many of those who survived the sundering of their home, departed with Sauron to the mainlands of Middle-Earth, where they took up residence in the Southern parts of Gondor, and aided Sauron in the War of the Ring.

Incidentally, the Mouth of Sauron – Sauron’s Lieutenant and right-hand man who confronts Gandalf and Aragorn prior to the Battle of the Black Gate in Return of the King – is a fallen Númenorian.

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So, Where Does Gondor Come Into This?

The history of Gondor is bound up irrevocably with the history of Númenor.

Elendil and his son Isildur, later to become leaders of Gondor, were never part of Sauron’s death-cult. Nor did they follow the King’s Men. However, Númenor has a long history of grievances over the roles of the Valar, and their wider impact on the lives of Men in Middle-Earth.

Drenched in the darkness of both their violent past – and the more immediate terror of Sauron – it’s possible to understand why Men’s hearts might become hard and cruel. And in desperate moments, with their backs to the wall, governments can be capable of terrible things.

Enter the death penalty.

This creates a schism between the idealised vision of the forces of good and the reality. Gondor is presented as the last bastion of ‘civilised’ men, set against the Easterlings, Wildmen, Orcs, and Uruks. The battle between the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth and the forces of darkness is presented largely as a binary choice between freedom vs death, good vs evil, east vs west, and purity vs savagery**.

But at no point is the legally-enforced policy of capital punishment explored in any great detail. This complicates the moral landscape of good vs evil – this argument of course hinging on the assumption that the reader finds capital punishment to be an immoral act. If not, this essay might be lost on you. If Captain Faramir, the son of the Steward, is to be put to death for merely allowing Sam and Frodo to leave his custody, how is this capital punishment policy enacted in peacetime Gondor for regular citizens? We’ll never know this of course, but it does raise interesting moral questions.

*The Ban is an order issued by the Valar, ordering that no-one shall enter the lands of Valinor uninvited. Prior to the sundering of Numenor, it was possible (though very difficult) to travel to the Undying Lands.

**On this last point, there is no doubt an essay to be written on the orientalism of The Lord of the Rings, but this essay is not that.

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Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Morality in The Lord of the Rings is generally straightforward – in its essence, it’s a story of good triumphing over evil. Sure, good people do bad things, but they’re generally punished for them, upholding the moral order of things and Tolkien’s Catholic worldview.

Boromir tries to take the ring from Frodo, and subsequently falls in battle. Isildur refuses to destroy the ring in lieu of claiming it for himself, and is slain by orcs when the ring eventually abandons him. And Saruman, who betrays Gandalf and the free peoples of Middle-Earth, is in turn betrayed by Wormtongue.

The wrongs committed by good people are mostly put right, and the villains of Tolkien get their comeuppance when all is said and done.

But it’s interesting that capital punishment goes ignored.

A simple conclusion that could be drawn is that The Lord of the Rings was published in a different time, where capital punishment was possibly more socially amenable. After all, the death penalty wasn’t abolished in the UK until as late as 1964.

However, what’s interesting is that the institutions of capital punishment that exist in Middle-Earth are spoken about in such vague language, as if characters are consciously ashamed of the practice and unable to properly name it. Faramir’s life is stated as being ‘forfeit,’ rather than the explicit fact that he’s condemned to be hanged (or however Gondor enforces the death penalty).

In my view, Gondor’s death penalty is an indirect result of Sauron’s influence upon the Númenoreans; nursing malice from within the darkened halls of Men and corrupting from afar.

I’m not arguing that there’s no difference between the free peoples of Middle-Earth and the forces of Sauron because of the mere existence of the death penalty – clearly there’s a massive gulf in ethics, morals, and virtues between the Orcs of Mordor and the Elves of Rivendell. However, the mere existence of capital punishment, whether it’s in Gondor, Rohan, or in the ancient world presented in The Silmarillion, complicates notions of fixed morality and ethics in Tolkien’s works, reconfiguring the moral landscape in a war between so-called purity and depravity.

About the Author

Visit John’s blog at Tales from Absurdia.