I’ve read the Lord of the Rings so many times I have sizable swaths of it memorized. It doesn’t require much to get me reciting lines about the sound of horns echoing dimly in dark Mindolluin’s sides, or to call out a foul dwimmerlaik for his deeds and trespasses. I’ve loved Tolkien since I first read him. I always will. And I know I’m not alone.
That kind of love for Tolkien is behind a lot of the anxiety I hear when people talk about Amazon’s forthcoming Rings of Power series. To be fair, they come by their anxiety honestly. Everyone has seen at least one story they love treated poorly, and the experience often leaves a scar. It hurts. I get it.
I’m optimistic though. My wife will tell you I’m positive to a fault when it comes to these things. But the disappointment doesn’t deter me. I’ve got to steel myself against it if I want to find the rare wonder. And despite evidence to the contrary, I believe there’s always a new wonder out there waiting to be found.
Tolkien would agree with me, I think. He championed the idea of humans as sub-creators—images of God who take creation and reshape it into endless lesser creations. In this new Lord of the Rings series, people are doing exactly that. They’re borrowing from the master’s legendarium and fashioning new tales and new characters and new visions of the world they love.
In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien gives us the “Cauldron of Story”—a great kettle into which all our tales and histories are tossed and boiled. They stew and combine, and in each generation, new flavors are added, and new soups are tasted and served up for the good of those who gather.
Sometimes what boils up might only taste like a faint trace of the original bones in the broth. But often, a storyteller pulls out of the mix something that tastes familiar and satisfies. That’s the wonder I wait for.
Here’s what I mean.
This weekend I listened to a podcast (The Lord of Spirits) in which the hosts unpacked what we know about Thor. Yes, that Thor. It was interesting to hear that, historically speaking, we really don’t know a lot. The Germanic people didn’t write much down, so we’ve only got a few stories and tales written by Christians, and how well those tales portray the actual beliefs of Norse pagans is up for discussion.
But we do have scant details, and in the hundreds of years since Thor, quite a few storytellers have stepped in to fill the gaps. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby—the writer-illustrator duo from Marvel Comics—have a lot to do with that.
They took stark outlines from other writers and blew on the embers, bringing to life a mythology that eventually led us to Chris Hemsworth doing such Thor-ish things as fighting alongside a cybernetically enhanced raccoon and forging a weapon out of the heart of a dying star (which might be cooler than anything the “authentic” pagan god ever accomplished).
Old Thor went into the pot, you see. He rolled around for a few hundred years until Lee and Kirby sniffed over the cauldron, caught the odor of those old pagan bones, and dipped out a ladle of soup to serve up in their own way.
This is what Tolkien meant with his concept of “sub-creation.” He suggests that, as images of a God who creates ex nihilo, we rearrange the existing world in the form of songs and poems and paintings and stories. We “sub-create.” And what we make bears an imprint of us and our personal particularity.
The same goes for artists down through the ages, who each take up the brush of the master and make something new that reflects what they know of the world.
This is why I’m optimistic. I love to watch as others participate in sub-creation. As Tolkien says, “the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty.”
We may toss out the bits we dislike, but we endeavor to enjoy the soup nonetheless. And if we don’t like what we taste, maybe that’s an invitation to step up to the pot ourselves and see what we can pull out of it to give to others.
I can’t help but think that with The Rings of Power, creators J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay are stepping up to the pot, dipping into Tolkien’s soup, smacking their lips over the lightly sketched tales of Second Age Middle-earth, and preparing us a dinner. Based on everything they’ve said in interviews, they love Tolkien’s work like I do, and they aim to honor the heart that underlies it. They want to tell a new story that tastes like an old one.
That’s what we do. It’s what we’ve always done.
Even if The Rings of Power strays wide of the mark, it won’t demean or lessen The Lord of the Rings. The worst it can do is stink up the pot for a bit until someone else comes along to fix the flavor and serve up a fresh bowl. The new story is a participation in the work of story that Tolkien would have, I believe, taken delight in.
It’s beautiful to watch as, 49 years after Tolkien left us for the Undying Lands, his tales begin to emerge from the cauldron and take on different flavors. Like old Thor, the lightly sketched character of Galadriel comes up from the mix now fully fleshed, and I look forward to hearing her tale. So too with other familiar names: Elrond, Gil-galad, Durin, and others. And now we get to hear of newly sub-created characters as well.
In these new forms, we can listen as the tale speaks back to us of our own time, our own struggles, our own world, and our own fears and hopes. If we’re wise, we’ll listen to what it has to say. We’ll leave the undainty bits and savor the dainty. And the notes that feel true will go back into the pot to inform the next storyteller.
Few writers of the previous century have enriched the cauldron so well as J. R. R. Tolkien. It’s lovely to live in an age when we can see his legendarium taken up into the tradition of story he loved so well. For out of the cauldron it came, and into the cauldron it returns. Now its notes and flavors flow forward into the age to come.
Long live the pot. Pass the soup.
A. S. “Pete” Peterson is a novelist, a playwright, and the executive director of The Rabbit Room.