I took my son Danny to see "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" when he was not quite 5 years old.
I know, I know, perhaps not my best maternal decision. But he had begged to go, and after some initial, into-my-lap-crawling terror at the sight of Gollum, he loved it; no bad dreams, no residual trauma. Indeed, he is the only member of my family as devoted to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien as I am, though he came to them for very different reasons.
As a child, I loved epic poetry and stories about fairies, elves and wizards; from the moment he could walk, Danny loved swords and knights. So when "The Fellowship of the Ring" came out, it seemed tailor-made for him — little people holding their own with swords and all manner of heroic knights.
The first time I saw Danny in our backyard lifting his toy sword and declaring "If you want him, come and claim him" in his high child's voice, I knew I had done the right thing. That line is uttered in "The Fellowship" by Arwen Evenstar (Liv Tyler) as she saves Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) from the Black Riders; having my son choose to emulate a female warrior filled my heart with joy.
Which is another reason I took him to "The Two Towers" when he was not quite 5.
We have shared a love of Middle-earth, and many other fantasy tales, ever since. I read Danny and his sister Fiona "The Lord of the Rings" when they were young enough to be in bunk beds. It took me an entire year, even though I skipped almost all the songs and (I admit it here first) much of the Council of Elrond.
Obviously, I would be watching the new Amazon series, "The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power" with Danny. That he lives in Kansas City and I in L.A. matters naught in this age of streaming. We didn't quite hit the 8 p.m. CT/6 p.m. PT debut, but we were pretty darn close.
And we texted each other as we watched.
(Warning: there is no point, and much peril, in reading the following excerpts of that conversation if you have not already seen the first two episodes of "The Rings of Power." The comments will make no sense and will spoil everything.)
Mary McNamara: I am here and have "RoP" pulled up; you ready?
Danny Stayton: POPCORN IS BEING POPPED…Okay, I'm at my station
MM: On three then, you call it
DS: Arise, arise Riders of Rohan
MM: Oaths you have taken
DS: 1, 2, 3, DEATH
DS: KC internet crystal clear
Romanticism, like mithril, runs deep through Tolkien's Middle-earth — the longing for lands untouched by industry, the belief that honor can be a vital social force. Visually, this has often been rendered with the kind of luminous neoclassicism that Maxfield Parrish made famous; the Brothers Hildebrandt Tolkien calendars went a bit more Disney but still leaned into the golden light of nostalgia.
So neither Danny nor I are surprised that this prequel opens on the sylvan fields of Valinor where Elven children play. But hark, this being television rather than poster art, conflict is established almost immediately: Young Galadriel has built a magic boat, which her playmates immediately pelt with rocks.
DS: If elves bully like this they have no right to be snobby.
MM: Galadriel will be dealing with annoying males all her life no doubt
It's hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia myself, as I watch with my son but also without him. As much as I love the art form of television, it is undeniably easier to enter a world like Middle-earth in the darkness of a theater, just as it would be preferable to embark on this cinematic journey in the physical company of my son, who is no longer a little boy swinging swords.
But as the pandemic has taught us, remote connection is better than nothing.
DS: FIRST MAP SIGHTING!
MM: Swords! Maps! The Sundering Sea! We are back in Middle Earth for real!
DS: Knew it would only be a matter of time before we got a running landscape drone shot. It really is "Lord of the Rings."
I cannot count the number of times Danny and I have watched the great swooping shots over New Zealand's glorious topography used so vividly for Middle-earth — twenty times? Thirty?
Every year, it seems, we watch the extended version of Peter Jackson's triology from beginning to end. Every year, we sob during the death of Boromir (Sean Bean), thrill to the battle cry of Theoden (Bernard Hill) and rage when we remember that none of the actors won Oscars and only Ian McKellen (who played the wizard Gandalf), was even nominated. Once.
We come to the series undeniably looking for echoes of the films, but knowing that just as Jackson shifted character and event from book to film, this series should take us to a different age entirely. Here we will see origins of beloved characters but also whole new realms.
MM: And now we see the roots of Sauron's love of super-pointy architecture
DS: He does enjoy a good tower. That man elf is going to get eaten. Snow troll! They have a snow troll!
MM: Boromir's Cave Troll line remains unmatched, but I like the nod.
I ask Danny if seeing "The Two Towers" at such a young age left him scarred. Definitely, he says, but in a good way. "When I played in the backyard, I imaged myself defending Helm's Deep or riding with a sickly hobbit to the healing elves. 'Lord of the Rings' stayed with my through my life, sparked my creativity and still influences me."
When Danny was very small, we used to say he had three settings: High, Asleep and Watching a Movie. It was the only activity he enjoyed that was not wildly, frenetically physical. We tried to enforce the 30-minute rule on screens to no avail. He simply needed to watch "Toy Story" or "The Iron Giant" or, later, "The Fellowship of the Ring" until the end. "The kid needs closure," my husband said. "He needs to see justice done."
It's a good thing "The Rings of Power" is a prequel — we go in knowing justice will be done.
The appearance of the Harfoots, precursors to the Hobbits, shifts the tone in "The Rings of Power," and serves as a reminder of why Tolkien has united generations in more than my family. "The Hobbit" was a children's story; its sequel, "The Lord of the Rings," an adult epic. But at its center were small creatures, more childlike than Elves or Dwarves or Men, entry points for those who cannot quite see themselves in the formidable heroism of an epic but who want to be part of the story anyway.
MM: Am loving this Harfoot camo-village. Also the fact that Nori and Poppy sound like "Derry Girls." Wait, is that a freaking warg?
DS: Everything is so beautiful. They seem to have gone the "LoTR "route of set design and costume rather than the heavy CGI of "The Hobbit."
MM: Well it is the most expensive television show of all time.
DS: Keep in mind that for every lovely elf lord there is a disgruntled PA.
MM: I wonder if we should start a culture war about how the scruffy, child-like, snail-eating Harfoots are apparently Irish. Is that a penny whistle I hear?
For all his forays into fantasy, Tolkien was a scholar and an orderly writer, painstaking in his scene-setting and explanations. The introductions in the first episode are both exciting and comforting. The first-episode introductions to some, if not all, of the lands and races, is as comforting as it is exciting.
DS: I like the use of the map. Gives a tangible feel to the geography of Middle-earth.
MM: First humans sighted, living in dirt and beer. The bar-keep/butcher could put on a shirt at least.
DS: The craftmanship of the wood elves is top notch. The chest armor reminds me of the willow tree in 'Pocahontas."
MM: The Ents are quite active in this age; I hope we see some Ent-wives.
As many have mentioned, Galadriel is the epic warrior in "Rings of Power." Throughout Middle Earth, there are more, and more active, female characters than there were in "LoTR" (and there were more in the film version than in the books). In the second episode, an orc attacks a young boy and instead of running for help, his mother stays to protect him. Together, they take the villain down.
MM: Shades of "Dune;" another kick-ass mother/son team.
DS: That was a very scary orc. The head-chop was awesome!!
Many other things happen in the first two episodes of "Rings of Power." A mysterious man falls to earth in a meteor, Galadriel braves a sea monster and a young Elrond and Durin spar and then make peace with the help of Durin's terrific wife Issa. It promises to be a gorgeous and exciting series, but for me, it will be tough to top the sight of a mother and son taking down a very scary orc.
When Danny used to play "Lord of the Rings" in the backyard, I was not allowed to join; he was so committed to his own Middle-earth, facing down Ringwraiths, fighting with the Fellowship, that he didn't even want me to watch. And that was fine; I had given him this story for just that reason, so he could feel the power and pleasure of imagination, of transporting himself to another place entirely.
But realizing that place now has room for warriors who are mother and son? As Sam said when hearing the song of "Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom," "Great glory and splendor! And all my wishes have come true."
MM: That was fun; let's do it again.
DS: Let's Zoom next time though.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mary McNamara is a culture columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times.