The Rings Of Power vs. House of the Dragon: My Review
Not Much In The Way Of Spoilers (but perhaps some)
Two epic fantasy prequels face each other head to as HBO presents House of the Dragon (HOTD), a prequel to Game of Thrones, and Amazon features The Rings of Power (ROP), a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. I started HOTD first, but after a couple of episodes of ROP I binged it until I caught up. As of this writing, I await the first season finale for each.
I liked the Rings of Power quite a bit more, and I pondered why. Both feature the high fantasy elements nerds like me love.
As prequels, in both, you know in advance the ultimate result. For HOTD you know the story is a tragedy where House Targaryen must fall, with the dragons propping up their rule also dying off. The hope of a unified Westeros to face the prophecy of icy doom from North will await hundreds of years. You know almost none of the principle characters will survive.
In ROP you likewise know that the amazing human civilization of Numenor must fall, as must the great dwarf kingdom of Khazad-dum (known in Lord of the Rings as Moria). Much of the first season focuses on the Battle for the Southlands, later known as Mordor, and you know that to be a battle our heroes must ultimately lose as it will become Sauron’s base of power, and where he makes the One Ring. You know that young Isildur, all too eager to prove himself, is fated to great and horrible things. Further, you know that some major characters, such as Galadriel and Elrond, must live through this series.
So let’s discuss why I like ROP so much more than HOTD. The primary reason has to do with characters. I don’t know how to say this delicately, so I won’t. In House of the Dragon essentially all the erstwhile protagonists are assholes. Jerks, to a man, and woman. These are not heroic figures, with perhaps some flaws. These are fundamentally flawed, simply bad people, impossible to like, who on occasion, at least act courageously to advance their self centered objectives. The protagonists contest, not against an external evil that threatens them all (even though one does) but rather against each other. Any alliance is a deception for temporary advantage. The adults generally behave like somewhat sophisticated children, and their children (unsurprisingly) behave like very stupid children.
Within this framework it is exceptionally difficult to have any side to cheer for. You don’t care who wins because, frankly, they all deserve to lose. Which, in the end, I suppose they all pretty much will. This story is not about good guys vs. bad guys, it’s about bad guys vs. bad guys. Only King Viserys tries to be good, and well . . . let’s just say that doesn’t work out.
This was not the case with the original Game of Thrones series. Characters like Tyrian Lannister, Samwell Tarly, Brienne, Jon Stark, Arya Stark, Sansa Stark, Jorah Mormont, and even Daenerys (before she turned bad in a disappointing final season), along with many others, were noble, likable, heroic characters who you wanted to cheer for. I can think of no characters like this from HOTD.
By contrast, the Rings of Power presents a stark dividing line between good and evil and a side we can clearly cheer on, even when we know certain efforts are doomed. Most of the characters are uplifting and noble, even when they are suspicious of each other. Sometimes even more so than in the books. The books suggest the dwarves awaken Kazad-dum’s balrog out of the greed, mining dangerously deeper for mithril to satiate their lust for wealth. In this rendition a divided dwarf kingdom seeks mithril to save elves from extinction.
In the Southlands an elvan ranger falls for a human woman and together they valiantly attempt to rally the descendants of those who served Morgoth, as they now attempt to defeat the newly emerging evil in the region. Those humans who join them (and not all do) also fight as we would hope common people thrust into an epic war against evil would. In them we have a side to cheer for!
Something utterly lacking in the brooding House of the Dragon is any lighthearted relief. Rings of Power offers some, primarily through the Harfoots, nomadic predecessors of hobbits. To be sure that storyline becomes more serious as the tale unfolds, but the irrepressible adolescent, Nori Brandyfoot, has a heart as big as her own courage. You want Nori and the Harfoots to succeed.
With some persuading, even the Numenorians start on the right path to help their fellow humans, and Galadriel’s quest. It’s sad to think they will eventually fall from that.
Speaking of Galadriel, the story perhaps focuses most on her. She is the one committed to fighting the emerging evil that others are convinced is long vanquished. She is also a bad ass warrior. You want her to succeed as well.
Galadriel’s closest counterpart in HOTD (and it’s not very close) would be Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen. Convinced by her father that she is fated to unite the kingdom against the common foe she will do anything to take the throne. Well, anything except a little self discipline. By mutual agreement she sleeps around on her Targaryen husband producing children clearly of not pure Targaryen blood. A woman to the throne was already a huge controversy, never mind one with multiple bastards. She is as willing to connive and arrange for power as any of them.
A clear side to root for, with clearly defined good vs. evil, is what separates ROP from HOTD, as Rings of Power features characters who at least all try to do their best to be good and heroic. In ROP you know who you want to win. You want to stand with them because you believe they would stand with you. When some of the characters fall, as we know they must, it will be a sad moment.
When they all die in HOTD one will shrug one’s shoulders and say “good riddance.”
Edit & Update Based On The Ring of Power Season 1 Finale.
Just finished watching the Season 1 finale of The Ring of Power, and WOW, WOW WOW! Wonderful. It again emphasized the difference in the ROP series v. HOTD.
Item: I discussed how one problem with prequels is that you know what’s coming. I suppose in various broad senses we still do. However, along the way, they write this series so well so as to have plenty of unforeseen plot twists. Moments that make you gasp as the realization slowly sets in.
Item: In this season finale someone died, and I cared. I cared much more than when King Viserys died in House of the Dragon, and it was not as big a character. They just did it in a way that made you care, and it was a character you liked.
Item: In this season finale someone lost a friend, not to death, but because the friend left, and I cared. I cared at this parting because they did it in a way that made you care, and because it was people you liked.
The writing is exceptionally clever in staying true to Tolkien canon and still surprising you. Perhaps bigger Tolkien nerds than I will see stuff off-canon, but I haven’t yet. The series certainly adds much to the Second Age story that is not even remotely suggested by the books, but I am not aware of any actual contradictions yet between the books and what they are doing. Some things completely un-suggested by the books seem to make what occurs in the books make more sense. Such as . . . nope, better not say that one. That’s too big a spoiler. Maybe later.
For the record, this season finale was almost all about the characters. It featured no epic battles, not a single orc was to be seen. But all those characters you care so much about, they grew. And it was wonderful.