The Rings of Power as teaching material?

A ring, yesterday

It’s been a while since we offered up a cultural product as material for teaching, but since I’d hate for Mr Bezos to have spent all that money for nothing, let’s consider the Rings of Power as an option for a minute or two.

For those who’ve missed it, this is a spin-off of the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit sagas of JRR Tolkien, a man who’d probably be working on an Impact Case Study these days, and concerns the events that lead up to those original texts.

Amazon snaffled up – if that’s the right word for years of negotiation and $250bn for the rights alone – the option to make this series which is just about to drop its final episode of its (presumably) first season. Given the investment, the number of characters and the quantity of pregnant pauses as someone says something weighty in import, there’s going to be more of this to come.

Those pauses also gave me an opportunity to reflect on the politics of the series.

On a quick reading, there are four obvious points to engage with the material in respect of our curricula.

Firstly, there’s a strong US draw-down in Iraq vibe in the early episodes, as the elvish leadership wants to wind up its orc-hunting operation and close its in-field placement of forces. Themes about obligation, trust and resilience are plentiful, as is the question of how effective any of this long-term activity has been in either rooting out the initial problems or the emergent threats.

Secondly, you might consider the tensions between cooperation and conflict, both within the various species and between them. None of the societies depicted have meaningful democratic mechanisms, but in each there are paths to influence and shape policy, even if in some cases that involves bits of convenient magic. There’s also a moot point of whether the orcs could even have rehabilitated themselves into Middle-Earth society without [spoiler] fighting and – somewhat related – they could operate in a non-authoritarian system.

Thirdly, you might reflect on the political values implicit in the production itself. That might include discussion on the use of accents to frame species (why are all the half-foots/half-feet Irish?), the diversity of casting and the placing of women into key roles and functions, all of which say something about how cultural products work right now. Comparing these points with the earlier Peter Jackson films would also open up more points.

Finally, there is a lot of political communication going on here. One might ask questions about whether all crowds are so led, but the value of clear and motivating messaging is made clear time and again, as is the power of symbols. The series hangs as much on how individuals imagine others to be as it does on how those others actually are, which isn’t a bad point to reflect upon in our contemporary political debates.

The challenge in all of this might be that this is already a big pile of screen time for students to engage with: each episode is clocking in at about 70 minutes. However, if you think they might already have watched it, then you certainly have an in to a set of useful discussions and potential activities.

To take one example, I’ll make the wild guess that season 1 ends on a cliffhanger: gaming out the possible paths and their political logics would easier fill a seminar session, plus you’d have the follow-up option to note and review the discussion with a new group once season 2 drops.

Or you could just find a volcanologist and try to work out whether the triggering of Orodruin in E5 is even vaguely viable.