This discussion and review contains some spoilers for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power episode 7, “The Eye,” on Amazon Prime Video.
“The Eye” opens immediately in the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Doom at the climax of “Udûn.” Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) pulls herself back to consciousness as dust fills the air. The Southlands have been devastated. All that remains is ash and ruin. It’s a very heightened sequence with director Charlotte Brändström allowing the camera to drift through the madness. It feels genuinely apocalyptic, as if the characters have lived through the end of the world.
The sequence isn’t especially subtle. At one point, Galadriel catches a glimpse of a horse on fire, galloping wildly. It’s a variation on a nightmarish apocalyptic image that occurs quite frequently in popular culture; there’s a direhorse on fire at the climax of James Cameron’s Avatar, a burning train roars past in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) finds a horse in King’s Landing as the city burns in “The Bells,” at the climax of Game of Thrones.
It obviously evokes the horsemen of Revelation. However, it also draws specifically from real-life accounts of a specific event. In his loosely autobiographical manga, Barefoot Gen, Keiji Nakazawa depicts a horse on fire in Hiroshima in the wake of the atomic bomb. It is an image that stayed with many readers. It is included in historical art exhibits covering the atrocity and in lesson plans from The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Art Spiegelman argues that he could “never forget” it.
“The Eye” is saturated with nuclear imagery. The eruption of Mount Doom scars the landscape. It renders it forever uninhabitable for human life. The blackened trees recall depictions of the forests around Chernobyl. Queen Regent Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) is blinded by the blast, literally and perhaps also figuratively, an affliction commonly (and maybe exaggeratedly) associated with the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
There are other subtle choices that place “The Eye” in the shadow of the atomic bomb. The Númenór encampment is designed to evoke the royal encampment from the start of Kurosawa’s Ran, while the use of vivid red in the wake of the eruption recalls some of the more memorable shots of Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. Of course, Kurosawa casts a long shadow over fantasy film and television, particularly through Star Wars, but the reference to his later films feels deliberate.
According to Kurosawa, the “secret subject” of Ran was the threat of atomic apocalypse. Ran was the last of Kurosawa’s samurai epics, but the bomb remained a fixation for the director. He followed Ran with the impressionistic anthology Dreams, which explored the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through metaphor in “Mount Fuji in Red.” After Dreams, Kurosawa only made two more films, Rhapsody in August and Mādadayo, both of which directly grappled with the legacy of the war and the bomb.
It makes sense for The Rings of Power to draw from atomic imagery. Given that it was published in the aftermath of the Second World War, The Lord of the Rings has been read as a metaphor for the potential horrors and devastation of atomic power. “The public was less likely to equate Sauron with Hitler than the One Ring with the Bomb,” argues scholar David Day. “Surely, some suggested, no place could look more like a nuclear testing ground than the ash-laden land of Mordor?”
Of course, although it was published after the dropping of the atomic bomb, Tolkien wrote most of his saga long before the attacks. The author explicitly rejected any attempt to read his epic saga as a parable about the potential horror of nuclear devastation, telling one reader, “Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power (exerted for Domination).” Still, works exist in complicated contexts; they are more than just authorial intent.
It makes sense that The Lord of the Rings would resonate as an anti-war fable in the wake of the atomic bomb. Tolkien himself had been inspired by his own experiences of the horror of the First World War at the Somme. During the Second World War, he wrote to his son Christopher about the tendency of war “to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs.” In another letter, he described the detonation of the atomic bomb as an act “so horrifying one is stunned.”
Tolkien scholars broadly accept that it is reasonable to read the Ring as a metaphor for the atomic bomb. “The Ring may not be an allegory for the Bomb, but it does have symbolic applicability,” contends Janet Brennan Croft in War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien. “It is the weapon by which either side could totally destroy the other—and in it are also the seeds of the spiritual destruction (at the very least) of the victor.” This is very much evident in how “The Eye” approaches Mordor.
Part of the enduring success and appeal of The Lord of the Rings derives from the readers who latched on to it in the decades after it was published, many of whom were the children of those who fought in the Second World War. The saga spoke to “a generation haunted by the Vietnam War and the atomic bomb.” Greenpeace activist Robert Hunter described the team that he led on sailing missions to prevent nuclear tests as a “Fellowship of the Piston Rings.”
As such, there is a question here about whom these stories belong to and whether they can be recontextualized and reimagined to account for how the world has changed in the years and decades since they were written and published. That tension is rendered as part of the text of The Rings of Power, which is a story much more directly engaged with generational conflict than The Lord of the Rings. A large part of the show is about children trying to find their way in a world shaped by their parents.
Earlier in the season, “The Great Wave” leaned heavily into these themes. Adar (Joseph Mawle) was established as a “father” to the orcs that he leads. Míriel was trying to fill a void left by her incapacitated father Tar-Palantir (Ken Blackburn). Durin IV (Owain Arthur) and Elrond (Robert Aramayo) bonded over the difficult and contrasting relationships with their fathers. Elrond’s father had left long ago, leaving a sizable absence. In contrast, Durin III (Peter Mullan) still rules Moria.
There is an obvious push-and-pull at play here. These children are caught between honoring the parents who came before them and living their own lives. “For many years, at day’s end, I would look up at it, wondering what might he think if he were watching me?” Elrond contemplated about his father in “The Great Wave.” “Would he be proud of what I had accomplished with his legacy? Or disappointed by the countless ways I’d failed to live up to it?”
This question is explored from both sides. Recalling his son’s birth in “The Eye,” Durin III remembers reassuring his wife. “I told her she need cry no more, her son would live, and he would move mountains,” he explains. Durin III is unconvinced. “How do you expect me to move mountains, father, if you fall to pieces when I dig a single hole?” he counters. “You speak of greatness for me, but you suffocate in me any ambition, any desire, any thought that does not originate in you.”
In many ways, this feels like The Rings of Power working through its own internal challenges. One of the big debates about the show has been the extent to which it is beholden to Tolkien’s original vision, as well as how it can craft its own identity within that. After all, this is a show made in cooperation with Tolkien’s grandson, Simon. How does the show honor Tolkien while acknowledging that much of the work’s resonance expands beyond his original authorial intent? Tolkien casts a shadow of his own.
It’s a challenge, and “The Eye” reconciles it by bringing The Rings of Power back to that first generation of fans who claimed The Lord of the Rings for their own, those who read it under the cloud of the atomic bomb. In doing this, it does something interesting within the confines of a text that is often morally straightforward. After all, for all that the morality of the Second World War can seem clear-cut, the atomic bomb wasn’t developed and deployed by the “bad guys” of that conflict. It was dropped by the “heroes.”
There is a sense in which the use of the atomic bomb against civilian populations is an event with which the United States has yet to fully grapple. Attempts to explore the consequences and the horror of the event, such as at the Smithsonian on the 40th anniversary of the bombings, are frequently met with resistance and pushback. If, as Galadriel contends, it “darkens the heart to call dark deeds good,” then what does it say of a culture unwilling to confront such actions?
The Rings of Power has repeatedly suggested that darkness and violence do not exist in a vacuum. “Nothing is evil in the beginning,” Galadriel warned audiences at the start of “A Shadow of the Past.” In “The Eye,” she explains to Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) that she lived through a time before war, confessing, “When I was your age, there was no such thing as orcs.” Adar was once an elf himself, before being tainted, as Galadriel seems to be corrupted herself. There is a sense of moral erosion to all of this.
Both Galadriel and Theo carry some shame over the atrocity that just unfolded, with Theo having surrendered the blade to Adar and Galadriel grappling with the idea that she carries war within her. There is a sense that more than just the Southlands have been contaminated by this violence. Míriel herself seems not just blinded, but corrupted. “Do not spend your pity on me, elf,” she warns Galadriel. “Save it for our enemies, for they do not know what they have begun.”
In some ways, this ties back to the ways in which The Rings of Power is engaging and playing with the War on Terror subtext that informed the reception of Peter Jackson’s feature film adaptations just as surely as atomic anxieties informed readers’ reactions to Tolkien’s epic. The show seems to be suggesting that sometimes such atrocities scar more than just the skin — and that even heroes can be corrupted when they find themselves in the shadow of Doom.