Fantasy stories are one of my favorite genres, and I’ve experienced them in print (J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is my favorite), online (I use Naver’s Webtoon app almost as often as I use Google Maps), and on film (I’ve seen The Lord of the Rings trilogy around 12 times, which translates into about four-and-a-half days out of my total existence). When I was young, I also got to know them through role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, which draw heavily from fantasy literature.
But one kind of fantasy story that I haven’t spent much time with, and which I’ve intentionally avoided over the years, is what I’ll call the “Tolkien copycat” type. (Some fantasy fans would go further and call them “Tolkien rip-offs.”) The imaginary worlds in which these tales take place are so similar to Tolkien’s Middle-earth, many readers have felt like the authors basically copied Tolkien’s formula, kind of like how new K-pop boy bands and girl groups try to imitate already successful ones. The similarities these stories have to Tolkien’s can be so strong that it becomes distracting, with a reader or viewer frequently noticing and comparing the fictional universes with thoughts like, “So this is the author’s version of Tolkien’s Orcs, or Black Riders, or the breaking of the Fellowship.”
I certainly have had those thoughts while watching the first three episodes of Amazon Prime’s new show The Wheel of Time, based on Robert Jordan’s best-selling book series of the same name. There are so many parallels between elements of the show and aspects of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit that it doesn’t feel like an especially fresh take on the fantasy genre. (I will say that the Trollocs of this show are scarier than The Lord of the Rings’ Orcs. Like, a ton scarier.)
But while I have found the world of The Wheel to overall be too similar to Middle-earth for my taste (at least the way Prime has interpreted Jordan’s books), two things have grabbed my attention, so much so that I’ll be coming back for Episode 4, which arrives on Friday. Returning visitors to this blog can probably guess what those two things are; these strengths of the show actually address the two major complaints I have about The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
The first thing I really like about Prime’s The Wheel is the abundance of women in leadership and authority, which is one thing lacking in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The Lord of the Rings has the Big Three female characters – Galadriel, Arwen, and Éowyn; each is very cool in her own right, but they’re greatly outnumbered. The leading male characters include the nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring; additionally, there’s one super-legendary Elf, one traitorous Wizard, one human king, one sort-of king (the Steward of Gondor), and his son, a sort-of prince. The Hobbit film trilogy is even more unbalanced; almost all of the leading characters are male – one Hobbit, 13 Dwarves, three Wizards, the super-legendary Elf, a brooding Elf-king, one Elf-prince, one bear-man (you’ll understand when you read or see it), and one unassuming hero who saves a city. Credit goes to The Hobbit film producers, who created the character of Tauriel the Elf to go with Galadriel, who appears in the movie trilogy but also isn’t present in Tolkien’s version.
The Wheel of Time, on the other hand, features the magically powered female order of the Aes Sedai; these women appear to be the most powerful beings in The Wheel’s universe, and in fact, their supernatural abilities belong to their gender alone. Some of the Aes Sedai also have men known as Warders who are bonded to them as servants; these highly skilled fighters accompany them as an added source of protection on journeys. Female healers known as Wisdoms possess special abilities through their magical ties to nature; one of them, Nynaeve, appears to even act as her town’s primary leader. Nynaeve’s apprentice as a Wisdom, Egwene, also develops some powers and is potentially the reincarnation of the prophesied Dragon Reborn, who will either save or destroy the world. There are three leading male characters who also could be the Dragon Reborn, but clearly, the locus of power in The Wheel among the “good guys” rests more in women than in men.
It’s worth noting that Prime’s version of The Wheel also subverts a prominent trope of other fantasy film and TV adaptations, particularly the wildly popular Game of Thrones series – female nudity. There is none in the first three episodes of The Wheel; in fact, the only nude shot is of Warder Lan Mandragoran (played by Asian American thirst trap Daniel Henney) as he steps into a bath with his bonded Aes Sedai, Moiraine Damodred (played by Emmy and Golden Globe awardee Rosamund Pike, who’s also one of The Wheel’s producers). Not having read the source material, I don’t know if such a scene exists in the novels. But I think it likely that there was a deliberate choice to show a male backside and not a female one in the series premiere, given the inevitable comparisons between The Wheel and Game of Thrones, and particularly in light of The Wheel’s feminist tone. The writers and director knew what they were doing.
The second thing I like a lot about this series is its racial diversity. Even after three episodes, I still find myself noticing just how many people of color play both major and minor roles. It hit me, while watching the first episode, that I’m so unaccustomed to seeing anything other than white people in fantasy adaptations set in medieval-esque, British-accented environments. I think back to The Lord of the Rings, and I don’t recall any characters of color. In The Hobbit films, I do recall seeing a few POCs among the townspeople in the very last movie. But that was it!
I love this move by the Prime series’ creative team to put together a diverse cast! I saw a complaint about it online, with the viewer accusing Prime of trying to be “politically correct,” an old phrase mostly used (IMO) by folks uncomfortable with diversity. But seeing people who look like me in a fantasy tale, after a whole 50-year lifetime of never seeing that, is a very welcome change.
Do you ever realize that you missed something, even though you didn’t have it before? That’s how I’m feeling about The Wheel’s excellent inclusivity.
I’ll try to post more on the series after a few more episodes!