Fantasy face-off: The Rings Of Power versus House Of The Dragon

Actor Matt Smith in House Of The Dragon. PHOTO: HBO

Comparisons between HBO’s House Of The Dragon and Amazon’s The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power – both new epic fantasies, both prequel series, both with huge budgets and ready-made fan bases – were probably inevitable. And indeed the Internet has already been more than happy to oblige. But should people compare them? Possibly not.

Thrones author George R.R. Martin – whose work was heavily influenced by the original Rings author, J.R.R. Tolkien – wants only peace in the realm. “It’s not a death match or anything,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “We don’t have to be bracketed together.”

Still, few seem able to resist the urge. Instead of comparing industry stats, though – ratings, budgets and so on – take a look at where the two shows overlap. Which one has the coolest swords? The best dragons? The most formidable heroine? Granted, initial observations are based on only the first few episodes. But people have seen enough to get the discussion started. Warning: Some spoilers lie ahead.

Pop culture cred

It is not entirely fair to compare Englishman Tolkien with Martin, who is often referred to as “the American Tolkien”. The two authors are not in competition. Martin takes inspiration from much of what Tolkien did, especially in the areas of magic and world-building, but he has also expanded on Tolkien’s achievements. Tolkien has sold more books than Martin (they have both sold tens of millions), but Tolkien’s have been around much longer.

A better comparison might be the previous adaptations of their work: HBO’s Game Of Thrones (2011 to 2019), to which Dragon is a prequel, versus Peter Jackson’s film versions of The Lord Of The Rings (2001 to 2003) and The Hobbit (2012 to 2014).

It could be said that the early seasons of Game Of Thrones were in some ways comparable with the first three (and much-loved) Jackson films, while the derided later seasons of Thrones resembled more the polarising Hobbit movies. Each series got off to a great start, but each tested viewers’ patience. Tolkien fans are already finding things to gripe about with the new series, but they have had much more time to get over the Hobbit movies. If the monster ratings seen thus far for Dragon are any indication, Thrones fans seem prepared to forgive (if not forget) for now. But it is still early, fan reaction to the end of Thrones was truly bitter and the franchise still has a lot of ground to make up.

Heroes

As prequels go, The Rings Of Power has another advantage because some of its characters are immortal. The trick, of course, is that new actors have to measure up to those playing previous incarnations, some of whom were widely beloved. Morfydd Clark, as an adventurous young Galadriel in Rings (played by Cate Blanchett in the movies) manages this quite nicely.

Dragon might have taken a similar route if the showrunners had been willing to revisit such long-living Thrones characters as Melisandre (Carice van Houten) or the Children of the Forest. But that would have required wedging those characters into the story in places where they did not really fit.

Instead, Dragon implicitly asks viewers to identify Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) with Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and therefore support her claim for the throne. As causes go, that is not as noble as Galadriel’s quest to extinguish the ultimate evil or even Dany’s early fight against oppression. Rhaenyra wants only her birthright and perhaps there is something heroic in fighting the patriarchy to get it. But so far, she is no Galadriel, even if the blonde wigs make the Targaryens resemble elves.

Swords

’Tis said the sword makes the man – or the woman or the elf. And sometimes a legendary sword can do more to fuel fear and awe than the individual wielding it.

In The Rings Of Power, people will presumably get to see some of these storied blades – the sword of Isildur (Maxim Baldry), for example, which is known as Narsil and is weighted with destiny. Meanwhile, what about the broken black hilt that Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) secretly keeps? It is a weapon that seems capable of reforging itself and of drinking in blood as well. It resembles the sword Anglachel, also called Gurthang, and that is not a good thing.

In Dragon, it is a Golden Age of legendary Valyrian weaponry. King Viserys (Paddy Considine) grips the mighty sword of kings, Blackfyre, when he wants to exert authority, and he holds a familiar dagger when he wants to impart prophecy. Daemon (Matt Smith), meanwhile, uses the slimmer Dark Sister to cut his way to glory.

Then there is the Iron Throne, which is made of countless swords and could easily bring down a king with a well-placed nick. Legend has it that this is the way the throne “rejects” those not fit to rule.

A parallel to Valyrian steel in Tolkien’s world is mithril, the rare and precious metal found only in Khazad-dum and Numenor – both places visited in The Rings Of Power. Mithril is said to be stronger than steel, but also lighter – which raises the obvious question: Why has no one thought to make a mithril sword?

(From left) Actors Morfydd Clark and Charlie Vickers from The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power. PHOTO: PRIME VIDEO

Dragons

Dragons are the ultimate weapons of war. In the prologue to The Rings Of Power, the evil Morgoth made pioneering use of the winged beasts in battle.

One of his mounts appears to be Ancalagon the Black, an obvious model for another familiar behemoth, Balerion the Black Dread, whose preserved skull is an object of reverence in Dragon. Tolkien’s dragons are not pets – taking them out for joyrides would be inadvisable. And they will have a more serious role to play in the story once the dwarfs get their power jewellery.

But to settle the core issue between the two franchises, which dragons are better? From the loquacious Smaug, in the 2013 movie The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, it is seen that Tolkien’s dragons are sentient and thoughtful. One on one, they have serious intellectual assets. But as a group, their meagre numbers in Middle-earth during this Second Age are no match for the fire-breathing horde in Dragon.

Rhaenyra’s Syrax and Daemon’s Caraxes are just the first of those beasts to be introduced on the show.

Invented languages

Given that Tolkien was an actual linguist who created his own Elvish language (Quenya, it is called), The Rings Of Power starts off with a distinct advantage over Dragon in this category.

Martin (for the books) and language creator David J. Peterson (for Dragon) made valiant efforts to achieve something close to what Tolkien did, most notably with High Valyrian, the mother tongue of the Targaryen rulers. If people were to judge each show solely by the artistry of its languages, Tolkien’s Quenya would surely win.

But The Rings Of Power squanders that advantage by barely using Quenya when the elves speak to one another, or Khuzdul among the dwarfs, at least in the first two episodes. Viewers hear Elrond (Robert Aramayo) mutter a few words of Elvish to himself when he is writing something, but he switches to the common tongue seconds later.

By contrast, Dragon uses High Valyrian to establish a relationship between a Targaryen uncle and niece, and the actors speak it so fluently that the bond feels real. NYTIMES

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