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Powers and Dominions

House of the Dragon 


(live and streaming) 

The Rings of Power 

Amazon Studios 



There was a weighty inevitability about the proclamations by which, in the last days of August, the Home Box Office, and on the first day of September, Amazon Studios, issued their arrière-bans for a protractedly magnificent autumn campaign. Neither suzerain, however, could have planned for sudden competition from a third force—more ancient, less understood, under particular circumstances, and for a time more credible and compelling than either rival, because, perhaps, the distant but dignified ancestor of both.

On September 8 Queen Elizabeth II died, and the return of the king was experienced, as never before, not just by the persistently or post-Britannic realms and territories but by the human race. The great potentates of private enterprise stood for a moment outmaneuvered and exposed by a traditional, national, and ecclesiastical institution, its apparent limits suddenly standing forth as transcendent qualities.

Where Amazon had undoubtedly contributed to the vexing history of intellectual property, paying a sum for the footnotes of The Lord of the Rings hardly imaginable for newly discovered Scriptural papyri, and where H.B.O. settled for redeeming past fiasco and brightening up dubious source material with solid, fundamentally conservative dramatic art, the British monarchy—as I shall call it for want of a more all-encompassing term—now wielded its rarest, greatest, power, to incarnate and display history in the very moment of formation. The late queen had just sealed her formidable reign with the appointment of a final prime minister of the United Kingdom. British prime ministers are supposed to be at their most potent and least loathed at the inception of their period in office, a truism the queen’s last, and her son’s first, premier lost little time in disproving. For King Charles III, on the other hand, it was a more seamless and auspicious beginning.

Astute novelty was provided by the unprecedented broadcast of the Accession Council, with its astonishing, Anthony Powell—descended human revelations as former prime ministers bonded (Boris Johnson and Gordon Brown), or conspicuously didn’t (either of the forenamed and Sir Tony Blair). At the same time those great and mysterious sorcerers called heralds and pursuivants, and the Armed Forces, drilled with an immaculacy which their departed mistress had always elicited with effortless, if perhaps not wholly unconscious, artistry, successfully conveyed the ageless quality of the sword plighted to the Crown. Of the stitches in this meandering tapestry, many were confected at historically known dates and under specific and sometimes bathetic circumstances. That did not stop them from contributing to the whole their accrued significance.

During the Accession Council the King’s oath to uphold the rights and freedom of the Church of Scotland, a denomination of which he is not head and which both of his Stuart namesakes and predecessors regarded with distaste and even loathing, became not a codicil of sectarian division, born of grubby negotiation towards the Act of Union, but an almost poetic assertion of Britain’s northern kingdom’s honor and identity (a legerdemain the Church of Scotland has often accomplished in its near half-millenium of existence, and which its spiritual heir the Scottish National Party replicates with stolid success).

The relatively recent tradition known as the “Vigil of the Princes,” during which the monarch’s sons guard the royal body as it lies in state, was invented in 1936 for George V and in 2002 somewhat irregularly disinterred for his daughter-in-law, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. In 2022 Elizabeth II’s most chivalric child, Princess Anne, patently counted as a “prince” and stood among her brothers at the vigil. Anne, created Princess Royal (as the late queen’s eldest, in fact, only, daughter), has a reputation as the hardest working of the House of Windsor. She appeared to be solicitously affectionate towards her visibly grieving brother the King during the (also newly televised) state funeral, and her worst headlines are occasional allusions to the ferocity of her dogs.

A whisper that Anne was the unnamed target of the insinuated allegations of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, did not thrive. Likely to be the next Captain-General of the Royal Marines, the Princess Royal is more than a match for Amazon’s equally equestrian interpretation of the (future) elven ruler Galadriel, dubbed, in a departure from the hierarchies and nomenclature of J.R.R. Tolkien (indeed, it appears to owe something to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator), “Commander of the Northern Armies.”

While the oath to protect the Church of Scotland is a piece of real but ossified political haggling that now lends a kind of magic by its antiquity and its national identity, the Vigil of the Princes (like the overwhelming majority of post-Saxe-Coburg British royal ritual) is an artifice, fantasy fiction, now made for television. As such, it is, like most of the ceremonial dreamed up for the monarchy according to the constitutional doctrines of the subtle semi-republican Walter Bagehot, highly convincing. Even my father, a sometime classicist, lifelong seventeenth-century reader, and innately historical thinker, was, until we checked, under the vague impression that the Vigil of the Princes dated from the Wars of the Roses. This is surely the definition of success for both the enchantments of monarchy and of fantasy—that either endows a paradoxically heightened, deepened, and in some sense far from untrue connection to essential reality.

But the more or less native dynasties of England and Scotland have had well over a thousand years to weave this glamourie. Tolkien achieved a hold arguably even more pervasive and intoxicating over a single passionate lifetime of involuntarily intense industry, combining scholarly practice, artistic obsession, and the best of amateurish joy. To peek behind the professor’s arras, as the posthumous publication of thousands of pages of his drafts and fragments allows any interested or (more usually) possessed enquirer to do, is to see a powerfully Romantic creative intelligence subjecting itself to rigorously classical standards. Tolkien, honest and humble about what he does not yet know, does not doubt that the solutions he seeks are accessible, that the quest, doubtless with divine aid and sanction, is never in vain. Some grace of understanding—as an artist and as a believer, Tolkien knows it is and is not his own—perceives an unbroken, gleaming, lucid whole, where Blue Wizards have rods, names, purposes, chronologies, where the nature of Orc souls poses no moral difficulties, where the exact number of elvenkind sleeping on the shores of Lake Cuiviénen can be given definitively.

This confidence is overpowering and infectious to Tolkien’s admirers, who, like all consumers of great poetry, are thus taught to perceive simultaneously contradictory things—contradictory, that is, according to mere reason. For example, Tolkien is in some ways and places clear that Arda is our Earth, Eru Ilúvatar our (and specifically the Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church’s) God, Minas Tirith on the side of modern Florence, the myth of Earendil the Mariner transmitted back through the centuries into Old English understanding to create a “mythology for England,” and so on. But at the same time, quite obviously and whatever else he may say, he has created something else altogether. The categories of epic articulated by Tolkien’s close friend and mythological sparring partner, C.S. Lewis, are here extremely useful. Tolkien’s extended “Legendarium,” for all its capacious mystery, is not a patchwork, organic, evolved “primary epic,” like Homer’s, or, it might be argued, the Arthurian cycles, but a coherent creative vision, like those of Virgil, Dante, and Milton.

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Minoo Dinshaw is the author of Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman and a contributing editor at The Lamp.