Fantasy Face-Off: ‘The Rings of Power’ vs. ‘House of the Dragon’

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 we compare them? Possibly not.

The “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. And what are we made of, Valyrian stone?

Instead of comparing industry stats, though — ratings, budgets, and so on — let’s 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 (three so far for “Dragon”; two for “Rings,” which premiered on Thursday). But we’ve seen enough to get the discussion started. (Some spoilers lie ahead.)

Pop culture cred  

It’s not entirely fair to compare J.R.R. Tolkien to George R.R. 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’ve 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,” to which “Dragon” is a prequel, versus Peter Jackson’s film versions of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.”

It could be said that the early seasons of “Game of Thrones” were in some ways comparable to the first three (and much-loved) Jackson films, while the derided later seasons of “Thrones” resembled more the polarizing “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’ve 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’s still early, fan reaction to the end of “Thrones” was truly bitter, and the franchise still has a lot of ground to make up.

Edge: “The Rings of Power” 


As prequels go, “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 didn’t 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’s 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’s something heroic in fighting the patriarchy to get it, but so far she’s no Galadriel, even if the blonde wigs make the Targaryens resemble elves.

Edge: “The Rings of Power” 

Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), wielder of Dark Sister, in “House of the Dragon.”Credit…HBO


’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,” we 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’s 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’s not a good thing.

In “House of the Dragon,” we’re in 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. (Given the special properties of that dagger’s Valyrian steel, it also has destiny written all over it.) Daemon (Matt Smith), meanwhile, uses the slimmer Dark Sister to cut his way to glory.

Then there’s 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-dûm and Númenor — both places visited in “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?   

 Edge: “House of the Dragon” 

Magic trees

In the beginning — in “The Rings of Power,” at least — there were the Two Trees of Valinor, growing side by side in a mingled glow, until the Dark Lord Morgoth poisoned them. Then, making things worse, Morgoth stole the Silmarils, three jewels containing the unsullied light of those two now-vanished trees. We have also learned that a gift of a sapling continues to blossom even in the deep underground of Khazad-dûm. How? Love? Magic? (Is there a difference?) There are other significant trees, as well, some of them symbolizing the friendship between different species. (Look for one of these if we go to Númenor’s capital.)

So far, the white weirwoods in “House of the Dragon” are little more than a backdrop, a source of soothing shade in the godswood. But it seems likely that these trees are being utilized by someone as some kind of Westerosi surveillance system. (We know there has been a series of Three-Eyed Ravens and greenseers keeping watch.) We probably won’t learn much about that in this season.

Edge: “The Rings of Power”


Dragons are the ultimate weapons of war. In the prologue to “The Rings of Power,” we see the evil Morgoth make 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 “House of the Dragon.” Tolkien’s dragons are not pets; taking them out for joy rides would be inadvisable. And they’ll have a more serious role to play in the story once the dwarves get their power jewelry.

But to settle the core issue between the two franchises, which dragons are better? We know from the loquacious Smaug, in the 2013 movie “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” that Tolkien’s dragons are sentient and thoughtful. One on one, they have serious intellectual assets; but as a group, their meager numbers in Middle-earth during this Second Age are no match for the fire-breathing horde in “House of the Dragon.”

Rhaenyra’s Syrax and Daemon’s Caraxes are just the first of those beasts to be introduced on the show — there’s a whole dragonpit more of them we still haven’t seen.  

Edge: “House of the Dragon” 

Invented languages

Given that Tolkien was an actual linguist who created his own Elvish language (Quenya, it’s called), “The Rings of Power” starts off with a distinct advantage over “House of the Dragon” in this category.

In the “The Rings of Power,” Owain Arthur plays Prince Durin, who leads a clan of dwarves.Credit…Amazon Studios, via Associated Press

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

But “Rings of Power” squanders that advantage by barely using Quenya when the elves speak to one another, or Khuzdul among the dwarves, at least in the first two episodes. We 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, “House of the 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.

Edge: “House of the Dragon”

Language, period

Both shows are based on pre-existing material. For “House of the Dragon,” it is Martin’s imaginary history, the book “Fire & Blood.” For “The Rings of Power,” it is mostly appendices to “The Lord of the Rings,” which are essentially story outlines.

Both shows have had to invent quite a bit in order to fill narrative gaps, and here “House of the Dragon” benefits from Martin’s direct involvement as one of the show’s creators. Also, the “House of the Dragon” writers seem much more aware of how to use lines and scenes to stir watercooler discussion and to crank up the old “Thrones” meme factory again. Rhaenyra’s “I never jest about cake” was a bit strained, but people are still talking about the C-section murder from Episode 1.

“The Rings of Power,” so far, is not putting meat back on the menu, boys — and it’s not serving second breakfast, either. But we know Daemon Targaryen will always give us the GIFs.

Edge: “House of the Dragon”

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