Tolkien’s Nightmarish Great Wave Arrives in ‘The Rings of Power’

At the center of this series is a childhood nightmare and one Tolkien also supplied to a central 'Lord of the Rings' character.
Rings Of Power Episode The Great Wave

Middle-earth Explained is our new ongoing series, where we delve into the latest Lord of the Rings-related shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. This entry examines The Rings of Power Episode 4 and how its characters prepare for their impending doom.

All prequels are tragedies. Trapped in the past, their characters cannot see what we know lies on the horizon. We’re tormented as the players stumble toward a set future, squirming in our seats, chewing our nails. The known can feel like a dramatic burden if mishandled, but The Rings of Power injects newness into the narrative while maintaining J.R.R. Tolkien‘s history.

Episode 4 is entitled “The Great Wave,” obviously referencing the impending doom of Númenor. The island paradise gifted to the humans, who once sided with the elves in their battle against Morgoth, is destined for the ocean floor. A great wave is their fate, and Queen Regent Míriel (Cynthia AddaiRobinson) sits where we sit, knowing the future that awaits her people. Her thoughts are clouded by what she’s seen in her father’s palantír.

However, like us, she does not have the details that connect the dots between where she is and where her story, and her people’s story, will end. That’s the palantíri’s deadly effect. If used, they should be done so with tremendous caution.

Middle-earth’s Seven Seeing-stones

According to Tolkien, the seven seeing-stones known as palantíri were made by the Ñoldor, the deep-elves. They were part of the Great March, those elves who left Cuiviénen, the place of their “awakening,” and traveled to the west. The Ñoldor gave the palantíri to the Númenóreans, who kept them until their island was cursed by Eru Ilúvatar, the One God, and sank to the bottom of the sea.

The stones were rescued by Elendil (Lloyd Owen) and his two sons Anárion and Isildur (Maxim Baldry). Eventually, the stones were spread across Middle-earth and used to communicate with each other. One stone was placed in Orthanc, Saruman’s point of operations in Isengard. Sauron won over Saruman only after the White Wizard started tampering with the seeing-stone. The dark lord had stolen the palantír from Minas Ithil when the Nazgul captured the fortress and transformed it into Minas Morgul.

Using a seeing-stone is no easy feat. Mostly, these magical objects worked best with the people who were intended to own them, the Númenóreans. As you see in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations, Gandalf warned Saruman against playing with their power. While you’re looking in, someone else could be looking out. Such caution is reiterated in The Rings of Power Episode 4.

Who Watches the Watchers?

As Queen Regent Míriel explains to Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), her father’s beliefs were always rather restrained until his coronation. Afterward, he proclaimed that the Númenóreans had provoked the anger of the Valar, the fourteen holy elves who made Morgoth’s destruction their mission. Míriel’s dad wanted his populace to repent and return to the old ways, and such language created unrest in the kingdom.

The Númenóreans rebelled against their king when he demanded to mend relations with the elves. “Much was lost,” says Míriel. She was selected to rule in his stead, promising to quell the storm amongst the citizenry. On her first night as Queen Regent, her father brought her to the chamber where his palantír resided, and that’s when she saw the vision.

Now, Míriel tells Galadriel that the other six seeing-stones are already lost. Could Sauron already have access to his seeing-stone? Tolkien’s text says Minas Ithil doesn’t fall to the Nazgul until the Third Age, and we’re still stuck in the Second Age with The Rings of Power. Although, it’s possible that Sauron retrieved another seeing-stone and lost it before taking the one at Minas Ithil.

Whether that’s the case or not, Míriel and Galadriel should be cautious when dipping into this palantír. Someone else may be watching. Adar, the dark elf and possibly Sauron fair-form, could have one with his Orcs.

The Great Wave

Whether there’s another person on the other end of the line or not doesn’t really matter for The Rings of Power Episode 4’s purposes. Galadriel’s warning to Míriel pertains to the fallacy of prophecy. When the queen basically says, “See! This is the future! This is why your arrival here scares me so,” Galadriel reminds her that the palantíri show many visions. Just because they come from a seeing-stone doesn’t mean they’re set in stone. You cannot dance around a vision. Whatever your response, action or inaction, could bring it to pass or not. Visions exist for introspection, not planning.

Episode 4’s title, “The Great Wave,” is also significant because it represents a re-occurring dream that Tolkien himself suffered. In numerous letters, the author described a nightmare that first came to him as a child. In one such note written to British poet W.H. Auden, Tolkien wrote, “I mean the terrible recurrent dream (beginning with memory) of the Great Wave, towering up, and coming in ineluctably over the trees and green fields. (I bequeathed it to Faramir.) I don’t think I have had it since I wrote the ‘Downfall of Númenor’ as the last of the legends of the First and Second Age.”

In The Lord of the Rings, Faramir agonizes over the Great Wave dream. It first comes to him the night before he and his brother Boromir defend Osgiliath against the Witch-king. He sees water cover the land and darkness rise around it. A voice from the west whispers a riddle, “Seek for the Sword that was broken: In Imladris, it dwells; there shall be counsels taken Stronger than Morgul spells. There shall be shown a token. That Doom is near at hand, for Isildur’s Bane shall waken, and the Halfling forth shall stand.”

Doom Awaits Everyone

After capturing Frodo and Samwise, Faramir recognizes the two as the Halflings from his dream. He questions them and determines that they’re carrying the One Ring. Unlike his brother, though, he refuses to take it or seek the broken sword. He shall be no king. His brother’s failure strengthens his reserve.

All stories end the same. Death for us all. When it comes is a question. How we face it is a question. That’s it.

When Queen Regent Míriel tells Galadriel that she will not second guess the gods and that her decision is final, the warrior elf underscores the failure in the queen’s logic. The decision to cast Galadriel from Númenor is based on fear. She begs the queen to pick the path based on faith and hope instead. Choose togetherness rather than isolation.

The Great Wave is coming for everyone. In the end, Míriel seems to understand its inevitability. She doesn’t change her thinking immediately, but when the petals fall from Númenor’s white tree just as they did in the vision of the seeing stone, Míriel acknowledges that Galadriel is not inherently linked to the island’s demise. She invites Galadriel to return and stand with her and encourages her people to do the same.

J.R.R. Tolkien layered his works with dread. Catastrophe exists all along his timeline: the past, the present, and the future. Evil can be vanquished, but new evil will rise. Our battle never ends. Our honor occurs in how we stand against evil and face our inescapable end.

The Rings of Power Episode 4 is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)