In Middle-earth, group affiliation is key to understanding many characters. We immediately know a Harfoot from a dwarf from an elf. And these labels reflexively offer information about what we might expect from someone new. But, on The Rings of Power, Joseph Mawle’s character Adar defies these expectations, introducing a novel tension into the world. Ultimately, Adar is an elf who is not an elf and an orc that is not an orc (or Uruk as they prefer to be called). But despite himself, he carries the marks and sentiments of both on his shoulders. In this duality, he is also singular, alone without a true group. As Adar continues his journey, his one-of-a-kind nature is unlikely to end well for him, as neither evil nor good truly wishes for his existence. And yet, despite the tragedy of his character, Adar creates a rich narrative that forces us to think again about who we side with and why.
The Rings of Power paints Adar’s introduction as that of a villain. Perhaps we were meant to wonder if he was Sauron for a time. Or, as that seemed less true, shift to assume Adar’s allegiance lay with the dark lord; that he and the orcs were acting out their master’s plans. But one by one, these assumptions became more complex and dissipated.
Although it is clear Adar has no real concern for the other inhabitants of Middle-earth and never hesitates to capture or kill them for his aims, Adar’s mission is not simply to do evil. Nor does he share the hunger of his one-time commanders, but also captors, to conquer Middle-earth and bend it to his whims. Adar speaks of Sauron’s plans to “heal Middle-earth” sardonically at best. And with exhaustion, he tells Galadriel that though Sauron bid the orcs to follow him blindly, “for my part, I sacrificed enough of my children for his aspirations. I split him open. I killed Sauron.”
In The Silmarillion, Tolkien speaks of elves like Adar who Morgoth transformed into the first orcs. He offers, “All those of the Quendi who came into the hands of Melkor, ere Utumno was broken, were put there in prison, and by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved… And deep in their dark hearts the Orcs loathed the Master whom they served in fear, the maker only of their misery.” Although The Rings of Power does not explicitly address this, it feels clear that Adar was something of a prize for Morgoth, a dark victory over the elves and the Ilúvatar. Once the elves defeated Morgoth and Sauron rose instead, Adar was, it seems, passed from one evil lord to another. But Adar himself feels beholden to neither evil cause. And instead sees both as merely the “maker[s] of [his] misery.”
For Adar, it would have been easier to wholly embrace evil. In his rebellion against Sauron, he made a powerful enemy. One that is now furious with him. Charlie Vickers, who plays The Rings of Power‘s Sauron, discusses the scene in which Sauron as Halbrand almost kills Adar, saying “[Adar and Sauron] have a really complex relationship, and there is a lot of hatred and mixed feelings between them. And I think that’s an example of Sauron within Halbrand being a bad guy and his ruthless streak of just like, if I don’t like someone or have a problem, I’m going to end you.”
Vickers framing Sauron’s desire to kill Adar as an indication of Sauron’s evil is an especially powerful argument that Adar is something other than that. In the finale of The Rings of Power, we see Sauron heading for Mount Doom, which Adar has created. But we have a feeling they will not have a pleasant reunion. In a sense, it seems “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” could apply here. But not if Galadriel has anything to say about it.
Interestingly, Galadriel immediately knows who Adar is when she meets him. And yet, in her blind rage against Sauron, she is pitiless toward her elven brother and his ages of pain. She calls Adar “tortured,” “twisted,” “ruined,” and “a mockery.” The terms have truth and yet lack all compassion. Galadriel, the assumed force of good, reveals herself as the crueler of the two in this exchange. Adar speaks of his children, albeit violent and designed for evil, with great love. And Galadriel promises to kill them all before his eyes as she torments him with prolonged existence, threatens to burn them in the sun. In fascinating parallels, Arondir almost sacrificed his love, Bronwyn, to stop the spread of evil. And there is little Galadriel would not put onto the pyre of ending Sauron. Yet, Adar relents immediately at the threat to his orcs.
Adar even reveals to Galadriel that he slew Sauron, or at least tried to, her greatest wish in life. And yet, in her eyes, Adar is too tainted to countenance as anything but a monster. The elves may consider the twisting of their kind as a truly vile deed but seem less concerned about the tormented themselves. And, from a perspective external to the story, if Adar’s evil-as-a-consequence-of-aims count as evil, perhaps his good for the same ought to count as good.
After all, he nearly prevented Sauron from rising again in Middle-earth. If nothing else, Adar certainly delayed Sauron’s return, whereas Galadriel lifted the dark lord to new heights. Not to mention, without Adar’s words to her, Galadriel would never have known Halbrand was Sauron on The Rings of Power. And the dark lord may already have possessed the Rings of Power. Another inadvertent gift to the powers of light.
For Galadriel, Adar is an uncomplicated orc, and an orc is a slave of evil with no further nuance. And Adar might even wish to agree with that sentiment. But as the story reveals, there is far too much elf, and far too much heart, still in Adar for that to be true. Before the battle with the Southlanders, we see Adar perform the seed-planting protection ritual that Arondir later explains. He plants new life in defiance of death and asks the Valar to protect those he loves, offering the earth something growing in exchange for its blessing. Despite himself, the elven parts remain.
It is also no coincidence that Adar can stand in the sun, something that could not be were he entirely altered. Light has traditionally represented goodness. And Adar specifically notes that he will miss the sun when it is gone on The Rings of Power, alluding to a part of himself that will vanish with the ash of Mount Doom. But frankly, that sounds like wishful thinking. The idea that he seeks the sun at all separates him from the rest of his family.
Beyond all of this, like everything about Adar, his journey is a noble one, corrupted. Ultimately, Adar’s story in season one of The Rings of Power boils down to his search for a home. He seeks a home for his Uruk children, who he believes deserve freedom and safety, and a home for himself, who has no other. It’s sweet, in its way. Adar asks Arondir, “Where were you born?” in their meeting. And in many ways, that translates to “Where is your home?” Arondir tells him, Beleriand. And Adar replies wistfully, thinking of the sage blossoms that grew along the rivers of the place.
Of course, Beleriand was destroyed for them both by Morgoth. But any elven land would welcome Arondir home, places Adar knows he cannot return. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien notes, in an echo of Galadriel’s revealed sentiments. He says, “The Noldor feared most the treachery of those of their own kin, who had been thralls in Angband… Therefore if any of his captives escaped in truth, and returned to their own people, they had little welcome, and wandered alone outlawed and desperate.” For Adar, though he will never be fully an orc, there is only Mount Doom.
It’s unclear what Adar envisioned beyond creating a dark place where the Uruk could move in daylight. Would they seek battle? Would they wish to extend their rule? Under Adar, the orcs mourn one another and seek agency. He makes a point to say that he is not the orcs’ master, that they have no master. In his rallying speech before battle, Adar speaks of what they have all endured and the pains they have gone through to search for a home. It leads us to wonder if the Uruk really seek… peace. But with the coming of Sauron, it seems we may never know.
So where does that leave Adar, an elf that believes orcs have hearts and names, an orc that plants seeds in the grounds and thinks of the sun, going into season two of The Rings of Power? Nowhere good. Sauron will likely not take kindly to Adar’s attempts on his life. Meanwhile, Galadriel has made it clear she deems Adar the enemy. Obviously, the exploding of Mount Doom did not make allies. Still, perhaps somewhere in their conversation, the mirror that Adar held to Galadriel’s face and the mistakes she herself made will awaken empathy.
Arondir, too, seemed to seek a connection with Adar during their time together. Arondir’s actor Ismael Cruz Córdova noted recently that in the scene between them, there’s a feeling of “We came from the same origin, why are we fighting each other?” Although it’s unclear how annihilating the Southlands impacts that. All of this will, of course, depend on Adar himself. And whether he can navigate his dual nature, or whether being the sole Moriondor will leave him, ultimately, a target of both good and evil; a fallen angel with no home or place to claim.
Whatever his fate may be, Adar’s presence on The Rings of Power offers a complicated meditation on how good and evil can tangle in one character. One that we hopefully see expand as the show continues to unroll.
Originally published on October 19, 2022.