‘Rings of Power’: Creating the Hobbit Ancestors of Middle Earth

"There are certain things you just need to be there for it to feel like Middle Earth," co-showrunner JD Payne tells IndieWire.
Two harfoots episodic from "The Rings of Power"
"Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power"

When you first meet Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenaugh) and Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards) in Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings” prequel series “The Rings of Power,” another famous duo comes to mind. Nori and Poppy, after all, are Harfoots, ancestors of Hobbits. Nori is adventurous; Poppy is nervous. They come off instantly as this Tolkien adaptation’s version of Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, the pair that would ultimately destroy the One Ring, played in the films by Elijah Wood and Sean Astin. 

But co-showrunner Patrick McKay says that’s not really who they had in mind when writing these short, hairy-footed friends. “I have to tell you, what we talked about was Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz,” he said to IndieWire, referencing the “I Love Lucy” pals. Of course, McKay admits that he would probably also make the Frodo and Sam analogy too. It’s there for the taking. 

While McKay and co-showrunner JD Payne had plenty of Elf and Man and Dwarf characters to incorporate from J.R.R. Tolkien’s extensive appendices, when it came to Hobbits, the writers had to rely more on their own inventions rather than Tolkien’s texts. But they weren’t going to simply ignore the little folk. “There are certain things you just need to be there for it to feel like Middle Earth,” Payne said. “Halflings are really just part of the heart of Middle Earth and they are part of what makes it warm and fun and relatable.” 

In his prologue, “Concerning Hobbits,” Tolkien wrote that Hobbits were initially divided into “three different breeds,” the “Harfoots, Stoors, and Fallohides.” The Harfoots, he wrote, were “browner of skin, smaller, and shorter, and they were beardless and bootless; their hands and feet were neat and nimble; and they preferred highlands and hillsides.” Working from that Payne explained they then fleshed out this culture as they thought Tolkien might have. “Our goal was to always invent in as Tolkienian a fashion as possible,” he said. “He was inspired by different mythologies and cultures and peoples really from around the Earth and across history. So we would do the same thing.” They focused their studies on nomadic people from across the world and throughout history to color the Harfoots’ traditions. 

Like the Hobbits fans recognize, the Harfoots are also partial to a hole, but theirs are more makeshift and less permanent than the recognizable round door homes where the likes of Bilbo lived. In the pilot, they are introduced hiding from two human travelers. When the men are gone, they rise out of the ground. 

Kavenaugh and Richards had no idea who they were even playing when they were cast in the series, but once on the ground in New Zealand went into what was essentially Harfoot training camp. They worked with a movement coach that would give them reference points for how these beings would operate in the world. “One of them that really stuck with me was to walk like a 5-year-old child,” Richards said. “And also meerkats as well, and how they sort of pop their heads out and have quick sharp movements.” The two women would call each other up and speak in the Harfoot dialect, and practice walking like Harfoots in what Kavenaugh described as “monster slippers.” “We’d get such interesting looks from people,” she said. (On set they would wear foot prosthetics that she described as “big flippers.”)

The costumes, designed by Kate Hawley, are packed with detail that reveal how the Harfoots live. Their outfits are constructed so as to make them efficient at camouflaging themselves. “Every Harfoot has a skirt that splits in two and has this leaf that can go over your head as if to become like a mothball or a tree,” Richards said. If you look closely you can also see that Harfoots have appleseeds on their clothing, each representing a Harfoot who has perished in a previous migration. “That also added to the depth of the character as a whole and as a whole community,” Richards added.  

The Harfoots are by nature an always moving tribe, but they are also, like the Hobbits that would come later, against conflict. They choose to stay hidden rather than cross paths with outsiders. Nori, however, has a curiosity about the world outside her enclave that is satiated at the end of the first episode when a mysterious man falls from the sky. It’s an eagerness, but it’s also a desire to find stability for her people. “It was really important to make sure that her interest in the unknown wasn’t just out of selfish interest,” Kavenaugh said. “It’s to help the Harfoots find a home so that they don’t have to keep looking over their shoulder and moving and and always at the risk of a lack of food or safety.” 

And as Payne noted, why wouldn’t you want to explore Middle Earth. “If you or I were in Middle Earth we would be like, ‘Oh gosh, what can we go see?’ but she’s just no, stay hidden, stay put, and say in the close confines of the community,” he said. It’s unlikely Nori is going to adhere to those rules. She is, after all, a classic Tolkien wanderer, and she’s got her trusty friend by her side.

“The Rings of Power” is streaming now on Prime Video. 

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