AMAZON Studios is due to launch its Lord of the Rings prequel TV series in September this year. Not much is known about it yet, other than the title — Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power, some first looks, a teaser-trailer, and that it will be set in the Second Age of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth timeline.
The Second Age will not be all that familiar to audiences of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of Tolkien’s novels, which take place in the Third Age, many thousands of years after the events featured in The Rings of Power. But the books, including Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and the lore-heavy Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-Earth provide us lots of background to the history of the Second Age.
What follows is a quick primer on this setting and what we can expect from the Amazon series.
The Second Age begins after the downfall of Morgoth (a Lucifer figure in Tolkien’s mythology) and ends with the first defeat of Morgoth’s lieutenant Sauron, which film audiences will remember from the opening montage of the Fellowship of the Ring, where an alliance of men and elves defeat the dark lord by cutting the source of his power, the One Ring, from his finger.
None of Tolkien’s books focus specifically on the Second Age, though key events are briefly detailed in the last sections of the Silmarillion and some stories from Unfinished Tales. Tolkien’s lengthy appendices to the Lord of the Rings provide a full timeline of the Second Age. These fragments describe a time when the elves were more prominent and powerful, and human kingdoms were greater and more unified.
The Second Age serves as a lost classical period that falls between the heroic myth-cycle that depicts the events of the First Age in the Silmarillion, and the grittier medievalism of the Third Age that we see in the Lord of the Rings.
Perhaps the most important event is the forging of the rings of power. A disguised Sauron tricks the elven smith Celebrimbor into forging 19 rings to be distributed between elves, dwarves, and humans.
However, the elves quickly realize that this is a ploy by Sauron to control them all through the power of the One Ring and begin a long battle against his influence.
Given its title, the series will probably focus on the consequences of falling prey to the power of the rings. It might well depict the origins of the Nazgûl, or ringwraiths, the undead servants of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, who first emerge in the Second Age.
Promotional images include a map of the island of Númenor, a land given to humans who fought against Morgoth. In the Second Age it becomes a great naval power, creating colonies and settlements on the main continent.
Eventually Númenor joins the war against Sauron and takes the dark lord captive. However, Sauron corrupts their king, Ar-Pharazôn, and convinces him to invade the western land of Valinor, home to the angelic Valar, in pursuit of immortality. In retribution, the Valar sink the island of Númenor into the ocean.
Tolkien first conceived of Númenor in the Lost Road, an abandoned novel about time travelers witnessing the fall of Atlantis, but it really works as an analogue to Rome within the history of Middle Earth: a broken empire that is eventually succeeded by fragmented kingdoms.
The survivors of Númenor later join with the elves to defeat Sauron and found Gondor and Arnor.
Arnor is established towards the end of the Second Age as a sister-kingdom to the more familiar Gondor and is located far to the north.
It is later destroyed by the Witch-King of Angmar, the most powerful of Sauron’s Nazgûl, which is why we don’t hear much about it in the Lord of the Rings. This probably won’t make into the Amazon series, though, unless it runs for quite a few seasons.
The elven queen Galadriel will be a central character, and also Elrond, the lord of Rivendell. They are both important figures of the Second Age and recipients of rings of power, so they will certainly play an active role.
Sauron himself will also play some part. In the Second Age Sauron is not just the purely antagonistic force depicted in the novel and the films, but also a subtle trickster and manipulator. This offers the potential to portray him as a more compelling and multifaceted villain.
Gandalf is never young, exactly. As a wizard (Istari), he is a spirit sent by the Valar to Middle Earth in the form of an old man. The Istari don’t appear until the Third Age, but Amazon might try to work him in anyway, given the focus on the rings of power.
The appendices state Gandalf took possession of Narya, the elven ring of fire, and Tolkien fans have speculated his threat to the Balrog about being “the wielder of the flame of Anor” might refer to this ring. If the series is a success then we might eventually see how it makes its way into Gandalf’s hands.
Amazon seems likely to condense some of the key incidents from the Second Age (the rings of power, the fall of Númenor, the emergence of the Nazgûl), which are separated by centuries in the appendices, to provide a compelling narrative.
But whatever happens, it is all leading to the events we know from the beginning of the Lord of the Rings: the forging of the One Ring, Sauron’s attempt to assert his dominion through it, and the war between the orcs and the elven and human alliance.
While audiences may well be exhausted with prequels to the Lord of the Rings after the Hobbit film trilogy, this exploration of Tolkien’s Second Age of Middle Earth has the potential to add texture and richness to the stories we already know and love.
Julian Novitz is a Senior Lecturer, Writing, School of Media and Communication, Swinburne University of Technology.