Even though we first learned about it in 2017, we barely know anything about Amazon’s plans for its Lord of the Rings series. One thing we do know—other than that a bucketload of talent is running all around New Zealand to make it—is that it’s set in the Second Age of Middle-earth’s long history. But what even is that?
My Bagginses and Boffins, Tooks and Brandybucks, Grubbs, Chubbs, Hornblowers, Bolgers, Bracegirdles, and Proudfoots (Proudfeet), pull up a chair and allow us to explain.
The Four Ages of Middle-Earth
If you watched Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, you might be confused as to just when all this fits in—especially as Amazon has made a big to-do about how this new show can use visual language and elements from the director’s beloved saga as connective tissue. The events of The Hobbit take place around 60 years before The Lord of the Rings, the events of which mark the last days of the Third Age of Middle-earth—which officially comes to an end with Sauron’s destruction and the end of the War of the Ring, starting the Fourth Age, the Age of Man.
The thing is though, the Third Age itself lasted 3,000 years, so the prequel show we’re getting is already eons and eons apart from the events of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
The Third Age began, as briefly glimpsed in the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring. This was after the seeming defeat of Sauron by the forces of the Last Alliance—the Dúnedain, or the Men of the West, lead by High King Elendil, the Elves, lead by Gil-Galad and Elrond, and a contingent of Dwarves sent by the King of Khazad-dûm, Durin IV—ended the Second Age, a period of time that lasted even longer, about 3,400 years to the just-over-3,000 of the Third Age.
Into the West
So what do we know about the Second Age then? It started after the War of Wrath. The climactic event of the First Age, the War of Wrath saw the godlike beings of the Valar—alongside hosts of Noldor Elves and Men of Beleriand—battle the forces of the Dark Lord. That’s not Sauron, by the way, but his master, the fallen Vala, Melkor, now known as Morgoth. For those not familiar, the Valar are, essentially, angelic godlike beings: the 14 immortal stewards of Captial-G-God Eru, alongside the Maiar (primordial spirits who worked in tandem with the Valar as shapers of the world). The Valar and Maiar alike, collectively known as the Holy Ones, could exist as spirit beings without physical form, but they do have physical forms—like how Sauron could exist as a daunting figure in spiky armor and a giant flaming eyeball.
The War of Wrath concluded with Morgoth’s banishment to the Void (the metaphysical plane Gandalf briefly describes witnessing after his death and rebirth), bringing about the end of his dark threat. But it came at a great cost. Beleriand and its people were shattered by the events of the war, almost entirely sinking into the sea in the process.
What was left became what we would eventually know as Middle-earth—that’s not the name of the world Lord of the Rings is set on, but the continent on the actual planet, Arda, that was left after Beleriand’s destruction. Pretty much the only bit of Beleriand that was relatively unscathed by the cataclysm was the land of Lindon to the northwest—which became the Kingdom of Lindon for the Noldor Elves and other surviving Elven clans, ruled over by Gil-Galad, in the earliest days of the Second Age. But many more Elves left the region entirely, returning with the Valar across the sea to the Undying Lands on the West of Arda to live their secluded, immortal lives.
The Men of Beleriand, collectively known as the Edain, were...less lucky. All but decimated by Morgoth’s forces, what was left of the Edain were elevated by Eönwë, an angelic spirit of the Maia, and given the island of Númenor, risen out of the sea from Beleriand’s ruin, to form a new society on.
The Rise of Sauron
For a good few hundred years or so, there was relative peace. The Elves of Arda slowly but surely began emigrating westward, whether across Middle-earth from its eastern lands or to Valinor itself. The Númenoreans established a thriving society and eventually began establishing settlements along the shores of Middle-earth. But 500 years into the Second Age, Sauron, Morgoth’s lieutenant (who, unlike his master, was a fallen Maia) tasked with waging his war for control over the Elves, returned. After being defeated by the Elves in the War of Wrath, Sauron fled, biding his time as the First Age passed into the Second. When he returned during the Second Age, he began by spending the next few centuries establishing a power base of his own in Mordor, constructing the grand tower of Barad-dûr, raising armies of orcs and trolls, and slowly but surely corrupting pockets of humanity and Elf-kind to his cause.
The corruption of the Elves came first—having established his dominance over Celebrimbor and the Elves of Eregion, about 1,500 years into the Second Age, Sauron (disguised as the Maia Annatar) commanded them to begin forging the Great Rings of Power while he forged the One Ring in secret. When his treachery was exposed, it kicked off a conflict between the Elves that Sauron had ensorcelled and those who had seen through his deception. Eregion was all but destroyed over the course of the conflict—with Elrond establishing Rivendell out of the surviving Elves of the region—but the arrival of an army of Númenoreans helped the Elves resoundingly defeat Sauron’s forces, severely diminishing him in the process as he retreated back to Mordor.
But it was an alliance that was not to last. Over time, as the Númenoreans established more and more footholds in Middle-earth, they became distrusting of the Elves, with Kings and Queens taking their names in their own tongue rather than Elvish, and eventually forbidding the teaching and speaking of Elvish in their lands. About 500 years after the war between Sauron and the Elves, the Númenorean King Ar-Pharazôn marched a grand host into Mordor and took Sauron captive, returning him to Númenor where, well...Sauron did what Sauron does. Quickly corrupting Ar-Pharazôn just as he had Celebrimbor centuries prior, becoming the King’s advisor, establishing his own dark religion in service of his master Morgoth, and convincing the Númenoreans to build a grand force to invade Valinor, attack the Valar themselves, and take the Elves’ immortality for their own. Whew!
Just shy of a century after he arrived in Númenor in chains, Sauron watched Ar-Pharazôn lead his great host to the shores of Valinor. The Valar were so shocked that men had traveled to their shores that they called down their god, the god above even the most powerful divine beings of Arda, like the Valar and the Maiar: Eru. And so pissed was he, Eru promptly smashed Ar-Pharazôn and his fleet, cut the Undying Lands off from the rest of Arda to all but the Elves, sunk Númenor (greatly diminishing Sauron once more), and, uh made the planet a sphere.
Did we mention the world was flat up to this point? No? Well, it was, and now it isn’t.
With Númenor sunk and its people broken, the survivors came to Middle-earth and formed the twin Kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor, united under the first High King of the Dúnedain, Elendil. As Sauron rebuilt his physical form over a few more centuries, he made plans to crush the remnants of the Númenoreans and finish what he’d started with the Elves once more: beginning what would be known as the War of the Last Alliance. And, well, you know how that bit ends, don’t you?
The Great Unknown
Here’s the real thing though: for all that we’ve just gone through, we don’t really know a lot about the Second Age. It’s such a vast, vast period of time, and detailed only in footnotes and in the backstory of Tolkien’s posthumous works. We know a bit of how it started, we know the things we need to know about its end with the seeming defeat of Sauron—whose rise to prominence we at least know will form one narrative thread in Amazon’s new show.
But those are just a few arcs—very important ones, for sure, but still just a few, and they take place over hundreds and thousands of years. There’s so much potential for Amazon’s Lord of the Rings show to show us pieces of Middle-Earth we’ve never even imagined before, building up the Second Age to be something unlike any other tale in this world could be so far.
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