– By Joe Houde –
Amazon’s recent tease that their upcoming Lord of the Rings series will actually focus on the Second Age of Middle-earth has a lot of Tolkien nerds (myself included) abuzz with excitement and speculation.
Since the show’s announcement in November 2017, details have been rolled out at a snail’s pace. Shortly after the initial announcement, we were fortunately assured that the series wouldn’t be a simple rehashing of the actual LOTR trilogy, but would rather cover stories set before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring. So the fan base begin speculating which materials from the LOTR Appendices Amazon might try to adapt (additional works like The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales presumably being off limits due to book rights).
The next major detail to surface came in May 2018 when TheOneRing.net tweeted that “multiple sources” confirmed the show’s first season would focus on a young Aragorn. This at least resonated with our suspicions, since the Appendices offer brief mention of a younger Aragorn journeying in Rohan and Gondor under the alias Thorongil. Though personally, I feared that such a direction would amount to a mediocre fan-fiction trying to appeal to casual fans by being too closely connected to Peter Jackson’s original trilogy (and turn into another “Hobbit” debacle).
In the meantime, details of the project have been closely guarded. The creative team has been holed away in a writer’s room somewhere in Santa Monica, with security so tight it involves fingerprint scanners for access.
But – plot twist – last week @LOTRonPrime dropped a bombshell by tweeting out a map of Middle-earth showing Númenor (!!!!!), with a short and sweet follow-up: “Welcome to the Second Age.” The account, which Amazon created in November 2018, didn’t start tweeting anything until February, slow dripping a series of cryptic Middle-earth maps which were mysteriously missing familiar labels. Even before March 7th’s bombshell, some fans were already onto Amazon’s game, analyzing the maps and speculating that they may have acquired the rights to more material than just the LOTR and its Appendices.
Amazon’s announcement has huge implications, and from what I’ve seen so far, it’s been very enthusiastically received by the Tolkien fan base.
Welcome to the Second Age: https://t.co/Tamd0oRgTw
— The Lord of the Rings on Prime (@LOTRonPrime) March 7, 2019
What is the Second Age?
The Second Age is a period of about 3,500 years that ends 3,000 years before the events of LOTR. You’ve probably heard of The Silmarillion – that book primarily covers the First Age of Tolkien’s world; the Second Age essentially begins with the founding of Númenor, an island kingdom gifted by the gods to Aragorn’s ancestors who rise up to become an advanced seafaring civilization. The Second Age ends with the downfall of Sauron at the hand of Isildur, as seen in the Prologue to Peter Jackson’s movies.
Tolkien’s writings on the Second Age are admittedly rather sparse, so it’s not too difficult to assume the two interlinking storylines we’re likely to see.
(If you don’t want spoilers, skip this section)
The Forging of the Rings of Power:
While the Númenoreans are busy developing their science, ships, and culture, Sauron begins to rise in Middle-earth, which at this point is not much more than a dark and wild land populated by mostly evil and primitive men.
During the Second Age, Sauron – in fair form – befriends the elves and collaborates with them in making the Rings of Power, while he forges the One Ring in secret. The main cast of characters here would include some of the elves who stayed behind in Middle-earth after the First Age: Gil-Galad and Elrond, who don’t fall for Sauron’s treachery, and Celebrimbor who does.
This period could also show us Galadriel and Celeborn, the relationship between the elves of Eregion and the dwarves of Moria, and the origins of the Nazgûl.
The Fall of Númenor (and its aftermath):
The most interesting story of the Second Age revolves around the downfall of Númenor. At first, the Númenoreans are part of the solution in the war against Sauron, coming to the aid of the men and elves on the mainland.
But eventually a king named Ar-Pharazon grows in pride, and Sauron – as his prisoner turned advisor – seduces him into breaking the law of the gods by attempting to sail west to the Undying Lands. The Númenoreans are punished with their island sinking into the sea, but Elendil and his sons Isildur and Anarion – who have faithfully maintained their religion in secret – escape to Middle-earth where they found the kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor.
Over the next hundred years, these newly formed kingdoms have to deal with Sauron’s attacks from Mordor, which include his taking Minas Ithil (Minas Morgul) and burning the White Tree. This period also includes the Men of the Mountain breaking their oath to Isildur and fleeing to what is later known as the Paths of the Dead. Eventually the Last Alliance is formed between Elendil and Gil-Galad who march on Mordor and overthrow Sauron, ending the Second Age.
The Story of Aldarion and Erendis:
In addition to those two main threads, I’m hoping we may get to see some form of this story worked in to the show. Appearing as a chapter in Unfinished Tales, this is the only real tale set in Númenor during its glory days, and it revolves around a prince of Númenor torn between his love for his betrothed and his love for the sea.
There are several reasons why I think we may get to see these characters. One is that the voyages of Aldarion and his meetings with Gil-Galad provide a useful link with what’s going on in Middle-earth during Sauron’s rise to power. Another reason is the relative scarcity of female characters in Middle-earth, and I think a strong-willed woman like Erendis would be a welcome addition to the series.
The drama also provides a number of interesting turning points surrounding their relationship, their child, Aldarion’s father, and a certain letter from Gil-Galad.
Why The Second Age is a Smart Move
Last week’s announcement took my forced optimism for a “Young Aragorn” series and transformed it into an active excitement for all the intrigue that a Second Age series could provide.
I remember dreaming about what a Fall of Númenor adaptation could look like, back in the days of Peter Jackson’s LOTR, reading through other fans’ 80 page treatments for what a movie trilogy might look like. Granted, this was back in the days before streaming platforms had combined long-form storytelling with cinema-level production quality to serve up a golden age of storytelling for binge-ready viewers.
But now, shows like Game of Thrones have paved the way for something like this. A five-season, $1 billion show adapting some of my favorite literary material. How did I deserve to live in such a time as this?
If Amazon is trying to create their own “Game of Thrones” with this series (they are), I think their decision to center it on the Second Age is a much stronger choice than Young Aragorn. Here are some of the reasons why:
1. Familiar… But Not Too Familiar
The Second Age provides enough distance from the events of LOTR while still maintaining enough of a connection.
This distance allows the showrunners much more freedom in making this series stand on its own, with everything from narrative, to locations, to sets, to casting. Most notably, there’s less pressure to “correctly” cast someone as a younger Aragorn trying to fill Viggo’s shoes. People just aren’t going to get upset over a casting choice for someone like Ar-Pharazon or Isildur. And I hate to say this, but there’s also less need to worry about Ian McKellen’s health (he’s 79), as Gandalf doesn’t arrive in Middle-earth until 1000 years into the Third Age.
For most viewers, the Second Age is a blank canvas waiting to be painted. And I think hard-core Tolkien fans are ready for something completely new that we haven’t seen before. I’m thrilled at the prospect of seeing locations like Meneltarma, Armenelos, and Umbar come to life.
But the Second Age also strikes a balance by giving casual audiences certain characters and cultures they recognize. Even if Amazon had Silmarillion rights, most viewers are probably not ready (yet) for the Children of Hurin, the Fall of Gondolin, or the drama of the Silmarils – all of which take place in the First Age, in lands completely foreign to the Middle-earth we’ve already seen. Movie-only fans have probably never even heard the word “Beleriand”. (Not to mention that adapting those tales for the screen would be incredibly challenging with a high likelihood of failure… but I digress.)
By not going too far back, they still have the opportunity to incorporate icons like Galadriel, Elrond, and the Nazgul, along with locations like Gondor, Mordor, Moria, and the Grey Havens.
Most importantly, the overarching narrative of Sauron’s One Ring and his interactions with Aragorn’s ancestors provide a critical link for viewers to the events of LOTR. The five seasons could essentially serve as an epic prequel which leads us up to the Prologue of FOTR.
2. Higher Stakes
“Adventures of Young Aragorn” never struck me as a particularly compelling TV series for either Tolkien nerds or casual audiences. With the events taking place so close to LOTR, I think the series would suffer from a similar conundrum that The Hobbit movies faced – how do we make this story feel like it matters? How do we maintain high stakes for Aragorn’s errands around Middle-earth, when people know that the more epic story is really LOTR? Simply knowing that Aragorn survives really deflates a lot of tension the show might try to have.
But by going back into the Second Age, the show can take advantage of some truly enormous stakes (the fall of an entire civilization) without needing to artificially inflate its importance.
3. The Second Age is Shrouded in Mystery
While it’s much more ambitious, I think the Second Age is actually a much safer choice for Amazon.
One of the strong appeals of Tolkien’s Middle-earth is the sense of history you get when you read The Lord of the Rings. And even among Tolkien nerds, I suspect that many (myself included) are fuzzy on the history of the Second Age. I’ve read Akallabêth, Unfinished Tales, and the LOTR Appendices multiple times, but have to admit that my memory was a little unclear on when Sauron started flirting with Celebrimbor, or what year Aldarion built the settlement at Vinyalondë.
I would venture to say that between the First, Second, and Third Ages, the second is the one even hard-core fans have the least knowledge of. For me, the Second Age most captures that feeling of the unknown, that depth of history that draws me to Tolkien. And this isn’t surprising, as it’s a 3,500 year period that Tolkien only covered in bits and pieces. The author devoted much more attention to the great tales of the First Age, and the War of the Ring in the Third Age.
As Tolkien himself writes in LOTR Appendix B:
“These were the dark years for Men of Middle-earth, but the years of glory of Númenor. Of events in Middle-earth, the records are few but brief, and their dates often uncertain.”
With this shroud of mystery comes more leeway from fans and lower risk of outrage over adapting something “wrong”. Granted, Amazon isn’t off the hook by any means – fans will still be upset if the spirit of Tolkien isn’t present, or if the creative license goes too far off the deep end. But narratively, I think it gives them more flexibility to create compelling television and introduce characters and subplots that feel less like fan fiction and more like an exploration of Tolkien’s universe.
Some might argue that visualizing all of this history “ruins the magic”, which I think is a valid concern – but by choosing the Second Age, you can still use the First Age and the Undying Lands to maintain this depth of history and a sense of the unknown.
Is There Really Enough Source Material?
Despite being somewhat scarce, I think the source material for the Second Age is still rife with opportunity. Essentially we’re looking at:
- The Return of the King
- Appendix A (Annals of the Kings and Rulers): The first five pages specifically deal with Númenor, before diving into the Third Age.
- Appendix B (The Tale of Years) A two-page timeline highlighting the major events of the Second Age.
- Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth: A collection of essays and stories (some in fragments) published posthumously in 1980 by J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher. There are four chapters in Part 2 which deal with the Second Age:
- Ch. 1: A Description of the Island of Númenor: Some great material for the production design team. (8 pages)
- Ch. 2: Aldarion and Erendis: A love story about a prince of Númenor who is torn between his love for the sea and his love for his betrothed. (a pretty substantial tale, at 44 pages)
- Ch. 3: The Line of Elros: Kings of Númenor: Essentially an expansion (and sometimes contradiction) of what we’ve seen in Appendix B, these 9 pages outline the 3000-year history of Númenor by sharing a brief biography for each king (or queen).
- Ch. 4: The History of Galadriel and Celeborn. These 39 pages give a rare glimpse into what’s happening on mainland Middle-earth during the Second Age.
- The Silmarillion
- Akallabêth: This is the primary text describing the rise and fall of Númenor (26 pages).
- Of The Rings of Power and the Third Age. Despite the title, nearly half of this chapter (which is about 20 pages total) summarizes events of the Second Age, though most of it is already covered in the above texts.
- The History of Middle-earth Series: I’m not going to count anything from here, since these twelve volumes are more about first drafts and abandoned writings by J.R.R. Tolkien (with ample commentary from Christopher Tolkien). However, it may be worth mentioning the abandoned story The Notion Club Papers, which involves Númenor and time-travel. And perhaps more useful, there are a couple chapters on Númenor in Volume 5, including a bit of dialogue between Elendil and Isildur which could provide deeper context and thematic inspiration regarding the religious persecutions on Númenor.
- The Return of the King
If your eyes glazed over and you completely skipped that, the bottom line is that there’s really not that many pages of material when it comes to the Second Age – I count about 150. And this is assuming they actually have the rights to all of that. The implication of Amazon’s recent announcement is that it seems they must at least now have the rights to Unfinished Tales (fans are also referencing the map artwork for Númenor, which appears there). I can’t imagine trying to adapt five seasons off seven pages in the back of Return of the King.
It also makes one wonder if maybe all or parts of The Silmarillion are on the table for either this series or the future – opening up access to Akallabêth and really allowing the creators to do the story justice.
At this point, you may be thinking – isn’t this just like The Hobbit all over again? Taking a tiny book and trying to turn it into hours and hours of screen time? Perhaps. But I think the key difference here is the style of storytelling from those 150 pages. Readers familiar with Tolkien know that these texts are recounted more as biblical history than a novel. The bones and the structure of a Second Age saga are there; it was just unfortunately never fleshed out by Tolkien before his death.
But fleshing out that narrative is exactly the type of thing a series like Amazon’s could do. It most certainly will require imagination and invention. But for me, the prospect of getting to see this period brought to life is exhilarating.
What about the Third Age?
All that said, can this material really carry a show for five seasons?
I’m not sure. And I would not be surprised if Amazon’s series begins in the Second Age, but moves into the Third Age.
If one of the overarching themes of this series is connecting Aragorn’s ancestry to the present, there are a lot of interesting moments in the history of his line that don’t occur until after the Battle of Dagorlad. Just remember there are another 3000 years between Isildur taking the One Ring and Aragorn being born. This ancient period of the Third Age has a similar dynamic in that a lot of big things happen to the kingdoms of men, but most fans aren’t going to remember the exact chronology. This period contains material like:
- The Disaster of the Gladden Fields and death of Isildur
- Conflict among the northern kingdoms of Arnor
- The Witch King of Angmar invading Arnor, and the Tower of Amon Sul (Weathertop) destroyed
- The kin-strife (civil war in Gondor)
- The Burning of Osgiliath and the loss of the Palantir
- The Great Plague
- Wars with the Corsairs
- Wars with the Wainriders, including the Battle of the Camp
- Fall of the North Kingdom
- Arvedui drowning in the Bay of Forochel
- Minas Ithil taken again
- Earnur challenging the Witch-king to a duel, and the line of the Stewards beginning
- Celebrian attacked in the Redhorn Pass
- Cirion and Eorl, victory at the Fields of Celebrant, and the Rohirrim settling in Rohan (and the oaths taken on the Hill of Anwar)
- Baldor entering the Forbidden Door (Paths of the Dead)
- Arrival of the Istari in Middle-earth
- The Drúedain
One of the largest challenges in adapting any of this material from either age is the sheer amount of time that passes between major events. I think it’s safe to assume we’ll see some chronological condensing, or at least the passage of time between the five seasons. Fortunately though, elves and Númenoreans both live quite long, which gives the ability to see recurring characters even if centuries pass.
And if there’s not actually any Third Age covered in these five seasons, let’s not forget that Amazon also has a deal for a spin-off series.
And what about Young Aragorn?
It is unclear at this point how the Young Aragorn rumor fits into all this. Was it simply a false rumor? A change of plans?
Personally, I think there could still be a shred of truth to it. Having followed the site since I was 10 years old, I can say that TheOneRing.net is a pretty reputable source for reporting Tolkien news, and I doubt that the Young Aragorn news was completely off base.
What if… Young Aragorn is used as a framing device for the entire series? When Aragorn was 21 years old, his foster-father Elrond revealed Aragorn’s true identity to him and gave him the heirlooms of his house. This would serve perfectly to set the context for the show and let casual viewers know why they should care about these people called the Númenoreans.
Only time will tell what the series actually covers, and if Amazon’s team is up to the task. IMDB still lists 2020 as the release year, but Jennifer Salke, Amazon’s head of TV and Film, has said that airing in 2021 “is the hope.” Their current contract requires that production begin by November 2019.
The other key piece of info we know is that JD Payne and Patrick McKay have been selected to write and develop the series. I have to admit it makes me a little nervous, as we know nothing about their level of knowledge or understanding of Tolkien’s universe, and their IMDB profiles suggest they are relatively unseasoned writers.
Another concern I have is how often this series has been referred to as Amazon’s “Game of Thrones”, and the cultural and financial pressure that Amazon may feel to live up to that series. Tolkien’s high fantasy exists on an entirely different plane than A Song of Ice and Fire; while they may appear similar on the surface with the presence of dragons, and knights, and magic – the underlying spirit and style of these works are radically different. Tolkien’s simpler black-and-white fantasy will simply not live up to the expectations of many GoT viewers. Choosing to cover Númenor does give the ability to move the needle closer to the weight and intrigue that GoT provides (I mean, the worship of Melkor can get kind of dark) – but I hope that Amazon is able to find a balance by appealing to these modern audiences without completely departing from the spirit of Tolkien.
The amount of money that Amazon is spending on this series could honestly be either a cause for comfort or concern. But I do take solace in their recent talks with the Tolkien Estate, and would like to believe that the latter wouldn’t hand over these rights carelessly. Amazon certainly realizes that what they now hold in their hands is precious to so many readers. And if they don’t show the same level of care that PJ gave to LOTR, or merely treat the franchise as a fat cow to milk, or use the series to shoehorn in political agendas foreign to Tolkien’s world, then their investment could face a lot of backlash.
But despite the enormous challenge of adapting this material for both fans and the masses, and despite the large amount of things which could go wrong – I just can’t help but be excited with this unexpected turn of events.
About the Author
Joe Houde is a lifelong Tolkien nerd from San Diego, CA.