Is The Rings of Power drawing inspiration from Tolkien’s incomplete Fourth Age work, The New Shadow?
Upfront: I’m a big believer in Betteridge’s law of headlines. This maxim states that: any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no”. There’s every chance that “no” is the right answer to this lede.
Yet, the idea that Rings of Power — in its use of cults — could be cribbing ideas from Tolkien’s fragmentary Fourth Age story remains an alluring one that my mind keeps circling back to.
In part, it’s because of the creepy and unsettling power of that exchange between the as-yet-unidentified wild-eyed fellow and Theo in the trailer: “Have you heard of him, boy? Have you heard of Sauron?”
What is The New Shadow?
The New Shadow is found in the final volume of The History of Middle-earth amongst a number of essays that Chris Tolkien classified as “Late Writings”. It’s actually quite slim, totalling only 13 pages in my edition — including CJRT’s page-and-a-half introduction and footnotes.
Much of it is a slow-moving philosophical meditation as the two characters — the aging but steadfast Borlas, and the youthful, but seemingly embittered and restless, Saelon — trade barbs about the “roots of Evil”.
Then, in the final few pages this key exchange occurs:
‘You have heard then the name?’ With hardly more than breath he formed it. ‘Of Herumor?’
Borlas looked at him with amazement and fear. His mouth made tremulous motions of speech, but no sound came from it.
‘I see that you have,’ said Saelon. ‘And you seem astonished to learn that I have heard it also. But you are not more astonished than I was to see that this name has reached you. For, as I say, I have keen eyes and ears, but yours are now dim even for daily use, and the matter has been kept as secret as cunning could contrive.’
The New Shadow, The Peoples of Middle-earth
Perhaps it’s mere coincidence. Yet the similarity to the dialogue from the teaser with what Tolkien wrote is startling. There’s also a strong parallel in the visual reaction of Theo and the written one of Borlas: surprise, trepidation, fear.
Who is recruiting whom?
Is Saelon recruiting to a dark cause? Is the wild-eyed crazy fellow in the trailer doing likewise?
While we shall eventually find out the answer to the latter, we’ll never know the answer to the first question for certain.
Saelon certainly seems fishy — and his later invitation to Borlas to attend a shady, night-time rendezvous to learn more about the mysterious Herumor contains the scent of deceit.
But Tolkien never continued the story.
Within his reasons for abandoning the tale are some illuminating nuggets — nuggets that are, I think, relevant to the reasons for Númenor’s ultimate fall, and what Rings of Power may be trying to achieve with its own Sauron cult(s).
Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless…
I found that even so early [after the death of Aragorn] there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going round doing damage.
Letter #256, Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Discontented and restless: when enough is still not enough
This is the very essence of the Akallabêth tale.
The Dúnedain of Númenor want for nothing, and live long lives in peace and prosperity, yet it’s not enough. They grow increasingly unsatisfied with all that they already have. Then, by gradual steps, they “fall”: transforming from helpers in Middle-earth to colonial conquerors and ultimately embarking on a doomed rebellion against the powers of Valinor in a vain quest for immortality.
Sauron’s presence merely hastens a process that was already occurring. Remember that the White Tree in Armenelos — a metaphor for the spiritual well-being of Númenor — was already in decline during the reign of Ar-Pharazôn’s grandfather.
Restless folk “playing at orcs”
One wonders if that’s exactly what we’re looking at with the trio of dissatisfied-looking folk in white robes in the trailer: “discontented and restless” folk “playing at being Orcs”. Or as Tolkien further outlines in Letter #338: “owing to the (it seems) inevitable boredom of Men with the good: there would be secret societies practising dark cults, and ‘orc-cults’ among adolescents.”
If it looks like a cult…
Can we even be sure these people are part of a cult?
First there’s the implication from the dialogue that, more or less, accompanies those frames: “Evil does not sleep. It waits.”
Consider how that parallels the thrust of the very opening of The New Shadow:
‘Deep indeed run the roots of Evil,’ said Borlas, ‘and the black sap is strong in them. That tree will never be slain. Let men hew it as often as they may, it will thrust up shoots again as soon as they turn aside. Not even at the Feast of Felling should the axe be hung up on the wall!’
The New Shadow, The Peoples of Middle-earth
At a surface level, visual tropes further reinforce that assessment.
Hooded robes. Because every cult needs robes.
The staff and mirror. Every cult also needs its own hermetic symbology and gear.
Scene composition. This suggests both insularity (and groupthink), and an unobserved surveillance of events (ie: panopticon-style powers).
None of these is individually conclusive; together, they are highly suggestive.
Yet there are aspects that depart from the stereotypical visuals that we might expect from a Sauron cult.
Visual oddities: white robes
In particular, Sauron’s minions never use white. In the Lord of the Rings, the Eye is always said to be red. The hand is referred to as the black hand.
‘S is for Sauron,’ said Gimli. ‘That is easy to read.’
‘Sauron does not use the Elf-runes.’
‘Neither does he use his right name, nor permit it to be spelt or spoken,’ said Aragorn. ‘And he does not use white. The Orcs in the service of Barad-dûr use the sign of the Red Eye.’
The Departure of Boromir, the Lord of the Rings
He [Mouth of Sauron] it was that now rode out, and with him came only a small company of black-harnessed soldiery, and a single banner, black but bearing on it in red the Evil Eye [my emphasis].
The Black Gate Opens, The Lord of the Rings
And, in The New Shadow, Saelon suggests that Borlas should wear black robes when he extends an invitation to join one of Herumor’s secret meetings.
One might argue that these are all post-Akallabêth developments — after Sauron loses any ability to assume a fair-hue. In fact, Unfinished Tales describes how in Lindon “Gil-galad shut out Sauron’s emissaries and even Sauron himself”, indicating that Sauron used others to further his long deception of being an emissary of the Valar sent to aid the elves.
Those others would have to appear just as innocent as their master regardless of who they were approaching.
Still, white-robed cultists are a visual contradiction to our textual knowledge. Depending on your attitude to the production, that’s either puzzling or concerning.
Visual oddities: the sigil on the staff
The second conundrum is the design of the staff of the apparent leader of our trio of cultists. This design seems to employ the symbolism of an eye.
Parallels with Peter Jackson’s “The Eye of Sauron” atop the two spires of Barad-dûr are obvious.
One could refer back to Aragorn’s statement that “neither does he use his right name, nor permit it to be spelt or spoken”. But that’s trying to have it both ways: the rune barred to his minions, but white being okay.
Right now, I can’t readily reconcile this.
Cults and “magics” in Middle-earth
Still, between our wild-eyed fellow and Theo and the various appearances of white-robed and hooded individuals, the SDCC trailer feels determined to suggest a dangerous cult with nefarious purposes and uncanny powers.
A glance through the Legendarium reveals fertile ground for cults in Middle-earth.
The very beginning of Akallabêth states:
Men came into the world in the time of the Shadow of Morgoth, and they fell swiftly under his dominion; for he sent his emissaries among them, and they listened to his evil and cunning words, and they worshipped the Darkness and yet feared it.
Akallabêth, the Silmarillion
In The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn tells how the folk of Erech refused the summons of Isildur because they had “worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years”.
And, in outlining the origins of the Mouth of Sauron, The Lord of the Rings tells us of Black Númenoreans who “established their dwellings in Middle-earth during the years of Sauron’s domination, and they worshipped him, being enamoured of evil knowledge.”
A Rings of Power cult need not even be inspired by Sauron. In a 1958 letter Tolkien wrote of the Blue Wizards, guessing that they “were founders or beginners of secret cults and ‘magic’ traditions [my emphasis] that outlasted the fall of Sauron.” Something similar could explain the white robes — although such an explanation raises equivalent problems with the “cult leader’s” staff.
Plus, some of those followers are practitioners of dark art.
Mouth of Sauron is said to have learned “great sorcery” as he gained favour. Gandalf describes the Witch King of Angmar as a “great king and sorcerer… of old”, while The Peoples of Middle-Earth briefly describes not only that Sauron enslaved the spirits of some elves to his will, but that he taught the same necromancies to his followers.
Now, this might not seem much like necromancy, but also recall that Sauron’s nature is one of fire and that, until he was seduced by Morgoth, he was a student and follower of Aule.
A final parallel with The New shadow
Returning to The New Shadow, there’s one final — if slight — parallel with Rings of Power. In one of the recent interviews at San Diego Comic-con, Tyroe Muhafidin observes about his character:
“We find Theo — he’s not the most happy-going guy; he’s not living in the greatest circumstances. He’s living in what you could call the slums. So he’s a bit angsty towards the world.
He finds something in the bottom of a barn, and there’s lot of secrets to it – and he’s dying to find out [them].”
Now, that’s not a life of prosperity. Theo is not driven by “boredom of Men with the good”.
But it does sound as though there’s a chip on Theo’s shoulder — and that’s something that is characteristic of Tolkien’s Saelon — embittered as he remains over being accused by Borlas of “Orcs’ work” after stealing fruit as a young child.
That may prove fertile ground for the creepy old guy in the trailer. Theo might not have previously been attracted, as Tolkien describes it in The New Shadow, to “tales of the Orcs and their doings”.
“I had not been interested till then. You turned my mind to them.”
There is one other comparison with these cultists that I simply cannot overlook. But it’s not a Tolkien-based one — it’s one with Mervyn Peake, the famed author of the gothic masterwork, Gormenghast.
Peake was also an impressively talented sketch artist, and a friend pointed out that one of Peake’s sketches of his arch-villain Steerpike bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain cultist. Now, having seen it, I can’t get it out of my head.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to all the Discord Reading Room mods for their feedback on this piece and especially DrNosy for the structural critique. GIF courtesy of the ever-talented WheatBix.
About the author:Staffer Demosthenes has been involved with TheOneRing.net since 2001, serving first as an Associate News Editor, then as Chief News Editor during the making of the Hobbit films. Now he focuses on features and analysis. The opinions in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent those of TheOneRing.net and other staff.
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Note: The following is an opinion piece written by volunteer staff member Kellie, also known as “Kili” from the YouTube series Happy Hobbit.
In an effort to clear up some misconceptions, I want to tell you my story.
On February 13th, I was invited to participate in a livestream hosted by both TheOneRing.net and Amazon Prime Video to watch and analyze the very first teaser trailer for Amazon’s new series, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. It was my sister’s birthday, so while I was excited for the end of the “Middle-earth dearth,” I only committed to participating for an hour, and I was relieved I had an excuse to slip away after said time, for the initial teaser trailer failed to impress. In fact, it was even worse; it left me confused, worried, and underwhelmed. The visuals were dazzling, but I felt no connection to the imagery on the screen. I was far from alone.
Like many, I feared Amazon was producing the most expensive TV show in history (allegedly around 1 billion) because they saw Tolkien’s work as a cash cow and were going to milk it for all they could.
I am a fiction author (under my pen name K.M. Rice) and a screenwriter with a Master of Fine Arts, so workshopping creative material is second nature, as is finding ways to express what is not working in an articulate manner. “I am not getting the mythic tone I look for in Tolkien,” I remember saying (which is a paraphrase).
A few months later in May, I was invited by Prime Video to a special press event in London, England, as the representative for my sister and my webshow, Happy Hobbit (which strives to bring a dose of Middle-earth to our viewers’ daily lives), and as the co-author ofMiddle-earth from Script to Screen: Building the World of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which I helped write with Daniel Falconer at Weta Workshop in New Zealand. My fellow Tolkien content creators and I, along with traditional press, were taken on a field trip to Oxford University where we had the pleasure of wandering Tolkien’s old stomping grounds both as a student and as a professor. You can check out what we did and saw by watching the video here.
The following day, we were treated to footage and costumes from Rings of Power (ROP) and a Q&A with the showrunners, John Howe (concept artist), Leith McPherson (dialect coach), and Ramsey Avery (production designer), along with the showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, and producer Lindsey Weber.
I once more was not impressed with the footage I saw, for while there was nothing wrong with it, there was no context. I had no idea what had just happened before the scene we were shown, where in the story it fell, and in fact, what the story was at all. It looked and sounded lovely, but there was no beating heart. My own heart sank as I realized I was going to have to just accept that this show wasn’t going to fulfill my expectations.
Once the showrunners spoke, however, I was left with the juxtaposition of hearing from two people intensely passionate about Tolkien (to the point that they opened every day of shooting with a Tolkien quote and discussion) and the marketing that didn’t convey that love and respect.
What I saw in London didn’t raise my excitement level, but hearing from the showrunners and knowing that such a capable team was producing the series did leave me with a sense of cautious optimism.
To reiterate, none of us Tolkien content creators have seen the show. We were not paid or bribed in any way, but rather have been treated as “Tolkien press.” We have no idea if ROP will be good, bad, or somewhere in between. Our opinions are our own, as they should be, and this is just my story.
While attending San Diego Comic-Con International at the end of July to speak on one of TheOneRing.net’s two panels, Prime Video invited me to a luncheon with many of the cast members from ROP. Before sitting down to eat, we were treated to viewing the first official trailer, which finally had some heart and showed a hint of the plot. I am no Tolkien lore expert, but many in the room with me were. They could name things on screen that I couldn’t, nevertheless, I felt excited. In fact, I shed a few tears and I don’t cry easily, especially in public. But being in that room and feeling so much unbridled excitement and joy was deeply moving, especially after having missed that human connection and communitas for so long during the pandemic. When we came out to meet the cast after, I felt a level of energy and anticipation that many of us had not yet felt over the show.
Everyone we met at the lunch was incredibly kind, down-to-earth, and passionate about Tolkien and storytelling. No one had an ego that prevented them from addressing gritty topics with strangers they had just met, and several of our conversations grew deep quickly. I later had an opportunity to converse with Patrick McKay, one of the two showrunners, who shared that they were given complete creative freedom. As such, whether the show does well or poorly, he feels he and his fellow showrunner are to blame. Talk about accountability!
I have a healthy skepticism about Amazon and most major corporations. I am not here to defend a company or TV show that I have yet to see, but I am here to share what I have learned:
Amazon never approached the Tolkien Estate to ask for the rights to make the show. Rather, the Tolkien Estate approached both Amazon and Netflix (and possibly other streaming platforms, as well), asking them if they would be interested. Amazon was.
Christopher Tolkien (the Professor’s son) was in charge of the Estate at the time the deal was made in 2017. He passed away three years later in 2020 after production on the show had already begun, and the directorship was passed on to his son, Simon Tolkien.
What’s more, the production invited Simon Tolkien, the grandson of the late Professor who has a love of cinematic storytelling and is the current director of the Estate, to be involved. For context, no other production has ever given the Tolkien Estate a seat at the table.
Amazon, as a corporation, is also not strapped for cash, which means they could invest whatever was needed to bring the vision of the Second Age to life.
Jeff Bezos is a big Tolkien fan.
One thing that limited them was the rights. They could not touch The Silmarillion or The Unfinished Tales. The rights are only for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As such, the inclination is naturally to turn to the appendices of Return of the King, but even that is a gray area.
If a plotline smelled too much like it was getting into Silmarillion territory, the Estate didn’t permit it in a script. The production was then pushed into the difficult situation of having to originate their own material.
Knowing this, engage with me in a thought experiment for a moment:
Imagine you, as a Tolkien fan, just heard that this up-and-coming film studio out of New Zealand, the UK, or Colorado received a billion dollars to produce a Tolkien TV show set in the second age using partially original material and that to do so, they not only brought the Tolkien Estate on board, but hired showrunners, writers, and a cast that cared deeply for the source material to ensure fidelity. That sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it?
In many ways, Amazon is fighting against the public image of its own brand. Remove the name “Amazon” from the equation and suddenly many are more forgiving. I know I am. That so many of us have knee-jerk reactions to corporations’ names is worth noting, but the subject of a different conversation.
It all comes down to trust, and anyone who wants to involve our fandom needs to earn it. Some of us are more open than others. Some of us love the Peter Jackson films, while others didn’t enjoy them at all. But remember this: no one is touching the books. They will always be there. Tolkien’s texts are sacred for many, and no one is here to dispute that. But a book is a book. A film is a film. A TV show is TV show. None of these forms of storytelling are the same. And the existence of one does not threaten the other. If anything, they can be a boon. I would never have read Tolkien if not for Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.
No artist considers their art “finished.” There is always room to expand and change as the artist grows and ages as a person. Tolkien himself was a revisionist to the point that his heirs have gone to a great deal of trouble trying to decide which version of a story or piece of Arda’s history should be seen as “canon.” His Middle-earth writing often also contradicted itself. Importantly, he intentionally left bits open to interpretation.
When writing to publisher Wilton Waldman in 1951 about the scope of his literary aspirations to create a body of “more or less connected legend,” Tolkien shared:
I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.
J.R.R. Tolkien, 1951
The Professor’s dream has been fulfilled. His work has inspired artists of all genres and arguably established the Fantasy genre of literature.
Not only are other minds and hands interpreting his work, but adapting it and expanding upon it, thus fleshing out the ideas he left merely “sketched.” Tolkien did not want his life’s work to fade. He wanted it to live and breathe with the generations, even if that meant it arrived with a new twinkle or twist every now and again to suit the era, just as myths have done since the dawn of the human experience.
We have been through some trying times of late. A global pandemic, economic hardship, war, and loss, to say nothing of our more personal struggles. We look to tales like those told by Tolkien to make some sense of it all. I long to return to Middle-earth: a place where, even in the darkest of times, there is still a star shining. Love, hope, courage, and a love of the simple pleasures in life prevail in some form, as does the deep goodness that ties us all together. We don’t all have to agree and entertainment is highly subjective at the best of times, but even the most butchered adaptations cannot shake how at home I feel in the aged pages of my books, nor should they.
We all walk different roads on this Middle-earth, and in times of stress, it is easy to begrudge others their happiness. But life is short, opportunities are rare, and I for one am excited to revisit Tolkien’s world on screen.
Optimism is a choice, a more difficult one than pessimism, and I am choosing to go forth on this journey with an open heart and welcome any and all joy along the way. The same choice is also yours.
TheOneRing.net wrapped up San Diego Comic-con with a panel focused on the Second Age of Middle-earth. The panelists wove insights with skill and knowledge into a flowing tapestry to rival those in the halls of Menegroth.
Held in Room 6A of the Convention Center, the panel was moderated by Justin Sewell, host/producer TORn Tuesdays (YouTube), the panel included Matt, host of Nerd of the Rings (YouTube); Anna María, actor and activist (@onlyannamaria/Twitter); Willie Jenkins aka KnewBettaDoBetta (TikTok); Clifford Broadway, writer, actor, host TORn Tuesdays; and Dr. Corey Olsen, founder of SignumUniversity (@TolkienProf).
First discussed was how important maps are to the Tolkien Universe. Willie advised that if you have trouble understanding Tolkien’s work, start with the maps; by studying them, you’ll have an easier time understanding the texts. Corey pointed out that Númenor is so far south on the map, it would be a sub-tropical climate. Anna María explained that Tolkien’s legendarium centers around movement.
The veracity of this point hit home for me. From the time of the birth of the Elves in Cuiviénen, the peoples of Middle-earth are always on the move. When the Elves migrate to Valinor, many were sundered from the larger group along the way forming the different branches of the Elves. The Noldor’s return to Middle-earth had devastating consequences on the people and the land, and this backwards migration formed the various Elvish kingdoms that were scattered throughout Beleriand, the remnants of which formed the population of ME in the Third Age. A Third Age example is when the Rohirrim (then called the Éothéod) living in the northern Vales of Anduin were granted Calenardhon, which became Rohan, for helping Gondor in its time of need. And of course, the story of the Lord of the Rings revolves around the Fellowship’s journey throughout the lands of the Third Age. Much like the world we live in, it is the movement of people that tells the tale of history.
The panel moved on to talk about the Silmarils and the Oath that Fëanor and his seven sons took to recover the gems and how the consequences of those actions impacted all the events that came after, all the way down to the Third Age. Dr. Olsen made the point that the fallout from these events caused the surviving Elves to be predisposed to making the Rings of Power as a means to protect their realms.
Next discussed was which materials Amazon has the rights to develop in the series. The panel drew the conclusion that with Simon Tolkien consulting on the series, nothing is off-limits because the show runners can go to the estate and ask permission if they feel they need to include material that is not in the Appendices.
Justin asked the panelists what they wanted to most see in the 50-hour series. Responses included:
• The War between Sauron and the Elves • The Creation of the Rings • The War of the Last Alliance: “There is so much more to that battle and that war than we saw [in the Peter Jackson’s films.]” –Matt • The Gradual fall of Númenor: “The theme of the inevitability of lovely things that fade…I’m excited to watch the struggle of Númenóreans over time becoming more and more resentful of their mortality. Of longing for the gift of the Elves’ agelessness…Of having the relief of death twisted by Morgoth.” –Anna María
Cliff pointed out how The Second Age is about loss. The Númenórean story is the story of Atlantis with Númenor renamed Atalantë (the downfallen) after it’s fall. He talked about how the Ents in the trailer remind us that Tolkien had ecological interests and suggested that the Ents and Entwives must come into conflict with the Númenóreans because of the island-dwellers’ need for wood to build ships. He said his spirit might break if by the end of season five the Ents have lost the Entwives, but that this could narratively connect with events in the Third Age.
As a fan, Dr. Corey Olsen was reassured by the show runners: “The primary theme of this show is hope. That there is a lot of darkness, there is going to be a lot of grimness in this because Tolkien does not shy away from that, but at the end of the day it is always about hope. Patrick McKay said that the scene with Sam looking up at the star in Mordor was his favorite scene in the Lord of the Rings, I said ‘he’s our people.’”
Matt was hopeful that all the John Howe’s drawings for the show (48 full sketchbooks) might end up in book form on our bookshelves.
Willie was excited about seeing Khazad-dûm and Eregion at its height, and Cliff pointed out that this was a time of cooperation between Elves and Dwarves, unlike in the Third Age. Anna Maria reminded us that the Second Age is actually a post apocalyptic setting.
The discussion moved on to how Tolkien is inclusive and for everybody. The author was opposed to racism in all forms as attested to in many of his writings and letters. Justin asked for us to all keep an open mind and an open heart going into the show, while Matt said he’s just excited to escape to Middle-earth.
Throughout, the audience was enraptured, but proof of the lasting impact of the event is that the panelists have stories about audience members coming up to them after the panel and thanking them for bringing things to light about their favorite characters.
For instance, Anna Maria, Corey and Willie spoke about Isildur and how we only know him from the Peter Jackson LotR prologue where we see him refusing to throw the One Ring into the Cracks of Doom. From this scene, many people took away that Isildur was a fool, if not a villain. But we were assured that Isildur was a hero, one of the Faithful who risked his life to save the White Tree. He was one of the founders of Gondor, a great and wise ruler, and we shouldn’t judge him on his one mistake because there was no one in Middle-earth who could resist the power of the One Ring and throw it in the fire. Certainly not Frodo. Even Galadriel and Gandalf were both afraid to touch it, knowing it would corrupt them.
From the audience reaction, I’d say that everyone’s curiosity about the Second Age has been piqued, and that most people are excited to find out how Amazon Prime Video will handle this less well-known period in Middle-earth’s history.
Last night TheOneRing.net and Amazon Prime Video hosted a “Rings of Power” off-site party at San Diego Comic-con.
The setting was lovely and looked very Middle-earthy with trees growing inside the venue surrounded by moss, rocks, mushrooms, and even a few birds’ nests filled with eggssess, precious. Showrunner Patrick McKay joined the party, and TORN staffer Cliff “Quickbeam” Broadway talked Tolkien lore with him. Jed Brophy stopped by, too.
Golden Mallorn leaf tickets were given out at TORn’s Booth 1220 in the convention center for trivia answers. These ticket holders got to meet 20+ Rings of Power actors and have posters signed by them all. Five Middle-earth costume winners also got Mallorn tickets. Actual set-worn costumes were displayed throughout the venue, and immediately after the party, they were bubble wrapped and crated and flown back to the set.
Highlights of the food and drink that flowed throughout the evening were the blackberry sparkling cocktail and the mini poke ice cream cones surrounding a mountain from which smoke poured out.
An expanded trailer that does not disappoint was played in a separate room on loop.
It was a wonderful evening, and hopefully the first of many ”Rings of Power” parties. (Emmys party perhaps?)
So you wouldn’t think that Galadriel means something similar, like that one time at Aqualondë when Fëanor decided to requisition some boats (or, later, when he decided to use said boats for tinder on the beach at Losgar).
It’s also likely that Elrond was involved in the The War of Wrath and present at Thangorodrim for the defeat of Morgoth at the conclusion of the First Age. It’s implicit in his statement during the Council of Elrond when he speaks of the Last Alliance.
“I remember well the splendour of their banners,” he said. “It recalled to me the glory of the Elder Days and the hosts of Beleriand, so many great princes and captains were assembled. And yet not so many, nor so fair, as when Thangorodrim was broken…”
The Council of Elrond, The Lord of the Rings
Arguably that’s the defining event of the First Age (even if it’s the most-sketchily recorded). A dragon falls on and destroys a mountain chain. Later, an entire sub-continent sinks as a result. It is, quite literally, a world-changing event.
Let’s say your preferred canon is that Galadriel remained in Doriath into the later stages of the First Age (one option CJRT outlines in Unfinished Tales), the sacking of Menegroth doesn’t remotely meet that benchmark. Even were you to place Galadriel at the Nirnaeth Arnoediad (I wouldn’t), or the Dagor Bragollach (a big stretch, but I do wonder if the showrunners might), it’s just not comparable.
So what’s left?
I broached this with fellow staffers, suggesting that only one thing in Galadriel’s history is truly incomparable: the destruction of the Two Trees by Morgoth and Ungoliant.
But, generally, we agree that the description of that event given in The Silmarillion is a poor match for the imagery from the scenes that Galadriel’s voice-over cuts across in the trailer. The Silmarillion describes that Laurelin and Telperion wither as Ungoliant drains them of life. They do not burn. The assault causes a vast, ever-expanding gloom and darkness, and it is entirely unexpected and unanticipated.
That’s very unlike what we see in the Rings of Power trailer scene. There’s a the red-hued background, flickering embers pass behind Galadriel, and there are bodies that seem to hang in space. Further, whatever Galadriel is looking on seems to centre on something that looks like a tower, or a fortress. Not trees.
If it’s not something in Galadriel’s (distant) past, what is it then?
Perhaps it’s some Second Age event around or during timeline that The Rings of Power covers.
Here, fellow-staffer Garfeimao cleverly suggests that we should keep in mind that Galadriel has powers of foresight. This, after all, is how Sam is able to see a vision of The Shire getting, let us say, redeveloped.
“Many things I can command the Mirror to reveal,” she answered, “and to some I can show what they desire to see. But the Mirror will also show things unbidden, and those are often stranger and more profitable than things which we wish to behold. What you will see, if you leave the Mirror free to work, I cannot tell. For it shows things that were, and things that are, things that yet may be. But which it is that he sees, even the wisest cannot always tell. Do you wish to look?”
I could see some pointing out that Elrond also has a mighty foresight. And that’s true.
For example, his concern for welfare of The Shire is not at all misplaced. But he also doesn’t intuit how critical Merry and Pippin would prove to the Quest to destroy the Ring. That’s not to say his foreknowledge is less, it’s more to showcase how imprecise such things can be in Tolkien. No-one ever sees the full picture — even the memories of the Valar of the Music are said to be fuzzy.
And a vision might explain the subtle differences between the two shots: Galadriel is not physically present at the second scene. Instead she’s perceiving it through the lens of vision — just as Frodo and Sam did in Lorien — from somewhere else that is distant in both place and time. Somewhere else that — in a sneaky bit of misdirection — just happens to have endured some sort of fire or assault.
Recall, also, that such visions and dreams in Tolkien can be the cause of great restlessness in the receiver. In The Silmarillion, Turgon and Finrod each receive a vision from Ulmo while resting by the banks of the Sirion.
“Unquiet was upon them ever after, and doubt of what should befall, and they wandered often alone in untrodden lands, seeking far and wide for places of hidden strength…”
Of the Return of the Noldor, The Silmarillion
This might be a key reason why Galadriel is unable to, as Elrond suggests, put down her sword.
A vision opens up possibilities of things that we, as an audience, might not see come to pass in the first season of The Rings of Power.
Staffer Josh suggests that it might just be a vision of The Downfall of Númenor: Akallabêth, and perhaps even the Temple in Armenelos as it sinks below the waves.
Now, that seems appropriately apocalyptic.
It would explain why all the figures look like they’re floating — they are. And it explains the odd ripples through that scene — it’s distortions caused by the surface of the water.
The mist cleared and he saw a sight which [Frodo] had never seen before but knew at once: the Sea. Darkness fell. The sea rose and raged in a great storm. Then he saw against the Sun, sinking blood-red into a wrack of clouds [my emphasis], the black outline of a tall ship with torn sails riding up out of the West.
The Mirror of Galadriel, The Lord of the Rings
There might be powerful reasons for Amazon Studios to tip people to this end-scenario early. The fact is that most viewers won’t know what a Númenor is, let alone that it was an island-continent that was sunk after an entire people went off their collective trolley, implemented a system of human (and, presumably elven) sacrifice, and decided to invade the “land of the gods” out of a misplaced belief that conquering it would confer immortality.
Sure, even the most casual watcher will understand Ring Bad(tm), but this is vastly more tangible and visceral.
This would be one way to drive home the wider audience what’s at stake and, conceptually, I like it a lot.
Unfortunately, neither The Lord of the Rings nor its Appendices mention the “mighty temple” that Sauron has built in Armenelos, nor the sacrifices of the Faithful that are conducted inside. Those details are only found in the Akallabêth story in The Silmarillion.
However, Appendix A and Appendix B do mention that the Faithful are persecuted, and that rebellion and “civil war” occurred in the final years of Númenor.
That may be enough for the purposes of a vision. That may also satisfy a quite accurate objection that Staffer Earl raises — that the scene does have the appearance of being the outcome of battle. In fact, the most prominent floating figure seems to be run through with a spear.
Perhaps it reflects that, in those final, doomed years, “men took weapons … and slew one another for little cause; for they were become quick to anger.” Chaos and violence as the apocalypse literally occurs should not, I think, be unexpected.
But let’s say that’s incorrect and we’re not looking upon a scene of Akallabêth.
Is there something else it might be?
Here, I’m indebted to one of our Discord chatters DrNosy who informed me that the fan hivemind suspects that the trailer aerial of a city at the confluence of two rivers is Ost-in-Edhil, the chief city of Eregion.
“…the Elves of this land were of a race strange to us of the silvan folk, and the trees and the grass do not now remember them: Only I hear the stones lament them: ‘Deep they delved us, high they builded us, fair they wrought us, but they are gone.'”
The Ring Goes South, The Lord of the Rings
While not as apocalyptic as the end of Númenor, it is still the end of Eregion. More, it’s the civilisational high mark of the Noldor. Although Elrond establishes subsequently a refuge in Rivendell, never again would they attempt anything on a similar scale.
A vision of the dreams of the Noldor going up in flames might just suffice.
About the author: Staffer Demosthenes has been involved with TheOneRing.net since 2001, serving first as an Associate News Editor, then as Chief News Editor during the making of the Hobbit films. Now he focuses on features and analysis.The opinions in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent those of TheOneRing.net and other staff.
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The trailer captures in spirit Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth and of other Tolkien artists. I was caught up by it and am curious to see more, but it left me, and probably most viewers, with more questions than answers.
Why would he say this? It means not only literally put down your sword, but give up the fight. He’s asking her to give up everything she has stood for. To give up on what she has so long fought for. Even after Lothlórien is well established, Galadriel never gives up fighting evil in Middle-earth. If I were her, I’d be pretty angry at him for saying this. Could this be a hint of a thread of conflict that will run between the two of them throughout the show?
Galadriel is believable as a younger version of herself who seems capable as one of the Elves who lead the Noldor across the Grinding Ice. Is that a map she is holding? If this is the Helcaraxë, I doubt a map would exist. If she is in the Northern Waste which has been mentioned as a featured location, I wonder what brings her there. It would be interesting to learn more about the Forodwaith, and it opens up the opportunity for dragons who also lived there.
What is Elrond referrring to when he says, “It is over?” Perhaps this scene is taking place after Númenor falls, and Elrond thinks Sauron (and evil) is gone. Or maybe he is talking about Galadriel’s dispute with the heirs of Fëanor because all the Silmaril’s have left Middle-earth.
Galadriel says, “The enemy is still out there. The question now is where.” The trailer then cuts to a city on a river. I wondered if it was Rómenna because Sauron is now on Númenor. Or Ost-in-Edhil in Eregion where Sauron as Annatar, “Lord of Gifts”, is hanging out with Celebrimbor showing him how to make rings of power. My immediate thought was that the location looked like Middle-earth rather than Númenor. I even hoped for a moment it might be Osgiliath which straddled the Anduin River, though it was not at the confluence of two rivers like this appears to be, unless it is a curve in the river. Osgiliath had a great stone bridge, and there is a domed building in this city that could be the Dome of Stars. I doubt it is Osgiliath, but one can hope we will get to see the founding of Gondor and Annúminas.
When Galadriel says she has seen things Elrond has not, we are shown an image that looks like the world is on fire. I first thought this might be the burning of the Teleri ships at Losgar, but because of the tower, I think not. Could it be the destruction of Thangorodrim in the War of Wrath at the end of the First Age? The description in the Silmarillion of the battle says: “all the north was aflame with war” and “…Orcs perished like straw in a great fire, or were swept like shrivelled leaves before a burning wind.” This gives credence to the bodies floating in the air, though they look rather like Elves than Orcs. In that battle, Eärendil slew the mighty dragon Ancalagon the Black, and “cast him from the sky; and he fell upon the towers of Thangorodrim, and they were broken in his ruin.” This would account for the broken tower. Perhaps, but perhaps not. TORn staffer Demosthenes has a more comprehensive post about this scene to come.
Preparing for disaster
In this shot where a huge stone figure reaches out its hand, I wonder if the harbor is Rómenna where the ships of the Faithful are prepared for departure as Amandil, Elendil’s father, instructed. The image depicts nine large ships at anchor. Elendil landed in the north of Middle-earth with four ships. Isildur with three and Anárion with two, ended up in the south at the Mouths of Anduin.
The frontal view of the ship sailing through the gates has the sun symbol on the sails, the same as Elendil’s armor. The ship is a very intriguing design with two large curved and ribbed sails sticking out from the mast and smaller sails in the middle. The ships in the harbor have furled (wrapped up) sails that stick out perpendicular from the boat, the same way the sails on the hero ship would likely be stowed. Later in the trailer we see Isildur on a ship, but is hard to tell if the sails are set the same, though the masts seem to be positioned differently.
There has been speculation that the meteor man could be Sauron because the lantern on the left is reminiscent of the Eye of Sauron. But in Akallabêth, it says Sauron’s spirit came back to Middle-earth “as a shadow and a black wind over the sea” not as a flaming meteor. I am still leaning towards this being an Istari, possibly even Gandalf. Now that we can see the man more clearly, he has similar physicality, hair, mustache, and beard as Gandalf. I know Gandalf is not supposed to come to Middle-earth until the third age, but with time compression, who knows?
Speaking of time compression, one thing that is bothering me is that when the Rings of Power were forged, Tar-Telperiën was the Queen of Númenor, not Tar-Míriel, who we see in the trailer. The Rings of Power are forged in the year 1600 of the 2nd Age, and the downfall of Númenor is in 3319 of the same age. Given the title of the show, it seems that the forging of the rings would be featured. So either the compression is rather severe, or perhaps flashbacks are used extensively. There is a scene of Ar-Pharazôn stirring up a crowd in front of either the King’s Court or the tower where Morgoth was worshipped. It surprises me that the show would already be in his time frame since Ar-Pharazôn’s reign is so close to the fall of Númenor, which seems like a conclusion and not an opening to a series that is supposed to have five seasons.
Another clue the show-runners are not sticking strictly to canon is the character Eärien, sister of Isildur, who does not exist in Tolkien’s work. Elendil had only two children: Isildur and Anárion. I was looking forward to meeting Anárion who we know so little about and who dies in the siege of Barad-dûr. I hope he has not been cut completely.
Durins III & IV
I’m curious what Durin III means when he says, “I am sorry but their time has come.” Is he talking about Durin IV and Disa? Is he telling someone that his reign is over, and that his heirs will be taking the throne? The trailer cuts to Durin IV breaking the rock right after he says this. We later see Durin IV holding a piece of what is most likely mithril (so exciting!) saying that it could be the beginning of new era. Is Durin III stepping aside because his son has discovered the wealth of the Dwarves’ future? Then why does he say he’s sorry? Maybe instead he is implying that Elves will once again have more power than Dwarves in Middle-earth. After the war between Sauron and the Elves begins, Khazad-dûm is closed, and its population dwindles, and the Dwarves became a wandering folk while Elves become established in Rivendell and Lórien.
What is Arondir’s role in the story? Why is Arondir’s costume so different than the other Elves we have seen? In the trailer released in Brazil earlier this month, I noticed Elrond’s and Arondir’s brooches are very similar, both open silver circles but the heads of the fastener pins are different. Is this style a trend? Or does it mean that Arondir is somehow closely connected to Elrond? In his army? A scout for him?
Who is in the pit with Arondir? The scene reminds me of when Sauron cast Beren and Finrod Felagund into the pits of Tol-in-Gaurhoth, and the wolves came and killed their companions one-by-one (Silmarillion, Of Beren and Lúthien). Perhaps this scene takes place after the One Ring is revealed, and the second person in the pit is Celebrimbor who was captured by Sauron and tortured to disclose the locations of the lesser rings. Throwing him into a pit with wargs to extract a confession would fit the dark lord’s style.
The Horse Warriors
We see Galadriel leading a host of horse warriors with Isildur(?) riding beside her. I wonder if they are in Middle-earth during the War of the Elves and Sauron. No major battles are written about that take place on Númenor, but these riders are wearing the scale mail of that culture. [Edit: “The Tale of Years” in Appendix B of “The Lord of the Rings” says in 3175 there is civil war in Númenor, but nowhere is Galadriel mentioned as leading an armed force there.] Possibly they are Isildur’s men that sailed with him, or maybe Númenórian’s who had already settled in Middle-earth.
Númenóreans are not widely known for their horsemanship, but horses were their main mode of transportation while on the island. They had a deep love for and connection with the animals and could communicate with them from afar by whistling or even by thought, much as we see Gandalf doing with Shadowfax.
I have been hoping to see the steel bows of the Dúnedain, but these riders have spears.
“In later days, in the wars upon Middle-earth, it was the bows of the Númenóreans that were most greatly feared. ‘The Men of the Sea,’ it was said, ‘send before them a great cloud, as a rain turned to serpents, or a black hail tipped with steel;’ and in those days the great cohorts of the King’s Archers used bows made of hollow steel, with black-feathered arrows…”
– Unfinished Tales, Part 2, Ch 1, A Description of the Island of Númenor
I like that the Harfoots are portrayed as wanderers. As distant ancestors of Bilbo and Frodo, this explains why the two Shirelings are predisposed to going on adventures. The Harfoots’ role in these tales is not canon but being invented from whole cloth, as they say, yet I am happy they are included and feel the story will be enriched.
There is a lot to unpack with the trailer, but it is definitely intriguing. Looking forward to getting answers once the show airs on Amazon Prime Video.