“The world is changed,” Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel said in the prologue of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. “I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air.” Twenty-one years later, Amazon’s mega-expensive series set within J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is imminent—not unlike a certain dark sorcerer’s rise to power. Fans of the books and the movies have been waiting years for a return to the beloved fantasy world, but The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power might not be what they’re expecting.
Yes, the show is set in Middle Earth. There are elves, rings, and Dark Lord So-and-sos. But if you’re strapped in for a return to the series that Peter Jackson so famously brought to life at the beginning of the millennium, this show will look markedly unfamiliar. The Rings of Power begins long before the likes of Frodo, Sam, and Aragorn were even a figment of the universe’s imagination. It’s the dawn of the Second Age: A dark power is slumbering, but not for long. Here’s everything you need to know:
What year is it?
If you’re familiar with The Lord of the Rings, you know that the Fellowship’s journey to destroy Sauron’s One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom took place in something called the “Third Age.” Middle Earth has been around for a very long time, and its people—elves, dwarves, hobbits, men, etc.—are very diligent at keeping track of current events. The history of Middle Earth is separated into a number of ages, each made up of some thousands of years, and each ending with some near-catastrophic world-changing event.
The First Age begins with the awakening of the elves on Arda (the name of the planet that Middle Earth, the central-most continent, exists on) and ends with the “Great Battle,” during which Morgoth, the world’s first Dark Lord, was overthrown by an alliance of elves, men, and immortal gods called the Valar. These events are chronicled in The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s contextual companion to The Lord of the Rings, finished and published posthumously by his son, Christopher. The Second Age picks up right afterward, when Middle Earth is putting itself back together and Sauron, Morgoth’s feared lieutenant, tricks the elves into forging their rings of power, binding them with his secret One Ring. The One Ring would control the other bands and their bearers, bringing them under the sway of Sauron, previously the most cunning and powerful of Morgoth’s servants.
In response, the elves and men form their so-called “Last Alliance,” and the Second Age concludes with a climactic battle that destroys Sauron’s physical form (but, critically, not his spirit), the key events of which you see depicted in the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring film.
The Third Age begins right afterward, charting the downfall of the human king Isildur and the rise of general unrest in Middle Earth. Almost three thousand years after the One Ring was lost in some nondescript riverbed, the artifact is discovered by a hobbit named Déagol—Sméagol’s cousin—accelerating the events that lead to the formation of the Fellowship and, finally, the destruction of the ring. So begins the Fourth Age, which starts after the end of The Lord of the Rings. It is an age of peacetime, the Age of Men, when the dominion of the other races across Middle Earth came to an end.
Now that you’re equipped with this history: The Rings of Power is set during the Second Age, long before any hobbit-related escapades we’re familiar with. It’s a time when elves and men are still buddies and the Valar raised the mythic island of Númenor from the sea (more on this later).
Where is all this information coming from?
Amazon went through a lot of concepts and pitches for new Lord of the Rings material before settling on this story. Because Amazon has the rights only to the book trilogy and The Hobbit, the studio had to do some finagling, using mainly references from those texts and the lengthy appendices at the end of The Return of the King (specifically Appendix B: “The Tale of Years”), working closely with the famously protective Tolkien estate to make sure nothing contradicted the text of works like The Silmarillion or the 12-volume The History of Middle-earth.
That might sound concerning, considering the Second Age setting of The Rings of Power mostly isn’t present in The Hobbit and the main trilogy texts Amazon has access to. But this licensing arrangement may actually be an advantage: Since everything we’ll see in the show is pretty much extrapolated from a bullet-point chronology light on description and dialogue, it’s not taken directly from any prose Tolkien wrote, which means the writers have a ton of creative freedom to play around with the characterizations of key players and the timeline itself. What takes thousands of years to happen in book time will be condensed for the purposes of a television show.
So what’s the status quo at the beginning of The Rings of Power?
The elves, men, and Valar have recently vanquished Morgoth, formerly known as Melkor, the original Dark Lord and a member of the Ainur (the race of superbeings that include the world-shaping Valar and the Maiar, some of whom appear later on as wizards like Gandalf), who turned out to be quite the little stinker. Prior to his defeat, Morgoth (“Black Foe of the World” in Sindarin, the elvish language) formed a stronghold in the ancient fortress Angband, where he created the race of orcs out of kidnapped elves in order to build an army to take control of Arda for himself.
Toward the end of the First Age, Morgoth ruled over Beleriand, a landmass that used to exist to the north of Middle Earth, and everyone else, decimated by Morgoth’s forces or sunk into petty disputes with each other, was having a pretty rough time. In an effort to find some eleventh-hour help, the half-elven mariner Eärendil, guided by the light of the magical Silmaril gem he wore on his forehead, sailed to Valinor, home of the Valar and the “Undying Lands” of the elves, to beg for help. (If the name Eärendil sounds familiar, that’s because he sailed into the night sky after the Great Battle and became a star, whose reflected light Galadriel gifts to Sam in a glass vial when the Fellowship leaves the elven realm of Lothlórien in The Fellowship of the Ring.)
The Valar agreed to help and sailed to Middle Earth to ally themselves with the resisting clans of elves and factions of men to fight Morgoth and his armies of orcs, werewolves, demonic Balrog monsters, and nearly indestructible dragons. The war lasted 40 years, and ended when Eärendil sailed back in his flying ship (sick), slayed Ancalagon the Black, the leader of the dragons (sick), and the Valar threw Morgoth’s headless body into the Timeless Void (sick), where he remained forever. Beleriand, torn asunder by the destructive power of the war, was overtaken by the ocean.
So what’s going to happen now?
The good guys won! Great! But with the dawning of a new age comes new problems. Without basically outlining the entire plot of The Rings of Power, here is some context for where we’re at: The Valar took pity on the surviving men from the war against Morgoth and raised an island from the sea to the west of Middle Earth, which was named Númenor. The resulting kingdom of men on Númenor called themselves the Dúnedain (from which Aragorn is descended) and were blessed by the Valar with lifespans three times longer than normal men. This gift and other Númenorean advancements eventually became the envy of the rest of Middle Earth; tensions between Dúnedain and elves were particularly rising, making their subsequent alliance against Sauron so significant. Tolkien very obviously took inspiration from the mythical island of Atlantis, and, like Atlantis, Númenor is doomed to sink beneath the Sundering Seas.
Elsewhere, a new dark power is rising in Middle Earth. Sauron, the surviving lieutenant of Morgoth, has claimed the region of Mordor as his stronghold and is slowly amassing an army. At this point, Sauron is able to assume an appearance fair enough to trick some of the elves: He calls himself Annatar, and counsels the ones who trust him in magical arts. Sauron cozies up to the elven prince and master smith Celebrimbor and suggests he craft a few immensely powerful rings; Celebrimbor obliges and, in secret, Sauron later uses the relics to forge the One Ring we all know and love.
The foundation has been laid for everything that comes afterward: the return of evil to Middle Earth, the ghoulish Ringwraiths, the growing enmity between elves and men, and the decisive battle that will be the last time the two races mingle in friendship until the final war against Sauron’s forces thousands of years later. It’s going to take quite a while to get here, though, so for the most part, the first season will probably spend a lot of time just laying the groundwork.
Who are the key players?
If you’ve seen any promotional material for The Rings of Power, you’ve probably noticed a few familiar names. Both Elrond and Galadriel, who appear in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, will be main characters in the show. (Elves cannot die of old age, only physical injury or a broken heart, explaining how these two characters are present thousands of years before the main trilogy.) Elrond is played by Robert Aramayo (young Ned Stark in Game of Thrones), while Galadriel is played by Morfydd Clark (Saint Maud). These are their younger, sprightlier versions: Elrond, the son of Eärendil, is an eager politician among the elves of Lindon, ruled over by Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker); Galadriel is an elven warrior who senses that all is not right in Middle Earth, eventually abandoning combat to become closer to the more politically minded Galadriel we meet in The Lord of the Rings.
The timeline has been condensed so that King Isildur (Maxim Baldry) is already alive and sailing from Númenor to Middle Earth, unaware that his fate is to lead the forces of men and elves against Sauron but ultimately fail at destroying the One Ring. Peter Mullan plays Durin III, the king of the dwarf city of Khazad-dûm (also known as Moria), which is in ruins by the time we see it in The Fellowship of the Ring, while Owain Arthur plays his son Durin IV, who eventually will become one of the bearers of the dwarven rings of power. New roles for humans have been invented for the show, such as the men living in the Southlands as outcasts, the ancestors of whom mistakenly sided with the forces of evil hundreds of years ago; as have roles for “harfoots,” a type of hobbit that settled in the lands that became known as the Shire.
So, there you have it. A ton of information that speaks to Tolkien’s tendency to provide more background knowledge than anyone would ever ask for. Now you know what Legolas meant when he described the creature they meet in Moria as “a Balrog of Morgoth,” or how Aragorn can still look so spry at age 87. What’s cool about Tolkien’s world is that, fashioned as it is after classical and Norse mythology, the mythology of this franchise are true events that happened in this fictional land. It may have happened thousands of years ago, but it happened, and the repercussions of those ancient events are felt far into the future. Now, as humble viewers back on regular Earth, we get to collectively experience it.
Emma Stefansky is a writer based in New York City who covers television, film, and books. Her work can be found in Vanity Fair, GQ, IndieWire, and Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.