It has been over a year since Amazon Studios secured the television rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium with a US$250 million bid (adjusted for inflation, that’s nearly 150 times what Tolkien himself received for the film rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in 1968).
Expected to premiere in 2021, it already stands to be the most expensive TV series ever made. At the time, Amazon said only that its series would tell stories prior to the events of the books and films, but with tens of thousands of years of fictional history to work with, it was a deliberately vague statement.
Last week on its LOTR Prime Twitter page, Amazon laid out the first definitive clues about what that series will look like. The studio had, since early February, been tweeting out interactive maps of Middle-earth, gradually adding the names and details that would narrow down the timeframe of the television series.
At least one thing was clear from the get-go: because the maps were familiar to audiences of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the show would not be set in the ancient past of Tolkien’s world. The Creation of Eä, the Wars of Beleriand, Beren and Lúthien – these and other events and stories, best recounted in The Silmarillion, ended up reshaping the continent entirely, and occupied different landscapes.
That said, there were still six-and-a-half thousand years separating The Lord of the Rings from the end of the Elder Days, with only one major topographical change in that time. So it was that, after revealing a handful of details that were more or less ambiguous, Amazon last week unveiled that single geographical feature that pinpointed their show’s timeframe: the star-shaped Isle of Elenna to the southwest, on which the Kingdom of Númenor flourished, then drowned.
Welcome to the Second Age, a follow-up Tweet announced.
Fans of The Lord of the Rings will best recall the Second Age as the time of the forging of the Rings of Power, and the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. As such, it is still very much in line with the films. Amazon’s unveiling of Númenor also helped to triangulate a handful of other map details it had already revealed, among them the presence of Minas Anor and Minas Ithil on the mainland.
Altogether, they made it clear that the series would take place not simply in the Second Age, but more precisely at its tail end.
The choice is an interesting one for a number of reasons. First of all, and in terms of story, it is the most structured yet least fleshed out of Middle-earth’s Four Ages. Tolkien’s 3,441-year chronology of the Second Age can be found at the beginning of Appendix B in The Lord of the Rings, introduced by a terse synopsis:
“These were the dark years for the Men of Middle-earth, but the years of the glory of Númenor. Of events in Middle-earth, the records are few and brief, and their dates are often uncertain.”
Considering the historical span of three-and-a-half millennia, there is very little available in the way of narrative. In addition to the pages on the Númenoréan kings and their descendants in Appendix A, almost everything that Tolkien wrote about the Second Age is boiled down into “Akallabêth” (“The Downfall of Númenor”), a 31-page chapter that appears toward the end of the posthumously-published Silmarillion.
Having nothing to do with the jewels for which The Silmarillion was named, the chapter was essentially appended there by its editor. There is a little more about the Rings in the chapter following “Akallabêth”, and Tolkien revealed other details about the Númenóreans in his Letters, including a few drawings.
Compared to the wealth of stories about the First and Third Ages, however, the Second Age is but a framework – a skeleton just waiting for flesh and organs. It is therefore an ideal choice for the show’s writers, who will seek to add details without compromising the world’s established history.
The choice of the (late) Second Age is interesting thematically as well, and not necessarily in a good way. Even for what might be called the open-winged descent of Middle-earth’s historical progression, it is a depressing time.
Leaving aside the specific events that might represent spoilers for future audiences, one can fairly call it a time of corruption, greed, and divine retribution. There are death cults, betrayals, and at least one incestuous forced marriage. While one might argue that the (first) defeat of Sauron ends the Age on an upswing, the drowning of Númenor leaves the deeper punctuation mark, and sets the race of Men on the same road to diminishment as the Elves.
I had worried in a previous article that the phenomenal success of HBO’s Game of Thrones had set standards of depravity too popular for Amazon Studios to ignore. If there is any time in Middle-earth’s history that best lays the ground for those standards, it is the end of the Second Age.
The writers who will decide the direction of the series are JD Payne and Patrick McKay, both American. The two were reportedly chosen out of a huge pool of prospects and ideas, though their shared portfolio isn’t exactly bursting with completed projects. So far, their greatest claim to fame is having worked on the last Star Trek script, as well as the upcoming Jungle Cruise, a movie based on the Disneyland ride of the same name.
Relative lack of industry experience isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, and may leave more room for the influence of Tolkien’s own works. McKay is also a practicing Mormon, and if there’s anything Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga taught us, it’s that a Mormon writer can take elements of fantasy, horror, and erotica, and turn out something more or less wholesome.
One thing is for sure: Tolkien’s fandom itself has entered a Second Age – one in which audiovisual adaptations and expansions of his works will play a dominant role. In time – and we’re talking decades and centuries – only the purists and curmudgeons will argue for the sanctity of the literary canon, or for any sense of imaginative feng shui, that the original gaps between the furniture were as important as the furniture itself.
Even without the competition and influence of multi-million-dollar films, television shows and video games, the books are becoming increasingly difficult for modern audiences to penetrate, especially when compared to current literary phenomena. Although The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings can still be found in the children’s literature section of bookstores, they stand alongside the likes of Anne of Green Gables, The Jungle Book, Treasure Island and other classic works that only hardcore readers, either young or full-grown, can now be expected to have read.
Media has changed not only imaginative entertainment, but also the way we understand fiction.
Such things have happened before. What were The Odyssey or The Aeneid but expansions of The Iliad? Who was King Arthur, James Bond, or any Marvel or DC superhero for that matter? Rather than resist the expansion of an imaginative universe, we might do better simply to treasure its beginnings, and to behold the spread of its popularity as a kind of mythological wildfire. No one person can stop it, but anyone can use it to light a torch of his or her own.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar currently living on a mountainside near Vancouver, British Columbia. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com