When Amazon announced, in late 2017, that it would be producing a multi-season television series prequel to The Lord of the Rings, there was a lot of speculation as to what ground a prequel series would cover. Some speculated that it would focus on Aragorn in his youth, engaged in knight-errantry in the service of Rohan and Gondor. I held out hopes for stories set earlier in the Third Age: the rise of the Witch-king, the fall of Arnor, the Kinslaying, and various other disasters and tragedies would make fertile material for a TV series, I thought.
Earlier this year, Amazon revealed its true intentions with a map—a map of Middle-earth that was subtly different from the map found in The Lord of the Rings. Gondor and Mordor were not labelled. And the lost island of Númenor, which fell into the sea thousands of years before Bilbo and Frodo, was present at the southwest edge of the map.
“Welcome to the Second Age,” Amazon tweeted. Hold on—was Amazon planning on covering the forging of the Rings of Power and the Downfall of Númenor?
It’s more than the presence of Númenor. The map also includes Ost-in-Edhil, the main city of Eregion, and Lond Daer, the Númenóreans’ first port in Middle-earth. It shows Enedwaith and Minhiriath as heavily wooded, before those forests were felled to feed Númenor’s demand for timber. Lórien is labelled Lórinand, which means Galadriel hasn’t turned up there yet. And in addition to the presence of Amon Lanc, the nearby East Bight—the notch in southeastern Mirkwood—is missing.
From this we can date the map surprisingly precisely: it’s not just Second Age, it’s prior to the forging of the One Ring (ca. SA 1600). Probably just prior.
It can’t be later than SA 1697, because Imladris (Rivendell) was founded that year and it isn’t on the map. Gondor and Arnor aren’t labelled because they weren’t founded until SA 3320. Mordor isn’t labelled because … no one knows about it yet. No one knows Annatar is Sauron. The Barad-dûr isn’t finished yet. Pelargir and Umbar aren’t built yet.
So this is a map of Middle-earth at the time of the forging of the Great Rings, and on the eve of the War of the Elves and Sauron. If they’re dramatizing that …
There are a lot of tells on this map.
And it turns out that this is exactly what is happening: Amazon’s series is not just covering the Second Age, it’s only covering the Second Age. In an interview with the Deutsche Tolkien Gesellschaft, Tom Shippey—arguably the leading scholarly authority on matters Tolkien—revealed the parameters of Amazon’s series. Parameters strictly delimited by the Tolkien Estate:
Amazon has a relatively free hand when it comes to adding something, since, as I said, very few details are known about this time span. The Tolkien Estate will insist that the main shape of the Second Age is not altered. Sauron invades Eriador, is forced back by a Númenorean expedition, is return[ed] to Númenor. There he corrupts the Númenoreans and seduces them to break the ban of the Valar. All this, the course of history, must remain the same. But you can add new characters and ask a lot of questions, like: What has Sauron done in the meantime? Where was he after Morgoth was defeated? Theoretically, Amazon can answer these questions by inventing the answers, since Tolkien did not describe it. But it must not contradict anything which Tolkien did say. That’s what Amazon has to watch out for. It must be canonical, it is impossible to change the boundaries which Tolkien has created, it is necessary to remain “tolkienian”.
The Estate also has a veto on any changes, and the First and Third Ages are off-limits. So: no Silmarillion material (outside the Akallabêth) and no early Third-Age Gondorian shenanigans.
But these are small disappointments. There is plenty for a series limited to the Second Age to work with: the first rise of Sauron, the deception of the Ring-makers, the forging of the One Ring, the War in Eriador, the founding of Rivendell, the waning and downfall of the Númenóreans, their corruption by Sauron, the sinking of Númenór and the Breaking of the World, after which the War of the Last Alliance is almost an anti-climax? Basically, it’s Sauron at his baddest, breaking lands and corrupting hearts: what we see in The Lord of the Rings proper is only a shadow.
If you didn’t understand any of that—if you’ve read The Lord of the Rings but not the appendices, or just watched and liked the movies—are you ever in for a treat. Assuming, of course, that Amazon Studios doesn’t screw it up. (Please don’t screw it up please don’t screw it up.)