When Amazon Prime Video announced its Lord of the Rings prequel series back in 2017, news about what the expansive TV universe would include was scarce. And we had so many questions: Will there be Hobbits? Galadriel? Ian McKellen? Will Peter Jackson be involved?
The streaming service has since hired writers, is now scouting locations, and even activated social media pages on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the show, which published a provocative and beautifully rendered map of Middle-earth, the fictional realm in which J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings novel takes place.
Considering that the series is the key jewel in the service’s iron crown of proposed big-budget genre shows, here’s a closer look at what we know about the show so far and what Amazon’s teasing with the map may indicate about the eventual program.
UPDATE (10/22/19): Reported casting of Game of Thrones actor Mawle.
SPOILER ALERT: Tolkien book readers will know the information below, but if you haven’t read the novel, then some of this could be considered spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.
In July, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom director J.A. Bayona (pictured) signed on to helm the first two episodes of the series. The filmmaker behind The Orphanage will make key choices about the program’s tone and overall look. He is joined by producing partner Belén Atienza — both will be credited as executive producers — and, of course, principal executive producers and showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay.
— Rotten Tomatoes (@RottenTomatoes) July 27, 2019
Back in the writers room, they’ll be joined by executive producers Lindsey Weber (10 Cloverfield Lane), Bruce Richmond (Game of Thrones), Gene Kelly (Boardwalk Empire) and Sharon Tal Yguado; writer/executive producer Gennifer Hutchison (Breaking Bad); writer/executive producer Jason Cahill (The Sopranos) writer/executive producer Justin Doble (Stranger Things); consulting producers Bryan Cogman (Game of Thrones) and Stephany Folsom (Toy Story 4); producer Ron Ames (The Aviator); writer/co-producer Helen Shang (Hannibal), and writing consultant Glenise Mullins.
The creative team also includes costume designer Kate Hawley (Suicide Squad); Academy Award-winning production designer Rick Heinrichs (Star Wars: The Last Jedi); Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor Jason Smith (The Revenant); Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey; and renowned illustrator/concept artist John Howe.
“This team is our Fellowship – assembled from around the world, all walking the road together to try and accomplish something far greater than any of us could on our own,” Payne and McKay said in a statement. “We feel humbled and extremely lucky to be surrounded by such inspiring and talented women and men.”
With Bayona established as the director, casting would seemingly be the next phase, but that process seems to be taking longer than expected. Joseph Mawle, who most recognizably played Benjen Stark on HBO’s Game of Thrones, is the latest actor said to have been cast, Variety reported in October. Amazon hasn’t released character descriptions, but the entertainment news outlet wrote that sources say he will play a villain named Oren. (Could he be a Ranger perhaps?)
In July, actor Markella Kavenagh was said to be in talks to play a character called Tyra — a name new to Middle-earth, but Amazon has not yet confirmed any casting.
Will Poulter of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch fame is said to have been cast, Variety reported in September. The report said that Poulter will play a lead role; though it is unclear exactly who, given the lack of official confirmation. The show has thousands of years to cover, however, and many characters to pick from.
Poutler, though, has one odd Middle-earth connection: He appeared in 2010’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as the obnoxious Eustace Scrubb. The character, devised by Narnia author C.S. Lewis, was intended to become the new lead character in subsequent Narnia films before Voyage of the Dawn Treader’s lackluster performance ended plans to continue adapting the series. As it happens, Lewis and Tolkien were not only contemporaries, but friends encouraging each other to continue their Christian-infused, Norse-inspired fantasy tales.
With Joseph Mawle and Will Poulter and an A-class creative force behind it, Amazon’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ series is poised to be the next Game of Thrones.
Posted by The Rotten Tomatoes Channel on Wednesday, September 11, 2019
While it seems obvious that a series based on The Lord of the Rings would take place relatively contemporaneous to the events of Tolkien’s novel, that is not as much as a given as one might think. In Tolkien’s wider mythological framework, LOTR’s titular character, the Dark Lord Sauron, is nearly as old as the universe itself — which means the series could take place in any of the historical ages of Middle-earth (or even the earlier prehistory when the world was shaped by beings with even greater power than Sauron).
Amazon’s first map rendered a number of geographic features specific to the Third Age, including the East Bight of Mirkwood Forest, a square-ish indentation next to the “I” and “N” in “Rhovanion.” The bight was the result of deforestation by a group of Northmen circa 1200 years into the Third Age as they settled in the region. Additionally, the forest would only become known as Mirkwood once Sauron sought refuge there, around 1050 of the Third Age, and his malignant spirit infected the woods formerly known as Greenwood the Great. Other aspects of the map — like the complete lack of Beleriand from the First Age and the use of “Calenardhon” to denote the region near Isengard and Fangorn Forest — definitely set the map, and seemingly the series, in a Third Age context.
But fans who were hoping to see some of the great stories from earlier days dramatized with Amazon’s production values are in luck. Stories like the sinking of Númenor — Tolkien’s take on the Atlantis myth, in which Sauron corrupted an island of seafaring men to invade the forbidden shores of the world’s far West — and the founding of the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor could make for some spectacular television.
While it seemed Amazon and developers JD Payne and Patrick McKay had a more specific, later Third Age tale in mind, a March 7th update of the map changed everything. The map now includes the island of Númenor — a very specific marker of the Second Age — and has removed the place names “Minas Arnor” and “Minas Ithil” from the Gondor region. Following the update, the official Lord of the Rings on Amazon Twitter account put all the speculation to rest with one simple sentence: “Welcome to the Second Age.”
And in September, Payne and McKay announced New Zealand would play the “primordial beauty of the Second Age of Middle-earth” in the series. The country is, of course, no stranger to Middle-earth as it served as the production home for both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. In a number of ways, it is fitting that a story of the Second Age would be filmed there as well.
So what does this mean? For one, the series will undoubtedly focus on Númenor over other regions of Middle-earth. To understand the island’s significance, we need to go back to the end of the First Age and the downfall of the Dark Lord Morgoth.
A final confrontation with the first Dark Lord required the collective might of Elves, Men, and the Valar (a high form of angel tasked with shaping and governing the world on behalf of the Elvish conception of God, Eru Illúvatar). Morgoth weakened himself across thousands of years in a protracted conflict between the Elves and Men who dared to oppose him, and was finally cast into the Void. The Valar looked favorably on the Men who aided in the conflict and created a refuge for them in the great sea: the island of Númenor — established halfway between Middle-earth and the Valar’s home in the Far West land of Aman, the Undying Lands.
Now, here’s where things get complicated. By “Men,” we mean the half-elven descendants of two First Age joinings between Elves and Men: Lúthien and Beren and Idril and Tuor. Given the choice to follow the fate of Men or the fate of Elves, those who chose the fate of Men settled on Númenor. Their Elven ancestry gave them incredibly long lifespans, but because Eru established that no Man may be immortal, death was an eventuality to their kind. Nonetheless, the kings of Númenor established a high culture of seafarers and explorers. While banned from landing on the shores of Aman, a continent reserved for immortal beings like the Valar and the Elves, the rest of the world was their plaything.
This makes them different from the Men in Middle-earth, who either hid from the War or openly sided with Morgoth. And as the Númenóreans began to establish their kingdom, the Men loyal to Morgoth soon became loyal to his greatest lieutenant, Sauron.
— The Lord of the Rings on Prime (@LOTRonPrime) March 7, 2019
At this point in LOTR history, Sauron had the ability to take corporeal form. So instead of the Great Eye of the film series, he will need to have a humanoid, often Elvish, shape. Sauron is a very active participant in the events of the Second Age, and not just in creating the Rings of Power, so he will need to be played by an on-screen actor.
Early on, Sauron began building an army of Orcs, loyal Men, and other creatures. He even controlled territory in the southern region of Middle-earth before Númenóreans began establishing settlements on its shores. Skirmishes were inevitable, leading to Númenor taking up more and more of its resources in a battle against Sauron until, after hundreds of years, they raided his home in Mordor and physically took him prisoner.
Of course, because Sauron was a master manipulator dedicated to perverting all the Eru and the Valar established, he allowed himself to be taken back to Númenor. Once there, he began a campaign to sway the king, Ar- Pharazôn, to his side. After a number of years, Morgoth cults — with Sauron as their chief priest — operated in the open and Sauron became a key adviser to the king, promising faith in Morgoth would allow them to step foot in Aman and obtain immortality. Those still loyal to the Valar eventually decamped to Middle-earth, allowing Sauron’s scheme to come to fruition — much to the despair of the Númenóreans.
Oh, also, he did all of this while leaving the One Ring back in Mordor.
The Fall of Númenor is one of the great stories in Tolkien’s mythology (although many also enjoy the incomplete Second Age tale “The Mariner’s Wife”). Since it takes place over a great span of years, there is room for the series to build up characters such as Ar-Pharazôn and Elendil, the Númenórean who defied Sauron and helped establish the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor in Middle-earth.
Thanks to the way Tolkien mapped out the longevity of certain characters, there are a handful of well-known Lord of the Rings figures around to witness the events of the Second Age and the Fall of Númenor. Though there’s no word on if Jackson will be involved or whether any of the director’s actors will reprise their roles, the Second Age setting allows room for some familiar characters.
Elrond Half-elven (played by Hugo Weaving in Jackson’s films), as his name implies, is a direct descendant of the First Age unions between Men and Elves who chose the fate of Elves. It makes him directly related to the kings of Númenor. During this time, he and Gil-Galad, the High Elven king in Middle-earth, had their own problems with Sauron. They saw the Númenóreans as allies — at least, until Sauron corrupted the seafarers. Nonetheless, it is possible we will see Elrond implore the Númenóreans to restore their ties with the Valar.
Other familiar characters audiences may encounter are Galadriel and Celeborn (played by Cate Blanchett and Marton Csokas in the films). Both hail from the First Age, with Galadriel possessing a firsthand account of an Elvish migration from Aman to Middle-earth. Celeborn’s history is a little more imprecise, as Tolkien could never decide if he was born in Aman or Middle-earth. But both are, by human standards, impossibly old and witnesses to just about every historic event in Middle-earth up until they departed with Frodo to Aman at the end of The Lord of the Rings. As with Elrond, their concerns are local (with Sauron’s forces encroaching on their kingdom by the River Anduin), but it is always possible they will be around to sow the seeds of the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, the epic battle that could very well close out the series as a whole a few years from now.
Should the series continue beyond Númenor’s downfall, it is possible audiences could see two of the five Wizards arrive in Middle-earth. Though the Fall of Númenor left the Valar estranged from the world, they sent five Maiar spirits in the shapes of frail old men to rally the people of Middle-earth against Sauron (who survived the Fall, only losing his “fair” appearance). While most of the Wizards arrived in Middle-earth a thousand years into the Third Age, the two Blue Wizards Tolkien never really developed may have arrived during the Second Age, just after the Fall. Only mentioned in his unfinished tales, the pair quickly made their way to the East and either succumbed to Sauron’s influence or died as they failed to sway the Easterlings away from the Dark Lord. Presuming Amazon’s deal with the Tolkien estate includes unfinished material like the tale of the wizards, they would be ideal characters to utilize in the series. They could be villains, fallen heroes, or anything in between.
Another character worthy of inclusion is the legendary Elf hero Glorfindel. While he “died” during the Fall of Gondolin in the First Age of Middle-earth, he eventually returned from Aman, possibly alongside the Blue Wizards, to aid both men and Elves in their struggle against Sauron during the Second Age. He makes a notable appearance early in The Lord of the Rings as he helps deliver Frodo to Rivendell. But after attending the Council of Elrond, Glorfindel drops out of the narrative until Aragorn’s wedding to Arwen. While other on-screen adaptations have substituted recurring characters for Glorfindel rather than introduce a new character to their stories — Jackson replaced him with Arwen (played by Liv Tyler), giving her an early heroic moment, while animated film director Ralph Bakshi subbed in Legolas — he is an interesting character out in the wide world during the period indicated on the map and fans would be thrilled to see him. (Orlando Bloom played Legolas in Jackson’s films.)
Other characters definitely alive at the time include Tom Bombadil (pictured above as portrayed in the Lord of the Rings Online video game), who himself suggests he’s the oldest consciousness in the world, and Legolas’ father Thranduil (played by Lee Pace in Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy), who has a pretty interesting story in his own right.
As Sauron assails all of Middle-earth in this period, he has vast resources of Orcs and Men at his disposal. But fans of the films will recognize his phantom lieutenants, the Nazgul, as a significant part of this army.
If the series centers on Sauron’s time in Númenor, the nine kings of Men will already have their rings. For much of the Second Age they enjoyed the wealth and prosperity Sauron promised the rings would give them, but they were his wraiths by the time he left with Ar-Pharazôn. Presumably, they kept his affairs in order even as his capture halted the war against the people of Middle-earth.
Should the series continue beyond the fall, they could become active antagonists against the likes of Elrond, Galadriel, and Elendil’s sons Isildur and Anárion — conflicts that will eventually lead to the Last Alliance.