tHe is the Lord of the Rings: rings of power It is the contender for TV’s biggest event of the year, and the show’s estimated audience of 100 million people is a great number of potential new readers. This book covers the same fictional period in the history of Middle-earth, the Second Age. If you want the original Tolkien version of the era, it’s here in one rather nice package. It may also be the palate cleanser you crave if you don’t like the show and would rather go back to the original flavor of Middle-earth and the ill-fated island nation of Númenor.
“Back” is right. The book organizes material that has hitherto been scattered across several posthumous publications from The Silmarillion 1977 onwards. In this, he broadly follows recent releases by Tolkien’s son Christopher, who died in 2020. Editor Brian Sibley made a wonderful 1981 BBC Radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien knows it. Ending long before the story of The Hobbit’s Quest, the Second Age spans from the end of the legendary Silmarillion and the defeat of the proto-Dark Lord Morgoth to the historic but temporary defeat of his successor, Sauron. That’s three and a half thousand years.
So the fall of Númenor is not a single story. Mostly weaves complex events and motives into what Tolkien calls “fake history”. Immortals like Sauron and Elf-Queen Galadriel grow up all the time, but most human players rise and fall back to dust in a page or two. Yet this is a moral force, for mortality itself is the bottom that draws Númenor slowly but inexorably toward disaster.
The opening survey of the Earth and its inhabitants is best read for its sheer joy in world-building, of which Tolkien remains the acknowledged master. Created as a reward for the humans who helped defeat Morgoth, Númenor Tolkien owes a great deal Thomas More’s Utopia. To the happy Númenoreans, “all things, including the sea, were friendly.” Bears dance for sheer fun; The fox leaves the chickens alone. Hunters only hunt when needed.
The second chapter is a novel, dealing with the Norse legend of Nyjord and Skadi. Tar-Aldarion, naval heir to the scepter of Númenor, marries willful land lover Erendis. If anyone is still convinced that Tolkien wrote only for teenage boys (a popular criticism at one time), this tale should give them pause. With its sharp social observation and sharp dialogue, it could almost have been written by Ursula K. Le Guin. The Erendis wield male privilege deftly: the men of Númenor only show anger, she notes, “when they suddenly realize that there is another Will in the world besides their own.” And she exhorts her daughter: “Don’t bow down … Bow down a little, and they will bend you further until you bow down.” But, having been denied almost all agency by tyrannical patriarchal authority, Erendice must choose between royal servitude and bitter solitude. On his self-indulgent voyage, her estranged husband already seems a tad—until we learn of the true existential danger keeping him at bay.
Although sadly incomplete, the story of Aldarion and Erendis sets the stage for parallel paths forward: in Middle-earth, the rise of Sauron with the creation of the Rings of Power; And in Númenor, a terrifying transformation from utopia to dystopia. A crime against willfully self-destructive greed, this book leads us to a point of awe. And the climax – designed by Sauron as a puppeteer for a cowardly king – is an Atlantean disaster.
Afraid of 2022 and what will come? You’ll find uncomfortable echoes here. It mirrors Tolkien’s concerns about dictatorships and the approach to war when he first developed the story in 1936-7. These concerns are evidently immediate in part from another unfinished novel, The Lost Road, included as an appendix.
The flow of the narrative is interrupted at times because The Fall of Númenor uses the chronology at the back of The Lord of the Rings as its structural framework. But this book could show the Folio Society a thing or two. Veteran Middle-earth illustrator Alan Lee offers dozens of powerful paintings inside, and a generous scattering of gorgeous pencil drawings. His characters live. The architecture of its towers and temples forms a kind of running commentary; Even its tires are great. Its cover is an apocalyptic panorama as terrifying as any John Martin painting.
Beautiful physically and sometimes overwhelming in its power, this book is a great compendium of everything Tolkien had to say about the period in which the foundations of The Lord of the Rings are laid – the era that Amazon is trying to dramatize in The Rings of Power.
I can’t pretend I wholeheartedly enjoyed the show. Often, lofty dialogue between elves sinks to banality. The undeniably amazing moments are undercut by plot mechanics – in the case of the Mount Doom eruption, literally. The Amazons fail to learn a basic Tolkienian lesson: Never explain how magic and magic work. To paraphrase Frodo Baggins, the show sometimes looks fair but feels bad.
The action is compressed into the final years of the period, with Galadriel squeezed in wherever possible – but then few TV companies will have the guts to build out a cast of characters who have mostly died of old age before the next season. No one is going to put millions behind a hidden story like Aldarion and Erendis – and in fact Amazon can’t anyway; The adaptation rights not include any of the wealth of detail in this book, but only what The Lord of the Rings itself has to say about the Second Age. So screenwriters should avoid telling the same story that Tolkien tells, while trying to sound like him. No one tells a story like him.