The Lord of the Rings: A Beginner’s Guide to The Second Age of Middle-earth

Image: The Lord of the Rings/Amazon Studios
Image: The Lord of the Rings/Amazon Studios /

Amazon is setting its Lord of the Rings show during the Second Age of Middle-age. What happened then that might make for good drama? Read on.

It’s been a long, intriguing couple of years since Amazon announced it was making a Lord of the Rings show for its Prime streaming platform. For most of that time, the studio has remained relatively tight-lipped about what the show would entail, although we’ve known for quite a while now that it would be set in the Second Age of Middle-earth, over a thousand years before the events of the story we know, which takes place in the Third Age.

In January, however, the studio finally hit us with the official synopsis for its billion dollar series. In case you missed it:

"Amazon Studios’ forthcoming series brings to screens for the very first time the heroic legends of the fabled Second Age of Middle-earth’s history. This epic drama is set thousands of years before the events of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and will take viewers back to an era in which great powers were forged, kingdoms rose to glory and fell to ruin, unlikely heroes were tested, hope hung by the finest of threads, and the greatest villain that ever flowed from Tolkien’s pen threatened to cover all the world in darkness. Beginning in a time of relative peace, the series follows an ensemble cast of characters, both familiar and new, as they confront the long-feared re-emergence of evil to Middle-earth. From the darkest depths of the Misty Mountains, to the majestic forests of the elf-capital of Lindon, to the breathtaking island kingdom of Númenor, to the furthest reaches of the map, these kingdoms and characters will carve out legacies that live on long after they are gone."

It certainly sounds pretty epic.

Now that we know a bit more of what the show will be about and when it will be set, we figured this would be a pretty good time to discuss this whole Second Age thing, and break down some of the major events and players of that time period.

When does the Second Age actually take place?

Before we dig into some of the specific locales and cultures mentioned in the synopsis, it might be helpful to know exactly when the Second Age is. The Ages in J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythos are more or less always bookended by big, world-changing events. In this case, the Second Age begins after the War of Wrath — a.k.a. the biggest war ever to shake Middle-earth — which ends the First Age. In it, the Valar (think of them as a pantheon of lesser gods who preside over Middle-earth, and answer directly to Ilúvatar, the “actual” God of Tolkien’s universe) commanded an enormous army to battle the original Dark Lord, Morgoth, who was the greatest of these lesser gods. The War of Wrath was a huge showdown involving dragons, eagles, Balrogs, Elves, men, Valar, dwarves, you name it. By the end, Morgoth (or Melkor, as was his name when he used to be one of the Valar) was imprisoned in the “Void” where he could never harm anyone again, but the land was literally reshaped by the ferocity of the battles that had occurred. Oceans flooded out parts of the map, the Valar and most of the Elves secluded themselves far away in the West on a different continent, and in general, it was a new beginning for Middle-earth: the Second Age.

The Second Age spans around 3,500 years, and ends with a battle that should be much more familiar to fans of the Lord of the Rings films: the War of the Last Alliance, which is shown at the beginning of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring movie. Yup, the very same one where Isildur defeats Sauron by cutting the One Ring off his finger.

Obviously, 3,500 years is a lot of ground to cover, and it’s not quite clear yet how much of that time Amazon plans to actually depict in its show. There are plenty of immortal characters who are alive for the entire duration of the Second Age, like Elrond and Sauron…but the backbone of the Second Age lies in the hearts of Men.


At the beginning of the Second Age, the small faction of humanity that aided the Valar against the Dark Lord has no home, and sets out to sea in search of one. Most humans, being easily swayed to darkness, served Morgoth and fought on the side of evil, and for a while the Valar were pretty fed up with them. But to reward those who stayed loyal to a higher ideal, the Valar raised an island out of the sea and set a star in the heavens to guide the seafaring humans to it.

This land became known as Númenor, and it was more or less Tolkien’s take on Atlantis. (One of its other names is actually Atalantë). The Númenóreans had exceptionally long lives, many living for hundreds of years. They represented the height of humanity at their time, with far superior weapons, culture, wisdom, etc.

Of course, being humans, they were eventually prone to the dark whisperings of jealousy, and started to covet the immortality that the Elves and Valar had. Though the Númenóreans did sail to visit the tribal human cultures of Middle-earth proper, they gradually began to do so less as benevolent teachers and more with an eye toward domination.

Things really hit a boiling point when Númenor’s most famous king, Ar-Pharazôn, gets word that Sauron — who served under Morgoth during the First Age and was now imitating his old master’s ambitions — has declared himself King of Men and is conquering vast swathes of Middle-earth. Ar-Pharazôn gathered all the Númenórean ships and armies and set out to show Sauron who was really the King.

Except that when the Númenóreans arrive to do battle and Sauron sees their innumerable host…he surrenders. Ar-Pharazôn takes Sauron back to Númenor as a hostage, which is pretty much exactly what Sauron was hoping for. Sauron poisons the humans of Númenor against the Valar, leading them to believe that the previous Dark Lord Morgoth was actually the good guy, and that they should go to war against the more-or-less gods of Middle-earth so that they could be immortal. He utterly corrupts Númenor, to the point where they’re doing blood sacrifices to the Dark Lord.

Finally, the Númenóreans sail west to fight the Valar in their own home…but at that point, Ilúvatar actually intervenes directly for one of the only times in Middle-earth’s history. He causes a cataclysm at sea, totally destroying the Númenórean fleet and all those who sail with it. And to take things a step further, his wrath causes Númenor itself to sink into the sea…and take Sauron down with it. It doesn’t take, obviously, but points for trying.

Only a very small sect of Númenóreans who had remained faithful to the Elves and the Valar escape the destruction. They’re led by Elendil and his two sons, Anárion and Isildur himself. The surviving Númenóreans flee to Middle-earth, where they establish some notable kingdoms and strongholds, namely Gondor. They also bring a seedling that will eventually birth Gondor’s famous White Tree, as well as the Palantir seeing stones, all of them relics of Númenor’s lost power.

The Lord of the Rings
Image: The Lord of the Rings/New Line Cinema /

Sauron and the Elves

If Númenor is the backbone of the Second Age, Sauron is its beating heart, propelling 90% of its conflicts. During the early part of the Second Age before Númenor falls to corruption, the Elves spend a lot of time rebuilding settlements badly battered in the War of Wrath. Lindon, the elven capital, is restored. Elrond founds Rivendell. The Elves of Eregion befriend the dwarves of Khazad-dûm (Moria), and create wonders.

Into this growing promise strides Sauron, who had been lying low since the exile of his previous master at the end of the First Age and building up his power in Mordor. Up until the sinking of Númenor, Sauron has a “fair” and attractive form, and uses his wiles to deceive people pretty much constantly. The Elves are his first victims, as Sauron tricks the Elves of Eregion into helping him make the Rings of Power.

Of course, we all know he secretly made another ring in the fires of Mount Doom to control them: the One Ring. When the Elves realize what he’s up to and try to sever ties, Sauron declares war on them. Some humans in Elendil’s camp came to the Elves’ aid, with the ultimate result that the Elves manage to keep their three rings from Sauron’s hands, but Sauron got the seven meant for the dwarves and the nine meant for humans.

In the chaos that follows, he tried to corrupt the dwarves with middling success — apparently dwarves are just too stubborn, although most of their greatest evils and greediest moments happen as a result of Sauron’s efforts. He had much more success with men. Those nine humans whom Sauron gave the rings to became kings in their own right…and eventually, Ring Wraiths. The Nazgûl mostly sit out the rest of the Second Age, and don’t appear in a human-like form until the Third, but Sauron creating them is a pretty significant moment in the mythos.

All this warring eventually gets the attention of Númenor’s king, who comes and captures Sauron as we discussed earlier.

After Númenor sinks into the ocean, Sauron’s spirit is so strong that it manages to flee his dying body and hide out in Mordor. This is when he creates that armored form we all know from the War of the Last Alliance — a feat he can achieve in part because he’s bound so much of his soul and power to the One Ring.

From this point on, Sauron rallies his armies and makes war against the fledgling kingdom of Gondor, which is formed by Isildur and his brother Anárion in the aftermath of Númenor’s destruction. The Elves and Elendil, who live farther from Mordor’s border, catch wind and decide to come help Gondor. Thus begins the War of the Last Alliance, which is such a cataclysmic conflict that “all living things were divided that day, and some of every kind, even of beasts and birds, were found in either host…”

While Peter Jackson’s Fellowship film makes it look like the War of the Last Alliance is really just that one epic throwdown, it’s actually a pitched fight that culminates in a seven-year siege of the Tower of Barad-dûr, Sauron’s stronghold. Eventually, Sauron is forced to come out and fight himself, and kills Elendil and the elven king Gil-Galad before finally being defeated by Elendil’s son Isildur.

And that about covers the major events! There are a lot of other smaller moments that offer the promise for great drama, such as how the White Tree sapling is smuggled out of Númenor and the many different ways Sauron deceives the humans and Elves…but we’ll just have to wait and see how Amazon decides to handle them all in the show.

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