Where the Stars Are Strange: A First Look at Amazon’s Middle-earth

Details about Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings-based show have been few and far between since it was first announced in November of 2017, but recently they’ve picked up the pace…a little bit. That includes establishing an official Facebook page and Twitter account—even though we’ll probably still have to wait until 2020 to see production get visibly underway. And now they’ve thrown down a map for us to pore over…

Dropping information in such dribs and drabs, it’s almost like the folks at Amazon know what they’re doing. In this cyber-age of information, every little crumb they let fall can be obsessed over and talked about endlessly by rabid fans (and critics), allowing anticipation (and apprehension) to grow apace. So we might as well humor them—we’re all nerds here, right?

The truth is, we can’t count on anything, at this point. A while back, TheOneRing.net cited, with some unspecified sources, that the show would “will open its first season centered on a young Aragorn.” Which is definitely cool. I’m obsessed with the possibility of seeing more of the bittersweet story of Aragorn and mother, Gilraen, the daughter of Dírhael, a Dúnadan herself. (Ranger-mom for the win! Even in the Extended Edition of Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring, we see Aragorn visiting her memorial in Rivendell. How I’d love to get even more insight into that relationship.)

Assuming this report still holds true—and we’ve speculated about that here—the question remains: is the rest of the multi-season TV series going to remain focused on Aragorn, or only the opening season? Will they be plotting this series chronologically, or will they jump around in Tolkien’s timeline?

We also need to realize that Amazon could just be messing with us, when it comes to these rumors. But I will curb my cynicism, roll up my sleeves, and speculate—because it is well and truly fun to do so. Now, in the soft launch of their Facebook page, Amazon’s first post was quoting Tolkien from a letter he wrote to Scottish author Naomi Mitchison while she was proofreading The Lord of the Rings. “I wisely started with a map,” he wrote, as part of his apology for not giving her one to look at while she read. He explained how he preferred to allow his stories to grow from his maps, and not merely what he’d already described. The bottom line being that maps—a consistent geographical layout of his world—were always important to Tolkien.

Given what Amazon has shown us so far, while they begin to drop lines of the famous Ring verse (“Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky…”), it’s hard to draw any solid conclusions about what the show is going to do.

For instance, Aragorn was born in year 2931 of the Third Age. Yet the Rings of Power (including the One Ring) were made roughly 4,800 years before he ever came along. Moreover, as of the writing of this article, the following regions have been labeled on Amazon’s map of Middle-earth: Eriador, Lindon, Forodwaith, Rhovanion, Mordor, Rhûn, Khand, and Calenardhon. Those are, for the most part, all ancient lands that make it hard to pin down the timeline.

But Calenardhon is more telling. That’s the grassland that will eventually become Rohan, but not until the year 2510, more than four hundred years before the legendary son of Arathorn II shows up. So what’s going on here? Again, is Amazon just messing with us nerds? Or will the show at some point involve the distant past?

“The Oathtaking of Cirion and Eor” by Ted Nasmith

At first, I was hoping we’d get some Second Age treatment. Maybe we could see the actual forging of the Rings of Power and, later, the One Ring That Binds them. The famous Ring verse speaks first to those times, after all. But unless Amazon is hiding secret rights to The Silmarillion or other Tolkien resources we don’t know about, this seems highly unlikely. The Appendices of The Lord of the Rings include only scarce details for the First and Second Ages of Middle-earth—they’d have to depart egregiously from Tolkien’s canon to explore them. Sure, they could name-drop Celebrimbor, the Elven-smith who headed Project Rings of Power and personally forged the Three, and they could name the land of Eregion they were made in…but Annatar (Sauron’s alter ego), the one who tricked the Elves into making the Rings in the first place? Nope, that’s not in LotR. And Ost-in-Edhil, the capital city of Eregion where they were made? That’s not in the text either, nor are we told who got what rings and when. That’s mostly all in The Silmarillion, and beyond.

If anyone’s curious to learn more about this stuff (without fully diving into the deeper mythologies of The Silmarillion itself), the last two posts of the Silmarillion Primer are about exactly the people and politics leading up to The Lord of the Rings:

But let’s go back to Amazon’s map. We’ve got both Rhûn and Harad on there, lands of the South and East, and both are established places that Aragorn travels to during his pre-Fellowship years. They are where he hones his Ranger skills, levels up a lot, gains wisdom and life experience, and fights the good fight against Sauron but without using his name, without revealing to anyone who exactly he is (the heir of Isildur). And he does all this ostensibly to earn his kingship, but also so that he can marry his girlfriend, Arwen. At the Council of Elrond he cites these two realms:

I have had a hard life and a long; and the leagues that lie between here and Gondor are a small part in the count of my journeys. I have crossed many mountains and many rivers, and trodden many plains, even into the far countries of Rhûn and Harad where the stars are strange.

So I say again, I hope that we will go with Aragorn to these heretofore unexplored areas of Tolkien’s world—and that the show proceeds very carefully, because they’ll have to invent a whole lot of detail. With some sense and sensibility, maybe the writers could present to us, on a deeper and more human level, those mysterious lands of the East and South that we’re told in the book were largely under the dominion of Sauron.

Let us see more of what Samwise only glimpses in The Two Towers (in the chapter “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”) after witnessing his “first view of a battle of Men against Men.” He looks upon a Southron newly slain by one of Faramir’s crew, and he wonders if the Man “was really evil of heart” or if he’d “really rather have stayed” in his home. It’s one of the best moments in the book, and absolutely one in which we, like Tolkien, know in truth that the Man was not evil, and that he’d been led into war by “lies or threats.” It would be fascinating to see Aragorn in these lands and taking part in any resistance to Sauron’s influence.

Note also just how far east Amazon’s map extends. Most maps are cropped at the Sea of Rhûn, but here we see more forests, rivers, and mountains stretching even further. This really does strengthen the possibility that Aragorn will be shown going out to the east, to places where the stars are strange! Strange is good! Strange is new.

Interestingly, Khand is also labeled, and not much is written about that land, either. We only know that it’s another region under Sauron’s boot—and that Variags from Khand fight in the Dark Lord’s armies at the Battle of Pelennor Fields. (It’s not clear if Variags are simply the people of Khand, or some specific tribe or mercenary group from that land.)

But still….dang it if that label of Calenardhon (early Rohan) doesn’t throw me off. Again, who’s to say this map is meant to be a definitive pinning-down of the timeline this series is going to be stuck with? Maybe there’ll be some scene with young Aragorn in Rivendell, before he learns his true heritage, before he meets Arwen, before his mother has died, and where his surrogate dad (Elrond!) just unrolls a map of Middle-earth as part of some history lesson. And that’s the map they’re showing us here. (“Psych!” says Amazon…).

What do you all think? What are you hoping for?

Jeff LaSala will keep speculating about the Amazon series, but hasn’t given up hope for more about Círdan the Shipwright. He wrote the Silmarillion Primer more recently, a D&D novel (long ago), produced some cyberpunk stories, and now works for Tor Books. He sometimes flits about on Twitter.

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