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Jeff LaSala

The Misappropriation of the Rings (and the Third Age)

Wherein Isildur Pockets the One Ring, the Kingdoms of Men Fall Apart, Some Wizards Show Up, the Dark Lord Rises Again, and a Halfling Goes On a Big Journey

The second half of The Silmarillion’s final chapter isn’t the end of all things. It’s just the end of this one book, a wrap-up to one of the finest in fantasy literature. Even Tolkien’s most casual readers will find many parts of this section familiar, what with all the sly winks, cameos, and name-dropping. But it’s more than just a massive spoiler about what happens with Sauron’s favorite piece of jewelry: “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age” overtakes the events of the War of the Ring and brings the story of the Elves to a close. After all, the end of this age also means it’s time “for the dominion of Men and the decline of all other ‘speaking peoples’ in Middle-earth.”

More than ever, I’m going to tie in information from Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, so as to arrange events in a clearer chronology than the chapter alone gives us. Likewise, The Silmarillion’s sidekick, Unfinished Tales, will chime in to fill in some gaps.

Buckle up, this is a big one. The Primer Installment to End Them All.

[‘Yet the One was lost, and while it still lies hid, we can master the Enemy, if we gather our strength and tarry not too long.’]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Twenty Rings, Seven Stones, and Middle-earth’s New Dark Lord

Wherein Sauron Hoodwinks the Elves, Forges His Trusty Ring, Unveils His New Tower, and Then, Having Had It Up to Here With All That Nonsense, Men and Elves Form the Last Alliance

The final section of The Silmarillion, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age” is basically the bridge between the Quenta, the downfall of Númenor, and The Lord of the Rings, even summarizing the high-level events of the War of the Ring. I’m sure anyone reading this Primer will already be well acquainted with that last event. Given the overlap in exposition between this section and The Lord of the Rings itself, I’m going to tie things together with Appendix B: The Tale of Years from Tolkien’s most famous book…with a dash and a few dollops from Unfinished Tales.

Think of all this as proper stage setting for a reread of The Lord of the Rings. Now, this section is jam-packed with exposition, so I’m going to separate it into halves (one last time). But first, let’s recalibrate: We need to jump back to the start of the Second Age, long before the fall of Númenor.

[I perceive that you love this Middle-earth, as do I.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

A Farewell to Kings: The Fall of Númenor

Wherein the Last King of the Númenóreans Assumes Control, Puts Númenor First, Keeps His Enemy Close, and Defies Death In the Worst Way Possible

In the first half of the Akallabêth, we learned what made Aragorn’s ancestry so special. The Edain backed the right horse during the War of Wrath and so were rewarded with being damn near Elf-level good at just about everything, and then were given the wondrous island of Númenor to hang out on. They should have lived happily ever after. But see, these so-called enlightened Men on their high horses have been looking the Valinorean gift horse in the mouth. They’re at the top of their game, yet can’t stop themselves from daydreaming about the Undying Lands, a place where they’re sure they won’t get any older, and they won’t ever die—oh, and the one place they’re expressly forbidden to go.

In this half of the tale, we’ll see why Middle-earth still can’t have nice things, and why there aren’t a bunch of Númenóreans still walking around in the time of The Lord of the Rings. The unrest that’s taken root in their proud hearts has already divided them into two polarized political factions: the ever-growing King’s Men and the Faithful. It’s only going to get worse. So let’s get to it. I promise I’ll try to cool it with the horse-related expressions.

[‘The Doom of the World,’ they said. ‘One alone can change who made it.’]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Grace Under Pressure: The Rise of Númenor

Wherein the Dúnedain Are Made Better, Stronger, Faster, and Are Gifted With Huge Tracts o’ Land…and It Just Might Not Be Enough

In The Silmarillion, we don’t spend quite enough time in the Second Age to really get to know it—a chapter and a half, at best. And rather than walk through what does follow the First Age chronologically, Christopher Tolkien—who curated all of this for us after his father’s death—presents the next two ages of the history of Middle-earth in two basic pieces. Each overlaps the other but centers on its own events.

The first of these is the Akallabêth, a word that means “the Downfallen,” and specifically refers to the figurative and literal sinking of Númenor. You can always count on J.R.R. Tolkien to tell you something falls before he tells you it’s even a thing. Well, Númenor was a thing, and even casual readers of The Lord of the Rings will already know a thing or two about it. This is a phase of the book when Men finally take center stage, while Elves merely flit in from the wings once in a while.

While this is not a difficult story to follow, the gauntlet of both Elvish and Adûnaic (i.e. Númenórean) names can trip you up. Don’t let it! Sauron WANTS you to fall. Given the big ideas in this section, I’ll be tackling the Akallabêth (ah-CALL-la-beth) in two parts, which mostly amounts to the great rise and the watery fall of Númenor.

[“Why do the Lords of the West sit there in peace undending, while we must die and go not whither?]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth (the Man, the Myth, the Coffee Table Book!)

Many fans of J.R.R. Tolkien already know that there is, right now, a free and rare exhibit of the professor’s many works at Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries running through the rest of October. It’s a dragon’s hoard of hand-drawn maps, illustrations, and book drafts—many of which have never been presented publicly before—all on display, along with an assortment of wonderfully nerdy and decidedly hobbitish accoutrements like Tolkien’s writing desk, pencils, chair, and smoking pipes. And some of us are also giddily excited about that same exhibit coming to the Morgan Library & Museum in New York next year. It’s a veritable Elf-studded, high fantasy equivalent of the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in the Bronx or the Mark Twain House in Connecticut.

The exhibit is called Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth and from what I’m hearing, it’s any Middle-earth geek’s delight. But it’s also finite. By mid-May next year, all those original works will be closed up one last time like the Doors of Durin, Watcher-style, then whisked back into the vaults of private collectors, the Tolkien Estate, Marquette University, and the Bodleian itself. But for those fans who can’t make it to these far-distant museums and still want to experience some of that awesomeness…well, there’s a book for that!

[“Hail fallow, well met!”]

Morgoth Is Rendered Null and Void In An All-Out War (of Wrath)

In Which Morgoth Gets His Ass Handed To Him, the Last Sons of Fëanor Find Time To Make One More Bad Decision, and Beleriand Starts Taking On Water

Well, we’re down to it at last. The final showdown of the First Age, which gets less page space than any of the Wars of Beleriand—and yet it’s the greatest conflict of them all. We’ve not seen this sort of mayhem since the Valar mopped the floor with Morgoth back when his library card still read “Melkor.” And that was arguably a more discreet event, since the Valar were then trying to shelter the newly awakened Elves!

The second half of Chapter 24 is a bit like the rushed ending of a really great novel—something even the best authors can be guilty of. But it’s not the ending of The Silmarillion, just the Quenta Silmarillion, the history of the First Age which centers around the Noldor and those pesky Silmarils. So let’s get right into it.

[So sudden and ruinous was the onset of that dreadful fleet…]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Eärendil the Mariner and the Last Crusade (Against Morgoth)

In Which Eärendil Boldly Goes Where No Man Has Gone Before, Ulmo Gives Him the Bird, the Sons of Fëanor Go Too Far, and the Valar Have a Group Huddle

The final chapter of the Quenta Silmarillion is upon us, whether we would wish it or not: “Of the Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath” wraps up the First Age with far more drama, conflict, and beauty than the text itself can really contain. Still, after watching Morgoth push the peoples of Middle-earth around for so long, it’s gratifying to see the Valar take action as a team again. That said, although this chapter isn’t especially long, so much important stuff happens that I’ll be discussing it in two installments.

Now, we know from The Lord of the Rings that the son of Idril and Tuor—Eärendil the Blessed, Eärendil the Wanderer—is a mariner. We know because one day Bilbo will sing a song about him in Rivendell. He’s a legend among legends. Poetic and dreamlike in quality, Bilbo’s rhyme of this ancient mariner paints a lovely picture, but it’s not even half the full story—which The Silmarillion gives us, at least in cursory form.

[Hail Eärendil, of mariners most renowned, the looked for that cometh at unawares!]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

When Tuor Met Ulmo, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let Gondolin Fall

In Which Tuor Takes a Littoral Walking Tour, Ulmo Tells All, Gondolin Is Given An Eviction Notice, and Turgon Loves Too Well the Work of His Hands

Chapter 23 of The Silmarillion, “Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin,” introduces us to a young man every bit as heroic as fellow mortals Beren One-hand and Túrin Turambar, but he’s given far less page time. Yet Tuor’s role is vital; his descendants will include famous names like Elrond, lore-master of Rivendell, and Elrond’s brother, who also happens to be the founder of Númenor and the ancestor of Aragorn.

The story of the fall of Gondolin is the first of the three great tales that Tolkien dreamed up before the rest of Middle-earth—the other two being the Tale of Tinúviel (Beren and Lúthien) and the Tale of the Children of Húrin (Túrin Turambar, et al.). And geez, given that he was gunning for Gondolin’s downfall so early in his writing career, this secretive Elf-city never really had a chance, did it? More detailed, if not-as-internally-consistent accounts of Tuor’s story can be found in Unfinished Tales (“Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin”); The Book of Lost Tales, Part 2 (“The Fall of Gondolin”); and very soon, the stand-alone book that’s likely to contain all of the above, also called The Fall of Gondolin!

For Primer purposes, I’m sticking mostly with The Silmarillion’s more abridged account, sprinkled with a few bits from elsewhere in the aforementioned earlier accounts.

[Wilt thou take up my errand?]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

The Tragical Misery Tour (of Húrin) and the Return of the Sons (and Jewel) of Fëanor

In Which Morgoth Plays His Last Húrin Card, A Silmaril Raises the Stakes, Dwarves Play Too Close to the Chest, Thingol Folds, Ents Are Wild, and Menegroth Collapses like a House of Cards

In Chapter 22, “Of the Ruin of Doriath,” it’s finally time to say goodbye to Beleriand’s first kingdom of the Eldar, one whose roots began in Chapter 4 when a Teleri Elf-lord named Elwë met a goddess in the woods, changed his name, and decided to tarry indefinitely in Middle-earth. But if there’s one lesson to be learned in Tolkien’s legendarium, it’s that nothing lasts forever…even the most beautiful and majestic of works—maybe especially those. Appreciate it while you can.

Sadly, it’s the aftermath of the Tale of the Children of Húrin (especially the short, if storied, life of Túrin Turambar) that triggers the end of Doriath, as Morgoth manipulates his most famous “guest” in order to further his designs. A lost treasure is recovered, gives King Thingol some crazy ideas, and garners the wrong sort of attention. But hey, we finally get to see Ents in action!…for, like, a second.

[Read on unless you seeth all things crooked.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

A Series of Unfortunate Choices (Made By the Children of Húrin)

In Which the Son of Húrin… Well… It’s Hard to… Oh, It’s All Just the Worst

As Túrin confronts the dreaded father of all dragons on the doorstep of Nargothrond, it’s time for us to confront the second half of the Tale of the Children of Húrin as summarized in Chapter 21 of The Silmarillion. Here the tale widens, as we are reminded through new tragedies that Túrin isn’t the only doomed child of Húrin—nor the only one yoked by the curse of Morgoth.

We left off with Túrin operating under the name of Mormegil, the Black Sword, where his coming to Nargothrond had unfortunately spelled out its own ruin after some crummy choices. If you haven’t read part one of this tale, consider doing so before reading on…

[Thus is Túrin son of Húrin avenged.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

The Six Degrees of Túrin Turambar

In Which the Son of Húrin Is Raised Among Elves, Goes Out to Seek His (Mis)fortune, and Becomes a Host of Household Names While At Least Trying to Not Wreck All of Beleriand

The fantastical yet tragic story that became Chapter 21, “Of Túrin Turambar,” is one that J.R.R. Tolkien had worked on in the earliest days of his created world, before there was a legendarium. I mean, the story’s outline spawned The Silmarillion itself. And because it’s such an important one and, well,  a long one, I’m going to tackle it in two parts, as I did with Beren and Lúthien. I’ll mostly discuss the abridged version of the tale as it’s told in The Silmarillion (itself being an abridged account of what appears elsewhere).

And, look, it’s a grim one. This is not a fairy story with a happy ending featuring dive-bombing, eucatastrophic Eagles. It’s a goddamned Shakespearean tragedy where everyone—well, nearly everyone—dies at the end. There are dragons, suicides, manslaughters, elfslaughters, dwarfslaughters, and even a talking sword.

Túrin is the quintessential flawed hero of Tolkien’s works, the perfect foil to the Aragorns and Faramirs of the legendarium. He’s the one-man Exhibit A for why things aren’t always black and white in Middle-earth, as Tolkien’s critics are prone to libelously assert. So, let’s see Exhibit A.

[Who knows now the counsels of Morgoth?]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Angband Strikes Back; or, The Battle of Unnumbered Tears

In Which the Noldor Regroup (Mostly), War is Renewed, Dwarves Join the Fray, Dragons Are Unleashed, Men Prove to Be Faithful and/or Faithless, and Húrin Wears a Very Special Coat of Arms

Well, we’re way past the middle of The Silmarillion. If there was a line chart that showed the fortunes of the Elves in the First Age, we’ve been seeing the data points starting to tank. The first big drop was the Battle of Sudden Flame, but now we’ve come to Chapter 20, “Of the Fifth Battle: Nirnaeth Arnoediad,” and this is when things really go south.

Literally, as well as figuratively: As the Noldor try to rally and regroup and gather what allies they can for a retaliation against Morgoth, the Dark Lord proves that he’s been thinking about war a lot more than they have and still has untold strength. And in this chapter, his arm grows long indeed, reaching out of Thangorodrim to the far ends of Beleriand. And, oh, yeah: the father of dragons is back for more.

[Aiya Eldalië ar Atanatári, utúlie’n aurë!]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

A Dog’s Purpose Full-Wrought: The Trifold Dooms of Huan, Beren, and Lúthien

In Which Sauron Gets His Ass Handed to Him, Beren and Lúthien Cosplay As Bad Guys Then Infiltrate Angband, A Big Wolf Goes Ballistic, and Huan Is Such A Good Boy

We return now to the second half “Of Beren and Lúthien,” Chapter 19 of The Silmarillion. The first half of the story included the first meeting of the titular lovers, the pride and folly of King Thingol, the curse of Mandos falling upon Doriath, and more oaths than you can shake wrathful fist at. Beren accepted the quest to recover a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth, then got himself and his new friends locked up in Sauron-jail. Which, in turn, led to the sad death of Finrod Felagund. Middle-earth is a slightly darker place now.

Now as previously mentioned, I’ve written about this story twice before, with some shifting emphasis in discussion, but for continued Primer treatment, read on. This chapter, as we’ll see, involves a real show of hands…

[‘What of your quest and of your vow?’]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

An Affair To Long Remember: Beren the Mortal and Lúthien the Elfmaid

In Which the Son of Barahir Meets a Girl, Accepts An Impossible Quest To Marry Her, Gets Himself Thrown In the Slammer (of Sauron), and Witnesses the Demise of the Greatest Elf In Arda

Chapter 19, “Of Beren and Lúthien,” is the most famous love story of the First Age, even of Tolkien’s entire legendarium. It is the original adventure romance between a mortal Man and an immortal Elf-maid, the legend of which Aragorn and Arwen’s own tale is an echo in The Lord of the Rings.

I’ve written about this extraordinary yarn twice on Tor.com before, first as a study of Lúthien herself (Lúthien: Tolkien’s Original Badass Elf Princess) and then again when Christopher Tolkien released the stand-alone book in 2017 (Beren and Lúthien and Their Not-So-Little Dog, Too). For a deeper walk-through of that tale, I would encourage you to check those out. But for a more contextualized primer entry that places the story within The Silmarillion, read on. As this adventure story is especially rich with exposition, oaths, callbacks, and foreshadowing, I’m going to tackle the chapter in two installments.

[For little price do Elven-kings sell their daughters.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

What Stories Could An Aragorn-Driven Amazon Series Tell?

The Tolkien fan site TheOneRing.net recently reported on Twitter that the eventual Amazon-acquired Lord of the Rings-based television series “will open its first season centered on a young Aragorn.” It cites this information as coming “from many sources” but offers none of them, which to me means this isn’t exactly absolute. But nothing has popped up to contradict and any chance to discuss the matter is fun, so…

Let’s roll with this. I’ve speculated on a few possibilities before, but with young Aragorn as the protagonist of at least the first season, we can sharpen our focus, take a look at what we know about Aragorn’s upbringing, and home in on some prospective plotlines.

[Let’s hunt some earlier orc!]

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