“Nothing is evil in the beginning.” That’s the first line of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, and it fittingly serves as a prelude to the downfall and hardship that will eventually come to this idyllic fantasy world. This show will be the story of how The One Ring from J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels came to control the many other rings that gave Sauron near-limitless control of Middle-earth.
But before the darkness—there is light. And even that requires some explanation.
The Amazon Prime series debuts tonight with two episodes, and while the casual fan might be able to surf across its story of strange stirrings among the humans, elves, dwarves and harfoot from thousands of years before the time of Bilbo and Frodo, there is a lot of detail to decode and much to explain.
Episode One: A Shadow of the Past
Let’s start with the opening, in which a child Galadriel watches fellow elf children destroy the paper boat she is floating in a stream. This is a field outside of Valinor, the home of the elves, which is an Eden-like place before the world was really the world.
“There was a time when the world was so young that there had not yet been a sunrise,” Galadriel narrates. But the children are playing in what appears to be a sunny afternoon. Only later do we see the city skyline of Valinor and the two mystical trees in the distance. They are not merely glowing, or backlit by the sun. They are the sources of the light.
In Tolkien’s prehistory, these trees are the golden Laurelin and the silver Telperion, which are part of the professor’s creation myth for his fantasy realm. As Galadriel’s narration then indicates, they were eventually destroyed by Morgoth, a.k.a. Melkor, the demonic presence who first ravages Middle-earth and has Sauron—the glowing eye and the main villain of The Lord of the Rings novels—as his apprentice. In Tolkien’s telling, the remains of Laurelin become the sun and Telperion becomes the moon.
So, that’s what Galadriel means when she says this was a time before the first sunrise. Her older brother, Finrod, tells her how important it is to know the difference between light and dark, and not be confused. She notes that sometimes the light reflects off the water, and following it can lead into the depths. So how is she supposed to tell the difference when good and evil seem confusing?
He whispers something to her, but it’s not until near the end of the episode that we hear his answer: “Sometimes we cannot know until we have touched the darkness.”
Consider this a statement of purpose for the series, which aims to produce at least 50 hours of story in the years to come: The much older and wiser Galadriel we know from The Lord of the Rings is noble and good because she has had firsthand experience in the depths.
The War of Wrath
The Rings of Power is predominantly set in Tolkien’s Second Age, but as a prologue we get a glimpse of the world war that ravages Middle-earth at the end of the First Age. This is the battle against Morgoth and Sauron’s conquest that ends up taking the life of Finrod. It’s also a conflict that found the human beings of the Southland on the wrong side, joining with the forces of evil. This is why they live still in despair and squalor, presided over by watchful Sylvan elves.
Eventually, Morgoth and Sauron are defeated and vanish, seemingly dead. But who knows?
For the casual viewer, you might think of this as Tolkien’s World War I, except it lasted for centuries. By the time it ends, and Morgoth and Sauron are seemingly vanquished, Galadriel is grown and ready to pick up the fight from her fallen brother.
She does not believe the evil they fought has been fully extinguished, and we know from The Lord of the Rings that she’s right.
After centuries of hunting orcs and searching for clues about whether Sauron still exists somewhere, Galadriel says the elves largely become complacent, giving up on the quest. They have convinced themselves the evildoers have been fully vanquished.