Lord of the Rings’ Ages, Explained

Lord of the Rings’ Ages, Explained
Frodo closes the book, literally, on his and Bilbo's retelling of the final years of the Third Age. (Screenshot: Warner Bros.)

Arda, the physical world J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is set on, has a history stretching far, far back before Frodo’s adventure to destroy Sauron. Some of that will be explored in Amazon’s upcoming streaming series, and stories from even earlier will be teased there, too. But Arda has a remarkably long history of eras — here’s a brief guide to what takes place when.

The Great Music

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Screenshot: Warner Bros.

The Ainulindalë, as it’s known in the Elven language Quenya, is the creation myth about the very foundation of not just Arda itself, but the mythical beings that would shape it for generations to come. Before the very concepts of time and matter exist, the first being brought into existence is Lord of the Rings’ answer to a divine power: Eru Ilúvatar. It’s Ilúvatar who sings the song of creation to make their most important agents, the Ainur — the fourteen angelic Valar and their own servants — and the primordial spirits called the Maiar, that Eru Ilúvatar actually leaves most of the busywork of, y’know, the creation myth, to.

In The Silmarillion, this process is described like a heavenly jam session — Ilúvatar would sing to his Ainur the concepts and ideas he would have for creation itself, and they, in turn, would take those themes and develop them into harmonies that would eventually culminate with the creation of Arda itself. The Valar and Maiar then took to Arda (granted with Ilúvatar’s vision for what the future of this creation would be) to guide it and its beings along their divine plans — but it’s not all happy dealings. It’s during the Ainulindalë that the initial split between Eru Ilúvatar and Melkor — one of the Valar who sought not harmony with his creator but power akin to it — begins as Melkor attempts to bring discord to Ilúvatar and the rest of the Ainur, corrupting many of the Maiar to his cause in the process.

The Years of the Lamps

Image: Ted Naismith/Harper Collins Image: Ted Naismith/Harper Collins

There are two actual ways of measuring the time of Arda’s history, split between the holy society of the Ainur’s reckonings and those of Arda’s own mortal races. The Years of the Lamps were the first to be measured in Valian years, but in what we would understand as a traditional year — by charting the passage of the planet around the sun, which, for the record, does not exist yet on Arda — the Years of the Lamps is a period that lasts around 15,000 years. It’s named for the two sources of light that the Valar create when they first arrive on Arda’s surface, finding a completely flat, totally symmetrical swathe of land. Collecting the light found on Arda, the Valar forged two lamps in the North and South, atop massive towers; llluin, in the north, and Ormal, in the south, while the Valar themselves established their home in the very centre of Arda, to exist in the farthest light of both lamps, on the island of Almaren.

The Years of the Lamps ends when, after building his own fortresses and gathering power, Melkor assaulted Almaren and the two lamps, destroying their towers so they would plummet to Arda. The damage was catastrophic, sundering what was once a singular landmass into four continents: Aman, Middle-Earth (or Endor as it was first known), the Land of Sun, and the Land of Dark.

The Years of the Trees

Image: Amazon Studios Image: Amazon Studios

After Melkor’s shenanigans robbed Arda of light, the Valar uprooted their society and moved westwards, founding the region of Valinor in Aman. Crafted by the Valar Yavanna and sustained by the tears of her fellow Valar Nienna, two trees in Valinor (Laurelin and Telperion) provided light for the Valar’s new society. One projected golden light, and the other silver and their dew was gathered by the Valar Varda to form the basis of starlight, which would give the rest of Arda some semblance of the light lost with Illuin and Ormal’s destruction. The Years of the Trees lasts for around another fourteen thousand of our own years, climaxing when Melkor, freed from his captivity in Aman, forges a pact with the primal spider Ungoliant to kill the trees. Unlike Illuin and Ormal’s fate, however, some light from both Laurelin and Telperion is preserved before their destruction and given to two of the Maiar — Arien and Tilion — who took them to the sky to form the Sun (from Laurelin’s fruit) and Moon (from Telperion’s leaves), respectively.

We know we’re going to get a glimpse of this time period in Amazon’s Lord of the Rings show, as the very first image from the series gave us a glimpse of Laurelin and Telperion, but it’s also important to note this period is also when the first Elves and Dwarves awaken on Arda, beginning their long connection with the Valar and Melkor himself.

The Years of the Sun and the First Age

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What we actually know as the Ages of Lord of the Rings’ history are collectively known, like the periods before them, as the Years of the Sun — it’s actually the time frame in which those two celestial bodies first existed. The First Age itself is just the first chapter, just under six hundred years, in much of which Melkor (now known as Morgoth!) holds dominance over the realms of Middle-Earth. Men first appear on the continent during this period, and it is marked by the appearance of the Noldorian exiles in Middle-Earth, the Elves who had travelled to Aman during the Years of the Trees who pursued Morgoth after he destroyed them and stole the powerful jewels containing remnants of Laurelin and Telperion’s light, the Silmarils.

Forming an alliance with the Sindar elves that remained in Middle-Earth’s Beleriand region, the three tribes of Men (collectively known as the Edain), the Dwarves, the Noldor, and a host of Valar and Maiar went to war with Morgoth in a battle known as the War of Wrath. This culminated in Morgoth’s destruction and cataclysmic damage to Middle-Earth, with much of Beleriand sunk into the ocean, and untold death, including the near-decimation of the Edain.

The Second Age

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This period, lasting nearly three and a half thousand years, sets the stage for much of what we know in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It’s also the primary setting of Amazon’s upcoming series. Although Morgoth was destroyed in the War of Wrath, dark forces lingered in secret waiting to carry on his quest against the Valar and Eru Ilúvatar. But for the most part, the Second Age begins as a period of relative peace and rebuilding for the beings on Arda; the Elves begin slowly emigrating westwards, whether establishing themselves on Middle-Earth’s shores or emigrating to the lands of the Valar in Aman, while the Maiar Eönwë uplifted the remnants of the Edain and established the isle of Númenor. It wasn’t to last though. Sauron, one of Morgoth’s chief lieutenants, begins hatching his schemes to corrupt the Elves and Men about halfway through the Second Age.

Disguised as the Maiar Annatar, Sauron ensorcells the Elves of Eregion to forge the ring of power as he forges the One Ring to dominate those who use them. The discovery of Sauron’s deception kicks off a war between Sauron and the Elves of Middle-Earth that culminates in the second Dark Lord being routed back into Mordor. But centuries after, the Númenorean King Ar-Pharazôn — head of a Kingdom that now stretched beyond Númenor itself, and one that now distrusted the Elves — marched an army into Mordor to capture Sauron, imprisoning him on Númenor…where Sauron promptly began corrupting the Númenoreans, turning them against the Valar and convincing Ar-Pharazôn to attempt to land on Aman and attack the Valar. However, it’s a move that goes very poorly: Eru Ilúvatar shows up and is so mad he not only smashes the Númenoreans and Sauron’s physical form, he sinks Númenor entirely, and cuts off Aman from the rest of Arda. How does he do this? Thousand and thousands and thousands of years after actually having made it in the first place, he makes Arda a spherical planet instead of simply flat.

The remaining Númenoreans flee to Middle-Earth and establish the kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor, and after a few hundred more years, Sauron reforges his physical form. You know what happens next, because it’s how Fellowship of the Ring opens: the Last Alliance of Elves and Men is forged to defeat Sauron, culminating with his body once again being destroyed on the footsteps of Mount Doom by Prince Isildur.

The Third Age

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The Third Age is the one most known to us, as it’s when the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings occur, albeit they’re in the last few decades of a period that lasts three thousand years. Sauron, once again having lost physical form, spends most of it biding time as a big ol’ Eye in Mordor and searching for his long-lost One Ring after Isildur loses it in an orcish raid on the way back to Gondor. The Elvens, continuing their transition to the Valar’s side in the Undying Lands of Valinor, secede much power to the rising dominance of Men, and then…well, you know. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings happen, and the Third Age ends with the destruction of Sauron and the One Ring thanks to a very good Hobbit and his gardener.

The Fourth Age

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We only get a tiny glimpse of the Fourth Age in Lord of the Ring’s culmination, beginning with the coronation of Aragorn as King Elessar of the newly-reunited kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor. The influence of the Elves in Middle-Earth diminishes, as many of them sail west to live with the Valar in Aman in this period. After Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam rally the Hobbits of the Shire to free it from Saruman and Grima Wormtounge’s control, and King Elessar’s forces push back the remnants of Sauron’s armies, Arda as we know it enters a period of peace not seen for thousands of years.