In the third episode of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, we got our first look at the lands of Númenor, which are populated by a race of men who seem very anti-elf. The island nation will have lasting consequences for Middle-earth in the remainder of the Second Age, and you’ve already seen how important descendants of the Númenorians are in the Third Age in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Aragorn—ever heard of him?)
The Rings of Power is focused on Sauron and the crafting of the rings, and like a lot of Middle-earth lore established in the writings of JRR Tolkien, the lengthy history of Númenor that exists in Tolkien’s other texts has been condensed (likely because the show has the rights to adapt material only from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the appendices to The Return of the King).
The Mystical Power Structure of Middle-earth
Here’s a quick primer on the powerful beings that have influence over Arda, the canonical name of this world. At the very top of the pyramid is the god figure called Eru, and a level below that are beings called the Valar. There are 14 Valar, and they’re something like demigods, created by Eru to shape Middle-earth. Eru also created some lesser but still powerful beings (think angels) called the Maiar to aid the Valar in the shaping of the world. You know five of the Maiar as the wizards of the Third Age. (Gandalf was a Maiar.) At the bottom of the pyramid are several races that fought on the side of good against Morgoth in the First Age and that remain prominent in Middle-earth, including elves and men (the latter of whom are called the Edain in the text).
When Morgoth was defeated, the Valar raised an island in the sea that would be gifted to the Edain who helped them fight. There were Edain who fought for Morgoth, but they did not get an island; they were left on the main land mass and became “Middle Men.” In a creation of the show, the elves established a monitoring system for these once-evil men, which is what Arondir’s task was in the Southlands before he got captured by Adar. Good men got an island, not-good men got an elf police state.
“The Valar Gave Them This Island”
There are hints about how Númenor was established in the third episode, “Adar,” specifically in the Hall of Lore. But the show doesn’t make abundantly clear that the island nation was originally founded by Elros, brother of Elrond, who sailed there after the War of Wrath finished the First Age. The Edain who accompanied Elros to the island were men who had partnered with the elves and fought against Morgoth, and as a reward for choosing the victorious side, the Númenorians were gifted with extra-long life. Unlike the elves, who do not die of old age, the Númenorians can still perish from living too long; it just takes hundreds and hundreds of years.
Along with an extended lifespan, the men were given the island itself on which to settle. It’s west of the main mass of Middle-earth and pretty close to the Undying Lands, which we saw at the beginning of the series, and where Galadriel was fleeing from earlier in the season. Númenorians are tantalizingly close to immortality, but they were forbidden by the Valar to sail too far west—they’re not supposed to go beyond the line of sight of the western coast of the island. It’s called the Ban of the Valar. Big “stay where mommy can see you” vibes.
As a symbol of the ongoing peace between elves and the island nation, the elves gave the Númenorians a seed that grew into the white tree that we see in the episode. For a while, everything was great between the elves of Middle-earth and the men of Númenor, but then the men got a little high on their own supply.
The Rings of Power is squishing a lot of Númenorian lore into a shorter time period, likely because the detailed stories of Númenor’s history are in books Amazon does not have the rights to use. By the time we’ve made it to the island in the series, the men of Númenor have progressed beyond being elf-friendly.
As Númenor grew in splendor, boasting the most advanced ships on the planet and some impressive architecture that rivals the elves’, the Númenorians became more like the men we will eventually see in the Third Age. Even though the Númenorians have very long lives, they grew envious of the blessing of immortality that the Valar had bestowed upon the elf race. The Númenorians are closer to the undying lands than anyone else on the map, but are never able to visit its shores. To crib a memorable phrase from a different fantasy series: All men must die. And as time progressed for the Númenorians, they stopped highly regarding the Valar and their lives began to shorten.
Not all mortals took this path, and there were still some elf-friends among the Númenorians. They called themselves the Faithful. That group still thought highly of the elf race and its contributions to the world, and they were more likely to know the elvish language than the other Númenorians, who were trying to snuff out the elf culture still left on the Island. Opposing the Faithful were the so-called “King’s Men,” Númenorians who believed in the superiority of men and were dedicated to seeing their island kingdom become the major power in Middle-earth.
The schism between the Faithful and the King’s Men was the prevailing political conflict on Númenor for hundreds of years, and when the King’s Men gained power, the rulers of the kingdom banned elves and the use of their language and openly persecuted the Faithful. It appears that all of this has happened before the start of The Rings of Powerbecause the king who turned Númenor back towards a relationship with the elves was Míriel’s father, who seems to be alive and deposed.
Visions of the Tower King
This week, we meet Míriel, who is described as Queen Regent. We’re told that the king has been unseated by his daughter and her adviser and is seemingly kept in a tower. If the final scene with his daughter is to be believed, Tar-Palantir (that’s the king’s name) has seen some sort of prophecy that Míriel thinks begins with an elf in Númenor.
More curious is what Tar-Palantir saw, and told Míriel, about what evil portents are coalescing now that Galadriel has arrived in Númenor. Part of the Númenorians’ dislike of the elves in the show, at least from Míriel’s perspective, has something to do with this foresight. During his reign, Tar-Palantir tried to roll back some of the previous king’s declarations and even began keeping up the white tree again, against the wishes of the King’s Men faction. In the books, Tar-Palantir’s foresight told him that if the white tree were to perish, the line of kings would end, so he wanted to take good care of it.
Tar-Palantir let the Faithful live unmolested and wanted to maintain a good relationship with the elves, so the idea that the doom of Númenor would be kicked off by the arrival of an elf seems to go against who his character was in the Tolkien texts, but until we know what the scope of his vision entails, it’s hard to say. Maybe the “cloud” surrounding the previous king was about his daughter, as she isn’t destined to be the ruler for very long. In contrast to Westeros, there have been and can be ruling queens of Númenor, so in theory Míriel should be the legal leader once Tar-Palantir dies. Going by the books, this sadly won’t be the case. In this very episode we meet Pharazon, Míriel’s advisor, who is poised to make a power play.
If you’ve noticed that the name of the king in the tower is a lot like the name palantíri—the magic crystal balls from The Lord of the Rings (one of which we saw Galadriel touch in a Rings of Power trailer), that’s because both the king and the seeing stones are named in elvish for being “far-sighted.” It’s just bizarre that Tar-Palantir’s vision has served to deepen the divide between the Faithful and the King’s Men when his reign in the text had roughly the opposite effect—unless there’s something more complicated than it seems about Tar-Palantir’s tower exile.
Isildur! That Sounds Familiar!
You heard that whispered name in the wind correctly: We meet Isildur in this episode. He is the guy who will eventually cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand and foolishly decide to keep it for himself rather than throw it into Mount Doom at the end of the Second Age.
His father is sea captain Elendil, who is part of the Faithful and is an elf-friend (the literal translation of his name). Isildur has a brother named Anárion, who we don’t see this episode, and a sister Eärien, who was newly created for The Rings of Power. A lot will happen to this family. Eventually they will sail to the mainland to establish great realms of men there (including Gondor)!
Currently, Isildur is in his rebellious phase and wants to join his brother in what will likely be a settlement of the Faithful who aren’t a bunch of xenophobic islanders who think “the water is always right.” After Sauron convinces a Númenorian king to attempt to break the Ban of the Valar, it will be Elendil’s family that goes on to become the high men of Middle-earth, the Dúnedain who retain the extended life of the Númenorians.
That’s why it’s so important The Lord of the Rings that Aragorn is Isildur’s heir, because it connects him directly to the royal line of Númenorians that ran through the Second Age, even if that civilization is long gone by the War of the Ring. Aragorn reforges the broken sword Narsil, which was Elendil’s sword during the big battle at the end of the Second Age. It’s hard to see this show version of Isildur as a future leader, but he has some growing up to do.
Isildur and his family are already the easiest Númenorians to root for, as they continue to respect the elves—even though, going by the books, something is already rotten in the kingdom of Númenor.