The Silmarillion – Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age

We’ve got some backtrack and overlap from the previous material right from the outset.  Following the overthrow of Morgoth, Sauron repented in fear to Eonwë.  A Maia could not pardon another Maia, however, so he was directed to Valinor to receive the judgment of Manwë.  Again, fear drives Sauron, this time of losing his power and potentially sharing his master’s fate, so he instead opted to hide in Middle-Earth.  We see this repeatedly where Tolkien gives his characters the opportunity to repent, a point of order no doubt close to his own faith.  When it comes from within, it often sticks.  When prompted from an external source such as fear of another, the repentance is quickly taken off the table as the character slides right back into evil.  So it is with Sauron as it was with Morgoth before him.

Beleriand was broken and largely flooded during the War of Wrath.  Some of the Noldor, led by High King Gil-galad, lived in the area called Lindon, which was built into what we know as the Grey Havens.  The remnants of the Teleri of Doriath and Ossiriand took up refuge in the forests of the Silvan Elves.  Other Noldor moved to Eregion along the Misty Mountains and the Dwarven realm of Moria.  At this time, a friendship between Elves and Dwarves led to enrichment of both, and the Gwaith-i-Mírdain (People of the Jewel-smiths) exceeded the skill of all Elven craft hitherto known with the exception of Fëanor.  The one leading this excellence was Celebrimbor.

Coveting the power of the Elves and hating them on principle, Sauron set out to bend and corrupt them.  In Lindon, Gil-galad and Elrond drove him away, even without knowing him for who and what he was.  Elsewhere, his promises to “make Middle-Earth great again,” to create lands as mighty and as beautiful as Valinor itself, began to have the desired effect.  He doubled down, stating that Gil-galad and Elrond feared losing their dominance should other lands rise to prominence alongside their own.  His message was best received in Eregion, where pride and love for Middle-Earth, desire for increase, and a longing for the bliss of Valinor took sway in the hearts of the Elves.  There, the Elves began to make rings of power under Sauron’s guidance.

Then in secret, Sauron made the One Ring to rule the lesser rings.  The power of the lesser rings was bound up with the One, and through the rings, Sauron could see what was done with them and govern the thoughts of those who wore them.

If experience is the ultimate teacher, then the Elves have learned, even if the lessons clicked a bit late.  They immediately perceived the threat and took off the rings, which naturally pissed off Sauron.  He came at them in open war, demanding they return his rings.  The Elves turned tail and ran, taking with them the three most powerful of their lesser rings, the last forged by Celebrimbor alone, without Sauron’s help.  These rings had the power to slow the decay of weariness that comes with time’s passage, leading Sauron to covet them the most.  The Three Rings — Narya (Fire), Nenya (Water), and Vilya (Air) — were still under the control of the One Ring even though Sauron had never touched them.

War continued between Sauron and the Elves.  Eregion was destroyed.  Celebrimbor was slain.  The doors to Moria were shut.  At this time, Elrond established Imladris (Rivendell).  Sauron used the distraction to control the people of Middle-Earth through the remaining rings, pandering to hidden desires.  He gave seven rings to the Dwarf-lords.  Sauron found that Dwarves were hard to control, and while they did not fall to his whims, they were corrupted through their natural greed.  They used their rings to gather wealth, and it is said that the great hoards of wealth they amassed each began with one of these rings.  That greed led to bad ends, and many of the rings were lost to dragons.  Even easier to control were Men.  To them, Sauron gave nine rings, preying upon their desire for unending life to enslave them to his will.  Immortality they achieved, but in a state so unbearable their cries of horror would resonate through the world.  They became invisible to all others, able to be seen only by he who wore the One Ring.  The nine became known as the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths.

Sauron was named as the Enemy and became a Dark Lord, hated and feared – the Second Coming of Morgoth, if you will.  The only one he dared not fight was Gil-galad, who in turn was aided by the Númenóreans.  Being strong and proud in their own right, the Númenóreans openly challenged Sauron.  He submitted, coming to Númenor and kneeling, an act which allowed him to corrupt them from within and lead them to downfall as chronicled in the Akallabêth.  When Númenor flooded, Sauron’s fair form was destroyed, and he returned to Middle-Earth only to find that Gil-galad’s influence had grown in his absence.  Elendil, Anárion, and Isildur had arrived in Middle-Earth.  Elendil was befriended by Gil-galad in Lindon, and the kingdom of Arnor was established.  Anárion and Isildur landed in the south, sailed up the river Anduin, and established the realm later known as Gondor.  They set up their capital at Osgiliath where they would rule side by side, as well as the twin home cities of Minas Ithil for Isildur and Minas Anor for Anárion.

The Númenóreans brought with them some items of power that would shape the course of world events.  The White Tree descended from Nimloth was planted as Minas Ithil, and the seven seeing stones — the Palantíri — were divided among the three kings; three were given to Elendil, and two each for his sons.  These stones would reveal what was near the other stones, but those of strong will could use them to see anything they so chose across space or even time.  Very little of Sauron’s machinations escaped their notice.  Sauron, of course didn’t like this and prepared for war against both the Elves and the Númenóreans.

When the attack came, Sauron’s forces rained down on Isildur at Minas Ithil, destroying the White Tree.  Isildur escaped with his family and a seedling of the tree, sailing towards Elendil and Lindon.  Anárion’s forces held Osgiliath, but it was clear they could not hold out against further attacks.  Seeing that one of the kingdoms of Middle-Earth would soon be overtaken, Gil-galad and Elendil formed the Last Alliance of Elves and Men.  They marched to war on Dagorlad, winning against Sauron’s forces and pushing them back to their stronghold. They held against Mordor for seven years at great cost, including the loss of Anárion, until Sauron himself took the field.  Gil-galad and Elendil were slain, the latter falling on his sword, Narsil, breaking it.  Isildur took up the hilt shard of Narsil, cutting the One Ring from Sauron’s hand, forcing the Dark Lord to forsake his body, his power disparate and hidden in the depths of Middle-Earth.  So began the Third Age.

The servants of Sauron were destroyed, and Isildur planted the White Tree in Minas Anor in memory of his brother, but fear and memory of Sauron remained.

Elrond and Círdan counseled that Isildur should destroy the One Ring in the fires that had forged it, but Isildur claimed it as wergild in payment of all the Dark Lord had taken from his family.  It would become an heirloom for his kingdom, so he claimed, but the One Ring had a will of its own and began to bend Isildur’s in kind.  He set out for the realm once held by his father, and he was ambushed en route by Orcs.  Nearly all of his people, including his three eldest sons, were slain, but Isildur escaped, rendered invisible by the One Ring.  The Orcs tracked him by scent.  When he jumped into a river to escape, the Ring betrayed him, slipping from his finger and revealing him to the Orcs who would kill him.  Three of his people returned, one of whom had been entrusted with the shards of Narsil.

Valandil, Isildur’s youngest son, remained in Rivendell during the war, and it is he who inherited the shards of Narsil.  Elrond foretold the sword would be reforged only when the One Ring was found and Sauron returned, a day that none hoped would arrive.  So long as the sword remained in shards, hope against the inevitable would survive.  Valandil returned to the north, but its might waned over the centuries, its legacy forgotten.  In the south, Gondor thrived, but the blood of the Númenóreans was weakened, mixed with other Men.  The guard on Mordor diminished.  The twenty-third king and his family were killed by plague along with many in Gondor.  Mordor stirred as Gondor grew weak, and the Nazgûl returned, preparing the way for the return of their master.

Under the reign of Eärnil, Mordor’s forces attacked.  Minas Ithil was taken and rebranded Minas Morgul.  Osgiliath was deserted, and Minas Anor — now called Minas Tirith — was locked in perpetual war with Minas Morgul.  When Eärnur, son of Eärnil, took the throne, he rode forth in single combat against the lord of Minas Morgul.  The Witch-king took him alive, and he was never seen again.  So ended the line of the kings.  The first steward of Gondor was Mardil the Faithful.  The Rohirrim thrived in the north and aided Gondor, striking a blow that ensured the Nazgûl would not return until Sauron did.

Rivendell was a refuge at this time, and the heirs of Isildur lived there in the childhood and elder days of their lives.  Elrond kept the shards of Narsil in trust.  The other port of safety for the Elves was the Grey Havens, ruled by Círdan.  The three rings remained hidden, and where they were all remained fair and seemingly beyond the touch of evil.  Elrond and Galadriel kept two in their fairest of realms.  Of the third, Narya, only they and Círdan knew.  It was understood that should the One Ring be found and destroyed before Sauron could reclaim it, their own realms would fall as the power of the three rings failed.  The Elves recognized that their time was ending.  The age of Men was beginning.

The forest known as Greenwood the Great became known as Mirkwood as the dark power overtook it.  The wise were long in detecting its source but tracked it down to the stronghold of Dol Guldur where a sorcerer had build his fortifications.  Only the north of the forest, in the realm of Thranduil and his Elves, was free of the corruption.  When the darkness first appeared, so too did the Istari, arriving from the west as messengers of the Valar.  Their role was to stir the free peoples of Middle-Earth to brave and noble deeds against Sauron should he ever appear.  They arrived in the guises of old, wise men.  Three are named: Saruman, Gandalf, and Radagast.  Saruman was the most skilled, taking up dominion in the realms of Men at Isengard.  Gandalf never claimed a base of operations, roaming where need drove him, and he gained the trust and cooperation of the Elves.  It was he who was the most vigilant of his kind, and it was he who detected the evil of Mirkwood to its source, and it fled from him.  A council of the wise was called consisting of Elrond, Galadriel, Círdan, Gandalf, and Saruman.  Saruman was named chief of the Istari and took it upon himself to study the Rings of Power.  Gandalf went to Dol Guldur and learned the sorcerer was none other than Sauron himself, seeking the rings and any news of the heirs of Isildur.

The counsel gathered once more, and Gandalf urged swift war while the Enemy was weak.  Saruman disagreed, suggesting the One Ring had been lost at sea and was unrecoverable.  Elrond predicted the One Ring would be found, ending the age in war.

Having studied the works of Sauron for too long, Saruman began thinking of him as a rival instead of as an enemy, desiring the One Ring for himself so as to shape the world to his own beliefs.  In allowing Sauron to continue, the One Ring — ever seeking its master — would reveal itself.  Saruman returned to Isengard, biding his time while the servants of Sauron searched for the Ring in the wake of Isildur’s death.

Darkness grew.  Gandalf again urged war before Sauron’s power grew too strong to stop.  Saruman finally agreed, and Sauron was ultimately cast from Dol Guldur.  But Mordor had already prepared, and Barad-dûr was raised once more.  Saruman retreated to Isengard, meeting no further with the White Council.

From here, we deal with the events we know so well from The Lord of the Rings.  Unbeknownst to all, the One Ring had been found, passed to the Halflings in the north.  Gandalf learned of it first, but rumor came to Sauron, who unleashed his Nazgûl.  The Third Age ended in the War of the Ring, as Elrond predicted.  Aragorn, 39th of Isildur’s line, led Gondor to victory against Sauron’s forces.  Saruman was cast down.  Ultimately, as Gandalf foresaw, where the strong faltered, aid arose from the weak.  Frodo, with the aid of Sam, made the journey to cast the One Ring into Mount Doom.  Sauron was ended, his shadow never to return.

The keeper of the third Elven ring was revealed at this time to be Gandalf, given to him by Círdan when he arrived in Middle-Earth.  Círdan’s hope for the Ring of Fire was to kindle hearts to action, which it did.  Círdan guarded the Grey Havens.  When power passed finally from Elves to Men, Círdan set sail the final ships, carrying the last of the Eldar into the west.

Now that I know the Grey Havens is the gateway port to none other than the Isle of Avalon, which in turn lies off the shores of Valinor, I can’t help but see Aragorn even further entrenched in the Arthurian mythos.  I wonder if Arthur himself would come from the thinned bloodline of Númenor.  I will never again read those stories without wondering if Excalibur is but an alias for Andúril, or if Glamdring might be Caliburn.  This sort of thing is, I’m certain, just a small consideration towards Tolkien’s entire master plan as the entirety of his Legendarium is nothing less than a greater mythology of the British people.  I’ve known that for a very long time, it seems, but I having made it this far, it’s so very different to understand it from that perspective.

Thus endeth Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, and more importantly, thus endeth The Silmarillion.

We did it!

My final review of The Silmarillion will be posted tomorrow.

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