The information that’s been coming out about Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings prequel series has started to give us a much clearer idea about what sort of things we might see. We know that the timeline has been compressed so that the series will cover all the major events of the Second Age of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and we know that the forging of the Rings of Power will be at the heart of the series. But what are the Rings of Power, and who wields them? Read on for our brief beginners’ guide to these MacGufffins at the heart of Tolkien’s mythology.
Please note there may be some spoilers for the series here, since we don’t know what the writers may choose to keep mysterious early on!
The Forgers Of The Rings
The Lord of Gifts, Annatar is a disguise adopted by the Dark Lord Sauron during the Second Age. He took on a beautiful appearance and claimed to be an emissary of the great spirits the Valar, and tried to persuade the Elves to work with him. He convinced the Elven smith Celebrimbor and his jewel-smiths the Gwaith-i-Mírdain to start creating Rings of Power. The Elven-smiths had made many lesser rings, as Gandalf would tell Frodo many centuries later, but working with Annatar they made sixteen Rings of Power, which were far more dangerous.
The chief of the Elven-smiths eventually realised that he had been tricked and, using the skills he had learned from Annatar, went away in secret and forged three more Rings of Power, made specifically for the Elves to use themselves. Sauron had no part in making these and he never touched them.
Not to be outdone, Sauron forged the One Ring alone, in the fires of Orodruin, otherwise known as Mount Doom. Although he had never touched the Three Elven Rings, Celebrimbor had used the skills Sauron had taught him when he forged them, so the One Ring still had some power over the Three. Sauron could perceive the Ringbearers of the Three and they could perceive him, and their power became tied to the One; if it was destroyed, their power would fade. The One also had more direct power over the other sixteen Rings of Power.
Three Rings For The Elven Kings, Under The Sky
The only Ringbearer to be given a Ring of Power and actually manage to hang onto it isn’t in fact a King, but a Queen, Galadriel. She bears Nenya, the Ring of Adamant, or Water. Although all the bearers of the Three Rings take them off at the point Sauron first forges and puts on the One Ring, she obviously started wearing it again at some point, as she is wearing it when she meets Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring, and she uses it to preserve her realm of Lothlórien and essentially stop time there.
Galadriel was already married to Celeborn by the start of the Second Age, and they had a daughter, but they spent some time apart, partly because Galadriel was not quite as vehemently opposed to friendship with Dwarves as Celeborn was. A brief line in Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales suggests that Celebrimbor was in love with her, and he made the Elessar, the Elf-stone, for her, which eventually went to her grand-daughter Arwen.
Gil-galad was an elven-king.
Of him the harpers sadly sing;
the last whose realm was fair and free
between the Mountains and the Sea.
This is the first verse of the song Sam sings about Gil-galad, whose name means “Starlight” in Elvish, in the book version of The Lord of the Rings. It’s a bit unfair to Gil-galad really; in Tolkien’s timeline (which will be compressed for The Rings of Power TV series) he lives for thousands of years and presumably for most of that time he ruled very successfully. He is High King of the Elves and of the Elf kingdom of Lindon, an image of which we saw in a recent Vanity Fair article. In Tolkien’s lore, he was the greatest of the Elven Kings, and he actually appears briefly in the film of The Fellowship of the Ring, in the Prologue. Gil-galad bears Vilya, the Ring of Sapphire, or Ring of Air.
Just before the battle where he was killed in action, Gil-galad gave Vilya to Elrond, who continued to carry it until he left Middle Earth after the destruction of the One Ring. Vilya’s exact powers are a bit murky, but they seem to include preservation, like Nenya, and also healing. Like Galadriel, we assume that Elrond started wearing and using the Ring again at some point, and that he used it to preserve his safe haven of Rivendell (Imladris in Elvish) and to keep it secret. He may also have used its healing powers to heal Frodo after the hobbit was stabbed by a Morgûl blade when he was attacked by the Ringwraiths.
Círdan bore Narya, the Ring of Fire, which he was either given directly by Celebrimbor or by Gil-galad. (Thanks to Tolkien’s many different notes and drafts, not to mention his willingness to change things even after they were published, there are sometimes several different versions of the same story – just like real-world mythology!).
Círdan the Shipwright appears at the very end of the book of The Lord of the Rings. Another Elf Lord, at the very beginning of the Second Age he founded the Grey Havens, the port from which the Elves’ ships set sail when they leave Middle Earth for ever. After the Last Alliance of Elves and Men – the battle seen in the prologue to the movie The Fellowship of the Ring – the Grey Havens, Rivendell and Lothlórien become the three main surviving Elf homes, each supported and preserved by a Ringbearer who is presumably wearing and using their Ring of Power to preserve their land.
In addition to preservation, Narya’s power was to encourage and inspire people – to “rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill”, as Círdan puts it in The Lord of the Rings Appendix B. Knowing that Gandalf was actually a Maia called Olórin, a divine being sent by the great spiritual Powers the Valar to fight Sauron (who was a Maia gone rogue), and that he had a bit of a job in front of him, Círdan gave Gandalf Narya to help him. We are unlikely to see this in the upcoming series though, as Gandalf isn’t sent to Middle Earth until the Third Age.
Gandalf bears the Ring, and presumably wears and uses it, until he leaves Middle Earth with Elrond and Galadriel after the destruction of the One Ring. Presumably it was this Ring that helped him to spur all sorts of characters including Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, Théoden of Rohan, and Pippin Took to new heights of heroism during the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. When he tells the Balrog, “I am the wielder of the Flame of Anor”, he may be referring to this Ring, though giving away his secret to a Balrog and half a dozen oncoming Orcs seems a bit foolish.
Seven For The Dwarf Lords In Their Halls Of stone
After Sauron had forged the One Ring, and the bearers of the Three Rings had (temporarily) taken them off, Sauron gave away the sixteen other Rings of Power, Seven to Dwarves and Nine to Men.
King Durin III
King Durin III is the King of Khazad-dûm, a.k.a. Moria. We know that his son, “Prince” Durin IV will appear in the Amazon show, and if Durin IV is still a prince, presumably that means we will see his father Durin III as the reigning King. According to the Dwarves, Durin III was given one of the sixteen Rings of Power by Celebrimbor, which makes sense, as Durin was far closer to Elves, and especially to Celebrimbor and the Gwaith-i-Mírdain, than most Dwarves. It was him who had the doors with the Elvish password made for Moria (the doors with the inscription reading, “Speak ‘Friend’ and Enter”, indicating the Elvish word for ‘friend’, ‘mellon’, is the key, seen in The Fellowship of the Ring). Alternatively, he may have been one of the Dwarf Lords given a Ring by Sauron.
King Durin IV
The Rings of Power’s Prince Durin will eventually become King Durin IV, and he will inherit the Ring along with the kingdom. He will pass it on to his heirs, even after they eventually abandon Moria and move to the Lonely Mountain (Erebor), and it will continue to be passed down the family line even after they get chased out of there too (by the dragon Smaug), until eventually it comes to…
Thráin, Son of Thror
Thorin Oakenshield’s father, Thráin II. Thráin inherited the Ring from his father Thror, but he never passed it on to his son. Thráin was captured, tortured and killed by “the Necromancer”, i.e. Sauron, who was finally able to recover the last of the Seven Rings, leaving only the One missing…
Six Other “Dwarf Lords”
We don’t know much about the other six Dwarf Lords. They were each given a Ring by Sauron, who hoped to corrupt them in the same way the Nine Rings corrupted the Men they were given to. However, Dwarves turned out to be much more difficult to corrupt than Men. They didn’t become wraiths, but they did become especially greedy for gold, and the Seven Dwarf Ringbearers became the founders of seven great hoards of gold and treasure. As we saw in the case of Smaug and the Lonely Mountain, these great treasure hoards attracted dragons, and four of the Seven Rings ended up destroyed or consumed by dragons. Sauron recovered the other two from the Dwarves and took them back for himself during the Third Age, before finally recovering the last one from Thráin.
Nine For Mortal Men, Doomed To Die
Sauron gave the other Nine Rings of Power to Men (i.e. humans, but all the Nine Rings were given to men). These Ringbearers were eventually completely corrupted by the Rings and became the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths, or Black Riders. They lost their physical form altogether and became completely enslaved to Sauron and to the One Ring.
Khamûl, “the Black Easterling”
The only one of the men who would become Ringwraiths whose name we know, Khamûl was a chieftan from the Eastern lands of Rhûn, an area of Middle Earth Sauron liked to run away to whenever he suffered a defeat. He became second-in-command to the leader of the Nazgûl and he is the first Black Rider who appears in The Lord of the Rings, chasing the hobbits across the Shire to Buckleberry Ferry – he is the Rider from the famous “sniffing” scene, and therefore the scariest by far!
Three Númenorean Lords
We know that three of the Nazgûl were once Númenorean Lords, and that some of the Númenoreans were pretty corrupt already even before Sauron got to them.
Five Other Random Dudes
We know almost nothing about the other five Ringwraiths before they became wraiths, except that they were already powerful men.
One of these probably became the Ringwraiths’ leader, the Witch-King of Angmar. Tolkien doesn’t provide any information about who this man was before he became a Ringwraith, and he could have been one of the three Númenoreans. However, if we assume he was already a king before he became a Ringwraith, that rules them out, as we know what happened to the Númenorean kings.
Whoever he was, the leader of the Nazgûl founded the evil kingdom of Angmar during the Third Age, and all Nine became powerful warriors and sorcerers. Whether any of them had dabbled in “sorcery” beforehand is not specified – but it’s worth noting that in Tolkien’s universe, using magic is fine if you’re a magical being (like an Elf or Maia) or if you’re using magical things given to you by a magical being (like Frodo using the Phial of Galadriel), but dabbling in magic if you are not personally magical is generally A Bad Thing.
One Ring To Rule Them All, One Ring To Find Them…
All of the Ringbearers of the One Ring are well known from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but here’s a reminder for the sake of completism – of these, only two will be appearing in The Rings of Power.
The Dark Lord, the Necromancer, the Forger of the One Ring. Not a nice guy.
Isildur, as we know from The Lord of the Rings, cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand but refused to destroy it even though he was right there at Mount Doom and could have saved his descendants an enormous amount of trouble by doing so. Thanks to the time compression in the series, we will see a young Isildur working as a sailor in The Rings of Power. Presumably the series won’t go as far as his days as a Ringbearer, since the Second Age officially ends when he takes the Ring from Sauron, though we might see that in a series finale in a few years’ time.
For about five seconds, until he’s murdered by…
The Ring gives him long life, but not good quality of life. Tolkien notes that the effect any Ring of Power has on its Bearer depends partly on their personality, intentions and actions. Because Sméagol started his ownership of the Ring with murder, it brings out the worst in him.
Gollum was right, you know. Bilbo cheated in that game of riddles and pretty much stole the Ring.
Poor Frodo. He really never asked for any of the epic nastiness dumped on him thanks to this little bequest from Uncle Bilbo.
The last of the Ringbearers, Sam held on to the Ring after Frodo was attacked by giant monster-in-the-form-of-a-spider, Shelob, and thus saved the world, as the Orcs didn’t find it when they captured and stripped Frodo. All in a day’s work for quite possibly the toughest character in the whole saga.
Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power starts on Prime Video on September 2nd.