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Lord of the Rings' First Age of Middle-earth explained

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit stories are amazing, but they're just the tip of the Middle-earth iceberg. J.R.R. Tolkien is well known for the incredibly rich history of his fictional world, and he spent the greater portion of his life rounding out sections of Middle-earth history that weren't even printed until after his death.

Amazon brought this into focus when they announced they'd acquired the rights to produce a multi-season series set in the Second Age of Middle-earth. This is thousands of years before the events of the LotR and Hobbit, which occur at the end of the 3,000-year-long Third Age. Of course, the backward momentum doesn't stop there, either. In fact, the whole "Second Age" business has many people asking why "second?" Is there something before that? As it turns out, the answer is yes.

Tolkien's mammoth Middle-earth history actually has four distinct "Ages" that form the primary framework for his larger stories. While all of the mainstream cinematic action has focused on the Third and soon the Second Ages, we decided to take things further by diving all the way back into the First Age — and it's freaking insane. From armies of dragons to tragic heroes, legions of balrogs, massive wars, dirtbag treachery, and a trio of superpowered gems that make the One Ring feel like your great-grandmother's wedding ring, here are the events that shaped the First Age of Middle-earth.

In the Beginning

The First Age may be called first, but it actually comes on the heels of two very long stretches of "pre-history" known as the Years of the Lamps and the Years of the Trees. The period of the Years of the Lamps lasts for millennia and features the Valar, the angelic spirit guardians of Middle-earth, squaring off against the Dark Lord Morgoth, Sauron's original master.

This world-shaking conflict leads to the period of the Years of the Trees, which starts after the Valar withdraw to the Blessed Realm across a great sea far to the west of Middle-earth. Here two mighty glowing trees take turns illuminating the continent, hence the name of the age. In the following millennia, the Elves "awaken" for the first time out in the main continent. Fearing for the safety of these sentient new creatures, the Valar defeat and capture Morgoth and then actively encourage the Elves to come and live with them in the West. Many Elves listen to the calling, while others remain in Middle-earth, eschewing the light in the West for the dusky starlit lands where they first awoke.

The next few thousand years are peaceful as Morgoth serves a three-age-long prison sentence and the Elves that went West flourish in the Blessed Realm. It's at this early date that Galadriel is born, as well as one of her distant relatives, a moody fellow named Fëanor.

Morgoth, Fëanor, and the Silmarils

Of course, all good things must come to an end. Eventually, Morgoth, who pretends to have turned over a new leaf, is released from captivity. It doesn't take long before he double-crosses everyone. With some help from a nasty spider spirit named Ungoliant, Morgoth destroys the Two Trees and hightails it back to Middle-earth where many of his servants — including Sauron — have been hiding.

Morgoth also makes a quick pitstop at Fëanor's house on his way out of the Blessed Realm, where he steals the Silmarils. These are three incredible jewels made by the hotheaded Elvish prodigy. The jewels literally contain the living light of the two now-destroyed trees and are the only hope of rekindling their former glory. Morgoth kills Fëanor's father, steals the jewels, and gets out of Dodge.

Now, before you go and start feeling bad for Fëanor, it's important to realize that this guy, while incredibly gifted, has a temper to match his skills. In fact, he's ready to pick a fight with anyone that remotely crosses his path. In the fallout from Morgoth's destruction, Fëanor rallies his clan of Elves, known as the Noldor, and convinces most of them to disobey the Valar and leave the Blessed Realm to reclaim the jewels that Morgoth stole. This rebellious act goes south quickly when Fëanor convinces a loyal subsection of his people to attack other Elves as they leave, killing them and seizing their boats in order to sail back across the sea to Middle-earth.

The Sun and Moon

As Fëanor sails back to Middle-earth with a handful of the Noldor, the majority of the Elvish clan are left to find their own way on foot. This group, which includes Galadriel, didn't participate in the murder over the ships. Left out in the cold, they decide to head into the frozen north and cross the water at a nasty ice-ridden area where the two continents are closer together.

And it's this point, as the weary abandoned Noldor Elves arrive in Middle-earth on foot, that roughly marks the beginning of the First Age — although pinning down a specific starting date is admittedly a bit murky. This is also the moment when the Valar, saddened by the rebellion of the Elves, still show their now-distant support for them by launching the Sun and the Moon into the sky to replace the light of the Two Trees and help the Elves in their quest.

One final event that takes place as the First Age kicks off is the awakening of Men far away in the eastern regions of the world. While it will take centuries for them to make their way to the Elves, they are officially alive at this point, and they'll eventually wander right into the First Age action.

Initial successes

When the smaller group of ship-bound Noldor, led by Fëanor, first arrive back in Middle-earth, they catch Morgoth by surprise. At this point, the villain has set up shop in a powerful old fortress he built called Angband, and he's already begun to tussle with the local Elves and Dwarves that live nearby.

His armies aren't ready for the vengeful attack of the small-yet-deadly Elven host, and they are initially defeated. While technically an initial loss for Morgoth, Fëanor is mortally wounded by a balrog in the fighting and he dies in sight of his prey. As he breathes his last, though, he reminds his sons that they have sworn an oath to avenge the loss of the, um, family jewels.

After this battle, the two sides take a bit of a breather. We're talking about immortal Elves and spirits here, so "a breather" really means they settle down to plan their next move at government work speed. After a 75-year "break," Morgoth decides to attack his enemies, but his forces are once again crushed by the Elves, who become so bold that they decide to besiege his massive mountain fortress. This event is called the Seige of Angband, and it ends up lasting for a whopping 400 years.

Settling and the Sindar

Just to recap what's happened so far, the Noldor Elves rebelled against their guardians and returned to Middle-earth in search of the Silmarils and a good dose of unadulterated vengeance. They even defeated Morgoth and cooped him up under siege. All around, things are going pretty well so far. Remember this moment though, because the situation is going to head downhill pretty quickly.

As the Siege of Angband drags on for centuries, the Elves that aren't busy on the front lines begin to settle down and build several cities that become uber-famous in Tolkien's First Age writings. In particular, the two hidden cities of Nargothrond and Gondolin are established. This pair of fortress-kingdoms becomes crucial in holding off Morgoth's ultimate victory when things go south later on.

While the main First Age focus generally follows the Noldor branch of the Elves as they build epic cities and duke it out with Morgoth over the Silmarils, there are still a ton of other Elves living in the area. These are generally called the Sindar or the Grey Elves. They're the Elves that never went to the Blessed Realm, and they mostly live in their own hidden kingdom called Doriath, led by the Elven King Thingol. His wife, Melian, is a spirit that literally surrounds the entire nation with, for lack of a better word, a sort of invisibility cloak. The Silvan Elves initially try to stay out of the fighting, but eventually, they get dragged in against their will.

The Long Peace

The Siege of Angband lasts for just shy of 400 years. Initially, the Elves have to deal with occasional attacks from Morgoth's forces. Two hundred years into the siege, the first dragon, Glaurung, even shows up, but he's still young and only half-grown, and it doesn't take much for the Elves to fill him with arrows and send him scampering back to his master. After this, the "Long Peace" begins, during which Morgoth remains quiet and the Elves remain vigilant.

The Long Peace is primarily marked by a time of great prosperity for the Elves. They feel that it's only a matter of time before they get their jewels back, and their new kingdoms are thriving. See? What were the Valar thinking telling them they shouldn't go back to Middle-earth?

It's also during the Long Peace that Men officially enter Middle-earth history, wandering in from the Eastern lands. Many of these Men are beguiled by Morgoth, but three clans, in particular, befriend the Elves and join their cause. These are referred to at times as the Edain or more specifically as "The Three Houses."

Fire and slaughter

It's cliché, but it's true. All good things come to an end. For the Elves prospering during the Long Peace, that "end" arrives suddenly — not to mention uncomfortably — when Morgoth unexpectedly unleashes rivers of fire and flames from his mountain fortress. These are followed by a now-fully-grown Glaurung leading armies of balrogs and orcs. The event is called the Battle of Sudden Flame, and it leaves the Noldor reeling.

While the Battle of Sudden Flame is a solid defeat for the good guys, it does lead to two of the most epic events in all of Tolkien's writings. First, the Noldor King Fingolfin becomes so desperately angry that he rides to Angband on his own and challenges the godlike spirit Morgoth to single combat. The duel is intense as the Elf-lord dodges the Dark Lord's massive mace and manages to wound him seven times. Not to be overcome by a puny Elf, though, Morgoth eventually makes a connection and kills the Elven lord.

The other epic event is the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. Nearly 20 years after their initial defeat, the Elves gather everyone they can possibly muster and attack Morgoth in one final, massive bid for victory. It doesn't go well at all. The Battle of Unnumbered Tears is undoubtedly one of the most glorious First Age battles, but it leaves the Elven armies nearly annihilated and Morgoth virtually unchallenged in Middle-earth.

Fighting the slow defeat

While the Battle of Unnumbered Tears makes Morgoth the most powerful being on the continent, it doesn't mean his enemies are completely defeated. For instance, there are still the hidden kingdoms of Nargothrond, Gondolin, and Doriath. But they're, well, hidden, and few are willing to resist the resurgent Dark Lord in the open.

In reality, the Elves never come back from the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. Weak and divided, they're slowly consumed by the forces of darkness that creep across the land over the course of the next half century. Morgoth manages to discover Nargothrond and Gondolin — the first by stupidity and the other by treachery — and destroys them both. The kingdom of Doriath, where most of the Silven Elves still live, is also destroyed by a pair of conflicts, first between Dwarves and Elves and then between the Noldor and the Sindar.

At this point in the narrative, Tolkien largely shifts his storytelling approach from a grandiose, geopolitical viewpoint into recounting the story through the eyes of individuals.

A tale of two lovers

The Tale of Beren and Lúthien is the most famous of all of Tolkien's First Age epics. The story follows two star-crossed lovers. It begins when the Man Beren escapes into the enchanted kingdom of Doriath after his lands are devastated by the Battle of Sudden Flame. There he meets Lúthien, the daughter of King Thingol, and the two fall in love. However, the king is appalled at the thought that his daughter should marry a fugitive and a mortal man. He jokingly tells Beren that if he can personally get one of the three Silmarils from Morgoth's iron crown, then he can marry his daughter.

The lovesick fellow heads off in a huff, ready to die on the quest, but he soon finds that Lúthien has come to help him. Side by side, the pair travel to Angband and actually steal a Silmaril. Throughout the adventure, Lúthien pulls most of the weight with her magic abilities. In addition, they're helped by Huan the Hound, the greatest canine to ever live.

As they return home, the Silmaril is stolen by the great wolf Carcharoth, who bites Beren's hand off as he holds it. Eventually, they hunt Carcharoth down and recover the jewel, but Beren dies in the process, causing Lúthien to die of grief. Their tragic romance is so moving that the couple is given a stay of execution. Lúthien is made mortal and the pair are allowed to return to Middle-earth, where they live for a while longer together.

A Middle-earth tragedy

Another of Tolkien's First Age epics absolutely takes things to a much darker place. We're talking about the tale of The Children of Húrin. Húrin is a brave chieftain of men who is captured during the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. He knows the approximate location of the then-hidden city of Gondolin, and Morgoth attempts to torture it out of him. When he fails, the Dark Lord curses Húrin's family and forces him to witness the destruction of his wife and children.

Húrin's son, Túrin, is initially raised by the Elves in Doriath, but he flees after he accidentally kills a mocking Elf in a brawl. From there, he launches into a heroic career that sees him rise over and over again to near glory before falling in utter ruin. For instance, he establishes a fearsome reputation as an outlaw, but he's captured and then mistakenly kills his best friend Beleg, when the Elf saves him in the dark.

After that, Túrin heads to the hidden kingdom of Nargothrond, where he convinces the Elvish leadership to fight in the open, leading to the utter destruction of the cavernous underground realm. The kicker, though, comes when Glaurung the Dragon brainwashes both Túrin and his sister Níniel. The two meet and, not knowing that they're related, marry each other and conceive a child together. Eventually, Túrin kills Glaurung before he and Níniel realize what they've done and commit suicide. It's by far the darkest, most twisted story that Tolkien ever wrote.

Eärendil the Mariner

The third great epic of the First Age tells the tale of Eärendil the Mariner. Distantly related to all three of the Houses of Men and the Elves, Eärendil represents a unique combination of the Men and Elves that are resisting the power of Morgoth. He's born in Gondolin and barely escapes the destruction of the city when he's a child.

From there, he escapes to the western shores of Middle-earth where a group of exiles has settled in the wake of Morgoth's resurgent power. Eärendil ends up marrying Elwing, the granddaughter of Beren and Lúthien. They also happen to be the parents of Elrond and his brother Elros, who ends up founding the line of kings that leads to Aragorn. In other words, this power couple represents a heck of a lot of invested parties, especially when it comes to stopping Morgoth.

Eärendil becomes famous in his own right when he builds a ship and heads out in search of the Blessed Realm. Eventually, Elwing joins him and she has the Silmaril that Beren recovered from Morgoth's crown with her as well. Together they eventually reach the Blessed Realm and ask the Valar if they will come back to Middle-earth and help their relatives, who are on the brink of utter destruction. The guardians, moved by the personal sacrifice of their quest, decide to forgive the Elves that rejected them and respond to the call.

Catastrophe and the Second Age

Once the Valar receive Eärendil's plea for aid, they gather a massive army and head to Middle-earth, ready to take on everything Morgoth has to throw at them. The only thing is, the Dark Lord has a lot of stuff by this point. The events that follow are collectively known as the War of Wrath. This involves Elves, Men, gods, eagles, dragons (plural by now), balrogs, and orcs. Like that last party before graduation, everybody gets together for one massive, final slug-fest to finish off the First Age.

Morgoth's armies are powerful, but ultimately they can't overcome the host from the Blessed Realm, and the good guys finally, at long last, come out on top. Morgoth is utterly dethroned and his armies are killed or scattered.

However, with so many angelic gods, demonic spirits, and mighty dragons thrashing around, the fighting is so intense that it breaks the land itself, causing a flood to pour in and leave the region underwater. In fact, it's not until this point that the map of Middle-earth officially looks like the one from Peter Jackson's films. With the land sinking beneath their feet, most of the Elves and Valar head back to the Blessed Realm. However, many others, both good and bad, choose to head east. Here, as the First Age winds down and the Second Age begins, they settle down and set the stage for a new showdown — not with Morgoth this time, but with his second in command, Sauron.