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Lord Of The Rings' Third Age Of Middle-Earth Explained

J.R.R. Tolkien's admittedly complicated (and often straight-up convoluted) history of Middle-earth covers a lot of ground. It starts before the creation of the world and initially covers thousands and thousands of years of vague "early history." Thankfully, things eventually settle down a bit into a predictable rhythm, with the bulk of the detailed storytelling being divided up and stuffed into four distinct ages.

While we've covered the First Age and the Second Age elsewhere, our goal here is to break down the extremely busy Third Age in order to make heads or tails out of it. To be clear, we're not going to cover everything in detail — an overwhelming task that would be as daunting as destroying the Ring itself — but rather to highlight some of the bigger events that take place between the moment that Sauron loses his precious Ring and that time we meet Frodo Baggins calmly reading under a tree, 3,000 years later.

Setting the stage for the Third Age

It's difficult to tackle the Third Age without at least having a rough idea of what happened in the two ages that precedced it. The First Age deals mostly with the elves and their ongoing wars with the first Dark Lord, Morgoth. Men and dwarves are involved, but they tend to be more supporting cast than main characters. The age ends when Morgoth is defeated in the earth-shattering, totally badass War of Wrath.

The Second Age, which will be the main period covered by Amazon's new blockbuster streaming series, shifts its focus onto a running struggle between the new Dark Lord, Sauron (who was Morgoth's second-in-command, by the way), and all of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth — e.g. elves, dwarves, men, etc. The Rings of Power are forged in this age, and it ends when the Free Peoples form the Last Alliance and attack Sauron in Mordor. In the ensuing war, the King Isildur cuts the One Ring from Sauron's hand. If that sounds familiar, it's because it's the opening sequence of Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring.

This is the point where the Third Age begins, and even if it does get off to a bit of a slow start, it doesn't change the fact that it ends up being a barn burner.

Peace, quiet, and a deadly ambush

After all of the Last Alliance drama that closes out the Second Age, the first few centuries of the Third Age begin with a well-earned dose of peace and quiet. This makes sense as the age kicks off with Sauron's defeat, the loss of his Ring, and the scattering of his servants. During these early years, Elrond of Rivendell gets hitched to Galadriel's daughter, Celebrían, and they have three children, twin sons and a daughter named Arwen — yes, that Arwen.

In addition, fresh off of his victory over Sauron, Isildur becomes the high king of the realms of both Gondor and its sister kingdom of Arnor. He spends a while in Gondor, where he records the story of how he acquired the One Ring, an account that Gandalf would dig up in the archives of Minas Tirith thousands of years later.

After initially taking care of business in the south, Isildur leaves the kingdom of Gondor and heads north towards Arnor. He never gets there, though. On the way, he's ambushed by orcs and killed in the Great River, where the Ring sinks to the bottom of the water and disappears from history. Isildur's heirs continue to rule over Gondor and Arnor, both of which steadily thrive in the initial absence of the Dark Lord.

The wizards arrive in Middle-earth

Roughly a thousand years into the Third Age, the wizards (or "Istari") first show up on the scene. Tolkien's wizards don't tend to line up with the traditional fantasy beings by the same name. They're angelic entities that are specifically sent from their immortal home in the West (the same place Frodo sails to at the end of The Return of the King) to resist the growing power of Sauron. Each one is "clothed" in their old man bodies in order to restrict their powers just in case they, you know, get corrupted and try to compete with, rather than topple, the Dark Lord — Saruman, anyone?

There are officially five wizards, known collectively as the Order of the Wizards — although it should be pointed out that in Tolkien's posthumously published book Unfinished Tales, it claims that the official number of wizards is technically unknown. The known wizards include Saruman, Gandalf, Radagast, Alatar, and Pallando. The last two are often referred to as the "Blue Wizards." They travel far east, where they disappear from the story. The other three Istari remain very much in the thick of things as the Third Age progresses.

Step aside, the hour of men is at hand

Before getting too far into the story stuff, it's helpful to point out one quick but important geopolitical shift that takes place in the Third Age. As we already mentioned, the First Age was primarily focused on the elves, who were at the peak of their immortal power at the time. In the Second Age, the focus shifts to a mishmash of elves (who are still powerful), men (who are on the rise), and dwarves (whose power is also peaking thanks to their then-splendiferous underground kingdom of Khazad-dûm).

However, the Third Age sees a major shift in Middle-earth politics as the elves and dwarves slowly begin to fade into the background and the surging power of men steps further into the spotlight. In other words, when you break it down, the era is primarily focused on men, even if, technically, all of the Free Peoples are gearing up together for another round in their ongoing grudge match with Sauron — who, we can assure you, may be down for the count but is nowhere near defeated.

Realms in exile

Gondor and Arnor are the most important major nations of men during the Third Age. They're settled towards the end of the Second Age by a blessed race of men called the Númenóreans after Sauron corrupts their king and causes their island nation to be destroyed in an Atlantis-like catastrophe. The survivors of the destruction set up two kingdoms in exile — Gondor in the south and Arnor in the north.

Early in the Third Age, Arnor is divided into three separate kingdoms — obviously, just to make sure everything stays as complicated as possible. Naturally, this divided trio of realms doesn't get along well, and the region eventually collapses in on itself like a dying star (an event we'll see in detail in just a second). This leaves Gondor as the lone survivor in the south. Unlike its sister kingdom, Gondor remains whole and, for a while, even grows more powerful. During this period of initial superpower status, the men of Gondor spread out across Middle-earth and even build several forts and towers to help watch over Sauron's defeated dominions. One of these is the very tower that later serves as Frodo's prison after he's stung by Shelob.

The loss of a king

Even though it manages to survive and even thrive for a while, over time, Gondor deals with a variety of different challenges that sap its strength. One of the biggest of these revolves around the simple fact that, about 2,000 years into the age, their childless king, a macho dude named Eärnur, is challenged by the Witch-king to single combat. Mocking the Gondorian leader and playing off his ego, the Witch-king's challenge lures Eärnur into a trap set by the Ringwraiths, and the king of Gondor disappears without an heir.

This hamstrings Gondor's leadership and takes a good amount of the wind out of its national sails, metaphorically speaking. Since there are no witnesses of the king's death, the event leaves the stewards (that is, the second-in-command) ruling the ever-shrinking nation for the last third of the age. In The Return of the King, it tells us that each steward accepts the position with the understanding that it was only until the king "shall return," setting the stage for Aragorn's return a thousand years later.

Wars in Gondor

Along with eventually losing their king, Gondor also slowly becomes entangled in a series of knockdown, drag-out conflicts that absolutely devastate its ability to defend itself. Halfway through the age, a civil war called the Kin-strife causes untold damage, and even once things are patched back up, the losers retreat southward, where they join up with the Corsairs of Umbar. This even sets up the situation that we see in The Return of the King when Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and the Army of the Dead confront those same corsairs in their Black Ships.

Civil war aside, Gondor also gets attacked multiple times by other nations throughout the Third Age. One of the biggest of these attacks comes from a group of Easterling nomads called the Wainriders. Their first assault comes nearly 2,000 years into the age, and it's so intense that these new enemies nearly destroy Gondor before they, themselves, are ambushed and defeated.

All of this gets a bit tricky, but the main takeaway is that while Gondor does survive, the running wars with multiple enemies over thousands of years slowly wear down the nation's ability to protect its allies — and eventually, even itself — from danger.

Rohan is founded

Gondor manages to deal with most of the various invasions and crises that are thrown its way over the course of the Third Age, but around 2,500 years into the age (right around the same time that Gollum discovers the One Ring), they run into a challenge that they straight-up can't handle. A massive army of Easterlings called the Balchoth savagely attack Gondor's northern province — a lightly populated area of rolling hills and grassy plains called, at the time, Calenardhon (with the "dh" making a "the" sound.) Initially, the province is overrun, and Gondor's armies are sent packing.

But then, at the very moment of imminent defeat, a massive cavalry led by a dude named Eorl shows up. These horsemen lived in the north and had responded to a request for aid just in time to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. After collectively mopping up their enemies, the Gondorians award their new best friends the entire region as a sign of gratitude. The horsemen decide this sounds like a pretty grand idea, and they'd like to stick around and help these Gondorians when they can. They migrate into the area and settle down in their new homeland, which they rename Rohan.

War with the Witch-king

While Gondor is definitely a Third Age hot spot, there are plenty of other areas on the continent that see a ton of action during this time, as well. For instance, halfway through the age, the Witch-king — the same fella whom Éowyn later kills during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields — arrives in the north and stirs up trouble for the divided and collapsing kingdom of Arnor. The Ringwraith founds the kingdom of Angmar and then gathers hordes of new servants to make war on the northern peoples of Middle-earth.

The fighting that follows drags on for the next several centuries. This is the same time that the tower on Weathertop is initially destroyed, creating the same ruins where Frodo is stabbed — by the Witch-king, no less — at the end of the age. The calamitous wars with the Witch-king last a long time. At one point in the fighting, Elrond even saves the day when he arrives with an army from Lothlórien. In spite of all of the heroics, though, Arnor is slowly ground into powder, leaving its surviving people scattered and its line of kings — eventually including Aragorn — living as Rangers in the wilderness.

Nevertheless, it's actually the Witch-king who ultimately loses out. Just when he's about to fully conquer his enemies, a relief army from Gondor arrives and utterly destroys Angmar. But the Witch-king escapes the disaster, and soon afterward, he appears in Mordor, where, ever the troublemaker, he challenges the last king of Gondor to the aforementioned duel.

The Shire is founded in the Third Age

With all of these epic events swirling, it's easy to lose sight of one of the most quietly famous of all of Tolkien's peoples — hobbits. While they generally live their peaceful lives in the background, though, they do pop up on the radar from time to time. The little people don't appear in Middle-earth history until the Third Age. Once they show up, they slowly migrate into the northwestern portion of the continent. Here, in the year 1601 — a very important date for any hobbit — they found the Shire. They receive permission to do this from one of the kings of the already splintered kingdom of Arnor, and in The Fellowship of the Ring, it even explains that they "sent some bowmen to the aid of the king" during the final part of the destructive war with the Witch-king.

After Arnor fully collapses, the hobbits of the Shire more or less rule themselves, occasionally dealing with challenges of one sort or another. Sometimes, these are minor events, like when things get too cramped and a group migrates out of the Shire to create the area called "Buckland" — the same mini-country that Merry Brandybuck hails from. Wolves invade at one point, too, and a few hundred years before The Lord of the Rings takes place, a group of goblins even attack the Shire. This last event leads to the Battle of Greenfields, one of the only two battles to take place in the Shire during the entire Third Age.

A plague ravages Middle-earth

With so many wars and invasions going on throughout the Third Age, it's hard to believe that anything worse could be in store for the unhappy free peoples of Middle-earth. History is rarely ever fair, though, and we're just getting to the worst catastrophe of them all — the Great Plague.

Soon after the Shire is founded, a terrifyingly deadly plague arrives in Middle-earth. In the appendix to The Return of the King, it explains that this pestilence is pretty much the "greatest evil" that Gondor ever faces, which is a pretty big deal, all things considered. It also states that the sickness "came with dark winds out of the East," going on to strongly hint that it coincides with a variety of other evil events that collectively point to a newly resurgent Dark Lord.

As far as the Great Plague, in particular, is concerned, we're talking about an utter catastrophe — not just to the men of Gondor but for their enemies, their allies, and all of Middle-earth besides. It kills the ruling king of Gondor and his children (yes, this is before the last king dies at the hands of the Nazgûl), and then it spreads across the continent, devastating every region that it touches, including the hobbits of the Shire. Many areas become abandoned afterward, and it soon becomes clear that Gondor doesn't have enough manpower to maintain its watch on Mordor any longer, opening up the doors for first the Ringwraiths and later Sauron himself to return to their ancient homeland.

A balrog awakens

So far, we've talked an awful lot about the doings of men, hobbits, elves, and wizards ... but what about the dwarves? Where were the bearded folk during all of the Third Age hubbub? As it turns out, they certainly weren't sitting around twiddling their thumbs. Ever since the Second Age, their epic subterranean mansion of Khazad-dûm — later known as Moria — had been the crown jewel of the dwarven dwellings of Middle-earth. It had survived and thrived during the Second Age and continued to blossom for the first 2,000 years of the Third Age.

However, 1,981 years into that age, the busy miners discover the last thing that they expected — a balrog. The fiery demon had likely hidden deep under their mountain kingdom ever since the end of the First Age, over 5,000 years earlier. And now, like a mindless construction worker who hits a gas pipe while they're excavating, the dwarves unearth the balrog and wake it from its slumber. The monster attacks the dwarves, kills their king and his son, and then drives the survivors out of their ancient home. This is when the mines become known by the dark, new cognomen Moria, meaning the "Black Pit." Scattered by the unexpected event, the dwarves spend the next couple of decades wandering in sorrowful, dispossessed exile. However, some of the hardy folk find a new lease on life when they head northeast and eventually arrive at the Lonely Mountain, where they settle down and start over.

Dealing with dragons

The new dwarven mansion built under the Lonely Mountain, and referred to as the "Kingdom under the Mountain," quickly becomes prosperous. However, not all of the displaced dwarves decide to make it their new home. Some head far east, where they settle down in the Iron Hills. These are the same dwarves that arrive to help Thorin and his companions during the Battle of Five Armies.

Others migrate further north to the Grey Mountains, where they explore new lands and find hordes of previously untapped wealth. In doing so, though, they once again run smack dab into a larger-than-life problem that no one could've predicted — dragons. And yes, that's plural, as in dragons.

The problem is, the Grey Mountains happen to be located near to a barren waste populated by the great worms. These creatures had been slowly rebuilding their strength ever since the catastrophic end of the First Age killed so many of their kind. Finally strong once again, in The Return of the King, it says that these dragons "made war on the dwarves and plundered their works." The fighting is intense, and yet another dwarven king and his son are killed in combat. Eventually, the dwarven survivors withdraw from the rich mountainous region. Some of these return to the Lonely Mountain, where they lead blissfully ignorant, happy lives for a bit ... that is, until Smaug follows them a few centuries later, attacking their home and scattering them once again in the lead-up to The Hobbit story.

A war between dwarves and orcs

As if balrogs and dragons weren't enough trouble, in the late Third Age, the dwarves also conduct a violent war with the orcs of the Misty Mountains. This happens after one of their leaders — Thorin Oakenshield's grandfather, Thror — is irreverently killed by the orc chieftain Azog (the white orc in The Hobbit trilogy films). The call for vengeance goes out, and dwarves from across Middle-earth gather together.

This leads to the War of the Dwarves and the Orcs. In The Return of the King, it's said that the war is "long and deadly, and fought for the most part in deep places beneath the earth." It also explains that it's a cruel war in which "both sides were pitiless, and there was death and cruel deeds by dark and by light." The dwarves steadily destroy every orc stronghold they can find until the only enemies that remain are a huge army of orcs cooped up in their old mansion of Moria.

The two sides then fight a massive battle in front of the gates of Moria. Thorin gains his nickname of "Oakenshield" during the conflict, and contrary to the Peter Jackson films, Azog meets a violent death in the fighting, as well. The dwarves are victorious, but nearly half of them die, and they decide that they cannot defeat the balrog and reclaim Moria at that time, leaving most of the bearded folk in tragic exile, waiting for their revenge on Smaug.

Middle-earth's Watchful Peace

As all of the wars and plagues of the Third Age play out, it steadily becomes clear that a single will is conducting events and stirring up mischief everywhere possible. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and we know that someone is Sauron, but no one is sure of that at first. Initially, the Dark Lord secretly sets up shop in the stronghold of Dol Guldur in southern Mirkwood. Then, two millennia into the age, Gandalf the Grey shows up and forces his still-weak, masked opponent to retreat far into the eastern regions of Middle-earth.

This begins a four-century stretch of time known as the Watchful Peace, in which Sauron more or less leaves the western regions of the continent alone as he gatherers his strength and plots and prepares with his servants in the East. This comes as a welcome breather for the exhausted men, elves, and dwarves, but it isn't the end of their woes — not by a long shot. Precisely 400 years later, Sauron returns to Dol Guldur again, becoming known far and wide as "the Necromancer."

The White Council, the Necromancer, and the One Ring

As Sauron's power continues to build and the Free Peoples steadily weaken, a group of wise leaders — including Gandalf, Saruman, Galadriel, and Elrond — form the White Council to resist what they collectively suspect to be the growing might of the resurgent Dark Lord. The council only meets a handful of times, but eventually, they decide to attack the Necromancer and drive him out of Mirkwood. Counting on this, Sauron gives way and pretends to retreat — only to use the opportunity to relocate to Mordor.

Oh, and around this time, a small hobbit-like creature also happens to stumble across a ring while he's fishing. His name? Déagol. He's murdered shortly afterward by his covetous friend, Sméagol, who claims the ring as his birthday present. The future Gollum is gradually perverted by the bauble — which happens to be the One Ring that Isildur lost 2,500 years earlier — and is eventually exiled from his home. Taking his powerful jewelry with him, he worms his way deep into the Misty Mountains, where he lives for the next several centuries.

A wizard moves to Isengard

A few hundred years after the One Ring is discovered, a small event takes place that ends up having huge consequences — Saruman moves into Isengard. Since his arrival in Middle-earth, the White Wizard had been working his way up in the world, and at this point, he's the head of the White Council and the chief of the Order of the Wizards. In the book Unfinished Tales, Tolkien writes that Saruman initially headed "into the East" with the Blue Wizards. But while the pair of cerulean loremasters never return, Saruman does.

Eventually, the White Wizard decides to settle down and, as Treebeard puts it in The Two Towers, begins truly "plotting to become a power." Rather than wander about and help others, Saruman begins to be seen as a bona fide political leader, simultaneously inflating his ego and his ambitions. He starts to put his deep knowledge to crooked and malicious uses and begins to turn Isengard into the center of what eventually becomes a mini-nation.

Smaug and the dwarves

At this point, we're starting to reach the well-trodden years of the very end of the Third Age — stuff that's thoroughly covered in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings stories. First up, we have the legendary showdown between Smaug and the dwarves. As the decades roll by after Smaug the Golden overthrows the Kingdom under the Mountain, the exiled dwarves steadily dream of revenge.

Then, one day, the mover and shaker Gandalf the Grey bumps into Thorin Oakenshield at the Prancing Pony in Bree. Together, the wizard and the dwarf hatch a plot that eventually sees 13 dwarves and a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins traveling east to reclaim the dwarves' homeland. The adventure leads to Bilbo finding the One Ring, Smaug being killed, and the Battle of Five Armies annihilating the goblins of the Misty Mountains, all of which perfectly tees up the fast-approaching War of the Ring.

The Third Age and the War of the Ring

At long last, we've reached the events of The Lord of the Rings. Tucked away in the last few decades of the Third Age, the epic events of the War of the Ring serve as the perfect crescendo to an already jam-packed 3,000-year long age. The faltering, ever-weaker West does its level best to resist the surging might of Mordor, but the Dark Lord's second attempt to conquer Middle-earth looks inevitable — until the hobbits step in.

After quietly living in their peaceful homeland for half of the age, the halflings of the Shire step into the limelight as Frodo and his servant, Samwise, make the arduous journey across Middle-earth and attempt to destroy the One Ring. They're initially helped by a loyal group of friends known as the Fellowship of the Ring, but over time, this posse disintegrates, and Frodo and Sam complete the quest on their own. They reach Mordor, and they eventually manage to destroy the Ring (with a little help from Gollum).

In the meantime, the rest of the members of the Fellowship of the Ring fan out across Middle-earth, each helping in their own unique yet essential ways. Merry and Pippin stir up the ents to attack Isengard, while Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli help to deliver Rohan and Gondor from danger. Plus, the ever-present Gandalf gets into the thick of things anywhere and everywhere.

The aftermath of the Third Age

When the dust settles after the War of the Ring, the One Ring is destroyed, and the Dark Lord is finally, truly defeated. He isn't "killed" per se, but as Gandalf puts it in The Return of the King, "If [the Ring] is destroyed, then [Sauron] will fall ... and he will be maimed forever, becoming a mere spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows, but cannot again grow or take shape."

Sauron's final defeat paves the way for the Ranger Aragorn to finally become the long-awaited king, not just of Gondor but of Arnor, as well. The four hobbit members of the Fellowship of the Ring return to the Shire where, in the book, they find their homeland overrun with Saruman's minions and have to fight the Battle of Bywater in order to drive the invaders out.

After this, everyone settles down and begins to live life again — except for Frodo. His spirit irrevocably damaged by the ordeal of bearing the One Ring, Frodo joins his cousin, Bilbo, and Galadriel, Elrond, and Gandalf — the three keepers of the Elven Rings — and sails away with them into the West, headed for the Blessed Realm. And with their departure, the Third Age comes to a somber yet happy ending.