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Why The Location Of The First Series Image Of Amazon's Middle-Earth Show Is A Big Deal

Middle-earth fans have had a very long wait ever since they found out way back in 2017 that Amazon bought the rights to a portion of Tolkien's works. The initial excitement caused by the announcement has been followed by a steady simmer as the years have slowly rolled by with little-to-no sign of the impending show in sight. By and large, Tolkien fandom has been stuck in neutral, waiting in an informationless voice denser than the shadowless depths of Mirkwood.

Then, on August 2, 2021, a shaft of light broke through the darkness. Without warning, Amazon published a press release sharing that the long-awaited show would begin airing on September 2 of 2022 — a mere 13 months in the future. Fans were ecstatic to have a bonafide date to hang their hopes on.

Accompanying the announcement, the studio also popped a gorgeous picture up on the show's Twitter page, which it described as a "first series image." The picture shows an unknown figure gazing out at a breathtaking panorama. Mountains border the image with a stunning city in between. Off in the distance, what appears to be either a setting or rising sun hangs, obscured in its own glare. But it isn't a sun. Upon closer look, it's fairly clear that the light emanates from a pair of ethereal trees off in the distance. It took all of two seconds before well-informed Tolkienites started narrowing their guesses, quickly deciding in their cumulative wisdom that the image did, indeed, contain the Two Trees of Valinor.

Except, yeah ... what the heck are the Two Trees of Valinor? It's a fair question, even for die-hard fans. It turns out that one must dig further back into the substantial chronicles of "The Silmarillion" in order to answer that mystery properly.

A long, long time ago in the Blessed Realm...

Together, the Two Trees are located in an area of Tolkien's universe commonly referred to as the Blessed Realm, the Undying Lands, or Aman. The Blessed Realm is an entire continent located to the west of Middle-earth. In fact, when perusing Tolkien's writings, many of the references to "the West" talk about this mysterious realm away over the sea — and yes, this is the area that Frodo and Bilbo sail off to at the end of "The Return of the King."

On the continent of the Blessed Realm is an area called Valinor. This is an immortal kingdom located in the center of the continent where godlike beings called the Valar (the group's leaders) and the Maiar (the rest of the spiritual beings) live alongside a bunch of Elves. In fact, early in Middle-earth history, these angelic spirits actually build Valinor as a protection against the wiles of the original Dark Lord, Morgoth.

The team constructs a massive mountain range called the Pelóri that faces Middle-earth away over the ocean. "The Silmarillion" explains that after that's built, "the Valar established their domain in that region which is called Valinor; and there were their houses, their gardens, and their towers." It goes on to say that the land "was blessed, for the Deathless dwelt there."

This all happens before the sun and moon are created. So, two of the Valar, called Yavanna and Nienna, team up and create a pair of glorious shining trees. These take turns waxing and waning, creating a twelve-hour day between the two of them. These two marvels are called the Two Trees of Valinor.

The Two Trees exist very early in Middle-earth history

The Two Trees are an iconic part of Tolkien's works. They serve as the de facto light source for all of the Blessed Realm for a very long time. Sure, their light doesn't extend to the cold, dark lands of Middle-earth across the seas, but the stars are created around this point to help brighten things up for anyone living "outside" the Blessed Realm.

The concept of the Two Trees isn't a surprise for anyone who's read "The Silmarillion." Seeing them in Amazon's image, though? Well, that's a shocker. See, the time that the arboreal wonders light up the world is an era known as the Years of the Trees. This lasts for a lengthy 15,000 years and only ends when the Two Trees are destroyed, the Sun and Moon are created, and the First Age begins.

This sounds good on the surface — everyone knows that the show is going way back in Middle-earth history. And when you're working with immortal Elves, what's the difference between hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of years, right?

The thing is, Amazon Studios itself has made it clear that its show isn't supposed to be taking place during the First Age or earlier. One of the first leaks for the series was its synopsis, which literally starts with the line "Amazon Studios' forthcoming series brings to screens for the very first time the heroic legends of the fabled Second Age of Middle-earth's history." 

The thing is, even if you're counting from the very last days of the Two Trees to the first years of the Second Age, we're still looking at a time gap of over 500 years. How do the show's primary focus and the first look image sync up?

Does Amazon have access to more than just the Second Age?

Up until recently, most signs pointed to the fact that the show was not allowed to access these earlier periods of "The Silmarillion," with the Second Age apparently the only time period covered by the company's option. For instance, Tolkien Scholar Tom Shippey, who was involved in the project, mentioned in an interview that the First and Third ages were more or less "off-limits." However, another leak that was released and confirmed by the fan site TheOneRing.net earlier in the summer of 2021 did claim that "for the 1st time EVER: elements & passages from 'The Silmarillion' and 'Unfinished Tales' are licensed by Amazon Studios for this adaptation."

For most, this simply confirmed that the show was allowed to use the Second Age portions of the book. However, the image released by Amazon seems to contradict this, at least if the First Age speculation proves to be true. Far from being barred from the earlier history, by all appearances, the studio at least seems to be allowed to use at least some material from before the Second Age ...and is already making use of those rights more than a year before the show is officially released to the public.

The only other explanation we can think of is that the studio is using a very brief reference to the Two Trees in the appendix material at the end of the book "The Return of the King." The opening paragraph of the appendix summarizes these early events and makes mention of "the radiance of the Two Trees...that gave light to the land of the Valar."

The question is, where do the permissions stop? Does the studio have the rights to briefly touch on the Blessed Realm and the Two Trees, per "The Return of the King" commentary? Or are they allowed to dig deeper into the Silmarillion-level context leading up to the Second Age focus of the show? It's an open question at this point.

What is the city, though?

Another interesting question worth asking is what city we're looking at in the image. It isn't an easy question to answer. On the contrary, even the Tolkien experts over at TheOneRing.net couldn't come to a consensus.

That said, both staffers and Tolkien fans across the interweb have leaned toward a couple of strong candidates. Many think the city is the mighty Elvish city Tirion upon Túna (and yes, that's pronounced like the fish.) That city is on a hill in a mountain pass, so it's our officially certified Looper guess that Tirion is the most likely candidate. The other option is the Elvish city Valmar. This is another good guess, as it's located right next to the Two Trees. The only problem is that it should be pretty far from the mountains.

Along with the specific location, fans have been busy making various connections between the city and existing cinematic Middle-earth content. For instance, some have pointed out the similarities between the city and the Gray Havens of Third Age Middle-earth. Others have highlighted how much the architecture is reminiscent of Minas Tirith. Some have even pointed out that the minute watercraft shown in the lower left of the high-res photo looks like the swan-shaped boats of Lothlorien.

Some have suggested that the city in the picture could be multiple cities combined through artistic license (a factor that would certainly ruffle the feathers of many die-hards.) One member of the TOR staff even brought up the idea of a "composite shot" that mixed views looking back across time and memory "to what came before the Second Age." That would definitely make it easier to get away with a Two Trees reference even if Amazon doesn't fully have the rights to that material.

What are we actually looking at here?

All of this guessing is fun, but the question that still remains unanswered is what we're seeing here. Seriously. When this picture was posted, the show had been wrapped in mystery for almost four years with the primary piece of information being the fact that it's going to center on the Second Age. Okay, great — but this image appears to not even be from that time period, but from an era at least half a millennia earlier.

Could it be a flashback that an immortal Elf will have at some point during the show? Or is it a shot from a chunk of exposition that they'll need to use in the first episode to set the stage for the Second Age that follows? Maybe the marketing team is pulling an Avengers: Endgame stunt by only using footage from the first few minutes to keep anticipation high and the possibility of spoilers low. Or perhaps they're even going full Russo Brothers on us by making up content that won't even be in the show.

The truth is, we simply cannot definitely declare what this picture is. The identities of both the city and the individual are equally hard to peg.

There are only two certainties, at this point. First, based on this image, we know that Amazon is really doing its homework with this one. The stunning detail and emotions wrapped up in the shot are incredible. Second, the studio is really keeping its cards close to the chest when it comes to reliable information about its Middle-earth project. Guess it's back to the dark webs of Mirkwood to wait for the next tidbit of information to drool over as we count down the months until the premier.