“The way that the whole island [of Númenor] comes about into the storyline is amazing. I’m so excited for you to watch that. Because I love that. As a fan of the show myself … I’m just so excited for how the storyline goes to find the island, which is really special,” so says Maxim Baldry, who plays the infamous Isildur in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – the man responsible for eventually cutting the One Ring from the finger of Sauron and then failing to destroy it. Which, to paraphrase Galadriel, instead of putting evil to sleep once and for all, leaves it free to fester and wait for a chance to re-emerge. It’s important to see and feel that specialness in order to maximise the impact of the destruction we know is coming.
Númenor, in all its pre-Downfall glory, is introduced in Episode 3 of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, with the jazzy fanfare Baldry speaks of, signalling its weightiness. The episode unfolds to showcase the island kingdom’s splendour and immediately begins setting up what’s to come. As with House of the Dragon, another fantasy show prequel that is heavily influenced by author JRR Tolkien’s works, and which is also currently airing weekly, fans of both sagas know how events will pan out. It’s written. We’ve read it. We’ve seen it.
This foresight gives a sense of fate to what we see on screen, enabling us to see more clearly how little and big moments, actions, behaviour, and events will lead to the tragedy of each show’s respective denouements. In The Rings of Power, we can already begin to see how division, secrecy, and political machinations within the stately civilization — along with the worst aspects of Men and a touch of primordial evil thrown into the mix — will ultimately come together to topple it.
Division in Númenor
“There’s a division in Númenor,” says Leon Wadham, who plays Kemen, a character created for the series and the son of Númenorean chancellor, Pharazôn. This tension is something that manifests in their relationship. “There are the people who would like to move back toward that Elvish way of doing things — the old alliance with the Elves — and the people who want to forge a new path. Nationalists, who want to stamp out that Elvish influence and create their own legacy. I’m in the second camp. I’m a young would-be politician. My father Pharazôn is a beloved influential political figure. He’s the chancellor; his cousin is Queen Regent Miríel. Kemen likes the idea of following in his father’s footsteps, but he’s too young to really know what that means yet, and he’s about to find out.”
We learn in Episode 3 that Númenor was gifted to the Men that live there by the Valar because of their alliance with the Elves during the Great War – known as the War of Wrath in the books. This was the fight against Morgoth that closed the First Age. Other Men – the ancestors of Halbrand and his Southlander brethren (and sistren) – supported Morgoth and did not benefit from such a gift.
Galadriel tells us that Elves used to be welcome on Númenor, but now she finds herself largely unwanted and disliked, having arrived on its shores. It’s the failings of Men that The Rings of Power – and indeed Tolkien — is highlighting and warning us about. Whether we draw parallels with our own existence is up to us but they’re there to interpret.
The Failings of Men
One perceived failing is the idea of and insistence on creating a legacy. As the chancellor of Númenor, and consul to the Queen Regent, it’s Pharazôn’s job to maintain the peace and harmony, and make sure they’re all going in the same direction, says Trystan Gravelle who plays the character, about whom we know plenty from the books.
“On the island of Númenor, being mortal, death is all around us. It is inevitable. And I guess with that comes legacy. Not just for myself, but for future generations to learn from as well. I think that’s something that maybe Elves don’t have to worry about. And this young tyke [Kemen] is burning my legacy. So we’re at loggerheads about that. You know: ‘What are you going to do with your life?’”
Baldry says that it’s all about legacy on Númenor.
“It’s such a focal element of our island,” he explains. “And you can see it a lot in the architecture of the buildings. You see that progression of Elven architecture versus new architecture, and it’s kind of built into our city.”
Legacy is something that affects Isildur’s relationship with his father, Elendil – who, like Isildur, is integral to Tolkien’s saga. We also saw both in Peter Jackson’s films. Elendil is the 7’11” Númenorean who led the survivors of the Downfall of the island kingdom to Middle-earth and safety, and who went on to establish Arnor and Gondor. His name in Quenya means “The Elf-friend”, as we learn in Episode 3, which tells you on which side of the fence he falls.
A Family in Mourning
“He’s confused as to where he belongs, what his aims and goals are,” Baldry told us about Isildur, when we spoke at San Diego Comic-Con in July. “He’s trying to fulfill his father’s destiny and be a sea captain. But he’s also desperate for something else. And there’s a deep yearning for the other.”
Indeed, it’s in part the shadow of death that Men must live with in a way that Elves, for example, do not, that affects Isildur’s behaviour profoundly – and that of his father and sister, Eärien, too. Isildur is mourning the loss of his mother.
“He’s got a bit of an issue with authority,” says Baldry. “I think, if you’re grieving — because the family is going through a period of grief — authority can be somewhat overbearing, and you see him trying to break free from that and try and find his own path and way through that. So, that fractures your relationship with your family, especially his father, who is making him go down a path that he’s followed, and Isildur’s rebelling against that.”
Similarly, his mother’s death magnifies the issue of legacy in Elendil’s mind and is likely causing him to double down on his wishes for his son to follow in his footsteps. Isildur’s battle with his father and the practicalities and emotional difficulties that come with losing a parent have wider reverberations. Eärien (another character created for the series) subsequently faces trouble down the line.
Opening the Door to Evil
“She’s Isildur’s younger sister,” Ema Horvath, who plays her, told us at SDCC. “They’ve both been raised by a single dad. So despite being the youngest, she’s kind of trying to be the mother that’s not there. She’s quite capable, and therefore kind of overlooked by her dad, because her brother is far more of a troublemaker. And that lack of attention makes her quite vulnerable to attention from other sources that may or may not be [she pauses] good.”
So, legacy in all its forms is what fundamentally threatens to tear Númenor apart – and it’s laid out from the very first appearance of the island kingdom in The Rings of Power. Men, as opposed to Elves, have short lives — and shorter memories — as well as a propensity for individualism, selfishness, and greed. And so, as the generations of Men on Númenor have grown further away from the events of the Great War and their alliance with the Elves, a growing faction has fallen prey to these characteristics. At the same time, there are those who steadfastly value tradition, history, gratitude, and good relations with the Elves and others, and this tension will almost certainly lead to subterfuge, conflict, and ultimately disaster.
Issues surrounding legacy clearly impact individuals, too, as we’ve explored. Just as Pharazôn wants to leave his mark, and ensure his own personal legacy is in good hands with his son, so Elendil wants to ensure the same for his son. With offspring that are resistant to their father’s plans, and fathers that are frustrated and therefore distracted by and consumed with rectifying this, all hell is set to break loose. And Sauron will be waiting.
Check out what more of the cast of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power had to say below.