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The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is a series that features many intriguing storytelling prospects, but perhaps none loom larger in the minds of Tolkien fans than the story of Númenór.
By the time of The Lord of the Rings, it's a distant memory, a once-great kingdom long since sunk into the sea, leaving remnants of its greatness scattered throughout Middle-earth and the history of the Kingdoms of Men. But in The Second Age, where The Rings of Power picks up the story thousands of years before Frodo picks up the One Ring, Númenór is still a gleaming, powerful sovereignty, greatest of the realms of Men, where its citizens use their Elven heritage and knowledge to build a world superpower.
But all is not as it seems. Even before the Númenórean culture meets its ultimate doom, there are major ideological battles to be fought between the powerful leaders of the island kingdom. At the time of The Rings of Power, two major factions are vying for control over Númenór's future, as the leadership faces a choice between embracing heritage, or embracing progress.
"When we see the island kingdom of Númenór, we see a perceived unity," Trystan Gravelle, who plays the Númenórean royal advisor Pharazôn, tells SYFY WIRE. "We see it as a masterclass in social cohesion, but I think there is an emotional disconnect at its center. There is a schism between the Faithful, who want to remember and celebrate their Elvish connections and roots, and the King's Men, of which Pharazôn is one, who want to be a little bit more innovative and I guess take it in a direction where they celebrate themselves and don't need to look at themselves as second class citizens. Because I think that's probably what you would do if you were celebrating Elvish culture. You'd be asking yourself the question, 'Oh, what am I doing here? And why can't I live forever?'"
Created as a gift to various leaders of Men in the wake of the War of Wrath, and founded by half-Elven leaders according to Tolkien's writing, Númenór has always been a fascinating merging of the world of Elves and the world of Men, and certain bloodlines for old Númenór have exceedingly long mortal lives because of their ties to the city's founder (that's why Aragorn, for example, is in his '80s but looks much younger). It's this history, and the ancestral pull that it brings to the kingdom's government, that creates a certain degree of tension even in such a powerful nation. Sitting at the top of it all is Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), the current Queen Regent of Númenór, who must navigate the ideological divide which Pharazon's help.
"She is sort of navigating between essentially two ideas," Addai-Robinson says. "[There's] the idea of maintaining tradition and adhering to tradition, specifically the sort of Elven tradition in Númenórean ancestry, and the idea of progress, modernization, moving forward and leaving the old ways behind. So through the course of Season 1, we're going to see how she navigates between those two factions, and the implications of the choices that she ultimately needs to make, that determine the fate of her people."
Though there are many figures, both new and established in Tolkien lore, who will help determine the island's final fate, the focus of The Rings of Power will be especially tight on a very familiar family to anyone who knows the story of the One Ring. Though they will eventually become kings of human realms in Middle-earth itself, Elendil (Lloyd Owen) and his son Isildur (Maxim Baldry) enter The Rings of Power as a family of great seafarers, whose own internal allegiances are shifting as their homeland's own divisions become more clear.
"For, it is a Tolkienian theme that comes out, the battle between his head and his heart," Owen says of Elendil. "His heart is Elvish. His heart is connected to the Faithful, but his head realizes that, pragmatically and practically, the safest place to be is in Númenór. And this move towards a slightly more nationalistic Númenór, again, is replicated in the family, because some of the children are taking different positions accordingly. So, he feels that pull to responsibility, and it's a gradual realization perhaps of where his fate might lie, despite the fact that he's the reluctant hero in that story. So that's where we see him Season 1."
Baldry adds, "Isildur is a young sailor who is at a bit of a crossroads, confused, wants to follow his father's footsteps and become a ship's captain, but also wants to do his own thing and travel and explore and find himself, find his voice. I wanted to make him as relatable as possible and as human as possible, because he does make a lot of mistakes along the way, and I think you could see yourself in him."
To deepen the stakes of Elendil's family, The Rings of Power has also added a brand-new character to the group in the form of Eärien (Ema Horvath), Isildur's younger sister, an aspiring architect with her own ideas about how the kingdom's future should look.
"When we meet her, she's dealing with the death of their mother," Horvath says. "Anárion [Elendil's other son] has run away to the other side of the island and her oldest brother Isildur is kind of toying with that idea. And she's the one sort of tasked with being the mom and trying to keep everyone together. And at the same time, she's quite ambitious and fairly talented and smart, and selfishly also wants to take advantage of that. So she's balancing her own ambition with the love for her family. I think her world is very small at this point, the sort of larger philosophical questions about Númenór are starting to enter her mind, but they're not fully present."
Though we haven't yet met them in the first two episodes of the series, these characters and more will breathe life into Númenór in a way fans have never seen before, but they aren't the only major characters adding depth to The Rings of Power. There's also the character of Númenór itself, an island kingdom that was built using numerous, very detailed practical elements, to the delight of the cast.
"You're talking about depicting a kingdom that's at the peak of its power and wealth, so that needs to obviously come across in the production design, in the sets, in the costumes," Addai-Robinson says. "So there are those details that hearken back to what we were talking about, the Elven ancestry, and you see it in the architecture, you see it on the walls of the town. These are 360-degree view, complete sets that truly blew me away, that truly transported me. Every sense is stimulated. The smell in the air, the sound of lapping water, the visuals of seeing all of our incredible background artists in full regalia, you don't have to make a giant leap. It's not a green screen fest, where you have to look at tape and try to imagine. "It's all there. It's all built with the utmost care. I have never worked on anything that truly had that amount of detail embedded in the world, so that some days you really would look around and you were just there. And you could then be present and really be that character in that place, in that moment."
For many longtime Tolkien fans, the prospect of seeing the glory of Númenór depicted in live-action for the first time was always one of the biggest draws to The Rings of Power, and the gravity of that was not lost on the cast and crew.
"They built Númenór," Owen says. "I mean, it's quite extraordinary, the set that they built, the granular level of detail. So this is Atlantis. This is Tolkien's Atlantis, but it's also the Greek empire at its peak. It's the Roman empire at its peak. It's Byzantium. It's Santorini. It's all of those things, and to step into that has been absolutely fantastic. In fact, my first scene away from the set was on a beach, and [co-creator J.D. Payne] said to me at the time, 'Do you realize this is the first time we're establishing the physical geography of Númenór?' What a privilege that was to be on that beach riding a horse, and then saying, 'This is the island of Númenór.' It was a great moment."
New episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power arrive Fridays on Amazon Prime Video.
Looking for some fantasy content to tide you over? Click here for our list of the best fantasy films available on Peacock.