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SYFY WIRE The Lord of the Rings

Tolkien scholar says author's estate won't let Amazon change 'history' in LOTR series

By Matthew Jackson
lord of the rings fellowship of the ring gandalf

J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth is, for many fantasy fans, still the gold standard in worldbuilding, because Tolkien himself was never content to simply tell a single, straightforward story. For him, the world and the languages within it often were the story, and the result is a vast network of interconnected characters, lands, and long -ago events that all serve to make Middle-earth feel more real to the reader. As Tolkien's world heads to Amazon for a new Lord of the Rings series, that worldbuilding will also serve to show the series' creators where the boundaries are.

In an interview with The German Tolkien Society, Tokien scholar Tom Shippey — who's credited in Amazon's video introducing the creative team of the new series — was asked how much of a free hand the series will have in telling its own story amid the details already establishing by Tolkien's writings. The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, seems to be that the show will have to stay within the bounds of those established details.

"But it must not contradict anything which Tolkien did say. That’s what Amazon has to watch out for," Shippey said. "It must be canonical, it is impossible to change the boundaries which Tolkien has created, it is necessary to remain 'Tolkienian.'"

As Shippey explained earlier in the interview, though, this is going to be easier than it would be if, say, the show was attempting to weave itself in and out of the events of The Lord of the Rings' main story. The series will be set in the Second Age, at a time when Numenor still stood and Sauron was just beginning his turn to evil that would ultimately lead him to become the titular "Lord of the Rings" and corrupt Middle-earth with his power. Tolkien's writings lay out the major beats of how this happened during the Second Age, but he never wrote a detailed novel about it. It's there that the series can really start to have its fun.

"The Tolkien Estate will insist that the main shape of the Second Age is not altered. Sauron invades Eriador, is forced back by a Númenorean expedition, returns to Númenor. There he corrupts the Númenoreans and seduces them to break the ban of the Valar. All this, the course of history, must remain the same," Shippey explained. "But you can add new characters and ask a lot of questions, like: What has Sauron done in the meantime? Where was he after Morgoth was defeated? Theoretically, Amazon can answer these questions by inventing the answers, since Tolkien did not describe it."

Shippey further clarified that, because of various issues, the show must stick to the Second Age, avoiding the First and Third (when The Lord of the Rings is set) Ages as much as possible. He also explained that the Tolkien estate will be able to "veto" certain elements if they don't agree with them. 

The Lord of the Rings series has set its creative team and found its first cast member, but it does not yet have a release date. Shippey estimates Amazon hopes to have it on our screens by 2021.