The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is a contender for the biggest TV event this year, and the show’s estimated 100 million-strong audience represents a huge number of potential new readers. This book covers the same fictional period in Middle-earth history, the Second Age. If you want the genuine Tolkien version of the era, here it is in one rather beautiful package. And it could also be the palate cleanser you crave if you disliked the show and prefer to go back to the authentic flavour of Middle-earth and the doomed island nation of Númenor.
“Go back” is right. The book marshals material hitherto scattered through many posthumous publications from 1977’s The Silmarillion onwards. In this, it broadly follows recent editions by Tolkien’s son Christopher, who died in 2020. Editor Brian Sibley made the superb 1981 BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and knows his Tolkien. Ending long before that story of questing hobbits, the Second Age runs from the end of the mythological Silmarillion and the defeat of primal dark lord Morgoth to the epochal but temporary defeat of his successor Sauron. That’s three-and-a-half millennia.
So The Fall of Númenor is not a single story. Mostly it interweaves complex events and motives into what Tolkien called “feigned history”. Immortals such as Sauron and the elf-queen Galadriel crop up throughout, but most of the mortal players rise and return to dust in a page or two. Yet this is a literary strength, because mortality itself is the undertow drawing Númenor slowly but inexorably towards disaster.
An opening survey of the land and its denizens is best read for its sheer delight in world-building, of which Tolkien remains the acknowledged master. Created as a reward for mortals who helped defeat Morgoth, Tolkien’s Númenor owes much to Thomas More’s Utopia. To the happy Númenoreans, “all things, including the Sea, were friendly”. Bears dance for sheer pleasure; the fox leaves the hens alone; hunters hunt only at need.
The second act is a novelette, a take on the Norse myth of Njord and Skadi. Tar-Aldarion, seafaring heir to Númenor’s sceptre, courts and weds the wilful land-lover Erendis. If there is anyone still convinced that Tolkien wrote only for adolescent boys (a common criticism at one time), this tale should give them pause. With its sharp social observation and trenchant dialogue, it could almost have been written by Ursula K Le Guin. Erendis skewers male privilege brilliantly: Númenor’s men only show anger, she observes, “when they become aware, suddenly, that there are other wills in the world beside their own”. And she urges her daughter: “Do not bend … bend a little, and they will bend you further until you are bowed down.” But, denied almost all agency by an overwhelming patriarchy, Erendis has to choose between royal servitude and bitter isolation. In his self-indulgent voyaging, her absent husband seems a boy indeed – until we learn about the real, existential danger that has kept him away.
Though sadly unfinished, the tale of Aldarion and Erendis sets the stage for parallel tracks forward: in Middle-earth, the rise of Sauron with the creation of the Rings of Power; and in Númenor, a nightmarish tilt from utopia to dystopia. A jeremiad against wilfully self-destructive greed, the book brings us to a pitch of dread. And the climax – engineered by Sauron as puppeteer of a craven king – is an Atlantean cataclysm.
Fearful about 2022 and what’s to come? You will find uncomfortable resonances here. They reflect Tolkien’s anxieties about dictatorships and the approach of war when he first developed the story in 1936–7. Those fears are palpably immediate in part of another unfinished novelette, The Lost Road, included as an appendix.
Narrative flow is halting at times because The Fall of Númenor uses the chronology at the back of The Lord of the Rings as its structuring framework. But this book could show the Folio Society a thing or two. Veteran Middle-earth illustrator Alan Lee provides a dozen powerful paintings inside, and a generous scattering of exquisite pencil sketches. His figures live; the architecture of his towers and temples forms a kind of running commentary; even his frames are fascinating. His cover is an apocalyptic panorama as terrifying as any John Martin painting.
Physically beautiful and sometimes overwhelming in its power, this book is a grand compendium of all Tolkien said about the period when the foundations of The Lord of the Rings are laid – the era that Amazon attempts to dramatise in The Rings of Power.
I can’t pretend to have enjoyed the show wholeheartedly. Too often the high dialogue of elves sinks to banality. Undeniably spectacular moments are undermined by plot mechanics – in the case of the eruption of Mount Doom, literally so. The Amazon team have failed to learn a primary Tolkienian lesson: never explain how magic and enchantment work. To paraphrase Frodo Baggins, the show sometimes looks fair but feels foul.
The action is compressed into the final years of the period, with Galadriel squeezed in wherever possible – but then few TV companies would have the courage to build a cast of characters who mostly died of old age before the next season. No one would put millions behind a story as subtle as Aldarion and Erendis – and actually Amazon can’t, anyway; the adaptation rights include almost none of the wealth of detail contained in this book, but only what little The Lord of the Rings itself says about the Second Age. So the screenwriters must actively avoid telling the same story Tolkien tells, while trying to sound like him. And no one tells a story like him.
• John Garth is the author of The Worlds of JRR Tolkien (Frances Lincoln). The Fall of Númenor by JRR Tolkien, edited by Brian Sibley and illustrated by Alan Lee, is published by HarperCollins (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.