Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power begins with an info dump. Elves! Trees! War! Destruction, death, and finally — a great peace.
But is it enough exposition? Due to the unusually specific way in which author J.R.R. Tolkien’s work has been licensed for film, there are many things that the creative team can allude to but not explain. And the biggest of those is the war against the dark god, Morgoth, which forms the bulk of the events of The Silmarillion.
You might have heard The Silmarillion referred to as a “sequel” to The Lord of the Rings. But it’s actually something more complicated: an entire history of Middle-earth, from before the dawn of time to the end of the War of the Ring, compiled from Tolkien’s drafts and notes to the best of his son’s ability. It’s less a novel than a collection of myths about the creation of the world and the great, millennia-long struggle against an evil god.
The Rings of Power is set after the close of that war, which the writers can allude to without detail because the film rights to The Silmarillion have never been sold. In the first two episodes characters mention names like Fëanor and Morgoth, but it falls to nerds like me to unpack it for the layperson as succinctly as possible.
So, what happened in the war against Morgoth? We have to start at the creation of the universe as Tolkien imagined it.
Who is Morgoth?
In the beginning, the supreme creator-god Eru Ilúvatar created a host of subordinate gods, the Valar, with whom he sang Middle-earth into existence. Only Eru could create life; the lesser gods’ job was to prepare Middle-earth for his most important creations, Elves and Men.
Morgoth was among the Valar, but from the beginning desired mastery of living things, until that desire festered into hate. “From splendour he fell,” Tolkien writes, “through arrogance to contempt for all things save himself.” How powerful was Morgoth? Sauron had the Witch-king of Angmar as his most terrifying servant; Morgoth had Sauron.
How did the war start?
When the Valar clashed with Morgoth, their powers would level mountains and move oceans, and eventually they feared to go to war lest they destroy any newly born elves. So they went to the far west, built the heavenly city of Valinor, and invited the elves to come live with them. Middle-earth didn’t come with a sun or moon out of the box, and so the Valar created two massive, glowing trees in Valinor that waxed and waned to provide golden light during the day, silver light at night, and mingled light in between. Elsewhere on Middle-earth, the only illumination was starlight.
Morgoth despised and coveted the trees’ light, and plotted to destroy what he could not make his own. Which brought him into conflict with a tribe of Valinorian Elves, the Noldor, and kicked off the bulk of the story of The Silmarillion.
Meet Fëanor, the freakin’ worst
Tolkien called Fëanor the greatest of the Noldor (Valinor’s craftsman elves) in mind and skill, and said that he invented the written Elven alphabet — high marks from a professor of linguistics. But Fëanor is best known for gem-craft, fashioning jewels more brilliant than could be discovered in the earth. He created the Silmarils, three gems that captured the phases of light from the trees of Valinor.
Fëanor was egotistical and suspicious, and he became paranoid that the Silmarils would be stolen. He was not exactly wrong. Melkor invited Ungoliant, an ancestor of Shelob, into Valinor to suck the trees dry. In the darkness and confusion, he plundered the Silmarils and fled east across the sea. In response, Fëanor made the worst decision in the history of Middle-earth: He swore himself and his seven sons to an unbreakable oath that they would kill anyone, god or mortal, who kept them from the Silmarils.
It’s not that the final war against Morgoth wouldn’t have happened without Fëanor, it’s that this one guy’s hubris would cause it to happen in the worst way. In defiance of the Valar’s advice, Fëanor rallied the Noldor to chase Morgoth across the sea, but they needed ships. And the coastal Teleri elves, the only shipwrights in Aman, declined to help.
So Fëanor made another contribution to elven history: He invented elf-on-elf murder, an act on which the Noldor maintain a gruesome historical monopoly. For slaughtering the Teleri, the Valar banned Fëanor and all who went with him from returning to Aman, denied them their right of resurrection in Valinor, and cursed them with eternal longing for their homeland.
Six centuries of bloody battles, betrayals, and tragedies followed. Fëanor himself died long before it was over, and there were plenty of times that Morgoth might have been defeated sooner or with fewer casualties if he and his sons had just gotten over it.
How did the war against Morgoth end?
Their homes destroyed and children presumed dead at the hands of Fëanor’s last living sons, two mortals of mixed elf and human ancestry mounted a Silmaril — obtained by inheritance and tragedy — on the prow of their boat and sailed to Aman. Eärendil the Mariner and his wife, Elwing, convinced the Valar to intercede.
The War of Wrath between the Valar and Morgoth drowned most of Middle-earth under the sea. The Silmarils were lost forever, Fëanor’s sons took their own lives, and Morgoth was, to quote Tolkien, “thrust through the Door of Night beyond the Walls of the World, into the Timeless Void.” The Valar pardoned the Noldor who had aided in Morgoth’s defeat and rewarded new allies: the men of Middle-earth’s western shores, who were given wisdom, power, knowledge, and Numenor, a new island between Middle-earth and Aman.
Happily, Eärendil and Elwing’s sons were not dead, and given that the Valar couldn’t decide whether they were more elf or more human, the twins were allowed to choose themselves. One, Elros, chose mortality and became the first king of Numenor. The other, Elrond — well, you know who Elrond is!
And in the end, the light of the Two Trees was not utterly lost. The Valar transformed Eärendil and his Silmaril ship into a star. The star’s light was collected into a vial that Galadriel eventually gave Frodo, and Sam brandished at a giant spider in their own quest to defeat a Dark Lord. As Sam says: “Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”
The tales do not, but this account of the war against Morgoth does. If you want to find out what happens next, you’ll have to pick up The Silmarillion, or The Lord of the Rings, or just keep watching Rings of Power.