The Middle-earth prologues

prologues (header)

Do you remember the first shot of every Middle-earth film?

Sure you do.

It’s also interesting to note the similarities of every opening – further reinforcing the connections between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

At the same time, I’m sure you’ve noticed the odd-one-out of the entire lot … 

In the first five films, we have references to the element of fire – a strong symbolism of the persistent menace of Smaug during The Hobbit trilogy, and the One Ring’s indestructible force except through the fiery chasms of Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings.

An Unexpected Journey: Bilbo kindles the flame – a warm, reassuring light that is a beacon of hope as it dispels darkness.

The Desolation of Smaug: The village of Bree glows dimly in the night, as its fires are almost quenched by the rain. Trouble begins to brood. The cold and gloomy atmosphere starts to seep through into the story. Things are about to become pretty dark.

The Battle of the Five Armies: A stark contrast between the raging fires in Erebor and the snow-covered rooftops of Lake-town. There is a nice reference to Tolkien’s chapter “Fire and Water” (snow and ice being the solidified state of water). The red glow amid the oppressing cold-coloured environment is a foreshadowing of the approaching doom and the storm of fire.

Middle-earth prologues

The Fellowship of the Ring: As with An Unexpected Journey, the flames represent fire’s extraordinary ability to create – in this case, the forging of the most powerful artifacts opposing the One Ring. Once again, Hope emerges to battle Despair.

The Two Towers: Similar to the opening shot in The Battle of Five Armies, we have a radiating sun (the celestial orb made of fire) glowing over the snow-covered range of the Misty Mountains. However, unlike The Hobbit, this is the purest form of fire and one that cannot be dimmed or quenched. There is a beacon of hope as a new day emerges, and with it, the Free Peoples live to fight another day.

The Return of the King: the black sheep of the Middle-earth prologues. There is no apparent connection with either fire, water or snow. However, one can associate the worm with the element of earth.

The 5 films prior have been a vast expansive telling of a story concerning the creation and presence of the One Ring. The worm has emerged out of the soil of Middle-earth, reflecting a scene which establishes the roots and beginnings of the Ring’s reemergence – a moment which will ultimately tie the stories of the two trilogies through the meeting in the Riddles in the Dark.

prologues (header)

The links are tied. The circle is complete.

Earth, Air, Fire and Water are our introductions to Middle-earth: elements that make our own world an existing one, and so does Tolkien’s fantasy creation come to life for us.

Next time you sit down to watch any of the 6 films, as the screen fades from black and you see the first few images flicker before your eyes, think of the wider scope of that shot within the extensive storytelling Peter Jackson has offered us.

Middle-earth is as real as much as we decide to believe in it.

Copyright of the images belongs to Warner Bros. Studios, MGM Studios and New Line Cinema.

36 thoughts on “The Middle-earth prologues

  1. Now this was a unique subject. I can’t even estimate how many times I’ve seen each film and I still couldn’t say what the opening shot was except maybe “Desolation” and “Two Towers.”

    Maybe someone here can recall… In the extras for one of the 6 films, Jackson specifically mentioned having prologues. If memory serves, it may have been debated that “Fellowship” would start without one. Or, possibly that he wanted to continue beginning the films with a flashback and rewrote the beginning to “Two Towers.”

    Either way, all 6 films have such rich, multi-layered history backing them, that starting each with a prologue sequence was an outstanding idea. How did Gandalf and Thorin meet? How did Gollum start his political career? Kidding.

    One random comment regarding “Two Towers” and Balrog fight. Firstly, I loved the falling fight sequence. Wow. Epic as well as fitting that Frodo should feel he was dreaming the entire battle. However, does anyone else remember in the book that Gandalf (describing the final fall of the Balrog) stated that “his fall broke the mountainside?” Just nit to pick.

    1. I think there were two falls. One in Moria followed by the chase up the Endless Stair (can’t remember what it is actually called – which broke that too) and then the fight at the top of the mountain with its climax and the Balrog breaking the mountain side.

      1. PS: If you play Lotro you can visit both the bottom of the stair and the site of the first fall with broken parts of the bridge, and visit the final resting place of the Balrog. One of my little middle earth moments in the game was spotting a section of the Endless Stair rising up from the depths of Moria long before I found its bottom.

      2. That’s fantastic! I personally only played LOTRO for the initial first stages. It was a good game, but too time-consuming (like most games)! 😀

    2. Hey Robert, what I recall most clearly is PJ resisting the studio’s demands to open ‘The Two Towers’ with a prologue summarising the events in FOTR. He opted instead for the Balrog flashback sequence (and I agree it is one of the best openings – possibly right after the BOTFA).

      And yes, I believe Tolkien does mention that the Balrog destroys the mountain side to in his fall (I think that was your question wasn’t it; or did I get it wrong? 😀 )

      1. No, you got it exactly right.
        As Bob Irving already answered Gandalf was struggling with the balrog as they both fell into the bottomless chasm. That part is depicted in the movie. At the end of that fall (not as bottomless as the dwarves believed) there was a lake that quenched the balrog’s fire.
        Gandalf then pursued the balrog from the roots of the mountains, up to the deepest dungeon of the dwarves and from there all the way to the summit of the highest mountain in the world. There they fought again and this time when Gandalf fatally wounded the balrog (and was fatally wounded himself as well), he threw the balrog from the mountain and in its fatal fall it broke part of the mountain (must have been quite an explosion, comparable at least to the final defeat of Sauron).
        I’m not sure if that 2nd part of the fight was referenced in the movie, I believe it was shown in a moment’s flashback, but even if it wasn’t the movie does not exclude it from having happened, as the prologue cut out the moment Gandalf and the balrog hit the lake surface.

      2. Nope, nailed it. Thanks for also clarifying what the prologue debate was, because I remember him mentioning it, but couldn’t guess its specificity.

  2. Wow! That was interesting! I never even niticed those connections and symbolisms ’til you pointed them out. 🙂
    Also, out of curiosity, have you seen the single-movie fan edits of The Hobbit? What do you think of them?

    1. You never noticed them because they are not there, and were completely made up by the author of this article, who apparently had nothing better to do

      A sunrise is just a sunrise, and buildings lit up in the night are lit up in this way because they had no lightbulbs. And a worm is just a worm! So there are in fact just two references to fire (Fellowship and Unexpected Journey) and two of anything can easily be a coincidence.

      Interestingly, Tolkien himself condemned this kind of looking into things too deeply when it came to his works. Now the writer of this article is doing exactly that (except for the films rather than the novels).

      1. Dear John, I appreciate you took the time to read this post and comment about it – confirming for us that this was all “made up”, since you clearly have an understanding of the filmmaker’s thoughts.

        If you think this is too much, and cannot respect other’s opinions and ideas without presenting a constructive argument, please don’t waste your time here.

        You rightly mention Tolkien and his thoughts against over-analysing; but as you clearly point out the ideas raised in this post are references to the films and your statement has no real basis.

        And please do not pass any more ludicrous remarks to other commentators of this blog. You may contribute if you like, and if I deem it worthy of inclusion I’ll accept. If not, please do not bother myself or others with your replies.

        Thank you 🙂

  3. Perhaps, the Return of the King is also associated with water – the worm is to be used for fishing. Maybe not fire as there was no implication that the worm would be toasted although it was a baptism of fire for Sméagol/Gollum. It would be interesting to know if there are these elemental undercurrents in the prologues – how many different layers of story telling were there in the films? I do like multi-layered stories.

    1. Excellent observation Bob. I think you may be right about the water reference. It certainly seems indicative of the fact. I’m liking were all these symbolic prologues are going!

      1. “Dear John, I appreciate you took the time to read this post and comment about it – confirming for us that this was all “made up”, since you clearly have an understanding of the filmmaker’s thoughts.”

        Yes I do. I have read and watched virtually everything about the filmmakers and about the films, and believe me, Peter Jackson is far from being a subtle filmmaker. If he wanted to show the continuity of fire throughout these two trilogies, he would have been a little more obvious than showing a vague sunrise, shots of regular buildings at night, and a worm.

        “You rightly mention Tolkien and his thoughts against over-analysing; but as you clearly point out the ideas raised in this post are references to the films and your statement has no real basis.”

        They absolutely have basis, because the filmmakers tried very hard to stay true to Tolkien’s works. It’s a shame that you do not.

      2. Jackson may not have knowingly inserted the “fire” elements on purpose: it could easily have been a subconscious thing. Clearly, Mount Doom and Smaug were on his mind throughout the making of both trilogies.

        In addition, I don’t know why this post bothers you so much.

        And isn’t the fact that you are replying to it – trying to prove or disprove something – make you an accomplice to this over-analytical behaviour? Food for thought 🙂

  4. “Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them.”

  5. Great observations! I’m new to your blog, and really enjoying it. I hadn’t ever considered all those opening shots, but now you can bet I’ll be paying particular attention to them 🙂

    1. Nice, Phil. I like your interpretation.

      This is a wonderful blog post. One could also abandon a strict interpretation of these opening shots by associating them with the four elements. What about a more visual and aesthetic interpretation?

      When first glancing at your awesome banner for this blog post, I immediately noticed the hands as bookends. Hands are metaphors for power.

      The hand for AUJ strikes a match, kindling the fire to start in motion Peter Jackson’s epic Middle Earth saga. The match’s flame brings to mind Smaug and his fiery reach. But it is a flame controlled by this hand, perhaps a nod to Sauron’s growing power and influence.

      The hand for ROTK holds a tiny, unsuspecting worm. This worm now represents to me–after seeing the Hobbit Trilogy–a dragon. It is funny, because the next shot in the opening sequence shows Smeagol hooking the worm, which could be an allusion to Bard’s arrow.

      And yet again it is the hand with the power and control. And the worm is so tiny, like a reminder that Smaug was but a small precursor to the whole LOTR Trilogy and Sauron’s grand plans.

      I almost want to say the odd one out visually is the fire forging the rings. But then again that opening is from FOTR, the first shot of the entire epic. Technically, it is the middle chapter in the saga and depicts hands forging power in the form of magic rings made from the elements of earth.

      Again, this is such a great post. Screencaps rule!

      1. Cheer Zachary! What a fantastic way to look at the concept of the “hands” as power. I love your interpretations and thanks for adding your thoughts here 😉

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