‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’: Where Are The Sundering Seas?

Editor’s note: The below contains spoilers for the first two episodes of The Rings of Power.

One of the very first images and scenes released for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power was an enigmatic teaser photo of Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) clinging to the wreckage of a ship in the midst of a raging storm. The context gradually became clear with the release of more trailers and interviews: a number of new scenes showed Galadriel traveling with a group of companions, seemingly going westward across the sea into the setting sun, and the scenes of shipwreck elsewhere implied a disastrous reversal for her expedition.

As the first episodes of the Prime Video series have finally arrived, there seems to be a great deal of importance to operations on the sea for the course of the show: the island kingdom of Numenor will be pivotal, for one thing, and Galadriel’s encounter with Halbrand (Charlie Vickers) after abandoning her ship is bound to be important for the development of the overall plot. But what sea is it? Where in Middle-earth is it located? And why is it so important to the story?

Where Are the Sundering Seas Located?

The only question that is actually simple to answer is the first; the others are surprisingly complicated. But the body of water itself is called the Sundering Seas, or sometimes the great sea Belegaer — which simply means “The Great Sea” in Sindarin, but admittedly sounds much cooler. Where things start to become problematic is in actually placing it. Now, millions of gallons of water don’t exactly take vacations, so you might be wondering why locating Belegaer is so difficult, but the answer to the question actually depends a great deal on what Age of the world you are talking about.

The simple answer to the question is that Belegaer is located to the west of Middle-earth, but its history is perhaps as complex as the continent itself. Tolkien’s invented world is actually composed of two continents: while “Middle-earth” is often used to reference all of Tolkien’s invented world, it is actually just the name of the eastern continent, where the major events of The Lord of the Rings take place; the western continent is called Aman, where the angelic Valar and their company dwell in the Blessed Realm. The Sundering Seas are located between those two continents, as is the island of Numenor. It is across this sea that Frodo sails at the end of The Lord of the Rings, but in the First Age, it was actually possible to walk across from Middle-earth to Aman. To the north, a bridge of ice called the Helcaraxë joined the two lands, and at least according to one version of the story, Galadriel walked across it herself early in the First Age during the Exile of the Noldor.

Even at this early stage in the First Age, the sea posed a problem for travelers. As a result of the Noldor rejecting the Valar and returning to Middle-earth, the Valar made it impossible to return, shielding their home with the creation of the Enchanted Isles. No ship could pass through them, and anyone who landed on the Isles would fall asleep forever. A number of ships were sent westward in an attempt to reach Aman during the First Age, but whether lost, sunk, or destroyed in a storm, none succeeded until the man Eärendil in desperate need finally crossed it near the end of the Age.

The first major reshaping of the Sundering Seas happened soon afterward: the War of Wrath that finally ended in the defeat of Morgoth shattered the continent of Middle-earth, and a great part of it fell into the sea. At this point, the Helcaraxë ceased to exist, and so the only passage across from Middle-earth to Aman came to be the sea route. At this point, while many of the exiles chose to return to the Blessed Realm and were permitted by the Valar, Galadriel refused to return, deciding instead to remain in Middle-earth.

With the First Age over, the Second Age gave rise to the kingdom of Numenor, and Numenorean ships sailed across the Sundering Seas to Middle-earth on a number of occasions, for military or commercial expeditions. To the west, however, the mortals who inhabited Numenor were not allowed to set foot on the Undying Lands, and that ban led to the next great relocation of the Sundering Seas.

The Significance of Numenor in ‘The Rings of Power’

Perhaps a spoiler warning is in order here, as the fate of Numenor is bound to be central to the story of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Ultimately, Ar-Pharazôn broke the prohibition and attempted to land in the home of the Valar, triggering divine retribution against himself and all of Numenor with him. When he landed, Numenor sank beneath the waves of the Sundering Seas, the entire world was reshaped and made round, and the land of Aman was separated completely from the rest of the world. The only passage to Aman was then by way of “The Straight Path,” a mystical pathway that a ship might still be able to take, if only it could be found.

Finally, its significance to the story of the series can only be beginning, but its full implications are yet to be seen. As the barrier between Middle-earth and Aman, the sea of Belegaer is a token of the separation between the mortal and immortal world, a physical barrier emphasizing the unfathomable gap between the two. As the boundaries of the sea grow larger and larger, the Blessed Realm of the Valar grows further and further away, and the journey to cross the Sundering Seas becomes more and more treacherous. The enigmatic figure on the Numenorean ship at the end of the second episode promises even more mystery, and the strange sea monster stalking the shipwrecked sailors is not likely finished with its prowling.

Ultimately, then, the Sundering Seas are remarkably important in different ways for the whole history of the world: in every Age it presents some sort of divine barrier, and the storm-tossed seas are often associated with the will of the Valar. It is the pathway to an earthly paradise and the way to an early grave, home to the kings of Numenor and the last resting place of one of the Silmarils, treacherous and full of enchantment, and for so many lost souls of Middle-earth, the only way home. But for Galadriel, that is not yet the path she means to take.

The Rings of Power premieres new episodes weekly each Friday on Prime Video.

Leave a Comment