The world of Middle-earth created in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the most expansive you’ll find in popular fiction. The British author not only told epic tales with his books, but developed an immensely detailed fantasy world filled with all kinds of strange places, races and history. Knowing the broad scope of the universe entering, getting into the material as an outsider may seem like a daunting task, but that’s why I’m here to help.

Peter Jackson’s second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug will be hitting theaters this weekend, and just in case some of you have never seen any of the previous movies or just don’t have time for a full franchise rewatch, I’ve written up a guide to assist you in integrating with the universe. What’s going on when the main character puts on that strange golden ring? What’s the difference between the different kinds of Elves? Read on to find out!

WARNING: This article contains some minor spoilers about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. While the first six entries are safe, the last one may affect the surprise element for those 100% unfamiliar with the film’s story. The spoiler entry is on its own separate page for your own protection.

Hobbits
Hobbits
What Are They? The hobbits are a race of tiny creatures living in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Populating an area of the map called The Shire, most members of the species are known for being very reserved and quiet, never finding a reason to put themselves in danger or even slightly at risk. The usually don’t stand between more than two to four feet tall and typically have curly mop of hair on their head and big, furry feet. They live in what are called Hobbit holes, which are small houses built directly into the ground.

How Do They Fit? Unlike The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which at least had a few scenes taking place in The Shire with a variety of Hobbit characters, The Desolation of Smaug takes the singular article in the title very literally. In the film the only Hobbit we see is Bilbo Baggins, the hero played by Martin Freeman. He continues his quest with the band of dwarves to try and recover the lost treasure found in The Lonely Mountain, and despite his small stature he is regularly able to summon all of his courage and save the day in times of great peril and fright. Helping him do this is a tiny little trinket that he found in the goblin caves of the first movie…
The One Ring
The One Ring
What Is It? I’d hope that even those who know absolutely nothing about Tolkien’s work at least have heard of The One Ring, but it’s only fair to have all bases covered. In the Lord of the Rings movies we learned that the evil lord Sauron had created a total of 19 rings of power that he shared with all of the great races across the land. What Sauron never told anybody, though, was that he also forged a twentieth ring, a.k.a. The One Ring, in the fires of Mount Doom that would allow him complete control over the world. The original trilogy has Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and his fellowship of travelers and warriors heading to Mount Doom to destroy the tiny golden ring so that Sauron wouldn’t be able to regain power. The little piece of jewelry also has the ability to turn its wearer completely invisible, but it comes at a price…

How Does It Fit? Realizing that the band of dwarfs and he continue to run into life-threatening danger around every corner, Bilbo comes to the conclusion that having the ability to turn invisible is quite handy. That said, the incredibly dark powers of the ring do have a way of getting into the mind of the wearer – and the effects are quite noticeable. It’s an element that’s not actually taken from Tolkien’s The Hobbit novel, as the backstory about the gold band wasn’t created until the author wrote the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but in the movie adaptation Peter Jackson flexes some retroactive continuity to make sure that the stories sync up.

Dwarves
Dwarves
Who Are They? The dwarves are yet another race featured in the world of Middle-earth, and just like the rest they have their own character type. Much like Hobbits, they are short in stature, but they are also very aggressive, stubborn and proud and won’t back down from a fight. They are also a very greedy kind that is drawn to gold and treasure, and are skilled miners as a result of their passion.

How Do They Fit? It’s understandable if you struggle to remember all of their names, but Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Dwalin, Balin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dori, Nori, Ori and Thorin Oakenshield are all back in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Along with Bilbo, who is serving as their trusty burglar, the company of dwarves heads to The Lonely Mountain where they hope not only to reclaim their homeland of Erebor, but steal back the incredible treasure that was once taken from them. What makes the mission an incredibly scary idea, however, is that the creature that stole the treasure, an immense dragon named Smaug, still lives in the mountain guarding the riches. To read more about the individual personalities of each dwarf, be sure to head over to the guide that I made following my visit to The Hobbit set.
Wizards
Wizards
Who Are They? Unlike Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves and Orcs, who have entire populations living in Middle-earth, there are only five wizards: Gandalf The Grey, Saruman The White, Radagast The Brown and Alatar and Pallando The Blue. Wizards look similar to the race of men, but have the power to control magic. Though they may look like feeble old men, the truth is that wizards are some of the most powerful beings in all of Tolkien’s writings.

How Do They Fit? Gandalf, portrayed by Sir Ian McKellen, continues to be The Hobbit’s central wizard character and the sequel finds him continuing the help Bilbo and the dwarves accomplish their great mission. Unfortunately, extremely dark developments in Middle-earth take Gandalf away on another quest, for which he receives some assistance from Radagast (Sylvester McCoy).

Elves
Elves
Who Are They? Much like wizards, elves are an immortal race of beings from Middle-earth and some of the most beautiful to boot. In addition to being incredibly powerful creatures, with enhanced senses, unparalleled archery skills, and amazing speed and agility, they are also known for their amazing beauty – most standing about six feet tall with flowing hair and pointed ears. Oh, and they typically hate Dwarves.

How Do They Fit? In An Unexpected Journey we saw a pair of Noldor Elves in Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving), but in The Desolation of Smaug the focus is put more on the Silvan Elves, specifically those who live in the Mirkwood forests. The king of the Mirkwood Elves, Thranduil (Lee Pace), was introduced in the first movie briefly – establishing a long, bitter feud with Thorin – but the new movie also brings back the crafty, brave Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and introduces to the beautiful warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), a character who wasn’t featured in Tolkien’s books.
Orcs
Orcs
Who Are They? Orcs are bad news. While perhaps not inherently evil, they tend to be the footsoldiers of evil-doers, which makes them pretty damn evil by proxy. In The Lord of the Rings they are created in the depths of Mordor to help Sauron regain power over Middle-earth. They are violent, ugly, filthy, disgusting creatures, and if you have one on your trail it’s time to bolt. Needless to say, it’s a very good thing that Bilbo’s sword, Sting, actually glows blue whenever orcs are nearby…

How Do They Fit? Azog The Defiler, an evil, strong one-armed albino orc continues to play a major role in the new film, as he still has a big problem with the fact that Thorin was the one who chopped his arm off. The sequel also introduces Azog’s son, Bolg, who does most of the hunting for Thorin, Bilbo and the rest of the Dwarves while Azog works with his mysterious dark master to build an army of orcs and the wolf-like Wargs that they ride.

The Lonely Mountain
The Lonely Mountain
What Is It? The Lonely Mountain may simply look like a spot on a map, but it’s actually filled with a rich history and is one of the most significant locations is all of Middle-earth. The mountain, also known as Erebor, was originally the homeland of the dwarves where they built incredibly successful mining operation. Sadly their home was taken away from them when the great dragon Smaug flew in, raided the city, and took over.

How Does It Fit? Every journey needs a destination and for Bilbo and his company of dwarves the Lonely Mountain is the place. The main story of the entire trilogy sees the group traveling from the Shire to the Lonely Mountain with the plans to finally defeat Smaug and reclaim rights to the dwarf homeland. As you can probably tell from all of the trailers, images and even the title, our heroes actually reach The Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but just because they reach their final destination doesn’t mean that their quest is over.
SPOILERS COMING ON THE NEXT PAGE
The Necromancer
The Necromancer
Who Is He? The Necromancer is mentioned exactly once in the novel version of The Hobbit, and really only established as a simple danger of the outside world beyond The Shire. As a result, you’d think it would have very little impact on the film adaptations, but that simply isn’t the case. After all, the reality about The Necromancer is that it’s actually the ultimate lord of evil and aforementioned forger of the rings: Sauron.

How Does He Fit? Remember when I was talking about the "extremely dark developments" that Gandalf has to deal with? Well, say hello to The Necromancer. I don’t want to give too much away, so let’s just say that he has some very big plans for Middle-earth from his homebase in Dol Guldur, and they aren’t exactly peaceful.

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