J.R.R. Tolkien’s story of Númenor is the story of Athens, Rome, Great Britain, the United States, and every power that began with the best of intentions and saw itself decline because of envy and pride. It is the story of the Fall in Eden. It is grim, timeless, and true…
Unquestionably, Tolkien’s mythology was massive and, at times, unwieldy. From roughly 1913 until 1973, Tolkien continued to work on the various aspects of it, from the cartography to the languages to the characters to the stories. Over its formative years, the mythology explored everything from personality, linguistics, and psychology to politics, philosophy, and theology. As the author observed, time and again, he was most certainly not the creator, but merely the recorder of the mythology. Stories often branched off in surprising ways, even to Tolkien himself. In a letter, dated June 7, 1955, to his former student, W.H. Auden, he wrote:
But I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo. The Mines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlórien no word had reached my mortal ears till I came there. Far away I knew there were the Horse-lords on the confines of an ancient Kingdom of Men, but Fangorn Forest was an unforeseen adventure. I had never heard of the House of Eorl nor of the Stewards of Gondor. Most disquieting of all, Saruman had never been revealed to me, and I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22.
The mythology certainly did not cease with his death in September 1973. Rather, in a fascinating and critical development, his son, Christopher, took over his father’s legacy. From 1973 through today, Christopher has not ceased to work on this legacy and mythology. Of Tolkien’s four children, Christopher was, to be sure, the most like his father. Not only had he fully embraced his father’s mythology while his dad was still alive, but he also followed in his father’s professional footsteps, becoming an expert in Old Norse language and mythology and taking an academic position at Oxford. When J.R.R. Tolkien passed away, Christopher resigned from the professorial life and dedicated himself completely to his father’s mythology. Since 1973, it has become increasingly difficult to speak of just J.R.R. Tolkien. From that time forward, the Middle-earth mythology has become the work of the Two Tolkiens, not the one.
J.R.R. Tolkien envisioned four ages of his mythology. Within these ages, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings each takes place toward the end of the Third Age. The Silmarillion—in all its variations—deals mostly with creation and the First Age. Of the four ages, only the Fourth Age remains more obscure in our knowledge than the Second Age. Yet, even to Tolkien’s mythology as a whole, the Second Age is critical. It emerged, mostly, from the wonderful challenge that Lewis and Tolkien offered one another in 1936. “Tollers,” Lewis declared, “there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.” Tolkien, they decided, would write speculative fiction about time while Lewis would write about space. Lewis’s efforts—Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength—rightfully launched what would soon be called “science fiction” toward the mainstream of publishing acceptance of the genre, while Tolkien’s stories about time went, tragically, no where. And, yet, what Tolkien did write—especially his Atlantean stories about the land of Númenor—became critical not only to his own mythology but to Lewis’ as well. Númenor, corrupted as “Numinor,” appears nine times in That Hideous Strength as well as in one of Lewis’ poems, “The End of the Wine” and, very likely, as the background to Atlantis in the Narnia tale, The Magician’s Nephew. One gets the deeper sense of Numinor, especially, in Lewis’s poem.
A man to have come from Atlantis eastward sailing—
Lemuria has fallen in the fury of a tidal wave,
The cities are drowned, the pitiless all-prevailing
Inhuman sea is Numinor’s salt grave.
Most of Tolkien’s stories deal with pride, fall, and redemption in some way or another. In fact, as Tolkien himself claimed in 1950, “Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.” Importantly, by “machine,” Tolkien meant power—whether employed through science, technique, or magic—as a means of upsetting our agency as God’s stewards on this earth and becoming small gods ourselves.
In Tolkien’s larger mythology, the Second Age began just shortly before the angelic powers, the Valar, recognized the contribution of Men in the chaining of Melkor (that is, Satan). To the Men who fought for good, the Valar raised an island in the middle of the ocean, the “Land of Gift.” There, Men could learn from the Elves (who lived apart) and the Valar, living long lives and developing their gifts. To prevent the Men from desiring immortality, though, the Valar forbade Men to step upon the Blessed Realm, the undying lands to the East of Numenor. This, they called “the ban.” The earlier generations of Númenoreans understood the need for the ban, but as generation after generation lived and died, Men became restless, remembering the rule, but not the reasons for the rule. The middle generation abided by the rule, because it was the rule. Later generations, though, became not just bitter but outright disdainful toward the rule itself, believing it merely a trick of the angelic gods and elves to deny Men their rightful longevity and place in the world. When the pride became too great, and the Men decided to invade the undying lands, the Valar wiped out Numenor and remade the world from flat to spherical. Thus, should a ship sail to the east, it would sail so far east that east would become west and the ship would return to its origins.
As mentioned earlier in this essay, Tolkien only wrote a few pieces about the Second Age. These include, most importantly, “Akallabêth” of The Silmarillion; “The Lost Road” (History of Middle-earth, Vol. 5); “The Notion Club Papers” and “The Drowning of Anadune” (History of Middle-earth, Vol. 9); “A Description of the Island of Númenor,” “Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner’s Wife,” “The Line of Elros,” and “The History of Galadriel and Celeborn” in Unfinished Tales; and the various appendices of The Lord of The Rings.
Though there are many themes to consider in these various—if sadly small number of—writings, it is worth understanding that the story of Númenor is the story of Athens, Rome, Great Britain, the United States, and every power that began with the best of intentions and saw itself decline because of envy and pride. It is the story of the Fall in Eden, the story of the collapse of the Athenian Empire, the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and the American Empire. It is grim, timeless, and true.
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