J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is one of the greatest achievements of the literary imagination. Over 80 years since its creation, it still fascinates and inspires readers the world over. Amazon recently produced The Rings of Power, an ultimately mediocre attempt to capture the splendor of the Second Age prior to the more famous events of the Third Age which are covered in The Lord of the Rings. Brian Sibley, the editor of Tolkien’s legendarium since the passing of Christopher Tolkien, has given the world something more remarkable than Amazon’s heroic but failed adaptation, Tolkien’s unpublished notes and scripts detailing the golden era of the Second Age through the rise and fall of the most famous kingdom of men in Tolkien’s mythology: Númenor.
Readers of The Lord of the Rings need know introduction to the Númenóreans. Aragorn is a descendant of the Númenórean bloodline and, therefore, the rightful king of Gondor which was founded by Númenórean exiles who escaped the destruction of their island at the end of the Second Age. How, though, did the home of the most noble race of men become swallowed up the sea as Faramir briefly states in The Return of the King when speaking to Éowyn of the destruction of Sauron and Mordor, “It reminds me of Númenor…of the land of Westernesse that foundered and of the great dark wave climbing over the green lands and above the hills, and coming on, darkness unescapable”? The story of Númenor’s downfall, alluded to throughout The Lord of the Rings, is the story stitched together by Brian Sibley in the aptly titled The Fall of Númenor which finally tells us the story of that land which “foundered” beneath a “great dark wave” with a poignant power relevant for readers wandering through today’s dark and desolate wasteland.
Since Tolkien’s death, the history of Middle-earth has been slowly revealed through new books based on the letters, sketches, and unfinished manuscripts of the Oxford philologist. The most famous is the Silmarillion. Then there is the multivolume History of Middle-earth. More recently, the “great tales” of Middle-earth (dealing with the First Age) were published under the careful editorship of Tolkien’s son, Christopher. Why, a reader may ask, do we need more?
As our world experienced a transformation in societal arrangements, morals, and technological destruction in the twentieth century (which continues in the twenty-first century), Tolkien took to writing popular literature to explore the ramifications of man’s pursuit of absolute power and the detriments it has to the world and man’s soul. The Fall of Númenor provides the clearest expression of Tolkien’s cultural criticism that reads as if a scathing and prophetic indictment against the hubris of modernity, the contemporary transhumanist movement, and liberal imperialism. In short, Tolkien remains relevant because it was through his writings that he provided commentary on our own struggles and transformations.
The story of Númenor is the story of mortal men. We are first introduced to the Edenic-like island paradise, a place where beast and man were not enemies but lived in a respectful harmonious relationship with one another, “It would appear that neither Elves nor Men had dwelt in this island before the coming of Edain. Beasts and birds had no fear of Men; and the relations of Men and animals remained more friendly in Númenor than anywhere else in the world.” Eventually, the Númenóreans built great cities and ships as they became intrepid seafarers, exploring the eastern seas and eventually arriving on the shores of Middle-earth. Despite the majesty of the island the Númenóreans called home and their exploits in becoming great seafarers, the lands of the west where the immortal Valor dwelled was off-limits. Only the lands of Middle-earth was open to this adventurous race of men:
Above all arts they nourished ship-building and sea-craft, and they became mariners whose like shall never be again since the world was diminished; and voyaging upon the wide seas was the chief feat and adventure of their hardy men in the gallant days of their youth.
But the Lords of Valinor forbade them to sail so far westward that the coasts of Númenor could no longer be seen; and for long the Dúnedain were content, though they did not fully understand the purpose of this ban. But the design of Manwë was that the Númenóreans should not be tempted to seek the Blessed Realm, nor desire to overpass the limits set to their bliss.
Part of the eventual fall of Númenor was two-fold. One was this limitation on them, a sort of intrinsic nature that was meant to be respected and thus blissful happiness despite mortality would be the destiny of men. In time, the men of Númenor challenged this limitation, sought immortality, and confronted the Valor (nature) and would be wiped out because of it. Second was their eastward expansion into Middle-earth. In Middle-earth, one of the evil spirits of Morgoth resided, the infamous Sauron, who would grew weary of the arrival and power of the Númenóreans. Númenórean expansion into Middle-earth, coupled with Sauron’s hatred of them for disturbing his designs to conquer the world, set the two forces up to collide for supremacy of the world.
Here we enter the most polished length of text, the story of Aldarion and Erendis. Aldarion was the son Tar-Meneldur, the fifth King of Númenor. It is a story with which many of us would be familiar. Father and son quarrel and clash. The son seeks to make his own destiny (by sailing). The son falls in love with a woman of lesser status. The two seemingly star-struck lovers are ripped apart by different duties and lives – one taking him far away for long stretches of time and the other wanting a family and homestead. Eventually, Aldarion returns, reconciles with his father, and marries Erendis.
During this brilliant exposé into the narrative history of soulful creatures in the Second Age, the movement towards the climax of the Second Age begins apace. It is during Tolkien’s elaboration on the exploits of Aldarion and his eventual marriage to Erendis that we learn of the growing ambition of Sauron. Meneldur, reading a letter from Ereinion Gil-galad, informs the Númenórean king of looming disaster, “A new shadow arises in the East. It is no tyranny of evil Men, as your son believes; but a servant of Morgoth is stirring, and evil things wake again.”
It is well-known that Tolkien’s story wasn’t just drawn from Norse mythology and his reimaginations of biblical epic. The trials and tribulations of the Great War, and his experience in the muck and mud of the Battle of the Somme, equally influenced Tolkien’s creation of the story and conflict of Middle-earth. The construction of the Rings of Power are representative of the growing rise of mass industry, the ability to transform the earth, to create tools and weapons of immense power and destruction. Sauron’s ascent to power, which mirrors the rise of the ship-building then seafaring men of the west, is a disguised commentary on the darker side of the Industrial Revolution and how the expansion of industry corrupts even the most noble of souls (the Elves, in particular, who fall under Sauron’s spirit).
Mortal men, like the spirit of Sauron, are not free from this corruption from the seduction of power. As the Númenóreans continued to sail east and found cities in Middle-earth, “[They] tasted power in Middle-earth, and from that time forward they became to make permanent settlements on the western coasts, becoming too powerful for Sauron to attempt to move west out of Mordor for a long time.” This, in turn, leads to Sauron’s pathology of envy and wrath, the twin pathological feelings of Milton’s Satan, which drives his dark designs, “Now [Sauron] learned that the kings of Númenor had increased in power and splendour, and he hated them the more; and he feared them, lest they should invade his lands and wrest from him the dominion of the East.”
This falling for the seduction of power by men and the envy of Sauron toward the power being acquired by the Númenóreans leads us to the next part of the tragedy of Númenor. Ar-Pharazôn, the twenty-fifth and final King of Númenor, desired “the kingship of the world.” World conquest was now the lustful ambition of the ruler of the mightiest men. Recognizing this, as well as their mortal nature, Sauron infiltrated Númenor as a prisoner and began his reign of deceit, informing the king of the lies of the Valor, how immortality could be gained, and how by only challenging the Valor world domination could be his. Moreover, a change in worship occurs, “Therefore the fire and smoke went up without ceasing; for the power of Sauron daily increased, and in that temple, with spilling of blood and torment and great wickedness, men made sacrifice to Melkor that he should release them from Death.”
The final descent to Númenor’s destruction should be easily seen by readers of the Bible. Sauron arrives like the serpent, disguised as a tempter. The promise of godhood, immortality, and secret knowledge leads to idolatry and rejection of man’s created nature. The embrace of idolatry leads to illicit sacrifice, a turning away and forsaking of the good things of the natural order. Eventually, this ravenous pursuit of what we now call transhumanism—which is what Ar-Pharazôn and his followers at Sauron’s behest pursue—consumes most of the Númenóreans (except for a few who remain faithful to the old ways). The Valor destroy their island homeland in a great deluge reminiscent of the Flood that destroyed Plato’s Atlantis with overtures to the Noahide Flood of Genesis.
Those few Númenóreans who didn’t follow Ar-Pharazôn’s idolatrous gambit managed to escape death and destruction. Sailing east, they landed on the shores of Middle-earth like their forebears had done many times before. Among these men was Isildur, and the Númenórean exiles began building their new homes. Sauron, now a spirit who escaped the wrath of the Valor in destroying Númenor, regathers his strength and makes war on the peoples of Middle-earth. The Númenóreans, Elves, and Dwarves ally to do battle. The story ends where the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring begins, the great war of The Last Alliance which defeated Sauron but saw Isildur take the One Ring for himself. The Third Age is now beginning.
The Fall of Númenor is a great read on several accounts. For Tolkien aficionados, it helps complete some of the “missing” history of the legendarium. Furthermore, the story’s tale of the growth of industry and its corrupting effects on nature and the pursuit of imperialism (both by Sauron and then the Númenóreans) leading to widespread death and destruction are salient topics in today’s world. Moreover, the final fall of the Númenóreans by want of transcending their mortal nature, embrace of idolatry, and rejection of old customs in avaricious lust for secret knowledge and liberation bespeaks of our own contemporary temptations and struggles.
Here we realize that our predicament is not new. It is, in fact, old. It’s the story of Tolkien’s legendary world which he drew from even earlier sources despite putting his own stamp on it. One might say that “there’s nothing new under the sun” after all.
Tolkien’s work, then, can be read as a cautionary commentary on the crisis of modernity. It can also be read as just part of the history of Tolkien’s mythic mind which we are still unpacking. And lastly, it can simply be read as literature. We are blessed to have more than just one road to travel on when reading one of the most illustrious minds of the twentieth century, but such illustrious minds often have a way of blurring those many interpretive roads into one massive highway which is the reader’s delight.
The Fall of Númenor
By J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by Brian Sibley
New York: William Marrow, 2022; 320pp.
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