Originally published at Part Time Monster on March 7, 2014, as “The Death of Isildur.” This is the final installment on Isildur. We’re taking a break from these for the April A to Z Challenge, but they will start back up with Gollum in May.
I considered moving on to Gollum this week, but the Disaster of the Gladden Fields is too important to exclude from this series. It is in this episode that we first catch a glimpse of the One Ring as an independent character, and it connects the War of the Ring to the the First and Second Ages of Middle Earth.
Isildur’s position as the central figure here, and the fact that this is an event of his making, make him the most significant figure of the Second Age. They also make him a tragic hero (1).
As with most of the other events we’ve looked at so far, our most complete source for the death of Isildur is Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age (2). We also have significant accounts from Gandalf (3) and Elrond (4).
First, let’s look at the “historical” account. After refusing to destroy the Ring and claiming it as an heirloom, Isildur returns to Minas Anor, plants the White Tree in memory of his brother Anarion, who was slain in the War of the Last Alliance, and counsels his nephew in statecraft. All this is covered in a few sentences in Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, but, the events of LOTR make it clear that Isildur remains in the south for a couple of years (5). It is during this period that he authors the scroll that eventually allows Gandalf to identify the Ring. Finally, Isildur leaves the southern kingdom to his nephew:
But soon he departed, and after he had given counsel to Meneldil, his brother’s son, and had committed to him the realm of the south, he bore away the Ring, to be an heirloom of his house, and marched north from Gondor by the way that Elendil had come; and he forsook the South Kingdom, for he purposed to take up his father’s realm in Eriador, far from the shadow of the Black Land.
But Isildur was overwhelmed by a host of Orcs that lay in wait in the Misty Mountains; and they descended upon him at unawares in his camp between the Greenwood and the Great River, nigh to Loeg Ningloron, the Gladden Fields, fore he was heedless and set no guard, deeming that all his foes were overthrown . . . Isildur himself escaped by means of the Ring, fore when he wore it he was invisible to all eyes; but the Orcs hunted him by scent and by slot, until he came to the River and plunged in.
Then the Ring betrayed him and avenged its maker, for it slipped from his finger as he swam, and it was lost in the water. Then Orcs saw him as he laboured in the stream, and they shot him with many arrows, and that was his end. Only three of his people ever came back over the mountains after long wandering; and of these one was Ohtar his esquire, to whose keeping he had given the shards of the sword of Elendil. (6)
Four phrases in this passage deserve close reading; I’ll cover them in order with bullet-points.