Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, part 4

Originally published at Part Time Monster on Feb. 13, 2014 as “Scions of Numenor.”

white_tree_of_gondor__downloadable_wallpaper__by_netickque-d66yfs8“. . . and Isildur said no word, but went out by night and did a deed for which he was afterward renowned.”

Isildur, son of Elendil, is the most significant figure of the Second Age of Middle Earth. He is also the most inscrutable, because we see very little of him in real time. The Lord of the Rings is peppered with Isildur references, but everything we see of him in the trilogy is through flashbacks and historical references. If we only have LOTR to go on, it is easier to know what other characters think of him than to know what sort of man he really is.

Isildur cuts the One Ring from Sauron’s finger and claims it for his own (1). He also assures the survival of the White Tree, not once, but twice (2). He witnesses the long decline and destruction of his homeland at the hands of Sauron. In the last years of his life, he authors the scroll that allows Gandalf to idenify the One Ring three millenia later (3). He lives his early life under threat of being branded an enemy of the state. He founds the kingdom of Gondor with his brother Anarion, and his chief residence during the days before the War of the Last Alliance is Minas Ithil(4). I think the Nazgul take that tower as their seat not only for its strategic value, but also as a way of mocking the line of Isildur (Tolkien’s evil characters are particularly well-versed in the art of political mockery).

It is impossible to deal with Isildur in a single post. Before we even begin to consider the all-important question of why he didn’t destroy the Ring, we have to examine his life as a whole, as best we can. To do that, we need to start with Akallabeth (The Downfall of Numenor). Whatever else that text reveals to us, it suggests one thing to me – the conflict between Isildur and Sauron must have been personal.

As Tolkien texts go, Akallabeth is easy. It is a straightforward tale of about 23 pages that tells the story of an entire civilization. Like Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, it is a stand-alone text,and separate from of the Quenta Silmarillion (5). Foster characterizes it as a Dunedain text of the early Third Age, archived in Gondor and copied for the Tooks to be kept at the Great Smials (6). The early Third Age perspective is important, especially when we consider that it is the only information we have in the published texts about the early life of Isildur. We are looking at an account of a culture hero, written down by the scholars of a beleagured tribe.

Here is a brief history of Numenor, just to give you a feel for the world Isildur is born into.

After the calamities that end the First Age, Elrond’s twin, Elros, chooses to be mortal. He is ordained king of the men who have been faithful to the Valar in their war against Morgoth. The Valar make them an island to inhabit that is closer to Valinor than Middle Earth, so that they might live in the aura of the West. The Valar give these men long lifespans, and a fair wind to carry them to the isle. Here they found Numenor. The Valar forbid them to sail west beyond the sight of their coast, but Elves come at intervals from the west and bring them gifts: songbirds, flowers, beneficial herbs. And a white tree. The tree is important enough to quote:

“And a seedling they brought of Celeborn, the White Tree that grew in the midst of Eressea, and that was in its turn a seedling of Galathilion . . . the image of Telperion that Yavanna gave to the Eldar in the Blessed Realm . . . Nimloth it was named, and flowered in the evening, and the shadows of night it filled with its fragrance.”(7)

This all happens thousands of years before Isildur is born, and before the Rings of Power are forged. The second age is more than 3,400 years long, and Isildur lives for 230+ years at the end of it (8). That is important to remember. At this point in history, Middle Earth experiences a dark age while the Numenoreans grow taller, and stronger, and more advanced with the help of the Elves.

About halfway through the Second Age, things begin to change. The Numenoreans sail East to Middle Earth, and teach the men there, who are for the most part in a sorry state and cowed by the shadow of Sauron, agriculture, wine-making and good order. The men of Middle Earth begin to throw off the bonds of the Shadow and for awhile, revere the Numenoreans as gods (9).

Long story short: After generations, the Numenoreans begin to doubt the choice of Elros and see their mortality as a hindrance rather than a gift (mortality is a gift from the creator to men, that is a theological fact in Middle Earth). They covet the immortality of the Elves and the power of the Valar. They build strongholds in Middle Earth and force Sauron to retreat from the coasts, but eventually he gathers his forces and attacks them. Things only get worse from here.

The situation festers for awhile. Finally a Numenorean lord uses an unlawful marriage to seize the sceptre (SA 3255), invades Middle Earth (SA 3261), and takes Sauron prisoner (SA 3262). (10)

You can guess what happens next. In three years’ time, Sauron is the king’s closest advisor (Sauron still has a physical body at this point). He convinces the king that the world was created by Melkor out of darkness, and he separates the king from his closest kin. Before many years pass, the Numenoreans allow Sauron to convert their roofless temple to the true creator into a silver-domed monstrosity in which human sacrifices are performed, and the first fire Sauron builds on the altar of that new temple is fueled by the wood of the thousands-year-old white tree, which he has convinced the king to cut down. The smoke from the burning pollutes the air for a week. (11)

This is the world Isildur is born into. The first thing you need to know about him is that he saves a fruit from the tree before Sauron could can cut it down (12). He almost dies doing it, and the experience forms a mystical connection between Isildur and the tree, which is why Gandalf finding the seedling at the end of LOTR is so important. The tree is a symbol of the divine right of the line of Isildur (13).

After studying this stuff for three weeks, I’m reading Isildur as a paladin. His rescue of the fruit of the White Tree, when I consider the overall context, is an act of extreme piety. It is also a defense of his cultural traditions against the subversion of Sauron. The combination says lawful good to me, and when I add in the old “hands of a king are the hands of a healer” and the presence of an ancestral weapon, well. Paladin (14).

paladinsI’m putting together a timeline of Isidlur’s life. That will go as a bonus post the minute I finish it. My next regular post will discuss his decision to keep the Ring, and his death.

This is an ongoing series. If you’ve just discovered it, start here.

End Notes (My Personal Tolkien Bibliography)

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Throwback Thursday: “My Endless Tolkien Series” p. 2

The second installment of my endless Lord of the Rings series at Part Time Monster. Originally published Jan. 7, 2014 as “A Brief History of the Rings of Power.” I’m re-running this whole series from the beginning as a Thursday feature here. New installments are published at Part Time Monster on Mondays.

hobbit-mapPicking up where I left off before Christmas: I have this idea to analyze The Lord of the Rings as a series of encounters between the One Ring and the other characters. Before I begin that task, I think it might be useful to lay out the history of the rings of power so we can get a feel for their historic significance to Middle Earth. My two primary sources for this history are “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age” (Silmarillion, 285-304), and “The Tale of Years,” published as Appendix B to LOTR (Return of the King, 363-378).

Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age” is a book of lore written sometime during the Fourth Age, probably by a Dunadan scholar, and after all the participants in the War of the Ring were either dead or departed (Foster 386).

The Tale of Years” was compiled by the Tooks of the early Fourth Age and kept in their archive at the Great Smials; material gathered by Merry at Rivendell is incorporated into this account, and it is notable for its accuracy (Foster 474).

Together, they provide an account of the creation of the rings of power and a timeline for the existence of the rings in Middle-earth. So, now I will try and piece together an account of the rings of power, from their inception until the eventual destruction of the One Ring. Let’s begin with a timeline, just so we can know how much history we are dealing with here.

The Second Age

The Second Age(SA) is a period of 3,441 years that begins with the overthrow of Morgoth by the Valar and ends with the defeat of Sauron by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men.

The rings of power are forged by Noldorin Elves of Eregion beginning around SA 1500, using skills they learned from Sauron. The three rings of the Elves, the last to be forged, are completed in  1590. Sauron himself forges the One Ring and completes the Barad-dur about 1600; as soon as he puts on the One Ring, the Elves understand his design and remove their rings (Silmarillion 288).

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Zero to Hero 12


I spent my Zero to Hero time on Sunday reading and commenting on Tolkien blogs. I am glad I did that, since yesterday’s assignment was to take something from a thread that I commented on and turn it into a post.

So, here is a comment from a discussion of “What You Make, I Mar,” a short but very well-written post at All Things Tolkien.

Eric: Also, without Aule making the Dwarves, we wouldn’t have Ents. And to top that off, Yavanna claims that the Ents were part of the Music. “Yet it was in the Song.” So if Ents were created by Yavanna to counter the Dwarves AND Ents were also in the Music, I guess we could conclude that Dwarves were also in the Music?

Or at least that the Music changed to include Dwarves thus paving the way for Ents. We can see that the Song is still happening in the next couple of paragraphs.

I love gray areas.

This comment prompted me to pick up The Silmarillion and read “Of Aule and Yavanna” very carefully, and I do not believe the Song is still going on in this chapter. Here is the relevant passage:

‘Yet is was in the song,’ said Yavanna. ‘For while thou wert in the heavens and with Ulmo built the clouds and poured out the rains, I lifted up the branches of great trees to receive them, and some sang to Iluvatar amid the wind and the rain.’

Then Manwe sat silent, and the thought of Yavanna that she had put into his heart grew and unfolded; and it was beheld by Iluvatar. Then it seemed to Manwe that the Song rose once more about him, and he heeded now many things therein that though he had heard them he had not heeded before. And at last the Vision was renewed, but it was not now remote, for he was himself within it, and yet he saw that all was upheld by by the hand of Iluvatar; and the hand entered in, and from it came forth many wonders that had until then been hidden from him in the hearts of the Ainur (p. 45-46).

As I read this, Manwe is having a sort of vision or flashback to the music. He is remembering it, and things are being revealed to him that he did not take note of when the music was being played. The key word in this passage is “seemed.” And, in the very next paragraph, we see Manwe waking up. I think he’s clearly fallen into a reverie.

Also, after scouring this entire chapter multiple times, I don’t see any evidence that the Dwarves were in the music, but I do have to wonder how the Ents could have been in the music without the Dwarves being there, since it is clear that the Ents come about as a result of these conversations between Aule, Yavanna, and Manwe. Gray areas.

Here are a few other blogs that regularly publish interesting work about Tolkien:

The Leather Library

A Tolkienists’ Perspective

All Things Tolkien

The Real LOTR

Sweating to Mordor

Feel free to drop links to any other blogs that write about Tolkien on my comments threads. I am trying to meet as many Tolkien bloggers as possible.

There’s also a Facebook discussion group. It’s small, but conversation is good, and a few of the members just started reading The Silmarillion.

My Tolkien Bibliography.