“It reminds me of Númenor,” said Faramir, and wondered to hear himself speak.
“Of Númenor?” said Éowyn.
“Yes,” said Faramir, “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. I often dream of it.”
— The Lord of the Rings, Book 6, Chapter 5, “The Steward and the King”
“I say this about the ‘heart’, for I have what some might call an Atlantis complex. Possibly inherited, though my parents died too young for me to know such things about them, and too young to transfer such things by words. Inherited from me (I suppose) by one only of my children, though I did not know that about my son until recently, and he did not know it about me. I mean the terrible recurrent dream (beginning with memory) of the Great Wave, towering up, and coming in ineluctably over the trees and green fields. (I bequeathed it to Faramir.) I don’t think I have had it since I wrote the ‘Downfall of Númenor’ as the last of the legends of the First and Second Age.”
— Letter 163, To W. H. Auden
The Epic of Gilgamesh. Noah’s Ark. Atlantis. The story of a great, civilization-ending flood has been a part of the human record for seemingly as long as stories have been told. Since the story of Arda Marred is that of our own world, it stands to reason that Professor Tolkien would have his own version of the flood legend… and that it would read as significantly more epic than any other version of it out there. This isn’t just a legend. As reflected in Letter 163, it’s the exorcism and banishment of a personal nightmare. (I really should have combed through the Letters long right from the beginning. What a treasure trove!)
This fourth section of The Silmarillion transfers the story from the Elves, whose downfall was recorded across the First Age and finalizes at the end of the Third, to that of the Men and the Second Age. Those Men of the First Age who battled the darkness of Morgoth and did not turn to evil were called the Edain. Their deeds are legend. Of them, Eärendil petitioned for aid from the Valar and led to the capture of Morgoth. He was imprisoned in the void, beyond the reach of the world, thus ending the First Age.
Following the War of Wrath, however, there were still Men who refused the summons of both Valar and Morgoth. They served those leaders who had served Morgoth, and thus they were forsaken by the Valar. The servants of Morgoth preyed upon those Men in the absence of the Dark Lord. The Valar summoned the Elves to return to Valinor and built an island for Men between Middle-Earth and Valinor called Andor (“land of the gift”), which came to be known as Númenor. The Men who came to this island across calm seas by following the star of Eärendil were everafter known as the Dúnedain. Their first king, was Eärendil’s son, Elros, brother of Elrond. Though counted among the Men, Elros and his Númenóreans were granted longer life than the Men outside of the Valar’s grace. Elros himself lived for five hundred years.
The Númenóreans were friends with the Elves and benefitted accordingly from skills and gifts while the wisdom of Middle-Earth faded beyond their shores. When they turned their attentions to shipbuilding, the Valar forbade them from sailing into the west beyond sight of their gifted land, fearing they would covet the immortality of the Elves and Valar. The ban was not understood, for they traveled elsewhere freely.
On clear days, they could see Avallónë on the shores of Tol Eressëa. A pause in the story while I geek out a bit. Tol Eressëa is the isle where Bilbo, Frodo, and eventually Sam all sail towards into the West to live out their days in peace following the War of the Ring. As the Elves would live out their lives to the end of the world there, this became the land of Faery in modern lore. Reflecting the very Arthurian ending of The Lord of the Rings, Avallónë is likely none other than the Isle of Avalon where Arthur himself went to rest following the Battle of Camlann. *geek bumps!* Was Arthur of the same ennobled lined as the Dúnedain?
One of the gifts of the Elves would be the white tree Nimloth, descended from the original white tree that Yavanna had given the Eldar in Tirion. As the Elves aided the Númenóreans, so the Númenóreans in turn sailed to Middle-Earth to aid their brethren. The Men of Middle-Earth thought them to be gods and ceased their fear of the darkness.
Though long-lived, the Dúnedain could still perish. They began to rumble in discontent about their “gift” of death and the ban of sailing into the west. They wished to sail to Tol Eressëa and to Aman beyond it, and the Valar sent a messenger to the king, Tar-Atanamir, that the land doesn’t make one immortal. Only Ilúvatar could do that. Death, the messenger said, was not a punishment, merely a state of existence. Likewise, the deathlessness of the Elves was no reward. The belief in death as punishment was the influence of Morgoth, the fear he wove into the world.
The king was not content with the answer. He clung to life, as did his son after him, until they lost their wits. The people became divided. The King’s men opposed the Eldar and the Valar. The Elendili (Elf-friends) were loyal to the King but trusted in the wisdom of the Valar and the Elves. Fear of death took hold. Knowledge turned to the unnatural prolonging of life, to hoarding wealth, and to building vast monumental tombs to the dead. Honors to Ilúvatar stopped. The King’s men stopped teaching those in Middle-Earth, raiding it instead for wealth and dominion. The Elf-friends visited Gil-galad and aided in the struggle against Sauron.
Wanting to be a king over the entire realm, Sauron came to power, hating and fearing Númenor. Some of the Men lured to his service by the Rings of Power were lords of Númenor. When the Ringwraiths appeared, Sauron attacked the Númenórean coastal cities. Within the city, hatred towards the Elves and Valar grew. The Elven language was forbidden, quickly followed by the Elves themselves. The white tree Nimloth was left untended. The Elf-friends, finding their loyalties divided, moved from the west of the island to the east, and many departed to Middle-Earth. All aid and contact from the Elves and the Valar ceased.
Lady Inzilbêth of the house of the lords of the Andúnië, known for her beauty, was taken as wife by lord Ar-Gimilzôr. There was no love between them or their sons. Their oldest son Inziladûn was Elf-friend like his mother. The younger son took after his father. When Inziladûn took the crown, he tried to renew friendship with those in the west and tended the White Tree. He took an Elven name, Tar-Palantir, and proclaimed through is farsightedness that when the White Tree ended, so too would the line of the Númenórean kings.
The younger brother took leadership of the King’s men and opposed his brother openly where possible. He died young, leaving behind an even greedier son, Pharazôn, who gained wealth and renown in Middle-Earth. Tar-Palantir died of grief, leaving behind a daughter, Miriel, to take the throne. Pharazôn broke the laws that forbade marriage of close kin and took Miriel to wife by force, and the crown with her. He changed his name to Ar-Pharazôn and hers to Ar-Zimraphel. He became the mightiest king of Númenor.
Word came of Sauron’s growing strength and desire to destroy the kingdom. He’d taken the title King of Men, which Ar-Pharazôn thought to take for himself, with the idea of making Sauron his vassal. Ar-Pharazôn armed for war, set sail for Middle-Earth, and ordered Sauron to come forth and swear fealty. Sensing he could not win in battle, he opted to gain through subtlety. He so swore, becoming the consulting power behind the throne of Ar-Pharazôn, winning the people through cunning and flattery. One lord, Amandil, resisted the promises of land and wealth. The rest were tricked into worshipping the darkness, proclaiming Eru as a false god, and the true lord as Melkor. Ar-Pharazôn began worshipping Melkor first in secret, then eventually in the open.
Amandil was the father of Elendil, whose sons in turn were Isildur and Anárion. Amandil was eventually dismissed by Sauron, but he and his family were still respected, causing Sauron fear. The Faithful were forbidden to worship Ilúvatar on pain of death, so Amandil took them to Rómenna. Sauron ordered the White Tree to be cut down, but Ar-Pharazôn believed his fate to be tied to the Tree according to prophecy and hesitated. Isildur took advantage of this and, creeping past the guard, stole a fruit from the Tree and returned it to his grandfather, taking great wounds in the process. Amandil blessed the fruit, and Isildur’s wounds were healed when the first leaf opened upon the seedling that grew. In the meantime, Sauron cut down the Tree, and building a great temple, burned the Tree. Sacrifices were made to Melkor in the temple, often from among the Faithful, on the charge of disloyalty to the king. Death and sickness led to violence and greed.
As Ar-Pharazôn drew near death, Sauron claimed that immortality was withheld from him because the Valar feared his greatness. Ar-Pharazôn considered war against the Valar, and Amandil sailed in secret into the west to warn them. No word of him or the three Faithful who accompanied him ever came. Their fates were unknown.
Elendil followed his instructions and prepared ships. Storms arose, sometimes with the shape of eagles in the clouds that struck down men with lightning. Some repented, others resolved to defend against a Valar attack. Sauron’s temple was struck but not destroyed. He challenged the lightning and was unharmed, becoming known as a god, his power increasing. The final warning came in the form of earthquake and smoke from the peak of Meneltarma. It was unheeded.
Ar-Pharazôn launched ships, and Sauron made more sacrifices. Ar-Pharazôn sailed came to Aman and almost turned back, but pride pushed him forward. He claimed the land for his own if none would do battle. Manwë then ceded his authority to Ilúvatar.
I’ll repeat that. Ilúvatar, for the first time since the creation of Arda, steps in and takes an active hand. The power of God on Earth is unleashed, Old Testament style.
A chasm opened between Valinor and Númenor, and the ships were swallowed. The earth buried Ar-Pharazôn and his men beneath the mountains. All remained entombed to the end of days, presumably, and ironically, winning immortality in eternal torment. Aman and Tor Eressëa were removed from the world. Númenor sank into the chasm, consumed and lost forever.
Elendil’s ships were borne by winds to Middle-Earth. They reached the shores, but the ships were broken. The world was remade. Coasts were changed, islands sunken, new islands raised, courses of rivers altered, and the world, once flat, was formed into a sphere. The Faithful built new kingdoms, with the seedling of the White Tree marking the shadow of Númenor’s former glory.
Sauron fell with Númenor into the chasm, not expecting the fury of the Valar. He did not die, but his fair form was lost to him. He returned to Mordor and his Ring, taking a new shape of evil and terror.
The mountain of Meneltarma still exists as an island above the water. Mariners who seek it never find it. The Eldar, however, could still reach Tor Eressëa and Aman through the Straight Road. Legend spoke that some Men, lost upon the sea and by favor of the Valar, would enter the Straight Road before they died, their last sight being that of Aman.
Númenor, it seems, was the victim of a level of greed we would see later on in the Third Age: dragon sickness. The more they have, the more they want, leading ultimately to their downfall. The ban of the Valar drove them to seek unquenchable lust for immortality. Between the fear of death and the tombs, it reminds one of Ancient Egypt, or even the Sith Lords from Star Wars. (I also can’t help but note that in 1977 when The Silmarillion was published post mortem, the Faithful became Rebels, and an Empire was ruled by a Dark Lord. Gee.) In digging around more through the Letters, I finally have a more visceral connection between this unnatural longevity and the effect of the One Ring upon the likes of Gollum and Bilbo. I now better appreciate the idea of being scraped like butter across too much bread. The Ringwraiths were always the stuff of nightmare to me, but now… *shudder*
The incestuous marriage of Ar-Pharazôn likewise calls to mind the Egyptian pharaohs, though again not that 1:1 analog that Tolkien warns us not to look for. It’s an influence, of course, an echo through time, similar to other cultures in history, say, Sumeria or early Imperial China.
It’s taken me decades of Biblical, mythological, and historical study to finally make it this far, to be able to fully appreciate The Silmarillion. As I finish out the Akallabêth, I find myself once more in overwhelm and awe as a see the things in The Lord of the Rings that I didn’t fully understand or perhaps outright missed. Those ideas that hinted at the deeper history and legends of Arda now stand out to me, such as that bit I quoted up top from Faramir about the great wave. I knew it was important, and I even understood that it linked back to this story. I knew the basics. The details are amazing. Isildur is no longer just the man who would take the Ring from Sauron. He’s also he who saved the line of the White Tree, continuing the line of the kings to Gondor. The Argonath, which never fails to impress me, means even more in the wake of this story. Isildur and his brother Anárion stand facing the north in defiance of all evils that would encroach upon their lands. It’s not just this section, it’s also knowing what’s ahead in the final section. It’s seeing now the entirety of their brave intent and heroism continued through to Aragorn.
The final section. The end of The Silmarillion. All these years… and now I’m almost there. That’s hard to believe, but there it is. In two weeks, we finish this out with Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to this particular part of the story.