Category Archives: Numenor

Tower

‘The Fall of Númenor’ posits the world of the ancient north as the time between the fall of Númenor and the migration of the English tribes to Britain as the Danes smashed the older northern world.

This historical period glimpsed in the oldest northern writings is semi-mythical, where myth is understood to take its meaning from the biblical story of the Fall. Tolkien’s guiding idea is that the original Fall provides a model of how meaning is lost.

Adam names the animals in the Garden of Eden, and the tower of Babel story told later in the Book of Genesis suggests that the linguistic power of fallen humanity retained much of its original potency.

Now, comparative philology began with the recongition of linguistic changes working over many centuries. But the story of the Fall reveals that the world may change in a cataclysm – and on the other side, the survivors discover that a good part of the original reference of their words and stories has vanished. Myths are the stories told before the cataclysm, which we now discern only as fragments.

Myth, as so conceived, invokes realms now lost and almost entirely forgotten, from the Garden of Eden to the ancient homeland lost to the English who had settled in the British Isles. A principle of philological inquiry is thus raised into a theologically stained myth of the relationship between language and the world in time.

In history, which in Middle-earth is that which comes after Númenor, discovering the meaning of old words means imagining the lost myths in which these words were once embedded. In other posts we see Tolkien pulling out older and more substantial stories from those he finds in Beowulf. Many such stories may today be glimpsed only in the dark metaphors dimly discernible in the evident and surmised usages of unbearably old words.

‘The Fall of Númenor’ generates its own symbol of this philological practice: In Middle-earth, a few of the survivors of Númenor build high towers to better glimpse the vanished realm of myth over the sea.

The views from these towers arises when the meaning of old words is seen, revealing in vanished stories a homeland that is lost and days of enchantment that have forever passed.

Several months after penning ‘The Fall of Númenor,’ Tolkien gave his celebrated British Academy lecture on Beowulf (November, 1936), which he introduced by way of a metaphor of the Old English poem as a tower giving a view over the sea. The metaphor (endlessly quoted, always misread) pictures Beowulf as an artistic remembrance of lost ancient English traditions.

Yet the tower also illuminates the original art of The Hobbit – a solution to the riddle of the meaning of the ancient English phrase þéof náthwylces found by the telling of a fairy story.

The tower looking over the sea is ultimately a symbol of the clear sight of lost meaning achieved through a story that allows us to read prelapsarian words.

 

Myths

The story of Adam and Even told in the Book of Genesis provides for Tolkien the ultimate myth. It tells of the Fall, giving to myth the meaning of a name for a story from before a fall.

Tolkien made use of the category of myth to define his own art, or at least some of it (the ‘Silmarillion’ stories are myths but the two hobbit stories became histories – technically: fairy stories). Yet the word also took its meaning from his reflections on the reach of philological science. Tolkien called myth, and thereby assigned to the category of art, a great swathe of the scholarly past of his discipline of comparative philology,  a nineteenth-century science with an inbuilt obsession with origins.

In the nineteenth century, the three main language families identified in the world were associated with the three sons of Noah: Japheth (Indo-European), Shem (Semitic), Ham (‘Other’). Nevertheless, Oxford’s first Professor of Comparative Philology, Friedrich Max Müller, approached the first grouping (which he named ‘Aryan’) as constructed from scratch. He pictured a people who had only a few very basic names of things and then imagined how they made language.

Müller’s mid-Victorian ideas lost credibility in the decades after 1859, when human antiquity was confirmed from stone implements unearthed in the fields of the Somme. For it now began to become clear that people had lived for many thousands of years before the three main languages families of the modern world ever began to form.

In the accepted narrative of the secularization of the sciences, the discovery of human prehistory is another nail in the coffin in the credibility of the Bible. Yet Tolkien saw that the bottom falling out of history allowed for a better fit between the Book of Genesis and linguistic philosophy.

History is conventionally defined as the past as revealed by written records. Beyond history, the archaeologist investigates prehistory. The earliest written texts obviously echo words spoken in at least the last days of prehistory. So the philologist may peer into prehistory. Yet at a certain point the vision of the philologist reaches a limit (as when Tolkien peered at the native population of the British Isles). What is beyond this limit Tolkien defines as myth.

Myths, as defined, are not stories untrue but stories of a time before our own records begin. Identifying the story of the Fall as the original myth, and carefully reading the Book of Genesis, Tolkien sees that Adam named the animals before humans ever knew a Fall. This is why, when we discern a theory of naming in the late 1920s – his etymology of the name Nodens – and the early 1930s –  The Hobbit – what we find is a theory of how already named things lost and found new names.

For Tolkien, the original naming of the nameless takes place in myth and the philologist or linguist who tries to imagine the origin of language is making a myth and calling it a science.

‘The Fall of Númenor’ (1936) gave Tolkien a definition of northern myth. This was retrospectively applied to the ‘Silmarillion’ stories he had been writing for two decades. From a wider perspective, northern myth comes into view as a series of stories punctuated by catastrophic falls.

From the perspective of the Beowulf poet, writing (believed Tolkien) in England in the time of Bede, the legendary past disclosed in stories still told of a lost homeland already had a mythical feel.

But behind each fall is another, until the Fall. The fall that began English history is the story of the terrible events that saw them load their possessions in boats and sail to a new British shore – a story of how a rising nation of warrior Danes took the lands of the ancient temple, made the old gods their own, and destroyed the tribe of the ancient priest-king.

Behind the stories of the ancient English is the much earlier, more terrible, and purely mythical tale of the fall of Númenor. In the most ancient northern legend recorded in history, the story of Scef glimpsed in the exordium to Beowulf, Tolkien heard the distant echo of Elendil who escaped from Númenor.

Eternity and Immortality

The ‘Fall of Númenor’ is a retelling of the ancient story of Atlantis, the only ancient source for which are two dialogues of Plato, the Timaeus and the (unfinished) Critias.

The two dialogues continue the discussion of the Republic. Socrates asks to see the ideal state brought into the world and into history. Timaeus tells how a divine craftsman fashioned the world, but before he speaks Critias tells a story supposedly heard from Egyptian priests, who keep long records, of how nine thousand years ago, amidst ” violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune”  the island of Atlantis “disappeared in the depths of the sea” (Timaeus).

Timaeus reveals what Plato was doing with this myth. He draws a distinction between knowledge, which has as its object eternal forms that do not change, and the historical world that is in constant movement and so cannot be an object of knowledge. The point of both his story and that of Critias is to reveal the eternal pattern discernible in history, showing by means of a myth how the eternal shapes intransigent matter in time.

Tolkien reframes the underlying relationship so that the story of Númenor reveals by means of a myth the relationship between history and immortality.

Some scholarly background. Edwardian scholars had made much of perceived similarities between ancient Greek and later Norse mythologies. Jane Harrison, for example, discerns a “forecast” of “the atmosphere of the Eddas” in Homer’s Olympus (1905, 31). A reaction against this trend, however, is found in R.W. Chamber’s ‘Beowulf and the Heroic Age’ (1925), which Tolkien told his Oxford students “should be read by all whatever else” (B&C 40).

Chambers pointed out that while the Cyclops encountered by Odysseus is “god-begotten and under divine protection,” the “gigantic foes whom Beowulf has to meet are identified with the foes of God” (Chambers 1939, 66). Over the next decade, Tolkien developed this observation into a key to Beowulf.

Tolkien came to see that ancient Greek and northern gods are situated differently in time. The Greek gods are timeless and do not fear death” (M&C 25), while the northern gods are “in their very being the enlarged shadows of great men and warriors upon the walls of the world,” and they are allies of mankind in a war against the monsters that “within Time the monsters would win” (M&C 25).

This allowed Tolkien to make sense of the fusion of Christianity and paganism he discerned in Beowulf. A Christian poet removed any reference to the old gods but maintained the old monsters. But given that the monsters would eventually win even with the aid of the gods, removing the latter from the picture did not change the fundamental insight into the human condition provided by the ancient pagan traditions.

This insight was bound up with a knowledge that the road to immortality is denied to mankind – in time each and every one of us will die. This insight of the ancient north was quite compatible with the new Christian teaching that after death the fate of the soul is eternity beyond the walls of the world.

Tolkien developed these ideas in his 1936 British Academy lecture. Here he explains that while the northern myths had, as it were, looked death in the face and so spoke to the very root of the (postlapsarian) human condition, the southern mythology had shirked the problem and so “could not stop where it was. It must go forward to philosophy or relapse into anarchy” (M&C 25). Its advance was shaped by the mythological conception of the gods as “timeless,” which fostered a conception of eternal, ideal forms that stand outside of time.Plato’s philosophical myth of Atlantis had its roots in an earlier mythological imagination.

To retell the story of Atlantis in terms of a relationship between an immortal and a mortal realm was to translate a southern myth into the mythological language of the North.

The Garden of Eden

Tolkien was a slow reader. He certainly read Beowulf, yet we shall see in later posts his mind was always drawn back to the first story of this Old English poem. We may be certain he also read all of the Latin Bible, and no doubt looked on occasion at the Hebrew and Greek originals. Yet, again, he never quite got beyond the first story.

The story at the heart of Tolkien’s imagination throughout his life is that of the first family, the man who first named the animals and dwelled together with a woman drawn from him in the Garden of Eden. The first family, who broke the prohibition by eating of the forbidden fruit, knew themselves sexually, and so received the doom of death and were exiled from paradise so they could no longer eat of the tree of life. Tolkien’s imaginative life can be delineated in relation to distinct phases of his reflection on this biblical myth and its sequels.

In 1916 a young soldier sick with trench fever began writing a cycle of stories of the elves in the ancient north. At the heart of these stories is an idea of elves as humans who never broke the prohibition and so hardly knew themselves as sexual beings and never received the doom of death. These ‘Silmarillion,’ which Tolkien dedicated his life to, were from the beginning bound up in an imagination of the story not told in Genesis, the story of humans who did not eat the forbidden fruit and continued to eat of the tree of life – the human ‘others’ who did not take the mortal road out of paradise.

Yet Tolkien’s youthful history of the elves in the ancient north had soon discovered an immortal fall, the consequence of a jealous love bound up, not with sexual relations, but in precious stones magically wrought by cunning hands.

In 1936, a forty-four-year-old Oxford Professor reconceived his stories of the elves in the ancient North. This was achieved through an unfinished novel about time travel, entitled ‘The Lost Road,’ which Tolkien began in early 1936 having agreed with C.S. Lewis that each would compose a story that touched on myth.

Tolkien’s novel begins with a father and son pair of early twentieth-century academics who travel back through various legends of the old north until they reach a mythological beginning of history in the story’s concluding chapter, entitled ‘The Fall of Númenor.’

Now the elves told a story of a second mortal fall, a northern sequel to the story of the Garden of Eden, in which mortals doomed to die try to take the immortality they have lost. The story cemented Tolkien’s imagination of the culture of the ancient north as complementing that of the ancient Hebrews by telling stories bound up in the fruit of the other tree, the tree of life.

Sauron the Necromancer, tempted a righteous mortal people into once again rebelling against the will of God. A story from neither the Old nor the New but an imagined Northern Testament.