The Necromancer 1936: a northern serpent

In 1936 Tolkien had pulled off a stunning ‘final story of the elves,’ a northern myth of a second mortal fall based on Plato’s myth of Atlantis derived from meditation on the story of Scyld Scefing in Beowulf. ‘The Fall of Númenor’ is a statement of Tolkien’s fundamental ideas of no less importance than his essay On Fairy-stories. Just take stock for a moment how Tolkien worked into a concluding ‘Silmarillion’ story core themes of three great ancient cultures: ancient Hebrew (the Fall), ancient Greek (Plato’s Atlantis myth), and northern (the ancient myth of Scyld Scefing discerned in Beowulf).

All that matters here, however, is that the northern serpent who directed this second mortal fall was Sauron the Necromancer.

As he first approached the scene of the encounter with the Ringwraiths on Weathertop, Tolkien decided that the events of the new (and therefore also the original) hobbit story were happening after the destruction of Númenor. This decision changed everything, giving rise to the ‘Third Age of Middle-earth’ – the first age of history when myth still endured – and ultimately made The Lord of the Rings a sequel to two stories, ‘The Fall of Númenor’ as well as The Hobbit.

But in these first months of composition the story was imagined as set in the days of myth with the destruction of Númenor still in a distant future. (This is established by Rateliff’s reading of the original manuscripts of The Hobbit (Rateliff 73, 83-4, 123) and by the simple fact that elves soon appear in the woods of the Shire in the new story, with no hint that this needs to be explained given that all the elves are said to have faded from Middle-earth soon after Númenor).

Thus we are to picture Tolkien’s initial idea of the making of the magic rings as an episode in the history of the Necromancer prior to his great act of directing a northern sequel to the biblical story of the Fall. (This is another point in which those who enter this philological index must discard the index of Tolkien’s art that they know and love or fail to understand the genesis of the story.)

Observe the continuity of theme in Tolkien’s mind. The biblical stories are bound up with sexual generation of one kind or another: Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, know death, and hence know themselves sexually (for mortal humans must now procreate if the species is to endure); wandering in the shadow lands of biblical exile, Cain is understood by the Anglo-Saxon poet to have had carnal knowledge of the giantesses, hence fathering the race of monsters who are the enemies of mankind and God.

But when Tolkien told the story of Númenor in 1936 he envisaged a sequel to the biblical Fall bound up with the tree of life, not the tree of knowledge, and now imagining the magic ring an instrument of necromancy he makes it an instrument that generates monsters not by sex but by drawing a living person into the realm of the undead.

Ideas of sex are intimately bound up with both the story of the Fall and the making of monsters, but Tolkien consistently sets his imagination to work on the other side of the coin: looking at death rather than birth and desire to escape death rather than carnal lust. Nevertheless, it is a mistake (if a very common one) to see themes of sex as completely absent from Tolkien’s stories. In both the Book of Genesis and the ancient English idea of necromancy sex and death are closely related ideas and sexual elements are never far below the surface of the story of the One Ring (think of Saruman’s lust for it, or the chaste but naked communication of Galadriel and Frodo, in which a ring is offered but declined and the fate of Middle-earth determined).