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.