‘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.