Friday 17 October 2014

Power, potential, pride: Tolkien's parable of Numenor

There is no single lesson to derive from the Numenor parable; a true myth is not an allegory but a sub-creation with a life of its own.

But Tolkien's version of the Atlantis theme (deriving from Plato's dialogues Timaeus and Critias, and long regarded as, at least, semi-historical) is something I find ever-more resonant.


The Numenoreans were the minority of mortal Men who had fought alongside Elves and Valar to overthrow the evil god Morgoth.

As a reward and compensation for destruction of their lands; by the gods these Men were given peace and plenty, their bodies were enhanced in strength and stature, they were freed from bodily suffering and illness, they were given a beautiful and safe island in which to dwell - out of reach of Middle Earth, their intelligence and skill were enhanced - including the use of magic, they had the friendship and help of the High Elves.

Their life span was extended about threefold, so they would have enough time to bring their schemes to fruition.

The Numenoreans were thus made super-Men; but they remained Men: mortal Men.

And for all their enhancements they had the faults of Men.


What did they do - what did they make of their opportunities?

For a while they were satisfied to live well - enjoying the simple things of human life enriched by disinterested learning, art, and religion - and faithfully accepted death when it was due...

Then they became scholars, scientists and technologists; almost matching the High Elves in their ingenious devices; and surpassing them in becoming the greatest mariners the world had seen, the greatest military power...

For a while.


But soon they got bored, felt constrained, wanted a change, wanted power and wealth and luxury and to dominate, wanted the worship and subservience of lesser men - wanted all this and nothing less than than all this; here, now and forever.

Wanted perfect satisfaction of all their desires: Good and evil.

Wanted permanent worldly gratification.


They rejected beauty for power, science for magic, rejected truth and freedom for propaganda and totalitarian coercion, disbelieved in the virtue of the one God and his Valar - eventually, in a final rapid spiral-down into the pit, embraced the worship of 'the dark lord' Morgoth and the High Priest status of Sauron, because they believed he could grant them their desires.

Other Men of Middle Earth then feared them; they were terrorized, exploited, enslaved, sacrificed. 

Sensing their own degeneration and decline, ignoring argument, refusing repentance; the Numenoreans built a massive armament and assaulted the gods by force, invaded the undying lands to take what they wanted - to be immortal gods on earth...

And by direct act of The One (Eru, God); the invading army was destroyed, Numenor itself was destroyed, all its people were destroyed (except for a small surviving minority resident in Middle Earth or swept there in ships) by a cataclysmic remaking of the world.

In grasping at gratification of all their desires and forever, they embraced destruction: nihilism.


Numenor is modern man, conceptualized as being enhanced in both individual and social capability but failing to use these gifts for spiritual purposes; and instead pursuing more and ever-more personal and material goals, never satisfied, insatiable - grasping at more life, more power, more pleasure; at first with energy and zeal, then with fear and exhaustion, finally with despair and insane self-hatred...


Repentance and renewal was possible for Numenor at any moment up until the last moment - they were given chance after chance. The gods and The One held back their justice until they had no choice but to act.

But repentance was always blocked by pride.

At the end, the Numenoreans were, as a culture, insane, having embraced insanity by incremental steps, until - I guess, perhaps - the clearing of illusion at the very end. At the very end when utter failure was obvious and imminent, it is likely that death and destruction, annihilation, was actually chosen.

Chosen on the same basis that Denethor (one of the last true Numenoreans) described in his despair:

"...if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated. (...) But in this at least thou shalt not defy my will: to rule my own end."

Thus is pride the strongest of sins, thus is damnation chosen at the last.



AlexT said...

Wonderfully written Bruce!

Adam G. said...

Hear, hear. The fewer limits we have, the more we chafe at the ones that remain.

jgress said...

Wasn't the Fall of Numenor the only instance in Tolkien where the One intervened directly in the history of the world? If there are others I'd be interested to know.

In his letters, Tolkien lays special stress on the Downfall of Numenor as the "missing link" connecting the story of the Ring with the legends of the Elder Days.

Bruce Charlton said...

@jgress - Yes that is correct.

My Tolkien blog, The Notion Club papers, is about an unfinished novel of that name which was a follow up to The Lost Road where the Numenor legend first emerged.Tolkien's original idea was as you say, to use Numenor as the link between Elder days and modern - and in the Notion Club Papers, this was to be achieved by a kind of psychic link between Numenor and a group of Oxford academics similar to The Inklings.

The the NCP was to be the framing device which introduced the Lord of the Rings - so the reader would first read NCP, and this would explain the origin of the legends which would then be presented as LotR.

So Numenor was intended to carry a heavy narrative burden - in the end the idea was pushed into the background, but remains in a vestigial form.

PhoenixUK said...

Eru in fact intervened several times
1) he gave life to the Dwarves created by Aule who was inpatient for the emergence of elves and men
2) when Luthien pleaded for the life of Beren to Namo, he spoke to Manwe who spoke to Eru who allowed Beren to be resurrected but at the cost of Luthiens immortality. In this way, maian elven and human blood mixed.
3) Eru removed the Undying Lands, changed the world from flat to round, destroyed Numenor and saved the Valar from having to fight God's children when they invaded
4) when the One Ring abandoned Golllum, Eru insured it reached Bilbo
5) when the plan of the Valar (to use Maiar disguised as wizards to oppose Sauron) fell apart upon Gandalf death, Eru intervened by resurrecting him and sending him back stronger
6) possible He also made sure that when Gollum took the Ring from Frodo at Mt Doom, Gollum fell into the volcano

Bruce Charlton said...

Yes - Although 4 and 6 could have been done by the Valar.