“The one permanent emotion of the inferior man is fear - fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable. What he wants above everything else is safety.”
~H. L. Mencken
H. L. Mencken, an editor and contemporary of Tolkien, was not talking about The Lord of the Rings in his discussion of fear, but his words still apply to Tolkien’s world as well as our own. The fear of the unknown is, arguably, the root of all other fears because of its unbridled potential. Once a fear is real, tangible, it can be fought and defeated. Until then, the possibilities float, intangible and nebulous. Smoke-like, they seep in through the cracks in the window frames and can suffocate anyone exposed too long with thoughts of what might be lurking in the shadows. The unknown is dangerous because it cannot be challenged. No defenses can be erected against it. It is terrifying in its invisibility.
Tolkien knew the power of such fear, and it recurs throughout his explorations of Middle Earth as the primal base for other concerns. The Hobbits fear Strider at first, unsure of who he is or what he might represent—only later, once they learn more about him, once he is no longer an unknown entity, are their worries assuaged. The Mines of Moria are frightening because not even Gandalf is sure of what the Fellowship will find there; once inside, the Mines are fearsome because of what each darkened niche might contain. This fear of the unknown plays an especially prominent role in the history of Middle Earth—specifically, in the ultimate Fall of Númenor and the destinies of the remaining Númenóreans
The Fall of Númenor is a story of a paradise lost. The island could be described as a sort of Eden, a star-shaped land sequestered in perfect weather in the midst of the sea. The Númenóreans “grew great and glorious, in all things more like to the Firstborn [the Elves] than any other of the kindreds of Men” (Sauron Defeated, 334). Perhaps their most striking characteristic was their longevity: “Though long in life and assailed by no sickness, the Númenóreans were mortal men” (Sauron Defeated, 332). Mortality, according to Illúvatar, was a Gift particular to men in Arda—Death provided a release from time, an escape from the eventual “wearying” faced by the Elves.
However, whether or not Illúvatar realized it (and it is beyond the scope of this post to discuss what Illúvatar intended), the existence of mortality juxtaposed with the effective immortality of the Elves is a problematic one. Mortality means entropy—decay, deterioration, and eventually death. For the Elves, death meant nothing more than temporary separation, for the Valar promised that all Elves would be reunited in the Hall of Mandos. But for humans—for men of normal life spans and Númenóreans alike—death, and the question of what happens after death, was shrouded in mystery. Not even the Valar can tell them what comes next. Consequently, death itself is the ultimate unknown and therefore the ultimate fear.
But still, the question remains: Why would Illúvatar provide the Númenóreans with such a gift? Why give the Númenóreans something that could be so easily corrupted by Sauron without more information to help prevent its misinterpretation? In fact, I think He did provide a solution, albeit one that the Númenóreans did not fully grasp as such. After all, this gift of Death was not the only gift imparted to mortal men: they received a sister-gift, the gift of Free Will. Free Will is perhaps the perfect weapon against an unknown evil because it means that the bearer can choose how to face it. Consequently, Númenóreans were not fated to fear death—rather, this Free Will gives them the opportunity to choose how to face it, whether honorably and faithfully or through cowardice.
Still, if this is the case, how did the system fail? The process was two-fold, but I hypothesize that it began with Illúvatar’s (and the Valar’s) absence from day-to-day Númenórean life. Religion in Númenor was hardly visible: Illúvatar was honored just three times a year atop a sacred mountain, and clearly, while he was worshipped, the Valar were in charge of the region—when they happen to look in. This laissez-faire leadership from above opened the door for Sauron’s treachery: claiming the possession of powers from Morgoth, Sauron “beguiled the Númenóreans with signs and wonders,” then “promised them life unending and the dominion of the earth, if they would turn unto Morgoth” (Sauron Defeated, 334). This approach played directly into the Númenóreans’ fear of the unknown on two distinct levels. First, the introduction of a god whose “power” could be seen, felt, and invoked (albeit through trickery), a known god, was a direct response to the unknown and absent Illúvatar. Second, the promise of immortality resolved the peoples’ fears of death by ensuring their safety and comfort in the world they already know and comprehend. Attracted by these offers of comfort and security—direct responses to their own nightmares—the Númenóreans fell into idolatry and, eventually, disobedience of Illúvatar Himself.
Given the Númenóreans’ situation in these terms, the choice made by those who followed Morgoth made sense: Faced with an overwhelming fear of the unknown world after death, preservation of the known, familiar world becomes infinitely preferable. Perhaps such avoidance is cowardly and counterproductive, since death comes to every mortal man invited or not, but the reaction certainly makes sense: “What [men] want above everything else is safety,” recall, and life in a simple, comprehensible world feels far safer than existence in the unexplored realms of the dead.
Still, was this search for safety worth it for Númenor? What did it accomplish? As previous posts have mentioned, their quest for immortality ultimately failed; their disobedience in sailing West provoked Illúvatar from His inaction into wrath, and they were expelled from the island Eden. Consequently, their creeping fear of the unknown lingers, exacerbated with the loss of their paradise and the revelation of Sauron’s lies, now so ingrained in their customs that not even Illúvatar’s gift of Free Will can fight it. This fear is evident in the way they live, always one eye on the grave: they construct “mightier houses for their dead than for their living, [endow] their buried kings with unavailing treasure” (Sauron Defeated, 338). Obsessed with their mortality, Tolkien mentions that the Númenóreans became adept at “the art of preserving incorrupt the dead flesh of men,” in hopes that their priests could someday unlock the secrets of immortality of spirit as well (Sauron Defeated, 338). There is something sad about this attention to preservation over investment in the future—the ever-present fear of the unknown, the struggle for certainty and eternity over flexibility, crippled the progress of a civilization entirely. Unable to change, stilted by their fear of what will come, the Númenóreans’ met a different, darker kind of death, one beyond even Illúvatar’s original intentions. Their Fall is complete.
~Carolyn Hoke, 4/29/2011