Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Shadow in Numenor

[I apologize for my lateness, along with several midterms, some unexpected circumstances came up in the last few days, which prevented me from finishing this until now.]

I wish to discuss the rise of the Shadow in Númenor. I have always been a bit perplexed by how the Númenóreans ruined the good deal they had going, but writing this post helped me make some sense of it. It begins with a fear of death. During the reign of Tar-Ciryatan, the men wonder why they have to die, and messengers come from the Valar. These messengers (and the Silmarillion) state that that Ilúvatar gave to Men the Gift of Men, which is that they are not bound to the world. This is different from the Elves and Valar who must remain in Arda until Arda itself comes to an end. Men have the opportunity to leave the world. However, because Men leave Arda, there is no way for them to know what happens when they die. The Valar also do not know, and therefore cannot help Men in their uncertainty. This uncertainty breeds some distrust in the Men, who see no reason to believe what the Elves and Valar claim is a gift. For Men, it is easy to say that the Elves and Valar live so long, and become weary of the world, that of course they would see death as a gift. Men make this argument to the messengers, who counter that Men just need to trust in Ilúvatar. Tar-Ciryatan also pressured his father into giving up the throne before he would have otherwise, and in the Line of Elros (Unfinished Tales) it is stated that this was the first sign of the coming of the Shadow to Númenor. Thus, the first sign of the Shadow in Númenor is Tar-Ciryatan’s desire for power.

Since this is the first sign of the Shadow in Númenor, it is significant that it takes this form. A desire for power that is strong enough to drive a man to take a throne from his father is an example of the worst form of sin in Tolkien’s legendarium. Tolkien’s ideas about Evil are very similar to those expressed by Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of The Maker. She explains her idea of Evil using the comparison of Hamlet, Not-Hamlet, and anti-Hamlet. For Sayers, there is very big difference between Not-Hamlet and anti-Hamlet. Not-Hamlet is simply everything that isn’t Hamlet. As soon as Hamlet was created, everything else became Not-Hamlet. But Not-Hamlet is a passive state, and does not work against Hamlet in any way. If there were no distinction between Not-Hamlet and Hamlet, Hamlet itself could not exist. Anti-Hamlet, on the other hand, does not exist just because Hamlet does. It is something that works against Hamlet, and more importantly aims to replace it. Sayers’ example is David Garrick’s attempt to rewrite Hamlet, and to improve it. Garrick thinks his version is better, so the original need not exist. This is distinct from a different interpretation designed to benefit a new audience. Garrick actively wants to go against Shakespeare and replace the Bard’s version of Hamlet. If Hamlet can be compared with Good, then Anti-Hamlet is Evil for Sayers. For Tolkien, actively trying to usurp the Creator is Evil. Melkor is evil because he tried to go outside Ilúvatar’s theme and create his own in place of it.

The first sign of the Shadow in Númenor is also a usurpation, but not of Ilúvatar. Tar-Ciryatan usurps his father’s throne, which is symbolic of usurping Ilúvatar given that, as a man, Tar-Ciryatan is one of the Children of Ilúvatar. Near the end of the Akallabeth, this is exactly what happens when the King’s Men sail to Valinor in an attempt to take it from the Valar, those that Ilúvatar put in Arda to govern it.

The next sign of the Shadow in Númenor comes as the kings stop willingly giving up the throne before their death. At the same time, they do not die willingly, but live as long as they can. This hunger for power in keeping the throne, and rejection of the Gift of Men is the next stage in the Shadow’s influence over Númenor. Around the same time, the Númenóreans start becoming greedy and collecting more wealth from Middle-Earth. Over time, the Númenóreans do more and more things that indicate the presence of the Shadow. They cease contact with the Elves, and stop speaking Quenya. They start demanding tribute from the men of Middle-Earth. Many of their actions are not evil in their own right, but they lead to evil later on. Over a long period of time, about half of the history of Númenor, the kings slowly grow closer to the Shadow, and this eventually leads to their downfall.

From Elros to Ar-Pharazôn seems like such a huge shift in ideals, that it can be difficult to see why that would happen. But up until Ar-Pharazôn, each king only did what his father did, or something slightly different. This means that hardly anyone, only the Faithful, could tell that something was wrong. As was said in class, the form of Evil that no one sees as Evil is the most dangerous, because no one opposes it. Even when Sauron comes to Númenor, he very slowly enacts his plan. He starts out as a prisoner, but eventually becomes a counselor to the king, and then the closest “person” to the king, and then becomes the de facto ruler. This all happens slowly enough that most people are again, unaware of it and that it is Evil. One sign that maybe could have alerted people to he presence of the Shadow is the human sacrifice, but the terror present at that time would have made any such reasoning very difficult. When there is a legitimate chance that you or your family could be executed at any moment, most people would rather look for others to be killed in order to protect themselves than try to stop the slaughter entirely. And as powerful as Sauron was, it would have been quite difficult to stop him at that point. The actions the Númenóreans took turning away from Ilúvatar and the Valar, and worshipping Morgoth were definitely Evil, but it is easy to see how they would not necessarily have realized this. From human sacrifice, and cutting down Nimloth, the white tree, it is not a long step to breaking the Ban and trying to take Valinor for the Númenóreans.

Paul Williams


  1. Hi Paul,

    Thanks so much for your post! I had really wanted to bring up the Shadow, too, in class on Monday but the discussion never really headed in that direction.

    I find it really interesting that in your post the first instance of the appearance of the Shadow in Numenor is Tar-Cirytan's desire for power. In the Simarillion, on page 264 it states that "Thus it was that a shadow fell upon them; in which maybe the will of Morgoth was at work that stillmoved in the world". It refers to this shadow as the beginning of the "Numenorean's hunger for the undying city that they saw from afar, and the desire of everlasting life, to escape from death and the ending of delight". It would seem that because this shadow fell during Tar-Cirytan's rule, his personal desire wasn't the first sign of the shadow, rather it was an expression of the shadow at the highest level of a phenomenon that had already manifested itself in the Numenoreans in general. Since Tar-Cirytan was a Numenorean, he of course would fall subject to the shadow and be even more susceptible since he had even more (power) to lose when he died than the average Numenorean.

    Of course I definitely agree with your point in tying the Shadow closely with the Kings, because it is heavily implied in all versions of the downfall of Numenor that it is the fault of the kings as leaders to succumb to their fears and lead their people astray. They are also the most extreme cases of the Shadow's hold. The emphasis on Nimloth and its connection to the line of Kings definitely supports the idea that as the Kings go, so will Numenor go too.

    Alicia C.

  2. Great reflection on the problem of evil in Tolkien, and a particularly clear summary of the anti-Hamlet vs. not-Hamlet terminology! I agree, “For Tolkien, actively trying to usurp the Creator is Evil,” but it seems that usurpation can take many forms beyond straightforward replacement or overthrow.

    I also agree that evil that takes the aspect of good is uniquely terrifying, but I think that the problem of human sacrifice is something of a sticky wicket. Is it still the deception of evil in the form of goodness that is operating here, or, as you suggest, is there another economy of decision-making? (“When there is a legitimate chance that you or your family could be executed at any moment, most people would rather look for others to be killed in order to protect themselves than try to stop the slaughter entirely”) As it is the Faithful, the political opponents, who are the victims of this sacrifice, to me it has the appearance of political execution rather than fear-driven slaughter— does this affect your reading of the problem of evil masquerading as good? Is everyone at risk for indiscriminate slaughter?


  3. Hey Paul,

    I definitely agree with the above - the link between the kings and the slow rise of the Shadow in Numenor is definitely Tolkien's aim, and you trace it well. The idea of hte Kings not giving up their throne before their death is definitely important - I think it works well with the decline in the Numenorean lifespan to generally give the slide of the Numenorean kings long before Ar-Pharazon and the direct rise of Sauron in Numenor.

    I have very much the same question as Jenna when it comes to human sacrifice, though. There are lines in the Allakabeth that talk about the Faithful being targets of these new traditions and being forcibly removes from the havens and central Numenor. When does this subtle evil became outward political repression? It seems that human sacrifice is further along that road - by that time, it wasn't deceptive evil so much as tyranny. THAT seems to me to be the big change when it comes to Ar-Pharazon; it's very out in the open and repressive with him (and a few before, excluding Tar-Palantir).

    Vidur Sood