Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part VI
Recall that we are still dealing with this quote from McGarry and Ravipinto:
Fantasy fiction is based on an assumption that the old ways are inherently good, and that the power structures that are to be protected or restored are ultimately best for all people. Many seminal works of fantasy are suffused with a romantic vision of earlier ages, a melancholy longing for better days, and the certain knowledge that the current generation is but a pale shadow of greater forefathers. Those that came before simply knew better, and the restoration of their ways is something to be celebrated. The future will be at its best when it is most like the past. As Stross notes, such works are indeed frequently consolatory—they encourage the comforting embrace of tradition and the preservation of the known.
Last time round, we looked at the Elves, whose nostalgia for the past is basically a reaction to losing their place in the world, and whose unnatural efforts to cling onto their glory days result in disaster. Today we’ll start a look at Men, who, obviously, never have to worry about losing their place to someone else – that the Fourth Age is the start of the Dominion of Men should be a clue. But how do Men in Tolkien’s world treat the past? As something better and more noble? The issue is actually much more complex than the Elven and Dwarven cases, but I would suggest that looking at it through the lens of ‘Good’ Old vs ‘Less Good’ New is a mistake – what matters is less adherence to tradition (not least because the seeds of Downfall are invariably there from the very beginning), and more adherence to a particular value system, which only sometimes coincides with the ways of the past. In a nutshell, once Men start obsessing about Death in Tolkien, you know something is going wrong.
We have two Mannish societies – Númenor and Gondor – where we have enough data to form case studies. For length reasons, we’ll just look at Númenor today. Let’s get started.
The Downfall as described in the Akallabêth is a familiar narrative: to reward Men for their part in the defeat of Morgoth, the Valar granted the Edain a new island home mid-way between Aman and Middle-earth. The only restriction on them was the so-called Ban of the Valar, which prohibited Men from sailing West out of sight of Númenor. Over time, the Númenoreans grew proud and powerful, and came to resent both this restriction in particular and Death more generally. This led to a falling out with the Elves, an assertion of Anthropocentric ideas, and finally (at Sauron’s urging), the breaking of the Ban and the attempted Númenorean invasion of Aman. The result was Divine Intervention from Eru directly, which (in the most familiar version) made the world round – the Undying Lands were removed from the circles of the world, while Númenor itself sank beneath the Sea.
I am intellectually honest enough to concede that the Númenorean example can be read as fitting McGarry and Ravipinto’s analytical structure. Specifically, that the “old ways” of Númenor (friendship with the Elves, religious ceremonies atop the sacred mountain of Meneltarma, a lack of military expansionism, and acceptance of Death as the Gift of Men) are clearly intended as preferable to the “new ways” (hostility to the Elves, the abandonment of sacred traditions, military expansionism, and fear of Death as the Curse of Men). Clearly, if the Númenoreans had only stuck to the pious and respectful ways of their forefathers, the disaster of the Downfall could have been averted.
In rebutting this position, I would offer three arguments.
Firstly, Númenor runs into problems, not when it starts departing from the ways of old (that comes much later), but when its people start becoming enamoured with temporal power. Númenor goes from assisting and teaching the Men of Middle-earth to running a brutal colonial Empire built on slavery. At a more spiritual level, Death (as representing a departure from the temporal realm, and thus a limitation on Man’s enjoyment thereof) becomes something to be feared rather than accepted. In other words, the conflict is not one of old ways vs new ways, or about the folly of departing from tradition, but rather about humility vs arrogance, and the folly of obsessing about the here-and-now. A value system gets value, not from its age and venerability, but from the nature and quality of its moral teaching – the Black Númenoreans of Umbar have their traditions too, but no-one would suggest that Tolkien treats that as a good thing.
Indeed, the Númenoreans cling to cultural traditions and lip-service long after they have abandoned the moral foundation of those traditions. The first King of Númenor to openly question the Ban of the Valar, and to desperately cling to life out of fear of Death (Tar-Atanamir) still had a regnal name in the form of Quenya Elvish, just like all his predecessors back to Elros Tar-Minyatur. It took another eight or nine centuries (a non-trivial length of time, even for Númenoreans) before Ar-Adûnakhôr began Adûnaic regnal titles. Meanwhile, Nimloth the White Tree continued to endure until Sauron finally persuaded Ar-Pharazôn to cut it down (Ar-Pharazôn – not exactly an Elf-friend – remained reluctant to abandon this one bit of Númenorean tradition because he feared it would mean the end of Númenor). And, of course, the poor repentant Tar-Palantir ultimately failed because changing the hearts of a people is more complicated than re-instituting forgotten ceremonies and Quenya names for royalty.
The second point I would like to make is that there is an arguable element of unreliable narration. The Akallabêth was written (in-universe) by Elendil, whose very name means “Elf-friend” – by definition, you are going to see a narrative that favours the Faithful faction over the King’s Men faction, and which treats the estrangement of Númenor and the Elves as something to be profoundly regretted. It has become quite common to see perspective flips on Tolkien’s work in fanfiction or even in ostensibly original fiction (see Jacqueline Carey’s Sundering duology), where Morgoth or Sauron are presented as victims of propaganda – I’d suggest Ar-Pharazôn is a much better candidate, because, at least until Sauron’s arrival, even Elendil’s text grudgingly paints the picture of a popular, competent, and inspiring monarch. The worst the Akallabêth can throw at the early part of Ar-Pharazôn’s reign is a rather petty and pedantic point that first-cousin marriages are forbidden (as if Númenoreans haven’t changed rules before).
Lest you think I am grasping at straws with this unreliable narration argument – the only other full-length Númenorean narrative is Aldarion and Erendis from Unfinished Tales. Set much earlier in Númenorean history, long before the bitter factional battles, it rather rebuts the notion that early Númenor was a utopian bed of roses. Indeed, rather than everything being the fault of those evil King’s Men, we can see the seeds of the Downfall at work from the very beginning (or what Tolkien calls “the shadow of the Shadow”).
Aldarion is the future King of Númenor, with the lifespan to match, and spends all his time obsessing about the Sea. Erendis is his wife, but since she is not of the line of Elros, she has a much shorter lifespan. And, not unreasonably, she gets thoroughly irritated at her husband neglecting his family:
“My youth runs away; and where are my children, and where is your heir? Too long and often of late is my bed cold.”
“Often of late I have thought that you preferred it so,” said Aldarion.”But let us not be wroth, even if we are not of like mind. Look in your mirror, Erendis. You are beautiful, and no shadow of age is there yet. You have time to spare to my deep need. Two years! Two years is all that I ask!”
Yes, that really is a scene of Tolkien characters complaining about their sex lives. But the chief thing to take away from this is that the extended lifespan of Númenoreans (and even the discrepancy between the long-lived commoners and their even longer-lived royalty) impacts on the way characters interact with one another, and not in a positive way. If Aldarion wants to waste several decades mucking around on ships, rather than sleeping with his wife, that is fine for him – less fine for his wife, who feels her biological clock ticking. Old Númenor may seem a paradise to Elendil writing millennia later, but we can see it as an unstable paradise, even then, and the eventual fear and hatred that Númenor feels towards Death and those beautiful immortal Elves suddenly becomes much more understandable in context.
This leads into my third and final argument – that rather than seeing Númenor as a classic case of Good Old ways vs Less Good New ways, we should see the New as an inevitable outgrowth of the Old. Or more specifically, that Númenor represents a failed experiment on the part of the Valar – an attempt to create an ethnicity lying somewhere between (original) Men and Elves, both figuratively in terms of intellect and lifespan, and literally in terms of geographical location. The experiment fails because Men will always be Men, and will always have Death in the back of their minds – stretching the lifespan simply gives us longer to brood about it, and more time to (unsuccessfully) do something about it. Moreover, if there is one constant of the human experience, it is the idea that telling people not to do something will only encourage them to do it. The Ban arguably only shows how little the Valar really understood about the psychology of us mortals.
Next time we take a look at Gondor.