Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part XIII

Continuing again with McGarry and Ravipinto. For those keeping track, we’re at the start of page 17 in the relevant link.

The heroes, in contrast, embody all that men should be. Aragorn is promised the hand of Arwen Evenstar if he should regain his rightful kingdom, and Jon Snow is required to start a sexual relationship with the wildling Ygritte in order to deceive his enemies and protect the Wall. We see that heroes embrace a heteronormative model of male sexuality from which the villains are excluded.

Alternatively, neither Frodo nor Bilbo ever marry. Of the Fellowship, only Aragorn, Sam, Merry, and Pippin produce progeny (that we know of – Legolas is debatable). As far as the Dwarves are concerned, neither Thorin nor Balin nor Gimli marry, while the Ents famously lost the Entwives.

Rather than heterosexual good guys vs non-sexual baddies, an alternative view is presented in this interesting essay. Essentially, whether one reproduces is less a matter of “hero” status, and more about whether one’s species has a future. Gandalf, Legolas, and Gimli do not reproduce, because by the time of The Lord of the Rings, the Maiar, Elves, and Dwarves are fading before the coming Dominion of Men. Same with Treebeard and the Ents. By contrast, Aragorn’s line lives on, as do those of three out of four hobbits. Frodo represents a unique case of someone no longer able to reside in Middle-earth – while as a diminutive Man his species will endure, he as an individual will not, so it makes much more thematic sense to leave him childless. The future belongs to Sam instead.

(Quickly switching authors for a moment, I think McGarry and Ravipinto are much more on point with their Jon Snow example. Ygritte exists as a plot device to test Jon’s vows – but the very same test happens with Samwell Tarly too. It is almost like Martin is trying to ensure Jon isn’t a virgin when he inevitably hooks up with Daenerys – as though his status as a hero would have otherwise been compromised. A gay or eternally virgin Jon would have been much more trope-defying  – and along those lines, why does Martin not give us anything about homosexuality in the Night’s Watch, when his work otherwise makes a point of trying to engage with character sexuality?).


Each of these worlds also contains a once-great civilization now lost to fire and water. For Tolkien, this is Númenor, greatest of the realms of men, a gift from the gods themselves in return for service against evil. The Númenoreans were the pinnacle of humanity: taller, wiser, longer-lived, and stronger of body. In the end they were seduced by Sauron into betraying the gods, who responded by destroying their island home and sending them into exile.

One needs to draw a distinction between gods and God here, because both are present in Tolkien’s world. The ‘gods’ are the Valar (essentially archangels), who dwell in Valinor. ‘God’ – Eru Ilúvatar – exists above them in a cosmological sense, outside creation. The gifting of Númenor, the Ban, et cetera, were the work of the Valar. During the Númenorean invasion of Aman, the Valar called upon Eru to intervene directly – which He does, leading to the changing of the world.

In both works, the survivors of the lost empires are greater than their lesser descendants who are themselves greater than the people they come to dominate. The Númenoreans are depicted as almost being comparable to the Maiar, as Sam notes of Faramir, “‘You have an air, sir, that reminds me of, of—well, wizards, of Gandalf …’” to which Faramir replies, “‘Maybe you discern from far away the air of Númenor’”

The Númenoreans live longer, yes. That does not make them better men – their propensity for imperialism backfires when Sauron (again) is able to take advantage. Moreover, bringing in secondary sources for a moment, we have Tom Shippey’s note that:

Denethor is cleverer than Théoden, knows more, is more civilized and perhaps more intelligent: but he is not wiser.

Denethor is an old-school Númenorean; Théoden is obviously not of Númenorean extraction. Both lords find themselves in similar situations in the book – they are ageing widowers, each having lost a son and gained a hobbit, with impending war on their doorstep. Both eventually die on the same day. Shippey’s contrast of “clever” Denethor and “wise” Théoden is interesting – the former is tragic, the latter heroic, and Númenorean or not, it is clear who the text treats more favourably.

As for an actual comparison of a Númenorean and a Maia, see Pippin comparing Denethor and Gandalf. On first appearance, Denethor is a grander figure than Gandalf, but even Peregrin Took can see the difference:

Denethor looked indeed much more like a great wizard than Gandalf did, more kingly, beautiful, and powerful; and older. Yet by a sense other than sight Pippin perceived that Gandalf had the greater power and the deeper wisdom, and a majesty that was veiled. And he was older, far older. […] And then his musings broke off, and he saw that Denethor and Gandalf still looked each other in the eye, as if reading the other’s mind. But it was Denethor who first withdrew his gaze.

Returning to McGarry and Ravipinto:

These tales of lost homelands and of a great people now diminished suffuse both The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire with a sense of melancholic romance. Both worlds are clearly in decline, now in twilight, long after the dawn of greater ages. Because of this, the men of the past are undeniably greater than their poor descendants, both in their achievements and as individuals. These worldbuilding elements reinforce the notion of restoring the past as something good and proper and a future of change as frightening and evil.

The Elves are in decline (and their efforts to arrest that decline led to the calamity of the Rings of Power), and as a political entity, Gondor is in decline from T.A. 1000 onwards. As discussed before, however, Sauron does not represent change, and ultimately the Fourth Age of Middle-earth (ushered in by our heroes) represents the coming of the Dominion of Men: the triumph of the New over the Old.

Meanwhile, if the past figures are undeniably greater, one runs into the problem that, in several cases, The Lord of the Rings involves the correction of past mistakes. Galadriel dooms Elvish civilisation in order to defeat Sauron – thereby making amends for both Celebrimbor’s Rings and for her own pride after the War of Wrath. Aragorn and Faramir do what mighty Isildur could not, in terms of rejecting the Ring. Once crowned, Aragorn also corrects the traditional problem of Númenorean foreign policy, namely imperialism. It is almost as though the past is every bit as messed up as the present, just on a bigger scale…

The Return of the King, the third part of The Lord of the Rings, chronicles the return of the united kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor under the leadership of Aragorn, heir to Númenor. No one—human, elf, or dwarf— questions whether or not this restoration is proper, necessary, or just. The only character to object is Denethor, Steward of Gondor, whose line has reigned for centuries. Since he is portrayed as clearly mad (he burns himself alive not long after), his objections are ignored. 

I have dealt with this here.

The hobbits, the linchpin of the plan to defeat Sauron, are honored after the fall of Mordor, but their “common man” status remains unchanged and they look forward to returning to their middle-class lives in the Shire; indeed, no better option is presented to them.

I have dealt with this here.

Next time we deal with that perennial bugbear – accusations of racism in Tolkien.

Essay continued.


One thought on “Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part XIII

  1. Pingback: Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Compendium | A Phuulish Fellow

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