An Octopus’ Gardener: Tolkien and Atlantis
I have been working my way through the works of literary weirdos recently, both ancient and nineteenth/twentieth century. One of the topics in question is the long-ago Atlantis craze, the notion of a fabled Lost Continent beneath the waves. This may be the domain of fringe eccentrics today, but a hundred years ago Atlantis and other such ideas had some social currency, at least in terms of how they fed into more mainstream works. It was certainly all grist to the creative mill for the pre-1950 fantasy genre. Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith both owe their settings to these long-forgotten weirdos, while Atlantis even shows up in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia (specifically The Magician’s Nephew).
I have also been thinking about how J.R.R. Tolkien handles this in his Númenor story. It’s actually a quite interesting question, given that the source material for the craze tends towards the esoteric… how did Tolkien venture into such occultist waters? Second-hand, via other fiction, or did he go a bit further in his reading? Note that Charles Williams (Occultist and Inkling) is a red-herring, since Tolkien already had Númenor in place before meeting Williams. On the other hand, Tolkien’s earlier reading material included Lord Dunsany, who did actually have occultist acquaintances (W.B. Yeats), and Tolkien would almost certainly have known Plato’s Timaeus and Critias, the ancient source of the Atlantis myth. Plus, he had C.S. Lewis from 1926 onwards – and Lewis was both a Plato aficionado, and an early dabbler in mystic authors (Lewis liked himself some Yeats).
Tolkien himself famously ascribed his Atlantis Complex to a haunting dream:
I say this about the ‘heart’, for I have what some might call an Atlantis complex. Possibly inherited, though my parents died too young for me to know such things about them, and too young to transfer such things by words. Inherited from me (I suppose) by one only of my children [Michael], though I did not know that about my son until recently, and he did not know it about me. I mean the terrible recurrent dream (beginning with memory) of the Great Wave, towering up, and coming in ineluctably over the trees and green fields. (I bequeathed it to Faramir.) I don’t think I have had it since I wrote the ‘Downfall of Númenor’ as the last of the legends of the First and Second Age.
(Letter 163: 7 June, 1955)
Leaving aside the possibility that something much stranger is going on here, I think one could make a more mundane hypothesis. Maybe Tolkien in his youth ran across a retelling of Plato’s account, and ended up being quite traumatised by it? A retelling is more likely than the original, since the Timaeus and Critias are not light reading, and by the time Tolkien was reading the original, I think he’d have been old enough to remember what was causing this dream.
Or maybe it was not a retelling of Plato, but a retelling of someone else in fictional format? You see, while Plato set down the basic framework of the story – a powerful island nation grows proud and decadent, and is destroyed for its hubris via divine wrath – it has proven surprisingly flexible, in terms of allowing later writers to put their own spin on matters. Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), apart from presenting a Scientific Utopia, actually floats the idea that the Americas are Atlantis. While Bacon’s Atlantis never sinks, a catastrophic deluge did send the survivors back to primitive existence. And as for Tolkien, a man born in 1892… it turns out that his youth was the Golden Age of the modern Atlantis craze.
In 1882, radical American politician Ignatius Donnelly published a book entitled Atlantis, the Antediluvian World. Donnelly was not approaching the subject from a mystical angle (that would come later), but was rather attempting to show that human architecture, religion, cultural traditions, language, and technology all shared common ancestors. Because modern theories of continental drift had not yet been worked out, and land-bridges were all the rage, Donnelly hypothesised Atlantis as the origin point for practically everything. He thus argues that (in contrast to traditional approaches) we ought to take Plato’s story literally. Oh, and that Atlantis was the home of marvellous cultural and technological advancement, which only the late nineteenth century had begun to eclipse.
To a twenty-first century reader, Donnelly’s conclusions are adorably naive (modern science has resolved most of this), but he gets points for the sheer gusto with which he approaches his project. In his own era? His book was a best-seller. Donnelly was responsible for kickstarting the modern Atlantis craze – the notion that Plato’s story is a literal account, not just a morality tale with some memory fragments of Mediterranean volcanic eruptions peeping over the edge. Donnelly’s book is still actually in print.
Then the mystics took over. In 1888, H.P. Blavatsky – a leading (and extremely controversial) figure in late nineteenth century occultism – published The Secret Doctrine. In contrast to Donnelly, Blavatsky was not simply interested in positing Atlantis as a mundane (albeit advanced) common ancestor of the Americas and Eurasia. Rather, her notion of Atlantis was as part of a massive esoteric History of the World, following the various stages of spiritual human evolution. The Atlanteans in her system were merely the fourth out of seven so-called Root Races (a concept that has aged badly in every sense of the word…). Moreover, unlike Donnelly, she reinserted the morality tale aspect of the setting, albeit in ways rather different from Plato.
After Blavatsky, her school of Theosophists got to work with building on her ideas. In terms of the early twentieth century Atlantis craze, a key figure here was William Scott-Elliot, who wrote The Story of Atlantis (1896) and The Lost Lemuria (1904). Both texts – a good deal shorter than Blavatsky’s – build up this Hidden History, and both were widely available during Tolkien’s youth. It is, of course, unknown whether Tolkien or even Lewis read them, though by this point Atlantis and other lost continents were becoming popular fictional settings, especially in the pulps. Hilariously, speculative fiction even started influencing the occultists, with Blavatsky taking ideas from Edward Bulwer-Lytton (yes, that one), whose 1871 science-fiction novel Vril got looted quite thoroughly.
All well and good. We will never be sure how much of this Atlantean-focused material Tolkien read, or even whether he read it at all. I do, however, think it would be an interesting exercise to look at the parallels between Tolkien’s Númenor, and the Blavatsky/Scott-Elliot Theosophist Atlantis (and Plato and Donnelly’s Atlantis while I’m at it). To be clear, I am not suggesting that Tolkien was a secret occultist*. I am, however, suggesting that some of this early twentieth century zeitgeist might have affected him, in ways that receive little attention today.
*Though I would love to eventually write something on Neoplatonist ideas in his work.
The first obvious point of comparison is the name. The Quenyan name for Númenor after its fall? Atalantë, the Downfallen. Tolkien himself described the name as a ‘happy accident’ (it is derived from the Quenya verb-root talat-, ‘to fall down’), but in this particular case, I think the ‘accident’ is rather tongue-in-cheek. Númenor is Atalantë because it is Atlantis, or at least Tolkien’s retelling thereof.
The second point of comparison is the location. Plato envisaged Atlantis as a large island (“bigger than Libya and Asia together”), located in the Atlantic Ocean. Specifically, near the Pillars of Hercules, what we today call the Straits of Gibraltar. Tolkien’s Númenor is a large island in the Great Sea. If one runs with the Prologue of The Lord of the Rings (where the North-West of Middle-earth is a proto-imaginary Europe), Númenor is located in a proto-imaginary Atlantic Ocean. Or rather ‘was’, since like Plato’s original, Tolkien’s Númenor is very much not there any more. Divine wrath will do that.
That leaves us with what, exactly, each version of Atlantis represents, in story terms:
Plato: Atlantis is ruled by a confederation of Kings descended from Poseidon. Its land is prosperous, and its people wealthy and virtuous, as befits their divine heritage. Unfortunately, this divine heritage is watered down over the years, and the human element grows. Atlantis becomes corrupt and evil, and tries to conquer the world around 9,500 BC… before being stopped by Athens. Soon after, Atlantis disappears beneath the waves. The exact nature of this is unclear, due to Plato’s Critias dialogue being unfinished.
Donnelly: Atlantis possesses far-advanced knowledge and learning, which it spreads. Atlantis has many colonies, of which the oldest is Egypt, and its peoples settle all over the world. Sudden disaster wipes out the home island*, and only fragments of memories survive in the colonies. Donnelly thinks the Greek gods are based off the Kings of Atlantis, and that the Biblical Flood is a memory of the Downfall.
Theosophist: Atlantis is a vast continent, home to the fourth Root Race. It is very old, reaching its zenith a million years ago, and far-advanced. Its people worship the Sun, but become corrupted by black magic. A minority of the population cling to the old faith, but the majority start worshipping themselves, and their own might. Fruit offerings become human sacrifice. Multiple calamities hit the continent, including 800,000 BC, 200,000 BC, and 80,000 BC, until only a single island is left in the Atlantic Ocean (Poseidonis). Poseidonis finally sinks into the sea in 9564 B.C., which is the destruction referred to by Plato. Moreover, Atlantis is not the first ‘downfallen’ continent, with Lemuria in the South Pacific being destroyed by volcanic activity long before.
*Donnelly wrote a follow-up, Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel, where he hypothesises a comet striking the earth, and wiping out an advanced civilisation. I have not read it, but online sources suggest he thought this comet was the disaster to hit Atlantis.
In looking at these three strands of Atlantean thought, it is noticeable that Tolkien appears to have weaved together elements from all three, on top of adding his own spin. Does this mean Tolkien read Donnelly and the Theosophists? No. But he likely read people who did.
To break down the apparent borrowings (which may or may not have been real, given that Tolkien cited a dream as his source material…)
The Plato strand:
- A people not entirely human (part-god in Plato, part-elf and part-maia in Tolkien) who become more flawed and human over time. Tolkien pushes this less than Plato – Ar-Pharazôn (as a descendent of Elros) is just as Elvish as Elendil, because character is in one’s choices, not in one’s DNA.
- Númenor is in the process of fighting a war of conquest when the Downfall happens. Aman, not Athens, of course, and there is no military defeat prior to the intervention of the supernatural, but one can see some broad stroke parallels.
- Númenor is brought down by explicit and literal Divine Intervention. While Plato’s dialogue is incomplete, it is clearly the wrath of the gods that bring down his Atlantis… in a manner more explicit than Donnelly and the Theosophist version.
The Donnelly strand:
- Númenor has colonies, who inherit some memory of the Old Kingdom. Specifically, Tolkien’s go-to analogy for Gondor was Egypt… and Egypt is a colony of Donnelly’s Atlantis, just as Gondor is a colony of Tolkien’s Númenor.
- Tolkien in a 1951 letter refers to Elendil as a Noachian figure. Donnelly argues that the Biblical Flood represents a folk memory of Atlantis, so Donnelly would be taking the comparison the other way, turning Noah into an Elendil. On the other hand, I can see why Tolkien as a devout Catholic might be rather uncomfortable with such a notion…
- Númenor’s Empire allows tobacco (a New World crop) to grow in proto-imaginary Europe, in much the same way as Donnelly saw Atlantis spreading around items.
The Theosophist strand:
- A faithful minority clings to the good old ways, while the corrupt majority reject the old ways in favour of human pride (and worse). The result is conflict between the two groups.
- The malign influence of Sauron (a practitioner and promoter of black magic if ever there was) turns Númenor to human sacrifice.
- Númenor is not the first Tolkienian location to sink beneath the Sea. Just as Beleriand is a precedent to Númenor, Lemuria is a precedent for the Theosophist Atlantis.
- The Downfall of Númenor is indeed a morality tale, but at its heart is not the corruption of riches, nor even of Sauron’s black magics. Tolkien’s Númenor is brought down by its people’s inescapable fear of Death.
- The Divine Agency is not merely punishment – it is actually self-defence. Plato’s Atlantis does not attack Mount Olympus, but Tolkien’s Númenor attacks Valinor.
As a bonus, we can also do some rough date calculations for Númenor. Recall that Tolkien playfully presents his stories as taking place in an imaginary past of our world. Letter 211 from 1958 estimates that about six millennia have elapsed since the War of the Ring:
I imagine the gap to be about 6000 years: that is we are now at the end of the Fifth Age, if the Ages were of about the same length as S.A. and T.A. But they have, I think, quickened; and I imagine we are actually at the end of the Sixth Age, or in the Seventh.
Let us pretend that 1958 is exactly 6000 years afterwards (there is some leeway with ‘about’, of course, but let’s pretend it is an exact estimate).
With that assumption, our current world of 2020 is 9,203 years after the Downfall of Númenor (122 years for rest of Second Age + 3019 for Third Age up to the War of the Ring + 6000 to 1958 + 62 to present). Which means Tolkien’s Númenor sank in 7183 BC, nearly two and a half millennia later than Plato’s Atlantis. The sinking of Tolkien’s Beleriand in 10502 BC is actually closer to Plato’s imagined setting, in terms of time.
Thus concludes this look at Tolkien’s version of the Atlantis story. There is a case for saying that it is actually one of the more mysterious additions to the Middle-earth legendarium, in that apart from the cited Dream of the Great Wave, and the assumption that Tolkien knew his Plato, we actually have no idea of how much post-1882 Atlantis material he imbibed. Contemporary pulp fantasy authors like Clark Ashton Smith were consciously lifting settings wholesale from Theosophy, and there’s that reference in C.S. Lewis… but Tolkien? His knowledge of this rather esoteric matter is shrouded in mystery. However, whether by chance or design, he does combine various features from earlier Atlantis stories, while making Númenor very definitely his own. One might even call Atalantë a happy accident in more ways than one.