Elendil the Insufferable Lying Bastard: Historical Bias in the Akallabêth (Part Four)
And now we come to the culmination of my extended analysis on Elendil’s Akallabêth – specifically the implicit bias therein. I hope you have enjoyed my rather sceptical take on the Downfall.
For the previous parts, see here:
Here we come to a lengthy dialogue between Elendil and Amandil. The actual timing of this supposed discussion – one featuring both the actual narrator and his beloved father – is subject to debate, but I think there is good reason for dating it to S.A. 3310, the start of Pharazôn’s Great Armament. As per the Akallabêth, Amandil initiates it on learning of Pharazôn’s plan… and (palantir or not) I doubt it took six years for him to notice that the King was planning an invasion. The alternative, in The Peoples of Middle-earth, p.187., gives the date of S.A. 3316, which would either imply Amandil is (uncharacteristically) not keeping track of current events, or that he alternatively waited until six years after this conversation with his son to make his departure.
Dividing the dialogue into paragraphs, representing Amandil as A and Elendil as E…
A1: Amandil notes that the Faithful are few in number. We might have reasonably extrapolated this, given that the Faithful were the minority to start with, and long years of persecution can not have helped. However, by quoting his father here, Elendil is arguably playing up his faction’s role as the spiritual Elect, even while reflecting on its weakness at the secular/political level. Elendil is no fan of worldly things. Moreover, Eärendil’s example is cited – a desperate pilgrimage across the Sea, of course, and one that essentially hinges on the notion of redemption. Elendil is not really a believer in redemption either – at least as a means of avoiding Divine Smiting. As per his Old Testament view, he is much more into the Sins of the Fathers.
E1: Elendil (in-narrative) refers to the Faithful being considered traitors and spies. Elendil dismisses the charges as false, but as mentioned previously, there is good reason for thinking he is lying here. And Amandil would have obviously known he was lying. Since only the pair of them were present, this in turn indicates that this entire dialogue is less about recording the strict details of history, and more about advancing the narrative of morality play. There are certain things that need Communication to the reader.
A2: Elendil cites his beloved father articulating a particular piece of Faithful doctrine. Specifically that in a conflict between loyalty to King and loyalty to the Valar, loyalty of the Valar must win. Spiritual trumps Secular. Elendil loves hammering lessons into his reader.
E2: Elendil alludes to Sauron or the King’s Men spying on the Faithful. They probably were. That the Faithful might have been guilty of much the same is… ignored.
A3: Elendil receives his Noachian instructions, to set up an escape fleet off the east coast. That Elendil takes nine years to prepare suggests that this operation was a decidedly complex one, and almost certainly would have involved smuggling out Faithful families to Middle-earth before the Downfall. The “nine ships” were clearly the tail-end here – otherwise Arnor and Gondor would have been in no position to fight with the Last Alliance a century later.
(This would also fit with The Nature of Middle-earth, p.339., which emphasizes the fifty year migration from Middle-earth to the island in the first place).
E3: A mere query.
A4: Amandil starts sliding into prophetic statements of impending Doom, which really does suggest Elendil is using this last conversation with his father to retrospectively extol the old man’s wisdom. Elendil is writing this after the Downfall, and he loves his father… why not make Amandil foresighted too?
The dialogue over, Amandil departs in secret. He also takes three servants with him, which ties-in with Eärendil and Elwing having three crew-mates on their Voyage. Was this a coincidence, a deliberate choice on Amandil’s part to re-enact his ancestor, or simply Elendil adding the reference as a literary flourish? I do not know. But Elendil is extremely gloomy about whether one man’s efforts at repentance can absolve the sins of a people (c.f. his earlier judgement of Tar-Palantir), and he clearly imagines his father came to a bad end.
(There is also the point that Amandil was the first person to break the Ban of the Valar. Disobeying Divine Command, even with the best of intentions, is something that clearly grates with the Old Testament views of our narrator).
The pages conclude with Elendil setting up his escape fleet – including an explicit reference to the palantiri.
Elendil’s previous descriptions of Dystopia under Sauron might have been reasonable, if possibly exaggerated. Here he goes into straight-out Appeal to Symbolism – great storms and lightning strikes. One might accept that storms and lightning were a thing – it seems to have generated a certain urban legend about Sauron – but as a prolonged Divine Smiting of the island? No. This is completely at odds with Manwë’s characterisation elsewhere in the legendarium – compare the extreme restraint of the Valar amid the chaotic Flight of Noldor – though it does make for impressive foreshadowing. A cynic might suggest that the narrator ought to give up history and stick to writing fiction.
Within a general climate of extreme narrative exaggeration, Elendil’s accounts of shipwrecks must be viewed particularly sceptically. As per Unfinished Tales, p.233., there is certainly past precedent for Númenorean ships encountering storms and potential ruination (indeed, that is actually thought by various people to have been Aldarion’s fate for some time). One might agree that shipwrecks became more common during the Sauron era, but to treat it as an entirely new phenomenon, as Elendil does, is questionable in the extreme. Elendil wants to emphasize the withdrawal of Divine Favour above all else, even if he takes liberties with the facts – or straight-out lies.
One curious anecdote is the account of Sauron being struck by lightning atop the Temple of Melkor. Elendil would not have been on-hand in Armenelos to see this, of course – not with the immense political danger of travelling to the capital. Nor is it necessarily likely that he would have timed a palantir session at just the right time. As such, one wonders whether the story arose from general gossip after one major lightning strike on the Temple. It is actually the sort of thing Sauron would have wanted generally promoted, as a means of demonstrating his own power, and Elendil (of all people) proved happy enough to comply, because it fed so well into his apocalyptic narrative.
Pharazôn’s Armada is now complete. Elendil reaches ever-greater heights of apocalyptic imagery, potentially a case of him retrospectively inserting material to make his point. As I have noted previously, this text was written with the full knowledge of the coming events, so Elendil is free to let loose the Manwë of his imagination, which involves a doom-filled red sunset and vast eagle-clouds.
There is also the curious reference to smoke coming from the peak of Meneltarma – which in conjunction with earthquakes would suggest volcanic activity. Except that there has never been any previous indication that Meneltarma was volcanic (even if it offers a great ‘secular’ explanation for the rise and fall of Númenor), and based off the earlier religious ceremonies at the summit, solid reason for doubt. Either Elendil is fabricating, or something very strange is going on.
For the first time in a while, Pharazôn (rather than Sauron) takes centre-stage as the villain of the morality play, with the world now supposedly hinging on his decisions. Appropriately enough, Tolkien wheels out the Biblical reference of “he hardened his heart,” though one again wonders about Elendil’s knowledge of proceedings. The details of sound – the trumpets outringing the thunder, the silence after the sunset – do not strike me as learned via the visually-focused palantiri. Ditto the wind details.
In fact, assuming that this is not yet another invention of our writer, the narrative almost reads as though Elendil were secretly watching the Armada leave in person, at great personal risk to himself. Which one could actually imagine him doing, given that he might well have had family connections with people in the Western havens. Enough to sneak in for the grand occasion, and then sneak out.
Thus far Elendil has filled his narrative with foreboding symbols of Divine Wrath. Here he manages to make the slopes of Taniquetil itself into a symbol of icy death.
The major issue here is, of course, how on earth Elendil knows what is going on. His use of the palantiri to watch the invasion of Aman may be safely assumed, and his snide remarks about Pharazôn merely serve as one last vindictive dig at his old enemy (even with a palantir, Elendil cannot have known whether the King’s heart nearly misgave him). No, the issue actually is how Elendil knows that the Valar temporarily laid down their guardianship and called for Eru Himself to intervene.
The solution appears to be that once Elendil had arrived in Middle-earth after the Downfall, he used the palantir to communicate with Tol Eressëa – we know, of course, that one of the Arnor stones was used for this very purpose. This would have allowed him to learn of Valinorean matters via the Elves. They would have been able to explain to him the curious details of what actually took place. They would also have been able to pass on their speculation about Pharazôn ending up in the Caves of the Forgotten, an incident that earns one last “it is said.” The Elves would not have been sure, so Elendil preserves the uncertainty via the appropriate phrasing.
The initial description of the re-making of the world is a curious one, and might actually have been inserted into the narrative after Elendil, rather than by him, once the Exiles had fully established their knowledge of the new Round World. Otherwise, one would have to fall back on Eru communicating His actions to the Valar with a decent level of precision, with the Valar then passing that on to the Elves, and the Elves (via palantir) passing that on to Elendil. But there is no use of the “it is said” or “it is told” formula here, so whomever wrote this section felt confident and did not feel the need to cite any sources.
Meanwhile, we finally arrive at the literal Downfall, the event for which this entire text is named. For a narrator who has hitherto seemed to delight in chronicling the wickedness of his countrymen, and in describing their descent into grim Dystopia, this is one of those occasions where Elendil actually reminds us that he dearly loved Númenor. In referring to that which was lost, he chooses to dwell on that which one might legitimately mourn – Númenor’s children, maidens, gardens, artistry, music, laughter, and lore. It is a profoundly human moment, and not merely for Elendil – it also reminds us that the King’s Men, for all their faults, were still people, with all the positives and negatives that come from that. But while Elendil might mourn, he would never for a moment dare to question the implicit morality of this display of Divine Wrath. Even if it kills children. We are, after all, firmly dealing with an Old Testament value system.
We also get a reference to fire bursting from the Meneltarma. Together with the earlier reference to smoke rising from the summit, this again invites the suggestion that Meneltarma may actually have been volcanic… in which case, a ‘secular’ theory for the Downfall would postulate that this was simply a gigantic eruption, which people at the time interpreted as being the direct work of Eru. It would be a theory that necessitates the existence of Tolkien’s late Round World cosmology, of course, and one might still need to find an explanation for Aman, but it is nevertheless an interesting subject to speculate about.
This page also sees the re-appearance of Miriel at long last. As previously discussed, Elendil could only have known of the Queen’s fate if he had been using the palantir, though he would have not known of her thoughts – her supposed cry at being washed away by the Great Wave is narrator’s embellishment. The Queen, as noted, plays a somewhat ambiguous role in the narrative – Elendil has long neglected referencing her, and only then as a victim whose predicament is to be politically weaponised. Leaving aside the possibility that her relationship with the King might well have been a consensual one, the fact that she sought Meneltarma “too late” speaks of the same “too little, too late” judgement Elendil throws at her father, Tar-Palantir. And she too goes down with the corrupted nation.
(On the other hand, the narrator takes time out to praise her beauty – notable for a man who does not even name his own wife – and he places her death immediately after the list of mourned treasures. As bitter and twisted as Elendil can be, this actually seems to have been a moment where he puts aside his grudges, and goes beyond mere factionalism. As he notes, no “wrench of death” could have been more bitter than that day).
Elendil also describes his exact location at the time of the Downfall, having specified the length of time (thirty-nine days) after the sailing of the Armada. He wants to be precise about this greatest of events, while explaining how he personally escaped the calamity.
Then he reveals that he was a sought-after victim of two quite distinct enemies – Pharazôn’s men, wanting him for the war-effort, and Sauron’s men, wanting to sacrifice him at the Temple. This distinction suggests that even in his late paranoia, Pharazôn preserved enough sense as a military commander to not ignore a potential source of manpower – even if they were the Faithful. It also suggests that the King actually played very little role in the actual governance of the Temple of Melkor, since sacrificing potential recruits would have been counter-productive to the War. Though Elendil shows no sympathy for him at any point, Ar-Pharazôn clearly found himself politically unable to override his all-powerful adviser, even if he had wanted, rendering him as much a prisoner of Sauron as anyone else on the island.
(The Peoples of Middle-earth, p.183., speculates that Sauron could have claimed the Kingship for himself, had he desired).
Elendil speculates on the divinely-inspired nature of the wind that blew his ships away from the island, suggesting in a moment of uncharacteristic hopefulness that this might have been the Valar listening to Amandil. Though if Amandil had reached Aman, and informed the Valar, then presumably the Elves would have later told Elendil via the palantir. So it remains likely that Amandil never reached his destination.
We also get the account of the nine ships passing through the tumultuous waters of the Great Sea – as noted previously, these nine ships would have been the very last iteration of a prolonged smuggling operation, bringing people and treasures to Middle-earth. But they held both Elendil and his sons, so we are treated to a description of the titanic waves arising from the Downfall. And indeed the effect the Downfall had on the coastline of Middle-earth – though that might well have been another post-Elendil piece, inserted into the narrative. The question is whether Elendil had time and inclination to devote to studying the new geography of the world during his hundred years of peace.
The remainder of the page deals with Sauron. Elendil once again presumes to record Sauron’s inner thoughts – this time without any real basis, since Sauron’s actions could have been explained by multiple different motivations. Moreover, while one might permit Elendil to know of the Temple’s destruction via palantir (and indeed by common sense), it is not viable to imagine that Elendil saw Sauron’s disembodied spirit return to Middle-earth. One might therefore suggest that Elendil learned of Sauron’s nature from the Elves after the fact, and made the appropriate conclusions.
(Speaking of dealing with Sauron, the narrative references “other lore”, dealing with the heirs of Elendil in the age that followed. This material was certainly a much later addition to the text).
It is likely that we have now exhausted Elendil’s own narrative, and are simply dealing with a later editor/writer. The reference to Sauron making himself a new guise must have come during the Last Alliance at the earliest, and one wonders whether Elendil would have had the time to author this text in the middle of a military campaign, without direct access to archives. On the other hand, this new narrator (presumably working in the early Third Age) is able to preserve the appropriate degree of melancholy.
Pages 338-339 (‘Epilogue’)
This part of the text is an obvious Third or Fourth Age addition, detailing the various beliefs the Exiles had about their lost homeland, and indeed about the shape of the world. We see references to “many believing” Meneltarma had risen again from the Sea, and accounts of global circumnavigation revealing a Round World (in contrast to the Elves being able to access the Straight Road). There are also those mysterious tales of Men who had stumbled upon the Straight Road for themselves… such as Aelfwine.
That brings us to the end of this lengthy study of the Akallabêth. As was noted back in Part One, the framing narrators of Middle-earth were clearly a matter into which Tolkien put extensive thought, and while he did change the in-universe author of the Akallabêth from Pengolodh to Elendil, this study has hopefully shown that Elendil is an excellent fit for all but the final few pages of the material.
More than that, in fact. By considering the way in which the text projects and reveals its biases, we can make some rather interesting evaluations of Elendil the Man. Frankly, one would be tempted to call him insufferable. An inflexible and humourless dogmatist, laden with bitter schadenfreude. A thunderous Old Testament-style religious fanatic. A polemicist and a peddler of scurrilous lies. A potential misogynist, and advocate of cultural superiority. A raving hypocrite, overly proud of his own physical attributes. A man for whom the term Elf-friend should really mean Elf-obsessive, and whose loathing for his own species renders him a strange sort of Elven Weeaboo. And the chief character assassin of Ar-Pharazôn. As the author of the Akallabêth, Elendil does not come across at all like a pleasant man, being quite alien in mindset, and notwithstanding the claim of Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age (p.365.), also quite different in personality from his well-regarded late Third Age descendant.
But like Gildas in our own world, Elendil’s text – by virtue of being the best available material on its time and subject matter – earns our gratitude. Flawed and riddled with bias though it might be, more morality play than a conventional history, the in-universe Akallabêth is the gold standard of Tolkien’s Second Age. And while I have gone to great lengths to criticise Elendil here – the sweet scent of heterodox Devil’s Advocacy is all-too tempting – it must be remembered that the in-universe author was a man of his time and his place. Whatever else might be said of him, this was someone who genuinely and profoundly cared about the land and the people lost beneath the waves.
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Elendil the Elvenboo is not something I’ve thought about before. :-)))
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I really like the possibility of a secular numenorean downfall as outlined here
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My thought is to shift the story of “Pharazon is seeking immortality for man” to “pharazon is seeking immortality for the island; to Stop Entropy; to stop erosion, and corrosion, and the wasting away of not only oneself but one’s material legacy..”
this is my reddit post on the matter; it was written crudely; I obviously hadn’t read the full story and was going off of footnotes.. (mostly annoyed at the recent age adaptation of the 2nd age)..
curious to know your thoughts..
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The key is we’ll never know, since we’re trying to reconstruct the Real Story based off a biased account. It’s an interesting thought experiment though. 🙂
of course; that’s the fun though.