Sunday, February 26, 2023

The Fall of Numenor

This is, I suppose, the first volume of what will become the Fourth Wave of posthumous Tolkien publications. The Silmarillion was Christopher Tolkien's attempt to produce an accessible version of Tolkien's unfinished legendarium for people who had read Lord of the Rings and wanted access to the lore. The Unfinished Tales was supposed to complete the canon: the sections that didn't fit into the Silmarillion but were too interesting to consign to the waste paper basket.

The long, definitive, twelve volume History of Middle-earth didn't quite amount to a critical edition of Tolkien's extensive literary residue, but it gave keen readers a close fly-by of the raw materials Christopher Tolkien had to work with; his father's extensive, fragmentary, repetitive and frequently inconsistent legacy. It really ought to be called the Complete Works of Tolkien: as close as we are ever going to come to fitting his actual life's work between two covers. (Or twenty-four, to be exact.) We can talk about what he should have written and what we wish he'd written, but these 6,000 pages represent the sum-total of what he actually wrote. The recent Nature of Middle-earth is really the thirteenth and final volume of this magnum opus. There are print-on-demand editions of technical Elvish texts for anyone who want them.

Towards the end of his life, Christopher Tolkien embarked on a third phase of mining Pa's writings. The Children of Hurin, the Fall of Gondolin and Beren & Luthien are slightly less intimidating presentations of material we'd already seen in the History of Middle-earth. You still have to navigate stories which don't come to an end, and multiple variant versions of the same basic narratives, but the intimidating footnotes are gone; the material is no longer scattered across multiple volumes; and the type-face is considerably clearer. It would be cruel to call these books Good Parts Abridgements of the History of Middle-earth, but they are essentially Good Parts Abridgements of the History of Middle-earth.

The Fall of Numenor is the first publication which owns up to being a secondary text. So far as I can tell, Brian Sibley hasn't consulted any primary manuscripts at all. Possibly no-one but Chris could have deciphered Ron's handwriting. But Sibley has studied the Silmarillion, the Book of Lost Tales and the Unfinished Tales a good deal more closely than you or I have. He is also passingly familiar with the BBC Lord of the Rings Radio adaptation, and supplied "Hobbit gibberish" for the Drury Lane musical. He has taken some of Tolkien's writings, re-ordered it, polished it, wiped its nose, and sent it out into the world in a lovely new dust-jacket and only a tiny seasoning of absolutely essential footnotes. The Usual Suspects have complained that Sibley is fraudulently asking £20 for material they have already paid for (in some cases, twice); that he is engaging in literary necrophilia and is, moreover, woke. But for those of us who still enjoy books as opposed to franchises, it's an utter delight. I ploughed through Nature of Middle-earth out of a sense of loyalty. I read Fall of Numenor for fun.

Linguists and philologists are interested, not only in what words mean, but in how words change. A word isn't just what it means today, but what it meant a hundred or even a thousand years ago. It was CS Lewis who taught me that the word "world" originally meant "were-ald", man-age, and passed through phases of meaning epoch, universe, solar-system and ecology before settling down to mean planet. 

But very many people are linguistic fundamentalists. Words have true, fixed meanings, which Bad People deliberately change and distort. Don't pay any attention to what your Comp School English teacher told you the word means: there is always a truer, purer meaning to go back to. Witness the recent kerfuffle about the Oxford English Dictionary's amending the definition of "woman" to reflect current usage; re-read Simon Heffer's comic masterpiece, Strictly English.

Many people feel the same way about literary characters and texts. There is a singular Robin Hood, a true Superman and an unsullied Doctor Who which different texts reflect faithfully or else wilfully distort. But other people feel that the word "Hamlet", or come to that, "Jesus", necessarily refers to a construct that has undergone multiple transformations and will continue to do so as long as intelligent monkeys exist to tell stories to one another. Henry Irving's Hamlet is not Kenneth Branaghs's Hamlet. "Hamlet" encompasses both of them and neither of them. 

And this is, I think, what makes Christopher Tolkien's work threatening to a particular kind of purist. At one level, it is meaningless to say that the Melko who threatens two elves called Beren and Luthien in a 1917 text called the Tale of Tinuviel "is" the Morgoth to whom Sauron offers human sacrifice in the Akallebeth (1958) or that the Necromancer alluded to in the Hobbit (1937) "is" the Lidless Eye from the Return of the King (1955) -- or that either of them "is" sodding Halbrand. Tolkien re-used ideas from old books in the creation of new ones, and the nature of 21st century literary fame means that "other hands" are going to start using those ideas in their own work. 

Hell, it's pushing it to say that the Hal of Henry VI Part 2 "is" the Henry of Henry V, although producers can have great fun pretending that he is.

But it is equally and oppositely true that we wouldn't be ploughing through this stuff to begin with if we didn't think we could enter into "secondary belief" in Middle-earth; if we couldn't think about it and talk about it as if it was the history of a place that happens not to exist. It is very, very interesting to see the process by which Tolkien created it; in the same way that it is very, very interesting to see the process by which Mat Irvine turned an empty washing up liquid bottle and some piano wire into a Sontaran flying saucer; but if every time you watch the old sci-fi show you think "it's only a plastic bottle" and "I can see the wires" then you aren't watching the old sci-fi show. If we can't see Strider without also seeing Trotter, if Bingo always lies behind Frodo and Gandalf is still a little man called Theoden then Middle-earth is no longer "a world more real than any other". It's no longer anything at all.

A man on Twitter today welcomed the second wave of franchised Lord of the Rings TV shows, saying "I just want to be in Middle earth. I don’t care which story or which characters we will see, I just really want to be in the world." 

To which I say, simultaneously "I know exactly what you mean" and "I don't think I understand, in that context, what you mean by 'Middle-earth'. Or, for that matter, 'be'".

So. Pull up that battered old copy of Return of the King.

Page 453, the Tale of Years.

Year 1: Foundation of the Grey Havens.

Year 1700: Tar Minastir sends a great navy from Numenor to Lindon."

Flip over to the Unfinished Tales: page 219, the Line of Elros, King of Numenor, From the Founding of the City of Armenelos to the Downfall.

"Tar-Surion was the third child of Tar-Anarion, his sisters refused the scepter. He ruled for a hundred and fourteen years. He was born in the year 1174"

The Silmarillion, of course, has a saga-like description of the Numenorian empire which feels a lot less like homework.

"And Isildur said no word but went out by night and did a deed for which he was afterwards renowned..."

What Brian Sibley has done is treated each entry in the Tale of Years as a chapter heading, and interleaved everything Tolkien wrote about that particular year in its chronological position -- not only the Silmarillion and the Unfinished Tales, but relevant chunks from History of Middle-earth, Tolkien's letters and the narrative material from the Council of Elrond in Fellowship of the Ring. We end up with a more or less linear history of the Second Age, which we can more or less read straight through, as a story.

It's a physically beautiful book: definitely worth getting the hardback as opposed to reading it on kindle. Two colour printing, with the chapter headings in blue and the fire letters in red; Alan Lee line drawings at the top of every chapter and a goodly number of colour plates. The only thing I'd have added is some family trees. It reproduces Christopher Tolkien's maps from the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion, but it would have been nice to have some purpose built diagrams to help us keep track of who was where at each point.

The presentation of texts affects how we read them. The Silmarillion feels more definitive than it has any right too: the Unfinished Tales feel, well, unfinished, and in the History of Middle-earth, textual scholarship keeps interrupting the story. Sibley's treatment can feel bitty and fragmented. Some of the chapters are very short indeed. The Akallabeth may not be enhanced by being split into ten or a dozen chapters. But on the whole, Sibley has opened up obscure and dry passages from obscure and dry works. 

The Unfinished Tales included a 40 page story -- unfinished, obviously -- called Aldarion and Erendis, the Tale of the Mariner's wife.

It starts, off-puttingly, like one of the monarch-notes:

"Meneldur was the son of Tar-Eledil, the fourth king of Numenor. He was the king's fourth child, for he had two sisters..."

Even the keenest reader could be forgiven for saying "Who was the son of whom, exactly, and when was this, and why ought I to care?" Sibley splits it up into four sections, entitles them "The Voyages of Aldarion", "Aldarion and Erendis""The Wedding of Aldarion and Erendis" and "The Accession of Tar-Aldarion" and places them in their correct slots between the years 600 and 750 SA. We can now see where it fits into the overall saga -- how the first reigning Queen came about, and why there was a kind of schism between the King and the Queen in the next generation. And, in nice clear print with pictures and hardly any footnotes, we can also recognise it as a pretty good story.

We revere Tolkien for his world-building; we mock him slightly for his genealogies and etymologies; but he was a brilliant, brilliant, storyteller. Even if he wasn't much cop at actually finishing anything. Aldarion and Erendis is a pretty simple tale: the Prince of Numenor wants to sail to Middle-earth and have adventures; his lover wants to stay at home. He goes off for a few years, he comes back, they get married, but he longs for the sea again. She makes him promise to come back after a year; but the years roll by and he doesn't come home. Eventually he returns, but she won't have him back. It's full of Tolkien's understated narrative flourishes:

"You come late, my lord" she said "I had long ceased to expect you. I fear there is no such welcome prepared you as I had made when you were due."

"Mariners are not hard to please" he said.

"That is well", she said, and she turned back into the house and left him.

Did the tale of Aldarion just drift into Tolkien's head while he was working on his Monarch Notes, and get written down almost as a distraction from the main line of thought? Or was one of the purposes of the History of Numenor to provide a context for just such a story? I wonder if there was an original, impossible scheme in which each of the Kings on the list was supposed to be the seed of a story as long as this one; growing eventually into a vast narrative history of Numenor that would have run to double the length of Lord of the Rings. The one thing he definitely didn't do was create an independent story and paste it into the Second Age as a backdrop. Story and history are in a kind of dialectic; the history shaped by the story, the story a close-up view of the history.

The final days of Numenor is a masterpiece of Highe Fantasie. Sauron taken as hostage to Numenor; constructing a great temple to Morgoth; giant clouds in the shape of eagles amassing on the island; Sauron laughing on his fiery throne at the exact moment the island sinks beneath the waves; the Queen trying to reach the top of the highest mountain to survive the deluge...

"And the first fire upon the altar Sauron kindled with the hewn wood of Nimloth, and it cracked and was consumed; but men marvelled at the reek that went up from it, so that the land lay under a cloud for seven days, until slowly it passed into the west."

We've become used to fantasy stories taking the forms of novels: with viewpoint characters, physical descriptions and characters with realistic psychology. Tolkien doesn't write like George R Martin or Stephen Donaldson or even Terry Pratchett: I can see how a certain kind of reader might say "Har-har it sounds like the Bible" and walk away. The normal word order is inverted ("the fire he kindled with wood" as opposed to "he kindled the fire with wood") which might make a different person say "Bah, poetry" and close the book. Some of the language is slightly old fashioned --"kindled" instead of "lit", "hewn" instead of "chopped" and "reek" instead of "stink" -- but no words we don't know the meaning of. You could modernise it, of course, a kind of Good News Silmarillion, but there would be a mismatch between the language and the tone:

"Sauron lit the first fire on the altar with the wood he had chopped from Nimloth; it crackled as it burned away; and everyone was surprised by the bad smell that came from it, which left the country dark for a week, until the smoke slowly drifted westwards."

That's simply not the way this sort of story is told. There are no Hobbits to mediate the narrative, but it's clear from the voice that we are hearing the tale as it was told in days of old by the men of Gondor as they sat round they great log fires.

Could there have been another viewpoint? Could those two words, "men marvelled" have been extended into chapters and paragraphs and entire volumes?

"Call me Isildur. Tomorrow Last Ally Gil Galad and I will go to war with Sauron, and it is entirely possible that he will pass into darkness and I shall encounter some kind of Bane. But I still recall that fateful morning in my youth when I opened the shutter of my father's house and noticed that the suin had not risen and the whole land smelt like...." 

Like what? Do they have public loos and rubbish dumps and tanneries in the blissful realm? And what do we call them to avoid breaking the mood? 

"'It bain't be natural, that be it not'" said the landlord of the Leaky Chalice as he poured foaming nut-brown ale into his artisanal cup 'There ain't been no sun for nigh on a week and I don't know why, unless it be from all that smoke that Master Sauron, gor bless him, 'as been making in that sodding big church, for reasons which I am sure are good...'"

The impact of the paragraph depends on its being embedded in history. We are shocked that Sauron has burned Nimloth; because we know what Nimloth is, and indeed, why the West is important. It's meaning stretches back into the first pages of the Silmarillion, and its story will continue into the final pages of Lord of the Rings: the narrator can only explain it in terms of other stories:

"And a seedling they brought of Celeborn, the White Tree that grew in the midst of Eressëa; and that was in its turn a seedling of Galathilion the Tree of Túna, the image of Telperion that Yavanna gave to the Eldar in the Blessed Realm. And the tree grew and blossomed in the courts of the King in Armenelos; Nimloth it was named, and flowered in the evening, and the shadows of night it filled with its fragrance."

There are other ways of telling a story: Tolkien could have taken the Miltonic or Homeric route, given us the Saga of Isildur and gradually brought us up to speed via epic flashbacks.

And to the white tree Nimloth did
Isildur the reckless son of Elendil boldly creep 
That same tree of whose sire in Valinor
Before the rising of the first sun stood,
When Yavanna, gentle spouse of mighty Aule
Who in defiance of the One first forged the dwarves
Upon the hill in the Far West did stand
And to the serried ranks of Valar pure
Who in the primal music made the world
Did speak....

But he didn't.

But Tolkien did make an attempt to cast part of the story of Numenor into a more naturalistic form. Sibley includes a chapter from Tolkien's unfinished novel the Lost Road, which is related to an earlier, unfinished novel called the Notion Club Papers. He puts it in an Appendix because it doesn't really fit into the chronology. It was going to be part of a sprawling epic about reincarnation, in which a contemporary father and son have a vision quest through history from the contemporary era to Anglo Saxon times and ultimately to Atlantis-Numenor, where they would turn out to be reincarnations of Elendil and Isildur. It was part of the famous literary pact with CS Lewis: Lewis would write a space travel story if Tolkien would write a time travel story. Lewis's entry was straight out of HG Wells; Tolkien's, not so much. Tolkien hasn't finalised the story at this point: indeed the characters are called Elendil and Herendil. The tiny little fragment which survives takes the form of a conversation between father and son. Sauron has been living in Numenor for nearly fifty years; he has corrupted the king and instigated the worship of Morgoth; and promised to make the King lord of the whole world. Herendil/Isildur has grown up with this, and regards it as a normal state of affairs. He's rather shocked that his father doesn't think that lordship of middle-earth and worship of Morgoth is the birthright of Numenorean kings. He fears that his father will be accused of treason. "Even to dispraise Sauron is held rebellious". But Dad is clear where his loyalties lie:

"'I would not break faith with the king, nor do I purpose anything to his hurt. The house of Earendel hath my allegiance while I live. But if I must choose between Sauron and Manwe, then all else must come after. I will not bow unto Sauron, nor to his master.'"

It's a fascinating text in many ways. Elendil's summary of the first age and the fall of Melkor is subtly different from the one in the Silmarillion, and it gives us a sense of how the people of Numenor percieved the old gods. And we get a dramatic description of Sauron's first arrival on the island. It seems that the waves virtually spit his boat out and deposit him on dry land:

"He stood upon a rock and said 'This is done as a sign of my power. For I am Sauron the mighty, servant of the Strong...I have come. Be glad, men of Numenor, for I shall take thy king to be my king and the world shall be given into his hand.'"

But it is easy to see why Tolkien abandoned the book. On the one hand, Sauron the Mighty is a demonic figure; second in command to literal Satan, and Elendil knows it. But at the same time, he is an evil councillor to a mortal king, and the language is that, if not of the House of Commons lobby, then at any rate of Henry V's council chamber. An older dude and a younger dude are talking politics in a nice villa by the sea; but the politics they are talking about involves Voids and Far Wests and Deathless Ones. And this leads to a mismatch of tone, which teeters on the edge of being unintentionally comic. Tolkien has decided they are going to talk in thees-and-thous: I don't know whether to emphasise the familiarity of father and son or just to make it sound old fashioned. 

In places, it comes out sounding clumsy:

"Do not ask. And do not speak so loud. Thou knowest it is dangerous -- to us all. Whatever he be, Sauron is mighty, and hath ears. I fear the dungeons.."

In other places it sounds merely ridiculous:

"How thou dost grow..." 

"Why dost thou mock me? Thou knowest I am dark, and smaller than most others of my year. And that is a trouble to me. I stand barely to the shoulder of Amariel, whose hair is of shining gold, and she is a maiden, and of my own age."

It is as if a perfectly normal conversation, that might have taken place round any 1950s breakfast table, has been translated back into fantasy-speak. Hast thou read the parchments of news upon this morning, my spouse? It seemeth that the cost of fish in the market riseth, and our nation faireth poorly in the ball games at the forum. Please, pass unto to me the orange condiment with the picture of a southron child upon the label. (It doesn't help that Tolkien mentions that Helendil has been bathing, and is naked during the conversation.) Ordinary talk sounds silly in High Speech; but mythology sounds silly in ordinary language. It is ironic that this is precisely the rock which the Rings of Power wrecks itself on. It doesn't work for Isildur to talk like a teenager and Galadriel to talk like a military officer; but it doesn't work for them to talk like anything else. It seems Tolkien himself couldn't get this quite right.

Everything in Tolkien, with the exception of the Lord of the Rings, is unfinished; trapped in the transition between two states, and the Fall of Numenor is necessarily artificial, even synthetic. But the new book does a very good job of making the jumble of material accessible. The First Age stories are much more confused and confusing, but can one hope for a Forging of the Jewels or Flight of the Noldor volume in the not-too-remote future?


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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James Kabala said...

Sounds like a very interesting book.

Mike Taylor said...

This is the first review I've ever read that has resulted in me buying two books. (The other one is a cheap second-hand copy of The Correct Way to Write.)