Christianity and Middle-Earth

Friday, March 17, 2006

Fall into Darkness

Any readers of this blog—likely former readers as I have not posted in many long months—are aware of my involvement with the Terry Schiavo issue that so riveted the world a year ago. I was not a prime mover in this blog-issue; I merely followed the lead of better bloggers than I; but still, I had a deep personal interest in Terri’s fate and gave it all that I had in joining the efforts to save her life.

That involvement, following so closely on the heels of my brother’s nearly fatal illness, worked a terrible toll on my own health, already compromised. There is always a price to be paid for fighting evil, and so have I paid, even if I says it as oughtn’t; the price allotted to me was literally heart failure. But here a year later, I’ve gained a tenuous hold on normal living, and once again find myself (among many) suddenly summoned into the breach by those same vigorous and admirable bloggers, people who are concerned for Terri’s legacy and those that might share in her fate if good men do nothing. I don’t have the strength for an extended contribution, but will give it what little I can: many small drops of truth add up to a thundering torrent to drown the Orthancs that wage war against all good things, all Light and life and Love.

This being a Tolkien website, I will address the issue via Middle-Earth. If I get a Tolkien fact a bit wrong here or there, you LotR fans must forgive me; there’s a definite limit to my energies for research and verification and the deadline loometh. And you’ll have to look up any references yourself; I don’t have the energy to do the linking. (For quick details, I recommend the Encyclopedia of Arda).


There’s a back-story to The Lord of the Rings—a vast and richly layered foundation that nourishes the more well-known tale of hobbits and Men and Elves. Moviegoers unfamiliar with other of Tolkien’s writings may have found themselves mystified at some of the obscure references Peter Jackson of necessity had to incorporate into his three films; newcomers to Middle-Earth likely found such references so confusing as to require immediate dismissal—movie pacing waits for no man, after all, so the viewer must quickly move on lest he lose his grip on the plot entirely. Still, the hints are there for anyone who cares to dig deeper after the credits roll, as a key conversation in Fellowship between Gandalf and Frodo clearly shows:

“Evil is stirring in Mordor. The ring has awoken. It has heard its master’s call.”

“But he was destroyed! Sauron was destroyed!”

“No, Frodo, the spirit of Sauron endured. His life force is bound to the ring and the ring survived. Sauron has returned. His orcs have multiplied. His fortress of Barad-Dûr has been rebuilt, in the land of Mordor. Sauron needs only this ring to cover all the lands of a second darkness...”

The initial flashback scenes at the beginning of Fellowship have of course given the viewer some orientation: Sauron was a major bad guy and a Last Alliance of Men and Elves defeated him in a great battle; but there is much more to the back story than that simplification shows. Who were these Elves and Men, these kings of free peoples—Gil-Galad and Elendil and Isildur? Who was this Dark Lord Sauron, so generous with his rings? Why a “Last” Alliance?

All that tale is far beyond the scope and purpose of this short essay; I must leave novice Tolkien fans mystified still and focus rather on a very small part of it, the part that comes to bear on a character we meet much further on in the movie: the ranger Strider—eventually revealed to us as Aragorn, Isildur’s heir and heir to the throne of Gondor, the heir of Elendil.

“Tall ships and tall kings
Three times three,
What brought they from the foundered land
Over the flowing sea?
Seven stars and seven stones
And one white tree.”

That tree was the White Tree of Gondor, of course, and a symbol of the High Kingship to which Aragorn was heir. But what was this “foundered land” the rhyme mentions?

It was Númenor, the land of gift.

I quote the Encyclopedia of Arda:

The island kingdom of the Dúnedain, raised from the sea by the Valar as a gift and reward to the Men who had remained faithful through the dark years of the First Age. The Edain who had dwelt in Beleriand were led to the island in II 32 by Elros the Half-elven, who unlike his brother Elrond had chosen to be counted among Men rather than Elves.

Elros became the first King of Númenor, taking the name Tar-Minyatur. Under his rule, and the rule of his descendants, the Númenóreans rose to become the most powerful nation of Men in that or any other age. Their mighty ships returned to Middle-earth in II 600, and there they founded havens and cities.

For the early part of their history, the Númenóreans were closely allied with the Elves of Tol Eressëa, which lay close to their western shores. The Elves visited them often, and taught them much, but the Númenóreans themselves were forbidden to sail westwards, because the Valar feared they would become envious of the Undying Lands they and the Elves inhabited. As their greatness and power grew, the Númenóreans began to turn against the Ban of the Valar, and at last Ar-Adûnakhôr, who became King in II 2899 turned openly against it, though he did not dare defy it.

The last King of Númenor was Ar-Pharazôn the Golden, who usurped the throne of the rightful queen Míriel in II 3255. He took his armies to Middle-earth to make war upon Sauron, and so great had the Númenóreans become that Sauron's forces deserted him. Seeing an opportunity to destroy his enemy, Sauron sued for peace and returned with the King to Númenor. He gradually gained Ar-Pharazôn trust, and persuaded him to sail openly against the Valar. This he did in II 3319, but as he set foot on the forbidden shores of Aman, the land of Gift was taken away and swallowed between the waves forever.

Some few survived the Downfall; Elendil, his sons and his followers had prepared themselves for the disaster and taken ship, and were driven back across the seas to Middle-earth. There they founded the famous realms of Arnor and Gondor, though these were but a dim reflection of the glory of Númenor at its height.

Specific to the point at hand, i.e., the issue of life and death and the choices laid before us concerning the Terri Schiavos of this world, I lay before you parts of Tolkien’s description of the last days of Númenor.

“…Sauron caused to be built upon the hill in the midst of the city of the Númenóreans…a mighty temple...crowned with a mighty dome. And that dome was roofed all with silver, and rose glittering in the sun, so that the light of it could be seen afar off; but soon the light was darkened, and the silver became black. For there was an altar of fire in the midst of the temple, and in the topmost of the dome there was a louver, whence there issued a great smoke. And the first fire upon the altar Sauron kindled with the hewn wood of (the White Tree) and it crackled and was consumed…

Thereafter the fire and smoke went up without ceasing; for the power of Sauron daily increased, and in that temple, with spilling of blood and torment and great wickedness, men made sacrifice to (Morgoth)…And most often from among the Faithful they chose their victims…

Nevertheless for long it seemed to the Númenóreans that they prospered and if they were not increased in happiness, yet they grew more strong, and their rich men even richer. For with the aid and counsel of Sauron they multiplied their possessions, and they devised engines, and they built ever greater ships. And they sailed now with power and amoury to Middle-earth…and they hunted the men of Middle-earth and took their goods and enslaved them, and many they slew cruelly upon their altars. For they built in their fortresses temples…

Thus Ar-Pharazôn, King…grew to the mightiest tyrant that had yet been in the world since the reign of Morgoth, though in truth Sauron ruled all from behind the throne. But the years passed, and the King felt the shadow of death approach, as his days lengthened; and he was filled with fear and wrath. Now Sauron spoke to the King, saying that his strength was now so great that he might think to have his will in all things, and be subject to no command or ban…”

The sins of the Númenóreans were many, and human sacrifice was but one part that led inexorably to the chief sin: the decision to take to themselves the right of utter rebellion against the higher powers, to storm heaven itself, as it were. They had become as gods in their own eyes and nothing was to be denied them.

This was the burden Aragorn had to bear and the decision he had to make—whether to choose submission to the will of heaven, to the right Road and the right way, or to grasp power for himself. Many times was that choice laid before him, most crucially when he had to let go control of the fate of the Ring, to allow it to go into Mordor in the hands of the small and the weak; and in the same crisis-point to chose between his desire and his duty regarding the fate of two other seemingly useless creatures, the hobbits Merry and Pippin: that was his choice—self and will, or love and pity. He could sacrifice others or he could sacrifice himself.

“A great doom awaits you, either to rise above the height of all your fathers since the days of Elendil, or to fall into darkness with all that is left of your kin.”

Aragorn chose well. Please God that we too will turn and do the same.


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