Dante and Tolkien, Hell and Númenor

nebula, creation, universe, wonder, unknown

Readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings will notice that the story is haunted by memories of Middle Earth’s past and that its characters feel the weight and wonder of that history informing their understanding of the quest they undertake. One of those other stories in the background is Akallabêth, the tragic downfall of the island kingdom of Númenor, which is told in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Briefly put, a great race of Men were given the island of Númenor on which to dwell. They became great seafarers, but they were not allowed to sail West to the Blessed Realm, because they are mortal. They constructed a great temple in which to worship the creator, Erú Ilúvatar. However, eventually, under the influence of Sauron, later the villain of The Lord of the Rings, they turn to human sacrifice and the worship of Melkor, called Morgoth, who rejected Erú Ilúvatar. Wanting immortality, King Ar-Pharazôn leads an immense fleet to try to invade the Blessed Realm, but Erú Ilúvatar intervenes to sink the island.

The story of a sinking land has obvious parallels to the Atlantis myth; indeed, Tolkien himself notes this in a later letter. But let us not allow Tolkien to have the final word on his own work. A more illuminating parallel is that between Númenor and the figure of Ulysses, particularly as Dante Alghieri portrays Ulysses in his Inferno.

Ulysses in Hell

In Canto XXVI of the Inferno, Dante encounters Ulysses deep in the bowels of Hell, damned for his part in advising deception, namely the Trojan horse ploy by which the Greeks won the Trojan War. More immediately relevant, however, is Ulysses’ tale of how, after returning home from the war, he abandoned his kingdom to set sail again. In passing the markers of the sea that Hercules set, the limits past which none should sail, he told his men that they would gain virtue and knowledge in doing so. Eventually, they catch sight of the mountain of Purgatory, which is the way into Paradise, but a whirlwind sinks their ship, the sea closes over them, and they perish.

Similarly, Alfred, Lord Tennyson tells a variation of that voyage in his poem “Ulysses” in which Ulysses, nearing death but seeking a new world, expresses the hope that they shall reach the Happy Isles and see the dead.

The narrative parallels between the tales of Ulysses and Númenor are obvious: a king leaves his kingdom to sail to the lands of immortality, past the boundaries that have been set, but instead the sea swallows them up. We should go beyond that superficial similarity, however. Thematically, both stories are acutely concerned with human virtue and community and the relationship between them.

Kings, Communities, and Virtue

Legal theorist Robert P. George, in Making Men Moral, argues that the purpose of the community is to shape community members toward virtue, and to create a moral ecology in which the attainment of that virtue is ultimately possible. The philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre expounds on this, saying in his work, Dependent Rational Animals, that communities are networks of giving and receiving in which people who have attained certain virtues help others attain the virtues. This is particularly true of vulnerable community members such as children who need more help in that moral formation. Indeed, for MacIntyre, it is “the characteristic human condition to find ourselves occupying some position” of giving and receiving. For Dante and Tolkien, one of those important positions of the community is kingship, as the king occupies a role at the centre of that network of giving and receiving, and must have learned to pursue virtue and model it for the other members of the community. They give the king an essential role in guaranteeing the moral ecology of the community.

It is important to note that, for Dante, Hell is not simply a place where God arbitrarily sends bad people, but a place where sin is revealed as unmaking the human person and human community. Damned souls are not only in Hell because of a sin, but come to embody that sin and act it out for eternity. Instead of fulfilling the end of human nature, which is love and communion with God among the saints, there is no community in Hell, and no humanity.

Virtue Played Out in Tolkein

Númenor, however, when it falls under the influence of Sauron and turns to what is essentially Satanism, fails in two ways: it is no longer a functioning community, and there is a rejection of the nature according to which the virtues can be determined. The Men of Númenor, following the example of their king Ar-Pharazôn, reject their mortal nature, wanting to be immortal, despite the fact that they already have unusually long lifespans for Men in Tolkien’s world. They no longer understand themselves as having a certain virtue or good to attain; indeed, as The Silmarillion notes, death is part of the gift of men that allows them to “seek beyond the world and have no rest therein,” even to the point of having great power to shape the world. Along these lines, Cardinal Robert Sarah has recently argued that there is a great spiritual crisis in people refusing to accept mercy and nature as gifts, and so becoming limited to the little they can provide themselves. Númenórians similarly reject the gift of their nature and in doing so, they fall.

What attends this rejection of their nature is the unmaking of their humanity, akin to what happens in the Inferno. Men’s lives become shorter, and when they are dying, they fall sick and go mad, cursing themselves. The community falls apart, and they take up weapons against each other. Ar-Pharazôn has abandoned his kingly duty to see statecraft as a sort of soulcraft, to paraphrase George, and so he is no longer directing the community towards basic human good. The community disintegrates, like Ulysses leading his men to the Happy Isles only to drown. Númenórians are having their humanity unmade, like the souls of the Inferno, at the prompting of Sauron who is a deceiver, much like Ulysses.

Furthermore, human sacrifice instrumentalizes people. Instead of possessing dignity in their own right, they are a means by which others try to attain immortality. Their value is in their usefulness to their rulers. This is in contrast to the self-sacrifice we see elsewhere in Tolkien’s works, where the epitome of virtue is to seek the good even at heavy cost to oneself.

Virtue and Community

It’s worth noting that, to some extent, Ulysses has something right in a way that Ar-Pharazôn does not. Ulysses says that people are not meant to live like brutes and should pursue virtue. He wants to find some sort of human fulfilment, whereas Ar-Pharazôn wants the fulfillment of Men to be like the fulfillment of Elves. However, that does not justify deception or abandoning his essential roles as king, son, husband, and father. He is rejecting his role in the network of giving and receiving, and, in rejecting that role, is unmade.

Finally, when Ar-Pharazôn steps foot on the Blessed Realm, he wavers, almost deciding to return to Númenor, but his pride prevents him from the humiliation of returning home. At the end, he commits himself to the terrible decision to wage war not only on the Blessed Realm, but on his own nature and human good. Likewise, the souls in the Inferno have hardened their hearts, whereas the souls in the Purgatorio exclaim frequently that, at their last breath, they repented of their sin and prayed for mercy, which has been granted to them. Dante is at pains to emphasise the incredible availability of grace, which the damned souls nonetheless reject. Ar-Pharazôn is one of those souls who, at the last moment, had the choice to humble himself and accept what he had been created to be; but instead, he hardens his heart.

With all that in mind, describing the downfall of Númenor as nothing more than Tolkien’s gloss on the Atlantis myth is too simplistic. The same can be said for comparing the narrative similarities between Akallabêth and the Inferno, as such a comparison does not capture the depths of the moral vision Tolkien shares with Dante. Dante’s understanding of the relationship between virtue and community, and the way in which sin unmakes humanity, gives new light to the Númenorians’ moral failure and the ultimate downfall of their great civilization.

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7 thoughts on “Dante and Tolkien, Hell and Númenor”

  1. A real, though imperfect, example in real history of evil and virtue would be the Punic Wars. By most definitions, the Carthaginians were more advanced technically although their nasty habit of sacrificing babies to their great god Ba’al rather diminished their claim to being a great civilization. On the other hand, Rome was emerging from a collection of towns on the Italian peninsula to just barely becoming organized as a national state. It had one thing going for it the enemy lacked; that was Roman virtue of honor and duty. Despite defeats by Carthage, Rome managed to rise above adversity and win final victory under their war leader Scipio Africanus. Unfortunately, Rome was able to maintain the Republic for only a century until it too fell to the temptation of a hedonistic lifestyle and left virtue behind.

  2. “Briefly put, a great race of Men ….” Yes. It is an idea that has more to do with Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy than with Catholicism, and it accorded so well with Nazi ideology that SS-Sturmbannführer Ernst Schäfer was dispatched to Tibet in the late 1930’s on an expedition to discover what might remain there of the race of survivors of Atlantis, and to what extent they had mingled with, as Tolkien says, “lesser breeds of men.” The Silmarillion makes it clear that Númenor was Atlantis, and the theory of the time was that the Aryan race consisted of the survivors of Atlantis, and thus identical to Tolkien’s oh-so-wonderful Númenóreans.

    It’s time we grew up and stopped treating Lord of the Rings like it was more than it was. It was a fine piece of art, but only a piece of art, not infallible or a piece of divine revelation, and it was very much a product of its time. People flinch from Song of the South because they think it is racist; it is not, but Lord of the Rings really is.

    1. The Lord of the Rings / Silmarillion is not racist. The Edain (who ended up becoming the Numenorians) weren’t great because they had special powers in and of themselves. The Edain were GIVEN their powers by the Valar (the angelic / demi-gods) who were in union with Illuvatar (the One / the Creator / God). The reason the Edain were given those special graces is because they alone of all the clans of men fought on the side of the Valar and NOT on the side of Morgoth (Satan) at final war of the 1st age. (All the surviving men who fought on the side of Morgoth refused the summons of the Valar and chose to live on their own.) The Edain, hearing and obeying the call of the Valar, were given Numenor as a gift, along with the benefits of communicating with and being enriched by the Valar and receiving the special wisdom and beauty from the Elves. The Edain/Numenoreans grew in power, wisdom, art, etc. in so far as they were obedient… once they disobeyed and grew in pride, that’s when they rebel and fall. The only survivors of Numenor, were the remnant of the faithful who refused to worship Morgoth and disobey the Valar. Instead of sailing with the prideful, they sail away in the opposite direction, and are likewise saved. So its important to remember that all of their “special powers” are merely gifts and due to their proximation with the Valar and the immortal Elves. Nothing special about themselves per se.

      LOTR is not a piece of divine revelation or infallible… but it does contain many MANY truths that are in accord with Catholic / Christian teaching.

    2. Sorry, but Tolkien’s stories are as undoubtedly racist as they are are works of fantasy. They are not EVIL, but they do attribute magical consequences to being of a certain bloodline. It is not 100% wrong to say that bloodlines have consequences other than mere genetics would indicate, it is just very, very easy to exaggerate either the effect or the significance. The most obvious example is Original Sin. Original Sin is passed on from the parents to the children, but it is not coded in DNA or any merely material part of the body; it is a spiritual, not a physical, condition. Likewise, God made covenants with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants, and He made a covenant with David and his line. However, it is safer to make “no spiritual consequences” the null hypothesis, even knowing that sometimes there ARE spiritual consequences.

      Now bring this back to LOTR. The actual passage I had in mind was this: “But in the wearing of the swift years of Middle-earth the line of Meneldil son of Anbrion failed, and the Tree withered, and the blood of the Númenóreans became mingled with that of lesser men. Then the watch upon the walls of Mordor slept, and dark things crept back to Gorgoroth.”

      As for what made their blood greater than that of “lesser men”, it scarcely matters if they got it from an angel, a demon, or an apple. The effect was a part of them as much as the color of their eyes and hair; it was given to the good and evil alike, merely on account of their ancestry. If I claimed that my race was superior to yours because it had been genetically engineered by ancient aliens, it would make me a kook, but it would not make me less of a racist than if I just said my race was superior to yours for no particular reason.

      Tolkien’s story of the Númenóreans is PRECISELY a version of the story of the Aryan descendants of Atlantis favored by the the Nazis. Maybe you can say he changed it enough to Christianize it, like you could say of Dante interpreting some rebellions against “Jove” in classical mythology not as rebellions against an unclean spirit set up as a false god but rather as rebellions against the One True God. Maybe; but in either case, you have to make the case for WHY it is OK, for how the evil has been removed and only the good left behind.

    3. That is not correct. Regarding your statement: “The effect was a part of them as much as the color of their eyes and hair; it was given to the good and evil alike, merely on account of their ancestry.” Gandalf says that the blood of Westernesse (Numenor) runs nearly true in Denethor and his youngest son Faramir (both of whom have the gift of a type of foresight), but not in Denethor’s eldest son Boromir. Faramir and Boromir both share the same mom and dad and both the mom and dad’s ancestry goes back to Numenor. So clearly, if the effect was based merely on ancestry, then Boromir would have had the same effect as his dad and brother.

      I think the misconception above leads you to the incorrect interpretation of the following quote: “In the wearing of the swift years of Middle-earth the line of Meneldil son of Anbrion failed, and the Tree withered, and the blood of the Númenóreans became mingled with that of lesser men. Then the watch upon the walls of Mordor slept, and dark things crept back to Gorgoroth.” Two points:

      1. Elrond is the one who says that in the LOTR. He is a bit of a side character in the Silmarillion, but his perspective is very important because it is clear in the Silmarillion that the Elves who answer the summons of the Valar, without tarrying along the way, become the High Elves. The Elves who never go at all to the home of the Valar, become more like wild Elves or Dark Elves who are not enriched by the wisdom, goodness, grace, and beauty that the Valar want to share. The high elves become more powerful in a certain sense and are less swayed by Morgoth’s temptations. With that context, it makes sense that Elrond would speak in that manner regarding of the men of Numenor, the ones who similarly answered the call of the Valar and fought against Morgoth (as opposed to not fighting at all or fighting on the side of Morgoth as the other men did) and that they too would benefit from the graces and gifts of the Valar.

      2. When Elrond is speaking of “lesser” men, he is not speaking of their worth or dignity or value. He is speaking of their spiritual stature. This is clear because the direct result of the mingling of blood with lesser men is that the watch upon the walls of Mordor sleeps which allows dark things to creep back. The Numenoreans did not have magical watching or staying awake powers which became diminished when they started mixing the bloodline. The point is that the Numenoreans, who were the humble remnant of the Faithful, began turning their gaze and attention towards earthly matters. (The “lesser”men had always been more absorbed in earthly matters based on the fact that they never left it to dwell in Numenor.) The Numenoreans end up becoming prideful and lazy. They lost their sense of mission and I believe this gradual spiritual sleepiness is what Elrond is referring to. Through the centuries, the gifts don’t go away entirely for some (Denethor, Faramir, etc.) while others don’t receive them (Boromir). Aragorn and his fellow Numenoreans (the Dunadan as they are called in the time of the LOTR) have more of the full gifts, but it is worth noting that they are literally keeping watch behind the scenes of LOTR protecting the shire, Bree, etc…from evil coming in. It is not a coincidence that this function is directly related to what Elrond mentions.

      One theoretical scenario to think about… think about how God bestows great strength on Samson. As long as Samson obeys God’s will and doesn’t cut his hair, God will continue to give the strength needed to fulfill his purpose. Unfortunately, we know that Samson succumbs and loses his strength for a short time until the he receives it again at the very end. Within the realm of fantasy though, imagine that Samson didn’t disobey and that he had children and God gave them the same law/strength, and Samson had a big happy family. Would that be the start of a new race of super men? No, because that supernatural strength is not innate in Samson and his bloodline. The strength is from God and is directly tied to Him. That’s what I think is at play in the Numenorean blood. It is a function of Providence, which is one of the most central story lines to the LOTR mythology.

      Hopefully these help convince you that the LOTR mythology is not racist. Thanks!

    4. You must be a Democrat if your mind defaults to racism when you read Tolkien. OMG. I’ve heard it all now.

  3. Nice comparison. It seems a perennial human failing is rejection of our human nature. Because we are creatures made with a specific and (for us good) nature by our good creator we should look to for guidance on how to live our lives.
    So, for example, in order to practice contraception (and lots of other sexual sins), we have to reject the conjoined unitive and procreative purposes God put into the natural sex act.

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