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.