“. . . and Isildur said no word, but went out by night and did a deed for which he was afterward renowned.”
Isildur, son of Elendil, is the most significant figure of the Second Age of Middle Earth. He is also the most inscrutable, because we see very little of him in real time. The Lord of the Rings is peppered with Isildur references, but everything we see of him in the trilogy is through flashbacks and historical references. If we only have LOTR to go on, it is easier to know what other characters think of him than to know what sort of man he really is.
Isildur cuts the One Ring from Sauron’s finger and claims it for his own (1). He also assures the survival of the White Tree, not once, but twice (2). He witnesses the long decline and destruction of his homeland at the hands of Sauron. In the last years of his life, he authors the scroll that allows Gandalf to idenify the One Ring three millenia later (3). He lives his early life under threat of being branded an enemy of the state. He founds the kingdom of Gondor with his brother Anarion, and his chief residence during the days before the War of the Last Alliance is Minas Ithil(4). I think the Nazgul take that tower as their seat not only for its strategic value, but also as a way of mocking the line of Isildur (Tolkien’s evil characters are particularly well-versed in the art of political mockery).
It is impossible to deal with Isildur in a single post. Before we even begin to consider the all-important question of why he didn’t destroy the Ring, we have to examine his life as a whole, as best we can. To do that, we need to start with Akallabeth (The Downfall of Numenor). Whatever else that text reveals to us, it suggests one thing to me – the conflict between Isildur and Sauron must have been personal.
As Tolkien texts go, Akallabeth is easy. It is a straightforward tale of about 23 pages that tells the story of an entire civilization. Like Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, it is a stand-alone text,and separate from of the Quenta Silmarillion (5). Foster characterizes it as a Dunedain text of the early Third Age, archived in Gondor and copied for the Tooks to be kept at the Great Smials (6). The early Third Age perspective is important, especially when we consider that it is the only information we have in the published texts about the early life of Isildur. We are looking at an account of a culture hero, written down by the scholars of a beleagured tribe.
Here is a brief history of Numenor, just to give you a feel for the world Isildur is born into.
After the calamities that end the First Age, Elrond’s twin, Elros, chooses to be mortal. He is ordained king of the men who have been faithful to the Valar in their war against Morgoth. The Valar make them an island to inhabit that is closer to Valinor than Middle Earth, so that they might live in the aura of the West. The Valar give these men long lifespans, and a fair wind to carry them to the isle. Here they found Numenor. The Valar forbid them to sail west beyond the sight of their coast, but Elves come at intervals from the west and bring them gifts: songbirds, flowers, beneficial herbs. And a white tree. The tree is important enough to quote:
“And a seedling they brought of Celeborn, the White Tree that grew in the midst of Eressea, and that was in its turn a seedling of Galathilion . . . the image of Telperion that Yavanna gave to the Eldar in the Blessed Realm . . . Nimloth it was named, and flowered in the evening, and the shadows of night it filled with its fragrance.”(7)
This all happens thousands of years before Isildur is born, and before the Rings of Power are forged. The second age is more than 3,400 years long, and Isildur lives for 230+ years at the end of it (8). That is important to remember. At this point in history, Middle Earth experiences a dark age while the Numenoreans grow taller, and stronger, and more advanced with the help of the Elves.
About halfway through the Second Age, things begin to change. The Numenoreans sail East to Middle Earth, and teach the men there, who are for the most part in a sorry state and cowed by the shadow of Sauron, agriculture, wine-making and good order. The men of Middle Earth begin to throw off the bonds of the Shadow and for awhile, revere the Numenoreans as gods (9).
Long story short: After generations, the Numenoreans begin to doubt the choice of Elros and see their mortality as a hindrance rather than a gift (mortality is a gift from the creator to men, that is a theological fact in Middle Earth). They covet the immortality of the Elves and the power of the Valar. They build strongholds in Middle Earth and force Sauron to retreat from the coasts, but eventually he gathers his forces and attacks them. Things only get worse from here.
The situation festers for awhile. Finally a Numenorean lord uses an unlawful marriage to seize the sceptre (SA 3255), invades Middle Earth (SA 3261), and takes Sauron prisoner (SA 3262). (10)
You can guess what happens next. In three years’ time, Sauron is the king’s closest advisor (Sauron still has a physical body at this point). He convinces the king that the world was created by Melkor out of darkness, and he separates the king from his closest kin. Before many years pass, the Numenoreans allow Sauron to convert their roofless temple to the true creator into a silver-domed monstrosity in which human sacrifices are performed, and the first fire Sauron builds on the altar of that new temple is fueled by the wood of the thousands-year-old white tree, which he has convinced the king to cut down. The smoke from the burning pollutes the air for a week. (11)
This is the world Isildur is born into. The first thing you need to know about him is that he saves a fruit from the tree before Sauron could can cut it down (12). He almost dies doing it, and the experience forms a mystical connection between Isildur and the tree, which is why Gandalf finding the seedling at the end of LOTR is so important. The tree is a symbol of the divine right of the line of Isildur (13).
After studying this stuff for three weeks, I’m reading Isildur as a paladin. His rescue of the fruit of the White Tree, when I consider the overall context, is an act of extreme piety. It is also a defense of his cultural traditions against the subversion of Sauron. The combination says lawful good to me, and when I add in the old “hands of a king are the hands of a healer” and the presence of an ancestral weapon, well. Paladin (14).
I’m putting together a timeline of Isidlur’s life. That will go as a bonus post the minute I finish it. My next regular post will discuss his decision to keep the Ring, and his death.
This is an ongoing series. If you’ve just discovered it, start here.
End Notes (My Personal Tolkien Bibliography)
1. Silmarillion, p. 294, and note that Of the Rings of Power and The Third Age is a Fourth Age text, so this the Gondorian historians’ version of Isildur taking the Ring. Elrond talks about it as part of a longer tale during the Council, Fellowship, p. 255-258.
2. Isildur saves the line of the White Tree the first time in Numenor, Silmarillion p.272-73 ; the second in Middle Earth after Minas Ithil is overrun by the forces of Mordor, p.293.
3. According to Gandalf, Isildur authored the scroll describing the One Ring in detail during the brief time he ruled Gondor after taking the Ring, Fellowship p. 265, and in this same passage, according to Boromir, Isildur plants the sapling which grows into the White Tree that stands withered in the Court of the Fountain during the War of the Ring.
4. The Silmarillion p. 286-92 includes the establishment of Minas Ithil in a longer passage that explains the founding of Gondor. Minas Ithil is described as “the Tower of the Rising Moon, eastward upon a shoulder of the Mountains of Shadow as a threat to Mordor,” and the planting of the tree at Minas Ithil described, on pp.291-92.
5. Christopher Tolkien makes it clear that Akallabeth and Of the Rings of Power are stand-alone texts written much later than Quenta Silmarillion in his Foreward to The Silmarillion, p.11.
6. Middle Earth A to Z, p. 6.
7. The quote is from The Silmarillion, p. 263; the account of the founding of Numenor is a summary of pp. 259-63, informed by Of the Rings of Power and the LOTR Appendices.
8. There is no birth year for Isildur in the published canon, but our friend James at A Tolkienist’s Perspective tells me that The History of Middle Earth vol. XXII includes a draft that dates his birth at SA 3209. I’ll likely adopt this as the starting point for my timeline.
9. The Silmarillion, p. 263.
10. Ar-Pharazon takes Sauron prisoner in The Silmarillion, p. 271-273. Years are listed in The Return of the King, Appendix B.
11. The Silmarillion, p. 272-73 Covers Sauron’s construction of a great temple and conversion of Numenor to the worship of Morgoth.
12. The Silmarillion, p. 272-73 Tells (briefly) the story of Isildur’s rescue of the fruit, and there are many, many things to be said about these two or three paragraphs.
13. The Silmarillion, p.304, refers to Gandalf’s finding of the seedling. Return of the King, p. 248-251, makes it clear that Aragorn is with Gandalf during this episode.
14. See esp. Return of the King, p. 139: “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.” This is clearly Mandate of Heaven talk.
15 Epigraph: The Silmarillion, p.272.