The Death of Isildur

I considered moving on to Gollum this week, but the Disaster of the Gladden Fields is too important to exclude from this series. It is in this episode that we first catch a glimpse of the One Ring as an independent character, and it connects the War of the Ring to the the First and Second Ages of Middle Earth.

Isildur’s position as the central figure here, and the fact that this is an event of his making, make him the most significant figure of the Second Age. They also make him a tragic hero (1).

As with most of the other events we’ve looked at so far, our most complete source for the death of Isildur is Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age (2). We also have significant accounts from Gandalf (3) and Elrond (4).

First, let’s look at the “historical” account. After refusing to destroy the Ring and claiming it as an heirloom, Isildur returns to Minas Anor, plants the White Tree in memory of his brother Anarion, who was slain in the War of the Last Alliance, and counsels his nephew in statecraft. All this is covered in a few sentences in Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, but, the events of LOTR make it clear that Isildur remains in the south for a couple of years (5). It is during this period that he authors the scroll that eventually allows Gandalf to identify the Ring. Finally, Isildur leaves the southern kingdom to his nephew:

But soon he departed, and after he had given counsel to Meneldil, his brother’s son, and had committed to him the realm of the south, he bore away the Ring, to be an heirloom of his house, and marched north from Gondor by the way that Elendil had come; and he forsook the South Kingdom, for he purposed to take up his father’s realm in Eriador, far from the shadow of the Black Land.

But Isildur was overwhelmed by a host of Orcs that lay in wait in the Misty Mountains; and they descended upon him at unawares in his camp between the Greenwood and the Great River, nigh to Loeg Ningloron, the Gladden Fields, fore he was heedless and set no guard, deeming that all his foes were overthrown . . .  Isildur himself escaped by means of the Ring, fore when he wore it he was invisible to all eyes; but the Orcs hunted him by scent and by slot, until he came to the River and plunged in. Then the Ring betrayed him and avenged its maker, for it slipped from his finger as he swam, and it was lost in the water. Then Orcs saw him as he laboured in the stream, and they shot him with many arrows, and that was his end. Only three of his people ever came back over the mountains after long wandering; and of these one was Ohtar his esquire, to whose keeping he had given the shards of the sword of Elendil. (6)

Four phrases in this passage deserve close reading; I’ll cover them in order with bullet-points.

  • “Soon he departed” makes it clear that the narrator of this text has no idea how long Isildur stayed in the south. “Soon” can be 10 days or 2 years to a man who’s lived 230 years. This is important to continuity, because it’s clear from LOTR that Gondor has no clue how long Isildur stayed in the south (7); that detail is filled in by Gandalf (8).
  • “Far from the shadow of the Black Land” tells me Isildur is scarred by his experience in the war, and well he should be, since he is a human being. But we have to consider that being damaged by the war affects his decisions and possibly makes him more susceptible to the influence of the Ring than he would otherwise be.
  • “Set no guard” is presented as a logical and legitimate decision. But is the Ring working on him? If we consider that he is taking up the kingship of the North in part to be as far from Mordor as possible, wouldn’t he be hypervigilant here? We have to consider the possibility that the Ring is affecting his judgment, and if it can do that, could it not also be somehow attracting the Orcs?
  • “the Ring betrayed him and avenged its maker.” The choice of verbs here implies conscious motive, and note that “Ring” is capitalized consistently in the original text. This is, I believe, the point at which the Ring emerges as a character. Inanimate objects do not “betray” and “avenge;” nor do appendages. If I had to pick the best of a long list of imperfect metaphors to describe the Ring in this scene, I would call it Sauron’s progeny. But whatever descriptive device we choose, it is clearly a being rather than an object.

We’ve wrung all the good we’re going to get out of The Silmarillion for this series now. We’re moving into LOTR, and we’re not coming back, aside from occasional references. That means it’s time to evaluate LOTR as a source. The thing you need to understand about it, first and foremost, is that it is written from the perspective of (very learned) Hobbits. The Wiki description doesn’t quite capture the nuances, but it gets the chain of authorship correct. The big Wiki’s description contains more details. We’d need to really dig into Tolkien’s drafts to be more specific than this, but here is how I understand the narrative history of LOTR.

  1. Bilbo writes The Hobbit as a memoir.
  2. Bilbo, much later, writes down a lot of material related to the War of the Ring, much of it while the war is going on.
  3. After the defeat of Sauron, Bilbo gives Frodo the book. Frodo organizes it and adds a lot of material of his own, but the poems and things that are obviously translated from the Elvish or taken from deep lore are obviously Bilbo’s.
  4. When Frodo sails into the West, he entrusts the book to Samwise, who makes further alterations and eventually leaves it in the possession of his daughter Elanor. That is the the last we see of the original book, and it is not preserved.
  5. Copies are made before the original is lost, the first at the behest of King Elessar (Aragorn). It is annotated and corrected (this is where most of the info in the appendices come from). Faramir writes the tale of Aragorn and Arwen that tells their endings. At some point, the descendants of Merry and Pippin have it copied and archived.
  6. And this is important – from there it survives, in the original languages, to Tolkien’s day. He translates it somehow. So, Middle Earth is not some alternate universe. The story of LOTR is something that happened in our very own world in prehistoric times, which makes it even more surreal to me than it would be if it were set on another planet.

This is all stuff to keep in mind, as we begin to discuss Gollum, Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam. The source for the next section of this series was written by Bagginses, filtered by Gondorian scholars at some point, re-copied by Hobbits generations later as a cultural artifact and then finally translated thousands of years later by Tolkien.

Gandalf’s account of Isildur’s death in the Fellowship of the Ring agrees with the particulars of the passage quoted above, but is much shorter and seems to be a paraphrased version (9). Elrond’s account is even more brief, but Elrond states that the Ring “betrayed” Isiludur (10) – more textual evidence, I think, that the Ring is best read as a character.

Two things occur to me from this read-through that I’d not considered before. First, the Ring is a much more active agent in the massacre at the Gladden Fields than I’ve previously considered. It doesn’t merely slip off Isildur’s finger at an opportune moment; it plays a role in engineering the whole situation. Second, it’s not enough to say Isildur was undone by his weak will or his pride and leave it at that. I see him, by the end of his tale, as a man haunted by the horrors he’s lived through. That makes both his actions and his vulnerability to the Ring much more comprehensible than they were when I started writing about him. I think he is undone as much by sorrow as by hubris.

Here’s Peter Jackson’s adaptation. I wish it were longer, but I think it does a good job of capturing the essentials in 68 seconds of film.

Previous posts on Isildur: Scions of Numenor; Isildur’s Bane

Bibliography

Notes

1. I am using “tragic” here in the classical sense. It’s beyond the scope of this series to explore this in detail, but I believe Tolkien is interacting with both the great epics of Western literature and Shakespearean tragedy in this text. This, as much as his construction of an entire world from a set of fictional languages, is what sets him apart from later fantasy authors for me.

2. The Silmarillion, p. 285-303. Written from the perspective of Fourth Age Gondorian historians looking back over the entire history of Middle Earth.

3. “The Shadow of the Past,” Fellowship of the Ring, esp. p. 61.

4. “The Council of Elrond”, Fellowship of the Ring, esp. p. 257.

5. Fellowship, p. 265.

6. The Silmarillion, p. 295.

7. Fellowship, p. 265.

8. Fellowship, p. 265.

9. Fellowship, p. 61.

10. Fellowship, p. 257.

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5 Comments

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  1. Isildor was heedless and set no guard. The “heedless” bit is the important word. He had defeated his enemies and didn’t really figure that a guard was necessary. Of course, even when it’s not necessary, you should set one (thus the heedlessness). The Ring is certainly a character, but Isildor shouldn’t be left off the hook. The Ring amplifies his hubris, perhaps knowing that it wasn’t going to get anywhere with Isildor.

    Have you read the Unfinished Tales version? Tolkien gives us a completely different take on Isildor. I’m not totally sure I like it as much, but it’s a more complete tale. It’s supposedly form the point of view of Fourth Age historians of Gondor, rather than Hobbits/Elrond/Gandalf (LotR) or Elves (Silm).

    Also, your conclusions about his state of mind are really supported there. And it places the orcs in a different location. Check it out!

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    1. I have the Unfinished Tales, but have not looked at them in 10 years or more. If I knew that was in there, I’d totally forgotten, so thanks for the tip!

      And yeah, I can totally see the Ring amplifying his hubris – I just don’t think the hubris alone is enough to account for his behavior. Isildur is a tough nut to crack – I’ve spent six weeks producing three posts on him. He’s hard because, relatively speaking, there’s not a lot of text to analyze, yet at the same time, he is a very complex individual.

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      1. Oh my! Then you really should read it again. It’ll add quite a bit more.

        Also, if you’re moving onto Gollum, definitely use it as a source. You won’t be sorry that you did.

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        1. Yeah. I’ve got the softcover book-club edition from when it was first published on the shelf. I’ll definitely take a look over the weekend.

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