The Fall of Númenor, And Other Tales from the Second Age of Middle-earth
By J. R. R. Tolkien.
William Morrow, 2022.
Hardcover, 320 pages, $40.00.

Reviewed by Ben Reinhard.

From childhood well into middle age, J. R. R. Tolkien was haunted by a recurring nightmare: a “dreadful dream of the ineluctable Wave, either coming out of the quiet sea, or coming in towering over the green inlands.” As his sprawling and meticulously detailed mythology came to absorb more and more of his intellectual and imaginative energy in the late 1930s and early 1940s, this “Atlantis complex” was subsumed as well, and Tolkien’s nightmare became a central element in his story of the fall of Númenor. This tale of rebellion, hubris, and divine retribution became the dominant event in the history of Second Age of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and provides the essential backdrop for the major events of the Third: Aragorn, Boromir, and Faramir; the kingdom of Gondor; the palantír, and even the Shire and the Barrow-downs are bound up in it. But despite its critical importance for Tolkien’s mythology, the fall of Númenor—and the history of the Second Age as a whole—has never been the subject of an independent creative project. The Third Age of the legendarium has The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and the films associated with them; the First Age has The Silmarillion and the “Great Tales” editions. The Second Age, by contrast, has suffered from a sort of benign neglect—a neglect that seemed to be encouraged by Tolkien himself. It was, he wrote, “on Earth a dark age, and not much of its history is (or need be) told.” For nearly fifty years following Tolkien’s death, publishers, scholars, and fans were content to let the matter rest.

All that changed in the second half of 2022: the Second Age awakened. First came The Rings of Power, Amazon Studios’ ambitious, deeply flawed, and widely derided attempt to bring Tolkien’s Second Age (or, more properly, Amazon’s version of it) to film. Precisely one month after the series concluded, The Fall of Númenor was released to much less fanfare but—it is to be hoped—a much more enduring popularity.

Admittedly, the volume contains little that is entirely new. All of its Tolkienian material was previously published elsewhere; its only original elements consist of the notes and commentary provided by its editor, Brian Sibley, and the manner in which he chose to arrange Tolkien’s texts. In this, The Fall of Númenor follows the path of other recent Tolkien publications (as, for instance, The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien, and The Fall of Gondolin) in presenting previously published texts in one all-encompassing volume. A daunting task: while the “Great Tales” editions mentioned above sought to tell a limited and self-contained story, The Fall of Númenor aims to recount the history of a millennia-long age; where other editions relied for the most part on two or three chief source texts, Sibley is forced to draw on many. The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, the text and appendices of Lord of the Rings, various accounts scattered through the twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth, and even individual letters are pressed into service. The result is a multi-genre work: romance, narrative history, and occasional works of mythological geography and sociology grafted onto the structure provided by the chronicle-like “Tale of Years.” In this way, Sibley fuses widely disparate texts—some of them composed and re-edited over a span of decades, some of them never fully finished by the author—into a more-or-less unified, chronologically progressive account.

There are, of course, inevitable weaknesses to such an approach. The attempted fusion produces mild narrative incoherence at times, and occasional contradictions and repetitions as well. For instance, near-identical accounts are printed on page 158 and 162, and page 210 gives us the same paragraph (with only slight alterations) twice. Moreover, Sibley’s practice of placing fragmentary, provisional, or even discarded material on the same level as carefully revised and wholly finished texts raises thorny questions of canonical authority: what weight should be attached to a letter, or to a hastily handwritten draft never developed? Moreover—and especially given the presence of so many minor texts—the absence of Tolkien’s “The Disaster of the Gladden Fields” feels like a curious omission; including it would have given one more complete narrative and the proper closure of the Fall of Númenor arc. But, all in all, Sibley is a capable editor and a careful reader, and he successfully navigates the myriad challenges posed by his project. 

For the most part. There is, alas, one really glaring error. Page 139 begins with an annal-like entry for Second Age 1699: an account of the war between the Elves and Sauron drawn from Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales. Immediately following this, Sibley writes, “As a result, not only did the great city of Khazad-dûm become a dwelling for the Orcs of Sauron, but the eager delving of the Dwarves had aroused a Balrog.” It is difficult to know what to make of this sentence; it seems to be nonsense. The “As a result” lacks any clear causal antecedent (the preceding sentences have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject of this one); it also makes a grammatical mishmash of the following “not only…but” construction. Even more seriously, the passage seems to contain an unforgivable historical error. It suggests that the dwarven kingdom fell in or around 1699 of the Second Age; Tolkien makes clear this happened in the year 1981 of the Third Age. This is a casual difference of three and a half millennia. It is hard to understand how so knowledgeable an editor as Sibley could make such an error and curious to note that Amazon’s Rings of Power did exactly the same. One hopes the two gaffes are not connected.

Despite these concerns, The Fall of Númenor is a remarkable and valuable achievement. Previously, a comprehensive picture of Tolkien’s Númenor myth could only be acquired with effort—and with access to half a dozen publications; unsurprisingly, the Númenor legend was largely the province of scholars and the most devoted fans. But Sibley has made it accessible to the general reader. In this way, The Fall of Númenor does more to advance general knowledge of Tolkien’s mythology than any other publication in the past decade or more. And if The Fall of Númenor is not quite the Second Age story Tolkein would have written, it at least gives the reader some sense of what that story would have looked like. The broad outline of the history is laid out, and the narrative and thematic patterns are made clear. Against this backdrop, Tolkien’s more developed Second Age narratives—the tragic marriage of Aldarion and Erendis, or the Akallabêth— are lent a new poignancy and depth; less developed tales offer tantalizing prospects for future exploration.

At its core, however, Sibley’s volume is the story of a Fall, and as such gives readers unparalleled insight into the moral underpinnings of Tolkien’s world. The Númenóreans were, for Tolkien, the pinnacle of human civilization: though they “were still in our terms ‘fallen Men’…they were descendants of ancestors who were in general wholly repentant, detesting all the corruptions of the ‘Shadow’; and they were specially graced.” Their ancestors’ full-hearted resistance to evil earns the nearly prelapsarian existence in the Second. The perfection of the uncorrupted Númenóreans, as well as their gradual descent into evil and their eventual ruin, becomes something like a laboratory for the moral imagination: a recapitulation of the Fall of Man on a nation-wide scale. Thus The Fall of Númenor gives us piety, primitive monotheism, and natural religion—and devil worship and human sacrifice; a free and god-fearing monarchy—and the tyranny of a totalitarian surveillance state; natural family order—and broken marriage, fratricidal conflict, and incest. No other text—not The Hobbit, not The Silmarillion, not even The Lord of the Rings—presents Tolkien’s moral vision with comparable clarity. To his very great credit, Sibley recognizes this. As he explains in his notes, the religion that ordered the Númenóreans’ lives was “ideologically central to The Lord of the Rings (and, more broadly, to his entire legendarium).”

Sibley’s deference to Tolkien’s larger vision above is but one instance of the humility and self-awareness characteristic of his project. A case in point: the choice to present a single, progressive history results in a work with only limited value for scholarship, with the detail and nuance required to sustain scholarly inquiry traded for an aesthetically appealing cohesion. A sacrifice worth making, in my opinion—but a sacrifice nonetheless. Because of this, those interested in the decades-long development of Tolkien’s Atlantis myth, its relations to the wider legendarium, or even in reading a single version of the story in its entirety will have to return to Christopher Tolkien’s comprehensive (and masterfully annotated) History of Middle-Earth series. A lesser editor would have concealed this limitation; Sibley embraces it. In his introduction, he clearly states intention is not to “supplant” the earlier editions; instead, he directs interested readers to Christopher Tolkien’s “definitive presentation” of his father’s works. The work is marked by humility, gratitude, and the acceptance of limits: it would seem that the editor has learned the lessons of Fall of Númenor well.

And so it is that the Second Age renascence of the second half of 2022 provides us with two very different prospects for the future of Tolkien study. On the one hand, we have Sibley’s Fall of Númenor, respectfully—even reverently—curating and continuing the work of J. R. R. Tolkien and overtly honoring the scholarly and editorial legacy of Christopher. On the other hand, we have Amazon Studios: discarding Tolkien’s carefully crafted imaginary world, introducing new characters to serve as mouthpieces for their own agendas, and updating Tolkien’s themes and morals for “modern audiences.” Now we enter the year of Our Lord 2023, wherein we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Professor Tolkien’s death. It will be interesting to see which vision will triumph.

Ben Reinhard is Associate Professor of English at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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