Númenor and the Decline of America

Dystopian fiction can offer a curious consolation in dark times. There is comfort of a sort in the knowledge that our current troubles were foreseen by others: this shows, if nothing else, the evils of our age are not as chaotic as they sometimes seem. On the contrary, they conform to a pattern that can be predicted and perhaps even evaded. Indeed, I imagine many of my readers habitually compare 21st century America to a favored dystopian world: A Brave New World or 1984 or The Lord of the World. Today, I write to propose another: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Akallabêth, the tale of the fall of Númenor.

Suggesting the Silmarillion as an analogue to contemporary politics is admittedly counterintuitive. As Tolkien repeatedly insisted, he did not write allegory at all—much less overtly political allegory on the model of Animal Farm. But this does not mean that his works have no relevance for the world we live in. Tolkien’s native intellect, his learning, and (above all) his practical faith gave him a keen insight into human nature—man’s glory and frailty, and his distressingly predictable patterns of sin. It is therefore reasonable to suspect that Tolkien’s tale of the fall of Númenor—the greatest and most glorious kingdom of men in his imagined world—might tell us something about the decline of America—the greatest power the world has yet seen.

With this in mind, let us consider Tolkien’s tale of decadence, corruption, and eventual catastrophe. In Tolkien’s myth, the island kingdom of Númenor was created as an earthly paradise for men who faithfully resisted the evil of Morgoth—Tolkien’s Satan—in the First Age of the Middle Earth. But nothing in the world can last forever, and centuries of happiness and faithful religion eventually gave way in Númenor to decadence and corruption. 

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The first causes of this fall from grace were the love of luxury and the fear of death; as Tolkien shows, these two vices are linked in a mutually reinforcing vicious cycle. As the wealth and splendor of Númenor grew, the more enamored its inhabitants became of the work of their hands—and the less willing to leave it. They desired “to escape from death and the ending of delight…and ever as their power and glory grew greater their unquiet increased.” This unquiet leads to murmuring against—and eventually the open contradiction of—the divinely imposed limits on their realm. 

But diminished faith and increased worldliness does nothing to help the men of Númenor face death with greater confidence. Instead, “The fear of death grew ever darker upon them, and they delayed it by all means that they could…their wise men laboured unceasingly to discover if they might the secret of recalling life, or at least of the prolonging of Men’s days.” The attempt, of course, fails: man is inescapably mortal. The obsession with avoiding death produces only a greater fear of death; this gnawing fear leads in turn to ever-greater luxury. The population becomes morbid, and many die, but “[t]hose that lived turned the more eagerly to pleasure and revelry.” At this stage in Tolkien’s imagined history, the worship of God becomes neglected by all but a minority, “the Faithful”—and even the Faithful are not immune to the corrupting effects of the culture around them.

And thus the crisis accelerates. Increased appetites need to be fed, after all, and so the men of Númenor turn their attentions to imperial conquest and domination of other kingdoms of men. “Their own land seemed to them shrunken…and they desired now wealth and dominion in Middle Earth”: they dominate and exploit weaker men. This colonization of Middle Earth brings them into contact with Sauron—and, given their morbid fear of death and unnatural quest for immortality, it should come as no surprise that Sauron succeeds in ensnaring several of them into his service as Ringwraiths. A rivalry grows between Mordor and the Númenórean colonies, as both seek absolute mastery over Middle Earth. The final crisis arrives when the Númenórean King decides he will brook no rival, invades Middle Earth, and makes Sauron his captive—and so quickly becomes ensnared himself. In no time at all, Sauron the captive becomes the king’s counsellor—and then his effective master, the power behind the throne.

Under Sauron’s effective rule, Númenor descends into darkness. The Faithful are persecuted as enemies of the state—despised, hounded, dispossessed, and closely guarded. On Sauron’s advice, the king forbids the worship of Ilúvatar—the One God—and finally he formally establishes the worship of the satanic Morgoth as “the Lord of All, Giver of Freedom” with human sacrifice. Thus the men of Númenor pursue freedom into slavery, and life into death.

The kingdom descends into violence and chaos: the commons rebelling against the lords, and the lords crushing the commons. And amidst it all, “it seemed to the Númenóreans that they prospered, and if they were not increased in happiness, and their rich men ever richer.” The divine Land of Gift has become a dystopian, diabolical nightmare: an all-powerful and nearly inescapable demonic tyranny. The combination of temptation and persecution is strong enough that many even of the Faithful abandon their ancient ways. In the end, only direct divine intervention (Ilúvatar casts Númenor, Atlantis-like, into the sea) saves the world.

I leave it to the reader to decide whether these latter days of the American republic—with our consuming, obsessive fear of death and unnatural attempts to evade old age; our months-long riots and skyrocketing murder rates; our rapacious mega-corporations enriching themselves at the expense of ordinary citizens; the banners of perverse rebellion and pride waving over our embassies in Budapest, Dubai, and (until recently) Kabul; and, above all, our rapid national adoption of a novel, demonic creed and the increasing marginalization and exclusion of the Faithful—bear any resemblance to Tolkien’s tale of the fall of Númenor. Though I confess: when I read stories of state-sponsored prayer to Aztec deities in California schools or ritualized abortion by Texan Satanists in service of radical autonomy, it is difficult to ignore the resemblance to Númenor’s worship of the devil as “the Giver of Freedom.”

If America has come to resemble the fallen empire, Tolkien would not have been surprised: even at the height of World War II, when the rest of the world focused on the twin evils of Hitler and Stalin, he had recognized the dangers inherent in the expansionist ambitions of America’s governing liberalism. As he wrote to his son Christopher, “I do find this Americo-cosmopolitanism very terrifying. Quâ mind and spirit…I am not really sure that its victory is going to be so much better for the world as a whole and in the long run than the victory of” [Nazi Germany]. He was particularly concerned about the all-encompassing reach of the new empire. As he wrote in another letter, “The special horror of the present world is that the whole damned thing is in one bag. There is nowhere to fly to.” The increased technocratic power of the state had seen to that—and, as a result, “decent folk don’t seem to have a chance.” 

What was true of the state in 1943 is trebly true now. Fortunately, Tolkien’s fiction offers a hope that his letter would seem to deny. As many readers know, the great recurrent theme in all of Tolkien’s fiction is the eucatastrophe—the irruption of a miraculous and unpredictable joy from beyond the walls of the world, the unlooked-for happy ending. What is less frequently recognized, however, is that, in Tolkien, the eucatastrophic deliverance always comes at a price. Gandalf may return, but first he must fall; Frodo may save the Shire and indeed all Middle Earth—but he must depart from them. In the Akallabêth, the same pattern holds. The faithful Elendil and his sons escape the destruction and found new kingdoms in Middle Earth, but only by leaving behind the entire world they had loved and known, “foretasting death in life, seeking a land of exile elsewhere.”

Unsurprisingly, then, Tolkien’s grace is the inversion and cure of his original sin. The fall comes through avarice, pride, and the unhealthy fear of death; redemption through detachment, humility, and a trusting acceptance of the divine plan. As Tolkien wrote to Christopher in the darkest days of World War II, “There is still some hope that things may be better for us, even on the temporal plane, in the mercy of God. And though we need all our natural human courage and guts…and all our religious faith to face the evil that may befall us…still we may pray and hope. I do.” Let us pray that we, too, may live to see the deliverance—and have the grace to recognize it when it comes.

[Image: Númenor wallpaper]


  • Ben Reinhard

    Ben Reinhard is an associate professor of English at Franciscan University of Steubenville. His new translation of Beowulf is available from Cluny Press. He lives in Steubenville, Ohio with his wife and five children.

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