Waiting for a King Like You
Michael Martinez wrote:Why did the line of the High Kings of Arnor and Gondor come to an early end with the death of Earendur? Tolkien offers us only one comment on the reasons for the transition from the kingdom of Arnor to the three smaller realms of Arthedain, Cardolan, and Rhudaur. He tells us that "after Earendur owing to dissensions among his sons their kingdom was divided into three...." We are provided no cause for these dissensions. What did the three brothers disagree over? How to raise taxes? Which girl they should marry? When to celebrate the oldest son's coronation?
Tolkien referred to their dynasties as petty lordships. They sacrificed the High Kingship for the satisfaction of governing their own realms. Amlaith of Fornost, the eldest son of Earendur, apparently made no attempt to succeed his father as High King. The title vanished with Earendur, or else went into title escrow. That is to say that Amlaith may have avoided a full-blown civil war with his brothers by merely assuming the title of King, deferring a full assumption of the title of High King until such time as it could be done safely.
The implication of Amlaith's choice is clear: he lacked the power to maintain the High King's authority. His brothers must have wielded considerable influence among Arnor's empowered echelons: the nobles and soldiers. People commonly assume that Arnor was modelled upon some sort of medieval kingdom, but that assumption overlooks other models. For example, in some ways, Tolkien based Arnor and Gondor upon Roman Europe. And I do mean "Roman Europe" rather than "the Roman Empire". Roman Europe extended well beyond the empire, and it survived the demise of the western imperial prerogative in 476 CE. Roman language, law, and culture were independent of the political structure which crumbled around the quarreling emperors and their would-be successors.
Arnor and Gondor represented the survival of what was best of the ancient Numenorean civilization. Other parts of that civilization survived in places such as Umbar. The Numenoreans who had once supported the kings, and who had descended into decadence and evil with the kings, became the Black Numenoreans. The old Numenorean empire was thus succeeded by many smaller Numenorean states, each of which retained something of old Numenor at the start of its history. Numenor was clearly not a medieval civilization. Tolkien portrayed it as a high culture: literate, enlightened, capable of ruling a world-wide empire with vast trading networks. Numenor was, in fact, Tolkien's version of Atlantis.
The Third Age of Middle-earth thus begins much like the Middle Ages of western Europe began. But the Third Age does not parallel the calendar of medieval European history. For example, Arnor lasted nearly 1,000 years. Nothing in western Europe survived the end of Roman imperial rule for that long, or even for a third of that timeframe. The Visigothic Kingdom which was established in western Gaul in 418 CE was destroyed by the Franks by the end of the 5th century. A new Visigothic Kingdom rose up in Iberia (Spain), but that only lasted about 200 years. The Ostrogothic Kingdom established in Italy by the end of the 5th century lasted barely 60 years. The independent Romano-Briton lordships dating from Circa 410 CE were swept away by Saxon pirates and other Germanic adventurers between 448 and 500 CE. The legendary King Arthur rose up to slow the Saxon advance, but his kingdom was one of the earliest medieval realms, not a classical political entity like those of the Goths.
Arnor and Gondor are more closely associated with ancient, early Egypt in Tolkien's point of view than with anything in medieval Europe. He enumerates the parallels carefully in Letter 211: a division into north and south realms, use of emblems resembling those of the north and south kingdoms, a fascination with death and massive tombs, a preoccupation with large architecture, and so forth. But elsewhere Tolkien implies that Gondor (as it stands at the end of the Third Age) is a bit more like Byzantium (Constantinople), which by its fall to the Turks in 1463 is the last remnant of the old Roman Empire. The fall of Constantinople is frequently cited as the last event of the Middle Ages, so in a way medieval Europe is portrayed by historians as the slow demise of Roman civilization itself. Once Constantinople is deprived of its independence, nothing remains of the ancient world. The stage has been set for the rapid emergence of the modern world.
But Middle-earth has no modern world. And Minas Tirith, the Constantinople of Gondor, does not fall. Rather, it blooms again and becomes the heart of a great empire for the second time. In fact, under Aragorn, the Kingdom of Arnor is renewed. It's not so much a turning back of the clock as the birth of a new period in history the like of which the world has never really seen. Hence, Tolkien fails to provide us with a suitable parallel for what follows the downfall of Sauron: there is really no appropriate historical model. Does a golden age begin, or is Aragorn's reign as Elessar Telcontar merely the last gasp of the ancient Numenorean world?
Astute readers know that Tolkien attempted to write a sequel to The Lord of the Rings in which a new evil would emerge and threaten the rule of Eldarion, son of Aragorn and Arwen. And yet, Eldarion's heirs (we are told) ruled for a hundred generations of men. How much of ancient Numenor would thus survive through Eldarion's reign? Perhaps more vestiges of the past would be lost under the assaults of Eldarion's unnamed nemesis.
Middle-earth's history is driven by transition. A civilization rises, peaks, and then crumbles. Often, the dominant culture is destroyed or threatened with extinction. The Eldar of Beleriand become powerful enough to challenge Morgoth's near-absolute control over all Middle-earth. And yet, in the end, their realms are almost all wiped out. In their turn, the Numenoreans become powerful enough to control huge portions of the world and to mount a foolish invasion of Aman (the home of the Valar, the angelic guardians of the world). Subsequently, Numenor is destroyed, leaving scattered colonies without central leadership.
Arnor experiences a similar transition. Founded by Elendil, Arnor stands beside Gil-galad's ancient and extremely powerful Eldarin realm of Lindon. Together, Gil-galad and Elendil form the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, gathering allies from across north-western Middle-earth in a bid to wrest control over the world from Sauron. The Alliance achieves a military victory over Sauron, but the losses sustained by the allies bring about the ruin of Lindon's power and the gradual decline of Arnor itself. Gondor, a junior partner in the alliance, spends the next 1,000 years growing into the dominant power in the region. By the end of that 1,000 years, Arnor no longer exists as a political entity, although it will be revived twice over the course of the following 2,000 years.
So, what happened in Arnor following Elendil's death? Why did the kingdom not flourish like its sister-realm, Gondor? What did Gondor retain that Arnor lost? Or is it that Arnor retained something else which Gondor never fully achieved? Something which contributed indirectly to Arnor's decline, but which could not hold back Gondor?
Both Arnor and Gondor were founded by Numenorean exiles who settled among other peoples. There were Numenoreans and people of partial Numenorean descent living in the regions that formed the two kingdoms. The Faithful Numenoreans (who had mostly lived in western Numenor, in and near Andunie, where Elendil's ancestors ruled for over 2,000 years) had been fleeing to northern Middle-earth for centuries. Prior to the Downfall of Numenor, there were only two significant Numenorean cities in the regions which were to become Arnor and Gondor: Lond Daer Ened and Pelargir. Lond Daer seems to have been destroyed or abandoned soon after the destruction of Numenor, if not prior to that time. A secondary port, Tharbad (which stood farther up the Gwathlo river from Lond Daer), almost as ancient as Lond Daer, became an important center of trade and communication between Arnor and Gondor.
A large portion of Gondor's people, especially in the southern regions of the kingdom, must have come from the Gwathuirim, the clans of Men who were related to the Folk of Brethil in the First Age but who had served Sauron in the Second Age. These Men were dark-skinned and shorter (in general) than the Edainic Beorians and Marachians from whom most Numenoreans (and many Men of Eriador and Rhovanion) were descended. Many of the Gwathuirim were thus predisposed in some ways to resent or perhaps at least not wholeheartedly support Elendil's rule. In the south, Isildur found at least one tribe of these Men unwilling to support him in the war against Sauron. They stayed in the White Mountains and suffered a terrible curse, dying out completely, but remaining stranded in Middle-earth as restless spirits.
Tharbad ("crossway") was situated on the Gwathlo River between Cardolan and Enedwaith, just south of where the Glanduin (the southern border-river of Eregion) flowed into the Gwathlo. In the Second Age, Tharbad was an important entry point for Sauron's armies into Eriador. It also served as a strategic choke point with which the Numenoreans were able to block and crush his retreating forces. At some point, perhaps only after the founding of Arnor and Gondor, the Numenoreans built a great bridge across the Gwathlo at Tharbad. Seafaring ships were still able to navigate the river as far north as Tharbad. The two realms maintained garrisons on either side of the river until the days of the Great Plague (T.A. 1636).
Presumably, the two kingdoms were compelled to defend the passage of the Gwathlo against incursions from Enedwaith, many of whose people were Gwathuirim. The Dunlendings, who were driven from Calenardhon into eastern Enedwaith by the Rohirrim in the last few centuries of the Third Age, were related to the Gwathuirim of Enedwaith. The conflicts between the Numenoreans and their distant cousins thus spilled over from the Second Age into the Third Age. It may be that the Men of Eryn Vorn, another group of Gwathuirim, were also hostile to Arnor. Their woodlands, a remnant of the ancient forests of Minhiriath, lay just to the south of Lindon.
Arnor had other enemies, or potential enemies, in the eastern lands beside the Misty Mountains. By T.A. 1300, the Lord of the Nazgul had established the realm of Angmar among Men who lived in the northern foothills of the mountains. Tolkien does not tell us where these Men came from, although they could easily have been descended from First Age Easterlings who fled the destruction of Beleriand. Other Men, perhaps related to the Angmarians, usurped control of Rhudaur after the Line of Isildur died out there. Did the ancestors of these hill-men willingly accept Elendil's rule?
Other than physical differences, the one distinction of the Numenoreans among all other Mannish groups was their civilization. They were a literate, educated people. Elendil and the other exiles from Numenor, arriving in a handful of ships, would have provided Arnor with an elite class of intellectuals. Assuredly, the Numenoreans already living in Middle-earth would have been better educated than the peoples who surrounded them. But the newly arrived exiles had had some access, however limited under Sauron's shadow, to all of Numenor's ancient lore and records. The colonists would have been overshadowed by the native-born Numenoreans who had been raised and educated over seas.
The aristocracies of Arnor and Gondor may thus have been formed around cadres of intellectually accomplished families whose like had not been seen in Middle-earth outside of the Elven realms. These families would have had a tremendous impact upon the emerging world of the Two Kingdoms. Whole cities rose up in the course of a few decades: Annuminas, Fornost Erain, Osgiliath, Minas Ithil, and Minas Anor (and perhaps others). Mountains were shaped under the skillful hands of the Numenorean loremasters. Their architects built the great bridges of Osgiliath and Tharbad.
What, then, would be the cost to the Numenorean civilization if the majority of these masters were slain in the war with Sauron? Arnor is said to have lost a large part of its manhood in the War of the Last Alliance. And when Isildur was waylaid by Orcs in the Vales of Anduin, two hundred Numenorean men
- including his three elder sons -- perished. They were soldiers, but what other skills did they possess? As the Longbeard Dwarves lost many ancient secrets when their civilization was destroyed by the Balrog, so the Arnorians may have lost too many of their loremasters to retain the vitality of an emerging civilization. Gondor, on the other hand, was better able to preserve the knowledge its founders had brought out of Numenor. Fewer Gondorian loremasters must have been lost in the war, or else they were simply wiser than their northern brothers and they imparted more of their wisdom to their sons and pupils.
When Valandil became old enough to rule Arnor, he left Imladris and settled in Annuminas, the city his grandfather Elendil had built. Was he accompanied by Elven loremasters? Did Elrond and Cirdan maintain close ties with Arnor? If so, they could have supplemented Valandil's diminished resources and established a dependency upon Elvish help in the north which did not develop in the south. Gondor therefore expanded its pool of talent and knowledge, but perhaps Arnor stagnated or even decayed. Valandil's heirs may have simply been satisfied to maintain the status quo. But in doing so, they would have sacrificed the initiative. There would have been no imperative to achieve more. Each generation would have relinquished a little more knowledge and tradition.
On the other hand, Tolkien gives one the impression that Arnor's population was significantly diminished by the war. Gondor was incapable of withstanding Sauron's assault by itself, even though Sauron's forces were not as powerful as they had been before Ar-Pharazon brought his army to Middle-earth. When Sauron attacked Gondor, he quickly took the city of Minas Ithil. Isildur and his family escaped to Osgiliath, where they took ship for Tharbad. Anarion defended the Anduin against Sauron's forces and eventually drove them back into Mordor. But the fighting must have been fierce. Gondor should have suffered considerable losses at the beginning of the war.
So why is it that Arnor suffered more than Gondor? If Gondor always had the larger population, as some people believe, then it follows that Gondor should have been the stronger kingdom. And yet, if that is so, then why did Arnor bear the burden of suffering the most casualties in the war? The answer must simply be due to the strategy employed by Gil-Galad and Elendil. Although Anarion eventually forced his way into Mordor, once the northern armies began their advance down the Vales of Anduin, the primary fighting occurred along their path. Lindon, Arnor, Lothlorien, Khazad-dum, and the Elven realm of Greenwood the Great must have raised a far greater army than Gondor could field by itself. The northern forces therefore bore the brunt of the fighting once they engaged the enemy. Elendil's Arnorian forces must therefore have suffered far more casualties than Anarion's Gondorian forces.
As a consequence of Elendil's losses in battle, Arnor would not simply have lost a great part of its wisdom and skilled labor. It lost the ability to replenish its population. Unlike the Elves, Arnor's people could not sail over Sea in the hopes of being reunited with their families. The wives and children of the dead Arnorian soldiers had to live with their losses in Middle-earth. The soldiers left their homes and families in the Second Age. Ten years later, in the first year of the Third Age, a much smaller army returned to the north than that which had marched away. Those men would have returned to find a land where the women had become self-sufficient and the children had been living without fathers. The fabric of Arnor's social structure must have been strained, if not reshaped.
Even though future generations would restore a balanced ratio of men to women, the changes wrought upon Arnorian families would have been felt for many years. In fact, it should be noted that Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary grew up in such a family, because they lost their father when they were quite young. Tolkien would have understood intimately what life is like for a family without a father. And he would have seen first-hand the devastation the First World War wrought upon British society, after so many young British men were lost. Tolkien could not have construed so massive a loss for Arnor without delving into his own personal experience for inspiration.
Ultimately, the Arnor of Earendur may have borne little resemblance to Elendil's Arnor. Although Earendur must have had some sort of elite intellectual class, they need not necessarily have been the peers of their ancestors, or even of their Gondorian contemporaries. The libraries in Annuminas, Fornost Erain, and Tharbad need never have been as extensive as the libraries of Osgiliath, Pelargir, Minas Ithil, and Minas Anor. Arnor could have fallen into an intellectual somnolence, in which each generation gradually shed itself of the burden of remembering the past. Fewer masters would have attempted new great works as the years passed. Eventually, Arnor stood in Gondor's shadow.
Arnorian culture would have accustomed itself to fulfilling its needs with diminishing resources. The frontier lands may have had to defend themselves against raids by outsiders: Tharbard would have defended the riverline against the Gwathuirim of Enedwaith, Annuminas would have held back the Men of Eryn Vorn and the ancestors of the Angmarians, and Rhudaur would have had to contend with the hill clans and whatever monsters had survived the ancient wars in the deep vales of the Misty Mountains. And yet, Arnor may have seemed an enlightened place because it would have been traversed by Elvish lords and Wandering Companies. Ambassadors from Lindon and Rivendell would have visited the High Kings at Annuminas. Every year there must have been elaborate feasts and celebrations bringing together lords and warriors from across Eriador. Annuminas would have decayed gracefully, perhaps even beautifully, into a hollow memory of Elendil's greatness.
Every generation, Annuminas would become a little less vibrant. Once proud houses would become vacant, casting long shadows over streets which carried less and less traffic. Fewer children would run through the streets. Fewer merchants would sell their wares. Fewer craftsmen offered their services. The city declined to the point where its kings abandoned it. Amlaith removed his court to Fornost. He may have done so as a sign to his brothers that he would not claim the High Kingship. Or it may be that he was compelled to leave Annuminas behind because it became irrelevant.
If Arnor's borders were less secure than Gondor's, they may have been more stable. That is, Gondor suffered many invasions. Arnor was never beset by the powerful enemies which threatened Gondor. Easterlings could indeed have passed north through the Vales of Anduin to settle in the foothills of the Misty Mountains. Perhaps the Angmarians were descendants of Easterlings who turned aside from the wars with Gondor. But it seems clear that Arnor was never threatened the way Gondor was. And it seems equally clear that Arnor's High Kings never shared the ambitions of their cousins in Gondor. Tarannon Falastur took the Gondorian throne in T.A. 830. Earendur died 31 years later.
Amlaith (and presumably his brothers) took a royal name in Sindarin, rather than Quenya. Although Amlaith's people most likely never fully abandoned their knowledge of Quenya, the abandonment of High Elven names for the kings implies that the ancient language of the loremasters was no longer important. Did Sindarin replace Quenya as the province of Arthedain's loremasters? Or did Sindarin become a stagnant language, all but forgotten except in matters of ceremony? Perhaps Arnor became more dependent upon Westron than Gondor, where Sindarin remained in daily use by many people throughout the Third Age.
Tarannon Falastur extended Gondor's power north along the coast toward Arnor. He may only have done so after Earendur's death. Cardolan would have been a much smaller, weaker state than Arnor. Gondor had become the mature aunt to three bickering nieces, as it were, and thus Falastur may have felt he was free to extend his prerogatives wherever he desired. That may also be why he married Beruthiel, whom Tolkien identified as a Black Numenorean. Falastur's ambitions led him to look beyond Gondor's borders while Earendur's sons contented themselves with carving up the remnants of their father's realm.
But what ignited those ambitions in the first place? Was there a connection between Tarannon's conquest of Enedwaith and the division of Arnor? Suppose the Gwathuirim of Enedwaith had indeed become powerful enough to threaten Arnor. Perhaps two schools of thought arose among Arnor's captains: one group might have advocated invading Enedwaith, perhaps annexing the region; the other group might have advocated reinforcing the kingdom's southern defenses. A lack of consensus among the captains might have paralyzed Earendur into indecision. Earendur's indecision could have led his sons to bicker among themselves. The seeds of political factionalism might have taken root in Arnor before Tarannon became King of Gondor.
With a garrison in Tharbad, Gondor may not have needed Arnor's permission to wage war in Enedwaith. But if an Arnorian prince was looking to Enedwaith in hope of establishing his own kingdom, Tarannon could have been motivated to subdue the region and thus deprive his kinsman of an opportunity. Hence, rather than move into Enedwaith as a result of Arnor's division, Tarannon could have precipitated that division by frustrating a younger son's ambitions. Earendur would have retained his kingdom so long as he lived, but his younger son might have built and maintained an independent army which he used to seize control over Cardolan when his father died.
Or it could be that both of Amlaith's brothers were captains in Arnor's army. Suppose, instead, they each were assigned to conduct limited warfare against Arnor's enemies. Amlaith, for his part, could have remained beside his father in Annuminas and watched helplessly as his brothers won renown and general support in the lands they were defending. Hence, when their father died, either or both of Amlaith's brothers could have challenged his right to rule on the basis of their own achievements. Amlaith clearly retained enough authority, and support, to prevent his brothers from dividing the kingdom into two smaller realms. Hence, we should not assume that Amlaith himself was entirely ineffective.
In fact, Amlaith showed good strategic thinking by moving his court from Annuminas to Fornost Erain. He was in a better position to defend Arthedain against invasion from both the east and the south. He didn't simply roll over for his brothers, but he clearly lost the initiative. Whatever happened had to be the result of months or, more likely, years of disagreement between the three brothers. Arnor's situation must have deteriorated to the point where the three princes developed different priorities. Amlaith's brothers had to be active enough to build followings among the people (or, at least, the army).
A similar situation developed many centuries later in Gondor. Castamir, Gondor's Captain of Ships, seized the throne from Eldacar in 1437. Eldacar returned in 1447 and slew Castamir, but Castamir's sons fled to Umbar in 1448, where they established a rival kingdom. Arnor's division seems seems to have been achieved more peacefully. At the very least, Amlaith was never driven completely from his throne. He retained enough support to establish the Kingdom of Arthedain.
The divisions of the two great kingdoms of the Dunedain-in-exile, however, underscores a point often overlooked by many Tolkien readers (and critics): The Dunedain were far from perfect. Not only were they capable of falling into great evil, as their deeds throughout the last third of the Second Age shows, but they were also constantly alienating each other. They were human, and they struggled with the burden of their lordly heritage. They could not always act like Kings of Men, not the highly idealized Kings of Men portrayed by Aragorn II and Faramir. When the Dunedain were at their best, they were very, very good. But even when they were very good, they were still flawed.
Elendil's chief flaw, perhaps, was his almost obsessive preoccupation with the past. He did not really seem to look forward. He revered Numenor's better traditions, but it is apparent from the fact that he placed a palantir which only looked west in the towers above Mithlond that he longed for a world he could never return to. Instead of joining Isildur and Anarion in the south, Elendil remained in Eriador. He established Arnor in the shadow of Gil-galad's elven kingdom. Isildur and Anarion, for their part, chose to remain in the south, where they had faced many challenges. Unlike Arnor, Gondor achieved all of its greatness without the aid of the Eldar. Isildur and Anarion looked to the future, rather than to the past.
And, of course, Isildur was flawed, too. His chief flaw may have been his indomitable pride. Isildur proved his valor in both Numenor (when he rescued the last sapling of the White Tree) and in Middle-earth (where he stood beside his father throughout the war with Sauron). But it was mostly because of his pride in his own strength and courage that Isildur succumbed to the Ring's allure. He did not see himself as an all-conquering lord over Middle-earth. As the High King of Arnor and Gondor, he was as close to an all-conquering lord as any Numenorean would ever become again. So, whatever false vision the Ring may have shared with Isildur when it tempted him, he may have believed he was strong enough to prevail over the Ring. He did not realize until too late that the only way to defeat the Ring would be to destroy it.
Ultimately, both Elendil and Isildur bestowed a legacy upon Arnor which burdened the High Kings. They had to be Numenoreans, heirs of Elros Tar-Minyatur. They had to remember the past, a past which had been all but lost and forgotten, and they could not look to the future. Valandil, Isildur's youngest son, grew up in Rivendell. He had his mother there, and perhaps courtly advisors who had lived in Numenor, but he was not himself raised by a Numenorean father. Valandil attempted nothing new. He simply preserved what had been left to him. Arnor became little more than Elendil's memory of Numenor's heritage in Middle-earth. Gondor, on the other hand, represented the path Isildur and Anarion set down for the Dunedain in Middle-earth. Gondor looked to the future, not the past, and the Gondorians left their imprint across the landscape. As Arnor waned, Gondor waxed. That is, as the memory of Numenor receded into the past, the Numenoreans became the Dunedain of Middle-earth. They had to shed the last vestiges of the past so that they could move fully into the future.
Arnor had to die before its people could emerge from the shadow of the Elves. The Dunedain of the North had become too entrenched in revering the past. They preserved the gentle dignity and lordly wisdom of Numenor, but they did so at the expense of their own future. They maintained close friendship with the Elves, but they almost lost all the reverence and respect of the peoples whom they had once ruled. In Gondor, pride and ambition were the sins which brought down the House of Anarion. But in Arnor, the old Numenorean longing for the past and what could never be almost destroyed the Heirs of Isildur. They did not fight over what Middle-earth had to offer, but rather only over what had been preserved out of the ruin of Numenor.
Hence, as Numenor withered, so did Arnor. For the Dunedain of both Arnor and Gondor, the Third Age proved to be a time of purging. They had to shed the sinful flaws of their ancestors before they could truly become the enlightened rulers of Middle-earth. But they also had to learn to forget the past, and to forgive themselves for their mistakes. The purging began in Arnor, and it ended there first, too. The Stewards of Gondor claimed to be wiser than the Kings in some respects, but they could not overlook the mistakes the Kings had made. So Gondor stagnated under the Stewards, and grew weak. But though the Dunedain of the North dwindled with each passing generation, they built a hope for their future. Thus, when the time came for a new leader to reunite the Dunedain, Aragorn II was ready. He did what Amlaith and his brothers could not: he let go of the past, took hold of the future, and brought his people together.
© Michael Martinez