Review of JRR Tolkien’s The Fall of Númenor: Masterful Creation of the World of the Father of Fantasy | Fiction

youThe Lord of the rings: the rings of power is a contender for the biggest television event this year, and the show’s estimated audience of 100 million represents a wealth of potential new readers. This book covers the same fictional period in the history of Middle-earth, the Second Age. If you want Tolkien’s genuine take on the era, here it is in quite a beautiful package. And it might as well be the palate cleanser you’ve been craving if you didn’t like the show and would rather get back to an authentic taste of Middle-earth and the doomed island nation of Númenor.

“Return” is correct. The book brings together material hitherto scattered across many posthumous publications from The Silmarillion 1977 onwards. In this, it broadly follows recent edits by Tolkien’s son Christopher, who died in 2020. Publisher Brian Sibley made the excellent 1981 BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and Meets Tolkien. Ending long before that hobbit-hunting story, the Second Age spans from the end of the mythological Silmarillion and the defeat of the primeval dark lord Morgoth to the historic but temporary defeat of his successor Sauron. Three and a half millennia.

So The Fall of Númenor is not a single story. For the most part, it weaves together complex events and motifs into what Tolkien called “pretend history”. Immortals like Sauron and the elven queen Galadriel crop up everywhere, but most mortal players pick themselves up and turn to dust in a page or two. Yet this is a literary force, for mortality itself is the undertow that drags Númenor slowly but inexorably towards disaster.

An opening study of the earth and its inhabitants is best read for its sheer delight in worldbuilding, of which Tolkien remains the acknowledged master. Created as a reward for the mortals who helped defeat Morgoth, Tolkien’s Númenor owes much to Thomas More’s utopia. To the happy Númenóreans, “all things, including the Sea, were friends.” Bears dance for sheer pleasure; the fox leaves the chickens alone; hunters hunt only when necessary.

The second act is a novella, a version of the Norse myth of Njord and Skadi. Tar-Aldarion, seafaring heir to the scepter of Númenor, woos and marries the headstrong land lover Erendis. If anyone is still convinced that Tolkien wrote only for teenagers (a common criticism at one point), this story should give them pause. With its keen social observation and biting dialogue, it could almost have been written by Ursula K Le Guin. Erendis brilliantly skewers male privilege: the men of Númenor show only anger, she observes, “when they suddenly realize there are other wills in the world than their own.” And she exhorts her daughter: “Don’t bend… bend a little, and they’ll bend you more until you bend.” But, denied almost all agency by an overwhelming patriarchy, Erendis must choose between royal servitude and bitter isolation. In her self-indulgent journey, her absent husband seems like a child, until we learn the real, existential danger that has kept him away.

Though sadly unfinished, the story of Aldarion and Erendis sets the stage for parallel paths forward: in Middle-earth, the rise of Sauron with the creation of the Rings of Power; and in Númenor, a nightmarish twist from utopia to dystopia. A deliberately self-destructive jeremiad against greed, the book brings us to a point of dread. And the climax, engineered by Sauron as a cowardly king’s puppeteer, is an Atlantean cataclysm.

Afraid of 2022 and what is to come? You will find uncomfortable resonances here. They reflect Tolkien’s anxieties about dictatorships and the approach of war when he first developed the story in 1936-1937. Those fears are palpably immediate in part of another unfinished novel, The Lost Road, included as an appendix.

The narrative flow sometimes stops because The Fall of Númenor uses the chronology at the end of The Lord of the Rings as a structuring framework. But this book might show the Folio Society a thing or two. Veteran Middle-earth illustrator Alan Lee offers a dozen powerful paintings inside and a generous scattering of exquisite pencil sketches. The figures of him live; the architecture of its towers and temples forms a kind of continuous commentary; even the frames of him are fascinating. His cover is an apocalyptic panorama as terrifying as any John Martin painting.

Physically beautiful and at times overwhelming in its power, this book is a great compendium of everything Tolkien said about the period when the foundations for The Lord of the Rings were laid, the era that Amazon attempts to dramatize in The Rings of Power.

I cannot claim to have enjoyed the spectacle wholeheartedly. Too often, the lofty goblin dialogue sinks into banality. The undeniably spectacular moments are undermined by the mechanics of the plot; in the case of the Mount Doom eruption, literally. The Amazon team has failed to learn a major Tolkienian lesson: never explain how magic and incantation work. To paraphrase Frodo Baggins, the show sometimes seems fair but feels gross.

The action is compressed into the later years of the period, with Galadriel tucked in where possible, but then few TV companies would have the courage to build a cast of characters who mostly died of old age before the next season. No one would put millions behind such a subtle story like Aldarion and Erendis, and Amazon can’t anyway; the adaptation rights include almost none of the wealth of detail contained in this book, but only what little The Lord of the Rings says about the Second Age. Therefore, writers should actively avoid telling the same story that Tolkien tells, while trying to sound like him. And no one tells a story like him.

John Garth is the author of The worlds of JRR Tolkien (Frances Lincoln). JRR Tolkien’s The Fall of Númenor, edited by Brian Sibley and illustrated by Alan Lee, is published by HarperCollins (£25). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.

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