As observed by Verlyn Flieger in the first chapter of her book Splintered Light,1 the contrast between opposites is a key feature of Tolkien’s work that defines his fantasy world. Many characters and concepts in the legendarium can be better understood by reference to their opposites. The darkness of Ungoliant, for example, is described as an “Unlight” with a physical presence as palpable as the light of the Trees that she consumed. (The Silmarillion, p. 76) The mortality of Men is best understood as not the immortality of Elves: their release from the Circles of the World spares them from the sorrow the Quendi experience with the slow fading of “serial longevity”. On the topic of how good and evil define one another, Olga Polomoshnova has done an excellent study of this recently on her blog Middle-earth Reflections in the essay “Melkor and Manwë: like night and day”, and my co-host Alan touched on the subject in his most recent Prancing Pony Pondering on “The Sins of Melkor… and that one guy” by pointing out how Tolkien’s heroes embody the reverse of Melkor’s worst attributes.
The point of all this is clear: if we want to understand a concept or character in Tolkien’s work, a better understanding of its opposite is critical.
Longtime listeners to the podcast know that I’ve been promising for months to write an essay contrasting first cousins Túrin and Tuor. I’ve actually assembled an impressive list of contrasts ranging from the superficial to the soul-deep, but all I’ve learned is that those two characters are such contrasting images that it’s hard to find anything interesting to say about it. They seem simply to illustrate two possible and opposing outcomes from the combined bloodline of the Edain: two sides of a coin toss for the fate of Men at the end of the First Age. Neat, but that’s really all I have to say about it.
Ar-Pharazôn doesn’t think
of his star-dusted forefather
as much of a role model.
But while I have you here, I’d like to do what I do anytime someone gives me a blank screen and an audience of Tolkien readers: I’m going to write about Eärendil. [I’m shocked. – Ed.] And I’m going to contrast my favorite mariner with a descendant of his I call the “Anti-Eärendil”, because the differences between them illustrate starkly just how far the race of Númenor falls from its founding to its destruction.
In the Akallabêth, when Ar-Pharazôn decides to sail to Middle-earth to demand fealty from Sauron, his key motivation is pride of ancestry:
And he determined without counsel of the Valar, or the aid of any wisdom but his own, that the title of King of Men he would himself claim, and would compel Sauron to become his vassal and his servant; for in his pride he deemed that no king should ever arise so mighty as to vie with the Heir of Eärendil.
(The Silmarillion, p. 270)
It’s ironic because, although the Kings of Númenor are descended in unbroken line from Eärendil, Eärendil himself was never a king. Although he was leader of the last gleanings of Elves and Men in Arvernien at the end of the First Age, he was never “mighty” in any way that Ar-Pharazôn is likely to consider important. But I suppose that’s a technicality: Eärendil’s son became a mighty king of Men, and was named so by the Valar; and so what we really see here is Ar-Pharazôn considering his own divine right to rule. In fact, it’s quite clear that Ar-Pharazôn doesn’t think of his star-dusted forefather as much of a role model, considering every action he takes after this point and the fact that he never seems to think about him again. (Someone in the family does think about Eärendil: Ar-Pharazôn’s cousin Amandil, leader of the Faithful. But for more on that, you’ll have to wait for the end of this essay.)
I’m tempted to be clever and say, “Both men sailed ships into the West, and there the resemblance ceases.”2 But that’s not really the case. Although they set out for Valinor with two very different sets of intentions, they face similar challenges and decision points along the way. Much as the case with Túrin and Tuor, it is the decisions they make and their responses to those challenges that show the contrast, and how the contrast leads to different fates.
The Motive: Sacrifice vs. Demand
From the beginning, it’s clear that Eärendil’s intentions are the very noblest. He undertakes his voyage for two reasons:
Two purposes grew in his heart, blended as one in longing for the wide Sea: he sought to sail thereon, seeking after Tuor and Idril who returned not; and he thought to find perhaps the last shore, and bring ere he died the message of Elves and Men to the Valar in the West, that should move their hearts to pity for the sorrows of Middle-earth.
The first purpose is well within Eärendil’s rights. He may sail the Great Sea as much as he wishes to find his parents, as long as he doesn’t go to Valinor (there’s no reason to assume that he knows the stories of “after days” that suggest that’s where they ended up). Only the second purpose is forbidden to a son of mortal Men and exiled Noldor, and the fact that he intended to deliver the message “ere he died” indicates Eärendil believes the trespass to be a capital offense. And yet he does it anyway, fully knowing that he’s likely to be punished, because his people need help. This selfless sacrifice of taking on the danger of the journey and the punishment for the trespass is a characteristic we will see again later.
Ar-Pharazôn, of course, starts from entirely different motives. Fearing death, he seeks to make war on the Valar to wrest the Undying Lands from them, and so win immortality. He actually believes it is something he is entitled to, thanks to the lies of Sauron:
‘And though, doubtless, the gift of life unending is not for all, but only for such as are worthy, being men of might and pride and great lineage, yet against all justice is it done that this gift, which is his due, should be withheld from the King of Kings, Ar-Pharazôn, mightiest of the sons of Earth, to whom Manwë alone can be compared, if even he. But great kings do not brook denials, and take what is their due.’
In contrast to his ancestor, who braved the wrath of the Valar to beg for help despite almost certain death, Ar-Pharazôn braves their wrath to demand an immortality to which he mistakenly believes he is entitled.
The Name: Devotion vs. Mastery
Although I mentioned this in Episode 046 – Master and Servant, it bears repeating. Eärendil’s name is glossed in the Index to The Silmarillion as “Lover of the Sea” (p. 325) and this is usually how it’s translated. But the Appendix specifies that the root –(n)dil translated as ‘lover’ actually “implies ‘devotion’”. (p. 362) The selfless and reverential connotations of the word ‘devotion’ as opposed to ‘love’ should not be ignored. Eärendil is not merely a “Lover of the Sea”; he is “Devoted to the Sea”. This implies an understanding of his place relative to it. His love for the sea is one of respect and submission: an inferior being’s love for an entity greater than himself.
Although Ar-Pharazôn’s name has no connection to the sea, the name of his ship apparently does. The ship that he sails into the West to make war on the Valar is called “Alcarondas, Castle of the Sea.” It’s unclear what exactly the name Alcarondas means, but even if “Castle of the Sea” is just an epithet and not a literal translation, the message is clear: by placing a castle on the sea, Ar-Pharazôn is claiming sovereignty over it. The humility of Tuor before Ulmo, and the sea-devotion bestowed upon Eärendil with his name, have been completely inverted by an implicit claim to lordship over Ulmo’s realm by Ar-Pharazôn.
The Voyage: Acceptance vs. Denial of the Obvious, pt. I
Both Eärendil and Ar-Pharazôn face unfriendly sailing conditions at first. Eärendil responds by turning around and going home:
defeated by shadows and enchantment, driven by repelling winds, until in longing for Elwing he turned homeward towards the coast of Beleriand.
He knew it was a hopeless journey from the moment he set out, so he must have considered this a likely possibility from the start. He turns home, accepting that as a mere Man (and Noldo) it is hopeless for him to seek the Undying Lands. The Valar have spoken. He cannot pass.
But returning east, he meets Elwing flying west in bird-form. The news she brings him is grim: the sons of Fëanor have slain most of their people, and she barely escaped with her life and the Silmaril of Lúthien. In response to this news, Eärendil turns around and resumes his quest, but it is not hope that sways him:
Yet Eärendil saw now no hope left in the lands of Middle-earth, and he turned again in despair and came not home, but sought back once more to Valinor with Elwing at his side. He stood now most often at the prow of Vingilot, and the Silmaril was bound upon his brow; and ever its light grew greater as they drew into the West…
(p. 247, emphasis added)
He turns back to Valinor because he cannot go home; he has nowhere else to go. And the rest, as they say, is mythology.
Ar-Pharazôn, on the other hand, doubles down on his foolish decision when nature itself tries to stop him. As he’s about to set sail, Manwë’s Eagles come up out of the West “arrayed as for battle” and glowing anger-red in the sunset. The king’s response is to sound his trumpets, which “outrang the thunder” — as close as a mere mortal is likely to come to actually shouting down Manwë. (p. 278)
The Valar respond with more resistance from the natural elements. There “was little wind, but [the Númenóreans] had many oars and many strong slaves to row beneath the lash.” (p. 278) Unfavorable sailing conditions sound like a perfect reason to turn back: it’s as though the Valar are actually giving him an out. But Ar-Pharazôn believes himself greater than the Valar; it’s not surprising that he would disregard their portents. Furthermore, kingly pride is his motivation, so it’s fitting that he uses the tools of his sovereignty (trumpets, slaves) to overcome the impediments set before him by nature.
It is only once the fleet pass out of sight of the western shores of Númenor — once Ar-Pharazôn has officially violated the Ban of the Valar — that a wind comes from the east to bear them away to Aman.
The Arrival: Acceptance vs. Denial of the Obvious, pt. II
Upon arriving at the Undying Lands, we see the primary characteristics of our two subjects illustrated once again. Eärendil’s first thought when he lands is selfless concern for his crew and his wife:
‘Here none but myself shall set foot, lest you fall under the wrath of the Valar. But that peril I will take on myself alone, for the sake of the Two Kindreds.’
When Elwing insists on stepping off the boat with him, he has a backup plan for minimizing her complicity by having her remain by the shore while he enters into Tirion upon Túna. So it is alone that he walks the deserted streets of the Noldorin city, every quiet step convincing him that he has come too late, and that his errand has failed. It’s worth noting that his fear is not for the possibility of retribution for himself or Elwing, but for the safety of the Blessed Realm itself:
[A]nd he entered into the streets of Tirion, and they were empty; and his heart was heavy, for he feared that some evil had come even to the Blessed Realm. He walked in the deserted ways of Tirion, and the dust upon his raiment and his shoes was a dust of diamonds, and he shone and glistened as he climbed the long white stairs. And he called aloud in many tongues, both of Elves and Men, but there were none to answer him. Therefore he turned back at last towards the sea…
His turning back here may be the most important about-face in the legendarium. It is only when Eärendil turns back, having accepted the defeat he expected all along, that he is greeted by Eönwë.3 He must acknowledge defeat before he is allowed to triumph. It seems that it is this moment of doubt that makes him worthy.
Ar-Pharazôn also has a moment of doubt on the shores of Aman:
And at last Ar-Pharazôn came even to Aman, the Blessed Realm, and the coasts of Valinor; and still all was silent, and doom hung by a thread. For Ar-Pharazôn wavered at the end, and almost he turned back. His heart misgave him when he looked upon the soundless shores and saw Taniquetil shining, whiter than snow, colder than death, silent, immutable, terrible as the shadow of the light of Ilúvatar. But pride was now his master, and at last he left his ship and strode upon the shore, claiming the land for his own, if none should do battle for it.
It is his pride, just as it was Eärendil’s humility and selflessness, that motivates him: he can’t back down now. Even though he is in awe at the sight before him, even though some part of him knows that what he is doing is wrong, that he will never win this, and he is going to be punished for trying, he does not turn back.
But for a few seconds there, we are allowed to hope that he will.
The Reward for their Labors
Not surprisingly, the fates of Eärendil and Ar-Pharazôn are diametrically opposed. Eärendil sails the sky shining on his eternal voyage across the heavens, while Ar-Pharazôn is imprisoned in a dark cave beneath the earth. Both have a certain irony: Eärendil risked all for the people of Middle-earth; and the reward for his sacrifice is that he can never return to them, but remains above them forever as a symbol of hope. Ar-Pharazôn wanted to live forever, and got his wish after a fashion; but all his people are punished, with only a few exiles surviving to remember the day when all hope was lost.
The Heirs of Eärendil
This brings me back to Ar-Pharazôn’s cousin Amandil, the one guy in the family who kept their great ancestor in mind. Before setting out on his own sea voyage, he called his son Elendil to him and said:
‘The days are dark, and there is no hope for Men, for the Faithful are few. Therefore I am minded to try that counsel which our forefather Eärendil took of old, to sail into the West, be there ban or no, and to speak to the Valar, even to Manwë himself, if may be, and beseech his aid ere all is lost.’
Like Eärendil, he knows he is inviting the wrath of the Valar, and accepts whatever punishment may come upon himself:
‘And as for the Ban, I will suffer in myself the penalty, lest all my people should become guilty.’
It’s a fool’s hope, and he knows it. But before we start thinking Amandil is led into this folly by his own pride of ancestry, we are shown that this is clearly not the case. Amandil seems well aware that he is a lesser son of greater sires, and draws attention to the fact that he is not the equal of Eärendil:
Then Amandil said farewell to all his household, as one that is about to die. ‘For,’ said he, ‘it may well prove that you will see me never again; and that I shall show you no such sign as Eärendil showed long ago. But hold you ever in readiness, for the end of the world that we have known is now at hand.’
I would argue, though, that the blood of Eärendil runs truer in Amandil’s line than in that of the later kings. We’ll never know if Amandil made it to Valinor, and it seems likely he did not. But by his selflessness, his sacrifice, and his humility, he proves himself to be the true Heir of Eärendil. And his descendants as well: Elendil, Isildur, and Anárion are all little Heirs of Eärendil themselves, sailing beyond hope (into the east this time) to come against all odds to new shores, and see their sons become kings of a new land.
It would seem Ar-Pharazôn had it all wrong. Eärendil was no king. Being his descendant is not enough to make one worthy of kingship, and kingship is not what marks one as his rightful heir. But by following the example of Eärendil, by acting out of selflessness, humility, and acceptance, kingdoms can be made… and made stronger.
1 “No careful reader of Tolkien’s fiction can fail to be aware of the polarities that give it form and tension. His work is built on contrasts — between hope and despair, between good and evil, between enlightenment and ignorance — and these contrasts are embodied in the polarities of light and dark that are the creative outgrowth of his contrary moods, the ‘antitheses’ of his nature.” (Splintered Light, p. 2)
3 I would quote Eönwë’s greeting here, but doing so would mean I have to read it, which will make me stand up and cheer and be too happy to do any work for the next hour or so. I’m already behind schedule on this essay.