Saturday 1 June 2013

Numenorean religion imagined


The King, though their host, was in silent seclusion that night, praying before the Erulaitalë. (...) [The next morning] they joined the vast progress of the Erulaitalë.


As soon as they had – with the crowd of several thousand – begun to ascend the mountain, Pengolod tapped Soup’s shoulder. “These caves we pass?”

Soup bowed his head and whispered, “The tombs of the Kings.”

Pengolod understood, instantly. The tombs were on the West side of the mountain road, facing Aman. Each one had a carved archway. The first one must have been the tomb of Elros, and its entry-way was heaped with fresh flowers, laid down by the people as they passed. As the road turned upwards, other tombs were present, each one with a carved archway. Some had graven names and faces, but as each ruler had a cave, it was easy to link the refuge to the ruler.

As they went forwards up the trail, the tombs’ carvings increased in both size and ornateness. Apart from Elros, only two of the past Kings merited offerings from the people: the monarch Telperien, who had preceded Tar-Minastir, received fruit and blooms from those who remembered her reign, and, curiously, Aldarion. The entry to his tomb was heaped with scrolls or graven stones, and twigs of green oiolairë. Pengolod picked up one of the stones; a common man’s name had been scratched upon it. He set it down, and moved along.

The marchers in their thousands were all silent, and all in white. White hoods were drawn up over reddening faces, and children and graybeards were helped along. Yet at the steepest part, the marchers put on a burst of eager speed, and their silence thrummed with a sense of imminent pleasure. Pengolod understood when they reached the plateau where the people gathered.


When they reached the top, a gentle wind struck instantly, cool and refreshing, drawn down from some higher air. Fresh grass brushed around their knees, and each blade, if stepped on, quietly righted itself, so that the multitude stood amidst a sea of living green.

Seeing some people looking at the sky, Pengolod turned his face upwards. There, circling surely too far for the mortals to see, were three eagles. Above them, he would have vowed that, though it was day, the dome of the heavens was deeper in its blue than it had been at the mountain’s foot. The plain purity of the space, wind and grass, stone and sky, was only fitting. For standing in the hallow of the Meneltarma, the sacred came in with each clean breath and thrummed in the turf beneath their feet.

Pengolod was struck to the heart. He had only felt such hallows, echoes of what Arda might be had it not been marred by evil, once or twice in Middle-Earth. But they had never been hallows of his people. The Elves really had transgressed against the Valar, he thought, and really were earthly, if they had no places as divine as this.


The plateau of the hallow was nearly full with its silent multitude. Pengolod’s host had drawn him and Soup to the western edge. They had waited there some time when the silent multitude parted for the King.

Pengolod was touched yet again by unexpected awe. Of all that mortal multitude, Tar-Minastir alone bore ornaments to the hallow, a gem-topped scepter in one hand, a sword in a ruel-bone sheath by his side, and a green branch that bore fringed red blossom, oiolairë in bloom.

He was leaner than Ciryatan in his white robes; in his youth, Minastir must indeed have been like to the Eldar. His strong face was indeed clean-shaven. Age had just begun to touch him. His dark hair, bound by a fillet of silver and a white gem, blew about his face, but his grey eyes stayed remote in their exaltation. He had the face of a man carrying a great and somber joy within him, anticipating this hour of communion with the One.

The crowd swayed in obeisance like the grasses as the King went by, progressing to the western brink of the plateau. Soup went to his knees, and stayed there; by a tug at his sleeve, Pengolod realized that he should do the same. The multitude were all kneeling by the time the King came to his place. Then he, the vessel for their prayers, began to speak.


The King’s words were simple, and half of them were lost in the endless wind. Tar-Minastir addressed Eru by many names; Illúvatar, the One, the Creator, the Endless, the Song and the Light. He offered up his thanks for the One’s many gifts to humans, naming the gift of life in Arda itself, the presence of the guarding Valar, the continuing richness of the summer and the sea, and the gift of victory in their recent battles.

Tar-Minastir held up the flowering branch. Then he laid it down on an undistinguished grey stone, one of a few boulders tumbled about. As he did this, the three eagles swooped down from their height, circling above Tar-Minastir in view of even the weakest mortal eyes. Nobody said anything, or even gasped, but a pulse of joy at the divine sign coursed through them all. Following this, all of them prostrated their kneeling selves in the direction of the stone, guided by the King, who did so first. Pengolod mirrored the crowd. There was no shame in the sign of honor and surrender. He felt himself given fully over to the place and moment.

The King was also the first to right himself. Now lifting the scepter, he addressed the throng. His words were simple. “We live in the Land of Gift, and all that comes to us here are the gifts of the One and the Many, Illúvatar and the Valar. Be blessed. Go forth, and be merry and fruitful. Peace has come again.” With this, he lowered the scepter, and began to move through the crowd once more. Once he passed, the folk began to stand. None of them left their places until he had begun the descent from the plateau.


Pengolod watched the crowd. Some looked happily dazed; a few were weeping, and others were thoughtful. Many folk went to where Tar-Minastir had been standing and looked westward for a few moments before leaving. Pengolod, curious as ever, joined the patient throng waiting to see what might be seen. Soup stayed by his side. Though the ritual was over, he was, Pengolod sensed, still eager; by the law of the hallow, he could not speak to explain what everyone was looking at. When they reached the edge, Soup pointed out to indicate where to look. 

Pengolod’s eyes raked all that was before them. He saw the central plains of Númenor. Like the Meneltarma as a mountain, the isle of Númenor was smaller than everyone spoke of it, the land below them largely in tillage and grazing, with vales here and there of clearly bounded woods. No wonder its mariners were restless. Beyond were the tree-fringed shores, and, past two great spurs of land embracing a bay, the great sweep of the sea. On the horizon, Pengolod saw at first a white glimmer. He fixed his eyes on it and saw there another land, beyond the great gulf of water, the shores of Avallonë.

Avallonë the fair, Tol Eressëa, Elven-home. One of the eagles swooped down, cutting his line of sight like a curved saber, before soaring to its two mates again. Joined in flight, the trio chevroned towards Avallonë. Pengolod felt the reproach in their unerring path westward; that he, too, should journey without tarrying to what was his. The sight clenched him with the Elves’ Sea-longing, even as the idea of departing the hallow wrenched him.

He knew now how forsaken the Elves had been all their time in Middle-Earth. Was there this sacredness there, where Elves might know it, or was it never for his folk to feel? Grief and fear touched him as the light turned gilded about them.


Pengolod felt a gentle pull on his sleeve turn into a hard tug. Turning to look at Soup, he realized that he had yet again sunk into one of those elvish reveries that seemed peculiarly long to mortals. He must ask later how long Soup had needed to pull at his sleeve. The sun was lowering, and only a few folk remained on the mountaintop. Two of them were their host and one of the King’s messengers, hovering in assumption that he had accepted Minastir’s invitation.

With all this, it still took a hard internal pull for Pengolod to make himself depart that place of doubled exaltation. He looked back. One other person stayed by the viewpoint, sitting cross-legged, smiling and serene. He looked back and nodded as Pengolod left, then closed his eyes to rest before taking the long path down. Even when, looking back, Pengolod could no longer see Avallonë on the horizon, he glimpsed his fellow pilgrim’s silver halo of hair, catching the lowering sun.


Once on the path, it went downwards swiftly, and they passed the mouths of the tomb-caves once more. Pengolod looked into the open mouth of one. There was only darkness within. The entire mountain was a riddle, he thought, and when you understood it, you were ready for the mountain’s heart.

Númenoreans knew well when they were ready, he recalled. They lay down to die of their own will, embracing their mortal fates. Pengolod, like all Elves, was convinced that they were going on to know in full what he had tasted, briefly, today.

Pengolod stopped rigid. Thinking of this, he remembered the man at the top, who had sat and smiled and stayed…Gripped by a chill of intuition, he turned around and looked up the path.

He was rewarded, after a fashion. Some people carrying a white stretcher were the last ones to come down, looking calm and a bit sad. The figure on the stretcher had a white cloak over its face. The carriers did not have smooth elvish steps. They rattled the stretcher, and the cloak fell away. It was indeed the man who had stayed on the mountain, serene still after his chosen death.


From Magweth Pengolodh: The Question of Pengolod by Tyellas


I regard this as a first rate piece of writing; furthermore, this passage was very important in the process of my becoming a Christian - so it has a special place in my heart.



Wm Jas said...

It's a beautiful piece of writing, but I wonder if you'd be willing to elaborate on how it was instrumental in your conversion. The connection is not obvious, at least not to me.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - If you recall, like CS Lewis, I came to Christianity via theism - and this piece pushed me towards theism perhaps by the way it seemed to say something about the meaning of the sacred, a religious community, and mortality.

What is depicted is a non-Jewish pre-Christian Temple monotheism, with a divinely ordained (anointed) King who mediates between his people and God.

When the Temple was destroyed (at the downfall of Numenor) the religion was destroyed, and the exiled Numenoreans (like Faramir) were left only with a remembrance of their religion (like the elementary 'grace before supper' in the Window on the West chapter of LotR)

Related pieces were the LotR Appendix on Aragorn an Arwen (the death of Aragorn), and the Debate of Finrod and Andreth from volume 9 of History of Middle Earth.

Incidentally, the author is certainly not Christian - to put it mildly - but that only goes to show...

Arakawa said...

"Incidentally, the author is certainly not Christian - to put it mildly - but that only goes to show..."

Ah, interesting. For whatever reason, Numenor in my mind is linked with Japan and Shinto, about as much as Christianity. A skilled depiction of them having an open-air religion, with offerings left to ancestral monarchs, does not really weaken the connection....

It's a superficial resemblance, yes, but for whatever reason Tolkien hit on the archetype of an island nation of people with an advanced civilization and a sense of themselves as having special kinship to otherworldly beings (Elves or kami), who eventually squander their special dispensation through arrogance. Taking, in the case of Japan, the form of a futile and traumatic war of imperialist expansion, followed by establishment of a socially decaying secular technocracy.

(Disclaimer: I am not Japanese, but as my nickname suggests, I do have a certain interest in their situation.)

Karl said...

@Arakawa -

The analogy between Numenor and Japan had never occurred to me, but it works up to a point, which is to say it can be instructive to consider it, though the correspondences break down if examined, just as they do if we interpret "The Shadow of the Past" as a response to the resurgence of German militarism.

Ar-Pharazon launches his war of imperialist expansion and inflicts a crushing defeat on the ruler of Middle-Earth, but this is only the first battle of a bitter war that continues until the enemy summons elemental powers and obliterates just that corner of Numenor in which the remnant of the Faithful had their refuge.

Wurmbrand said...

Wasn't Sauron the one who prompted the Numenoreans to develop a Temple religion?

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - By Temple I meant a specific sacred place which could not be replicated elsewhere - and I was thinking by analogy of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem that was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 - but could not be rebuilt. The Numenorean outdoor 'Temple' to The one (i.e. the sacred mountain of Meneltarma) was destroyed by The One, and therefore presumably could not (without blasphemy) be replaced with a substitute mountain in Middle Earth. So the Numenoreans in exile simply lost their religion and its practice - as happens with a Temple religion when there is no Temple. All that remained was a formal process of remembering their religion as a grace before meals.

Arakawa said...


I agree with your assessment. As I said, the analogies are superficial, but striking (perhaps if you squint in the right way).

This is probably indicative of the fact that Tolkien really was making strides if the process of writing mythology. Probably the best sign is that, in spite of Tolkien explicitly disavowing himself from writing allegory, people keep finding resonances in his work to real-world history, especially ones that he definitely could not have intentionally crafted as allegory.

I am not sure how the Inklings' idea of 'rehabilitating English mythology' would have come out in a real world, and indeed to what extent that was their explicit project; mostly because the old mythology was presented as ostensibly-true, or 'true enough' (because of its deep resonance with reality), whereas the Legendarium is presented in a medium that explicitly makes it ostensibly-fictional.

Wurmbrand said...

Here we go. In The Silmarillion (p. 261) we read that on the mountain Meneltarma in Numenor there was a high place hallowed to Eru, "open and unroofed." This indicates that if there was any man-built structure there, it not only lacked a roof, but walls (since it is "open"). Therefore we must say that, by the will of Eru, there is no temple there. On page 273 we read that "Sauron cuased to be built upon the hill in the midst of the city of the Numenoreans, Armenelos the Golden, a mighty temple." Whatever Tolkien, as a Roman Catholic, may have thought of the worldly splendor of Rome, etc., it seems clear that, in the ages of Middle-earth that he chronicles, there is simply no place for temples or other buildings for wholesome worship of the true God. I think he is aligning himself with the Old Testament (most of which must occur later than the First, Second, and Third Ages), in which God's people at first have no fixed temple, but eventually one is built in the reign of Solomon -- an event from which worldly pride is not absent. In the Gospels, Our Lord speaks of the destruction of the successor Temple (which occurs AD 70), with no future earthly restoration proposed. One must also ponder the Epistle to the Hebrews. Tolkien's imagination aligns with these things. I haven't read the fan fiction that you cite to see whether its author's does.

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - I explained what I meant by 'Temple religion' in my response to your first comment: It is a type of religion, and does not refer to a building (or the lack thereof).

Anonymous said...

Greetings from the author of the fanfiction story "Magweth Pengolodh"!

"What is depicted is a non-Jewish pre-Christian Temple monotheism, with a divinely ordained (anointed) King who mediates between his people and God. " I agree with your take on my view of Numenorean spirituality, with one caveat: I wasn't picturing monotheism! "The One and the Many," Tar-Minastir says...and then there's the rites to Unien and Osse that take place at other points in the story. That said, I did picture the relationship with Illuvatar, the Creator, as unique and central, a direct connection to the sacred compared to the more folkloric relationship with the two Maiar, and a point of difference from the Elves' more Valar-focused spirituality.

And DID the Numenoreans lose their religion - or did the possibility of such "hallows" become linked to the White Tree? Remember the scene where Aragorn and Gandalf go and find the White Tree's sapling, in a similar mountainside site?