As we kick off the next series, we lay the groundwork for one of Middle-earth's most misunderstood characters: Isildur. Portrayed as a bit of a jerk in the movies, Isildur is much more than a one-dimensional trouble-maker who won't get rid of the One Ring. Before we start the blow-by-blow of Isildur's story, though, we need to lay some critical groundwork.
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Hi. Welcome to The Halfling. I’m your host, Jaron Pak, and you’re listening to Episode 4: Isildur and Númenor.
I want to start this episode off with a little bit of a confession. One of my favorite things to do is play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy. Let me explain.
As a kid, I remember sitting down with my friends to watch the three films over and over again. And every time we did so, there was a really good chance that we would tear it to shreds — like, on every possible level. We’d read into awkward lines, point out overacting, criticize and even invent plot holes. You get the idea. It wasn’t like any of us truly hated the movies. I mean, c’mon, we were a bunch of insecure boys trying to boost our egos by ripping on the “big guys up on the screen.” Textbook childish behavior, right there.
Of course, the truth is, we all loved the movies. We loved the books. We loved the story. Even when we had our fake critics hats on, the fact still stands that we were obviously willing to get together and watch through all three movies — sometimes all in a single sitting. I mean, that’s like a dozen hours of movie watching — especially if you sit through the credits, which have like the entire population of NZ in them.
Anyway, for all of those Mr. Hyde-inspired critical viewings, it’s always fascinated me how easily I could flip a switch and approach things from the Dr. Jekyll point of view. I mean, I can still see all of the warts and various shortcomings throughout the films, but especially as I get older, I can just as easily spend all day praising the films as monumental pieces of cinema. They’re gorgeous to watch, iconically well-acted, and they really do follow an impressively articulate storyline.
Even if you dig into a source material comparison, I’m ready to flip that switch either way. I’ll attack creative decisions (like replacing poor Glorfindel) ‘til my dying breath. But I’m also the first person to point out that getting all of this to make sense is really overwhelming. I mean, adapting the books (which are filled with things like detailed conversations and inner dialogue) is a herculean task. It’s one that can never be pulled off more than adequately — and for that, I praise Peter Jackson and company for their efforts and the immensely enjoyable results.
Okay. Why bring all of this up? Because I want to set the stage for our next series by pointing out a pair of scenes from The Fellowship of the Ring that outline this back and forth struggle between criticism and praise.
The first one — well, this one’s really a two-parter — comes halfway through the movie when Elrond recalls a scared-looking dude called Isildur as he desperately cuts the One Ring off of Sauron’s hand with the shards of his father’s sword. After that, everyone’s favorite Elvish counselor takes him up to Mount Doom, where he strongly advises him to chuck the bauble into the lava lake below. Suddenly gone cold, Isildur replies “No” before smiling and walking off, giving his Elven companion the cold shoulder. Jerk.
This memory sequence connects directly to another scene from the beginning of the film, where we see Isildur go on from there to lose the Ring on his way back home. When he gets ambushed by Orcs, the guy reverts right back to his fearful ways, pops on the Ring, ditches his soldiers, and then loses his jewelry in a river before he’s shot to death in the water. A gruesome end for a pathetic dude, right?
Okay, now the other scene I wanted to point out comes at the end of the movie. As Frodo heads for the boats to leave the Fellowship behind and make for Mordor on his own (don’t worry, Sam catches him before he can leave,) anyway, while Frodo makes a break for it, Aragorn and his companions stay busy as they duke it out with a bunch of Halfling hunting Uruk Hai. At one point, Aragorn flings himself onto a group of his enemies. As he does this, he shouts something. The Uruk Hai fall underneath him and just lay there, apparently slain by his ...weight? Sorry, Mr. Hyde coming through there for a second. Anyway, as Aragorn leaps upon his foes, he shouts the single name “Elendil!” This war cry sounds epic, and it strikes fear in his enemies. But for viewers — especially those who haven’t read the books — it doesn’t mean much. Who on Middle-earth is Elendil? Why is Aragorn shouting his name while he jumps a column of his enemies in battle?
Okay, here are where those two scenes connect. It turns out that Elendil is none other than Isildur’s dad. That’s right, Elendil is the guy whose sword is broken and used by his son to cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand. That same sword eventually finds its way into the hands of his descendant, Aragorn, thousands of years later.
So, why bring all of this up? Well, I’ll tell you why. In fact, I’ll give you the TL;DR version right here. Aragorn’s claim to the throne of Gondor goes directly through Elendil and his son Isildur. In fact, those ancestors are really important leaders of Men who arrive in Middle-earth an entire age before the events of the LOTR. They found the sister kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor. Eventually, they even join up with a bunch of Elves and take down Sauron. Throughout all of this, Elendil maintains a sort of legendary hero status. He’s untouchable. Holy historical ground, so to speak. But his second in command, Isildur, is also a brave, courageous, and noble warrior. That’s right, Isildur’s a hero, too — no matter what the movies make him out to look like. Sure, he’s got his low points, but I can say with complete confidence that he is one of Middle-earth’s bona fide good guys. It’s also worth pointing out that he’s yet another candidate who is heavily rumored to show up in Amazon’s show.
So, over the next few episodes, we’re going to dig into who Isildur is — and in the process, I really want to debunk this Peter Jackson stereotype of Isildur as a one-dimensional, selfish, cowardly, pigheaded guy. Don’t get me wrong, we’re going to see some serious character flaws and some even worse decision-making. But I think when all’s said and done, we’re also going to discover a character who, in spite of his flaws, is very much so the classic definition of a hero. In fact, for those of you who think Tolkien’s writings only consist of linear “good versus bad” content, Isildur’s a great example of how deep and well-rounded his characters can be.
Now, if we’re going to cover Isildur’s story the right way, we’re going to need to spend the rest of this episode laying out some critical background info — so I’m going to need you to bear with me. As is so often the case in Tolkien’s deeply complex world, if we want Isildur’s story to make any sense, we need to start the journey by backing way up to well before the man himself is even born. From there, we’ll trace Isildur’s history from the beginning and figure out why he, his father, and their family are such important people in the first place — and how their presence becomes a major influence on the course of Middle-earth history.
A long time ago, in an ocean far far away, there was an island. Okay, it wasn’t that far away. I’m talking about the island of Númenor, located off of the southwestern coast of Middle-earth. For anyone listening who can picture that classic Middle-earth map in your head, we’re talking about a location far below Gondor and way out into the water.
The island nation of Númenor is a fascinating bit of Middle-earth geography because it’s a really big deal during the Second Age of Middle-earth, even though it literally doesn’t exist in the First and Third Ages. Like, literally, the dirt and rocks aren’t even there.
How’s that possible? Well, do you remember the Valar? They’re those complicated spiritual guardians of Middle-earth that we heard about during our time with good ol’ Glorfindel. They’re often referred to as “angelic,” even though that’s a bit of a simplification. Anyway, at the beginning of the Second Age, those overpowered guys get together and decide to give a gift to a group of men called the Edain who helped them defeat the Dark Lord Morgoth at the end of the First Age.
I know that’s a lot of names, but suffice it to say the Valar are grateful to some Men, so they look for a way to give them a gift that it’s only possible for spiritual guardians of the world to give.
They decide that the best thing they can do is give them a peaceful place to live — which, hey, I’d take that if it was on the table. So they raise this island up out of the waves, because yeah, they can do that kind of thing. They create this utopian landmass. It’s a paradise with solid rock underfoot, rich soil on top, flowers, and fountains. The works.
They then lead the Edain to the island and over the next several centuries that group becomes one of Tolkien’s greatest kingdoms of Men. Their nation is eventually called Númenor and the people are called, you guessed it, the Númenóreans.
Now, just for a little perspective, Númenor is not a small island. In Unfinished Tales, it says that the area resembles a five-point star. The middle section of the island, so not counting the five points, is 250 miles across. So we’re not talking about a little mound of sand with a single, slightly offset palm tree and coconut in the middle of it. This is a considerable chunk of idyllic real estate. It has coastlands and inlands, mountains and flat areas. It’s basically its own little ecosystem, and it’s the cradle of civilization for this nation called Númenor.
Oh, and if you’re wondering why this island isn’t around when the Second Age ends, I’m afraid you’ll have to be patient. We’ll get to that part in detail in the next episode.
Now, the Second Age is almost thirty-five hundred years long, and over this time, the sheltered Númenóreans become incredibly powerful. They’re also ruled by a line of kings that starts with a guy named Elros, who happens to be the brother of Elrond himself.
The brothers have Elven and Human ancestors, and they’re allowed to choose which race’s fate they want for themselves — for more on that topic, check out the second episode of the series on Glorfindel. Elros chooses to live his life out as a king of Men, but he’s gifted an extraordinarily long life and lives exactly 500 years. After that, his descendants’ lives are shorter, but still really long. Even Aragorn, who’s directly descended from Elros, lives to be well over 200 years old.
If you’re wondering what all of this has to do with our boy Isildur, don’t worry, it’ll all come together here in a second.
As the Second Age plays out, Númenor goes from an upstart kingdom to one of the premier powers in Middle-earth. In this process, its kings slowly shift from grateful rulers to men who take their gifts for granted. A few of them still rule well, but many of them begin envying Elves and searching for immortality.
Alright, let’s fast forward to a couple of centuries before the end of the Second Age. 3209 years into the age, a baby boy named Isildur is born into a popular branch of the royal family. They’re not the kings themselves but directly related to them — so, legit royalty. The head of the family is called the Lord of Andúnië, and they rule over a portion of the island. In The Silmarillion it says that “Highest in honour after the house of the kings were the Lords of Andúnië; for they were of the line of Elros…” It also says “and the Lord of Andúnië was ever among the chief councilors of the Sceptre. Yet also from the beginning they bore especial love to the Eldar and reverence for the Valar...”
So, basically, Isildur’s family is a very important branch of the royals, and the young nobleman presumably grows up nice and comfortable as an upper-crust member of the world’s strongest nation.
Now, I know we’ve barely talked about Isildur himself so far, but all of this background was important. It sets the stage and, to be honest, this is a pretty complicated part of the story for anyone who hasn’t tackled The Silmarillion before. I wanted to make sure that we covered everything first so that I don’t just start flinging names and dates at you without any context.
So, to recap everything up to this point, at the beginning of the Second Age, the Valar create an island and gift it to a group of Men, who quickly grow into the powerful nation of Númenor. This nation is ruled by a line of long-lived kings founded by Elrond’s mortal brother Elros.
When Isildur arrives over three thousand years later, he’s born into a branch of the royal family that serves as key counselors to the kings of the island. I hope that makes at least some sense because it’s going to be an important backdrop for Isildur’s story — which we’ll have to pick up in full force first thing next week.
That’s it for now. Until next time, friends.