In our second installment of the Isildur narrative, we see our hero take flight. From defying Sauron to saving venerable trees to riding on tidal waves, Isildur gets his heroic career going in fine form.
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Hi. Welcome to The Halfling. I’m your host, Jaron Pak, and you’re listening to Episode 5: Isildur Saves the Day
Alright, I know we left things off last time with the promise to dive right into Isildur’s story, but there’s one more part of the background that we have to clear up before we really get things going. Don’t worry, though, I’m not about to describe any more terraforming or convoluted royal lineage. I need to catch us up on a bit of a feistier subject: war.
By the time Isildur is born, the 3,000-year-old island nation of Númenor has spent quite a bit of time flexing its muscle by fighting the new Dark Lord Sauron on the mainland of Middle-earth. They’ve also set up lots of colonies on the shores of the continent — where they slowly shift over time from benevolent friends of the local tribesmen to resource-hungry rulers and lords.
This is the situation when, about 50 years after Isildur is born, Sauron finally goes too far. In The Silmarillion it says that at this point, reports come back from the mainland saying Sauron “was pressing down upon the cities by the coasts; and he had taken now the title of King of Men, and declared his purpose to drive the Númeóreans into the sea, and destroy even Númenor, if that might be.”
I always picture the king, a stuck-up dude called Ar-Pharazôn, getting this news and just being like, “say what now? Oh no he didn’t. Alright, guys. Let’s get him.” I mean, remember, this guy is the leader of the strongest kingdom of Men in the world at this point. So, he gathers up his troops and sails to Middle-earth to put Sauron in his place.
This may sound nuts for anyone used to LOTR-size armies. After all, pretty much every battle in that story involves massively outnumbered groups of good guys facing off against hordes of Orcs and the like. But this is different. Remember, the Númenóreans have had a really long run of prosperity. Like, three thousand uninterrupted years long. They live lengthy lives, have robust resources, and can recruit from a huge population. When they disembark from their ships, Sauron’s servants are dumbfounded. In fact, they up and hightail it out of there before the fighting can even start. Finding himself abandoned by his servants, the Dark Lord surrenders and is taken back to Númenor as a prisoner.
Now, before you start doing cartwheels at the thought of Sauron being captured, let’s remember. We’re talking about the Dark Lord. This guy knows what he’s doing. He also doesn’t look like the big black-armored dude we’re used to at this point. He has a normal body — in fact, a pretty handsome one, by all accounts. This good-looking version of Sauron starts weaseling his way into the attention of the prideful King of Númenor, and it doesn’t take long before he works his way out of captivity and all the way into the position of the king’s top counselor. Yeah, he’s that good.
Acknowledging that muscle isn’t an option at the moment, Sauron just does an end around the entire issue by using his new political power to corrupt the entire nation through various public policies. He institutes the worship of his original master, the Dark Lord Morgoth, complete with human sacrifices. He also convinces Ar-Pharazôn that the Valar are against him, and eventually he gets the king to declare war on the very beings who gifted them their island in the first place.
This all spells disaster for the Númenóreans — a disaster that will set up the rest of Middle-earth’s history quite nicely. But before we get to that, there’s one more little episode that takes place during this time — and it happens to be where Isildur officially enters the story.
See, when Númenóreans first arrived on their island, Elves came out of the Blessed Realm away in the West and gave them a gift, a seedling of a famous tree from their homeland. This seedling is planted and becomes a beautiful white tree. In fact, it’s literally called the White Tree. It’s also called Nimloth and it remains a symbol of the specially blessed Númenóreans. As a quick side note, it’s also a direct ancestor of the white tree seen in the court of Minas Tirith during The Return of the King. So yeah, it’s a pretty big deal.
Anyway, Sauron hates this tree. Like, he loathes it. He knows what it stands for, and he wants to get rid of it. He counsels Ar-Pharazôn to destroy it, but at first, the king is hesitant about taking such drastic action. After all, he’s aware of the symbolic nature of the arboreal wonder. Eventually, though, Sauron convinces the corrupted ruler to let him cut it down — before he can do so, though, something happens — and yes, it has to do with Isildur.
Still a relatively young man, Isildur hears about the impending doom of the tree from his grandfather. And I love this part because it sets the tone for how impressive the young lordling is. Rather than blustering about how upsetting the news is, Isildur listens, thinks, and takes action. In The Silmarillion, it says that “Isildur said no word, but went out by night and did a deed for which he was afterwards renowned.”
The upstart youngster puts on a disguise and heads to the Númenórean capital where the tree is growing. He makes his way right into the royal courts without anyone seeing him, and he eventually approaches the tree itself — which is officially off-limits by order of Sauron. At this point, the Dark Lord is still trying to get permission to destroy the tree, and he doesn’t want to let anyone get anywhere near it until he gets the king to sign off on the deal.
Now, this all happens right before the winter, and the tree is dark but laden with fruit. When Isildur arrives on the scene, he steals one of these fruits and starts to head home. But just then the guards wake up and, realizing what’s going on, attack the mysterious stranger. Isildur shows off some of his mettle by fighting off the entire crew before escaping with the fruit intact. While this is impressive, though he does get a lot of wounds in the process.
Now, he reaches his family in safety and they hide the seed. So, it’s a job well done for the son of Elendil. But in the aftermath of the event, Isildur slips into a life-or-death recovery period as he tries to heal from the whole ordeal. He doesn’t get better for months on end. But then, hey presto!, when the spring arrives, the seedling sprouts, and Isildur suddenly is healed. For real, it says in The Silmarillion that “when its first leaf opened then Isildur, who had lain long and come near to death, arose and was troubled no more by his wounds.”
The text also tells us that Isildur does this heroic deed just in time, as the White Tree is cut down shortly afterward.
Okay, so after all of the stuff with the White Tree goes down, Isildur briefly fades into the background once again. Don’t worry, though, he’ll be front and center again very soon. At this point, Sauron finally convinces the corrupt king to attack the Valar. The nation musters a massive fleet and they sail off to assault the immortal lands — which is about as bad an idea as it sounds. The entire event ends in catastrophe. Like, a real, bonafide apocalyptic catastrophe. The fleet is swallowed up by the water — and then, like, the entire island of Númenor also goes down in ruinous destruction, with the ocean swallowing up the entire country in a single cataclysmic event.
When I’ve written about this before, I always summarize the downfall of Númenor as “an Atlantis-like” catastrophe, and it turns out that this isn’t just me putting two and two together. Tolkien himself pointed multiple times to this being his attempt to weave the classic legend into his own story.
For instance, in a letter written in 1954, Tolkien says, “The particular ‘myth’ which lies behind this tale, and the mood both of Men and Elves at this time, is the Downfall of Númenor: a special variety of the Atlantis tradition.” He mentions the Atlantis connection countless other times, too.
See? Atlantis-like catastrophe.
Anyway, this naturally impacts Isildur, as he’s, you know, living on the island that’s sinking under the waves. Now, Isildur’s family has clearly not been willing to fall in line with the politics of Sauron and the corrupt Númenórean king up to this point. This eventually puts his family in the camp of a group called “the Faithful” who maintain their friendship with Elves and their ancient respect for the Valar. They’re opposed by another faction called “the King’s Men,” who support the evil deeds of the rulers of the nation.
When Númenor goes down in flames, it’s “the Faithful” who step up to save the day. Led by Isildur’s father Elendil, the group prepares to set sail. Elendil has four ships, Isildur has three, and his little brother Anárion has two. As the island sinks below the waves, the little fleet, loaded with as many of the Faithful as it can hold, sets sail for the mainland in the middle of a storm, and I don’t just mean any storm. This one makes a hurricane sound like fishing weather. In The Silmarillion, it describes the event by saying, “they fled before the black gale out of the twilight of doom into the darkness of the world. And the deeps rose beneath them in towering anger, and waves like unto mountains moving with great caps of writhen snow bore them up amid the wreckage of the clouds, and after many days cast them away upon the shores of Middle-earth.” Talk about one crazy ride.
The ships of the Faithful ride this massive tidal wave of a storm all the way to the mainland, where the water has a tsunami-like impact on the coasts. During the chaos, the ships are understandably scattered, with the father’s fleet arriving in the north of the land and the two sons sticking together and reaching the south in safety.
When they arrive, they settle two really important kingdoms. In the north, dad is welcomed by the local Elves before setting up the nearby kingdom of Arnor. This kingdom isn’t around by the time of the LOTR story, but its remnants — areas like the Shire, Bree, and Weathertop — can still be seen. Still, when it’s first established, Arnor is a strong kingdom, and Elendil officially becomes the “High King” of all of the Númenóreans in Middle-earth.
In the south, the two brothers do a bit of a better job setting up a long-term camp. They sail up a river and set up shop in a region that is eventually known by the much more recognizable name ...of Gondor. Their initial capital is a place called Osgiliath — for you movie-watchers-only out there, that’s the ruined city from The Two Towers and The Return of the King that lies across the plains next to Minas Tirith.
The brothers co-rule their new realm in this centrally-located city, but just like any royal family, they also set up their own cities where they can rule on their own as the top dog. Anárion rules Minas Tirith, the Tower of the Setting Sun, while Isildur establishes his new home in a place called Minas Ithil, the Tower of the Rising Moon. Once again, the name may not ring a bell, but we’ve all seen this location in Peter Jackson’s films. The thing is, by the time of the LOTR, that city has been captured by the bad guys and the Black Riders rule it. In fact, it’s that glowing greenish city that Frodo, Sam, and Gollum pass on their way to Shelob’s lair. Yeah, that hair-raising residence is originally Isildur’s personal city-stronghold.
When that city is first built, it’s a beautiful place. In The Two Towers, Faramir describes it by saying, “that city was once a strong place, proud and fair, Minas Ithil, the twin sister of our own city.” That city, of course, is Minas Tirith, and the two strongholds initially mirror one another on either side while the capital city lies in between.
Now, I also want to point something else out here. I used to get stuck on the thought that a few ships arrive in Middle-earth and then suddenly there are all of these massive, populated cities and strongholds. It’s like, wait a minute, how big are these ships? How many people do they bring? Enough to nation-build in a matter of months? It just never made sense. But over time, I’ve come to realize a really important fact, a fact that I already mentioned a little bit ago. Remember those colonies that the Númenóreans establish earlier in their history? Those didn’t disappear with the main island. They’re still there. In fact, there’s even a city right near Isildur’s new kingdom that Tolkien takes the time to describe in The Silmarillion, explaining that “In the later days to this haven came only the Faithful of Númenor, and many therefore of the folk of the coastlands in that region were in whole or in part akin to the Elf-friends and the people of Elendil, and they welcomed his sons.”
Alright, so far in Isildur’s tale, we’ve seen a man who defies Sauron’s orders, steals a fruit of the White Tree, and then fights his way out of the predicament in spite of almost dying. From there, he becomes a major leader of the Faithful in direct opposition to the corrupt king and his chief advisor — Sauron. Then, when his home is destroyed and sinks beneath the waves, Isildur becomes second in command to his father, leading the escape and landing in Middle-earth where he sets up the kingdom of Gondor, which is still around 3,000 years later when Aragorn becomes king. Once he’s settled down in his new pad in Minas Ithil, Isildur even re-plants the sapling, keeping the ancient line of the White Tree of Númenor alive and well.
I mean, this guy is just scoring one home run after another. See what I mean? There’s a lot more to see here than a grumpy Gus who takes the One Ring and then dies abandoning his men and running away from Orcs. And we still haven’t even gotten to his magnum opus — which also happens to coincide with his greatest mistake. This is where we get into some real tragic hero business.
See, Isildur’s tussle with Sauron isn’t done. In fact, it’s far from over. The Dark Lord goes down with Númenor, and his body perishes in the destruction. But that isn’t the end of the ethereal being. His bodiless spirit heads back to Middle-earth, following the path of the exiles of Númenor.
Once back on the mainland, Sauron flees to his old haunt in Mordor, where he had forged the One Ring several hundred years before. He does this secretly, and for a while, no one knows that he’s back in the area. He slowly takes a new shape, but this time we don’t get attractive Sauron. Nope. Not even a little bit. His new look is described as a form that is terrible but clothed in power. In The Return of the King, it explains that “his power thereafter was through terror alone.” So, he has a full body again, but it’s warped and twisted, like the version we see at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring film. This is also the first time that we hear one part of his body, in particular, singled out in all of its otherworldly horror: his eye. When describing his body rebuild, The Silmarillion states that “the malice of the Eye of Sauron few even of the great among the Elves and Men could endure.”
Sauron takes some well-earned time to gather his strength — and probably pat himself on the back, too. I mean, he single-handedly took down the strongest kingdom in Middle-earth. Kudos to him, right? He may be a tyrannical spirit of evil, but the guy sure does know how to execute a well-planned scheme.
But Sauron eventually learns that he wasn’t completely successful in destroying the Númenóreans. The Return of the King fills us in, stating that “his anger was great when he learned that Elendil whom he most hated, had escaped him, and was now ordering a realm upon his borders. Therefore, after a time he made war upon the Exiles, before they should take root.”
And I’m sorry to say that that is where we’ll need to leave things for now, with a grudge-bearing Sauron lurking on the edge of the story, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting Isildur and his family. There’s just too much of Isildur’s story left to cover here, and we’ll need at least one more installment to wrap this thing up.
Alright, that’s it for now. Until next time, friends.