In the third episode on Isildur, we trace our hero's activity when Sauron unleashes a new war on the mainland of Middle-earth. From a harrowing initial escape to sparking a continent-wide alliance, Isildur remains at the heart of the action as things come to a head with the Dark Lord for a second time.
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Hi. Welcome to The Halfling. I’m your host, Jaron Pak, and you’re listening to Episode 6: Isildur and the Last Alliance
Last time we left Isildur and his family leading a group of scrappy survivors on the mainland of Middle-earth. They had just ridden a tidal wave created when their homeland of Númenor sunk beneath the waves. Dad Elendil lands in the north and founds the kingdom of Arnor, while his sons, Isildur and Anárion arrive in the south and create the kingdom of Gondor. They’re accepted as rulers by the local Númenórean mainland colonies, and they co-rule from the city of Osgiliath. They also each set up shop in their own strongholds, with Anarion establishing Minas Anor (later known as Minas Tirith) and Isildur building another fortress called Minas Ithil — where he also plants the sapling of the White Tree that he had saved back on Númenor.
We also talked about the good-looking version of the Dark Lord Sauron who is willingly captured and brought to Númenor where he corrupts the king of the land and convinces him to lash out at the spiritual guardians who gifted them their island in the first place. When this leads to the Atlantis-like destruction of Númenor, Sauron loses his body and his spirit flees back to Mordor, where he takes a new, terrifying shape. When Sauron discovers that Elendil and his sons have survived the destruction, he’s furious. The Dark Lord has a special vendetta against the family and their compatriots, who, remember, remained faithful to their island’s guardians, the Elves, and various other anti-Sauron allies in Middle-earth.
All of this sets up the scene where we’ll pick up the story this week. Sauron is grumpily brooding in Mordor while the survivors of Númenor are blissfully busy setting up new realms across the land. If you can picture that iconic Middle-earth map — or you’re like me, and you just gave in to the obsession and made it your computer desktop image — let’s take a minute to paint a mental picture here. Big Papa Elendil’s new kingdom is way up at the top left side of the map. In contrast, Mordor is surrounded by its mountainous walls way down in the bottom right-hand corner. Nice. They have plenty of breathing room to kind of just stay out of each other’s way, right?
But the two king-sons don’t have things quite so comfortable. Anárion is in Minas Tirith which is ...well, right next to the mountains of Mordor. In fact, remember that scene in The Return of the King when Gandalf and Pippin are standing on the balcony at night and they see the giant green, glowing light beam that shoots up from the Nazgûl’s stronghold? You know, it’s the signal that starts the massive attack on Gondor that ends in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.
Anyway, the point here is that Gandalf and Pippin are in Anárion’s home fortress (albeit a few thousand years after the fact) and they can see Mordor in all its gloomy horror like right there. They’re on the doorstep of the Dark Land. So, yeah, in the context of our story, Anárion is way too close to Sauron for comfort — even if he doesn’t know that the Dark Lord is back yet.
And Isildur? Well, if you’ll recall from the last episode, his home fortress is the structure that eventually becomes the home base for the Ringwraiths. That basically means Isildur is living in the mountains of Mordor itself. Now, if you’re wondering what kind of crazy notion caused him to do something like that, let’s think about this for a minute. When Isildur arrived in Gondor, he had just left a catastrophe behind that was so huge, it seemed impossible that Sauron could escape from the destruction. In The Return of the King, Tolkien explains that “For this good at least they believed had come out of ruin, that Sauron also had perished.” So, even if he knew Mordor was the Dark Lord’s old stomping ground, that didn’t mean it was his current stomping ground. The villain had gone down under the waves, and setting up shop right on the edge of his old realm probably felt like not a big deal.
But this also means that Isildur is literally right next to Sauron when the Dark Lord finally decides to make his first move. Like, right next to him. It’d be like moving into the shed in the backyard of your enemy’s home. Now, this isn’t an oblivious move. The Númenóreans know about Mordor’s history. In fact, it appears that, along with assuming they were safe from Sauron, the brothers also wanted to guard against any leftover threats that could come out of the Black Land. In The Silmarillion, it mentions that Isildur’s city was located on the edge of Sauron’s old realm “as a threat to Mordor.” Even with the Dark Lord assumed to be gone, they still understand that Mordor is a threat — and, if you think about it, Isildur sets up his defenses up in a spot that helps to shield everyone else. See? Yet another way this guy just isn’t the coward we’ve come to expect. So, all around, it seems that the location of Isildur’s fortress of Minas Ithil was purposeful — even if it was a little shortsighted.
Now, to understand what happens next, we need to figure out what Sauron is up to. I also need to point something out that I forgot to mention in the last episode. When Sauron arrives back on the mainland and begins taking a new form, he has the One Ring with him all along. In fact, he takes the overpowered trinket with him to Númenor, uses it to overthrow the nation, and even carries it back with him when he’s disembodied and sent off to retake a new form.
Of course, the question that naturally follows is, how on earth did he carry the Ring back if he doesn’t have a body anymore? You know what, though? I’m not going to explain it to you — because Tolkien didn’t bother either. In a letter written in 1958 to superfan Rhona Beare, Tolkien explains the use of the Ring on Númenor, adding that, “I do not think one need boggle at this spirit carrying off the One Ring, upon which his power of dominating minds now largely depended.” Translation? He shrugged off the issue ...and so shall we.
Alright, so we know that Sauron has his Ring and he spends a good amount of time creating a terrible new form for himself. He also begins refounding his Middle-earth kingdom. Remember, the framework for his realm is there, but his servants were scattered when he was captured — and, thanks to the strange speed of Middle-earth’s partially mortal, partially immortal timeline — that happened over fifty years ago at this point. So, he’s got a lot of rebuilding to do, and he wants to stay under the radar while he does so so that he can build up enough power to have a legitimate advantage when he finally tries to snuff out the remnants of his enemies.
Naturally, in the long-lived world of Tolkien’s creation, this “building up” doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it takes decades. So yeah, fast forward, like a century. One hundred and nine years, to be more specific. At this point, Sauron finally decides he’s gathered enough strength to make his first move — spoiler, even though its been over a century ...well, he hasn’t yet — but he decides to unleash his forces on the exiles of Númenor anyway. After all, even immortal spirits get impatient when they have to wait decades at a time.
Mount Doom, which had been left to simmer while Sauron was gone, bursts into flame again, and the Dark Lord sends his freshly gathered armies in a sudden attack over the mountains of his own kingdom. And who should be lying right in his way but Isildur in his sparkling new fortress of Minas Ithil. When Sauron unleashes his first attack, it utterly overruns Isildur’s home base. Minas Ithil is captured, and the sapling of the White Tree that Isildur has planted there is burnt in the chaos. Yikes. But Isildur is like the guardian of this symbolic tree, and he manages to come through once again. In The Silmarillion, it says, “But Isildur escaped, and taking with him a seedling of the Tree he went with his wife and his sons by ship down the River, and they sailed from the mouths of Anduin seeking Elendil.”
Now, if you’re wondering, “Hey, what about his brother?” Don’t worry. It says after this passage that Anárion does his part. He stays behind and defends Gondor from the ongoing attack. In fact, he initially defeats Sauron’s armies and drives them back to the mountains. Realizing that he struck a bit too soon, Sauron takes this setback as a sign to gather his armies once again. But, the writing is on the wall at this point. Sauron is back, and he’s coming for the Númenóreans. Both brothers realize this and decide that if they don’t get help, their new-ish kingdom is going to be toppled by their malicious neighbor.
So Isildur sets sail for the north, where his dad is relaxing in his thriving kingdom of Arnor. He’s also hanging out with his new best friend, the Elven King Gil-galad.
Now, just to give you a little background on this Gil-galad guy, he’s one of the main Elvish leaders during the Second Age. He rules a kingdom called Lindon, which is next to the Shire. In fact, some of the leftovers of that kingdom can be seen at the end of The Return of the King when Frodo and company board the ship to set sail into the west.
Anyway, at this point, Lindon is a powerhouse Elvish kingdom that is on good terms with its Mannish neighbors in Arnor. Gil-galad is also a respected leader throughout all of the Elvish communities of Middle-earth. So, when Isildur arrives reporting that Sauron is back and on the verge of destroying the southern kingdom of Gondor, Elendil and Gil-galad put their heads together and come up with a plan. Instead of letting Sauron pick them off one by one, they decide to unite, creating the coalition of nations known as the “Last Alliance.” For you movie-only watchers out there, this is the point where you should start to notice some familiar terminology and storylines. The term “last alliance” should recall memories of Cate Blanchett — er, I mean Galadriel — narrating during the opening sequence of The Fellowship of the Ring, saying “But there were some who resisted. A last alliance of Men and Elves marched against the armies of Mordor and on the slopes of Mount Doom they fought for the freedom of Middle-earth.” Sorry. Not my best Galadriel impression.
But yeah, you see where this is going, right? Elendil and his sons gather up all of the forces that their realms in exile can muster. They join their armies with the Elves of Gil-galad along with anyone else who’s willing to fight against Sauron — and there are a lot of people in that camp, trust me. In The Silmarillion, it states that “It is said that the host that was there assembled was fairer and more splendid in arms than any that has since been seen in Middle-earth, and none greater has been mustered since the host of the Valar went against Thangorodrim.” That last bit about the Valar and Thangorodrim is referring to an event called the War of Wrath — which is the era-ending conflict that takes place at the end of the First Age. It’s the event where Sauron’s original master, Morgoth, is finally defeated along with his armies of Balrogs, Dragons, and the like. So yeah, to be compared as second best to that event means we’re talking about a really, really big, diverse, and powerful group of warriors here.
A little bit further in the text, it talks about the diversity of peoples represented in the upcoming war of the Last Alliance, saying that “All living things were divided in that day, and some of every kind, even of beast and birds, were found in either host, save the Elves only. They alone were undivided and followed Gil-galad.” It also points out that the Dwarves are present on both sides, but that the Dwarves of Moria are decidedly fighting against Sauron. Just want to send some love to the folk of Durin. Thanks, guys.
Also, since we’re technically talking about Isildur here, I want to point out that our tree-saving Númenoréan king isn’t just tagging along for the ride. He’s intimately involved in the planning, and in a minute he’ll be right at the front, leading the charge — literally.
This massive army spends a few years at Rivendell gathering its strength — because, you know, time moves really slowly in Middle-earth — and then it heads down toward Mordor, where Sauron welcomes the challenge with open arms. At first, they duke it out in a massive fight just outside of Mordor called the Battle of Dagorlad. This takes place in the same area that is eventually known as the Dead Marshes. When Frodo, Sam, and Gollum pass through a few thousand years later, Gollum explains why there are ghostly creatures inhabiting the marshlands, pointing out that (and I’m not going to do the Gollum voice here, sorry guys) “There was a great battle long ago, yes, so they told him when Sméagol was young, when I was young before the Precious came. It was a great battle. Tall Men with long swords, and terrible Elves, and Orcses shrieking. They fought on the plain for days and months at the Black Gates. But the Marshes have grown since then, swallowed up the graves; always creeping, creeping.”
And that “great battle long ago?” Yeah, we’re talking about that right now. This is the battle that the armies of the Last Alliance fight on the doorstep of Mordor — and it’s downright insane. The entire world gathers for this one showdown of good versus evil — and you know what? The good guys win. They smash Sauron’s armies (See? Told you he wasn’t really ready.) This sends the Dark Lord scampering back into Mordor proper with what’s left of his servants.
Okay, so, remember how we ended the last episode with a connection to Atlantis? Well, while I can’t promise to make a habit out of this, we’re going to end this one with another callback to an ancient human legend: the Trojan War. When most people hear “Trojan War” they usually think about the Trojan Horse — and I don’t blame them. It’s an iconic bit of trickery that helps the Greeks capture the Trojan fortress. But it’s also an event that takes place at the tail end of a really long war. How long? Try ten years. That’s right, the Trojan Horse is a Greek last-ditch strategy that takes place after a decade-long siege.
Now, unlike the Tolkien-confirmed inspiration for the Atlantis/Númenor connection, I don’t have a source to confirm that the author was actually thinking about the Trojan War at this point. But I still can’t help connecting the dots. See, in The Silmarillion, it explains that after the Battle of Dagorlad, “Gil-galad and Elendil passed into Mordor and encompassed the stronghold of Sauron; and they laid siege to it for seven years, and suffered grievous loss by fire and by darts and bolts of the Enemy, and Sauron sent many sorties against them.” So, while it’s not exactly a 10-year replica, this part of the story definitely takes on a strong Trojan War vibe, with the two sides kind of stuck in a massive holding pattern.
And it’s here in this state of siege that we’ll leave the armies of the Last Alliance, including our boy Isildur, for this episode. While the victory in the initial battle comes comparatively painlessly, truly toppling Sauron in Mordor itself proves to be a much harder, multi-year job — and one that will take another episode to cover properly. I will include a light spoiler here, though. Taking down the Dark Lord is one task that the Last Alliance is ultimately ready to tackle. It’s also an event that will end with one of Isildur’s highest (and lowest) moments.
Before we end today, I have one little bit of housekeeping to attend to. The podcast has already started to get some momentum and attract a bit of attention from the larger Tolkien world — which is super exciting. Thank you so much to everyone who is already listening. I can’t express how wonderful it is to know that so many of you are willing to take time to hear to me nerd out on Middle-earth stuff for hours on end. That said, I do have one request to help keep this thing growing. If you’re willing to take a couple of minutes, I humbly ask if you could give the podcast a review and rating via whatever podcast service you’re using. That kind of stuff can really help a show stand out in searches, and it’s an easy, pain-free way for us to build this thing together.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get back to business. Next time we’ll wrap up the story of Isildur — and trust me, there’s still a lot of stuff to talk about, from duels with Sauron to ambushes by Orcs. We’ll even get to see tear-jerking final conversation between father and son (and I’m not talking about Elendil and Isildur.)
Alright, that’s it for now. Until next time, friends!