In our fourth and final episode on Isildur, we meet a man at his best and his worst. At the peak of his career and the height of power, Isildur takes the Ring ...and follows it to his own doom. But the final days of Isildur aren't quick, nor are they one-dimensional. In fact, they're the best snapshot of how epic yet tragic this Middle-earth hero's legacy really is.
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Hi. Welcome to the Halfling. I’m your host, Jaron Pak, and this is Episode 7: Isildur, the Tragic Hero.
If you’ve ever read classic literature — or at least breezed over the SparkNotes versions — you’re probably familiar with tales like Hamlet and Oedipus Rex. These feature epic heroes who ultimately suffer defeat. In fact, stories like these have led to the term tragic hero, which Dictionary.com defines as “a great or virtuous character in a dramatic tragedy who is destined for downfall, suffering, or defeat.”
As we prepare to wrap up our time with Isildur with a fourth and final episode, I have some news for you. If you haven’t figured it out yet, this guy is most definitely a tragic hero. The movies already make it clear that Isildur ends up in defeat, and the last three episodes of this podcast have hopefully helped paint the picture of a genuine hero. Put those two elements together and, hey presto!, you’ve got a tragic hero.
This week we’re going to outline each step in Isildur’s final days as our tree-saving Númenórean lord and cofounder of Gondor itself steadily marches down the final path to his doom. But I’ll warn you one more time before we get started: it’s not quite the pathetic ending that you might expect.
Let’s start with a quick recap, shall we? Last week we saw Isildur get surprise-attacked in his personal fortress of Minal Ithil before fleeing north to report the danger to his father, Elendil, and the high Elven King, Gil-galad. This leads to the creation of the Last Alliance, where all of the good creatures from across Middle-earth join together and march on Mordor itself.
Once they reach the Black Land, they fight a massive battle in the area just outside the Black Gates — an area part of which is later known as the Dead Marshes — before they defeat Sauron and drive him back into Mordor itself. We left the Last Alliance as they entered Mordor and kicked off a seven-year siege of Sauron’s own personal fortress of Barad-dûr. And that’s where we’ll pick things up today.
During the siege of Barad-dûr, the good guys don’t just sit around waiting for Sauron’s armies to starve. The fighting continues and both sides suffer a lot. About six years into the ordeal, the situation becomes extra personal for Isildur when his brother, Anárion, is killed in the fighting.
Finally, when things get desperate, Sauron himself comes out of his fortress to resist the invaders. He’s got his big, fancy Ring on — although from my research I’m pretty sure it’s not particularly visible to anyone around him — still, visible Ring or not, the Dark Lord seems unstoppable. But we’re talking about some super-powered heroic stories here, and the Men and Elves that are fighting him don’t just run. At least, not all of them. Three thousand years after the fact, at the Council of Elrond, the master of ceremonies and leader of Rivendell recounts Sauron’s final desperate attempt to break the siege. Elrond explains that Isildur, “alone stood by his father in that last mortal contest; and by Gil-galad only Círdan stood, and I.” These five individuals confront Sauron on the slopes of Mount Doom itself — and make Middle-earth history in the process.
In the duel that follows, Gil-galad is killed in an undisclosed manner that has to do with Sauron’s fiery personality. I’m not kidding. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Isildur himself says “The Ring misseth, maybe, the heat of Sauron’s hand, which was black and yet burned like fire, and so Gil-galad was destroyed.” Ouch. Yeah.
Elendil doesn’t appear to have such a hot-blooded death, but nevertheless, Isildur’s dad goes down in the fighting, as well, with his sword famously breaking as he falls. And it’s at this point that a desperate Isildur grabs the shards of his father’s sword and cuts the One Ring off of Sauron’s hand.
Now, I want to pause here, because we all know what’s coming. But it’s too easy to focus on Isildur’s future failure without acknowledging the heroics that take place just before it. Think about it for a second. Isildur just vanquished Sauron. Like, if you back out and look at the situation from a 10,000-foot view, Sauron just resurfaced as a genuine threat to destroy Middle-earth, and a mortal man called Isildur just stopped him by swiping the One Ring — right off of his hand. Now, just to clarify, the movies may make it seem like taking the One Ring sets off some kind of seismic reaction that devastates the local area and leaves Sauron without a body, but in the text the event is a little more low key. It simply says that “Then Sauron was for that time vanquished, and he forsook his body, and his spirit fled far away and hid in waste places; and he took no visible shape again for many long years.” Good riddance, I say.
Okay, we’ve finally come to the big, bad, world-altering black spot on Isildur’s career. After heroically cutting the Ring from Sauron’s hand, our hero goes and keeps it. Come on, man. But even at this lowest of low points, I need to play the Devil’s advocate for just a second. Yes, I’ll admit that this is a terrible idea and an absolute failure on Isildur’s part. The One Ring is in the hands of the good guys and Mount Doom, the only place in the world where it can be unmade, is a hop, skip, and a jump away. Isildur knows this and he opts to hang onto his new jewelry anyway. But he doesn’t keep the ring in the same creepy way that he does in the films. He doesn’t take a look at the Cracks of Doom, flatly refuse, and then walk off snickering. It’s a bit more complicated than that.
Elrond definitely is there, and he and Círdan try to convince Isildur to destroy the Ring. Isildur won’t do the deed, but he says a lot more than a blanket “no.” In The Fellowship of the Ring, our hero says, “This I will have as weregild for my father, and my brother.” So, yeah, the guy’s hurting. He’s in a tight spot, emotionally speaking. He just ended the war where his brother died and he just vanquished the enemy that killed his father — whose body is still warm and probably lying nearby.
The thought that Isildur would want to keep the One Ring as a payment for his losses kinda makes short-sighted sense, and it tracks with Tolkien’s classical literature training, where weregilds are a common theme.
That said, I’m not trying to sugar coat how bad it is that the One Ring survives. I’m just saying there are other factors at play here. In fact, weregilds aside, we’ve got to remember that this isn’t exclusively Isildur’s independent and calculated choice. On the one hand, the man is emotional and riding the high of having just taken down Sauron. On the other hand, we’re talking about the One Ring here. This is the same object that gets Sméagol to snuff out his best friend within seconds of seeing it. It’s also the same item that Gandalf says leaves Gollum a few centuries later, rather than the other way around. When Frodo tries to throw it into his living room fire (which could never melt it anyway,) he tries his hardest …only to find that he’s put it back in his pocket instead.
Let’s just say, there are a lot of powers at work in this choice not to destroy the One Ring. But the fact does still stand that Isildur takes the Ring for himself. Full stop.
Alright, after that, Isildur heads north where he’s ambushed by a bunch of Orcs when unawares, right? While that’s kind-of true, per usual, if we dig into the source material, there’s actually a lot more that happens before those fateful last moments.
First off, Isildur is now the high king of the Númenórean exiles. His father was the high king and his brother was his co-ruler. Now that both of them are gone, Isildur takes over. He plans on ruling from his father’s kingdom in the north — which is a big part of why he eventually heads that way — but first he spends some time making sure everything in Gondor is in order. He leaves this southern kingdom in the hands of his nephew, Anarion’s son Meneldil. And, don’t get the idea that this is some boy king. Remember, the Númenóreans live for a very long time — especially their royalty. Meneldil is the last man born on Númenor itself, and he’s just one year old when the island is destroyed. That means he’s well over a hundred years old at this point — gotta love time in Middle-earth.
So, Isildur spends some time putting things in order in Gondor before he heads north. And by “time,” I mean he takes a year. During that time, he does two very important things. First, he writes the scroll that Gandalf later finds, leading to his impromptu ring-heating fire test in Bag End later on. Second, our tree-hugging king plants the seedling of the White Tree that he saved when Minas Ithil was destroyed. For the second time he keeps the line of the White Tree alive, this time planting it in Minas Tirith. That’s right. It’s the actual tree that we see dead and dying in The Return of the King.
Eventually, everything’s all set and Isildur heads north. He has two hundred elite bodyguards with him, but that’s it. The rest of his army has already returned home by now. He also has three of his four sons with him. His fourth and youngest kid, Valandil, stayed back at Rivendell with mom when his dad and big brothers went off to take down Sauron.
The trip north is roughly a 40-day ordeal, and they accomplish half of the journey without any incidents. Then, the weather gets rough and the company takes a detour from the main river. This leads them close to the edge of the forest that is eventually called Mirkwood. Then, on the 30th day of their trip, they get ambushed just as they’re about to end their day’s march. In Unfinished Tales, Tolkien gives a blow-by-blow description of the following fight. He says that the number of Orcs is unclear, but Isildur’s men are outnumbered possibly as much as 10 to one.
But their enemies don’t come flying off of a cliff right next to them. They’re a ways away, and Isildur has time to gather his veteran guardsmen to defend themselves. At first, they consider attacking their enemies to cut a way through their ranks. But the land isn’t great for this kind of a move, so they form a shield wall. This initial posture of defense rather than attack gives Isildur a bad feeling. In Unfinished Tales, it says that Isidlur turns to his son, Elendur, in this moment of doubt saying, “‘The vengeance of Sauron lives on, though he may be dead,’ he said to Elendur, who stood beside him. ‘There is cunning and design here!’” he goes on to explain that they’re too far from the Dwarves of Moria or the Elves of Lothlorien and Mirkwood to call for help. In other words, it looks like they’ve fallen into a well-laid trap. To this, his son chimes in “‘And we bear burdens of worth beyond all reckoning,’ said Elendur; for he was in his father’s confidence.” So, yeah, his son is aware that dad has the One Ring of power with him, along with other high-value items like the shards of Elendil’s sword.
Prompted by this conversation, Isildur tasks his esquire, Ohtar, to take the broken pieces of his father’s sword and escape — which the fellow manages to do, eventually bringing the heirloom to Rivendell where it finds a home until it’s reforged and Aragorn takes it to battle three thousand years later.
In the meantime, Isildur’s tiny troop is attacked by a horde of murderous Orcs — and I mean murderous. Tolkien explains that these aren’t the cowering leftovers from Sauron’s defeated armies. They were likely sent out to bother anyone in the region before the War of the Last Alliance — and since Sauron’s defeat was so complete, they probably hadn’t heard that their master was destroyed yet. Add to that the fact that the One Ring was fresh off of Sauron’s hand and still heavily influencing events, and you get an Orc ambush that’s, well, I’ll let Tolkien explain. He simply says “There was not only cunning in the attack, but fierce and relentless hatred.”
So, these riled up Orcs come sweeping down on Isildur’s men with their biggest warriors out in front. They pile onto the Númenórean shield wall ...and then fail to break it. Yep. Their first attack is repulsed and the orcs are sent scampering off in defeat. In fact, Isildur literally picks up his little army and marches another mile, retreating back toward the nearby Great River Anduin. But the Orcs aren’t done yet. They follow and then surround their enemies on the flatter land near the river. Then, as darkness falls, they start to slowly creep in toward their prey.
It’s at this point that we get a fascinating conversation between Isildur and Elendur. The son approaches his father as he broods in the dark and asks — and I’ve got to quote this one in full, “‘Atarinya,’ he said, ‘what of the power that would cow these foul creatures and command them to obey you? Is it then of no avail?’ ‘Alas, it is not, senya, I cannot use it. I dread the pain of touching it. And I have not yet found the strength to bend it to my will. It needs one greater than I now know myself to be. My pride has fallen. It should go to the Keepers of the Three.”
Wow. I’ll let that one simmer for a minute. In the meantime, right after this, the Orcs unleash a reckless new attack. They start to overwhelm the tiny group of warriors, and soon Isildur’s other two sons, Ciryon and Aratan, are dead and dying. Then we get one final conversation between Elendur and his father that, again, I need to include in all of its original dramatics as penned by Tolkien himself, “‘My King,’ said Elendur, ‘Ciryon is dead and Aratan is dying. Your last counsellor must advise, nay command you, as you commanded Ohtar. Go! Take your burden, and at all costs bring it to the Keepers: even at the cost of abandoning your men and me!’ ‘King’s son,’ said Isildur, ‘I knew that I must do so; but I feared the pain. Nor could I go without your leave. Forgive me, and my pride that has brought you to this doom.” Elendur kissed him. “Go! Go now!’ he said.”
And that, my friends, is how Isildur finally finds himself putting on the Ring to escape — not stealthily, though. In fact, he cries out in pain when he slips it on his finger — after which he turns invisible and then sneaks off toward the Great River. Eventually, out of desperation, he flings off his armor and dives into the water. He’s swept down river as he tries to swim across. Then he realizes that something’s missing. The Ring is gone. He clambors out of the water shortly after but is shot by Orc guards on the river bank and falls back into the water.
According to this legendary ending of the story, no one ever finds Isildur’s body. In the same way that it would for Boromir long afterward, for Isildur, the Great River serves as a unique and mysterious burial ground like no other.
Now, before we officially wrap things up with Isildur, I need to point out one more thing, which I just hinted at a second ago. As awesome and redemptive as these last moments are, they’re technically legendary — even within Middle-earth history. Tolkien makes sure to explain how the legend of Isildur’s death becomes a story, pointing out that the basic elements are established after the fact, like Ohtar’s eye-witness account before he escapes with the sword and Isildur’s disposed armor, which is later found along the river bank.
But Tolkien also says that, while his body may have never been found, there’s also a good chance that a wily wizard by the name of Saruman discovers its remains thousands of years later when searching for the One Ring in that area. Whether that’s true or not, though, is never confirmed.
Either way, I hope by this point it’s become clear that Isidlur has a much bigger and better story than that shown in the movies. I get that there is limited story-telling time when translating something to the big screen, but I felt it was important to spend some time rehabilitating this heroic Númenórean king and telling his larger, tragic hero of a tail.
After all, we might be seeing him on the streaming screen in the not-too-distant future. And if that’s the case, you can bet he won’t be a one-dimensional coward. If that happens, it’ll be a much-needed overhaul that Isildur has deserved ever since Peter Jackson’s films came out two long decades ago.
And that’s it for Isildur. See you later, dude. Next time, we’ll dive into a new chapter of this ongoing journey, one that takes us all the way back to the earliest moments of Middle-earth, where the ancestor of an eight-legged monster will get her dark family history rolling with a bang.
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That’s it for now. Until next time, friends.