The History of Númenor
I’ve written a series of articles exploring the story of Númenor and how it connects to and influences the rest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. I hope the information is interesting and provides some important context for the upcoming Amazon series. A word of caution: these articles will undoubtedly contain some spoilers for the series.
While J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and revised the story of Númenor for decades, the bulk of published material about the legendary island kingdom is a relatively short chapter in The Silmarillion titled “Akallabêth” or “The Downfallen.”
I don’t want to delve to deeply (or greedily) into Númenor’s backstory, but I do need to do a little bit of table setting. If you are familiar with The Silmarillion and just want a refresh on the story, feel free to skip down to “The Ruling Kings of Númenor” section.
Let me explain… no, there is too much. Let me sum up:
The Elves (and some humans) have been fighting Tolkien’s chief antagonist, a god-like being named Morgoth, for millennia. Just as Morgoth’s victory over Middle-earth seemed assured, a half-elf named Eärendil sailed to heaven (Aman) and convinced a bunch of other god-like beings (the Valar) to intervene in a final, earth-rending battle. Eärendil played a key role in the battle as well, defeating the greatest of dragons, Ancalagon the Black, and enabling a Valar win.
Morgoth is utterly defeated, part of Middle-earth is destroyed and a bunch of Elves leave for Aman (The Undying Lands, a kind of heaven). In thanks to Eärendil and other humans for their role in saving Middle-earth, the Valar bring the island Númenor up from the depths of the sea to the west of Middle-earth and three clans of humans, after being blessed in many ways by the Valar, sail to it.
Eärendil and his wife Elwing had two children: Elrond (yep, that one) and Elros. Elrond chooses to live as an elf (Tolkien is light on details about how this choice is made, whether there’s some ceremony or prayer, or simply a series of lifestyle choices, we don’t know).
Elros chooses a mortal life.
The Ruling Kings of Númenor
Elros is crowned first king of the Númenóreans (also known as the Dúnedain) by the Valar as Tar-Minyatur (“Tar” is a royal prefix that goes in front of names of the Kings and Ruling Queens of Númenor, at least the ones who went by the Elven, or Quenya, version of their names).
Granted long life, supernatural safety on the oceans and geographic protection from Sauron, Númenoreans became lords of the sea, although they were forbidden from sailing to Aman (the Ban of the Valar). They were ruled by a long series of kings (and a few queens), and typically kings would pass the Sceptre of Númenor to their eldest child before they died (the kings and their relatives typically lived 300–400 years).
Aldarion, the sixth ruling king, changed the Law of Succession so the eldest child, male or female, become high ruler over Númenor. He was the first Númenorean to regularly journey back to Middle-earth, where he befriended Gil-galad, son of Fingon, the last High King of the Noldor (a tribe of Elves). Aldarion also established friendship with human clans in Middle-earth, which surprised both the Númenoreans, who thought all humans left in Middle-earth had fallen under Morgoth’s dominion, and the men of Middle-earth, who assumed the houses of men who went west had drowned in the sea.
Aldarion established Númenorean ports and outposts in Middle-earth and at least made plans to help Gil-galad against Sauron’s rising power. His daughter, Tar-Ancalimë, was the first Ruling Queen of Númenor.
Fear of Death
Over time, the Númenoreans claimed lordship over the men living on the coast of Middle-earth, requiring tribute from them. Tar-Antimir the Great began to speak openly against his people’s mortality and the Valar’s ban on the Númenoreans sailing to the Undying Lands. He was the first king not to pass the sceptre on to an heir before he died. Sauron began to attack Númenorean settlements along the coast of Middle-earth, and he enslaved three Númenorean lords with his rings. They became Nazgul, or Ringwraiths. It’s believed Lord of the Nazgul, the Witch King of Angmar, was of Númenorean descent.
That fear of death, and the belief that the Valar had cursed the Númenoreans and kept immortality from them, began to grow. Born in Year 2702 of the Second Age, Adûnakhôr is the first Númenorean king to use the human (Adûnaic), rather than Elven, version of his royal name.
This begins a battle for the heart of Númenoreans between the Faithful, a small group of who remained loyal to the Valar (and considered the Elves, particularly the Noldor, friends) and the King’s Men, who feared and hated death. This culminated with the last, and greatest, Númenorean king, Ar-Pharazon the Golden. Ar-Pharazon marched on Middle-earth when he heard Sauron had proclaimed himself King of Men, and the Númenorean king’s army was so mighty that Sauron surrendered without a fight.
But Sauron was playing the long game. He poisoned the mind of Ar-Pharazon against the Valar and Elves over the course of decades, using mankind’s mortality as his weapon. Sauron convinced the king to make human sacrifices to Morgoth, who Sauron claimed could give the Númenoreans eternal life, on top of the sacred mountain Meneltarma, the Pillar of Heaven. Under Sauron’s influence, Ar-Pharazon chops down the white tree Nimloth and burns it, although a fruit from the tree as saved by Isildur and later planted in Minas Tirith.
With Ar-Pharazon approaching old age, Sauron convinced him to build the mightiest fleet every constructed, march on Aman, and take it by force, even though physically setting foot on the Undying Lands would not have imbued the Númenoreans with eternal life. With gold and black banners, Ar-Pharazon’s great armada sailed to Aman in 3319.
Ar-Pharazon’s fleet “darkened the sea upon the west of the land, and they were like an archipelago of a thousand isles; their masts were as a forest upon the mountains and their sails were a brooding cloud.”
The Valar were prohibited from using force against Men, so Manwë, chief of the Valar, called upon the sovereign god of Tolkien’s legendarium, Eru Illúvatar, who utterly destroyed the invading army.
A quick aside: Some drafts of this story say that Eru buried Ar-Pharazon and all of his men under “falling hills.” There they all wait in the Caves of the Forgotten for the final great battle, the Dagor Dagorath, when they will be awoken again and take part in the ending of the world. This concept of a battle at the end of days is common element of many mythologies, from Armageddon to Ragnarök. This apocalyptic final battle is alluded to several times in the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien never quite completed the concept and placed it within the context of his ever-evolving work, and his son Christopher edited it out of the Silmarillion.
Eru buries Númenor beneath the ocean, destroying the fair island in a great whirlpool. Aman and the isle of Tol Eressa are removed from the rest of the world (Tolkien’s world was actually flat before this point, Eru turns Middle-earth into a globe and puts Aman beyond it), and only the Elves could travel to the Undying Lands after the great Downfall of Númenor. Sauron’s physical body was destroyed, and while his spirit endured, he was no longer able to shape-shift or take on physical forms other than his own ruined shape.
A remnant of the Faithful Númenoreans escaped the Downfall. Some had already relocated to the great port city of Pelargir and other cities in Middle-earth. Elendil, a descendent of Elros Tar-Minyatur, led the Dúnedain to Middle-earth on nine ships, where he established the kingdoms of Arnor in the northwest and Gondor in the south. With them, the Dúnedain brought treasures from Númenor, including the Palanti, Narsil, a fruit from the white tree Nimloth, the Ring of Barahir and the Sceptre of Annúminas. It is through Elendil that Aragorn II, son of Arathorn, is the rightful heir to the throne of Gondor and Arnor.
Some of the King’s Men living in Middle-Earth survived the Downfall as well, and became known as the Black Númenoreans. They ruled, and then mixed with, the Haradrim in southern Middle-earth, and some became the first Corsairs of Umbar. The Mouth of Sauron was a Black Númenorean sorcerer who prolonged his own life for thousands of years.