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Tolkien at the End of Time;
Alchemical Secrets of The Lord of the Rings
By Jay Weidner and Sharron Rose

Númenor/Atlantis and The Second Age of Middle-earth

The history of Tolkien's Second Age is primarily concerned with the rise and fall of Númenor, a tale that obviously corresponds to the story of the mythic isle of Atlantis that is so prominent in alchemical lore. Tolkien weaves this legend into his tale for a number of reasons but to a great part due to what he refers to as his 'Atlantis haunting'. In a letter to W.H. Auden, he describes his tale of Númenor as a "personal alteration of the Atlantic myth and/or tradition, and accommodation of it to my general mythology." He tells him,

"Of all the mythical or 'archetypal' images this is the one most deeply seated in my imagination, and for many years I had a recurrent Atlantis dream: the stupendous and ineluctable wave advancing from the Sea or over the land, sometimes dark, sometimes green and sunlit." 17

This dream of the great catastrophe that brings on the end of the Second Age, which haunted Tolkien from childhood, is given to Faramir of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings. Here again, Tolkien's design parallels that of Alchemy, for in the lore it is the fall of Atlantis that ends the Second Age or Silver Age known as the Age of Ritual.

It is in Númenor/ Atlantis that we first truly encounter the crucial issue of Death and Immortality, an issue of monumental importance in both Tolkien's work and the Great Work of Alchemy. In his cosmogony, Tolkien's deep-seated reflections on this subject are articulated through the relationship between God/the One and his Children, the 'First-born' Elves and Men the 'Followers'. In their creation he gives each race a natural life span that is unique to their biological and spiritual nature. To the Elves he gives extraordinary grace, insight, wisdom, and loveliness of face and form along with a corresponding ability to "conceive and bring forth more beauty than all my Children." In addition, the Creator gives them the much-coveted gift of immortality and states that, "theirs shall be the greater bliss in this world." 18

But in the end, this precious gift actually contains their doom. Tolkien tells us,

"The doom of the Elves is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving even when 'slain', but returning ­ and yet, when the Followers come, to teach them, and make way for them, to 'fade' as the Followers grow and absorb the life from which both proceed."

Although they can be slain and return to the Blessed Lands, the Elves must remain in the world until the 'end of days', corresponding to the end of the Cyclic Ages of Time, and do not ultimately die until the world itself dies. And in this there is a great sorrow and poignancy. For as Tolkien states, in the end the Elves "live ultimately only by the thin line of blood that was mingled with that of Men, among whom it was the only real claim to nobility." 19

From this perspective, in Tolkien's world, at the end of the day, mortality, which many consider the curse of humanity is perceived as a crucial gift. In his tale entitled, Of the Beginning of Days from The Silmarrilion, Tolkien states,

"It is one with this gift of freedom that the children of Men dwell only a short space in the world alive, and are not bound to it, and depart whither the Elves know not. The sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world; wherefore they are called the Guests or the Strangers. Death is their fate, the gift of Ilúvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy. Yet, of old, the Valar declared to the Elves in Valinor that Men shall join in the Second Music of the Ainur; whereas Ilúvatar has not revealed what he purposes for the Elves after the World's end."

From this statement we may infer that it was Tolkien's belief that even though we are mortal, human beings hold a unique and powerful position in the cycles of creation. For from his viewpoint human beings will not only continue to intertwine their energy and essence with that of the earth until the end of the current cycle, but will ultimately play a part in the creation of the next great cycle.

This theme of death and immortality supplies the focal point for Tolkien's tale of Númenor/Atlantis and the Second Age. In discussing his tale of the rise and fall of this great kingdom of Men he tells us that there were three distinct stages, which have clear parallels in the Atlantian myth. At the dawn of the Second Age, the good Men who had assisted the Elves in their battle against Melkor and Sauron were gifted with great wisdom and an extension of their life-span to that of three times of most mortals. However, understanding the innate weakness of Men, the nature of Time and how achievements in the material world may lead to attachment and corruption, the gods placed a ban on the Númenóreans; that they could never set foot on the 'immortal lands' or even sail towards them.

At first, the Men of Númenor, obedient to the laws of the Creator, did not attempt to sail West to the 'immortal lands' but throughout Middle-earth renewing and expanding their knowledge of the truth and the scope and nature of the World. All good Númenóreans, like their descendant the Dúnedain Aragorn, lived in alignment with the laws of the One and understood that death was not a punishment but an intrinsic part of the Creator's original design for them and like Aragorn died of 'free will' when they felt it was time to do so. 20 Yet, as the Second Age unfolded, and their knowledge of artistry, craftsmanship, and magic grew, rather than accept the beauty of this gift with grace and gratitude, many of the Númenóreans slowly began to perceive it with revulsion even coveting the gifts of the immortals. Living on an island, amidst the wide sea, they became masters of the art of ship-building and sea-craft. Restricted from sailing Westward to the Blessed Lands of the immortals, they began to set their sights to the east, south and north.

Therefore, the Númenóreans journeyed throughout Middle-earth bringing knowledge of agriculture, tool making, and more to the Men of Middle-earth, who came to look upon these tall and long-lived Sea Men as gods. But as their delight in the nature of their lives grew, so did their desire for life-everlasting and always at the back of their minds was a yearning for the undying lands of Elves and gods. And so their inner turmoil increased and their bliss was diminished. As their fear of death increased, their wise men spent their days in seeking out ways to prolong life, but like the ancient Egyptians, could only discover the art of mummification or the preservation of dead flesh. They began to build great tombs and their minds turned with increasing frequency towards power and wealth in the material world.


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