Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Cult of Númenor: Part II

The Sacrifice of Noah, San Antonio Museum of Art
In Part I of this post, I argued that Tolkien did weave religion (actual, not allegorical) into the tapestry of Middle-Earth, albeit in a manner so implicit as to be hidden even from that most perceptive of critics, Lin Carter. Now, if Tolkien seems somewhat reticent to discuss the matter of religion openly, the reason, I think, is not far to seek. He was himself deeply religious, and a rather self-conscious member of a religious minority. It is all very well for Carter to patch together his decadent pasteboard religions. So might a boy who has never made love to a woman write foolish stories about amorous encounters. Someone who has a little firsthand experience will be less inclined to speak frivolously. Moreover, Tolkien was a papist, and had grown up in a time when enough people in England still cared about religion that that was Not a Good Thing. Even his friend C. S. Lewis harbored some prejudice on this score. There are many other reasons why Tolkien may not have wished openly to treat of religion, not the least being his good taste. Despite all of this, though, there are indeed traces of the Númenorean religion in his works.

We are told in Tolkien’s Akallabêth that at the island’s center was the holy mount Meneltarma, where only the King could speak, praying the Three Prayers to Eru Ilúvatar. And so the Kings of Númenor, Aragorn’s remote ancestors, were also its High Priests. This worship could not continue after the destruction of the island, for Meneltarma was lost and the men of the West a diaspora upon Middle-Earth. The bearing of the sapling of Nimloth, the holy tree descended from Galathilion in the West, into Middle-Earth upon the foundering of Númenor, to give rise in its turn to the White Tree of Minas Tirith, calls to mind the roles of continuity, recurrent death, and perennial vitality in Tolkien’s religion. When Aragorn comes at the end of the Third Age to claim his rightful throne in Minas Tirith, he finds the White Tree long dead, withered as the kingly line of Gondor has withered. He exercises a priestly role in ascending to the holy place upon Mindolluin to uproot the new-sprouted sapling and plant it in the place of its parent. Clearly, the Return of the King is also the Return of the Priest.

Perhaps the peoples of Middle-Earth have no “organized religion” in Carter’s sense. Tolkien says as much in his correspondence; but the principal reason for this is that the very texture of Middle-Earth is religious. Nevertheless, Tolkien does give the men of the West a negative “Chaldean” religion on the purely literal plane. They were no more lacking in religion than were the subjects of Melchizedek, who offered bread and wine to the One in thanksgiving after the slaughter of the five kings.

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