Numenor: An Experiment Doomed to Fail
While the majority of The Silmarillion covers the Elven experience in Middle-earth, Humans play a major role in their story toward the end of the First Age. And by the end of the Second Age, they have effectively supplanted the Elves as one of the major power players in that world. There is one group, though, that comes closest to shrinking the gap between the two races, and that group is known as the Numenoreans. I find this race the most interesting of all the groups in The Silmarillion.
The reason for this bias is that their unique circumstances were a contradiction of their existence, and that contradiction destroyed their island homeland and almost the entire race.
A Land of Contradiction
The people of Numenor were descendants of the three tribes of mortals that fought on the side of the Army of the West during the War of Wrath at the apocalyptic close to the First Age. They, along with the rest of the residents of Beleriand migrated to the newly formed western coasts, as that part of the continent was submerged. The ruling Valar decided to reward them for their efforts against Morgoth and altered their biology so that they lived much longer lives than their ancestors, as well as their contemporaries east in Middle-earth. They also created an island in the middle of the great sea between Middle-earth and Valinor called Numenor, and there they led those people to their new home.
From there, under the tutelage of both the Valar and the Eldar who came to visit, the Numenoreans created the most sophisticated society Middle-earth had seen. They incorporated the knowledge of the divine, with the drive of their mortality and heritage, exploring every part of Middle-earth except the west because they were banned.
Over time, they develop a merchant empire, educating the other peoples of Middle-earth and setting up colonies. However, their empire becomes more militant as time goes on because of their knowledge and growing desire for immortality. Their power becomes so great that no one in Middle-earth is able to match them: even the Noldor, who often call upon them for support against Sauron, and even the great Miar himself cannot resist them.
Unable to defeat them through force, Sauron feigns surrender and capitalizes upon the Numenoreans’ insecurities regarding their mortality, poisoning their relationship with the West and the Elves in Middle-earth. They become cruel tyrants, the greatest seen since Morgoth and eventually succumb to their desire to not only go west to gain immortality, but to take it by force, believing in their invisibility. Facing war on their own lands, the Valar reach out to Illuvatar, the god of that universe and he directly intervenes for the second time in Arda, reshaping it while destroying Numenor and its armies that landed in Valinor in the process.
"“A small oversight, but it proved fatal. Small oversights often do.”— -J.R.R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth
The big question is what drove the wisest, strongest, and most accomplished people to exist in Middle-earth to their near-annihilation?
Well unlike the Noldor Elves, Numenor was not a case of “superior ability breeds superior ambition.”
While the Elves are considered the ‘first born’ and Humans to be more frail, mortals accomplished more in their short time in Middle-earth than the Eldar ever did. This was due in part to their relentless drive to expand. All Humans had a restlessness to explore and educate themselves, as if they were never totally at peace with their lives and there was something more driving them on. In contrast, all Elves were motivated by contentment, finding their happy place’ so they could take root there and just exist. The closest that any of them came to sharing the Human drive was the Noldor and their own thirst for knowledge and to create. Despite their superior wisdom and physical abilities and senses, Elves wouldn’t do anything with it to better themselves. Take the Vanyar for example, reputed to be the best of all the Elven tribes in Arda, and yet they were content to be near the presence of the Valar and shared no interest in Middle-earth and mingled little with others outside of their community.
Humans always desired to better themselves and the addition of longer life spans allowed the Numenoreans to explore that to a greater degree than any before or after them. They were adventurous, aggressive, and determined even when the odds were against them. Moreover, they initially shared this knowledge with other Humans rather than keeping it to themselves, in the beginning at least. This is what made them so advanced and the Second Age superpower. I would argue that if it came to a battle just between the Eldar and the Numenoreans, the latter would come out on top because of the combination of their enhanced physicality and their mortal aggression.
I had said in an earlier analysis that the Eldar were stronger than any other race in Middle-earth. However, the Numenoreans were the one exception. Reason being that other than half-Elven/Human hybrids, Numenoreans were physically the closest Humanity would ever come to being like the High Elves. Their drive to constantly learn, coupled with their enhanced senses and physicality I believe would overcome the High Elves’ own great power, being equal in strength but less motivated to evolve and change. There is a reason why the Noldor in Middle-earth turned to Numenor for aid during their wars against Sauron. And that once their full might was gathered, that even he would not contest them as he did the Elves, Dwarves, and Humans of Middle-earth proper.
Still, the Numenoreans would have never overcome the Valar and Miar themselves, but the fact that they were strong enough to damage Valinor before their defeat was something the Valar were not willing to risk. Yet, neither was Numenor ever going to stop or be satiated either. Something had to be done, but their problem was never a physical one. Just tied to the it.
Can’t Handle the Truth
The key factor, and the one every Tolkien fan is familiar with, was their fear of death. Specifically, it was a spiritual problem at its core and how that related to Illuvatar’s overall plan for Arda. Death was the one thing they could not conquer (not for lack of trying though). And they were constantly reminded of this fact through their relationship with the Eldar and more importantly, through their own existence.
The problem was actually a long-standing one for the mortal race. Their ancestors in Beleriand inquired about the same issues as they interacted more with the Noldor. That literally generations could serve the same Elf-lord was as mind-boggling to them as their own limited lifespans was to the High Elves. Even before that, many regarded death as a curse from the ‘distant’ west, an animosity only enhanced by Morgoth, the only divine being they had any experience with. And that experience being entirely negative. When the Noldor told them of the benevolent Valar in the far west, Humans scarcely believed them and even if they did, their lack of involvement made the Valar irrelevant. While they served the Noldor faithfully, there was always a sense of distance and misunderstanding between them that few on either side could bridge. Humans desired their long lives, but could not comprehend the burden that it brought on the Noldor. But war kept both races occupied so that it never became a major sore point.
So in many ways, the rebellion of Numenor was the re-awakening of that ancient hostility their ancestors had towards immortals.
It was only much later that they learned that Illuvatar had in fact made both races that way, and that with Humans, death should have been regarded as a gift rather than a curse. Even with this knowledge, the Numenoreans still couldn't shake their insecurity and I think the reason lies in the contradiction of their perceptions of reality.
Being mortal, Humans did not have anywhere near the natural instinct and sixth sense to pick up on the invisible flow of time and divine energies that coursed through Arda. They had a very small sense of it, as the Vala, Ulmo was always trying to speak to them through the waters, but they couldn’t understand nor process it. Elves on the other hand could, though to varying degrees depending on their tribe. This inability was due to Humans’ souls and natures not being made to handle that level of extreme awareness. They were made close enough to the immortals that they had some sense of ‘something else out there’, even further than the Valar could perceive, but were never made to be able to fully comprehend or handle it.
When the first Numenoreans experienced their longer lives, it did much more than the Valar intended. It kicked the door wide open to those unseen realities that only the immortals knew of and something they themselves didn’t fully understand! Humans as a community began to become aware of just how vast the unseen world was and because of their adventurous nature, wanted more of it to explore. To see just how far they could go and push the limits. This drove their explorations of Middle-earth in the beginning.
That sense only became more addictive over the generations as they didn't know how to handle that gnawing sensation that burned inside their very being and slowly corrupted the people. What they saw in the Elves was an ability to learn how to control it, so they could get more of it. That their immortal friends were not forthcoming with that information was twisted into something rooted in jealousy. They saw the Elves and the Valar as holding the prize over their head when Numenor had done nothing to deserve such torment or punishment. And this was long before Sauron was even brought there.
The Numenoreans couldn’t see that the immortals weren’t withholding that information from them, but rather that they didn’t know how to convey it! After all, they barely understood all of Humanity, let alone a Humanity that was blessed with the gifts of Valinor-if not Illuvatar.
Numenor saw Valinor the same way a thirsty lion sees a waterhole: something to satiate a thirst that won’t go away, thinking that it will while not aware that it won’t. Had they gone deeper into Valinor than just it’s coast when they invaded, and if by some chance, been even remotely victorious against the Eldar and Valar there, the sheer divine essence of that land would have driven them mad. Mad because it would have overloaded their spirits.
Their mortality would have hastened and burned out while manifesting this effect, all the while still furthering the addiction. This was why Luthien died so soon after becoming mortal while wearing a Silmaril around her neck back during the First Age.
The Best of Intentions
Its harsh saying this, but in many ways, Numenor was a mistake. Perhaps even a bigger mistake than letting Morgoth run loose during the First Age. Numenor was the contradiction of mortality and immortality made visible. It was a combustible combination. Being rewarded for their ancestors efforts was fine and well-deserved, because those circumstances that they suffered under wasn’t their fault. The Island wasn't a mistake, nor was their education.
The mistake was their longer lives. Though understandable due to their lack of understanding of mortality and mortals, the Valar had still opened a Pandora’s Box that should never have been. It would’ve been a slow burn for sure, but the results would have been the same, even if Sauron had not further corrupted Numenor. It just would have taken much longer to happen. Rather than a protective measure, the ban of not traveling to the west, paired with their longer lives and awakened sense of reality was like dangling the fruit in front of the horse.
Numenor had in essence become an island full of enhanced addicts.
Illuvatar was the only one who could have resolved the situation and that says something to both his plan for Arda and the might of Numenor. Before the beginning, Illuvatar had a master plan that he was allowing to play out. The Valar’s job was to shepherd this to its fruition and they had some foresight of what was to come, but other things were hidden. Humanity, and I think Numenor especially, was one of those hidden items. Numenor wasn't just a threat to Middle-earth and Valinor, but to the divine one’s plan itself. There was an order that had been preordained and mortals were about to completely overturn that by trying to take something they weren’t made for: something even Morgoth never succeeded in. So Numenor wasn’t challenging the Valar, but the will of Illuvatar itself and that level of rebellion required a direct response rather than one via a proxy.
Going Cold Turkey
After the fall of Numenor, there were still survivors, both from the island and in the colonies on the mainland. These allegiances were mixed with many still being faithful loyal to Illuvatar and the Elves, while those loyal to Sauron lived further southward. They all still felt the same longing that had plagued their people before their fall. This only persisted for a time, finally dying out with the last of the generation who lived during those times. Their descendants, the Dunedain, while still maintaining longer lifespans and greater physical attributes, no longer suffered the desire for immortality, now having gone the way of Numenor.
It may be that the hard-learned lesson of accepting their mortality was successfully passed down. It maybe that the Numenorean refugees were too busy rebuilding and establishing the realms of Arnor and Gondor to still dwell on it. Or that they too busy fighting off the return of Sauron, who came back with a vengeance.
Whatever the reason, the larger mysteries that their ancestors were exposed to had receded back into the darkened shroud of myth and legend. While Numenor left behind its legacy through mighty monuments and the realms of Arnor and Gondor, the island nation itself became a distant legend as well. As too did the awareness of just how close mortals came to surpassing the limitations of mortality.