A charismatic demagogue seduces a mighty empire, winning power with promises to restore past glory. A people betray their founding principles, apostatizing from the faith of their fathers to pursue dreams of immortality. Their great city teeters on the brink of civil war. A faithful remnant is hounded as traitors by a mob hellbent on ruin.
Neither a summary of Old Testament prophets nor of yesterday’s New York Times, these are some of the stories in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion—the lore bible of Middle-earth. Long overlooked, the stories have finally found their moment in the limelight.
Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is upon us.
Reputedly the most expensive television show ever produced, the $1 billion project is an adaptation of a very small part of Tolkien’s oeuvre. In the author’s fictional timeline, Middle-earth’s history unfolds over three ages. Most of The Silmarillion concerns the First Age. The more famous and beloved book and movie trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, covers the end of the Third Age. Amazon’s new TV show is set squarely in the middle.
Tolkien wrote almost nothing about this period. Yet what little he did craft vibrates with political resonance. In the 23 short pages of “Akallabêth,” a chapter in The Silmarillion, Tolkien tells of the kingdom of Númenor’s glory and also its hubris and folly.
In half of the next chapter, “Rings of Power,” Tolkien writes about the eponymous rings and essentially describes World War III—a cataclysmic conflict so destructive that, although the good guys won, the world never recovered.
It’s an extraordinary (and extraordinarily relevant) narrative—one of political passion, ambition, manipulation, and deceit; geopolitical intrigue; religious warfare; theodicy; and apocalypse. It’s a story about those who win their way to leadership by honor, deceit, or conquest and a cautionary tale about the destruction that ambitious men and women can do when given awesome power.
If you plan to watch the show, here’s what you need to know about the story it’s based on, and if I may, what lessons are worth drawing from it.
The kingdom of Númenor
In Tolkien’s original text, the Númenoreans were “wise and glorious,” tall and long-lived, famous seafarers. They learned to speak elvish, the language of learning, and “made letters and scrolls and books” in which they wrote “many things of wisdom and wonder in the high tide of their realm.”
Númenor is the original kingdom of which Gondor—familiar to readers and watchers of The Lord of the Rings—is the copy. It’s the imperial center, where Gondor is the realm in exile.
The men and women who later become Númenor are renowned for their faithfulness to the gods. As a reward, they are given a home—an island kingdom off the coast of Middle-earth—as well as a golden age of prosperity and wisdom.
In their greatness, the Númenoreans visit Middle-earth. Seeing the poverty and ignorance of the “forsaken world,” they give to lesser men the gift of Númenor’s benevolent imperialism—a humanitarian intervention that’s meant to elevate their condition and aid “in the ordering of their life.”
Númenor, then, is the idealized vision of a great power using its greatness to do justice.
But the kingdom’s greatness becomes the source of its temptation. After thousands of years of bliss and glory, some of the Númenoreans begin to lust for the one thing they don’t have: “The desire of everlasting life, to escape from death and the ending of delight, grew strong upon them; and ever as their power and glory grew greater their unquiet increased.”
They fall prey to the classic sin of hubris.
With the people divided, the majority of the Númenoreans and their leaders become estranged from the gods, even though a small remnant remains faithful. The greatest of their kings is “filled with the desire of power unbounded and the sole dominion of his will.”
Here, Tolkien’s tale unfolds with the same rhythm of 1 and 2 Kings, where a people fall because their leaders fall.
Númenor begins to squander its wealth and power as “those who lived turned the more eagerly to pleasure and revelry.” In their pride and hedonism, the empire turns rapacious, writes Tolkien, “and they desired now wealth and dominion”—since eternal life was denied them—and “appeared now rather as lords and masters and gatherers of tribute than as helpers and teachers.”
It’s not hard to see Tolkien’s intent in this political morality play. The United Kingdom, like Númenor, was an island kingdom that saw itself as a benevolent empire. But as Tolkien crafted The Silmarillion in the 20th century, the empire was dwindling by the day, and Western society looked increasingly materialistic and secular.
It was an age of pessimism for elite Westerners like Tolkien, who saw a world increasingly hostile to the cultural heritage he had grown up with. A nostalgia for past glory pervades his work.
The story of Sauron
If that were all, the “Akallabêth” would be unremarkable—unfit for a $1 billion TV adaptation and unworthy of Tolkien’s other work. But Tolkien’s Catholic imagination gave him more psychological insight and spiritual ambition.
The story is not a neo-reactionary call for the renewal of Western civilization or British imperialism. It’s far more pessimistic than that. Tolkien does have a character in the story call for national renewal and greatness. However—perhaps with the Second World War still fresh in his memory—he puts that call in the mouth of his villain.
Into Númenor’s story of cultural and spiritual decline steps a deceitful demagogue: none other than Sauron himself. Although he’s depicted as a flaming eye atop his tower in The Lord of the Rings , in this earlier tale, he’s a walking, talking character, “cunning of his mind and mouth,” with “flattery sweet as honey … ever on his tongue.”
Put another way, Sauron is a professional influencer. With the help of the rings of power, he worms his way into the counsels of the king through promises of “wealth uncounted … so that the increase of their power shall find no end.”
Sauron plays skillfully on the Númenoreans’ fear of death, promising them ever-greater heights of power by taking from the gods what is rightfully theirs. The Númenorean king turns “wholly away from the allegiance of his fathers,” and treats faithful Númenoreans as rebels, offering them up as human sacrifices in Sauron’s newly built temple. The Númenorean empire, already rapacious, is now brutal and violent.
In this part of the story, Tolkien seems to convey a natural connection between power, demagoguery, and violence. Great power naturally attracts the con man, who wins influence by flattering the mob and appealing to its base instincts. In due time, power allied to demagoguery always leads to bloodshed—at home and abroad.
The lessons of Númenor
The finale of “Akallabêth” is shocking and apocalyptic—told more as parable or myth than straight fiction. Sauron persuades the Númenorean king to wage war on the gods, invade their abode, and wrest eternal life from them by force of arms.
The king, who has gone mad with old age and hubris, leads his armada across the sea. In response, the gods rend the sea in half and drown the armada, Númenor itself, and half of Middle-earth. It’s the apocalypse as told by the damned. (I dare Amazon to put that on the screen.)
The combination of pagan and biblical allusions—Atlantis and Pharoah, the Roman Empire and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah—is typical Tolkien. By drawing on disparate sources in the Western canon, he borrows a sense of historical weightiness and religious import. He also paints on such a vast canvas that the story feels important—and bracingly tragic.
In this dark landscape, Tolkien offers one ray of hope. In “Rings of Power” (the final chapter of The Silmarillion), the faithful remnant flees Númenor before its destruction, establishes Gondor, and leads the last alliance of elves and men in a desperate final war against Sauron. (For reference, this is the big battle from the prologue to the film version of The Lord of the Rings and is likely to be the final scene in The Rings of Power five seasons from now.)
The good guys win, but it’s too late for any victory to be worth that name. Sauron is overthrown, but almost every hero is killed, the world is laid waste, and Sauron’s ring survives.
Was the effort futile? We know the end of the tale—after long delay, Sauron and his ring are ultimately vanquished, even though the Númenorean faithful never see it.
Here, then, is Tolkien’s final lesson, and the one to keep in mind as we view TheRings of Power in context of the church today:
In any era of hedonism, demagoguery, rapaciousness, and violence (including ours), those in the faithful remnant may never see their final victory or the fruits of their sacrifice. But they fight on nonetheless, because they know that, at the end of the tale, providence will vindicate their efforts. In light of that, we can only ask if we’ll be among the remnant or among the damned.
“It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth,” Aragorn tells the hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring.
As a veteran of the First World War, Tolkien understood the fallenness of the world, the pride of men and women, and the temptations of power so keenly that he knew better than to give any of his tales a happy ending.
Peter Jackson’s brilliance was staying faithful to Tolkien and ending his Lord of the Rings trilogy more as a tragedy than a fantasy. When most commercial entertainment follows the demand for complete resolutions, it’s daring to tell a mature tale about a broken world under judgment, where all heroes are flawed and every earthly victory is conditional.
It’s also inspiring because it’s realistic, even if it comes dressed with elves and wizards. The closer Amazon’s Rings of Power sticks to these truths, the greater its contribution—not just to our entertainment, but to our edification.
Paul D. Miller is a professor at Georgetown University and a research fellow with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.