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The Atlantis Connection

The story is told in one of the final sections of The Silmarillion. It is called "The Akallabêth," and represents an unusual circumstance where Tolkien deliberately brought his stories into alignment with our own world's mythology. The tale of Númenor -- great island continent with its master ship builders and advanced society -- is a direct parallel with our ancient legends of Atlantis.

The assumption is made here that the history of Middle-earth is indeed a "mythical pre-history" of our own world. If you accept the conceit that Tolkien's larger stories were actually historical accounts, filled with the shadows and victories of "real world" history… then the veracity of Númenor is all the more potent when you make the Atlantis connection.

Here's why Númenor and Atlantis are so similar. The denizens of both had advanced skills and sciences (especially with shipbuilding)… Their societies, levels of literacy, and cultures were advanced… The Númenoreans were indeed representative of an advanced "nature" of man, as the Atlanteans were also. Tolkien gives us much to go on:

"Eönwë [the herald of Manwë] came among them and taught them; and they were given wisdom and power and life more enduring than any others of mortal race have possessed."

"Therefore they grew wise and glorious, and in all things more like to the Firstborn than any other of the kindreds of Men; and they were tall, taller than the tallest of the sons of Middle-earth; and the light of their eyes was like the bright stars."

So much more can be said, but the real clincher is looking at the Quenya term that Tolkien invented for Númenor after it had fallen. "… Akallabêth the Downfallen, Atalantë in the Eldarin tongue."

Now how much more can you ask for? Atalantë = Atlantis!

[Green Books writer Ostadan interjects here: "While the legend of Númenor was not written down until the 1930s, the root word that forms the basis for the name Atalantë (or Atalantië, he varied a bit) was already part of Quenya before 1920 (see the Qenya Lexicon, Parma Eldalamberon #12). Tolkien describes it as a 'curious chance' that the stem should so much resemble "Atlantis" (Letters, No. 257; and the discussion by Christopher Tolkien in "The Lost Road"), and it is indeed hard to tell whether this is purely accidental or whether Tolkien unconsciously was influenced by the name "Atlantis" when he created those Qenya words so many years earlier.]

Possibly the greatest of Greek philosophers, Plato was to provide in his Dialogues the only original record from ancient times that mentions Atlantis. Around 360 B.C., he wrote of the mighty island continent that was "beyond the pillars of Hercules," suggesting that Atlantis would be found outside the Mediterranean, in the middle of the Ocean that would later bear the name Atlantic. You can find many thousands of other sources and websites with Plato's writing, a variety of viewpoints, and yes plenty of far-out conjecture. To put it succinctly, the Atlanteans were mighty and brilliant of mind; but eventually corrupted by power. More specifically, the people were debased by complacency while the leaders became arrogant and warlike. They made war on the nations nearest to them on the Mediterranean coast, and sought to take over ancient Athens. In the end Plato tells us:

…There occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.
Just look at what befell Númenor. Envious of the Blessed Realm and greedy for an immortality that was not theirs to claim -- seeking to bypass the destiny that was laid before them by Ilúvatar -- the Númenoreans fell from a state of grace to utter ruin. They once shared great friendship with the Elves. They once shared gifts of knowledge, skill, and agriculture with the lesser Men who struggled on the mainland of Middle-earth. With great technological leaps forward and ships that carried them far and wide, they traveled the entire planet. Except the one place they could never go: Valinor. Sauron saw his chance here and corrupted the Númenoreans with lies. When they did attempt to assail the Blessed Realm, all were killed, their ships torn asunder, and Arda suffered a cataclysm that sunk Númenor forever. Only nine ships survived, carrying "the faithful" to the mainland.

For those who have not read "The Akallabêth" in a while, I recommend you get your copy of The Sil off the bookshelf and read it just one more time. The story is one of Tolkien's most cautionary. Just like Plato, our dear Professor pulls no punches when it comes to meting out "divine justice."

Yet Plato takes a more threatening tone in his story. He seems to argue: "Look what unchecked imperialism does. Behold the dream of a utopian society that cannot survive." Is it possible that a perfect community, with the blessings of a society and technology advanced beyond other Men, will always unravel because of human aggression? That seems a rather dark-hearted attitude. Yet today, variants of this "Atlantis warning" are just about everywhere. Strong shades of Krypton, don't you think? A highly advanced race, with the greatest minds in the galaxy, becomes rotted from within by power and arrogance. The whole civilization, the whole planet, is destroyed. Only one survivor escapes… Kal-El son of Jor-El. He who would become Superman.

For myself, I am left with some intriguing thoughts on this whole thing. Many people today still entertain the idea of Atlantis being real. Theories run amok with true-believers on where/what Atlantis could have been. Was it an alien culture from outer-space? Was it located in the center of the Earth? Did they develop powers of telekinesis with magic crystals? Is there any real reason Disney needed to make that half-baked animated film about it?

Seriously, it seems clear to me that Plato and Tolkien were doing the exact same thing: setting up an intriguing myth that would work as metaphor. Yet certain myths hold a strange power over us, on down through the centuries, even though they are not necessarily true.

The Númenorean disaster can be directly linked to Aragorn son of Arathorn. Much of the Third Age concerns itself with the after-effects of Númenorean influence. Will the blood line survive the ages? Will the glory of Númenor be restored? As you read again, you will realize that Tolkien connects all of these threads to Aragorn. "The Return of King" could also be read as "The Return of the Númenorean Age."

Even though "The Akallabêth" was a nightmare of misfortune, I find the focus in The Lord of the Rings is positive. The Professor does not dwell on shaking his finger at us, like Plato does, saying to his readers "The destiny of Man will always be misery and disaster." Tolkien is much more hopeful: he builds a nation under the ancient Númenorean banner -- actually two of you count Arnor separately from Gondor. Look at the long-standing effects of Númenor on Middle-earth. The ship-building, artistry, architecture, system of laws; not to mention the methods of cultivating corn and grapes. What did they do that was noble? What good was to be found in their society? Isn't it a shame the old lies of Morgoth planted so many centuries before would cultivate such calamity?

Yet Tolkien gives it all one more chance with Aragorn. It is a thoroughly romantic notion but very satisfying: Aragorn brings the best qualities of Númenor back to Middle-earth. He is like a divine shot in the arm for mortal Men. The fact that he succeeds in restoring the ancient glory of Westernesse, having such an impact on history, makes me wonder…

What would our world be like today if Atlantis had once existed? Truly? I can't help but entertain this daydream: Imagine if a single descendant of Atlantis (like Aragorn) came to the fore on the world stage? I do not mean Prince Namor the Submariner. But think in terms of Aragorn Elessar; a man who would liver longer than 200 years, possessed of a power and wisdom that would seem alien to us. Healer of hurts, leader of men, graced with an ancient light in his eyes.

If there had ever been an Atlantean civilization that mastered the earth, air, and water around them… if that blood line were intact, can you imagine the impact one individual would have in our world? This is the very question that Tolkien demands of the people of Gondor when he puts the crown on Elessar's head. They accept him, they embrace him, and they flourish under his rule.

Would we?

Much too hasty,

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Past Limbs
An Open Letter to the Screen Actors Guild
Review: The Return of the King
Kingly Proof
For the Love of Arwen
The Atlantis Connection
Noble Is As Noble Does
Send in the Penguins
War! What is it Good For?
In Defense of Philippa Boyens
Movie Review - The Two Towers
The Final Word
Very, Very, Very Impatient
Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit
Finding a Hobbit’s Voice
Conversation with a Newbie
Inside Information
The Silver Lining
Movie Review - Fellowship of the Ring
Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Where the Stars are Strange: Part I
The Spectacular Cannes Footage
Comic-Con International 2001
An Open Letter to Jeffrey Wells
The Shadow of Racism
All About Sam
The Game’s the Thing!
Who’s Spiking Who?
The 2000 Vote: Gandalf or Saruman?
Tolkien’s Greatest Hits
Return to The Furthest Reaches
The Furthest Reaches
True Fans, Truly Obsessed
"Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf"
…And In the Closet Bind Them
Welcome to Merchandising Hell
In Defense of Escapism
Out on a Limb Home


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