The Silmarillion‘s account of the Isildur story was written years after the Lord of the Rings was set in stone. After finishing the novel, Tolkien looked back and fleshed out different parts of the larger story, connecting the tales of the Elder Days to those during the War of the Ring. The story of Isildur figured into both the fall of Numenor toward the end of the Second Age and the Rings of Power in the Third Age.
For the first time, Isildur had a back story. No longer was he merely the son of the guy who brought the “faithful” out of the doomed island-nation of Numenor. And it’s in this new information where we can truly see the changes that Isildur went through when he took the Ring.
When the Numenoreans began to doubt the Valar and trust instead in Sauron, the White Tree which grew in the King’s Court was deemed off limits to everyone. The White Tree was a gift from the Elves, and symbolized their alliance with the Numenoreans. When the Numenoreans rejected the Valar, they also rejected the Elves.
Because of this, Sauron ordered the White Tree to be cut down. Word of this spread to the faithful (including Elendil and his young son Isildur), they knew they had to do something, but couldn’t figure out what. But then, without telling anyone, Isildur disguised himself and, working alone, went to the King’s Court and stole a fruit from the White Tree. He had to fight his way out and was gravely wounded, “and he escaped, and because he was disguised it was not discovered who had laid hands on the tree.” The fruit was eventually planted in secret and a new shoot grew. When the new tree’s first leaves sprouted, Isildur was healed of his wounds.
This story paints Isildur as a defiant Rebel willing to risk everything for Right. But he was not careless – he planned it out and even went in disguise. It was also not done for fame or glory (as he told nobody about it), though he would later achieve both for this deed.
Then, after the fall of Numenor, Elendil came across the sea to Middle-earth with his faithful people and two sons, Isildur and Anarion. Once there, while Elendil oversaw the two kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor, the two brothers shared a court, each having thrones of equal status, even though Isildur was the oldest. This is kind of odd and seemingly unnecessary, but it shows that Isildur was also humble, at least when it came to sharing power with his brother.
But he was also rash. The two brothers built two towers. Anarion built Minas Arnor (later known as Minas Tirith) and Isildur built Minas Ithil (later known as Minas Morgul). As the later name suggest’s of Isildur’s tower, Minas Ithis was built on the border of Mordor. This was a gutsy call, but is right in line with the character of Isildur.
Building such a fortress right on the border of the enemy’s land was also a fine defensive strategy. From there, he could keep an eye on Mordor and the passes leading into the territory. Also, at the time when he built it, Sauron was not yet there.
So who was in Mordor at the start of the Third Age? Clearly an army of some kind. Maybe the Nazgul? The political situation isn’t really well explained. But clearly something was there since Isildur did not attack with his army.
Isildur’s strength isn’t given, but clearly it was strong enough to build Minas Ithil and mount a defense, yet not strong enough to launch an attack. The number needed to launch a successful attack against an entrenched enemy is usually given as two attackers for every defender. This would make the combatants equally matched. But to attack such fortifications as were undoubtedly around Barad-dur, the Dark Tower, many times that number might be needed.
So really, it’s pretty easy to understand why Isildur didn’t just waltz into Mordor at the start of the Third Age. In fact, when the Last Alliance of Elves and Men finally did go into Mordor, they spent three years in preparation. These things take time.
And so thanks to the Silmarillion, we now have an idea just who Isildur was. He was a defiant warrior for Good. He was rash, but not heedless. He was he was brave, cunning, and bold, but he was not reckless. He was noble and of noble blood, yet he wasn’t proud. He was, in every way imaginable, the perfect person to lead the exiled Numenoreans in their new life in Middle-earth.
So what happened? Tomorrow, we’ll find out when we delve into the Silmarillion‘s account of the death of Isildur and the Ring of Power.
A Few Notes
- One of the frustrating things about studying the Silmarillion is that I don’t really have a grasp of when these texts were written. Most were started prior to Lord of the Rings, but most were finished after. Still, it’s pretty well seen as canon, so in some ways, it doesn’t matter.
- This post was originally supposed to include the death of Isildur, but I ran out of space. Tomorrow, dear readers!
About the Photo
I could really use some tower photos right about now. This is clearly not Minas Ithil, but a church steeple in Missouri. I think it fits, to some extent, as when Minas Ithil was built, it was done so by Isildur, who was faithful to not just the Elves and Valar, but to Eru (Illuvatar) as well.
- Day 125
- Miles today: 5
- Miles thus far: 626 (172 from Rivendell)
- 295 miles to Lothlórien
- 1,153 miles to Mt. Doom
Today’s stopping place in the narrative: Book II, Chapter 3. Encamped along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. Seventh night out from Rivendell. January 4, 3019 TA. (map)