The Hero that Was No More (How Isildur Went Out Like a Chump)

Thanks to the Silmarillion‘s account of Isildur’s earlier life, we are shown that he was a defiant warrior for Good. He was rash, but not heedless. 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.

That story was in the “Akallabeth”, the history of Numenor and its fall. It was continued in “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age” – the final chapter in the Silmarillion. There, the account of the battle with Sauron is recounted, as is Isildur’s time after taking the Ring, including his death. As we’ll see, it’s quite a bit different than what either Elrond or Gandalf told. In fact, it’s a newer story, written after the Lord of the Rings was completed.

Since the story’s basic structure is probably well known (if not, go here to read it), we’ll be focusing more on the differences and additions.

Of course, the story of the time leading up to the battle is more fleshed out than Elrond’s telling, but that just makes sense. At the end of the seven-year siege, Sauron himself came out to give battle, “and he wrestled with Gil-galad and Elendil, and they both were slain, and the sword of Elendil broke under him as he fell.”

Sauron also fell, and with the remaining shard of Elendil’s sword, Isildur “cut the Ruling Ring from the hand of Sauron and took it for his own.” The wording is nearly identical with Elrond’s telling from Lord of the Rings.

The same is nearly true concerning Elrond’s and Cirdan’s urging for Isildur to destroy the Ring in Mt. Doom. “This I will have as weregild for my father’s death, and my brother’s.”

But the next line: “Was it not I that dealt the Enemy his death-blow?” is a new line, and changes things quite a bit. The Enemy was defeated, everyone could see that. But a “death” it was not. Sauron was not dead. His armies weren’t dead. In the Silmarillion, it’s said that “Sauron was for that time vanquished, and he forsook his body, and his spirit fled far away and hid in waste places; and he took no visible shape again for many long years.” Elrond, in Lord of the Rings puts it more succinctly: “Sauron was diminished, but not destroyed.”

One of Isildur’s more important qualities was his foresightedness. There’s really no reason (especially knowing that Sauron couldn’t be killed by losing a finger or a Ring) for him to think that the Dark Lord was dead. Being on the battlefield, he saw Mordor’s armies retreat, but they did not disintegrate. This was not a death-blow in any sense, and he should have known it. But that was hardly his concern now. Now, what mattered most was the Ring. He deserved it in payment for the death of his father and brother. But he also deserved it as a reward for vanquishing the Enemy.

In Elrond’s account, he immediately jumps to the time of Isildur’s death. Gandalf, however, in the “Shadow of the Past” chapter tells a bit more. “Isildur was marching north along the east banks of the River, and near the Gladden Fields he was waylaid by the Orcs of the Mountains, and almost all his folk were slain. He leaped into the water, but the Ring slipped form his finger as he swam, and the Orcs saw him and killed him with arrows.” (I go into this more here.)

In the Silmarillion version, both Gandalf’s and Elrond’s accounts are combined, plus there is even more added (including some from an early draft of Gandalf’s account).

As was stated in the scroll Isildur left in Gondor (and which Gandalf read at the Council of Elrond), he first stopped at Minas Anor (Minas Tirith) to plant the White Tree and install Meneldil as the ruler of the south. He then “bore away the Ring, to be an heirloom of his house.” This was also stated in the scroll.

So far, with a small exception (death-blow) the Silmarillion account is just a combination of the three accounts given in Lord of the Rings. So what gives? Well, here’s a bit of an expounding for you:

“But Isildur was overwhelmed by a host of Orcs that lay in wait in the Misty Mountains; and they descended upon him at unawares in his camp between the Greenwood and the Great River, nigh to Loeg Ningloron, the Gladden Fields, for he was heedless and set no guard, deeming that all his foes were overthrown.”

Here, we learn a bit more than he was just set upon by Orcs. First, the Orcs were lying in wait. They expected him to be coming along this path. How they knew he would isn’t mentioned, but there they were. Second, the typically foresighted Isildur was heedless, and set no guard. This is the first rule of setting up a military camp, even in times of peace – always set a guard. He was so convinced that he had dealt the Enemy a death-blow, and that Orcs would not be a problem at all anywhere anymore.

“There well nigh all his people were slain, and among them were his three elder sons…” In the Lord of the Rings, we learn that nearly everyone was killed, but this is the first time we heard about his three elder sons. We also learn that his wife and his youngest were back at Rivendell.

Then the Silmarillion slips into one of Tolkien’s old drafts (as discussed here): “Isildur himself escaped by by means of the Ring, for when he wore it he was invisible to all eyes; but the Orcs hunted him by scent and slot, until he came to the River and plunged in. There the Ring betrayed him and avenged its maker, for it slipped from his finger as he swam, and it was lost in the water.”

This passage, like the others, was a bit more fleshed out than the previous incarnations. Specifically, while the Ring had always been given a will, this time it was given a purpose – to avenge Sauron.

Also, while Gandalf told Frodo that Isildur was “waylaid by Orcs,” nobody mentioned that they were actually hunting him. They trapped him in his camp and the great hero had to escape by means of a magic invisibility ring. Escaping isn’t really that noble of a thing to do. Maybe it’s even cowardly. It could be argued that he was trying to protect the Ring, but that is not what’s in the Silmarillion. In fact, it’s not even implied. He was overwhelmed by a host of Orcs who killed all of his people, including his sons, and then escaped and was hunted.

The great Isildur was reduced to an animal being tracked by dogs. Once he was again visible, “the Orcs saw him as he laboured in the stream, and they shot him with many arrows, and that was his end.”

Isildur did not die like his father – fighting with Sauron. He didn’t die like his three sons, who no doubt fought the Orcs to the end (though we’re not told). He very potentially abandoned them. He was shot in the back while fleeing, while trudging and splashing through the water, burdened by his armor, as the tried to get away. He didn’t die a hero’s death. He died like a chump trying to get as far away from Mordor as he could.

And apart from an echoing of how Elendil’s broken sword came to Rivendell (three others survived and Isildur gave it to Ohtar his esquire), the story ends.

However, Tolkien must not have been fully satisfied with this version. In the late 1960s, he penned another, “Disaster in the Gladden Fields,” which we’ll talk about tomorrow.

A Few Notes

  • If the opening paragraph sounded familiar to you, I recycled it from yesterday’s post!
  • I can’t believe the Isildur posts are winding down! But tomorrow isn’t the last. I’ve got a special and fun surprise for you early next week!
Camera: Polaroid Big Swinger 3000 || Film: Fuji FP-3000B

Camera: Polaroid Big Swinger 3000 || Film: Fuji FP-3000B

About the Photo
This photo always reminds me of one of the old Civil War photos of a battlefield strewn with bodies. In reality, they’re gigantic boulders dragged and rafted to this location by glacial floods that closed out the last Ice Age, 15,000ish years ago. But look! You can even see the Eye of Sauron in the left center of the photo! Huzzah!


  • Day 126
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 631 (177 from Rivendell)
  • 290 miles to Lothlórien
  • 1,148 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place in the narrative: Book II, Chapter 3. Marching south along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. Seventh night out from Rivendell. January 4 – 5, 3019 TA. (map)

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4 thoughts on “The Hero that Was No More (How Isildur Went Out Like a Chump)

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