A Hero Remade – Isildur in Tolkien’s Later Life (Part 1)

Over the past week, we’ve taken a look at the accounts of Isildur – his life, his death and the different ways in which Tolkien retold the story. Today we’ll look at “The Disaster of the Gladden Fields,” an essay/short story written sometime during or after 1969, at least fifteen years after Lord of the Rings was published. It appears in Unfinished Tales.

This work picks up the story after the fall of Sauron and contrasts the accounts appearing in both the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. In some cases, it paints an entirely different picture of Isildur.

While in the Lord of the Rings we are told very little about the early life of Isildur, the Silmarillion fills in some of the blanks. There, we learn that he is your basic hero – honorable, rash, daring, rebellious, and willing to sacrifice everything for Good. But then his death via possession by the Ring, as portrayed in the same book, reduces Isildur to little more than a prideful, cowardly man willing to let his people die so he can escape.

In “The Disaster of the Gladden Fields,” Tolkien remakes Isildur completely. Prior accounts, in which the hero might have been painted in a less-than-kingly light, are altered just enough so that a different point of view can be reached. There are, of course, various other details added seemingly at whim, but then, that’s how Tolkien wrote (and rewrote).

In the Silmarillion, we’re told that Isildur returned to Gondor after the battle, put his nephew in charge, took the Ring and then left for Rivendell. In the Unfinished Tales version, he is in Gondor for a year “restoring its order and defining its bounds.” It was only after “he felt free” that he left for Rivendell, where his wife and youngest son were waiting for him. We’re also told that he needed to talk to Elrond. None of this was mentioned in the Silmarillion. There, he wanted only to “to take up his father’s realm in Eriador, far from the shadow of the Black Land.”

As far as the Ring went, in the earlier versions, it was to be an heirloom of his house, but in this late writing, it is not mentioned during this segment. In fact, the Ring was not yet mentioned thus far in the story, and wouldn’t be for quite a few paragraphs (the whole thing is only five pages long).

This in itself is telling. In previous versions, the Ring was the reason that Isildur did anything. Now, however, it’s hardly brought up.

Isildur set off from Gondor with his three eldest sons and 200 knights and soldiers, expecting to reach Rivendell in forty days. Tolkien explains the journey and his path. On the thirtieth day, they passed just north of the Gladden Fields, and were marching toward Thranduil’s realm in Greenwood (later called Mirkwood).

The troops were singing as they marched, and the day was ending. “Suddenly as the sun plunged into cloud they heard the hideous cries of Orcs, and saw them issuing from the Forest and moving down the slopes, yelling their war-cries.” Since it was getting dark, nobody could see how many Orcs there were, but it was estimated that as many as 2,000 were before them. Isildur ordered his men into a defensive position.

Remember, in the Silmarillion the Orcs were merely lying in wait, expecting Isildur’s party, which was caught completely unawares. But in this version, Isildur’s forces had time to prepare. After forming their defenses, they waited. Isildur had enough time to have a full conversation with his son, Elendur.

Isildur saw “vengeance” in the Orcs. “There is cunning and design here! We have no hope of help: Moria and Lorien are now far behind and Thranduil four days’ march ahead.” In response, Elendur reminded him that “we bear burdens of worth beyond all reckoning.” This was the first mention of the Ring.

As the Orcs drew closer, Isildur turned to his esquire Ohtar, who was mentioned in both previous books. He is the one who brought the shards of Elendil’s sword to Rivendell. But before we were not given the chance to hear the conversation of how this went down.

After handing Ohtar the shards, he ordered him to “save it from capture by all means that you can find, and at all costs; even at the cost of being held a coward who deserted me.” This just makes sense, but it’s also a bit suspicious. Isildur is telling Ohtar that running away to save something precious is honorable. Might he be thinking that he’ll have to do the same thing?

If so, this might remind you of Frodo’s Ring-inspired plan in the Barrow. There, he thought that everyone would understand that he had to leave his friends behind to die. What choice did he have? Was Isildur faced with the same choice? Tolkien seems to now tell us as much.

The Orcs halted their advance to dress their lines. Then after a volley of arrows, they charged. The arrows were useless against Numenorean armor. The tall Men easily threw back the assault, and the Orcs seemed to retreat back into the forest. Isildur ordered the march to resume, figuring that the Orcs had had enough. But this wasn’t being heedless, as in the Silmarillion. We are told that this was how the Orcs usually operated, and Isildur apparently had no reason to think they would behave any differently.

But he was wrong. These were Orcs made of different stuff. And it wasn’t just vengeance and hatred that spurred them on. “…and though it was unknown to them the Ring, cut from his black hand two years before, was still laden with Sauron’s evil will and called to all his servants for their aid.” The Orcs were unknowingly drawn to the Ring.

The Orcs attacked again, this time with all of their forces. They did so quietly and quickly surrounded Isildur’s party, though they were out of range of the archers. It was dark now.

While waiting for the Orcs to attack a second time. Elendur, Isildur’s son, spoke to his father again about the Ring. “What of the power that would cow these foul creatures and command them to obey you? Is it then of no avail?”

Isildur’s reply changed everything we know about Isildur’s character. It might as well have been a completely different person. But since I’ve gone on for some time now, we’ll hit that up tomorrow.

A Few Notes
What? A cliffhanger? Dig me!

Fun “fact” – Ohtar’s name was not Ohtar. In an author’s note, Tolkien wrote: “it is probably only the title of address that Isildur used at this tragic moment, hiding his feelings under formality. Ohtah ‘warrior, soldier’ was the title of all who, though fully trained adn experienced, had not yet been admitted to the rank of roquen, ‘night’. But Ohtar was dear to Isildur and of his own kin.”

Ohtar escaped with one other. In the original tellings, only three people escaped the ordeal. Who will be the third? Find out tomorrow!

Camera: Polaroid Automatic 250 Film: Fuji FP-100C (reclaimed negative)

Camera: Polaroid Automatic 250
Film: Fuji FP-100C (reclaimed negative)

About the Photo
Careful! There’s Orcs in them thar forests! Nahh, this is an old concrete section of Route 66 in Illinois.


  • Day 127
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 636 (182 from Rivendell)
  • 285 miles to Lothlórien
  • 1,143 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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