How Isildur Went Out Like a Hero – In Tolkien’s Later Life (Part 2)

When last we left our hero, Isildur, son of Elendil, and slicer of the Ring from Sauron’s finger, he and his party of 200 or so warriors were surrounded by as many as 2,000 Orcs. Knowing that his father possessed the One Ring, Isildur’s son, Elendur asked “what of the power that would cow these foul creatures and command them to obey you? Is it then of no avail?”

But it was not. Isuldur replied, “I cannot use it. I dread the pain of touching it. And I have not yet found the strength to bend it to my will. It needs one greater than I now know myself to be. My pride has fallen. It should go to the keepers of the Three.”

This is a huge change from the previous versions of the tale. In his scroll read by Gandalf at the Council of Elrond, Isildur wrote: “my hand was scorched, so that I doubt if ever again I shall be free of the pain of it.” This passage is a play on that, saying something very different.

In earlier versions, Isildur wanted the Ring as an heirloom and to treasure it. He had said that he deserved it for dealing the “death-blow” to the Enemy, and as a spoil of war. But in this story it’s made clear that he wanted to use it. He wanted the power. In previous tellings, power didn’t really come into play at all. But here, he knew exactly how evil the Ring was and wanted to bend the Ring to his will.

There was, however, also redemption. After realizing he couldn’t control the Ring, he also realized that it needed to be destroyed. Of course, he couldn’t do it himself, and had to call upon the Elves in Rivendell. And so now we have the reason he was apparently headed there in the first place – to dump the Ring.

But then the Orcs launched their second attack. This one was ferocious and they killed pretty much everyone. Isildur’s two middle sons were dead and dying, but his eldest, Elendur, came over to him during the battle.

“You last counsellor must advise, nay command you, as you commanded Ohtar. Go! Take your burden, and at all costs bring it to the Keepers: even at the cost of abandoning your men and me!”

Well now isn’t this a pretty call back? This it exactly what Isildur told Ohtar! Even if others were to call him a coward, he had to do this.

Isildur’s reply: “I knew that I must do so; but I feared the pain. Nor could I go without your leave. Forgive me, and my pride that has brought you to this doom.”

He then put the Ring on his finger “with a cry of pain.” This was never mentioned before. In past versions, the Ring cooled and he could touch it like any other Ring. In fact, so could Gollum, Bilbo and Frodo. Why couldn’t Isildur? That’s not explained.

What is explained, is how he escaped (though the divisive word “escaped” is not used). The kings of Numenor didn’t wear a crown, but a “star” upon their foreheads called the Elendilmir of the West. This stone suddenly “blazed forth red and wrathful as a burning star. Men and Orcs gave way in fear; and Isildur, drawing a hood over his head, vanished into the night.”

So somehow the Elendilmir’s light counteracted the invisibility offered by the Ring. But once Isildur covered his head, that was no longer a problem. He left behind his men, all who died, except one, from whom we receive this story.

The pain that Isildur was feeling might have been “anguish of heart,” and not a physical pain as was indicated in previous versions. Whichever, he ran from the battle until he came to a valley. He was not pursued.

This is quite different from the original versions, where Isildur was hunted like game. Instead, seeing that he wasn’t being tracked, he continued on. His journey to the River Anduin was the stuff of legend. He did it in record time, and Tolkien writes about it like it really was a remarkable feat. He wasn’t simply not being hunted – he was once more powerful and unstoppable.

Tolkien writes the same way about Isildur’s swimming of the swirling river. He took off all his armor and threw away all his weapons except a small sword, and jumped into the water.

“He was a man of strength and endurance that few even of the Dunedain of that age could equal, but he had little hope to gain the other shore. Before he had gone far he was forced to turn almost north against the current; and strive as he might he was ever swept down towards the tangles of the Gladden Fields. They were nearer than he had thought, and even as he felt the stream slacken and had almost won across he found himself struggling among great rushes and clinging weeds. There suddenly he knew that the Ring had gone.”

Isildur was nearly overwhelmed by his sense of loss, and almost drowned because of it. But “swift as it had come, the mood passed. The pain had left him. A great burden had been taken away.”

And then he was on the other side. In previous versions, he didn’t even make it half way across before losing the Ring, becoming visible to the pursuing Orcs and killed. This time however, things were different.

When he reached the other shore, he did so near an encampment of Orcs. These were probably different Orcs than the ones who initially attacked his party. They saw this towering man and thought him “a monstrous shadow of fear, with a piercing eye like a star.” They fired their poisoned arrows at him and ran away. Isildur died without a sound.

In this later version, Isildur wasn’t fleeing from the Orcs, he was sprinting to Rivendell to deliver the Ring and to be redeemed. Seeking redemption is, at least, nearly the same as achieving it. Isildur knew he was wrong and understood the results of his actions. He even received forgiveness from his son, who died so that his father might deliver the Ring to Rivendell to be destroyed.

All of these changes and contradictions had to be explained. Tolkien wasn’t one to simply say “that’s just how I want it, so that’s just how it is.” He had to create a back story. The first versions (from Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion) were legends. It was only in the Fourth Age, after Aragorn had become king, that the truth was finally known.

One of Aragorn’s first tasks was to refurbish Orthanc, Saruman’s old place. There, Gimli found a chain that once was used by Isildur to hold the Ring around his neck. He also found the Elendilmir, which Aragorn would soon wear.

It’s explained that this later telling was not composed until Aragorn discovered further evidence. Just how this was all put together really isn’t explained at all. “The story of the last hours of Isildur and his death was due to surmise: but well-founded.” So basically, this “full” version of the legend is still the stuff of legends.

As readers, it’s incredibly important for us not to see the version in Unfinished Tales to be the “full” version of the story. It’s a different version. Even compositing all three versions together to make one tale isn’t helpful, as it creates a fourth version. Basically, it’s best to do what we did here and take them as they come. It’s just a story, you should really just relax.

A Few Notes

  • Whoo! Finally finished(ish) with the Isildur story! I have a few loose ends to tie up, and that will come soon.
  • That said, I think I’ll be taking off a few Sundays – not from exercising, of course, but from writing. Really, this is to make up for the exercising time lost while Sarah’s parents were visiting from Pennsylvania.
Camera: Holga 120N  Film: Kodak Porta 400

Camera: Holga 120N
Film: Kodak Porta 400

About the Photo
Oh I clearly need more river pictures! This is the Columbia. I imagine the Anduin was probably a lot like that. In size and importance, anyway.

  • Day 128
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 641 (187 from Rivendell)
  • 280 miles to Lothlórien
  • 1,138 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 5, 3019 TA. (map)


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