Sep 12 2021, 9:49pm
Inspired by the recent thread on ‘the men of Gondor in the late third age’ (kudos to Victariongreyjoy and the various contributors), I’ve been the revisiting source material and decided to undertake a ‘tale of two cities’ thematic study of Pelargir and Umbar. First, the method to my madness: this will largely be from a secondary world perspective – a feigned historian’s effort with feigned historical source material (I owe noWizardme my thanks for this phrasing!). I’ll inevitably be poking around Tolkien’s drafts, so some textual analysis and comparison is inevitable – not least because Tolkien’s development of ‘Númenórean’ history is a complex journey that both pre- and post-dates the publication of The Lord of the Rings. Taken together, this will be diachronic analysis of a specific slice of the secondary world’s history, culture and politics. I suspect we’re all familiar with the relative paucity of the relevant source material and the inbuilt limitations of its often annalistic nature. So, this ‘tale of two cities’ will sometimes morph into shorthand for ‘a tale of Gondor vs everyone south of the River Harnen’. But, as an optimist, I’m convinced there’s just enough source material to craft a narrative that is not full-blown fanfic (not that fanfic is, in and of itself, a bad thing!). Also, I’ll endeavour (but not quite promise…!) to avoid any Umbar / umbar bad linguistic puns…
A Tale of Two Cities: Umbar & Pelargir / part I
'Foundations abroad, stasis at home'
What first got me interested in the thematic comparison was the proximity of the foundation dates of these two great Númenórean cities, and how they can be seen as physically and spiritually constituting ‘outremer’ bastions for the two rival factions of Númenor. Umbar was founded in II. 2280 and Pelargir was founded a mere 70 years later, in II.2350 – the blink of an eye in the context of Númenórean civilisation.
Before launching in earnest, a short note on the source material. Tolkien’s pre-LotR accounts of what he would later call the Akallabêth or Downfall of Númenor do not appear to mention either Umbar or Pelargir. According to CJRT’s commentary in HoMe XII, Pelargir and Umbar are relative latecomers in Tolkien’s development of his Númenórean history, including the pre-Akallabêth colonial era and the Akallabêth itself. And even in the core narrative of LotR itself, these are for all intents and purposes just place names, where things either happen (Pelargir) or where adversaries come from (Umbar). There is no particular historical anchorage or sense of the antiquity of Pelargir and Umbar until the reader delves into the ‘Appendices’ of LotR and, later, The Silmarillion, Unfinished tales, and the HoMe series.
Turning now to the secondary world context, the establishment of Umbar and Pelargir as great settlements may have been preceded by earlier Númenórean colonisation at these sites, if only of a sporadic or relatively sparse nature. For example, in the entry for II.2280 in ‘The Tale of Years’, Umbar is described as having been “made into a great fortress of Númenor” (‘Appendix B’, LotR). I set this alongside the following from ‘Annals of the Kings and Rulers’ (‘Appendix A’), describing a new, domineering and rapacious era of Númenórean engagement with Middle-earth: “but now their havens became fortresses” (my emphasis). From the above, it’s possible to hold the thought that Umbar, at least, was a pre-existing Númenórean haven – perhaps no more than basic infrastructure built around a natural harbour – that in less conciliatory times became a fortress from which surrounding territories could be dominated.
The recently published ‘Note on the Delay of Gil-galad and the Númenóreans’ (The Nature of Middle-earth, 3.XVIII), offers further food for thought. Tolkien, pondering the decades immediately prior to the War of the Elves and Sauron, mentions in this note “Númenóreans occupying the Mouths of the Anduin and the shorelands of Lebennin.”. This is the 17th century of the Second Age, some 600 years before the foundation date of Pelargir given in ‘The Tale of Years’. With the notable exception of Vinyalondë (later Lond Daer) at the mouth of the River Gwathló, the Númenóreans were not otherwise known to have permanently settled in Middle-earth before the reign of Tar-Ancalimon (II.2251-2386). The entry for II.2350 in ‘The Tale of Years’ is explicit though: Pelargir is built in this specific year. Writing in or shortly after January 1970, Tolkien may merely have forgotten how two slivers of his vast secondary world chronology interacted with each other (or was aware and didn’t mind!). However, as Tolkien’s late note doesn’t actually mention Pelargir – only the location of its later disposition, the Mouths of the Anduin – reconciliation isn’t impossible, and there’s some wriggle room for a bit of constructive speculation. Within the secondary world, the Pelargir built in II.2350 may have been a consolidation or synoikismos of earlier, smaller Númenórean settlements – just as later, Pelargir itself would become part of a larger Númenórean realm in exile (more on that anon). Alternatively, the explanation could be as simple as Pelargir continuing to co-exist with earlier settlements on the Mouths of the Anduin. At any rate, there is at least some ambiguity around whether the dates given in ‘The Tale of Years’ represent foundation events ‘from scratch’ or whether the colonial history of Umbar and Pelargir was more layered. What is apparent though is that there is a major change in the Númenóreans interaction with Middle-earth, and Umbar and Pelargir, whatever their previous history, function or status, reflect and are a major part of this transformation.
Turning then to the source material for this transformative period and what I’ll call the ‘unequivocal’ debut of Umbar and Pelargir as great Númenórean settlements in Middle-earth. Umbar is described as a “stronghold of the King’s Men” faction (‘Appendix A’, LotR) – in short, those Númenóreans who resented and, ultimately, rejected the Ban of the Valar. ‘The Tale of Years’ doesn’t specifically ascribe the foundation effort itself to the King’s Men, but the foundation date does correspond with the reign of Tar-Ancalimon, during which the King’s Men faction first emerged in Númenor. The date and the allegiance of the colonists therefore match up well enough.
Umbar can also be associated by implication, chronologically and politically, with the emergence of the King’s Men faction in the ‘Akallabêth’ (The Silmarillion) (emphasis mine):
“…they [the Númenóreans] desired now great wealth and dominion in Middle-earth, since the West was denied. Great harbours and strong towers they made, and there many of them took up their abode; but they appeared now rather as lords and masters and gatherers of tribute than as helpers and teachers. And the great ships of the Númenóreans were borne east on the winds and returned ever laden…”
Unlike the demanding masters of Umbar, the colonists of Pelargir were of the ‘Faithful’ or ‘Elf-friend’ / Elendili faction of Númenor, ie. those who were remained loyal to the Valar and the historic friendship with the Eldar of Tol Eressëa and Lindon. Adding the second half to the quote above (ibid.):
“In all this the Elf-friends had small part. They alone came now ever to the north and the land of Gil-galad, keeping their friendship with the Elves and lending them aid against Sauron; and their haven was Pelargir above the mouths of Anduin the Great. But the King’s Men sailed far away to the south; and the lordships and strongholds that they made have left many rumours in the legends of Men…”
Again, in the above, Umbar isn’t explicitly mentioned but geographically, it is undoubtedly one of the ‘lordships’ and ‘strongholds’ established to the south of Pelargir. Moreover, reaching back into the drafts of ‘Appendix B’, specifically ‘The Tale of Years of the Second Age’ (HoMe XII), it is apparent that the published ‘Appendix B’ entries for Umbar and Pelargir are compressed versions of text that more clearly bundled the historical foundations of these two cities together, attributing ‘King’s Folk’ (read: King’s Men) and ‘Faithful’ labels to them, respectively:
“The Elf-friends go chiefly to the North-west, but their strongest place is at Pelargir above the Mouths of the Anduin. The King’ Folk establish lordships in Umbar and Harad and in many other places on the coasts of the Great Lands.”
Further chronological anchorage for Pelargir as a colony of the Faithful is provided for in the late essay ‘Of Dwarves and Men’ (HoMe XII), which specifically categorises the Númenórean settlers between Pelargir and the Gulf of Lune as those who had “refused to join in the rebellion against the Valar…”. However, alongside the above, I set the following, from ‘Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age’ (The Silmarillion), which potentially complicates the origins of Pelargir (emphasis is mine):
“Long before in the days of their power the mariners of Númenor had established a haven and strong places about the mouths of the Anduin, in despite of Sauron in the Black Land that lay nigh upon the east. In the later days to this haven came only the Faithful of Númenor…”.
This is clearly a reference to Pelargir and could be read as being ambiguous on whether the Faithful were the original colonists. Afterall, there is approximately a thousand years between this foundation and the establishment of Gondor, leaving plenty of time for Pelargir to ‘become’, literally, a haven of the Faithful. I’ve looked at the draft material to better understand the context and the best fit that I can find is very similar (but not identical) material that went on to be used for the philological ‘Appendix F’ of LotR, as reproduced in HoMe XII. In this text, Pelargir is, in fact, overtly namechecked (as it also is in ‘Appendix F’), and the reference to “later days” is absent. I’ve scoured ‘The History of the Akallabêth’ and ‘The Tale of Years of the Second Age’ (HoMe XII), as well as the various drafts of ‘The Drowning of Anadûnê’ (HoMe IX), and can’t track where “later days” is drawn from, either as original authorial intent or editorial intervention. I’m at a loss, despite the digging, and definitely welcome any thoughts as to how this phrasing made it into The Silmarillion. Stepping back into secondary world analysis, I suppose that “in later days” doesn’t have to be a mutually exclusive formula: Pelargir could have been founded by Númenóreans of the Faithful faction but was not necessarily off limits to other Númenóreans; but “in later days”, non-Faithful Númenóreans probably had no reason or desire to visit, and therefore (and thereafter), “to this haven came only the Faithful…”.
The above complications notwithstanding, I posit that at a critical fault line in Númenor’s history, two cities are founded in Middle-earth, by colonists representing contrasting, clashing even, world views. On the one hand, we have the ‘new’ Númenor, typified by explicit frustration with the Ban of the Valar, and ruthless overlordship and exploitation of Middle-earth, adopting an extractive and abusive core/periphery template. And on the other hand, there is an ‘older’ version of Númenor and Númenórean interaction with Middle-earth, reflecting a time when the Men of the West had arrived as explorers, were steadfast allies to the Elves of Lindon, revered the Valar, and acted as teachers and mentors to their proto-Edainic kin. Through this albeit brief amount of material, Tolkien provides just enough to link Umbar and Pelargir to the antecedents of the catastrophic Akallabêth, and sets the scene for a post-Akallabêth ordering of Númenórean affairs in Middle-earth. Umbar is, from its inception, linked with transgression and transgressors; Pelargir with (literally) ‘keeping the faith’. By extension, Umbar and Pelargir provide geographic fixed points in the wider Númenórean ‘fall from grace’ story, which Tolkien outlines in his oft-quoted letter to Milton Waldman of c. 1951 (Letter 131). Divided into three phases, it is in the ‘second phase’ that the above fault line manifests, where behaviours such as “grudging of the Ban [of the Valar”, seeking “wealth rather than bliss”, and desiring “to escape death” prompts “settlements on the west-shores [of Middle-earth], but these became rather strongholds and ‘factories’ of lords seeking wealth…”. There is, of course, much more to the Akallabêth than Umbar and Pelargir. But they are nonetheless enrolled by the author as symptoms and features in that wider morality play.
Some questions that spring to mind about the secondary world setting of these two cities. To what extent did the royal court in Armenelos on Númenor care about what the Númenóreans in Pelargir were doing? Afterall, it appears to have been mainstream Númenórean policy to shun the West and the ancient friendship with the Eldar (so-called “Spies of the Valar” - ‘Akallabêth’). However, in Middle-earth, another group of Númenóreans, in Pelargir, were actively aiding Gil-galad – effectively running their own foreign policy. A clue is in the version of the ‘Akallabêth’ published in The Silmarillion, where the connectivity between the Faithful and the Elves of Lindon continued, even during the reign of the strident persecutor of the Faithful, Ar-Gimilzôr (II.3102-3177): “This [behaviour] was known to the kings, but they hindered it not, so long as the Elendili [‘Elf-friends’, ie. the Faithful] departed from their land and did not return…”. In other words, the kings in Armenelos didn’t seem to care what went on in Pelargir or indeed any other settlements of the Faithful outside of Númenor, as long as they didn’t interfere in their business in Númenor.
One snippet worth dwelling on for a moment in this context is the historic ‘fact’ that Ar-Pharazôn, when going to war with Sauron, chose to land his armada in Umbar. Why there, when Pelargir was so much closer to Mordor and his stated enemy? As per the exposition in the ‘Akallabêth’, Ar-Pharazôn had to march for seven days to get to where he needed to be to issue his challenge to Sauron. I suspect way too much can be read into this but I flag anyway the idea that Ar-Pharazôn did not land in Pelargir as he didn’t trust the Faithful Númenóreans. Afterall, the distrust in Armenelos of this group had already run so deep as to cause Ar-Gimilzôr, Ar-Pharazôn’s predecessor by two, to round up the Faithful and (internally) exile them to Rómenna. From a secondary world perspective, it may, however, have been as simple as the havens of Umbar were the best available to Ar-Pharazôn for a fleet as great as that at his command. A question of infrastructure then, rather than concerns about loyalty?
Before moving on from the ‘Foundations’ theme, I’ll draw attention to two interesting features of the complex relationship between Tolkien’s ‘The History of the Akallabêth’ and ‘The Tale of Years of the Second Age’ (HoMe XII), which were respectively the primary sources for the ‘Akallabêth’ published in The Silmarillion and ‘Appendix B’ (and to a lesser extent, ‘Appendix A’) of LotR. The multiple versions of the two texts were far from being isolated from each other or mutually exclusive, but on two occasions passages about or related to Umbar and Pelargir prompted editorial interventions from CJRT. Umbar, as it appeared in the story of Ar-Pharazôn’s force majeure anabasis in Middle-earth, was edited by CJRT so that it was depicted as a “mighty haven of the Númenóreans”; whereas in the most complete draft at CJRT’s disposal, Umbar was merely a natural haven where Ar-Pharazôn happened to disembark – with no noted previous connection to Númenórean settlement. CJRT’s editorial rationale strikes me as entirely reasonable, given that the published LotR had already established, via the Appendices, that Umbar was indeed a Númenórean foundation associated with the King’s Men.
The second element I flag from my trawl of the drafts is a CJRT note seemingly regretting “an excess of [editorial] vigilance” in the case of the sole reference to Pelargir in the ‘Akallabêth’ of the constructed version of The Silmarillion. On this occasion, CJRT struck out any hint that the reference was ‘Elven lore’ in origin (ie. imparted by Pengoloð) and that the Elves only knew of Pelargir because of its Faithful population and origins. All other Númenórean settlements, ie. those of the King’s Men, were beyond the knowledge of the Elves – including, by implication, Umbar. Although arguably a small intervention, speculatively reinstating what CJRT called the “authentic text” does serve to further underscore the dichotomous nature of these two settlements, their allegiances, perspectives and priorities. Paraphrasing and expanding a fraction on CJRT, the severance of ties with the Elves of Tol Eressëa meant places like Umbar were spatially and symbolically ‘off grid’ for the Eldar, whereas Pelargir was and remained a familiar ‘known’.
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