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A Tale of Two Cities: Umbar & Pelargir / part II


Sep 12 2021, 9:50pm

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'A contested Exilic patrimony: from stasis to inter-state conflict'

Not one but at least two Númenórean realms in exile arose from the catastrophe of the Akallabêth, with Umbar and Pelargir the respective kernels. Tolkien’s early (pre-LotR) writings on what would become the ‘Akallabêth’ do mention the escape of Elendil / Nimruzân / Nimruzîr from the destruction of Númenor / Anadûnê, and the subsequent foundation of unnamed Númenórean kingdoms in Middle-earth (‘The Drowning of Anadûnê’ (HoMe IX). However, as noted in ‘Part I’ of this study, Pelargir and Umbar, and their respective roles in the history of the realms in exile, arrive relatively late in Tolkien’s development of Númenórean history.

The source material discussed in ‘Part I’ indicates that other, pre-Akallabêth Númenórean settlements were founded, including several even further south of Umbar. But the latter fade into “… rumours in the legends of Men.” (‘Akallabêth’, The Silmarillion). Other pre-Akallabêth settlements also existed “… in the North (between Pelargir and the Gulf of Lune)” (‘Of Dwarves and Men’ (HoMe XII), although Aldarion’s foundation at Vinyalondë is the only one of these named. However, it is Umbar and Pelargir that get top billing in the relatively scanty source material, and both play a crucial role in the genesis of a Númenórean patrimony in Middle-earth.

As per the characterisation of the respective foundations of Umbar and Pelargir, the secondary world narrative makes it pretty obvious as to who would dominate these emergent states. In the context of the post-Akallabêth rulers of Umbar, Tolkien draws a clear link between the King’s Men and the Black Númenóreans (‘Appendix A’, LotR). Umbar is definitively the abode of the scions of ‘fallen’ Númenóreans who have turned to worship of the Dark. This new state, now irreversibly and cataclysmically independent of Númenor, appears to have consisted of the “great cape and land-locked firth of Umbar” (ibid.) as well as “a mighty haven” (‘Akallabêth’) and “a great fortress” (‘Appendix B’).

For Pelargir, the link is less explicit but reasonably clear nonetheless (‘Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age’, The Silmarillion):

“Isildur and Anárion were borne away southwards and at last brought their ships up the Great River Anduin… Long before in the days of their power the mariners of Númenor had established a haven [read: Pelargir] 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, and many therefore of the folk of the coastlands in that region were in the whole or part akin to the Elf-friends and the people of Elendil, and they welcomed his sons [Isildur and Anárion]”.

In short, Pelargir, ancient colony of the original Elendili, gives succour to these latter-day Elendili – and specifically to the sons of the aptly-named Elendil. Isildur and Anárion go on to found Osgiliath as the joint capital of their nascent co-kingdom of Gondor, and also establish the cities of Minas Ithil and Minas Anor respectively. It’s not mentioned whether Pelargir is abandoned in this first century of the flowering of Gondor. To the best of my knowledge, it only appears again in the ‘historical record’ more than a thousand years later, when the thirteenth king of Gondor and second of the ‘Ship-kings’, Eärnil I “repaired the ancient haven of Pelargir” (‘Appendix A’, LotR). Whether this latter event indicates that Pelargir was deserted at the time or merely that its haven was in a state of disrepair isn’t clear – and nor is when this deterioration occurred. What is readily deducible is that Pelargir was not adopted as the chief city of Gondor (despite being its oldest) and that while the new cities were indeed clustered about the Anduin, these were more than a hundred miles inland. Nonetheless, given that Isildur and Anárion only arrived with five shiploads of exiled Númenóreans between them, it must be the case that the descendants of the antique Elendili of Pelargir formed a significant, if not the most significant, demographic building block of Gondor.

So, at the end of the Second Age, we have two ancient Númenórean cities repurposed around two nascent Númenórean states, ruled by members of two diametrically opposed Númenórean factions. And just so there’s no doubt as to the relationship between them, Tolkien gives us this about the masters of Umbar: “… corrupted by Sauron, and who hated above all the followers of Elendil.” (‘Appendix A’). And this passage goes on to establish that this hatred for Gondor was bequeathed to successive generations of lords of Umbar, even after the effective extirpation of that city’s original Black Númenórean rulers. Although not specific to the Black Númenóreans of Umbar, Tolkien implicitly designated this group as “… evil, being of those who hearkened to Sauron and still did not forsake him in their hearts…” (third draft of ‘The Fall of Númenor’, HoMe IX). The stage is therefore set for the psychodrama of ‘Númenor Divided’, already a thousand years old by this point, to continue.

Given this secondary world context, relations between these new states based around Umbar and Pelargir arguably could never really have developed in any other way. The ‘corruption of Sauron’ explains well enough the trans-generational hatred imported and nurtured by the Black Númenóreans of Umbar. Moreover, I can’t help but think also that a group descended from the King’s Men had supplementary reasons to bear a grudge against the Elendili. It is explicable that the world view of the King’s Men might be that the Elendili had been disloyal to the House of Elros for the best part of a thousand years by the time of the Akallabêth; and that they, deluded as they were by the blasphemous teachings of Sauron, ironically held the Faithful to be faithless renegades. Ar-Pharazôn may have usurped the throne but plenty of rightful kings of Númenor before him had rejected the Eldar and the Valar, and castigated the Faithful. I can’t find anywhere that Tolkien explored this concept, so I’ll lightly posit it and move on.

And what of the new masters of Pelargir, the original co-rulers of Gondor and the successor House of Anárion (‘the Anárioni’)? How did they react to their hate-filled neighbours? Did the Númenórean rulers of Gondor regard Umbar as part of their patrimony? After all, Elendil and his sons were of the House of Elros – and presumably the last fragment of that line left anywhere in Middle-earth. Would they have expected the Black Númenóreans of Umbar and elsewhere to acknowledge their overlordship? Even speculatively, this feels unlikely. But the possession of Umbar, the city and its realm, was arguably a different matter. Indeed, Tolkien, in ‘Appendix B’ of LotR, provides:

“The loss of Umbar [in III.1448] was grievous to Gondor, not only because the realm was diminished in the south and its hold upon the Men of Harad was loosened, but because it was there that Ar-Pharazôn the Golden, the last king of Númenor, had landed and humbled the might of Sauron… even the followers of Elendil remembered with pride the coming of the great host of Ar-Pharazôn out of the deeps of the Sea.”

To commemorate this deed, the Númenóreans of Gondor “… on the highest hill of the headland above the Haven [of Umbar] they had set a great white pillar as a monument.”. This sentiment is picked up in a singular ‘historiographical’ note, published in ‘The Line of Elros’ (Unfinished Tales), that indicates that Elendil himself wrote of “… the deeds of Ar-Pharazôn, of his glory and folly…”. Thus, despite the catastrophe that Ar-Pharazôn was gulled into provoking, even the Faithful in their exile – that exile being a direct consequence of that catastrophe – could not help but be proud of at least one act of their last king. Umbar was, accordingly, venerated in Gondorian tradition, even more than 1,600 years after Ar-Pharazôn’s anabasis in might.

This veneration shows that the Númenóreans of Gondor felt some patrimonial attachment to Umbar, at least once they’d first occupied it; and that once occupied, they disliked losing it and spent significant blood and treasure to keep it – no less than two kings of Gondor (Eärnil I and Ciryandil) lost their lives in this first phase of conflict to hold onto Umbar. But when did any of this sentiment actually materialise and come to shape Gondor’s policy towards Umbar? And who made the first aggressive move: Gondor or Umbar? Despite the dramatic characterisation of Umbar as a Black Númenórean state built seemingly around hating the Heirs of Elendil, the first ‘recorded’ interaction between Gondor and Umbar isn’t actually until III.933, during the reign of the aforementioned Eärnil. And it’s Gondor that moves to conquer Umbar. Furthermore, key to this conquest is Gondor’s revitalisation of the ancient haven of Pelargir – key, as Pelargir is where it appears Eärnil builds, and from where he deploys, his “great navy”, which he uses to seize Umbar (‘Appendix A’). And through this, Pelargir and Umbar are finally united within one state, with the former restored as a mighty haven, and the latter becoming a “great harbour and fortress of the power of Gondor.”

Certainly, the aggressor, as described in ‘Appendix A’ is Gondor, projecting thalassocratic power through Pelargir. There is nothing explicit to suggest in the text that Umbar provoked some kind of bellum iustum – even given the narrative ‘set up’ that Umbar was inherently hostile to Gondor. And the available draft material sheds no further light. What we do have, in the ‘Appendix A’ narrative of the four successive Ship-kings of Gondor is an indication that, prior to the first Ship-king, Tarannon Falastur (III.654-913), Gondor does not appear to have been a maritime power. Pelargir may have been the classic littoral colony but its haven was effectively not serviceable for naval imperialism until the end of the reign of the second Ship-king, Eärnil (III.913-936). What changed then, to turn what had become an inland state, based around Osgiliath, into a maritime bruiser, eager to take a swing at Umbar? Tarannon’s exploits extend “the sway of Gondor along the coasts west and south of the Mouths of the Anduin.”. Speculatively, the Black Númenóreans of Umbar (or from even further to the south) could have been amongst those from whom Tarannon wrested the aforementioned coastal territories. Irrespective, Tarannon’s expansion south appears to have definitively brought Gondor into contact, or put it on a collision course, with Umbar. Diplomacy or (more) war becomes inevitable.

As has been picked up and run with by feigned historians of this secondary world for many years (including me, now and hitherto!), much has been made of a possibly off the cuff remark by Tolkien in a 1966 interview with Daphne Castell. I’m referring, of course, to Berúthiel, estranged wife and queen to King Tarannon, and specifically to the subordinate clause comment “… she was a black Númenorean [sic] in origin, I guess.”. This information doesn’t feature anywhere else in the legendarium, even where you could reasonably expect to see it, eg. the ‘Appendices’ (or their drafts) to LotR. In my opinion, it’s hard to see how Tolkien intended anything elaborate through his comment, particularly given the almost throwaway nature of the final remark: “… I guess.” (I’d love to be wrong, btw!). Anyway, continuing with the venerable tradition of exploiting this scrap for all its worth, I’ll write it up too that before war, Gondor and Umbar tried diplomacy through contracting a marriage between the Anárioni and a suitable scion of the Black Númenórean rulers of Umbar. However, neither the marriage nor the diplomatic solution lasted: Berúthiel was exiled by Tarannon and Tarannon’s successor, Eärnil invaded and conquered Umbar, operating out of Umbar’s ancient and revivified contemporary, Pelargir. From that point in III.933, Gondor seems to have never looked back: when it had the means, possession of Umbar was the norm. And for the Black Númenóreans of Umbar, reconquista from these Elendili upstarts out of Pelargir became their relentless raison d’être, passed on too, to their various successors, even as they themselves appear to fade from history.

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