When Tolkien reinvented Atlantis and Lewis went to Mars

Discovering the dates of The Fall of Númenor and Out of the Silent Planet

A few months ago I revealed what I think is an exciting new find about the origins of J R R Tolkien’s Atlantis story, The Fall of Númenor, the ultimate predecessor of the accounts of Númenor given in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. I announced my discovery in an article for the Sunday Telegraph which also touched on the role played by Tolkien’s friend C S Lewis. The article can be read at the Telegraph website (sign-up is free for one ‘premium’ article per week), and I won’t now repeat everything it says. But I will recap here the main points I made there about when exactly the Númenor idea struck Tolkien. And I can add some refinements.

That’s because I have now made a further advance, which I hope will prove especially valuable to Lewis scholars. What follows may seem a thicket of facts, and less welcoming than my other blog posts, but its sole purpose is to give and weigh evidence.

The Fall of Númenor has generally been seen as a product of the writers’ ‘wager’ that produced The Lost Road and Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, in which humans travel for the first time to Mars. All these writings, including Lewis’s, have been dated to 1936–7. Christopher Tolkien favours 1936 (The Lost Road and Other Writings, 9); Christina Scull and Wayne G Hammond suggest ‘?1936–1937’ (J R R Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, 180). Humphrey Carpenter over-estimates the gap between The Fall of Númenor and The Lost Road, saying that the first was written ‘perhaps in the late nineteen-twenties or early thirties’ (J R R Tolkien: A Biography, 170). But he is on the mark insofar as The Fall of Númenor carries no indication that Tolkien initially wrote it in connection with any time-travel story.

Letters of JRR TolkienA clear statement by Tolkien, which seems to have been universally overlooked, identifies the immediate spur for Númenor as a blurb he wrote for The Hobbit in which he ‘spoke of the time between the Elder Days and the Dominion of Men’. ‘Out of that came the “missing link”: the “Downfall of Númenor”, releasing some hidden “complex”,’ he told a reader (Letters, no. 180, 14 January 1956, to ‘Mr Thompson’).

The recollection came twenty years after the fact. Yet it is solid, to judge by another in the same letter where Tolkien describes writing the chapter ‘Treebeard’ for The Lord of the Rings ‘without any recollection of previous thought: just as it is now.’ Christopher Tolkien confirms, ‘This testimony is fully borne out by the original text. “Treebeard” did indeed very largely “write itself”’ (The Treason of Isengard, 411).

Though I had read that 1956 letter to ‘Mr Thompson’ a number of times, the significance for the date of The Fall of Númenor had previously eluded me – as it seems to have eluded everyone else. However, it turns out that all the information necessary for its elucidation has already been published long ago.

This reveals that a publicity paragraph about The Hobbit was requested by the publishers, George Allen & Unwin, on 4 December 1936. Tolkien, who probably received the request the next day, sent a paragraph on 8 December, complete with the phrase ‘the ancient time between the ages of Faerie and the dominion of men’ (Chronology, 188; Wayne G Hammond, Bibliography, 8). That is obviously the phrase he slightly misremembered in his letter of 1956, by which time he had long ceased to use terms like ‘Faërie’ in connection with his legendarium. In September 1937, the paragraph was used as the dustjacket blurb for the first edition of The Hobbit.

Tolkien’s recollection that writing the Hobbit blurb was the spur for Númenor, therefore, shows that the Númenor idea arose between 5 and 8 December 1936, or in the days immediately following. The Oxford University Christmas vacation had just begun, and may well have afforded time to push it forward. There was a rapidly jotted story outline. A full version of The Fall of Númenor, also written at speed, followed probably immediately.

At some point in the following days, weeks, or months Tolkien used the Númenor story as the basis for the unfinished time-travel novel The Lost Road.

Lewis – Collected Letters 2 – USIn my article for the Telegraph, I argued that the ‘wager’ with Lewis may have been struck at the same time as Tolkien had the initial Númenor inspiration – that is, in the days immediately following Allen & Unwin’s request for a Hobbit publicity paragraph. I’m still inclined to think that may have been the case. But further methodical work with Lewis’s letters has now uncovered another important and hitherto unnoticed detail about the wager and its results. (The Collected Letters of C S Lewis, as I say in my 2006 Observer review of the third and final volume, is a marvellous resource and a tremendous read.)

Editing The Fall of Númenor and The Lost Road, Christopher Tolkien infers from physical and textual similarities that both of them ‘arose at the same time and from the same impulse’ (The Lost Road and Other Writings, 9). It is now clear, though, as Tolkien’s 1956 letter shows, that two separate impulses were at play. The Númenor idea itself first arose from the Hobbit ‘blurb’ of early December 1936. But Tolkien’s novel of time-travel to Númenor, The Lost Road, arose from Lewis’s proposition that they should each write ‘an excursionary “Thriller” … discovering Myth’ (Letters, no. 24, to Stanley Unwin, 18 February 1938). This was the basis of their so-called wager. And the wager may or may not have coincided with the impulse for the initial Númenor legend at the time Tolkien wrote the Hobbit blurb.

Williams – The Place Of The LionThe roots of Lewis’s idea certainly go further back. He had seen the potential for conveying serious spiritual ideas in adventure thrillers and science-fiction after reading David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (Lewis to Charles A Brady, 29 October 1944; to Ruth Pitter, 4 January 1947; and to William L. Kinter, 28 March 1953). Lewis had not yet read that book on 7 December 1935 when he mentioned it in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves. Another revelation of the potential value of genre fiction, particularly in conveying spiritual or theological ideas, was the work of Charles Williams (later welcomed into Lewis and Tolkien’s circle of Oxford friends, the Inklings). Lewis told Arthur Greeves on 26 February 1936 that he had ‘just read’ Williams’ The Place of the Lion. By the time of a 24 June letter to Leo Baker, Lewis had also read Williams’ Many Dimensions.

What seems to have gone unremarked in previous discussions of the chronology of the wager is that Lewis identified two later – and therefore more immediate – catalysts for his space-travel novel Out of the Silent Planet. The first was reading Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (no earlier than May 1937). The second was a conversation with a pupil (probably in June 1937).

Stapledon – Last and First Men – Pelican smallCrucially, the Pelican edition of Last and First Men which Lewis read was not published until May 1937. (See James Pardey, The Art of Penguin Science Fiction. In a letter to Roger Lancelyn Green on 28 December 1938, Lewis refers to this as the ‘Penguin Libr.’ edition, because Pelican was an imprint of Penguin, the hugely successful publishing house launched in 1935.)

Equally crucially, we may put a close date to Lewis’s comment that ‘What set me about writing the book was the discovery that a pupil of mine took all that dream of interplanetary colonisation quite seriously, and … that a “scientific” hope of defeating death is a real rival to Christianity’ (to Sister Penelope, 9 August 1939). The discovery is surely described contemporaneously to Dom Bede Griffiths on 27 June 1937: ‘I was talking the other day to an intelligent infidel who said that he pinned all his hopes for any significance in the universe on the chance that the human race by adapting itself to changed conditions and first planet jumping, then star jumping, finally nebula jumping, could really last forever and subject matter wholly to mind.’ (It would be great to know who this ‘intelligent infidel’ was!)

The upshot of all this is that Out of the Silent Planet cannot have been begun until May, or more likely late June, when Oxford’s summer ‘long vacation’ had begun. And the wager, assigning time-travel to Tolkien and space-travel to Lewis, may have been struck at any point between the reading of The Place of the Lion and the commencement of Out of the Silent Planet in summer 1937. The accumulation of catalysts seems to favour the latter part of the sixteen-month span. It still seems possible that the writers’ bargain was made in December 1936 when Númenor was first invented. Tolkien recalled that The Fall of Númenor ‘attracted Lewis greatly, as heard read’ (Letters, no. 294, to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, 8 February 1967). But a further half year passed before Lewis began writing, and that gives scope for The Fall of Númenor to have percolated alongside Lewis’s thoughts on the serious potential of genre fiction. Indeed, unless the two writers literally ‘tossed up’ over the division of space- and time-travel, their wager may even have been prompted by Lewis’s own space-travel story idea in summer 1937.

LotR Baynes frontThe rest is well known. In November 1937 the Lost Road chapters so far written were presented by Tolkien to Allen & Unwin in the wild hope that it might serve as a follow-up to the very successful but utterly different Hobbit. It was the publisher’s rejection of The Lost Road (not to mention The Silmarillion and The Lay of Leithian, a long narrative poem about the lovers Beren and Lúthien) that prompted Tolkien to embark with the greatest reluctance on ‘a new story about Hobbits’ by 19 December 1937 (Letters, no. 20, to C A Furth). This, of course, became The Lord of the Rings.

Doomed by Tolkien’s decision to deliver more about hobbits, The Lost Road never got any further than four chapters. But it had been a vital phase in the development of the Númenor story that underpins the history and destiny of Aragorn, of Gondor, and of Gondor’s age-long war with Sauron.

Conceived and begun, as we now see, in summer 1937, Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet was finished with astonishing speed by 2 September (Lewis to Owen Barfield). Published in 1938, it became the first instalment of a ‘cosmic trilogy’ also comprising Perelandra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945), and established Lewis as a fiction writer of substance.


(Note: A day after publication, this article was slightly edited for clarity, and enlarged to include Tolkien’s quote on Lewis’s pleasure in The Fall of Númenor.)

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17 Responses to When Tolkien reinvented Atlantis and Lewis went to Mars

  1. Reblogged this on A Pilgrim in Narnia and commented:
    Readers will know of John Garth’s important work on establishing a greater context for understanding J.R.R. Tolkien’s story, particularly at critical points in his life, like WWI. In this piece, Garth looks at an important point in 1936 and 1937, where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis created a SciFi wager, challenging each other to write the stories that simply were not being published. This wager is known to spur on C.S. Lewis to writing his first SF book, Out of the Silent Planet. It was also a prophetic moment, for within a couple of decades both authors would be best-in-show Fantasy authors, and SciFi will have exploded in popularity. What Garth does here and in the article he links is focus the lens on some overlooked facts that fill in our understanding of Tolkien, Lewis, and their creative process. I hope you enjoy, and take the time to test his work.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Many thanks! This is very interesting!

    I wonder if ‘dusting off’ Roverandom to offer for publication may have fed into the space and time travel fiction discussions? Do we know if Lewis knew about it?

    It only dawned on me fairly recently that Lewis repeats his aural misspelling, ‘Numinor’, in every version of ‘The End [or ‘Last’] of the Wine’ I’ve seen (the 1964 Poems and the Fantasy and Science Fiction July 1964 ones: I’ve never yet caught up with the 3 December 1947 Punch or Don King’s presentation in The Collected Poems).

    Reading lately about mediaeval treatments of both Elves and Merlin in the J.A.W. Bennett/Douglas Gray OHEL volume somehow suddenly got me wondering if there might be any elusive hint of attention in That Hideous Strength to Elven bloodlines where Lewis’s Merlin is concerned (even, his father?!) – time for some fine-tooth-comb rereading on my part…

    • John Garth says:

      Thanks for this, David! I think you make a very valuable suggestion about Roverandom. The ‘dusting off’ that you mention – retyping and revising Roverandom to hand over on 28 November to George Allen & Unwin – certainly means it would have been fresh in Tolkien’s mind when he began work on The Fall of Númenor in early December 1936. The ‘moon’s path’ by which Roverandom travels is certainly a bridge also in terms of Tolkien’s creativity – between the Path of Dreams in The Book of Lost Tales and the Straight Path/Road in the Númenor story. Tolkien set down to make a Roverandom typescript for Allen & Unwin, presumably after the publishers’ reviewers had all given the thumbs-up to The Hobbit around the start of November. Hammond and Scull argue persuasively that this phase includes not only the full 60-page Roverandom typescript but an earlier one that stopped after nine pages. It’s odd that this abortive typescript should stop precisely as the moon’s path is being described.

      There’s no evidence that Lewis knew about the children’s story. But given his part in urging The Hobbit forward, and his more general role as chief motivator, it does seem likely that Tolkien would have told him he was going to submit Farmer Giles of Ham and Roverandom.

      Is there evidence for when Lewis’s ‘The Last of the Wine’ was written? As far as I can see, it might have been a response to Tolkien’s first Númenor writings in 1936–7, or Tolkien’s second attempt at a Númenor time-travel story, The Notion Club Papers, 1945–6. But ‘Numinor’ had been ingested by Lewis’s planetary myth in the interim, so the poem might have been an outgrowth of that process, effectively now independent of Tolkien’s conceptions.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        You’re welcome, and thanks for taking it up and working it out further! There is, in addition to the path, also that reference in chapter 4 about attempting to bind “the ancient Sea-serpent”: “Only once had the Man in the Moon tried (when specially requested), and at least one continent fell into the sea as a result.” (And perhaps a more general resonance of undersea kingdom and sunken continent: cf. Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea?)

      • John Garth says:

        Yes, I have noted that Atlantis reference in Roverandom, but until your earlier comment I had not spotted the reason why these matters would be fresh in Tolkien’s mind when he began The Fall of Númenor in 1936. Thank you again. I have quite a lot more to say on the development of the legend, but I think it best to reserve that discussion for the publication of my book Tolkien’s Mirror, though that may be some time away.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Tolkien’s Mirror! Lots to look forward to!

    To fetch a little further, myself, at the moment (with something I couldn’t fit in either the spoken or written version of my paper for the Leiden “Tolkien among Scholars” conference, but which I hope to pursue a bit), you suggested in Tolkien at Exeter College (p. 8), that in 1911 the young Tolkien “may have enjoyed knowing that, nearly a century earlier the father of modern geology, Sir Charles Lyell, had also read classics at Exeter College.” Now, Lyell (as you may have been thinking?), in 1872 had written, “Continents […] although permanent for whole geological epochs, shift their positions entirely in the course of ages”. And in his 1932 letter, Father Christmas quotes Cave Bear as saying that there were lots of men about “long ago, when the North Pole was somewhere else.” This, in the context of caves which, so far as I can tell, are in rock, so that the North Pole is based, not on ice, but solid ground! This might have to do with that recurring idea, which was, by 1932, already a controversial one for some 80 years, the idea to which Alfred Wegener had given the name ‘continental drift’ and which Professor Arthur Holmes of Durham University had just been championing in 1931.

    If Tolkien was indeed allowing Cave Bear to espouse this, he may have been playing with something else as well. For, down the centuries, there are various witnesses that (as Hakluyt puts it) “in the yeere 1360, a certain English Frier, a Franciscan, and a Mathematician of Oxford,” travelled to islands in the far North inhabited by descendants of people King Arthur had settled there, “and passing further by his Magicall Arte, described all those places that he sawe”, including the island at the North Pole, in a book now lost. Peter Heylyn notes that Oxonian’s report of an Arctic island “inhabited by Pygmies, the tallest of them not above four foot high”. Now, we know how Tolkien later (Letter 239) told of abandoning the name ‘Gnomes’ “since it is quite impossible to dissociate the name from the popular associations of the Paracelsan gnomus = pygmaeus .” But, in 1932, might he have played with idea of the true identity of these pygmy northern Gnomes and the true nature of that solid Polar earth, seen by that earlier Oxford scholar? In any case, he might have said of his Polar region in these letters what he later said of Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings (Letter 187), “Having geological interests, and a very little knowledge, I have not wholly neglected this aspect, but its indication is rather more difficult – and perilous!” Whether he would have been rereading older Father Christmas letters as he worked on his 1936 one, and so have mysterious continents that much the more in mind, are other questions. (The Wikipedia articles, “Inventio Fortunata” and “Rupes Nigra” are interesting, here, not least for their illustrations and links, while B.F. De Costa offers a convenient (if in many ways startling) overview with quotations in Inventio Fortunata: Arctic exploration with an account of Nicholas of Lynn (1881), conveniently scanned in the Internet Archive.)

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    My brain storming about a bit, today, brought me to wonder whether Tolkien’s having been long at work on proto-history of Middle-earth may have contributed to his ending up tackling ‘time’, leaving Lewis ‘space’ (or might planetary interests have already been so a part of Lewis’s imagination, as similarly to contribute to his tackling ‘space’)?

    And, it struck me further how, in retrospect, Lewis remained busy with ‘space’, with two great branches resulting: the Solar ‘space’ saga of Ransom, and the ‘other-space’ saga of Narnia (but, regarded as a distinct sort of ‘science fiction’, with Solar planetary ‘influences’ as charted by Michael Ward). Narnia, even more than the Solar saga, brought Lewis to time-as-history in ways similar to Tolkien, but not strictly to ‘time-travel’ backwards, or even forwards, as Narnian incursions are always Earth’s ‘now’ to Narnia’s ‘now’ (or even Charn’s ‘now’), but with somehow ‘different-speed histories.

    That, in turn, really gets me wanting to reread The Notions Club Papers – and the Dark Tower drafts – to see just how contemporary (or imagined future!) English interrelations with time and space are at work in each!

    • John Garth says:

      Given their pre-existing interests, I have wondered about the accuracy of Tolkien’s recollection that there was a toss-up with Lewis over space and time. It’s difficult to see how it would have worked the other way round.

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A possibly wild idea, but brushing up my Narnia a bit, I suddenly wonder if Lewis, who had lived with the writing and rewriting of The Lord of the Rings over many a year, and had given a kind of encouraging ‘teaser’ in the intro to That Hideous Strength, might have been consciously, implicitly doing something similar from time to time along the way in the course of the Narnia books, the first four of which appeared before The Fellowship of the Ring, the fifth before The Two Towers, and the sixth before The Return of the King – if, despite Tolkien’s unfavourable reaction to the first, and their very obvious stylistic differences as stories (and ‘worlds’), Lewis was intending a bit of specific praeparatio.

    • John Garth says:

      If so, I’d suggest it backfired rather badly!

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        While I didn’t read Narnia till after I had read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and I didn’t read those until I was a university freshman,I wonder if one aspect of this could be anecdotally checked among people who read Narnia before The Lord of the Rings…

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Going a bit further afield, some things could be just (independent) varying of shared ‘sources’/references, as the “Ainulindalë” and the creation of the Narnian world in The Magician’s Nephew and Job 38:7 (Vulgate “cum me laudarent simul astra matutina, et jubilarent omnes filii Dei?”, Douay-Rheims “When the morning stars praised me together, and all the sons of God made a joyful melody?”, KJV “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”).

  6. Dale Nelson says:

    I’m working on an article that suggests that, in writing Out of the Silent Planet, CSL was influenced by H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Chronology is very favorable to the possibility. Lewis seems quite surely to have read Donald Wandrei’s “Colossus” in the Jan. 1934 issue of Astounding, and the Lovecraft novel was serialized in the February, March, and April 1936 issues. Lewis would have been likely to see the novel and to appreciate its freedom from irrelevant romantic affairs and so on. Where influence comes in is with regard to the protagonists in each novel learning about the real history of the earth through inspecting wall carvings — in the Antarctic city of the Old Ones in the HPL story, in the Melidilorn island in CSL’s. Lovecraft’s protagonist learns that life on earth, including human beings, was created by the Old Ones. Lewis’s protagonist learns that the Bible’s and Christian tradition’s account of the war in heaven, in which Satan was cast out, is true. The latter episode seems to be a riposte to the former episode.

    Dale Nelson

    • John Garth says:

      Hi Dale (and thanks for the great review of Tolkien and the Great War all those years ago!)

      This is very interesting indeed. Chronology can be a great help in forming judgements about possible intertextual contacts like this; and the idea of a riposte makes for a plausible motive. I suppose it’s about time I read At the Mountains of Madness.

      • Dale Nelson says:

        There’s also a bit near the end of the Lovecraft story in which the narrator imagines seeing human beings and their dogs through the alarmed eyes of Old Ones who have revived after millions of years. It reminds me a bit of Ransom, in Lewis’s novel, seeing human beings through Malacandrian eyes after his sojourn among the Martians — though of course Lovecraft and Lewis could both have been drawing upon an incident in Gulliver’s Travels, or even be inventing their scenes independently.

      • John Garth says:

        Yes, the Houyhnhnms episode in Gulliver’s Travels — a classic and utterly unsettling perspective shift — does imprint itself indelibly on the memory. Ransom’s perspective shift sounds closer to Swift than the Lovecraft narrator’s; but I speak without having read that book.

  7. Dale Nelson says:

    John, while you’re at it (reading At the Mountains of Madness), take a look, if you haven’t read it, at Lovecraft’s other story printed in Astounds — “The Shadow Out of Time.” I’m wondering if the chronoscope device, the displacement theme, the time travel theme, etc. in Lewis’s Dark Tower fragment don’t derive from this second Lovecraft story.

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