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.
A 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.
In 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.
The 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).
Crucially, 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.
The 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.)