Capital Punishment and the Shadow of Númenor (Guest Post by John @ Tales from Absurdia)

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Love and Friendship. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting several days of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!

Capital Punishment and the Shadow of Númeno

At the time of the War of the Ring in the Third Age, the Free Peoples of Middle-earth are in a bad way.

The Dwarves are beset by the forces of Angmar in the North, whilst the power of the Elves is waning. Meanwhile, the Hobbits have their own domestic feuds to resolve – not helped by the appearance of Sharkey (né Saruman).

The race of men is in a general disarray with Theoden of Rohan under the thrall of Saruman. Meanwhile, Gondor faces its own issues, with the forces of Mordor crossing the river Anduin. And barring a handful of southern provinces such as Belfalas where Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth resides, Minas Tirith is arguably the last great city of men – its piercing white walls facing outwardly proud in defiance against the shadow of Mordor.

And yet, from within the great walls of Minas Tirith (and Gondor at large), there lurks a dark, deep, brooding menace.

The death penalty.

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Gondor’s Use of the Death Penalty

Gondor’s death penalty is alluded to in both the novel and movie adaptation of The Two Towers, though in a somewhat non-committal manner.

In the novel, Faramir says the following:

‘I should now take you back to Minas Tirith to answer there to Denethor, and my life will justly be forfeit, if I now choose a course that proves ill for my city. So I will not decide in haste what is to be done.’

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

His life, we’re told, is ‘forfeit’ if he allows Frodo and Sam to part from his company. Because of the vague use of language, these lines pass by largely unaddressed. Even in the movie, Mardil – one of Faramir’s men – proclaims the following:

Madril: You know the laws of our country, the laws of your father. If you let them go,
your life will be forfeit.

Faramir: Then it is forfeit’

Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

This line is delivered in a languid, almost throwaway manner – as if it’s an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of Faramir’s own irresponsible actions.

But let’s strip away the metaphor, obfuscation, and trivial language. Faramir’s life being ‘forfeit’ means only one thing – the Kingdom of Gondor is willing to slay its own in accordance with pre-ordained laws, written up and ratified by the Steward Denethor (Faramir’s father no less!).

This is pretty dark, especially for Tolkien.

But why exactly is Faramir’s life ‘forfeit’? What laws could he have possibly broken to be threatened with such a grizzly punishment? Especially in a time where his presence is essential in order to stem the tide of Sauron’s forces.

Are there laws surrounding the finding of Isildur’s Bane (the ring)? This is unlikely. Save a very small handful of loremasters, nobody in Middle-earth knew of the ring after it passed out of history.

Could his death sentence be a result of allowing Frodo and Sam to depart without prior approval of Denethor? This is potentially more likely. After all, Pippin was not allowed to leave Gandalf’s side until he had the blessing of the Steward Denethor.

But even so, allowing a couple of travellers to continue on their journey seems hardly a court martial offence – even if Gondor is at war.

To properly understand the existence of capital punishment in Tolkien’s work, it’s worth delving into the history of the Númenorians; the ancient race of Men.

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A Brief(-ish) History of Númenor

Númenor was a Kingdom of Men based upon an island in the western seas of Middle-Earth, between the mainland of Middle-Earth and the haven of Valinor (also known as the Undying Lands).

As is alluded to throughout The Lord of the Rings, the Númenorians were wise, battle-hardy, and brilliant craftsmen. Some such as Tar-Palantir even possessed supernatural-like abilities such as the ‘farsight’, allowing them brief glimpses into the future. Incidentally, Denethor appeared to have retained some of this farsightedness, even without his use of the Palantir seeing stone.

After Tar-Palantir died, his brutish nephew – a man named Ar-Pharazon – forced Tar-Palantir’s daughter, Muriel (rightful Queen of Númenor) into marriage, thus usurping the throne.

Ar-Pharazon was ambitious and a leader of a populist group called the King’s Men who, as the power and riches of Men grew, wanted more. Coveting Elven immortality and the storied beauty of Valinor, The King’s Men resented both Elves and Valar, blaming them for deliberately obstructing the growth of men, and by extension, Númenor.

As part of his burgeoning ambition, Ar-Pharazon first turned his gaze towards the Middle-Earth – and Sauron, his enemy:

‘Ar-Pharazon the Golden was the proudest and most powerful of all the Kings, and no less than the kingship of the world was his desire.

He resolved to challenge Sauron the Great for supremacy of Middle-earth, and at length he himself set sail with a great navy, and he landed at Umbar.’

Appendix A, The Lord of the Rings

Sauron’s forces fled at the oncoming of the Númenoreans, so he turned to his next best trick – deception. As a shapeshifter, Sauron had the ability to make himself appear fair and beautiful before the Númenoreans, humbling himself and begging forgiveness. He then sought to manipulate the civil strife between the King’s Men and a group called ‘The Faithful’ (later known in The Lord of the Rings as the Dunedain).

‘It was not long before he had bewitched the King and was master of his counsel; and soon he had turned the hearts of all the Numenoreans, except the remnant of the Faithful, back towards the darkness.

And Sauron lied to the King, declaring that everlasting life would be his who possessed the Undying Lands, and that the Ban* was imposed only to prevent the Kings of Men from surpassing the Valar. ‘But great Kings take what is their right,’ he said.

At length, Ar-Pharazon listened to this counsel, for he felt the waning of his days and was besotted by the fear of Death.’

Appendix A, The Lord of the Rings

In short, the King’s Men, encouraged by Sauron, began to hunt down the Faithful who fled to Middle-Earth (Isildur amongst them), and embrace the death-cult of Morgoth. Worshipping Morgoth, and spurning the Valar, temples were erected in the name of Sauron’s dark master, corrupting a once great line of men.

The end of Númenor was brought about by Sauron, convincing an elderly Ar-Pharazon to make war upon Valinor. This was the last act of Númenor, with their forces drowned in the sea, and the island itself destroyed by Eru (literally God).

Many of the King’s Men, those now loyal to Sauron came to be known as The Black Númenorians. Many of those who survived the sundering of their home, departed with Sauron to the mainlands of Middle-Earth, where they took up residence in the Southern parts of Gondor, and aided Sauron in the War of the Ring.

Incidentally, the Mouth of Sauron – Sauron’s Lieutenant and right-hand man who confronts Gandalf and Aragorn prior to the Battle of the Black Gate in Return of the King – is a fallen Númenorian.

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So, Where Does Gondor Come Into This?

The history of Gondor is bound up irrevocably with the history of Númenor.

Elendil and his son Isildur, later to become leaders of Gondor, were never part of Sauron’s death-cult. Nor did they follow the King’s Men. However, Númenor has a long history of grievances over the roles of the Valar, and their wider impact on the lives of Men in Middle-Earth.

Drenched in the darkness of both their violent past – and the more immediate terror of Sauron – it’s possible to understand why Men’s hearts might become hard and cruel. And in desperate moments, with their backs to the wall, governments can be capable of terrible things.

Enter the death penalty.

This creates a schism between the idealised vision of the forces of good and the reality. Gondor is presented as the last bastion of ‘civilised’ men, set against the Easterlings, Wildmen, Orcs, and Uruks. The battle between the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth and the forces of darkness is presented largely as a binary choice between freedom vs death, good vs evil, east vs west, and purity vs savagery**.

But at no point is the legally-enforced policy of capital punishment explored in any great detail. This complicates the moral landscape of good vs evil – this argument of course hinging on the assumption that the reader finds capital punishment to be an immoral act. If not, this essay might be lost on you. If Captain Faramir, the son of the Steward, is to be put to death for merely allowing Sam and Frodo to leave his custody, how is this capital punishment policy enacted in peacetime Gondor for regular citizens? We’ll never know this of course, but it does raise interesting moral questions.

*The Ban is an order issued by the Valar, ordering that no-one shall enter the lands of Valinor uninvited. Prior to the sundering of Numenor, it was possible (though very difficult) to travel to the Undying Lands.

**On this last point, there is no doubt an essay to be written on the orientalism of The Lord of the Rings, but this essay is not that.

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Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Morality in The Lord of the Rings is generally straightforward – in its essence, it’s a story of good triumphing over evil. Sure, good people do bad things, but they’re generally punished for them, upholding the moral order of things and Tolkien’s Catholic worldview.

Boromir tries to take the ring from Frodo, and subsequently falls in battle. Isildur refuses to destroy the ring in lieu of claiming it for himself, and is slain by orcs when the ring eventually abandons him. And Saruman, who betrays Gandalf and the free peoples of Middle-Earth, is in turn betrayed by Wormtongue.

The wrongs committed by good people are mostly put right, and the villains of Tolkien get their comeuppance when all is said and done.

But it’s interesting that capital punishment goes ignored.

A simple conclusion that could be drawn is that The Lord of the Rings was published in a different time, where capital punishment was possibly more socially amenable. After all, the death penalty wasn’t abolished in the UK until as late as 1964.

However, what’s interesting is that the institutions of capital punishment that exist in Middle-Earth are spoken about in such vague language, as if characters are consciously ashamed of the practice and unable to properly name it. Faramir’s life is stated as being ‘forfeit,’ rather than the explicit fact that he’s condemned to be hanged (or however Gondor enforces the death penalty).

In my view, Gondor’s death penalty is an indirect result of Sauron’s influence upon the Númenoreans; nursing malice from within the darkened halls of Men and corrupting from afar.

I’m not arguing that there’s no difference between the free peoples of Middle-Earth and the forces of Sauron because of the mere existence of the death penalty – clearly there’s a massive gulf in ethics, morals, and virtues between the Orcs of Mordor and the Elves of Rivendell. However, the mere existence of capital punishment, whether it’s in Gondor, Rohan, or in the ancient world presented in The Silmarillion, complicates notions of fixed morality and ethics in Tolkien’s works, reconfiguring the moral landscape in a war between so-called purity and depravity.

About the Author

Visit John’s blog at Tales from Absurdia.

2 thoughts on “Capital Punishment and the Shadow of Númenor (Guest Post by John @ Tales from Absurdia)

  1. Rosie Amber says:

    Thank you John. I firmly believe that Tolkien’s background and upbringing would have reflected in his writing. Maybe his interest in old languages too as they might have taught him about styles of punishment from past times when it was dealt with differently from his own era.


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