Tolkien, mythology and numerology
Here, I would like to combine my knowledge about Tolkien’s universe and my interest in mythology and symbology.
Tolkien and his creation
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, a professor of English philology and Anglo-Saxon in Oxford, was a language genius who had studied about 15 different languages and had also created several languages of his own. He worked on the history and languages of his world for many years and added and changed a lot of details, until he had finally created an incredibly complex and detailed image of what he said was our planet way before the beginning of our world history. Only after having designed this, he started to write “The Lord of the Rings”, which was an immediate success all over the world.
He did not invent the whole history of his universe, though. The purpose of his learning so many languages was that he could read texts about different mythologies from all over the world in their original languages, which becomes apparent in the creation of his own mythology. Many names have been taken from existing mythologies, especially the Norse, for example the names of the Dwarves who come to Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit; all of them are taken from the Edda, a collection of old Icelandic mythology. Also, a lot of people or objects in Tolkien’s works have “partners” in other mythologies, like the pantheon with one major God at the top which is similar to the real world’s religions and mythologies, the symbolism of the Rings, which appear in many mythologies, like the Norse or Egyptian ones, or the Ringwraiths which have much in common with the ancient idea of the Valkyries.
The history of numerology is a history of many centuries and cultures. Every culture on earth has given special attributes to numbers, and many of those attributes are similar to each other. Seven, for example, has been a symbol of holiness in cultures as different from each other as the Greeks, the Chinese and the Teutons. The reason for this is observations of nature – the seven moon phases or the seven colours of the rainbow to name two examples. Common interpretations like these led different cultures into developing similar meanings for most numbers; later, religions picked up these meanings and used them for their purposes, like three for the Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit or fourteen for the three times fourteen generations in the family tree from Abraham to Jesus.
Some of these symbols are widely known, like three representing the Trinity, while others require a more thorough research.
In this term paper I used both mythology and religion as sources of information about numeric symbols.
Tolkien’s use of existing mythologies and symbols is one aspect that makes his creation so special; so far, no other author has ever composed a story so complex and logical as Tolkien’s, based on so many different mythological roots, while still being able to call it his own creation.
Important numbers and their meaning in Tolkien’s works
The Number One
The number one is a number of highly symbolic significance. Being the ‘first’ number, it stands for unity and originality, invention and creativity. It is also referred to as one of the most important numbers since it is a number with beginning, middle and end – unlike two, which only has a beginning (one) and an end (two) but no middle part.
This number often appears in Tolkien’s works; I have chosen two examples, namely the god Ilúvatar and the Dark Lord Sauron and his Ring.
Ilúvatar – The One Creator
Ilúvatar is the supreme god in Tolkien’s universe. The first sentences in the Silmarillion, an “Account of the Elder Days, or the First Age of the World” describe the beginning of the world:
“There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad.”
Ilúvatar has much in common with the Christian God and most other major gods. The quote above illustrates that in the beginning, there was only the Void and Ilúvatar who created the world and everything in it. He did so by creating the Ainur, spirits to whom he gradually unveiled his plans in the form of the Great Music; little at the beginning, but then more and more. Through their singing, the world came into being and finally became real. Like the Christian God, Ilúvatar does not rule the world he created, but allows its creatures to develop freely on their own.
Some of the shapeless Ainur, however, sometime later took on a much more beautiful version of the form that would later be the shape of Men and Elves. This is a theory similar to the Norse or Greek (and Roman) mythology, where there is one major God and various lesser gods and goddesses who have near-human bodies, but are of great beauty. They also have human characteristics – like love, hatred, or anger. However, unlike the gods in these mythologies, the majority of the Valar are near to perfection concerning morality, wisdom and behaviour.
Ilúvatar and the symbol ‘one’
The number one already appears in Ilúvatar’s name – Eru, “The One”. One stands for undivided unity as it has no divisors, factors, or components, and as a source and root of all other numbers. It is also said to be an image of the highest being whose power created the universe. In Tolkien’s mythology, this being is the god Ilúvatar who alone stands above everything else.
In Tarot, One stands for the Magician who has the ability to create, who understands how to use all four elements in creation, just like the omnipotent Ilúvatar.
In ancient alchemy, One represents gold and diamonds, the most precious metal and stone.
The weekday connected to the number One is Sunday, the day honouring the Christian God.
These examples show clearly how important Ilúvatar is to Tolkien’s world, although he is hardly ever mentioned after his creating of the world. He is the initiator, the creator of everything, but he does not intervene in the actions in the world. The Valar watched over the beginnings of the Elves, but they were not sent by Ilúvatar; he created everything that was necessary to guarantee the survival of all creatures. At this point, his task in the world was over and he was able to distance himself from the world as an observer.
Sauron and the One Ring – Creation and Destruction
The One Ring is the Dark Lord Sauron’s most powerful tool – and his doom. He forges it in secret after learning the art of crafting magic rings from the Elves, and most of his power lies within this Ring; the moment he loses it, he is nothing but a wraith, a powerless shadow of his former self. But there is still hope for him:
“He only needs the One; for he made that Ring himself, it is his, and he let a great part of his former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others. If he recovers it, then he will command them all again, wherever they be, even the Three, and all that has been wrought with them will be laid bare, and he will be stronger than ever”
“He greatly desires it – but he must not get it.”
These two quotes by the wizard Gandalf summarize the whole plot of the book – the Fellowship’s attempt to destroy the Ring and Sauron’s efforts to retain it.
Rings have often been used in mythological texts, like in Egyptian mythology, as a symbol of eternity or as tools of power and strength. Also their ability to turn the bearer invisible appears in many myths. Very often they come to the most unlikely person one can imagine, like the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, who accidentally found the Ring in a cave. Also the fact that the whole story is just about one single object contains significant symbolic meaning.
Sauron, his Ring and the number One
As stated above, One stands for creativity and invention. Like Ilúvatar, Sauron is a creator – although a more destructive one than Ilúvatar. He creates the One Ring, the most powerful of the 20 Rings, to destroy and enslave Middle-earth. He also creates the “Black Speech”, a language used by him and his servants, and he breeds werewolves for the battle against the Elves.
He can be seen in some ways as the opposite of Ilúvatar, who represents the good attributes of the number One. Ilúvatar is the creator of everything, but his creations do no harm, and after creating the world, he leaves it to develop on its own accord. Sauron, on the other hand, creates the Ring to gain power over the world, and thus enslave and destroy it.
These two examples show the importance of the number One in Tolkien’s works, since the two most powerful beings both stand alone over their minions or servants. Also the fact that there are two rulers above all else that are opposed to each other contains some symbolic meaning, since Two sometimes stands for discord, as it is the number between One and Three, the two “perfect” numbers, and stands for the dualism between good and evil.
The Number Three
This number has the most symbolic meanings. It stands for the trinity, the unity of three different qualities; it is the number of completeness and of the three Christian moral qualities – love, hope and faith. The number Three limits everything, for everything has a beginning, middle and end.
The Three Elven Rings and their bearers – The Preserving Trinity
Three Rings were forged by the Elven smith Celebrimbor around 1600 S.A. and were given to Lords of the Elves. Their names were Vilya, Nenya and Narya, the Quenyan words for water, air and fire.
Vilya (“air”), the Ring of Water, is made of gold with a big sapphire. Celebrimbor gave it to Gil-galad, a mighty Elf-lord, who passed it on to the Half-Elf Elrond in 1701 S.A. The second Ring, Nenya (“water”), is made of the Dwarf-silver Mithril with a diamond on it. It was given to Galadriel. Narya (“fire”), the third Ring, is made of unknown metal with a ruby on it. Like Vilya, it was given to Gil-galad, who gave it to the Elvish shipwright Círdan, who, in turn, passed it on to the wizard Gandalf. These Rings had the power to preserve and to protect, and they also helped their bearers to endure the weariness of Middle-earth and carry the burden of life which was indeed very heavy, for they spent their time fighting against the menace and destruction caused by Sauron.
The names of the Rings fit to the material they have been made of and to the qualities of their bearers. The gemstone of Vilya, the blue sapphire, symbolizes with its colour the blue sky and thus the air, whereas the stone in Nenya is transparent like the water. These two Rings represent the elements that are generally seen as quite calm, although they can have destructive powers – like their bearers, who do not actively fight against Sauron but who could be terrible enemies if challenged.
The gemstone on Narya is the colour of fire, and it fits to Gandalf since he is the most active one of the three Ringbearers and there is a fire burning inside him, urging him to act.
The Elves, their Rings and the number Three
It is surely no coincidence that Tolkien chose three Rings to represent the good powers of Middle-earth. Among all numbers, the Three is most positively connotated. First of all, it is connected with the idea of the Holy Trinity, which is found in many religions, like the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in Christianity or the unity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the major gods in Hinduism. It is also the number of the Three Wise Men that came to honour the newborn Christ.
The three Ringbearers Elrond, Galadriel and Gandalf represent the Trinity of Middle-earth. It is not known whether they were given special tasks in this world when given the Rings, so the most common answer to the question why they and no-one else got the Rings was just that they were the most powerful people in Middle-earth at that time, which contributes to the idea of the Trinity; they can be seen as a triad. By wearing these Rings, they are more powerful than any other being in Middle-earth, and although they do not rule the world like gods, they have the power to protect it and fight against evil powers like Sauron.
The number Three often unites different aspects of life, feelings etc., like the three qualities positive, negative, and neutral; the unity of body, soul and spirit; or the three divisions of mind – the conscious, subconscious and super-conscious. The Rings form a connection between the three elements Air, Water and Fire that are very different but still complement to each other – no-one could survive if only one of them failed to exist. This intensifies the importance of these Rings for Middle-earth; if one of them got lost, broken or – the worst case possible – controlled by Sauron, Middle-earth would perish.
Three is also the number of the divisions of time, which are past, present and future. One can easily make a connection to the three Rings and their bearers. The Rings have helped to protect their masters’ realms from the past into the present and the future, almost unchanged.
Each of the Ringbearers combines all three divisions, but lays his emphasis on a different one. Elrond can be seen as a wise Elf who has seen many important events of Middle-earth; he is one of the wisest persons in the world. Tolkien himself said about Elrond that “he represented the old lore and wisdom” . He also does not easily forget or forgive things that happened thousands of years ago; he is still full of reproaches against all Men because Isildur, son of the Númenorian King Elendil, managed to cut the Ring off Sauron’s hand but did not destroy it when he had the one chance to put an end to Sauron’s deeds for ever. This makes Elrond the Ringbearer of the past. He is not an Elf of rash action, but knows to do the right thing at the right time, and he can also foretell the future to a certain extent.
Gandalf is a mighty wizard and the one of the three Ringbearers who is actually out in the world actively fighting against the threat of Sauron. He was the one who got Bilbo Baggins, the uncle of Frodo Baggins, to join the dwarf Thórin Oakenshield and his companions on the quest to regain their realm in Erebor, the Lonely Mountain. He spent countless years searching for the One Ring and the creature Gollum, who had possessed that Ring for a long time, while other wise men only sat in their realms, thinking about the Ring’s whereabouts without even considering it might have been found. He fought Sauron several times and in the end, he assisted Frodo Baggins in his task of finally destroying the Ring. He has lived for a long time and therefore also has got a long memory, and yet, he represents power not only in lore and wisdom, but also in his actions. He does not live in his memories or in worries about the future, he lives for the present.
Galadriel, on the other hand, mostly cares about the future and what will happen to her and her Realm, Lothlórien, if the One Ring is destroyed. The power of all the other Rings would fade and many things she has achieved would be lost; she wishes that the One Ring had been lost forever so she could maintain the power over her own Ring and thus continue living in Lothlórien. However, she knows that now, the Ring has been found and Sauron is aware of it, it has to be destroyed, and this greatly worries her, for her work in Lórien will have been in vain if the power of her Ring fades. Moreover, being a Noldor Elf, she is not free of the hunger for power, which is characteristic of her kin.
One can clearly see how important these three Elves and their Rings are for the fate of Middle-earth, since Tolkien chose the number Three to represent the good powers and by that implicitely attributed a lot of positive qualities to them, in addition to those explicitely mentioned like wisdom, strength or compassion.
The Number Seven
This number often appears in mythologies and also in Christianity. It stands for plenty and continuity, spirituality and wisdom.
The Valar – Spiritual Protectors
“The Great among these spirits the Elves name the Valar, the powers of Arda , and Men have often called them gods. The Lords of the Valar are seven; and the Valier, the Queens of the Valar, are seven also. […] The names of the lords in due order are: Manwë, Ulmo, Aulë, Oromë, Mandos, Lórien and Tulkas; and the names of the Queens are: Varda, Yavanna, Nienna, Estë, Vairë, Vána and Nessa. Melkor is counted no longer among the Valar, and his name is not spoken upon Earth.”
All Valar have unique personalities and different characteristics attributed to them. Manwë, for example, represents Ilúvatar, he is the highest of all Valar. Mandos is the Lord of Spirits. Mandos’ sister, Nienna, the Lady of Sorrows, “mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope.”
This situation is similar to the Greek or Norse gods, a pantheon with each god focusing on a different aspect of life.
The Valar and the number Seven
There are 14 Valar – seven Lords and seven Ladies. This twofold Seven is surely no coincidence, since the number Seven is very important in mythology, as well as in the Christian church. It has many connotations, like spirituality, wisdom, invention or ethereal – qualities that describe the Valar. This was especially true of Manwë, who of all Valar had the closest relationship to Ilúvatar, and Mandos, who knew everything that was and will be, although he would not reveal his knowledge to the other Valar, except on Manwë’s bidding.
Seven also stands for aloof and unearthly and thus contributes to the high rank of the Valar and their existance, for they came from Ilúvatar to Arda and were not born there.
In the Bible, Seven is the principle number. It is mentioned over three hundred times and can be seen as the number of completeness and plenty. The number of the Valar is complete after the arrival of Tulkas – no other comes into Arda, and no other leaves. Furthermore, it shows that Melkor becomes truly excluded from the Aratar for without him their number is complete, with him they would be too many.
Seven is also the number of rest and safety. And rest and safety is what the Valar try to acquire in their land, their preferred status quo. This is why they fought Melkor, who had already distorted the themes of the Great Music in the very beginning, before Arda came into being. And in Middle-earth, he kept destroying the works of the other Valar and the Elves, until he was finally banished and there was only his servant Sauron left to deal with.
Seven, being the result of 3 (the divine number) added to 4 (the number connected to the world and the people), also stands for the connection and union between God and his people – like the Valar who came from Ilúvatar to aid Elves and Men.
Seven is also the number of the Holy Spirit’s gifts, the pleas of the Lord’s Prayer, the sacraments and the seven virtues and deadly sins. God created the world in seven days, Rome was built on seven hills, there are seven heavens in Islam and there were seven wise men in ancient Greece. This last example stands for the wisdom attributed to the Valar, the religious symbols emphasize that the Valar represent the divine power on earth.
The biblical interpreation of Fourteen, the number of all Valar together, combines reason and compassion, two qualities that describe the Valar very well. They are reasonable and can be very rational, but they are not hard and thus show compassion towards people regretting their deeds; they even let Melkor return to their ranks after he showed remorse, until he showed his true self and the Valar knew that they had to fight and eventually ban him from Aman.
Seven does not have as positive a connotation as Three, but still it has a lot of good and important qualities that illustrate the characters of the Valar. Like Three, it stands for many religious symbols and virtues, but it combines these with mundane qualities that show that the Valar are not part of only one world but connect the spiritual and the secular world.
In Tolkien’s works, there are a lot more significant numbers and symbols than the ones described here. I chose these four topics because they are the most striking examples of numerology in “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillion” and also because they are key elements in those books.
In analysing these topics, it becomes clear how much time Tolkien spent thinking about the composure of his piece of work so that every detail eventually corresponded to all the others. He did not use existing symbols only as inspiration, but also to give his works more depth for those reading them with knowledge about mythology and religion.
Symbols in a novel help the reader to better understand the characters appearing in it, for there are a lot more qualities and characteristics implied than mentioned explicitly. This is especially the case in these novels since there are many different layers of symbols and hidden meanings. Here I explained only one of them, namely the numeric layer of symbols which has found only little attention so far in literature.
Finally, I want to close with a quote which stands at the very beginning of “The Lord of the Rings” and which I think shows that numerology is a very important element of the book that will be present throughout the whole story:
“Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”
The Lord of the Rings.
-The Fellowship of the Ring.
-The Two Towers.
-The Return of the King.
Tolkien, Christopher R.
The Treason of Isengard (HoME VII)
– Schneidewind, Friedhelm, Das Große Tolkien-Lexikon
– Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms