3. Background Information & Notes
The original Atlantis myth occurs first in two dialogues of Plato, the Timaeus and the unfinished Critias. The former contains an outline of the myth, the latter a detailed description of the island, which breaks off before the account of its destruction. All later versions of this story are derived from Plato's texts. Having had a classical education - in school and later at university: he studied classical languages for a year - Tolkien was undoubtedly well acquainted with Plato. His special interest in this particular story is easily explained by his childhood dream. In a letter to Naomi Mitchison (nr. 154) he called the Downfall of Númenor 'a special variety of the Atlantis tradition. That seems to me so fundamental to "mythical history" - whether it has any kind of basis in real history (...) is not relevant - that some version of it would have to come in'. And to mrs. Ossen Drijver he wrote: 'The legends of Númenóre are (...) my own use for my own purposes of the Atlantis legend, but not based on special knowledge, but on a special personal concern with this tradition of the culture-bearing men of the Sea, which so profoundly affected the imagination of peoples of Europe with westward shores.' (nr. 227)
There are some correspondences between Plato's Atlantis and Tolkien's Atalantë. Both are large islands in an ocean with a powerful civilisation; its inhabitants overstep their bounds, and this in its turn leads to the destruction of the island. There are more differences, both with regard to the story itself and with regard to its purposes. Plato is mostly interested in depicting a model of his ideal society, and in glorifying Athens (his native city defeats the tyrannical Atlanteans), while Tolkien is mainly interested in the hybris of mortals who, fearing death, succumb to evil and try to seize immortality from the gods.
The question whether Atlantis had existed once upon a time may have been irrelevant to Tolkien, whose main goal was to create a world filled with stories reflecting his own preoccupations and interests but reverberating with the echoes of ancient European myth. Yet he started out by giving his version of the Atlantis tale a place in the mythical past of our world, or rather his own country England: the time-travel device. And though his aims shifted, the Downfall of Númenor is among the Middle-earth stories that have the strongest ties with primary world mythology. To use it in a Maglor in History tale seemed only natural - Maglor, of all people, would be interested in a story depicting the fall of a highly civilised people. That Aristotle, not Plato, became his 'opponent' has to do with the fact that I wanted someone who didn't believe Atlantis had existed, who rejected the reality of the Platonic ideas and who didn't take the gods literal. It seemed to me this would make for a more interesting conversation. Also, I was afraid Plato would present his ideas about ideal government, which are not very sympathetic and mainly of historical interest.
Alexander the Great and Hephaistion, finally, were merely an added bonus. But they really were Aristotle's pupils for a time, and once I decided upon this philosopher, I couldn't leave them out.
1) phan-, Greek root having to do with light and visibility, origin of both 'fantasy' and 'phenomenon'.
2) Greek title Politeia. Plato's treatise about ideal government - we would probably call it totalitarian - containing digs at the immoral way in which the poets and playwrights of his times often described the Greek pantheon of Gods. (See also chapter 2.)
3) Plato was the founder of the famous Academy of Athens - subjects: philosophy, mathematics and gymnastics. Aristotle was both a student (of Plato's) and a teacher there, though later he founded a school of his own, the Lyceum.
4) Usually, Greeks drank their wine diluted with water, but the Macedonians were an exception to this: they drank it akratos, unmixed.
5) Youth who has not yet reached full maturity.
6) I made this up. Actually, I have no idea what colour Hephaistion's hair was; I just couldn't resist the temptation. But that he was taller than Alexander the Great is historical Most historians agree the two were lovers, though to call them gay would be beside the point. (See also note 7.) They were very close. When someone inadvertently mixed them up, Alexander said that it didn't matter, for 'he, too, is Alexander.'
7) Greek courtesan. Nowadays, we would call Aristotle heterosexual, but the ancient Greeks did not classify people by sexual orientation; to them, the important thing was what role one had within a relationship: dominant or submissive. And this, in its turn, was linked to the respective social positions and ages of the lovers.
8) Both Alexander and Hephaistion died in their early thirties; Hephaistion was the first to die; Alexander, who never really got over his death, survived him less than a year.
9) Inscription on the Temple of the Delphi Oracle (usually attributed to Pythagoras).
10) The outline is found in Plato's dialogue Timaeus, the detailed account, which breaks off before the downfall of Atlantis, is told in the Critias.
11) Aristotle's ideas about myth are found in his Metaphysics (I confess to oversimplifying them here). His words concerning Plato's Atlantis tale are reported by Strabo, a Greek geographer living three centuries after Aristotle. The references to the prisoner's escape a few paragraphs above are taken from Tolkien's essay On Fairy Stories; to put them into the mouth of one of Tolkien's poets seemed the obvious thing to do.
12) A reference to something Andreth says in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (HoMe 10), and something Tolkien wrote about the Elves in a letter to Naomi Mitchison (Letters, #154). For believers in serendipity: I couldn't find this quote at first, so I did a Google search on 'Elves & embalmers' - and found the reference on a Greek message board!
13) The Greek verbform, oida ('I know') is the perfect tense of the verb EIDO meaning 'to see', and related to the Greek word for 'image', eidos that plays such an important role in Plato's philosophy of ideas (the word 'idea' also derives from it).
14) Though Ossë was not a god (Vala), strictly spoken, Poseidon definitely was.
15) I leave it to the reader to identify the echo of the Orpheus myth in the Silmarillion.
16) This was actually said by Tolkien's fellow Inkling Charles Williams, author of occult thrillers (among them one about Plato's Ideas, The Place of the Lion), esoteric poetry and rather idiosyncratic books of theology.
17) First lines of Tolkien's 'Old Testament' (Ainulindalë).
18) Quenya nolmë is usually translated as 'wisdom', but gnosis, 'insight' (also a Greek word), would be a better translation, also given the fact that Tolkien's English translation of Noldor/Noldoli was 'Gnomes' (Books of Lost Tales - HoMe 1 and 2 - and still in The Hobbit), which contains the same root. The Noldor are not wise, or sage in the sense of Greek sophia (as in philosophy, 'love of wisdom'). See also The Shibboleth of Fëanor, HoMe 12 .
19) Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien, 1977, p. 23.
Also used: Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1981.
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