Transhumanism With Tolkien

Many authors far greater than I have pointed to the inimitable J.R.R. Tolkien as their primary inspiration for taking up creative writing, so I find myself in good company in that regard. In fact, the first story I ever wrote was not science fiction but fantasy for such was the mark that reading Tolkien’s stories—and, verily, watching Peter Jackson’s spectacular film renditions of The Lord of the Rings—left on me at that time. And on that note, I suppose now is as good a time as any to announce that my next novel, which is currently in the copyediting phase, will be the fantasy story that I’ve been working on, in various stages and iterations, for the past thirteen years. But more on that in a future post.

My deep love of Tolkien’s work compelled me to invest in an Amazon Prime subscription so that I could check out the new series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (and to watch Thursday Night Football), the final episode of which aired recently. I’m not here to give my full thoughts on the show, but I did want to discuss the story line I found the most disappointing, that being the affairs of the island kingdom of Númenor. Because the show’s portrayal is wide left of the goal posts for me both as an admirer of Tolkien’s works and as an advocate for ethical transhumanism—and there is certainly something in Tolkien’s tale for the latter.

Note: I will be getting into spoilers for both the aforementioned series and the books in J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, so be forewarned.

The tale of Númenor occupies but a single chapter at the end of The Silmarillion (with some expanded lore featured in Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth, as well as some brief mentions in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, and, as of November of 2022, the newly-released book The Fall of Númenor which compiles all of the aforementioned lore with some extended Second Age material), but it is quite possibly Tolkien’s most poignant story, and one that illustrates how Tolkien was more than just an author. Beyond being merely Middle-Earth’s creator, he was its theologian, its linguist, its historian, its philosopher, its lore-master, its epistemologist, its botanist…the number of hats this man wore, and each one with aplomb, is simply awe-inspiring. That chapter, entitled Akallabêth, meaning “The Downfallen” in the Adûnaic language, is exemplary of the depth of thought that went into Tolkien’s work. If you’re unfamiliar, the story of Númenor is essentially the story of Atlantis—in fact, the Quenya (High-Elvish) equivalent of Akallabêth is Atalantë—but through a very Tolkienian lens. It’s a story about how a once-proud and blessed kingdom of Men fell to ruin because of their pride, greed, wrath; basically all seven deadly sins, except maybe gluttony. It’s about humanity’s wont to turn a blessing into a curse, even an examination of the fallibility of the angelic Valar.

But what makes the story so enduring, one that strikes such a chord, is that, ultimately, Númenor’s downfall came because of one thing that we can all relate to, the thing that, in my previous novel, Omega Noir, the protagonist Kat Rowan identified as the greatest source of our suffering as human beings.

It’s a story about humanity’s fear of death.

If you’ve watched The Rings of Power up to this point, you’re probably not getting that vibe. Prior to the final episode, the Númenor plotline had been, frankly, quite banal. True to the lore, the Númenóreans aren’t very fond of the Elves at this point in their history, but we never get a very good reason for this. Instead, the whole thing culminates in a cringeworthy scene where a nameless Númenórean craftsman gives a hilariously small crowd the good ol’ xenophobic “Elves are gonna take your jobs” schtick, in what feels like a jarring meta-commentary on the rise of workplace automation and AI (“Workers who never tire”—then again, the show treats mithril as a kind of battery for Elves, so they might actually be robots in this Multiverse Middle-Earth). Because anyone who’s read the preface to The Lord of the Rings knows how much Tolkien loved a good allegory and was such a strong proponent of interjecting contemporary politics into fiction, right?

To be fair, the season finale did have a few scenes featuring Pharazôn (and his masterpiece of a beard) that give a glimmer of hope that the story will take a more Tolkienian turn in future seasons.

Before we go any further, we need to take a quick look at the tale of Númenor as Tolkien himself told it. After the disastrous wars of the First Age that saw the geography of the world utterly reshaped, the Valar—the higher group of divine beings under the one true god, Eru Ilúvatar; roughly equivalent to Seraphim—raised a star-shaped island called Andor (among other names) from the Sea, as a gift to the Men who stayed loyal to the Eldar (Elves) and, more importantly, to the path of wisdom set down by Ilúvatar. Those Men called the land Númenor, meaning Westernesse.

Not only did the Valar gift these Men with a new home all their own, but they gave them other gifts. They lived longer lives—and I mean a lot longer; the first king, Elros Tar-Minyatur, lived five hundred years—than those who had fallen under the sway of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord; they were taller, more beautiful, and generally more perfect. Basically, they were übermenschen. And, for a long time, they were thankful for the gifts they were given. They constructed great fleets of ships and sailed to Middle-Earth, where they not only maintained a deep friendship with the Elves but also acted as mentors to the Men dwelling there. They were also devout in their worship of Ilúvatar, performing a yearly ritual in which they climbed the Meneltarma, a huge mountain in the middle of the island, in reverence and prayer to the god—which, strangely enough for a legendarium created by a devout Catholic, is nearly the only instance of religious ritual we see in Tolkien’s writing.

As for the kings of Númenor? The first of that line was a fellow named Elros, who just happens to be the brother of a certain Elrond whom we all know and love. How Elros was a mortal Man and Elrond an immortal Elf is for another story entirely; you’ll find it in The Silmarillion, and it’s pretty epic, so give it a read. Anyway, Elros took the regal title of Tar-Minyatur, establishing a tradition of taking such titles in High-Elvish (tar means “lord” or “king”) which will become important in a bit.

So, for a thousand years and change, things go just swimmingly in Númenor, but not so in Middle-Earth. Our old pal Sauron is back to his old habits—and he’s not some scruffy, charming Han Solo type who may or may not have briefly caught the twinkling eye of a suddenly husbandless Galadriel. He’s very much a known commodity in Tolkien’s tale, having established himself in the land of Mordor some time ago. And Númenor is very much on Sauron’s radar, and has been ever since a Númenórean army under Tar-Minastir, the eleventh king of Númenor, sailed to the aid of High King Gil-galad, turning the tide of the battle and sending Sauron scuttling back to his fortress of Barad-dûr. Sauron wants his revenge. And he’ll have it.

Signs of things to come start to show during the reign of Tar-Atanamir the Great, the thirteenth king of Númenor. For nearly two millennia, the Númenóreans were content to abide by the Ban of the Valar, which stipulated that the Númenóreans were forbidden to sail so far west that they could no longer see the shores of Númenor. This is because, if they kept sailing west, they’d arrive on the shores of Valinor, the Undying Lands, home of the Valar within the material world (it should be noted that the earth is still flat at this point), and the Valar rightly deemed that this would be a great temptation for the long-lived yet still mortal Men of Westernesse. While the Númenóreans still abide by the Ban under Atanamir, and will reluctantly continue to do so until a certain bearded fellow that show viewers will know by now comes into power, they begin to speak openly against it. They come to see it as unjust, a sign of the Valar’s favoritism for the Elves over the race of mortal Men, rather than having the wisdom to understand that the Ban is there for their own good.

There’s another major departure from tradition that happened under Atanamir, which I will cover later, as it’s a departure that’s central to my purposes in writing this.

Then, at the end of the third millennium of the Second Age, the twentieth king enacted a severe break from the old ways that effectively codified the sundering of the Men of Númenor from the Elves. Rather than taking his regal title in Quenya, he adorned himself in the Adûnaic title of Ar-Adûnakhôr. Not only was this an utter rejection of tradition, but also grave blasphemy for that title translates to “Lord of the West,” a title reserved for Manwë, the most exalted of the Valar and the mightiest of their number save Morgoth.

As the Númenóreans strayed further from the old ways, so too did they become a crueler people. No longer were they teachers to the Men of Middle-Earth; now, they had become oppressive conquerors and exploitative colonists, even taking their fellow Men as slaves. But, along the way, something strange happened—though perhaps not so strange at all: as the Númenóreans’ virtue diminished, so too did their lifespans (though they still lived abnormally long lives). Seldom in Tolkien’s writings does one find coincidence; perhaps the decline in longevity was punishment for the Númenóreans’ departure from the path of wisdom, as the notes in Unfinished Tales suggest, or perhaps the shadow of death looming ever nearer led to a greater darkness in their hearts. Whatever the case, there is certainly a causality.

Not all Númenóreans had fallen into that darkness, however. Númenórean society had split into two factions: the Faithful, or Elendili (“Elf-Friends”), true to the old ways; and the King’s Men, who by now had come to hate everything to do with the Elves and the Valar, and, as their name suggests, had become the dominant political power. The king Tar-Palantir attempted to course-correct, but though his repentance was genuine, by that point, Númenor was past the point of no return.

Palantir left no male heir, so the royal scepter should have passed to his daughter, Míriel. But, unlike in the show, Míriel was never ruling queen, as her cousin, Pharazôn, basically forced her to marry him (Tolkien does not explicitly tell us how, only that Pharazôn “did evil” in this) despite the law forbidding marriages between such close relations, then seized the royal scepter for himself. As a side note, since the show’s Míriel is outwardly sympathetic to the King’s Men faction (but Faithful at heart, as she is in the lore), her regal name really ought to be Ar-Zimraphel, which is the Adûnaic equivalent of Tar-Míriel, and I hope she gets called that in future seasons, because I really love the name Zimraphel.

So, Pharazôn becomes the king, and he’s known as Ar-Pharazôn the Golden. It’s during his reign that Sauron sees his chance to take his revenge upon Númenor. He goads the king into a war—not for the sake of the people of Middle-Earth, or as a righteous struggle against evil, or in service to anything noble or good, mind you, but because Sauron basically emasculates Ar-Pharazôn by declaring himself “Lord of Men” and begging the king to show him who the real “Lord of Men” is. As you probably have guessed, the arrogant king took the bait. Ar-Pharazôn lands on Middle-Earth with such a force that Sauron’s Orc armies flee without a fight. Sauron humbles himself before the king, pleading for mercy. And it’s at this point that, blinded by his pride, Ar-Pharazôn does the single stupidest thing he could possibly do: he brings Sauron back to Númenor as a prisoner.

This is all in Sauron’s plan, of course. This is the same Sauron who has already deceived the Elven smiths under Celebrimbor to forge the Rings of Power, under his disguise as Annatar, the Lord of Gifts. He is a master deceiver, and it’s not long after he’s brought back to the Númenórean capital of Armenelos in chains that he’s whispering sweet nothings into Ar-Pharazôn’s ear. To his credit, Pharazôn doesn’t fall for Sauron’s deception at first. But Sauron is as clever as he is patient, and before long, he has the king not only turning away from the Valar but actively opposed to them, and the Men of Númenor are tricked into worshipping a new god: Melkor, the original name of Morgoth. This practice involved human sacrifice, with victims usually taken from among the Faithful or Men captured from Middle-Earth. For Sauron knew what it was that the king truly wanted, more than power and gold and all the things of the material world. He thought it unfair that Men should die while the Elves lived forever. He envied their immortality. And he was afraid of dying.

But no matter how many Faithful or lesser Men the king burned, he felt death creeping up on him. As his two-hundredth year approached, Sauron convinced him that he could indeed have the immortality given to the Elves and denied to Men—if he sailed to Valinor, made war upon the Valar, and took it for himself. Ar-Pharazôn arranged for the construction of the greatest fleet ever assembled—a Great Armament, he called it—that, in the year 3319 of the Second Age, would break the Ban of the Valar, sail to the very shores of the Undying Lands, and declare war upon the gods.

The Valar tried to warn him, in subtle and less-than-subtle ways. But the Men of Númenor ignored the warnings. In one of the rare occurrences of Ilúvatar directly intervening in the affairs of the world, the earth was broken and made round, Valinor was removed and made into its own planet, safe from the vagaries of arrogant Men, and Númenor was destroyed by a great wave that drowned pretty much everyone (including, sadly, our girl Tar-Míriel), though a few of the Faithful, led by Elendil, managed to escape to Middle-Earth.

So, that was hardly succinct, but I don’t think I could’ve made it much shorter while highlighting all that contributed to Númenor’s downfall. Lore fans will surely note that I’ve omitted some nuances, but what I have covered should suffice for the intents and purposes of this discussion.

When discussing Tar-Atanamir the Great earlier, I mentioned a departure from tradition that occurred during his reign. Atanamir is also known by another, less flattering, epithet: Tar-Atanamir the Unwilling. This is because he was the first of the Line of Elros to die with the royal scepter still in hand—and the first of that line to go unwillingly to his death.

Some contemporary commentators seem to think that Tolkien’s worldview was some simplistic dualism, where the good guys are pure good and the baddies are pure evil, there’s little to no nuance, and everything is just generally cut and dry. These people, frankly, don’t understand Tolkien at all. Tolkien had very profound thoughts on humanity’s relationship with death, as he did on most subjects. In the beginning, death was given to the race of Men as a gift from Ilúvatar—Tolkien literally refers to death as the Gift of Men. It was never meant to be a thing feared but cherished. Death was another journey to take; Unfinished Tales speaks of a “weariness” inherent in Men as their mortal lives went on, accompanied by a “seeking elsewhither.” Even Bilbo Baggins expresses this sentiment in The Lord of the Rings when he describes feeling “thin” with age (and yes, I know Bilbo is a Hobbit, but Hobbits are also mortal, so the same set of principles applies). And thus Men of wisdom would not cling to life but lay down their lives at the appointed time and go humbly to their ends, making room for their successors to live as they did. It’s a beautiful picture of selflessness and humility that encapsulates the brilliance beneath Tolkien’s words.

But, like almost everything in the material world, the Gift of Men is corrupted by Morgoth. Let’s take a moment to understand how Arda (the material world as a whole) was made in Tolkien’s legendarium, because this must be understood to see how deep the roots of evil reach in this world, so deep as to taint the very concept of mortality. The first chapter of The Silmarillion is entitled Ainulindalë, meaning “The Music of the Ainur.” (Ainur is the collective name of both groups of angelic beings: the Valar and the lesser but still enormously powerful Maiar; the latter’s ranks include the likes of Sauron and the Wizards.) Eru Ilúvatar did not create the world directly, but rather composed music for the Ainur to sing, and the thoughts of Ilúvatar were made manifest through that music. As an aside, I find it rather interesting how an author well-known for his Catholic faith seems to be incorporating ideas on the creation of the world that skew closer to Gnosticism and Valentinianism, and how Ilúvatar seems to resemble a universal mind rather than an anthropomorphic entity, much like the Gnostics’ unknown god and very unlike the all-powerful and omnipresent God seen in mainstream Judeo-Christian scripture.

Anyway, the Music is interrupted by the discord of the strongest of the Valar, a fellow called Melkor, who will come to be called Morgoth, the Dark Enemy. Melkor, jealous that he lacks the power to create anything for himself, sets about marring the creation of all. It’s the quintessential case of “if I can’t make something better, I’m gonna mess yours up just to be a jerk.” Except, in this case, “yours” happens to be God’s whole creation. I’m only beginning to delve into the late Christopher Tolkien’s exhaustive examinations of his father’s works, but one of the ideas I’ve encountered is that, just as Sauron would later imbue the One Ring with much of his power, Morgoth had done the same with Arda itself. So, while the material world in Tolkien’s legendarium was not created in its entirely by a malevolent demiurge, a la the Gnostic figure of Yaldabaoth, such a figure was involved in that creation, and left an incurable mark upon it. By pouring so much of his power into the marring of Arda, Melkor had weakened himself enough that he could be defeated by the host of the Valar in the War of Wrath at the end of the First Age (otherwise, his power would likely have been too great even for the others of his kind to overcome), but in doing so, his evil was sown into the very fabric of the material world, an evil that endures even after so momentous an occasion as the downfall of Sauron and the destruction of the One Ring, and it will remain corrupted until it is unmade, and a Second Music of the Ainur brings to pass a new, more perfect world.

Likewise, it was Morgoth’s influence that had deceived Men into believing that death was their curse rather than what it was: a gift, a moment of transfiguration at the end of their natural mortal lives. Disease, natural disasters, and the like were never in Ilúvatar’s design but were brought into creation by the discord of Melkor. As for the race of Men, his corruption brought about pain, senescence, decrepitude of the mind; basically, all the things that robbed death of its placidity, its desirability, imbuing it instead with a profound sense of dread. As such, he deceived many Men before the Elves were even aware of them to teach them the wisdom of the Valar, winning them to his cause, setting them against the Elves and turning them from the righteous path.

The Númenóreans, like their forebears, were wise among Men for they understood the true nature of mortality at first, or at least trusted the wisdom given to them by the Valar, taught through the Elves. Not only did the kings of Númenor die willingly but they surrendered the royal scepter when they felt death drawing nearer, so that they could live out their last years in peace. Atanamir was the first to “cling to life,” as Tolkien puts it, setting his people on a slippery slope that ultimately led to their downfall. As they drifted further from the wisdom they’d once embraced and began, in the sage words of Mike Tomlin, “living in their fears,” the Númenóreans saw their gifts morphing into curses. They came to see themselves as superior to all other Men—not as a teacher sees his apprentice, a manner that carries with it a responsibility to educate and nourish, but through a lens of Númenórean supremacism, the kind of abusive relationship that compels the more powerful party to dominate and dehumanize that which he sees as the lesser. So, while Sauron is indeed the architect of Númenor’s downfall, he found a kingdom in decline and moral decay, fertile ground to nourish his lies and schemes by the time he was dragged to her shores.

I cannot help but ask myself sometimes: were the Valar mistaken for bestowing their gifts upon the Númenóreans? Were they so naïve to the realities of human nature—such as, in Tolkien’s own words, that most regrettable part of the human character, its “quick satiety with good”—that they could not foresee how the Númenóreans would inevitably fall to this dark path, even without Sauron there to nudge them along? For even for the most conscientious of us, the paths of wisdom and righteousness are seldom the paths of least resistance, especially in a world that is inherently corrupt, a world where the law of nature is that might makes right. One especially strong electrochemical stimulus targeting the most primal part of the human mind can override a good man’s conscience, even ephemerally, causing him to falter, and once he departs that path, it may be hard, even impossible, to regain his footing. Perhaps the Valar were ignorant to the depths to which Morgoth had corrupted the hearts of Men, and thus made a mistake, just as it could be argued that they did when they brought some of the Elves to live in Valinor, leaving that race with an unquenchable longing for the light of the Undying Lands (which I think is what the show is trying to convey with the mithril backstory, albeit in a much more literal manner than what Tolkien intended). I love the fact that not even the almighty Valar are infallible in this world, for which there is no better example than Morgoth himself.

Of course, I can’t help but lament that we didn’t get this version of the Númenor story in The Rings of Power, one that embodies the profundity and atemporality of Tolkien’s writing, rather than the ersatz, boring, ham-fisted, blatantly contemporary, painfully unoriginal replacement foisted upon us by the callow writers. I have my hypotheses on why they chose to give us this version, each one more cynical than the last. Perhaps they thought casual viewers wouldn’t understand Tolkien’s themes. Well, fellas, I’m going to enlighten you to one of the cardinal rules of writing a story: never insult your readers’ (or, in this case, viewers’) intelligence. Or maybe they thought they could tell a better story than Tolkien, in which case they’d fallen victim to the same hubris that ended the Númenóreans. Or they simply didn’t understand the source material beyond the surface level.

I’m leaning toward the latter, simply because it fits with the common misconception about Tolkien’s writing that I mentioned before: that it’s some dualistic, black-and-white morality tale all the time. Tolkien certainly wasn’t the kind of postmodern moral relativist whose writings are all the rage today, but to suggest that there is no moral grey area in his work is to miss the myriad nuances in the text. Númenor’s struggle against Sauron was never about good guys versus bad guys; it was power and pride versus power and pride. This is true of so much of Tolkien’s work. Yes, you can make the oversimplified argument that the tale of the Downfall of Númenor is a parable about how power corrupts, how it’s a warning against greed and arrogance, and a lot of other things. And these are all legitimate. But ultimately, it’s an examination of our relationship with our own mortality. Now I’m not saying that the show runners had to channel their inner Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky and give us some pretentious arthouse film full of prolix philosophical oratories—though, if they had, I’d be here for it; I like pretentious arthouse films—but it’s unfortunate that we haven’t been given something more substantial. Though, as I said, the final episode does give some hope that the story will be more in line with Tolkien’s going forward—and I hope it is, because everyone deserves to experience Tolkien’s telling of Númenor as it should be, both on the surface and in its spirit.

Now we come to how this relates to transhumanism, and to the modern world at large. I think every transhumanist should read the Akallabêth, and read it through a transhumanist lens. Númenor, like the Epic of Gilgamesh that partly inspired it, is a tale about what happens when mortals chase immortality recklessly. So much of the talk in mainstream transhumanism has been on things like radical life extension, superintelligence, morphological liberation, and, indeed, ultimately immortality, whether through some kind of physiological means or in the form of substrate-independent minds (the technical term for mind uploading). If you’ve read my sci-fi writings, or even followed this blog, you’ll know that, while I find these topics fascinating, and that, with the increasing realization of the means and tools necessary to bring them to fruition, we need to start having genuine discussions about them on a policy-making level, my primary focus with transhumanism is humanity’s transcendence as a moral species—what a character in my previous novel termed a “singularity of conscience;” the mitigation and even eradication of suffering, and engineering a neurobiological state in which behaving virtuously becomes the most harmonious with the algorithms that govern our subconscious thoughts and heavily influence our conscious actions. Essentially, a human experience not unlike that which Ilúvatar had envisioned for the Second Children, ere Morgoth came along and ruined everything.

But let us talk about death for a moment. There’s an interview you can find online in which Tolkien says that there’s really no such thing as a natural death. Few of us want to die. True enough that we accept death as an inevitability (most of us do, anyway), and construct philosophies and rationalizations for why it’s noble and desirable, even as we spare no effort to forestall its coming. Our entire medical system is built around that forestalling—that “clinging to life” as Tolkien would say, even though that refusal to gladly seek the elsewhither often results in greater and unnecessary suffering, for ourselves, for our loved ones, and sometimes even for society as a whole. We cling to life even when life itself becomes its own kind of damnation, even as most of us tell ourselves that there’s something better at the end—an afterlife, a reincarnation, the transference of the energy that sustains us into the greater cosmos, or simply the freedom and peace of cessation. Why? Because no matter how strong our beliefs, we still fear death. We are programmed to fear the unknown, and what lies beyond the ebon veil of death is the greatest unknown of all.

The more I think on it, the more I realize that the conversations we humans have about our own mortality are usually facile in their oversimplicity. Transhumanists are not immune from this. We are often wont to reduce death to a simple good-or-bad binary, as we are with so many topics that plead for a nuanced evaluation. But I think this “death is desirable” versus “death is abhorrent” debate is missing the point. What is abhorrent about death is not the finiteness of life itself but rather that we humans most often have no input in its coming, what form it takes, etc. It is easy to understand why wise Men in Tolkien’s world, and the Númenórean kings preceding Tar-Atanamir in particular, would not fear death but embrace it: for them, death was a choice—perhaps not in terms of its inevitability or lack thereof, but, upon feeling the advance of years, they had the luxury of choosing the time and place of their demise, as one might choose to resign oneself to sleep at the onset of weariness rather than staying awake that much longer in the name of productivity. Neither the cruelty of other men nor the ruthless stochasticity of the natural order made the choice to die for them. Death was placid, even beautiful. And therein, for me, lies the undesirability of death: not in the act of dying itself, but in the suffering that often accompanies it, or the injustice of the prospect of a violent or premature death at the hands of another person, disease, hunger, or a force of an utterly uncaring nature. I have said before that I think full immortality would get boring in time; there simply aren’t enough experiences to keep life from becoming rote and to write new memories to make the stories that we live compelling enough to keep living them. If death were indeed the gift granted to Men by Ilúvatar, untainted by the fear and suffering sown into it by the evils of Morgoth, then I do believe that death would, in time, become desirable, or at least preferable to an eternity of recurring experiences and diminishing returns. Alas, just as such a prelapsarian existence never had the chance to come to pass in Tolkien’s world, it’s a mere myth in ours. And so humankind will continue to look upon its own mortality as an unjust curse. No matter how ardently we tell ourselves otherwise, we will always live in fear of it.

Let us speculate on what would have become of the Númenóreans had Ar-Pharazôn’s folly succeeded, had they “won” their immortality from the Valar. Would they be satisfied? Would they rediscover their wisdom and virtue, become the proud and puissant civilization they had been before the Shadow fell upon Númenor?

I think we can safely say that they would not. We can look to the example of the Nazgûl for some hints as to what would have become of them. In The Fellowship of the Ring (the book), Gandalf explains to Frodo that the Nine did not die, but merely faded into a shadow-world, lingering on “until at last every minute is a weariness.” True enough that this is due to the power of the Rings given to them by Sauron, but I think that, even without them, that weariness that Tolkien described as a natural part of the lives of Men would have become overwhelming, to the point that every last vestige of conscious thought, free will, and human dignity would have been whittled away, leaving only hollow frames of Men.

In short, I think that they would expend so much energy in trying not to die that they would have none left for living. Their existences would be an endless morass of sorrow and suffering, with no hope of respite at the end. Too late would they come to understand that immortality is a curse, not a gift.

We see this in the Elves, even in the pages of The Lord of the Rings. There’s a brief conversation between Legolas and Gimli in The Fellowship of the Ring in which the former is explaining the nature of Elvish memory, and he describes it in terms that do not exactly engender warmth and optimism. Tolkien himself writes that the Elves’ existence is full of longing, especially among the Calaquendi (the High Elves who had lived in Valinor) who returned to Middle-Earth, who were then left with a kind of void inside them, a yearning for the light of the Undying Lands (which, again, is what I think the show is trying to represent with the mithril plot) that almost seems like an itch in their psyche that they can’t scratch away. If even the luminous Elves could not bear the unending weight of memory and sorrow, how were frail, fickle Men to endure it?

Transhumanism gives us hope for a human experience in which death may not be the inevitability that it currently is, and that it certainly was in Tolkien’s time. But, as I have written before, both here and in my fiction, transhumanism has to be about more than simply living longer or eluding death. It must start with our souls. After all, what’s the point of superlongevity without a world worth living a thousand years in? What good is immortality, or even mere superlongevity, if it’s full of sorrow and longing and weariness, such that, in our darkest nights, all we can do is yearn for that elusive elsewhither, yet cower from that elsewhither in a terror a hundredfold greater than any fear that we know in our fleeting state?

Perhaps the ultimate tragedy of Tolkien’s world is that it never had the chance to be perfect. As described above, Melkor’s discord corrupted it from the moment of inception, and that corruption can only be undone through the destruction of the material universe. And, who knows, maybe the Gnostics and Platonists are right, and the world we live in is just as inherently corrupt, and we are, as Epictetus wrote, a bunch of little souls carrying around corpses. But the world that’s truly corrupted, the one we must seek to purify, is not the one around us but that within us. In my novel Omega Noir, one of the protagonists likens the human brain to the world-tree Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, and its renewal to the tale of Ragnarök. And this should be our goal as transhumanists: destruction of the old world within ourselves—preferably without destroying the external one that we live in—in order to make room for a more perfect one, free from suffering, fear, and the ugliness of humanity’s base nature; an idyllic Arda, like the one that never truly existed in Tolkien’s universe, that can only exist if the corrupted one is first undone.

Tolkien himself would probably scoff at the notion. After all, he was famously technophobic, or at least not the biggest fan of the industrialization that had marred the English countryside that he’d so loved. And, being from Pittsburgh, I can empathize somewhat, especially having seen the collage of photos at the top of the Duquesne Incline that show Pittsburgh when it was the most polluted city on earth. The clouds of chimney smoke were so thick that I have to wonder if anyone in the city had ever seen the sun. Orcs would’ve loved the place. (Fortunately, Pittsburgh is a much nicer and cleaner place nowadays.)

But, as we’ve seen, Tolkien was a much more nuanced thinker than most give him credit for. Had he lived to encounter some of the technologies and ideas emerging today, would he have rejected them out of hand? Or would he have taken a more balanced approach? I’m reminded of a Tweet published a few years ago by Micah Redding, host of the Christian Transhumanism podcast, in which he lamented how humans are so wont to blame their problems on technology, when the truth is that the problem lies in our broken relationship with technology. After all, humans are the sentient, conscious party in that relationship. And yes, we have free will. We have the agency to make our own decisions on how to use the technology at our disposal. Going back to my book Omega Noir, Kat uses the metaphor of the axe: you could use it to cut wood for your winter fires, or you could use it to cut off your neighbor’s head and steal his firewood. (Please, do not cut off your neighbor’s head; it’s extremely impolite.) Technology is a tool (actually, tools are technology, but you get my drift); whether it is a boon or a bane depends on the hand that wields it.

In conclusion, I believe that there are four lessons that we as transhumanists—and as human beings—must learn from Tolkien’s Númenor as we enter the future. First, Númenor is a warning of what happens when progress proceeds in the absence of wisdom. (As an aside, an early sketch of the Númenor tale had it being a radically advanced, almost steampunk milieu.) Progress must walk hand-in-hand with wisdom, and this is our great challenge for the paths of wisdom and righteousness are seldom the paths of least resistance. Perhaps emerging technology could change that, but first, we’ve got to change the parameters of this toxic relationship that we’ve got with technology in which we’re the tools and it is the master. And, regardless of what anyone says, we do have the agency to change this. All that is lacking is the willpower.

Secondly, we must understand that, while transhumanists should be rational, skeptical, and optimistic about the future of humanity (but not blindly so), we must also be virtuous beings: selfless, ethical, compassionate, philosophical. Transhumanism mustn’t be made into a rebuttal of the good in humanity, but instead a reaffirmation of it; a reinforcement rather than a replacement, all while providing a valuable set of tools in the struggle against our primordial nature that’s holding us back from genuine moral ascendancy. Natasha Vita-More defined transhumanism as being both “beyond human” and “beyond humanism”—in neither case being a rejection of humanity or humanistic values, but rather an evolution of both, an enhancement. We should cherish stories like those that Tolkien wrote and those that influenced him, not merely for their entertainment value but for the lessons that lurk beneath the words. Reason is a powerful and vital tool in our arsenal, but we need more than cold logic going forth if we are to engineer a better human experience. Science will take us far, but its purview is limited.

Thirdly, if we are indeed going to work toward living longer lives, perhaps even living forever in some form or upon some substrate, then let it be for the right reasons. Let it be because we love and cherish life—all human life, and maybe even non-human life (though let’s not get carried away with stuff like Sentientism; humanity comes first)—and not because we fear death. Let us make sure that the long lives that we live are like those of the early Númenóreans, rich and valorous, and not like the King’s Men, whose fear of death became a noose strangling the last vestiges of their humanity.

And most of all, we mustn’t let the power that we may soon have over our destiny gain power over us. We must remember that technology is merely a means to an end, and not the end itself, and that our intellect is a gift, bestowed upon us whether by the gods or the fortuity of Evolution. We mustn’t make the same mistake the Númenóreans did, and let that gift become a curse. Otherwise, it will be much too easy for us to turn the works of our hands and minds into tools of domination rather than a means of collective human advancement—and, if the latter is not our aim, we have truly failed as a species.

Whether we live a thousand years or a few dozen, we ought to aspire to be like the Númenóreans at their zenith: a proud but righteous people, a people defined by their virtue and wisdom, their steadfastness in friendship, and their kindness toward their fellow humans. We must hold to these things, lest we become like Ar-Pharazôn and the King’s Men, only to watch everything we’ve built drowned beneath the waves of our own reckless ambition.