Lines of Succession and the Kingdom of Gondor: the Long Wait for the Return of the King
Written by Jeff Libby
You know it even before you open the book: the King is going to return. It’s right there in the name, after all. The real questions aren’t ‘when?’ or ‘who?’ but ‘how?’ and ‘what does it mean?’ The answer to that last question is the most interesting, and requires us to dip our toes into the history of Gondor’s monarchy.
The kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor were founded by Elendil following the wreck of Númenor, and even as the High King and his sons worked to establish their foothold in Middle-earth, the spirit of Sauron escaped to Mordor and nursed his wounds. He hated Elendil above all others, and the line of the High King would bear the brunt of his attention in the years to follow. Elendil’s sons Isildur and Anárion ruled Gondor in their father’s name while he resided in Arnor, but when Sauron made ready his assault, Isildur fled north for aid. When he returned in the company of the High King, it was with not one army but two: both Elves and Men marched south to combat Sauron. The war that followed reshaped the political landscape: Two High Kings were slain: Gil-galad of the Elves and Elendil of Númenor. Anárion died fighting before Barad-dûr, and while Isildur saw the dawning of the Third Age, two years later he lost both his life and the Ring he took from Sauron. Both losses would prove significant.
The heroes from Númenor now slain, the rule of Arnor in the north and Gondor in the south passed to their kin. Most of Isildur’s sons perished with their father in the Gladden Fields, but in Rivendell his son Valandil survived to lead Arnor. Anárion’s son Meneldil survived his own father and was left in charge of Gondor when Isildur rode north; whether Isildur intended for his nephew to rule independently or beneath Valandil’s umbrella as High King is unclear. What we do know is that the rule of the two kingdoms proceeded separately and independently, and the kings of each ran into difficulties that would test their mettle and their holdings. Seven kings ruled in Arnor after Valandil, but the sons of King Eärendur squabbled amongst themselves and Arnor was split into three smaller kingdoms: Arthedain, Rhudaur, and Cardolan. The line of Isildur continued in Arthedain for almost a thousand years.
The south-kingdom was not free of trouble either, and several kings died without children to carry on their line; the succession passed in some cases to a sibling or younger nephew of the king. Of greater threat to Gondor was the Kin-strife, a deadly civil war in which the rightful king Eldacar was deposed by Castamir the Usurper. He was the Captain of Ships and a member of the king’s family, but too distantly-related to become king himself by any means other than force. Through force he ruled for ten years, until Eldacar returned from exile and slew the usurper; Castamir’s allies and descendants fled to Umbar and harried the coasts of Gondor for many years. The onset of plague and further raids by the corsairs thinned the royal family, as did the invasion of the Wainriders from the east (an attack of which more can be learned in LOTRO by completing quests in The Wastes). Only after King Ondoher and his sons were slain was Eärnil, Captain of the Gondorian Army, able to defeat the Wainriders. Eärnil was of the royal house, and there being no surviving heir, he put forth his claim to the kingship. This claim was greeted with surprise and disappointment by Arvedui, son of the king of Arthedain, in the north.
Arvedui argued that Isildur had not permanently relinquished the throne, and the line of Meneldil held it only beneath his own authority as High King of both Arnor and Gondor. Further, he insisted that Isildur had not intended the two realms to be divided forever, but anticipated their unification by his own heirs at some point in the future. The Council of Gondor did not agree with Arvedui’s claim, believing that the rule of Gondor was intended to stay with Meneldil’s descendants in perpetuity. The disagreement was never resolved, and Eärnil ascended to the kingship of the South-kingdom. He pledged to send aid to Arthedain if the need arose. It soon did, for the Witch-king of Angmar waged war upon the north-kingdom, and after many assaults the defeat of Arthedain seemed certain.
Help came in the form of Eärnil’s son Eärnur, who commanded a great fleet and sailed to oppose Angmar, but he came too late to save Arthedain. That kingdom came to an end with the death of Arvedui Last-king in the Ice-bay of Forochel, but it was not the end of Isildur’s blood-line. Aranarth, the son of Arvedui, took his child to Rivendell for fostering, and that became the practice for all his heirs. These chieftains of the Dúnedain became wanderers in the wilderness, and kept no thrones, though they did not forget their origins.
Eärnur’s fleet may have arrived too late to save Arvedui and Arthedain, but together with a great host of Elves led by Círdan, the combined forces defeated the armies of Angmar in battle at Fornost. The Witch-king escaped the field, believing that Eärnur feared to face him in battle. Once Eärnur ascended to the throne of Gondor, the Witch-king would issue several challenges to the hot-blooded king, taunting him and calling him cowardly unless he finally face him in combat. His counsellors advised against it, but eventually King Eärnur responded to the challenge and rode to Minas Morgul, where he vanished. Mardil the Good Steward ruled in Eärnur’s name for many years, for he believed the king was trapped within Minas Morgul and had not been slain, but eventually might return. (For more about the fate of Eärnur, play the Epic Story in LOTRO, especially Volume I: Shadows of Angmar and Volume IV: The Strength of Sauron).
No one could be found with a sufficient claim of blood to ascend to the kingship, and in place of a king it became tradition for Gondor to be ruled by a Steward. The Ruling Stewards exercised all the powers of the king “until he shall return,” but as time passed and the position became hereditary, those words seemed more and more empty. Gondor was ruled by the Stewards for almost a thousand years, until the emergence of a chieftain of the Dúnedain from the North who could trace his lineage back to Isildur: Aragorn, King Elessar. Gondor was once again ruled by a descendant of lost Númenor.
This discussion reveals an interesting aspect of the kingship as it relates to Gondor: having a king is considered important. Tracing the lineage of the ruler back to a powerful forebear has value for the people of Gondor, and it is prized enough to record, even over the course of thousands of years. This is true despite the understanding that some of the kings of Gondor were not very effective, or were in some cases downright bad. Do the positives spring from some inherent quality in the blood of Númenor, and the negatives arise from its dilution? Or is there another factor? Might a king’s accomplishments be measured by the extent to which he feels the weight of his responsibility, and seeks to bear it?
The great variance in the quality of the Kings of Gondor is instructive, and lends credence to the second factor. If a king’s authority is derived solely from his proximity to the font from which springs his heritage, we would expect the rule of each subsequent king to be less successful than his predecessor. The decline of Gondor would be permanent, and no return to a golden age would be possible; with every passing king, the memory of Númenor would fade further.
But if the lineage of Elendil provides kingly authority but not limitation, it is possible that the rule of King Elessar might halt the decline of Gondor, and perhaps reverse it. If he proves a good and wise ruler, there is the possibility that Gondor will thrive once again as it did of old. By choosing to aid the Kingdom of Gondor allegiance, you will help King Elessar as he sets the kingdom in order and provides for a bright future to come.