I’ve been thinking that the thirty-second and thirty-third of the kings of Gondor might just be two of the most influential. If that sounds a touch far-fetched, bear with me.
This pair of Gondorian kings are, of course, Eärnil II, and his son, Eärnur.
At this point in its history, Gondor was struggling through a trio of disasters spread across several hundred years.
The first, a period of civil war known as the kin-strife; the second, a great plague; the third, the encroachments of a people known as the Wainriders from the east.
It’s not easy to precisely gauge the effects, but certainly Osgiliath is left both damaged and depopulated. Perhaps more critically, there is a diminution of the Gondorian aristocracy.
The records (Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings) indicate the plague decimated the king’s household. Moreover, as a consequence of the civil war, paranoia at the prospect of further internal upheavals seems to gnaw at those at the top. This instils fear within those still in the royal line. Many either flee to Umbar or renounce any claim they might have to Gondor’s crown.
Then, at the height of the Wainraider invasions the then-king, Ondoher, and his sons, are all slain. The Wainriders and their alies from Khand and Near Harad pour into Ithilien from the north while a similar force approached from the south.
…in this great assault from north and south, Gondor came near to destruction.
Fortunately for Gondor, Eärnil is able to command his southern forces to victory. Then:
Hastening north, he gathered to him all that he could of the retreating Northern Army and came up against the main camp of the Wainriders, while they were feasting and revelling, believing that Gondor was overthrown and that nothing remained but to take the spoil. Eärnil stormed the camp and set fire to the wains, and drove the enemy in a great rout out of Ithilien.
The day is won for Gondor, but the kingship lies vacant.
This brings both kingdoms to a crucial point of decision. Arvedui of the North-kingdom presses a claim via his marriage to Firiel, Ondoher’s daughter, and through the lineage of Isildur. However, Gondor’s nobles acclaim Eärnil king instead.
Initially this seems okay. Eärnil proves not only an able field commander, but a prudent monarch and assures Arvedui that Gondor will not forget its ties with those in the north.
Yet when Arthedain needs Gondor’s help to stave off the Witch-realm of Angmar, it arrives too late. Arvedui perishes before Eärnil’s son, Eärnur, can get there. Sure, Eärnur’s force puts Angmar to rout but it’s a poor consolation — the North Kingdom is effectively destroyed as a political entity and a military force. The realm’s successors, the Chieftains of the Dúnedain, cannot be considered a nation-state; the Witch-king’s aim is largely accomplished — even if at significant cost.
In fact, the only thing between the Witch-king and total victory is that he fails to wholly eliminate Isildur’s heirs. Arvedui’s son, Aranarth survives to continue the line of Isildur, but it is a long, long time before this finally rebounds to the detriment of Sauron.
When the Witch-king re-surfaces a couple of decades later and takes Minas Ithil from Gondor by force, we see that Sauron’s agents can afford the loss of Angmar. They have replacements. For them, it’s a gambit that has paid fruitful dividends. For Gondor, the loss of its northern ally leaves in a more vulnerable position — essentially the sole bulwark against the malice of Sauron for many generations.
Worse, Eärnur’s abortive battlefield confrontation with the Witch-king takes on the proportions of a feud across the years.
Eärnur, more warrior than statesman in personality, is eventually baited to visit Minas Ithil (now Minas Morgul) once he becomes king. But promises of single combat to resolve who is the greater in force of arms prove false, and Eärnur earns only (it is reported) a long and painful death in Minas Morgul’s dungeons.
This is where Gondor’s initial decision to elevate Eärnil to the kingship comes back to haunt them. Because Eärnur is a fighter not a lover, he leaves no heir. And because of Gondor’s earlier problems, there are no obvious, uncontentious candidates to assume the crown — not even in cadet houses.
Thus within the span of a generation, Arnor (Arthedain, really) is reduced to “a secret and wandering people”, and Gondor bereft of its hereditary leadership. As Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings notes:
It may be that if the crown and the sceptre had been united, then the kingship would have been maintained and much evil averted.
Instead, choices throughout the kingships of Eärnil II and Eärnur ultimately leave the free peoples of middle-earth largely on the defensive as the Dúnedain of the north struggle simply to survive, and Gondor, as Tolkien puts it in Letter #131, “fades slowly to a decayed middle age, a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium.”
Hall of Fire will be discussing the Gondorian kings Eärnil II and Eärnur later today. If you’d like to join us, just come to our chatroom through this link at 6pm ET!