Two Atlantis myths, two morality tales

Yet another dimension to Tolkien’s and Plato’s differing views on the relation between divine providence and Necessity. Although a number of Timaeus scholars have failed to see any intrinsic connection between Critias’s introductory speech about ancient Athens’s epic victory over Atlantis at the beginning of the dialogue, and the creation-myth Timaeus tells in the remainder of the dialogue (see, for example, Welliver,Character, Plot, and Thought in Plato’s “Timaeus-Critias,” 2-3; Taylor, Plato, 440; and Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, 20), the two stories in an important respect are concerned with the same fundamental problem, namely the ineradicable limits the gods face in realizing their benevolent purposes in the physical realm of becoming. Thus, although in the defeat of the despotic power of Atlantis by the ideal, virtuous city of Athens we have an historic example of divine Nous triumphing over the chaos of Necessity, we see the limits of divine power in the fact that not even the patronage of Athena is able to save Athens from being destroyed by the same natural disasters that engulf Atlantis.

In Tolkien’s retelling of the story at the end of the Silmarillion, however, Atlantis is destroyed for a much different purpose, one in keeping with his metaphysical differences with Plato outlined earlier. In Tolkien’s tale, Atlantis is Númenor (Atalantë in the Elvish tongue of Quenya, from which the Greek name Atlantis is supposed to have derived), an island-kingdom inhabited by a noble but proud race of men who are eventually seduced by Sauron into outright Melkor-worship. When the Númenoreans in their rebellious quest for personal immortality break the ban laid upon them by the Valar and travel to the forbidden land of Valinor, Ilúvatar intervenes directly and destroys both their fleet and the island of Númenor with a flood.

Thus, whereas in the Timaeus Atlantis simultaneously symbolizes and is obliterated by an impersonal and indiscriminate Necessity that cannot be completely controlled by the gods because it is not created by them, Tolkien has Atlantis destroyed as an act of divine judgment by a personal, omnipotent God for its worship of Melkor, the one who first sought the power of creation for himself, and for its imitation of his presumption by seeking immortality on Man’s own terms.

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