The Fall of Numenor

This is the cover of the 2022 edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories about the sunken island kingdom Numenor, with an illustration by Alan Lee. In Tolkien’s oeuvre Numenor is geographically situated west of Middle-Earth and shows strong similarities to Plato’s Atlantis.

Its major cities are located along the coast and the inhabitants are a sea-faring, maritime society, refered to by the people of Middle-Earth as “Sea-Kings”.

I am no expert on the oeuvre of J.R.R. Tolkien. My knowledge is from vague memories of reading some books as a teenage so I rely here solely on source from the internet that are manifold and sometimes contracitory. As I understand, Numenor is not the only flooded land in the Tolkien Universe.

Among the texts I have read, the most astonishing invention by Tolkien to me is the idea of the bending of the earth which leads to the destruction of the island. Here is a quote from Wikipedia: “Eru Ilúvatar, the One God, caused the Changing of the World: the hitherto flat Earth was transformed into a globe, Númenor sank beneath the ocean. The whole population on the island was drowned.” (quote from wikipedia) This flood story is told in a short story entitled “Akallabêth“. The full text can be found here.

Tolkien was apparently influences by the story of “Lyonesse“, a faraway land that sank into the sea in the Middle English romance King Horn.

Thanks to Manuel Rivera for the lead!

Time and Tide Bells

Since 2008 artist and bell-maker Marcus Vergette has been developing the multi-site installation series Time and Tide Bells in various coastal spots across the UK. The installations consist of two bells, one upside down on top of the other, set up in tidal zones so that the waves ring the lower bell during high tide. The work references the many legends of sunken cities of which the church bells can allegedly be heard ringing on the coast on certain sundays. (see also the post here)

In 2010 the project installed also a bell in London. Meanwhile there are seven other “Time and Tide Bells”installed across the island. You can check for the locations here.

The first Bell on the coast of Devon, South England.

All images are from the project’s website.

Reconciliation and the ocean, Sonali Deraniyagala.

In her book published in 2013, Sri Lanka born academic and writer Deraniyagala describes her experiences as a flood victim in the Tsunami of 2004 in the Indian Ocean, refered to in English speaking countries as “Boxing Day Tsunami”. Much of the book is devoted to her struggles dealing with the loss of several family members, particularly her two sons and her husband. In one of the final chapters, the narator comes back to the coast of Sri Lanka. While being on a whale watching tour on a small boat out at sea, she eventually finds peace and comfort. The year is 2011: seven years after the events and just some days after the second major tsunami event in the 21. Century, the Tsunami off the Tohoku coast in Japan on March 11. This is an excerpt from the book:

“The men working on the boat tell us they haven’t sighted whales in this sea for some days now. Not since the tsunami in Japan, they say, and they wonder if these creatures were disturbed by it. It is five days now since the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. And I’ve not been able to keep away from those television images. As much as they horrify me, I want to see the meanness of that black water as it crumples whole cities in its path. So this is what got us, I thought, when I saw waves leaping over seawalls in Japan. This is what I was churning in. I never saw the scale of it then. This same ocean. Staring at me now all blue and innocent. How it turned.”

“Where were these whales when the sea came for us? I wonder. Were they in this same ocean? Did they feel a strangeness then? Another whale who was in the distance has come closer now. I hear a loud, low bellow as it exhales. Now the whale inhales. Resounding in this vastness I hear a doleful sigh.”

“These blue whales are unreal and baffling, yet surrounded by them I settle awhile. Somehow on this boat I can rest with my disbelief about what happened, and with the impossible truth of my loss, which I have to compress often and misshape, just so I can bear it—so I can cook or teach or floss my teeth. Maybe the majesty of these creatures loosens my heart so I can hold it whole.”

In this passage, the whales take on the role of ambassadors or links between the two distant coasts and the two distant events, the tsunamis of 2004 and 2011, but also between the ocean and the Woman on the boat. Without any false placation, she is even more aware of the dangers of the sea, she is reconciled with the sea and her own impaired identity.

The whole book is available for free online.

Underwater City 1969

The british movie “Captain Nemo and the underwater city” by James Hill picks up the themes and main character Captain Nemo from Jules Verne’s famous novel and the sucessfull 1954 Disney movie on the same material. While the earlier US-movie develops further the theme of the Atomic Age and it’s promises and dangers, the 1969 movie focuses on the idea of alternative, egalitarian communities and the then popular dome structures (gedesic dome) in architecture, the Montreal Biosphere built by Buckminster Fuller in 1967 being maybe the most influential and notable expample.

The underwater city in the 1969 movie
The Montreal Biosphere

Each movie thus reflects the topics of it’s time. While the 1954 version is stylistically much closer to a Fin de Siecle, 19. Century aesthetic, the 1969 movie is all 60’s glitz and extravaganza. Furthermore, in the 1969 movie life under water seems like a perfectly sane and technically achievable project, while in 1954 Captain Nemo still clings on to life on land.

This is a fundamental not only technical but also political shift: The idea of leaving the known world behind, going up in space or down into the sea or exiling yourself in an alternative community is now fully developed. The Apollo Program that brought humans into space ran from 1968 to 1972. And in 1963 Jacques Cousteau constructed an underwater station where he stayed with a team of scientists for 30 days. The civilized world had thus become one of several options.

While the screen shot above shows a view of a complete city, it remains the only moment in the movie when the underwater city is actually seen. The action almost exclusively takes place in the rooms of Captain Nemo and in a swimming pool leisure area that looks more like it was directly taken from Blake Edward’s Hollywood satire “The Party” from one year earlier than like anything resembling a city. No houses, no streets, no stores or any other features of an urban environment are depicted.

It seems that the city as a theme and topography of movies did not play a big role in the 1960’s, quite to the opposite of the era of pre-war cinema. (Take for example “Metropolis” from 1927 about another model city run by a benevolent autocrat. See my post here) . The same mixture of artificial wilderness, tropical allure and wild west or pirate movie elements, all covered by a huge dome, can also be found in today’s indoor water parks like Tropical Island near Berlin:

Thomas Cole: The Course of Empire (1833)

English-American painter Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848) created a series of five images depicting the rise and the destruction of an imaginary coastal city. The series is entitled “The Course of Empire”. Above, the fourth painting depicts the catastrophy and destruction of the city. Cole imagined here a junction of various man made and natural disasters: Insurgence, war, fires, storms and a flood.

In the final, fifth image the scene is set several decades after the destruction. Here nature has reclaimed the urban landscape and there is a peaceful, maybe even idyllic calm to the scene. From today’s point of view, this seems like an environmentalist comment on our current debates.

world in a water tank

German born and UK based visual artist Mariele Neudecker creates aquarium installations of forests, houses or vessels since the late 1990’s. Her so called “tank works” are three dimensional landscapes that evoque German romanticism, scientific artefacts as well as the threat of climate change. They seem to unite past and future.

Thanks to Ingo Schöningh for the lead.

Physico-Theology: Disaster becomes beautiful

In her essay on the motive of Mount Vesuvius, Valerie Hammelbacher traces the beginning of the image of disaster in art history back to the Britsh enlightment and the philosophy of physico-theology. More often referred to as natural theology, this school of thought challenged the prior concept of natural disaster as divine punishment and instead tried to find scientific explanations while maintaining the idea of divine power. Thomas Burnets treaty “The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of Creation” (1691) ushers in the age of physico-theology. According to Burnets and his colleagues, any natural phenomenon is logical, useful, immaculate and thus beautiful. This includes a disaster like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which could now become a topic for fine arts. Consequently, natural disasters were a popular, technically challenging yet rewarding motiv for painters in the following decades. In his painting from 1780 English painter Jospeh Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797) depicted the eruption of Mount Vesuvius as a sacred epiphany.

UK; 18. Century; Christian; Philosophy; Painting; Vesuvius

Benjamin Britten’s Opera about the flood of 1953

Noye’s Fludde” is an opera by british composer Britten from 1958 based on the Noah myth. It premiered in England just 5 years after the great North Sea Flood of 1953.

UK; 20. Century; Christian; Music, Opera; Noah

The 1953 flood in the North Sea

The events on January 31. 1953 constitutes one of the moste severe floodings in the 20. Century in Europe. More than 1.800 lives were lost in the Netherlands, more than 300 in England and Schottland and 28 died in Belgium. As a direct result of the catastrophic events England began the development of the Thames Barrier and the Netherlands of the Delta Works. The flood has become the source of many musical compositions, books and movies.

UK, Netherlands, Belgium; 20. Century; Flood;

The Destruction of “The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum”

John Martin’s oil painting, acquired by Tate Gallery London in 1869, imagines the extent of the disaster that famously beset the sister cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum when the volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted on 24 August AD 79.
The painting was first exhibited in 1822. In 1928 the painting was in basement storage when the Tate was severly affected by the Thames flood. The picture was badly damaged and effectively written off but was extensively restored in 2011. (Text quoted from Tate Gallery Website)

Thanks to Theresa Deichert for the tip!

UK; 19. Century; 21. Century; Christian; Painting; City: London