Navy in Middle-Earth
Despite not featuring prominently, navy and naval operations play a significant role in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In the First Age, elves of Feanor come to Middle Earth from Valinor across the sea; their kinsmen, who had been forced to use the land route, suffer terribly. In the last battle of the Age, host of Valar comes across the sea. In the Second Age, Numenor holds mastery of the sea, exploiting it fully to its strategic, operational, tactical and logistical advantage. In the Third Age, Gondor continues as a naval power, but has to contend with Corsairs of Umbar – Sauron having wisened up to the importance of naval operations.
Primary sources used are History of Middle Earth and Lord of the Rings. Also used are Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, albeit those books are used in Croatian translation instead of English original; I apologize in advance for any issues with reverse-translation.
Notes on terminology
While Tolkien was familiar with Byzantine history, he was first and foremost a scholar of English literature. As such, his usage of “dromon”, “dromond” or “dromund” does not necessarily denote Byzantine-style war galley. Rather, Middle English dromond can describe any particularly large medieval ship.
Tall ships are mentioned on several occasions. This is a general term for a large, traditionally rigged sailling vessel. With sail-only propulsion and high freeboard, they are uniquely suited for oceanic voyages. Such ships include barque, brigantine, brig and clipper though most famous tall ships are likely 17th to 19th century ships of the line. Whether tall ships of Tolkien’s vision are of such construction, or more similar to caravel and carrack type ships, or perhaps Northern European cogs which preceded those, is unclear.
Teleri came to Valinor in “swan-shaped boats”, and they continued using swan ships in Valinor. It is those ships that Feanor took for his voyage to Middle Earth. In other versions of the tale, Teleri were carried to Valinor on Tol Eressea, and only once near Valinor did Ulmo teach them to build ships. (HoME 5) Teleri ships which Feanor took had both sail and oars, and Feanor took them along the coasts, indicating perhaps galley-style ships – but that hardly fits with the long journey they made to Middle Earth. Many ships were sunk by Uinen’s storm. (HoME 5) In versions of tale where Teleri built their own ships for trek to Valinor, Osse was the one who taught them shipbuilding. (HoME 12)
Tuor built a “great ship” Earame, on which he sailed to the West. Later Earendil would build Vingelot, and travel to Valinor to seek help from the Valar. (HoME 5) Earendil’s ship was said to have neither sail nor oar, indicating perhaps that both were standard fare on ships. (HoME 7)
First ships built by Edain were built with help of the elves to get them to Numenor. Colonization of Numenor lasted for centuries, as fleets and even individual ships brought Edain to the island. Ships used were of elvish model, “fleet but small”, and migration continued for fifty years, until Cirdan no longer provided ships. (HoME 12) Numenoreans in fact learned shipbuilding from the Elves. (UT)
Ship-building was Numenorean craft almost from the beginning, and very significant (HoME 9). Numenorean ships are capable of traversing the open ocean, travelling from Numenor to Middle-Earth. After the sinking of Numenor, surviving exiles sailed all around the now-spherical world, reaching also what could be America. This definitely indicates ships of long endurance, carracks at the very least, and possibly more advanced types (e.g. clippers). (HoME 5) Phrase “Tall ships and tall kings” is mentioned by Gandalf in connection with escape from Numenor; whether this indicates a specific type of ship is unclear. If it does, these would be much more advanced than any other ships in mythos: tall ships only appeared in 16th century, some 600 – 800 years after the period that Lord of the Rings is set in, technology-wise. (HoME 8) Numenorean ships also travel shorter distances, to Avallon, where their mariners would spend some time. (HoME 9) It is likely that Glorfindel crossed the sea to Middle-Earth in Numenorean ship. (HoME 12) First ships from Numenor came to Middle Earth in year 600. (RotK)
Elves from Tol Eressea regularly come to Numenor until latter’s fall into Shadow, showing that they also posses ships capable of oceanic operations. (HoME 5) Ar-Pharazon traveled to Middle-Earth with armada to demand homage from Sauron, which he received. When Sauron was taken to Numenor, with his help Numenoreans built “ever greater ships” with which they sailed to Middle Earth and wrought terror there. (HoME 9) Sails of ships of the fleet which went to Middle Earth were “gleaming with red gold”. (HoME 12)
However, fleet of Ar-Pharazon’s Great Armament is comprised of galleys, as it is able to advance slowly, under oar, despite the winds having been stilled. Ar-Pharazon’s Aglarrama is specifically many-oared and many-masted (and being named “Castle of the Seas”, very definitely is not a longship, and may indeed be similar in design if not size to Byzantine dromonds or else ancient Roman galleys – which themselves were called longships (alba longa)). Oars are manned by slaves taken in the Middle-Earth. In total, it takes them seven days to travel to Valinor. On another place however it is said that the fleet “set forth into the teeth of the storm, and rowed resolutely to the West”; something no galley should be capable of. By the next day, winds came out of the East, and fleet sailed to Valinor. (HoME 9) Sails were noted to have been bloodred and black, which interestingly enough are colours of Mordor (colours of Numenor are white and black); on another place, they are golden and black. (HoME 9) One version of the story has Nomenoreans, with Sauron’s help, developing steam-powered steel warships, and rockets with range in multiple kilometers. (HoME 5)
Few ships had survived the Downfall of Numenor, but the fact that any survived at all – Elendil’s ships are said to have been carried by the wind – is a testament to their solid construction. (HoME 12) Elves used ships which required no oars. (Silm)
Note: HoME 9 also mentions how “Tar-kalion” “assaulted the shores of Valinor, and he cast forth the bolts of thunder, and fire came upon Tuna”. This indicates that, at this point in the story, Numenoreans had at the very least primitive rockets and possibly flamethrowers – but more likely long-ranged rockets with explosive or incidientary warheads.
Note 2: Using slaves for war galleys, while not unknown, is rather unusual. Greek city states, Roman Empire (and Byzantine Empire after it) as well as states of Western Mediterranean used free, trained rowers, or at most convicts. Only Ottoman Empire used galley slaves, which came to bite them in the ass at Lepanto.
Early in Third Age, Numenorean exiles build ships capable of circumnavigating the globe, clearly pointing to large sailing ships. (HoME 9)
Corsairs of Umbar use slaves to row their ships, indicating that galleys – possibly even actual dromonds – are being used for warfare. (HoME 5, RotK) Galleys are in fact specifically mentioned as type of ship used by Southron fleet. (HoME 7) Corsair fleet consist of “dromunds, and ships of great draught with many oars, and with black sails bellying in the breeze”. It is thus unclear whether “dromund” refers to a Byzantine-like dromond (unlikely), but large war galleys are clearly present. (RotK) Frodo’s vision in which he sees Corsair ship captured by Aragorn indicates that previous identification of “tall ships” as a type descriptor is likely not correct, but is rather used in a general sense of a large, open-sea capable ship. (FotR) Tall ships are also mentioned, but likely refers to a galley or other Dark Age ship types, a general descriptor rather than a type indicator. (RotK)
Elves, at least on rivers, utilize “ships wrought and carved (…) in the likeness of a bird”. These may well be the same swan-ships as utilized from the First Age, as at least some do have a swan prow and even white wings. (FotR) Tolkien’s illustrations show both elven ships and those of humans in north of Middle Earth as having shape of drakkars / longboats with swan prows, thus fitting into imaginery and aesthetics of Tolkien’s Middle Earth (set in 800s – 1000s).
During march of Elves to West, some elves remained behind in Falais, building havens of Brithombar and Eglorest in Beleriand. (HoME 5) In general however, neither the Noldor nor the Atani had any love for the sea in the First Age. Teleri however had developed affinity for sea and sailling while waiting for transport to Valinor, especially Cirdan who was late to catch the island ferry. Even before that, they had developed love for sailing and shipbuilding, utilizing it on inland lakes and rivers. (HoME 12) Ulmo might have been the one to have taught Teleri the art of shipbuilding. (HoME 5) When Teleri finally decided to go to Aman, their ships were pulled by white swans. (Silm)
Feanor’s host is carried over the sea on ships, and his want for ships is so great that it causes Kinslaying, when Noldor take ships from Teleri by force. These ships are then burned as a symbol that Noldor are commited to staying in Middle-Earth. Concern was primarily logistical: Feanor understood that long march on foot, especially over frozen lands to the north, would be hard and lead to many deaths – as was indeed proven when Fingolfin followed over land. (HoME 5) Folks of Nargothrond later built ships with help of “people of the havens”, and used them to establish control over great island of Balear, selected as a refuge in the case of breaking of the siege. (HoME 5) After the breaking of the Siege of Angband, many ships were built to seek help from Valar, but none returned. This was done at the orders of Turgon of Gondolin. (HoME 5, Silm) “People of the Havens” mentioned here are likely Shipwrights, under command of Cirdan, who maintained contact with Ulmo. At Mouth of Sirion, Cirdan maintained many light and fast ships, hidden in estuaries and shallows. Also used as fleet base was nearby island of Balar, from which ships went to the West to seek help. (UT) Balar was originally scouted by Cirdan and elves of Nargothrond as a final refuge, but was never utilized as such. Cirdan himself was ruler of Sindar of Falas who liked the sea, and was Finrod’s ally. (Silm)
Seven years after the Fourth battle, Morgoth renewed his attacks on Hithlum. King Fingon fought a battle against a host of Angband in fields of Hithlum. He was outnumbered and was close to defeat when Cirdan’s fleet entered Drengist and landed an army behind the orcs, who were consequently destroyed. (Silm) After the breaking of the Siege of Angband, many had sought safety behind the walls of Cirdan’s harbours, Brithombar and Eglarest, while Cirdan’s navy sought and destroyed armies of Angband in many amphibious assaults. But next year both harbours were beseiged and destroyed, most inhabitants murdered; survivors fled across the sea to island of Balar, and hidden port at Sirion was also maintained (as mentioned previously). This port however was destroyed by sons of Feanor who sought Silmaril, and survivors joined Gil-galad on Balar. (Silm)
At the end of the First Age, ships of Teleri carried the host of Valar across the sea. It is unclear however whether these were preexisting ships, newly built ones, or a combination of the two. After the War of the Wrath, large number of ships were built to carry Elves who wished to go to Valinor. (HoME 5) Some of these may have been used to help carry over Edain to Numenor, though it is also possible Edain used ships they built with help of the Elves (in some places ships are described as elvish). Settlement of Numenor – that is, migration to Numenor – happened over a continuous period of 50 years, with at least 5 000 to 10 000 people migrating. (HoME 12) Many elves also abandoned Middle Earth during that time. (Silm) During the trip to Numenor, Edaini were given calm seas by Valar, and were guided by a star which shone day and night – thus Numenor was also named Isle of the Star. (Silm)
Numenorean ships ranged from Tol Eressea in the West to Gates of the Morning in the East. (HoME 5) Numenor is noted to have had a massive fleet. In fact, Numenorean shipbuilding devastated the forrests of Middle Earth, and the Great Armament’s fleet was noted to have masts “like a forest of mountain-trees” – ships must have numbered in hundreds, if not thousands. (HoME 5) Fleet by late Second Age was large enough to bring Ar-Pharazon’s army to Middle Earth. (HoME 5)
Numenoreans during their imperial era had also maintained many forts and havens on the western shores of Middle Earth for the needs of their ships. Umbar in particular was made into a “mighty fortress”, utilizing a natural harbour (in which echoes of Carthage may be seen). (HoME 12) Even before imperialist era, Numenoreans maintained harbours on the western shores of Middle-Earth from time of Tar-Aldarion, and used those to bring assistance to Gil-Galad in war against Sauron. These harbours existed from even before Sauron again revealed himself. Later, ports in more southern parts of Middle-Earth were used to extract heavy tribute from the peoples of Middle Earth. Shipyards were extablished in Numenor but also on the western coasts of Middle Earth. Largest of those was harbour and shipyard at Lond Daer. (HoME 12)
Ports were the basis of Numenorean colonial power, and they were used to hold wide coastlands in subjugation – implying that Numenoreans generally did not move far inland. (RotK) While much of the wood, as noted, was taken from Middle Earth, in earlier times most of it came from the forrests of Hyarrostar, which were managed for that purpose. From at least time of Tar-Meneldur onwards there also existed a powerful Guild of Seafarers; thanks to Prince Aldarion’s leadership of the guild, its activities were largely unaccountable. It was Aldarion who first started taking wood from Middle Earth, and from his time onwards Numenor became a naval power – causing devastation in forrests of Middle Earth and pushing their inhabitants into Sauron’s arms. Sauron only selected Mordor as his main base of operations during that time, to resist Numenorean encorachment. Harbours in the West of Middle Earth proved crucial for bringing in reinforcements after Sauron’s attack on Eriador in 1695. Tar-Minastir’s fleet brought reinforcements at Lhun, throwing Sauron’s forces back. Simultaneously troops were landed at estuary of Gwathlo, cornering Sauron’s retreating army, which was subsequently obliterated. (UT) At some point before the sinking of Numenor, Numenoreans established a port and a series of fortresses around the estuary of Anduin. Pelargir and Osgilliath were both important harbours which could accept seafaring ships. (Silm)
Ar-Pharazon had sufficient fleet to carry his massive army to Middle-Earth, landing in Umbar. His fleet and army were so great that all inhabitants of coastlands ran away upon seeing fleet, and his army advanced across countryside abandoned by its people. Fleets continued to be basis of Numenorean colonial power in Middle-Earth, and were used to transport armies and cargo in both directions. (Silm) When Tarkalion (Ar-Pharazon) prepared for the war against the Valar, he recalled ships from “all corners of the Earth” (HoME 5) and gathered them in the West. (HoME 9) This fleet is described as “land of many islands” with “masts like the stems of a forest”. Similar descriptions are repeated several times, one stating fleet was “like an archipelago of a thousand isles”. While hardly literal, and thus not an exact count of the fleet, it does indicate a massive force. Interesting is that fleet is described with “bloodred and black” sails and, later, banners of same colours. At any rate, fleet is large enough to completely encompass Avallon (Tol Eressea) – not a small island in its own right; it is also said to have “darkened sea upon the west of the land”. Gathering took some time, possibly weeks or even months, as “Numrizman” (Isildur?) could observe the fleet on multiple trips to the west of the island. (HoME 9) Fleet is rowed by slaves, which is harly ideal for warships, but rather serves to indicate moral and ethical dissolution of Numenor (HoME 9) – in history, only tyrannical imperialist powers such as Ottoman Empire used slaves as galley rowers, and even they came to regret it for purely practical reasons.
When Numenor sank, Elendil and his sons escaped in seven ships, as they were to the east of the island. In original draft, Sauron too had escaped Numenor eastwards, by ship. Meanwhile the fleets of Numenor were drawn into the abyss. (HoME 9) In Akallabeth there are twelve ships, while number is later reduced to nine. (HoME 12) These ships carried many important objects – Palantirs, books, White Tree and many others. (Silm)
When Sauron attacked Gondor and Isildur escaped to Elendil in Arnor, Isildur did so by a ship, sailling down the Anduin from beseiged Osgilliath and then along the coast. (HoME 12) Later on, Cirdan sent a ship to rescue Arvedui, last king of Arnor – but the ship was sunk in a storm after Arvedui embarked on it, seemingly on the influence of the Witch King. (RotK) Lond Daer Enedh was abandoned sometime before these events, as there is no mention of it during wars with Angmar.
Early in the Third Age, Gondor maintained a great fort and haven in Umbar. Umbar was occupied by Gondor, but was lost to rebels in 1447, becoming a serious threat. Corsairs raided coasts of Gondor as far as Anfalas, and it was that which caused king Telumehtar to take Umbar by storm in 1810.; but Umbar was not held for long. During the reign of Earnil II. (1883. – 2043.), Gondor sent large fleet to assist Arthedain in its war against Angmar. Despite being too late to save Arthedain, and only a fraction of power of Gondor, these forces succeeded in driving out the Witch King of Angmar. (HoME 12, RotK) In 2758., Gondor was assaulted by three large pirate fleets, while Rohan was attacked by land; as such, Gondor could not send help to Rohan until enemy fleets were destroyed. (HoME 12, RotK) Two palantiri were lost when Arvedui attempted to escape from Forochel to Gondor by ship, only to be lost in the storm. King Earnil I. of Gondor was also lost along with many ships and men in the storm off the coast of Umbar. During his time and that of his son, Umbar was contested with people of Harad, as it was crucial to Gondorian attempts at conquering lands beyond river Harnen. (HoME 12) However, Umbar held out due to advantage that Gondor enjoyed on the sea, and eventually Ciryaher defeated men of Harad in 1050., after which Gondor became a superpower no one dared to challenge. (RotK) Much later, Aragorn – under guise of Thorongil – gathered a small fleet by leave of Steward Echtelion, and burned most of the Corsair fleet in a night attack, while suffering only minor losses himself. (RotK)
Fleet was also prominent in internal upheavals of Kin-strife. When Castamir – the Captain of Ships – ousted Eldacar, he proved to care only for the fleet, while leaving army to rot. This doomed him, as within a decade he had squandered most of his support, allowing Eldacar to return. However, his control of the fleet enabled his sons to escape from Gondor to Umbar, after having long held out at Pelargir since Eldacar had no ships. (LotR)
Sauron utilizes navy to threaten shores of Gondor and draw off reinforcements from Minas Tirith – because of the news of the fleet, Lossarnach for example sends only a tenth of forces expected. Lebennin and Belfalas are also mentioned as having reduced help due to news of the Black Fleet. (RotK) When Southrons of Umbar and Harad attack Gondor, their fleet is large enough to “fill the Bay of Belfalas”. While an exaggeration, it does point to a massive fleet – numbering in hundreds of ships almost certainly. They capture the island of Tolfalas – itself a significant chunk of land – and then pass on to Minas Tirith. (HoME 5) In original draft of battle at Pelennor, mountaineers drive the orcs back and burn the ships. Later draft has mountaineers of Gondor destroying the ships of Harad before crossing into Ithillien. To the mountaineers are later added the folk of Lebennin, and burning of the ships transitioned into their capture. (HoME 8) It is also stated that Men of Harad have landed on the coasts near the Ethir, and their ships have sailed up the estuary as far as Pelargir. (HoME 9) Whether this refers to Corsairs of Umbar or else Haradrim’s own naval force is unclear; it should be noted that Harad means literally “South”. At Linhor, men of Lamedon contested – in an apparently infantry battle – against Haradrim and Shipmen of Umbar, but these fled when Aragorn approached. (HoME 8)
Umbar in particular is danger to Gondor. Being a former harbour of Gondor, it is close to the kingdom, and also has developed port facilities. In fact, in original drafts of Lord of the Rings, fleet of Umbar is the main danger to Minas Tirith. Even later, it remains a significant factor in Sauron’s plans. Southron fleets land a host into Lebennin, and even before that mere threat of it serves Sauron, tying up a significant number of military of Gondor. For this it need not have been extraordinarily strong; significantly superior strategic mobility of seaborne forces in a Middle Age technology society will have allowed it to tie up disproportionate amount of ground forces. But Sauron’s plans are likewise undone when Aragorn takes over his navy and lands reinforcements at Minas Tirith. This is assisted by the fact that Sauron’s forces spread themselves thin in an effort to tie up as much manpower of southern Gondor as possible, leaving themselves open to an unexpected counterattack. Counterattack was also assisted by the revolt of slaves which Corsairs used to row their ships; in the end, all ships are captured, save some that Corsairs themselves set ablaze to prevent their capture. Drafts also reveal that Sauron’s host in Anarion was landed there by another fleet, certainly a possibility due to width of Anduin. (HoME 8) Umbar Corsairs also carried out traditional corsair activities, attacking ships and ports (thus trade) of Gondor. (HoME 12) By taking Umbar’s fleet, Aragorn had enabled himself to execute a pincer maneuver, catching the host of Mordor between the walls of Minas Tirith and the river. (RotK)
Fleets of Umbar are counted at fifty great ships and smaller vessels beyond count. It is unclear whether this was their full strength – in at least one draft, multiple fleets are mentioned, and this could have been the strength of the united fleets, of the main fleet, or merely one of the fleets; however, the fact that after its defeat Southern Gondor sends reinforcements in force certainly suggests that it represented the main, if not whole, strenth of the Corsairs. (HoME 8)
When Host of the West returns to Minas Tirith, they are taken over Anduin by ships at location near Cair Andros. (HoME 9) These however must be civilian ships, as Gondor does not show any signs of fleet of its own – defence against the Corsairs is mounted exclusively on land, and after Corsairs are repelled and their fleet captured, any forces which did not use Corsair ships to go to Minas Tirith do so overland. Angbor and 4 000 reinforcements march from Pelargir to Minas Tirith. (RotK) However, since Elrond claims that Gondor has kept Anduin safe for travel from Argonath to the sea, some kind of (riverrine) naval force must exist. (FotR)
Harlond and Pelargir are both important naval bases in the Fourth Age. (HoME 12)
Morgoth never tried building ships or waging war at sea, because all his creatures hated the water and did not approach it except in dire need. (Silm)
Importance of ships in Numenorean culture can be attested by the fact that, in early drafts, Numenorean exiles despatch their dead in burial ships. (HoME 5) This custom was continued by the Exiles in the Middle Earth. (HoME 9)
It is revealed that Valar taught Numenoreans that world is round, but Sauron convinced them it was flat. (HoME 9)
Numenorean navigation is explained here: https://www.tor.com/2018/11/07/the-dunedain-and-the-deep-blue-sea-on-numenorean-navigation/
It can be seen that forces of evil suffer from lack of naval assets up until late Third Age, which gives significant strategic and operational advantages to the side of good. Morgoth never even attempted to make ships or make war by sea, and Sauron only did so in the Third Age. As a result, they could not interdict enemy seaborne lines of supply and communications, while their land-based lines were vulnerable to interdiction by enemy seaborne forces.
Late in Third Age, however, this situation was reversed: it was Sauron who held advantage at sea thanks to Corsairs of Umbar. But Gondor was still capable of holding them at bay up until the War of the Ring, when naval forces of Gondor appear to have faded into irrelevancy if not nonexistence. Where Numenor had relied on massive fleets and massive, fortified harbours, Gondor’s emphasis seems to have switched to marching armies in order to counter enemies in the field. This abandonment of two pillars of Numenorean strategy – massive mobility advantage thanks to waterborne access, and massive fortified strongpoints – meant that Gondor suffered much greater losses than it would have had to. But this abandonment may have been forced onto Gondor, as many Numenorean techniques were lost, as was lost the safe island homeland.