In my recent Abraham, Wilfred, and John at The Pyre of Denethor (RK 6.vii.850-57) we saw how Tolkien and Owen each used Genesis 22 to inform his own art. One striking aspect of Tolkien's text that received only scant attention was the two uses of 'heathen.' This word occurs nowhere else in The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales, Unfinished Tales, or in the fiction and poetry contained in The History of Middle-Earth, with one exception which we will consider presently.
Now 'heathen', according to the Oxford English Dictionary, 'is applied to persons or races whose religion is neither Christian, Jewish, nor Mohammedan; pagan; Gentile. In earlier times applied also to Mohammedans, but in modern usage, for the most part, restricted to those holding polytheistic beliefs, esp. when uncivilized or uncultured.'1 So within The Lord of the Rings it clearly requires explanation.
Here are the two passages in which the word occurs:
Messengers came again to the chamber in the White Tower, and Pippin let them enter, for they were urgent. Denethor turned his head slowly from Faramir's face, and looked at them silently.
'The first circle of the City is burning, lord,' they said. 'What are your commands? You are still the Lord and Steward. Not all will follow Mithrandir. Men are flying from the walls and leaving them unmanned.'
'Why? Why do the fools fly?' said Denethor. 'Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre! No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed. Go back and burn!'
And:The messengers without bow or answer turned and fled.(RK 5.iv.825)
'Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death,' answered Gandalf. 'And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.'(RK 5.vii.853)
Tolkien here uses 'heathen' to distinguish between the men of Middle-earth before and after year 600 of the Second age when the Dúnedain first returned from Númenor. And in the only other passage where we find the word -- not surprisingly, in The Notion Club Papers -- the link between heathendom and Sauron (here called Zigur) is reinforced:
Then he, King (Tarcalion) landed on the shores of middle-earth, and at once he sent his messengers to (Zigur), commanding him to come in haste to do homage to the king; and he (Zigur) dissembling humbled himself and came, but was filled with secret malice, purposing treachery against the people of the Westfarers..... Thus he led astray wellnigh all the (Numenore)ans with signs and wonders.... and they built a great temple in the midst of the town (of Arminaleth) on the high hill which before was undefiled but now became a heathen fane, and they there sacrificed unspeakable offerings on an unholy altar.... Thus came death-shade into the land of the Westfarers and God's children fell under the shadow.(HoME IX.258, emphasis added)
So, by falling under the domination of Sauron, the Númenoreans, till then 'God's children', became heathens. And, to see the meaning even more clearly, we need only recognize that the words 'a heathen fane' are the character Rashbold's translation from an Old English original of the words 'haethenum herge' (HoMe IX.257), literally a 'temple for the heathens.'2 The point here is not to criticize Tolkien's translation, but to emphasize what the translation may not fully reveal to the modern ear, namely, that 'heathen' in 'a heathen fane' is a religious reference to a group of people who are not or are no longer God's children; it is not merely a disparaging synonym for 'barbaric' or 'uncivilized,' as it has become for most moderns. It is also perhaps noteworthy that the other four uses of heathen in The Notion Club Papers refer to pagan Vikings (IX 269, 270 twice, 272). That is, they refer to people, proper heathens, who are rightly so called.
Thus, for Denethor to liken himself and his son to 'heathen kings,' and for Gandalf to agree with this characterization, apparently without any knowledge of Denethor's statement, indicates that this word and the act which Denethor has in mind share a meaningful context, at least for those like Gandalf and Denethor whose knowledge of the history of Men in Middle-earth is deep. Equally obviously the word here has nothing to do with Christianity, but rather with the few slim references we find to 'worship' in Tolkien's legendarium.
The most immediate to spring to mind here would be the Men of the Mountains who betrayed Isildur during the War of the Last Alliance, 'for they had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years' (RK 5.ii.782). Then, too, there is the Mouth of Sauron, of the race of the Black Númenoreans who, 'during the years of Sauron's domination' had 'worshipped' him (RK 5.x.888). With the next we leave The Lord of the Rings and turn to Akallabêth, which brings us once again into close contact with the passage from The Notion Club Papers which we saw above:
Turned back?Then Ar-Pharazôn the King turned back to the worship of the Dark, and of Melkor the Lord thereof, at first in secret, but ere long openly and in the face of his people; and they for the most part followed him.(Silm. 272)
Now since the worship of any but Eru had been previously unknown in Númenor, and since the remarks of Denethor and Gandalf clearly are not referring to the Númenoreans as 'heathens', but rather as those who rescued the men of Middle-earth from both the domination of Sauron and heathen practices,3 these words -- 'turned back' -- can only refer to a much earlier period, one rarely mentioned and one few men apparently knew much about, though it loomed behind them like a cloud:
But when [Finrod] questioned him concerning the arising of Men and their journeys, Bëor would say little; and indeed he knew little, for the fathers of his people had told few tales of their past and a silence had fallen upon their memory. 'A darkness lies behind us,' Bëor said; 'and we have turned our backs upon it, and we do not desire to return thither even in thought. Westwards our hearts have been turned, and we believe that there we shall find Light.'
But it was said afterwards among the Eldar that when Men awoke in Hildórien at the rising of the Sun the spies of Morgoth were watchful, and tidings were soon brought to him; and this seemed to him so great a matter that secretly under shadow he himself departed from Angband, and went forth into Middle-earth, leaving to Sauron the command of the War. Of his dealings with Men the Eldar indeed knew nothing, at that time, and learnt but little afterwards; but that a darkness lay upon the hearts of Men (as the shadow of the Kinslaying and the Doom of Mandos lay upon the Noldor) they perceived clearly even in the people of the Elf-friends whom they first knew.
That darkness upon the hearts of Men was the result of a Fall, in which hasty humans chose to follow Melkor, who promised them much and soon, rather than the Voice they heard, who counselled them that it was better for them to discover things slowly on their own. Too late they learned they had chosen wrong. For so says Adanel, wise woman of the Edain in the First Age, who told the tale to her kinswoman of Andreth:
The first Voice we never heard again, save once. In the stillness of the night It spoke, saying: 'Ye have abjured Me, but ye remain Mine. I gave you life. Now it shall be shortened, and each of you in a little while shall come to Me, to learn who is your Lord: the one ye worship, or I who made him.'
This Tale of Adanel is 'given explicitly as a Númenórean tradition' (Morgoth 344), which brings it into close contact with Akallabêth, written by Elendil himself (UT 224), and allows us an understanding of 'turned back' not otherwise possible. Whether Ar-Pharazôn himself knew this tradition about the worship of Melkor himself and thus knowingly turned back is unclear, but Elendil did and saw the Fall happening all over again. Little wonder he called his account 'The Downfallen.'4
1 OED s.v. 'heathen'. 'Mohammedan,' while outdated and offensive today, was common usage at the time the OED was first published.
2 Rashbold is pun, being a literal translation of the name 'Tolkien' from its German roots.
3 We need to distinguish between the worship of Sauron and the worship of Melkor. Clearly different groups practiced each of them. As has been pointed out many times, Sauron could hardly have credibly proposed to Ar-Pharazôn, his seeming conqueror, that the king should worship him as a god as he was worshipped in Middle-earth. Thus he turned him back to Melkor, cynically or sincerely, but expediently all the same. On this, see Morgoth 398:
Sauron was not a 'sincere' atheist, but he preached atheism, because it weakened resistance to himself (and he had ceased to fear God's action in Arda). As was seen in the case of Ar-Pharazôn. But there was seen the effect of Melkor upon Sauron: he spoke of Melkor in Melkor's own terms: as a god, or even as God. This may have been the residue of a state which was in a sense a shadow of good: the ability once in Sauron at least to admire or admit the superiority of a being other than himself. Melkor, and still more Sauron himself afterwards, both profited by this darkened shadow of good and the services of 'worshippers'. But it may be doubted whether even such a shadow of good was still sincerely operative in Sauron by that time. His cunning motive is probably best expressed thus. To wean one of the God-fearing from their allegiance it is best to propound another unseen object of allegiance and another hope of benefits; propound to him a Lord who will sanction what he desires and not forbid it. Sauron, apparently a defeated rival for world-power, now a mere hostage, can hardly propound himself; but as the former servant and disciple of Melkor, the worship of Melkor will raise him from hostage to high priest. But though Sauron's whole true motive was the destruction of the Númenóreans, this was a particular matter of revenge upon Ar-Pharazôn, for humiliation. Sauron (unlike Morgoth) would have been content for the Númenóreans to exist, as his own subjects, and indeed he used a great many of them that he corrupted to his allegiance.
4 I believe there is also a link here between King Sheave and the idea of the ships sailing in from the West and 'converting' the heathens to whom Gandalf and Denethor refer, but that is for another day.