Tolkien’s universe has a lot of mysteries and while some of them are unclear, there are some that are solved but need further clarification. One of the mysteries is how Isildur, a mortal Man, managed to curse the Men of Dunharrow and turn them into the Army of the Dead.
As a mortal Man, Isildur did not have the power to actually curse the Men of Dunharrow, also known as the Oathbreakers. On the other hand, oaths are a very powerful thing in Tolkien’s world and since the Men of Dunharrow probably swore on Ilúvatar’s name and then later broke their oath, it is more probable that they turned into the Army of the Dead because they broke their oath and not because Isildur actually cursed them.
The curse cast upon the Men of Dunharrow is one of the most famous elements from The Return of the King and we are going to bring you all the important details related to it in today’s article. You’re going to find out why they are called the Oathbreakers and why did they turn into the Army of the Dead. We’re also going to tell you whether Isildur had anything to do with it or was it a result of something completely different. We’ve prepared a fun and informative article for you so stick with us to the end.
Who are the Men of Dunharrow?
The Men of Dunharrow, or the Men of the White Mountain, were a group of warriors from the War of the Last Alliance. They are the best know for their oath, given to Isildur at the founding of Gondor, that they would always fight alongside him. Still, when the War of the Last Alliance broke out, the Men of the White Mountain broke their oath and allied with Sauron, the second Dark Lord, which prompted Isildur to curse them:
“Thou shalt be the last king. And if the West prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.”– The Return of the King, Book V, Chapter 2, “The Passing of the Grey Company”
Afraid of the curse, the Men of Dunharrow retreated and refused to aid Sauron in battle, but they also refused to fulfill their oath to Isildur, instead of going into hiding in the mountains, where they had no dealings with Men until all of them died. As they did not fulfill their oath, the curse came into being and as they died, they turned into ghosts, restless spirits who would haunt the mountains and never achieve piece until being summoned into battle by the heir of Isildur. Since Aragorn was not known – at the time – to be Isildur’s heir, the Men of Dunharrow believed their curse to be truly eternal.
Yet, during the War of the Ring, Aragorn was told by a seer that the Army from the Paths of the Dead would help him:
“Over the land there lies a long shadow,– The Return of the King, Book V, Chapter 2, “The Passing of the Grey Company”
westward reaching wings of darkness.
The Tower trembles; to the tombs of kings
doom approaches. The Dead awaken;
for the hour is come for the oathbreakers:
at the Stone of Erech they shall stand again
and hear there a horn in the hills ringing.
Whose shall the horn be? Who shall call them
from the grey twilight, the forgotten people?
The heir of him to whom the oath they swore.
From the North shall he come, need shall drive him:
he shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.”
Knowing this, Aragorn, along with Legolas and Gimli, went through the mountains and summoned the Forgotten People (the Men of Dunharrow) and, as Isildur’s heir, demanded their assistance. Not wanting to lead their cursed existence anymore, the Army of the Dead finally came to Gondor’s aid and helped Aragorn during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, which finally lifted Isildur’s curse and allowed them to rest in peace. Their presence, although not seen, was felt, as Legolas remarked:
“‘For my part I heeded them not,’ said Gimli, ‘for we came then at last upon battle in earnest. There at Pelargir lay the main fleet of Umbar, fifty great ships and smaller vessels beyond count. Many of those that we pursued had reached the havens before us, and brought their fear with them; and some of the ships had put off, seeking to escape down the River or to reach the far shore; and many of the smaller craft were ablaze. But the Haradrim, being now driven to the brink, turned at bay, and they were fierce in despair; and they laughed when they looked on us, for they were a great army still.
‘But Aragorn halted and cried with a great voice: “Now come! By the Black Stone I call you!” And suddenly the Shadow Host that had hung back at the last came up like a grey tide, sweeping all away before it. Faint cries I heard, and dim horns blowing, and a murmur as of countless far voices: it was like the echo of some forgotten battle in the Dark Years long ago. Pale swords were drawn; but I know not whether their blades would still bite, for the Dead needed no longer any weapon but fear. None would withstand them.
‘To every ship they came that was drawn up, and then they passed over the water to those that were anchored; and all the mariners were filled with a madness of terror and leaped overboard, save the slaves chained to the oars. Reckless we rode among our fleeing foes, driving them like leaves, until we came to the shore. And then to each of the great ships that remained Aragorn sent one of the Dunedain, and they comforted the captives that were aboard, and bade them put aside fear and be free.
‘Ere that dark day ended none of the enemy were left to resist us all were drowned, or were flying south in the hope to find their own lands upon foot. Strange and wonderful I thought it that the designs of Mordor should be overthrown by such wraiths of fear and darkness. With its own weapons was it worsted!'”– The Return of the King, Book V, Chapter 9, “The Last Debate”
Why are the Men of Dunharrow called the Oathbreakers?
The answer to this question is as logical as you think – the Men of Dunharrow is called Oathbreakers because they broke their oath to Isildur that they would fight alongside Gondor; they aligned themselves with Sauron and broke their oath, although they ultimately proved to be cowards that betrayed both Sauron and Isildur, in hope that Isildur’s curse wouldn’t become reality. Sadly for them – it did, despite their cowardice and their isolation. The story is told in The Return of the King:
“‘I hope that the forgotten people will not have forgotten how to fight,’ said Gimli; ‘for otherwise I see not why we should trouble them.’
‘That we shall know if ever we come to Erech,’ said Aragorn. ‘But the oath that they broke was to fight against Sauron, and they must fight therefore, if they are to fulfil it. For at Erech there stands yet a black stone that was brought, it was said, from Númenor by Isildur; and it was set upon a hill, and upon it the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to him in the beginning of the realm of Gondor. But when Sauron returned and grew in might again, Isildur summoned the Men of the Mountains to fulfil their oath, and they would not: for they had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years.
‘Then Isildur said to their king: “Thou shalt be the last king. And if the West prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.” And they fled before the wrath of Isildur, and did not dare to go forth to war on Sauron’s part; and they hid themselves in secret places in the mountains and had no dealings with other men, but slowly dwindled in the barren hills. And the terror of the Sleepless Dead lies about the Hill of Erech and all places where that people lingered. But that way I must go, since there are none living to help me.’
He stood up. ‘Come!’ he cried, and drew his sword, and it flashed in the twilit hall of the Burg. ‘To the Stone of Erech! I seek the Paths of the Dead. Come with me who will!’
Legolas and Gimli made no answer, but they rose and followed Aragorn from the hall. On the green there waited, still and silent, the hooded Rangers. Legolas and Gimli mounted. Aragorn sprang upon Roheryn. Then Halbarad lifted a great horn, and the blast of it echoed in Helm’s Deep: and with that they leapt away, riding down the Coomb like thunder, while all the men that were left on Dike or Burg stared in amaze.”– The Return of the King, Book V, Chapter 2, “The Passing of the Grey Company”
What gave Isildur the power to curse the Men of Dunharrow?
Now that we have completely solved the mystery of the Oathbreakers and their fate, we can give the answer you’ve all been waiting for – how did Isildur even curse the Men of Duharrow? Well… he did not. Allow us to explain.
Namely, the answer to this question is just a theory since Tolkien never revealed any details, but knowing a fair deal about the Legendarium and using facts from Tolkien’s stories, we can say that our theory is almost certainly correct, if not fully certain. Namely, Isildur was a mortal Man. He was a powerful ruler and a great warrior, but he was still just a man and he had no inherent superhuman abilities whatsoever.
In that aspect, Isildur was absolutely unable to cast a real curse upon the Men of Dunharrow. Yes, we know, he uttered the curse and it happened exactly like that, but it did not happen because of him, because he did not have the power to make the curse come true. He uttered it, but he had absolutely nothing to do with it becoming reality. So, who did?
In the Legendarium, the only character who could actually bestow curses upon others was Ilúvatar, Tolkien’s creator deity himself. No other character was able to cast such a curse as the one uttered by Isildur, which means that Ilúvatar was the one who fulfilled Isildur’s wishes and cast his curse upon the Men of Dunharrow. Isildur thus only helped form the punishment for the Oathbreakers, but it was Ilúvatar that executed it.
Why did he do it? There are two possible explanations. First, the original oath might have been given “in the name of Ilúvatar”, which means that by breaking it, the men of Dunharrow were respecting the creator himself and deserved to be punished, since such an oath was absolutely binding. The other theory states that oaths, whether they were given “in the name of Ilúvatar” or not, were such an important promise that they had to be fulfilled at any cost; breaking an oath was an insult to Ilúvatar and that is why he punished the ones that did it.