We now return to our scheduled presentation on why Tolkien is just bloody brilliant. Part one introduced what my overall feelings toward Tolkien, both good and bad, and looked at a few of the magical objects and their symbolism. Part two moved up in scale just a notch to examine some of the major residents of Middle Earth.
So far we've seen how there's a lot more moral ambiguity in Tolkien than is commonly given credit for. Yes, there are strong streaks of black and white, but they're set on a backdrop of much greater complexity. Neither beauty nor decay are always symbols of virtue or malice – what really matters is moral intent. Narsil shines with the light of the Sun, but it doesn't need this power to slay Sauron. Lúthien brings forth flowers in her steps, but evil characters can use beauty as a cloak.
But there do seem to be a more fundamental sort of almost Platonic varieties of the beautiful and hideous at work in Middle Earth. Gandalf may bring forth darkness to intimidate Bilbo, but he will never blot our the Sun; Sauron might appear fair of face but no flowers will ever grow in his steps.
Until now, though, we've been looking at very small-scale effects, and this is a severe handicap. To understand why Tolkien's creation inspires a deep emotional resonance, we need to see how the Powers work when the gloves are off, how the same forces that can make swords get slightly glowy can raise mountains and level continents. So in this third, midway part, I'll look at how the forces of mind and morality shape the very landscape that the characters inhabit.
3) Land, Sea, and Sky
The Forests : The Old Forest
|Sauron's fortress of Dol Guldur in the forest of Mirkwood, by someone called McNealy.|
‘And the trees do not like strangers. They watch you. They are usually content merely to watch you, as long as daylight lasts, and don’t do much. Occasionally the most unfriendly ones may drop a branch, or stick a root out, or grasp at you with a long trailer. But at night things can be most alarming, or so I am told... They do say the trees do actually move, and can surround strangers and hem them in.’
Looking ahead they could see only tree-trunks of innumerable sizes and shapes: straight or bent, twisted, leaning, squat or slender, smooth or gnarled and branched; and all the stems were green or grey with moss and slimy, shaggy growths... they all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity. The feeling steadily grew, until they found themselves looking up quickly, or glancing back over their shoulders, as if they expected a sudden blow. There was not as yet any sign of a path, and the trees seemed constantly to bar their way.After a while the air began to get hot and stuffy. The trees drew close again on either side, and they could no longer see far ahead. Now stronger than ever they felt again the ill will of the wood pressing on them... Each time they climbed down they found the hollow filled with thick bushes and matted undergrowth, which somehow would not yield to the left, but only gave way when they turned to the right... Each time they clambered out, the trees seemed deeper and darker; and always to the left and upwards it was most difficult to find a way, and they were forced to the right and downwards.
Similarly with Fangorn :
‘I do not think the wood feels evil, whatever tales may say,’ said Legolas. He stood under the eaves of the forest, stooping forward, as if he were listening, and peering with wide eyes into the shadows. ‘No, it is not evil; or what evil is in it is far away. I catch only the faintest echoes of dark places where the hearts of the trees are black. There is no malice near us; but there is watchfulness, and anger.’
The emotion of the trees is reflected in their dreadful countenance. It is not that there is some particular evil at work upon the land, or that there is any sort of curse at work. Rather this appears to be a fundamental principle of how Middle Earth operates : mind influences matter, or perhaps rather matter is receptive to the effects of mind. It isn't that the trees are telekinetic, they don't deliberately control anything. Instead the land and the environment are almost inevitably subject to the emotions and morality of their inhabitants, at least if those are sufficiently strong and long-lasting. Pathetic fallacy is essentially the equivalent of a physical law.
Interjection : The Oath of the Noldor
|The Elves crossing the grinding ice because yet another king was a bloody stroppy jumped-up little twat.|
This is as good a moment as any for a short diversion on an important plot point that doesn't really fit into any particular category as I've arranged things. But the Oath sworn by the Elves to retrieve the Silmarils has similar effects to the subtle changes in the Old Forest that molests the hapless hobbits, so this provides further evidence for how the forces that govern Middle Earth operate.
The Oath does not act in any direct sort of way. It doesn't undo stone or bring forth flowers in their steps; the Noldor can't blame it for any particularly inclement weather or unexpected fires. But its effects are no less profound. It acts more like fate, bending reality around them. The Oath-Curse is like loading the dice : it won't make them float away or explode, or even make them roll a six every time without fail, but it stacks the odds against them. Wherever chance is at work, the probability is skewed towards making it worse for the Noldor. This manifests itself primarily through the actions of the characters rather than the physical world, twisting them more towards ill purpose than they would otherwise be inclined.
It is plain that Thingol desires your death; but it seems that this doom goes beyond his purpose, and that the Oath of Fëanor is again at work. For the Silmarils are cursed with an oath of hatred, and he that even names them in desire moves a great power from slumber; and the sons of Fëanor would lay all the Elf-kingdoms in ruin rather than suffer any other than themselves to win or possess a Silmaril, for the Oath drives them.
Be he friend or foe, whether demon of Morgoth, or Elf, or child of Men, or any other living thing in Arda, neither law, nor love, nor league of hell, nor might of the Valar, nor any power of wizardry, shall defend him from the pursuing hate of Fëanor’s sons, if he take or find a Silmaril and keep it. For the Silmarils we alone claim, until the world ends.
This mad desire for the Silmarils becomes an all-consuming passion of the Noldor. If the beauty of the Silmarils inspires them in the first place, it's this unkeepable, Brexit-like Oath that seals their doom. Words have power, manifested not just by persuasion and rhetoric, but actually in shaping destiny. In its way, the Oath is even more forceful than the spells of Lúthien.
And honestly... the Oath of the Noldor is a lot like Brexit. It's something utterly unachievable that brings them naught but ruin and woe but they stick their stupid fat fucking fingers in their ears and won't bloody listen. I could go on, but I won't.
The Forests : Mirkwood and Lothlórien
|Lothlorien. Image source here.|
Let's return to today's main topic. Mirkwood, on the other hand, definitely did fall into decay because of the will of Sauron. Prior to Sauron it was known as Greenwood the Great, which, so far as I know, was a perfectly normal forest. Only when the power of Sauron began to work its will did it become the haunted forest of fear, and when Sauron was destroyed it returned to its former self. This is a very clear example of the will of evil altering the world around it. Sauron doesn't have to order his orc legions to molest the trees, the change from pleasant leafy woods to sinister abode of nightmares happens by itself.
In Lothlórien the opposite is true. As the heart of Elevndom on Earth, the forest here is of surpassing loveliness. The cool waters of its rivers heal Legolas' weary feet, its trees are of silver trunks and golden leaves, and it's just all-round... nice. And as a pertinent counter to Mirkwood's ruin by Sauron, Lothlórien is enriched by the power of Galadriel and her magic Ring. Once again, the land is governed by its inhabitants.
Compare this to, say, Dune, in which the hardiness of the Fremen is a direct result of their extreme harsh environment. In Middle Earth things do work both ways, but there is a strong effect from the characters on the land, and much less the other way around : where the land itself has been corrupted by evil, that does not spread to anyone happening upon it.
The Lands of Shadow : Thangorodrim and Mordor
|The hobbits cross the Black Lands without falling into shadow, just as in earlier ages armies assault Angband and Thangorodrim without turning to evil.|
The innermost realms of Morgoth and Sauron are distinctly similar : dark, bleak and blasted wastelands* of either freezing cold or unbearable heat, with naught to tell but bare rock. Both feature towering volcanoes. In the case of the three-peaked Thangorodrim, this is a mountain piled up from the slag created when Morgoth and his servants dug the fortress of Angband. Since piling up a bunch of rocks will not normally create a volcano all of its own accord, and since Morgoth caused the eruption at the Battle of Sudden Flame, the volcanic nature of the mountain seems to be entirely due to Morgoth's influence. Morgoth, as the mightiest servant of Eru, is able (to a considerable but not unlimited extent) to control the forces of nature directly.
* Not entirely so in the case of Mordor, which does have slave farms in its outer regions to provide food for the armies.
In the case of Mordor, I'd argue that the case is ambiguous as to whether Orodruin (Mt Doom) is a natural feature or also due to dark powers. Online sources cite The History of Middle Earth in support of the former, but The Silmarillion might suggest the latter :
..and there was a fiery mountain in that land that the Elves named Orod-ruin. Indeed for that reason Sauron had set there his dwelling long before, for he used the fire that welled there from the heart of the earth in his sorceries and in his forging; and in the midst of the Land of Mordor he had fashioned the Ruling Ring.
This doesn't really sound like the volcano was the result of evil influences, but one that was there anyway and Sauron utilised. As with the story of the forging of the Rings, Mordor itself feels a bit of an afterthought to the main events in The Silmarillion. And again, it's not that it's a bad bit of storytelling, just that it feels a little bit roughly inserted after the main tale was developed.
So I would say that the Orodruin is a natural feature that Sauron exploits and manipulates, but once again, the elemental power at work is part of what gives the story emotional resonance. The protagonists are fighting not some guy with a big pointy sword, but the forces of nature itself. All of us are aware, at a deep, primal level, of how difficult this is : you have only to think of that moment of panic if you lean back too far on your chair to be aware of that.
Morgoth and Sauron both exploit more than fire. Morgoth uses fumes to shroud his fortress from the light :
With shadows he hid himself and his servants from Arien, the glance of whose eyes they could not long endure; and the lands near his dwelling were shrouded in fumes and great clouds.
Likewise Sauron sends forth "a broil of fume ahead of his host" in the movie, or in the novel,
"This is no weather of the world. This is some device of his malice; some broil of fume from the Mountain of Fire that he sends to darken hearts and counsel."
The elemental power of darkness is something I'll return to in much more detail. But again, as Tolkien seeks to give our emotions physical form with the world being moulded by the minds of its inhabitants, so he also seeks an emotive response by the opposite approach. In Middle Earth, Tolkien chooses evil to cause darkness because darkness itself causes fear. But to reach for the status of true myth, perhaps, requires a more fundamental explanation of why that fear arises. And Tolkien, I think, does have an answer to this.
But first, a final point about Mordor. At its border with Gondor lies Minas Morgul, originally Minas Ithil (the Tower of the Moon) as built by the Númenóreans. Only when Sauron occupied Mordor did it become Minas Morgul, the Tower of Sourcery, a fearful place indeed.
All was dark about it, earth and sky, but it was lit with light... wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing. In the walls and tower windows showed, like countless black holes looking inward into emptiness; but the topmost course of the tower revolved slowly, first one way and then another, a huge ghostly head leering into the night... the city’s gate: a black mouth opening in the outer circle of the northward walls. Wide flats lay on either bank, shadowy meads filled with pale white flowers. Luminous these were too, beautiful and yet horrible of shape, like the demented forms in an uneasy dream; and they gave forth a faint sickening charnel-smell; an odour of rottenness filled the air...all corrupt and loathsome.
Sauron's evil debases not just the land and elements but also the works of man. Morality, through magic, pervades the whole of reality of Middle Earth, and is not limited to the natural world or industry. Though it's not stated so clearly as in the forest, the effect feels similar : as well as the differences in architecture, something ineffable about the city has changed. An extremely appropriate analogy might be how the background music in a movie can make all the difference in the world between a scene of joy and of fear (but we'll return to that in part five).
On a related point, while the Elves generally live in harmony with nature, they don't shun metallurgy or craftsmanship. They value the things they themselves create (most dramatically in the case of the Silmarils). They live harmoniously, enriching the natural world they reside in, through their own inner goodness. Conversely, Sauron and Morgoth bring forth ruin and decay not because they encourage industry per se, but because their own inherent evil causes them to do so in a way that damages and destroys everything in their path. While Tolkien definitely does see inherent value in the natural world, he also recognises the value of art. Both nature and artifice can be turned to good or evil, depending on who interacts with them and how - a harmonious synthesis between the two is the ultimate achievement, not separation. This is exemplified by Gimli's cultivation of stone in the Glittering Caves :
‘No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None of Durin’s race would mine those caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the springtime for firewood ? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tap – a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day – so we could work, and as the years went by, we should open up new ways, and display far chambers that are still dark, glimpsed only as a void beyond fissures in the rock.’
Tolkien finds beauty and horror everywhere : compare the trees of Lothlórien with those of Mirkwood; the crafted jewels of the Elves with the hewn spears of the orcs; the frozen wastes of Angband as opposed to the majesty of the Glittering Caves. What gives these places their quality is not their intrinsic nature, not whether the various races choose to interact with or avoid them, but the intention, the music of the minds at work upon them. Mordor is laid waste by the mantle of Sauron just as the Glittering Caves benefit from the gentle gardening of Gimli. In all cases the emotional resonance, whether for joy or fear, is due in no small part to those connections with fundamental, primal beliefs about how the world should work, how our feelings should influence it.
Sea and Sky
As we begin to reach for larger scales we must also reach back through time. Despite everything, the Third Age is much the most materialistic and least mythical of the stories of Middle Earth. Basic physics applies consistently most of the time. Violations are subtle or brief, or so minor they could be taken for poetic license or metaphor. And this helps the story, with the rarity of the magic aiding believability and adding to its potency. So while the War of the Ring does revolve around mythic elements, the unreality of Middle Earth is far more apparent in earlier ages.
Now there are some weaker, more routine uses of the weather by the Valar. Snows and storms are sent forth from Angband and perhaps even from Valinor against the orcs. But it's high time to up the ante - the scope of the Powers that order the world can act in far more profound and unmistakable ways than a bit of ice or a flaming sword.
The destruction of Númenór is one of the most spectacular sequences of the whole of The Silmarillion. At this point (the end of the Second Age) Valinor, the Blessed Realm, remains an actual physical place one can visit : you can literally sail to heaven. The pride of the Númenóreans, deceived and corrupted by Sauron, leads them to raise a mighty fleet to assail the Valar themselves, jealous as they are of the immortals.
Spoiler : assaulting heaven does not go well. While the Valar have at this point largely withdrawn from Middle Earth, they are still present in the realm of Arda, and we witness their full elemental fury.
The sky itself was darkened, and there were storms of rain and hail in those days, and violent winds... And out of the west there would come at times a great cloud in the evening, shaped as it were an eagle, with pinions spread to the north and the south; and slowly it would loom up, blotting out the sunset, and then uttermost night would fall upon Númenor. And some of the eagles bore lightning beneath their wings, and thunder echoed between sea and cloud.
Now the lightnings increased and slew men upon the hills, and in the fields, and in the streets of the city; and a fiery bolt smote the dome of the Temple and shore it asunder, and it was wreathed in flame... When therefore the last portent came they heeded it little. For the land shook under them, and a groaning as of thunder underground was mingled with the roaring of the sea, and smoke issued from the peak of the Meneltarma.
In latter days the degree to which the physical world is affected by the emotions of its inhabitants is comparatively slight : woods become fairer or fouler, cities more majestic or imposing. In the Third Age the minds and powers at work are relatively weak, those of Elves, dwarves and men, and their effects are unintentional. We only see hints of stronger possibilities when we have greater forces at work : Sauron and his Ring and volcanoes, Saruman and his own dark tower. This connects the otherwise ordinary adventure story to the mythic grandeur at the heart of Middle Earth, but in the destruction of Númenór this is exposed in full.
Then the Eagles of the Lords of the West came up out of the dayfall, and they were arrayed as for battle, advancing in a line the end of which diminished beyond sight; and as they came their wings spread ever wider, grasping the sky.
The Númenórians are fighting nothing less than the elements themselves. They're given ample warning, but they ignore all of them. The Valar's power is literally what gives order to the world, and this time their wrath against the hubris of Númenór is not some side-effect of their emotions spilling over into the physical realm : it is directed and done with absolute control.
Andor, the Land of Gift, Númenor of the Kings, Elenna of the Star of Eärendil, was utterly destroyed. For it was nigh to the east of the great rift, and its foundations were overturned, and it fell and went down into darkness, and is no more. And there is not now upon Earth any place abiding where the memory of a time without evil is preserved. For Ilúvatar cast back the Great Seas west of Middle-earth, and the Empty Lands east of it, and new lands and new seas were made; and the world was diminished.
Then suddenly fire burst from the Meneltarma, and there came a mighty wind and a tumult of the earth, and the sky reeled, and the hills slid, and Númenor went down into the sea, with all its children and its wives and its maidens and its ladies proud; and all its gardens and its halls and its towers, its tombs and its riches, and its jewels and its webs and its things painted and carven, and its laughter and its mirth and its music, its wisdom and its lore: they vanished for ever.
This is what Tolkien hints at again and again in The Lord of the Rings but unleashes fully in The Silmarillion : the world itself is ordered, at least in part, by intelligence. When we tread fearfully through a dark and tangled wood, we fear not accidents but malevolence. Something lurks in the dark that wishes us harm. When we see a glorious sunrise or the warmth of a fine day, we may feel the world approves of us in some way. Emotion and intent underpin every aspect of the seemingly materialistic cosmos around us. And woe betide those who should anger such powers : their influence may usually be mild, but this is through choice, not weakness.
In the destruction of Númenór new lands are raised as well as destroyed. As we go back into the First Age, we see the Valar shaping the land in more defensive ways, both by Melkor and those loyal to Ilúvatar. A few examples will suffice.
But the east shores of Aman were the uttermost end of Belegaer, the Great Sea of the West; and since Melkor was returned to Middle-earth and they could not yet overcome him, the Valar fortified their dwelling, and upon the shores of the sea they raised the Pelóri, the Mountains of Aman, highest upon Earth.
The mountains were the Hithaeglir, the Towers of Mist upon the borders of Eriador; yet they were taller and more terrible in those days, and were reared by Melkor to hinder the riding of Oromë.
The Valar were in doubt, fearing what the malice and cunning of Morgoth might yet contrive against them. Therefore at that time they fortified their land anew, and they raised up the mountain-walls of the Pelóri to sheer and dreadful heights, east, north, and south. Their outer sides were dark and smooth, without foothold or ledge, and they fell in great precipices with faces hard as glass, and rose up to towers with crowns of white ice. A sleepless watch was set upon them, and no pass led through them save only at the Calacirya: but that pass the Valar did not close, because of the Eldar that were faithful.
With important exceptions, the power of the Valar seems to diminish as time progresses. Sometimes Tolkien is quite unambiguous about this, saying that the creation of the Trees (see part four) is an achievement so great that Yavanna is drained to the extent that she can never repeat it. Sauron is weakened by the destruction of Númenór such that he is locked into a single physical form. Certainly it seems the powers even of the Valar are not unlimited and they cannot fully escape the confines of the beings they become while in Arda – only Eru can do that.
But at other times the reasons and mechanisms are less clear what's going on : why should a mountain range be any barrier against a fellow being capable of raising mountains themselves ?
What I suspect is happening is that the more they embed themselves in Middle Earth, the more they become bound to its laws. The spirit of the Valar is utterly indestructible, but their corporeal bodies (which they wear like "raiments" as Tolkien puts it) are certainly not – they can be injured, even destroyed altogether. And the more Morgoth interacts with the world, the less and less supernatural he seems, becoming more and more confined to his own fortress-prison. Something similar befalls Sauron.
Alternatively, but perhaps not entirely mutually exclusively, the "mountains" are nothing of the sort. The Valar's "bodies" are explicitly intended themselves as metaphor, as something the audience can grasp that is merely representative of their true, unfathomable selves. In that case the mountains should be understood only as barriers of some kind, not literally tall pointy rocky things.
Or, perhaps most likely, they may be a mixture of both : mountains raised in latter days are indeed great big rocks, whereas those back in the mists of time are not the same at all.
For the purposes of mythmaking, the ambiguity here is part of the appeal. Compare this very amusing analysis (and also this one) of the geography of Middle Earth from a rational, scientific perspective :
Tectonic plates don’t tend to collide at neat right angles, let alone in some configuration as to create a nearly perfect box of mountains in the middle of a continent. I’ve heard the reasoning before that suggests Sauron has made those mountains somehow, and I suppose right angles are a metaphor for the evil march of progress, but I don’t recall that being in the books I read. And ultimately, this feels a lot like defending the cake in the song MacArthur Park as a metaphor – okay fine, maybe it’s a metaphor…but it’s a silly metaphor that makes my geologist heart cry tears of hematite.
This is firmly tongue-in-cheek, but to take it unfairly seriously, honestly... no, it's not a silly metaphor. It's an essential, indispensable part of Tolkienian cosmology. The whole point is that the world is ordered and directed by conflicting intelligences – that's what lends it mythical credentials. Of course, it has nothing to do with "the march of progress", which is a highly complex and utterly non-linear (hah, so no right-angles then !) process in the history of Middle Earth. It's about saying that the seemingly inert, eternal, vast landscapes beyond human engineering capabilities are the work of higher beings. That's what gives it mythical status : to explain the inexplicable in terms comprehensible to our own mortal and intuitive reasoning.
I emphasise "intuitive" because of course continental drift is perfectly simple to understand. But if you were raised outside the sphere of influence of centuries upon centuries of university education and sophisticated technological developments, the idea that whole continents could move around by themselves just would not occur to you, any more than it would to suppose that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Far simpler to suppose some higher intelligence was at work instead.
And furthermore, the ambiguity in whether Tolkien intends us to read "mountains" literally is reinforced with his omission as to how the mountains are actually raised. Does Morgoth sing a song ? Does he actually physically lay stone upon stone with his hands ? Answering this would be scientific, which is the very thing we should strive to avoid here, because the question cannot be scientifically answered in Tolkien's creation. Science by its very nature precludes ambiguity, whereas myths, like poetry, thrives on it. A myth that says, "Morgoth gathered six hundred and fifty billion stones each weighing between 100 and 500 kg, heated them in a big furnace to 1200°C and melted them together to make a mountain" is just not a myth at all.
We've seen how Tolkien creates such a damned appealing story by mixing a materialistic, basically believable narrative with aspects of true myth. Most of the time little Frodo doesn't have to worry about the rocks and trees being out to get him, but sometimes he does. Words have real power and even the landscape itself is symbolic of the infinitely greater forces at work.
The power of The Lord of the Rings is that these moments hearken back to the earlier eras when the world was driven by conflicting intelligences, a mythology that is not just thrown in for dramatic effect, but fully developed. The consistency of this matters. Even as the physics is replaced with an entirely different set of rules, this older system feels plausible (most readers will never be consciously aware of this) because it behaves in its own consistent way. It may not have scientific, physical laws as we know them but it does have its own rules by which it functions.
Ironically, we've also seen how these mythic elements also rely on ambiguity and uncertainty. By refusing to spell out in minute detail (or even any detail at all) exactly how the Valar operate, Tolkien demands the reader fills in the gap by themselves, inevitably drawing on their own emotions. He's not asking us how we think the Valar made the world, he's asking us how we feel it was done. As we've seen, in earlier times this was done on the grandest of scales, empowering the story with a strong sense of awe. But we're not done yet. In part four, we'll move on the the global-scale processes : the shaping of continents and the light of heaven.