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As ever, dear readers, welcome.
If you read/watch fantasy, you won’t have escaped some version of this meme—
(It’s interesting, by the way, to read something about the speech behind this, which is from the film, but doesn’t exist in the text of The Fellowship of the Ring: https://www.newsweek.com/lord-rings-meme-boromir-one-does-not-simply-walk-mordor-fellowship-sean-bean-1507844#:~:text=%22One%20does%20not%20simply%20walk,great%20eye%20is%20ever%20watchful. )
In this posting, I intend to walk briefly into the place, not to drop off a Ring,
but to try to understand something beyond its geography. Is there something more which adds menace to the place beyond that geography?
It’s not as if the geography isn’t menacing, of course.
(This is from Karen Wynn Fonstad’s wonderful The Atlas of Middle-earth 1981⁄1991
From the Ered Lithui across the plateau of Gorgoroth to the Ephel Duath, this is depicted as a kind of volcanic landscape,
with, in fact, an active volcano, Orodruin, which seems to be smoking most of the time, like a Middle-earth Etna,
set just above the center of that plateau,
(This is a Tolkien sketch.)
its northern entrance blocked by elaborate gates, the Morannon,
its western entrance by Minas Morgul and the Tower of Cirith Ungol,
and, rising just below the volcano, the capital of the place, the Barad-dur, the Dark Tower.
Although I called the Barad-dur a “capital”, it might be better termed a command center, as the northern part of Mordor isn’t really a land with farms and villages, as we see in Gondor and even in Rohan, but a vast military installation, agriculture being located to the south — “great slave-worked farms away south in this wide realm, beyond the fumes of the Mountain by the dark sad waters of Lake Nurnen”. Instead, as Tolkien describes it through the eyes of Frodo and Sam:
“As far as their eyes could reach, along the skirts of the Morgai and away southward, there were camps, some of tents,
some ordered like small towns. One of the largest of these was right below them. Barely a mile out into the plain it clustered like some huge nest of insects, with straight dreary streets of huts and long low drab buildings.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 2, “The Land of Shadow”)
(These illustrations are of army camps from the Great War and here I agree with John Garth’s suggestion, in his latest book, The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien,
that JRRT was probably thinking of the camps he himself had stayed in during his military service in France in 1916.)
Such camps — along with the “mines and forges” mentioned by the narrator as located in that region — would have produced an endless smog of cooking and industrial fires
to which would have been added volcanic leaks from the ground itself: “There smokes trailed on the ground and lurked in hollows, and fumes leaked from fissures in the earth.”
(I suspect that, for JRRT, this image would have been a combination of his understanding of the instability of land around an active volcano
and his memories of Great War poison gasses, some of which were heavier than air and would, once loosed towards the enemy, linger in trenches and shell holes, still dangerous to the unwary.)
If the actual air is poisonous, so is the emotional atmosphere of Mordor. Although the plain itself may be barren, except for the area just below the Ephel Duath, called the Morgai, the area around the camp below Frodo and Sam is teaming with life:
“About it the ground was busy with folk going to and fro; a wide road ran from it south-east to join the Morgul-way, and along it many lines of small black shapes were hurrying.”
Those lines are hurrying because they are columns of troops and it seems that they are being spurred on not by a passionate loyalty to Sauron, but by other means, as Sam and Frodo encounter it:
“The leading orcs came loping along, panting, holding their heads down. They were a gang of the smaller breeds being driven unwilling to their Dark Lord’s wars; all they cared for was to get the march over and escape the whip. Beside them, running up and down the line, went two of the large fierce uruks, cracking lashes and shouting.”
This appears to be the norm in Mordor, as we see again and again reflected in the behavior of its many servants. Emotionally, Mordor is immersed in an atmosphere of fear, in which everyone is constantly watching everyone else for reportable misbehavior and possible dire punishment, as Grishnakh threatens Ugluk in their attempt to escape the Rohirrim and bring Merry and Pippin to Isengard:
“ You have spoken more than enough, Ugluk…I wonder how they would like it in Lugburz. They might think that Ugluk’s shoulders need relieving of a swollen head. They might ask where his strange ideas came from. Did they come from Saruman, perhaps?” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)
This is struggle between two leaders, but this attitude extends down to the common foot soldiers. Frodo and Sam ducked behind a bush and overheard this conversation between two of them, a soldier and a tracker:
“ ‘You come back,’ shouted the soldier, ‘or I’ll report you!’
‘Who to? Not to your precious Shagrat. He won’t be captain any more.’
‘I’ll give your name and number to the Nazgul,’ said the soldier, lowering his voice to a hiss. ‘One of them’s in charge at the Tower now.’ “ (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 2, “The Land of Shadow”)
(“Name and number” sound like another of JRRT’s memories of the Great War. All British soldiers were issue with regimental service numbers when they joined the army and Tolkien would have worn around his neck something like this: two identity discs with his name, that number, the title of his unit, and his religion. On a grim note, if he had been killed and his body recovered — many bodies on both sides never were — the red tag would have been collected by his recoverers, the green tag would have been left for the burial party.)
Above the soldiery — sometimes literally — were those Nazgul and, by Grishnakh’s reaction, in talking with Ugluk, they contributed one more element to this generally fear-filled world:
“ ‘Nazgul, Nazgul,’ said Grishnakh, shivering and licking his lips, as if the word had a foul taste that he savoured painfully. ‘You speak of what is deep beyond the reach of your muddy dreams, Ugluk…’ “(The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)
I’ve never really believed in the original film text of the remark the meme captures:
“One does not simply walk into Mordor. Its black gates are guarded by more than just orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. The great eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire, ash, and dust. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly.”
This, to me, doesn’t sound in the least like Boromir, the Captain of Gondor, who dies valiantly cutting down squads of orcs,
but more like a script-writer’s attempt to add tension to the long scene in the film derived from “The Council of Elrond”, foreshadowing the actual place which Frodo and Sam eventually confront and putting it into the mouth of someone we later know does not believe in Frodo’s mission. The description certainly covers the physical situation, and even mentions Sauron obliquely, but upon this unstable landscape of “fire, ash, and dust” lies an entire world of unstable servants, fearful creatures who constantl y mutter and squabble amongst themselves and must be held to their tasks by whips and the threat of being reported to something which gives even orc chieftains the shivers. I don’t know if any script writer could capture this in a single speech, but, when we walk into Mordor, we should be well aware that there is more unsleeping evil there than Boromir can tell.
As ever, thanks for reading,
Keep one eye out for Nazgul in flight,
And know that, as always, there’s