Christine Kelley writes about science fiction and fantasy, popular music, radical politics, and revolutionary Christianity. You might know her for her semi-retired project Dreams of Orgonon, a song-by-song study of Kate Bush. Currently her main project is Nowhere and Back Again, a psychogeography of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. Expect queerness, radical solidarity, wizardry, and the death of capitalism.Support Christine on Patreon.
Last month we uploaded our On Her Majesty’s Secret Service show. As always, Kit, James, and I had a lot of fun, and you should check it out. Alas for Eruditorum Press-only readers, someone neglected to update the site that we’d put up a new episode (it may have been your favorite trans Christian hippie Tolkien scholar. We’ll never know). We actually seemed to like the movie on the whole, for probably the first time since Kit and I talked From Russia With Love. About 80% of that is down to Diana Rigg, aka the best goddamn part of a Bond movie ever, so there’s plenty of Tracy Bond adulation. Trigger warnings apply, as always.
And this week we’re releasing our Diamonds Are Forevershow! In it we talk Connery’s second and last swansong as Bond (yes, it is, go fuck yourself). Las Vegas, stupid plotting, cute rats, and Peter Griffin make appearances. It’s also James’ favorite podcast in recent memory, so bear that in mind. You lucky people have two Human Bondage shows to listen to if you haven’t heard one! We hope listening to it brings you as much delight as we experienced recording it.
Human Bondage will return next month with Live and Let Die, where the Bondage crew are joined by my delightful friend Miranda, who you might remember from the last Eruditorum Presscast. We run a good show. Have fun with it.…
Names: Minas Ithil (Sindarian: “Tower of the (Rising) Moon”) when held by Gondor, Minas Morgul (Sindarin: “Tower of Sorcery”) under Mordor occupation.
Description: An outpost city in a valley (later Morgul Vale) Ephel Dúath on Mordor’s westen border, founded as Minas Ithil after S.A. (Second Age) 3320 by Isildur, a survivor of Númenor, as royal seat of the fiefdom Ithilien (opposite his brother Anárion’s Minas Anor [later Minas Tirith] rule of the fiefdom Anórien) and home of the Ithil-stone palantír. In S.A. 3429 Sauron takes Minas Ithil in an assault on Mordor. After the Last Alliance of Men and Elves defeats Mordor in S.A. 3429, Minas Ithil is reclaimed by Gondor and made a sentinel city to watch the borders of Mordor. In T.A. (Third Age) 2000, the Nazgûl besiege Minas Ithil and reclaim it for Mordor in T.A. 2002, “afterwards known as Minas Morgul.” Minas Morgul is corrupted and no longer associated with Ithilien, and the Nazgûl take the Ithil-stone to Sauron, who uses it to ensnare Saruman of Isengard and Lord Denethor of Minas Tirith. For the duration of the Third Age, Minas Morgul becomes a major military asset of Mordor and home to the Nazgûl. After the forces of Minas Morgul are wholly defeated in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in T.A. (Third Age) 3019, the Army of the West raids the abandoned city. At the end of the War of the Ring, the newly crowned king Aragorn orders that Minas Morgul be demolished and vacated.
Location in Peter Jackson’s films: Presumably Stone Street Studios.
More than any landmark we’ve seen, Minas Morgul emblemizes Tolkien’s fascination with putrefaction
and the Fall. A horribly resplendent city in a dark valley, it is a monument to the lost glory of Númenor, and later to the corrosive power of Sauron. A fairly realistic city in terms of its history, Minas Morgul trades hands several times in the late Second and Third Ages, before ultimately falling to Mordor. Minas Morgul is one of many places to fall to evil in Middle-earth; seismic geographic and cultural shifts define Tolkien. Middle-earth is always in the midst of the Fall, yet also fending it off, not quite succeeding. The glory of the Elder Days ends at the close of The Lord of the Rings as the Elves go into the West, although their virtues remain with their heirs. The Lord of the Rings is a tragedy in this way, where utter catastrophe is avoided, but a great and final triumph of good never occurs either.
Minas Morgul is highly indicative of this moral changeability. Its origins as the post-Númenórean beacon of Minas Ithil are ultimately betrayed, as it becomes an emblem of terror and occupation. Let’s look at that second one, actually, because it’s important. Occupation is strictly performed by Tolkien’s antagonists. When his protagonists are drawn into battle (and they’re always provoked), they fight those battles nobly, but they don’t subdue people or take their lands. Indeed, this was largely a contemporaneous trend; the Nuremberg Principles and a postwar consensus argued that wars of aggression were definitionally war crimes.…
The Dead Marshes serve as much as an introduction to the nature of Gollum as they do to the geographic and ontological contours of Mordor and its surrounding lands. In many ways, Gollum embodies the zeitgeist of Middle-earth more completely than any other character in The Lord of the Rings. Gollum is a pauper of paradox; he’s one of the trilogy’s few truly autonomous characters, having few loyalties (and no consistent ones) and little deference to the passing of time, and yet he is powerless. Throughout The Lord of the Rings Gollum is a pawn for both the Free Peoples of Middle-earth and Mordor’s forces. His demise is inadvertently caused by the decisions of both factions, and he experiences degrading and at times sadistic treatment from all of his captors. Gollum’s relationship with free will is inconsistent, evincing the paradox of Tolkien’s fervent Catholicism and racial-cultural essentialism. In short, he’s Tolkien’s entire creation in one character, embodying The Lord of the Rings’s ethos each time he materializes.
When he first appears in The Hobbit, Gollum is the fairy tale monster that other fairy tale monsters fear. Living under the Misty Mountains, Gollum, “a small slimy creature,” rules the literal underworld from his perch by an underground lake, aided by his magic ring. An unknowable yet strangely charismatic horror, he is described with something nearing reverence:
Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature. I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum—as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face.
The Hobbit, Chapter V, “Riddles in the Dark”
A creature of ravenous hunger (and atypically for a menacing fantasy creature, very small), Gollum’s rule under the Misty Mountain is pervaded by his appetites. Living in his lake, he “paddle[s]” around searching for “blind fish” to eat, sometimes capturing the odd helpless goblin who ventures into his domain, “throttl[ing] them from behind,” with “his long fingers” whenever they come down. Based on the evidence, Gollum appears to live quite a satisfying life by the time of The Hobbit. He gets to eat as many goblins as he likes, and the threat of disappearance keeps the goblins from coming down to figure out who ate their comrades last watch. There’s a strange English middle class quality to this; Gollum is a Weird corruption of an English gentleman, keeping to himself and owning his hole in the ground like a respectable halfling would.
Certain staples of Gollum are already in place in “Riddles in the Dark,” the classic chapter Gollum first appears in. His ravenous hunger and avarice are fully formed in The Hobbit, while backed by a confidence Gollum has long since lost by The Lord of the Rings.…
Location in Peter Jackson’s films: Kepler Mire, near Te Anau in New Zealand’s South Island, and Weta Digital Wet-Set at Lower Hutt, Wellington Region in North Island.
Description: Cadaverous wetlands between Dagorlad and the Emyn Muil. The graveyard section of Dagorlad. Dead faces pervade the Dead Marshes.
The Kepler Mire is one of South Island’s less glamorous, marshier landmarks. Based in the Te Anau basin complex, it’s notable for its size and its location near Lake Te Anau. Named as a shortened version of the Māori phrase “Te-Ana-au,” rendered in English as “Place of the Swirling Waters”, Lake Te Anau was initially home to Māoris, particularly the iwi (Māori nation) Ngai Tahu. In 1852, Māoris guided Europeans C. J. Nairn and W. J. Stephen around Lake Te Anau, the first recorded European visit to those shores. The lake was then surveyed by James McKerrow in 1863, and since then has been partially subsumed into Fiordland National Park and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site.
In November 1999, the crew of The Lord of the Rings used the Kepler Mire as a location for the Dead Marshes in The Two Towers. For landscape shots, the Kepler Mire was evinced in its sprawling, lugubrious glory (some scenes of Frodo, Sam and Gollum were shot later at Weta Digital’s Wet Set in Wingate). The Mire’s presence in the film is fleeting but memorable, enough to make it a potential tourist stop alongside the rest of New Zealand’s Rings filming locations. In Ian Brodie’s The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook, these places are treated as the holy ground on which The Lord of the Rings’ protagonists walked. Brodie describes the Kepler Track, a hiking track near Te Anau, as “travers[ing] lake edges, beech forests, mountaintops and a U-shaped glacial valley, and provid[ing] a more personal appreciation of our heroes’ journey!” (The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook) While the gaudiness of this prose is a perfectly common part of tourism, it also exemplifies its purpose of selling views of landmarks and reductive historical narratives at the expense of natural geography and history. In the weird ritualization and mystification of fandom, New Zealand is sometimes noted more for The Lord of the Rings than for its lands and people — it’s worth noting this colony is the shooting location for a movie about a subaltern figure like Gollum. Members of the cast and crew have at times bolstered this narrative. The Location Guidebook quotes Gimli actor John Rhys-Davies, the British National Party’s favorite Lord of the Rings cast member:
Tolkien was writing about a different world, a different land, a primitive land and a primitive time in history. New Zealand — breathtakingly beautiful — is just perfect for that.
While it’s true that Tolkien wrote about “a different world,” or our world at “a different state of imagination” as he put it, Rhys-Davies’ use of the word “primitive” is fraught to say the least.…
Location in Peter Jackson films: Tongariro National Park, Te-Ika-a-Māui.
Summary: A treeless plain to the northwest of the Black Gate. A lot of epochal battles are fought here. It is not considered by anyone a nice place to visit.
Unlike previous stops on our odyssey, Tolkien dedicated scant time to describing the stark plain of Dagorlad. It’s a historical battlefield, renowned for the important events that happened on its grounds, with little to distinguish it topographically. I can attest to the banality of preserved battlefields — I grew up near Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia, the site of two American Civil War battles fought in 1861 and 1862, and most of the spectacle there is forestry and split-rail fences. Travelers stop here because of what it stands for, namely two military victories of white supremacist separatists. The Confederacy’s victories at the Manassas battlefield went beyond merely strategic (perhaps unsurprisingly — the Confederacy was a structural clusterfuck): they saw the canonization of Stonewall Jackson, a deranged general renowned for standing his ground in battle before eventually getting shot by his own men and dying of pneumonia.
But our subject is a different white supremacist war with an exponentially smaller bodycount. Sauron’s corruption of Númenor is the apex of his fight against Elves and Men. Númenor, the apex of mortal Men in Arda, is an Atlantis-type legend in The Silmarillion and an expression of the corrosive effects of evil typical of Tolkien’s Catholic theodicy — starting noble and godly, then falling to temptation and the hubristic whims of godless men. Sauron’s influence inevitably corrupts it, and by the time of The Lord of the Rings Númenor has fallen into the sea. Stylistically, Númenor shares Mordor’s trait of being defined by its absence and obviation. Its presence is keenly felt, but as a concrete presence it has long since perished. The war against Sauron is a culture war: the Second Age of Middle-earth concludes with the Battle of Dagorlad, the culmination of a seven-year siege of Mordor by the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, an act of vengeance for the lost kingdom of Númenor.
Dagorlad, a nondescript plain, fills in for Númenor and other fallen scions of the West. It’s where their deaths are litigated in great, bloody battles. Nothing happens here because everything happens here. It’s worth noting that Tolkien, while writing stories full of wars and great heroic deeds, spends relatively little time on descriptions of his villains and battles. Certainly some of this is down to Tolkien’s non-normative idea of heroism, a staple of his work. The Hobbit is a story of a protagonist being thrown into the wrong story, his novella Farmer Giles of Ham sees a misanthropic farmer completely abject traditional notions of heroism, and The Lord of the Rings lacks a central protagonist after The Fellowship of the Ring. The Fellowship’s split sees Tolkien forge a narrative where war severs close personal ties and individual heroism is an ahistorical folly. …
After a (Jesus) 7-month hiatus, Of Human Bondage, or Human Bondage as we’re rebranding it, is back. Kit and I have functionally rebooted the project, with a co-host lineup change, new theme music, and losing the preposition. Otherwise it’s the same show, and Kit and I are still cracking jokes and being insightful about James Bond movies. We’re pleased to announce that our friend James Slater-Murphy of Pex Lives celebrity has joined us for our grilling of You Only Live Twice, an execrable piece of anti-Japanese schlock that we nonetheless have a lovely conversation about. As always we include a content warning, particularly for the troubling 10-minute segment at the head of the show, but afterwards things go quite smoothly. We hope you enjoy the show at least once; or even twice, to match your number of lives. …
Location in Peter Jackson films: Tukino Skifield, Mount Ruapehu.
Description: An urban trough of Mordor. The place where traffic comes in and out as Sauron’s troops enforce Mordor’s stringent border security. This is the region where the mountain ranges of the Ephel Dúath and Ered Luithi meet. Mordor’s great intersection.
After treading across the Plateau of Gorgoroth and exploring its salient landmarks, we’ve reached a stage of our odyssey where we encounter a mix of landmarks and intersections. The northwest of Mordor incorporates a commerce region, or at least places where Tolkien’s idea of commerce takes place. Less defined by a single landmark than a mass of historical events, our approach to Mount Doom and Barad-dûr was functionally to write tour brochures on raggedy parchments that orcs might hand to visitors from Rohan or Erebor before their scheduled Hour of Torture with Sauron the Great. (They’d probably be confused by the bits about authorship and this fellow named Tolkien though). In this part of Mordor, we’re faced with a mass of places where seminal events happened long ago. The Black Gate is the crucial landmark of far northwestern Mordor, but to unlock it, we have to uncover the history of the lands around it first.
In its northwestern quarter, Mordor shares a border with Northern Ithilien, a fiefdom of its rival Gondor. As bordering neighbors at war, Gondor and Mordor wrestle for control over places on their borders — in The Two Towers, when Sam and Frodo arrive in the northwest, they meet Gondor’s Captain Faramir as he leads a campaign to expel the Haradrim, Mordor’s allies, from Ithilien. In The Return of the King, Gondor tries and fails to hold the abandoned city/military outpost Osgiliath, losing it to Mordor’s orcs. The region is one of the most tumultuous in Middle-earth, as the two most powerful forces on the continent vie to colonize it. Imagine the United States and Canada waging a war over Alaska, and you’ll get the picture.
Beyond the Isenmouthe (or Carach Angren) pass, our perambulation to the Black Gate starts in Udûn, a valley whose name literally means hell. It serves as an elbow to the arm of mountain ranges that encircles Mordor, Ered Lithui and Ephel Dúath. Tolkien wrote virtually nothing about Udûn, probably figuring that naming a place “Hell” was enough to mark it as notable. The only other information we have about Udûn is that it’s guarded by Durthang, a once Gondorian fortress appropriated by Mordor after Gondor abandoned its watch of the Black Land. It has little plot relevance to The Lord of the Rings unless you care about the brief divergence in The Return of the King where orcs Frodo and Sam fall in with before the destruction of the One Ring marched from Durthang, but it differs from Barad-dûr in a key respect.…
Description: a gargantuan fortress near the Ered Lithui (Ash Mountains), on the northern Plateau of Gorgoroth in Mordor, approximately 30 miles east of Mount Doom. Our trek has led us across Gorgoroth, an arid but fiery wasteland choked with ash and cinders. Built as a revival of the spirit of Morgoth, the primeval force of caprice and destruction in Middle-earth, Barad-dûr is a morass of towers and pits, perched in the heart of Gorgoroth, itself a throne for the Eye of Sauron, which surveys the world around it. One of Tolkien’s most iconic creations, it serves as an indomitable paean to Sauron’s power and the architectural body of Sauron himself in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy.
An often-observed aspect of Sauron is that while he’s The Lord of the Rings’ titular character and antagonist, he is a functionally invisible figure. He lacks a consistent physical body, has no dialogue, is only seen in characters’ visions or through great distances, and can hardly be said to be a character so much as a cipher of Middle-earth’s iniquities and caprice. For all intents and purposes, Sauron is cipher rather than a person, defined by his presence alone, having long abjected personhood to incarnate as a shapeless mass of power and domination, extant only for the decadent excesses of power and kept alive purely through those trappings.
The details of this are characteristically vague. Tolkien, a more esoteric writer than his reputation might suggest, is reticent on whether Sauron has a physical body. The perennially unfinished mythology of Middle-earth offers conflicting accounts of Sauron’s body. In the Akallabêth, The Silmarillion’s account of Númenor’s fall, the great kingdom of Men, Sauron is said to lost his primal holy form and constructed his own visage in Mordor, like a terrifying cherub going through a hardcore punk phase:
But Sauron was not of mortal flesh, and though he was robbed now of that shape in which he had wrought so great an evil, so that he could never again appear fair to the eyes of Men, yet his spirit arose out of the deep and passed as a shadow and a black wind over the sea, and came back to Middle-earth and to Mordor that was his home. There he took up again his great Ring in Barad-dûr, and dwelt there, dark and silent, until he wrought himself a new guise; and the Eye of Sauron the Terrible few could endure.
In “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”, Tolkien provides a similar, if even more abstract account of Sauron’s physical form:
[In Mordor] now [Sauron] brooded in the dark, until he had wrought for himself a new shape; and it was terrible, for his fair semblance had departed for ever when he was cast into the abyss at the drowning of Númenor. He took up again the great Ring and clothed himself in power; and the malice of the Eye of Sauron few even of the great among Elves and Men could endure.
Names: Mount Doom, Mountain of Fire, Orodruin (Sindarin: “fiery red mountain), Amon Amarth (Sindarin: “hill [of] doom”).
Location in Peter Jackson films: Mount Ngauruhoe, Te-Ika-a-Māui, New Zealand; Mount Ruapehu, Te-Ika-a-Māui in some shots.
Description: a stratovolcano in northwestern Mordor, looming over the plains of Gorgoroth, the birthplace and the grave of the One Ring, and by corollary the setting of the Third Age in its entirety. Cartographer Karen Wynn Fonstad asserts that Mount Doom “seemed to be the only active volcano” in “that land of vulcanism,” further describing it as “a composite or strato-volcano, formed of alternating layers of ash and lava.” At its core is Sammath Naur, the Cracks of Doom, which could be either the forge of Sauron, the hall into the Mountain, or the steaming fissures and their magma emissions. On the north and west lies a path, upon which Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee take the final steps of their quest to destroy the One Ring. Tolkien’s imprecision in his descriptions of his geography come into play as ever.
Why enter Middle-earth in Tolkien’s hell? The answer is simply that Nowhere and Back Again is a psychogeography rather than a straightlaced tour of Middle-earth. Pushing against the grain gets us off to the start we need. Tolkien, a devout Catholic with anarcho-monarchist politics, wrote an 1,100-page novel about the war against Mordor. Dante’s soteriological odyssey Divinia Comedia doesn’t begin with Paradiso. As Mordor is the embodiment of evil in Tolkien’s corpus, it’s useful to weigh Tolkien’s values against it by directly engaging with his geographic theodicy.
Middle-earth, a bricolage of European aesthetics, is essentially a white supremacist fantasy. It’s far from a utopia, as it’s full of corruption, avarice, and threats of Yellow Peril, but it is ultimately a world based on the nobility of that which Tolkien’s colleague and one-time confidante C. S. Lewis deemed “northernness.” Striving to present a truly English mythology (Tolkien considered the Arthurian myths inadequately British), Tolkien spoke of excavating legends of his own, as opposed to inventing them:
“I have long ceased to invent (though even patronizing or sneering critics on the side praise my ‘invention’): I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself. Thus, though I knew for years that Frodo would run into a tree-adventure somewhere far down the Great River, I have no recollection of inventing Ents. I came at last to the point, and wrote the ‘Treebeard’ chapter without any recollection of any previous thought: just as it now is. “[…] I am old enough (alas!) to take a dispassionate and scientific, properly so-called, interest in these matters, and cite myself simply because I am interested in mythological ‘invention’, and the mystery of literary creation (or sub-creation as I have elsewhere called it) and I am the most readily available corpus vile for experiment or observation.”
The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, 180
Tolkien’s Roman Catholicism was crucial to his understanding of evil and theodicy.…
At its birth in 1917’s West Midlands, Middle-earth was defined by inauspicious circumstances. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, 25-year-old graduate of Exeter College, Oxford, and second lieutenant of the 11th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, was temporarily dwelling with his wife Edith (née Bratt) in a cottage in Great Haywood, Staffordshire, recovering from the trench fever he’d contracted during the Battle of the Somme. While recovering from his combat afflictions, a series of trials both physiological and psychological, Tolkien began working on his infamous legendarium, sketching a short story called “The Fall of Gondolin” in a little volume tentatively entitled The Book of Lost Tales. A lifetime of myth-making and endless revisions followed, and yet by Tolkien’s death in 1973 his life’s work was still unfinished and mostly unpublished. The popular success of The Hobbit and the late-blooming The Lord of the Rings only hinted at parts of a larger work. The appendices that close out The Lord of the Rings indicate a greater mythology, and throughout Tolkien’s books there is a sense of a greater corpus confined by the format of popular novels. Take the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Aragorn tells his hobbit companions the story of Beren and Lúthien:
‘Then tell us some other tale of the old days,’ begged Sam; ‘a tale about the elves before the fading time. I would dearly like to hear more about elves; the dark seems to press round so close.’ ‘I will tell you the tale of Tinúviel,’ said Strider, ‘in brief—for it is a long tale of which the end is not known, and there are none now, except Elrond, that remember it aright as it was told of old. It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.’
The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, Chapter XI, “A Knife in the Dark”
Tolkien’s characters cling to an awareness that they’re a part of legend, or hope to be part of the heroic tales of history someday. In the most infamously metafictional (and most homoerotic) scene in The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam converse about their chances of being the heroes of their own myth for posterity:
‘Still [said Sam], I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!” And they’ll say: “Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.”’ ‘It’s saying a lot too much,’ said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. […] To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were listening and the tall rocks leaning over them.