Mirkwood (Part III: Dol Guldur)
• Names: Dol Guldur (Sindarin: “hill of sorcery”), Amon Lanc (Sindarin: “naked hill”)
• Description: Dol Guldur is Sauron’s fortress in Southern Mirkwood. It’s built on Amon Lanc, a hill which the Elven-king Oropher rules in the Second Age. Around a millennium after the Battle of Dagorlad, Sauron settles in Oropher’s old fortress and begins to corrupt Mirkwood, using the outpost to monitor the Gladden Fields and River Anduin for the One Ring.
During the Battle of Five Armies, the White Council expels Sauron from Dol Guldur. Shortly afterwards, the Nazgûl retake the fortress. During the War of the Ring, Dol Guldur attacks the Woodland Realm. Eventually, Galadriel destroys Dol Guldur.
• Filming locations: Stone Street Studios, Miramar, Wellington, North Island
South of the dark Mirkwood Mountains, Dol Guldur lies “clad in a forest of dark fir, where the trees strive one against another and their branches rot and wither.” It stands “upon a stony height,” while “a black cloud lies over it.” It’s a gothic nightmare, a talon of otherness clutching the forest by its throat. Its power haunts the Wood-elves so gravely that the unflappable Legolas says “we do not go that way.”
Dol Guldur is a classic dark fantasy fortress. It’s a gothic castle in the tradition of Dracula, which corrupts Greenwood, so that “it became darkened and its new name was Mirkwood.” It’s noted for its “pits,” where the Dwarf-king Thrain is murdered and has the last dwarf ring stolen from him. Sauron in The Hobbit is simply “the Necromancer,” an evil sorcerer who evilly turns good things into bad things. “To Dol Guldur evil things repaired out of all the dark places of the world,” like grim fauna, sick trees, and the raiding Balchoth people.
Like most villain outposts in Middle-earth, Dol Guldur is apophatic, defined by absence and its effects more than its substance. Gandalf talks about infiltrating the fortress, saying he has “been in the dungeons of the Dark Lord… in his older and lesser dwelling in Dol Guldur.” Dol Guldur is decidedly a minor outpost compared to Barad-dûr. Mirkwood is so tangled even forces of darkness like Sauron get lost in it.
Sauron goes through a series of phases. In The Hobbit, he’s The Necromancer. When The Silmarillion recaps his story, he’s “the Sorcerer.” Both names indicate hostility towards magicians. They make the villain a simple evil sorcerer with no name, but someone who manipulates nature. He’s a Catholic Lucifer; noble and ruined.
It’s when he becomes Sauron that the Necromancer gains mythological significance. As a Maia, he is an angelic figure turned into something abhorrent. He becomes a proper Tolkienian villain: a figure whose great crime is the blotting out of goodness.
Minas Morgul is a relevant point of comparison here. As we discussed in Book I, evil in Middle-earth is a corrosive force, rust on the engine of natural good. The theologically Catholic Middle-earth knows that only good can be wholly original, while evil leeches off of it. The Wood-elves embody this ethos, building their work off the land without destroying it. In Tolkien’s words, they are sub-creators, their desire to craft “wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world.”
Sauron’s cardinal sin is blotting out his source material. Rather than crafting things in a complementary fashion to nature, he destroys it for darker purposes. A fallen Maia, Sauron is a petulant child rebelling against his family by corrupting an entire forest. The wizards, also Maiar, functionally emigrate to Middle-earth to stop their delinquent cousin from destroying the natural order.
Sauron and the wizards, despite being ostensibly the same type of angelic being, show completely different attitudes to magic. They both exist in the fantasy magician mold, with Gandalf and company practically inventing the archetype of the modern fantasy wizard, while Sauron fills the dark sorcerer role. In a classic letter to publisher Milton Waldman, Tolkien says that the elves’ “‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations,” while “The Enemy [Sauron] in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned’ with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines.”
This antipathy to magic is a strange attitude from the arguable creator of modern high fantasy. It’s found throughout his work, with Galadriel, Gandalf and Elrond invoking the Valar more often than performing original work. Characters submitting to the Valar bestows honor on them, while demanding submission from others destroys characters.
The wizards’ fights against Sauron form a major part of Dol Guldur’s existence. Gandalf embarks on several covert missions to Dol Guldur to discover that the Necromancer is Sauron. The horror is not that a generic evil sorcerer is making Mirkwood worse: it’s that he’s also a Maia, one of the wizards’ relatives, corrupting their world.
Sauron doesn’t provide a satisfying gothic alternative to the Valar. He’s fundamentally an authoritarian theocrat who destroys the environment. Nonetheless, he’s a compelling engine, one who propels Mirkwood into chaos, even if he can’t conquer that chaos.
Dol Guldur’s destruction by Galadriel, reduced in the movies to Cate Blanchett expelling Sauron from the fortress to Mordor (where he’s planning to go anyway), shows that a gothic castle is a dead end for magic in Middle-earth. Indeed, sorcery is a lost cause, as Saruman and Sauron find out. Dol Guldur and Rhosgobel are both hideouts for covert rebels, but only one of them survives, and even then it’s vacated by the end. All things will fade, but before they fade, they need a source.
Let’s go back to our source. Before Mirkwood, there’s Taur-nu-Fuin, the other forest Sauron tries to corrupt. And we’ll see how blotting things out goes for him there too.
 The Fellowship of the Ring, “Lothlòrien”
 The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Council of Elrond”
 The Fellowship of the Ring, Prologue
 The Silmarillion, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”
 The Fellowship of the Ring, “Journey in the Dark”
 Letter 131, to Milton Waldman
July 2, 2022 @ 6:31 am
In the tangled relationship between the two Toer-nu-Fuin, it was a quirky detail to discover that Tolkien at one point had the Great Journey troubled and delayed by evil things infesting the Great Wood, i.e. Greenwood/Mirkwood, suggested to have been installed their for the purpose by Sauron, still stirring up trouble during Morgoth’s captivity. So this forest-haunting becomes a really recurrent thing that he does, like setting up in towers with dungeons beneath.
July 2, 2022 @ 6:45 am
July 2, 2022 @ 6:43 am
When do they do this?