- 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.The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, 180
“[…] 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.”
Tolkien’s Roman Catholicism was crucial to his understanding of evil and theodicy. He viewed the natural law of God as the stable order of the universe and abominated human subversion of it. Elaborating on this view in a letter to publishing advisor Milton Waldman, Tolkien contrasted the magic of the Elves to the dark magic of Sauron;
“[The Elves’] ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation. […] The Enemy [Sauron] in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others — speedily and according to the benefactor’s own plans — is a recurrent motive.”The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, 131
The natural order of Middle-earth is subservience to nature itself: one makes peace with nature or forcefully subverts it. Tolkien’s relationship with the Catholic God consists of making peace with His Creation or being wrong and warping it. This theistic naturalism makes its way into his fiction, as the Elves, the apex of creation on the fantastical continent and the closest in nature to the Valar, Tolkien’s class of angels, preserve nature and craft places and objects that channel natural glory. It is of course worth noting that the holiness of Tolkien’s creatures is largely determined by race, and characters’ predilections and actions are bound to a form of racial essentialism. His villains prey on the natural order by occluding the real identity of things, rendering them shadows and voids and nothings. The Miltonian Sauron, initially one of Tolkien’s great angelic beings, warps Middle-earth for the “tyrannous re-forming of Creation,” obviating the natural beauty of himself and Middle-earth for the arbitrary subversiveness of his craft. There’s of course another motive, which is the pursuit of power over Men. As Tolkien writes in The Silmarillion,
“Already in the days of Tar-Minastir, the eleventh King of Númenor, he had fortified the land of Mordor and had built there the Tower of Barad-dûr, and thereafter he strove ever for the dominion of Middle-earth, to become a king over all other kings and as a god unto Men.”The Silmarillion, “Akallabêth”
Middle-earth’s natural environment, crucial to Tolkien’s ethos, is not simply altruistic environmentalism on Tolkien’s part. Throughout his work, he juxtaposes the natural order of the material world with the triumph of monarchism and white paternalism. Aragorn’s quest in The Lord of the Rings amounts to reinstating true monarchistic rule in Gondor while battling the great ruinous threat from “The East.” Lining this up with the clear racism of the Orcs, it becomes clear that Sauron is a fundamentally Orientalist threat, a shifty non-European ruining the natural order of Middle-earth. The natural order may be green and full of forests, but the empire that accompanies it is myopically white.
Tolkien’s ecological theodicy hits a Weird streak with Mount Doom. The mountain is quintessentially an extension of Sauron’s will, in communion with him, erupting upon his return to Mordor and continuing to do so until his fall. Fundamentally a satanic locale, History and geography in Middle-earth are one. As Mount Doom is where the Ring of Power is forged, it’s the birthplace of the Third Age, and as its graveyard it becomes that Age’s resting place. As nature is the heart of Tolkien’s world, Mount Doom is its antithesis: an ultimately natural phenomenon, a stratovolcano, used as a forge for the greatest anti-naturalistic act of The Lord of the Rings.
As a young boy, Tolkien had been discomforted by the appearance of industrial machinery in the countryside. As a child of bucolic things and wildlife (he was born in Bloemfontein, where he spent the early years of his life), the introduction of industry into his Birmingham home troubled him:
Over the road [from Moseley, near Tolkien’s home in Sarehole] a meadow led to the River Cole, little more than a broad stream, and upon this stood Sarehole Mill, an old brick building with a tall chimney. Corn had been ground there for three centuries, but times were changing. A steam-engine had been installed to provide power when the river was low, and now the mill’s chief work was the grinding of bones to make manure. Yet the water still tumbled over the sluice and rushed beneath the great wheel, while inside the building everything was covered with a fine white dust.Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography, “Birmingham”
The England in which Tolkien grow up was so near Blake’s dark Satanic mills as to constitute historical plagiarism. The ecological themes of Middle-earth, one of Tolkien’s fascinations that enamoured his early fans (who he uncharitably deemed “the deplorable cultus”), is largely defined by Sauron’s damage to the land itself. The exploitation of Middle-earth is Sauron’s greatest time. Mount Doom is thus conducive to his success; it’s a thwarted, ruined part of the land that dialogues with people who exploit the land.
Sauron himself is largely invisible throughout The Lord of the Rings. His nature is obscure; it is unclear whether he is the Eye or if the Eye is his sigil and earthly incarnation. The nature of evil in Tolkien is obviation; the former beauty of Sauron lends itself to pernicious seduction as Sauron canceled out his own identity. The Nazgûl are shades of the Great Kings of Men rather than the legendary men themselves. Tolkien’s greatest horror is the abjection of moral greatness in service of its empty sigils. The land is all that’s left to speak for Sauron. Mordor is a dead land, and Mount Doom is its voice, and thus the voice of Sauron. The mountain and the Dark Lord are one, and to approach it is to meet the Dark Lord.
Frodo’s failure to destroy the Ring in the Cracks of Doom is thus emblematic of many things at once. The closer he ventures to Orodruin, the less recognizable he becomes. He is occluded by the Ring’s instincts, left to the defenses of Samwise Gamgee, reduced from his heroic role as a ringbearer to a husk possessed by the Ring. When prompted by Samwise if he can remember recent events, Frodo is unable to recall experiencing them.
“‘Do you remember that bit of rabbit, Mr. Frodo?’ [Sam] said. ‘And our place under the warm bank in Captain Faramir’s country, the day I saw an oliphaunt?’The Return of the King, Book VI, Chapter IV: “Mount Doom”
‘No, I am afraid not, Sam,’ said Frodo. ‘At least, I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.’”
Frodo retains intellectual memory of the events of The Two Towers, but no sensation from them. The trauma of events since then has clearly eclipsed happier times for him, aided by the darkness of Mordor. Carrying the Ring causes an allostatic load that eclipses all things save the power of the Ring itself; as an obivating force, it renders a bearer a shadow of themselves. Remarkably, this ruinous effect doesn’t stop with the Ring’s destruction. As The Silmarillion relates, the One Ring bears its nomenclature on account of its mastery over all other rings of power:
“Now the Elves made many rings; but secretly Sauron made One Ring to rule all the others, and their power was bound up with it, to be subject wholly to it and to last only so long as it too should last. And much of the strength and will of Sauron passed into that One Ring; for the power of the elven-rings was very great, and that which should govern them must be a thing of surpassing potency; and Sauron forged it in the Mountain of Fire in the Land of Shadow. And while he wore the One Ring he could see all the things that were done by the means of the lesser rings, and he could see and govern the very thoughts of those that wore them.”The Silmarillion, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”
This aspect of the Rings of Power, largely dropped by the Peter Jackson films (perhaps to cut back their already forbidding running time by sparing discussion of the Elven rings), is crucial to Tolkien’s books. The commodity of Mount Doom’s infernal industry doesn’t simply end with its destruction; it is the One Ring because of its mastery over all others. Even the defeat of Mordor doesn’t spare the Elven rings of their fate. Natural beauty is eclipsed forever by the iniquities of Sauron. Even in a dormant state, Mount Doom rules Middle-earth.
Orodruin’s tyranny reigns hardest on people who venture to its heart. The quest for the Ring is only won by accident and, in a way, by the avarice of Sauron himself. Upon arriving at Mount Doom, Frodo fails to destroy the Ring and claims it for himself, completing his journey to obviation and only being saved by the clumsiness of Gollum, himself an expression of the Ring’s corrosiveness rather than a person in his own right. The inherent stupidity of wrapping one’s magical and imperial power up with the fate of a mere ring meets its undoing in the victims of that ring’s corrosive power.
“The light sprang up again, and there on the brink of the chasm, at the very Crack of Doom, stood Frodo, black against the glare, tense, erect, but still as if he had been turned to stone.The Return of the King, Book VI, Chapter III: “Mount Doom”
‘Master!’ cried Sam.
Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.
‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’ And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight.”
Heroism vanishes when faced with the presence of Mordor. There’s some wisdom in this. To Tolkien, perhaps the most beloved reactionary popular writer of the 20th century, individualist heroism is a sham. Aragorn’s campaign against the armies of Mordor isn’t a great feat of military prowess; it’s merely a diversion to buy Frodo time. Samwise’s heroics largely carry Frodo to the Mountain of Fire, but even he cannot complete the Quest for Frodo. No character is the heroic figure showcasing a triumph of individualism. Instead, Tolkien’s mythology is made up of serendipity, great sacrifices, and surreal fortunes. Yet even this is often eclipsed by the nature of evil. Triumphs against the darkness are often won on Sauron’s terms. The traumatized Somme veteran Tolkien repudiated the ostensible triumphs of individualism, partly out of personal wisdom, and likely because he realized the inevitable. Against the shadow of Mordor, forged in the fires of the natural order, victory can only be conditional.