Gaze not into the abyss lest you accidentally write a book

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Christine Kelley

Christine Kelley writes about speculative fiction and radical politics from a queer revolutionary perspective. Currently her main project is Nowhere and Back Again, a psychogeography of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. Her first project was the now semi-retired blog Dreams of Orgonon, a song-by-song study of Kate Bush. Support Christine on Patreon.


  1. Arcbeatle
    July 23, 2021 @ 7:31 am

    Minas Morgul has always fascinated me as well, partly because it seems like the place (outside of Gundabad) where the Orcs have had the most chance to develop their own culture, even if it is under a governance they themselves see as hellish.

    From the way Sam notes that the Morgul Orcs have the made better equipment for themselves than the other orcs, to the conversations we hear from those orcs sceptical of Sauron (“They say the war is going well.” “They would say that.”) In some ways it feels like the Morgul Orcs absorbed some of the beauty of their corrupted city. That by living in a city not designed by Sauron, and ruled by the Nazgul rather than Sauron directly, they found some part of themselves long lost and desperate to burst free. Gothmog the general even hails from Minas Morgul, if you believe he’s an orc (a wings of shadow discussion for a different time).

    Of course they all get killed in battle, presumably leaving a city of mostly orc women whose fates are entirely untouched on, aside from us knowing their home gets bulldozed.

    But it makes me wonder: in a world without a Dark Lord, would the orcs of Minas Morgul have been able to build something for themselves that transcended the world’s expectations for them?

    Anyway fantastic fantastic piece Christine.


  2. liminal fruitbat
    July 23, 2021 @ 11:12 am

    When Elrond speaks of the works of Elves and Númenórean descendants in Middle-earth at his eponymous council, the racial essentialist undertones are clear:

    It may be worth noting Tolkien’s own ambivalence/confusion on this topic, given the story in the Appendices about how the Corsairs of Umbar were descended from lords of Gondor who shared the same fears and defected to Sauron rather than serve a mixed-race king who explicitly wasn’t the inferior specimen of their paranoia. I’m not sure if this is an example of Tolkien retconning things like the Orc problem or if it’s like his criticising of the Elves’ “embalmer” nature that he himself sympathised with: “yes, such miscegenation is in the long term regrettable but it’s not worth fighting against and I guess it’s all for the greater glory of Eru”. Are we meant to see Elrond and Boromir as flawed here, with their own pro-Numenorean bias, or is it just a natural consequence of Arda’s “divine blessings are genetic” thing?

    Minas Morgul and Angband are, iirc, the strongholds of evil that Tolkien gave the most attention to (unless you count Smaug-inhabited Erebor, but Smaug doesn’t do much corrupting and The Hobbit isn’t so interested in presenting the effects of evil), but Minas Morgul is undeniably creepier and more attractive. Which I guess might come back to what you’ve said about Tolkien’s view of evil as self-abnegating: evidently the Nine still retain enough of themselves to give their city its own distinct character. (And who doesn’t want to transgress into monstrousness sooner or later?)


  3. darkspine10
    July 23, 2021 @ 4:03 pm

    Glad to see another post, I was worried for a while that they’d stopped for one reason or another. I haven’t commented much, but seeing your new analyses always brightens my day (especially since I just came off the back of my first trilogy re-read in at least 5 years).

    I have always shared the fascination with Minas Morgul. The fact that we never ‘pierce the veil’ and go within lends it a mysterious haunting quality. The idea of a desiccated city, full of obscure mysticism and lost history, so enticing (much like Frodo’s trance-like approach to the bridge). I was glad of a peek behind the curtain in LOTR: Conquest (a rather forgotten Star Wars Battlefront clone) and more substantially in ME: Shadow of War. The portrayal in the latter in particular satisfied pretty much all my desires to see more of the city, both pre and post occupation by Mordor.


  4. Douglas Muir
    July 26, 2021 @ 6:34 am

    “Mingled with the blood of lesser Men” is indeed disturbing. But it’s funny that it comes from Elrond, the elf-human cross.

    On one hand, the essentialism in Tolkein definitely needs unpacking. On the other hand, we’ll do him a disservice if we don’t notice the points where he turned on himself and criticized that essentialism. With regard to the whole mingling thing, Exhibit A is the Kin-Strife of Gondor, which is triggered by a King of Gondor marrying a “lesser” woman from some Eastern barbarian tribe and producing a couple of half-breed heirs with her. Tolkein is clearly against the arrogant aristocratic idiots who start a civil war over this, and he explicitly notes that the heirs didn’t seem to be inferior in any way to their Numenorean ancestors. (Of course you could argue with a straight face that this is just opening another can of worms, which is Tolkein’s fascination with royal legitimacy. But still.)

    Exhibit B of course would be those elf-human crosses back in the First Age, which we are pretty explicitly told are the salvation of Arda. These are presented as unambiguously Good, and everyone who opposes them is at best misguided and at worst actively malevolent.

    I don’t think either of these lets Tolkein off the hook. But… it gets complicated.

    Doug M.


  5. Douglas Muir
    July 29, 2021 @ 12:46 pm

    Also: Minas Morgul is different from the rest of Sauron’s realm because it’s somewhat alluring. Horrific, creepy… but it’s not barren (things grow there!) and Tolkein emphasizes that it’s horribly fascinating.

    I think this is because, thematically, Minas Morgul isn’t associated with Sauron — it’s associated with the Witch-King, who is a very different animal. TWK appears in every book, has a physical form, and even gets to speak lines on-stage. He’s not a demonic spirit like Sauron; he’s a corrupted human — specifically, a corrupted Numenorean. (He is, if you like, Darth Vader to Sauron’s Emperor.) So while Barad-Dur is in some sense incomprehensible, Minas Morgul isn’t; it’s the work of Men.

    Doug M.


  6. Miguel Martin
    June 10, 2023 @ 12:46 pm

    “Gandalf’s obvious roots in Odin go unmentioned.” The origins of Gandalf are explanied in the foreword to the The Hobbit Harpper Collins Enhance Edition I do not recall the year by Tolkien son Christopher. “NB Gandalf was originally chief Dwarf (=Thorin) and Gandalf was called Bladorthin.’ The names of the dwarves in The Hobbit were taken from verses of a very ancient Norse poem called Völuspá, where many dwarf-names are given, and among them Gandalf.” Excerpt From The Hobbit Deluxe J.R.R. Tolkien This material may be protected by copyright.

    The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit are not a just a direct expression of its Author’s moral values. It is also a complex metafictional device, Throughtout its pages in a Jorge Luis Borges / Italo Calvino fashion a whole library of stories, myths and fictions dialogue with each other. When we fall in love with a book, it is only natural to see it as a perfect expression of its author values and morality. However, only the author can answer those questions we all ponder: what are your views on race and racism ? If we asked this kind a question to a book we do not get a straight answer because as we all know books speaks on a sort of “foreing language”: a language made of stories that talk to each other. For some readers Gandalf must be the signifier through which we can deconstruct Tolkein conservative/ religious/ moral values. For others, Gandalf is the improper name through which two books, two stories talk to each other.


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