CW: white supremacism, neo-Nazism.
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. Tolkien’s ethnocentric fantasy hardly adopts all the avarice of the rabid imperialist; it’s tempered by Catholic mercy. Unlike the heroes of Tolkien’s favorite Icelandic and Finnish sagas, the heroes of Middle-earth don’t take treasure and women as they see fit; they fight their battles and return home. A cardinal sin of Morgoth, Sauron, and Saruman is their disparagement of other cultures and subduing of peoples’ ways of life. There’s a core of cultural isolationism to this philosophy. Tolkien endorses the healthy relations of different cultures and countries but asserts that they should be their own entities with distinct cultural identities. So while the sociocultural politics of The Lord of the Rings are deeply fucked, coming short of anything resembling racial equity (Middle-earth can only be at peace when a descendent of Númenor rules Gondor, and some cultures really are better than others), Tolkien’s sympathy for colonialism is virtually null, and confounds a direct equation of his work with the simplistic white supremacism of his imitators like Varg Vikernes.
Still, the central paradox of Tolkien’s work, a flawed but compelling embrace of Western European mythologies crossed with a truly Catholic generosity of spirit, comes to a head on subjects like miscegenation, for which Minas Morgul serves almost as a direct metaphor. When Elrond speaks of the works of Elves and Númenórean descendants in Middle-earth at his eponymous council, the racial essentialist undertones are clear:
‘In the South the realm of Gondor long endured; and for a while its splendour grew, recalling somewhat of the might of Númenor, ere it fell. […] Their chief city was Osgiliath, Citadel of the Stars, through the midst of which the River flowed. And Minas Ithil they built, Tower of the Rising Moon, eastward upon a shoulder of the Mountains of Shadow; and westward at the feet of the White Mountains Minas Anor they made, Tower of the Setting Sun. There in the courts of the King grew a white tree, from the seed of that tree which Isildur brought over the deep waters, and the seed of that tree before came from Eressëa, and before that out of the Uttermost West in the Days before days when the world was young.
‘But in the wearing of the swift years of Middle-earth the line of Meneldil son of Anárion failed, and the Tree withered, and the blood of the Númenóreans became mingled with that of lesser men. Then the watch upon the walls of Mordor slept, and dark things crept back to Gorgoroth. And on a time evil things came forth, and they took Minas Ithil and abode in it, and they made it a place of dread; and it is called Minas Morgul, the Tower of Sorcery.’
Characteristically, Tolkien equates sorcery with blemishing, taking the natural order for one’s self and using it to one’s own ends. The sacking of Minas Morgul is a protracted act of sorcery. It takes what was once a reminder of heaven and makes it a temple of evil where figures like the Nazgûl can dwell (in their way) and unleash armies on Middle-earth. More disturbingly, sorcery here is pretty directly equated with miscegenation. It’s hard to misread “the blood of the Númenórean became mingled with that of lesser men” as anything less than race and culture essentialism. This is hardly Elrond’s view alone either, as Boromir then steps forward to defend Gondor’s honor:
‘Believe not that in the land of Gondor the blood of Númenor is spent, nor all its pride and dignity forgotten. By our valour the wild folk of the East are still restrained, and the terror of Morgul kept at bay; and thus alone are peace and freedom maintained in the lands behind us, bulwark of the West. But if the passages of the River should be won, what then?’
The West is not presented as some infallible source of good either — although its cardinal sin is largely presented as its lack of vigilance in fortifying itself. But the East’s attacks on the West ultimately diminish its cultural purity. Indeed, appropriation, an equal act to occupation in Tolkien’s theodicy, also plays into the downfall of Minas Ithil. As Minas Ithil houses a palantír, the Nazgûl seize it and gift it to Sauron, as speculated by Gandalf:
‘But one [palantír] at least Sauron must have obtained and mastered to his purposes. I guess that it was the Ithil-stone, for he took Minas Ithil long ago and turned it into an evil place: Minas Morgul, it has become.’
The failures of both Gondor and Mordor contribute to the decrepitude of Minas Morgul. And yet some of Minas Ithil’s glory ekes through Minas Morgul’s darkness. The city glows, and yet it emits no light. It throbs with the still-beating heart of some awful monster, and no longer lives:
All was dark about [Minas Morgul], earth and sky, but it was lit with light. Not the imprisoned moonlight welling through the marble walls of Minas Ithil long ago, Tower of the Moon, fair and radiant in the hollow of the hills. Paler indeed than the moon ailing in some slow eclipse was the light of it now, wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing. In the walls and tower windows showed, like countless black holes looking inward into emptiness; but the topmost course of the tower revolved slowly, first one way and then another, a huge ghostly head leering into the night.
Frankly, this passage is the coolest fucking thing in The Lord of the Rings. As a child, Minas Morgul was the Middle-earth location that most intrigued me, particularly in The Return of the King’s adaptation of the sequence (what did the interiors look like? I wondered). Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are spellbound by the city as well (“for a moment the three companions stood there, shrinking, staring up with unwilling eyes”). Bits of Minas Ithil remain in Morgul — there’s still a “white bridge” of Númenórean build, crossing a stream, which is surrounded by “pale white flowers,” which are “luminous,” “beautiful yet horrible of shape” and emitting “a faint sickening charnel-smell.” There’s a seductiveness to this whole passage; one intended as the suffocating power of evil, but embodying a certain transgressive appeal. It’s uglier and scarier than just about anywhere in Middle-earth, betraying all that is noble in Tolkien’s world. And it’s hard not to be somewhat captivated by it.
The equivalent scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (as the Morgul scene is moved from late in The Two Towers to earlier in The Return of the King as a result of the film trilogy’s changes to the Rings’ structure) fixates on this, bringing to life the statues at the bridge’s end, “carven with cunning in forms human and bestial, but all corrupt and loathsome.” Peter Jackson’s career as a director of horror films and Weta Workshop’s delight in the grotesque and monstrous show all too clearly in this sequence, culminating in a scene where a great pillar of lightning explodes from the Morgul tower into the sky, visible for miles around (one wonders if we can blame The Lord of the Rings for every subsequent blockbuster featuring this image in their denouements — although to Rings’ credit, this happens not even halfway through the film). The book merely depicts “a great rumbling noise,” followed by “a red flash” which “leapt into the sky and splashed the lowering clouds with crimson,” followed by the emergence of the Witch-King of Angmar and a host of orcs. If Jackson’s version accomplishes one thing, it’s establishing Mordor as an indomitable force. If it accomplishes two things, it also makes Mordor look extremely fucking cool.
Most of Middle-earth lacks this property of coolness. Hobbits have a niche appeal mostly limited to cottagecore hipster aesthetics, Men are either truculent or antiquated, Elves are stylish and camp but above it all, and Dwarves are perhaps the biggest can of worms of them all. When Sauron and the Nazgûl step forward with their dark cloaks and fell creatures of the air, it’s enough to set any Goth off. I’m not sure that my own descent into the Gothic wasn’t subconsciously influenced by my experiences with Mordor. Mordor is the great transgression in Tolkien, and when Frodo, Aragorn and Théoden are consistently making noble choices, the presence of primordial darkness is cathartic.
Darkness is of course an aesthetic that presents something radical. Leila Taylor writes in her book Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul that
The phrase “[something] is the new black” means to be the new classic, the new basic, the next necessary thing. The color black signals a kind of unaffected cool, a latent self-possession that is at once alluring and intimidating, something carefully considered and effortless at the same time. Blackness, for the same reasons, is codified as cool, signaling a hipness that since white people started going to jazz clubs in Harlem has been co-opted and commodified for non-Black consumption. Blackness on non-Black people signals a pretense of outside rebellion and anti-establishment bravado.
Tolkien’s pervasive usage of “black” as an adjective is politically and semiotically loaded. His villains are Black Riders who utter the Black Speech, while the iniquitous and concupiscent have “black” hearts, and Gollum is “dark as darkness” (The Hobbit, “Riddles in the Dark”). “Black is a color, a mood, and a state of being, and all of these attributes contribute to the construction of Black as a race,” says Taylor. In effect, while Tolkien has little to say about Black people (we’ll discuss that more once we leave Mordor), his condensation of Orientalist tropes, xenophobia, and transgression on ethnic lines effectually otherizes the majority of his antagonists, making them into one race homogenized Orientalist race.
One must ask, then, why white supremacists and black metal musicians have attached themselves to Mordor. The best-known example is Varg Vikernes, noted neo-Nazi and convicted murderer, who named his band Burzum after the Black Speech word for “darkness.” One might ask why a white supremacist would align himself with the Orientalist villains of an English fantasy novel. A simple (and correct) answer is tempting: nazis are fucking stupid and can’t read. But a more interesting answer accounts for politics and psychology, which tells us something about both Tolkien and his neo-Nazi wannabe-acolytes. Furthermore, Vikernes is a folkish Heathen (a member of the fascist faction of Old Norse pantheon worshippers), and doubtless his faith was influenced by Tolkien; an odd fact, given that Vikernes is a virulent anti-Christian known for burning churches. In a fascinatingly absurd (and predictably antisemitic) blog post, Vikernes unpacks the rationale behind his choice of band names:
In my teenage interpretation I saw the Hobbits as children or simply boring. The dwarves reminded me too much of greedy capitalist-like pigs and they too were pretty boring. Their rules were cool and Moria was a wonderful place, but I disliked their greed vehemently – and who wants to be short anyhow? The elves were fascinating, beautiful and especially their immortality and closeness to nature was cool, but they were kind of dull and they fought for the wrong side. Instead I felt a natural attraction to Sauron, who was the person who gave the world adventure, adversity and challenges in the first place.
Vikernes proceeds into a rant where he incoherently compares Orcs to vikings, and accuses Tolkien of “turn[ing] Óðinn [Odin] into Sauron and my Pagan forefathers into fighting Uruk-hai;” hell, Gandalf’s obvious roots in Odin go unmentioned. So perhaps just concluding that Vikernes is stupid is less reductive than I first thought. The closest he comes to a truth is concluding that Tolkien was antipathetic to Paganism, and even that conclusion comes from not understanding anything about Catholicism or its relationship to paganism and the occult. Impressively, Vikernes’ white supremacism is so extreme and myopic he fails to even detect racism that concurs with his values, such as Boromir’s redressing of the Council of Elrond on suppressing Eastern men. More telling is Vikernes’ fetishistic solipsism, juvenile fixation on ‘coolness’, and ethnonationalist myopia. There’s a fundamental immaturity to Vikernes that Tolkien does not share. As a result, Tolkien is honest in a way Vikernes can never be. His pathologies are clear in his work, and he has a hugely flawed understanding of history. Vikernes has nothing but trappings, the appropriation of the past with none of its history. Tolkien fully embraces the history, setting him far above Vikernes, and reiterating one of the core truths of his work: underneath the fear of appearances, such as the Gothic-Orientalism of Minas Morgul, there’s always a deeper ontological horror story of Western paranoia.
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.