Mirkwood: Taur-nu-Fuin

• Name: Taur-nu-Fuin (Sindarin: forest under night), Deldúwath (Sindarin: deadly nightshade) / Dorthonion (Sindarin: land of pine trees)

• Description: An expansive forest in southern Dorthonion. Dorthonion, a forest region in Beleriand, sees crucial action in the First Age. Like the rest of Beleriand, it is wiped away.

This picture has lived multiple lives. In this form, it’s called “Beleg finds Gwindor in Taur-nu-Fuin,” illustrating an episode from The Silmarillion where Beleg the Sinda discovers Gwindor, an elf prince, who escaped a 14-year imprisonment by Morgoth and his orcs, now “spent and bewildered in the mazes of Taur-nu-Fuin.”[1] It’s one of Tolkien’s relatively few portraits of a narrative event, and a grim one at that. Shortly afterwards, Beleg is inadvertently killed “at the hand of him whom he most loved,” his closest friend Túrin, another survivor of orc captivity, “thinking him a foe.”

Yet this depiction of a heroic final act is one of Tolkien’s most colorful and distinctive portraits. The watercolors’ menagerie of brown and green and blue make Taur-nu-Fuin a disorienting, psychedelic landscape. The forest that kills Beleg won’t stay put.

Tolkien reused the picture to depict Mirkwood for The Hobbit. Taur-nu-Fuin’s colors are gone, and it has fewer trees, but it’s unmistakably the template for this new drawing. The trees, some plants and mushrooms, and survived longer than Beleg. (Tolkien also tried to reuse the picture as Fangorn in a couple calendars, but we’re calling his bluff.)

The forest’s similarities are not simply visual. Like Mirkwood, Taur-nu-Fuin is also possessed by Sauron, with its flora turning against its denizens. Both forests are elvish territories. And most crucially, both are initially called Greenwood and transform into Mirkwood. 

For the first time in Nowhere and Back Again, we’re in Beleriand, the northwestern part of Middle-earth where most of The Silmarillion is set. The War of Wrath, fought by the Valar and Morgoth, destroys Beleriand late in The First Age. Taur-nu-Fuin, in the elvish realm of Dorthonion, along with most of Beleriand, becomes a memory preserved by Wilderland’s Mirkwood.

On the whole, The Lord of the Rings is less grim than The Silmarillion, where half the characters suffer jaw-droppingly grim fates. Similarly, Taur-nu-Fuin is even nastier than The Hobbit’s Mirkwood. Morgoth’s occupation of northern Beleriand makes it “turned little by little into a region of such dread and dark enchantment that even the Orcs would not enter it unless need drove them[2].”

The Forest under Nightshade grows ”black and grim” trees, whose “roots were tangled, groping in the dark like claws; and those who strayed among them became lost and blind, and were strangled or pursued to madness by phantoms of terror.”[3] 

With Beleriand, Dorthonion gets a creation myth. As Beleriand’s “new-raised highlands[4],” it is a young land in The Silmarillion. Its raw untamed power is purely mythic. Its echoes permeate into Wilderland millennia later. Corrupting nature is Arda’s original sin.

Like Mirkwood, Sauron occupies it in a gothic form. Lúthien, the protagonist of Tolkien’s mythology, subdues him, and Sauron “immediately took the form of a vampire, great as a dark cloud across the moon, and he fled, dripping blood from his throat upon the trees,” settling in Taur-nu-Fuin and “filling it with horror.”[5]…

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