The Iron Hills
- Name: The Iron Hills
- Description: The Iron Hills sit in northern Rhovanion. The River Carnen flows south from the expansive hill range, suggesting a fertility that the Lonely Mountain and other parts of eastern Wilderland lack. Spanning over 100 miles, the Iron Hills are truly remote, standing at a remove from any other topologically significant monument to Middle-earth’s diversity, being shorter both in altitude and range than the Grey Mountains or Misty Mountains (to its northwest and central west, respectively).
Karen Wynn Fonstad says “the major yield of the Iron Hills is self-evident”; it is of course iron ore. Doubtless this factor is partially responsible for the First Age emigration of the Longbeards, or Durin’s Folk, one of the seven Dwarf kindreds, to the Iron Hills, which remains a Dwarf-realm well into the Third Age. In the wake of catastrophes at the Dwarf-strongholds Moria and the Lonely Mountain, the Iron Hills is a haven for the Longbeards. They’re also a center of commerce, as “there was great traffic of ore” between them and the dwarves of Erebor at the Lonely Mountain (The Return of the King, Appendix A: “Durin’s Folk”). As Northmen, amenable Men “who lived between Celduin (River Running) and Carnen (Redwater) became strong and drove back all enemies”; the region between the Iron Hills and Erebor sees bountiful trade for the Longbeards.
This economic boom comes at a price, however, as Erebor is then sacked by the dragon Smaug. In the invasion’s wake, the Iron Hills become the last Dwarvish stronghold in Wilderland, with Erebor occupied by a dragon and Moria taken by Orcs. With their remoteness rendering them the securest dwarves in Middle-earth, the Dwarves of the Iron Hills are able to gather armies at a moment’s notice. When the War of the Dwarves and the Orcs over Moria culminates at the Battle of Azanulbizar, the Iron Hills’ forces turn the tide in the dwarves’ favor, as they cut through the orcs’ forces quite easily until the Lord of the Iron Hills Náin is killed. His son Dáin Ironfoot then decapitates the captain Azog, his father’s killer, which roughly wins the battle. Later Dain musters 500 dwarves to assist his kinsmen for the Battle of Five Armies in the climax of The Hobbit, where he becomes the new King under the Mountain upon his cousin Thorin Oakenshield’s death in battle. There is a mass emigration of Iron Hill dwarves to Erebor. The Iron Hills’ recorded history ends here, as the hills rule their quarter of Wilderland undisturbed by the pens of historians.
Maps of Rhovanion feature an expanse of uncolonized land, occupied by creatures beyond the Red Book of Westmarch’s scope. Mirkwood is hundreds of miles to the west, while in the east Rhûn’s shores fade from sight. To the northwest there’s a confluence of the Celduin (River Running) and Carnen (River Redwater); the Celduin leads northwest to Mirkwood, while the Carnen goes straight north to the Iron Hills. We’ll save Mirkwood for another day, so let’s look at our maps to read about the Carnen’s source, the Iron Hills.
The Iron Hills are not as long or as altitudinous as Middle-earth’s great mountain ranges, and yet their standing as an isolated hill range makes them one of the sturdiest places in Wilderland. It’s one of the few genuinely well-governed realms Tolkien writes about; while places like Númenor, Erebor, and Gondor collapse under decadent leadership, the Iron Hills fare quite well as a dwarvish territory. Whenever Durin’s Folk face catastrophe, the dwarves of the Iron Hills quickly rally their forces to assist their kinsmen. There’s no doubt the Iron Hills themselves make such quick rallying possible; living in a hill range with abundant mines benefits a secure and isolated homeland with a well-organized army. The Iron Hills dwarves’ loyalty to their kinsmen is abetted by their infrastructural functionality, like a lucrative Peak District. By the time Bilbo Baggins sneaks out of Erebor to deliver the Arkenstone to Thranduil and Bard near the end of The Hobbit, the dwarf-lord “Dain and more than five hundred dwarves, hurrying from the Iron Hills, were now within about two days’ march of Dale, coming from the North-East.” Dáin Ironfoot survives the ensuing Battle of Five Armies (somewhat confusingly, he’s Dain in The Hobbit and Dáin in The Lord of the Rings), and when the deaths of Thorin Oakenshield and his nephews Fíli and Kíli terminate Thrór’s line, Dáin and his people simply emigrate to Erebor to rule their kinspeople, rendering the Iron Hills defunct as a dwarf-realm but ultimately assisting the dwarves who lived there.
The Iron Hills’ isolation and strength seem to fortify their inhabitants, as the combined dwarves of the Iron Hills and Erebor gain wealth and strengthen ties with Dale and Mirkwood, showing a diplomatic skill the Thrór line lacked. Dáin’s rule benefits Erebor in this way; the combined efforts of families make Durin’s Folk a bastion of trade in this area. Morale is clearly improved and influenced by Dáin’s personal strength, as he never succumbs to the corruption of the Seven Dwarf-rings, which are mostly held and corrupted by Sauron, averting the fate that vanquishes the Thrór line. About a year prior to the Council of Elrond, a “horseman in the night” arrives at Erebor, promising Dáin and the dwarves “three rings that the Dwarf-sires possessed of old shall be returned to you, and the realm of Moria shall be yours forever” should they inform Mordor of their ties with Hobbits (The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Council of Elrond”). Weighing tenacity with strategic wiles, Dáin bides his time to consider the reclamation of his ancestral heirlooms and lost Dwarf-stronghold (Moria being one of the Longbeards’ greatest historical losses), abstaining from giving the (presumable) Ringwraith an answer on their return visits and eventually dispatching Glóin, one of Thorin’s company, to Rivendell to warn Bilbo of Mordor’s search. Dáin never directly responds to the offer, preferring to act in secret, suggesting a commitment to strategy and alliance that avoids openly declaring war against Mordor or betraying his ally Bilbo.
It’s easy to look at the Dwarves, northern highlander warrior people with fiery tempers, and see a chauvinistic allegory for the Scottish. This is wrong of course — Tolkien was infamously averse to allegory, and even if he had the Scottish in mind as an influence (which he apparently didn’t; Tolkien always stressed that his dwarves were influenced by Jewish people), the cultural resemblance is minimal. Yet the Peter Jackson films seize on the tenuous connection, portraying dwarves as Scottish and Celtic. As one TheOneRing.Net article points out, artist John Howe draws from Celtic influences for dwarves, who are bearded, long-haired, and clothed heavily, bound to mountains, the Iron Hill dwarves resemble the northern Scottish tribe Picts, particularly with mohawks and painted tattoos, and several dwarves have Scottish accents. John Rhys-Davies’ Gimli has a brogue, a tradition carried by actor Peter Hambleton in his portrayal of his character’s father Glóin in the Hobbit trilogy, and Scottish comedian Billy Connolly virtually plays himself as Dáin in The Battle of the Five Armies.
Dáin in the film is as radical a departure from the source material as the trilogy’s depiction of Elves and Orcs fighting in Lake-town or the orc Azog surviving the Battle of Azanulbizar. When he arrives to aid an already mad and dragon sickness-infested Thorin Oakenshield, Gandalf comments to Bilbo that he “always found Thorin to be the more reasonable of the two.” Indeed, Connolly’s Dáin proves to be the lone pervasive user of profanity in the trilogy, telling Thranduil’s Elves to “sod off” while using words like “bugger” and “bastard” and, in one of the Hobbit trilogy’s alarmingly numerous homophobic and transphobic moments, calling Thranduil a pointy-eared princess. While casting Billy Connolly as a dwarf would never go any other way, Dáin is a completely different character from the book, and his eventual crowning as King under the Mountain is an odd move. The notion that Dáin is a saner replacement for Thorin is largely squandered too, as he leads an assault on the elves where his dwarves fire quasi-missiles at them. Whiskered men with bombs indeed.
Still, despite his cinematic counterpart, Dáin’s fidelity to an outsider and strategic cunning is somewhat rare among Tolkien’s dwarves. In Appendix A’s history of Durin’s Folk, the Thrór line depicts Dwarves as headstrong, insular, and aggressive by nature, though also innovative, resilient, and loyal to their people. They’re broadly heroic characters; despite his fatal moral downfall Thorin makes peace with Bilbo on his deathbed, and there’s no moment where, say, Thorin stabs Thranduil in a fit of sectarian rage. But Thrór’s line largely embodies the Dwarves’ vices and follies, while Dáin restores their moral balance. He signifies how a ‘good’ dwarf-king rules in Middle-earth’s moral framework: by protecting his people and making administrative decisions that benefit them without any monarchic overreach. It can be argued that this is what makes The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings fantasy, and also indicates Tolkien’s ideas of effective governance.
Tolkien’s personal politics were characteristically idiosyncratic. As a Roman Catholic, he responded to the Holy Trinity and the Vatican first and foremost; all other politics were a matter of living out church teachings. Tolkien held a number of socially conservative views, particularly on sexual morality, writing to his son Michael that “the dislocation of sex-instinct is one of the chief symptoms of the Fall” and that “the devil is endlessly ingenious, and sex is his favorite subject” (Letter 43). This didn’t prevent him from carrying on friendly correspondences and socializing with queer authors like W. H. Auden, Mary Reunault, and Nevill Coghill, and as Molly Ostertag has shown, his work is full of queer themes, but it can be assumed he was quite Catholic on the issue of gay rights (although unlike C. S. Lewis, Tolkien has no published writings that prove homophobia). His views on institutional racism were reproving, as shown by his public condemnation of South African Apartheid to Oxford University in 1959, although his belief in cultural and ethnic seperatism are on full display in his fiction. Where Tolkien’s politics become interesting is in his views on personal governance, as he once told Christopher Tolkien in a (seemingly half-joking) letter:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to ‘King George’s council, Winston and his gang’, it would go a long way to clear thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy.
If one can deduce a man’s politics from what amounts to a 1943 shitpost written to his son, it seems Tolkien was broadly in favor of a robust but limited monarchical rule, with limited or no government bureaucracy, some Little Englander sentiments, perched on the peak of a stratified class system on a localized basis. Surely it’s no surprise Sam calls Frodo “Master” as often as he does. In another letter to Christopher written a few weeks after the “Theyocracy” missive, Tolkien claims “I love England (not great Britain and certainly not the British Commonwealth (grr!)),” indicating a strange patriotism yet a distaste for imperialism and how the globe is “getting to be all one blasted little provincial suburb” (Letter 53). The passage is tongue-in-cheek, and Tolkien indicates he’s partially making fun of himself, but he clearly sends the message that imperialism and globalization bother him. He certainly doesn’t have a leftist or progressive critique of these trends; his objections often boil down to “I wish I lived in a neo-feudalist Catholic realm where people bring swords to work,” and he appears to believe the cultural boundaries of a country define it more than governance does (which hews distressingly close to the platforms of organizations like UKIP). Somewhat typically for a member of the middle class though, Tolkien talks about politics in terms of abstractions, mystical goals to achieve rather than a sequence of frameworks and mechanisms that control the direction of people’s lives. As Tolkien jocularly and affectionately refers to Winston Churchill as “Our Cherub,” it becomes clear that to him politics are a metaphysical framework, free of the influence of material history. His preference for cultural distinctions between peoples and nations inevitably point towards horrific policies; and yet they never seem to cross his mind. A world-weary and conscious man, Tolkien was nevertheless in some ways an absent-minded fantasist.
Dain particularly signifies Tolkien’s cultural separatism. Middle-earth’s Dwarves show their insularity in their cultural patterns; in regards to their language, Khuzdul, “the Dwarves do not gladly teach their tongue to those of alien race” (The Peoples of Middle-earth, “Of Dwarves and Men”). While they “learn swiftly other tongues,” their trend is to either stay in their own realms or travel widely, settling in areas where they “use the languages of men among whom they dwelt,” and keeping “secret and ‘inner’ names” (The Lord of the Rings, Appendix F). Gimli’s role in the Fellowship is a radical breakthrough for Dwarves, as it shows a dwarf maintaining close relationships with other peoples, and sharing bits of Khuzdul with them (make your own “dying side by side with an elf” jokes, please). Yet Gimli is apparently a “Northern (Mannish)” name, not the Khuzdul name he uses privately. Tolkien’s conscious modeling of his Dwarves on Jewish people makes one raise an eyebrow at this choice (particularly as he notes that dwarves speak with a “marked ‘dwarvish’ accent”), and we’ll discuss more of that when we reach Erebor.
Dáin is considered a ‘good’ king in that he preserves dwarvish ways of life and keeps his people safe and independent. Though as usual with Tolkien, though, things are hardly that simple, as part of Dáin’s virtue is his camaraderie with other peoples and loyalty to his non-dwarf allies. The Lord of the Rings’ appendices see Dáin Ironfoot dying at Erebor’s gates battling against Sauron’s forces, saving his people and “standing over the body of King Brand before the Gate of Erebor until the darkness fell.” As Gandalf recalls Dáin’s death, he observes that if it weren’t for the Dwarf-lord’s part in the fight against Sauron, there might be “Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador, night in Rivendell,” and “no Queen in Gondor,” as the Battle of Five Armies and later assault on Erebor keep Sauron from acquiring valuable military assets. As ever, Gandalf’s quasi-immortal insight is key to a larger, more cosmic perspective on Middle-earth’s history. If it weren’t for Dáin, “we might now hope to return from the victory [in Gondor] only to ruin and ash.”