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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
What do Mountains mean in Middle-earth?

squire
Half-elven


Oct 6 2017, 11:29pm

Post #1 of 17 (2551 views)
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What do Mountains mean in Middle-earth? Can't Post

I'd be the first to say that Tolkien writes powerful mountain scenes. I think of the Fellowship attempting the Redhorn Pass in winter; the Dwarves and Bilbo besieged by the Storm Giants in the Misty Mountains; Merry reflecting on the vertical landscapes of the White Mountains as the Rohirrim track their way to Dunharrow; Sam, Frodo and Gollum attacking the passes of the Ephel Duath.

But then I wonder: are mountains really a landscape in Tolkien's world, or just a literary symbol? What I mean is this: both the maps and the narrated journeys make Middle-earth's mountain ranges into barriers, not places. The heroes have to 'cross the mountains' to get where they're going, and that involves danger and effort because of the heights to be climbed, and the hostility of high elevations. At least as often as anyone crosses a mountain in the books, he passes beneath them in a seemingly infinite variety of underground caverns, tunnels, and passages (Jung would say that was a common "death and rebirth" symbol, rather than just an adventurous story device). What I never get, on reflection, is any sense that people, animals, or plants belong on the mountains and their associated passes, valleys, and plateaus in any natural sense.

Elves and Ents live in the woods, Men and Hobbits live on flat farmland and open fields, Dwarves and Orcs live underground beneath the mountains. One of the few references to mountain folk I can think of is the Rohrrim's settlements at the foot of Dunharrow, already far up the valley from Edoras. Yet in the real world the Swiss, Austrians, Nepalese, Afghans, Norwegians, Pamirs, Basques, Scottish Highlanders, Montagnards, Inca, and Zapotecs (to name a few) famously live and thrive in the high places. Middle-earth, then, is different from our Earth in this realm: its 'natural' landscape is the lowlands; the mountains are simply hostile places, deserted and unlivable, nothing but a danger and a barrier.

Is this a thing? Is this because Midlands England, Tolkien's homeland, is a fertile and rolling farmland and he stuck with what he loved? Is it because the Romantics of 19th century Europe, also used to fields and tamed woods, elevated the Alps and other high places into transcendent sites of terror and desire? Or am I missing some clue in Tolkien's work that would let mountains be, simply, mountains?



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SirDennisC
Half-elven


Oct 7 2017, 3:08am

Post #2 of 17 (2498 views)
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As I read your post [In reply to] Can't Post

I remembered your comments, and dormouse's Mt. Everest reference in particular, made in this meandering thread from March 2012. It's worth re-reading as we ponder your fresh ideas.

Middle-earth strongholds and fortified cities are built backing onto, partway up, or into mountains -- for instance Dale, Minas Tirith, Helm's Deep -- or atop elevations, such as Edoras; but Tolkien's descriptions of life further up mountains are, as you say, rather bleak. I hadn't noticed before that as populated (or previously populated) as underground places are in Middle-earth, that mountains are relatively barren places, yet still prone to attack, elemental or otherwise.

This entry from Tolkien Gateway (here) is relevant to this discussion, with the last line adding another dimension to your observation:


Quote
“See, there is the fire on Amon Dîn, and flame on Eilenach; and there they go speeding west: Nardol, Erelas, Min-Rimmon, Calenhad, and the Halifirien on the borders of Rohan” — Gandalf to Pippin

“…The Lord of the City had beacons built on the tops of outlying hills along both borders of the great range, and maintained posts on these points where fresh horses were always in readiness to bear his errand-riders to Rohan in the North, or to Belfalas in the South.” — Gandalf to Pippin

The beacons were two series of permanently manned stations maintained by the lord of Minas Tirith for raising the alarm in northern and southern Gondor respectively. The stations were on the summits of foothills in the White Mountains (Ered Nimrais). The stations kept signal fires in readiness and stabled fresh horses for couriers.

We can only speculate on the positions of the southern posts, but based on the description of following foothills of the White Mountains, and their spread of 20 to 30 miles, there may have been as many as ten beacons along the southern foothills, following a course west by southwest through Lebennin and passing through the hills north of Dor-en-Ernil, south of Ringló.

The tomb of Elendil was hidden on the summit of Halifirien, westernmost of the beacon mountains.



(emphasis added)

I hope to be around as this discussion develops.



(This post was edited by SirDennisC on Oct 7 2017, 3:18am)


noWizardme
Valinor


Oct 7 2017, 12:09pm

Post #3 of 17 (2440 views)
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literal and symbolic [In reply to] Can't Post

It's an interesting question. I have some thoughts, though not necessarily a satisfactory answer!

Where is everyone? The mountains of Middle-earth seem very empty of people - but then again so does much of the place. In LOTR, there are small populated regions, but most of the time our heroes travel without meeting anyone. I read "The Silk Roads: A New History of the World" by Peter Frankopan recently and one thing that stood out was that there was practically nothing that could stop the movement of traders for long, not even wars and plagues on the scale probably as bad as Middle-earth is supposed to have suffered. So the emptiness is a literary device, perhaps. It forces Tolkien's heroes back onto their own resources, is in keeping with (for example) stories of questing knights, and might suggest that most of Middle-death is shadow- lands whose health is bound up with the health of the Arnorian/Gondorian royal house.

The mountains are often a place to meet someone or something strange and magical. So are other places - woods especially - but the spirits of the mountains tend to be hostile. The Fellowship's attempt on the Redhorn Gate is repelled by bad weather, but Tolkien encourages us to think it's to do with hostile forces - the mountain Caradhras himself,independently of or in collaboration with Sauron, Saruman or both. As the Ringbearers climb over the Mordor border, I notice there isn't much mountaineering. A lot of it is stairs. Perhaps that is in keeping with the mountains there being ore like country-sized city walls And again, passage is contested by a hostile presence (Shelob) more than by usual hazards such as altitude sickness or weather, or finding a path.

That said, mountains aren't always the site of a contest - Book IV opens with Sam and Frodo in a pretty much purely geographical fix, and Merry and Theoden's journey through the mountains from Isengard to Dunharrow doesn't seem to involve anything except travelling.

~~~~~~
Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm


noWizardme
Valinor


Oct 7 2017, 12:12pm

Post #4 of 17 (2443 views)
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Seemingly it means Middle-earth does not have regular plate tectonics [In reply to] Can't Post

This article, has a geologist looks at a map of Middle-earth and objecting to the mountain ranges doing neat corners... https://www.tor.com/...ins-of-middle-earth/

~~~~~~
Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm


noWizardme
Valinor


Oct 7 2017, 12:37pm

Post #5 of 17 (2435 views)
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I was thinking about the Himalayas too... [In reply to] Can't Post

I was thinking about the Himalayas too - partly because I've just been reading Robert Twiggers' excellent history/travelogue/musings book "White Mountain".
Certainly, As Dormouse points out in that earlier thread, bagging the remaining big mountains was a thing during Tolkien's writing years; a combination perhaps of the athletic and heroic (in contrast to modern warfare?) with a dash of international competition and sometimes espionage thrown in. The mountaineering built upon an earlier phase of exploring and mapping and military activity on what was the borders between the then British Empire, and the spheres of influence of Russia and of China.

Possibly too, remote mountain regions were among the last of the unknown in an attractive way for Tolkien and his contemporaries, and then again the Himalayas are hotpoint for real or imagined mysticism. Twigger manages to get a good tale out if the idea that the physical and mystical exploration of the Himalayas by Westerners went hand in had, with overlaps in figures such as the explorer/military leader/mystic Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Edward Younghusband, or the mountaineer and occultist Aleister Crowley.

There might have been lots of mountain images to think about. That said, Tolkien doesn't give us a secret mountain kingdom in LOTR. But perhaps that's Gondolin?

~~~~~~
Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm


squire
Half-elven


Oct 7 2017, 1:53pm

Post #6 of 17 (2442 views)
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Horst and Graben, indeed. [In reply to] Can't Post

I remember that article! (We may even have discussed it.) He makes an excellent point on a different level than the one I opened with today. But he does reinforce what we know externally: Tolkien's map, and Middle-earth's geography, are not very realistic on a world scale. His mountains, for instance, are literary constructs and plot devices more than realistic aspects of a European-type setting.

I notice that Mr. Acks, the writer of that piece, hasn't read The Silmarillion. If he doesn't like the two T-shaped intersections of mountain ranges at the ends of the Misty Mountains, and the boxy mountain walls of Mordor, on the grounds that "mountains don't do right angles", I'd love to hear his take on the map of Beleriand that underlies the Sil:



Tolkien is often quoted, in the best spirit of "advice to young Fantasy Epic writers", to the effect that he created the map first and made the story of The Lord of the Rings fit it. As those who've peeked behind the curtain know, History of Middle-earth reveals that that is not quite the case. It's true he started with The Hobbit's one-directional map, with its straight-line Misty Mountain barrier. But then it was the new story that needed a larger map to work for it, in areas where one hadn't been made yet -- i.e., as the Ring went South, and then East. The resulting map, extended section by section, only drove the story's subsequent progress, as per Tolkien's lightly-made boast, once it had been sketched in.

With The Sil, it's an even more hodge-podge story. Tolkien wrote the "Lost Tales" more or less independently from 1918 on, and only began to assemble them geographically in the 1930s, if I remember. Christopher Tolkien relates that there were lots of little sketchy maps of the individual Elvish, Mannish, Dwarvish, and Enemy lands, and his father began literally taping them together to find out whether they could all come together on one respectable continent. Adjustments were made. And finally, one single large map was drawn. The result is seen above - most ungeological!

As a sidelight, however, I've read an excellent disquisition on Beleriand's primary geography, outside of the mountains on its perimeters, that shows that many of the gentler features of valleys, outcrops, cliffs, rivers, highlands, etc. are actually modeled on England's well known geomorphies - in keeping with the original idea at the start of the Lost Tales that the setting was the earliest, Elvish and mythical, version of what would later become the British Island. That became impossible to sustain as the story grew and changed, of course, but the writer (I think it was TORn's Arquen, a geologist in real life) had noticed the undeniable origins of some of Beleriand's distinctive, and real-seeming, landscape features.

In any case, if we look into it, it does seem clear that Tolkien primarily created his mountains, as Mountains, to be simply barriers, walls, and transcendent places throughout Middle-earth. Geology and tectonics play no more part in their existence than do the folkways and lifestyles of our real Earth's many, many highland peoples and cultures.

Acks cutely ends with a note that Tolkien's rivers are almost as bad as his mountains! Another topic for another day...



squire online:
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noWizardme
Valinor


Oct 7 2017, 3:28pm

Post #7 of 17 (2425 views)
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The Sellotape Mountains and the Scotchtape Hills :) [In reply to] Can't Post

It's quite a nice effect to draw on those red lines down the mountain ranges. Tolkien did seem to like to border his maps with mountains - and it's fun to think of them as marking the 'collision zones' where various partial maps might have been joined, rather than the crash of tectonic plates.

Tolkien's smaller-scale geography seems to be good though, as you say. When I first read Karen Fonstead's excellent Atlas, I was very impressed that she could deduce a geology for different locations. Presumably this means they are 'realistic' to her expert eye, as well as to someone just used to walking around the countryside.

~~~~~~
Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm

(This post was edited by noWizardme on Oct 7 2017, 3:35pm)


noWizardme
Valinor


Oct 7 2017, 3:42pm

Post #8 of 17 (2416 views)
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...and mostly to force heroes into the underworld? [In reply to] Can't Post

Picking up on another point of the OP - quite often the heroes go under the mountains. Maybe that is more 'underworldly' if there's a mountain on top, but also it means that Moria or Shelob's lair can be the only way past the obstacle posed by the mountains?

So we ended up with Dungeons and Dragons, and not Mountains and Manticores....

~~~~~~
Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm


squire
Half-elven


Oct 7 2017, 3:57pm

Post #9 of 17 (2418 views)
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Why *do* the underground passages always go under mountains, and not fields or lowlands? [In reply to] Can't Post

Your way of putting the question suddenly hit me. In all the journeys to the Underworld that I can think of in classical literature, the heroes descend. They enter a cave or something, and go down, down, down - just like spelunkers today. But in Tolkien's stories, the tunnels, passages, and creepy caverns all have "a mountain on top" as you say. The heroes just walk in at ground level (Moria, Elven palace in Mirkwood) or more commonly, have to climb up the mountain a bit to find the entrance (Goblin caves in The Hobbit, Dunharrow, Shelob's lair, Lonely Mountain). They emerge, likewise, by walking out, or even descending. They don't climb back up from the depths below the earth like Orpheus, Aeneas, etc.

This means something, I think, with respect to the Underground or Underworld Journey in mythology and psychology. But I can't quite figure out what.



squire online:
RR Discussions: The Valaquenta, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, and Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Lights! Action! Discuss on the Movie board!: 'A Journey in the Dark'. and 'Designing The Two Towers'.
Archive: All the TORn Reading Room Book Discussions (including the 1st BotR Discussion!) and Footerama: "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
Dr. Squire introduces the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary


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noWizardme
Valinor


Oct 7 2017, 5:18pm

Post #10 of 17 (2398 views)
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I can make a guess, but help needed [In reply to] Can't Post

Are mountains associated with evil? I think I have read that Morgoth slowly lost power by distributing it to his underlings, and in some way his power went into the earth, especially into gold. I don't recall reading that in works by Tolkien, but I think I've seen such assertions referenced here, by people who normally are well-informed. (Maybe it comes from something I've not read, such as Morgoth's Ring?)
If that's right, then perhaps mountains are hostile - emanating a malign force - rather than just 'perilous'?

It might be interesting to compare and contrast the adventures had in or under mountains with the adventures had in 'perilous' woods. Woods are specifically 'perilous': it's a term Tolkien deliberately uses for Fangorn (and Lorien), and he has Gandalf explain to Gimli the distinction between 'perilous' and 'evil'. But you could probably use it for The Old Forest too, and for Mirkwood. All those places contain danger and evil, but also have wholesome forces (Bombadil, elves, ents). The underground places seem to lack a wholesome genius loci.

~~~~~~
Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm

(This post was edited by noWizardme on Oct 7 2017, 5:18pm)


FarFromHome
Valinor


Oct 9 2017, 8:41am

Post #11 of 17 (2240 views)
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Just came across this yesterday [In reply to] Can't Post

https://mobile.twitter.com/...s/916951300423737344

Don't know if it's relevant exactly - I don't suppose plate tectonics works on Charon - but still, Tolkien's imagined geology can work, apparently! (Interesting that it's found on Charon, named for the ferryman of Hades/Pluto - perhaps a rather appropriate place for Mordor to exist!)


Quote
I remember that article! (We may even have discussed it.)

I remember it too, and I think we did discuss it, at least I remember making the point that Tolkien's maps only have to reflect the knowledge of those who (story-internally) made them, and don't have to conform to the level of accuracy of ordinary modern maps. Back in "Here be dragons" days, it was impossible to achieve true accuracy, but instead there was an assumption that the outer appearance of things reflected their inner nature. Hence perhaps the artificial and unnatural shape of Sauron's realm.

I sometimes think that the tension between (chief map-maker) Christopher Tolkien's wish for "definitive" answers to things, and his father's strong sense of the look and feel of mythology, are what make The Hobbit and especially The Lord of the Rings what they are, bridging the gap between the needs of modern readers and the sense of a lost time when the world looked to its inhabitants
very different from the way it looks to us now. Sometimes you can see the gap if you insist on trying to look too closely from one or other of the two viewpoints, and I think maybe the maps are a visual example of this.

They went in, and Sam shut the door.
But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled,
the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
From the unpublished Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings



Darkstone
Immortal


Oct 9 2017, 2:06pm

Post #12 of 17 (2228 views)
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Northern European mythos [In reply to] Can't Post

Mountains are important in Northern European mythos. Indeed during the 1920s and 1930s there was a popular German film genre called “bergfilms”, or mountain films. Some consider the genre to be as essential a part of Germanic myth as Old West films are to American.

In the films mountains are usually places of wisdom where a hero’s transformation occurs. In Tolkien’s mythos mountains seem to have a similar function. The Misty Mountains and The Lonely Mountain are where Bilbo is transformed for good or evil. Gandalf transformation from Grey to White is on the mountaintop of Zirakzigil. Aragorn’s final transformation into king comes from his discovery of the White Tree sapling on the slopes of Mindolluin. And then there’s the whole Mountain of Doom thing.

******************************************
Queen Beruthiel, Queen Beruthiel, there's no one like Queen Beruthiel,
She's broken every Gondor law, she breaks the law of Earendil.
Her powers of feline-ation would make Aiwendil stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime - Queen Beruthiel's not there!
You may seek her in the Hallows, you may search throughout the square –
But I tell you once and once again, Queen Beruthiel's not there!

- Old Tollers' Book of Fat Cats on the Mat



Darkstone
Immortal


Oct 9 2017, 2:12pm

Post #13 of 17 (2228 views)
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I would think not! [In reply to] Can't Post

The whole "Bending of the World" thing would seem to take extensional and thrust tectonics into totally unnatural territory!

******************************************
Queen Beruthiel, Queen Beruthiel, there's no one like Queen Beruthiel,
She's broken every Gondor law, she breaks the law of Earendil.
Her powers of feline-ation would make Aiwendil stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime - Queen Beruthiel's not there!
You may seek her in the Hallows, you may search throughout the square –
But I tell you once and once again, Queen Beruthiel's not there!

- Old Tollers' Book of Fat Cats on the Mat



noWizardme
Valinor


Oct 9 2017, 2:32pm

Post #14 of 17 (2223 views)
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Perhaps that gives Alex Acks a geological answer (not that one is really needed) [In reply to] Can't Post

It might seem reasonable that Middle-earth (or do I mean Arda?)'s geology would only come to resemble Earth's once it became a spheroid planet. That happened, apparently, only some thousands of years before the landscape was as the LOTR map represents, and continental drift or other new geological effects would have had a negligible effect on the landscape at that point. Mountain ranges would still be pretty much as formed by whatever process operated before then, which perhaps did 'do corners'..

And of course, trying to apply real-world science to fantasy worlds is a bit of a game anyway: there's no particular reason that the author needs to make things scientifically plausible, unless they reason that it's necessary for the story, or the audience's continued patience with it.

~~~~~~
Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm

(This post was edited by noWizardme on Oct 9 2017, 2:35pm)


Otaku-sempai
Immortal


Oct 9 2017, 5:02pm

Post #15 of 17 (2192 views)
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The Change of the World [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
It might seem reasonable that Middle-earth (or do I mean Arda?)'s geology would only come to resemble Earth's once it became a spheroid planet. That happened, apparently, only some thousands of years before the landscape was as the LOTR map represents, and continental drift or other new geological effects would have had a negligible effect on the landscape at that point. Mountain ranges would still be pretty much as formed by whatever process operated before then, which perhaps did 'do corners'..


Yes, the Change of the World was said to have happened in SA 3319, a little over four thousand years before the War of the Ring.

Presumably another catastrophic event took place either at or near the end of the Fourth Age or a bit later that would have brought about the continents and oceans as we know them today. Chronologically, this might have roughly coincided with our own myth of the Great Flood of Noah. Of course, this can only be taken as myth as it flies in the face of everything we know about geological history, continental drift, Pangaea, paleontology, evolutionary history, etc.

"Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.” -- The Doctor


SirDennisC
Half-elven


Oct 9 2017, 8:26pm

Post #16 of 17 (2185 views)
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Symbolism [In reply to] Can't Post

Leaving the discussion of plate tectonics and natural geology aside, is it too simple to say that Tolkien May have viewed mountains as like unto Asgard because of their proximity to the sky? Middle-earth then would be Midgard (literally and otherwise) and the underground, Hel.

Thinking of the realms as plains, those bound to Middle-earth then cannot stray very high, or deep lest they cross into the plains above or below. This would validate the points made in this thread about underground places being relatively level with the wider world above ground.

Here’s an interesting page: https://norse-mythology.org/...ogy/the-nine-worlds/ (the stuff about the number 9, as in 9 companions, might make a good future discussion.)



noWizardme
Valinor


Oct 10 2017, 9:13am

Post #17 of 17 (2092 views)
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I like that idea// [In reply to] Can't Post

 

~~~~~~
Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm

 
 

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