Monday, October 18, 2010

Locus Focus - Morgul Vale

'No!' said Frodo. 'But do not wander from your road. What of the third turning?'

'O yes, O yes, there is a third way,' said Gollum. 'That is the road to the left. At once it begins to climb up, up, winding and climbing back towards the tall shadows. When it turns round the black rock, you'll see it, suddenly you'll see it above you, and you'll want to hide.'

What was Minas Ithil, or the Tower of the Moon, in former times long ago, built by Isildur (who cut the ring from the hand of Sauron), is now Minas Morgul, the Tower of Black Sorcery. If Isildur built Minas Ithil long ago, it was very, very long ago; for when the Nazgul, the Nine Ringwraiths (former kings of Numenor), took it over and the valley about it (Morgul Vale), that too was long ago.

The evil of this place is such that to look upon it can drive a person mad. There is a perpetual and penetrating watchfulness, as though the city itself were a person. The city of the Morgul Vale is, one might say, an anti-Lothlorien. It is a "paradise" of superior evil grown unabated as an enclosed garden over countless years, that you suddenly come upon, after you "turn round the black rock". Frodo who comes near this place with Sam and Gollum feels himself both loathing it being drawn toward it, sucked towards its very gate, which Tolkien likens to a mouth. Faramir tells about the history to Frodo:

'The valley of Minas Morgul passed into evil very long ago, and it was a menace and dread while the banished Enemy dwelt yet far away, and Ithilien was still for the most part in our keeping. As you know, that city was once a strong place, proud and fair, Minas Ithil, the twin sister of our own city. But it was taken by fell men whom the Enemy in his first strength had dominated, and who wandered homeless and masterless after his fall. It is said that their lords were men of Numenor who had fallen into dark wickedness; to them the Enemy had given rings of power, and he had devoured them: living ghosts they were become, terrible and evil. After his going they took Minas Ithil and dwelt there, and filled it, and all the valley about, with decay: it seemed empty and was not so, for a shapeless fear lived within the ruined walls. Nine Lords there were, and after the return of their Master, which they aided and prepared in secret, they grew strong again. Then the Nine Riders issued forth from the gates of horror, and we could not withstand them. Do not approach their citadel. You will be espied. It is a place of sleepless malice, full of lidless eyes. Do not go that way!'
Morgul Vale is so awful in part because it was so beautiful before it became the dwelling of the Ringwraiths. The evil is seen in how it twists and perverts the former beauty:

'A long-tilted valley, a deep gulf of shadow, ran back far into the mountains. Upon the further side, some way within the valley's arms, high on a rocky seat upon the black knees of the Ephel Duath, stood the walls and tower of Minas Morgul. All was dark about it, 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 exhahalation 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...'
And again:

'Wide flats lay on either bank, shadowy meads filled with pale white flowers. Luminous these were too, beautiful and yet horrible of shape, like the demented forms in an uneasy dream; and they gave forth a faint sickening charnel-smell; an odour of rottenness filled the air.'
For all the shudder-inducing vividness, the unforgettable character of this place, Tolkien does not take the reader inside the city of the Morgul Vale. And why would he?


Enbrethiliel said...


One reason I love Middle Earth so much is that it has so many evil (or I should say, fallen) pockets in its geography.

Here, I love the way Tolkien describes moonlight as "corpse-light." His "noisome exhalation of decay" has no rival except in Edgar Allan Poe!

Paul Stilwell said...

It was "corpse-light" that I remembered when I thought of this setting for Locus Focus.

Yes, I love how persistently Tolkien's Middle-Earth is perilous.