Middle-Earth Explained: Moria And The Dwarves Of The 2nd Age

The recent reveal of an official synopsis for Amazon Prime’s The Lord Of The Rings adaptation has left us all excited to jump back into Middle-earth and revel in the many joys it has to offer us. But to get fully prepared for Amazon’s upcoming series requires more than just a movie marathon or even a reread of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings – Amazon is pulling from Tolkien’s extensive deep lore for their series, and diving into regions of Middle-earth previously unexplored by either the films or main books.

Moria
The Doors Of Moria | lotro-wiki.com

But chances are you’ve probably heard of Moria, at the very least: out of all the locations prominent in the Second Age of Middle-earth, the lost underground kingdom of the Dwarves is one of the few that still plays a major part in The Lord Of The Rings itself, albeit mostly as a richly layered backdrop to the death of Gandalf the Grey and the reappearance of Gollum. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Fellowship Of The Ring immortalized Moria as a soaring CGI spectacle unlike anything audiences in 2001 had ever seen before. And since then, the “You Shall Not Pass” meme of Gandalf defending the Bridge of Khazad-dûm has seeped into popular culture so that, even if you don’t know the accursed name of Moria, you’ve probably already been introduced to it at some point, somehow.

But onscreen thus far (and for that matter in Tolkien’s writing, and in most artwork) Moria has only been depicted in its ruined state, as it appeared to the Fellowship when they passed through in the year 3019 of the Third Age, seeking shelter from the inhospitable Misty Mountains. Amazon’s series, set in the Second Age of Middle-earth, will take us back to a time long before the ruins and the rumors of the dreadful Balrog sleeping in the dark heart of the mountains, before the name of “Moria” was even coined to refer to the Black Pit once known far and wide by its true name – Khazad-dûm, the greatest kingdom of the Dwarves, and the seat of their entire civilization.

And I, as your Middle-earth tour guide for today, will take you back still further, to the First Age and the founding of Khazad-dûm in the darkness before the first dawn. Middle-earth, at this early point in history, made up only half of what was then still a flat, disc-shaped world – the other half being Valinor, the blessed land of the Gods (named Valar, in Tolkien’s mythos). But while Valinor was eternally basked in light, Middle-earth was shrouded in ceaseless darkness save for the faint and far-off light of the stars (the sun and moon had yet to be created, which should give you a sense of how far back in time we’re talking). The Valar, under the guidance of Eru Ilúvatar, had ordained that the Elves should be the first people to inhabit this strange world, and Dwarves didn’t ever come into their equations.

Dwarves were instead conceived by Aulë, one of the Valar who was most impatient for the arrival of the Elves and decided to create life of his own to populate Middle-earth in the meantime. Aulë created seven Dwarves out of clay and stone before Eru found out and admonished him for going against His plan. Aulë was reluctantly prepared to unmake his creations, but Eru was merciful and told Aulë to instead put the Dwarves to sleep until after the coming of the Elves. So Aulë traveled across Middle-earth and laid the seven Fathers of the Dwarves under deep mountains in the wilderness where they would neither be disturbed nor disturb Eru’s plan.

The plan went smoothly. After the Elves had awoken and dispersed across the world, it was time for the Dwarves to follow in their footsteps. Of the seven Fathers, Tolkien only recorded the journey of one – Durin, who awoke first underneath Mount Gundabad in the Misty Mountains, and migrated southwards through uncharted lands. His journey only ended after he discovered a lake beneath the mountains’ shadow, which he named Kheled-zâram in honor of the crown of stars reflected in its clear waters. Durin took this reflection as a sign of his kingship over the Dwarves, and he began the building of Khazad-dûm just west of the lake to be his home, and the home of all the House of Durin (also known as the Longbeards). Durin was called the Deathless, not because he was immortal, but because it was believed that he would be reincarnated seven times among his descendants. One of these later Durins, Durin III, was King of Khazad-dûm during the formative years of the Second Age.

Moria
Mines Of Moria (art by Tom Lay) | Twitter @ralphbakshi

Throughout the First Age, Khazad-dûm expanded further westwards until there were entrances to the city on both sides of the Misty Mountains – but it was still far to the east of most Elven settlements in those days, and the Elves in Middle-earth had fewer dealings with Durin’s folk than with the Dwarves who lived in the cities of Belegost and Nogrod under the Blue Mountains. Khazad-dûm therefore escaped the wars between the Elves and their great nemesis Morgoth, and the violence between Elves and Dwarves that erupted frequently over treasures valuable to both. But when the First Age ended in calamity, and Belegost and Nogrod (and a good chunk of Middle-earth) were sent crashing into the sea, Khazad-dûm gladly opened its doors to the survivors from both cities: much to the benefit of their own civilization and culture, which flourished under the mountains. A string of Dwarven cities and settlements grew under the Misty Mountains, between Khazad-dûm in the south and Gundabad in the far north.

In the wreck of the world, many High Elves were also forced into closer proximity with the Dwarves who had long been their enemies, though it was only in the kingdom of Eregion, near the western entrance of Khazad-dûm, that this intermingling of the two peoples resulted in harmony rather than conflict. Eregion’s king, the craftsman Celebrimbor, was awestruck by the Dwarves and their mighty works of stone beneath the earth, and he eagerly struck up an alliance with them. Together with the Dwarven blacksmith Narvi, he built the great doors in the western wall of Khazad-dûm through which the Fellowship would pass thousands of years later: they were adorned with the intertwined symbols of the House of Durin and the House of Fëanor, Celebrimbor’s grandfather (and you wonder why I ship Celebrimbor and Narvi?). The Dwarves helped Celebrimbor as well, sharing with him much of their most precious resource, the exceedingly strong metal known as mithril, or “Moria-silver” as it was later called, which could only be found far below Khazad-dûm, in mines that reached deep into the fiery heart of Middle-earth. Mithril was used to decorate all the high halls of the Dwarves as well as their weapons and armor; an alloy of it named ithildin went into the making of the western doors; and Celebrimbor forged the ring Nenya out of it, so that it shone like a star.

But the rings were Celebrimbor’s downfall. With the help of a seemingly benevolent stranger named Annatar, Celebrimbor designed his Rings of Power to heal Middle-earth’s hurts and wipe clean its stain of sorrow. They forged sixteen Rings, almost all of which were intended to be distributed among the Elves – but Tolkien played with the idea that Celebrimbor personally presented one Ring to Durin III. Certainly that story seems more likely than the alternative, which would be that Annatar, after having revealed himself as the dark lord Sauron, betrayed and brutally murdered Celebrimbor, and stolen all but three of the Rings of Power, decided to give one to Celebrimbor’s closest ally. It would also lend special significance to Sauron’s later hunt for the ring given to Durin III, which would finally be ripped from the hand of Durin’s descendant Thráin in the dungeons of Dol Guldur during the Third Age – as that would then be the only Ring (besides the Three made without his knowledge and given to the Elves) that he had never previously controlled. Either storyline has potential for good drama, to be honest.

After Sauron ransacked Eregion in search of the Rings, Khazad-dûm was forced to shut its western doors, which had long stood open as a sign of friendship and trust between Elves and Dwarves. Durin’s folk stayed secluded throughout the rest of the Second Age, mostly pursuing a policy of isolationism. But without Khazad-dûm guarding the Misty Mountains, orcs crept back into caverns and tunnels they had long abandoned out of fear of the Dwarves, and became emboldened to launch a successful conquest of Mount Gundabad, the birthplace of Durin. Thus, by the time Khazad-dûm reopened its gates at the end of the Age and sent forth armies to help defeat Sauron in the War of the Last Alliance, it was already too late for the Dwarves to recapture much of the underground empire they had lost.

By the beginning of the Third Age, Khazad-dûm’s glory days were well behind it, and the Dwarves were forced to dig ever deeper for mithril. Nonetheless, it took them almost two-thousand years before they dug slightly too far – and awoke something that had been lying coiled in slumber beneath the roots of the Misty Mountains for millennia. It was a Balrog, a demonic entity of flame and shadow that had served the dark lord Morgoth in the First Age, and fled under the earth’s crust during the breaking of the world (Tolkien never mentions this, but it must therefore have also slept through the end of the Second Age, when Middle-earth was transformed from a flat disc into a globe, and as a fellow heavy sleeper I can relate to that so much). The Balrog erupted into Khazad-dûm, killing King Durin VI and his son, and forcing the survivors to flee into the wilderness on both sides of the Misty Mountains.

Moria
The Balrog Of Moria (art by Frank Paul) | wallpaperflare.com

And from thence on, the empty city was known by the name of Moria, and its people led lives in exile, whether in the Blue Mountains west of the Shire or in new kingdoms such as Erebor and the Iron Hills. Moria fell into waste and ruin, while Sauron’s orcs and goblins plundered the wreckage for treasures – particularly mithril, which Sauron coveted. The Balrog remained awake, roaming the deepest halls of the Dwarves in silence, worshipped as a god by Sauron’s minions. An attempt to retake Moria, led by Balin of Erebor, was met with stiff resistance from the orcs – who eventually slew the old Dwarf while he bent to look into Kheled-zâram. Balin’s small band of colonizers was whittled down until all were starved or killed, and Moria returned to darkness.

Peter Jackson’s trilogy simplifies the story ever so slightly, implying (just vaguely enough that most book purists don’t get upset) that Moria had only recently been desecrated when the Fellowship passed through, and that under King Balin it had flourished. In truth, Balin’s reign over Moria was very brief and unremarkable: a doomed attempt to rebuild amongst the ruins of an unattainable ancient grandeur, and to recapture some fragment of the city’s long-gone splendor.

“The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King” Throwback

Today is Tolkien Reading Day, the best time of year to go out and read up on the works of the great J.R.R Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. However, if you don’t have access to the books, why not take three hours out of your day to watch one of The Lord of the Rings movies? And since this day is intrinsically linked to things that happened in The Return of the King, Part 3 of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, we’re going to be talking about that film.

Spoilers Ahead!

So let’s start our discussion with a reminder that I am one of those people who read the books first, before seeing the films – but, I am not a book “purist”, someone who believes that everything in the text could have been adapted word-for-word onto the big screen, without any need for changes, additions, omissions, etc.

Now, having watched the film about six-thousand times, I have noticed a number of flaws – little things, for the most part, but we’ll discuss them here: I say “we” because I’m going to be writing this post in Gollum/Sméagol fashion, as an argument between my purist self and my revisionist self. We’ll also discuss a number of scenes that capture perfectly the spirit of the book, and even manage to almost elevate the material (which is so good to begin with).

But, we’ll also talk about the movie in its own right, because it’s just such a good movie. Even if you go into these films never having heard of The Lord of the Rings, or J.R.R Tolkien, you’ll still be swept up into this magical world, and, assuming you’re anything like me, you’ll never leave it again as long as you live. The joy and wonder is still there, every time I open the book or watch one of the movies.

Well, now we’re off at last!

Let’s begin with a breakdown of the plot: the film follows the journeys of a group of Men, Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits as they travel across Middle-earth. Our hobbit protagonist, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), carries with him the deadly but beautiful One Ring, an object of incredible power that contains the very soul of the Dark Lord Sauron. Only by destroying this Ring can Middle-earth be freed from the horrors of war and evil that have been relentlessly assaulting it. The film opens with Frodo and his loyal gardener Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) being led through the dangerous country around the Dark Lord’s realm of Mordor. Their guide? A treacherous and utterly wretched creature named Gollum (Andy Serkis), who once possessed the One Ring and wants it back. Can he be trusted? Can Frodo be trusted? Can anyone be trusted around the Ring? – for the Ring wants to get back to Sauron, and it has the power to corrupt anyone who owns it. By the time we see Frodo here, in The Return of the King, the Ring has betrayed many masters: it was cut from Sauron’s hand long ago but quickly killed its new owner, a man named Isildur – it fell into the River Anduin, and was there picked up by a hobbit named Deagol, who was very soon murdered by his friend Sméagol. Sméagol took the Ring and fled with it into the mountains, and there, dwelling in dark caves and pits, he changed into Gollum – the Ring abandoned him too, though, and was found by another hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), but Bilbo was good enough that he was able to give up the Ring willingly – he gave it to Frodo. But the Ring betrayed one of Frodo’s friends as well, the noble man Boromir (Sean Bean), who tried to kill Frodo in an attempt to steal the Ring.

That is, of course, the main plot: the Ring must be destroyed, but destroying it takes great effort and great willpower. And the only place it can be unmade is in the fiery forges beneath an active volcano named Mount Doom, in the very heart of the realm of Mordor. Sauron dwells here, a giant flaming eye atop a horned tower.

Purist’s Note: in the books, Sauron is not a “giant flaming eye”. He has a physical form, but it is terrible and maimed, because he has been unable to take any shape fair to the eyes of Men ever since he fell into the ruin of Numenor in the Second Age. The Eye is merely a metaphor, in the books, for his piercing knowledge of all things that move on Middle-earth.

Thank you, Inner Purist, for making that clear.

Moving on. Many miles away from Frodo, his other friends are busy fighting Sauron’s vast armies of Orcs, Ringwraiths and Haradrim. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is the reluctant King of Gondor who must rally his people to stand in defiance of the shadow. Gandalf the White (Sir Ian McKellen) is the good wizard entrusted with helping all the Free Folk of Middle-earth. Arwen Evenstar (Liv Tyler) is the Elven princess in love with Aragorn, who must choose between an immortal existence with her family, or a mortal life with the man she loves.

But, the fight for victory will not be easy. Sauron has unleashed all of his forces, and they are heading straight for the greatest city in Middle-earth: Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor. Will Gandalf be able to keep the city’s defenses firm against such reckless hate? Will Aragorn reach the city in time to save it? Will Arwen choose love over the promise of immortality? The stakes are so high, they’re incredible.

Purist’s Note: in the books, Arwen had already chosen love over immortality, many years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. She and Aragorn had been betrothed on the hill of Cerin Amroth, and they had rejected both the Shadow of Sauron and the Twilight of the West.

Yeah, well, that’s not the case here. Here, we have a cast of incredible characters – played by an extraordinary cast – who collide with each other in the most brilliant ways. When the hobbit Merry Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan) meets Éowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan (Miranda Otto), will they overcome prejudice to fight in the war for Middle-earth? When Pippin Took (Billy Boyd) swears loyalty to the Steward Denethor (John Noble) will this choice come with a terrible responsibility – to watch as the Steward goes mad and tries to burn his own son alive?

Purist’s Note: well, no, apparently not, because in the movies Denethor releases Pippin from his service – whereas, in the books, Pippin remains in allegiance to Gondor.

This purist is getting on my nerves. You know what, Inner Purist, how about that scene where the Riders of Rohan appear over the hills at dawn and ride down to meet the orcs of Mordor in battle on the Pelennor Fields? Hmm, how about that? Was that not exactly as in the books?

Purist’s Note: well…well, I mean, no, because…

And what about the scene where Gandalf and Pippin discuss the prospect of death, using words directly from the book?

Purist’s Note: okay, that was touching, but the scene itself wasn’t in the books…

How about the scene on Mount Doom? Where Frodo finally stands above the consuming fires, unable to throw the Ring to its destruction? How about when Gollum takes the Ring from him in their last desperate struggle, biting off Frodo’s finger to get the corrupting treasure, dancing madly for joy on the brink of the fire – and falling, to his death? How about that terrifying scene where the Ring sits, motionless, on the surface of the lava, unwilling to be destroyed? And Frodo hangs from the cliff far above, staring down at it, contemplating with himself in those final moments whether he should leap into the fires after the Ring, or if he should take Sam’s hand and be carried to safety? How about that scene?

Purist’s Note: ooh, and how about that tortured look that Frodo gives to Sam as he makes his choice – but then, he reaches for Sam’s hand! And Sam pulls him up! And…uh, I mean, yeah, that scene is fine.

What about the final scene, at the Grey Havens, where Frodo goes off with the Elves to sail across the seas into the West? That emotional goodbye to his friends that has me in tears every time I watch it? That smile he gives as he boards the boat, and you know in your heart that he’s finally going to be healed of all his pain and hurt.

Purist’s Note: and when Sam says “well, I’m back” as he returns to his home, just like in the book…

Well, not just like in the book. If it had been just like in the book, he would have gone home to Bag-end, since in the book he inherited it from Frodo. Also, he should have only had one child at that time, but he had, like, five.

Purist’s Note: well, yeah, but, come on, the emotional heart of Tolkien’s work was all there. Director Peter Jackson could easily have gone for a more traditional route and had them all live happily ever after, but he didn’t. He showed the incredible pain that Frodo went through, and how it could never be healed – unless he left Middle-earth.

Yeah, I know, but Peter Jackson got a lot of things incorrect too. Let’s not forget the infamous scene where Frodo tells Sam to “go home”, which goes against everything in the books. That scene is painful to watch, it’s just so annoying.

Purist’s Note: okay, sure, but don’t forget that that scene was shot really early on, before the actors had any clear idea of the emotional journeys their characters were going on – before Andy Serkis had been cast as Gollum, in fact.

Good point. But how do you explain that scene with the skull avalanche in the Paths of the Dead?

Purist’s Note: wait, I thought you liked that!

I do! But…wait, aren’t you the purist? I feel like things got switched around here. I’m not supposed to be grilling you, it should be the other way round!

Purist’s Note: well, this is pretty normal when dealing with the movies. They’re conflicting, but in the end…they are pretty good movies, even when they’re not great adaptations. And, for the most part, they are great adaptations. Except for…a handful of things.

More than a handful. But, you’re right. No matter how many things might be wrong with the movies, I’m always going to love them. I’m always going to cry when Frodo sets sail into the West, or when Annie Lennox’s beautiful song starts playing over the credits…I’m always going to cheer when Sauron is cast down, and the Eagles rescue Frodo and Sam. I’m always going to feel completely heartbroken after the credits roll, when I realize that the story has finally come to its end. It’s the magic of this movie that makes that possible: you can overlook or even ignore every minor change to a character’s appearance, every faulty line of dialogue, every blunder or misstep. Because the magic is still there.

Purist’s Note: you’re going to tell me what the magic is now, aren’t you?

Yes, I am! It’s the magic of Frodo struggling through pain and torture to do the job that needs doing. It’s the magic of Sam carrying Frodo up Mount Doom, even when all seems lost. It’s the magic of Aragorn going to what seems like certain death so that he can buy Frodo just a little time. It’s the magic of Merry and Éowyn standing up against the Witch-King. It’s the magic of Pippin leaping into the flames to rescue Faramir. It’s the-

Purist’s Note: you’ve gone on long enough. I get it. It’s magic.

It is, and it’s the sort of magic that doesn’t go away, even after multiple viewings.

 

So there you have it: my thoughts on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. No movie quite compares to it, honestly. It is everything I love about cinema, all rolled into one beautiful movie. From the opening sequence to the moment the screen fades to black, I am entranced, brought into another world, a world that I know and love from the books: not everything from those books made it onto the screen, but that’s okay. This sort of magic is rare. Enjoy it as it is.

Movie Rating: 10/10