As ever, dear readers, welcome.
This posting started with a signpost. In the UK, this can be called a fingerpost, like
this wooden one, a very old one, where you can see directions and mileage from the point where the post was planted. Where we began, there is a finger, but:
“Suddenly a tall pillar loomed up before them. It was black; and set upon it was a great stone carved and painted in the likeness of a long White Hand. Its finger pointed north.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 8, “The Road to Isengard”)
Gandalf, Denethor, Aragorn, and their company have ridden north from Helm’s Deep, passing into Nan Curunir, “The Wizard’s Vale”:
“After they had ridden for some miles, the highway became a wide street, paved with great flat stones, squared and laid with skill; no blade of grass was seen in any joint. Deep gutters, filled with trickling water, ran down on either side.”
If we were asked what JRRT had in mind here, we would say at once, “it’s a Roman road, like this one”—
which, if you could see it in cross-section, would look like this—
The Romans had mileposts, too, a bit like signposts. This is the first one on the oldest Roman road, the Via Appia, and the long inscription tells us who put it up (the Emperor Nerva—96-98AD) and who restored it (the Emperor Vespasian—117-138AD), but also how many (Roman) miles it was from there to the center of Rome: 1.
It’s interesting, then, to see that the fingerpost which Gandalf & Co encounter has no inscription at all, its information seeming to consist only of the indication of a direction, north. As we thought about it, however, it occurred to us to ask: are we ever shown any public inscriptions in Middle-earth? And, if there were any, where are they? We could think of only two, and neither on a road. The first was on the western gate of Moria, with the command which puzzled Gandalf–
the other was above the Dark Door, the entrance to the Paths of the Dead (this is a sketch by John Howe)
where we’re only told that “Signs and figures were carved above its wide arch too dim to read”.
With no more information than a direction, we are led northwards:
“Beneath the mountain’s arm within the Wizard’s Vale through years uncounted had stood that ancient place that Men called Isengard. Partly it was shaped in the making of the mountains, but mighty works the Men of Westernesse had wrought there of old, and Saruman had dwelt there long and had not been idle.”
Long before Saruman arrived, those Men of Westernesse hadn’t been idle, either:
“A great ring-wall of stone, like towering cliffs, stood out from the shelter of the mountain-side, rom which it ran and then returned again.”
In trying to picture this, we thought of Iron Age hill forts, like Castle Ring, whose walls were of earth, rather than stone, but extensive, all the same.
“One entrance only was there made in it, a great arch delved in the southern wall. Here through the black rock a long tunnel had been hewn, closed at either end with mighty doors of iron…One who passed in and came at length out of the echoing tunnel, beheld a plain, a great circle, somewhat hollowed like a vast shallow bowl, a mile it measured from rim to rim.”
Tunnels like this may be seen in more modern fortresses, like Ehrenbreitstein, in Germany.
But what has Saruman been up to?
“Once it had been green and filled with avenues, and groves of fruitful trees, watered by streams that flowed from the mountains to a lake. But no green thing grew there in the latter days of Saruman. The roads were paved with stone-flags, dark and hard; and beside their borders instead of trees there marched long lines of pillars, some of marble, some of copper and of iron, joined by heavy chains.”
Here, we think of what are called allees, long walks between rows of trees of the sort you can see in Europe—
which we juxtapose with the Hildebrandt’s portrait of Saruman.
That vast circle is still too green in their depiction, however, as we read on:
“Many houses there were, chambers, halls, and passages, cut and tunneled back into the walls upon their inner side, so that all the open circle was overlooked by countless windows and dark doors…The plain, too, was bored and delved. Shafts were driven deep into the ground; their upper ends were covered by low mounds and domes of stone, so that in the moonlight the Ring of Isengard looked like a graveyard of unquiet dead.”
A very vivid image!
But too peaceful for the activity found there seemingly 24/7:
“Iron wheels revolved there endlessly, and hammers thudded. At night plumes of vapor streamed from the vents, lit from beneath with red light, or blue, or venomous green.”
In a posting some time ago, we likened Mordor to the old industrial area in England, the Black Country, and this description certainly brings that to mind—
But in the center is this:
“There stood a tower of marvelous shape. It was fashioned by the builders of old, who smoothed the Ring of Isengard, and yet it seemed a thing not made by the craft of Men, but riven from the bones of the earth in black and gleaming hard: four mighty piers of many-sided stone were welded into one, but near the summit they opened into gaping horns, their pinnacles sharp as the points of spears, keen-edged as knives.”
As always, we think about where all of this may have come from. JRRT was a medievalist, after all, and medieval models must always have been in his mind. The idea of a circuit of walls with a central citadel says to us a place like Old Sarum
or perhaps the Tower of London—
and the White Tower at the Tower of London, although the wrong color, shares a definite similarity with Orthanc, being square, with four corner towers.
Along with his written description, however, JRRT has left us some small images of what he had in mind, like—
and this drawing, in particular, brought to mind something we suspect he might have rejected, but which, to us, bears a certain resemblance, the unfinished Cathedral of the Holy Family, in Barcelona, Catalunya—
We are still standing at that signpost, however, and something about it suggests is that, for all of the work of the Men of Westernesse and for all of Saruman’s alterations, all may not be right in the Wizard’s Vale:
“Now Gandalf rode to the great pillar of the Hand, and passed it, and as he did so the Riders saw to their wonder that the Hand appeared no longer white. It was stained as with dried blood; and looking closer they perceived that its nails were red. Unheeding Gandalf rode on into the mist, and reluctantly they followed him. All about them now, as if there had been a sudden flood, wide pools of water lay beside the road, filling the hollows, and rills went trickling down among the stones.”
Perhaps, instead of the White Hand, this would have been a better signpost?
Thanks, as ever, for reading and