Over the course of Middle-earth history its villains have always been inventive in hiding the places of their habitation as much as they possibly could so that nothing and nobody could interfere with their evil deeds. Various camouflage devices have been applied, beginning with going deep underground to veiling tall towers in shadows and deceits. Unsurprisingly, the first bad boy to go subterranean was Melkor: he had set the trend for living below ground level way before the counting of time even started.


Biding his time in outer darkness and nursing hatred and envy in his dark heart, Melkor was watching the Valar make Arda a beautiful place to live in, preparing it for the Children of Ilúvatar. He did wait patiently for a strike, though, and returned to Arda when the Valar were weary after their labours and thus less vigilant. By that time they had created the Two Lamps for the lighting of Middle-earth, and their designs were slowly coming to life. Melkor did not like the newly made light and had an intention to hide from it, as well as from his peers.

The far north of Middle-earth was Melkor’s choice of habitation. It was there that he began delving Utumno, his first stronghold in Middle-earth, hiding it behind the dreary Iron Mountains:

In the north of the world Melkor had in the ages past reared Ered Engrin, the Iron Mountains, as a fence to his citadel of Utumno; and they stood upon the borders of the regions of everlasting cold, in a great curve from east to west.

(Silmarillion, p. 134)

When the Dark-Lord-to-be just began delving Utumno, having gathered his followers to him, these actions did not go unnoticed. Even though the Valar were not aware of the massive construction work going on in the north until much later, it began to poison the Spring of Arda with beasts turning wild, green things becoming rotten and fens forming, to name but a few. Thus the marring began to creep from Utumno all over Middle-earth.

Not much is known about the interiors of Utumno, but one thing is certain: it was delved extremely deep into earth, had innumerable pits, vaults, some of which were hidden with deceits and holding fires and Melkor’s hosts. Descending down and far from any light, those infamous depths made a perfectly fortified stronghold, inaccessible and impenetrable. Hating light, Melkor was ready to go as far, or, rather, as down as he possibly could to hide from it and, more importantly, from any possible interference from the Valar.

A glimpse into what Utumno looked like on the inside can be caught from the early versions of The Silmarillion in The Book of Lost Tales, Part I. Bearing the name Utumna in those stages, Melko’s fortress was visited by the Valar for the parley before the Powers attacked it. They entered Utumna and proceeded to Melko’s halls:

There sat Melko in his chair, and that chamber was lit with flaming braziers and full of evil magic, and strange shapes moved with feverish movement in and out, but snakes of great size curled and uncurled without rest about the pillars that upheld that lofty roof.

(Book of Lost Tales I, p. 103)

Utumno’s great depth is reflected in its name, too. Interpreted as Deep-hidden, Utumno is a Quenya word, while in Sindarin the name is Udûn. It is supposed to have originated from the proto-root *tumbu — ‘deep valley’, ‘under or among hills’. The proto-form *tubna meant ‘deep’, and the respective Quenya word tumna (‘low-lying’, ‘deep’, ‘low’) came from it. *Utubno was the proto-name of Melkor’s vaults, while later it gave rise to Utumno [2].

So horrible and memorable was Utumno, that the Sindarin form Udûn (which means ‘hell’, ‘dark pit or ‘Underworld’) survived well into the Third Age. It was the name of the deep valley in the northwest of Mordor, as if reminding where the evil came from originally. Besides, in his duel with the Balrog in Moria, Gandalf refers to him as to the Flame of Udûn. This is a clear reference to the Balrog’s Utumno origins:

And in Utumno he [Melkor] gathered his demons about him, those spirits who first adhered to him in the days of his splendour, and became most like him in his corruption: their hearts were of fire, but they were cloaked in darkness, and terror went before them; they had whips of flame. Balrogs they were named in Middle-earth in later days.

(Silmarillion, p. 43)

Besides, far worse things happened in the pits and prisons of Utumno. It was there that Melkor corrupted the newly awaken Quendi and thus bred the race of Orcs, in mockery of the fair Elves. Utumno can be easily considered not only Melkor’s immense fortress, but also his scientific laboratory and military platform, whence many terrible things came from after his experiments and many terrible deeds were done, where he could corrupt and twist to his heart’s delight without the fear of being disturbed.

Having learnt about Utumno, the Valar were in no haste to attack it. They knew nothing of where the Quendi had awoken and did not want to hurt or scare them. It was only after the Elves were found by the shores of Cuiviénen that the Valar decided to uproot the evil of Utumno for the sake of the Firstborn. When they finally launched their attack on Melkor’s stronghold, the shape of Middle-earth was greatly changed. The gates of Utumno were broken and the halls unroofed and “the lands of the far north were all made desolate in those days” because of the great depth and vastness of Utumno.

However, the Valar did not reach into its uttermost pits after Melkor was defeated and chained, so many things remained there in the depths lingering in Middle-earth and biding their time awaiting for their lord to return. He was not destined to return to Utumno, though, but relocated to his second stronghold – Angband.

Further reading:

In the hot light of the sun

The tower of adamant

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Lost Road and Other Writings; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – Morgoth’s Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
  4. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Book of Lost Tales. Part I; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.

Featured image: pixabay.com

6 thoughts on “In the pits of iron.

  1. Another great article.
    I find that it is so fascinating to delve into the scant descriptions of some palces in Middle-earth. I wouldn’t be able to readily describe Utumno, for example, and I really aprpeciate that you gave this comprehensive description of it.

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