Now, feeling the way become steep before
his feet, he [Frodo] looked wearily up; and then he
saw it, even as Gollum had said that he would:
the city of the Ringwraiths.
(Two Towers, p. 388)
On descrying the dreadful citadel of the Nazgûl, Frodo cowers in terror at the sight: Minas Morgul, the formerly beautiful Minas Ithil, instills great fear with its uncanniness. In the long years that the Ringwraiths had been holding it, they turned Minas Ithil into the place reflecting their own unsettling eerie ghostliness. It is thus no wonder that Minas Morgul is one of the creepiest places in Middle-earth.
Minas Morgul is never explicitly at the forefront of the narrative in The Lord of the Rings. It looms on the outskirts, menacing and threatening, but our face-to-face encounter with it happens rather late in the tale and for a brief, albeit a very memorable moment. It is not until Frodo, Sam and Gollum leave Ithilien and proceed with their journey towards Mordor that we catch a glimpse of what the place looks like.
Even at a distance Minas Morgul looks far from warm and welcoming:
To the left lay darkness: the towering walls of Mordor; and out of that darkness the long valley came, falling steeply in an ever-widening trough towards the Anduin. At its bottom ran a hurrying stream: Frodo could hear its stony voice coming up through the silence; and beside it on the hither side a road went winding down like a pale ribbon, down into chill grey mists that no gleam of sunset touched. There it seemed to Frodo that he descried far off, floating as it were on a shadowy sea, the high dim tops and broken pinnacles of old towers forlorn and dark.
(Two Towers, p. 380)
Shrouded in mist and shadows, the ruined Minas Morgul looks like a ghost city: abandoned, but alive and watchful at the same time. The atmosphere is worsened by the sense of something being present, but unseen; by the evil feel polluting the air and intensifying the sense of fear that holds the travellers in its firm grasp.
Closer up, the sense of dread and decay is much stronger. We do not have a very detailed description of the whole structure, but just a few elements are enough for us to paint a vivid picture in our imagination: the gates reminiscent of a black mouth which, when opened, look like a black maw with teeth; the topmost part of the tower revolving like “a huge ghostly head leering into the night”; black holes in the tower and the wall looking inwards like unseeing eyes. Minas Morgul reminds of a dreadful monster from a nightmare — evil, ever vigilant and incredibly dangerous. It is always on the lookout, ready to espy anyone attempting to trespass and devour them, should they dare come close to the gate. However, it is the uncanny luminosity of the place in otherwise complete darkness around it that creates the most ghostly effect.
When Minas Morgul was still Minas Ithil, it was made of white marble and moonlight reflected off it creating a radiant glow. The whole city was beautifully lit. Now, under the Ringwraiths, it shines, too, but very differently:
Paler indeed than the moon ailing in some slow eclipse was the light of it now, wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing.
(Two Towers, p. 388-389)
The road leading to the gates is luminous, too, with the same sickly light that Minas Morgul has. Such kind of light can be as off-putting and fearsome as complete darkness. The pale flowers growing in the meads around Minas Morgul have the same unhealthy, luminous quality. One might marvel at how vegetation even grows in such a place, but when we look at these flowers closely, we see that everything about them, just exactly as it is about Minas Morgul, is all decay and distortion. The smell of the flowers is that of death and rottenness; their shapes are crooked and appear both beautiful and ugly at the same time.
A very similar juxtaposition is seen in the travellers’ reaction to Minas Morgul: they look at it with “unwilling eyes”. The city has a very alluring air that makes them want to look and not to look at it at the same time. It is especially hard on Frodo: the weight of the Ring he is carrying becomes greater and the horrible creation of Sauron gravitates towards the city, tempting Frodo along and playing tricks with his mind. The situation is aggravated by the vapours raising from the tributary stream of Morgulduin which make the hobbits’ senses reel.
The travellers become weary as they enter and walk in the proximity of Minas Morgul. Their steps become stealthy, heavy and forced, they cease speaking to each other and even a whisper sounds too loud in the menacing hush of the place. They seem to be walking in the constant fear of being seen and heard by those whose attention would be most unwelcome. Once they go a bit further from Minas Morgul and the evil influence of the tower weakens, their minds clear, leaving only a sense of exhaustion.
In his descriptions of Minas Morgul, Tolkien is very careful with his vocabulary choice. There is very obvious decay, ghostliness and death around the city, and the Professor uses very specific words to reinforce it. Many of the words used to describe the place play on senses, especially on those of smell, sound, feel and sight.
The luminous flowers in the meads “gave forth a faint sickening charnel-smell; an odour of rottenness filled the air”, their forms are horrible and demented. The stream flowing into Morgulduin has stench and is poisonous, its vapours are deadly cold. The shapes of the statues at the important point at the head of the bridge over the stream are corrupt and loathsome, made with cunning. The pale light of Minas Morgul is corpse-light, as if of the Moon ailing in some slow eclipse. It is also notable how Tolkien uses the word noisome twice to describe the light. In the first instance he compares the light of the city with the “noisome exhalation of decay” and later, when Gollum’s eyes shine strangely, he mentions how they might possibly reflect the “noisome Morgul-sheen”. Using the word that has two meanings — one for unpleasant smells and another just for anything unpleasant — is very evocative and telling here. On the one hand, the luminosity of Minas Morgul is just repulsive in its own right, but on the other hand, its pale sickly light is so much associated with decay that we can almost feel the reek coming from it, even if in reality it is not there.
Such a dense concentration of words with very specific connotations in certain paragraphs creates a very vivid impression of the city and its character. The sound comes later, but only half of a paragraph describing it can leave readers covering their ears, just like the travellers did:
There was a flare of livid lightnings: forks of blue flame springing up from the tower and from the encircling hills into the sullen clouds. The earth groaned; and out of the city there came a cry. Mingled with harsh high voices as of birds of prey, and the shrill neighing of horses wild with rage and fear, there came a rending screech, shivering, rising swiftly to a piercing pitch beyond the range of hearing.
(Two Towers, p. 391-392)
This is the answer to the call from Mordor and it is enough to make one’s heart stop. Just two sentences are so packed with the vocabulary describing unpleasant sounds that the words alone are enough for readers to hear these dreadful cries. The wording is carefully chosen not only with specific meanings, but also with the sound symbolism, when the words and the way they are pronounced are reminiscent of the sound described. This paints a truly vivid and horrible picture.
The whole description of Minas Morgul in The Lord of the Rings can be fitted only into a few paragraphs. However, these would be enough to create the impression of a dreadful ghost city that should absolutely not be approached.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
Featured image: pixabay.com