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The Mountain and the City

Throughout Tolkien’s major works we can see patterns and resonances of certain images. It is as though the whole edifice of Middle-earth was built like a huge cataract of concepts captured in pictures, a waterfall of ideas pouring down from archetypes to more homely echoes. Tolkien’s creative practice of ‘working backwards’ from an idea or image to discover ‘what had really happened’ results in these chains of images.

He began from truth as he saw it:

After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of 'truth', and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.

We can examine one or two of these chains by venturing into the heart of the Music of the Ainur, in which the universe was created. As we have seen, it was a musical quality in language which initially attracted him: music’s hierarchical structure - notes combining into chords or sequences, creating melodies or harmonies in songs, adding emotion and meaning - was paralleled in language’s blending of phonemes (sounds) and morphemes (smallest units of meaning), creating words in a mystical process, the enchantment of which captivated Tolkien. The Ainur’s initial song turns into the language Valarin, also called the Eldest Speech: the Valar who were a sub-group of these angelic beings with the ability to communicate directly without need of a spoken language, apparently adopted spoken words as part of their assumption of physical forms. Eventually, from close contact with the Elves, the Valar came to speak Quenya, the main Elven tongue.

An image that bears closely examination once language develops is that of the mountain or hill. Taniquetil (or Taníquetil) is Quenya for ‘high-snow-peak’, broken down even further to ta- ‘high’, nique ‘white’ and til ‘point”. Taníquetil was also called Amon Uilos, the White Mountain, and the Mountain of Manwë; in the Song of Eärendil it is named the Hill of Ilmarin, ‘Ilmarin’ more specifically referring to the domed halls situated on the summit of the peak, where Manwë had his throne. From there, hawk-shaped spirits set forth and returned with news of events in the outside world. Keep this image - the high hill with dome-shaped halls - in mind as we drop down a level to the next ‘echo’ of this white mountain.

Túna was the hill in the Blessed Land that had been made by the Valar. On its summit, the Vanyar and the Noldor built the Elven city of Tirion (‘watch tower’), with its white walls and terraces, its streets strewn with grains of diamond. Here, resonant of the halls of Manwë, the High King of all Elves Ingwë's tower was built: Mindon Eldaliéva, possessed of a silver lantern which shone far out to sea. Though not as great as Telperion or Laurelin, the trees whose light shone across the Blessed Lands, the white tree Galathilion flourished in the square of Tirion. Note that we do not hear much about life in Tirion in the Years of the Trees: the narrative proper only really begins with Fëanor's terrible Oath and the dramatic events which follow. After the murder of his father by Lord Morgoth who also steals the precious gems, the Silmarils, Fëanor assembles the Noldor in Tirion and urges them to return to Middle-earth to avenge their king and reclaim the gems. Tirion is virtually abandoned.

In The Book of Lost Tales Part One we hear of the island of Tol Eressëa, which played a role in the early conflicting and revised versions of Tolkien’s world. Eressea is the destination for the exiled Noldoli who were rescued from the Great Lands; they build many towns and villages, but it is the hill of Kôr where Ingil son of Inwe builds Kortirion, a city on a hill with a tall grey tower, named because of its resemblance to an earlier city.

We find the next distinct ‘echo’ in Beleriand. Tolkien’s imagination, continuing to coalesce around this image of a hill with a dwelling at its summit, created Gondolin, the great Hidden City of Turgon. quite early in the formation of the mythology. Like the Calacirya, the Cleft of Light in the Pelóri Mountains north of Mount Taniquetil where the Noldorin city of Tirion had been built on the summit of Túna, the round valley of Tumladen had at its centre the hill of Amon Gwareth. Here Turgon builds the Hidden City as an explicit memorial to Tirion. Said to rival Tirion, Gondolin’s walls were high and white above the plain, and it featured a great Tower of the King. In the square, the trees of gold and silver, Glingal and Belthil, were created in memory of the Two Trees of Valinor. This Hidden City is guarded from trespassers by the Eagles of Thorondor - eagles being the specific bird attributed to Manwë.

Morgoth's servants finally discover Gondolin through the treachery of Maeglin, as readers of The Silmarillion will know. The city was dramatically destroyed, though Tuor and Idril, escaped with their child Eärendil.

The images cascade down, from mighty Taníquetil the archetypal holy mountain, with its glorious mansions, to Tirion, fabled Elvenhome, and then to Gondolin, first to be forged in Tolkien’s mind, but now fitted into its place in the sequence. As we have come ‘lower’ into the realms of narrative, we get more details about Gondolin than its precursors (here in an early description of it, using names that would later evolve):

Now the streets of Gondolin were paved with stone and wide, kerbed with marble, and fair houses and courts amid gardens of bright flowers were set about the ways, and many towers of great slenderness and beauty builded of white marble and carved most marvellously rose to the heaven. Squares there were lit with fountains and the home of birds that sang amid the branches of their aged trees, but of all these the greatest was that place where stood the king's palace, and the tower thereof was the loftiest in the city, and the fountains that played before the doors shot twenty fathoms and seven in the air and fell in a singing rain of crystal: therein did the sun glitter splendidly by day, and the moon most magically shimmered by night. The birds that dwelt there were of the whiteness of snow and their voices sweeter than a lullaby of music. On either side of the doors of the palace were two trees, one that bore blossom of gold and the other of silver, nor did they ever fade, for they were shoots of old from the glorious Trees of Valinor that lit those places before Melko and Gloomweaver withered them: and those trees the Gondolindrim named Glingol and Bansil..."

Next in this sequence of images comes Meneltarma (‘pillar of heaven’) the sacred mountain in the centre of Númenor. Regarded as sacred, the peak of this centrally-located mountain was guarded by the Eagles of Manwë. Meneltarma was the highest peak of the Númenorean realm. No permanent structure was erected there, contrary to the dwellings built atop Taníquetil, Túna and Amon Gwareth. Ceremonies took place in the open air there, though, and the connection with preceding images is unequivocally made: on a clear day the 'far-sighted' might see Tol Eressëa.

After the fall of Númenor, the centre of attention shifts East to the lands of Middle-earth. With the splitting of the realms of Arnor and Gondor, as far as cities go we have three from which to choose: Annúminas for Arnor, is set by a lakeside; the capital then shifts to Fornost Erain, not a city atop a hill: but Minas Tirith, situated on the Hill of Guard, the ‘out-thrust knee’ of Mount Mindolluin, another holy mountain with a sacred place on its summit, qualifies as our next in this sequence. Connected to the main mass of the mountain by a narrow ‘shoulder’, Minas Tirith faces eastward and is built in seven concentric tiers cutting into the hill culminating in the Citadel at the summit. In the Citadel, as we might have come to expect, is a fountain and Nimloth, the image of the Tree.

In a narrative turning point, Minas Tirith does not fall: by the end of The Lord of the Rings, it has been restored to its former glory. However, it is not the end of the mountain sequence: this image of a hill with a special dwelling at its top is echoed in various ways throughout Tolkien’s entire opus, and finds an alternative expression in the form of The Hill in Hobbiton, with Bag End upon its summit. From here, readers are introduced to the whole sub-creation of Middle-earth, of which these mountain images are but a small part.

For more about Tolkien, visit Tolkien and Lewis World here.


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