On the Trail of Tolkien: Part 3: In the Land of Mordor, where the Shadows Lie

On the Trail of Tolkien: Part 3: In the Land of Mordor, where the Shadows Lie

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for the Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie,
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
– The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien

This is the final part of the present series discussing the life of the author and scholar JRR Tolkien and his inspirations in the Midlands of England, and perhaps the most controversial.

The first parts comprised a concise biography and early bibliography, and a tour of places in the Birmingham area where Tolkien lived in his childhood, and which are said to have influenced and inspired the author when he came to write his much-loved books ‘The Hobbit and ‘The Lord of the Rings. These influences are fairly well-established, although occasionally open to some debate.

One area which is also often claimed to have had a darker influence, however, is open to far more conjecture, as Ronald Tolkien never, as far as I am aware, went into any detail about his inspirations for places in the Land of Mordor, home of the Dark Lord Sauron, chief instigator and inspiration for most of the evil to be found in Tolkien’s fantasy works.

Tolkien makes clear his distaste for industry and its unnatural destruction of the countryside. Whether he deliberately wrote The Lord of the Rings to make this point is debatable, but it is undeniable that this abhorrence influenced his thinking and his writing, however unconsciously.

As a result of this, and of its proximity to Birmingham, it is often suggested that one area, in particular, may have inspired Mordor – a place, in fact, a series of towns, heavily industrialised, run-down and blackened by centuries of industrial revolution and poverty, and only in the late 20th-century managing to drag itself into the light of day. This place is known as ‘The Black Country.

This article aims to let a little light into the shadowy corners of Mordor by suggesting some places that if Tolkien had seen them, might indeed have sparked thoughts of the black land of legend, and to give you, gentle reader, the chance to see them in a brief tour herein.

Tolkien purists already foaming at the mouth with indignation should remember, however, that this article claims no greater authority than mere conjecture in the spirit of fun. This author, being a denizen of The Black Country, simply allows himself a little amusement and speculation in the light that he may yet live today in the land of Orcs and Goblins, of rock trolls, black riders, of Mount Doom and barad-dur, and the all-seeing Eye of Sauron, Oh my!

Where is The Black Country?

‘Day was coming again in the world outside, and far beyond the glooms of Mordor the sun was climbing over the eastern rim of Middle-Earth, but here all was still dark as night. The Mountain smouldered and its fires went out. The glare faded from the cliffs. The eastern wind that had been blowing ever since they left Ithilien now seemed dead.’
– The Return of the King

The Black Country – shaded area.
Note Bloxwich, my home, on the northeastern border!

The Black Country, in fact, borders on the Birmingham area, in the Midlands of England, and as you can see from the map, it is not far from Tolkien’s homes in Sarehole (Hobbiton, The Old Forest) near Moseley, and Edgbaston (The Two Towers, Orthanc), so it would make sense that Tolkien might be influenced by it.

This group of towns, some small, some large, was at the heart of the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, and became known, because of its black ground and the choking black smoke from innumerable furnaces, as the Black Country.

Wednesbury by Night, mid-19th-century painting

Elihu Burritt, the American Consul to Birmingham in 1862, said that the place was ‘Black by day and red by night’. In Tolkien’s youth, certainly, it was. Today, The Black Country owes much of its heritage and image to the period when the iron and steel industry was at its height, but has also cleaned up its act a great deal, and has made great efforts to modernise and become more clean and green.

The boundaries of the Black Country are somewhat hazy and often the subject of much pedantic debate, but in today’s tourist-conscious times, four main Boroughs, each incorporating many Black Country towns and villages, all lay claim to being part of it: Dudley, Walsall, Wolverhampton and Sandwell.

Certainly, Dudley is at the heart of it, as are many parts of the other Boroughs. These days, part of nearby Warley comes under Sandwell, and some of it tends to get lumped in with Birmingham, but it has a historical claim to being part of The Black Country, and any trek to the heart of Mordor from The Two Towers would surely have led through it.

Whatever its boundaries, the Black Country was certainly something that would dismay Tolkien and nature lovers anywhere. Great iron foundries and abominable structures abounded, just as the open-cast quarries and deep mines scarred the land. Grim and black indeed: certainly the Mordor amongst us.

While The Black Country today is by no means as black as it’s painted, and is a great place to live, being full of friendly people (orcs being rarely seen nowadays!), fascinating heritage, pubs, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, ghosts (grin) and even the odd green patch of vegetation, you can still see that when young Ronald Tolkien was a lad, it would have been a grim place indeed, bustling, harsh, noisy, black and dirty.

But where to site the chief dark places of Mordor?

The Morannon, or Black Gate
– Blackheath

‘This was Cirith Ungor, the Haunted Pass, the entrance to the land of the Enemy… …Across the mouth of the pass, from cliff to cliff, the Dark Lord had built a rampart of stone. In it, there was a single gate of iron, and upon its battlement sentinels paced unceasingly. Beneath the hills on either side the rock was bored into a hundred caves and maggot-holes; there a host of orcs lurked, ready at a signal to issue forth like black ants going to war. None could pass the Teeth of Mordor and not feel their bite, unless they were summoned by Sauron, or knew the secret passwords that would open the Morannon, the black gate of his land’.
– The Two Towers

High Street, Blackheath, photographed from the junction with Halesowen Street in 1905.
Coombs Wood Works in Rowley Regis was an independent steel producer before being taken over by British Steel, and was responsible for the influx of many workers from South Wales into the area.
Coombs Wood Works in Rowley Regis was an independent steel producer before being taken over by British Steel and was responsible for the influx of many workers from South Wales into the area.

Directly on the route from The Two Towers – Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul – lies the chief entrance to Mordor – The Morannon or ‘Black Gate’. In the ‘real world’, geographically speaking, a fine place to situate the Black Gate would be at the all-too-similarly named ‘Blackheath’ or ‘Black Heath’, a rather run-down but nonetheless historic town within the area of Rowley Regis, now in the Borough of Sandwell.

The development of Rowley into an industrial area had very early beginnings going back to Roman times, but the first recorded industry of the Manor of Rowley was nail making which started in the 13th Century. The development of coal and iron industries led to a rapid transformation of the region from green to Black Country. By 1880 over fifty collieries poured their smoke into the atmosphere, and four blast furnaces lit up the night sky. Truly a candidate for part of Mordor.

Mount Doom
– Sedgley Beacon

‘Still far away, forty miles at least, they saw mount Doom, its feet founded in ashen ruin, its huge cone rising to a great height, where its reeking head was swathed in cloud. Its fires were now dimmed, and it stood in smouldering slumber, as threatening and dangerous as a sleeping beast. Behind it there hung a vast shadow, ominous as a thundercloud, the veils of Barad-dur that was reared away on a long spur of the Ashen Mountains thrust down from the North.’
– The Return of the King

Mount Doom, or the volcano Orodruin, stood in the plateau of Gorgoroth in northwestern Mordor. With an elevation of some 4,500 feet, and a base of seven miles diameter, it would not be much competition for Mount Etna in Italy, which towers some 11,000 feet and has a base of around 21 miles diameter, but nonetheless, it was a sinister and dangerous place.

Frodo entered the Chambers of Fire and approached the Crack of Doom through tunnels, certainly, tunnels are common in The Black Country – the former limestone mines, now abandoned caves, at Wren’s Nest in Dudley, and in Castle Hill, are a few of the man-made examples of such in the area.

I have placed Barad-dur on Castle Hill (see more below), and thusly, geographically placed to the east of Barad-Dur, Mount Doom may most attractively be identified with Sedgley Beacon, a prominent hill famed in its name for the great fires once lit atop its heights. While not on the same scale as the ‘real’ Mount Doom, it is certainly in the ‘right’ place.

Sedgley Beacon, 1904
Sedgeley, Beacon Hill and Monument in the distance, c.1921

Sedgley Beacon is situated on a limestone ridge, 654 feet above sea level. It gets its name from a great signal fire once lit atop the hill, perhaps as part of the series set up in Tudor times or earlier to warn against invasion from the sea.

Victorian historians once entertained the thought that ancient Druid priests had ‘oft-performed their mystic rites’ atop the Beacon, and though modern scholars might pour scorn on this, such rites might well inspire thoughts of Sauron’s magical ring-forging in the flames of Orodruin.

The Beacon Monument, which can still be visited today, is a circular stone tower built in 1846 by Lord Wrottesley for astronomical observations and as a fitting landmark for Sedgley Beacon.

It certainly also seems fitting that this high place near the centre of The Black Country, with, historically, a great flame at its summit, might symbolise the mighty volcano of Orodruin or Mount Doom, where the Rings of Power were forged, and where the One Ring was destroyed. It even happens to be west of Dudley Castle, where I have placed Barad dur, as it was in The Lord of the Rings.

Oddly enough, in geological time, there were volcanoes in the area, in the vicinity of nearby Wolverhampton, and volcanic rock was long quarried at Rowley Regis, but none at Sedgley itself.

‘Barad-dur’ – the Dark Tower of Sauron
– Dudley Castle

‘…for here as the mountain drew near the air was ever mirky, while out from the Dark Tower there crept the veils of Shadow that Sauron wove about himself.’
– The Return of the King

The Keep of Dudley Castle
Dudley Castle towers over the Black Country

For over 900 years Dudley Castle has surveyed from its lofty vantage-point the changing face of the surrounding landscape. This most important of the town’s buildings were mentioned in the Domesday Book when the small village of Dudley nestled amidst fields and woods. During the days of the Industrial Revolution, the fields were built on and the woods were cut down for building materials and to burn.

Coal, iron and limestone were mined, to make iron and steel for industry, and to build steam engines, railways and iron ships, to such an extent that many parts of The Black Country suffer from subsidence even today.

Dudley Castle is at the heart of The Black Country and occupies a truly commanding position on Castle Hill, near the centre of the modern town.

Castle Hill itself is a fascinating place, full of caves and canal tunnels to the nearby Wren’s Nets limestone caverns. It overlooks a remnant of the historic Black Country industry much beloved of tourists, the Black Country Living Museum, where the visitor may get some feel of what it would have been like to live and work in the area during Tolkien’s youth.

Could Tolkien have visited Dudley, and been inspired by the ancient castle on the tunnelled hill to dream of Sauron’s dark tower of Barad-Dur? Who can say, but I know that it inspires me? Hopefully, it will inspire you, young Hobbit.

So ends, gentle reader, my series of articles introducing to you to the life of JRR Tolkien and some of the locations in the Birmingham area which have influenced the landscape of The Hobbit and, most significantly, The Lord of the Rings. I hope that you have enjoyed the quest, and maybe inspired to visit these places yourself one day. If you do, please contact me – I would love to show you around his world.

It may be that in the future I will return to the world of JRR Tolkien to introduce you to his haunts in Oxford, during the days when he became a great scholar and the author whom we know and love today. But that, young Hobbit, is another story…

Stuart Williams
Bloxwich, England