Welcome, one and everyone, to an old-new series for CSTM. My podcast has mutated, if you like, and will continue here as a regular article with the same goals: to provide you with a look at the history, geography, and people of the various regions of Middle-earth! I hope you enjoy it. The first missive for the new Beneath Your Feet takes us to southern Mirkwood and the stronghold of Dol Guldur.
Forests once ruled this Middle-earth. From the wide lands of Doriath and the sweeping wood of Taur Im Duinath of Beleriand so long ago, to the nigh impassable forest that once spanned from what we now call the Old Forest all the way to Fangorn, to Greenwood and Lórien, it was the trees that previously held dominion over many of the leagues of Middle-earth. But even things so great, and so loved by Tolkien as trees are not immune to the changes of the world. Then can be held in stasis, like the pleasant, secluded oases of Rivendell and Lothlórien, or they can be corrupted and turned angry, like Mirkwood or the Old Forest. But in them, trees hold long memories and do not forget. At the edge Greenwood, there along the banks of the Great River Anduin, the trees have seen much and suffered much. If trees can feel, and in Middle-earth they can, then these trees have been shoulder to shoulder with great evil for year after year and they show it there in the shadow of Dol Guldur.
Can the shadow of Mirkwood be undone and how did it get here at all? Let’s have a look and separate the Mirkwood of LOTRO, the Mirkwood of the new The Hobbit film, and the Mirkwood of the texts.
From high atop the flet at Cerin Amroth in Lothlórien, the Fellowship could see clear across the Golden Wood and over the Great River to Mirkwood. Haldir tells them, “In this high place you may see the two powers that are opposed one to another; and ever they strive now in thought,- but whereas the light perceives the very heart of the darkness, its own secret has not been discovered”. And so, due east from the wood of the lord and lady lays Mirkwood and its horrible capital, Dol Guldur.
The first thing that ought to be said when comparing the Mirkwood of the books to that of LOTRO is that there is no river valley in LOTRO. Have a look at a map from the book and you’ll see that there is a valley, a few miles across, between the River Anduin and the forest of Mirkwood. This is significant because the valley has been, on several occasions, a highway for folk traveling northwards, such as Isildur before his demise, and southwards, like the Eotheod on their way to rescue Gondor from the disaster at Celebrant (though they took the opposite shore, so intimidated were they by Dol Guldur). But in LOTRO that valley is nowhere to be seen. As we approach from the lawn and hythe of Lórien, we players simply hop on a boat and then find ourselves on the further shore immediately surrounded by grey trees and other creepy stuff.
No big deal, really, just an oversight or design decision.
Once inside we cross quickly into a makeshift camp of the Galadhrim who have taken a new name for their march into Mirkwood: the Malledhrim, or Golden Host. The plot here is interesting; the Elves are feigning a strike into southern Mirkwood and Dol Guldur to both draw the forces of Mirkwood away from the Company that has fled down the Anduin and to disrupt the armies of orcs that inhabit this place. It’s an odd tactical decision, especially when we know there will be several strikes against Lórien from Dol Guldur during the War of the Ring, but does make sense in the context of the game. In any case it’s worth it for a fun expansion.
You would expect Mirkwood be just that: woods. The Mirkwood of LOTRO, or at least its southern part, is a number of different forest-like “biomes”. There are the canyons of the Scuttledells, the swamp of the Drownholt, the burnt woods of Taur Morvith. Really, it’s all just to provide some distinctive scenery for us players as we quest. The real treat, though, is the looming spectre of Dol Guldur there in the eastern edge of the forest and its guard of Wraiths on wings, circling like vultures.
Dol Guldur means “Hill of Sorcery”. Once you get a few place-names under your belt you can start to splice some Sindarin together (like “Dol Amroth”, “Dol Dinen”. Though it is confusing because “Amon” also means Hill…). Anyways, Dol Guldur was, per the usual order of things, not always so evil. It was, according to the Unfinished Tales, initially known as Amon Lanc and was the home to Oropher, father of Thranduil, father of Legolas. He was the Elven-king before his son and relocated his people in the early Third Age northwards to, presumably, their new home where Bilbo and the dwarves encounter them. There is no specificity for its construction: was it always a massive fortress, or did “The Necromancer” build it from scratch? Maybe he just built a few new towers and put in new carpets. Who’s to say? LOTRO, however, does well in weaving the story of the rising of the dark power in a questline at Audaghaim. We find that the town fell into witchery and darkness and that those who resisted were severely punished. In a chilling moment, as we explore the burned ruins of this town of Woodmen, we discover a shrine to the dark powers. From Dol Guldur evil spreads over Greenwood, affecting everyone despite the better wishes of the Wise.
In any case, an interesting pattern emerges: Sauron (“The Necromancer”) pops into Dol Guldur, people get suspicious, they chase him out. This happens on two occasions (once about 900 years before The Hobbit and once again while Thorin & Co are on their way to Erebor), both times orchestrated by Gandalf. The new Hobbit film distorts this a bit. In the text, Gandalf and the Wise are well aware that Dol Guldur is a seat of evil and it is Gandalf who confirms that The Necromancer is not a sorcerer but, in fact, Sauron himself. He uncovers this on the same trip that took him into the dungeons, where he takes the map and key from Thráin. Radagast has, seemingly, no real part to play in Dol Guldur, though he no doubt encountered some of Sauron’s machinations there at Rhosgobel, so close to Dol Guldur.
As I said, Sauron is evicted not once, but twice: first as The Necromancer then again as Sauron once his identity is revealed. After the second time, he has regained enough of his former power and is secure enough in his plans to return to Mordor and take up residence in the Dark Tower once again. Some time later, when the vigilance of Wise wanes, Dol Guldur becomes a base for the Ring-wraiths and is commanded by Khamûl, lieutenant to the Witch-king. We players encounter him several times in the story of the Siege of Mirkwood expansion, and directly in the raid on Barad Guldur. In short, it is known that Khamûl was a king of the Easterlings before his descent into darkness. Turbine actually did a nice job providing some cryptic background knowledge on the character through their promo for the expansion.
From a wider perspective, Dol Guldur is a further stronghold in the grand stratagem of the Dark Lord as he makes his War. Mordor, his preeminent base of operations, stands in opposition to his preeminent and historical foes in Gondor; the Corsairs assault the westwards coasts; his Easterling hordes threaten Dale, Lake-town, and the Lonely Mountain, as well as Rohan’s eastern border; and Dol Guldur is there, a looming shadow encroaching on the Golden Wood of Lothlórien. It seems impossible for Sauron to cognize defeat, even against a power so potent as the Lord and Lady. Nonetheless, the full force of his might is thrown against Gondor for two reasons: he hates Gondor, historically, for the defeat he suffered at the hands of Elendil and his line twice over and because he sees the threat of Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the true King come again. Dol Guldur, while powerful, is not the ultimate force and does not need to be so in its opposition to the Golden Wood: should Sauron reclaim the Ring then the power of Galadriel will diminish.
As we know, Sauron’s War was not successful. He is defeated at the Pelennor and the Morannon and the assaults from Dol Guldur are repelled by Celeborn and Galadriel and Thranduil. The finale came when the joint host of elves sacked the Hill of Sorcery and “Galadriel herself threw down its walls, and laid its pits bare”. Who can say how long it took to drive the evil from that place, but eventually it is renamed Amon Lanc and becomes the capital of a new elf-kingdom led by Celeborn. So, as we know, all bad things come to an end in Middle-earth and Dol Guldur is no exception. As repellant and vile a place as it is now, in the timeline of LOTRO, it will be cast down and, who knows? Maybe we players will have a part in that.