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Mortal Instruments:
Mapping the Geomythologies of Western Fantasy, Part I


Terror Antiquus, L. Bakst (1908)

6,674 words

Part 1 of 2 (Part 2 here [2])

Prologue: Little Pine Lake

The first time I got lost, it was because of a map. It was Easter in my grandparents’ home of Marshall, Texas, and during that golden-age glow that now suffuses the nineties. We’d all packed in the car, then drove north until we stopped that afternoon near an ominously-named place called Daingerfield. It seemed to me that we had taken a wrong turn somewhere and arrived at a remote wilderness of the sort that I assumed hid several uncontacted Indian tribes. No, they assured, and pointed to the roadmap. We were in the right place. The “Little Pine Lake” wasn’t far. As we exited the old Chrysler, I took the map with me and into my grandmother’s father’s (Great-pa’s) house. And Great-pa frightened me. He was so tall, broad, and gnarled. When he spoke, it sounded like coarse gravel scraping the vowels raw. The cowboy hat that he hardly ever removed only added to his overwhelming presence. This was no bent, frail old man, but some kind of demi-god from mythology. Still clutching the map and itching to escape, I begged the adults to go outside. “Not far and not for long!” I heard and mostly ignored. I was going to find Little Pine Lake just over the next field, or two.

I began walking into the trees. Around me rose the smells of sweet-gum and pine, along with the base accompaniment, inseparable from the East Texas swamp-forests, of sugared rot. For a child it was paradise in the full glory of spring. I continued around and over many bends and little streams. Any minute now, the pond would appear through the thicket. But it never did. And soon, I was turned around and confused. The light was beginning to wane with the day. Branches of friendly dappled sun-shade were gradually assuming more sinister shapes and longer shadows, all grasping arms and knotty fingers, and all reminding me of Great-pa. Worse, I’d passed something moments before that hadn’t been on the map: a small weed and rust-eaten graveyard (a common feature of the rural South). My skin crawled on the back of my neck, but I dared not feel behind me for fear that fingers other than my own would reach out and touch them. I was in paradise no longer, but headed toward the pit. A new phrase I’d earlier heard my grandmother use came to mind, and I began to mouth the words like a comforting chant: “as the crow flies, as the crow flies, as he flies . . .” Birds almost always knew where they were going, after all, and calling to them seemed the right thing to do.

After wandering aimlessly and with increasing panic, I spotted at nearly just after sunset several small trees crowned with white flowers — as if during this magically golden moment of gloaming; as if on this traditional day of spring’s first flush, a bit of snow from yesterday’s winter still iced a small part of the woods. It was the Dogwood I remembered passing at the edge of Great-pa’s last few acres of property. Their four-leaf flowers always bloomed at Easter time, and in the shape of a cross. At the petals’ funneled center were four stains, the color of dried wounds. New white and old blood –a symbol of death and rebirth, a fall and refinding in one little blossom.

My mother and father were not amused when I arrived with a few of those flowers tucked in my hair. I got a severe scolding in front of my grandparents and (horrors!) Great-pa, too — a humiliating experience that I wasn’t sure I deserved. How could I not go into the woods? How could I not try to follow the map where it led? Once the ordeal ended, Great-pa sent me a gentle smile. I revised my earlier opinion. He was a benevolent god, for he seemed to understand. The first time I got lost, it was because of a map, but a mythological tree and its blooms of blood and ivory led me the way back.

It is uncertain when humans first began to make maps of their surroundings, but some scholars have claimed that the 20,000-year-old Lascaux cave paintings included primitive maps that charted constellations in the night sky and featured drawings of a trail between ancient river beds that may have shown the way to sacred land, or to hunting grounds. I believe that these basic dual compunctions — the desire for spiritual and physical nourishment, or strength — lies at the heart of most human maps, ancient and modern; they are not dry things only about location, but an expression of meaning, of human existence. By the time of the Bronze Age, maps had further matured due to the needs of a more complex statecraft, the needs of trade and war. Any leader who did not know what his kingdom encompassed, or where that kingdom’s borders began and ended, could hardly call himself a ruler of any realm beyond the short-sighted range of his own gaze and gated by his horizons, much less demand that others bow to him as Great Pharaoh of the Sedge and Bee.

Circa 1200 BC, Ramasses II had a royal scribe record on a stone tablet the invasion of Egyptian-allied territories all along the edges of the eastern Mediterranean by the mysterious “Sea Peoples.” One chilling line on the tablet read, “they came from the sea in their warships, and none could stand against them.” One by one, the great cities of Anatolia and the Levant fell prey to devastating sacks and fires. Suddenly, the lands “were removed and scattered in the fray,” and no place “could resist their arms, from Hatti [the Hittite empire], Kode [southeastern Anatolian settlements], Carchemish [northern Syrian people], Arzawa [Hittite-controlled western Anatolia], and to Alashiya [Cyprus?] on,” they laid almost every city waste, “[and their] camp [they] set up in Amurru.” There, the marauders “desolated its native people and [Amurrunian] land was like that which had never existed.” And at present, Ramasses wrote darkly, the perpetrators “were coming forward toward Egypt” herself, their black sails even now materializing like a vengeful ghost-fleet from the haze that enshrouded the horizon.[1] [3] Reports from faraway nightmares had become reality. Accounts of conflicts like these prove, in spite of a lack of much physical evidence, that the ancients possessed a detailed geographic knowledge of their regions, a knowledge only possible through the existence and study of maps.


Reproduced map from golden-age Greece; note the Pillars [of Hercules] at the far left

The Greeks unsurprisingly placed more emphasis on artistry and cartographical theory, using mathematics, latitude and longitude, as well as astronomical measurements when drawing them. For the Romans, practical use was the first and last reason to devise or consult a map. Livy claimed that “under the auspices of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, consul, a legion and army of the Roman people subdued Sardinia . . . and eighty-thousand of the enemy were killed or taken.”[2] [5] The Romans engraved this triumph on the walls of Matuta’s temple, and a helpful map of Sardinia they drew with various battles peppering the island, and hung it alongside the main text — one of the first known examples of a military history and its complementary “map plate.” Its makers did not concern themselves with accuracy or directions. No, this was a map about power; about Roman invincibility. Mare Nostrum, this is ours, see Figure 1, was its message.

Many of these ancient attempts to grasp at the vastness of the world were impressively accurate, while others were more fantastical. Sometimes, our north was at bottom and south at the top; a world seemingly turned upside down. The decision on how to orient geography was not always “obvious,” but was determined by taste, politics, religion, and other human factors. Medieval Muslim cartographers, for example, often flipped the world onto its crown, so that Mecca was atop the globe and occupying the cardinal position.


You can buy Collin Cleary’s Summoning the Gods here [7].

For my part, maps grow more aesthetically pleasing the older, less accurate, and more coffee-stain-colored they become. I prefer place names, like: “Hindoostan,” “Tartary,” “Abyssinia,” “the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” “Cathay,” and the “Great Encircling Sea.” If the New World appears, I would like its proportions to be exaggerated and a Northwest Passage to bisect the polar tundra. The most gorgeous and interesting maps are useless ones (this is not to say that utilitarian and more up-to-date maps cannot be attractive). Which perhaps hints at their true appeal: It is not necessarily in a map’s technical truth, not in the real-world guidance it can provide as a tool that draws us to its study. Rather, it is in a certain romantic enchantment it possesses as art, the ability to cause its viewer’s imagination to open and unfurl, like a sail-cloth snatching at the west wind beneath its billows and bound for unknown shores.

Indeed, geography/place is the single most important thing when considering a people native to it. It informs their religion, law, societal structure, manners/etiquette — everything cultural and socio-political that one could imagine to say about a group, or race. Europeans have lived in a (mostly) water-rich climate with four distinctive seasons for many thousands of years, and their worship and outlook has reflected that reality. For Egyptians and Indians, on the other hand, there are two great seasons: the months of the monsoon rains and the dry spell, the flooding of the river, and the waning of the waters. An “Indian summer” makes sense, while an “Indian autumn” does not, for autumn and an autumnal sensibility belong to the middle latitudes — particularly those north of Cancer. Geography is not deterministic, but it is definitional. J. R. R. Tolkien once confessed that he first “filled in the maps, then filled in the story” for his Middle-Earth legendarium. This was no “other-way-‘round” kind of storytelling for a serious mythmaker, as it may at first seem to the reader. No, just as the essential elements must come before more complex minerals and the crust of the Earth can take their shapes, so must a geography first ground a mythology in a magical realism, in a sense of history. Only then will an otherworld and its people take their shapes, assume their true forms. Using what I’ll call a “geomythological” framework, the essay that follows will explore four primary themes of Western fantasies and the cartographical soul that inspired them. Over the years, I have discovered that I am far from the only one who has ever set off for “Little Pine Lake.”

I. Paradise and the Pit

You that are sprung from northern stock, And nothing lavish . . . And CULPA carven on the rock, Sense with delight but not with ease The fragrance of the quinine trees . . . Ah, be content! . . . Even in this island richly blest, Where beauty walks with naked breast, Earth is too harsh for Heaven to be One little hour in jeopardy.[3] [8]

Maps have provided clues as to the nature of paradise and the uttermost pits of damnation; what we have thought is beautiful, what is ugly, and the freedom we have had to choose between them. Creation stories usually began with an unspoiled homeland — a heaven on earth — its lush and simple geography symbolic of man’s early intimacy with the divine. But the introduction of an envious outsider (the “Stranger-Revenger”) set in motion man’s fall from grace, his forfeit of paradise, the ending of spring, and his subsequent craving ever after for excess and riches. This insatiable lust was but a symptom of a more profound sense of loss and of his desire to find a replacement for the beauty that was once his home, and now nevermore. Sometimes, a prodigal figure (the “Estranged-Avenger”) braved the underworld to restore his birthright, navigating a pit whose geography inverted paradise through a black mirror. Almost all of our ancient European tales were driven by boundary-crossings — what we might today call “state security breaches,” or bad “border patrol.” For all their high walls, cresting mountains, flaming swords, and iron-barred gates, those guarding paradise could not keep the Enemy from their inner sanctum; nor could the Enemy prevent the Good from the occasional trespass of the pit. We see also that a longing for homeland has been the most powerful and pervasive theme on which man throughout the ages has meditated — yes, even — especially — on his maps.

Biblical Eden

We might as well begin with the most famous Western description of paradise and explore the world when it was young and virginal. Like many ancient texts, the Bible managed to be both detailed and vague at the same time. Genesis described the Garden of Eden with tantalizing geographic markers: “the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.” Adam’s new home stretched to the banks of “a river [that] went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four” tributaries. The first of these was called “Pison . . . which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; And the gold of that land [was] good: there [was also] bdellium and the onyx stone.”[4] [9] These clues have led many biblical scholars and explorers on quests to discover the Garden’s earthly location, their thirst for knowledge ironically motivating them to locate on a map the forbidden place where man’s desire to know was the lust that got him banished from the borders of bliss in the first place. Where was this enriched land of gold seams and black stone; where was the Tree that bore the ruby-red fruit that blossomed within men’s hearts as the double-longing for Good and the proclivity for Evil?

Answers have included a lush flood-plain oasis somewhere between the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, ancient Persia, or Armenia. Christopher Columbus thought that he had accidentally stumbled upon Eden when the South American mainland first snagged and held his eyes captive as it materialized through what had for months seemed an eternal gray-green mist of ocean and foam.

How had we managed to lose such a marvelous country? As in many of the stories I will share here, it began with a Stranger — an infiltrator who had no trouble himself finding our primeval utopia. He stole into the Garden (or perhaps he lay waiting and concealed in the grass all along). The Great Deceiver in the guise of a serpent tempted the children of God with his words. Why would your Father deny you the things that He knows, the things that He possesses; is He afraid that you will become more knowing and powerful than He? Why can you not taste the fruit of the Tree of Life, and thus claim the immortality that God and His angels enjoy, if you are indeed His beloved children? We all know what happened next: sin, shame, and perhaps worst of all — the literal and figurative cover-up, the lies that severed the trust between God and His children, between man and woman. And so we became strangers from Eden and estranged from God. No son of Eve will ever be allowed to pass the cherubim armed with their flaming swords, nor to look on arcadia with our mortal eyes again.

But we can piece together a geomythological picture of what terrestrial paradise meant to these ancient storytellers: a green oasis, where water in abundance flowed between groves of tall and powerful trees; with all of God’s creatures we once shared an innocent shamelessness, a close harmony with Nature, and concourse with the Divine. The Earth shone with glittering veins of gold and spires of precious crystals. Paradise was an enjeweled, colorful, cooling, calm place so vastly different from the monochrome dusts and deserts of most regions making up the Near East. Man made his choice and interesting developments have come of it, for as soon as he ate of the Tree of Knowledge, he became a mapmaker, forever seeking to find what was once lost in some land before time. What is better evidence of the seeds of that fruit ripening than maps that have since expanded his horizons?

Plato’s Atlantis

Many ancient maps of the Atlantic and Mediterranean included a large island that Plato referred to in his Dialogues as Atlantis. Researchers, metaphysicians, and “ancient alien” types still debate its reality, but the majority consensus seems to be that Plato engineered one of the greatest geographic hoaxes of all time, and that the island was an invention of his fertile imagination. The most likely theory for such sober authors is that the Atlantis myth may have originated with the 5,000-year-old Minoan civilization centered in Crete, Thera (Santorini), and other islands off the Greek mainland. While the rest of the world was suffering through a rather scrappy existence, the Minoans flourished. They built multi-storied stone palaces bigger than those that would be enjoyed by the Holy Roman emperors thousands of years later; they installed advanced waterworks and plumbing systems in their towns, and they were the undisputed kings of shipbuilding, artistry, agriculture, and trade — the envy of all the ancient world. But if there is One Eternal Law, it is this: that nothing so exalted and beautiful lasts forever — or even for long. A mega-earthquake, or volcanic eruption, or both, circa 1500 BC blasted away much of their society, the sea submerging the center of what was once Minoan Thera.

But whatever its provenance, for Plato Atlantis was useful as a hypothetical example of a utopia gone awry. Long ago, “there was an island situated in front of the straits which [were] . . . called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together . . . [and] in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire . . .” Its forefather was the god Atlas himself, and from his progeny there issued a line that was “numerous and honourable . . . They retained the kingdom, the eldest son handing it on to his eldest for many generations.” Indeed, they had such an “amount of wealth as was never before possessed by kings and potentates, and is not likely ever to be [so] again.” They dug “out of the earth whatever was to be found there, solid as well as fusile, and that which is now only a name and was then something more than a name, orichalcum, . . more precious than” any element mined from their caverns, “save gold.” All the pleasing and “fragrant things there now are in the earth, whether roots, or herbage, or woods, or essences which distil from fruit and flower, grew and thrived in . . . that sacred island which then beheld the light of the sun . . . With such blessings,” the gods freely furnished Atlantis and her people.[5] [10]

But by degrees “the divine portion” in this race “began to fade away, and became diluted too often and too much with the mortal admixture, and the human nature got the upper hand.” Their wealth and ease became a corrupting influence, and the Atlanteans began to behave in an “unseemly” manner. To him “who had an eye to see,” they grew “visibly debased, for they were losing the fairest of their precious gifts; but to those who had no eye to see . . . they appeared glorious and blessed at the very time when they were full of avarice and unrighteous power.”[6] [11] They proceeded to make violent incursions into other lands, subjugate them, then mix with their slaves’ lesser blood still further. The Fates decided to punish these men who had grown both degenerate and overmighty. In a single day and night of “misfortune, there occurred violent earthquakes and floods,” and Atlantis, along with all its “warlike men in a body sank into the earth” and was seen no more.[7] [12] As once it had in Eden, the physical beauty of Atlantis’ natural world mirrored the beauty of its people, a race of beings who shared in a divine birthright. Gems and orichalcum (perhaps platinum) ornamented their arms and palaces. But also as in Eden, an outside influence — foreign blood and an excessive desire for more — degraded them and distanced the Atlanteans from their worthier ancestry. The result was the same as that which befell Adam in the Garden: a paradise, lost.

The Norse Edda

Even the farther and harsher North sang of origins and paradise and narrated the halcyon ages of the gods. The poetic Edda dated to the last lingering redoubts of paganism, written in the Middle Ages before the conversion of all these northern lands to Christianity. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to see in the Edda a “pure paganism,” for religious purity is itself a myth. Like maps of elsewheres and continents of yesterlands, belief pretends that the landscape of its scripture is of otherworld origin and not, by its very nature, “of the world.” Seeresses and fortune tellers in old Nordic tradition would often travel and sit at the head of groups of singing maidens, then deliver the world’s “doom.” Norse mythology had nine traditional realms, all beautifully woven together in birth, life, and ultimate fate. In each of these places there dwelt gods, giants, fire demons, elves, dwarves, men, warriors, and the dead. The original two realms were Niflheim and Muspelheim, worlds of ice and fire. Yggdrasil, the great ash tree from which these realms drew their nourishment, drew its own sustenance from the melted ice of Niflheim. From the lavas and never-ending heats of Muspelheim, life in the other realms drew its warmth. So, it was through these barren wastelands that mortals and immortals alike owed their very breath and balance. Asgard was raised above Mid-gard, the realm of men, as though resting on high in another dimension and connected to it through Heimdall’s rainbow bridge. This capital was an urban paradise of order, palaces, and the seat of Odin, home of Valhalla and its halls of heroes.


The geomythology of the Nine Realms


You can buy Collin Cleary’sWhat is a Rune? here [15]

In the tale of the Eddic Völuspá, a powerful seer, who named herself a Vala (prophetess-goddess), recited these predictions about the rise and fall of the nine realms and the ending of the golden age of the gods: “I, nine trees remember . . . the great central tree beneath the earth. There was in times of old . . . nor sand, nor sea, nor gelid waves,” for the Earth existed not, nor heaven above. All was “a chaotic chasm, and grass nowhere.” But the elder ones raised up “heaven’s vault, they who the noble mid-earth shaped. The sun shone from the south over the structure’s rocks: then was the earth begrown with herbage green.” The powers went “all to their judgment seats, the all-holy gods and thereon [they] held council: to night and the moon gave names, morn they named and mid-day . . . and eve whereby to reckon years.” The new gods then gathered on Ida’s plain, where “they altar-steads and temples high constructed; their strength they proved, all things tried . . . precious things forged. At tables they played. Joyous they were; for them was naught the want of gold.”[8] [16]

Tolkien’s Arda

It should come as no surprise that English fantasist J. R. R. Tolkien imagined his own version of paradise, lost when he began to world-build his famous Middle-Earth and the realms surrounding it — a vision heavily borrowed from biblical, Nordic, and classical traditions. The supreme power in Tolkien’s universe was “the One,” or “Eru Ilúvatar” (equivalent to God, the Father). The Ainur were those numberless divine beings who each represented aspects of Eru’s nature (equivalent to the angels and high saints). By harnessing the voices of all these beings, Ilúvatar conducted a musical symphony that created from the timeless void Eä (the universe) and Arda (the Earth). Some members of the Ainur fell in love with this grand vision, and they chose to descend into an as-yet unfinished Arda, in order to make it ready for the promised coming of “the Children of Ilúvatar” (first the elves and second, men). The mightiest of these divine essences the elves in later ages called “the Valar,” and they were the principal architects of Arda’s geography. Rivers, oceans, mountains, and forests — all of these they hewed from the rough canvas of primordial Earth, where they “walked as powers visible, clad in the raiment of the World.” All was at first “lovely and glorious to see, and blissful . . . [and] nowhere [was] more rich than in the midmost parts of the Earth, where the light of both the Lamps [that they had lit] met and blended.” And there “upon the Isle of Almaren centered in the Great Lake was the first dwelling of the Valar when all things were young, and new-made green was yet a marvel in the eyes of the makers; and they were long content.”[9] [17]

But predictably, the stealthy invasion of a stranger filled with malicious intent caused the uneventful peace to suddenly become more interesting. The most powerful of the Ainur/Valar was called “Melkor,” or He who arises in Might, and his heart had long burned with the desire to overtake Ilúvatar and to dominate Arda and all the works of his fellow-Valar. Seizing “now his time he drew near . . . and looked down upon [Arda], and the beauty of the Earth in its Spring,” which “filled him the more with hate.”[10] [18] He crept into Middle-Earth and began to spoil all that the Valar had wrought. He uprooted forests and spilled the oceans; caused the Earth to groan and pierce the sky with impassable, jagged mountain ranges; and cast down and broke the two precious lamps, whose holy fluid set the world aflame. The Valar abandoned the fragmented continent of Middle-Earth and fled west across the sea, to a new place where they might be free from Melkor’s evil designs.

Meanwhile, the Enemy, left to his own devices on a darkened Middle-Earth, ruled from his fortress of Utumno in the north of the world, which he castellated with a barren range of Iron Mountains. They “stood upon the borders of the regions of everlasting cold, a great curve from east to west.” Joining him were many of the fallen Ainur, those who had allowed Melkor to seduce them with promises of power and impunity. Middle-Earth would ever after bear the evidence of its early corruption. When the Children of Ilúvatar finally awoke far in the eastern reaches of the world, Melkor captured any of them who walked too far abroad. Through “slow arts of cruelty were” these victims, like the land of their birth “corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves.” To save these newly-awakened beings from Melkor’s malice, the Valar made a second war on their enemy. Tulkas, the fierce, laughing god, descended into the depths of Utumno after a long siege. There, he wrestled with Melkor “and cast him upon his face; and he was bound with a chain . . . and led captive; and the world had peace for a long age.”[11] [19]

Most of the elves, the victorious Valar convinced to abandon their homes in Middle-Earth and to dwell with them beyond the sundering sea and in the western lands of Valinor. There, the Valar replaced the broken lamps with the hallowed light of Telperion and Laurelin: two great trees, male and female, one raining a silver dew and the other a sprinkling of golden flowers. Both grew tall and lit the sacred realm of Valinor with their woven ambience. The elves, saturated in this holy glow, grew too, in might, skill, and pride — especially those who dedicated themselves to jeweling and smithing. One there was who rose above all others in his “subtle artistry,” and this elf prince, Fëanor, crafted the three most precious gemstones the world has ever, or will ever, see. They shone with a brilliant radiance “like the stars,” lit within as they were by the flame imperishable that he had harvested from the Trees themselves. Even in the “darkness of the deepest treasury,” they ever flared, “though [Telperion and Laurelin] have long withered and shine no more.” And yet, as if they were “indeed living things, they rejoiced [too] in light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvellous than before.”[12] [20] All the elves and Valar were in awe of Fëanor’s creation, and in hushed tones they called the three jewels the “Silmarils.”

At this time, the summer of the Trees had reached its crowning eminence. Perhaps so many years basking in the bliss of their undying light and enjoying the fellowship of the First Born had made the Valar less careful. They released Melkor from his bondage on a promise of good behavior. But no captivity was long enough to cure so deep a hatred, nor was there enough grace in Arda to whiten the blackness of his spirit. Melkor by slow degrees sowed seeds of deceit within the shining realm of Valinor, and the Trees began to dim. Fëanor no longer wore the Silmarils around any persons save close family members, and he grew jealous of their possession, resentful of others’ sight of them. Through whispers and rumor, Melkor wove webs of fear and envy in the hearts of the elves, and his own heart burned to claim the Silmarils as his trophies. The elves’ smithies turned to storehouses of armor and the forges of great and terrible weaponry. Their wandering eyes and suspicious minds judged even kinsmen guilty of treachery. Attempting to save the Long Summer and thus heal the rifts forming between themselves and many of the elven-kings, the Valar announced a great holiday. All corners of Valinor emptied to celebrate and dance beneath the Trees. This, Melkor seized as his chance.

He brought with him a creature whose spirit represented the deepest depths plumbed by evil’s insatiable lust for a light not its own. Ungoliant was her name, and she traveled with him as a giant spider, throwing webs of “unlight” and confusion about them, so that they two went unseen into Valinor. At the height of the feast, Melkor pierced the Trees with his sword; light-sap like blood flowed from their wounds, and Ungoliant drank them both dry and dark and dead. Shadow fell upon the world once again, and panic spread through the ranks of elves and gods like a pulsing infection. Hosts of the Valar hunted for Melkor, but Ungoliant belched forth black clouds of distraction, and none could pierce her veil, nor track them. Amidst the tumult, they arrived at Fëanor’s home, slew his father, and then stole the Silmarils from his iron vault. At last, Melkor and Ungoliant hastened from Valinor with their prizes. They flew over the grinding ice of the far north that in those days still connected Middle-Earth to the blessed West, and the black god once more descended into the abysses of his underground fortress. Aggrieved, wrathful, and scornful of the Valar, the elves of Fëanor left their lost paradise to pursue Melkor, whom they renamed Morgoth (the Black Foe of the World), so as to reclaim their old homes in Middle-Earth and the Silmarils for themselves. They reasoned that the Valar had denied them the land of their birthright to rule and had seduced them with false promises of ease and plenty. Had it not been one of the Valar’s own kind – Morgoth – who had ruined their kingdom, slain their high king, and then raped them of their precious gems? They cursed his name with eternal enmity, and no matter what foul deed they might commit in pursuit of mastery, they vowed to fight him to the ends of Arda.

Behold the ancient springtime and the earth’s primordial shape. Paradise in whatever form was a comparatively simple world and flat, symbolizing man’s first intimacy with the gods. Eden was a small oasis (of admittedly dangerous fruit trees), oblivious in its beauty and natural riches to the wilderness beyond. Once there was a land-continent of demi-gods, precious metals, and a reverence of Atlas — the father of their glorious family tree. Before the final division between the Edda’s nine realms, gods and man were jubilant in their freedom from care and the desire for gold. The Spring perpetual/without end bloomed on a flat Middle-Earth, while its continents rose without taint. The light that shone from the jeweled and soaring Lamps coaxed the world into a green and forested paradise. Behold, too, how all of these geomythological paradises without fail, failed. Then again, readers, how can there be a story without a fall? A paradise in stasis is a place without interesting songs, devoid of deeds we love to hail.

Morgoth’s Catacombs

Such a fall transitions us from the geomythology of a lost paradise to that of the pit. While most of Arda basked in its light and gloried in a natural world, Morgoth’s domain shunned the day. Its denizens toiled in labyrinthian prisons beneath the high northern fells. His fortresses of Utumno and Angband he built “exceedingly deep” and cunningly hidden with deceit. Tolkien wrote of the “endless dungeons of Angband, the Hells of Iron” beneath Ered Engrin (the Iron Mountains), where his legions delved “a great tunnel, which issued south of the mountains; and there he made a mighty gate.” Above this door and flanking it, even to the peaks, “he piled the thunderous towers of Thangorodrim, that were made of the ash and slag of his subterranean furnaces, and the vast refuse of his tunnelings.” These heaps were “black and desolate and exceedingly lofty.” Smoke issued from their tops like poisonous and volcanic chimneys, “dark and foul upon the northern sky.” Filth there spread southward “for many miles over the wide plain.” Beneath the towers and within the pits, “evil things that he had perverted walked abroad, and the dark and slumbering woods were haunted by monsters and shapes of dread.” The evil of Morgoth “and the blight of his hatred flowed out thence, and the Spring of Arda was marred.” Green things fell sick, and rotted; “rivers were choked with weeds and slime, and fens were made, rank and poisonous, the breeding place of flies; and forests grew dark and perilous, the haunts of fear; and beasts became monsters of horn and ivory and dyed the earth with blood.”[13] [21]

This map-picture of “the Hells of Iron” was one not of creation, but inversion. His furnaces did not invent new things of brightness and life, but they perverted them, and turned them to ash and “slag.” The meandering rivers and gorges above ground, he mirrored with tunnels of little light, littler air, and no end. The dark races and beasts he bred deep under Ered Engrin were those already living beings whom he had captured and twisted, until their ugliness and bloody-mindedness mocked the noble versions of their original. As in most of Tolkien’s work, there was promise and peril of industry and artifice. Fires that lit lamps and sacred trees; the tools that carved great palaces from stone; the forges that wrought wonderful jewelry and resulted in masterful metalworking — these Tolkien celebrated in his epics. But the furnaces that belched fumes, burned forests, and made slag-heaps? The factories that produced nothing of artistry, but spilled steaming sewers of waste into rivers? These were the essences of Morgoth’s terrible “blighting” influence upon Arda. The pit was a geography of unlight, unlife, and much misery — even as the hallowed, hostage Silmaril jewels twinkled brightly upon his awful brow.

Hel and Hades


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The geomythology of Utumno/Angband and the shadowy region cankered by Morgoth resembled the underworld as described by the Norse and Greco-Romans. Each of these universes was shaped by ancient battles before memory; their primordial tumults literally altered the landscape and resulted in the enduring division between dimensions, or realms. An old wizened crone named Hel minded the cheerless halls of the Norse dead — the final destination of all the mortals and unlucky gods who had not died honorably. Just as Asgard was raised above Mid-gard, so Hel lay below it. At the appointed time, Hel would raise the armies of the dead, gather their souls, and make wrack and war on all the other kingdoms of gods and men in a final battle. Similarly, when the Olympians fought their war against the Titans, “The boundless sea rang terribly around, and the earth crashed loudly . . . and high Olympus reeled from its foundation under the charge of the undying gods, and a heavy quaking reached dim Tartarus.” Within that “dank place where are the ends of the earth . . . which even the gods abhor,” they imprisoned their foes. There they would remain until a terrible, fated day of wrath when even the “deathless gods” would meet their doom and succumb to the Titans’ vengeance.[14] [24] The final battle, called the Dagor Dagorath in Tolkien’s legendarium, Armageddon in Christianity, and Ragnarok in Norse prophecy, would result in the world renewed.

Until then, Hades ruled the domains of Tartarus and the Dead, separated from his peers who presided on their high-gleaming thrones far above him. On Hades the “sun never look[ed] with his beams,” nor melted the ice around his “heart of iron, [for] his spirit within him [was] pitiless as bronze.” It was the fate of the lower race of Bronze Men to kill one another in their violent disputes, to “dye the earth with blood,” then to descend from “the bright light of the sun” into “the dank house of chill Hades.” So deep were its subterranean caverns, according to Hesiod, that an anvil dropped from the earth’s surface would fall for ten days before striking the unyielding floors of Pluto’s realm. Indeed, there was little wonder that he was “hateful even to the deathless gods.”[15] [25] Like Morgoth, he emerged from a crevice in the earth, and then abducted fair and innocent victims in order to satisfy his desires. In so doing, the god of the underworld ended the springtime just as surely as Tolkien’s Black Foe had “marred the Spring of Arda” and brought to its people desolation.

Vague and contradictory descriptions of the underworld were nevertheless enough to create a shadow-sketch of a map. The Greeks believed that the souls of the dead underwent a literal journey through the halls of hell — a journey in which it was vitally important to follow directions. Classical tradition named at least four entrances to the underworld: Lake Avernus, west of Naples; the Caves of Hades, east of Byzantium and located on the Black Sea; the southern Pelopponese at Taenarus; and the Saronic Gulf between the cities of Athens and Corinth. Once there, the rivers Styx and Acheron separated the dead from the roads leading to places like the Fields of Asphodel, which lay before the high Plains of Judgment. The Elysian Fields and the Fields of Sorrow and Mourning were destinations by other routes, and the gates of Tartarus were beyond even those. Like the nasty creatures of “horn and ivory” that guarded Utumno’s endless vaults, so did Cerberus and the unlovely Charon man the paths of Pluto. The former, a “fearful hound” that guarded the way in front, was “pitiless, and he [had] a cruel trick” his dread master had taught him. To those “who [went] in he fawn[ed] with his tail and both his ears, but [he has never] suffer[ed] them not to go out back again, but [has instead kept] watch and devour[ed] whomever he [has caught] going out of the gates.”[16] [26] For the Greeks and the stern Norsemen, death was no relief, and the underworld was not a place of repose or happiness.

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[1] [28] Joshua J. Mark, “The Sea Peoples and the Bronze Age Collapse,” in Brewminate: A Bold Blend of News and Ideas, 19 January 2021.

[2] [29] Livy, The History of Rome, 41.28, in Perseus Classics Online.

[3] [30] Edna St. Vincent Millay, “To a Calvinist in Bali,” in Collected Poems (New York: Harper-Collins, 2011), 329.

[4] [31] Gen., 2.8-12, KJV.

[5] [32] Plato, “Critias” in The Complete Dialogues, 185-187.

[6] [33] Ibid., 188.

[7] [34] Ibid., 188-9.

[8] [35] The Poetic Edda, Jackson Crawford, ed. (Cambridge, UK: Hackett, 2015), 3-8.

[9] [36] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2004), 10.

[10] [37] Ibid., 24.

[11] [38] Ibid., 38, 41.

[12] [39] Ibid., 24, 59.

[13] [40] Ibid., 24.

[14] [41] Hesiod, Theogony, 129-35, Perseus Classics Online.

[15] [42] Ibid., 133.

[16] [43] Ibid., 139.