Through the portal

© C A Lovegrove

I’m in the Mines of Moria for the sixth time — literature-wise rather than literally — just after crossing the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, and I thought this might be a good moment to consider the function of Middle-earth’s portals which Tolkien introduces us to, not just in The Lord of the Rings but also The Hobbit.

In this short (?) essay I’d like to particularly consider the doors and gates leading into and out of the ground — entrances and exits such the door at Bag End, the Side-Door to Erebor the Lonely Mountain, and the Doors of Durin on the west of the Misty Mountains. There will be other examples which will rate mentions but readers will recall certain of these hold great significance for the journeys undertaken by hobbits.

I also want to consider a few motifs that Tolkien borrowed from elsewhere to fashion his underground portals and how they may have influenced him. Hopefully I will identify the keys to help unlock the mysteries of these barriers, but in doing so I give fair warning: spoilers lie ahead.

© C A Lovegrove

You will recall that we find ourselves underground at the very start of The Hobbit: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” At the entrance to the hole there is of course a door: “It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle.” After Bilbo hastily ejects Gandalf following disturbing talk of adventures, the wizard remains

still standing outside the door, and laughing long but quietly. After a while he stepped up, and with the spike on his staff scratched a queer sign on the hobbit’s beautiful green front-door. Then he strode away…

Chapter I, ‘An Unexpected Party’

Though this secret mark — probably two Anglo-Saxon runes standing for Burglar and Danger, plus a diamond for Treasure — is obliterated by Gandalf after all the dwarves have found their way to Bilbo’s smial, this feature is one we will meet again: a coded message on or relating to a portal for those who know what they’re looking for and what it means.

During the unexpected party that occurs when the dwarves and Gandalf descend on the cul-de-sac that translates as Bag End, another portal is introduced when Thror’s map is produced. Gandalf points out a secret entrance opening onto “a hidden passage to the Lower Halls” under Mount Erebor, the Lonely Mountain. When access to the hole is eventually gained they’ll discover what the runes say is correct: ‘Five feet high the door and three may walk abreast.” More preferable is this way into the caverns under the Mountain than the Front Gate, out of which Smaug the dragon will later issue, hellbent on destruction. When the expedition arrived at Rivendell it was Elrond who discovered moon-letters on Thror’s map, relaying a cryptic message:

“Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.

Chapter III, ‘A Short Rest’.

Durin’s Day, the dwarves’ New Year, is the first day of the last moon of autumn, when the moon and the sun are in the sky together; and, fortuitously, this occurs when Bilbo and the dwarves have actually reached the grey cliff on the western flanks of the Mountain, and the thrush knocks.

Before this date we meet another door, namely the back-door out of the caverns under the Misty Mountains. Bilbo has evaded Gollum, thanks to the invisibility conferred on him by the Ring, and has only to get past the goblins guarding the door:

It was still ajar, but a Goblin had pushed it nearly to. Bilbo struggled but he could not move it. He tried to squeeze through the crack. He squeezed and squeezed, and he stuck! It was awful. It was awful. His buttons had got wedged on the edge of the door and the door-post. […] He gave a terrific squirm. Buttons burst off in all directions. He was through […] while bewildered goblins were still picking up his nice brass buttons on the doorstep.

Chapter VI, ‘Riddles in the Dark’

Here now is another motif connected with portals which we’ll meet again: the notion of sacrificing something as a kind of exit payment. Though they’re only buttons their loss anticipates a later and more momentous act: Bilbo’s relinquishing of the Arkenstone in order to achieve an exit from an otherwise insoluble quandary in Smaug’s former lair.

And in The Lord of the Rings it will be the involuntary relinquishing of the One Ring at the Crack of Doom that will result in Frodo’s loss of finger and Sauron’s final overthrow. The entrance to this dread abyss is through “a dark door in the Mountain’s side, the door of Sammath Naur,” a gaping mouth from where Sam, later standing “upon the dark threshold high above the plains of Mordor,” will see the ruination of the Necromancer and his evil designs.


And now we backtrack to the Fellowship of the Ring standing before the Doors of Durin, the entrance to the Mines of Moria. The entrance is not at first evident but Gandalf is able to make the faint outline appear, and then moonlight and starlight reveal the silvery design of the tracery and symbols. Here are the famous words in Elvish, Pedo mellon a minno, “Speak, friend, and enter,” or as Gandalf finally realises, “Say ‘Friend’ and enter”. The pronouncing of Elvish mellon (‘friend’) is the equivalent of “Open sesame” in the Arabian Nights tale of Ali Baba, and gives us a further motif to be attached to Middle-earth’s portals.

In The Return of the Shadow, the published drafts for part of The Fellowship of the Ring, an indication of Tolkien’s deliberate borrowing of motifs from The Hobbit for the Moria section comes in the author’s preparatory outline (which Christopher Tolkien includes on page 444); here the author is attempting to substitute a spell for special time when the portal may be opened:

Moria’s West Gates are dwarf-gates (closed like the Lonely Mountain); but openable not at a set time but by a [?special ?speech] spell. Gandalf knows or [?thinks] it must be one of [?three] in ancient tongue — for the Elves of Hollin wrought the spell.

Chapter XXV, ‘The Mines of Moria’.

Finally — for the moment, at any rate — what of the East Gates? As the remnants of the Fellowship flee from the broken Bridge of Khazad-dûm through “an arch of blazing light” that represents the Great Gates in the east, we reflect that the downfall of Gandalf while fighting the Balrog is apparently another sacrifice, a payment made for the company’s escape from the mines below ground.

What then can we now say about the portals that lead us to and from underground caverns and tunnels we have examined so far? First, that certain entrances are inevitably indicated by inscriptions or runes, on the doors themselves or on maps: hence Gandalf’s symbol scratched on the door of Bag End, then Erebor’s Side-Door indicated on Thror’s map by moonlight and starlight, and Durin’s Doors appearing when Gandalf passed his hand over them, made clearer by starlight. Secondly, the opening of the doors is effected in a number of ways: the ringing of a doorbell (in the case of Bag End); the effect of a combination of sun and moon at the end of a particular day revealing a keyhole (for the Side-Door); and the speaking of a particular word acting as a spell (for the Doors of Durin).

For exits there seems a sacrifice has to be made. When Bilbo leaves Bag End in a rush at the start of Chapter II of The Hobbit it’s not just the absence of a pipe, hat and pocket handkerchiefs (soon restored) that he will feel he has sacrificed but also the plundering of the smial in his absence by the Sackville-Baggins. Later, when he escapes the goblins of the Misty Mountains, he sacrifices his waistcoat buttons. In the trilogy that follows, sacrifice recurs: the apparent death of Gandalf at Khazad-dûm so the others may fly Moria; and then Frodo’s loss of a finger (when Gollum bites it off to obtain the Ring) means Sam can lead him to safety out of Sammath Naur, the Chamber of Fire within Mount Doom.


To begin wrapping up this discussion, I want to draw attention to a few narrative parallels that Tolkien would have known that supplied him with motifs he could refashion and enhance his own stories with. George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin would have furnished him with plenty of material for his Middle-earth stories, from goblins and mines to portals and wise women. MacDonald of course took much of his material from traditional fairytales, with which Tolkien would also have been familiar. Portals also abound in his friend C S Lewis’s Narniad, in particular The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but unlike the portals in the septet of novels (accessed via wardrobe, coloured rings, paintings and so on) Tolkien’s examples are simply means of ingress and egress to elsewhere on Middle-earth, with the magic associated with their opening and not their destination in a parallel world.

The Fellowship was published in 1954, while Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew wasn’t till 1955, but it’s a pleasing coincidence that both featured magical rings. I’ve already mentioned the Ali Baba story, with a spell allowing access to a thieves’ cave just as uttering ‘Friend’ in Elvish allowed the fellowship to enter Moria; but you’ll also recall Aladdin being trapped in a cave by his supposed uncle and subsequently escaping because of a magic ring, which called up a djinn to do his bidding. Though not exact parallels — and in many ways with different consequences — Bilbo’s underground escape is in large measure due to his own resources as much as the Ring’s, while Frodo will find the use of the Ring often counter-productive and not at all to his own benefit.


The dead city of Charn by Pauline Baynes

Some final points now before ending, concerning sounds and symbols. As a Catholic Tolkien wasn’t unfamiliar with biblical precedents for emerging from below ground, particularly Christ’s Resurrection from an underground tomb (though I’m not suggesting of course that any of LOTR‘s protagonists were meant to be Christ-like). But a particular incident has him referencing Moses in a very obvious fashion: this is when Gandalf in exasperation hits the Doors of Durin with his staff. Moses famously did something similar when, instead of striking a rock in the Sinai desert so that a spring would gush forth, he should have spoken to it in Yahweh’s name.

And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also.

And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.

Numbers 20: 11-12

Luckily Gandalf then remembers the word to open the rock doors, allowing him to safely reach his destination, and almost a kind of apotheosis, after many tribulations. Mixed in with this Moria incident are Arthurian motifs, as when an intruder to a cave with sleeping warriors is either forbidden or, alternatively, enjoined to strike a bell or sound a horn to wake the sleepers; but it was Lewis who was to fully purloin this motif in all its resonance in the City of Charn in The Magician’s Nephew and Tolkien to only hint at it.

You may remember Dante’s description of the inscription on Hell’s gates, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here,” from the Italian Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate, which greets visitors there. The message on Durin’s Doors is of course more welcoming but once inside, having narrowly escaped the Watcher in the Water, the company of travellers may well have felt they’d jumped out of the frying pan into the fire.

* * * * *

Another instalment in my occasional series Talking Tolkien

15 thoughts on “Through the portal

  1. What a wonderful post, Chris – I hadn’t quite registered how many portals of different sorts there are in Tolkien but you’re spot on. And that Baynes illustration has got me all interested in the possibility of revisiting the Narnia books. The Magician’s Nephew was always a favourite, though I refuse to regard it as the first in the series to read… ;D

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Magical portals are quite the thing in fantasy novels, films and games, aren’t they, but they’re even there in more realist fiction as well as in life—doors to secret gardens, the new bride lifted over the threshold, the ritual locking of the front door of a house after it’s been sold, and so on—so I’m not surprised Tolkien makes much of them.

      I think the preferences for the upcoming Narniathon are pretty clear now, so I may be making an announcement about order of reading sooner rather than later!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting! This really got me thinking: I began to think about invisible or natural portals into the elven realms in Middle Earth and what the elves do for members of the party once they have gained entry.

    Frodo, on the back of Glorfindal’s horse, has to “pay” to enter Rivendell with huge courage and the last of his strength as he defies the ring wraiths at the ford. I wonder if this payment is perhaps needed because he carries two evil objects into Rivendell – the ring and the tip of the Morgal Knife? I don’t see this as a moral consequence, because he carries these things in good faith, but as a pratical consequence due to the nature of the objects and how they weaken him to the enemy.
    Once inside Rivendell he is partially healed and his strength is restored. His burden remains, but his load is lightened for a time at least.

    The other 2 people who I remember being affected by entering an elven kingdom and meeting elves are Boromir and Gimli as they enter Lothlorian.

    Boromir was weak to the ring’s power. Not because he was a weak man I think, but because he desperately needed more power help protect Gondor from the armies of Mordor. He didn’t respond positively to the Lady Galadriel looking into his heart and feared what her looking revealed to her and, perhaps, to himself. Although little is written about him in Lothlorian what is there shows him to be ill at ease among the elves.

    Although he was given a belt and a cloak, his burden seemed heavier on leaving the elven kingdom than it was when he entered.

    Gimli, however, carried an old emnity between his people and the elves into Lothlorian. The same difficulty was clearly an issue for the elves too since they blindfolded him before bringing into the heart of their land. However when Gimli heard Galadriel speak in his own ancient dwarven tongue he met her eyes and his emnity was dispelled.

    He left Lothlorian with a lighter heart and a whole new understanding of a people. He had thought they were enemies but they turned out to be friends.

    Hmmm, this is a new way to look at books that I am not accustomed to. It is really interesting though to find these patterns. Thanks for another great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What you say about entry to and time spent in Elven domains is fascinating, Jo, and I shall be thinking about these matters as I myself enter Lothlorien. In particular I liked your mention of Frodo carrying, willingly or no, the Ring and the Morgul blade fragment into Rivendell. I shall have to reread what Elrond has to say about it all! As for Boromir’s and Gimli’s reactions in the wood, I think the extended DVD edition of the film trilogy brings them out well, if I recall.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The film does explain a lot more about Boromir especially, if I’m remembering it correctly. I think Peter Jackson’s tremendous feel for the story really shows in scenes like that.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Jackson was at his best with Boromir and at his worst with Faramir (and Denethor).

    I love this, especially the phrase “the ruination of the Necromancer and his evil designs,” which I am thinking about as a title for something.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah, I’ll reserve judgement on Faramir and Denethor in the films for when I’ve reread the Gondor episodes! As for the phrase, since you liked the post, I shall gift it to you. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post! Your topic made me think of the moment in the Hall of Fire when Frodo seems to step into a vision inspired by the music. I’m looking forward to what you have to say about Lothlorien. The contrast between Rivendell and Lothlorien has always fascinated me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Beth, I’ve just got to where the Fellowship has entered Lothlórien and are about to spend the night in the mallorn trees, so will doubtless have a little to blather on about in due course! I often think that LOTR is like a musical composition, as vast as Messaien’s Turangalila Symphony but less cacophonous, or a series of vast canvases as impressive and detailed as Burne-Jones’s Holy Grail tapestries.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s a fine distinction, I agree: the Fellowship isn’t sacrificing Gandalf, he’s sacrificing himself for them.

      Gandalf, it seems to me, took the risk that Horatius Cocles took defending the bridge against Rome’s enemies, that he might have sacrificed himself in vain; but, like Horatius — who, when the bridge was destroyed behind him to deny the Etruscans passage into the city, leapt into the river to survive and fight another day — Gandalf defeated the Balrog and eventually rejoined his friends. (I’m absolutely certain Tolkien was deliberately using this legendary precedent for LOTR.)

      Liked by 2 people

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.