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Seeing a map of Middle-earth (see below), it strikes me that the mountains surrounding Mordor are "perfect" to create a fortress or stronghold. As a mountain range they also look somewhat unnatural, creating a "box", with only the right side missing. It looks very different from the other mountain ranges found in Middle Earth without, as far as I can tell, any explanation as to why.

Does the lore of Middle Earth say anything about the creation of these mountains? Are they natural, or were they created by someone at some point? I've read several questions on this site about how Mount Doom was central in Mordor being Sauron's stronghold, but the surrounding mountains and the fact that he could hide behind them had to play a role too?

If this mountain range somehow was created by someone, what is the reason it is missing the right side range? Isn't this a huge weakness in the fortress? Has Mordor ever been attacked from the East?

enter image description here

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    so is the will of eru ilúvatar. – Max Dec 20 '16 at 19:15
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    Everything was created by the Valar, directly or indirectly. What do you mean by "natural"? – isanae Dec 20 '16 at 21:27
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    The geology of Middle Earth can be explained, and has been, by ordinary plate tectonic processes. No need to invoke creation myths. E.g. me-dem.org/index2.php?option=com_content&do_pdf=1&id=55 and scribd.com/doc/113846714/Geology-of-Middle-Earth – jamesqf Dec 21 '16 at 5:27
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    @jamesqf You do know this is a world that went from being flat to round after a war between angelic beings, right? – isanae Dec 21 '16 at 6:07
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    @jamesqf You can't say some things are myths and others are not when they're all in-universe features. Middle-Earth might have some plausible scientific explanations, but you can't separate it from the creation account. In-universe, Middle-Earth and the Valar both happened. – isanae Dec 22 '16 at 18:18
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Mordor was probably created during the War of Wrath

This is a footnote from one of Tolkien's late texts:

[Orodruin and its eruptions] were a relic of the devastating works of Melkor in the long First Age.

The History of Middle-Earth Volume 12: The Peoples of Middle-earth, note 14, p. 390

There are no other texts about the creation of Mordor, but we can piece its history from various sources with a few educated guesses.

When exactly?

The First Age is longer than the two other. Its exact length is unclear because Tolkien never really settled on a date, but we know it cannot start before the Elves are born and that it ends after the War of Wrath, when Morgoth is captured and removed from Arda.

During the whole First Age, the area where Mordor is situated is underwater. The water drains during the War of Wrath, which ended the First age. Therefore, Mordor must have been a side-effect of the war.

Karen Wynn Fonstad, in The Atlas of Middle-Earth says this:

Although no text supports my conclusions, Mordor might have appeared as part of a worldwide upheaval during the destruction of the Iron Mountains [during the War of Wrath] in the area where the Great Gulf partially drained the Inland Sea - the volcanic processes in the formation of that land would allow relatively rapid mountain-building processes.

The Atlas of Middle-Earth, p. 37

Discrepancies

The quote above mentions "devastating works". I would not have called the War of Wrath a "work" of Melkor. It was more of an invasion by the Valar and a brutal war which saw the Northwestern part of Middle-Earth destroyed. I also find "in the long First Age" dubious as the War of Wrath marks the end of the First Age.

Side note: natural or not?

Note that asking whether something is "natural" or not is somewhat misleading. The major features of Arda were created, directly through intervention or indirectly through wars, by the Valar. They built the world with their hands.

History of Mordor

In the following, I go through the history of the region where Mordor is situated to try to figure out the period during which it is underwater.

Early Arda

Early in Arda's history, the Valar built two lamps and put them on pillars:

Then Varda filled the lamps and Manwë hallowed them, and the Valar set them upon high pillars, more lofty far than are any mountains of the later days. One lamp they raised near to the north of Middle-earth, and it was named Illuin; and the other was raised in the south, and it was named Ormal; and the light of the Lamps of the Valar flowed out over the Earth, so that all was lit as it were in a changeless day.

ibid.

enter image description here

Melkor then destroyed the pillars, creating two inland seas: the Sea of Helcar and the Sea of Ringol. The shape of the lands was also changed:

In the overthrow of the mighty pillars lands were broken and seas arose in tumult; and when the lamps were spilled destroying flame was poured out over the Earth. And the shape of Arda and the symmetry of its waters and its lands was marred in that time, so that the first designs of the Valar were never after restored.

ibid., p. 29

enter image description here

At this point, the location of Mordor is underwater, covered by the Sea of Helcar. The First Age hasn't begun yet.

The Second Great Battle

After the Valar discover the Elves, they fight Melkor yet again and break the lands even more. Mountains are raised and seas are created. The western region of the Sea of Helcar sees many permanent features that will be present in the Third Age, such as the Anduin (the Great River) and Greenwood the Great (from the Hobbit). But Mordor is still underwater.

enter image description here The western region of the Sea of Helcar. In the Third Age, this area would be called Gondor. Mordor is underwater.

At this point, the First Age has begun.

The War of Wrath

At the end of the First Age, the Valar fight their final war on Middle-Earth, capture Melkor and thrust him out of the world. This war is devastating to Middle-Earth: the entire northwestern region is destroyed. A new gulf in the south drains the Sea of Helcar, finally revealing Mordor. The remnants of the Sea of Helcar in Mordor is renamed the Sea of Nurnen.

enter image description here The same region as above, but with the Sea of Helcar gone. Mordor is now revealed.

enter image description here The two images above side by side. On the left, the Sea of Helcar before the War of Wrath. On the right, the same region after the War of Wrath, with Mordor uncovered.

After the Sea of Helcar is drained, Mordor is present. The only possibility then is that Mordor's mountain chain and volcanoes were part of the reshaping that was caused by the fighting.

Shape

Mordor's boxy shape may look unnatural, but Tolkien said it corresponded to a volcanic arc. As a comparison, here is a map of the Lesser Antilles, in the Caribbean:

Map of the Caribbean - Lesser Antilles Map of the Caribbean - Lesser Antilles, from user Uniongreen113

Now, these are volcanic islands, but they clearly form a Mordor-like pattern. Since there is no water around Mordor, all the mountains between the volcanoes are visible. Volcanic arcs are typically rounded, with an open side, much like Mordor.

Weakness in the East

It is true that an army could walk around the mountains and enter Mordor from the East. This would be unlikely for various reasons.

In the North are lands that would be very difficult to pass:

The northern lands were swept by bitter eastern winds carrying fumes from the slag mounds and from the increasingly active Mt. Doom. The climate became arid, and the landscape was slowly denuded of its growing things. As the lands became more barren, the little rain that fell ran off the surface of the nearby highlands and more and more water into the bracken swamps [of the Dead Marshes.]

The Atlas of Middle-Earth, p. 90

In the South are Near Harad and Khand. Near Harad is probably a desert, based on what Gollum says:

And further still there are more lands, they say, but the Yellow Face is very hot there, and there are seldom any clouds, and the men are fierce and have dark faces.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Black Gate is Closed, p. 206

There is little to no information on the geography of Khand.

Men from both Near Harad and Khand were once allied with the Wainriders and attacked Gondor during the Second Age:

Many of the Wainriders now passed south of Mordor and made alliance with men of Khand and of Near Harad; and in this great assault from north and south, Gondor came near to destruction.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Appendices A: Annals of the Kings and Rulers, p. 402

Finally, in the East is Rhûn, where the Easterlings are. They are allied with Sauron and are part of Sauron's army during the battle at the Black Gate in The Lord of the Rings. Easterlings are descendants of an early group of Men that proved to be traitors during the First Age: they attacked Maedhros during Nirnaeth Arnoediad, they invaded Hithlum after Turin is sent away as a boy, etc.

So, could an army walk all the way around and attack Mordor from the East? Probably not: it would be passing through arid, deserted and hostile regions with no chance of finding food or water.

As for whether Mordor has ever been attacked from the East, the answer is no. The Easterlings and Mordor have been allied since Sauron's occupation and nobody has ever gone around the mountains to attack.

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    Christopher Tolkien, at least, would seem to disagree with Fonstad on this point – Jason Baker Dec 20 '16 at 19:49
  • I thought it was one of Christopher Tolkien's end-notes to his father's draft? Either way, the suggestion that Mordor had an Elvish name in the First Age suggests it existed before the War of Wrath – Jason Baker Dec 20 '16 at 20:10
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    This amount of information is...unbelievable. A hell of an answer (in positive sense). – Thorsten S. Dec 21 '16 at 1:47
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    Wow. Just wow. I was not prepared for an answer like this. Thank you so much. I really liked the correspondence to volcanic arcs and the real world example. Thank you also for answering my other question. – OptimusCrime Dec 21 '16 at 14:56
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    @Jimmery Then my answer wasn't clear. Melkor probably didn't deliberately create Orodruin, as in "I'm going to build an awesome volcano". It's more likely to me that the War of Wrath created shifts in tectonic plates and created a volcanic arc. But all this is mostly speculation. In any case, Melkor was never really involved in that region and I see no reason for him to build a volcano, underwater or not. – isanae Dec 21 '16 at 22:22
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Essentially nothing is known about the early history of Mordor, especially not as far back as the earliest days of creation. The only thing I'm prepared to say with certainty is that the Ephel Dúath and the Ered Lithui were almost certainly created by one (or more) of the Valar, because the entire world was formed by the Valar (emphasis mine):

[W]hen the Valar entered into Eä they were at first astounded and at a loss, for it was as if naught was yet made which they had seen in vision, and all was but on point to begin and yet unshaped, and it was dark. For the Great Music had been but the growth and flowering of thought in the Tuneless Halls, and the Vision only a foreshowing; but now they had entered in at the beginning of Time, and the Valar perceived that the World had been but foreshadowed and foresung, and they must achieve it. So began their great labours in wastes unmeasured and unexplored, and in ages uncounted and forgotten, until in the Deeps of Time and in the midst of the vast halls of Eä there came to be that hour and that place where was made the habitation of the Children of Ilúvatar. And in this work the chief part was taken by Manwë and Aulë and Ulmo; but Melkor too was there from the first, and he meddled in all that was done

The Silmarillion I Ainulindalë

Precisely which Valar were responsible for those two mountain ranges, and why that shape was chosen, is unrecorded. Since Orodruin, at least, was attributed to Melkor, it seems plausible that these mountains were as well, but that's no more than a guess.

There is no record of Mordor being attacked from the East, which is likely because Sauron's eastern neighbours (the Easterlings) are also close allies of his, having pledged themselves to Morgoth in the First Age and who worshiped Sauron as a god in the Second and Third Ages. For that matter, it's not actually known that there are no mountains on Mordor's eastern side; as far as we know, it may simply be that none of the Elves or Men of Gondor bothered to chart that far

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There is a surprising amount of research done about geology of Middle-Earth. I suggest you google it, it's really fascinating. I will refer to a recent article, that you can find here.

About Mordor, it says

A significant orogenous anomaly in Middleearth is the suspiciously square-like shape of the mountains around Mordor that appeared after Ambar became round, and therefore possibly formed as the result of plate collisions. Comprised of the Mountains of Shadow, Ash Mountains and Mount Doom, they continue to baffle geologists due to their near perfect shape not seen on Earth.

In particular, one researcher, McIntosh, seems to think that the mountains were deliberately built as a fence when Morgoth claimed Mordor as his home. In fact, he points out, "square" mountains are pretty much unexplainable in a geological setting similar to Earth.

  • Morgoth was never in Mordor. – isanae Dec 22 '16 at 15:12

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