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I'm trying to make a model of Orthanc, but am having trouble deciding what it looks like. I'd love to have some material, including Tolkien's pictures and sketches. Please write from what chapter any text is.

P.S. I know how Peter Jackson sees it; I've (half) watched the movie.

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    Well, the way Peter Jackson saw it is the way Alan Lee saw it; Peter basically took one of Alan's drawings for an edition of the books (shown here ) back to him and asked him to draw the rest of it. The resulting depiction in the movies is pretty faithful to the book, and many other illustrators came to a very similar conclusion long before the movies' release. – KeithS May 1 '13 at 22:10
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    “I'm trying to make a model of Orthanc” — instant upvote. – Paul D. Waite May 1 '13 at 22:38
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    bing.com/images/… – Major Stackings May 2 '13 at 1:05
  • ^^^^^^These images may not be canon, but they are awesome... – Major Stackings May 2 '13 at 1:06
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An early Tolkien drawing of Orthanc (and some of the surrounding enclosure) is published as the frontispiece of HoME 7: The Treason of Isengard (copy here: http://tolkiengateway.net/w/images/thumb/1/1e/J.R.R.Tolkien-_Orthanc_I.jpg/239px-J.R.R.Tolkien-_Orthanc_I.jpg). This book, by the way, is where the whole concept of Saruman arose as well as where the huge expansion of Middle Earth is covered, and is an essential read in its own right. That aside, the drawing does represent an earlier concept and shouldn't be taken too seriously.

A later drawing is available here: http://www.alarichall.org.uk/lotr/orthanc.bmp

The Marquette University library has a PDF available called "The Invented Worlds of JRR Tolkien" (http://epublications.marquette.edu/haggerty_catalogs/48/) which has another drawing as its cover (http://tolkiengateway.net/w/images/c/cf/The_Invented_Worlds_of_J.R.R._Tolkien.jpg) and according to http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/The_Invented_Worlds_of_J.R.R._Tolkien contains a third drawing inside, but it requires a login to download. You may be able to find a copy elsewhere online (I didn't bother).

  • +1 Awesome, well researched answer! Nice to see the different drawings of Orthanc. – Andres F. May 1 '13 at 21:05
  • +1 really good, but I'd love to see some text as well – MadTux May 2 '13 at 9:14
  • You can see the whole PDF here without a login. – Wad Cheber Jun 1 '15 at 14:55
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We seem to have three very different versions of Orthanc from Tolkien's pictures:

First a very 'man-made' Orthanc, but that was dropped quite soon, and is obviously incompatible with the book. Orthanc 1 There is a description of Orthanc in the "The Road to Isengard", TTT:

To the center all roads ran between their chains. There stood a tower of marvellous shape. It was fashioned by the builders of old, who smoothed the Ring of Isengard, and yet it seemed a thing not made by the craft of Men, but riven from the bones of the earth in the ancient torment of the hills. A peak and isle of rock it was, black and gleaming hard: four mighty piers of many-sided stone were welded into one, but near the summit they opened into gaping horns, their pinnacles sharp as the points of spears, keen-edged as knives. Between them was a narrow space, and there upon a floor of polished stone, written with strange signs, a man might stand five hundred feet above the plains.

"Riven from the bones of the earth" seems to suggest (to me) that it is not as 'decorative' and spiky as in the movie, and more 'streamlined'. In that case, 'many-sided stone' probably means that it looks like a regular polygon seen from above.

Orthanc 2 Here we have a natural design, looking rough and stony

Then, this is what Tolkien drew on front cover of The Two Towers, which was then published: The Two Towers book cover

I would say the latter one is what it looks like, since the walls are described as being 'smooth', the walls were black, and it was published.

I think the movie model is not natural enough, since all of Tolkien's designs seem very organic, except the first. The second is very rough, but not in the 'spiky' way the one in the movie is. Also, the spikes are part of the building, and not 'added' on top.

  • As a curious side note: the drawing especially is at odds with the description Gandalf gives at Rivendel where he says the tower "looks not to be the work of craft." So we have three descriptions (at least) within the published LOTR which offer three slightly different conceptions. If it weren't for the white hand below the tower, I might be inclined to think it was a different tower, since the white tower could be seen as Minas Ithil the Tower of the Moon. – horatio May 2 '13 at 15:46
  • Why? It does look natural in a way, at least not overly decorated. – MadTux May 2 '13 at 16:04
  • Simplicity in decoration is a far cry from "does not look man made" – horatio May 2 '13 at 16:10
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From The Two Towers, "The Road to Isengard":

A peak and isle of rock it was, black and gleaming hard: four mighty piers of many-sided stone were welded into one, but near the summit they opened into gaping horns, their pinnacles sharp as the points of spears, keen-edged as knives. Between them was a narrow space, and there upon a floor of polished stone, written with strange signs, a man might stand five hundred feet above the plains.

I always read the description as the four piers of Orthanc being lozenge shaped, spraying out from the center like four hard geometric petals. But the piers probably had more than just four sides each - "many-sided stone". I imaged that the inner sides of each lozenge shaped pier would be parallel to the inner sides of its two neighbors, and separated by only a narrow space.

There would also be a central body to the tower that merged with the four piers and was wider at the bottom than at the top, the four piers also tapering upwards - perhaps the small space at the top of the central body was totally separated from the four horns at the tops of the piers.

The steps going up to the door in the central body would be in a narrow space between the inner angles of two piers.

All in all, a highly geometric description, more like an abstract sculpture than a typical idea of a building.

I have never seen a drawing or picture of Orthanc that looked very much like my interpretation of the description. I always wondered why Tolkien's description of Orthanc seemed so different from his pictures of it - more so than in anything else he both described and illustrated. The picture from the cover of the The Two Towers is closest to the description, but over simplified.

By the way the roof of the central part, where Gandalf was imprisoned, is described as five hundred feet high, but in "The Council of Elrond" Gandalf said he was taken up many thousands of steps. If an average step was about seven to nine inches, one thousand steps would be about 583.33 to 750 feet, making Orthanc several Empire state buildings tall.

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