Dwarves are supposed to be suspicious and secretive. It doesn't make sense to let anyone who knows the Elvish word for friend have access to the mines. And as we see in FoTR, the "riddle" does prove very easy to solve

So why would the dwarves, in keeping with their nature, allow anyone who knew the Elvish word for "friend" to enter?

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    Anyone that can find the hidden doors; knows the spell to reveal the invisible writing, and can read ancient Elvish, perhaps.
    – richardb
    Apr 18, 2015 at 1:48
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    Maybe not easy, but certainly breakable.
    – geometrian
    Apr 20, 2015 at 0:01
  • @imallett they didn't see the point in a false sense of security knowing that any Elvish password can eventually be cracked. Basically the problem is that the mines had a backdoor.
    – Ber
    Nov 24, 2016 at 3:29
  • Wasn't it sort of like the Navajo Code from WWII? Dec 5, 2017 at 13:28

4 Answers 4


The Noldor and Dwarves liked each other

Although you're right that Dwarves tend to be insular, by all accounts they got on quite well with the Noldor; according to The Silmarillion:

[T]he Naugrim gave their friendship more readily to the Noldor in after days than to any others of Elves and Men, because of their love and reverence for Aulë; and the gems of the Noldor they praised above all other wealth.

The Silmarillion Part 3 Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 10: "Of the Sindar"

You don't build a door to keep out your friends.

They were made in happier days

Gandalf says this explicitly (emphasis mine):

'Well, here we are at last!' said Gandalf. 'Here the Elven-way from Hollin ended. Holly was the token of the people of that land, and they planted it here to mark the end of their domain; for the West-door was made chiefly for their use in their traffic with the Lords of Moria. Those were happier days, when there was still close friendship at times between folk of different race, even between Dwarves and Elves.'

Fellowship of the Ring Book 2 Chapter 4: "A Journey in the Dark"

They were also evidently not often closed, as Gandalf mentions later:

These doors have no key. In the days of Durin they were not secret. They usually stood open and doorwards1 sat here. But if they were shut, any who knew the opening word could speak it and pass in.

Fellowship of the Ring Book 2 Chapter 4: "A Journey in the Dark"

It's important here to note what Gandalf means by "happier days"; a common assumption in some of the other answers is that Moria needed to be protected from the servants of Sauron, but this just isn't true.

According to Appendix B: "The Tale of Years", Eregion was founded in S.A. (Second Age) 750, so presumably the West-gate was built around this time as well. Although Sauron was active in Middle-Earth at this time (Appendix B tells us that he arose c. S.A. 500), he was largely keeping to himself; his master Morgoth had only recently been defeated, so Sauron was keeping a low profile.

Things weren't really that dangerous in Middle-Earth at this point in the Second Age; Morgoth had been destroyed, and Sauron wouldn't actually assume the mantle of Dark Lord until the forging of the One Ring in S.A. 1600. Even then, it's notable that the West-gate isn't sealed until S.A. 1697, shortly after Sauron destroys Eregion. Clearly the Dwarves were relying on the Elves of Hollin to keep the Orcs at bay, which they seemed to do quite a good job of.

Not many people were knowledgeable enough to open it

There's no particular reason to believe that your average passer-by would be able to read the inscription; it was written in an archaic Elvish script, according to Frodo and Gandalf:

'What does the writing say?' asked Frodo, who was trying to decipher the inscription on the arch. 'I thought I knew the elf-letters but I cannot read these.'

'The words are in the elven-tongue of the West of Middle-earth in the Elder Days,' answered Gandalf.

Fellowship of the Ring Book 2 Chapter 4: "A Journey in the Dark"

As commenters have noted, the inscription is written in a version of the Tengwar script that seems to have been used exclusively by the Noldor, one of several tribes of Elves living in Middle Earth at the time2. The script would have been unfamiliar to any passing Sindar or Silvan elves.

It's rare enough for your average Man to have a working knowledge of Sindarin, so for a door that was meant to be used by Dwarves of Moria and Elves of Hollin, this is enough security.

1 Considering the context, this word is likely meant to mean "door guardians" rather than "towards the door". The issue of guardians is dealt with by Valorum

2 For a detailed discussion on the different Elvish tribes, see Is there more than 1 species of elf in the Hobbit/LOTR saga?

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    It's like going to a back-alley underground casino - you need to know the password AND the guard has to trust you. Only in this case, the password opens the door automatically and the guard was gone.
    – Omegacron
    Apr 17, 2015 at 20:15
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    +1, also: "I had only to speak the Elvish word for friend and the doors opened. Quite simple. Too simple for a learned lore-master in these suspicious days. Those were happier times."
    – user8719
    Apr 17, 2015 at 21:07
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    It's definitely Sindarin (which was the everyday language everywhere in Middle-Earth except in Gondolin, even during the First Age). I'm pretty sure the implication is supposed to be that Frodo can't read it, not because he doesn't know the language, but because he's not familiar with the Tengwar mode it's written in (the mode of Beleriand).
    – Micah
    Apr 18, 2015 at 7:22
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    "Ennyn Durin Aran Moria. Pedo Mellon a Minno. Im Narvi hain echant. Celebrimbor o Eregion teithant i thiw hin." - definitely Sindarin, although at the time that passage was written it was called Gnomish and was the language of the Noldor.
    – user8719
    Apr 18, 2015 at 10:26
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    It would also be somewhat odd if the inscription had been written in Quenya (or some other Elvish tongue), but the password was in Sindarin, as we know it was (mellon being quite undoubtedly Sindarin). That would be kind of like having a door in England with the inscription “Φῖλον φαθί καὶ εἰσέρχεο” and the password amicus. Apr 21, 2015 at 21:00

In much the same way that real-world walled cities would often have a guarded entrance that could be accessed by market traders and freemen, the doors of Durin had a password that would exclude obvious intruders (such as trolls) without blocking access to those that the Dwarves considered to be friends and allies.

Also, as Christopher Tolkien notes in his Unfinished Tales, the gates were supposed to be guarded at all times (by guards known as "wards") which means that the password was only the second layer of confirmation that the entrant was friendly.

According to the Dwarves this needed usually the thrust of two; only a very strong Dwarf could open them singlehanded. Before the desertion of Moria doorwards were kept inside the West-gate, and one at least was always there. In this way a single person (and so any intruder or person trying to escape) could not get out without permission. [Author’s note.]

That being the case, perhaps the password was more of a novelty/attraction than an actual security feature...

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    Language note: 'Ward' is a rather old word meaning to guard or protect, which gets used in compounds like hayward (dictionary.reference.com/browse/hayward ), wardrobe, warden, etc. Doorward, though somewhat antique, is not a word that Tolkein coined: findwords.info/term/doorward
    – jamesqf
    Apr 17, 2015 at 23:05
  • "Keep out the trolls." Nice. Apr 18, 2015 at 2:10
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    @holger - We still have ward in regular use in the English language. Robin was Batman's ward...
    – Valorum
    Apr 20, 2015 at 11:41
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    @Holger - Apologies, that should read "Dick Grayson was Bruce Wayne's ward" (e.g. he had been legally awarded custody of him).
    – Valorum
    Apr 21, 2015 at 17:31
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    More relevantly, you can also keep ward (= stand guard), though that too is a bit dated. Ward is also etymologically the same word as guard: the latter just happens to have taken a small detour through Old French first. I don’t recall seeing doorward before (though I must have, when reading FotR), but it was immediately clear and understandable to me when I saw it here. Apr 21, 2015 at 21:05

I know this question is old, and the other answers are great, but I think they are all missing an important point. I think the answer is simpler than most people realize. The earlier quotes by Gandalf are misleading (even though he admits to being wrong) and the Lord of the Rings movies (1978 and 2001) follow Gandalf's incorrect reasoning. The relevant quote is among all the others from Journey in the Dark (the italics are in the original text)

'I was wrong after all,' said Gandalf, 'and Gimli too. Merry, of all people, was on the right track. The opening word was inscribed on the archway all the time! The translation should have been: Say "Friend" and enter. I had only to speak the Elvish word for friend and the doors opened.

I think it's quite clear when Gandalf says he was wrong, that this was never meant to be a riddle at all, but just an inscription telling you how to open the door. The "riddle" was just a red herring thrown in by the author, and then quickly resolved as a mistranslation. Gandalf's suspicion and mastery of ancient lore lead him to make a mistake. This shows how the great and powerful are not always "greater" and "more powerful" than the simple and the ordinary, a common theme of Tolkien's.

In fact, the only real security was in the hiding of the door and the inscription. Since we've never seen a Dwarven door that wasn't invisible when closed, I'd argue that this door was built that way more out of craftsman's pride than out of a desire to bar entry. They did inscribe their names on the door, after all. I'd even say that Tolkien's usage of the word "ward" for the attendants is closer to our modern usage of the word "warden"

a person responsible for the supervision of a particular place or thing or for ensuring that regulations associated with it are obeyed.

than the word "guard", meaning that they weren't there to "guard" the doors as much as stand officiously next to them and open or close them for ceremonial reasons (as many cerimonial "guards" still do today).

  • This is the right answer.
    – Lesser son
    Jan 8 at 19:33

The doors were made, as others have said "In happier days." But with the password written on the door in elvish, it would have prevented servants of Sauron from entering, but would still allow dwarves and even elves to enter easily, even if they had never been there before. Since generally only enemies of Sauron would know elvish, they would be able to enter, and that they could enter might be a sign that they are trustworthy.

  • 1
    "generally only enemies of Sauron would know elvish" - I'm not too sure about that. Sauron sent emissaries to Lindon and Eregion in the Second Age, so it seems safe to assume (although it's nowehere stated) that those emissaries could speak Elvish.
    – user8719
    Apr 18, 2015 at 15:51
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    His emmisaries would know elvish, yes, but I doubt that orcs knew elvish, and they are the ones doing the attacking. This is why I said "generally." Apr 18, 2015 at 16:06
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    First to say "security by obscurity" wins a prize. Oh. That's me. What do I win? Apr 18, 2015 at 17:38
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    @DavidRicherby More obscurity and less security. Apr 18, 2015 at 19:38

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