The shadowy realm of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings' Middle-earth may be a barren wasteland, riddled with fire and ash and dust, and sure, the very air you breathe is a poisonous fume, but it's also a fascinating place with a surprising amount of history, culture, and geographic diversity.
You probably wouldn't know that if you just listened to Boromir and Gimli hate on the place in The Fellowship of the Ring.
However, we don't blame them for having partly the wrong idea. By the time that book happens, Mordor was hardly a vacation destination, unless your dream vacation starts with a fight against a giant, ancient spider demon and ends with your severed head on a stick. We're not about to criticize anyone's idea of a good time, but that just wouldn't be for us.
Regardless, it's an interesting place with an important role in the history of Middle-earth. And if you're looking to bolster your knowledge in light of the news we've been hearing about the upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel TV series, we have you covered.
Here are the 15 Things You Never Knew About Mordor.
Sauron has been around almost since the beginning of Middle-earth. He’s a Maiar, beings just one order in power below the Valar, whom they helped form the world from the songs of the ultimate creator, Eru Ilúvatar. That’s a lot of fantasy names to process, but just know that Sauron, Gandalf, and Balrogs are roughly the same “species.”
In the First Age, Sauron fell from grace to join Morgoth in his bid to destroy the world. Like many evil sidekicks, he ran away and hid the moment things started to look bad for his boss. This was after he commanded a legion of werewolves, but that’s a long story.
After waiting a polite 1,000 years after his master’s defeat, the second Dark Lord built his tower in Mordor and hatched his own evil plans until his first defeat 2,441 years later. So he had a good run.
The people of Gondor weren’t about to take any chances just because it looked like Sauron was gone. They still had a place full-up with orcs and monsters on their border, so they immediately took steps to keep it contained.
They built a number of fortifications to monitor and fight off any evil things that might try to get out, and this plan worked pretty well for over a millennium and a half. However, a plague broke out that devastated Gondor’s population, and the garrisons guarding Mordor retreated to protect their cities.
Once the plague had passed two centuries later, the population had recovered enough to return to Mordor and continue the watch. However, by then, it was too late to deal with what had happened in the meantime.
Sorry, arachnophobes, but we have to talk about the giant spider a little more.
Shelob (whose name means “she-spider,” for the word nerds) is the last daughter of the even more ancient monster Ungoliant. The older beast stalked Middle-earth in its early days and helped the first Dark Lord, Melkor, in his evil plans to destroy everything shiny.
After he betrayed her, she escaped to the northwest. There, she suffered from an unending hunger that led to her eating most of her children and, eventually, herself because candy bars hadn’t been invented yet.
Despite Tolkien’s extensive world-building, he doesn’t mention how Shelob ended up in the mountains of Mordor. However, he does say that she was there before Sauron built his tower there, which places her in the realm at least 5,000 years before Sam and Frodo show up on their way to Mount Doom.
The Sea of Helcar was a huge body of water that existed during Middle-earth’s First Age, which ended about 6,500 years before the start of The Lord of the Rings. It’s not around at all in that book because it was just one more casualty of the ridiculously epic war against the first enemy of Middle-earth.
In the War of Wrath, an alliance of men, elves, dwarves, and the Valar (basically gods) joined to defeat Morgoth. The war lasted for almost half a century, and by the end it had claimed most of the Balrogs, the three tallest mountains in the world, and the entire northwestern region of Middle-earth, which broke off and fell into the sea.
The Sea of Helcar also drained completely. Some Tolkien scholars think that Mordor and its vast mountains once sat underneath this water, but its creator never says either way.
The main reason one does not simply walk into Mordor is because it’s almost impossible to do so. Huge, dangerous mountains form its northern, western, and southern borders.
Those happen to be the sides facing the areas where men, elves, and dwarves live, which is coincidentally all the groups most likely to invade the place. The east side is relatively open, but it’s, like, way over there. It would be a long trip, even by Lord of the Rings standards.
Sauron’s home base only has two entrances useful to the free people of Middle-earth, but they’re not really idea. The most obvious is Morannon, the Black Gate, which isn’t ideal because it’s the front door, and you don’t need to be a huge, glowing, spectral eye to see someone trying to go in there.
The other entrance is more subtle, but that has its own problems.
The Tower of Cirith Ungol, Minas Ithil, and the Towers of Teeth on the Black Gate were all fortifications the people of Gondor built in their bid to make everything that happened in Mordor stay in Mordor.
However, when they had to abandon their posts in the middle of the Great Plague, the forces of darkness swept in to replace them. Orcs took the Gate and Cirith Ungol, and the Ringwraiths took over Minas Ithil, changing the lighting scheme and renaming it to the more sinister Minas Morgul, “The Tower of Black Sorcery.”
The video games Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and its sequel, Shadow of War, get to participate in the battles for both the Black Gate and Minas Ithil, and spoiler alert: They don’t go well.
Someone looking to get into Mordor without knocking on the front door only has one option: Cirith Ungol. It grants access from the west, but it has a couple small issues. And by “small issues,” we mean, “ways for anyone trying this to die horribly.”
The main problem has a hint in the name of the place. It translates to “Spider Pass” in reference to Shelob, the ancient, giant arachnid who eats anyone who wanders into her cave.
Even before that, tourists to Mordor have to get past Minas Morgul, where the accursed Ringwraiths live.
Even if travelers get past Spooky Ghost City and the Spider Hole, they still have to deal with the Tower of Cirith Ungol, an orc outpost that is probably a super boring place to work since the Wraiths and Shelob surely take care of most threats before they can get there.
Depending on which of J.R.R. Tolkein’s proprietary Elvish tongues you speak, the name “Mordor” has a couple different meanings that mean roughly the same thing. We prefer the lesser used Quenya, “The Land of Shadow,” but the Sindarin is the more common language, so “Black Land” it is, apparently.
Fans of etymology will recognize the two roots from their other uses throughout Tolkein’s work. “Mor” shows up in the names Moria (“Black pit”) and Morgoth (“Dark enemy”). “Dor” appears in Gondor, which means “stone land,” and Dor Daedeloth, “Land of the Shadow of Horror.” And that last one is the most metal translation yet.
In the end, we’re alright using the Sindarin version, since the Quenya makes the last line of the famous verse about the rings read, basically, “In the land of the land of shadow, where shadows lie.” And that’s almost the exact opposite of poetry.
Another, more interesting origin story for Mordor also involves Morgoth, but he’s more hands-on in this version.
The original evil guy in black armor was one of the beings that created Middle-earth from nothingness in the first place, but he went all evil when he disagreed with management about the form the world should take.
He was a big fan of fire mountains, so he raised the Thangorodrim, three massive volcanoes in the north, under which he raised his epic fortress of Angband. So it’s easy to guess from this that he also created Mount Doom, a peak so evil that it’s the only place Sauron could forge the One Ring.
Morgoth never lived in Mordor, but its uncanny natural barriers and evil volcano make it easy to suspect that he had something to do with making it.
In universe, the name “Mordor” is Elvish, but Tolkien raided a variety of sources to create his fictional languages. These include Old English, naturally, since the whole point of his stories was to create a uniquely Anglican mythology.
So one possible real-world source for the fake-world word is the Old English word “morþor.” That’s pronounced “morthor,” if the obsolete letter þ (thorn) is throwing you off, and it means either “crime” or “murder.” It’s not super subtle, but to be fair, neither is Mordor. It’s just straight-up awful all the time, so the name fits.
We’re glad Tolkien modified the word a bit to name his evil realm, however, since “Murder Land” or “Crime Town” don’t really convey the sort of dread he was going for.
It isn’t hard to spot the Norse influence on Lord of the Rings; one need only look at the great hall in Rohan’s capital of Edoras. Both in the books and the films, it sounds straight out of Beowulf, and that makes sense considering England experienced Viking raids — and the resulting cultural influence — for centuries.
So, Tolkien may have drawn from this when he was making his languages. The name “Mordor” could be a reference to a same-named region in some Nordic mythology, which houses a society in which evil is so ingrained that its people are unwittingly bad without realizing it.
That doesn’t quite play if you believe in cultural and moral relativism, but it works just fine if you’re telling a black-and-white mythology.
Sauron's orcs are evil because he made them to be, and so this possible source of the name fits quite well.
To hear Boromir talk about it, you’d expect Mordor to be uniformly dreary and gray as Gandalf. However, contrary to rumors and what we’ve seen on Star Wars planets, biodiversity exists, and Mordor has it in its three distinct regions.
The first, which is the one right on the other side of the Black Gate, is Gorgoroth, where most of the interesting things happen. It houses Mt. Doom, Barad-dûr, and the forges that supply Sauron’s legions while they wait for something to do. It is probably about 20 percent lava.
Southeast of that is Lithlad, the ash plain where most of the debris from Mt. Doom’s endless eruptions lands. It’s also pretty crappy, but at least it’s cooler since all that ash blocks out the sun, and it has way less fire coming out of the ground.
Núrn is the third region, and it’s the most surprising.
Núrn gets some ash from Mount Doom, but it also has something the other two areas don’t: water. That means that, instead of just covering the place, the ash enriches the soil and makes growing crops and raising livestock possible.
Obviously the armies of evil need to eat, and their food comes from Núrn, which is the green part of Mordor. It has the good-sized Sea of Núrnen as an irrigation source.
Núrn is the second area in Shadow of Mordor, and if players manage to take a break from killing all those Uruks, they might see that it’s actually pretty nice. They’ll certainly notice that it isn’t all covered with ash and smoke, which makes all the graphic beheading they do there even more visible.
However, Núrn isn’t all good news.
Most of Sauron’s army is too busy making weapons and murdering stuff to farm, and they’d only really be good at tilling because that’s just stabbing the ground.
Instead, the Dark Lord enslaved the people who had moved into the area during his absence and brings even more workers from the east, where his human allies come from. It’s kind of a complicated relationship they have.
You can see this in action in Shadow of Mordor, but it comes up in the books, too. After Sauron’s defeat, Aragorn (now King of Gondor) grants the land around the Sea of Núrnen to the liberated slaves. That works out pretty well for them, since they know their way around, and all of their stuff is already there.
When Aragorn rides to the Black Gate to distract Sauron at the end of Return of the King, the Dark Lord has at least 60,000 grunts to spare just to slow him down. About 150,000 troops fought in the Battle of Pelennor Fields. That’s generally what the book says, anyway.
It’s hard to get a proper head count of the full population of Mordor because they’re harder on census takers than Hannibal Lector and just as fictional. However, these two armies alone put the number over 200,000, and some sources put Sauron’s total forces closer to 700,000 once you include trolls, goblins, Easterlings, and the rest.
This would be roughly the population of Denver in an area larger than California, so we wouldn’t be surprised if it was even higher.
Can you think of any other interesting facts about The Lord of the Rings' Mordor? Let us know in the comments!