Saturday, 6 May 2017

Cities of Fantasy: Minas Tirith, the Tower of Guard

From the (to many) obscure to the well-known. Minas Tirith is arguably one of the most famous cities in the fantasy canon, serving as the capital of the kingless Kingdom of Gondor and the site of the largest battle in The Lord of the Rings. Built into the side of Mount Mindolluin, the city was originally a fortified castle, an outpost of Númenor meant to keep guard against the depredations of the Dark Lord, Sauron of Mordor. Later, after the Downfall of Númenor, it became a redoubt and stronghold of Gondor. Finally, a thousand years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, it became the capital city of Gondor.

Minas Tirith, by Ted Naismith.

Physical Description
Minas Tirith is one of the most visually distinctive cities in fiction, oriented so that vertical space (rather than horizontal) is employed for maximum efficiency and defensive capability.  The White Tower of Ecthelion located at the top of the city rises more than 1,000 feet above the Pelennor Fields below, with the city arranged in six concentric, half-circular levels below it (for seven levels in total). Each 100-foot-tall level is surrounded by its own defensive wall. The city was designed with the idea that any invaded army would have to besiege and breach each wall in turn, all the while under arrow and missile fire from above. Thanks to extensive stores and the possibility of escape or resupply through the mountains behind the city, any attacker would also be forced to assault the city, as a siege would be ineffective.

The outermost wall of the city proper is coloured black, constructed by the Númenóreans of the same stone used to build Orthanc, the tower of Isengard. Wrought of Númenórean cunning, the outermost wall is almost indestructible, shaking off siege weapons and fire with barely a scratch. The inner, newer walls are made of white stone and are less formidable, but still very strong.
The city is built over an old hill, the Hill of Guard, and in some places the old hill is visible. Most dramatically, the hill has a protrusion, like the bow of a ship, that dramatically cuts though the upper levels and extends out from the top of the hill in front of the White Tower. The tip of the prow is located 700 feet above the plain and the lowest level, offering a dizzying view of the surrounding countryside. Behind the hill is a saddle linking it to the flank of Mount Mindolluin, eastern-most of the White Mountains. On this saddle is located the Silent Street and the Houses of Healing.
Atop the seventh level is the Citadel, the seat of the Kings of Gondor and, more recently, the Stewards. The Citadel consist of an impressive palace and the 300-foot-tall White Tower of Ecthelion, from which the standard of Gondor would be raised.

Surrounding Minas Tirith in a wide arc is the Rammas Echor, a significant defensive wall extending for four leagues (12 miles) from the Great Gate. Gates in the Rammas Echo permit roads to travel north towards Cair Andros and Rohan, south to Pelargir and east to Osgiliath. Osgiliath, the old capital of Gondor, lies a few more miles from the wall on the Great River Anduin. The Anduin curves to the south and west of Osgiliath, so the wall of the Rammas Echor follows the river. This stretch of the wall is known as the Causeway Forts, commanding the crossing from Osgiliath. South of Minas Tirith, just outside the walls on the banks of the Anduin, lies the small port of Harlond.

Located within the encircling wall of the Rammas Echor are the Pelennor Fields. The fortified breadbasket of Gondor, these fields are mostly turned over to farming. During times of siege when the Rammas Echor holds, the fields can continue to feed the city.

Minas Tirith is the twin in purpose, and some aspects of design, of Minas Ithil, better-known as Minas Morgul, which lies almost 50 miles to the east in the passes of the Mountains of Shadow.

The population of Minas Tirth is never disclosed by Tolkien, although it numbers in the tens of thousands at the time of the War of the Ring (thousands of soldiers are defending the city, so the civilian population should be significantly greater). The city is also described as under-populated by around 50% compared to the height of its power, with many buildings starting to fall into decline. The population of Minas Tirith at the height of its power may have been 30,000, or maybe more if the farms and homesteads on the Pelennor are counted.

Minas Tirith as depicted in Peter Jackson's movie trilogy. The "bigature" used to primarily depict the city was seven metres high and contained over 1,000 distinct houses, taking months to construct. A detailed CGI model was built of the city and also the entire surrounding region.

Minas Tirith was originally called Minas Anor, “The Tower of the Sun” in Sindarin. It was founded in the year 3320 of the Second Age by Anárion, the second of son of Elendil, High King of Arnor. Elendil and his sons had escaped the Downfall of Númenor, brought about the Dark Lord Sauron a year earlier when he convinced Ar-Pharazôn the Golden, the last King of Númenor, into attacking Valinor itself. For his temerity, Ar-Pharazôn and his host were slain and the Undying Lands of the uttermost west were removed from the mortal world. During this cataclysm Númenor was drowned.
Elendil and his sons, along with a host of loyal retainers, landed in Middle-earth and made alliance with the native Númenórean colonists. They were acknowledged as the rulers of the colonies and two new kingdoms were established, Arnor in the far north-west and Gondor in the south. Following the Downfall Sauron had returned to Mordor to raise a new host and complete the conquest of Middle-earth, a fact Elendil was aware of, so he ordered the construction of the city of Osgiliath and two great fortresses to defend it: Minas Anor to the west and Minas Ithil, “The Tower of the Moon”, to the east.

In 3429 Sauron attacked Gondor, but was checked by Anárion at Osgiliath. This gave Elendil enough time to call for aid from Gil-galad, the High King of Lindon, one of the elvish kingdoms. Gil-galad assembled a great host and marched to Gondor’s aid. In the War of the Last Alliance Gil-galad and Elendil proved victorious, driving Sauron from the field following the Battle of Dagorlad (3434 SA) and besieging Barad-dûr for seven years, during which time Anárion was slain. In 3441 SA Sauron emerged from the Dark Tower and engaged the besiegers in combat, slaying Elendil and Gil-galad. Isildur, the eldest son of Elendil, took up his father’s sword and defeated Sauron, cutting the One Ring from his finger. Sauron’s physical body disintegrated, but Isildur’s subsequent refusal to destroy the One Ring meant that Sauron’s spirit was able to return centuries later.

Isildur accepted Anárion’s son Meneldil as the King of Gondor, whilst Isildur chose to become King of Arnor and rule both Dúnedain kingdoms from the north. However, Isildur’s rule as High King of the Dúnedain was short-lived: less than two years later he was killed at the Battle of the Gladden Fields by orcs and the One Ring sank to the bottom of the Anduin. 2,500 years later it was recovered by Déagol, a Stoor Hobbit, who in turn was killed by Sméagol, better known to history as Gollum.
Gondor endured for over three thousand years. Meneldil and his descendants ruled initially from Osgiliath, a beautiful, large city sprawling for miles along the Great River on both sides, linked by causeways and roads to Minas Anor to the west and Minas Ithil in the east. Tolkien does not describe the status of the two guard forts at this time, but it is likely that Minas Anor was not a city as Minas Tirith became in later years. More likely, Minas Anor consisted of the watch tower and fortifications, probably expanding with a town on the lowest level to resupply merchants and travellers heading from south Gondor north into Anórien and Calenardhon (which later became Rohan).

Gondor grew into a mighty power. In the second half of the first millennium of the Third Age it suffered multiple invasions and attacks from Easterlings and the Haradrim. By 600 TA Gondor had conquered vast swathes of Rhûn north of Mordor and by 933 it had captured the port city of Umbar far to the south. The kingdom reached the zenith of its power and influence under Hyarmendacil I and Atanatar the Glorious.

Gondor was weakened by a devastating civil war, the Kin-strife, in 1432 TA, followed by the Great Plague of 1636. Osgiliath and Minas Ithil were devastated and the capital was removed to Minas Anor. The fortress began expanding into the modern city at this time.

In 2002 TA Minas Ithil was captured by the Witch-King of the Nazgûl and became known as Minas Morgul, the “Tower of Black Sorcery”. Minas Anor was renamed Minas Tirith, the “Tower of Guard”. This was a curious name, for it was ill-omened. During the War of the Jewels, approximately 5,590 years earlier, the elven fortress of Minas Tirith was constructed on the island of Tol Sirion to keep guard on an important strategic pass in long-vanished Beleriand. Sauron himself conquered the island and the fortress in battle. It is possible that the Gondorians picked the named for its descriptive qualities, unaware of its history.

In 2050 TA King Eärnur rode to Minas Morgul to answer a challenge to single combat by the Witch-King of Angmar. He was slain without issue. The Steward of Gondor took charge of the realm, organising its defences and generally acting like a king but refusing to take the title. Gondor enjoyed four centuries of relative peace until a series of rolling, continuous wars erupted along its borders. During one of these early conflicts the Gondorians made alliance with Eorl the Young, a chieftain of the northern Anduin, in order to defeat an Easterling tribe, the Balchoth. In gratitude for Eorl’s aid, Gondor ceded its enormous (but sparsely-populated) northern province of Calenardhon to Eorl. This led to the founding of Rohan and the establishing of many centuries of peace and alliance with Gondor.

After five centuries of skirmishing and raids, Sauron declared himself again in Mordor and summoned a vast army. By this time Gondor had been significantly weakened, but still remained the most powerful kingdom in Middle-earth. During the War of the Ring (3017-19 TA) Sauron attacked Gondor several times, most notably at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, during which the Steward of Gondor, Denethor, was killed. Aragorn, the long-missing heir of Isildur, declared himself and was crowned King of Gondor after the conflict. He led the combined armies of Rohan and Gondor to victory at the Battle of the Morannon (aided by the simultaneous destruction of the One Ring in the flames of Mount Doom). After the battle he led the rebuilding of Gondor from Minas Tirith and also re-established the northern realm of Arnor.

J.R.R. Tolkien's own drawing of Minas Tirith, created in 1944 whilst he was writing The Lord of the Rings.

Depictions in Other Media
Tolkien drew his own illustration of Minas Tirith to get across its complex geography. However, Tolkien inadvertently left out the city’s most distinctive feature, the prow-like rock formation dominating the eastern edge of the city.

Minas Tirith has appeared in several adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, although not Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated movie (which ends just after the Battle of Helm’s Deep). The 1980 movie The Return of the King, released by Rankin Bass as a sequel to their earlier Hobbit animated musical, therefore features the first on-screen depiction of Minas Tirith. It is only loosely based on the book version, featuring the different levels but also lacking most of the fine detail.
 Most significant is Minas Tirith’s appearance in Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy, where it briefly appears in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) before being far more critical to the events of The Return of the King (2003). The city was designed by Weta Workshop, based very closely on Tolkien’s descriptions and the work of artists John Howe and Alan Lee (both experienced Tolkien artists for many years standing). A highly-detailed CG model was built of not just the city but the surrounding plains and mountains by Weta Digital for the battle sequences. However, a lot of the city shots were accomplished by combining CG, close-ups of large chunks of the city built in a quarry and a “bigature”, a massive miniature model.

Although visually stunning, the movie version of Minas Tirith does have several variances from the book version: the outermost wall of the city is white rather than black and is shown as being fairly weak rather than indestructible. Most notably, the Rammas Echor is completely missing but, confusingly, is mentioned in dialogue (by Theóden as he givens orders to Éomer).

The city appears in numerous video games, most notably The Battle for Middle-earth and its sequel. Due to hardware limitations, the city is depicted as only having four levels rather than seven (some later mods do return it to seven). Several versions of the city have also been built by fans for the video game Minecraft.

Minas Tirith as depicted in the 1980 animated musical movie The Return of the King by Rankin Bass. This was the first major depiction of the film on screen and drew inspiration from Pauline Baynes's 1969 illustration, which was approved by Tolkien.

Influences and Influenced
Tolkien was reportedly inspired by the Italian city of Ravenna, although this is likely more in terms of general location (Tolkien compared Gondor to Italy several times) rather than any geographic similarities. Readers have drawn comparisons between Minas Tirith and the dramatic, tripled-towered San Marino Castle, as well as Mont Saint-Michel in France, but there is no record of Tolkien citing either as influences on his own work. However, Mont Saint-Michel was studied carefully by Weta Workshop and Weta Digital in their design of Minas Tirith for the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.

The Battle of the Pelennor Fields appears to be a nod to the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. Fought in 451 AD between the Roman Empire and the invading Huns under Attila, this battle was the last major victory won by the Romans before their eventual complete collapse. Although mostly inspired by other sources, Tolkien was fascinated by this battle. The death of Theóden, King of Rohan, during the battle fought valiantly for his allies echoes the real-life death of Theodoric, King of the Visigoths, on behalf of his Roman allies during the battle (both were also crushed to death by their horses on the battlefield, and both were allegedly carried off the field to the cries of woe from their soldiers).

Minas Tirith is one of the most famous cities in all of fantasy literature, but it is also very distinctive, so direct copycats or “tributes” are rare.  The most notorious is Tyrsis in The Sword of Shannara (1977) by Terry Brooks, a multi-levelled, multi-walled city where the most critical battle between good and evil is fought whilst the real struggle (Frodo carrying the Ring to Mordor/Shea Ohmsford seeking the Sword of Shannara in the Skull Kingdom) occurs elsewhere.

Other, considerably less overt, influences can be seen in Tar Valon in The Wheel of Time (complete with its own White Tower), Armengar in The Riftwar Saga, the High Tower of Oldtown in A Song of Ice and Fire (more arguable) and, at least in terms of verticality, Mahala in Francis Knight’s Rojan Dizon trilogy.

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