Monday, 21 December 2009

The Economy of Mordor

For nefarious reasons connected with my next book, I’ve been investigating towers, and as one thing leads to another and fictional towers tend to carry the mind to Dark Towers, I found myself – and not for the first time – considering the economy of Mordor. You could hardly complain about the amount of creative thought and background research that JRR Tolkien put into creating the world of Middle-Earth, but he was undeniably stronger on history and languages than he was on geography and economics. 

A look at the map is instructive.  Mordor is a landlocked country, surrounded on three sides by suspiciously straight lines of mountains.  In the north-west is the Plateau of Gorgoroth, perhaps volcanic; doubtless dry and cold, for no rivers run from it.  To the south-east is the low-lying and bitter Sea of Nurnen.  No navigable rivers flow out of Mordor, though the River Harnen has its source just beyond the southern border.  The Great River Anduin curves provocatively close to Mordor’s western frontier, but there appear to be only two passes through the Ephel Duath: Minas Morgul represents one; the Morannon or ‘Black Gate’ the other. 

Trade-routes to the west, therefore, are few and far between.  To the east Mordor lies open, but although we sometimes hear of ‘Easterlings’or ‘Wainriders’ – enemies of Gondor – they are characterised as wild nomadic tribesmen, unlikely sources of supplies.  South Gondor is marked on the map as ‘a debatable or desert land’, and Near Harad, Haradwaith and Khand appear utterly devoid of forests, rivers, cities or hills.  It’s a complete puzzle how the ‘Southrons’ who ally themselves with Mordor find the resources to muster their vast armies mounted on oliphaunts.

Mordor itself is an ecologist’s nightmare: a wasteland of slag and ash, scored with gaping fissures and rocky ridges, governed by an evil all-seeing Eye on the top of a vast Dark Tower not too far from an active volcano which pours out ever more ash and smoke.  Nothing grows.  There’s hardly any rain, and any trickle of water running through the polluted land swiftly becomes poisoned.

In the course of rescuing Frodo from the Tower of Cirith Ungol, Sam raises a question that suggests Tolkien may have experienced a slight frisson of doubt about the non-availability of food in Mordor.  ‘Don’t orcs eat, and don’t they drink?  Or do they just live on foul air and poison?’  Frodo assures Sam that on the contrary, orcs do eat:  ‘Foul waters and foul meats they’ll take, if they can get no better, but not poison.’ 

Armies, as we know, march on their stomachs.  I can see that an enormous fiery Eye isn’t going to care that in all his wide lands there’s not a bite to eat; and the Nine Ringwraiths probably don’t mind much either.  But the orcs?  How do they benefit from serving Sauron?  And Frodo watches whole armies marching into Mordor via the northern Black Gate:  ‘men of other race, out of the wide Eastlands, gathering to the summons of their Overlord.’   What on Middle-earth are they thinking of?  What can they expect to gain from rallying to the aid of a Dark Lord who rules a bankrupt country with no agriculture, no exports or imports and no internal food supplies?  There isn’t even the prospect of future riches if Gondor falls to Sauron – for in that case Gondor itself will become a similar wasteland.

In any normal world economy, Mordor would be over its ears in debt.  Refugees – orcs, Easterlings and Southrons – would be streaming westwards in the hope of better lives for themselves in Gondor.  Rather than closing its gates against an invading army, Minas Tirith would be coping with an influx of immigrants.  The tough and hardy orcs would hire themselves out as cheap labour in exchange for a few coppers and a square meal.  Mounted bands of Rohirrim would patrol the borders of Rohan to turn away fugitives.  Dark Lord or no Dark Lord, Sauron would have no choice but to borrow money from the coffers of Minas Tirith – or from the metal-rich dwarfs – in order to keep Mordor from emptying itself.  The power is with the purse strings. 

Still, The Lord of the Rings is not a political satire.  Perhaps we can be grateful that Tolkien didn’t look too closely at the economy of Mordor.  Middle-earth is a polarised world.  The brave, the beautiful and the good are all grouped together on one side, while the wicked, the ugly and the cruel gravitate together on the other. So let’s hear it for the all-powerful Dark Lord, Ruler of the Wastelands, Commander of Ringwraiths, Leader of the Axis of Evil. 

So long as we remember he doesn’t exist. 


  1. Not to mention that there are no female orcs!

  2. And if there had been female orcs, then there would at least have been cake in Mordor. And once there was cake, there would have been bring-and-buy sales, and before you know it ... an economy!

  3. Michelle, you finally made it to posting comments! Well done and welcome.

    The male/female imbalance of the population of Middle Earth probably deserves an entire post to itself. No female orcs: and the Uruk Hai are said to be bred from 'mixing the races of orcs and men': I suppose he must mean orcs and women? Hum...

  4. Good blog, Kath. Just discovered it... I will be back!

  5. I always read it precisely *as* a kind of political / historical satire; Mordor is based at least in part on the no-man's land of The Somme, I'm sure, which Tolkien knew from intimate and unpleasant personal experience. The realisation that the war, far from creating a territory for anyone, is turning everywhere into a waste land. The riddle of 'what do orcs eat?' I thus took as deliberately satirical; orcs will pillage the entire earth until there is nothing left for them to eat, and then (of course) they will eat each other, and then die. Because evil always brings itself down in the end, being inherently destructive.

    If Mordor had been abundant with crops and cattle etc, it would have been hard to say with certainty that Sauron was a bad ruler. (For now, we must assume that orcs eat the peoples they conquer... and their own dead comrades).

    Looking forward to your own Towers, dark or otherwise!

  6. Have you ever read Diana Wynne Jones's *Tough Guide to Fantasyland*? I've a feeling you'd enjoy it...

  7. I do know it, Charlie - and I love it. It's feel-good de-stress reading for me and my two daughters any time. And my characters no longer eat stew!

  8. Actually, the fact that the maps to the east are empty probably(speculation, of course!) represent that those lands hadnt been explored, not that there was nothing there!


  9. Thankyou! And you may well be right, but I still suspect they weren't trading with Mordor. Not on any large scale, anyway...

  10. Are you people kidding me? When writing an essay about Tolkien's imaginary world it is recommended to make better research. First: there are orc-women (cofirmed by author) we simply don't learn anything about them or much about orc daily lives as we see them only as soldiers of armies or cheap labour force, second the economy of Mordor has all it needs, resources and food supply then add to that whole empire of lands Sauron conquered and rules as ,,god-king" worshipped by local peoples and you have other factors: tributes and other forms of taxation, and when we have example of an orc chieftain Azog having A PURSE OF COINS then it MUST mean that even orcs can engage in commerce, also the ever present ,,wagon-trains of goods, fresh slaves..." etc etc huge and well made and maintained infrastructure shows that logistics of Mordor are very well thought, as well as entire large region of Nurn which is very fertile area that practically, judging from maps, is geographically the largest region in Mordor with slave worked fields, mines and fields would produce raw resources that could be sold, just as well as orcs are skilled craftsmen who not only produce armorus and weapons but tools and other things even simple machinery like siege engines and whatever else they may need. Oh and one more thing Mordor is inhabited not only by orcs but by men also, in great numbers too (not only counting the human slaves of Nurn).

  11. Also another overlooked thing is that....Mordor has local plant life even in northern regions close to plains of Gorgoroth in region known as Morgai, but even ashen plains and rocky deserts of Gorgoroth are used fro housing armies, whole towns of huts and drab buildings, fortified military camps (a la ancient Rome) buslting with activity, they have water and food (wells most likely, though there are also streams and muddy pools of water in Morgai some are temporarily after rains but some not). Where the land is still habitable there are scrub trees, thick bushes, a bit of grasses with tussocks, brambles and swarms of vicious insects (,,land not yet dead" or something like that paraphrasing it from text), the volcanic activity of Mount Doom/Orodruin would make it difficult to live but not impossible, even those rivers of fire are used (Sauron apparently hates wasting anything and he uses all :) ) there are great channels through which pours molten rock to the Barad-dur (fires of Orodruin are even used in his ,,forgings and sorceries") there are nets of well maintained roads and orcs labour continously to keep them in shape as well as every building and infrastructure, the map shows rivers in Mordor even though unnamed so they could be used too, transport inside Mordor is very effective, armies march with ease and gret speed, there are horses and wagons and patrols on these roads, each major stronghold, outpost or point of interest in connected. The peoples of the South (or at least some of them) are more civilized than others building towns and walls of stone (but they are technologically less advanced than Numenoreans) Sauron decides about their technolgical progress, he thaught them many arts and crafts in the past. So Haradrim civilization (divided on many different kingdoms, petty states, tribes and such) are easily conquered or dominated once Sauron returns to openly working to form his new empire, Easterlings are many and on different state of development depending on tribe or nation, while some are semi-nomadic others are better organized and schooled in crafts of civilization, Sauron knows east (lands of Rhun) better than anyone else, he had there his hideout for a very long time throughout Third Age. The roads I mentioned leading East and South would be the most active (and crowded) trade routes, they would supply Mordor in everything it lacked (though most goods could be produced there, there is everything needed for local industry and agriculture, also nobody thought that Mordor may even export some of this food and mined resources? So no I see that neither orc nor a Man of any tribe or culture would lack employment :), I like to look at Mordor (and Gondor in their times of imperial greatness when their territory reached far east and south from Great Sea Belegaer in the west to Sea of Rhun in the east, from Celendardhon, future Rohan, Enedwaith and Mirkwood in the North to Umbar and many states of Near Harad in the south conquered by gondorian armies) like at ancient Rome in terms of organization and economy, we know from sources that Rome profited from enormous trade once especially once they started their conquests, so would Mordor (and we know that for many years before Frodo's quest even started there were many wars in the East and south and attacks on Gondor wearing the kingdom down and cunningly testing the strength it had at it's disposal and military prowess of Steward Denethor (and his ancestors as well in preceeding years).

  12. ,,Middle-earth is a polarised world. The brave, the beautiful and the good are all grouped together on one side, while the wicked, the ugly and the cruel gravitate together on the other. So let’s hear it for the all-powerful Dark Lord, Ruler of the Wastelands, Commander of Ringwraiths, Leader of the Axis of Evil."

    I hope this last one is a joke because otherwise I may think that you seriously oversimplify things and turn complex moral story into parody. While Morgoth could be said to be the closest thing to the evil incarnate not even he was always so cause ,,nothing is evil from the beginning even Sauron was not so" elves no matter how beautiful are not always in right or good, they forged those Rings of Power cause they wanted power which is NEVER good, they can be chauvinistic, racist, they wished to rule and change natural order of things halting the effects of time, they were proud and a bit arrogant, being gifted with so much power and skill they are wiser but only when they learn from their mistakes, and elves tend to make them more grevious than you could ever imagine, the hobbits, sweet little hobbits you would say, they are not what you would call ,,beauftiful" they are more common, average looking, they are often fat, their faces are good-natured rather than beauftiful, they can be pretty mean, arrogant, greedy, petty, xenophobic, traditional and reluctant to change, narrow thinking, they have stereothyped way of thinking Men. Dwarves are not beauftiful either they are hairy and stout and often gruff, in their older age they have tendency to get fat and balding, of course their beards are bushy and appear to be pretty important to them :), they are also greedy, violent, vicious and warmongering, stubborn and hot headed, they tend to isolate their culture and language, very secretive and they had their hatred and grievances towards other races especially elves, very strict and not always nice (they incited conflict for petty revenge), they can be decent but they are also selfish looking to their interests, also the enemy men they are often portrayed as worthy oponents, brave and bold, they are deceived and corrupted, engaged in wicked practices simply because they know no better and are manipulated or controlled by Dark Ones, after war of the Ring Aragorn made peace with them, some were still vicious aggressors much later which caused wars in the future reign of Aragorn isn't all sunshine and raibows but also many problems coming from evil in human nature, Denethor, Gollum, Saruman, Grima, they were not always good they are very morally grey people, Rohirrim hunted Woses of Druadan Forest like beasts (ugly savages using poison, hating orcs and they were unexpected allies and rewarded by their aid in guiding Rohan's army) and men are simply too complex, the white skinned people of Gondor either of Numenorean can be cruel, greedy, power hungry, and they fell to bad ways imperialistic harsh rulers, robbing the lands, enslaving and killing, arrogant and racist towrds ,,lesser men", not all of the westerners are brave there are those who are cowards and weaklings, manipulated, driven by selfish desires old grudges, there is no unified front, willing to work with each other in Fellowship had hard time to reconcile, each faction was forced to fend for themselves it is said that common way for an Enemy was to turn his enemies against each other, Sauron rules with iron fist and that is what enforces obedience and order. Gondor in a way is proud and a bit arrogant towards other and even elves there is much suspicion and distrust both kindreds of elves and men are estranged. I'm very surprised you haven't noiced all this, really shortsighted from someone who I assume read the book.

  13. Crumbs! First off, thankyou - really - for your detailed and passionate comments. I appreciate your time and your obvious love for the books. Please don't worry, you don't need to defend Tolkien from me, I've been a fan since I was about 10 years old and I love the books. But I think you're missing the point: it's just a blog-post, not an academic essay. A blog post is an opinion-piece, meant to get people talking - that's all - and a lot of it was decidedly tongue-in-cheek. It's OK to poke a bit of fun at something you love! In my opinion, and it's only my opinion, there are masses of things Tolkien does extremely well - languages, obviously; a feeling of deep history; a great sense of the physical reality of his world; humour, pathos, and the grand epic fantasy style. I don't personally agree that he's all that hot at moral complexity - though your mention of Denethor is a good counter-example - and I'm sorry to say that in spite of your arguments, I don't believe Sauron's armies could realistically feed themselves. Sauron has already laid Mordor waste, and Ithilien is withering. If he can't look after his own lands, what will happen to those he intends to conquer? Can his Southlander allies feed all MiddleEarth? But - it's a fantasy! It doesn't matter. It can escape from the fetters of absolute realism. (Oh, the thing about the Axis of Evil was a reference to comments made - famously or infamously - by George W Bush when the US and Britain went to war in Afghanistan.)

    We will probably never agree! But thanks once again for taking the time to read and contribute to the post.

  14. Ask yourself did Sauron really laid all of Mordor to waste or simply it's the northern region that is wasteland from several factors (aka huge destructive volcano, and icnreased indurtrial activities, also I don't think that Ithilien is withering we see only northern fringes of Ithilien and plains of Dagorlad that are so severrely destroyed)? If Nurn is so large area and is fertile then it's not a problem for production of food judging by the presence of unnamed rivers and sheer size of this land it's hard to doubt that, the tributes and constant supply from other lands is also significant, and who said that Southlanders can feed whole Middle Earth? Gondor has it's own agriculture and well tended fields, ,,rich townlands" of Pelennor Fields are primary example. The environmental destruction is not a goal in itself for Sauron (he is not nihilist like Morgoth), orcs like to cause it due to their misery and hate, they are so twisted, but Tolkien wrote that Sauron started out as all tyrants do, with genuine good intentions for well being of inhabitants of Arda he simply seeks control, total power even over minds of others bringing his vision of order to shape the world according to his designs, also all wars and great designs bring enormous destruction in transition. As for morality, well look into stories of First Age, then ask yourself whether they are not complex, sure there is view of existance of universal moral values, even orcs have notions of acceptable actions like that leaving your comrades is bad, but that doesn't mean there is no shades to it.

  15. Well again I'll repeat, region of Nurn around Sea/Lake Nurnen is large area of fields farmed by thousands of slaves 'by the sad waters of Lake Nurnen'. This place lies beyond the destructive effects of Orodruin (which by the way is apparently controlled by Sauron, it is positively saturating with his power and he can make it erupt, increase it's activity and when he's away from Mordor it lapses into dormancy, it is also interesting that it's said that 'all other powers were here subdued' especially in the Cracks of Doom, in there all other magic powers seems to be diminished and not work properly, of all artifacts only the Ring is on it's strongest there) and it's sufficient for the needs of Mordor, adding to it the riches brought in by the roads leading to conquered lands then we can conclude that Dark Lord is well supplied.

    Sure he is a cruel tyrant with dark sense of humor (his idea of entertainment is listening to report how Shelob played with her prey, meaning prisoners that were no longer useful sent on their death sentence as a dainty to a cat in shelob's Lair) but he is also skilled organizer and leader. The evil in the end is self-destructive when the corruption utterly devours all good motives but as I said earlier the nihilistic destruction isn't a goal in itself it's rather a by-product. Sauron's rule would be extrmemly harsh with any opposing enemies destroyed in the end, all would be enslaved and forced to worship Sauron as god but in his design life would go on as usual if utterly devoid of hope for freedom. Also despite everything of this, the fact remains: there is efficient order in Mordor, Sauron micro-manages his realm and there is clear and well organized structure of command and governing.

  16. Of course the difficulties remain like the diversity of orcs causing internal strifes, Sauron has mind control powers but he does not control this way his servants all the time (it requires his expense of will and attention), he can fill the minds of his subjects with hate and fury which might add to those internal strifes, he can lure and draw to Mordor all evil things 'alas Mordor draws all wicked things and Dark Power bends all it's will to gather them there' but despite his enormous influence over dark creatures, not all of them are in his total sway, some act on their own forgotten in the far reaches of the world, fulfilling their selfish desires (dragons for example, though Sauron planned to take control over Smaug), but even when not directly under control of Dark Lord his influence might make them more active. So evil faction is not that united, as the Free Peoples are not united too, there is actually no common alliance, each of the free factions in the end is forced to fight mostly on their own with little help from others, fighting on many fronts. Yet in spite of that Sauron can impose amazing discipline on his forces. Well he is described by Gandalf himself as wise: 'for he is very wise and weighs all things to a nicety on the scales of his malice'.

    There is also case of dark power of either Morgoth or Sauron flowing out into the world, that can taint and corrupt the land itself, twisting and warping environment, even life forms. like when Morgoth poisoned the Spring of Arda or when Shadow fell of Greenwood the Great. Then it bcame Mirkwood and all that lived or grew there beame 'queer, dark and savage', yet still food could be found (with more difficulty but still, for example meat of some animals appeared to be inedible but hunting was going on, there were nuts and other things), also the forest soon swarmed with dark creatures, monsters that were lured by presence of Sauron. In the same time it clear that it doesn't happen to all the lands under dominion of Dark Lords only specific places.

  17. I can also add what Tolkien himself wrote about his stories moral complexivity:

    'Some reviewers have called the whole thing simple-minded, just a plain fight between Good and Evil, with all the good just good and the bad just bad. Pardonable, perhaps (though at least Boromir has been overlooked) in people in a hurry, and with only a fragment to read, and of course without the earlier written but unpublished Elvish histories. But the Elves are not wholly good or in the right. Not so much beacause they flirted with Sauron; as because with or without his assitance they were embalmers. They wanted to have their cake and eat it: to live in the mortal historical Middle Earth because they had become fond of it (and perhaps because they there had there the advantages of superior caste), and so tried to stop it's change and history, stop it's growth, keep it as a pleasaunce, even largely a desert, where they could be artists - and they were overburdened with sadness and nostalgic regret. In their way Men of Gondor were similar: a withering people whose only hallows were their tombs. But in any case this is a tale about war, and if war is allowed (at least as a topic and a setting) it is not much good complaining that all the people on one side are against the those on the other. Not that I have made this issue quite so simple: there are Saruman, and Denethor, and Boromir; and there are treacheries and strife even among the orcs.

    Besides in this mythology all the angelic powers concerned with this world were capable of many degrees of error and failing, between the absolute Satanic rebellion and evil of Morgoth and his satellite Sauron and the faineance of some of the higher powers or gods. The wizards were not exempt. Indeed being incarnate they were more likely to stray, or err. Gandalf alone fully passes the test on a moral plane anyway (he makes mistakes of judgment). Since in the view of this tale and mythology, Power when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason) is evil, these wizards were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle Earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body.

    So I feel that the fiddle-faddle in reviews and correspondance about them, as to whether my good people were kind and merciful and gave quarter (in fact they do) or not is besides the point. Some ciritics seem determined to represent me as a siple-minded adolescent, inspire with say a With-the-flag-to-Pretoria spirit and willfully distort what is said in my tale. I have not that spirit and it does not appear in the story. The figure of Denethor alone is enough to show this; but I have not made any of the peoples on the right side, Hobbits, Rohirrim, Men of Dale or of Gondor, any better than men have been or are, or can be. Mine is not an imaginary world, but an imaginary historical moment on Middle Earth - which is our habitation.'

    '....In my Myth the rebellion of created free-will preceds creation of World (Ea) and Ea has in it, subcreatively introduced, evil, rebellions, discordant elements of it's own nature already when the Let it Be was spoken. The Fall or corruption, therefore of all things in it and all inhabitants of it was a possibility if not inevitable. Trees may go bad as in the Old Forest, Elves may turn into Orcs, and if this required the special perversive malice of Morgoth still Elves themselves could do evil deeds. Even the 'good' Valar as inhabiting the World could at least err, as the Great Valar did in their dealings with the Elves or as the lesser of their kind (as the Istari or wizards) could in various ways become self-seeking.'

  18. I'm a bit late here but Mordor isn't all barren. The bits we see in the books and films are for mining and forging but this area doesn't account for all of Mordor. This is from The Return of the King:

    Neither he nor Frodo knew anything of the great slave-worked fields away south in this wide realm, beyond the fumes of the Mountain by the dark sad waters of Lake Nurnen; nor of the great roads that ran away east and south to tributary lands, from which the soldiers of the Tower brought long waggon-trains of goods and booty and fresh slaves. Here in the northward regions were the mines and forges, and the musterings of long-planned war;