Before 1941, perhaps the darkest year of World War II, the story of Moria was imagined as a mirror of the pivotal chapter of The Hobbit, ‘Riddles in the Dark’. In two further stages, The Lord of the Rings was made in the Mines of Moria. The Balrog is the image around which a mirror of the original story of Bilbo Baggins became another echo of cosmic history and the true end to the Silmarillion.
In 1939 JRRT wrote out on the page of his story the Fëanorian letters spelling the Sindarin words of the riddle, which is translated: Speak, friend, and enter. In 1940 he drew the door, with the emblems of Durin and below them Three Elf-Stars, which is how Gandalf describes the door in the story on these manuscript pages; but the drawing, it is shown, was later revised so that two of the stars became the two trees of the High Elves, leaving one central star – the Star of Fëanor.
Ringlore and the history of Middle-earth are coming into being before our eyes. Only after passage through the Golden Wood did JRRT understand who had made the Three Rings of the Elves, and what significance was this event in the history of Arda. Only then did the name Celembrimbor, mentioned in the small line of inscriptions below the riddle in the first version, become linked in the ways we know to Fëanor (grandfather) and Sauron (false friend), and the riddle of the western gate take on the meaning of The Lord of the Rings.
The Riddle of Moria
The western gate of Moria opens a passage to the tomb of Balin, son of Fundin, the companion of Bilbo Baggins who visited his hobbit-hole with Gandalf ten years after Bilbo’s adventure. By the tomb is a battered book, covered in dust. The inscription on the tomb and the writing in the book are runic, an elvish alphabet of inscription adopted by the dwarves (one of JRRT’s invented alphabets, which spells the end of the Anglo-Saxon runes of The Hobbit). And in the tomb of Balin will first appear Durin’s bane, now to be the doom of Gandalf the Grey – a Balrog, who is at first unseen, behind the door that is broken.
This vital passage of the story was composed in three stages. In the Foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings,Tolkien recalled a long halt in composition at Balin’s tomb in the dark years of World War II. Christopher Tolkien corrects his father’s date (JRRT put down his pen at the tomb in the last days of 1939) and, through his transcription and organization of myriad manuscript pages, shows us that 7 entered Moria as Tolkien wrote the tale in late 1939, and 8 left when he continued the story in autumn of 1940. Yet there is also a third phase, when the meaning of the riddle on the Doors of Durin took on historical and thematic significance, and the Second Age came fully into imagination.
In the drafts that JRRT penned in summer 1940 as he prepared to continue the story beyond Balin’s tomb, he first went over the earlier story, tidying up and adding an account by Elrond at his Council of how Elendilhad founded the towers of the land of Ond in the South, thereby preparing for the introduction of Aragorn by clarifying his relationship to Boromir of the land of Ond, who had entered the Council and the subsequent Company already in 1939. He was now ready to tell how Trotter, once a hobbit but now the heir of Elendil, leads the Company out of Moria after the fall of Gandalf the Grey. Indeed, the Fellowship as we know it only now comes into being, with two also added to the original 7: the dwarf Gimli and the elf Legolas. And the Council at Rivendell has also established that Moria is not merely a mine, worked by dwarves who lived elsewhere, but the original Dwarf Kingdom under the Mountain.
But the conception of 1940 is not quite what we know. In 1940 JRRT is still thinking the western border of Moria has two doors, and this is the elvish one. The Star of Fëanor has yet to appear on the door while the legend beneath the drawing of the Door transliterates into Roman letters “the elvish characters” rather than the Fëanorian letters. Celembrimbor was named already in 1939, but in 1940 there is still no hint that this drawer of the signs is the grandson of Fëanor and the original Ring-maker. Likewise, in the story from Bag-end to the Doors of Durin as now spruced up and expanded there is as yet not mention of the Elvish smiths of Eregion or Hollin. And while the Balrog is named ‘Durin’s bane’ it has yet to assume full significance as the cause of the end of this golden age of the dwarrowdelf.
Sowing the backstory of the exiles of Númenor into the Council of Elrond, JRRT in effect tied his new hobbit story to the story of ‘The Fall of Númenor’ that he had penned in 1936, framing it then as the last myth of the elves and, as such, the conclusion to his ‘Silmarillion’ stories. Coming into being before our eyes on the Doors of Durin, we see two further strands that would be woven into the story of the exiles of Númenor to establish the mythical backstory of the legendary War of the Ring – namely, the elvish War of the Rings and the dwarf-goblin wars that mysteriously turn on the awakening of the Balrog of Morgoth.
All this can be put neatly in terms of the riddle spelled by the elvish characters.
On a manuscript page composed in 1939 JRRT has written the riddle in elvish letters but not drawn the Door of Durin. In 1940 he draws the Doors of Durin just as described in the 1939 manuscript. As yet, the writing is described as “elvish characters” rather than Fëanor letters and the Star of Fëanor has yet to appear. The riddles as thus presented is a riddle out of the same stable as those told and guessed in ‘Riddles in the Dark,’ the turning point of The Hobbit that is invoked in this passage under the mountains in the sequel. In this original conception: as the hobbits cannot read the interlacing letters, Gandalf reads them; but rather than sounding the silent letters (i.e. speaking aloud the elvish words) – which would have opened the door – he translates them into English (the Common Tongue), thereby failing to open the door and establishing the riddle.
In other words, the original (1939) riddle turns on the word Speak!
‘Friend’, Mellon, the elvish word, operates here like a password to an internet site. Unless you use a random password generator (advisable), the passwords you choose likely have some (cryptic) association with your life; but once this name of a pet cat or footballer or whatever is used as a password – a command that open what is otherwise closed – such meanings remain only as vestiges. As password this word has acquired the same meaning as Open sesame! Gandalf overlooks this meaning-in-use, missing it by translating it rather than simply saying it. As such, in this original form of the riddle of the Doors of Durin the meaning of Mellon – ‘friend’ – is incidental to the solution of the riddle.
In the third phase of imagination of the Doors of Durin, which is not given in the drafts provided by Christopher Tolkien but which, I am sure, dates to 1941 as JRRT got the story of the Rings of Power clear when writing the Lothlórien chapters, the meaning of the word in ordinary elvish speech introduces a second level of meaning to the riddle: friend spells the stories of Wormtongue and Saruman by pointing back to the great deceptions of the Second Age, when Sauron snared both the Men of the West and the Elvish smiths of Eregion.