‘I have ever been a friend to the Noldor, most skilled and most valiant of the people of Arda.’
[But] Fëanor looked upon Melkor with eyes that burned through his fair semblance and pierced the cloaks of his mind…
The Doors of Durin, the western entrance to the Mines of Moria. When the hidden drawing (above) becomes visible, those gathered around read the individual elements:
Gimli names the anvil and hammer surmounted by a crown of seven stars ‘the emblems of Durin’.
Legolas says, of what appears to be two trees, ‘And the Tree of the High Elves.’
Between the trees, Gandalf points out, is the Star of Fëanor (emblem of the House of Fëanor; Celebrimbor was the the last of this house).
Frodo then asks what the interlacing elvish letters above the gate mean, to which Gandalf replies dismissively:
“They say only:
The Doors of Durin. Speak, friend, and enter.
“And underneath small and faint is written:
I, Narvi, made them. Celebrimbor of Hollin drew these signs.
Gimli and Gandalf agree on the message: a password is to be spoken and the door will open; the challenge is to find the password – and Gandalf at first cannot. Then he sees that the writing on the wall is not what he had first thought…
J.R.R. Tolkien is playing with the English word read, which predates literacy and once meant to read a situation or scene (e.g. when Aragorn tracks the Orcs by reading the signs), to give counsel, or to solve a riddle. Gandalf reads the signs above the door but also fails to read them.
Hollin, the other side of Moria
The 2001 movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring presents a truncated version of Gandalf’s reading of the riddle of the door: in the movie the riddle is guessed by Frodo, and Gandalf’s failure to read the meaning thereby foreshadows his fall in Moria. This preserves the connection between Gandalf’s stumble at the door and fall inside but removes from sight the third and deepest level of meaning that Tolkien engages with. In the book, it is Gandalf who eventually guesses that friend is the password, but we are left to wonder whether the wizard has failed to grasp the historical dimension of the reading of this inscription from an earlier age of the world.
I don’t mean to be carping on about something else the movies got wrong. In general, the juxtaposition of elements in the scene (notably the first hints of the watcher in the water with the guessing of the riddle of friend) indicates acute understanding of the book. Nevertheless, the meaning of the signs on the door is not addressed in the Fellowship movie (and in the form of the queer sign is subsequently butchered in the first Hobbit movie).
What is missing in the movie that precludes this deeper reading is a sense of the historical backdrop drawn by the journey to the Mines of Moria through the deserted land of Hollin. ‘The Ring goes South’ begins in Rivendell but after the first long march of 45 leagues (as the crows fly) Gandalf declares:
We have reached the borders of the country that Men call Hollin; many Elves lived here in happier days, when Eregion was its name.
Legolas of Mirkwood declares the elves of Hollin strange to him: high elves, who (we may learn from appendices and the like) came to Eregion out of Mithlond on the Gulf of Lune, to the west of the Shire where, in the days of the story and as seen by Frodo in a dream, the white tower on the tower hills still stands, and where the grey ships wait for the end of the story. Legolas says that these high elves vanished from Hollin so long ago that the trees have forgotten them; only the stones remember them in their lament:
deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone.
Something happened here in Hollin long ago, in an earlier age of the world; some defining moments of the Second Age. The stones seem to sing of a day so long ago it has no meaning for us, yet we have heard of this time and place before. In the second chapter of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo sits in Bag-end before the fire as Sam attends to the garden outside and Gandalf tells how:
In Eregion long ago many Elven-rings were made, magic rings as you call them…
And in Rivendell, after Gandalf spoke the tongue of Mordor, he had declared:
Out of the Black Years come the words that the Smiths of Eregion heard, and knew that they were betrayed:
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them.
So, if we as readers have really been paying attention, Gandalf’s declaration that the Company has reached Hollin, once named Eregion carries much significance. And this significance is only intensified by the name of the elf on the door, for Celebrimbor who made the signs also made the Three Rings of the Elf kings under the sky.
The Gulf between Myth and History
But heed this, ye masters of Tolkien’s obscure lore, the chasm of time between Frodo and Celebrimbor of Hollin is far vaster in significance and void than that between Frodo Baggins and ourselves. For Tolkien’s three ages of Middle-earth are not of the same order: the first and second are ages of Myth, when the world was still a flat disc; the third age, at the close of which the tale of the Great War of the Ring is set, begins after the great disenchantment when the world was made round – like ourselves, Frodo Baggins is in history.
When the Company stand at the further edge of Hollin and gaze at the now visible Doors of Durin they stand in history attempting to read signs of a lost mythical age: is it any wonder that these signs are now tricksy?
These Doors of Durin come down to us out of this late age of myth, when Sauron still seemed fair, and was taken as a friend of Elves and Men, in the days before the world was round when the Dwarves delved ever deeper into the Mountain…
Meanwhile back in the late Third Age, Tolkien conjures a sense of recent changes for the worst. Strider observes the unusual quiet that has fallen on Hollin – the land is deserted even of bird and fox; though crows from Dunland fly overhead, watchers in the sky and the cruel snowstorm that turns them back from the path over the mountain to a passage under them even further south they guess a contrivance of the enemy. And on the edge of ancient Hollin the landscape has changed since Gandalf was here not so long before the story told in The Hobbit.
The ancient elf-road continued to the cliffs that mark the border with the dwarf realm of Moria, where the hidden door is found. But a stagnant lake now stands before the walls; the river has been damned and, as within Moria, the serpents in the mud have hatched. Yet the end of the road on the other side of the lake is still marked by two enormous holly trees, which frame the place where Gandalf, by his hands and the use of words not spoken for an age, reveals the hidden door as shown in Tolkien’s drawing.
By some cunning art of this bygone age of myth, the stones of Hollin remember also the dwarves: friends who dwelled and delved in the mountains that bordered the elf-land. The western gateway is made in the stone, and is still now in history on the other side of myth revealed to one who speaks words now long forgotten in Middle-earth. When Gandalf speaks the words the door becomes visible: a crossing point between two realms of a lost age; a mythical time, when Sauron was held fair and worked his evil in plain sight. Signs from the Second Age, when the meaning of the word friend had not yet been shattered by the deception and treachery of the Necromancer.
Tolkien the professional philologist inserts into his riddle of reading signs on a door a temporal model of interpretation in which word forms remain stable but meanings rupture with the passing of an age.
One lesson of this exercise in ‘pure philology’ is that the legendary war told of in The Lord of the Rings is really only the last chapter in a war with the Necromancer that began with a war of the Elves after the treachery of Sauron in making the One was revealed.
The Riddle on the Door
So, what does all this ancient history have to do with Gandalf’s reading – or misreading – the letters inscribed above the Doors of Durin?
The riddle is worked around the word mellon, elvish for friend. As the movie shows us, a first level of reading and not reading is illustrated when Gandalf both reads the signs aloud and fails to understand that they spell out the password that opens the door. But another level of reading is born of the backstory of the War of the Ring that the wise may read on the door.
The signs on the door say they were inscribed by Celebrimbor of Hollin. Celebrimbor also made the Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky, and his craft was learned in part from Sauron, who seemed fair and was held a friend. Then, when Sauron forged the One and spoke the Ring-verse in Mordor the treachery and deception of this ‘friend’ was revealed, but now this ‘friend’ is known as the Enemy the ancient realms of Hollin and Moria are deserted and orc-infested.
When read in their mythical context, the sign friend on the Door of Moria speaks a further meaning, which both Gandalf and Peter Jackson could and should have seen – and maybe did.
The sign points to Saruman, who in this third age of the world now plays the role that Sauron did in the second: the unfriend who appears as friend, the foul that appears fair. Sauron in the Third Age can no longer take on a fair bodily form, and Saruman now steps into his former role. It is no accident that Tolkien invented Saruman the year after composing the story of the Doors of Durin and then twice considered making the Balrog a manifestation of Saruman (add references).
More generally, the sign friend is now set within a series of signs that, if they do not point to some primordial unfriend waiting on the other side of the door, should at the very least put readers on their guard for mischief. Consider the series of signs presented to us in this scene in addition to those seen on the door, where Celebrimbor, grandson of Fëanor, friend of Sauron the Fair, and maker of the Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky, speaks the word friend:
Frodo Baggins, heir of Bilbo and friend of Gandalf the Grey, stands before the sign of Celebrimbor, bearing the One Ring that is the sign and instrument (they are the same thing here) of Celebrimbor’s betrayal.
Behind Frodo, in the recently formed stagnant lake, lurks the watcher-in-the-water: another monstrous servant of the Eye.
In this semiotic series, the Eye and the One are juxtaposed with the sign friend and, behind it, the Three, radically challenging the Three and undermining the meaning of the sign. Simply put, the watcher in the water and the One Ring around Frodo’s neck are indications (in retrospect) that Celebrimbor of Hollin did not know what he was talking about when he used the word friend – a clue that we should beware the unfriend.
The Imagination of the Second Age
Tolkien did not invent the riddle of the door to fit the polished picture of the Second Age that he eventually arrived at, and within which the riddle of the signs above the door have been situated in the above account.
This chronology of the Second Age, helpfully recorded on this Wiki-index page on Tolkien Gateway, shows Tolkien’s final conception of the second and final age of Myth.
A mistake common to those who incline towards the index study of Middle-earth is the assumption that this chronology is timeless, that it was clear in Tolkien’s mind throughout composition of The Lord of the Rings. In reality, however, the Second Age as shown above only came into shape as Tolkien wrote his story. The drafts of The Lord of the Rings reveal that the key chronology was only established around 1941, after Tolkien drew the door of Moria in late 1939.
A separate manuscript folio, intended for the Council of Elrond but composed, says Christopher Tolkien, around late 1941, has the Three made in Valinor by Fëanor (as the Silmarils), the One was made by Morgoth. Very soon after penning this, however, Tolkien settled on the final story, in which the Three were made, not in the First but the Second Age, not by Fëanor but his grandson, Celebrimbor (sign-maker of the Doors of Durin), while the One was forged not by Morgoth but his servant, Sauron the Necromancer. (Add reference.)
The point to take on board here – and it is not easy to bring it into focus in the imagination – is that Tolkien drew the riddle of the Doors of Durin before he had established a clear vision of the Second Age. The conclusion must be that the riddle of the Doors of Durin was instrumental in the imagination of the Second Age.
By the same token, however, the riddle of the Doors of Durin, while the womb of which Saruman (and Wormtongue in his shadow) was made, does not lead us directly into an abyss into which Gandalf will fall with a Balrog of the First Age once within the Mines of Moria. Patience! We have not even stepped beyond the door…