Mirkwood is a name used for two distinct fictional forests on the continent of Middle-earth in J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium.
- Beleriand's Mirkwood
- Geography and Climate
- First Age history
- Second Age history
- Third Age history
One of these occurred in the First Age of Middle-earth, when the highlands of Dorthonion north of Beleriand became known as Mirkwood after falling under Morgoth's control.
The other Mirkwood, and the more famous of the two, was the large forest in Wilderland, east of the Anduin. It had acquired the name Mirkwood during the Third Age, after it fell under the influence of the Necromancer; before that it had been known as Greenwood the Great. This Mirkwood features significantly in The Hobbit and in the film The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
The term Mirkwood is taken from William Morris, influenced by the forest Myrkviðr of Norse mythology. Projected into Old English, it appears as Myrcwudu in Tolkien's The Lost Road, as a poem sung by Ælfwine. Tolkien also used the term Mirkwood in another unfinished work, The Fall of Arthur.
Forests play an enormous role throughout the invented history of Tolkien's Middle-earth and are inevitably an important episode on the heroic quests of his characters. The forest device is used as a mysterious transition from one part of the story to another.
In The Silmarillion, the forested highlands of Dorthonion north of Beleriand eventually fell under Morgoth's control and was subjugated by creatures of Sauron, then Lord of Werewolves. Accordingly the forest was renamed Taur-nu-Fuin in Sindarin; this literally means "Forest under Deadly Nightshade", but Tolkien poetically translates it as Mirkwood.
Beren, who is a foundational character of Tolkien's legendarium, becomes the sole survivor of the men who once lived there as subjects of the Noldor King Finrod of Nargothrond. Beren ultimately escapes the terrible forest that even the Orcs fear to spend time in. Beleg pursues the captors of Túrin through this forest in the several accounts of Túrin's tale.
Along with the rest of the region west of Ered Luin, this forest disappeared after the cataclysm of the War of Wrath, although a few of its peaks may have survived as an island far off the coast of Lindon.
Geography and Climate
Mirkwood was a temperate broadleaf and mixed forest located in the Middle-earth inland region of Wilderland (Rhovanion), east of the great river Anduin. It lay east of the Misty Mountains' rain shadow and had a humid-continental climate; winters were cold throughout but much longer in the north, while the south had hotter summers.
This was a vast forest; according to Gandalf it was "the greatest forest of the Northern world." It stretched about 420 miles (675 km) from north to south, and was up to 200 miles (320 km) wide from east to west. It was comparable in size to West Germany (whose shape it vaguely resembles) or the island of Great Britain. The actual shape of Mirkwood (on north-oriented maps) evokes the profile of a person's head and shoulders, with a beard or pronounced chin facing eastwards. The 'neck' of the forest was known as the Narrows, which was about 75 miles (120 km) wide from the western eaves to the East Bight.
The trees of the forest were generally large and densely packed. In the north they were mainly oak, although beeches tended to predominate in the areas favoured by Elves. Higher elevations in Southern Mirkwood were "clad in a forest of dark fir". Smaller plants and undergrowth in Mirkwood included lichen, ivy, fungus and "herbs with pale leaves and unpleasant smell". In autumn, various plants bore edible nuts.
A variety of animals inhabited the forest. There were mammals such as deer, squirrels and bats, and there were numerous insects including moths, flies and unidentified nocturnal species. Pockets of the forest were dominated by giant Spiders. Some of the animals were (or included) endemic black varieties to match the mirk of the forest: for example squirrels and purple emperor butterflies.
Mirkwood could only be crossed by two routes. The main one was the Old Forest Road, to the north of the centre of the forest. Further north there was the little-known Elf-path.
The Mountains of Mirkwood (Emyn Fuin, formerly the Emyn Duir or "Dark Mountains") rose in the midst of the forest, between the Old Forest Road and the Elf-path. The Enchanted River flowed from these mountains to join the Forest River, which also ran through the forest's north.
First Age history
When the primeval Elves made their Great Journey westwards across Middle-earth to Beleriand and the Undying Lands, they encountered a large forest which they named Greenwood the Great. Some of the Elves of the Teleri tribe decided to settle in this forest; these Elves came to be called Silvan Elves, or Wood-elves.
When Dwarves migrated into the region, they made a road which ran through the forest from east to west. This road was later known as the Old Forest Road or Old Dwarf Road.
Second Age history
In the early part of the Second Age, the Woodland Realm was established in Greenwood the Great by a lord of the Sindarin Elves who had migrated eastward from Lindon. The Woodland Realm was a mingling of two types of elves, Sindar coming from the ruin of Doriath, and the Silvan or Wood elves who had already been settled there. Oropher, who had chosen not to depart Middle-earth after the destruction of Beleriand, chose to settle in Greenwood the Great and was taken by the Silvan Elves as their Lord.
Third Age history
In the latter part of the Third Age - the period in which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are set - the expansive forest of Greenwood the Great was called Mirkwood. This name is supposedly a translation of an unknown Westron name.
The renaming had arisen round T.A. 1050, when 'the shadow of Dol Guldur' fell upon the forest, and people began to call it Taur-nu-Fuin (Sindarin: forest under deadly nightshade, i.e. mirk wood) and Taur-e-Ndaedelos (Sindarin: forest of great fear). The shadow was the power of Sauron who, under a concealed identity, established himself at the fortress of Dol Guldur on Amon Lanc, a prominent hill in Southern Mirkwood. The presence of Sauron's minions drove the Elves (now led by Thranduil, son of Oropher) further northward, so that by the end of the Third Age they were a diminished and wary people who had entrenched themselves beyond the Mountains of Mirkwood. The Old Forest Road or Old Dwarf Road crossed the forest east to west, but due to its relative proximity to Dol Guldur, the road was mostly unusable. The Elves made a path farther to the north, which ended somewhere in the marshes south of the Long Lake of Esgaroth.
In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, along with Thorin Oakenshield and his band of Dwarves — minus the Wizard, Gandalf — needed to cross Mirkwood during their quest to regain Erebor from the Dragon Smaug. Initially they used the Elf-path, but they left it and became lost in the forest. There the party encountered and was captured by many Giant Spiders. Eventually they escaped, only to be taken prisoner by the Wood-Elves and brought before Thranduil, who imprisoned the dwarves. While the exact timing is unclear, it was shortly after or possibly even during these events, that the White Council flushed Sauron out of Dol Guldur, and as he fled to Mordor his influence in Mirkwood diminished for a while.
Years later, Gollum, after his release from Mordor, was captured by Aragorn and brought as a prisoner to Thranduil's realm. Out of pity, they allowed the creature some freedom to roam the forest (under close guard). Gollum escaped custody during an Orc raid, and fled south to Moria in search of the One Ring.
After Sauron's destruction at the conclusion of the Third Age, Mirkwood was cleansed by Galadriel and became known as Eryn Lasgalen, Sindarin for the Wood of Greenleaves.
Mirkwood was inhabited by Elves from the earliest times, and by the Fourth Age it was one of the few remaining Elf-realms in Middle-earth. These were mainly Elves of the Teleri clan, who were more reluctant to depart Middle-earth than those of the other Elf clans.
One of the most famous natives of the forest was Legolas, a member of the Fellowship of the Ring. He was Thranduil's son and a prince of Mirkwood. However, after the War of the Ring, Legolas left his home in Mirkwood to live in Ithilien.
A related branch of Silvan elves lived in Lothlórien; during the early Fourth Age many of them (initially led by Celeborn) migrated to join their kin in Mirkwood.
The wizard Radagast lived at a locality named Rhosgobel on the western eaves of Mirkwood. Rhosgobel and the surrounding forest feature in the film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Woodmen (Northmen) also lived in Mirkwood. They are mentioned in Unfinished Tales as arriving too late to rescue Isildur's party, and in The Lord of the Rings as victims of Gollum. In The Hobbit they are mentioned as re-populating the valleys of the Misty Mountains west of the Anduin.