A journey through the Merrill Valley
Part 3: the lay of the land
Rivendell is in many respects an island of refuge in an otherwise inhospitable landscape. The region as a whole is dominated by the towering chiselled peaks of the Hithaeglir (S. 'Towers of Mist'), which vary in height from around 8,000 to almost 12,000 feet.
As well as dividing Arda both physically and politically, the range impacts significantly upon the region's climate. The warm Eriadorian westerlies drop much of their moisture upon the western slopes, especially in the north, and shroud the highest peaks in cloud throughout the year.
In stark contrast to its eastern slopes, which fall away to the wide Vale of Anduin, the western face of the Hithaeglir descend into a tumbled land of broken hills, high fells and sudden vales, which in the north define and delimit the kingdom of Rhudaur. Upon the northern borders of that realm are the Emyn Eryth (S. 'Giants' Hills), a bleak and lonely spur of the Misty Mountains which rises in three great ridges to grey-hewn Mount Gram at its head.
Clustered at the feet of the Giants' Hills are the northern highlands - the Ettenmoors and Ettendales - source of the mighty Mitheithel river.
South and east lie the rolling Pinefells, hard upon the knees of the Misty Mountains, which in turn give way to the steep heather and bilberry moorland of the Rivendell Plateau.
Ranging west of the Bruinen rise the heavily wooded Trollshaws, abode alike of Trolls and Hillmen, along whose southern borders runs the Menatar Romen (Great East Road) between the Last Bridge and the Ford of Bruinen.
This, then, is the harsh landscape within which lies Imladris, Last Homely House East of the Sea; welcome haven and refuge for those who know the secret paths to the hidden vale.
The Misty Mountains
The huge central ridge of the Hithaeglir is the single-most important topographical structure in the region - if not the whole of Arda. This vast range joins the Ered Mithrim and Angmar in the north to the White Mountains of Gondor in the far south. The only break in more than 900 miles is the narrow (20-30 mile) Gap of Calenardhon at the range's southernmost end.
According to legend, the Hithaeglir were raised early in the fashioning of the world by Morgoth to hinder the passage of the Valar, especially Orome the Great Hunter who harried the Enemy throughout the length and breadth of Arda.
Later, though by then greatly eroded, the towering and jagged peaks slowed the westward migration of the Eldar races from their first awakening beside the shores of Cuivienen. Here the Elven folk were sundered, for the Nandor would not dare the mountains and turned south, some coming at length into Eriador by the Gap of Calenardhon.
The High Pass
Yet the Noldor, the Vanya and Teleri crossed by the Cirith Forn en Andrath (S. 'High-climbing Pass of the North') and descended into the lands beyond. The way taken by the Elves across the Misty Mountains and westward across Eriador later became the Menatar Romen (Great East Road), also known as the Rhumbad (S. 'East-trail').
In the First Age, this major trading route linked lands to the east with the Dwarven cities of Belegost and Nogrod in the Blue Mountains. After the Drowning of Beleriand the road remained, now serving Lindon, the Grey Havens and the Dwarf delvings of the northern Ered Luin. With the disintegration of Rhudaur and the rise of Angmar, traffic along the Rhumbad is not what it was but the trail is still considered, rightly or wrongly, the safest route into - and across - the Misty Mountains.
The Redhorn Pass
The High Pass is not the only path across the Hithaeglir. Some 150 miles to the south the Cirith Caradhras (S. 'Redhorn Pass') winds about the southern slopes of mighty Caradhras (S. 'Redhorn', Kh. Baranzibar). Of old the pass descended to join the Carbad Naugrim (S. 'Red Dwarf-road') that led away north-westward across the plains of central Eriador. After the Deluge this road was renamed the Men-i-Naugrim (S. 'Road of the Dwarves').
The pass was long kept open by the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm, but since the desertion of Moria it has become haunted by fell spirits of ice and snow. These ancient beings owe no allegiance to the Dark Lord, but of their own malice serve his purposes well enough. The Redhorn Gate remains passable with care during the summer months when the spirits' powers are at a minimum, but in the winter none but the most hardy (or desperate) traveller would attempt the crossing.
The Misty Passes
To the far north are the Dinath Hithui (S. 'Misty Passes'), crossing the mountains south of Mount Gundabad, where the range is at its lowest. By these passes and the Cirith Forn en Andrath the Edain first crossed the Hithaeglir in the First Age. Since the rise of Angmar the route is heavily guarded and almost impassable to any but servants of the Enemy.
A number of other trails exist but these are generally higher, more difficult and (consequently) rarely used, save by Elves of Rivendell and Lorien, and the Rangers of the North.
One such path is the Celebdim (S. 'Silver Stair'), which winds high into the mountains south of Rivendell. The route is named for the steep stairway of glistening white crystal which ascends more than 500 feet through a cleft gorge less than four feet across at its widest point.
From the head of the stair a path leads down into a hidden combe, known (to those few who know of its existence at all) as Tilore, the Hearthorn. In the centre of the combe stands the Hearthorn itself: a twenty foot menhir of natural rock crystal. The site is sacred to the Mirnethryn of Rivendell, who hold the menhir to be the central power-point of the Hithaeglir chain, through which the energy of the living rock may be detected and channelled.
The Merrill Valley
The narrow valley through which the Merrill stream runs is known variously as the Valley of Imladris, the Hidden Vale - or simply Imladris or Rivendell (signifying 'deep-cloven valley' in the Sindarin and Westron tongues, respectively).
Those who dwell here use 'Merrill valley' and 'Imladris' (or 'Rivendell') to distinguish, respectively, the valley and the settlement within its walls. The valley slices through the high lonely moorland of the Dor-in-Imlaid for a distance of around forty-five miles, from the foothills of the Hithaeglir south of Cirith Forn en Andrath to the confluence of the Merrill and Bruinen Rivers above the Ford of Bruinen.
In depth, the valley varies between nine hundred feet (at the Starry Falls) to just over fourteen hundred feet at Rivendell. West of Rivendell the fells drop away steeply into the north-south valley cut by the Bruinen.
The slopes of the Merrill valley are steep throughout its length, the north side being generally the steeper. Within the narrow gorge the walls are in places undercut and utterly unscalable.
A river's journey
Born high beneath the snow-line of the Misty Mountains the Merrill begins life no differently from any of a hundred similar streams that wind their way through the rain and mist-washed hills. Yet, like the Bruinen to the north, the Merrill stream is destined for greater things.
Gathering tributaries unto itself, swelled by hidden springs and waters seeping from the sodden moorland, the Merrill is soon a rushing, icy torrent capable of stripping the sparse soil from the underlying rock. Over the centuries it has cut a narrow channel through the fell and in parts runs hidden by overhanging heather, grasses and stunted gorse. Then, suddenly, the crystal waters tumble into the void.
Landon & the Merrill gorge
The precipitous eleven hundred and fifty foot drop of the Landon (S. 'High Fall') waterfall marks the eastern extremity of the Merrill gorge. Here the waters fall boiling into a round basin, gouged from the bedrock by ages of constant pounding. From this basin the stream emerges and begins its long journey through the narrow valley. Rarely more than fifty feet wide at the surface the gorge runs west-south-west for around twelve miles.
Within the gorge itself the walls of the ravine are deeply undercut, opening out into a vast almost subterranean hall. High above the roiling waters the rock face is pocked with caves and passages, home to thousands of brown bats. Widening somewhat towards its western end the gorge ends as abruptly as it began in the cascade of water known as the Lanthir Eleni (S. 'Starry Falls').
Although at just under nine hundred feet the Lanthir Eleni is no challenge to the Landon in terms of height it is, if anything, more impressive. Seen from the middle valley (and few have reason or leave to ascend the ladder-like steps beside the Falls) the dark tunnel-like interior of the gorge provides the perfect backdrop to the foaming waters that cascade dramatically down the perfectly sheer cliff face.
At dusk, light reflecting from the tumbling waters catches exposed veins of semi-precious gems high in the walls of the gorge. This twinkling effect gives the cataract its name.
The falls mark the line of a transverse fault, below (ie west of) which the nature of the valley alters dramatically. The cliffs - though still steep - are much less precipitous than within the Gorge. The valley opens to a quarter of a mile wide, and almost doubles its depth to around eighteen hundred feet.
The Middle Valley
In contrast to the sparse, dark-adapted vegetation of the gorge, the middle valley is lush and green. The higher slopes are swathed with pine, giving way to mixed stands of oak, beech and other broadleaved species at lower levels. The valley floor is stony, much of the earth long since washed away by spring floods but, upon the shallow terraces, there are pastures of grass and cereals, scented woods, orchards and vine-groves. Most of the cultivated areas lie on the northern bank, between Imladris and Lanthir Eleni.
There are no bridges in this section of the valley but the river is generally fordable save when in full spate.
Some four miles east of Rivendell is Lanthir Ninniach (S. 'Rainbow Falls'). The water cascades some three hundred and seventy five feet into a pool strewn with numerous rocks and crystals. The play of sunlight through the spray and the crystals gives the Rainbow Falls their name.
The Rivendell plateau
Throughout the middle valley there are a number of isolated plateaux of varying sizes and at various heights above the river. Imladris is sited upon one of the largest of these hanging plateaux, screened and protected to the east by a massive outcropping of the northern valley wall. Perched a hundred feet above the valley floor, the plateau drops sheer to the river below.
The Merrill here runs strong and fast upon its stony bed and may only be crossed by the narrow stone bridge which spans the stream above a minor cataract. West of Imladris the north bank is densely wooded, almost down to the water's edge. The woods hide several small settlements. These are mainly for visitors though some natives of Imladris have chosen to reside here. South of the river the woods are more open with wide grassy glades overlooking the sparkling waters.
The major supply route, the Calenbad (S. 'Greenway'), runs the entire length of the river from Lanthir Eleni in the east to the confluence with the Bruinen at the mouth of the valley. Some three miles west of Imladris the Calenbad climbs into the wooded slopes to skirt Nen Andon's southern shores.
Nen Andon (S. 'The Long Water') is an eight by one half mile semi-artificial lake which floods the whole of the valley floor. Part of Rivendell's primary defences, the lake was created by enhancing a natural dike of igneous rock which crosses the Merrill valley fifteen miles below Imladris. The depth of the lake varies between twenty and forty feet, depth generally increasing towards the western end. The composite dam holds back over fifty million tons of water.
The lake is navigable, and is kept well stocked with freshwater fish. The large expanse of standing water attracts numerous species of birds and animals to the lower valley. The lake is also an important physical and magical component in Elrond's regulation of the valley's internal climate.
The Merrill stream emerges below the dam to continue its journey through dense woodland until it emerges to meet its northerly twin, the Bruinen. Together, the joined streams run south to the Ford, then wind away south-west below the wooded Trollshaws until far to the south they meet the mighty Hoarwell.