- Helm’s Deep
No battle in Tolkien’s works is more defined by the environment than the climactic battle of The Two Towers (although Weathertop comes close). The ancient city where no army had ever been defeated oscillates between seeming an impregnable fortress and a certain tomb. Every twist of this battle is defined by the surrounding landscape and the fortress’ construction, showcasing perhaps the pinnacle of Tolkien’s epic battle writing.
Of all the homes of the dwarves, the mysterious halls of Moria are the most enthralling. From the Doors of Durin to Durin’s Bridge, Moria serves as a dangerous passageway that Gandalf agonizes about entering. Perhaps Moria best showcases the double-edged nature of the dwarven love for treasure, because Moria promises something to every group that enters it (treasure, power, heritage, speedy passage, etc), but when desire for that thing takes over, it delivers doom.
Tolkien’s depiction of the Shire in The Hobbit is from the first page genius. Essential to the story of all both major stories is how enchantingly homely the Shire is. The characters must have a homeland they long for while adventuring through worlds with increasingly mesmerizing story-telling magic. Tolkien’s development of this oft-visited location gives it remarkable depth, as the readers get to see how and why the characters here still have a longing for a bigger world that is far more dangerous.
The city of golden light, where the most beautiful of elves reside, Lothlorien serves as a bastion of great power and respect for the landscape. Unlike the scholarly Rivendell, Lothlorien is a city exclusively for the elves, and manages to show that Tolkien could house his creatures in constantly more exciting cities. Lothlorien perhaps suffered the most in adaptation to screen, because instead of being a place of golden light, it was portrayed in almost sickly green. Thankfully the Hobbit films did a better job of depicting at least Galadriel as a gorgeous source of light.
The ruined city of Arnor, the hill of Weathertop showcases what Tolkien does marvelously: evoke multiple worlds simultaneously that the imagination populates. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the first book in The Lord of the Rings is the showdown on Weathertop, where both the present and past of the monument make it a climactic part of the landscape.
- Honorable Mention: Minas Morgul
While no one ever travels to Minas Morgul in the core books, Frodo, Sam, and Smeagel must skirt it on the stairs of Cirith Ungol. The corrupted city was beautifully depicted as one of the most ominous and dark locals in the films.
- Bottom: Rhun
The major disappointment about Rhun is that it is never explored in Tolkien’s writings, despite being mentioned as a place where important things clearly occurred. The two blue wizards disappeared here, but Tolkien never explores what could have been an epic narrative of betrayal and the beginnings of Saruman’s transformation towards evil. Even the map of this place is exceedingly sparse.