Do you know where Mount Doom is? You probably don’t.
In the books Mount Doom is obviously in Mordor, which is – thankfully – not a real place.
In the films, Mount Doom is an amalgamation of Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu in New Zealand. Ariel and I actually got to visit the film location during our somewhat ill-fated Tongariro Alpine Crossing adventure way way back in 2017. Little did we know at the time, but while this location was used for the films, that JRR Tolkien actually had a REAL LIFE inspiration for Mount Doom when he wrote the Lord of the Rings. And we actually missed that location by not one, but TWO hemispheres.
In the Rings of Power show it’s… well I’m not totally sure.
In 1947, right as Tolkien was writing about Frodo and Sam’s journey through Mordor, there was a catastrophic volcanic explosion that received international coverage, even reaching the British Isles. That eruption, which happened in a place that had been called the “gateway to hell” for centuries, covered a wide expanse of country Ariel, Jacob, and I just happened to be visiting this year. The volcano that erupted has a fearsome reputation, and during the 20th century erupted on average at least one every 10 years.
That volcano isn’t located in New Zealand, or Hawaii, but rather in ICELAND.
And its name, is Hekla.
Mount Hekla erupted multiple times during Tolkien’s life, and there is at least some evidence that Tolkien was aware of it. In John Garth’s excellent and eye-opening “The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien,” he notes that Tolkien was already predisposed towards Nordic/Icelandic culture, and in fact, likely based his idea of hobbit houses on Icelandic turf houses – which we also got to see while we were in Iceland. And of course, many of the names of the dwarves in The Hobbit, as well as Gandalf, were based on the Nordic language. In fact, a LOT of what Tolkien wrote about has its roots in Nordic – and especially Icelandic – culture.
So when the king of Icelandic volcanoes blew up several times during the first half of the 20th century, Tolkien was well aware of it. And much of the description of the opening of the “gates of hell” are actually pretty similar to Tolkien’s descriptions of Mount Doom exploding.
And while we didn’t get to see Hekla go up in flames (nor would we really want to, considering how devastating past explosions were), being able to see the real-life inspiration for Mount Doom, was pretty incredible. With all due respect to the incredible Peter Jackson-inspired visuals in New Zealand, THIS is the REAL Mount Doom. And it’s overdue for another eruption.
Hekla is actually one of the most active volcanoes on Earth, and has been terrorizing residents of Iceland (and parts of Northern Europe) for over 1,000 years. Several eruptions covered most of Iceland in tephra. Some sent ash as far as the United Kingdom and Germany. One eruption around 1000 BC actually affected the climate in the British Isles and elsewhere in Northern Europe, with tree ring evidence showing almost no growth for TEN YEARS. That’s a beast of a volcano.
And there is plenty of evidence that Tolkien himself was aware of this history. Going back to Garth’s “Worlds” again, there are contemporaneous accounts that Tolkien had a photograph of a recent Hekla eruption during an interview at his home, where he is quoted as saying “such things interest me,” while gesturing to the picture.
In fact, the eruption from his photograph was taken during the 1947-1948 eruption – precisely the time Tolkien was writing about Frodo arriving at Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. And there were newspaper reports from that time period that sound an awful lot like what Tolkien would describe about the plains of Gorgoroth and the slopes of Mount Doom.
Today Hekla has been quiet for a few decades. The land around it is quite pastoral, with horse ranches lining the valley. Much of the evidence of past eruptions has been overgrown with grasses, shrubs and more…
…but underneath it… you can see… this is no ordinary valley.
And everywhere you go, Hekla stands over you… ominously… creating its own weather systems so that even when it’s (finally) sunny – there seems to be a shadow around it.
Hekla, Mount Doom, Orodruin, the gates of hell, whatever you want to call it – is still there. Lurking… waiting… and eventually it will burst forth once more.
But until then, you should definitely check it out! Even if it had nothing to do with what you’ve seen on the TV show or the movies (we’ve been there too!) it’s still a fascinating place worth seeing. And if you’re a book purist – or even just a book fan – well, this is actually the place.
Just make sure to leave any magic rings at home… the last thing you want to do is be responsible for waking this beast!
Verdict: A beautiful and yet also very ominous place to spend the time you are given.