By the command of Morgoth the Orcs with great labour gathered all the bodies of those who had fallen in the great battle, and all their harness and weapons, and piled them in a great mound in the midst of Anfauglith; and it was like a hill that could be seen from afar. Haudh-en-Ndengin the Elves named it, the Hill of Slain, and Haudh-en-Nirnaeth, the Hill of Tears.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, “Of the Fifth Battle”
If you had but four words to describe the action of Chapters 16-20 of The Silmarillion, you could do worse than all hell’s breaking loose. It’s a section I equate to a great turning of the tide against the forces of good.
In fact, Hell breaking loose is almost a literal interpretation of what happens in the fourth great Battle of Beleriand, the Dagor Bragollach (Battle of Sudden Flame). From the deep pits and mines of hellish Angband issue great streams of fire, followed by hosts of orcs, Balrogs, and the dragon Glaurung. It’s very much as if Gehenna, on the orders of Satan, were to empty its bowels of fell spirits and demons. The Noldorin guarding Angband are destroyed or driven back as Morgoth, pent up in his fortress for nearly 400 years, breaks out with a fury and a vengeance.
Seventeen years after this eruption, the forces of good marshal for another great cast at overthrowing Morgoth and ending his reign of terror. The result is the Nirnaeth Arnoediad (Battle of Unnumbered Tears), whose enduring image is a great hill of corpses of Elves, Men, and Dwarves, captured magnificently in the above piece of art by the incomparable Ted Nasmith. The Doom of the Noldor comes home fully to roost as the grieving wives and children of the slain indeed shed “tears unnumbered.” With the defeat, Elven might in Beleriand, save in a defensive capacity only, is smashed. It’s one of the greatest and at the same time most heartbreaking scenes of battlefield ruin I’ve read.
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