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General Information
DescriptionCarved black Tower
RegionsIsengard as part of Gondor[1]
Treegarth of Orthanc as part of the Reunited Kingdom[2]
People and History
EventsBattle of Isengard
GalleryImages of Orthanc
"They came now to the foot of Orthanc. It was black, and the rock gleamed as if it were wet."
J.R.R. Tolkien[3]

Orthanc was the impregnable tower of Isengard built by the Dúnedain during the Second Age.[4]



The tower of Orthanc stood in the centre of the Ring of Isengard, roughly half a mile from the rim. At its peak the tower reached a height of just over five hundred feet. The colour of the rock was a deep, gleaming black. At Orthanc's pinnacle the four piers which composed the tower opened out to form four pinnacles of sharp rock; between these isles of rock there was a narrow, polished floor on which many strange signs were written.[5]

There stood a tower of marvellous shape. It was fashioned by the builders of old, who smoothed the Ring of Isengard, and yet it seemed a thing not made by the craft of Men, but riven from the bones of the earth in the ancient torment of the hills. A peak and isle of rock it was, black and gleaming hard: four mighty piers of many-sided stone were welded into one, but near the summit they opened into gaping horns, their pinnacles sharp as the points of spears, keen-edged as knives. Between them was a narrow space, and there upon a floor of polished stone, written with strange signs, a man might stand five hundred feet above the plain.
J.R.R. Tolkien[5]


Second Age

Ted Nasmith - Orthanc in the Second Age

The exact date of the construction of Orthanc and the establishment of the fortress of Isengard is unknown. However it must have been built between S.A. 3320, the year in which Gondor and Arnor were established, and S.A. 3430, when the Last Alliance of Elves and Men was first formed.[6] Within Orthanc was placed one of the Palantíri, the Orthanc-stone. Thus, Orthanc became one of the seven Dúnedain towers which stored the seeing stones that had been brought from Númenor.[7]

Third Age

The region of Calenardhon was never densely populated; indeed it suffered greatly in the Dark Plague of T.A. 1636 and many inhabitants of Númenórian descent gradually migrated eastward. Eventually the tower of Orthanc itself became deserted, and its keys were removed to Minas Tirith and held in the keeping of the Stewards.[8]

In T.A. 2510,[1] after the Battle of the Field of Celebrant, the lands of Calenardhon were ceded to the Éothéod and Eorl became the first king of Rohan. Nonetheless Gondor retained control of the fortress of Isengard, and Orthanc remained the third tower of the southern realm. During this time Isengard was manned by a small number of Gondorians led by a hereditary Captain. However the keys of Orthanc were kept by the Stewards of Gondor.[9]

Over time the links and correspondence between Isengard and Minas Tirith became ever more infrequent; whilst retaining the keys of Orthanc, the Stewards forsook the tower as their thoughts looked eastwards. Eventually the line of Gondorian chieftains failed and the people mingled ever more with the Dunlendings. They even allowed them entry into Isengard and eventually the two peoples willingly merged into one. Thus it was that Isengard came under the control of the Dunlendings who led numerous raids on the Westfold. Whilst the Rohirrim had not the strength to assail the fortress, the Dunlendings were eventually starved out in the great famine after the Long Winter. Therefore both King Fréaláf and Steward Beren greatly welcomed Saruman's offer to take command of Isengard. Thus it was that, in T.A. 2759,[10] the wizard was given the keys of Orthanc.[1]

Saruman began to desire the ring for himself and hoped that it might reveal itself by giving Sauron time to re-gain his strength. As head of the White Council, Saruman overruled Gandalf's call for an attack on Dol Guldur in T.A. 2851. However, in T.A. 2941, after Saruman discovered that the servants of Sauron were searching for the ring near Gladden Fields, he agreed to attack Sauron's fortress in Mirkwood. After the last meeting of the White Council in T.A. 2953, Saruman withdrew to Isengard and fortified it. It was in circa T.A. 3000 that Saruman used the Orthanc-stone for the first time. Thus it was that Sauron corrupted Saruman's mind and bent it to his will.[11]

Ted Nasmith - Gandalf Escapes Upon Gwaihir
Gandalf the Grey caught like a fly in a spider's treacherous web!

In T.A. 3018, Gandalf rode to the foot of Orthanc and there met Saruman. It was then that Saruman revealed his true thoughts to Gandalf. He declared his desire to become a ruler of Men and to join with Sauron. But, most importantly, he announced his desire for the The One Ring. Gandalf refused to submit to Sauron and Saruman. Subsequently, Saruman had Gandalf taken to the pinnacle of Orthanc where, Saruman schemed, Gandalf would stay until he reveal the location of the ring or until Sauron reclaimed it for himself. There Gandalf was trapped and for the first time he saw wolves and orcs in the valley of Isengard below. After many weeks of imprisonment,[note 1] Gandalf escaped as Gwaihir the Great Eagle came unlooked-for to Orthanc and bore him away.[12]

On 2 March, T.A. 3019, the Ents of Fangorn Forest began their attack on Isengard. By the next day, the Ents have completely subdued Isengard.[13]
Ted Nasmith - The Wrath of the Ents

However, their attacks on Orthanc proved futile because the rock of the tower was too hard for the Ents to damage. Therein Saruman remained.[14] On 5 March, Théoden, Éomer, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli approached the foot of Orthanc and climbed its stair until they reached the door. There they parleyed with Saruman, who remained inside the tower and spoke to them from a balcony above the door. Saruman refused to co-operate and subsequently Gandalf cast him from the order of Wizards and the White Council, and broke Saruman's staff. After this confrontation, Gríma Wormtongue, who was also inside Orthanc, threw the palantír of Orthanc at the party outside as a parting shot.[3]

A week before 22 August, T.A. 3019,[13] when King Elessar and company arrived at Orthanc, Saruman had departed Isengard with Gríma Wormtongue. However, before he left, Treebeard made him lock the tower and hand over the keys of Orthanc.[2]

Fourth Age

One of King Elessar's first tasks in the re-ordering of his realm was the restoration of Orthanc. He ordered that the palantír recovered from Saruman should be returned to the tower. It was then that the tower was searched and many secrets were revealed. It became clear that Saruman had hoarded many ancient treasures and heirlooms. They found that, with the aid of Wormtongue, Saruman had acquired jewels and heirlooms of Eorl. With the help of Gimli a hidden door was found and opened. Inside a casket found on a shelf they found two precious items. One was a small golden case attached to a chain; this was used by Isildur to bear the One Ring. The second item in the casket was the Elendilmir, the "white star of Elvish crystal upon a fillet of mithril" that had been lost since Isildur's demise. Elessar recieved the Elemdilmir with reverence and took it with him as he established his full kingship of Arnor. It was clear that Saruman had found the remains of Isildur and that he had probably burned the body.[1]

Orthanc and the lands of Isengard remained part of the Reunited Kingdom of Arnor and Gondor. However King Elessar granted the Ents complete self-governance of the area surrounding Orthanc. This new forest became known as the Treegarth of Orthanc.[2]


Tengwar, Sindarin mode

Orthanc displays a curious double etymology (co-existing "by design or chance") since it has a meaning both in the "language of the Mark of old" (rendered as Old English in The Lord of the Rings) and Tolkien's constructed language Sindarin.[15][5] Tolkien regarded this coincidence as an 'accident'.[16]

In Old English, Orthanc is said to mean "Cunning Mind".[5] Hammond and Scull has noted that Old English orþanc as a noun means "original, inborn thought" or "a skilful contrivance or work, artifice, device, design"; as an adjective it means "cunning, skilful".[15]

In the published text, Orthanc is said to mean "Mount Fang" in Elvish.[5] In other sources, the name is glossed as "forked-height".[15][17] The name is likely supposed to be Sindarin,[15] consisting of or + thanc.[18]

Tolkien's changing conception of Orthanc

Sketches by J.R.R. Tolkien
This sketch reflects Tolkien's description of Orthanc in an early manuscript of The Lord of the Rings  
This sketch compliments best Tolkien's description of Orthanc in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The Road to Isengard"  

Portrayal in adaptations

Orthanc in Adaptations


2001-03: The Lord of the Rings (film series):

Orthanc and Barad-dûr are presented as The Two Towers identified in the title of the film. Tolkien himself was never certain about which towers two towers The Two Towers referred to; in Letter 140 noted his disapproval of the title itself but also stated that the title was deliberately ambiguous. Indeed it could refer to Orthanc and Barad-dûr, Minas Tirith and Barad-dûr, or Orthanc and Cirith Ungol.[19] Later Tolkien seemed to settle with Orthanc and Minas Morgul in his original design for the jacket of The Two Towers.[20] However the producers of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers decided that, for theatrical and stylistic purposes, The Two Towers should refer to the towers of Orthanc and Barad-dûr.


2004: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (video game):

Orthanc is part of the scenery in the mission "The Road to Isengard", visible as Gandalf makes his way to the dam.[21] It also appears in cutscenes at various stages of the game.

2007: The Lord of the Rings Online:

Orthanc will feature in the new region, Isengard, added to Lord of the Rings Online.[22]

Sea also


  1. Gandalf was imprisoned on 10 July, T.A. 3018 and escaped in the early hours of 18 September, 3018.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Unfinished Tales, "The Battles of the Fords of Isen", Appendix (ii)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "Many Partings"
  3. 3.0 3.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The Voice of Saruman"
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Council of Elrond"; J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age"
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The Road to Isengard"
  6. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix B, "The Second Age"
  7. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age"
  8. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Unfinished Tales, "The Palantíri"
  9. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Unfinished Tales, "Cirion and Eorl and the Friendship of Gondor and Rohan"
  10. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, "The Númenorean Kings", "Gondor and the Heirs of Anárion", "The Stewards"
  11. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix B, "The Third Age"
  12. 12.0 12.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Council of Elrond"
  13. 13.0 13.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix B, "The Great Years"
  14. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "Flotsam and Jetsam"
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (eds), The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, p. 243 (citing the "Unfinished index")
  16. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Unfinished Tales, "The Istari"
  17. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Appendix: Elements in Quenya and Sindarin Names" (glossed as "Forked Height")
  18. "Compound Sindarin Names in Middle-earth", Tolkiendil (accessed 23 December 2011)
  19. J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 140, (dated 17 August 1953);J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 143, (dated 22 January 1954)
  20. J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Note 1 to Letter 140, (dated 17 August 1953)
  21. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (video game), "The Road to Isengard"
  22. Justin Olivetti, "Through Turbine's palantír: Developers outline LotRO's future" dated 21 April 2011, MASSIVELY by joystiq (accessed 23 December 2011)