Despite hailing from the introductory core set, “Escape from Dol Guldur” remains one of the most difficult scenarios released to date. Since Derek has already written a fantastic feature on Khamûl, the infamous Nazgûl of Dol Guldur from this scenario, for today’s “Hasty Stroke” we’re going to fearlessly follow Gandalf the Grey into the evil fortress to see what tales we can bring back Out of the Dungeons of the Necromancer!
The name Dol Guldur is Sindarin for “The Hill of Sorcery”, but it was not always corrupted for such a dark purpose. In the Second Age, the hill was called Amon Lanc and served as the capital of a certain King Oropher, a Sindarin Elf from Doriath who remained in Middle-earth following the end of the First Age to rule the Wood-elves of Greenwood the Great (later Mirkwood). As the power of the Dwarves of Moria grew, however, Oropher abandoned Amon Lanc, moving his capital north to avoid their “power and encroachments”. When Oropher was slain in the Battle of the Last Alliance after “rushing forward before Gil-galad had given the signal for advance”, his son Thranduil took over as the Elven-king with a greatly diminished army. It was not until much later then, about 1000 years into the Third Age, that Sauron began his habitation of Oropher’s old capital. There he steadily grew in power, once again mustering his evil forces to renew the assault upon the Free Peoples of Middle-earth.
The episode that most closely resembles our beloved card game’s quest in the dungeons of Dol Guldur takes place in the year 2850, 91 years before the events of The Hobbit. In Tolkien’s scenario, the captured hero is Thorin’s father Thráin II. Thráin has been “taken alive and brought to the pits of Dol Guldur” after an ill-fated journey to return to Erebor motivated “perhaps partly by the malice of the Ring.” This Ring is not the One Ring, but rather the one of the Seven Dwarven rings which Thráin inherited from his father Thrór. If any Dwarven heroes attempted to rescue the prisoner Thráin, they clearly failed as Appendix A on “Durin’s Folk” tells us that, “[in Dol Guldur] he was tormented and the Ring taken from him, and there at last he died.”
But in the Unfinished Tales account of “The Quest of Erebor”, we learn that Thráin did not pass away without first meeting a sneaky Istari ally and giving him two artifacts which would change the fate of Middle-earth. As Gandalf recounts in his version of the story:
I remembered a dangerous journey of mine, ninety-one years before, when I had entered Dol Guldur in disguise, and had found there an unhappy Dwarf dying in the pits. I had no idea who he was. He had a map that had belonged to Durin’s folk in Moria, and a key that seemed to go with it, though he was too far gone to explain it. And he said that he had possessed a great Ring…
He gave the map and the key to me. “For my son,” he said; and then he died, and soon after I escaped myself. I stowed the things away, and by some warning of my heart I kept them always with me, safe, but soon almost forgotten. I had other business in Dol Guldur more important and perilous than all the treasure in Erebor.
Of course, that “other business” was verifying the identity of the Necromancer as none other than the Dark Lord Sauron. It was a task that Gandalf accomplished and yet he was still overruled by Saruman when urging the White Council to attack the next year. What Gandalf did not yet realize, however, is that by gaining Thráin’s last possessions while beating his own personal “Escape from Dol Guldur” (though without bringing the prisoner out alive), he did actually make significant additional progress in his much larger quest. Indeed, it is not until after Gandalf meets Thorin at their “chance-meeting” in Bree (mentioned briefly in Appendix A and depicted in the opening scene of The Desolation of Smaug), that he finally connects the dots and realizes that the deranged dwarf who died in Dol Guldur was in fact Thorin’s father Thráin, and that the map and key he’s been toting around for 91 years belonged to Thrór, the last King Under the Mountain.
With these artifacts Gandalf is able to convince Thorin to use “professional stealth” instead of “plans of battle” to take back the Lonely Mountain. To that end, he feels he is meant to send a hobbit “burglar” named Bilbo Baggins along on his quest, thus inaugurating the finding of the Ring and the final destruction of Sauron. After Sauron’s defeat, Gandalf describes what he brought out of the dungeons in his escape from Dol Guldur to an inquisitive Merry Brandybuck like this:
It was nine years after Thráin had left his people that I found him, and he had been in the pits of Dol Guldur for five years at least. I do not know how he endured so long, nor how he had kept these things hidden through all his torments. I think that the Dark Power had desired nothing from him except the Ring only, and when he had taken that he troubled no further, but flung the broken prisoner into the pits to rave until he died. A small oversight; but it proved fatal. Small oversights often do.