Jul 9, 2018

Middle-earth: Shadow of War review

I talked about Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor before, and I quite liked it, because I thought it was a very succesful take on Middle-earth, and great fun to play. Eventually, I also got around to picking up the sequel, Shadow of War.


John Howe: Shelob, 2000.

**

To start with the least surprising stuff, the timeline is still all over the place, as it was in the previous game. The watch on the Black Gate ended in the year 1640 of the Third Age; Minas Ithil falls in 2002. So 360 years separate the initial events of both games. In Minas Ithil, Idril (again everyone, even Gondorian warriors, have high-elven names!) is told to take some items to the refuge of Henneth Annûn; quite a task, seeing as how it was built nine hundred years after the fall of Minas Ithil. The player character finds artifacts from Rohan in a city that fell hundreds of years before Eorl the Young was born. They even manage to mention Eärnur, the last king of Gondor - who died in Minas Morgul. So, y'know.

The plot is also just a complete mess. There's a new ring, but there's also Shelob, who readers of the Lord of the Rings will know as a giant fucking spider, but who is represented in the game by a bizarrely beautiful barefoot woman. I mean it makes sense that she's barefoot, because a spider wouldn't wear shoes, but the rest of it I'm not so sure about.


Another interesting character is Baranor, who was the subject of some hype for being the first person of color in the Lord of the Rings "universe", which is certainly not true as Kahliel beat him to it. But more diversity is always appreciated!


Now, I certainly don't think any kind of justification is necessary for including a person of color in a Tolkien-derived work - the "all-white" Middle Ages are a white supremacist fever dream and nothing else - but interestingly, there is one in Tolkien's letters. Namely in letter 211, where he briefly describes Gondor:

The Númenórans of Gondor were proud, peculiar, and archaic, and I think are best pictured in (say) Egyptian terms. In many ways they resembled "Egyptians" - the love of, and power to construct, the gigantic and massive. And in their great interest in ancestry and tombs.
(Letters, 211)

Minas Ithil in this game is quite Roman, but I would absolutely love to see a heavily Egyptian take on Gondor. All obelisks and pyramids and giant mortuary temples. Baranor is also a very proper Gondorian name, which is refreshing.

Unfortunately, that was the good stuff. Shadow of War has started taking considerably larger liberties with the background material, and it's just plain silly at times. We learn the identities of several Nazgûl, for instance, and they're completely ridiculous. In general, where Shadow of Mordor mashed up the chronology to tell a story that was surprisingly Tolkienian, Shadow of War throws together a hodgepodge of elements lifted from the books and makes a mess of it. This becomes a problem for reasons that I'll return to.

**

As for gameplay, all the good stuff from the previous game is there: the combat system is brilliant, the orc-captains have even more personality, and the settings are very well done. A particular peeve, though, is that the designers seem to have fallen in love with their dialogue: some of the orc-captains give massively long speeches that feel like they take forever.

At first, the game is great fun, just like its predecessor: roaming around the different areas, fighting orcs and being ambushed by captains while picking up collectibles, is wonderfully diverting and probably worth the price of the game on its own. What lets the whole thing down are the missions. For starters, there's so much going on and the plot is so incoherent that at times it's difficult to understand what it is that you're supposedly doing again and why.

The far bigger problem, though, is that the missions become repetitive. At a point not that far into the game, you've fought the Nazgûl so many times that it becomes boring. You know how to parry their attacks while fighting orcs, and it just stops being interesting. So yes, they've managed to make Ring-wraiths boring, but it gets so much worse than that. There's an entire questline where you fight a Balrog, and it's... boring. There are several quicktime events, a couple of bossfights and eventually a sequence where you fight a Balrog while riding a dragon and it's boring. Honestly, that's kinda impressive.

About halfway into the game - at least in terms of my completion percentage - the problems of gameplay begin to meet the problems of plot. The game is drifting further and further from Tolkien, which means my interest in the plot is dying, and the repetitiveness of the missions begins to make them into a chore. What ended up happening is that I never finished the damn thing. I couldn't be bothered.

**

So, to sum up: Shadow of Mordor's bigger sequel is more bloated, less Tolkien, and a lot more boring. There are hours upon hours of fun to be had, so if you finished Shadow of Mordor and were left wanting more, then you'll definitely get that here. But in the end, the incoherence of the plot, the loss of theme and the sheer repetitiveness of the missions got the better of me. This could have been a great game, but in the end it collapses under its own weight. I've understood that there's a bleak and dramatic finale, but sadly, I can't be bothered to find out.

Jul 2, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 46: The White Rider

"My very bones are chilled," said Gimli, flapping his arms and stamping his feet.

We find the Three Hunters at dawn, looking for traces of the hobbits on the battlefield. Soon enough, they find the tracks of the hobbits, and Aragorn correctly deduces how they escaped both the orcs and the riders. He also reasons that the orcs must have been commanded to capture hobbits, which is why they set off for Isengard as soon as they had Merry and Pippin: telling orcs about the Ring would have been far too dangerous.

The hobbit-trail leads into Fangorn Forest, which Gimli is loath to enter, but with at least one missing hobbit to track and no horses to go anywhere else with, there's little choice. Aragorn tracks the hobbits to Treebeard's hill, and as the Three Hunters ascend it, they spot an old man below, who they take for Saruman. Gimli tries to persuade Legolas to shoot him, but Aragorn has to make the eminently reasonable point that they can't just shoot old men on sight.

The old man climbs up the hill, and after a short riddling conversation, Gimli decides the old man is Saruman, and confronts him. Instead of Saruman, though, the old man is revealed to be Gandalf, clad all in white. He and the Three Hunters catch up, and Gandalf talks about his battle with the Balrog. He reassures the hunters that the hobbits are fine, and asks that they rather go with him to Edoras, where the King of Rohan reigns. Gandalf summons his horse, Shadowfax, who is accompanied by the horses Éomer lent Aragorn and Legolas. They ride for Edoras.

**

So, Gandalf is back. Earlier, I talked about the way Eärendil prefigures Christ in Tolkien's theological scheme. Here, we encounter another Christ-figure: the resurrected Gandalf, sent back from the dead to finish his mission. To me at least, the failure of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli to recognize Gandalf recalls the way Jesus's disciples fail to realize his status in the Gospels. Like Eärendil, though, Gandalf is not an analogue of Christ, but rather a partial representation. Like Christ, Gandalf descends from heaven to bring hope to mankind; however, unlike Christ, he preaches no gospel, and crucially, unlike Christ, he is subject to the Fall and therefore temptation. Eärendil was human; Gandalf is divine - Christ is both. As I've said earlier, if anything, Gandalf is an angel. Both the Balrog and Saruman are fallen angels; Gandalf remains true to his mission. His resurrection prefigures Christ, but he is not a Christ-analogue in Tolkien's terms.

Apart from Gandalf's return, the function of this chapter is to direct the story firmly at the war in Rohan. The hobbits and the Ring are gone: the matter at hand is Saruman.

Next time: door-keeping and king-healing.

Jun 11, 2018

CKII: An Empress of Mercia

Fennis mira feritas, foeda paupertas: non arma, non equi, non penates; victui herba, vestitui pelles, cubile humus: solae in sagittis spes, quas inopia ferri ossibus asperant.
- Tacitus, Germania, XLVI


Emperor Éomer I (1056-59) inherited both the Mercian empire and the crusade in Finland. With his son, Éomer Éomersson (I did not pick that name), coming of age on his succession, we now have three consecutive generations of crusaders against the Finnish pagans. I was all set to write up our conquest of Finland, with an appropriate epigraph and everything, but then:


God may have been pleased, but I was not. Looking at the map, you can see why I was excited by a foothold in the north: the Seljuk juggernaut still blocks our way east. If you squint a little, you can see a splash of Mercian purple on the Baltic: that's where the Queen of Scotland, Wærburg the Daughter of Satan, conquered a chunk of Prussia. With my ambitions in Finland thwarted, maybe we could look into expanding there.


First, though, Spain. With the collapse of the Iceling kingdom of Italy and Africa, there were suddenly a lot of small independent counties and duchies in the Iberian peninsula, and at some point several of them were taken over by Vikings. We got some of them back.


Sadly, in addition to smiting the infidel, Éomer I also liked eating, and he passed away at the relatively young age of 45 from the gout. We barely knew him.


**

Éomer Éomersson succeeded to the throne as Emperor Éomer II (1059-1083), and got some help:


In his capacity as King of Jerusalem, Éomer II immediately vassalized the Templars, giving us almost ten thousand holy warriors to call on against the infidel, and most importantly, a massive force of heavy cavalry. Having been on the receiving end of the Catholic holy orders, I assure you they're no joke. Éomer put them to work in the Baltic.


Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Jerusalem completed its de jure drift into the Mercian empire.


One aspect of Éomer II's reign, however, stands above all others. We finally gathered enough cultural technology points to raise Tolerance in Leicester to VI, which meant that once enough members of the council were persuaded, Éomer II enacted full status of women in Mercia.


With that done, it was time to change the succession law in the empire, and in every damn kingdom I still held in it. Luckily, this doesn't require council approval; unluckily, it requires something even worse. To change the succession law in a kingdom, no dukes in it can have a negative opinion of you, nor can they be fighting each other. That's a tall order!

The problem is that if you get some but not all succession laws changed, the inheritance may get split. I had this for a long time, with the duke of Jerusalem fighting an interminable war with the King of Ireland for Jaffa. It eventually ended before Éomer died, but it made for a nervous time.


While that was getting sorted, we declared a holy war on the pagan Lithuanians. The supply limit in pagan counties is very, very low unless you have enough Military Organization tech. We don't, so we had to split up our army into several detachments. They had to be small enough to not take horrible losses from attrition, large enough to succesfully besiege the tribal holdings, and close enough to each other to take on bigger pagan armies together. As a sign of our new realm laws, the empress is in command of her husband's army.


Our superiority in both quality and quantity was crushing, so the outcome was never in any real doubt.


Eventually, Éomer II succumbed to severe stress. He left behind the core of a Mercian Lithuania, and more importantly, achieved my most cherished goal for this playthrough: full status of women and equal succession.


**

Now that we have equal succession rights, Éomer II was succeeded by his oldest child, Empress Éowyn the Great (1083-1123). As you can see, this is starting to be more like it.

To start off her reign, Éowyn expanded Mercia to the Persian Gulf by snapping up a county from the Aramid Empire.


Then, as we were busy fighting in Lithuania, the Pope called another crusade.


Sadly, crusades seem to be out of fashion, as no-one except a couple of tiny independent states joined in. Since it looked obvious that this was a lost cause, Éowyn sent in the holy orders, and rotated her commanders and vassals through so everyone got a Crusader trait. Meanwhile, domestic affairs intruded:


I don't know where the kid ended up, but I did have her mother killed.

In her younger days, Éowyn picked up the Poet trait, which nowadays has uses I never knew about:


However, in the middle of all this fun and games, we had no idea that the greatest challenge to Mercia since the Vikings was just over the horizon.


I said before that I was shocked we were able to hang on to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but with both Abyssinia and Byzantium conquering Muslim realms north and south, we were mostly ignored. Now, though, Islam was resurgent: the Seljuks had reconquered most of Mesopotamia, and now their co-religionists were coming for us.


We met the first major enemy force at Rafha, in the Nefoud. After a tremendous battle and some dicy moments in the skirmish phase, our massed heavy cavalry rode them down. Empress Éowyn led her troops in person, and paid a price:


She would eventually recover from her wounds, but was left permanently disfigured. But what mattered was that we won the war: the jihad failed.


With Arabia secure, we were free to expand our foothold in Lithuania far enough to create the kingdom.


As a good hermeticist, Éowyn also spent a lot of her time studying the stars, and eventually wrote her magnum opus on astrology.


I realize in retrospect that while the Hermetic Society missions are a bit repetitive, it's the magna opera that make it worth it. They're essentially hereditable stat bonuses, and the ability to pick your apprentice lets you ensure your heir also has access to them. Éowyn eventually became head of the whole society.


While fighting to expand our holdings in Lithuania, Éowyn was seriously injured again, this time losing a hand.


Look, being Empress ain't easy. She fought in one last great war, this time against a Shia jihad for Arabia, and won.


Finally, in 1123, Empress Éowyn the Great left us. I really feel that along with Éomer the Strange and the demon-emperor Gedalbert, her reign was one of the high points of the game. After securing the Kingdom of Jerusalem and expanding all the way to the shores of the Persian Gulf, we finally faced not one but two serious Muslim counter-attacks - and defeated them. Our northern expansion seemed foiled, but Éowyn ended up Queen of Lithuania, alongside her other titles. She was valiant, succesful and as the first Empress of a newly gender-equal Mercia, set an example that will never be forgotten.

Jun 4, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 45: Treebeard

Meanwhile, the hobbits went with as much speed as the dark and tangled forest allowed, following the line of the running stream, westward and up towards the slopes of the mountains, deeper and deeper into Fangorn.

Merry and Pippin have escaped both the orcs and the Riders of Rohan, and are now well inside Fangorn Forest. The air inside the forest is stifling, and as the hobbits stop for a drink by a stream, they exchange impressions. Pippin compares the woods to a room in the Smials of Tuckborough, where the furniture hasn't been moved for centuries; Merry points out that the forest doesn't feel evil, like Bilbo's description of Mirkwood. Perhaps oddly, the Old Forest isn't mentioned.

As they're talking, the sun comes out. Merry and Pippin make for the sunlight, and find a steep hill with something like a stair cut or weathered into it. It takes them to a high shelf with a single gnarled tree on it. As the hobbits look over the forest, Pippin luckily says that he almost likes it. Luckily, because what they had taken for a tree is, in fact, a fourteen-foot troll-like tree-creature that introduces itself as Treebeard the Ent. He admits that he almost took the hobbits for tiny orcs and smashed them, but a conversation is had where they establish that not only are hobbits not orcs, but that they have a mutual friend in Gandalf.

Treebeard carries the hobbits to one of his homes, where he gives them ent-draught to drink and has them tell their story. In return, Treebeard tells them all about ents. He describes them as tree-herds, tending to and protecting the trees of Fangorn, and protecting outsiders from dangerous trees. He recalls the old days, when a thick forest stretched from Fangorn to beyond the Shire in the north, but now there are far fewer ents, and many of them have become quiescent, almost trees.

Treebeard, in turn, is very interested in the hobbits' story, which they tell him, carefully omitting any mention of the Ring. As he puts it, he has stayed out of "the Great Wars":

I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays.

Saruman, though, merits Treebeard's attention, as he realizes that he, too, has been deceived by the wizard. Treebeard becomes quite angry as he recounts Saruman's misdeeds, but calms himself down and begins to think about whether enough ents are left to resist him.

Before they go to sleep - apparently ents sleep - Treebeard tells the hobbits about the entwives, who the ents used to live with but lost. The next day, Merry and Pippin are taken for an extended walk through the woods as Treebeard summons the Entmoot: a huge and ponderous meeting of ents. The hobbits are soon bored, and Treebeard sends a young ent called Quickbeam to keep them company.

On the afternoon of the third day of the Entmoot, the Ents reach a decision: they are marching on Isengard.

**

Sticking with our Beowulf theme, last chapter we had the orcneas, and now the hobbits meet the eotenas. The Old English word eoten, meaning giant, gave rise to both the ettin of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as Tolkien's tree-herds.

They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connexion with stone. Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of "Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill": I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war. (Letters, 163, footnote)

The phrase eald enta geweorc, old work of giants, is, unsurprisingly, from Beowulf, but the association with trees and their unique way of speaking seem to be purely Tolkien's, and they've given rise to a marvelously memorable character in Treebeard. There's something quintessentially Tolkien about the sad tree-herds vanishing into the mists of time, but coming together one last time to defend nature against wanton destruction and infernal machinery. Add their penchant for song and the complete absence of their women, and you could well argue that if any one chapter of the Lord of the Rings is a microcosm of the whole work, it's this one.

At 26 pages in my copy of the book, it's also a long one, and because I was very busy during the last several months, I've felt totally unequal to the task of writing about it. There's quite a bit of exposition here, with Treebeard telling the story of the ents and their relationship with Saruman. He also explains that the trolls were made in mockery of ents, harking back to the Boëthian idea that evil can't truly create on its own.

The Entmoot and the march of the ents are also one of the first big iterations of one of the key morals of the Lord of the Rings, and an expression of Tolkien's northern theory of courage, a notion he developed in his Beowulf lectures and that I mentioned in passing earlier: the idea that when evil is afoot, at some point you have to stand up and fight it, whether you think you're going to win or not, because it's the right thing to do. As Treebeard remarks, the march on Isengard may well be the last march of the ents, but a last hopeless battle is better than quietly submitting and wasting away.

**

All in all, though, this is a chapter that has even more to it than usual compared to my tiny blog posts. As I said, I've been very busy and subsequently exhausted during the time I've had to write this, and I'm afraid it shows. However, I felt it was important to keep this series of posts running, so this is what I had.

Next time: a wizard.

May 14, 2018

Let's Play Twilight Struggle

I was reading something on fivethirtyeight.com last year, and came across a link to their article on designing the best board game in the world, which turned out to be Twilight Struggle. Since we were making a trip to Stockholm in January, I took the opportunity to visit the Science Fiction Bokhandeln, where board games are consistently cheaper than in Finland, and pick up a copy.


Twilight Struggle is a card-driven board game that covers the global Cold War. The board is a map of the world, divided into countries where you place influence, mount coups and generally vie for control and thereby victory points with the opposing superpower. Whoever reaches 20 victory points first wins - unless DEFCON drops to one, in which case the game ends in global nuclear war.


Everything is done by playing cards. Here's an example:


The red star in the upper left corner tells you that this is a Soviet event. If the Soviet player plays it, they can either have the event happen, or play it for Ops, which are used to spread influence, mount coups and that sort of thing. The number inside the star is 2, meaning Liberation Theology is good for 2 Ops. If the US player finds this card in their hand, they can only play it for Ops - but if they do, the event occurs as well. Therefore, one of the key skills in the game isn't just figuring out when to play your events, but how to time your opponent's events optimally for yourself.

The other kind of cards are scoring cards, which, when played, score their region in victory points. Below, an early victory in the Mid War from a judiciously played Africa Scoring.


Much as in other card-driven games, like War of the Ring, for instance, the cards direct gameplay. One way is structural: some scoring cards, for instance, only show up in the mid-war, and while the Soviet side is considered to have an early advantage, the late war cards tilt toward the US. In a recent game, I found myself with a hand of powerful enough Europe-focused cards, like Suez Crisis, Socialist Governments, and Europe Scoring, that a blitz on Europe seemed like a worthwhile shot. This is as far as I got:


One key thing new players should know is that in the Early War period, the only scoring cards in play are Europe, Asia and the Middle East. This tends to focus play; while I was mounting my assault on Europe, this is what Southeast Asia ended up looking like:


You can believe I did poorly when my opponent drew Southeast Asia scoring! However, Africa and the Middle East went my way, somewhat evening the odds. Finally, late in the Mid War, while my opponent's attention was focused on Latin America, I used Willy Brandt to break his control of West Germany, and snuck in enough influence to grab it, leading to a victory through controlling Europe.


**

All in all, Twilight Struggle is a tremendous game. Not only is it great fun, but it also does a brilliant job of evoking the Cold War mentality of a superpower game of geopolitical brinksmanship, where all other countries and actors in the world are just pawns and battlegrounds for you to utilize to get the upper hand in a zero-sum battle against your opponent - all while staring down an imminent nuclear holocaust. That all the events are actual Cold War people or episodes gives the game great thematic strength, but it's not tied to the historical constraints of the Cold War, but can unfold very differently indeed. As a history teacher, I very much appreciate the little historical vignettes about each card provided in the rulebook; they add a very real educational dimension to the game.

If you want a better handle on how the game works, head over to Twilight Strategy; I especially recommend one of the annotated games.

So, simply put, Twilight Struggle is great fun, and does a wonderful job of capturing the Cold War mentality. While I wouldn't go so far as to call it the best board game in the world - that's a much bigger conversation - I will say that if you're at all into board games, it's definitely worth experiencing.

May 7, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 44: The Uruk-hai

Pippin lay in a dark and troubled dream: it seemed that he could hear his own small voice echoing in black tunnels, calling Frodo! Frodo!

Peregrin Took awakes from his dream to find that he and Merry are prisoners of an orc-band. He recalls running off to look for Frodo like a fool, and blundering right into a group of orcs. The orcs were very eager to take them prisoner, but Boromir appeared and drove them off. A larger group of orcs - at least a hundred by Pippin's count - then attacked, and he remembered no more. Pippin feels pretty miserable about himself, likening himself to a piece of luggage (shades of Bilbo).

As the evening darkens, Pippin listens to the orcs having an argument. To his surprise, they're using the Common Speech, apparently because there are at least three different groups of orcs there and they don't understand each other's orcish. There are some orcs from Moria, a group from Mordor led by Grishnákh, and Uglúk and his fighting Uruk-hai, who are in the service of Saruman. Everyone agrees that they have orders to capture hobbits and bring them back alive, but the great debate is whether to take them to Mordor or Isengard. Grishnákh heaps scorn on Saruman ("Who does he think he is, setting up on his own with his filthy white badges?"), but eventually the argument is settled when Uglúk and his Uruk-hai kill several of the other orcs, and they set off for Isengard. In the confusion, Pippin grabs a knife from one of the dead orcs and manages to cut his bonds.

The orcs run through the night, with a stop toward the end where the hobbits are forced to drink some orc-liquor and are made to run along with the orcs. The northern orcs protest at running in sunlight, but Uglúk forces them to. During the run, Pippin takes an opportunity to escape the ranks and drop the brooch of his cloak, but he is swiftly recaptured.

They run and run, until the hobbits can't go on any more, even with orc-whips at their back. They're then picked up again and the orcs carry on, until they stop for another argument. They've spotted the "horse-boys", and Uglúk curses his scout, Snaga, who let his Rohan counterpart get away. They run all day and into the night, trying to reach Fangorn Forest before the riders can bring them to battle. They fail; the riders surround them on a small hillock outside the forest.

The hobbits have their legs tied and are placed under the guard of several of Uglúk's uruks. However, when the riders mount a raid late at night, their guards dash to the fight, and Grishnákh sneaks in and grabs the hobbits. As the orc searches them, Pippin realizes that Grishnákh knows about the Ring. Pippin does his best Gollum impression and gets a definite response, and when Merry reminds Grishnákh that at this rate, it will be Saruman who wins out, the orc is driven into a rage: he grabs the hobbits and makes a dash for the woods. He makes it a considerable distance until one of the riders shoots him, and he is ridden down, the hobbits discarded like baggage.

The hobbits lie down in the grass, concealed by their elven-cloaks, until a commotion breaks out in the camp and the riders tighten their cordon, leaving the unseen Merry and Pippin comfortably outside it. Pippin frees them from their bonds with Grishnákh's knife, and they salvage some lembas from their pockets. Eventually they manage to crawl and then walk into the woods, and at dawn they witness Éomer's riders charging the orc-camp. Fearing that Uglúk's uruks might make it to the woods, the hobbits flee, and miss Éomer slaying Uglúk in single combat.

**

So, we've caught up with the other side of the great chase through Rohan, and the story is now well entangled with Saruman and the Riders.

Since this chapter is named after a kind of orc, this seems like an appropriate time to talk about orcs in the Lord of the Rings in general. The name "orc" is an Anglo-Saxon word for some kind of nasty thing, found in Beowulf in interesting company:

eotenas ond ylfe / ond orcneas

The modern conception of the orc is based squarely on Tolkien's work, with additional embellishments from Dungeons and Dragons, and Warhammer, to the point where the orcs in later-day Tolkien-derived products like Shadow of Mordor look more like Warhammer orcs than Tolkien's creatures.

In far too many fantasy works, orcs are simply the stock enemy, who can be slaughtered in any numbers with no moral compunctions. This was most definitely not Tolkien's intention! In a couple of letters to his son Christopher (Letters, 71 and 78), he discusses orcs in the context of the Second World War, in which the younger Tolkien was serving at the time.

Yes, I think orcs as real a creation as anything in "realistic" fiction: your vigorous words well describe the tribe; only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For "romance" has grown out of "allegory", and its wars are still derived from the "inner war" of allegory in which good is on one side and various models of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels. But it does make some difference who are your captains and whether they are orc-like per se!
(Letters, 71)

To understand Tolkien's intentions with his orcs, we have to understand two crucial points of his theology. The first is the Boëthian refutation of Manicheanism that I discussed ages ago in my post on the Shadow of the Past: good and evil are not two equal, diametrically opposed powers. Evil is weaker, because the universe, created by a benevolent god, is intrinsically good. From this follows, among other things, that evil can't truly create new things, but only twist, mock and corrupt. Therefore, Tolkien's orcs aren't creations of Sauron or Morgoth, but corruptions of already existing life (Letters, 144 and 153).

The other point follows from this: because the orcs were not originally evil, and because they are allowed to exist in an ultimately benevolent world, they are not by nature intrinsically evil or irredeemable. In Tolkien's words:

I nearly wrote "irredeemably bad"; but that would be going too far.
Because by accepting or tolerating their making - necessary to their actual existence - even Orcs would become part of the World, which is God's and ultimately good. (Letters, 153)

The theology was always clear: as, ultimately, the creations of a benevolent god, the orcs cannot be beyond salvation. So they're not just purely evil foot soldiers to be slaughtered at will.

Or at least they're not meant to be, because you can well question whether Tolkien actually manages to convey this. Tolkien's battle scenes rarely glorify war, but he doesn't really give orcs many opportunities to be anything other than villains. In this chapter, Uglúk and his Uruk-hai do get a distinct personality opposed to Grishnákh, and it's hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for the Moria goblins, but they are very much the barbaric villains of the story. Tolkien may not have intended the orcs to be one-dimensional bad guys, but it's hard to blame anyone coming away from this thinking that they are.

**

Next time: eotenas.

Apr 9, 2018

CKII: Mercia-on-the-Nile

Last time, I took Mercia from a petty kingdom to an empire spanning the British Isles and including the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The year is only 971, so there's still a lot of time left. The one continuing objectice I have is improving the status of women; it'd be pretty cool to get absolute cognatic succession. Other than that, though, my only major goal is to survive to the end, so I'm going to see what life throws at us.

We begin in the reign of Emperor Gedalbert the Cruel (971-978), first Emperor of Mercia, King of Mercia, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Jerusalem. Of these, I was very happy to immediately give away the crown of England to one of my vassals and just not have to care about the dukes of Wessex and Hwicce and what have you. They're now someone else's problem. Instead, my immediate plan is to broaden our holdings in the Middle East. Islamic Egypt is currently squeezed between Abyssinia, Italian North Africa, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. I'm going to try to make it worse for them.


We succeeded in securing a foothold in the Nile delta. However, life did have something to throw at us.


Before the plague struck, I had the opportunity to vassalize the Knights Hospitallers, because I'm King of Jerusalem. I absolutely recommend doing this! A vassal holy order won't fight for anyone else, and requires no maintenance; it's simply fantastic, and exactly what I need in order to expand my realm at the expense of the infidels.


Meanwhile...


The Pope wasn't exactly helpful.


Eventually, even the Emperor himself caught the plague.


At the age of 57, freed from his demons, Emperor Gedalbert the Cruel, founder of the Mercian Empire, died of the Black Death.


**

Of Emperor Gedalbert's twelve children, only two survived to adulthood: his daughter Viviane and his successor, Emperor Gléowine the Fat (978-1002). Not that even that was immediately obvious, because Gléowine also caught the plague during an inconclusive campaign in the Sinai.


Unlike his father, however, Gléowine got better.


Now that I have the Reaper's Due, pandemics are really something. They don't just kill characters; they ravage provinces, decimating your levies and wrecking the economy, and even dropping the province's supply limit, meaning armies will just melt away. So the Black Death shut down our conquest of the Middle East completely.

Once the plague passed and everyone began to recover, we selected a slightly softer target for expansion: Portugal.


It was a success!


As you can see, we barely got in on the carving up of Muslim Iberia, with Acquitaine already making inroads on North Africa. I just like the idea of Portugal as a stopping-off point to the Holy Land. Soon after, we also completed the conquest of the Nile delta.


While this was happening, England somehow became a republic.


As near as I can figure it out, this is what happened. The King of England also ended up with a duchy in the Holy Land, because I only had so many Iceling men to hand all the titles to at the time. He launched a series of more or less ill-advised holy wars on his Muslim neighbors, and managed to deplete his treasury and forces so badly that the merchant republic of Man pressed a claim on England and won. Hence, the Most Serene Republic of England.


Meanwhile, Gléowine arranged a diplomatic marriage for his son, and went mad.


Even as a lunatic, he was able to consolidate our hold on Egypt.


The imperial demesne is now the duchies of Mercia (actually only the county of Leicester) and Damietta. Shortly after crowning himself King of Egypt, Emperor Gléowine passed away. He died King of Mercia, Ireland, Portugal, Asturias, Egypt and Jerusalem.


**

Emperor Mordred the Confessor (1002-1056) took the throne at the age of 7, with the Queen of Scotland as his regent. I don't know why the Mordreds get the cool nicknames, but I'm okay with it. This is what Mercian Egypt looked like on his accession:


In addition to expanding our holdings in Egypt, we were also able to raise the status of women to Notable, meaning I can now have a female marshal if I want to. This is actually the biggest thing holding me back from moving my capital to Egypt: as technology is county-based, I need one more level of Tolerance in Leicester to unlock full gender equality and cognatic succession in the empire. If I moved to Damietta, we'd be stuck with their tech levels. I'm actually not entirely sure how this works. If I achieve full equality, the realm law will stay in force even if I lose the underlying technology. However, if I do that and usurp an existing kingdom, I don't think I'd be able to change the succession to cognatic there. So that might be a problem. Luckily, technology does spread between demesne provinces, so we don't need to abandon all the tech points we invested in Leicester.

To speed our technological progress, I decided it would be a good idea for Emperor Mordred to join the Hermetic Society. This had some very tangible benefits:


I've complained before that warfare in Crusader Kings 2 isn't really all that interesting, and I stand by that. However, Mordred did manage to have an interesting war. While most of the great Muslim powers were waging an unsuccesful jihad against Abyssinia for Yemen, I figured this was a good time to make a grab for the duchy of Nefoud, i.e. the counties between the Syrian desert and the Empty Quarter, right in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. As it turned out, Abyssinia defeated the jihad sooner than expected, and everyone turned on us instead. My army, including the Hospitallers, was soundly defeated by a gigantic Muslim force from as far as Nepal.

While they retreated back to the Holy Land, I rounded up all the available holy orders - the Knights of Santiago and Calatrava - and started shipping them to the Middle East. The Muslim forces started besieging my holdings in Arabia, and to be honest, I'd have taken a white peace, but my defeat put the warscore too far underwater. However, the Muslim army split up, and when the holy orders arrived, I figured I'd see if I could beat at least some of the isolated armies, maybe that would raise my warscore enough for a white peace.

Shockingly, we did rather better than that. The Muslim armies came at us piecemeal, and with our heavy cavalry, we were able to beat all of them one by one. After the last force was routed and a Nepalese nobleman captured, the warscore was so firmly on our side that I started besieging the target counties again, and ended up winning the whole thing.


Here's Mercian Arabia:


Also, while I was busy in Arabia, the Queen of Scotland launched a holy war on Prussia, and won.


And somehow, the Kingdom of Italy was taken over by the Byzantines, with the former Iceling kings of Italy now ruling the Kingdom of Africa.


Holding Nefoud let us create the Kingdom of Arabia.


Unfortunately, our expansion in Egypt and Arabia was so succesful that we accumulated a horrible threat score, which meant defensive pacts against us everywhere. So I figured Mordred could have a quiet semi-retirement, maybe writing a book:


Or splurging the entire treasury on some imperial regalia.


Meanwhile, an Iceling somehow secured the throne of Acquitaine.


So here I was, actually kinda enjoying the breather. Until the Pope had other ideas.


So off we went.


Eventually, after half a century on the throne, Emperor Mordred passed away during the crusade. Here he is after a disastrous and unsuccesful surgical intervention. Mordred leaves behind some pretty impressive regalia, a secure demesne in Egypt and the kingdom of Arabia.


**

So, in about a century, three Mercian emperors conquered Egypt and Arabia. The Muslim dynasties that used to control the Middle East are now pretty much gone, with the Arabian peninsula split between Mercia and the Abyssinians, with some Muslim provinces still clinging on to the coasts of the Persian Gulf. They're not the problem, though: the problem is that I now have a land border with the Seljuk empire. A massive Turkish realm stretching out into the steppes, the Seljuks can mobilize over 40 000 warriors. I won't be succesful against them on my own. If they get engaged elsewhere, however, I might have a chance at grabbing the last few provinces of Arabia.

To take full advantage of these opportunities, I've effectively moved the imperial demesne to Egypt. I'm still planning to move my capital there, as soon as we've finished researching Tolerance in Leicester. Right now, though, there's a crusade in Finland, and that will be the subject of my next post.