Jul 18, 2016

Let's Play War of the Ring

Now that I'm on this Tolkien kick, I decided to buy myself a thematically appropriate birthday present: a copy of the War of the Ring boardgame. I've heard quite a bit about it, and heck, just reading the description got me hooked.

So I went and got a copy of the second edition game from Ares Games; the game materials are dated both 2011 and 2015. Before we get to all the good stuff, I want to get my major complaints with the physical game out of the way. The box is huge and comes with a massive pile of figures; 205 of them, to be exact. They're made out of a soft plastic that bends rather than breaks, which is a good thing. However, Ares Games has made the deeply unfortunate decision to ship the figures in two massive piles, each in a flimsy plastic bag. This pretty much guarantees that at least some of your figures will literally be bent out of shape by the time you get them. Spears and banners are the worst affected, although a couple of figures in my set are almost bent over double. Here's a few examples:


It's a real shame, too, because the figures are actually quite nice. John Howe is responsible for most of the art in the game and also participated in designing the figures, so they show his signature combination of very high quality and an occasionally relaxed relationship to the source material: the mounted Elven elite figures look great - but the horses have saddles. One thing the figures have been criticized for is that excepting the unique characters, they only come in three colors: grey for leaders, blue for Free Peoples and red for the Shadow. The trouble with this is that in the game, even though one player does control the Free Peoples and the other the Shadow, each side is made up of various nations, and for several gameplay purposes, it matters which nation which units are from. At a distance, it can be really hard to tell one blue plastic horseman from another. To fix this, before we got started I decided to paint the Free Peoples figures' bases and color-code them according to nation. Also, my paintbrush slipped and I painted the bases of all the characters and non-Sauron Shadow units as well.

The other major problem is that while the box itself is large and sturdy, the interior is completely inadequate. If you want to protect your figures from further damage, you can't store them in the game box. Similarly, if you sleeve the cards, they'll no longer fit in the space provided. So you end up having to remove the plastic inside frame of the box and create your own storage solutions. So not only is the game massive, but you also end up having to put in a lot of work yourself. This is more like buying a Warhammer army than a board game.

**

With all this done, it was time to start approaching the idea of actually playing the game. A word of warning first. Officially, a game takes what, three hours to play? In reality, the first time we tried setting up the game, that alone took us over an hour. In addition to the two hundred figures, there are also four decks of cards, the character cards for the members of the Fellowship and the minions of the Shadow, and literally one million cardboard counters (actually 76). Also, have I mentioned that the board is massive? It comes in two pieces, each of which is the size of a regular large game board. It's also quite lovely to look at.

Each cardboard counter is also a piece of John Howe art, and they're absolutely beautiful. There are also, like I said, several of them. Here's what the game looks like fully set up:


There's quite a bit to take in here, so maybe a general introduction first. There are two players, one controlling the Free Peoples (blue) and the other the Shadow (red). Both have action dice, units and cards with which to do stuff. Basically, there are two games here. One is a strategy battle game, in which the Free Peoples try to fight off the Shadow onslaught. Capturing cities and strongholds nets you victory points; if the Shadow gets ten, it wins, and if the Free Peoples manage to fight back and grab four victory points, they win. An additional wrinkle is provided by what's called the political track:

The Free Peoples are made up of five nations: the elves, dwarves, Gondor, Rohan and the North. In order to join the war, each nation needs to be activated and moved up the political track by the players until they reach the At War state. For the Free Peoples, only the elves start out active, and everyone starts toward the low end of the scale. On the other hand, all three Shadow nations (Sauron, Isengard and the Southrons & Easterlings) start out active and high on the scale, compounding their advantage.

The wargame part, then, consists of players working to activate their various nations, muster their armies and defeat their enemies. This is quite heavily biased in favor of the Shadow. In parallel with the military confrontation is a second game, where the Fellowship of the Ring is trying to make its way to the Cracks of Doom and destroy the One Ring, while Sauron tries to hunt them down and corrupt them. If he succeeds, the Shadow wins; if the Ringbearers make it to Mount Doom, the Free Peoples win. Both players get a certain number of actions each turn from their action dice, and have to split these between moving or hunting for the Fellowship, and fighting the war. The two "games" interact in various ways; Sauron's armies can make it harder for the Fellowship to move, but friendly strongholds offer a chance to heal corruption - if they can be defended from the Shadow. The Fellowship can also activate friendly nations, and companions can leave it to mobilize and lead armies.

I think that's pretty much it! To be honest, at first this is a bewilderingly complex game. I don't know what anyone who isn't familiar with the Lord of the Rings would make of it, as it's hard enough even when you have a pretty solid idea of what's supposed to be going on. Now, though, it's finally time to start playing. For our first game, I decided to control the Shadow, and my brother led the Free Peoples.

**

Because the board is so large and complicated, it can look really tough to figure out what to do. Luckily, both the Free Peoples and the Shadow get event cards. These can be used for a whole bunch of things: boost your side in combat, recruit troops, activate nations and whatnot. Since you draw two event cards at the start of every turn and any Event results on the action dice can be used for more, quite often these will give you some direction for the early game. Because this was our first game, we didn't really know what we were doing. I decided that I wanted to go for a military victory and see if I could use my superior forces to steamroll the Free Peoples before they made it to the volcano. When I happened to get some useful muster cards, I was set: the armies of Mordor were coming.

To start with, I decided to strike north: the Black Gate was thrown open and a Nazgûl led the army of Mordor forth into the Dagorlad. Since Mordor wasn't at war yet, I assured the Free Peoples that these were simply ordinary, pre-scheduled summer maneuvers - exercise север-19 - and therefore nothing to worry about. Unsportingly, the imperialist Gondorians used our peaceful solidarity exercises as an excuse to raise their readiness level, and the Fellowship set off from Rivendell. In response, our comrades in Harad reorganized their defensive forces into a more secure posture, and we strengthened the defences of the legitimate people's administration of Minas Morgul against any possible revanchist provocations of the Denethorist clique. Tolkien did say that the idea of putting Mordor in the east was simply an accident of his fictional geography, and I realize that what I'm writing now might be interpreted as a commentary on that statement by uncultured readers, but let me assure you that any such analogies are phantasms of a bourgeois false consciousness; due to their class nature, analogies in general are only found in decadent imperialist literature.

Unseasonally bad weather forced the fellowship to divert to the Trollshaws, and a peaceful scientific Nazgûl was immediately dispatched to make meteorological observations in the region. Meanwhile, Sever-19 was proceeding according to plan. As part of our joint defensive readiness exercises, our brothers in Orthanc conducted a test of their civil defense infrastructure by raising their alert level, allowing comrade Saruman to join the exercise and continue his videotronic experiments with palantír technology. Despite these clear demonstrations of our peaceful intentions, the so-called "wisdom" of Elrond incited the misguided people of Gondor to mobilize against us, and the perfidious elves also began preparations for a war of aggression.

Unfortunately, the fellowship escap the meteorological observations in the Trollshaws were unsuccesful, but exercise Sever-19 went on regardless. Its second phase involved a rendezvous with a contingent from Dol Guldur and joint exercises in the Dimrill Dale, which were entirely unconnected to the rumoured presence of a band of imperialist spies known as the "fellowship" in the area. On the contrary, the peaceful actions of the joint Mordor-Dol Guldur forces were a powerful contrast to the provocation engineered in Erebor by the revanchist Gimli, whose slanders deluded both the people of the North as well as the dwarves into taking up arms against the peaceful regime of the Lord of Gifts.

Even the peace-loving people of Mordor won't stand idly by as elven-imperialist forces create an aggressive combination against them, but were forced by recent developments to consider themselves at war. By great good fortune, the peaceful solidarity maneuver Sever-19 had purely by chance happened to position a strong defensive army in the Anduin valley. Reluctantly but decisively, the joint Mordor-Dol Guldur forces set aside their works of peace and turned to war, launching a devastating pre-emptive attack on the perfidious realm of Lórien. The elves withdrew into their accursed forest, but fortified by the righteousness of their defensive cause, the heroic soldiers of Mordor followed them inside to root the elven provocateurs out of their counter-revolutionary dens.

The peaceful realm of Mordor had acted just in time, as the imperialist plot was completed by the crowning of a northern vagrant as "king" in the usurper realm of Gondor. To counter this revanchist threat, the armies of Mordor extended their defensive perimeter to the elven offensive fortifications of Osgiliath and deployed one of their most competent leaders, the People's Commissar for Angmar, to personally direct the pre-emptive attack on Lórien. Inspired by his decisive leadership, the defensive forces of Mordor rooted out the last of the imperialist holdouts in the Golden Wood.

While the counter-revolution massed its forces in Gondor, the working people of the north rose in solidarity against the oppressors, and the People's Commissar of Angmar immediately moved north to direct the army of northern liberation in a glorious counterstroke against the elven masterminds of imperialism. The terrorist provocateurs known as the Dúnedain were dispersed, and the righteous vengeance of the proletariat descended on the decadent bourgeoisie of the Shire.

As the northern army marched on the Grey Havens, the people's supreme command set the rest of their defensive plans in motion. While our agents of influence convinced the dwarves to remain outside the conflict, our Easterling comrades liberated the Iron Hills and smashed the illegitimate Brandist regime in Dale. The liberation army of Lórien marched north to pacify Mirkwood, while the free men of Harad freed Pelargir from Gondorite oppression and the hosts of Minas Morgul marched forth to lay siege to Minas Tirith. Finally, the scientific forces of Isengard drove the Rohanite bandits threatening their borders into their mountain hideouts.

During this glorious march to freedom, the people's committee for security in Minas Morgul intercepted a group of terrorist infiltrators. Several managed to escape, but the infamous spymaster and provocateur Gandalf was apprehended and killed while resisting arrest. This unexpected threat to the homeland served as a reminder to redouble military efforts against the elven conspiracy, and soon enough, the northern army of liberation completed the reduction of the Grey Havens. The campaign against the Rohanite bandits suffered a setback when the provocateur Gandalf made an inexplicable reappearance in Fangorn, inciting the demons of the forest to treacherously murder comrade Saruman. Deprived of his scientific leadership, the siege of the Rohanite hideouts continued indecisively.

With the puppet king of the Denethorite-elvish clique besieged in Minas Tirith and the counter-revolution in retreat everywhere, the final liberation of Middle-earth loomed on the horizon as the oppressive dictatorship of Thranduil fell. Tragically, even though the people's security forces of Mordor had succesfully neutralized several members of their so-called "fellowship", the hobbit terrorists Frodo, Samwise and Peregrin were able to carry out an unthinkable act of sabotage and plunge Middle-earth into an oppressive monarchist darkness. At the eleventh hour, the counter-revolution prevailed through the basest treachery.


**

That was our first game, and it was a damn near-run thing. I had nine victory points on my last turn, and had a decent chance of grabbing the tenth, if only those fucking hobbits didn't make it to the Cracks of Doom first. In the end, it hinged on whether the last hunt tile we drew had a stop symbol on it or not. It didn't, and the game was over. It really couldn't have been a much closer shave.

My military strategy was largely succesful: by the end of the game, I held Lórien, Dale, the Woodland Realm, the Grey Havens, the Shire and Pelargir, and it wasn't quite enough. One thing I really liked was how the game generated its own dynamic. In retrospect, one key moment for me was when the Free Peoples played the There and Back Again event card, which activated the dwarves and the north. At that point, I could easily bring the Witch-king into play; his arrival activates all free nations, but now this only meant Rohan, which I was going to attack anyway. Since I had several cards that I could use to mobilize in Eriador, the northern offensive worked out nicely, especially since my opponent was concentrating on building up his forces in Gondor. I had no intention of attacking Gondor, especially since Aragorn was there, and only sent the Morgul army out to contain him in Minas Tirith. I also delayed my attack on Rohan to maintain Saruman's army as a potential threat. This turned into another decisive moment, as I had the Fighting Uruk-hai card in my hand the very turn the ents destroyed Isengard; had I been able to play it, we'd have had a decent chance of taking Helm's Deep, but I couldn't play it after losing Saruman. So Gandalf not only got the fellowship into Mordor, but also made his way to Fangorn at exactly the right moment to save Rohan.

I only used a couple of character cards to harass the Fellowship, and they still sustained quite a tally of casualties: Gandalf, Boromir, Legolas and Merry all fell in Mordor. The game feels quite nicely balanced, though, because if I'd made more of an effort to stop the Fellowship, I wouldn't have been as succesful militarily. Again, which cards you draw will make a difference, and I like that strategy in the War of the Ring is a combination of a pre-conceived plan and succesfully making use of opportunities that arise.

**

In more general terms, I thought the mechanics worked very well. I especially liked the siege mechanics, which let a siege drag on considerably unless the attacker was willing to sacrifice their elite units to prolong the assault. All in all, this was a great experience. Since writing the above, I also got to try playing as the Free Peoples, and it was just as interesting and just as close. My opponent overcommitted himself, and I decided to leave Boromir and the hobbits to drink away their corruption in Thranduil's halls and go for a military victory. After an epic siege, a joint army of dwarves, elves, Beornings and men from Dale took Dol Guldur, and we very nearly succeeded in storming Isengard. In the end, though, the military superiority of the Shadow won out: Isengard held, and King Elessar fell in a massive battle over Pelargir. Again, it was a game that could have gone either way; a massively exhausting but thoroughly awesome experience. I like to think that when the Easterlings overran the Woodland Realm, Boromir and the hobbits escaped in floating barrels and eventually, somehow, made their way to Mount Doom...

Simply put, if you're at all into some combination of Tolkien and strategy gaming, you have got to try this game. I'm currently looking forward to not only rematches with both my opponents, but also an attempt at both the three- and four-player variants of the game; in the latter, there are two players on each side, while in the most interesting three-player setup, one player controls the Free Peoples, while the other two are effectively Sauron and Saruman. If any of these experiences are half as awesome as the two games we've managed to play so far, this game will have been worth every second of trouble and cent of money I've invested in it.

Jul 11, 2016

LotR LCG: To Isengard!

"But I rode to the foot of Orthanc, and came to the stair of Saruman; and there he met me and led me up to his high chamber."
- Gandalf, the Lord of the Rings, book II, chapter II


Having cheerfully abandoned publication order for good with the Grey Havens, I think we can now move on to the Voice of Isengard deluxe expansion. I already tried The Lost Realm and didn't like it, and Heirs of Númenor has been called frustratingly difficult so often that it doesn't sound like particularly good fun either. On the other hand, I've heard a lot of good things about Voice of Isengard, especially in terms of theme and narrative, so this was an easy choice to make while waiting to complete our collection of the Dream-chaser cycle.


John Howe: Orthanc Destroyed, 2000.

**

The Fords of Isen - DL 5


The first quest in this expansion sees us riding to Gríma Wormtongue's rescue. I love that the game is set before the Lord of the Rings takes place, in a time when Saruman is still considered one of the chief good guys, and rescuing Gríma makes perfect sense. We took a shot at this four-handed and boy oh boy that is a lot of Dunlendings.


The clever thing about the Dunlendings is that their mechanics are based on the cards in the players' hands. The Dunland Raider, for instance, does damage equal to the number of cards you hold when engaging you, and the Dunlending Bandit's attack value is based on your hand size. Some people don't like this mechanic as they feel it's too abstract and it's difficult to understand what it actually represents (e.g. this post and comments). I have to say that while I do feel that it's good for rules mechanics to be thematic if possible, I may well be inconsistent in that I also don't really actively visualize game events taking place as "real-world" equivalents. I don't, for instance, know what Thalin's ability is supposed to symbolize; because of the art, I kinda imagine him lurking next to the encounter deck and knocking all the enemies on the head with his axe. I similarly have no idea why we get progress when Legolas kills someone, let alone what Eleanor's ability to cancel a treachery and replace it with another card represents. This isn't to say the complaint about the Dunlendings is somehow wrong, but rather that it made me think about how I visualize the game as I'm playing it.


Another mechanic introduced in this expansion was Time, in this case meaning that we only had a certain number of turns to get to Gríma. Suffice to say that on our first attempt, we were completely overwhelmed by the Dunlendings and failed. Playing two-handed, we eventually succeeded in making it to the second quest stage, which then quite comprehensively defeated us: after a first stage spent fighting huge amounts of Dunlendings, you then move on to fight huge amounts of Dunlendings.

Overall, we weren't terribly impressed with this quest. The Time mechanic is interesting, but in this case it doesn't really add much to the experience, since you're either going to be overrun by the Dunlendings or not. In order to not be, you have to be able to fight off repeated attacks at about one million strength, as well as absorb at times obscene amounts of direct damage. What ends up being decisive, I guess, is the fact that the Dunlendings just aren't particularly interesting enemies. Having run through this scenario a couple of times, I also think there may be more merit to the idea of the "cards in hand" mechanics being somehow alienating than I had originally thought. It's a bit similar to the riddle mechanic in Dungeons Deep and Caverns Dim, which I also wasn't at all fond of. Whatever the reason, this is definitely one of the weakest quests we've played so far.

**

To Catch an Orc - DL 4


After all the Dunlending, Saruman sends our heroes after an orc. This is represented by a strangely fiddly mechanic where we have to take a whole pile of cards from our decks, set them apart and shuffle one enemy card into each player's set-aside deck. One of us has Mugash in their set-aside deck, and at various times we discard cards from them, looking for Mugash.


We took this quest on three-handed with the hobbit deck, and it didn't go too well. To get started, we had to put three locations in the staging area, and managed to draw a whole bunch of either surging cards or treacheries that added more stuff.


With the staging area conveniently full of locations, we were destroyed by a combination of massive threat, nasty shadow cards and a stupid dog.


While the idea of this quest is quite clever, I'm really not a fan of mechanics that take a whole pile of your cards away for no thematic reason whatsoever, so I didn't like the central concept here one bit. There also seems to be a pretty major problem with it: in a multiplayer game, what happens if the player who has Mugash in their set-aside deck is eliminated? As near as we can tell, that means the game becomes unwinnable. That seems a bit harsh to me. Apart from the set-aside deck, the rest of the quest was quite bland. So to be honest, this one isn't a winner either.

**

Into Fangorn - DL 6


In the last quest of the expansion, we have to catch the orc we caught in To Catch an Orc in Fangorn. I think. Anyway, after the previous two quests it's a bit of a relief that there are very few fiddly bits to this one. The major innovation here is the Hinder mechanic: enemies with Hinder don't attack in the combat phase, but remove progress from the quest instead. It's actually kinda clever, and works well with the huorn enemies to give an impression of trying to get through a thick, impassable forest.


We managed to catch Mugash and get damn near to finishing the whole thing, but we couldn't quite quest hard enough to beat out the huorns hindering us, and eventually got threated out. However, unlike the other two quests, we actually enjoyed this one, and felt like we had a decent shot at it. Once again, the official difficulty levels are baffling, since this was supposed to be the hardest quest in the box!


**

The player cards in the Voice of Isengard are of roughly two kinds. First, there's the cards built around the Doomed trait, most prominently the Gríma hero and ally Saruman.


The trouble with them, though, is that those two excepted, they're just not all that great. Okay, Power of Orthanc is pretty awesome, and a couple of the other cards are thematically very cool, but the Doomed trait does make them less than likely to make you many friends in a multiplayer game. Then there are card like Orthanc Guard which are just complete coasters.


The Rohan cards include the formidable Éomer, and are quite good if you're at all interested in the horse-lords. We've also had great success with the thematically appropriate combination of Legolas and a Rohan Warhorse, and I can't quite shake the feeling that I really ought to be getting more mileage out of Silver Lamp.


I've understood people have had some success with Gríma decks, and I do find the idea of inflicting horrible amounts of threat on your fellow players potentially entertaining. Also, seeing as how Éowyn and a bunch of Rohan allies were pretty instrumental in my first deck, I'll definitely be trying a Rohan deck at some point. On the whole, there's nothing spectacular here: several cards I don't really see being used much, but also some useful pieces that'll fit quite a few decks. Personally, I was almost a little disappointed. The Doomed archetype also hasn't been getting a lot of support since this cycle.

**

Disappointment is probably the right word to use for this expansion as a whole. I'll admit I'm affected by the fact that it's been sold pretty heavily as a must-have, but I'll be honest: after Khazad-dûm and the Grey Havens, this is the third deluxe expansion we've played through, and definitely the weakest. There's probably a considerable gap in perceptions between us and people who came to this as a new expansion after the apparently grueling Heirs of Númenor, but to us, the first two quests are frustratingly difficult and/or fiddly. In general, I like it when the designers come up with new stuff, but here the various mechanics didn't so much expand the experience as alienate us from it. The third quest is considerably better, but I wouldn't get this for the quests, and the player cards really aren't that great either. Overall, I have to say that The Voice of Isengard was a big let-down.

**

My Silvan deck has continued to be an absolute delight to play, but as our collection grows, I keep looking for minor tweaks to make to it. Right now, between my partner's Tactics deck and my Silvans, we don't have a whole lot of healing, or any way to get rid of condition attachments. My deck is also a little low on allies at the moment. Since the next item on our saga expansion shopping list is The Road Darkens, a solution to all these problems would seem to be Elrond.


To make space for him, I am, believe it or not, dropping Gandalf. With no resource acceleration, the cost of five is actually a bit steep, to the point where I can't actually remember when I've last played him. If I wanted this to be a viable solo deck, I'd probably need to include Gandalf, but since I don't really play solo right now, I'm going to try using Elrond instead.

The next saga expansion in line for us was The Treason of Saruman, which gives us Ent-draught.


With eight ents on the roster and all my heroes having only three hit points, this is an easy card to include. Ideally, I'll be looking to get copies on Rossiel and Boromir. To make space for it, I was able to shunt responsibility for Elf-friend over to Team Boromir. So here's what I've got:

55 cards; 50 Lore, 5 neutral; 3 heroes, 17 allies, 14 attachments, 20 events, 1 side quest; starting threat 22.

Haldir of Lórien (TiT)
Mirlonde (TDT)
Rossiel (EfMG)

Allies: 17 (15/2)
Elrond (TRD) x3
Ithilien Archer (EaAD) x3
Silvan Tracker (TDM) x3
Wellinghall Preserver (AtE) x3
Wandering Ent (CS) x3
Treebeard (TAC) x2

Attachments: 13 (11/3)
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Asfaloth (FoS) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x3
Ent-draught (TToS) x3
The Long Defeat (TBoCD) x2
Wingfoot (TNiE) x2

Events: 20 (17/3)
Out of the Wild (RtR) x2
The Evening Star (TGH) x3
Leave No Trace (EfMG) x3
Mithrandir's Advice (TSF) x3
None Return (AtE) x3
Daeron's Runes (FoS) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

Side quests: 1
Scout Ahead (TWoE)

Jul 4, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 22: Three is Company

'You ought to go quietly, and you ought to go soon,' said Gandalf.

Now that Frodo has made up his mind to leave the Shire, there are arrangements to make. He agrees with Gandalf that he'll leave that fall, after his fiftieth birthday, for Rivendell; retracing Bilbo's route, but leaving in secret if he can, so as to attract less attention. So far, no-one but Sam and Gandalf know his plans; therefore, there's a considerable public outcry when the news breaks that Frodo is selling Bag End, and what's more, to the Sackville-Bagginses! He announces he's moving to more modest premises in his native Buckland, which sets off all kinds of speculation as to whether the jools have finally run out, or if this is all a nefarious plot by Gandalf. The purported plotter himself leaves in June, though, promising to be back by Frodo's farewell party at the latest.

Summer turns to autumn, preparations are made, but there's no sign of Gandalf. Eventually September rolls around, and Frodo celebrates his birthday with his friends, but without a wizard. He's deeply concerned, but there's nothing he can do, especially since Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and her son Lotho are coming over to take possession of Bag End. Frodo's last things are carted off to his new house in Crickhollow by Merry and "Fatty" Bolger, and he hangs around until nightfall, waiting for Gandalf to show up. There's no sign of the wizard, but while he waits, Frodo does happen to overhear an unpleasant voice questioning a clearly frightened Gaffer Gamgee as to Frodo's whereabouts. The Gaffer tells the inquirer that Frodo's gone off to Buckland that morning and sends him off.

Feeling vaguely relieved that the strange visitor left, Frodo makes his way back to Bag End, and he, Sam and Pippin take their leave. They intend to walk to Frodo's new digs in Crickhollow, camping along the way, and the first stretch of the journey is a starlit walk across Hobbiton. The sparse description of their trip is quite lovely, and they end up camping out in a patch of fir-trees. There's even a momentary relapse into the fairy-tale narration of the Hobbit: a fox comes across the three sleeping hobbits and wonders what on earth brought them there, but the narrator tells us he never found out.

The hobbits spend the next day heading east along the Woodhall road, which will eventually take them to Stock and the Brandywine ferry, and thence Buckland. In the afternoon, Sam hears a horse or pony coming up behind them on the road. Despite optimistically suggesting it might be Gandalf, Frodo is almost overwhelmed by a desire to hide from the rider, and suggests they get off the road. The three of them quickly conceal themselves nearby, with Frodo staying slightly closer to the road to see who it is.

It's no Gandalf. Instead, coming down the road is a black horse, being ridden by a figure swathed in a black hooded cloak. It stops near Frodo and makes noises as if it were sniffing for him. Frodo is terrified of the rider, and feels a powerful compulsion to put on the Ring. He's actually in the process of rationalizing away Gandalf's express prohibition when the rider abruptly sits up and moves on.

A shaken Frodo returns to his companions and tells them what he saw. For his part, Sam confirms that a rider of the same description was the stranger the Gaffer talked to earlier, who was asking for Frodo. They keep going, but decide to stay off the road in case more Black Riders show up. They pass the crossroads where the road continues straight for Woodhall, and take the downhill left that leads to Stock, stopping for supper inside a hollow oak. As dusk is falling, they keep walking into the night and sing a hobbit walking-song.

When it's already dark, they again hear a horse coming and hide at the side of the road. It's another Black Rider, this time dismounted; like the previous one, it starts sniffing, and actually starts crawling toward a petrified Frodo, who is struggling to not put on the Ring. At the last moment, Frodo is saved by the sound of a company of elves coming toward them, laughing and singing. The Black Rider retreats, getting back on its horse and vanishing into the darkness.

The hobbits come closer to the road to watch the elves pass by. Frodo identifies them as High-elves when they sing about Elbereth, and as they've nearly passed the hobbits, the last of the elves spots them and recognizes Frodo. He introduces himself as Gildor Inglorion, of the house of Finrod. The elves are surprised by the sight of three hobbits in the woods at night, but the mood quickly darkens when Pippin asks them about the Black Riders. Gildor decides that they'll take the hobbits with them for the night. When Frodo thanks him in high-elven, Gildor laughs and names him Elf-friend.

The elves lead the hobbits on a long march through the woods, to a clearing on a hillside offering a spectacular view of the stars above. There the elves set up a meal, which they maintain is nothing special, but Frodo pronounces "good enough for a birthday-party". Once they've eaten, Sam and Pippin go to sleep, while Frodo and Gildor have a long conversation. Frodo reveals that Gandalf was supposed to show up but didn't, and Gildor shares his anxiety. Gildor guesses that Frodo is leaving the Shire and is uncertain of the future, even though Frodo won't reveal why he's going. In turn, Gildor doesn't want to answer Frodo's questions about the Black Riders, merely telling him that they're servants of the Enemy. Gildor somewhat reluctantly advises Frodo to keep going, and to not go alone. Eventually Frodo, too, falls asleep.

**

There's been a dichotomy in the book so far between the Shire as an idyllic, English rural paradise and as a close-minded, almost xenophobic, shut-in place where dreamers like Frodo don't belong. Of course, it's not quite that simple, because Frodo is, after all, also a solidly middle-class gentlehobbit like Bilbo was before him. Here he is talking to Gildor and coming off like a hobbit Pub Landlord:

"I knew that danger lay ahead, of course; but I did not expect to meet it in our own Shire. Can't a hobbit walk from the Water to the River in peace?"

"But it is not your own Shire," said Gildor. "Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out."

Broken Shire, indeed. But it's worth paying attention to Gildor's rejoinder, as it sums up the beginning of the book so well: the rural utopia where no-one ever has any real problems is a mirage, created by stubbornly pretending that the outside world doesn't exist. Because of the Ring, Frodo realizes that this aggressive know-nothingism isn't an answer. All of Ted Sandyman's acerbic barroom wit won't stop Sauron. The poignant nostalgia that Frodo feels for the Shire in this chapter isn't simply because he's physically leaving; it's also a nostalgia for a simpler time, when he could believe that the outside world could be fenced out, restricted to some exotic furnishings and interesting stories. For Frodo, that simpler Shire is now gone.

Reading this snippet of conversation between Frodo and Gildor today, it's impossible to be affected by how contemporarily relevant Gildor's comment is. I'm writing this in a Finland and a European Union hell-bent on fencing the world out forever, driven exactly by the kind of cynical, aggressive provincialism that is the darker side of the Shire. To me, there is no reading by which Tolkien's direct rejection of this small-mindedness can be interpreted as fascist. It seems to be exactly the opposite.

**

Frodo has several near brushes with the Black Riders in this chapter. The very night they leave Bag End, one comes up looking for him, and only the Gaffer being misinformed turns it away; had the Gaffer known they were still there, or had the rider shown up a day earlier, it'd likely have been shown right to Frodo's door. They also have two very close encounters on the Woodhall road, the latter one much more dangerous and only interrupted by the fortuitious arrival of Gildor's elves. At this point in the story, we don't yet know what the Black Riders are, but later on it will become obvious that these were very close shaves with certain death or worse. On the face of it, Frodo got very lucky several times.

This brings us into touch with another baffling aspect of Christian theology. Dogmatically, the Christian god is supposed to be omnipotent, i.e. capable of doing anything he likes, and also fundamentally completely good. The problem with this is obvious: if god is able and willing to stop evil, then why doesn't he do so? Even a casual acquaintance with the world we live in will clearly demonstrate that god is not, in fact, reaching down from the clouds to prevent evil. The experience of everyday life, let alone history, seem to decisively disprove some of the central tenets of Christianity.

To get around this massive flaw in their belief system, Christians through the ages have come up with a variety of excuses. There are two main variants. One will maintain that god does, in fact, intervene in the world and guide it, and that everything does, in fact, turn out for the best. This is obviously a massively privileged viewpoint that can only be held by people largely isolated from any real hardship. Voltaire lampooned it mercilessly in Candide. The more popular kind, which dominates modern apologetics, is to set up a convoluted chain of reasoning that maintains that god is simultaneously omnipotent, but restricted in his dealings with the created world. This is logically senseless, but that never stopped a theologian.

Both lines of apologetic thought end up maintaining that god intervenes in subtle ways to guide events to a good outcome. This is the concept of providence, which Tolkien certainly believed in. It creates an apologetically satisfying situation where believers can confidently maintain that when something lucky happens, god was looking out for them, but cheerfully shrug their shoulders at the most horrific evil, because you know, just because god is omnipotent doesn't mean he can do anything. Also, he's still super pissed that a lady ate some fruit once.

This is what Gildor has to say about his chance meeting with Frodo:

The Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures upon earth. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance or purpose. In this meeting there may be more than chance; but the purpose is not clear to me, and I fear to say too much.

This will be a constant refrain in the story: something seems to happen by luck, and someone questions if it was luck at all, without quite directly suggesting providence, but making it pretty clear. Here's an unusually direct attribution by Gandalf, discussing how Bilbo happened to find the Ring:

Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were also meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.

Didactic italics in the original. That's pretty much as close as Tolkien comes to outright saying that god, Eru in Middle-earth, is stacking the deck in favor of our heroes. So in Tolkien's theology, whenever something improbable but lucky happens, it's fair to say that we're meant to interpret it as providence. You might think that if god is willing to directly intervene in the events of the world, he might have done a bit more than turn aside a few Black Riders and save everyone a whole lot of trouble, but these are dangerous theological questions, and as a good Christian Tolkien didn't ask them.

Luckily, we're not told that Eru actually is omnipotent, so if we're not interested in reading the Lord of the Rings as a Christian work, we can simply accept that maybe the way god works in Middle-earth is through these little nudges, and that's all he can do. Or that they really are just blind luck. To me, again, the strength of Tolkien's stories as opposed to, for instance, the Narnia books, is that we can reject his religious framework entirely and they still make sense. In this case, in fact, much more sense.

**

An impatient reader, constantly skipping ahead to dialogue or action, won't make much of this chapter: sure, there is an unnerving scene with a Black Rider and a conversation of some import with Gildor, but mostly it's hobbits walking around in a forest. On a closer reading, though, this is pretty good stuff. I'm still a big fan of Tolkien's descriptive writing, especially of the way he writes the landscape. The Shire is compellingly beautiful in an understated way, and when seen through Frodo's eyes the bittersweet nostalgia is tangible. There are the lovely little touches like the fox and the hollow oak. This chapter succesfully takes us through a variety of moods: the nervous anxiety of waiting for Gandalf is powerful, as is the way the simple delight of walking through the idealized countryside of the Shire starts to turn into fear as the Black Riders arrive on the scene. Finally, the arrival of the elves lifts the scope of the story to starlight, Elbereth and the wider Tolkien mythos, and gives Frodo a moment of reflection with Gildor. Thematically, this all takes us further away from the initial image of the Shire as a paradise, as we follow Frodo's gradual alienation from his homeland.

Next time: shrooms.

Jun 20, 2016

Cities: Skylines: Highway to hell, and the Great Commerce Tipping Point

Amidst all the other gaming-related stuff I've been getting up to, I've also found the time to do some more experimenting with Cities: Skylines. Last time, I tried to create a walkable city; this time, it's time for something completely different.

I picked the Black Woods map, and decided to experiment with a city on several islands, connected by motorways. I'll use public transport and invest in walking infrastructure like before, but I do want to see what the traffic gets like if we rely on the pre-built highways to connect different parts of the city together. To make my life a little easier, I'll be preferring offices over industry.

Here's a view of my work in progress. The area on the left is where I started; I next expanded to the island in the center, and next started building on the right. The very regular grid at far right is my massive office zone.


**

First, offices. There are three demand bars on the user interface, just like in Simcity: the green measures residential demand, the blue commercial and the orange jobs, i.e. industry or offices. I was building some high-density residential zones, and there was a pretty robust demand for jobs. I decided to fill this by just building offices for as long as the bar stayed up. This is the end result:


The demand stayed up, I kept zoning offices, and the zones kept filling up. The weird thing is that despite all the office buildings operating, having employees and paying taxes, they create practically no traffic at all. My massive office zone was an eerie, abandoned Edge City wasteland, patrolled by the occasional police cruiser and garbage truck.


But hey, it got people jobs and paid my bills.

**

This is not to say that my city didn't have traffic. On the contrary. With all those beautiful highways out there, my cims sure liked to drive around.


Some of the only real chokepoints I ran into were, unsurprisingly, the highway bridges connecting the island to the mainland.


To be very specific, the problem was merging. As long as everyone stayed on the highway, everything was fine. It's when they get on or off that we get into trouble.


People complain a lot about the way cims pick lanes, and it does at times look very silly from a real-world standpoint to see a massive logjam of cars on one lane of a highway, with the other lanes completely empty. However, these complaints are mostly misguided. Cims pick their lanes perfectly logically and predictably - mostly - and it's your job to plan around that. Basically, in almost all traffic situations, you can tell which cars will end up on which lane, and you can plan your interchanges around that.

My issue was that the second exit on the western mainland was by far the most popular. The exit could handle the traffic, but this meant that a majority of the vehicles on the highway would get in the center lane until they passed the first exit, and then switch lanes to the right. The trouble was, this meant that the center lane got completely backed up, especially when different vehicles changed lanes at different times, bogging down the exit.


To me, situations like this are excellent opportunities to experiment. One of the things I tried was splitting the highway into three ramps, one of which rejoined the highway later. I call this the Acme Interchange.


Believe it or not, this kinda works! However, it's not optimal. There were just too many vehicles getting off at one ramp; even when I got them to line up nicely, the sheer mass of cars going down the single-lane ramp created a constant accordion effect; even though the line was constantly moving, every time someone braked or slowed down, a disruption would ripple down the entire line of cars, backing up traffic at the previous interchange.

The only reasonable solution is to split up the traffic among several exits. The interchange started life as a standard cloverleaf interchange, which you can just plop down from the road menu. The problem with a cloverleaf interchange is weaving: when some cars are trying to get off the highway and others are trying to get on, their paths can cross and end up in a horrible gridlock. In a regular cloverleaf, the off-ramps are before the on-ramps, creating a weaving effect. On my island interchange, I'd gone to some lengths to avoid this with flyovers and slightly more complicated on- and off-ramps.


I eventually decided that the only way to fix my original interchange's problems was to build a flyover. If I could route the traffic coming from the right of the picture onto the freeway heading down (it's not always clear where the compass directions are on a Skylines map), that should make everyone's life much easier. That's what I did, creating what I suppose might be called a slightly complex interchange.


It's certainly the most complex I've built. Effectively, there are two crossing motorways, which are connected with a commercial zone at top right, industrial zones at top left and bottom right, and a residential zone at bottom left, the top two via a roundabout interchange. It may not be pretty, and it takes a massive amount of space, but it works!


**

The Great Commerce Tipping Point

While I was busy building offices and interchanges, my commercial zones suddenly collapsed.


Out of nowhere, all my commercial zones started flashing "Not enough goods to sell", and started shutting down. I had no serious traffic issues, and there are plenty of external connections. This didn't matter: all of a sudden, my commercial buildings were being abandoned wholesale.


In the picture below, every empty blue zone was a leveled commercial building before all this happened.


So not only did my commercial zones inexplicably run out of goods to sell, but demand for commercial zones also collapsed. I don't know what causes this, and neither does the Internet. I obviously went over my traffic connections, looking for traffic jams and not finding any. All of the zones complaining about no goods to sell were well-connected to the outside connections on the map, which means they should have been well able to import everything they needed. Only they weren't.

Since I didn't know what to do, I formulated a hypothesis and tried it. My thinking was that for whatever reason, importing goods wasn't working. What if I tried building more industry, so I could produce the goods myself?

That worked! At first, the industrial zones also complained about not getting imports:


Eventually, though, when I got enough industrial buildings working, the goods situation went away as mysteriously as it had appeared. I still don't know exactly what happened, but I'm assuming that for whatever reason that isn't actual physical traffic capacity, the outside connections couldn't deal with the necessary level of imports. This would seem to imply that a city with no industry and offices only won't work, or requires doing something quite different. I don't know if that's true or not, but at least I learned what to do when my commerce inexplicably collapses.

**

With the goods problem fixed and the last of the nine areas filling up, it was time to call this a finished city, and move on.


Leaving behind a massive traffic jam of cargo ships.


This is exactly like what happens with trains: about half of those ships are traveling between two of my cargo harbors with 4% or 8% cargo on board. Why they don't despawn, I don't know. Some ships do. This doesn't actually seem to cause any problems, because it started long before my goods issues and persisted throughout them; after I fixed that problem, the river was still full of ships:


To conclude: what did I learn?

- offices generate no traffic whatsoever compared to any other kind of zone
- freeway interchanges take up massive amounts of space
- weaving is the highway killer, so think about your merges and build flyovers
- if your commercial zones suddenly collapse because of no goods to sell, see to your traffic situation, and if that's not the problem, build industry. It worked for me.
- Cities: Skylines is still awesome

Jun 13, 2016

LotR LCG: Ships of the Grey Havens

The Grey Havens deluxe expansion combined two things I'm passionate about: the Lord of the Rings card game and sailing ships. I loved the deluxe expansion, but to be honest, the fluff and the art on the ship cards sort of raised my suspicions. So I took it upon myself to figure out what Tolkien wrote about the various ships of Middle-earth.

**

There are very few descriptions of ships in the Lord of the Rings. The ship at the very end of the story, for instance, is simply described as "a white ship". The only hints to its form or function are that it had several sails, which were drawn up, as opposed to being unfurled: "and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth". Bilbo's verses on Eärendil only tell us that his ship was built of timber, and "her prow was fashioned like a swan", although since hobbits in general aren't the most nautical of creatures, this lack of detail isn't all that surprising. The ship he pilots through the heavens, though, is single-masted. In the Silmarillion, rowers are referred to and ships are rowed, suggesting galleys.

Even the description of Númenor and the tale of the mariner's wife in Unfinished Tales give very few details on the actual ships of the Númenorans. The only passage that stands out is in Aldarion and Erendis:

So it was that ere long he turned again from forestry to the building of ships, and a vision came to him of a mighty vessel like a castle with tall masts and great sails like clouds, bearing men and stores enough for a town. Then in the yards of Rómenna the saws and hammers were busy, while among many lesser craft a great ribbed hull took shape; at which men wondered. Turuphanto, the Wooden Whale, they called it, but that was not its name.

The description of a ship like a tall castle with many masts recalls a medieval carrack, but other than that and the mention of constructing the frame first, there isn't a lot to go on.

As for the Corsairs of Umbar, we have the brief description of the fleet making its way up the Anduin:

And looking thither they cried in dismay; for black against the glittering steam they beheld a fleet borne up on the wind: dromunds, and ships of great draught with many oars, and with black sails bellying in the breeze.
- The Lord of the Rings, book V, chapter VI

By dromund I assume Tolkien means dromon, a Byzantine galley. The reference to many oars makes it clear that the other Umbar ships were also large galleys of some kind. As a general note, if oared ships capable of clearing the delta of the Anduin were considered "of great draught", this suggests that ships at the time of the War of the Ring weren't very large by the standards of the age of sail.

**

Another source on the ships of Middle-earth is Pauline Baynes's map, prepared according to instructions from Tolkien. The accompanying article only cites Tolkien's opinion on the colors of the sails, which is, frankly, probably the most useless detail they could have included. But the ships on the map are clearly medieval: there's a galley with black lateen sails, and what looks like an early caravel just off the coast of Umbar. Several other ships have the distinctly high fore- and aftcastles of stylized medieval ships. The two ships seen off Mithlond are also highly stylized, but call to mind Northern European ships with their single square sails and low, symmetrical hulls.

Luckily, the Tolkien Society has provided a transcribed version of the annotated map, allowing us to read Tolkien's instructions on the ships. In the Bay of Belfalas, Ms. Baynes was instructed to draw "vessels of varying sizes, from 3 masts to single". Off Cape Andrast, Tolkien has suggested "9 weatherbeaten galleons", adding "as large a pre-steam vessel as can be drawn i.e. Columbus type". This instruction is nonsensical, and makes it clear that Tolkien had very little idea of ships or sailing. Columbus's ships were not galleons, or for that matter anything near as large as pre-steam vessels could be. Taken literally, Ms. Baynes would have had to draw either massive Spanish galleons or Napoleonic men-of-war, neither of which can be easily squared with the descriptions of ships in Tolkien's texts. The part of the instruction she obeyed was "Columbus type", drawing several carracks, which seems to have been approved by Tolkien (sadly, his Letters don't seem to document any nautical discussions). Off Mithlond, Tolkien requested "single masted elven vessels" as well as "small boats any shape going eastwards", and "elven ships small".

To sum up, then, elven vessels seem to have been small single-masted galleys. The only elf-ship described as having more than one sail was the very last of them, and it's not clear whether there were several masts or if Círdan had incorporated a topsail in the design, or maybe a bonnet. Similarly, the ships of the Corsairs of Umbar were larger galleys, possibly similar to ancient Mediterranean war galleys. This leaves us with the Númenoran shipbuilding tradition. As this seems to have been based on elven examples, we can conjecture that Númenoran ships will have been galleys or possibly something like longships, to account for their seagoing qualities. Combining the account in Unfinished Tales with Ms. Bynes's illustrations, it's possible to speculate that the Númenorans developed something very similar to carracks, which would have given them a great advantage over Corsair galleys in open waters. These carracks still won't have been too large, though, if the galleys coming up the Anduin were of particularly deep draught.

So let's see what the game designers and artists gave us.

The Dream-chaser's Fleet

Dream-chaser


Technically, the Dream-chaser appears to be a barque: there are two square-rigged masts and a gaff-rigged mizzen mast. Or, alternatively, if the fore-and-aft sails are actually on the mainmast, it's a brig, but I'm inclined to think that would make them unfeasibly large. This is basically an 18th-century hull and rig, with the split topsails and topgallants dating it to the end of the 19th century. At first glance, it looks more like a 19th century clipper than any ship I could easily imagine existing in Tolkien's world. The card identifies it as an elven-ship of the Grey Havens, but the appearance of the ship is impossible to reconcile with any descriptions of elf-ships in Tolkien's texts.

Dawn Star


The Dawn Star, on the other hand, is a Gondor ship. The square bow, high aftcastle, crow's nest and oars give a robustly medieval impression, and based on Ms. Baynes's map and Tolkien's texts, this is a fairly good impression of what a top-of-the-line Gondor ship of the approximate time of the Lord of the Rings card game might have looked like. I'd personally suggest that three masts might be a bit much, but given our dearth of information, this is a matter of taste.

Nárelenya


Confusingly, judging from the shape of the hull and the mizzen lateens, the next elven-ship is fairly obviously a galleon. The iconic ship of the Spanish empire, the galleon is a considerably larger and later ship design than anything Tolkien ever described, but also centuries older than the late-19th-century Dream-chaser. It's nothing like the small, sleek elf-ships of Middle-earth.

Silver Wing


The Silver Wing appears to be rigged as a hermaphrodite brig, with square sails on the foremast and a gaff-rig on the mainmast. After the two medieval ships, this is a representative of the golden age of sail; again, centuries off anything to be found in Tolkien's works. Even the two Gondor ships come from entirely disparate eras.

The Umbar Navy

Corsair Warship


I'm not really quite sure what's happening with the sail in the picture there. Looking at the shrouds, though, the mast seems to be quite a bit higher, and there appears to be a second, more substantial mast further aft. The shape of the hull and the oars suggest a large galley of some sort. Two banks of oars are visible; if the third line of ports are also for oars, this would technically be a trireme. In other words, this is a fairly good representation of the kind of ship Tolkien described in the Lord of the Rings.

Light Cruiser


A smaller version of the Corsair Warship, the Light Cruiser almost resembles a longship rather than a Mediterranean galley, except for the twin masts and sailplan, which appear to be an unusual configuration. The deckhouse is also strongly reminiscent of the Med. The ship is broadly in line with both the Warship and Tolkien's text.

Scouting Ship


Finally, the low hull of the Scout Ship quite strongly suggests a Scandinavian "dragon-ship", although the unusual split sail is an innovation.

Some implications

The Corsair ships, then, are quite faithful to Tolkien's writings, but with the exception of the Dawn Star, the ships of the Dream-chaser's fleet are just a mess. A galleon, a hermaphrodite brig and a 19th century barque coexisting uneasily with a medieval carrack and some ancient Mediterranean galleys with very unusual sails. At a guess, the artists were told to draw "a sailing ship", which produced this melange. It's sad that the titular ship of the current adventure pack cycle is the worst offender.

The quest in the Grey Havens that the ships are used in is Voyage Across Belegaer, where the heroes are attempting to outsail a fleet of Corsairs and reach Atalantë. Given that the action happens in the open ocean, the ships of the Dream-chaser's Fleet as depicted on the cards would have no trouble whatsoever sailing clear away from the Corsair galleys. Looking at the sheer amount of canvas the Dream-chaser, Nárelenya and Silver Wing can hoist, under any kind of wind they'd simply vanish over the horizon. It's possible the Dawn Star would have a slightly harder time of it, but it should still be able to outsail anything in the Corsair fleet. The only conditions under which the Corsairs could bring the players' ships to battle would be in a flat calm, where their banks of oars would give a decisive advantage. Bad weather would also disproportionately impact the Corsairs, as their considerably less weatherly ships might be swamped and sunk by seas that the Dream-chaser fleet would easily ride out. So if the ships in any way resembled the art, the scenario they're used in would make no sense.

On the other hand, if the ships of the Grey Havens are one-masted elven longships, possibly accompanied by Gondorian galleys or light carracks, then the quest begins to make a whole lot more sense. The elven ships would probably be smaller but more nimble than the Corsair galleys, whereas the Gondor ships can spread more canvas. At close quarters, however, the larger crews of the Corsair ships could overrun the Dream-chaser fleet, meaning that in order to escape the Corsairs, the Dream-chaser fleet would have to work diligently to stay on their best point of sailing. Bad weather might be to the advantage of the Corsairs in forcing the smaller elven-ships to ease off.

So to sum up, the sailing quest in the Grey Havens would make sense for the kinds of ships Tolkien actually described, but fails completely with the ones actually depicted. That makes this a unique case in the Lord of the Rings card game where we can legitimately complain about the art! For my money, the Grey Havens is still the best deluxe expansion in the whole game: the quests are great, the player cards are pretty sweet and the art is lovely. The only exception is the ships, which I do have to say I'm very disappointed in.

Jun 6, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 21: The Shadow of the Past

The talk did not die down in nine or even ninety-nine days.

Bilbo's dramatic departure is the talk of the whole Shire. Popular opinion has it that Bilbo finally went mad and ran off into the wild, and it's all Gandalf's fault. Meanwhile, Frodo settles in at Bag End to a life of, well, I'm not actually sure what, exactly. Material comfort, certainly, but all we're told is that he lives on his own and takes long walks around the countryside, and is therefore considered slightly strange. What he lives on I have no idea. Certainly Frodo has no trade, nor did Bilbo, yet a year from the previous chapter, he can give a birthday party for himself and the absent Bilbo where "it snowed food and rained drink". As no landholdings or business dealings are suggested, the easiest explanation seems to be that Frodo inherits a massive pile of wealth from Bilbo that enables him to basically loaf around. This does raise several interesting questions, though: where did the Baggins fortune come from? Where is it kept, if there aren't any jools to be found in Bag End? Is there a hobbit bank? We have no idea. Throughout, everything related to the practicalities of life in the Shire is elided.

In addition to his moonlit walks, Frodo has a couple of friends, most importantly Meriadoc ("Merry") Brandybuck, who we met previously in the previous chapter, and Peregrin ("Pippin") Took. Note the last names: these are representatives of two of the most ancient and influential families in the Shire. In other words, Frodo's social circle is a hobbit Drones Club.

Gandalf doesn't show up again for years, and Frodo spends his time trying to gather any news of the outside world he can. What he hears is grim: the Necromancer of Mirkwood, a figure barely mentioned in the Hobbit, has been driven out of Mirkwood, only to take residence in Mordor. There's talk of orcs, trolls and war. This dark foreshadowing is juxtaposed with a barroom conversation in the Green Dragon, a Shire inn, where we meet Sam Gamgee, the son of Bilbo's gardener. Sam tries to start up a serious conversation about current events, like a walking tree his cousin saw in the Northfarthing, but he's defeated by the relentless schoolyard witticisms of Ted Sandyman, the miller's son, who's hell-bent on deflecting everything the slightly dreamy Sam says with a cheap joke. For my money, the conversation is an excellent example of the duality of Tolkien's Shire. On the one hand, we've seen that it's an idealized minarchist paradise. On the other, though, there's a certain oppressiveness to the aggressively small-minded Sandyman and his approving audience, who are convinced that both Bilbo and Frodo are completely mad, and only fit to be laughed at. Their confident dismissal of all potentially uncomfortable outside news as moonshine and nonsense only fit for crackpots is all too familiar.

**

Speaking of crackpots and moonshine, Gandalf eventually shows up, and the bulk of the chapter is taken up by a conversation between him and Frodo. In the first chapter, Tolkien had Bilbo hand over the narrative baton to Frodo and make his exit; in this one, he lays out the groundwork for Frodo's own, much darker story. There's a gradual buildup of tension throughout, from the ominous tidings of the beginning to Gandalf's dramatic revelations, and also a gradual estrangement of Frodo and the reader from the Shire. What may have seemed to be a rustic paradise starts to look like an insular, ignorant backwater.

To make a long story short, Gandalf tells Frodo and the reader all about the Rings of Power: forged by the Elven-smiths of old, powerful and perilously corrupting to mortals. We're told that Gollum's ring, the ring Bilbo gave to Frodo, is definitely a Great Ring, and was responsible for his longevity. Gandalf points out the similarities between Gollum's story of getting the Ring as a "birthday present" and Bilbo's almost inexplicable lies to the dwarves about how he got it, and calls the Ring "an unwholesome power". Saruman and his ring-lore is mentioned as assuaging Gandalf's fears, but his argument with Bilbo in the previous chapter finally prompted him to find out once and for all what the Ring really is, and he's now come to Bag End to perform the final experiment. Gandalf throws the Ring into Frodo's fireplace, and the fire reveals an inscription on it. This confirms that it's the Ring of Sauron, the One Ring to rule them all.

Gandalf proceeds to give the terrified Frodo a concise account of the Rings: three for the elves, seven for the dwarves, nine for men and the One Ring, with which Sauron dominated the Nine and into which he invested much of his power. The Ring was taken from Sauron in war by Isildur, son of Elendil, who later fell, and the Ring was lost in the Great River - where Gollum eventually found it. We're also told the story of how the Ring turned Sméagol into the Gollum we met in the Hobbit, and how losing the Ring eventually drove him out from under the mountains, and eventually to Mordor, where Sauron, the Enemy, has re-established himself.

So we now know that the Ring Frodo carries is in fact an incredibly powerful and dangerous artifact of the Enemy, and that he knows where to find it: in the hands of the thief Baggins, in the Shire. The question, obviously, is what to do with it. Frodo suggests destroying it, but can't bring himself to even try. He offers it to Gandalf, who emphatically refuses: the corrupting power of the Ring would be an even more horrible threat to him than it is to Frodo. Gandalf's opinion is that the only way to destroy the Ring is to take it to Orodruin, the great volcano of Mordor where it was originally forged, and throw it into the Cracks of Doom. Eventually, Frodo decides to leave the Shire with the Ring, to hide it from the enemy and keep the Shire safe until they figure out what to do.

There's a brief interlude as Gandalf warns Frodo of the Enemy's many spies, and reaches out of the window to grab an eavesdropping Sam Gamgee. Sam confesses to having listened to their conversation, and wants to go with Frodo, which Gandalf decrees will be suitable punishment for his eavesdropping. Confusingly, Sam repeats the phrase "Lor bless you/me" several times when questioned by Gandalf; one of the few direct references to god in the book. And so it's settled: Frodo will leave the Shire, under the nom de guerre Mr. Underhill, accompanied by Sam.

**

In J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey puts forward the idea that the Lord of the Rings is suffused by a tension between two fundamentally incompatible theories of evil; in his words:

...a deep-seated contradiction between Boethian and Manichean opinions, between authority and experience, between evil as an absence ("the Shadow") and evil as a force ("the Dark Power").
(Author, 134-135)

One of the key passages Shippey refers to is in this chapter, as Frodo gives Gandalf the Ring.

It felt suddenly very heavy, as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it.

This, to Shippey, is the great question: does the Ring represent an active outside evil, or does it merely amplify the evil in Frodo?

One can never tell for sure, in The Lord of the Rings, whether the danger of the Ring comes from inside, and is sinful, or from outside, and is merely hostile.
(Author, 142)

As quoted above, Shippey labels these views Boethian and Manichean, after the Roman senator Boëthius, author of De Consolatione Philosophiae, and the religion founded by the prophet Mani respectively. Unfortunately, this is where we get into trouble, because Shippey has got his theology quite badly wrong.

Boëthius did, as Shippey says, identify evil as an absence of good, and argued that therefore evil is fundamentally weaker than good, and in the long run its purposes will turn against itself. This is fairly orthodox Platonism and therefore also good Christian theology: since god is the omnipotent creator, evil cannot have equal status or power to good. In this sense, Shippey's identification of Boëthius with "authority" is correct.

However, for some reason I can't understand, Shippey equates this with a denial of the very existence of evil:

The trouble with this view [Boëthius] is that it is both highly counterintuitive, and in many circumstances extremely dangerous. One might, for instance, conclude that the proper response to it, if you accepted it, would be to become a conscientious objector, and to refuse to resist what appears to be evil on the ground that this is just a misapprehension.
(Author, 133)

The key argument here is in Saruman-like weasel words! One might, after all, conclude anything from anything, human inventiveness being almost unlimited, but to go from Boëthius's discussion of the ultimate futility of evil to a notion that evil will automatically defeat itself - let alone that it doesn't actually exist! - and therefore does not need to be fought is a leap of logic that De Consolatione Philosophiae in no way suggests or even supports. More importantly, the idea that orthodox Christian theology maintains evil should not be actively resisted is quite clearly wrong. So to create his juxtaposition between two views of evil, Shippey ends up distorting Boëthius and Christian theology quite badly.

Shippey's construction of Manicheanism is similarly flawed. In defining the two theories as "...the internal/Boethian and external/Manichean theories of evil" (Author, 136), and equating Manicheanism with "experience" versus "authority", what Shippey is actually saying is that a belief in an external, active force of evil is not authoritative Christian theology. In other words, for a Christian to believe in the existence of Satan is a heresy. This is simply absurd, and shows the terrible confusion of ideas at the heart of Shippey's analysis. The actual Manichean heresy is the notion that the created world is a battleground between equally matched powers of good and evil, not the existence of any active evil whatsoever.

In Christian theology, the contradiction Shippey sees between the Ring either being a manifestation of an external evil or an amplifier of the desire to evil inside everyone is a false dichotomy. It is quite clearly both, and both aspects are direct results of what Tolkien named as the first fundamental principle of what "all this stuff" is about (Letters, 131): the Fall.

The Fall generally refers to the Fall of Man, i.e. the incident with the fruit I dealt with in the previous installment of this series. Before the Fall of Man, however, was the fall of the angels; "God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell" (2 Peter 2:4). Tolkien opens the Silmarillion with the story of the creation, which is marred when Melkor tries to hijack it to his own ends. He fails, and is banished from heaven; "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven", as Jesus says in the gospel of Luke (10:18). Christian theology came to identify Satan with the serpent of Paradise, who brings about the Fall of Man. Therefore, it's because of these two Falls from grace that humanity is imperfect in itself and lives in an imperfect world, under threat from the forces of evil.

So in Christian doctrine, the two theories of evil that Shippey considers as opposites both follow from the same event, which Tolkien placed at the core of his work: the Fall. The Ring and its Lord are manifestations of active evil, Sauron himself being a former subordinate of the Satan-analogue Melkor. Because Melkor is weaker than his creator, his rebellion will, in the end, fail, as will Sauron's; a solidly Boëthian view that expressly rejects Manicheanism by reaffirming the superiority of good. However, the conflict against evil isn't a simple matter of good guys in white hats fighting bad guys in black hats, let alone the notion mentioned in connection to the Hobbit of a side that is "100% good" fighting pure evil, because the good guys are fallen as well.

Shippey is right in maintaining that Tolkien framed his view of evil in response to a heresy, but he's got the wrong heresy. If anything, Tolkien's concern is with Pelagianism. Attributed - possibly incorrectly - to a fourth-century ascetic from Britain, Pelagianism is the idea that people can choose to act ethically and in accordance with god's will and laws. In this thinking, the role of faith and revelation was to guide people toward the right choices. Pelagianism was strongly opposed by Augustine, who taught that the original sin of eating fruit had destroyed humanity's ability to live ethically, and people could not avoid sin simply through the exercise of their will. Shippey detects this theme but doesn't understand it:

If evil was just the absence of good, then the Ring could never be more than a psychic amplifier, and all the characters would need to do would be to put it aside, perhaps give it to Tom Bombadil: in Middle-Earth we are assured that would be fatal. (Author, 142)

The problem is framed in terms of Shippey's false dichotomy, but even if we accept that the Ring is only a "psychic amplifier" and does no harm if not used, then why is it that Frodo can't just lock it in a drawer and forget about it? Because that would be Pelagianism. In a story whose central theme is the Fall, it isn't possible to resist the temptation of evil through will alone. Even Gandalf must refuse the Ring, because even an angel can fall from grace, and even more so a mortal like Frodo. The Ring must be destroyed because it can be neither used nor refused.

So if we want to frame the problem of evil in the Lord of the Rings in terms of early Christian philosophy, we can say that Tolkien takes a steadfastly Boëthian and Augustinian view of evil that is entirely orthodox, and decisively rejects the heresies of Manicheanism and Pelagianism. The force that doesn't want to give the Ring to Gandalf is both an external and an internal evil, both Ring and Frodo: sin, both active rebellion and inherited fruit-eating. In Tolkien's terms, what the Ring is is a Machine built to defeat the plans of God. It gives Frodo long life, defying Mortality, and tempts him to a further Fall into sin. Because the Machine is inherently evil, and all creatures are inherently imperfect due to the Fall, the only possible solution is to destroy the Machine. After this chapter, this is now what we know Frodo must attempt.

**

So the second chapter introduces us to Tolkien's view of evil, which is deeply rooted in Christian theology. Does that make the Lord of the Rings a Christian novel? Tolkien certainly thought it did. However, if you put aside daft stories about women eating fruit because of snakes, there's also a much simpler way to view the Ring, and with it the central moral of the story: power corrupts.

It's been seriously maintained by some critics that there isn't really any particular difference between the good and evil side in the Lord of the Rings. They can't have read the book very intelligently, if at all, to arrive at this conclusion, and the Ring is the reason they're wrong. If the good guys were just bad guys in lighter-colored hats, then they'd have no qualms whatsoever about taking the Ring and using it to destroy Sauron. Instead of using this power they find in their hands, they instead want to destroy it, so no-one can use it. Given that this is a fairly crucial plot point, it's actually quite difficult to understand how a critic could miss it. When Frodo offers Gandalf the Ring, he physically recoils:

"No!" cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. "With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly." His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. "Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself."

The point made here and reiterated several times is that unlike so many other stories, the difference between the good guys and the bad guys is not that they're designated good or bad respectively. Instead, if you give the good guys too much power, they become bad guys. So the chief virtue in this world is to refuse power. It's simply astonishing that this can be interpreted as fascism. It's pretty much as close to its exact opposite as possible.

Unfortunately for Tolkien's faith, we don't need to believe in silly primordial fruit-eating stories to understand that power corrupts. This is also firmly in line with Tolkien's liberal, even anarchist political views. However, as we'll see, Tolkien isn't exactly consistent with this theme. For now, though, in the minarchist rural utopia that is the Shire, the idea of Power as a terrible evil to be firmly resisted is quite plausible. On a personal note, it never occurred to me to attribute the Ring's corrupting powers to fruit, let alone to begin constructing a theology of the Machine around it. The story of the Ring works as an allegory of political power just as well as of the Fall, and the first is what I always read it as. In retrospect, I think it was probably Tolkien who set me off on a personal political trajectory that ended up in my becoming a conscientious objector. I don't know what he would have made of that.

**

So there's quite a lot riding on this chapter. Not only does it give us Tolkien's philosophy of sin and evil, touch on themes like "peace in our time" and the death penalty, but it also sets the scene for the entire story: Frodo's role as Ringbearer, leaving the Shire like Bilbo to go on an adventure completely unlike Bilbo's, not to find treasure but to destroy it. Stylistically, this is a really heavy chapter, with lots of speech and reported speech, stories, names and histories. It's also, for whatever reason, my favorite chapter in the whole book. I've always found the darkening, ominous mood and the dimly remembered stories of the past coming to profoundly frightening life in the present to be compelling and strongly evocative. Now that I think about it, it's entirely possible that this chapter had a hand in my choice of vocation as well.

Be that as it may, this chapter's job is to set the scene. Now we know what Frodo's Ring is, who the Enemy is, and why the Ring needs to be destroyed. For my money, this is done quite well; Gandalf tells his story effectively, and most importantly, as a character, rather than an encyclopedia-like info dump. Crucially, we've also been introduced to the main themes of the story: power and corruption.

Next time: rambling hobbits, singing elves and black riders.