Jun 12, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 33: The Council of Elrond

Next day Frodo woke early, feeling refreshed and well.

For the second chapter in a row, we begin with Frodo waking up in Rivendell. He goes for a walk, but doesn't get far until he runs into Bilbo and Gandalf, who escort him to a porch of Elrond's hall, where a council is assembling. Elrond is presiding, and presents Frodo. Glorfindel, Glóin and Strider Frodo recognizes, and he's now introduced to Glóin's son Gimli. Among the elves present are Erestor, chief counsellor of Elrond, and Galdor from the Grey Havens west of the Shire, as well as Legolas from the Woodland Realm. Finally, Boromir is introduced as "a man from the South".

We're only given a selection from what gets debated at the council, but it's still quite a lot. First up is Glóin, who fills us in on how the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain have been doing since Bilbo left for home. For whatever reason, despite the recovery of Erebor, the dwarves became unhappy and started raving about Moria. We don't actually really learn what or where Moria is, exactly, except that it's some great undertaking of their fathers. "Too deep we delved there, and woke the nameless fear," Glóin says, but the fear remains nameless. Eventually - thirty years ago - Balin left for Moria, taking many other dwarves, including Ori and Óin, with him. At first, they had word of him at the Lonely Mountain, but then Moria was quiet.

Balin's fate, however, isn't the only thing bothering Glóin. A year ago, Dáin - still King under the Mountain - received a messenger from Mordor, asking after a hobbit thief and a ring he stole from Sauron. He promises that should the dwarves find this ring, "but a trifle that Sauron fancies", he will return three of the rings of the dwarves to them. If not, there will be war. So Glóin has been sent, to warn Bilbo and seek the wisdom of Elrond.

This Elrond promises Glóin he shall receive. The concerns of the dwarves - and the trifle that Sauron fancies - are all one and the same problem. Elrond then launches on his own exposition, telling the history of Sauron and the Ring: how the Elven-smiths of Eregion befriended Sauron, who wasn't yet blatantly obviously evil, and the Rings were forged; chief among them the One Ring, made in secret by Sauron to rule the others. Númenor fell, but the Kings of Men came from there to Middle-earth, and together with the elves fought Sauron. There's a digression when Elrond reminiscences on "the splendour of their banners", startling Frodo, who needs to have it explained to him that Elrond is like really old.

Elrond was the herald of Gil-galad, the Elven-king, and fought with him when both the kings of men and elves, Gil-galad and Elendil, died. They defeated Sauron, however, and Isildur, Elendil's son, took the Ring from him with his father's broken sword. Only Isildur, Elrond and Círdan of the Havens were there, and Isildur refused to destroy the Ring, claiming it as weregild for his father. Eventually Isildur died, betrayed by the Ring which was then named Isildur's Bane, but the shards of his sword were brought to the North.

Although the Free Peoples won the war, Sauron was not destroyed, and the winners were weakened. Many had died, and the elves began to be estranged from men. While the southern realm of Gondor built great fortresses to keep watch on Mordor, the men of the North dwindled. In our first encounter with Tolkien's pseudo-Howardian racial doctrines, the pure blood of Númenor weakened, and the northern realms fell into ruin. Gondor also declined, and the watch on Mordor was neglected.

Boromir protests at this, and I certainly don't blame him: I wouldn't sit around quietly listening to some asshole complain about how the blood of my people has declined through racial mixing either. He counters racism with racism: maybe their blood isn't what it used to be, but "by our valour the wild folk of the East are still restrained". Thank you, Boromir. He talks about the war between Gondor and Mordor, the latter now bolstered by the Easterlings and the people of Harad, as well as a terrifying black horseman that scares the shit out of everyone. He gets in a complaint that the people Gondor protects aren't very grateful, and then explains why he's there: to get Elrond to interpret his dream. Both Boromir and his brother had a dream that told them to seek out Imladris, that is Rivendell, and the Sword that Was Broken; there will also be a Halfling, and Isildur's Bane.

The dream-interpretation, of course, is right at hand: Strider throws down his broken sword, and gets his official introduction from Elrond as that dude who creeps on my daughter Aragorn son of Arathorn, the heir of Isildur and Elendil, chief of the Dúnedain of the North. Finally, Frodo reluctantly brings forth the Ring. Boromir doubts Aragorn, but Bilbo spits some rhyme at him, and now it's Aragorn's turn to speechify.

Aragorn talks about how the Rangers of the North keep people safe, also for little or no thanks. Attention readers, it has been one (1) chapter since anyone was fat-shamed.

"Strider" I am to one fat man who lives within a day's march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly.

Attention readers, it has now been zero (0) chapters since anyone was fat-shamed. Aragorn and Boromir are effectively having a really weird passive-aggressive victimization contest, where they're both making a whole production of their selfless secret sacrifices that no-one appreciates and that Aragorn claims they don't complain about while complaining about them. Eventually, he gets to the point, which is that he so is dead butch, and will come to Gondor to prove it.

Boromir, reasonably, wants to know how anyone knows that Frodo's ring is, in fact, Isildur's Bane, and how it ended up with a hobbit. This is Bilbo's cue, and he tells his story, complete with an acknowledgement that he lied to Glóin about it earlier. Frodo is up next, and after he's finished, Galdor of the Havens has several questions. Where was Gandalf? Where's Saruman? And how does anyone actually know that Frodo's ring is the One Ring? To answer all this, Elrond finally calls on Gandalf himself to speak.

For starters, Gandalf starts filling us in on recent events. We now learn that Gandalf's visit to the dungeons of the Necromancer, briefly mentioned in the Hobbit, revealed that the Necromancer was in fact Sauron. The White Council - that is, Elrond, Gandalf and their buddies - drove him out, only to see him establish himself in Mordor. Saruman, briefly mentioned in Chapter 2 as Gandalf's boss, advised everyone to not mind Sauron, and even when they learned he was seeking the One Ring, Saruman assured everyone it can't be found: having fallen into the river, it'll have ended up in the Sea.

Gandalf didn't trust him. He wanted to know how the Ring ended up with Gollum, but Gollum was nowhere to be found. While Aragorn started searching for Gollum, Gandalf traveled to Gondor, and in the archives of Minas Tirith he found a scroll where Isildur described the ring he took off the defeated Sauron. The Ring was still hot, and the writing on it could be read, so Isildur transcribed it. Meanwhile, Aragorn had found Gollum. Gandalf learned that Gollum had lived many lifespans of his kind already, and crucially, had found the Ring in the Great River, near the Gladden Fields where Isildur fell. Finally, Gandalf recites the phrase he read off the Ring in Bag End in Chapter 2, which is the same as recorded by Isildur.

So Bilbo's and Frodo's ring is definitely the One Ring. What's more, Gollum had also visited Mordor, so Sauron knew as well, and must by now know that it's in Rivendell. Boromir asks what became of Gollum, and Legolas speaks up to report that he's escaped from the Woodland Realm where he was being held.

After a brief complaint from Glóin, who also once escaped from the Woodland Realm, Gandalf answers Galdor's other questions, and tells the story of his encounter with Saruman. In June, Gandalf had met his co-wizard, Radagast the Brown, who told him that the Nazgûl - the Ring-wraiths - were on the move, looking for a place called the Shire. But Radagast also passed on a message from Saruman, offering his help; and so Gandalf leaves a letter with Barliman Butterbur at Bree and heads off to Saruman's digs: the tower of Orthanc in Isengard, way at the southern end of the Misty Mountains.

At Orthanc, Saruman gives Gandalf a speech on how they should either ally with Sauron or take the Ring for themselves, so they could rule over Middle-earth as benign dictators for the greater good of everyone. When Gandalf refuses, Saruman imprisons him on the pinnacle of Orthanc until he reveals the location of the Ring. With the help of the Great Eagles, Gandalf manages to escape to Rohan, where the king tells him to take a horse and leave, so Gandalf takes his best horse and heads for the Shire. He gets into a fight with the Nazgûl at Weathertop, which Frodo and co. saw in the distance in Chapter 11, and manages to draw off some of them on his way to Rivendell.

Finally, with the whole story told, the council needs to decide what to do with the Ring. Elrond leads with the summing-up, and the first suggestion, by Erestor, to send the Ring to Bombadil, is sensibly dismissed. Glorfindel suggests throwing it into the ocean, which Gandalf rejects:

There are many things in the deep waters; and seas and lands may change. And it is not our part here to take thought only for a season, or for a few lives of Men, or for a passing age of the world. We should seek a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one.

Going through their options, the council decide that the Ring can neither be hidden or sent away. Elrond speaks the last remaining option: sending the Ring to the Fire where it was made.

At this Boromir speaks up, wanting to know why they can't use the Ring themselves. Elrond explains that it was made by Sauron and is evil; anyone who uses it to vanquish Sauron will simply become another Sauron in his place. Boromir isn't convinced. Still, the question of who will take the Ring hangs in the air. Bilbo volunteers, but is gently refused.

Finally, Frodo speaks up, and offers to bear the Ring to Mordor.

**

I said last time that there was lots of exposition coming, and I meant it. This chapter is practically entirely made up of reported speech, at best I think third-order: Gandalf says Radagast told him that Saruman had said something. The second chapters of books in the Lord of the Rings tend to be heavy on exposition, and this is the heaviest of them all: led by Elrond, several characters go over what is, essentially, the whole story of the One Ring and Sauron's attempts to recover it. It sets the entire novel in context and places it firmly in Tolkien's mythos; after the Council, we know pretty much all the major players in the story and their histories, and crucially, what the Ring is and why it needs to be destroyed. In that sense, this is one of the most crucial chapters in the whole of the Lord of the Rings. And as such, there's a lot to get through here.

**

The first speaker, Glóin, is concerned that unless they help Sauron find the Ring, he'll attack them:

If we make no answer, the Enemy may move Men of his rule to assail King Brand, and Dáin also.

He's right, too: the first time I played War of the Ring, I invaded not only Dale but the Woodland Realm as well with my Easterlings. To unconscionably jump ahead of our chronology, Appendix B of the Lord of the Rings tells us that Sauron did this as well, and took Dale, but committed the rookie mistake of settling down to besiege Erebor rather than driving on into the Woodland Realm, which tends to be an easier two victory points and also frees the forces at Dol Guldur to focus on Lórien.

To return to the narrative, the reason Balin goes to Moria is "a shadow of disquiet" that falls on the dwarves. Unfortunately, as discussed previously, it's very possible that this is another one of Tolkien's meditations on Jewishness, which he claims dwarves are allegories things that aren't allegories but are exactly like them for. But the shadow also recalls (precalls?) some incidents in the Silmarillion where Morgoth was talented at sowing discord at a distance, and Glóin's admission that Balin went looking for a ring connects this escapade directly with the broader matters of the Council.

Starting with Glóin is a good choice, because whatever Tolkien's notions of Jewishness, he writes dwarves well, and Glóin serves to connect the council to the events of the Hobbit, letting us orient ourselves.

**

The history of the Ring introduces us to the notion at the heart of Tolkien's racism, and perhaps also his classism: blood. Throughout, Tolkien treats heredity as defining, explaining both individual character traits and collective behaviour with blood. We'll have more direct examples of this later on, but suffice to say that it's a recurring theme.

The waning of the blood of Númenor is where the blood trope meets an even more central concern of Tolkien's: decline. If I had to pick one theme that suffuses the Lord of the Rings, I'd say it's decline and loss. The fall of empires has been an European obsession since, well, a good part of the ancestors of modern Europeans found themselves among the ruins of Roman, Egyptian and other ancient empires. Thence the precursor trope in so much speculative fiction, then; an ongoing concern in the West at least since Gibbon, taken up by fascists with Spengler and still parroted on both ends of the political spectrum today. Intriguingly, as
an article in Foreign Policy last year pointed out, apocalyptic fiction isn't particularly popular in China, but we still love it. Tolkien's account of the waning of Gondor strikes a decidedly Spenglerian note, so much so that this is certainly where Tolkien comes closest to anything actually resembling fascism. Gondor declining because "the blood of the Númenorans became mingled with that of lesser men" could be straight out of a fever dream of Eurabia, or indeed Mein Kampf.

Tolkien, however, is not consistent with this. It's worth noting that both of his major protagonists are of "mixed blood"; in Chapter One we were treated to an extended bar-room discussion of Frodo's dubious parentage ("Baggins is his name, but he's more than half a Brandybuck, they say"), echoing the first chapter of the Hobbit, where Bilbo was defined through the conflict between his stolidly respectable Baggins heritage and his adventurous Took blood. Elrond is famed for his legendary wisdom - and his sobriquet is "Half-elven". What's more, the "pure blood of Númenor" is the result of intermingling three different races: elves, humans and through Lúthien's mother Melian, angels. In the central romance of Tolkien's legendarium, a half-elf, half-angel woman is wooed by a human man, and later two of their distant descendants, an elf-woman and a man of Númenoran descent, repeat the process. So while Tolkien framed the story of Gondor as a Spenglerian parable of racial decline, there's simply no way to read his work as a polemic against racial mixing. If anything, Elrond's speech on Gondor is an anomaly. Certainly Tolkien never suggests trying to arrest decline by safeguarding racial purity or any such properly fascist notion. Maybe Elrond is a Nazi?

Robert E. Howard conceived of his fictional world as a constant struggle between different races, intermittently rising toward civilization or collapsing into barbarism.

These stone age kingdoms clashed, and in a series of bloody wars, the outnumbered Atlanteans were hurled back into a state of savagery, and the evolution of the Picts was halted. Five hundred years after the Cataclysm the barbaric kingdoms have vanished. It is now a nation of savages - the Picts - carrying on continual warfare with tribes of savages - the Atlanteans.
- Robert E. Howard: The Hyborian Age, in Howard: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, Ballantine Books, 2003; p. 382

Howard's notions recall those of H.P. Blavatsky and her "root-races", as do several of his "races" and locales, like Lemuria and so on. Tolkien's ideas are very different, because they're rooted in Christianity. Christian time proceeds from creation to apocalypse, and it gets worse as the end gets nearer. This is also the nature of the decline in the Lord of the Rings: through the Fall, mankind (as it surely was to Tolkien!) has become estranged from God, and the rift will only be healed at the end of time. Until then, things are just going to keep on getting worse. So the decline of Gondor, say, couldn't have been averted with laws against mixing blood or anything like that, because no Machine can counteract the Fall. One of the strongest themes in the Lord of the Rings is that nothing will ever be the same: loss is irrevocable. The good old days are gone and will not return. So for Gondor, so for all mankind. This, rather than racial purity, is what the theme of decline is based on.

**

In the tale of Isildur, the Ring is perhaps more clearly than ever sin, and a commentary on pre-Christian Germanic society. Isildur's actions in Mordor are straight out of a Norse saga: he claims the One Ring as weregild, literally man-money, for his father and brother. In Germanic customary law, practiced in Scandinavia, Anglo-Saxon England and elsewhere, everyone had a price, and the penalty for injuring or killing a person was financial restitution, either to them or their kin. Isildur's claim seems to be in accordance with at least the spirit of this idea: the Ring is literally compensation for his dead kinsfolk. However, Isildur fails to realize that the Ring is cursed.

Now, cursed rings are nothing new to the sagas; in the Völsunga saga, arguably one of the most significant inspirations for Tolkien's Middle-earth stories, the famous story of the weregild of Otr is directly connected to the cursed ring Andvaranaut. I don't think we'd be wrong, however, to read a more significant commentary into Isildur's failure, because the One Ring is more than a cursed ring of the sagas: it's a Machine, i.e. it is sin. Remember that unlike Andvaranaut, there's no specific curse on the One Ring. It's an instrument of domination that grants power according to the measure of its wielder. In a saga, it might have been a powerful and valuable artifact. Its curse is that it's been designed to oppose God; in mortal hands, it circumvents death, which is, after all, the original sin. The reason Isildur makes the mistake of claiming the Ring is, arguably, that his Germanic system of weregilds and honor lacks the concepts necessary to understand and deal with sin. Because of this omission, all his pagan valor is for naught, and his claim of weregild is really nothing more than Gollum's absurd story of his birthday-present: a self-justification for succumbing to temptation.

**

Gandalf's conversation with Saruman deserves attention as one of the few passages in the Lord of the Rings where Tolkien is explicitly political. Here's Saruman:

The Younger Days are beginning. The time of the elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which We must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.

Reading this, it's difficult to avoid the impression that Michael Moorcock and the critics who follow him can't tell the difference between Gandalf and Saruman. Here's what Moorcock has to say of the works of Tolkien and other "enlightened Tories" in Epic Pooh:

They don't ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what's best for us.

There is simply no way to square this claim with the conversation between Gandalf and Saruman in this chapter. Saruman offers exactly what Moorcock claims Tolkien does: a world of law and order, presided over by powerful white men who know best. Somehow Moorcock must have missed the part where Gandalf unambiguously refuses to have any part in this whatsoever.

I recently happened upon Erin Horáková's wonderful Kirk Drift, where she argues that our idea of what Jim Kirk from the original Star Trek was like has been completely distorted, to the point where the popular notion of original series Kirk has practically nothing in common with how the character was portrayed. I strongly believe a similar argument needs to be made about Lord of the Rings; as with Horáková and Star Trek, not to immunize it from criticism, but rather to criticize the work itself, not the strange notion of it floating around in our popular culture. Tolkien has come to stand in for reactionary, patriarchal, racist fantasy in a way far beyond any examples of these tendencies found in his actual texts. To paraphrase Horáková, the Lord of the Rings has been colonised by a fascist reading by several mechanisms of mismemory. Saruman has become Gandalf.

The way popular notions of Tolkien manage to make Gandalf into the fascist of the piece and claim that good and evil are indistinguishable in the books is, simply put, a completely monstrous distortion of the original. This is especially bizarre in an era when the suave fascist demagogue Tolkien portrays Saruman as has made a comeback into Western politics that would have seemed unthinkable a little over a decade ago. Can many of us read Saruman's speech to Gandalf and not recognize the brutal fascism it conceals inside its rhetorical flourishes? It's among us now, as it was before Tolkien when he wrote this chapter. We may not agree that a privileged Catholic monarchism is the way to defeat the Sarumans of our time - I certainly do not! - but to lump Tolkien among them is completely, willfully ignorant. He was undoubtedly a reactionary conservative, his remarks on Jewishness alone make it clear he was a racist and an anti-Semite, and, well, he managed to write an entire novel without a single female character. But he was also strongly antifascist.

I'm inclined to speculate that one reason this has happened is that turning Tolkien into this fascist ghoul has been terribly handy for both sides of the culture wars. Left-wing reception of Tolkien has, to my knowledge, been consistently hostile, not least because of how useful a strawman the "arch-conservative" reading of Lord of the Rings is. There's a strange tendency in fantasy to self-advertise by insisting that one's fantasy offering isn't like "other fantasy" - not that it's ever clear what that "other fantasy" actually is. A fascist caricature of Tolkien is very handy for this.

Similarly, many on the extreme right have found inspiration and encouragement in a work that seems to be directly opposed to their worldview. As I'm writing this, the leadership of Finland's far-right racist party is being contested by two fascists, one an atheist at that, both of whom are avowed fans of Tolkien - and we find them competing for the position of Saruman. The caricature Tolkien's fascism must, to them, be an endorsement.

In my mind, one fundamental reason for this is the neglect and misunderstanding of Tolkien's theology. To read fascist values of obedience, authority and racist cruelty into Tolkien, one has to be almost wilfully blind to the theological underpinnings of his work. Even neglecting them, though, leaves large parts of the Lord of the Rings completely irreconcilable with the popular authoritarian caricature of Tolkien. Foremost among them is Gandalf's debate with Saruman in this chapter, which should make very clear that virtue is most definitely not found in submitting to the authority of white men in grey clothes. Saruman's language, ordering things "for that good which only the Wise can see", "deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order", is the language of 20th century totalitarianism, and it remains the language of 21st century authoritarians. Throw in a crack about unrestrained immigration and it could be a Theresa May speech. Tolkien firmly rejects it. Any critique that misses this is not a critique of Tolkien.

**

Finally, the council figures out what to do to the Ring. This is also a key part of the politics and ethics of the Lord of the Rings. Foremost, of course, is the idea that evil needs to be faced here and now, not postponed, ignored or hidden away. But most crucially, evil can't be fought with evil. This is why it's so preposterous to claim that the Lord of the Rings preaches submission to authority, or that it's a clash of "100% good" with "100% evil". If either of these were the case, the Council of Elrond would be a very simple affair: simply give the Ring to Gandalf and he'll destroy the Dark Lord, and everything will be fine. If this was Harry Potter and the Ring of Power, say, there'd be no trouble at all. But it isn't. In Tolkien's theology, the Ring is a Machine: an object fundamentally opposed to God. Not even the best of the good in the world can use it; as I argued in Chapter 2, that would be heresy. Power, especially the power of the Enemy, corrupts. No-one, not even the men who know what's best for us, can be trusted with it. If there's one theme at the very heart of the Lord of the Rings, this is it.

**

Whew! That was some heavy exposition. Tolkien gets us through it, though, I think because the structure of the chapter is succesful. We start with Glóin, who takes a fairly small perspective that also ties into the Hobbit, giving us an easy start and broaching the subject of the Ring. Elrond can then give his talk on the history of the Ring, already foreshadowed earlier, and introduce both Aragorn and Boromir, as well as Gondor and the heirs of Isildur. With the scene now quite thoroughly set, Gandalf wraps up the exposition by linking it to the previous events of the book, and carrying the narrative to where we are now. So while this really is a huge amount of information, it works because the speeches lead into each other logically. There are also some good stylistic touches, like the subtly different ways the main participants speak, and the interjections, like Bilbo's poem, break up the exposition and make the whole sequence seem more alive.

Once the stories are all told, the council deliberates on what to do, setting down the key moral of the whole novel: ends do not justify means, and power corrupts. Finally, the chapter ends with Frodo taking on the mission of destroying the Ring. So we've now set up the entire rest of the book!

**

Next time: hiking and snow.

Jun 5, 2017

PhD blog 6/17: Half-year review 2: Electric Boogaloo

My first year as a PhD candidate is now behind me. Back before I was accepted into postgraduate studies, I'd hoped that working on a dissertation would provide some clarity for my life, as it were: it would be something to focus on. Of course, I have focused on it, even exceeding my goals for the first half-year. However, in order to be able to work on a dissertation and have some prospects of a professional future, one needs funding. So I've also had to apply for grants and jobs, which, being intimately tied to both the everyday realities of life and my professional future, is very stressful. So far, all my applications have been unsuccesful. In order to increase my chances, I have to work on my CV. None of the instances handing out grants or hiring PhD candidates ever sees as much as a single word of your dissertation, so they make their choices based on your references and CV. So in addition to writing my dissertation and my grant and job applications, I'm also busy writing article proposals, and my first book review is forthcoming.

While a better CV and funding would certainly icrease my chances of getting a job at some point, the current assault on science and higher education is such that this might be an entirely unrealistic notion. Therefore, I've also been pursuing my teaching studies, aiming to become a certified adult educator. Because adult educators in Finland are also competent to teach in middle and high school, in addition to my teacher studies, I've been completing additional studies to become qualified in some additional subjects. I majored in English ages ago, for instance, and this spring I took several English classes so that I could qualify to teach English as a second subject. Since my degree is in history, I'd be a history teacher, and in the Finnish system history teachers are also expected to teach civics, so I'm also taking political science classes to that end. Teacher studies complement postgraduate studies quite well, at least in my mind, because if I ever managed to secure any kind of university employment, it would almost certainly involve teaching. So in addition to writing my dissertation, applying for grants and jobs and writing article proposals and a book review, I've also been taking teacher studies, political science and English classes.

However, while this teacher thing is all very well and good, the fact of the matter is that the right-wing assault on education has by no means been confined to the universities. Vocational training has been especially hard hit, and teacher unemployment is also on the rise. Therefore, becoming a teacher might also just end up being a one-way ticket to the unemployment line, which means that a backup plan to the backup plan is needed. With that in mind, I've been dusting off my long-dormant programming skills. So in addition to writing my dissertation, applying for grants and jobs, submitting article proposals and writing a book review, and taking teacher studies, English and political science classes, I've also been doing some Java programming.

So, clarity and focus? Ha. On the contrary, I'm constantly juggling a million things at once and having to figure everything out on my own, which has been massively stressful and exhausting. I've barely touched my dissertation this spring, and to be honest, my motivation is almost gone.

**

So from the point of view of my PhD project, it's been a pretty miserable spring. However, even that hasn't actually been totally hopeless. I have a book review coming out, I'm submitting one article proposal, and another one was actually accepted! Sometime next year, then, I should have my first peer-reviewed academic publication. So heading into the next semester, at least my academic resumé won't be quite as blank as it was last fall.

More importantly, though, I'm halfway through my teacher studies, and they've been a great experience. This spring, I completed my first internship teaching a free university entrance exam prep course to our faculty of theology. A Finnish university education is free, but over the years, paid prep courses have started to dominate entry to certain faculties and subjects. At one point, something like 90% of new law students at Helsinki had paid money for a prep course, effectively making a mockery of free education. An organization called Varjovalmennus was set up to offer free prep courses to fight this trend, and I volunteered for their theology course, which I arranged and taught with some fellow theologians. It's been a fun and rewarding experience.

We got to teach at a grand location, namely the former main building of the Helsinki University of Technology (below). Because this year's entrance book is on the subject of biblical theology, I'm not lying all that much when I say that I started my education career teaching the Bible at an engineering college.


**

My so-called academic career has taken some steps forward, then. However, from the point of view of my PhD studies, this past year has been tremendously disheartening and discouraging. Many of us doing PhDs in the humanities or social sciences are barely supervised at all, and there's practically no teaching, which means that we're left to work everything out on our own. I've had the great benefit of some very helpful friends and acquaintances, without whom I'd never have gotten even this far, but having said that, the sheer loneliness and total lack of institutional support makes for an immensely frustrating time. This has led to me developing a profound distaste for performing academicness, which more or less means that even if I persisted with my dissertation, my career prospects would be nil. I also don't have the funding to dedicate myself to it full-time anyway, but even if I did, I don't know that it would make any sense.

My plan for next year is to focus on finishing my teacher studies and getting my various subject accreditations in order, so that I'll be a qualified history, social studies and English teacher a year from now. I'm also going to finish my article and write up at least one other article proposal, but other than that, I don't really see myself putting in much work on my PhD. The everyday grind of working away on something no-one cares about, while simultaneously trying to sell yourself to various instances that don't give two shits about any actual work you do, is so mindlessly depressing that, well, simply put, I'm pretty sure I don't want to do this for a living. Especially since there's no actual living in it.

May 22, 2017

CKII: We got the empire

He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing.
- Job 26:7


Last time, we followed the kingdom of Suomi through the transition from tribal to feudal rule and primogeniture, and the terrifyingly long reign of mad king Susi. When his oldest son Tommo finally succeeded to the throne in 1166, this is what the world around him looked like:


To the south, our old enemies, the Ruthenians, have fallen to the Islamic conquests and been replaced by the Justanid shahdom. France, by the way, is also currently part of the Islamic empire of Hispania. To the west, our conquest of Sweden continues. With our annexation of Gotland, it's high time we took some steps to secure a better income by founding a merchant republic of our own.

Gotland is an ideal place for a vassal republic because it's a one-county titular duchy, meaning that its holder will have no claims on others and vice versa.


Granting that titular duchy to the mayor of Visby creates a merchant republic under our rule. They'll start founding trading posts and making money, providing us with tax revenue and improving the economy of our coastal provinces.

Meanwhile, our increasing prestige and the fact that we hold the kingdom of Sápmi has finally persuaded the chiefs of Kola to submit to our rule.


Finally, our long conquest of Sweden was succesful; the kingdom title was extinct, and we held enough of its de jure lands to recreate it.


The war for Sweden was the toughest campaign we fought, thanks in no small part to the Christian military orders and their heavy cavalry. Combat in Crusader Kings II is slightly esoteric, and to be honest, I've never been bothered to really figure out how it works exactly. Basically all you can do as a player without getting into the nitty-gritty of it is to try to find generals with high Martial attributes and put them in charge, and build improvements in your demesne provinces that provide better troops. One of the disadvantages of being a tribal ruler was that your armies were mostly light infantry; as a feudal ruler, you can start building improvements that provide heavy infantry, who will pretty much make mincemeat of light infantry unless they're massively outnumbered. Even tougher and harder to get than heavy infantry is heavy cavalry, and while I barely had any at all, the Christian military orders had huge heavy cavalry contingents. Because the Christian Swedes could hire them for free while defending against pagans (i.e. us), conquering Scandinavia was tough.

By comparison, expanding eastward against the pagans and their light infantry was much easier, and soon we added a fifth kingdom title.


The reason holding these kingdom titles is significant is because we're using the Charlemagne expansion and creating our own custom empire. Because it has no de jure lands that go with it, all the kingdom titles I hold will be transferred away from their respective de jure empires into the new Empire of Suomi. So, here goes:


Et voilá: King Tommo has crowned himself Emperor Tommo I of Suomi. Our imperial domain now stretches from the North Sea to the Urals.


In the meantime, the high priest of Suomenusko came up with another holy war.


Eh, I thought, why not, we'll get a bunch of our guys the holy warrior trait.


Wait, what?


So, it's 1286 and the Empire of Suomi is secure. I've now pretty much fulfilled all the objectives I set out to achieve, and in fact exceeded my territorial ambitions with the surprise conquest of Volga Bulgaria. All that remains is to survive until 1453. With both the massive Mongol Empire as well as Byzantium right on my doorstep, this is by no means a done deal. The scattered Catholic kingdoms in the west are also a threat because of those damn military orders. I almost wish I had Sunset Invasion! Boringly, the safe thing to do would seem to be to rest on my laurels and mind my own business until time runs out. We'll see if I can't think of something more interesting.

May 15, 2017

LotR LCG: The Dream-chaser cycle

For as Núneth had said to Erendis long before: "Ships he may love, my daughter, for those are made by men's minds and hands; but I think that it is not the winds or the great waters that so burn his heart, nor yet the sight of strange lands, but some heat in his mind, or some dream that pursues him."
- Aldarion and Erendis, Unfinished Tales


The nautical deluxe expansion to the Lord of the Rings card game, The Grey Havens, is the best deluxe expansion ever released for the whole game. The adventure packs of the Dream-chaser cycle accompanying it were also the first ones we bought and played pretty much as soon as they were released. Unfortunately, FFG's merger with Asmodée also happened during this cycle, and on our end, this meant that prices went up, and where we'd previously been getting everything on pretty much the US release date, we now got stuff with an extra delay of over a month. So whatever else that merger did, it definitely screwed over Fantasy Flight's European vendors.

It was tremendously entertaining watching people trying to set up as some kind of Tolkien purists and claim that sailing somehow isn't "proper Tolkien". The very first piece of Tolkien's entire literary creation is the name Eärendil, taken from a line in Cynewulf's Crist: "Eala earendel, engla beorhtast, ofer middangeard monnum sended". It was around this brightest of the angels that the legendarium began to coalesce, so in that sense, the foundational character of all of Tolkien's works is Eärendil - the Mariner.


John Howe: The Fleet of Al-Pharazaon [sic], 2003

**

Flight of the Stormcaller - DL 6


The first adventure pack picks up right where the deluxe expansion left off, with the corsairs who attacked the Grey Havens fleeing in the Stormcaller and our heroes in pursuit. The quest uses the same sailing mechanics as Voyage Across Belegaer, except this time, you're racing the Stormcaller, which has its own staging area and quest deck. Each turn, the Stormcaller makes progress on its own quest, and you have to either catch it or sink it to win. Since you need to sail, quest and fight off enemy ships and boarders, allies are at a premium; and, of course, the encounter deck comes with quite a number of ways of getting rid of them.


With both the sailing test and the Stormcaller's "questing" every turn, you end up discarding quite a few encounter cards. In practice, this gives the quest a similar logic to Into the Pit: if you're lucky, you'll end up discarding the worst cards when they do no harm. Vast Coastland, for instance, can be a pretty terrible card; despite running through the entire encounter deck three times, we never saw it except as an ineffective shadow card. Conversely if you're unlucky, you'll be throwing away your Hidden Coves and Calm Waters.


Our first attempt featured Team Boromir and the first version of my New Amazons, and we got off to a pretty lousy start. We managed to deal with our own staging area all right - turns out Éowyn's one hell of a sailor - but several of Sahír's Escorts turned up in the Stormcaller's area, and she just vanished over the horizon.

We persevered, though, and started clawing back the Stormcaller's lead. We finally caught up with her in the last quest stage, where we had at most a couple of turns left to make up the difference. First we engaged some of the escorts and sunk one, slowing down the Stormcaller's progress. Then a Gandalf-assisted questing push got us ahead of the Stormcaller, and we won. I like to imagine Gandalf just suddenly showing up in the middle of the ocean like Sparrowhawk on Lookfar and guiding us through.

It got really tense, we had a heck of a time, and I would go so far as to say that this is among the best quests in the entire game. The setup can feel overly complicated with the Corsair deck, the two staging areas and whatnot, but it's actually fairly simple to work with, and really conveys the feel of a dramatic chase across the high seas. Tremendous, tremendous quest. Since the Grey Havens is the best deluxe, you pretty much have to get it, and while you're at it, add Flight of the Stormcaller to your collection as well.

Card spotlight: Rod of the Steward


A straightforward swap of two resources for one card isn't a very good deal - unless it's in the sphere that most often finds itself swimming in surplus resources. The name and trait requirement are practically telling you to attach it to the same guy you gave Steward of Gondor to, and they do work perfectly together. Amusingly for a card in the sixth adventure pack cycle, it would work best on an early-game Leadership deck, because if anybody ended up with a literal mountain of resources, it was them.

**

The Thing in the Depths - DL 5


Now that they've caught the Stormcaller, the next adventure pack starts with our fearless heroes boarding her and taking the fight to the corsairs. Obviously the name of the adventure pack and the massive tentacle monster on the cover will give you some notion that that's not really what this quest is about, but for starters, you're facing an encounter deck of corsair enemies and shipboard locations, and soon enough, our old friends Captain Sahír and Na'asiyah.


Then, once you clear the first quest stage, the Watcher in the Water Thing in the Depths shows up, and suddenly you, Sahír and Na'asiyah have to fight off its tentacles tentacles. As the tentacles appear from the encounter deck, they grab onto locations in the staging area, representing the monster trying to tear the ship apart. If any one location accumulates too many tentacles, you lose; if you can destroy enough tentacles to defeat the Thing, you win.


This is a decent enough quest. I liked how the turnabout with the corsairs was done, and the whole idea of enemies becoming friends is well in line with the background material: in the end, even the corsairs of Umbar are victims of Sauron, rather than intrinsically evil. As for the Thing, I generally approve of sea monsters, and thematically, the idea of the heroes and their new-found corsair allies racing about the Stormcaller, trying to fight off a mass of tentacles, is quite powerful. For whatever reason, though, to me it was missing that special something that makes a quest really compelling and memorable. And then there is the fact that this is so much like The Watcher in the Water, except that that was just better. So I don't know; there's nothing wrong with the Thing in the Depths, but if I want a quest where you fight a massive tentacle monster in a body of water, I'll pick the Watcher every time.

Card spotlight: Mirkwood Explorer


This was an exciting card for two big reasons. First, it was a joy to see the Mirkwood trait again! This, along with Dale hero Lanwyn, seemed to us optimists to suggest that maybe, just maybe, a return to Wilderland might be on the cards in the future. Second, Mirkwood Explorer really highlights one of the particular areas of emphasis in both the Grey Havens and the Dream-chaser cycle: location control. A hitherto somewhat ignored part of the game, all of a sudden we had a lot more in our toolbox than just Northern Tracker and Concorde.

**

Temple of the Deceived - DL 4


After fighting off the Watcher in the Water Thing in the Depths, our heroes return to Númenor to search for the chest that Sahír's mysterious key opens. The Temple of the Deceived works like the second quest in the Grey Havens expansion, the Fate of Númenor, in that there are several Uncharted locations with identical obverse sides, which you have to travel to in order to flip them over and find what you're looking for. Here, the twist is that the uncharted locations are arranged into a map; when you explore a location, instead of discarding it you move on the map to a new one.


I've been delighted with the way the Grey Havens gave us whole new takes on locations and dealing with them, and I'd been looking forward to this quest ever since the preview last January. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I'm afraid that the actual quest ended up falling a bit flat. The map and travel mechanic works excellently, but there's only one quest stage, and once you've found the right location, it somewhat anticlimactically tells you that when you've placed eight progress on it, you win. There's a Temple Guardian to fight, but he's not a very interesting opponent, and neither are any of the other enemies in the encounter deck, being mostly the same generic undead as you had in Fate of Númenor. With all the locations on the map, the encounter deck ends up being a bit thin; there's one fairly nasty treachery, but nothing else really stands out.


We tackled this two-handed with our usual decks, and got a little bit lucky with our explorations, getting our hands on the Gate Key early. That let us find the right temple location and use Winding Caverns to travel straight there, after which a bit of questing got us through. The various treacheries did raise our threat by quite a bit, but that also meant the enemies kept engaging us, and we mostly had an empty staging area bar the locations on the map. In a very straightforward two-player game, we nearly ran through the whole encounter deck twice, so especially with more players there'll be quite a degree of repetition.

We enjoyed ourselves, but in the end were left a bit disappointed. I think we kept waiting for something interesting to happen, like some analogue of Ruins of Ages Past to shuffle the map or something, only to suddenly find we'd finished the quest. A second attempt with the hobbit and bear decks didn't go quite as smoothly, but the clockwork-regular threat in the staging area made everything manageable, and we made it to the grotto. Throngs of the Unfaithful works pretty well with Lanwyn! Even a protracted slog through the map three-handed with our normal decks and the Beorn deck eventually ended succesfully; like Fate of Númenor, the quest doesn't really punish you for hanging around.


To sum up, the map mechanic is great, and I love that we're doing new things with locations. I also admire the designers' ability to come up with names for black metal bands, albums and songs, all in one AP. However, the encounter deck really lets this quest down, and the single quest stage is quite unimaginative. I have to be honest and say that after the excellent Flight of the Stormcaller, the quality of the quests has dropped dramatically; first we had Watcher in the Water 2: The Watchering, and then the much-anticipated treasure map quest turned out to be a retread of Fate of Númenor, with a pinch of Three Trials thrown in. We still liked it, though, and optimistically, as with Fate of Númenor, I have high hopes for a Nightmare deck!

Card spotlight: Déorwine


If one theme of this cycle's player cards has been location control, another is definitely quality allies; not just all-around strong ones (hello Glorfindel), but specifically, powerful defensive allies in Eldahir, Guardian of Rivendell and Déorwine. In the early run of the game, allies mostly contributed to defense by chump blocking, an activity encouraged by cards like Horn of Gondor and Leadership Imrahil. Around the Angmar cycle, the encounter decks started filling up with various anti-chump blocking effects where, say, if the defending character was destroyed the attacking enemy would attack again or something along those lines. In the Dream-chaser cycle, the pendulum swings the other way again with strong defensive allies, and in the case of Déorwine and Eldahir, with shadow-cancelling or -mitigating effects to boot. Déorwine will be especially welcome in Rohan decks, which don't necessarily have all that many thematic defensive options.

**

The Drowned Ruins - DL 6


Now that we've found the sunken temple, our heroes and their Corsair allies head right on in. This sounds like a catastrophically bad idea, but then I remember that once upon a time we were sent to "scout the mines of Moria", so you know what, why the hell not. Let's go into the partially underwater sunken temple of Morgoth with the pirates. What could possibly go wrong?


The quest mechanics again feature the two-sided location card gimmick, but this time with a twist: there's a Grotto deck with all the double-sided Grotto locations, of which there's a given number in play at all times, but when you travel to them, you can elect to flip them over to their Underwater side or not. The tricky bit is that in order to clear the first quest stage, you have to get at least three Underwater locations into the victory display, but when the active location is underwater, you can't play allies or attachments. So it's kind of like an underwater Emyn Muil.


Having said that, we liked the Hills of Emyn Muil, and we also liked the Drowned Ruins! Since we have a habit of playing quests blind and I try to avoid spoilers, we went into this not knowing what to expect. In this case, for instance, it really adds to the entertainment value since we knew we had to flip over at least some of the Grotto locations in order to advance, but we had no idea which ones. The first one we ended in was Sunken Temple, which took ten progress to clear and wiped out all our resources. So how bad can the next one possibly be?


That bad, then. Remember that we couldn't play any allies while the location was active, either. On the first turn after traveling there, I had to discard my only ally, a Northern Tracker. When we still failed to clear it next turn, I had no choice but to discard Idraen. So by then everything was going... swimmingly.


I'm sorry. However, we rallied, and eventually managed to get a third location into the victory display so we could advance. A plot twist happened, and as in the previous quest, all we had to do now was clear one last location to advance. This, it turns out, isn't quite as easy as it may sound. Team Boromir eventually threated out despite a Favor of the Valar, but luckily not before getting some Legolas progress on the final location and playing a Favor of the Valar for me as well. That turned out to be the difference, because on my last possible turn, I managed to just barely squeak by and finish the quest.

That was a pretty memorable playthrough, but it's also a memorable quest! In fact, of the three quests with double-sided locations, I think this is the best. It's certainly different than the others, and in a way that makes thematic sense. I also think the difficulty is very much spot on for our tastes. So all in all we really liked this! A definite step up from the previous two quests.

Card spotlight: Strider


If I remember correctly, all of the player cards in the Drowned Ruins were spoiled before it came out, and to be honest, they're a bit humdrum. Okay, Dúnedain Remedy gives Leadership decks repeatable healing, which is kind of a big deal. Then there's Interrogation, which is great for trap decks, and the sympathetic Robin Smallburrow. But the card that really makes a difference is Strider. Before, the way to play a Secrecy was either hobbits or Snorefindel; now, the two-hero approach just might be feasible. Just for opening up that possibility, Strider deserves your attention.

**

A Storm on Cobas Haven - DL 7


For our next outing, our heroes find themselves fighting a huge sea battle to defend Dol Amroth from the attacking corsairs. The sailing rules are back, so we pick ships again and have to fight the corsairs and their fleet, with support from some objective locations and allies. We tried this, and were promptly overwhelmed by corsairs and their ships.


For our next attempt, we decided we're going big or going home. On the second turn, we used Éowyn's special attack to sink a Corsair Warship, and actually started making some headway! In the last stage, everyone and their dog engages you; Idraen died and Boromir went out with a bang, leaving us with a massive pile of enemies, the Dream-chaser Taking on Water and about to sink, and everything riding on one last quest phase before our enemies destroyed us. An appropriate Justice Shall Be Done let my partner bring in Nautical Gandalf again, this time to sink a Scouting Ship and make our task a little bit easier. With everyone questing, we still needed one final Test of Will to ward off an attack that would have sunk the Dream-chaser, but we made it through!


So yeah, this isn't an easy quest! The sailing tests are tough, and the Corsair deck has an abundance of strong enemies that the encounter deck will constantly find new ways to throw at you. The questing itself, though, isn't massively difficult, so the quest hinges on being able to survive the waves of pirates coming at you. It's hard, but doesn't feel unfair or contrived. While this is definitely the most difficult quest in the cycle so far, we enjoyed it.

Card spotlight: Na'asiyah


Let's talk about apostrophes. There's a rule that suggests pronouncing all apostrophes in fantasy names as "boing". Taken at face value, this is stupid: apostrophes have several legitimate uses in ortography, and treating them all with disdain seems to be another example of English-speakers' inexhaustible boorishness toward linguistics. Apostrophes can mark the elision of letters, syllabization or glottal stops, or be used to transliterate letters with no Latin equivalents. I would, however, agree that fantasy apostrophes that serve no purpose except superfluous ornamentation should, indeed, be pronounced "boing".

In a seemingly pseudo-Semitic name like Na'asiyah, the apostrophe could very well represent a glottal stop, leading to the pronounciation Na-asiyah. This would represent a perfectly legitimate use of an apostrophe in a fantasy name. However, the writer responsible for the character has chosen to tweet that Na'asiyah is pronounced "nah-see-yah", meaning that the apostrophe is, despite appearances, completely superfluous. Therefore, my considered opinion is that the proper pronounciation of Na'asiyah is, unfortunately, Naboingasiyah.

When Na'asiyah was first spoiled, we were only shown her stats, which didn't quite add up, leaving us guessing as to what her text box would say. After all the speculation, it's almost disappointing that her ability mirrors the one she had as an enemy/objective ally. What's more interesting is the restriction on paying for allies, which I think is hugely successful thematically: as a renegade corsair, who would her allies be? I'd have said Harad characters, but I do like what they've done. She's definitely a unique and interesting hero, and I can't wait to come up with a deck for her. I'm considering something with Strider!

**

The City of Corsairs - DL 8


For the last adventure pack in the cycle, we're right back where we started: chasing the Stormcaller on the high seas. This time, though, the Stormcaller will fight you, and the rest of the Umbar fleet is there as well. In a twist, if you make it through the first stage, the rest of the quest takes place on land. So basically, having fought a massive sea battle outside Dol Amroth, next we're chasing Sahír right into Umbar.


You can't place any progress on the initial quest stage unless you're on course, and we found the sailing tests and naval combat tough enough that our first two attempts ended very quickly. Next time, we again decided to go for broke, and my partner's deck used the Silver Wing and Éowyn's mega-attack to sink the Stormcaller in a single attack. That got us to stage two, where we hit the beach and have to fight our way to Sahír and eventually defeat him to win the game. Which we did! After quite a slog, though, but nonetheless!


This was a good boss fight quest! Quests that switch between two encounter decks always felt a bit off to me (arguably, with the Corsair deck, this one had three!), but it works here. Again, we were aided by a good combo of combat and location control, and I felt genuinely lucky to draw not only one but all three Wardens of Healing. Still, though, I think A Storm on Cobas Haven might be harder... Be that as it may, this was a succesful quest: an appropriately epic ending to a great adventure pack cycle, and a very good launching point for the next deluxe expansion. We definitely had fun!

Card spotlight: Súlien


How could I not love Súlien? I'm all for unique female characters, and even though I'm normally a little leery of introducing too many original characters into the game, when it comes to women, Tolkien unfortunately left us few enough options. Having said that, though, she's also an excellent ally. Two defense and two hit points are nothing to sneer at in Spirit, and three willpower is excellent. She might be worth playing just for her stats, but it's her ability that really stands out. Again, it's worth remembering that before this deluxe expansion and cycle, we had precious few location control options in general, and the only way to get out of massive location lock in multiplayer was to hope Northern Tracker showed up. Now, though, we have Súlien. For one paltry Lore resource, she can reduce the threat of every location in the staging area, which is potentially huge in, say, a four-player game - especially since you can trigger her ability after staging. When it's not necessary, she can quest for three instead. She's a great character who combines the two themes of this cycle, powerful allies and location control, in a way that provides a long looked-for alternative to a card that's been a Spirit staple since the core set.

**

So, there are some really good quests here, and some pretty darn handy player cards as well. Because the Grey Havens is still the best deluxe expansion in the game, we strongly recommend buying it, and if you're going to do that, be sure to pick up some of these adventure packs as well. We most definitely recommend Flight of the Stormcaller and Temple of the Deceived, and while we thought the Thing in the Depths was the least interesting of the lot, these are all good quests. Overall this is a very strong adventure pack cycle; almost certainly the best in the game.

**

While we were getting around to finishing this cycle, the Haradrim adventure packs were being released; and when Race Across Harad showed up, how was I supposed to not give Dúnedain Pathfinder a shot?


A Dúnedain Hunter for locations, he fits in excellently with my deck's location control abilities.

55 cards; 33 Spirit, 18 Lore, 4 neutral; 24 allies, 11 attachments, 18 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

Arwen Undómiel (TDR)
Idraen (TTT)
Rossiel (EfMG)

Allies: 24 (19/4/1)
Jubayr (TM) x2
Northern Tracker x2
Súlien (TCoC) x2
Rhovanion Outrider (ToTD) x3
Bilbo Baggins (TRD)
Galadriel's Handmaiden (CS) x3
West Road Traveler (RtM) x3
Dúnedain Pathfinder (RAH) x3
Firyal (TM)
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 11 (7/4)
Unexpected Courage x2
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x3
Light of Valinor (FoS) x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x2

Events: 18 (6/9/3)
A Test of Will x3
Elven-light (TDR) x3
Leave No Trace (EfMG) x3
None Return (AtE) x3
Daeron's Runes (FoS) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

Side quests:
Double Back (EfMG)
Scout Ahead (TWoE)

May 8, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 32: Many Meetings

Frodo woke and found himself lying in bed.

Frodo, last seen fainting on top of a horse, wakes up in the House of Elrond (yes, it's a capitalized House). Gandalf is by his bedside, and they have an expository chat about the hobbits' trip to Rivendell. To his credit, Frodo reflects on some of their shall we say less inspired choices, like short cuts through the Old Forest, songs at Bree and so on. Gandalf quite forthrightly calls them "absurd", but walks it back, seeing as how they did eventually make it. Frodo credits Strider, but wonders where Gandalf was, to which the wizard replies that everything will be explained in due time, but that he was held captive. He also explains what the Black Riders are: Ringwraiths, the Nine Servants of Sauron. The flood that defeated them was called up by Elrond, who also healed Frodo of his wound. However, as Gandalf quietly observes to himself, Frodo will never be completely healed. The Morgul-knife that Frodo was stabbed with was intended to turn him into a wraith, and to Gandalf's eyes, he appears slightly transparent.

Frodo falls asleep again, but when he wakes up in the evening, he feels well enough to get up. Soon enough, he's reunited with Sam, and then Merry and Pippin. A feast is arranged to celebrate Frodo's recovery, presided over by Elrond himself. Glorfindel and Gandalf are seated at his side, and I think this is our first proper glimpse of Gandalf as something other than an itinerant fireworks specialist. Frodo, however, mostly gawks at Elrond's daughter, Arwen Undómiel or Evenstar, reputedly a second Lúthien by looks. He gets seated with slightly more prosaic company, namely the dwarf Glóin, one of Thorin's original company. After very polite greetings are exchanged, Glóin provides news of the Lonely Mountain and Dale at length. Also, hey, important announcement to readers: it has been three (3) chapters since someone was last fat-shamed. Glóin tells Frodo about the remaining dwarves of Thorin's traveling circus, including Bombur, who was comically fat but is now apparently comically obese. Attention readers, it has now been zero (0) chapters since someone was last fat-shamed. Of Balin, Ori and Óin, however, Glóin will not speak, stoking more anticipation of the great exposition to come.

After the meal, everyone moves over to the Hall of Fire, where Frodo is delighted to find Bilbo ruminating over some verse. They exchange news, and Bilbo comes off a little bit disconnected. He casually mentions the Ring, but doesn't really seem to understand its significance ("Fancy that ring of mine causing such a disturbance!", as if magic rings of invisibility were a dime a dozen), and even asks Frodo if he can see it. When Frodo takes out the Ring, he's horrified to see Bilbo as "a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands" - in other words, Gollum. Bilbo realizes his mistake and apologizes, and when Frodo puts the Ring away, everything returns to normal, and soon enough they're cheerfully talking about the Shire.

Strider shows up, only to immediately take off with Bilbo to work on a poem. Frodo stays behind in the Hall and zones out on poetry and singing, until at some point he realizes he's actually listening to Bilbo versifying on Eärendil the Mariner. In other words, there's a four-page poem on a dude with a boat. When Bilbo's finished and has bantered for a bit with the elves, he and Frodo leave for a long talk in Bilbo's room, eventually broken up by Sam strongly implying Frodo needs some sleep.

**

So Frodo finally gets some rest and recovery, and that's more or less what this chapter offers us as well. There are happy reunions, parties and poetry - but with the shadow of the Ring hanging over them. There's a repeating structure to the books of the Lord of the Rings: the first chapter sets up the book by orienting us to a new environment, while the second chapter is usually heavy on dialogue and serves to both foreshadow what's to come, and place it in the context of the larger story. I at least think this is true of all the books; certainly the first and second do exactly this. In this case, we get some background to the events of the previous book, including finally learning who or what the Black Riders are. We also get somewhat grounded in Frodo's new frame of reference: instead of nosy hobbits and Sackville-Bagginses, there are elf-lords amd dwarves with news from afar and songs about the Blessed Realm.

Speaking of songs, by the way, that is one really long poem. And if I'm honest, it's not even a particularly good one. I'm only an ex-philologist, so I'm sure there are all kinds of wonderfully clever things in it that I'm missing, but at my level of reading, , most of it just leaves me cold. Using words like habergeon and carcanet really invokes - anachronistically! - some of the worst mock-medieval excesses of fantasy literature, and even though it tells the story of Eärendil and the Silmaril, it's just dry. What a contrast to Sam's song in the previous chapter!

In a way, this chapter also completes the passing of the baton, so to speak, from Bilbo to Frodo. The Ring is now Frodo's burden, and while Bilbo can hang out at the Last Homely House, getting zonked up on elven poetry, Frodo gets stabbed by a ghost. But for a while, at least, they get to hang out again, and it's just nice. The heavy references to the Hobbit reinforce the idea that Bilbo is growing old and being left behind, and his momentary apparition as Gollum is a pretty heavy reminder of the fate he avoided.

Next time, Exposition II: lots and lots of exposition.

May 1, 2017

Sipilänomics VI: Unwrecking the universities?

Two years ago, I wrote about our current cabinet's plan to wreck Finland's universities. Just last week, though, we were told that that very same cabinet was making massive investments in science and education (Yle). Really?

Well, hardly. Let's look at some numbers.

To start with, in 2016 student benefits were cut by 122 million euros (IS). Now, our glorious leader is introducing a "family subsidy", which totals 75 million euros. So students are left 48 million euros poorer.

I concentrated on the universities before, but massive cuts were made to vocational training, where 190 million € was cut last year (IL). Now the government is investing 80 million euros into revamping vocational training. So they're still 110m€ behind.

As part of Sipilä's cuts, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation (Tekes) lost 138m€ (source). Now, though, the three bandits cabinet is giving them 70 million euros of additional funding, which leaves them at -68m€. Similarly, the Academy of Finland is getting 50 million more - which doesn't redress more than half of the 100m€ cuts to university funding (Acatiimi).

So you see how this goes. First the government makes gigantic cuts to education. Then they turn around and make headlines with their "investments in education and research" - which in reality don't compensate at all for the previous cuts.

It's also worth noting that in one respect, this additional funding continues a longer trend: money is being taken away from the universities and given either to funders like the Finnish Academy or to political boondoggles like the government's "flagship ventures". This means that universities and researchers have less freedom, and need to spend even more time negotiating a massive public bureaucracy to get funding for their work. Finnish research is being methodically reshaped into a planned economy, where the government centrally directs what research areas get funded. We have no reason to think that this is going to work any better than any other planned economies.

There are two observations to be made about this. Firstly, the Finnish media is so thoroughly in thrall to the government that they're swallowing this hook, line and sinker. So the government can pull this back-and-forth act and actually use it in the next elections to claim that they're not wrecking education.

Secondly, as I explained earlier, the Sipilä government is failing to meet its fiscal goals. This farce should give you some notion of why. The Sipilä notion of public economy is to make cuts, and then undo many of the cuts, so that things are getting objectively worse but no real savings are made. I don't understand how anyone can possibly approve of running an economy like this.

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The Sipilä gang, of course, claim that they're reaching their goals. As I predicted, they're largely accomplishing this by lying. Key to their claimed billions of savings is a ridiculous notion that the healthcare disaster is going to cost three billion euros less than some imaginary alternative.

Meanwhile, the racist "Finns party" was destroyed in the municipal elections, and is currently debating whether to elect a fascist or a fascist as its chairman. One of the fascists is more rude than the other, so the other two parties in government are pretending that if the rude one is elected, there will be a crisis. This is probably also a lie.

But on the whole, then, Sipilänomics rolls on much like the Trump administration: the country is being run by idiots who want to destroy it, but they're constantly tripping over their own incompetence. Despite this, both their actions and their inactions continue to do very real damage.