Dec 5, 2016

PhD blog 12/16: What is academic writing?

In my previous PhD blog post, I talked about research methods, and I mentioned a characteristic of bad academic writing I've seen, which is that it tries to look sciencey without seeming to understand what science really is. This time, I want to talk about writing the analysis section of a qualitative research thesis. If I sound overly didactic, I apologize, but in my defense, I'm also getting my teaching qualifications! Also, this post is very directly motivated by an absolutely terrible graduate thesis I recently read. It got a better grade than I thought it deserved, but, well, it still wasn't a very good grade. So I want to make sure that doesn't happen to anyone else if I can help it.


I strongly believe that an academic, certainly anyone getting a postgraduate degree, should never be following instructions because they exist, but rather needs to ask why they do what they do. So sure, there's all kinds of guidelines for academic writing, but why do we do it?

In qualitative research, the point of academic writing is to make our analysis transparent. A historian doesn't heroically vanish into the archives of doom and reappear later with a thesis and a bag full of gold; we write the thesis so that others can see what we did, where and why. (I need to talk more about academic authority later, but I need to wrangle my copy of Carol Steadman's Dust back from a certain somebody I lent it to first.) Also, there's really no gold. Like, at all. But this is the point: a thesis is a research report, and it needs to convey not only your methods, material and conclusions, but how the first two met to form the third.

In other words, good academic writing walks you through the research it's describing. It'll tell you who's doing what and why, and what conclusions they arrived at and how they did it.

Let's unpack this. First of all, it matters who's doing the research. I know this is still an unpopular idea with some people, who perhaps still feel that we should pretend we're impartial outside observers. I firmly believe that they're wrong. Who you are, where you're coming from and what your relationship to your material and your research question is matters. Good academic writing must convey this information.

What you're doing is your methods and methodologies, which I talked about last time. In brief, clarity and conciseness are values here as well. I've read theses that trip over themselves in trying to be too clever, and also ones where barely any coherent method is presented. The why is your research question. Your methods need to make sense in terms of your research question and material. This is the stuff usually covered in an introduction, which by the way is what I'm writing now myself!

At the end of the day, your research report has to answer your research question. Here, clarity and integrity are key. As I've said, I absolutely disagree with the idea that research reports need to be written after the fact to sound like you knew exactly where everything would end up all along. Leave room for uncertainties, even shortcomings. In my mind at least, it's far better to admit that you can't answer everything, rather than to blithely insist that everything worked out brilliantly when any intelligent reader can see that it didn't. In other words, be honest with your conclusions.

Finally, there's what I consider the keystone of academic writing: the analysis. How you went from your research question to your conclusions. This is where the walkthrough really happens, if you like. A good analysis will give your reader a feel for the material, and at least a notion of the whole of it. It'll let them understand how you've applied your methods to the material, and what happened when you did.

Another way of thinking about the analysis section is that this is where replicability happens. If your analysis section is badly written, it'll appear as a collection of anecdotes about your material. If it's put together properly, anyone reading it should be able to see exactly what you did and why, and retrace your steps. If they disagree with you, they should be able to tell why and where.

In this sense, the key value that needs to guide good academic writing is integrity.


Since I'm currently also enrolled in teacher training, I do want to look at this from that angle as well. I mentioned the terrible thesis I read, which motivated me to write this post. There was a lot wrong with it, but the worst part was the analysis. It was just a mess from beginning to end: the analysis sections formed no coherent whole, nor did they give the reader any real notion of the material. Rather, one was presented with a series of claims that seemed to be backed up by random anecdotes about the data. The end result was confusion.

Having read the thesis, one question was uppermost on my mind: where was the supervisor? Admittedly, sometimes there are students who refuse to be supervised, and there's not a whole lot anyone can do about that. Sometimes for various administrative reasons or some other acts of chaos, students end up effectively not having any supervision, and are left to muddle things out on their own. I'm sure there are also a whole bunch of other possible reasons. But still, when you read a thesis where all of the component parts are deeply flawed and none of them hang together, it's really hard not to wonder what on earth happened. So although I mostly concentrate on what students should and shouldn't do, we need to remember that academic writing for the most part happens in an institutional context. Bad graduate theses reflect on their supervisors and the organizations that produce them.


A summary of sorts, then. I've read good theses that got bad grades. Sometimes things happen; I know of a department where there are such deep differences of opinion between professors that they'll basically give each other's students bad grades. If something like this happens, there's unfortunately not a whole lot you can do, other than maybe keep an eye out for this sort of thing if you're thinking about postgraduate studies. At times, I'm sure I've just been wrong, and much the same applies in the contrary cases.

On the whole, though, if I think about the theses I've read that I thought weren't very good amd that also got bad grades, they have two things in common. By and large, they have either gravely deficient method sections, ones that are divorced from the rest of the work, or in the worst case, both. More crucially for the subject of this post, they usually fail to form a coherent whole, and for that or some other reason, they leave the reader somewhat confused as to what was being done and why.

The physicist Ernest Rutherford reputedly said that what you're doing isn't science if you can't explain it to a barmaid. I know some damn smart people in the hospitality industry, so I'm not sure I approve of his phrasing, but I'd say that if you can't explain what you're doing in simple terms to someone without a degree in your field, there's a fairly high probability that you don't actually know what you're doing. Bad academic writing is sometimes used in an attempt to conceal this. A competent examiner will spot it. However, more often bad academic writing is just a failure to express yourself clearly.

I don't believe there are any tricks or short cuts to good academic writing. It's a skill, and like any other skill, you learn it by doing it. The key, to me, is to make sure you have something to communicate, and then do your best to express it clearly and concisely. That's all there really is to it. The values of academic writing are the values of science: honesty, integrity and communication.

Nov 28, 2016

LotR LCG: The Ring-maker cycle

But Celebrimbor was aware of him, and hid the Three which he had made; and there was war, and the land was laid waste, and the gate of Moria was shut.
- The Lord of the Rings, book II, chapter II

I really have no idea why Tolkien hyphenated ringmaker. He seems to use hyphens inconsistently in double noun formations; e.g. Bilbo riddling with Smaug:

I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. (...) I am Ringwinner and Luckweaver; and I am Barrel-rider.
- The Hobbit: Inside Information, p. 204-205

So Bilbo was Ringwinner, but in the passage where the name of the adventure pack cycle is taken from, Saruman titles himself Ring-maker:

For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!
- The Lord of the Rings: The Council of Elrond, p. 252.

I can't think of any variance of meaning introduced by adding or omitting the hyphen; it might just as well be Ring-winner or Ringmaker. Any way you spell it, though, it's the name of the cycle of adventure packs associated with the Voice of Isengard deluxe expansion, and that's what we'll be looking at today. We first played these through earlier this year with my Silvan deck, but we've returned to them a couple of times since, so while waiting for the Sands of Harad to show up, this seems as good a time as any to sum up our thoughts.

John Howe: Dunlending, no date given.


The Dunland Trap - DL 7

In the very first adventure of the Ring-maker cycle, we get to fight a massive horde of Dunlendings. If this sounds exactly like the first quest of the Voice of Isengard expansion, that's because it is. Oddly, though, this is a more interesting quest than Fords of the Isen was. There's less card-counting, and a couple of slightly more interesting new enemies than the endless swarm of Dunlending This and Dunlending That.

At the end of the day, though, what you get is a huge bunch of enemies, a nasty twist toward the end of the quest, but nothing really gripping or memorable. Not a great quest, but a decent one, so things are looking up already after Voice. Players interested in silvan elves will want this pack for Celeborn, but I can't really recommend buying this for any other reason than the player cards unless you for some strange reason thought Fords of Isen was really awesome and want more Dunlending.

Card spotlight: Naith Guide

Or, as I like to think of it, "Talk to the Naith, 'cos the guide ain't listening". I'm going to build a Silvan deck with Celeborn, just so I can include both Naith Guide and the second-sassiest ally in the game, Envoy of Pelargir.


The Three Trials - DL 5

The previous adventure pack ended with our heroes being captured by the Dunlendings. Their chief sends the heroes off to the Urshilaku Burial Caverns some barrows to recover an ancient tribal artifact, the Bonebiter Bow of Sul-Senipul Antlered Crown. Jokes aside, this is a whole new kind of quest. You have to get your hands on three keys, each of which is guarded by a guardian spirit and hidden behind a randomly chosen barrow and quest stage, so there's more replayability potential here than usual. Once you've secured all three keys, there's still the final stage to quest through to recover the Crown.

We really enjoyed ourselves! This isn't like any other quest we've played before, and was a lot of fun. The encounter deck is a bit light on enemies, but the guardians and barrows can combine for some slightly unpleasant effects, and we did get a little lucky with those. Still, though, our threat was pretty high by the time we reached the last quest stage, where the bulk of the fighting happens. By this point, we had Boromir kitted out with Elf-friend, Cloak of Lórien, Elven Mail and Spear of the Citadel, and over the last two turns, he defended something like seven attacks to set up the massive questing push that got us through. Boromir really is kinda awesome.

Two peculiarities make this a considerably easier quest for us than its difficulty level might suggest: there's no attachment or resource hate, which lets you build up your heroes and allies pretty effectively, and because there are three trials and three guardians, the quest gets considerably easier with more players. On our two-handed attempt, we had some difficulty getting our initial questing going, and when we got to the barrow that raises your threat, I genuinely thought we might be done. Three-handed with the Leadership/Lore deck, though, we were never in any serious difficulty, and once we got the pieces into place, we did steamroll through. For the last stage, the resource-flush Leadership deck threw out Gandalf and Grim Resolve, which let us straight up destroy two of the guardians and damage the third one with my Ithilien Archer, sending it back into the staging area. Next turn, Legolas one-shotted it with Great Yew Bow, Black Arrow and Support of the Eagles. In the subsequent quest phase, we cleared Hallowed Circle and put something like 50 progress on the quest after some remarkably silly Faramir antics. Like I said, buildup.

While the Three Trials may be a little on the easy side, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. A refreshingly different experience that I wouldn't hesitate to call one of my favorite quests so far. There are also some pretty solid player cards like Elven Mail and Greyflood Wanderer, and Feigned Voices continues the silvan theme. I'd say this adventure pack belongs on any Lord of the Rings LCG shopping list.

Card spotlight: Idraen

A lady Spirit hero with decent stats and built-in readying; what's not to like? I tried Idraen out in our experimental location control Spirit deck, which was a slightly paradoxical experience. On the one hand, in location-heavy quests, she was excellent, especially once you get the ayatollah of location controllah on board. Then again, in quests with less locations, some of her high stats would be going to waste for lack of readying. In multiplayer, the combat stats are almost a little redundant, since Spirit is so weak defensively that you don't usually want the Spirit deck to be engaging enemies at all. So at times, I've found her to be a bit out of place, but in the right situation, she's a great hero, and a fighty lady hero is always very welcome.


Trouble in Tharbad - DL 4

After all these Dunlending shenanigans, our heroes have made it to Tharbad, where we're trying to buy a map off a dwarf, and end up trying to escape from a bunch of orcs. I have to admit it's not quite clear to me why we'd first stand and fight against hordes of Dunlendings and then run away from like a dude and some orcs. Are there more orcs in Tharbad than in, I don't know, Moria?

Dodgy fluff premise aside, the theme of the quest is clear: escape from your pursuers in the mostly abandoned city of Tharbad. The key quest mechanic is that a whole bunch of things raise your threat, but succesful questing lowers it. It's a personable quest with great art, and we found it quite challenging. I have the same quibble here as I had with Fords of Isen, though: there's a Time mechanic that's quite harshly punitive, and I'm not at all sure that it adds anything positive to the quest. Every four Time counters lowers your threat threshold by ten, and with a whole bunch of enemies and treacheries knocking counters off, you'll find your elimination threshold plummeting to 30 much sooner than you'd like. As your threat is being constantly increased anyway, this only serves to add another sense of urgency on top of several others and a whole hella bunch of orcs too.

When we first tried this, that falling threat limit caught us out every time, with help from a bunch of Orc Skirmishers and Bellach's Marauders. Later, we took a shot at it three-handed, and after a little difficulty in the beginning, we pretty much rolled on through. I've heard this described as an easy quest; personally, I don't get why this is rated easier than Three Trials, but then I remind myself that nothing about the official difficulty levels makes any sense. In my experience, this is one of those quests where if you can muster up enough willpower in the early going, it's easy, and if you can't, it's quite hard. The threat-reducing is a fun mechanic, and Tharbad is a different and interesting environment, so I kind of wanted to like this quest, but to be honest, it's not great. I should point out, though, that this quest is great fun with a Gríma deck!

Card spotlight: Haldir of Lórien

One of my original Silvan heroes, Haldir was first included as a Legolas substitute, but it turns out he's worth every point of his threat cost on his own merits. If you have access to Tactics, he's a great recipient for a Bow of the Galadhrim, but the one must-have attachment I've used on him has been Wingfoot. Even without scrying, nominating enemy lets you add his willpower to questing and be ready to snipe the shit out of anyone who shows up in the staging area. The sheer joy of knocking out Goblin Snipers and Scouts has yet to get old.


The Nîn-in-Eilph - DL 4

After making their escape from Tharbad, our heroes and stupid threat dwarf try to elude pursuit by taking a short cut through the swamps of the Swanfleet, known as the Nîn-in-Eilph in elvish. So yes, we're going to go get lost in a swamp. The quest models this by throwing several quest stages at you, each of which has a Time keyword: if you don't clear the quest before the time counters run out, the quest deck gets reshuffled and you start over.

I'll be honest: this isn't the best quest. The encounter deck's a bit thin, with only a couple of locations and two enemies, plus the stack of treacheries from the Weary Travelers set, so that goes by pretty quick. While the rotating quest stages and Time counters are a good mechanic, fighting the same damn Ancient Marsh-dweller every time gets a little boring. I'd say this was almost a really good quest, but it never quite comes together and ends up being far too repetitive for its own good. It's also maybe slightly weird that you have to have stupid threat dwarf with you, even though he basically does nothing and doesn't really feature in the quest at all.

Still, though, I've ragged on the Time mechanic so often that I have to point out that it's used very succesfully here, and in general, I got kind of a Scorpion Swamp vibe out of the whole thing, so I guess if that's a recommendation for you, then this turned into one. In general, though, a bit of a missed opportunity. Again, how this is an easier quest than Three Trials is beyond me, but, you know, difficulty levels.

Card spotlight: Mirkwood Pioneer

I love the fact that the developers have teased us with a couple of barely represented character traits. Way back in the Dwarrowdelf cycle, we were given a couple of Dale cards, and until Mirkwood Explorer showed up in The Thing in the Depths, we had a grand total of one single card with the Woodman trait, and it was Mirkwood Pioneer. His ability is actually decent, as there are certainly times when Doomed 1 would be a small price to pay to get to ignore a horrible card in the staging area, and at a cost of two, he could play a part in a ally Faramir-led questing horde, but on the whole, I doubt this is a card that sees much use. I wanted to highlight it because I'm a huge fan of dropping in these hints of the wider Middle-earth around the existing card pool. Here's looking forward to a bunch more Woodman cards!


Celebrimbor's Secret - DL 6

Stupid threat dwarf has led us to the ruins of Ost-in-Edhil, where Mordor spy dude and his orcs are trying to dig up the premise of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and you have to get to it before they do.

I have a confession to make: at this point, all of the Ring-maker quests except the Three Trials are starting to blend into each other. They all have the Time keyword on the quest card, something terrible happens when the time counters run out, and there's a crapload of threat in the staging area and it only keeps getting worse and you're constantly in a terrible hurry. Either you quest like crazy right from the start, or everything goes to hell. Okay, so there's a slightly different gimmick every time; in this one, locations take damage and there are Scour keywords, which trigger every time you run out of time counters. But seriously, even though I kinda liked a couple of them, when you play them through in a row these quests all feel the same. This one is harder and less interesting than the previous ones.

Card spotlight: Wandering Ent

This is the adventure pack that started the ent revolution. Purely on its own merits, Wandering Ent is brilliant: two willpower for two resources is a solid deal in Lore, and two defense and three hit points make a useful auxiliary defender. So you get a low-cost, all-around useful ally, with the minute drawback of taking an extra turn to set up. This can give you a little trouble if you're struggling with early questing or combat, but on the whole, it's such a tiny problem that this is just a great bargain.


The Antlered Crown - DL 7

Fittingly, the adventure pack cycle that started with a quest where you have to fight massive amounts of Dunlendings ends in a quest where you have to fight massive amounts of Dunlendings. The main enemy from the Dunland Trap, Chief Turch, is now your ally, and he's actually a decently useful one, unlike the stupid threat dwarf we'd been saddled with earlier. With him at your side, you have to fight the same damn Dunlendings all over again for a third time.

We made an attempt at this, and drew Fierce Folk in our first staging, making both of us draw three cards. Next turn, we get Raising the Cry, which knocks the last Time counter off Dunland Battlefield, leaving us to deal nine points of damage to our characters. That cost me my allies and two of my heroes. So basically this quest is exactly the same as the Ford of Isen and the Dunland Trap. I didn't think "fight all the Dunlendings" was a particularly interesting quest the first time, and I have no idea how anyone would think that repeating it for a third time would be a good idea.

Card spotlight: Treebeard

The ent revolution continues with Treebeard, who may just be the best damn ally there is. There's a decent discussion over on Tales from the Cards on whether he's overpowered or not, but he's definitely a powerful ally. Almost like a Gandalf who sticks around and generates resources to either get more ents in play or ready them, Treebeard is effectively a fourth hero for your deck, and four neutral resources is, frankly, a ludicrously low price to pay. In general, I'm inclined to think that the designers may have slightly overestimated the disadvantage of entering play exhausted. If you're using any ent cards, there's just no good reason to not include Treebeard if you can. Given that he can also ready himself, you could also make a pretty decent case for including him on his own as well.


So, that was the Ring-maker cycle. I'd heard lots of good things about both this and the Voice of Isengard, and I've come away from both feeling a little disappointed. There are three kinds of quests in this cycle. In one, masses of Dunlendings come at you and you have to count how many card you have in your hand, and if there are any, you die. If you don't die, then you run out of Time counters and then die. That's both the first and last quests of the cycle, which are basically exactly the same as the Fords of Isen. The Dunland Trap is the best of these, although that's not saying much. Another alternative is that you have to quest like hell or run out of Time counters and die, while fighting enemies that take away Time counters, and then a treachery wipes out your Time counters and you die anyway. That's all the other ones except Three Trials, which is completely out of place in the Ring-maker cycle because it's actually a really good quest, without gimmicky mechanics or an artificial sense of urgency. Trouble in Tharbad is the best of these, although again, that's not saying much.

To be honest, this is a rubbish adventure pack cycle. Compared to the Mirkwood or Dwarrowdelf cycles, the Ring-maker quests feel contrived, repetitive and really not very Tolkien at all. The Three Trials is the only properly good quest here, and even that doesn't seem worth buying the Voice of Isengard for on its own. In my opinion, if you're interested in quests, don't bother with Voice of Isengard or the Ring-maker cycle at all.

There are, however, lots of really good player card on offer here, especially Silvans and Ents, and the Voice has vital Rohan cards, so if you do end up getting the deluxe expansion, be sure to pick up the Three Trials as well. I can't really see myself returning to any of the other quests any time soon, if ever.


In deckbuilding, Temple of the Deceived brought us a Spirit ally who contributes questing, location control and attack, and on top of everything is from Dale, too: Rhovanion Outrider.

That's a bunch more attack than I had before, but we're probably going to be trying Heirs of Númenor next, and the idea of battle and siege questing makes me slightly nervous! I think that some Gandalf might be indicated; specifically, his Hobbit saga incarnation. With his ability to both quest and fight, this is a wizard who can really get you out of a pickle, and I think he'll be a great help in battle and siege quests, too.

Speaking of unique allies, I'm also throwing in a copy of Bilbo Baggins. Two willpower for two resources is a good deal! His two hit points actually make him a more durable quester than many of my other allies. I'm almost tempted to include a Hobbit Pipe for him to fetch as well! However, the deck is getting about as large as I can possibly be comfortable with.

The arrival of Flame of the West, and with it Éowyn's new incarnation, crated a problem, as my partner was keen to exchange Thalin for Éowyn's greater questing ability and spectacular special attack. I originally intended to switch to Lanwyn myself, but I built such a succesful Lanwyn deck (next month!) that I couldn't bring myself to break it up. Instead, I decided to replace Éowyn with Arwen Undómiel. The pain of giving up her eternally useful ally version is somewhat compensated for by the gorgeous Magali Villeneuve art.

Losing the defense bonus and sentinel ability hurts, but since I'm keeping Herugrim and Snowmane to play on Éowyn, I'm hoping I can pressure my partner into including a copy of Elven Mail for Rossiel. Having Arwen around also gives me reliable access to Elrond's Counsel, which is nice, but I think I'm technically obliged to include at least some copies of Elven-light.

Our first run with the new decks was a pretty straightforward core set double bill of Passage through Mirkwood and Journey down the Anduin. The first was no trouble, and the only real adversity along the Anduin was when two Necromancer's Reaches and an Evil Storm killed just about everyone, but those of us that were left cleared out the rest of the enemies. So far, my impression is that with Elven-light and Arwen around, the larger deck size is manageable.

56 cards; 30 Spirit, 22 Lore, 4 neutral; 19 allies, 17 attachments, 18 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

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

Allies: 19 (12/6/1)
Northern Tracker x2
Rhovanion Outrider (ToTD) x3
Bilbo Baggins (TRD)
Galadriel's Handmaiden (CS) x3
West Road Traveler (RtM) x3
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Wandering Ent (CS) x3
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 17 (11/6)
Herugrim (TToS) x2
Unexpected Courage x2
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x3
Light of Valinor (FoS) x2
Snowmane (TLoS) x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Asfaloth (FoS) 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)

Éowyn isn't around sideboard:
remove Herugrim (TToS) x2, Snowmane (TLoS) x2
add Elrond's Counsel (TWitW) x3


And here's the state of my partner's Team Boromir after Flame of the West:

Team Boromir Mk.3 (53) (43/9/1)

Boromir (TDM)
Éowyn (TFotW)

Allies: 14 (11/3)
Eagles of the Misty Mountains (RtM) x2
Honour Guard (TWoE) x3
Winged Guardian (THfG) x3
Vassal of the Windlord (TDM) x3
Gandalf (Core) x2
Radagast (AJtR)

Events: 12 (9/3)
Feint x3
Foe-Hammer (OHaUH) x2
Sterner than Steel (TFotW) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

Attachments: 26 (23/3)
Support of the Eagles (RtM) x2
Great Yew Bow (OtD) x2
Elven Mail (TTT) x2
Spear of the Citadel (HoN) x2
Blade of Gondolin x2
Golden Shield (TFotW) x1
Gondorian Shield (TSF) x2
Grappling Hook (TGH) x3
Horn of Gondor x2
Mighty Prowess (TDF) x2
Rivendell Blade (RtR) x2
Rohan Warhorse (VoI) x2
Black Arrow (OtD)
Favor of the Valar (TBoCD) x3

Side quests: 1
Gather Information (TLR)

Nov 21, 2016

Let's Play Arkham Horror: The Card Game

At long last, we've gotten our hands on a copy of Arkham Horror: the Card Game, and we're here to tell you if it's any good or not.

Nicholas Roerich: Рассвет (незакончена) [Sunrise (unfinished)], 1930


Full disclosure: as a household full of H.P. Lovecraft fans and several devout Lord of the Rings card game players, we were very much looking forward to this game. If anyone unfamiliar with the Lord of the Rings LCG happens to read this, I apologize in advance for comparing Arkham Horror to it constantly. This post will also contain mild spoilers for the first scenario in the core set.

Here's what's inside the box:

There's five investigators, enough player cards to make full decks for two of them, three scenarios for them to tackle, and all the counters and paraphrenalia required to make that happen. Unsurprisingly, it's a lot like the Lord of the Rings LCG; one of the major exceptions are the Chaos tokens, which basically work like the Hunt pool in War of the Ring. The cards and counters are made of good quality material, although as always, I do strongly recommend sleeving all the cards before playing. The art on the cards is of fairly high quality, as I think we very much expected, but although I can't say we're disappointed, the cards aren't quite as lovely overall as the Lord of the Rings card game's. For the backs of the player and encounter cards, they've gone for a sort of art deco Cthulhu look, which is quite all right, but especially the flat beige of the encounter cards isn't the most attractive choice. Art deco is a bit cold at the best of times, and here it comes off as quite distant. But certainly nothing here is ugly!

In terms of content, the cards aren't really terribly evocative or even all that interesting on their own. I suppose this is one area where the comparison to the Lord of the Rings card game is at its most unfavorable, but going from, I don't know, Light of Valinor to Physical Training or Blade of Gondolin to Switchblade is a bit of a downer. Most of the cards are very generic and and only take on any life once you've used them in the game. By themselves, few of them evoke anything at all. Even fairly obvious opportunities for thematic hooks are ignored; we get Research Librarian rather than, say, Miskatonic Librarian and Guard Dog rather than watchdog or even "canine guardian" as they're referred to in the Dunwich Horror. Even the flavor texts aren't usually from Lovecraft or the broader mythos. So the initial impression from the cards is unfortunately almost bland.


The proof, though, is in the pudding: now that we've seen the actual physical game, it's time to try playing it. We're going to start with the first scenario in the core set, the Gathering, and use the recommended starter decks. That means one of us gets Roland Banks, the Fed:

While the other gets Wendy Adams, the Street Urchin:

Because we both think we'll want to make different choices later when we settle on a particular deck to call our own, I picked the Fed and my partner got Wendy. The numbers across the top right-hand side of the card are their skills: willpower, intellect, combat and agility. As you can see, both investigators have fairly well-rounded stats, Wendy's lousy combat score being the only exception. The cards also detail their abilities: Roland can find clues by defeating enemies, while Wendy can swap a horrible Chaos token - used to resolve skill tests - for a hopefully better one. Finally, there's the starting health and sanity for both characters.

The reverse of the investigator cards gives us a little backstory on the character and, crucially, their deckbuilding requirements. Arkham Horror has five different classes of characters and cards; Roland's class is Guardian, and the back of his investigator card tells us we can include Guardian cards from levels one through five in his deck. He can also use Seeker cards from levels 0-2, and neutral cards. A starting deck for Roland will have thirty cards from those classes, plus his two special cards, Roland's .38 Special and Cover Up. The last of these is a Weakness: a card you draw from your player deck that hurts you. So far, each investigator has one specific weakness, and must also include one random basic weakness.

The deck itself is made up of three kinds of cards in addition to the mandatory weaknesses: assets, events and skills. Assets include allies, tools, weapons and so on; they remain in play, and the number of "slots" your character has restricts how many you can have at any time. For instance, characters only have two hand slots, which means you can have two assets that take up a hand slot, or one two-handed asset. Events are played and resolved immediately, while skill cards are committed to boost skill tests. Each card has one or more skill icons, and when you take a skill test, you can discard card to boost your skill score. Skill cards are only useful when discarded to skill tests, and will have a specific effect when discarded. For now, though, we don't really have to worry about deckbuilding, since we'll be using the ready-made starter decks.


Now to get the game started! As in the Lord of the Rings card game, we pick a scenario to play against; in this case, the first scenario of the core set, the Gathering. We make progress in the scenario by working through the Act deck, which we do by collecting clues from the various locations in play.

The first Act, above, requires us to find two clues per investigator in order to advance. However, while we're working to find those clues, the Agenda deck will simultaneously be advancing.

As you can see, you're meant to read them in the opposite order. But the agenda card tells us that once three Doom counters have been placed on the Agenda deck, the agenda will advance, and that's not going to be very good for us. So we'd better get cracking on those clues!

The scenario setup instructions tell us that we start in the Study. All locations enter play with their "unrevealed" side up:

Once an investigator enters a location, in this case by starting there, it's flipped over to the "revealed" side:

The number of the left is the location's Shroud value: in order to discover any clues there, we need to beat the Shroud value with an investigator's Intellect. The number on the right is the total amount of clues at this location; it's two per investigator, i.e. the same number as we need to advance the Act deck. The circles at the bottom of the card tell us which locations this one connects to; they're all blank, meaning we're not going anywhere!

Each turn, every investigator gets to take three actions. Obviously we need to find those clues, and as lead investigator, Wendy gets us started by Investigating. This is a skill check pitting her intellect of 3 against the location's Shroud value of 2. To make it more interesting, we also have to draw a Chaos token, which will either modify the skill value or cause something different and unexpected. In this case, the token is a -1, meaning that Wendy's intellect counts as 2 for the purposes of this test. It's still equal to the Shroud value, though, which is enough for a success: we've found our first clue! A clue token is moved from the location card to Wendy's card. On my turn, I play an asset card and summon an ally:

Given that we're trapped in the study, I don't know how he got there, but this is a card game, let's not get hung up on details. The icon in the lower right corner tells us that Beat Cop occupies my ally slot. He has a health and sanity of two, meaning I can use him to absorb some damage if necessary. He also grants me a bonus of 1 to my combat score, and I can discard him to do damage to an enemy. The fist icon on the upper left edge of the card means that instead of paying four resources to put him into play as an ally, I could've discarded him for a +1 modifier to a combat skill test. In addition, I also investigate, succesfully netting a clue, and use my last action to gain one resource.

This all sounds a bit too easy, which is why from the second turn onward, the turn starts with the Mythos phase. First, we place one Doom counter on the Agenda deck, moving it one step closer to presumably something bad. Then each of us draws a card from the encounter deck, which are pretty much always something bad. I drew an enemy that couldn't spawn because the location where it would've appeared wasn't in play, so it was discarded, but my partner drew A Swarm of Rats, which engaged Wendy.

After the investigation phase, where we take out turns, those rats are going to attack Wendy, so we'd better do something about them. Wendy is our lead investigator, but my partner decides that this turn, Roland will go first. I'm not taking any chances, so I'll start off by playing a Knife.

Armed with a knife and backed up by my Beat Cop ally, my combat score is an unnecessarily high 6 against the rats' 1. The only Chaos token that could defeat us is the autofail tentacle one, but I don't draw it, and the rats are toast. For my last action, I investigate and find a second clue. On her turn, Wendy finds the fourth and last clue, and we decide to advance the Act deck. As soon as we spend the required amount of clue tokens, we flip over the first Act card and carry out the instructions on the reverse side:

The second act tells us that our way out is still blocked, and we'll need a total of six clues to advance:

We now find ourselves in the Hallway.

There are now three icons at the bottom of the card, signifying three locations that connect to the Hallway. With no clues to be found in the Hallway, obviously we'll need to look in one of the connected locations. Finding herself with actions left, Wendy chooses to descend into the Cellar.

There are four clues to be had in the Cellar, but its Shroud value is an uncomfortably high 4, which Wendy will struggle to beat with her intellect of 3. So for her last action, she plays a Flashlight, which ought to help us find some clues.

However, before she can do that, the Mythos phase rolls around and my partner draws a Ghoul Minion from the encounter deck.

A slightly tougher enemy, the Ghoul Minion has a combat score of two and two hit points. Since their combat scores are equal and each succesful attack only does one point of damage, Wendy might need all turn to defeat the ghoul, and there's a pretty good chance she's take damage doing it. So once again, I start our turn, and Roland charges down the stairs. I use the second action on my Knife, discarding it for +2 combat and one point of additional damage; the combat check is succesful, and the ghoul is discarded from play. This time, I remember to use Roland's special ability, meaning that since I just defeated an enemy, I get to discover one clue at our location. Roland Banks: stabs ghouls, finds clues.

After some succesful investigating with Wendy's flashlight and my Magnifying Glass, and a visit to the Attic, we find ourselves in the Hallway with the required number of clues. First, though, since I have a bad feeling about breaking down magical barriers, I'll play one last asset.

With my .45 Automatic in hand, we bust down the barrier and enter the parlor. Here we have a choice: we can run away through the front door, ending the scenario as unresolved, or fight the Ghoul Priest attacking us.

Misreading the Ghoul Priest's hit points as five rather than five per player, I take the first turn and blast him with my .45 automatic. Two succesful attacks deal four points of damage, and finally, discarding Beat Cop does a fifth point of damage, which we wrongly believed was enough.

To be fair, though, Wendy still had her turn as well, and with some of her card and one of Roland's actions remaining, I'm pretty sure we could've defeated a ten-hitpoint Ghoul Priest as well. It's also a pretty good reminder that when you play one of these games, mistakes are going to happen, even in a scenario as simple as this one. I mean come on, when you actually hold the card in your hand, that investigator symbol next to the hit points is really small...


But be that as it may, we won! That takes us to the Campaign Guide, where we find out what happens next. There are four possible outcomes for this scenario. The worst happens if we fail to complete the Act deck, but the bad guys finish the Agenda deck, and it's, well, not good. The campaign goes on, though! If we'd both been defeated, or if we chose to escape out the front door after reaching the parlor, a different set of conditions would ensue. Finally, because we, in fact, won, we have to make an additional choice after the scenario, and what we did is noted down in the campaign log. This is definitely one of my favorite things about Arkham Horror: instead of each scenario being a more or less isolated episode, like the Lord of the Rings quests outside of the saga expansions, they all belong to a campaign where, hopefully, the choices you make will make a difference further on down the road. Also, even in the worst possible case, we'd be able to continue the campaign, only at a disadvantage.

In addition, we gain experience! Each victory point we've earned gets each of us a point of experience, and because we defeated the Ghoul Priest (Victory 2) and cleared the Cellar (1), that's a total of three victory points. The scenario resolution we ended up with grants us a +2 bonus, so we each have five experience points we can use to upgrade our decks before the next scenario. I could upgrade some of my existing cards, but since we've worked out a pretty good division of labor where Roland does most of the fighting, I'm going to pick a new card to help with that: Extra Ammunition. It's a level 1 card, meaning that I need to spend one of my experience points to add it to my deck. Another card I think looks promising is Police Badge: it goes on the accessory slot, which Roland isn't currently using for anything, and in addition to boosting my willpower, I can discard it to give another investigator extra actions. Police Badge is a level 2 card, so it'll cost me two experience points, leaving two which I'll save for later. Because the size of my deck is capped at 30 cards, I'll remove Mind over Matter and Research Librarian to make room for the new cards. Now I'm ready to continue the campaign.


So there's gameplay for you. You advance through a series of locations, finding clues and fighting off enemies, trying to outrun the inexolerably advancing Agenda deck. What about building your own starting deck?

Unlike the Lord of the Rings LCG, which was billed as being for 1-2 players but really supported 1-4, this is actually a 1-2 -player game, and in a way that creates some problems. For example, I can tell you right now that my investigator of choice going forward is going to be Agnes Baker, the Waitress.

Now, admittedly, "the Waitress" may not sound like much if you're one of those pompous bastards who don't appreciate the hard work that the men, women and others of our hospitality industry do. The gorgeous Magali Villeneuve art certainly helps, and a willpower of 5 is nothing to sneer at, but what seals the deal is her background story: she's a reincarnated Hyperborean witch. Her card text literally says she is from an age undreamed of. I'm completely sold; she is awesome and I will fight you.

The back of her card tells us that her character class is Mystic, and that she can pick Mystic cards from levels 0-5 and Survivor cards from levels 0-2. The starter deck that we can build for her from our single core set uses all of the 0 level Mystic and Survivor cards, and approximately half of the available neutral cards, so there's not a whole lot of deckbuilding to be done with just one core set. Unfortunately, that also means no-one else can be using those cards at the same time, which means that we're left with the Guardian, Seeker and Rogue classes. The only core set investigators using only those cards are Roland Banks and "Skids" O'Toole, the Ex-con. So if I want to play as Agnes, my partner is forced to choose either the ex-con or the fed, and we don't have enough cards for a third player whatever we pick. I can't help but contrast this with the Lord of the Rings LCG, where we immediately got four fully interoperable decks and could get right into a three- or four-player game, which was crucial in getting us hooked.

Now, admittedly, we've been promised that the very first expansion will feature as many as five new investigators and a pile of new player cards, so hopefully that'll help. But to be honest, it's still a little disappointing. Another thing it does, which I'm not sure the people in charge of these things entirely appreciate, is that it makes it a lot harder to get other people to play the game. With just the Lord of the Rings core set, me and my partner can invite another couple or two friends over and have a game. With Arkham, this is impossible; without multiple core sets, the only way to demonstrate the game is one-on-one. So I really don't think this was a good idea. I'd rather have taken smaller starting decks, for example.

What's more, you'll actually need a second core set just to have reasonable deckbuilding options beyond the starter decks, since there's only a single copy of each player card. And that's just for two people! There are people on the forums talking about buying three or four core sets. Why? Suppose we got a second core, and used the new Guardian, Seeker, Mystic and Survivor card to kit out our investigators properly. What's left for a third player? Our leftovers and a full set of Rogue cards. So actually, if we want two decks with full cardpools and two other starting decks, we'd need three core sets. If the third player wants two copies of each player card, that would require four core sets.

Obviously we'll have to see what the expansions are like; if the Dunwich Legacy really offers us at least one additional fully viable player deck, then this isn't so bad. But I'll be honest, I really don't like that we're pretty much expected to buy two core sets, let alone more. So from a deck-building perspective, this is not good. Coming to this from the Lord of the Rings, I kinda feel like I'm being shaken down for money. If the deluxe expansions only come with one copy of each player card or something like that, meaning that we'd have to buy multiple deluxes, I fucking quit.


Deckbuilding dubiosities and our own incompetence aside, we definitely enjoyed our first experience playing Arkham Horror! We're going to at least try to finish the core set campaign, and then get started with our investigators of choice and look out for the first deluxe expansion. Based on the first scenario, the fundamental game mechanics are sound, and I'm looking forward to playing more. Arkham Horror succeeds in blending a little bit of roleplaying feel into the cardgame format, above all by being at a considerably lower level of abstraction than, say, Lord of the Rings. Instead of locations and enemies floating around in a staging area, generating threat against your heroes and army of allies, you're in the cellar, looking for a clue with a flashlight while a ghoul is stalking you. There's definitely some atmosphere here!

The lack of real deck-building options in the core set is a bit of a disappointment, but hopefully that'll start getting corrected soon enough. I'm horribly tempted to buy a second core set, but I resent the fact that even if I did, we'd effectively have to choose between expanding our starting card pools or accomodating more players. So in terms of further purchases, I think we'll wait for the Dunwich Legacy to show up and assess our options.

It's definitely a fun game, though! If the deckbuilding aspect didn't make me feel like I'm being fleeced, and even rudimentary three- or four-player play was possible right out of the box, I'd think this was an awesome game with no ifs or buts attached. As it is, I'd cautiously recommend it if you want an engaging experience for one or two players. We'll wait to see what the expansions are like before going further than that.

Nov 14, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 26: In the House of Tom Bombadil

The four hobbits stepped over the wide stone threshold, and stood still, blinking.

Last time, the hobbits got lost in a forest and were nearly eaten by a tree, only to be rescued by what appears to be a wandering magical hippie. In case any young people are reading this, I want to make it very clear that the official position of this blog is that if you are in a forest and you meet a strange man singing his own name, do not go with him to his house. Because adventuring hobbits have approximately as little sense as adventuring dwarves, however, Frodo and company do exactly that.

Arriving at Tom's house, the hobbits meet Goldberry, the River-daughter, nowadays Mrs. Bombadil, who inspires Frodo to freestyle about her beauty. The exhausted hobbits get a chance to freshen up before enjoying a vegetarian meal with lots of singing, after which they and Tom retreat to what almost gets called a drawing-room for a little postprandial rest and chat. It's almost cute how Tom initially appears in the story as a bizarre magical hippie, only to lead the protagonists to such a gemütlich reception that it ends in armchairs with little footstools, and slippers. In the Hobbit, the decidedly modern and bourgeois Bilbo Baggins was contrasted to the archaic dwarves with great success, and the same device is used at times elsewhere in the Lord of the Rings, but here it's just odd.

That night, Frodo dreams of a white-haired figure pacing atop a dark tower, while Merry and Pippin have nightmares of their ordeal with Old Man Willow. Only the simple Sam doesn't get a dream, instead sleeping like a content log. In the morning, heavy rainclouds are rolling in, giving the hobbits license to spend the day at Tom's instead of moving on immediately. In a repeat visual from the previous chapter, they again find themselves on a hilltop that appears as an island in a sea of mist, soon to be replaced by a steady rain. If river-crossings represent a sort of symbolic transition for Tolkien, fog also plays a liminal role: the crossing of the Brandywine and the entry into the Old Forest were accomplished in a blanket of fog, and now fog and rain momentarily isolate Frodo and company from the forest around them.

In the strange world of Tom Bombadil, rain means it's Goldberry's washing-day, which in proper patriarchal fashion means that all the men in the house hide away from the work and loaf around telling stories. Tom tells the hobbits all about the Old Forest and its inhabitants. The woods are a remnant of the huge forests that once covered a far larger area, populated by trees that remember when they ruled and resent the two-legged usurpers. Willow-man is apparently their chief, dominating most of the forest. Tom tells the hobbits about the time when men came and built their little kingdoms, which fell into ruin and left only their haunted barrows behind. Having come this close to the present, he then talks about the very beginnings of time on Middle-earth, prompting Frodo to ask him who, exactly, he is. The only answer Tom has to that is his name, but he does venture some biographical information: "Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn."

After a whole day of story-telling, Goldberry serves supper, and after they've eaten, Goldberry sings for them. Apparently, being the daughter of the river is a pretty shit job. Afterwards, the men retreat for more conversation, this time Tom asking the hobbits all about the Shire and themselves, all of which they gladly tell him about. Tom even goes as far as to ask for the Ring, and Frodo amazes even himself by simply handing it over. Tom clowns around with the Ring for a bit, even putting it on and failing to turn invisible.

Eventually Frodo gets his Ring back, and he decides to test it. While Tom is busy telling a story about badgers, Frodo puts the Ring on and starts to sneak out of the room. Merry is shocked to find he's disappeared, proving that the Ring does still work, but Tom sees him and calls out. Frodo pretends he was just playing a joke, and the conversation next turns to the hobbits' journey. Tom advises them to head north, avoiding the Barrow-downs and the worst of the forest, and teaches them a song to sing so they can call him to their aid if they fuck up. "If", you're thinking. With that, the hobbits are off to bed for their last night in the house of Tom Bombadil.


Who is Tom Bombadil? As much as I like Robert Foster's characterization of him as "a Maia gone native", this can't be squared with his own words in this chapter: "He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless - before the Dark Lord came from Outside." The Dark Lord here is not Sauron but his master of old, Morgoth, and the Valaquenta tells us that "Melkor too was there from the first". If we take Tom at his word, he was on Arda before the Valar ever descended on it. For those of you who like the fan theory that Tom is Eru, i.e. God, not only has Tolkien expressly denied this, but there's also Tom's reply to Frodo:

At last Frodo spoke:
"Did you hear me calling, Master, or was it just chance that brought you at that moment?"
Tom stirred like a man shaken out of a pleasant dream. "Did I hear you calling? Nay, I did not hear: I was busy singing. Just chance brought me there, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine [...]"

This is Tolkien's theology of luck again; simply put, nothing less than divine providence sent Tom to gather water-lilies just then. Note, however, that divine providence was no plan of Tom's, so Eru Ilúvatar he ain't. Because of the strong influence of Finnish on Tolkien's elvish, by the way, I keep thinking his creator god is female because of that -tar suffix. If only!

There's a good discussion in Shippey's Author of the Century on the idea of Tom Bombadil as a genius loci; in Tolkien's words, "the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside" (Letters, 19). In other words, Tom is a sort of avatar of the Old Forest, if not of a wider area. Shippey sees Tom's singing as an analogue to the Kalevala. I agree, but given that he's just mentioned the way Tom "catches" Goldberry, I'm surprised he doesn't mention the other striking similarity between Tom and Väinämöinen: their aquatic predation of women. To me, the mention of Tom catching Goldberry in the river immediately brought to mind Akseli Gallen-Kallela's striking triptych Aino (1891).

Väinämöinen is less succesful in his endeavours, as Aino drowns herself rather than be the wife of a dirty old man like him. Like countless other Finnish schoolchildren, I was exposed to the triptych at a tender age in the name of nationalism, and always found the spectacle of a beautiful nude woman escaping a senior citizen in a watercraft both visually compelling and disturbing in its evident lechery. While the otherwise earthy Bombadil doesn't seem to share Väinämöinen's proclivities in this direction, both of them are basically wizards who overcome their enemies with song, and have been around since the world was made.

By contrast, unlike Shippey and others I can't really see many similarities between Väinämöinen and Gandalf. To me, Gandalf has always been a clear Merlin figure, who occasionally takes a hand in the action but is mostly content to point the mythical king in the right direction. The only real connection between them is that both of them take a boat to the land of the dead when no longer needed, sparing Gandalf Merlin's fate (below: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Väinämöisen lähtö, 1906).

I've never thought of it in those terms before, but Tom Bombadil and Gandalf are basically desexualized versions of Väinämöinen and Merlin respectively. That's Tolkien for you!


So in a sense, Bombadil is something like the insufferably rustic mascot of a country fair. But why is Tom Bombadil? What function does he serve in the story? Is the adventure of the Old Forest superfluous to the Lord of the Rings, easily and sensibly omitted in favor of more gripping stuff? Tolkien himself explained Tom in a couple of different ways in his letters, first as an "enigma" (Letters, 144):

And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).

Tolkien repeats his insistence that he doesn't do allegory, but later in the same letter, he takes up the subject of Bombadil again. Noting that "Tom Bombadil is not an important person - to the narrative", Tolkien explains his as a "comment" representing something he feels is "important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely".

I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control, but if you have, as it were taken 'a vow of poverty', renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war.

Whew. I will never feel bad about the length of my sentences again. Just typing that out crashed my browser. But if we take this at face value, then the joke I started this post with is spot on: Tom Bombadil is a hippie before hippies. An urhippie! In fact, he seems to be an... allegory.

As many Tolkien fans know, he was very vocal in his opposition if any and all allegorical readings of his works. The best-known example is the angry denounciation of a parallel between the Lord of the Rings and the Second World War in the preface to the second edition. There's also a particularly excellent letter (229) in which Tolkien eviscerates the introduction to the infamous Swedish translation to the Lord of the Rings. The translator, incidentally, went on to claim that the Tolkien fandom is a Nazi occultist sex cabal, so that project seems to have gone well. One of the least silly presumptions quoted by Tolkien is the suggestion that Sauron represents Stalin. Tolkien rejects this, quite reasonably pointing out that "the situation was conceived long before the Russian revolution", which I think is true, and continuing: "Such allegory is entirely foreign to my thought".

Given what he said about Bombadil in 144, though, is it? With reference to Tolkien's views on politics, which I discussed in connection with the first chapter, in letter 154 Tolkien refers to his conception of evil - the Machine - as "Sarumanism". So the ethical dilemma set out above, which is in a sense central to the whole work, could be phrased as Bombadil versus Saruman. Certainly no allegories here! I could quote innumerable examples from Letters, like 190, which escaped me earlier, where Tolkien directly states that the Shire is a parody of rural England. To say nothing of the way in which several aspects of Tolkien's mythos, from Eärendil to such slightly obscure things as the precise dating scheme of the Lord of the Rings, are directly intended to prefigure Christ, in the way Christians have wanted to see him prefigured in the Old Testament, or in the sense that the Tribunal Temple maintained that the so-called "good Daedra" anticipated the Tribunal. Is Tolkien's rejection of allegory inconsistent, then?

In the foreword to the second edition of the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien draws a distinction between allegory and applicability: "the one [applicability] resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author". Intuitively, this makes sense, but what's the real difference? Tolkien consistently insisted that the Lord of the Rings is a Christian work. Surely this, if anything, is the purposed domination of the author, laying down the terms in which his text must be interpreted. In practice, though, I at least managed to red not only the Lord of the Rings but the rest of Tolkien's legendarium as well, and come away with no notion whatsoever of a sensus spiritualis. Intent is not magic; the plans and purposes of the author aren't recorded into his words. There is only the text and the reader. On its own terms, Tolkien's disinction is false; applied to his work, it's a double standard that lets him both insist that he has no message (e.g. Letters, 208) and that he has a profoundly Catholic message (e.g. 142).

My feeling is that when Tolkien decries allegory, what he means is a kind of reductionism. This is just my hypothesis, but to Tolkien, allegory in the negative seems to be the idea that the allegory is just a simple substitution: Eärendil is Jesus, Tom Bombadil is pacifism, the Ring is nuclear weapons. In a scheme like this, there would be no reason for the Lord of the Rings to exist, since it would just be a retelling of the Second World War, but with orcs instead of Germans. I'm reminded of Neill Blomkamp's Elysium, which fell flat because the story was topical and powerful as an allegory, but made no sense whatsoever on its own terms.

If this is what Tolkien means by allegory in the negative sense, then what he's saying makes sense. The difference between allegory and applicability would be that in allegory, there is one obvious and intended interpretation; to take a completely random and entirely unrelated example, Aslan is Jesus. Applicability, on the other hand, suggests several references instead of trying to dictate a single one. In the Silmarillion, Eärendil in many ways suggests Jesus: he's part human and part divine, he bridges the gulf between time and eternity, and he achieves a reconciliation between the gods and their creations. However, in certain crucial ways, Eärendil is not Jesus. For starters, he's not sent down from heaven but makes his way up from earth, which would be a Gnostic heresy if he was just intended to be a word-substitution for Jesus. But this is the point: he's not. Saying "Eärendil is Jesus" would give someone unacquainted with Tolkien a completely misleading impression of the character. Eärendil is Jesus, but he's also more than that. In general, Tolkien's characters and settings are very rarely direct, reducible analogies. Theologically, Eärendil anticipates Jesus, but is a distinct character; in many ways, he's also St. Brendan the Navigator, and in others, purely a Tolkien creation. In this sense, Tolkien's rejection of allegory isn't necessarily dishonest, just poorly phrased.


To return to the chapter at hand, in letter 153, Tolkien presents another allegory for Bombadil: science. "He is then an 'allegory', or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are 'other' and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with 'doing' anything with the knowledge: Zoology and Botany not Cattle-breeding or Agriculture."

So here we are, then: according to the author, Tom Bombadil is an embodied spirit of the English countryside, an enigma, an analogy for pacifism, and science. Which is it?

In keeping with my interpretation of Tolkien's attitude to allegory, the answer is all of them, and then some. Like Eärendil, Bombadil is an older creation of Tolkien: "In historical fact I put him in because I had already 'invented' him (he first appeared in the Oxford Magazine), and wanted an 'adventure' along the way" (Letters, 153). The story about badgers is a reference to this previous appearance. So one answer to why Tom Bombadil is in the story is simple: because something had to happen between Buckland and Bree, and Tolkien had a character ready. Anyone who's ever run a role-playing game will recognize this! As for being an analogy of this or that, I think the crucial point here is that Tolkien seems to have attached quite a number of ideas to Bombadil, from Berkshire to science and pacifism. None of them are the one correct answer to the who and why of Tom Bombadil. At the end of the day, I think Tolkien's simplest answer is the best: Tom Bombadil is in the story so that the hobbits can have an adventure on their own before they get fully caught up in the greater drama of the Ring. In that sense, there's no particular reason why the adventure of the Old Forest should include Bombadil at all; it could easily have been something completely different.

Personally, though, I like the Old Forest and old Tom, and I do think they have a part to play in the Lord of the Rings beyond providing the hobbits with an adventure. To quote again from letter 153:

But I kept him in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out. [...] Also T.B. exhibits another point in his attitude to the Ring, and its failure to affect him. You must concentrate on some part, probably relatively small, of the World (Universe), whether to tell a tale, however long, or to learn anything however fundamental - and therefore much will from that 'point of view' be left out, distorted on the circumference, or seem a discordant oddity. The power of the Ring over all concerned, even the Wizards or Emissaries, is not a delusion - but it is not the whole picture, even of the state and content of that part of the Universe.

Of all the interpretations Tolkien gives in his letters of Bombadil, this is the only one that resonates with me. It's characters like Tom who are such an integral part of why Tolkien's world-building is so succesful. Bombadil is important precisely because he doesn't, in the brutally mechanistic language of script-writers, "advance the plot". Instead, he builds the world of Middle-earth. Bombadil is a reminder that Sauron and the Ring aren't the only things that matter in Middle-earth. From Bombadil's perspective, even Sauron is an interloper; an ephemeral figure in the long tale of the hills and forests. Bombadil is, in a way, a parallel figure to Beorn in the Hobbit: both are singular, almost atavistic characters living out in the sticks who offer the protagonists a vegetarian meal. Both of them could be said to represent an older world than that of the main story.

This, to me, is the fundamental "message" of the adventure of the Old Forest, and of Bombadil. He gives the story a wider alternative context; he makes the world in which it's set have a life of its own. Willow-man isn't an agent of Sauron put there to capture the Ring, nor is Bombadil a proxy of Gandalf sent to look after them. In a sense, the hobbits have stumbled out of their story into someone else's, and a thing of incalculable importance and deadly peril in theirs is an amusing bauble in the other. So while I completely understand why Tom and the Old Forest may seem pointless and ridiculous to many people, to me, the whole book would be much poorer without them.


One final question: what are we to make of the Ring having no effect on Bombadil? First, one misconception has to be dismissed: the Ring is not, strictly speaking, a ring of invisibility. It made the hobbits who wore it invisible, and judging from Gandalf's version of the story in the second chapter, Isildur also. But these ringbearers were all ordinary mortals. Certainly the Ring didn't make Sauron invisible! Nor was invisibility the power that Gandalf feared would corrupt him. The Ring is far more powerful than that. So the simple fact that Bombadil doesn't become invisible might not be significant at all.

It's Tom's attitude to the Ring that makes all the difference. He treats the Ring playfully, as an amusing bauble but nothing more. It seems to have no power over him whatsoever. The various analogies of Bombadil all suggest different reasons for this. If Tom represents pure science, a curiosity in things as themselves, then the Ring is just another object of study. If he represents a pacifism that renounces power, then power holds no temptation for him. However, there's also a theological interpretation. In Tolkien's theology, the Ring is the ultimate Machine, produced by the Fall as an attempt to conquer death. Bearing in mind what Bombadil said about remembering the night when it was fearless, i.e. before Morgoth, should we see Tom as a representative of nature before the Fall? Is he, in fact, unfallen? This would explain why he has no interest in the Ring: it's simply completely foreign to him, an irrelevant artifact of another world. In this case, his benign playfulness and unproblematic relationship with nature would represent nothing less than Paradise. Tom would be a sort of counterpart and antithesis of the Lilith of Jewish folklore. This is downright suspicious if not damn near heretical from a dogmatically Christian standpoint, but applying Tolkien's theological scheme here does suggest it, at least to me.


That ended up being a bit longer than I expected! I should say that although a full chapter of a woodland eccentric telling stories doesn't exactly sound gripping, this is a far better chapter than I remembered. Moving on, stop me if you've heard this one before, but next time, the hobbits leave their place of refuge and set off across the Old Forest, only to end up in desperate trouble, crying out for some mysterious inhabitant of the enchanted wood to rescue them.