Jun 1, 2020

Let's Read Tolkien 69: The Pyre of Denethor

When the dark shadow at the Gate withdrew Gandalf still sat motionless.

Pippin tells Gandalf that Denethor has finally lost it, and Gandald decides he has to rescue Faramir since no-one else can. At the hallows, they find Beregond has broken in and is trying to stop Denethor's servants from finishing the titular funeral pyre. Gandalf and Denethor argue, and Gandalf grabs Faramir off the pyre. Denethor reveals that he has a palantír, in which he's seen the corsair ships coming up the Anduin - but completely misunderstood their significance. He sets himself on fire and dies on the pyre, and the building eventually collapses on top of him - although apparently someone goes in and digs out the palantír later.

**

The Steward of Gondor is dead; long live the Steward of Gondor. Like the other climactic chapters of Book Five, this is also a short one.

Earlier, Gandalf remarked that the blood of Númenor ran particularly pure in Denethor, whatever that's supposed to mean. I think it needs to be noted that for all of this racist obsession with bloodlines, clearly the pure blood of Númenor doesn't stop you from being a complete horse's ass and not only abandoning your post in wartime but damn near murdering your son as well. In this context, Gandalf gives a rare theological statement:

"Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death," answered Gandalf. "And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death."

The word "heathen" is interesting here; it really does apparently come from the same root as heath, and the meaning is something like those who live out in the wastes. So it does kind of make sense to use it of the people who lived in what is now Gondor before the Númenorans came, but it does bring up the question of religion in general. What, exactly, distinguishes the people of Gondor from the heathens? We've encountered some forms of religious ritual, most prominently with Faramir's men in Ithilien. The Rohirrim and the hobbits have nothing like it, though. Would you call hobbits heathen? It's a funny word to use. Tolkien's problem seems to be that nobody in Middle-earth can be a Christian, since they don't have the gospel, but he doesn't want them to be pagans either, so they hover in this state between a Christianity with Eru standing in for God and a society that seems almost completely unreligious.

Denethor's obsession with death and the end of his house is, of course, the culmination of Tolkien's idea of the "Egyptian" character of Gondor, with Denethor wanting a royal funeral so he can travel to the afterlife with his son. It's almost bitterly ironic that Denethor declaims on the failure of the West, like so many racists of Tolkien's time and ours, when everything that happens in this chapter is really a failure of his character and leadership.

It's also kind of funny to me that Denethor accuses Gandalf of the same things Moorcock and others have: ordering everyone around and seeking to remake Middle-earth in his own image. It's no coincidence that he says many of the same things Saruman did.

Gandalf seems to take it a little hard that he had to go rescue Faramir, and while he was busy, Théoden was killed. This raises two questions in my mind. First, why did he feel he had to rescue Faramir in the first place? Denethor had already abandoned his command, and Gandalf and Prince Imrahil were de facto in charge. If Denethor burned himself and Faramir, what difference would it have made to the battle? None that I can see.

Secondly, what would have happened if Gandalf had ridden out and confronted the Witch-king? Would he have destroyed him, or would the boss Nazgûl have lived to fight another day? You can certainly argue that Gandalf is "no man", but a more Tolkienian reading here would be that Sauron's corruption of Denethor accidentally leads to the destruction of the Witch-king. But even Gandalf isn't omniscient.

**

Next time: leechcraft.

May 25, 2020

Pandemic diary: May

I didn't write one of these things for April because frankly, I was quite depressed; nothing much was going on; and toward the end of the month I started my university prep course, and it took up all my free time. So I guess this is a bimonthly diary? I hope there won't be too many entries.

**

This past month marked my first adventure into online education. This is my fifth spring teaching university prep courses, but with the pandemic, the decision was made to switch to distance education, specifically Zoom. Teaching online is in some ways easier, obviously: you can do it from the comfort of your own home. But in several ways it's much harder than being there in person. I feel that the main issue is the lack of human contact: I spent the vast majority of my time talking to a screen showing my own slides and a picture of myself. Even as a lecturer, you get so much feedback and energy from the audience that it's really draining to teach without any of that. Another issue I find is that students seem to be less engaged with the class at a distance: this year a lot less people did their homework assignments, which showed in the mock exam. Some people didn't even do that! Distance learning may be the future, but it's not here yet. Even in adult education, it takes away so many of our tools as teachers that I am not very enthusiastic about doing more of it. To say nothing of the way in which it magnifies all pre-existing inequalities.

The entrance exam book they chose for the degree program on social change or whatever the faculty of social sciences officially calls yhteiskunnallinen muutos in English was Dr. Paige West's book From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: the Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea. It's a really good book and was a delight to teach.


Tuomas Tammisto of the University of Helsinki reviewed the book (PDF), and identified a key unresolved tension in it, so to speak:

West gives a very powerful critique of neoliberalism and especially of certification schemes, which seek to solve problems created by neoliberal practices by adhering to the very same practices that brought the problems in the first place. However Harvey’s theories of accumulation by dispossession could have been problematized more in the light of West’s own rich material, as the Gimi are – as she herself notes (p. 246) – owners of their own land and means of production and incorporate commodities into their own moral economy that does not follow a capitalist logic.

I think the same is true for several other sections of the book as well: there's a very well-argued theoretical case and really good ethnographic material, but the two don't always meet like you'd expect them to. I was slightly puzzled by the seventh chapter, where the author interviews several Western coffee marketers, who sell Papuan coffee with fantasy images of primitive Papuans. Several of them explain this away by saying that they have to do this, that this is just how things are now.

Dr. West takes this as confirmation that the advent of neoliberalism changed the way coffee is marketed, and I think she's right; but I can't help but think that there's a real missed opportunity here. Personally, as a social scientist, whenever someone says they "have to" do something a certain way, that there's no choice, I know I've found something interesting that needs looking into. In the earlier chapters, and indeed later in the same chapter, the book talks extensively about virtualism: how coffee marketers produce consumers. This angle is entirely absent in the interviews with the marketers; suddenly instead of consumers being produced, the marketers are simply responding to the dictates of the marketplace. I at least was left with an uncomfortable uncertainty as to whether we were meant to be reading this ironically, or whether the author was momentarily abandoning virtualism to hammer home a point about neoliberalism. Either way, there was a an opportunity there for an interesting analysis, which was not taken.

In her account of the pacification of the Papua-New Guinea highlands, Dr. West drops a reference to James Scott. Now, I'm a big Scott fan; discovering his work made a huge difference to my master's thesis back in the day. I had several thoughts about possible intersections of Papua-New Guinea and his work, but the biggest one is that I think the role of the state in coffee in Papua ends up being somewhat neglected in the book. We hear quite a bit about the Australian state's activities during the colonial period when they were in charge of Papua-New Guinea, but after independence, the focus of the book shifts to neoliberalism and global capitalism, which is certainly necessary, but the state drops out of the picture.

In one of the chapters, we had a look at the economic programs envisioned for an independent Papua-New Guinea, that stressed development on national terms. What happened to all that, and how did the state then end up running an economy driven so strongly by mining in Bougainville that the rebellion there apparently crashed it altogether? We then get the all-too-familiar story of the various international financial instìtutions stepping in with their structural adjustment programs, miring the country in permanent recession. But where was the Papuan state in all this? In general, the "development state", the idea that the state's job is to ensure economic development, is a thread that runs through the history of coffee in PNG. I think the overall argument of the book would have been made even stronger by highlighting that the British-Australian colonial state, the independent Papuan state and the structural development programs are a continuity of Scottian "schemes to improve the human condition" forced on the people of Papua-New Guinea. In a sense, isn't that what coffee certification is as well?

This is part of my fundamental disagreement with the various Marxist-derived world system analyses: they generally tend to neglect the state. Obviously for Marx himself, the state was simply a tool of class interests, and this carried over into the work of his followers. As a military historian, it's quite difficult to accept a worldview in which the state is elided from politics and the economy. I think we can see the influence of this in the way that we treat climate change as a global, corporate and individual problem, but seem to really struggle with treating it as something fundamentally driven by the development state.

**

In addition to the prep course, I will say I've got a bunch of painting done! I finally finished painting Star Wars: Rebellion, a project I started in the summer of 2018 and that got me back into all this nonsense in the first place. I also finished a Renegades and Heretics detachment and some Custodians, all of which were a lot of fun. I've referred back to my new year's resolution to actually finish projects several times, but I feel like it's made a difference, and it's made me feel better about my hobbying.

We also got the news that there's going to be a new edition of Warhammer 40,000 again, amd to be honest, I really don't care. We've played eighth edition a couple of times, it's been fun; I'm sticking with it. So far, I've played 2nd, 3rd and 8th edition; maybe that means I'll eventually cave, play 9th ed and then get back to this in what, 15th edition?

We also started playing Here I Stand by email, which has been very interesting. As I write this, we're in the middle of the second turn; a report on the first turn is here. We're currently almost managing a turn a month, so unless the game ends surprisingly early, we may be at it for quite a while...

**

Anyway that's it from us for April and May. I have a whole bunch of lecture courses arranged for next fall; it'll be interesting to see if we can actually make them happen, or if I'll be doing more Zooming. Again, I hope everyone's staying safe and healthy.

May 18, 2020

Warhammer 40,000: The Golden Knights

Ever since Games Workshop started making models for the Adeptus Custodes, I've wanted to make some. The Custodes are the Emperor's bodyguards, who as far as I know existed for two decades as brief mentions in the fluff only because of John Blanche's artwork. Now, though, they have models and a codex, and I am here for it.


**

Given the Imperial armies I've been fighting, my first question on getting the Codex was: what are the anti-tank options? The answer seems to be the Venerable Contemptor Dreadnought, so since GW was giving away Total War: Warhammer codes if you ordered anything from them, I decided to get one. I was actually a little bit surprised by how simple the model was; there are what, all of ten components, and the only real choice you can make is whether to have the assault cannon or multi-melta. I wouldn't like to have to make many of them, as you'd have to start chopping bits off to change the pose even a little bit. Anyway here she is!

Venerable Contemptor Dreadnought Aurelia Ancharia


Aurelia Ancharia has served with the Terai-Duar Rangers longer than any living Custodian there can remember. She is believed to be a veteran of the original Custodian Legion who fell during the War of the Beast, but records are uncertain. Her indomitable presence anchors the Custodes battle line and serves as a living reminder of the glorious heritage of the Ten Thousand.

Because the Rogue Trader campaign that our Warhammer 40,000 games are based on is set before any of the latter-day fluff innovations, my Custodes still wear their mourning black. Their shield company is the Terai-Duar Rangers, who patrol the areas south of the Imperial Palace. They wear a dark green shoulder guard. I used my favorite dark green, Vallejo's Luftwaffe Camo, for the company color, and the body is Old Gold with a brown ink wash. The joints and exhausts are just black drybrushed with Gunmetal Grey and given a light wash with Black Glaze. Painting gold is tricky at the best of times, but I'm actually really happy with how the model ended up looking.

The Dreadnought is an Elite choice, and another Custodes Elite I simply have to have is a Vexilus Praetor. I've enjoyed several of the Warhammer 40,000 video games, but what kind of bugs me is that you never get to play an Imperial army: it's always just Space Marines or some other single faction. What I always loved about 40k was all the different organizations of the Imperium working together. So when I'm presented with the option of a Vexillus Praetor whose standard gives all Imperial infantry within its radius an invulnerable save, of course I'm making one. She's a Custodian Warden with a Statuesque Miniatures techno roider head.

Vexillus Praetor Domitia Symmachia


A long-serving Custodian Warden and veteran of the Siege of the Eternity Gate, Domitia Symmachia distinguished herself during the Years of Madness, when the Terai-Duar Rangers suppressed several queue wars and Chaos cults. She now bears the Vexilla Defensor, bringing the Emperor's protective blessing to her comrades in arms.

In order to get the Praetor, I had to buy a box of Custodian Wardens, so I already have the models for a third Elite choice. Even though the Wardens don't really have a squad leader as such, I decided to give one of the models a Statuesque head anyway. Oddly, these models are quite highly detailed and come in lots of parts - and are effectively single-pose. There are several helmet and, erm, leg armor plate thing options, but if you want anyone posed differently, it's converting time. I mean I guess most people aren't going to be fielding too many Custodians, but still. Her armour is Old Gold and Flesh Wash, which I think worked unexpectedly well.

Custodian Warden Squad Fulmen Australe


The Wardens of the Terai-Duar company combine the stealth and reconnaissance skills of the Rangers with the unyielding discipline and endless patience of all Custodian Wardens. They know exactly when and where to strike the most precise hammer-blow to utterly vanquish their enemy, and their squad names reflect this. Squad Fulmen Australe is led by Warden Aisha Agrippa Aikaterine Mater Misericordiae, a veteran of centuries of duty before the ramparts of the Imperial palace.

Finally, an HQ choice. I could have a Shield-Captain on foot running around with my Wardens, sure. But then I could also have a jetbike.

Shield-Captain Elektra Cassandra Lysimachia on Dawneagle Jetbike


The model is a Vertus Praetor with a Statuesque head, and I am delighted with how she turned out.

**

So we have a 629-point Adeptus Custodes vanguard detachment! This was a lot of fun to build and paint, and must be the fastest 600 points I've ever built. I'm thinking about building a second Imperial army around these ladies, and since Warlord Games was coming out with their Judge Dredd game when I was painting all this gold, I got the next piece of that army already. One of the few weaknesses of the Custodians is their lack of psychic powers and psychic defense. Therefore, meet Inquisitor Anderson.


I saw a sort of grittier version of the Mega-City Judge uniform on Warlord's Instagram and I loved it, but since she'll be joining my Custodians, gold is clearly indicated! Her uniform is Blue with a Black Glaze wash; the boots and accessories are Deep Green. I quite like the model, and I'm happy with my paint job!

Because Custodians also don't really have a lot of long-range weapons, I also made a Brother Vinni Vindicare Assassin for them.


And here they all are.


**

So this the start of a completely different Imperial army! I'm very happy I got my golden ladies, as I'm very pleased with how I did with them. Later on, I'm going to see about maybe getting them some allies.

May 11, 2020

Here I Stand by email: Turn 1 (1517-1523) - The Fall of Paris

Now that the pandemic has scuppered our boardgaming plans, we've started playing Here I Stand by email. Here's what went down on the first turn!

**

The first turn of the full campaign always starts with the Protestant player playing Luther's 95 Theses.


The phrasing "targeting the German language zone" is a little unfortunate, and we misunderstood it the first time around. What it means is that the Protestant player can actually make those reformation attempts wherever they like, but they win ties in the target language zone. With this advantage and the extra die provided by the Theses, the Protestant player targeted Leipzig, Erfurt, Magdeburg, Brandenburg and Breslau, converting all of these except Magdeburg. Here's the result on the board:


**

Now that the Reformation is underway, next up is the card draw phase. My partner isn't participating in the game, but agreed to deal everyone's cards and tell them what they have, which we all greatly appreciate! From there we move on to the diplomacy phase. Here's the diplomatic situation at the start of the game: the Ottomans are at war with Hungary, and both the Papacy and Hapsburgs are at war with France.


The diplomacy phase on the first turn is truncated: it consists of England negotiating with France and the Hapsburgs. This time, England had no deals to announce, so we moved on to the Diet of Worms phase. This is another first turn special: the Hapsburgs, Papacy and Protestants all secretly choose a card to play, and they then roll a number of dice based on the command point values of those cards. The Papal and Imperial totals are combined, and the Protestants get 4 bonus dice. Whoever scores the most hits wins, and gets to flip a number of spaces equal to the difference of the hits to their particular denomination. Last time around, the result was a draw and everyone was disappointed.


This time, the Protestants played City State Rebels, with the Hapsburgs committing Pirate Haven and the Papacy Sale of Moluccas. Unfortunately, it was all in vain. The Protestants rolled eight dice and scored one (1) hit. The combined Papal-Imperial total was one (1) hit. So the Diet of Worms is once again a draw!

**

After all these preliminaries, it's time to get the game proper started. Phase Five of the turn is Spring Deployment: every power (except the Protestants) gets to deploy one formation from their capital to a friendly location they control and can draw a route to. This is done in what the game calls impulse order, i.e. the Ottoman (that's me) go first, followed by the Hapsburgs, England, France, the Papacy and finally the Protestants. My spring deployment saw Suleiman lead an army of five regulars and one cavalry unit to Nezh, on the border with Hungary. The Hapsburgs followed by deploying their entire army in Vienna to Brussels. England deployed Henry VIII and three regulars to Berwick, while France's sole deployment consisted of sending Francis I to Rouen.

So, after these spring maneuvers, it falls to me to kick off the first Action Phase of the game by playing Peasants' War.


Unrest is a lovely thing: units can't be built in spaces in unrest, or lines of communication traced through them. If a stack returns home through a space in unrest in the winter phase, it loses half its strength to attrition. Spaces in unrest also don't count for reformation or counter-reformation attempts, so unrest in Catholic Germany is somewhat to the Protestants' advantage. When I was dealt the card, I briefly considered trying to place some strategic unrest in Germany to speed up the Reformation and cause trouble for the Hapsburgs, but I decided it's not really worth 3 CPs. An aggressive anti-French deployment by the Hapsburgs that empties Vienna, however, changes things.


On their impulse, the Emperor played A Mighty Fortress for 4 CP; Charles V and the Duke of Alva marched from Valladolid to Zaragoza with their army of four regulars, and mobilized a regular in Antwerp. Henry VIII followed with Venetian Alliance, also for 4 CP: England built a naval squadron at London, moved the fleet to the North Sea, and hired a mercenary at Berwick. The French played their home card to hire four mercenaries in Paris and one in Bordeaux. On the religious side, the Papacy plays Papal Bull for the command points and uses them to build St. Peter's, and the Protestants play Venetian Informant and commit Melanchton to get started translating the New Testament into German.

**

On my impulse, I'm delighted to play Barbary Pirates.


Algiers now becomes a key under my control, I get Hayreddin Pasha and a fleet of corsairs - and I can use those corsairs for piracy. I also get two command points; I used them to move Suleiman's army to Belgrade, and on a naval move action: I moved the squadrons in Istanbul, Athens and Salonika to the Aegean Sea, and Barbarossa and his corsairs to the Barbary Coast.

The Emperor then gets things going with Holy Roman Emperor. Charles V travels to Antwerp, marches to Brussels with all his troops, and on to St. Dizier and Paris.


Before the field battle begins, the French play Landsknechts to reinforce their army, but they lose the battle decisively, taking four hits but only inflicting one. The two surviving French mercenaries retreat to St. Quentin, and the regulars and Montmorency withdraw into the fortifications of Paris. The siege is on!

Because everything is happening, the English play their home card and declare war on Scotland. France intervenes, and Scotland is activated as a French ally. Henry VIII reinforces his army and marches on Edinburgh.


The French are now at war with three of their five rival powers in the game.


On their impulse, the French play Defender of the Faith. They use the two command points to hire a mercenary at St. Quentin and march on Brussels, besieging the fortress there and cutting the Hapsburgs' line of communication.


Meanwhile, only one of the three counter-reformation attempts is succesful: Erfurt is converted to Catholicism. Next, the papacy plays Leipzig Debate and starts a debate, designating Eck as their debater and challenging one of the uncommitted German reformers. That turned out to be Andreas Karlstadt, chancellor of Wittenberg university. Because his debate level of 1 left him at serious risk of not only losing, but being burned at the stake, the Protestants played Here I Stand to substitute Luther.


Luther and Eck debated each other to a draw, leading to a second round between Martin Bucer and Girolamo Aleandro also ended in a draw, leaving all Protestant debaters committed but achieving no results. The Protestants retaliated with Foul Weather, using the command points to publish a treatise in German, which succesfully converted Magdeburg and Lübeck.


For my part, I played Fuggers for the three command points. Suleiman's army stormed the fortifications of Belgrade and captured the city with no casualties. I also tried a spot of piracy against the Hapsburgs on the Barbary Coast, but to no avail.


Things were about to take a very dramatic turn. Ignoring their severed lines of communications, the Hapsburgs played Treachery! and stormed Paris. They only lost one unit, meaning that they still outnumbered the defenders, and Paris fell to the Emperor!


On the English impulse, things only get worse for France. England plays Revolt of the Communeros for command points, adding a mercenary in Calais and assaulting Edinburgh. The initial rolls are one hit apiece, but England deploys Siege Artillery and finishes the job: Edinburgh falls.


The French play Colonial Governor/Native Uprising for command points, storming Brussels and adding a mercenary at Rouen. In spiritual matters, the Papacy plays Anabaptists, and flips Magdeburg and Leipzig.


The Protestants strike back with Charles Bourbon, using the command points to finish translating the New Testament into German. This nets them six reformation attempts targeting the German language area, and they succesfully flip Magdeburg, Leipzig and Stettin for a total of seven Protestant spaces.


On my last impulse, I only have my home card left in my hand, so I have no choice but to play Janissaries. I'm adding three regulars to Istanbul and one to Scutari.


The Hapsburgs play Printing Press for command points. The Duke of Alva leads his army over the Pyrenees to capture Avignon and besiege Lyon; Charles V marches to Dijon.


The French, still holding one card, skip their impulse. The Papacy play Spring Preparations for 3 CP, using one to build St. Peter's and two to burn books. The counter-reformation attempts are unsuccesful, but committing Tetzel nets the Papacy one more CP to St. Peter's. The Protestants skip their impulse. The Hapsburgs play Trace Italienne for 3 CP, taking control of Dijon, moving Charles and his army to Lyon and succesfully assaulting it with the loss of one regular.


The French play Ransom, returning Montmorency from Hapsburg captivity to Bordeaux.


When the Protestants skip again, the first Action Phase is over!

**

It's now on to the Winter Phase, where we find winter quarters for our forces, and mobilize new regulars in our capitals. For my part, Suleiman is wintering at Belgrade with four regulars and the rest of the troops are returning to Istanbul. Hayreddin Pasha and my corsairs are spending the off-season at Algiers and my fleets in the Aegean will winter at Coron. The Hapsburgs are returning one regular from Lyon to Valladolid and two to Vienna, losing one of them to attrition due to the unrest. Having lost their capital, the French do nothing, and the Papacy is content to mobilize one regular in Rome. The English leave Henry VIII, two regulars and a mercenary in Edinburgh, and return two regulars and a mercenary to London, where they also generate a third regular.

Finally, in the New World phase, we find out what happened to the Hapsburg explorer and conquistador sent out before the game started. The explorer turned out to be Pánfilo de Nárvaez, who was lost at sea. Still, that means the next Hapsburg voyage won't suffer a -1 penalty for sailing into the unknown. The conquistador turns out to be none other than Cortes himself, and he promptly subjugates the Inca, earning the Hapsburgs 2 victory points.


**

And with that, the turn is over! For what it's worth, Luther's 95 Theses was played on the 22nd of March. Paris fell to the Hapsburgs on Easter Monday, and Lyon on Sunday the 26th of April. The Inca were conquered on the Monday. So all in all getting the game running by email took a little over a month.

It's been quite a turn. The Reformation is underway, ineffectually opposed by the party pope and mostly ignored by the Hapsburgs. By my count, Magdeburg and Leipzig have been converted three times, from Catholic to Protestant and back to Catholic and to Protestant again. England captured Edinburgh, but the real main event has been the Hapsburg offensive into France. The fall of Paris with Treachery! was truly spectacular, and things look pretty dire for France - at the expense of Germany in unrest and Vienna held by one regular.


So far, this has been an absolutely excellent experience. As the English player put it to me at one point, there's a real sense of grand strategy when it can take over a week between moves. There's plenty of time to deliberate; at times, pauses long enough that you put the game out of your mind completely - and then suddenly everything is happening. I am tremendously enjoying this, and I want to play more games by email in the future.

Let's see what happens next turn!

Diplomacy:

The French are at war with England, the Hapsburgs and the Papacy
France and Scotland are allied
The Ottomans are at war with Hungary-Bohemia

Victory points:

Protestants 2
France 8
England 11
Hapsburgs 12
Ottomans 12
Papacy 18

Protestant spaces: 7

Cards removed from the game:

Luther's 95 Theses
Peasants' War
Barbary Pirates
Defender of the Faith

Explorers removed: Narváez (-1)

May 4, 2020

Let's Read Tolkien 68: The Battle of the Pelennor Fields

But it was no orc-chieftain or brigand that led the assault upon Gondor.

Everybody is still fighting. The Rohirrim have crashed through the enemy forces north of the Osgiliath road, and Théoden leads his knights in a charge on the Southron cavalry, and cuts down their leader and disperses them. Their triumph is cut short when the Witch-king returns on a flying beast and crashes down on Théoden; the king is pinned under his horse and his knights run away in terror. All except Dernhelm, and his hobbit baggage Merry. As Dernhelm faces the Witch-king, it turns out he's actually Éowyn, and apparently the Witch-king has heard the prophecy because he has a little think about it. After Éowyn kills his steed, he attacks, but is stabbed in the leg by Merry and destroyed by Éowyn.

Théoden, dying, names Éomer king, and his body and the wounded Éowyn are borne into Minas Tirith. The battle isn't over, though, and as Éomer takes command of the Riders, they see black-sailed ships coming up the Great River. Everyone thinks it's the Corsairs of Umbar, but when the flag of Elendil breaks out on the first ship, Éomer and gradually the others realize that it's Aragorn and the dúnedain. The enemy is routed.

**

So here we are: the climactic battle of the Third Age and the Lord of the Rings. The Witch-king is dead; Théoden King is dead; Sauron's army has been wiped out. Thankfully, Tolkien built his battle narrative around the characters and their experiences. We even get Éomer as a point-of-view character for a bit. These are very powerful chapters with a lot going on, and I feel like anything I can write in this format and with the time I have available for this is barely going to scratch the surface. So my commentary feels even more random than usual. But here it is.

It's been opined to me that Éowyn slaying the Witch-king is somehow less meaningful because it fulfills a prophecy. I strongly disagree. Éowyn can only kill the Witch-king because of her exceptional valor: where all of Théoden's other knights fell or ran away, she stood alone against him. She knew nothing about a prophecy.

There's a tradition that King Harold's housecarls died defending his body at the Battle of Hastings, although I haven't actually found a source for it! This seems to have been connected to a wider, historical or not, Scandinavian/Saxon idea that a lord's bodyguard was expected to avenge his death, if not die themselves. Some idea like this was already present in the Hobbit, where Fili and Kili died defending Thorin's body (Chapter 18), and it will reappear at the Nírnaeth Arnoediad, in the Silmarillion, where the dwarves of Belegost carry their dead king from the field. The point here is that the retainer's loyalty to their lord transcends death. In staying to defend the dying Théoden, Éowyn is fulfilling this obligation, heedless of what happens to her. It's through this courage that she is able to strike his death-blow, but she doesn't know that. Éowyn is exemplifying Tolkien's notion of "northern courage": she's doing the right thing, even if it fails and leads to her death, because it's the right thing to do. Tolkien highlights how she is tested: unlike the others, she stays by Théoden; she defeats the Witch-king's mount; she withstands his blow and strikes back. It was by no means enough for her to just be there and have a sword.

Merry, of course, was not the first hobbit to try to stab the Witch-King. Back on Weathertop, Frodo went at the chief of the Ring-Wraiths with a barrow-knife, but missed. When Tom Bombadil sings the hobbits free from the wight's barrow, the text is quite explicit that each of the hobbits takes a barrow-knife. So the knife Frodo attacked the Witch-king with on Weathertop was similar to the one Merry had. Aragorn is apparently correct in surmising that Frodo missed because his knife survived the encounter, but seems to fail to realize that had Frodo hit, he might have done some actual damage. Aragorn wasn't making the best decisions at the time.

If you really get down to it, Saruman and Barliman Butterbur conspired to kill the Witch-king. If Saruman hadn't captured Gandalf and delayed him, and Barliman hadn't forgotten to deliver Gandalf's letter, the hobbits would have gone straight to Rivendell before the Black Riders found the Shire, never passing through the Old Forest and never picking up barrow-knives to stab wraiths with.

I haven't really talked about Tolkien's concept of eucatastrophe: a "good" catastrophe, or an unexpected event that stops what seemed to be an impending, unavoidable doom. Tolkien coined the word and uses the concept several times in his works. The example everyone keeps using is in the Sammath Naur, but I've always thought that Aragorn's standard breaking out on the black ships is the most definitive example, told excellently through Éomer's sudden change of mood and laughter.

Finally, Tolkien closes the chapter with a lament for the dead. I've said this several times, but I simply do not understand the critics who think these are Boys Own adventures where nothing bad ever happens. One of the main themes suffusing the Lord of the Rings is loss, and for all the glory and eucatastrophe of battle, that's what this chapter ends with.

**

Next time: theology.

Apr 27, 2020

Gladius: Metal vs biomass

Earlier, I wrote about how Warhammer 40,000: Gladius - Relics of War is a really good 4X game. After beating the game a couple of times as the Marines, I decided to try a steeper challenge and play as one of my favorite Warhammer factions: the Imperial Guard.

A great thing about Gladius is that consecutive games can be very different. After my Marine playthroughs, I bought the Tyranid DLC, and started a couple of games with them included. The first time around, I got into a proper fight with the Nids - until the Necrons, having first wiped out the Orks, steamrollered us both. Next time, the Tyranids were destroyed almost immediately, and as I was beating up on the Necrons, a massive Ork horde crashed into us and totally derailed everything. But the one thing that seems to be constant throughout is that the AI Imperial Guard gets wiped out.

To make a long story short, the Imperial Guard challenge is to survive your enemies' attacks until you can go all Steel Legion on them (although Chimeras are nowhere to be found!). This is made somewhat challenging by the basic infantry squads only having flashlights and being generally quite useless. The native wildlife is a real challenge, especially the Enslavers, not to mention any AI factions. Marines and Necrons are particularly bad news.

The key units in the early game are the Tank Commander and your Heavy Weapons Teams. Even with the nerf to heroes' damage resistance, the Tank Commander can really take a beating, and dish out some damage to enemy vehicles as well. Once your heavy weapon teams start levelling up and get a Lord Commissar to supervise them, they will fuck up anything in the game - but they need to be protected. It's a fun exercise to build cities that provide firing lanes for heavy weapon teams while keeping them screened.

As you move up the tech tree, more options become available. The Guard are the only faction in Gladius with any real artillery, in the form of the Basilisk. I really like artillery, and to be honest I was hoping the Basilisk would have been more effective; its damage output isn't brilliant. Where it excels is range and mobility: with a range of six hexes (I think? The wiki is wrong) and a movement of four, a battery of Basilisks can switch targets with ease. They also make besieging cities very economical; just rain shells down on the enemy city while your tanks wait outside the range of their defenses to beat up any counter-attacks.

Speaking of tanks, if you can stick around for long enough, the real fun starts when you get Baneblades. They will simply roll over everything while soaking up absolutely ridiculous amounts of fire. And unlike Dawn of War, you can have as many of them as you can afford. Which is amazing.


To get that far, though, there's one key thing you have to consider as an Imperial Guard player: cities. While the Marines are limited to one city, the Guard can found as many as they like. Each city inflicts a penalty to loyalty, which can really cripple your production; but on the other hand, cities automatically pool their resources. In the early game, you need food to support your infantry units; later you'll need ore to build your vehicles. If your starting location is, say, on some grasslands, founding a second city in an ore-rich area is a very solid move. The special resource bonuses are definitely worth grabbing; I don't think a city should be founded without two special resource hexes in its (potential) radius except for extraordinary reasons.

If you can weather the storm and make the Manufactorum go brr, victory through overwhelming firepower is yours.


Of course, the AI Guard doesn't always get wiped out. If they make it further into the game, it turns out they like to build flyers.


And I mean a lot of flyers. These huge flyer swarms are actually surprisingly difficult to deal with, and if I'm honest, they're one of my few real criticisms of Gladius: they are just silly as hell.

**

After succeeding with the Guard, it was time for Necrons. Chaos Androids with a vaguely Space Egyptian theme, I thought the Necrons were a slightly silly addition to the 40k universe when they showed up back in 3rd edition. Innovation is anathema to Warhammer 40,000 anyway, and it felt like they were being shoehorned into the fluff way too hard. However, they've been around long enough that I've kinda gotten used to them, and frankly I ignore most of GW's fluff innovations anyway.

As it happens, Gladius is a really good way to get to know the Necrons a little bit. They play a lot like Marines, with very durable basic infantry and limited cities: Necrons can found as many cities as they like, but only on spaces with a Necron tomb. It makes the decision-making process a lot easier! Necrons also regenerate, which can be immensely frustrating when fighting them, and their higher-tier vehicles, especially the Obelisk, can take massive amounts of damage. One important thing in Gladius is that you need tough units that can absorb enemy fire; the Necrons definitely have them - and they regenerate.

Playing as Necrons is actually quite good fun, and somewhat forgiving on the lowest difficulty level, which makes them a good faction to learn about the game with. Their faction quest is all right; while it's a little boring that it mostly involves fighting other Necrons, it does help to get properly acquainted with the units when you have to use them and fight them. If you can beat up your fellow Necrons, you'll gain victory and a strange compulsion to buy a Triarch Stalker model.


**

So, to sum up, Gladius remains one of my favorite 4X games of all time. What next? There's the Chaos DLC; I'm a little disappointed they apparently don't get any tanks, although there is a crab enemy, which might be fun. Or anime space communism! I'm hoping there are more expansions coming, by the way. Dawn of War had everything Gladius has now, as well as Eldar, Dark Eldar and Sisters of Battle. I would love to see the Sororitas in Gladius! I will certainly pick up at least the Chaos DLC next time it's on sale.

I recommend the Tyranid DLC. It's a thrill to see Carnifexes and Biovores and Hive Tyrants and everything rampaging around, and uniquely even if the nids are wiped out, they'll leave their mark on the world as they reduce entire hexes to bare rock when they scarf up all the biomass - very cool. But above all, I recommend Gladius. It remains a criminally underappreciated game, given that I think it's pretty clearly one of the best Warhammer video game adaptations ever.

Apr 20, 2020

Let's Paint Star Wars: Rebellion, part 2

Last time, I painted most of Star Wars: Rebellion; now it's time to (finally!) finish the job.

**

We scheduled a game with some new players, so the first thing I need to do is finish the models in the base game. Luckily there aren't that many of them left; we'll start with the Empire.

13. Star Destroyers

My Star Destroyers got the same treatment as the Interdictors: Dark Seagreen base coat, Light Grey drybrush.


I'm very happy with the end result!

14. Death Stars

For the complete Death Stars, I simply painted them Neutral Grey and drybrushed with Light Grey.


I painted the open parts of the Death Star under construction Black Grey, and drybrushed with Gunmetal Grey and Neutral Grey; the rest of the hull I painted the same as the completed ones.

**

15. Shield Generators and Ion Cannon

With the Imperial forces finished, it's time to get the rebel hardware done. I decided to do something a little different with the ground installations, and painted the base of the ion cannons Basalt Grey, and that of the shield generators Light Green.


16. Mon Calamari Cruisers and Rebel Transports

I've been very lazy with the rebel starships and just given them a base coat of Ivory and a Smoke wash. I kept the wash very light for the cruisers:


But hey, I think it works. I made the transports a bit more grimy:


17. CR90 Corvettes

Although the Rebellion models have been fairly high quality, as Fantasy Flight models usually are, the sterns of the CR90s looked pretty horrid.


But it was nothing a file and a pin vice couldn't fix!


Then it was a simple matter of Ivory, Smoke and the same squadron colors as I used on the smaller rebel spacecraft.


**

And that's it! Here are all the base game models, starting with the rebels:


And the Empire.


I'm absolutely delighted to have finished painting these models. After all, this was the project that relaunched my modeling hobby, and I feel like it's done wonders for my mental health. I'm also very happy that this is the first modeling and painting project I've finished after my sort-of-New Year's resolution to finish things.

**

Unfortunately, the four-player game of Rebellion we were planning to try never happened because of the coronavirus. Instead, I painted the Rise of the Empire expansion's models that I hadn't done yet.

18. Golan Arms Turret


I painted these to match the other rebel ground installations, i.e. Ivory, Smoke, Gunmetal Grey, with some Basalt Grey along the bottom.

19. Nebulon-B Frigate


For these models, I followed the Armada example: the grey parts are in Dark Seagreen with a Light Grey drybrush, and the lighter paneling is Ivory with a Smoke wash.

20. Shield Bunker


Finally, the shield bunkers I simply painted Dark Seagreen and drybrushed with Neutral Grey.

**

So there they all are: the project that got me back into this whole painting business is finally done. Of course, since we're still in coronavirus lockdown, who knows when I'll get to use any of these models for anything? Maybe when we've finished Here I Stand by email we'll do a remote game of Rebellion!