Jun 20, 2016

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

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

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

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


**

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


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


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

**

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


**

The Great Commerce Tipping Point

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


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


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


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

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

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


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

**

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


Leaving behind a massive traffic jam of cargo ships.


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


To conclude: what did I learn?

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

Jun 13, 2016

LotR LCG: Ships of the Grey Havens

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

The Dream-chaser's Fleet

Dream-chaser


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

Dawn Star


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

Nárelenya


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

Silver Wing


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

The Umbar Navy

Corsair Warship


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

Light Cruiser


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

Scouting Ship


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

Some implications

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

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

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

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

Jun 6, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

May 9, 2016

LotR LCG: Ere we go again

Now they had gone on far into the Lone-lands, where there were no people left, no inns, and the roads grew steadily worse.
- The Hobbit, chapter II



Now that my Hobbit-reading project is complete, it's high time we return to the saga expansions of the Lord of the Rings LCG and finish the story of the Hobbit there as well. Last time, I tried all the quests in the first Hobbit expansion solo, and we managed to beat We Must Away four-handed - but missed out on the treasure. So first, we have to face the trolls again. In my previous post on Over Hill and Under Hill, I mostly talked about the quests in terms of solo play, and while I liked the first one, the second quest was a bit disappointing and the last one I didn't enjoy at all. This time, we'll be making our way through them in multiplayer, and then forming an overall impression of the first Hobbit saga expansion.


John Howe: The Great Goblin, 1988

**

We Must Away, Ere Break of Day

This is a quest that really needs two difficulty ratings: one for passing it, another for getting the treasure cards. We beat the quest itself on our first attempt, and once you know what's coming, it's not that hard. Getting the treasures, though, requires having Troll Cave in your victory display, and that isn't always quite as easy to arrange!


When I beat the quest solo, the key thing was a slow, methodic buildup, so I had enough questing and combat power to survive the trolls. We tried the same strategy with four players, and it failed entirely. In the end, it was No Campfire that sunk us: with four players, that card is brutal.


By the time we engaged the trolls, we had Troll Key, Troll Purse and Troll Camp in play, but an absolute deluge of treacheries and locations raised our Leadership/Lore deck's threat to 50, and we gave up shortly thereafter. Clearly the slow play wasn't going to work; however, taking a faster route to fighting the trolls ended in everybody being knocked out by threat in the very last quest phase before we'd have exhausted the encounter deck.

This is still a really good quest, but the threat gain when playing four-handed is merciless. It's perfectly doable if you're content to pass the quest, but during the time it takes to get ready for the trolls, unsack whoever needs to be unsacked, grab Troll Key and travel to Troll Cave, your threat will just explode. Eventually, we decided to move on; the trolls' treasures were going to stay in that cave.

**

Over the Misty Mountains Grim

For the next quest, I switched over to my Silvan deck, and we headed on up into the mountains.


I wasn't too impressed by this quest when I played through the expansion solo, but taking it on three-handed was a whole different story. For my lowish-threat, strongly questing Spirit/Lore deck, the mountains were just a little interval to build allies up; the three of us actually had to fight giants!


Questing through the mountains actually turned out to be kinda fun, with treacheries like Galloping Boulders and the always lovely Wind-whipped Rain stopping things from getting too easy, and, of course, the giants. As soon as we'd cleared the storm, though, we were dumped smack in the middle of goblins. Lots and lots of goblins.


With three players, what you get is honestly a pretty massive swarm of goblins, leading to a suitably epic fight. Thalin is simply superb here, especially in co-operation with his best dwarven buddy ever:


Sadly, by this time our Tactics deck was on the verge of elimination, so a final Boromir bomb wiped out a bunch of goblins, while a Longbeard Orc Slayer saw to the rest, leaving our surviving heroes to sprint for the exit.

As a side note, because these posts don't always strictly reproduce the chronological order we played these quests in, this was actually the first time I got to use Wingfoot on Haldir, letting him both quest and fight, and it was excellent.


I'll stick to my guns to the extent that this isn't a great quest solo, but with three players we had a heck of a time. The questing in the mountains is thematically well done, the giants are properly intimidating, and the climactic battle with The Great Goblin and his horde is excellent. Despite the fact that we'd just finished slogging through the endless goblin masses of Moria and the Dwarrowdelf cycle, this was a lot of fun.

**

Dungeons Deep and Caverns Dim


In the last quest in the box, our heroes try to escape from the goblins' caves while Bilbo swaps riddles with Gollum. One part of the first quest stage is an ordinary quest, where you battle a horde of goblins, made appropriately hordey by revealing double the normal number of encounter cards per turn. The twist is that some of these card have riddles on them, which you can answer instead of adding the cards to the staging area. Answering them correctly gets progress on the second quest; wrong answers mean Gollum attacks Bilbo, and if you're wrong three times, Bilbo bites the dust.


While I like that the designers went for something different here, I'm not a fan on the riddle mechanics at all. They involve discarding a whole bunch of cards from your deck and guessing some combination of cost, type and sphere. A mono-spirit deck with Will of the West would no doubt find this easy; with my old Spirit/Lore Amazon deck, this was horrible. To do well here, you should figure out the odds of any particular card showing up from your deck and guess that, and I'm not particularly inclined to put together an Excel spreadsheet of my deck to get through this one quest.


Other than the riddles, you pretty much get a direct continuation of the previous quest, which honestly feels a bit repetitive. All in all, this is a really weak, even annoying quest that I don't see any of us wanting to revisit.

**

So the first two quests are pretty darn good, and the player cards aren't too shabby either. There's a bunch of dwarves if you're into that kind of thing, but also several utility cards that have become real standbys. A Very Good Tale is a staple of the Leadership ally horde, and this expansion's version of Gandalf can effectively serve threat-managing decks as an additional hero. He's saved my skin more than once! Tactics decks will still struggle to beat Foe-hammer for card draw, and they also get a bear.


So for a relatively modest investment, the Over Hill and Under Hill box gives you several excellent player cards, and more importantly, two really good quests, the first of which I think is one of the experiences in the whole game that you absolutely will not want to miss. If you're just getting into the game, and especially if you're at all interested in looking into a dwarf deck, I would put this fairly high on the shopping list; if you can get several people together to play the first two quests, I might even go so far as to suggest the very top. Even if you share my entirely negative opinion of the third quest, this is still a first-class expansion and tremendous value for money.

**

Over several games, I've found my Silvan deck has some third copies of cards that I rarely use that many times: there aren't always as many opportunities to play The Long Defeat as I'd like, and Out of the Wild is actually a bit expensive. Given that I now almost exclusively play with at least one other player, I guess I should take that seriously, so I'm going to try including two copies of Elf-friend instead.


The main goal is to spread some of that Silvan Tracker auto-healing around, a prime target being Boromir. While I'm at it, Elf-friend would also (appropriately enough!) let me give him a Cloak of Lórien. We'll see how it goes!

53 cards; 44 Lore, 9 neutral; 3 heroes, 16 allies, 13 attachments, 20 events, 1 side quest; starting threat 22.

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

Allies: 16 (12/4)
Ithilien Archer (EaAD) x3
Silvan Tracker (TDM) x3
Wellinghall Preserver (AtE) x3
Wandering Ent (CS) x3
Gandalf (Core) x2
Treebeard (TAC) x2

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

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

Side quests: 1
Scout Ahead (TWoE)

**

And here's my brother's Leadership-Lore deck:

53 cards; 32 Leadership, 19 Lore, 2 neutral; 3 heroes, 23 allies, 13 attachments, 14 events; starting threat 28.

Aragorn (Core)
Théodred
Denethor

Allies: 23 (14/7/2)
Faramir x2
Longbeard Orc Slayer x2
Son of Arnor x2
Silverlode Archer x2
Guard of the Citadel x3
Snowbourn Scout x3
Daughter of the Nimrodel x3
Gléowine x2
Miner of the Iron Hills x2
Gandalf x2 (Core)

Attachments: 13 (7/6)
Celebrian's Stone
Steward of Gondor x2
Dúnedain Quest x2 (AJtR)
Dúnedain Warning x2 (CatC)
Forest Snare x2
Self Preservation x2
A Burning Brand x2 (CatC)

Events: 14 (9/5)
Grim Resolve
For Gondor! x2
Ever Vigilant x2
Sneak Attack x2
Valiant Sacrifice x2
Lórien's Wealth x2
Lore of Imladris
Infighting x2 (AJtR)

May 2, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 20: A Long-Expected Party

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

This is a post I've been looking forward to for quite some time. Like I said in my first post on the Hobbit almost three years ago, I have a long and intensely personal relationship with Tolkien's major works, especially the Lord of the Rings. But it's not as if this is a project without some wider relevance; we're talking about the second-highest-selling novel in the world, after all. It's the tremendous reach of the Lord of the Rings, and its massive influence in effectively giving birth to fantasy literature as we know it today, that prompted Professor Tom Shippey, an academic successor of Tolkien's, to argue that Tolkien was the author of the century. It's fitting that the best-selling novel of all time is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; as Shippey says, "in my youth Charles Dickens was not regarded as a suitable author for those reading English Studies at university" (Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, xix). In my youth, Dickens was part of our English philology syllabus, but Tolkien most emphatically was not. We'll see how long it takes!

To say that the Lord of the Rings is a problematic work is an understatement. The novel and its author have been accused of racism, fascism and misogyny, childishness, escapism, not being Serious Literature, and lots more. I already talked quite a bit about the "critics' Tolkien" in my Hobbit posts, so I won't repeat myself here. Suffice to say that the literary snobbism directed at Tolkien has already been handled by Shippey and others. My interest is in the politics of the Lord of the Rings, especially gender and race. The Hobbit, I found, is undoubtedbly misogynist in its near-total erasure of the very existence of women. It wasn't as racist as I thought it might have been, although the late author's unfortunate comments on the dwarves made it worse than it needed to be. To be honest, I'm not exactly expecting the Lord of the Rings to pass the Bechdel test, either.

However, what I do expect to find is the same as I found with the Hobbit: that the reality of Tolkien's actual text is a lot more nuanced and interesting than its critics make it out to be. Again, my goal isn't to make excuses for him or try to explain away the troubling aspects of his work. There's an entire movement of people online making the senseless argument that things they like need to be taken seriously as art, but simultaneously made entirely immune to criticism. I have no time for this kind of stupidity. I've experienced the profound disdain "genre" literature is still held in among the self-appointed literati of previous generations. If we don't want to repeat their mistakes, we need to take fantasy literature seriously, and that means facing its problems head-on. To me, properly appreciating a text as a work of art has always meant trying to read it intelligently. I'll do my best.

**

I'll start with one of the lighter problems: the prologue really stinks. Seriously, "Concerning Hobbits?" I fell asleep halfway through the title. I understand that Tolkien did receive a pile of correspondance asking for more information on hobbits, so I hope the people who made those requests are happy, because the rest of us aren't. If, for some reason, you're interested in the particulars of the administration of the Shire, or the technicalities of hobbit smoking, you can find that in the prologue whenever you feel like it. If not, for pity's sake, don't make the mistake of trying to read it. As an appendix, this would be fine; as a prologue, it's an atrocity.

The story itself starts with a chapter dedicated to Bilbo's birthday party. It's actually startling that after the horror of the prologue, the exposition in this chapter is done quite decently. First we're told how Bilbo's doing: he's "very rich and very peculiar", with rumours saying Bag End is full of buried treasure, and also remarkably well-preserved for a hobbit of 110 years of age. He has no close friends, though, until he adopts one of his considerably younger cousins as his heir. Cousin Frodo moves into Bag End, destroying the hopes of the Sackville-Bagginses, who had been looking forward to inheriting Bag End.

The coming party will be Bilbo's 111th, "eleventy-one" being a special number for hobbits, and Frodo's 33rd, or his coming of age. Seeing as how I'm 33 now, I obviously think this is quite a reasonable idea. With the huge party approaching, everyone starts talking about Bilbo again. We're treated to one pub conversation about him, presided over by Bilbo's gardener, Ham "Gaffer" Gamgee, whose son Sam is briefly mentioned. It's the stereotype of village gossip at its best: Bilbo's character, Frodo's family history, especially the death of his parents, and the prospect of jools hidden in Bag End are gone over, to resounding conclusions: Bilbo is queer (as in strange), and Frodo is not a real Baggins because he grew up among the strange, almost foreign Brandybucks, which makes him queer as well. The Gaffer defends his employer; interestingly, the crux of the disageement seems to be whether Bilbo is vulgarly rich. Ham Gamgee has no qualms conceding that Bilbo has plenty of money and it shows no sign of running out, but stresses that he's generous with it and there are no huge, buried treasures, while the more skeptical are fixated on gold and jools. There's a slight discontinuity from the Hobbit, where at the end of the story Bilbo had entirely lost his respectability. Now it seems that his adventures have effectively liberated him from all the bad parts of middle-class life like limited financial resources and the opinion of his peers, but he's actually still remained respectable enough and certainly is not vulgar.

I'd be tremendously interested in a proper analysis of how someone like Bilbo fits into how the English class system was perceived in Tolkien's day. It's a completely foreign country to me. He's apparently inexhaustibly wealthy without ever doing any work, keeps a considerable house and a gardener, but no servants. Hobbit existence seems to be a thoroughly idealized middle-class life with the luxuries of nobility but none of the oppobrium or political responsibilities; a notion of complete, respectable self-sufficiency through tons of money, again without the social burden of being rich. Clearly Bilbo is very respected in the community, highlighted by how everyone who doubts his credentials is either disliked by the folksy Gaffer or a suspicious outsider, but apparently he isn't expected to take any kind of responsibility for that community in any positive sense. He's a universally beloved, benevolent, massively rich man who's eccentric in various completely unthreatening ways, and who gets left completely to his own devices. One suspects a bit of wish-fulfillment here.

**

The party preparations proceed, including the arrival of Gandalf, bearing fireworks and compliments for Bilbo's garden. Bilbo confesses that he needs a holiday (from what, one wonders!), and intends to go through with "his plan". Invitations are sent out, tents and kitchens are set up in the field outside Bag End, and finally, the party can start. It's a garden party on a massive scale, with entertainments and huge amounts of food, and elaborate presents from Dale and the Lonely Mountain given to all comers. The festivities culminate in a meticulously described fireworks display orchestrated by Gandalf, ending in a depiction of Smaug at Erebor, whose demise signals dinner. It's hard to not think that the theme of the party is "look how super-rich and awesome Bilbo Baggins is", but apparently hobbits don't consider this vulgar.

At the heart of the party, in a pavilion erected around a tree, is the "special family dinner-party" for twelve dozen of Bilbo's closest relatives. He gives them a speech of decidedly mixed quality; the very end is repetitive and poorly thought out, but the middle part comes with one of my favorite lines:

I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

The audience, understandably, is trying to work out if this is a compliment or not. Bilbo then goes on to offend almost everyone present by explaining that the number of guests in the pavilion had been chosen to match Bilbo's and Frodo's combined age, and refers to them as "one gross", a hobbit term for a dozen dozens that isn't considered appropriate to use of people. Having created mass indignation, Bilbo ends his speech by announcing that he is leaving, and vanishes in a flash of light.

The flash, of course, was Gandalf's pyrotechnic addition to hide Bilbo putting on his ring; invisible, he makes his way back to Bag End, where he changes into his traveling clothes. As he's preparing to leave, Bilbo takes off the ring, puts it in an envelope and makes an effort to leave it on his mantlepiece, but fails. Just then, Gandalf arrives, to quiz Bilbo on his plans. The hobbit confesses that he doesn't feel "well-preserved" at all, but rather weary, stretched too thin and in need of a vacation. Gandalf presses him on his plan to leave the ring to Frodo, and Bilbo becomes belligerent over it, insisting that he owns it and actually calling it his "precious". Eventually, though, Bilbo makes up his mind and leaves the ring behind, disappearing out through the garden into the night with three dwarf companions.

**

With Bilbo gone, Frodo is left to sort out the mess. He's been left the Ring, which Gandalf warns him to not use, and a mass of curious visitors on his door the next day. In the hobbit tradition, Bilbo has left several friends and relatives presents, which they show up to collect, starting a rumour that the whole household was being given away. So whereas when Bilbo returned in the Hobbit to find Bag End in uproar, he now leaves it like he found it. The Sackville-Bagginses, Otho and Lobelia, also show up, demanding to see Bilbo's will and being generally obnoxious. Otho Sackville-Baggins was Bilbo's heir until Frodo's adoption, and is none too pleased by Bag End going to Frodo. It's worthy of note, by the way, that in one respect the Lord of the Rings surpasses the Hobbit immediately: Lobelia is a lady hobbit, and she gets to talk!

Eventually, the ruckus dies down and Frodo receives an evening visit from Gandalf, who warns him once more to not use the ring and announces he's cutting short his stay and leaving immediately on some urgent errand he won't disclose. The chapter closes on the wizard striding off into the gloom, leaving behind the new master of Bag End.

**

This is an effective chapter: we've been brought up to date in what happened since the Hobbit, the baton has been pased to our new protagonist, and we're now firmly established in the Shire. What kind of a place is it, then?

The Sackville-Bagginses, who briefly appeared in the Hobbit, are a good example of hobbit society at its most unpleasantly petty. Their name is a double joke. At some point, the phrase "cul-de-sac" entered British usage to mean a dead end street. Supposedly a borrowing from French, where the actual word for a dead end is impasse and cul is these days quite rude. The British usage was rightly condemned by George Orwell as unnecessary "pretentious diction", and Tolkien named Bilbo's home Bag End, an almost-literal translation of cul-de-sac, to poke fun at it. The Sackville-Bagginses' pomposity is illustrated by the fact that they haven't been content with the robustly English name Baggins, but have added Sackville, which could easily be a vulgarly frenchified version of Baggins.

The Shire, then, isn't a completely unrealistic utopia, but a utopia nonetheless. If you believe Michael Moorcock, it's a fascist one:

“I think he’s a crypto-fascist,” says Moorcock, laughing. “In Tolkien, everyone’s in their place and happy to be there. We go there and back, to where we started. There’s no escape, nothing will ever change and nobody will ever break out of this well-­ordered world.”

The interviewer agrees, saying "it’s not hard to see Tolkien as a complacent, hierarchical force of Law in opposition to Moorcock’s free-ranging, morally complex Chaos". I'll be returning to these notions later, but for now, I take issue with the idea expressed here and also peddled elsewhere that Tolkien was a fascist. I make no apology for quoting at length from one of Tolkien's letters (52):

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) - or to "unconstitutional" Monarchy. I would arrest anyone who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to "King George's council, Winston and his gang", it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing this frightful landslide into Theyocracy.

This was written while Tolkien was working on the Lord of the Rings, and it's this thinking that we find in it. Certainly, the Shire is complacent, even oppressively so; that's the one aspect in which it's explicitly an imperfect utopia. Is it hierarchical, dedicated to Law and everyone in their place, or crypto-fascist? Not one bit. As the horrible prologue makes clear, the actual government of the Shire is minimal. This is made possible by eliding from the narrative anyone and anything that might constitute a social problem, so we don't, for instance, know how the Shire deals with social conflicts, poverty or indeed anything more serious than organizing a garden party. I don't mean to say that the only possible way to solve social problems is with a capital-G government, especially as I personally believe the exact opposite, but to make the point that the Shire is a utopia where problems don't happen. But if anything, it's a liberal, minarchist one. It's complacent, in the sense that everyone except the vulgar seems content with their place, but it's completely devoid of control, hierarchy and devotion to abstract ideals over the individual that would keep them in their place. To call it fascist requires either sheer stupidity, or the kind of Soviet blinkers where anyone who disagrees with the party line is a fascist. I've studied actual, present-day fascism, and I can't possibly condone the kind of thinking where fascism comes to mean anything that isn't the currently fashionable brand of pseudo-Marxism. Fascism is a very frighteningly concrete system of political beliefs, not a generic insult. Of that system, not a trace is to be found in Tolkien's Shire.

**

According to the author himself, the Lord of the Rings has three main themes (Letters, 131):

Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.

To make any real sense of what Tolkien is about requires taking this theological mission statement seriously. He was a devout Catholic and maintained that the Lord of the Rings was fundamentally a Christian story, and while we don't have to agree with this, if we want to talk about the intentions and ideologies of the author, we do have to at least try to understand it. Christian theology is very silly, but people have a massive capacity for believing very silly things when they put their minds to it, and Tolkien certainly did. As I want to follow these themes throughout my reading, I'll briefly introduce them here.

By Fall he means the fall of mankind from grace, these days widely known as that story with Adam, Eve and the serpent. The divine tree with its forbidden fruit is an ancient Mesopotamian motif that the exiled Hebrews plagiarized into their holy books to answer the crucial question of absolute monotheism: if an omnipotent divine being exists, how can there be evil? The Hebrew solution was misogynistic victim-blaming; evil exists because a woman was goaded by a snake into eating a fruit. It seems barely credible that anyone can ever have considered this a reasonable answer, but there it is. In more abstract theological terms, the fall reconciles the imperfect world with its perfect creator. God, you see, made everything perfect, but then the thing with the snake happened and now the world is tainted by the original sin, eating fruit humanity's rebellion against god.

To apply this to the first chapter of the Lord of the Rings, the Shire simply can't be an eternally unchanging utopia, because in a fallen world, such a thing cannot exist. No matter how idylic the rural paradise, it'll always contain a sneering miller lusting after jools and an avaricious Sackville-Baggins stealing your silver spoons. No-one is perfect and nothing ever works quite the way it's supposed to, because fruit.

One great consequence of the Fall is Mortality, to continue Tolkien's capitalizations. The wages of sin is death, as the ever-cheerful apostle Paul put it in his epistle to the Romans: because of the fruit incident, people die. We don't have to take Tolkien's word for this being a major theme of the text, since in literally the second paragraph of the first chapter we're told that one particularly curious thing about Bilbo is that he isn't dead yet. In his conversation with Gandalf, Bilbo says he feels "like butter that has been scraped over too much bread". So when I wondered what Bilbo could possibly need a holiday from, this is the answer: he's cheating death, which he can't actually do, because, as you recall, fruit. This is why I found it so utterly bizarre to read that Tolkien "ignores death".

The third theme is the Machine, or magic, which to Tolkien was the same thing. Theologically, the Machine represents humanity's desire to order the world as it likes, as opposed to the way Tolkien and, presumably, god, likes.

Both of these [the Fall and Mortality] (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, - and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents - or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized.
(Letters, 131)

This is where the argument for Tolkien's fascism decisively fails: in an exact antithesis of fascism and all other kinds of totalitarianism, he firmly identifies Power as a sin, a corrupt desire. It's also key to understanding his fundamental incoherence: while he did raise some chickens of his own, it was plans and devices that put food on the professor's table and paid him the salary that made it possible for him to develop his inner talents. Though he joked about dynamiting factories and power-stations, Tolkien was never a dogmatic luddite who dreamed of a return to nature. Instead, one can't escape the unfortunate feeling that the sin of Power was committed whenever the society Tolkien was comfortable in was changed - for instance, to allow others the opportunity of developing their inner abilities.

The Enemy in successive forms is always "naturally" concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others - speedily and according to the benefactor's own plans - is a recurrent motive.
(Letters, 131)

So if using power to benefit others is a sin, what are we supposed to do about, say, poverty? Here the equation of Machine, Magic and Power is illuminating. The difference between prayer and magic is, theologically, that magic is an attempt to manipulate the world, while prayer is asking a divine agency to do it for you. The first is not allowed in Christianity, while the second is encouraged. My interpretation of Tolkien's ideology is that attempting to make the world a better place by our own actions, outside the somewhat nebulously defined sphere of exercising our inner talents, is a corrupt desire that leads to sin. The only theologically acceptable solution to social problems, then, is either individual charity or prayer. So in short, social change is wrong because a woman ate a fruit once.

This, to me, is the heart of Tolkien's political ideology. It most certainly isn't fascism, which is a revolutionary modernist ideology that's the very apotheosis of Tolkien's Machine. It isn't even the hierarchical society that Moorcock described in Epic Pooh as men in grey knowing what's best for you. The point is that they don't. Because of the fruit thing, the world is a flawed, evil place inexorably spiraling toward the end of time, and trying to make it better only makes it worse. His ideology is an immensely privileged Christian conservativism, where Oxford dons can enjoy the fruits of other people's labors, but building a housing estate for those other people is a terrible sin. This isn't an ideology specifically directed at post-World War II Labour, or even an anti-socialist or anti-totalitarian one; it's anti-politics. The world is the way it is and it's going to be worse tomorrow, and there's nothing you can do about it because of an antediluvian fruit-eating episode.

To return to the first chapter, the Machine is present as magic, namely Bilbo's ring. As a creature of this world, Bilbo has a finite lifespan, which has been unnaturally extended. Other than that, this motif is still waiting in the wings. We will, I'm afraid, have ample opportunity to return to it. In general, I hope I've been able to explain that Tolkien's theology is key to understanding not only his text but especially his politics.

**

Like I said earlier, this chapter does a good job of opening the story. We catch up with Bilbo, and see him exit the stage, leaving his cousin and adopted heir as our new protagonist. The ring, which you have to remember was just a convenient invisibility device in the Hobbit, has taken on a more sinister air, especially with Bilbo's Gollum-like behavior. There are lots of little details I like, such as Bilbo's at times artless speech, which - intentionally or not - gives the strong impression of an orator who isn't quite as clever as he thinks he is. In general, I enjoy Tolkien's depiction of the Shire, maybe because I never could see it as a utopia myself.

Next time: exposition. Lots of exposition.

Apr 11, 2016

LotR LCG: Second star to the right

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Yavanna eek with her sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram her halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open yë
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes



John Howe: The Grey Havens (1999)

**

It's downright silly how much I'd been looking forward to the Grey Havens deluxe expansion ever since it was announced last August. It combines my love of Tolkien, this absolutely excellent card game, and nautical fiction, so it's really no wonder I was regularly checking the Fantasy Flight website to see when I can expect to get my hands on it.

Even the horrendous gaffe publicized in the preview wasn't enough to put me off:



Now, to be fair, this isn't a sailing game, it's a fantasy card game that's introducing some nautical elements. It would be unreasonable to expect the designers to tell their futtock-shrouds from their cross-catharpings, or precisely define the difference between a brig, a snow and a snow-brig. Still, though, a dictionary is enough to tell you that "windward" and "against the wind" are exactly the same thing. Unless ships on Middle-earth have exceedingly peculiar sailing qualities that are in no way suggested by their hulls or sailplans, it seems pretty near impossible for their best point of sail to be in irons. The mechanic itself is obviously unaffected by the flavor text, but it's a little dismaying that a blunder like this made it into the final product. Unfortunately, the fluff in the box isn't much better. "Full sail ahead", indeed.

Luckily, we're not here to read the fluff, we're here to play the game. And it's excellent.

**

Voyage Across Belegaer - DL 5


The first quest has us setting sail from the Grey Havens, trying to outrun a fleet of corsairs from Umbar. This quest has the Sailing keyword, which means that each player controls a ship card. Attacks from enemy ships can only be defended by your ships, and if your ship sinks, you're eliminated from the game!


The other novelty intoduced by the Sailing keyword is the sailing test, which require the first player to exhaust characters before questing to try to stay on course. In addition to both questing and sailing, you also have to be able to fight off the corsairs unleashed by the enemy ships' Boarding keywords.


So I wouldn't say this is a particularly easy quest. However, I am glad to say that it hasn't carried any of the terrible features from the previous cycle, like "all enemies in the staging area attack you and you die" treacheries and damage/player card immunities. This is a properly challenging quest that nevertheless lets you use pretty much your whole bag of tricks to beat it, which to me is what a really good quest is all about.


We set off on a three-handed attempt, with my Silvans, my partner's Team Boromir and our Hobbit deck taking to the high seas. This is a quest that builds up slowly, giving us some time to get acquainted with the sailing mechanics and fight off a Scouting Ship and its boarders. After the first quest stage, you have to make your way through a series of small stages; you can skip some of them if you're off course, but with ships and corsairs bearing down on us, we always seemed to be off course at the wrong moments and had to slog through all of them. Eventually the already worn down Tactics deck took on one enemy ship too many and was eliminated.

With the Silver Wing sunk, things looked pretty grim, but I managed to use Concorde and new addition The Evening Star to clear out a pile of locations, so we barely made it to the last quest stage. There, you have to either defeat all the enemy ships or get enough progress on the quest to escape. As I was barely managing to hold off my enemies with a boosted Rossiel and a Burning Brand-wielding Silvan Tracker, and the hobbit deck was running out of chump blockers fast, the combat solution was out of the question. Unfortunately, to place progress on the quest you have to be on course, so we had to do some careful thinking on how to both pass a sailing test to get on course, and then manage to complete the last quest stage. Incredibly, our last desperate quest push did it, with the sailing test succeeding and our questing getting exactly enough progress to finish the scenario. It was a pretty awesome ride.


We later took another shot at this with my brother's Leadership/Lore deck, and everything went great until we were destroyed by a sailing test. It put us off course, which meant that we took a willpower penalty from the quest stage, and then Winds of Wrath wiped out our allies, and next turn's questing knocked out one deck and left the rest of us facing a horde of enemies we couldn't defend. Even when everything seems to be going great, the quest still has a bunch of surprises it can throw at you.

For my money, this is straight up one of the best quests in the entire game. Voyage Across Belegaer alone is enough to fulfill my expectations for this expansion. For us at least, the difficulty here is damn near perfect, and I've loved playing this.

**

The Fate of Númenor - DL 5


Having succesfully outsailed the corsairs, our heroes arrive on a mysterious island in the middle of the ocean. Since we're on a crazy Gondorian noble's nautical vision quest, it's off into the jungle for us to find the temple of his dreams. There are two new mechanics introduced here. First of all, quite a few of the enemies and shadows riff off the bottom card of the player deck, and objective ally Calphon's ability lets you switch the bottom card for a card from your deck. Second, to portray searching a previously unknown island, there's a series of Uncharted locations that all enter the staging area with their identical Lost Island side up. To find out what the actual location is, you have to either get progress on them in the staging area or travel to them. The only way to get progress on the quest proper is to clear Uncharted locations, which get shuffled back into the Uncharted deck as they're explored.


Once you hit the second quest stage, the Uncharted card with the objective is added to play, and you start removing explored Uncharted locations from play. At this point, our offensive power was provided by Merry with Dúnedain Cache and two Fast Hitches, co-operating with Legolas and his Rivendell Blade, Rohan Warhorse and Support of the Eagles. Some undead would occasionally pop out of the encounter deck, Rossiel, Sam or Boromir would defend them, and then Merry and Legolas would just wipe them out, placing progress on the active location all the while.


Even though it took us ages to actually find the right Uncharted location, if I'm being honest, it was almost a little easy. The uncharted locations only have a threat of 2, so even in the early going, there's actually not that much threat in the staging area. The enemies aren't particularly nasty, and even though there are quite a few treacheries, they mostly tend to hit questing; in both this quest and Voyage Across Belegaer, there's a distinct lack of doomed and surge effects. Even the shadows are mostly quite run-of-the-mill. We did threat out on a second attempt, so it's not like this is a complete walkover.


Easy or not, though, this is a tremendously enjoyable quest. I know some people were griping about this expansion and the following adventure pack cycle being more Pirates of the Caribbean than Lord of the Rings, and I suppose this quest will be the focal point of those complaints, but in my honest opinion, when the quests are this much fun, I don't care. I got more of a Monkey Island than Pirates of the Caribbean vibe anyway, and that's a good thing in my books. I really like the Uncharted mechanic; we know it's going to get an even more interesting outing in Temple of the Deceived, and I'm already looking forward to it!

**

Raid on the Grey Havens - DL 6


In the last quest in the expansion, the corsairs have attacked the Grey Havens and are trying to burn the elven fleet. Your job is to race against the clock to stop them. Most of the locations in play have the Aflame keyword, meaning they're burning up, and if too many are destroyed, you lose the game. At the same time, there's a whole bunch of corsair enemies attacking you, doing direct damage to you and more damage to the burning locations.


After the first two quests, the third one is kind of startling because it more or less returns to the kind of difficulty level we've become used to. Most of the enemies have plenty of defense, the shadow effects are nasty, doomed and surge are in play, the locations have plenty of threat, various player card immunities are in play, and so on. We even got the Angmar classic "all the enemies ever attack you immediately" effect. I gave this a shot solo, and was pretty much immediately destroyed; a two-handed attempt with the Tactics deck didn't go much better. You have to both quest a lot and be able to take on several fairly dangerous enemies from the word go, and you can either get destroyed in combat, lose too many locations or threat out. And this is all before Captain What's-his-face and Claw Lady show up.


So the overall impression ends up being something like our Rogue Trader campaign: you're not quite sure what's going on, but everything is definitely on fire. This is a properly challenging, much more strongly combat-oriented quest than the previous two, but unlike several other quests in this mould, it doesn't feel frustratingly impossible, just plain difficult. That's not a bad thing.

**

As excited as I was for this expansion, I do have to admit that I wasn't exactly blown away by the player cards. Okay, you get a formidable Spirit hero, Círdan the Shipwright, and his ring, which promises to be quite brilliant.


The other hero in the set is Galdor, whose ability lets you start discarding cards as early as the setup phase, which is handy as every ally card in the box bar one has a special ability that's contingent on what the top card in your discard pile is.


All the allies and both heroes are Noldor, so this expansion is pretty heavily keyed to that archetype. This is probably why it felt a bit underwhelming, to be honest; we'd already got a whole bunch of Noldor cards in the Angmar cycle, so The Grey Havens doesn't really bring anything new as such. The only properly new mechanic is card effects becoming more powerful as multiple copies end up in the discard pile, as for instance with Skyward Volley:


At least the art is splendidly nautical! One very positive sign is that several location control cards are included. There's even one for Leadership. For my money, locations have been a pretty neglected aspect of player cards, with far too many scenarios almost hinging on either the luck of the draw or someone bringing along Northern Tracker. If this cycle gives us more variety in dealing with locations, that will be absolutely fantastic.


One more card needs to be mentioned: the wonderful Grappling Hook.


Not only does it give you visions of Tactics characters swinging around the place like Tarzan, but on-demand battle questing is just excellent, especially for the willpower-starved Tactics sphere. With Grappling Hook, you can leave a high-attack character ready for any enemies appearing from the encounter deck, and if they fail to show up, commit the character to the quest using their attack value. Simply brilliant.

So if your buying decision is based on player cards, this is very much a Noldor expansion, with some location control cards and a great Tactics attachment thrown in. However, I don't think that should be the case. Simply put, I believe this is the best single expansion of any kind to the Lord of the Rings living card game. If you play it, you should get a copy of The Grey Havens. The first two quests are nigh on perfect, and the third one is properly difficult, but not frustratingly so. Ever since the first heady days of figuring out the game, I think this is some of the most fun we've ever had with it.

I was actually genuinely scared to start playing The Grey Havens, because I'd been looking forward to it so much and I was sure I'd be disappointed. I wasn't. It's brilliant.

**

I've really been very happy with my Silvan deck! While I like broadly thematic decks, and the healing abilities of my Silvan Trackers positively encourage it, I'm not completely dedicated to only ever including Silvan characters. One card I've had hanging around the deck but actually almost never use is Mirkwood Runner. A brilliant card in the early game, especially when playing solo, but one I quite rarely use for anything other than discarding to Daeron's Runes. Because I almost exclusively play two- or three-player games these days, it occured to me that a potentially much more useful 3-cost Lore ally in these circumstances would be Ithilien Archer.


I almost always play together with my partner's Tactics deck, which means we're usually quite dedicated to setting up some kind of ranged attack combo, and even more so when co-operating with our Hobbit deck featuring Merry and Dúnedain Cache. In these circumstances, I think an Ithilien Archer or two might be much more useful than a Mirkwood Runner I rarely ever play. It's a bit of a stretch in terms of theme, I know, but they're also woodsy guys with bows, so I can deal with it. In practice, their lack of the Silvan trait will make them more vulnerable to the Necromancer's Reaches of the world, but hopefully they'll be able to make a contribution anyway. My deck's also not particularly heavy on the attack anyway, so at times the Archer's response ability may come in handy as well to put opponents back in the staging area where others can get at them, or maybe get a nastier enemy off the Hobbit deck's back.

The Grey Havens didn't really come with many cards that fit my deck, but I wanted to give The Evening Star a shot. Because the Tactics deck is pretty useless for questing, and my questing contribution takes a little time to set up, we have in the past found ourselves overwhelmed by locations. Concorde alone is already a huge help, so an event that straight up adds progress to a location is very welcome indeed.


This turned out to be a great choice, as The Evening Star pretty much saved us in our first Voyage Across Belegaer. Two progress isn't much, but since the discard pile mechanic basically means that the card gets more powerful the further you get in the quest, it can be an excellent antidote to location lock.

Here, then, is the current incarnation of my Silvans:

53 cards; 46 Lore, 7 neutral; 3 heroes, 19 allies, 12 attachments, 18 events, 1 side quest; starting threat 22.

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

Allies: 16 (12/4)
Ithilien Archer (EaAD) x3
Silvan Tracker (TDM) x3
Wellinghall Preserver (AtE) x3
Wandering Ent (CS) x3
Gandalf (Core) x2
Treebeard (TAC) x2

Attachments: 12
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Asfaloth (FoS) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x3
The Long Defeat (TBoCD) x3
Wingfoot (TNiE) x2

Events: 21 (18/3)
Out of the Wild (RtR) x3
The Evening Star (TGH) x3
Leave No Trace (EfMG) x3
Mithrandir's Advice (TSF) x3
None Return (AtE) x3
Daeron's Runes (FoS) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

Side quests: 1
Scout Ahead (TWoE)

And here's Team Boromir:

56 cards; 47 Tactics, 9 neutral; 3 heroes, 18 allies, 11 events, 25 attachments; 29 starting threat.

Boromir (TDM)
Legolas
Thalin

Allies: 18 (15/3)
Descendant of Thorondor (THoEM) x2
Eagles of the Misty Mountains (RtM) x2
Bofur (OHaUH) x2
Honour Guard (TWoE) x3
Winged Guardian (THfG) x3
Vassal of the Windlord (TDM) x3
Gandalf (Core) x2
Radagast (AJtR)

Events: 11 (8/3)
Feint x3
Foe-Hammer (OHaUH) x2
The Eagles are Coming! (THfG) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

Attachments: 25 (22/3)
Support of the Eagles (RtM) x2
Great Yew Bow (OtD) x2
Spear of the Citadel (HoN) x2
Blade of Gondolin x2
Gondorian Shield (TSF) x2
Grappling Hook (TGH) x3
Horn of Gondor x2
Mighty Prowess x2 (TDF)
Rivendell Blade (RtR) x2
Rohan Warhorse x2 (TVoI)
Black Arrow (OtD)
Favor of the Valar x3 (TBoCD)