Jul 24, 2017

Christianity, the body and neoliberal individualism

There's a huge industry dedicated to making people feel bad about their bodies and then selling them a product, whether cosmetics, clothes, superfoods, a fitness regime, whatever, that will make their supposedly hideous and ugly body more like the photoshopped perfection in these companies' ads. This kind of business model is rightly condemned, but its roots are rarely looked at. The fact is, if you traveled back in time to before this body-shaming nonsense was big business and wanted to found an industry based on tricking people into hating themselves, you would have found the perfect blueprint for your hateful con in the nearest church.

Christianity was born some time in the first century CE as an offshoot of Judaism in Roman-occupied Hellenic Palestine; to make a long story short, it largely consisted of taking a series of Judaic theological ideas and combining them with Greek philosophy and a lively expectation of the end of the world. The Greek philosopher who had the biggest impact on Christian thought was undoubtedly Plato: the dualism and juxtaposition of mind/soul and body in Phaedo became central to Christian theology. In Plato's concept of the universe, the world of ideas was the home of pure truth, while the material world was nothing but a reflection of it. The body, being of the material world, was imperfect and acted as a brake on the higher ambitions of the immaterial soul. Thus Socrates, according to Phaedo according to Plato:

We have found, they will say, a path of speculation which seems to bring us and the argument to the conclusion that while we are in the body, and while the soul is mingled with this mass of evil, our desire will not be satisfied, and our desire is of the truth. For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and also is liable to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after truth: and by filling us so full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies, and idols, and every sort of folly, prevents our ever having, as people say, so much as a thought. For whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? For wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and in consequence of all these things the time which ought to be given to philosophy is lost. Moreover, if there is time and an inclination toward philosophy, yet the body introduces a turmoil and confusion and fear into the course of speculation, and hinders us from seeing the truth: and all experience shows that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body, and the soul in herself must behold all things in themselves: then I suppose that we shall attain that which we desire, and of which we say that we are lovers, and that is wisdom, not while we live, but after death, as the argument shows; for if while in company with the body the soul cannot have pure knowledge, one of two things seems to follow-either knowledge is not to be attained at all, or, if at all, after death. For then, and not till then, the soul will be in herself alone and without the body.
- Phaedo, trans. by Benjamin Jowett

Christianity eagerly took up this vilification of the body, and created a reinterpretation of the paradise story of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, where in addition to being the grounds for humanity's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the episode of the fruit also came to symbolize an original sin, the Fall, which doomed us all to the imperfection of the material world.

Whereas with Plato, the body interfered with the philosopher's quest for truth, in Christian thought the body came to symbolize original sin and acted as a barrier between humanity and God. The body was sinful, and therefore shameful, and had to be disciplined. Thus the apostle Paul:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
- 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, New International Version

Later, the writers of what became the canonical gospels had Jesus propound an even more unrealistic and hateful version of the same doctrine:

If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
- Matt. 18:8-9, New International Version

It's interesting to note that these teachings never seem to have been taken literally in the early church. When enemies of the third-century theologian Origen wanted to bring hin into disrepute, they spread an apparently false rumor that he had taken the Gospel of Matthew literally and castrated himself - because apparently actually doing what Jesus purportedly commanded would have been universally condemned.

This makes sense if you consider what the purpose of teachings like these are. If you can get people to literally hate their own body, and feel ashamed of their normal everyday life, they'll be permanently unhappy. In Paul's metaphor, the race only ends when you die. This is where the priest comes in. The clergy appoint themselves referees in this ghastly parade of self-flagellation; they can tell the suffering faithful that they're mortifying their bodies enough, or shame them for doing too little. Because ordinary life is a constant progression of sins that are impossible to avoid, a good Christian must necessarily be constantly ashamed and guilty. This gives the priest tremendous power over his congregation; exactly like a cult leader over their cultists, only we don't call them cults any more when they get big enough. So these entirely unhinged commandments to mutilate your own body were never meant to be taken seriously: they're there to give priests power over anyone who makes the mistake of believing in them.

This idea of the filthy, sinful body that needs to be constantly disciplined has since jumped from Christian theology to the weight-loss and beauty industries, where it thrives like it once did in churches. For both Christianity and Weight Watchers, cultivating a mind-body dualism where the body is the repulsive enemy of the mind has been excellent business, because it creates a demand for their services in people whose bodies would have been just fine had they not been taught to loathe them. Then again, at least the beauty industry only wants to sell you stuff you don't need; Christianity has done far worse.

The other prominent descendant of the early church and its hatred of the body is neoliberal individualism. In the logic of contemporary politics, unemployment is always the fault of the person without a job. They just need to try harder. In a neoliberal society, each and every citizen needs to heroically strive forward every day of their lives in order to be eligible for full membership in society. All distinctions of privilege are elided; if you were born poor, you should have worked harder. Those of us who are felt by our ruling elites to not be working hard enough are subjected to a constant stream of patronizing advice on how to get ahead, and it's hardly a coincidence that most of it focuses on disciplining the body. People who have never had to add up the cost of their groceries on their way to the checkout will give sermons on how to eat econonically. Tabloids run by millionaires will stoke rage over excessive "benefits" going to undesirables who will supposedly spend the money on extravagances rather than living frugally like the deserving poor should. If only all these lazy wasters would discipline themselves, the refrain always goes, they wouldn't be so poor. Obviously this political system has complex roots, but it's very difficult to not see more than a hint of the Christian idea of unending self-flagellation to prove one's worth. We even treat mental health problems as symptoms of individual weakness that should be adressed through discipline. The net effect is the same as in Christian theology: you are flawed, you are to blame, you must discipline yourself.

It's worth remembering that whatever cruel and hypocritical scam the advertisers come up with next to shame you into buying their products, or whenever a politician stands up to pour scorn on the lazy and idle parasites of society, they're doing nothing that wasn't pioneered two millenia ago by the apostle Paul and the evangelists.

Jul 17, 2017

Carcassonne: What to buy

We recently added Carcassonne to our summer board game collection, and it immediately became popular with my extended family. I highly recommend Carcassonne for casual board gaming: it's very easy to pick up, and can accomodate a wide range of play styles from friendly to ultracompetitive.



I'd say one of the biggest obstacles to getting into Carcassonne is the bewildering variety of expansions on offer, from dragons and magic portals to catapults. With that in mind, I thought I'd set down our experiences with some of the basic add-ons.

For starters, I think most editions of the base game come with the River expansion included. I strongly recommend using it with new players, as it forms a very good tutorial: you'll encounter roads, cities and cloisters, and players will get to place followers on them, so they'll have something to build on when the game proper starts.

On that note, River II is also a pretty good add-on: it gives the river a branch and generally makes the initial river setup a little less predictable.

Another mini-expansion you'll probably want to pick up is King (and Scout). King introduces special scoring tiles for the longest road and largest city, which are lovely for encouraging megalomania in players, but also comes with five useful additional tiles for fixing situations that can come up with the base game where a space can be created where no tile can go.

Finally, as the first bigger expansion, I'd definitely recommend Inns and Cathedrals. As with King, it comes with a couple of useful basic tiles, but the meat of the expansion is six Inn tiles and two Cathedrals. The inns are found alongside roads, and give double points for completing the road - but none if it's left unfinished. Cathedrals do the same for cities, which can lead to truly epic struggles for massive cathedral cities. These are made even better by the new "big follower" that comes with the expansion: each player gets one bigger follower figure that counts as two followers when determining who gets to score a road or city. Finally, there's a sixth full set of followers included. Inns and Cathedrals adds to the basic gameplay, but doesn't introduce anything too complex, so in my mind it's almost a must-have expansion.

Beyond these, it's really up to individual taste. The expansions above don't dramatically change the base game, but they enhance it while keeping complexity and playing time under control. From what I've understood, adding too many other major expansions will begin to bog the game down quite badly. Frankly, I've looked at the other big expansions, and none of them really interest me at all. Carcassonne as played with the expansions listed here is an excellent board game; this list should also be a good starting point for exploring the rest of the massive list of add-ons if you're so inclined.

Jul 10, 2017

LotR LCG: The Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities

And far away, its dark head in a torn cloud, there loomed the Mountain!
- The Hobbit, chapter X


Having made it over the Misty Mountains, sort of, in the previous instalment of our saga quests, it's finally time to take on the second Hobbit saga expansion, On the Doorstep.


John Howe: Roac, son of Carc, 1979

**

Flies and Spiders


Before we get to talk to ravens, there's only Mirkwood to get through, and that means spiders. To get into the spirit of the source material, there's a poison mechanic: some cards will poison your characters, and if enemies with the Venom keyword do damage, they inflict poison as well. Too much poison will knock characters unconscious until they're revived by a card effect or good old Bilbo Baggins.


So you basically have to quest through the woods and fight spiders, doing your best to not take too much damage. On our first three-handed shot, we got hit with Weighed Down for a couple of turns straight, which kind of messed with everything, and managed to draw a logjam of locations that raised our threat a bit before we could get them cleared. To top it off, I lost a hero to an attack that became undefended when a shadow card gave a Winged Guardian more venom than it could handle (i.e. any). This all gave us enough difficulties getting started that we threated out in the last quest stage.


We took a second shot with the same players, and despite getting off to a better start, we again fell just short of the mark. An easy quest this ain't. The key is intelligent use of Bilbo and his ring to revive unconscious characters; the difficulty is that you're not only racing the threat counter, but there's also an endless horde of spiders to fight off while the venom keeps accumulating.


This is a fun quest though! It's not too easy, can throw a nasty surprise or two at you, and above all really manages to capture the feel of the story you're re-enacting, so to speak. So a very strong start to this expansion!

**

The Lonely Mountain


The second quest sees our heroes burgling the dragon's lair and trying to not get murdered. There are several treasure cards under the Lonely Mountain, and after questing, the first player makes a burgling attempt. Succeed and you get to grab one of the treasures; fail, and Smaug attacks. Later on, you have to either quest enough to escape Smaug or destroy him.


This is a very, very silly quest. In the third quest stage, Smaug is considered engaged with the first player so he attacks every turn, but if he's dealt a shadow card with a burgle effect on it, he immediately attacks again. The initial attack of eight is unpleasant enough on its own, but multiples of it are complete madness. It's perfectly ordinary for Smaug to attack three or four times in a row. I don't know what kind of deck you need to succesfully defend that. Certainly none of us have one. Luck seems to play a ridiculously disproportionate part; if Smaug doesn't go on a frenzy, the quest itself isn't actually all that hard, but it's quite possible to draw an absolutely ridiculous run of burgle cards.


Admittedly Smaug attacking us something like eight times over a couple of turns was absurd enough to be funny, but when we tried this quest three-handed, practically all of our heroes were eaten by a dragon. The burgling mechanic has shades of the horrible riddles of Dungeons Deep and Caverns Dim, and like that quest, this is one I don't think any of us will be interested in trying again.

**

The Battle of Five Armies


So, after being destroyed by rapid fire Smaug, we moved on to the last scenario, an epic battle. To convey epicness, there are no less than three simultaneous quest stages in play, with one requiring regular questing, one battle questing and another siege questing, leading to a final showdown with Bolg.


I've complained about battle questing before, and the Battle of Five Armies also has siece questing, to which the same applies. In effect, with the three quest stages, you have to quest, battle quest and siege quest, all while facing a horde of goblins being boosted by various in-play effects. So to an extent you're trying to do everything twice, and the good old snowball effect also works here: if you get going, things start to work out; if not, you'll be swamped. We gave it a couple of shots, and our experience was more of the latter kind.


I wasn't too sold on this quest, to be honest. The multiple quest stages and accumulating bonuses to the goblins are a decent stab at an epic battle, but for whatever reason I never felt it. The enemies and locations all feel generic and forgettable; the impression isn't so much of a great decisive battle as a huge flood of goblins. So it's like Khazad-dûm outdoors, without a good story.

**

On the Doorstep obviously comes with a bunch of player cards, and like the previous Hobbit box, they're all dwarves. Well, okay, you get Bard the Bowman, and a couple of neat archery cards in Great Yew Bow and Straight Shot, but other than that, it really pretty much is all dwarves.


So you know, get this for the player cards if you really like dwarves? Or the idea of using Great Yew Bow to shoot into the staging area with Legolas. I had a bunch of fun with that with one of my alternative decks, so I actually recommend it!

**

On the whole, though, we weren't terribly impressed with this saga expansion. The first quest is decent, rapid fire Smaug is ridiculous and the climactic final quest kinda wasn't. So after a good first Hobbit box, this was a disappointment. So in all honesty, I have to say I'd only ever recommend buying On the Doorstep if you want the player cards.

**

After making our way through this last Hobbit box and the Dream-chaser cycle, I remain quite satisfied with my deck. However, it can always get better, and over our past few games, I've identified two problem areas: healing and card draw.

To start with healing, I'm going to try including Ioreth.


As an aside, the Haradrim cycle is bringing us new side quests, but I'm not too sold on them. At six quest points and a cost of one, Explore Secret Ways is too marginal an ability - especially when my partner uses Core Legolas - to be worth it. The trouble with side quests is that they're very situational: there are quests where you most definitely want them, like, say, We Must Away, or any quest where you're not placing progress on the main quest, but in tougher quests you just don't have the time to spare for them. This is why I'm not sold on cards like Rider of Rohan, because if I'm playing a quest where side quests are impractical, I've paid three Spirit resources for a two-willpower quester, which isn't a good deal.

The other problem with side quests is manifest in the upcoming Spirit side quest, Rally the West. At one cost and six quest points, putting it in the victory display gives each hero +1 Willpower. Now, I can think of a couple of quests where this might be worthwhile - Redhorn Gate springs to mind - but most of the time, if you can spend a turn's questing to gain the bonus, do you really need it? So the questing-enhancing side quests don't really feel worthwhile to me, because they're "win more" cards.

Next, card draw. Since my brother's apparently given up on the Leadership/Lore deck that was still around for the first quests of this saga box, I can welcome back an old friend: Gléowine, the minstrel of Rohan.


One of the cards I've been using for draw has been Ancient Mathom, and while I like it and it goes well with my deck's location control theme, it can at times be a little tricky to set up. As an experiment, I'm going to try diversifying by bringing in another old Lore favorite of mine: The Long Defeat, which is perfect for my purposes as it provides both card draw and healing.

Also, just in case I run out of cards again, I'm throwing in a single copy of Lindir. He can even defend for 3 if I give him my spare Cloak of Lórien!


Finally, now that I'm in the business of adding single copies of unique characters to my deck, I'm having a copy of Mablung as well. Not only is he a two-cost, two-willpower quester, but since my deck is pretty heavily specialized toward questing and low on attack, we sometimes run into trouble if I end up engaged with too many enemies. Mablung gives me a way to get rid of at least one.


So I effectively now have an oversize deck packed with single copies of unique allies. This isn't great, because it means the deck will be inconsistent: it's highly unlikely that I'll be able to find my single copy of Lindir when I'm out of cards, or Mablung when I really need to get rid of an engaged enemy. But I'm okay with this. As long as the overall proportions of my deck are reasonable, I should be getting decent cards: if not Lindir, then some other questing ally; if not The Long Defeat, then some other card draw; and so on. Most importantly, this should let me get acquainted with some new cards, so I can figure out whether they work with my deck or not.

So far, my 56-card deck has done reasonably well in producing questing power, location control and healing, which is what it's there to do, and doing its bit in combat as well.

56 cards; 31 Spirit, 21 Lore, 4 neutral; 26 allies, 12 attachments, 16 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

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

Allies: 26 (18/7/1)
Jubayr (TM) x2
Northern Tracker x2
Súlien (TCoC)
Lindir (TBoCD)
Rhovanion Outrider (ToTD) x2
Bilbo Baggins (TRD)
Galadriel's Handmaiden (CS) x3
West Road Traveler (RtM) x3
Dúnedain Pathfinder (RAH) x3
Gléowine x2
Mablung (TLoS)
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Ioreth (ASoCH)
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 12 (6/6)
Unexpected Courage x2
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x2
Light of Valinor (FoS) x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x2
The Long Defeat (TBoCD) x2

Events: 16 (5/8/3)
A Test of Will x3
Elven-light (TDR) x2
Leave No Trace (EfMG) x2
None Return (AtE) x3
Daeron's Runes (FoS) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

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

Jul 3, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 34: The Ring Goes South

Later that day the hobbits held a meeting of their own in Bilbo's room.

After the massive conference in the previous chapter, Bilbo and Frodo recuperate, while Merry and Pippin insist they be allowed to go with Frodo. First, though, Elrond sends out scouts to gather information, and the hobbits spend two months hanging out in Rivendell.

Eventually the scouts return, with little news except that the Nazgûl are gone, though probably not destroyed. So it's time to leave for Mordor. But who's going?

Elrond makes the very reasonable point that since the idea is to sneak into Mordor rather than assault it, the Company of the Ring will be small. He sets the number at nine, apparently because there are nine Nazgûl, which doesn't really strike me as particularly sound logic, but hey, I'm not an elf-lord, what do I know. Obviously Gandalf is going, and as representatives of their peoples, Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn are going as well. Boromir is heading back home, so he joins the Company as well. So, two more are needed to make it nine, and Merry and Pippin insist on coming along. Perhaps surprisingly, Gandalf defends them, arguing that trusting friendship is better here than trying to reason everything out. It's all a damn dubious basis for mounting what is probably the most significant expedition in the history of the world since Eärendil set sail for the Undying Lands, but this is what they're going with.

As for material preparations, the elves reforge Aragorn's sword, and Bilbo privately gives Frodo Sting and his mithril-coat. The pony the hobbits bought from Bill Ferny, now named Bill the Pony, goes with them as a beast of burden. Eventually, toward the end of December, they leave, with Boromir sounding his horn as they go. Elrond's last words with them touch on the duties of the Fellowship. Frodo, having volunteered to bear the Ring, is charged with not handing it over to the Enemy, but beyond that, Elrond stresses that each companion is free to do as they like, and turn aside from the path if they want to. Again, they cross a symbolic bridge over a river, and they're off.

The first leg of the Fellowship's journey is miserable. They sleep by day and travel by night through the barren country south of Rivendell, heading southward parallel to the Misty Mountains. It's cold, made worse by the fact that they light no fires. Eventually, after a fortnight's walk, they make it to Hollin, which is old elf country next to Moria. Gimli rhapsodizes about the nearby mountains, and Gandalf reveals that they'll be trying to cross the mountains by the Redhorn Gate. For now, though, they rest, narrowly avoiding the attentions of some crows from the south which Aragorn thinks are spying on them. It must sometimes be hard to tell the difference between a ranger and a paranoid.

Traveling at night again, the Company bears east for Caradhras, the Redhorn. On the way there, Frodo overhears Gandalf and Aragorn debating the road ahead. A winter crossing of the mountains is obviously hazardous, but the Redhorn Gate is the last pass before the Gap of Rohan far to the south - perilously close to Saruman's fortress of Isengard and the uncertain loyalties of Rohan. Gandalf reminds Aragorn of a third way, but the latter refuses to talk about it. At Boromir's initiative, they collect firewood for the crossing.

As the Fellowship start to climb toward the pass, a heavy snowfall begins and eventually grows into a blizzard. Soon, they begin to hear screams and laughter on the wind, and rocks fall from the heights. They can't go on, because the path leaves the minute shelter of the cliffs where they'd be totally exposed, nor can they go back, so to the best of their ability, the Fellowship camps out of the cliff-face. As snow keeps falling, the barefoot hobbits are well on their way to freezing to death, so a fire has to be made. When everyone else has tried and failed, Gandalf finally casts a spell on the wood to set it on fire, remarking that if anyone is watching, now they'll definitely know who's here.

The fire keeps the Fellowship from dying overnight, but when the snowfall eases off a little before dawn, they're trapped between massive snowdrifts taller than the hobbits. Aragorn and Boromir manage to clear a path through, but the company's only realistic alternative is to retreat back down the pass.

**

So, the traveling circus is on the road. In true Tolkien fashion, the going is miserable and keeps getting worse, until the Fellowship suffers its first proper reverse at Caradhras.

The way the Fellowship is assembled seems a bit odd. Given that they spend two months waiting for scouts to return, you'd think someone would've given the matter some thought. I can't tell if Elrond came up with the idea of the Nine Walkers on the spot; if he did, it seems bizarre that no-one had given it any thought before; if he had, then the offhand "I dunno I'll think of two other dudes later, I guess" is just weird. Maybe Tolkien was suffering from writing fatigue after slogging through the previous chapter!

The brief exchange in the early part of the chapter between Gimli and Elrond on vows and loyalty is significant as another reminder of Tolkien's antiauthoritarianism. When he has Elrond disclaim oaths ("let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall"), it's hard to not recall that Tolkien participated in one of the most monstrously destructive wars in human history, where people were forced into suicidal attacks and shot as traitors if they refused. Again, this insistence that one can't demand unreasonable things from people or try to coerce loyalty is completely irreconcilable with the idea of Tolkien as a fascist. Surely in The Führer of the Rings or whatever Moorcock et al imagine they've read, the Fellowship would swear allegiance to Elrond and Gandalf, on pain of death if they fail. Again, Tolkien expounds the opposite view.

This refusal of loyalty oaths is also a key point with regard to Tolkien's "northern theory of courage": the acceptance of a battle that you can't win, because fighting it is the right thing to do. When Frodo volunteers to bear the Ring, he's demonstrating exactly this kind of courage. Because it's based on individual dedication and initiative - Bilbo creeping down the tunnel toward the dragon - this "northern courage" can't be compelled by oaths or discipline. Elrond recognizes that some will have it and some won't, and it would be wrong to demand it of the latter. In a time of rampant jingoism and white feathers, this was very much a minority view.

The red star Frodo sees from his window at Rivendell piqued my interest with its almost Lovecraftian burning glare. Given Tolkien's footnote about the Big Dipper in Chapter 10 of Book 1, the night sky in Middle-earth is more or less the same as ours. Astronomically, the likeliest candidate for the bright red star low in the South would be Aldebaran. In terms of symbolism, though, Mars (Carnil in Middle-earth): war rising in the south fits the theme! I was also quite entertained by a suggestion in a discussion thread that the red star is actually Morgoth, peeping over the Walls of Night. With Tolkien, of course, it could well be all of these things.

On the Fellowship's attempt at the Redhorn Gate, they have rocks dropped on them from above. Presumably these are Stone-giants like the ones Thorin and company encountered in Chapter 4 of the Hobbit, or something similar, and the discussion the Fellowship has about them is one of my favorite exchanges in the book:

"We cannot go further tonight," said Boromir. "Let those call it the wind who will; there are fell voices on the air; and these stones are aimed at us."
"I do call it the wind," said Aragorn. "But that does not make what you say untrue. There are many evil and unfriendly things in the world that have little love for those that go on two legs, and yet are not in league with Sauron, but have purposes of their own. Some have been in this world longer than he."
"Caradhras was called the Cruel, and had an ill name," said Gimli, "long years ago, when rumour of Sauron had not been heard in these lands."

Especially when coming back down the mountain, everyone basically agrees that Caradhras didn't want them to pass and intentionally stopped them. It's not clear if they're incorrectly attributing agency to weather or if they're right and the mountain just hates them. There's an intersection of two things that I think make Tolkien's world-building so succesful here. First, Caradhras and the Redhorn Gate are another example of Tolkien's animate landscapes, like the Old Forest earlier: both are very effectively depicted as being alive and malicious. Secondly, and in my mind more importantly, these places have stories and identities of their own, completely separate from the main plot of the book. This really makes the world feel much more alive and much less reducible to functional plot elements.

In general, trying to cross a hazardous mountain pass in midwinter seems like a terrible idea, especially if you've brought along a quartet of fucking hippies with no shoes on. Gandalf has to use magic to save them, and I should say that I also really like the way magic works in The Lord of the Rings. Now, we know Gandalf can cast spells; recall him setting wolves on fire in the Hobbit. So why doesn't he solve every problem by blasting it with magic? Because magic is loud and spectacular, and announces to everyone that Gandalf is here blasting on some fools. The old Middle-earth Role-Playing game had a pretty good mechanic for this, where using magic meant a chance that nearby enemies would detect the characters. As with Gandalf's remark to Elrond earlier on how even an elf-lord like Glorfindel couldn't storm the Black Gate to get the Fellowship to Mordor, these are all reminders that this isn't Harry Potter and the Ring of Power, and the problem of evil won't be solved by brute force.

So, the Fellowship is on the move, and the quest of the Ring has properly begun. After all the talking in the last chapter, it's good to read a little travelogue again. Not only does Tolkien make the trip seem appropriately dreary, but the battle against the elements is decently executed as well. The feeling is conveyed that this is going to be a long and arduous journey even without orcs or Ring-wraiths.

**

Next time, spelunking.

Jun 26, 2017

AGoTLCG2: Our Melee decks

One of the main reasons I got the Game of Thrones card game was so I could obsess about deckbuilding again. My Lord of the Rings deck is humming along quite nicely, and I've even succesfully built a bunch of decks for other people to use that they've come back to play again. But they're kinda done for the moment. So I needed a new reason to obsess over cardgamedb.com. It was going to be Warhammer 40,000: Conquest, actually, but then Fantasy Flight and Games Workshop split ways, and I ended up with Game of Thrones.

Even though my primary interest here is collecting, and I really have no interest in competitive play whatsoever, it'd still be nice if the decks we collected made some amount of sense. So I did find some deckbuilding articles to look at. Here's one on the early metagame, and another on cost curve. The White Book has a decent introductory article here, followed by another one on building your plot deck.

**

I hope I made it sufficiently clear in my previous post that my loyalties are squarely with the true rulers of Westeros, House Targaryen. Starting with the core set, the first question is which agenda to pick: do I go for Fealty and only a single House, or a Banner that lets me include non-loyal cards from another House? (there are other agendas in the expansions, but we don't own any yet) While a Targaryen Fealty deck would admittedly be very thematic, the problem is that with only one core set, I'd have a twenty-card deck, plus neutrals, and I still somewhat dislike having to buy a pile of core sets. But also, I know exactly which house I want to ally with.


Why? Well, I do have an abiding love for all things nautical, but really, mostly because of Asha Greyjoy.


So far, we've bought some more or less random chapter packs - mostly ones that had characters we wanted in them - and the Lions of Casterly Rock deluxe. Annoyingly, that wasn't a proper cardboard box like the Lord of the Rings deluxe and saga expansions, but a useless and flimsy one, although it doesn't really matter so much since you won't really need it for anything. The excellently named All Men Are Fools not only gave us a handy Targaryen economy location and speed dating Margaery for my partner, but also the wonderful Ygritte.


My goal, then, is going to be to build a deck around three awesome women: Daenerys, Asha and Ygritte.

So this is what I've got so far:


House Targaryen
Banner of the Kraken

A Clash of Kings
A Noble Cause
Counting Coppers
Early Frost (LoCR)
Late Summer Feast (AMAF)
Summer Harvest (CtA)
Summons

60 cards; 12 Greyjoy, 12 neutral

Characters: 30 (16/7/7)
Daenerys Targaryen
Khal Drogo
Ser Barristan Selmy (LoCR) x2
Unsullied
Drogon
Rhaegal
Braided Warrior
Crone of Vaes Dothrak (TKP) x2
Doreah (CtA) x2
Handmaiden
Ser Jorah Mormont
Viserion
Viserys Targaryen
Asha Greyjoy
Drowned Men
Theon Greyjoy
Black Wind's Crew
Lordsport Shipwright
Maester Wendamyr
Salty Navigator
Varys
Wildling Horde
Ygritte (AMAF) x3
Wildling Bandit (LoCR) x2

Attachments: 11 (6/3/2)
Drogo's Arakh
Daenerys's Favor (LoCR)
Mother of Dragons (GoH)
Beggar King (CtA) x2
The Silver Steed (TKP)
Fishing Net (TKP) x2
Throwing Axe
Appointed (LoCR)
Milk of the Poppy

Events: 7 (3/1/3)
Dracarys!
Fire and Blood
Waking the Dragon
Risen from the Sea
Put to the Sword
Put to the Torch
Support of the People (TtB)

Locations: 12 (7/1/4)
Plaza of Punishment
Slaver's Bay Port (AMAF) x3
Vaes Dothrak (TtB)
Illyrio's Estate x2
Iron Fleet Scout
Street of the Sisters (TtB)
The Kingsroad
Ocean Road (LoCR)
The Roseroad

**

My partner wanted to play Tyrell because of Brienne, but struggled to choose between a Stark or Lannister banner. Luckily, the release of the Alliance agenda, you can have both!


This is, quite simply, a fandom-based deck with our favorite road trip odd couples: Brienne and Jaime, and Arya and Sandor. We picked up the King's Peace to add knightliness, and may have to get Calm Over Westeros to add Bronn to keep Tyrion company.

House Tyrell
Alliance
Banner of the Lion
Banner of the Wolf

Calm Over Westeros
Confiscation
Gossip and Lies
Naval Superiority
Rebuilding
Summons
Supporting the Faith

75 cards; 18 Lannister, 13 Stark, 11 neutral

Characters: 45 (19/13/9/4)
The Queen of Thorns
Margaery Tyrell x3
Brienne of Tarth x3
The Knight of Flowers
Alerie Tyrell x2
Knight of Summer x2
Paxter Redwyne
Maester Lomys
Arbor Knight x3
Courtesan of the Rose
Garden Caretaker
Ser Jaime Lannister (LoCR) x3
Tyrion Lannister (Core)
Chella Daughter of Cheyk
Shae
Taena Merryweather
The Hound x3
Alayaya
Lannisport Moneylender
Tommen Baratheon
Eddard Stark (Core)
Vanguard of the North
Arya Stark (Core)
Jeyne Westerling x2
Sansa Stark (Core)
Bran Stark
Direwolf Pup
Tumblestone Knight
Varys
Littlefinger
Rattleshirt Raiders
Silent Sisters (GoH)

Attachments: 7 (1/3/1/2)
Heartsbane
Valyrian Steel Dagger
The Boy King
Widow's Wail
Lady
Seal of the Hand
Milk of the Poppy

Events: 12 (9/1/1/1)
Olenna's Cunning
"A Rose of Gold" x3
Growing Strong
Offer of a Peach x3
All Men Are Fools
"The Bear and the Maiden Fair"
For the North!
Quiet as a Shadow

Locations: 11 (4/1/2/4)
Highgarden
The Mander
Rose Garden x2
Lannisport Treasury
Harrenhal (GoH) x2
Ocean Road (LoCR) x2
The Kingsroad
The Roseroad

**

Speaking of fandom, Lions of Casterly Rock also enabled us to create a Lannister Fealty deck for the Joffrey fan in our lives (please don't ask).


House Lannister
Fealty

A Game of Thrones
Calling the Banners
Filthy Accusations
Gossip and Lies (LoCR)
Late Summer Feast (AMAF)
Sneak Attack
Wildfire Assault

61 cards; 12 neutrals

Characters: 32 (28/4)
Joffrey Baratheon (GoH) x2
Tyrion Lannister (LoCR) x2
Tywin Lannister (Core)
Ser Jaime Lannister (Core)
Ser Kevan Lannister (LoCR)
Timett Son of Timett (LoCR) x2
Cersei Lannister (Core)
Chella Daughter of Cheyk (LoCR) x2
Grand Master Pycelle
Joffrey Baratheon (Core)
Moon Brothers (LoCR) x3
Shagga Son of Dolf (LoCR) x2
Stone Crows (AMAF) x2
The Queen's Assassin
Burned Men
Ser Lancel Lannister (LoCR) x2
Tommen Baratheon (LoCR) x2
Lannisport Merchant
High Septon (LoCR) x2
Littlefinger
Silent Sisters (GoH)

Attachments: 6 (4/2)
Valyrian Steel Dagger (LoCR) x2
The Boy King (CtA) x2
Bodyguard
Little Bird

Events: 11 (7/4)
A Lannister Always Pays His Debts (LoCR) x2
Hear Me Roar!
Insidious Scheme (LoCR) x2
Treachery
The Things I Do for Love
Tears of Lys
Quiet as a Shadow (GoH)
Superior Claim
The Hand's Judgment

Locations: 12 (10/2)
Lannisport
Casterly Rock
Golden Tooth (LoCR) x2
Lannisport Treasury (LoCR) x2
Mountains of the Moon (LoCR) x2
Western Fiefdom x2
The Kingsroad
The Roseroad

**

Finally, for visiting players, we have a Night's Watch deck based on the one suggested in the core set.


The Night's Watch
Banner of the Stag

Building Orders
Early Frost (LoCR)
Fortified Position
Marched to the Wall
Marching Orders
Wildfire Assault
Winter Festival (CtA)

60 cards; 12 Baratheon, 9 neutral

Characters: 32 (19/6/3)
Old Bear Mormont (Core)
Jon Snow (Core)
Benjen Stark
Craster (GoH) x2
Ghost (Core)
Ranging Party
Dolorous Edd (CtA) x2
Eastwatch Carpenter (AMAF) x2
Maester Aemon (Core)
Ser Waymar Royce
Veteran Builder
Yoren
Old Forest Hunter
Samwell Tarly
Sweet Donnel Hill (LoCR) x2
Messenger Raven
Steward at the Wall
Renly Baratheon
Ser Davos Seaworth (Core)
King's Hunting Party
Maester Cressen
Maester Pylos (CtA) x2
Bastard in Hiding
Edric Storm
Vanguard Lancer
Wildling Horde
Rattleshirt's Raiders

Attachments: 8 (7/1)
Longclaw
Craven (CtA) x3
Dragonglass Dagger (GoH) x3
Syrio's Training

Events: 8 (7/1)
Take the Black
The Sword in the Darkness
The Watch Has Need (TtB) x3
A Meager Contribution x2
Put to the Torch

Locations: 12 (6/3/3)
The Wall
Castle Black
Eastwatch-by-the-Sea (AMAF) x2
Bridge of Skulls (LoCR) x2
Chamber of the Painted Table
Dragonstone Port x2
The Iron Throne
The Kingsroad
The Roseroad

**

The idea behind these decks is to include a fairly wide variety of cards so we can try them out in friendly melee games. Our first try was a three-player Targaryen-Lannister-Tyrell matchup, where we were all still very much learning the ropes. I was lucky and got both Dany and Khal Drogo out fairly soon, but I got beat up pretty bad when both other players ganged up on me. Meanwhile, the Lannister deck was building up a pretty impressive army of Clansmen, but when Tywin fucking Lannister joined them, my partner put a stop to it with King Varys.

The only survivors were Timett Son of Timett, who died soon enough, Ygritte and the Hound (Tyrell). I played Summons and found Ser Jorah; he got me dominance, so I was at 11 power. Next turn, the Lannisters opened with A Game of Thrones, but I got initiative with A Clash of Kings, and marshalled Asha with the help of a Roseroad. Ser Jorah won the compulsory opening intrigue challenge, his Renown getting us to 12, and I managed to get an unopposed power challenge with Asha, which was enough to win. I was very happy, because Dany and her dragons played a big part before they got Varysed, Ygritte survived it and helped get us through until Asha delivered the finisher.

**

Moral of the story? If there are any Game of Thrones fans in your life, picking up a single core set of the second-edition Game of Thrones LCG and building some fandom-based decks to play Melee with is great fun. The game is easy enough for relative beginners to get into, and even though the start of a melee game can be a bit intimidating, you begin to pick it up quickly enough. The familiar characters and themes really help, and also facilitate personal mini-goals; killing Joffrey has been perhaps surprisingly popular in our group! Each deck can also be given enough of a gameplay theme to feel quite different from the others, which makes the gameplay even better. Treat this as a board game with a deck-building aspect and if you're anything like us, you'll enjoy yourself.

Jun 12, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 33: The Council of Elrond

Next day Frodo woke early, feeling refreshed and well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

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

**

Next time: hiking and snow.

Jun 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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


**

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

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