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)

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)

Apr 4, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 19: The Last Stage

It was on May the First that the two came back at last to the brink of the valley of Rivendell, where stood the Last (or First) Homely House.

The last chapter of the Hobbit starts with Bilbo and Gandalf arriving in Rivendell. They hang out with the elves for a bit, and there's a couple of songs. We're told in passing that Gandalf and some of his pals kicked the Necromancer out of Mirkwood, but other than that, Rivendell again serves as a brief pit stop. The hobbit and wizard make their way back toward the Shire, stopping to collect the trolls' gold on the way, and when they spot the Hill of Hobitton in the distance, Bilbo suddenly breaks out in poetry.

His actual homecoming turns out to be anything but poetic, as it turns out he's been declared dead, and arrives in the middle of an auction where his effects are being sold. After some confusion, Bilbo manages to recover most of his things, and settles back in at Bag-End. However, the impeccably respectable middle-class gentlehobbit he left as is long gone; not only has he been away on an adventure and had the gall to return, but now also entertains bizarre visitors like elves and wizards, and writes poetry. As a result, he's shunned by his peers and neighbors as mad - and is quite happy. In the end, the adventure has succeeded in rescuing Bilbo from the bourgeois respectability lampooned in the first chapter, although he conveniently retains its material trappings. In the very last scene, Bilbo is happily entertaining Balin and Gandalf for tea, bringing the whole story to a full circle from its beginning.


So, that was the Hobbit! Let's sum up.

Apart from the memorable dragon, the chief enemies of the story are orcs. When we first meet them, they're quite categorically characterized as evil and wicked, and hardly exist in the narrative at all except to be killed. After the brief dialogue with the Great Goblin, the only interaction anyone has with a goblin is violent. Mostly because of that dialogue, they're not utterly dehumanized into mindless automatons. More importantly, their killing isn't exalted and glorified as a moral good, except by Beorn, who clearly represents a more atavistic morality. So they're slightly more nuanced and interesting villains than zombies. Maybe.

Moving from the goblins to their enemies, Tolkien himself apparently made it clear several times that his dwarves are some kind of extended fantasy allegory of the Jews. I find this fascinating, because it's never once occurred to me. In my mind, the avarice of the dwarves did always have an uncomfortable similarity with antisemitic stereotypes, but other than that, I've always seen Tolkien's dwarves as thoroughly Norse.

I maintain this is because the Jewish allegory Tolkien attempted completely fails. Sure, the dwarves in The Hobbit are wanderers seeking to reclaim their lost homeland. But it's not the divinely ordained eretz khazad of all dwarves; some others seek to reclaim Moria, while most are apparently quite content to live wherever it is they live. Damningly, the theology of the dwarves makes them the complete opposite of the children of Israel: far from being the chosen people of the covenant, the dwarves are descended from a separate creation by one of the lesser divine powers. Worst of all, the professor's philology seems to have completely deserted him when inventing dwarvish, because the few place-names and phrases we get do not, pace Tolkien, succeed in conveying anything remotely Semitic. It's hardly a coincidence that his massive linguistic acumen didn't, as far as I know, extend to any of the Afroasiatic languages. The kh's and z's that one deduces from his interview comments were intended to suggest Semitic all just come off as pseudo-Germanic. With only basic studies in philology behind me, it's impertinent of me to second-guess a professor, but surely if a Semitic air was desired, maybe even a desultory attempt at a definite article might have been made? Or at least one decidedly non-Indo-European vowel sound?

So in my opinion at least, Tolkien's conception of the dwarves as Jewish entirely fails on any level except the vulgar stereotype of greed. This failure is kin to the way in which Tolkien's Christianity and Biblical allusions in general mostly fail to make their way into the text for a modern reader: the allusions are contradicted by the internal logic of Tolkien's Arda, the theology mostly doesn't work, but above all the Scandinavian influence is so overwhelming. With every dwarf name straight out of the Edda, and Norse dwarves being famous above all as miners and craftsmen, there is simply no need to look for a Semitic allegory. Even the avarice of the dwarves can just as easily, and far more charitably, be traced to Fafnir and the Volsunga saga, rather than antisemitic prejudice. I would certainly rather consider Thorin's appalling behavior as King under the Mountain a Fafnir-analogy than a meditation on the Jewish character. Unfortunately, denounciations of Nazi Germany notwithstanding (most prominently Letters, 29), Tolkien's publicly stated preference for the latter suggests that if you want to call him a racist on the basis of his novels, you'd best add antisemite as well.

Tolkien was reportedly annoyed that his work was characterized as "Nordic"; in this case, as in many others, it might have helped if he hadn't made it so thoroughly Scandinavian. It's quite possible that the root of the problem is that Tolkien the Christian wanted his stories to fit into a neat Christian framework, but Tolkien the philologist couldn't bring himself to do such brutal violence to the essentially pagan world of the Norse. The euhemeristic Christianizing prologue of the prose Edda must have rung even more profoundly false to the philologist Tolkien than it does to a more average reader. Personally, I strongly believe that the Nordic dimensions of Tolkien's work are essential to its success; the heroism and worldliness of the Norse sagas is absolutely crucial, and fundamentally incompatible with Christian pathos. Even though Tolkien the Christian might not have liked to admit this, we're lucky that the philologist realized it in writing the stories. One wonders if some inkling of this is behind Tolkien's angry rejection of analogy. It's certainly fascinating that he can effortlessly shift between the modern world and the Norse sagas, and this combination remains immensely popular, but struggles to convey his Christianity - food for thought for those who insist that our culture is somehow especially Christian.


The other glaring question of representation is the complete lack of women in the Hobbit. The entire novel doesn't include one single female character. There's an online list of women in Tolkien's Middle-earth, according to which there's only one named female person in the book: Belladonna Took, Bilbo's mother, in Chapter 1. Like all the other women mentioned in the text, she's defined solely by her relationship to a man - with one exception.

"Dear me!" he went on. "Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures? Anything from climbing trees to visiting elves - or sailing in ships, sailing to other shores!"
- The Hobbit, Chapter 1, p. 7; emphasis mine

Given the rest of the book, this is an extraordinary passage. So adventures are something women can go on as well, but when Tolkien sets out to write one, it ends up not including so much as a single female character. This is one reason why I think Tolkien's attitudes to gender are a bit more complex than they're usually treated as. Despite the complete lack of women in the Hobbit, you won't find anything as blindly, categorically misogynist as, say, Ursula Le Guin's insistence in the early Earthsea books that only men can have real power - and yet Le Guin is the exemplary feminist, and Tolkien is a horrible woman-hater. (do read Jo Walton's comments on Le Guin)

By our standards, Tolkien almost certainly was a misogynist, and his inability to actually include a single female presence in the Hobbit is testimony to it. But it is interesting that even though he's a devout Christian, he doesn't actually ever feel the need to preach gender roles at us. Given the passage quoted above, it isn't quite so surprising any more that the man who couldn't conceive of women having any part to play in the Hobbit would go on to create the character of Éowyn. Still, though, the thoroughly masculine exclusivity of the Hobbit is very striking. I'm tempted to suggest that this is another victory of the philologist: Tolkien knows that there are valkyries and shield-maidens in the Norse tradition, and it's they who stop him from making the kind of blanket essentialist declarations of gender that the vast majority of later fantasy seems to find compulsory, but his faith and background still demarcate adventure as an entirely male arena.


So yes, the Hobbit is a somewhat racist, definitely misogynistic Boys' Own adventure, where dwarves and elves and dragons can all be very marvelous and thrilling, but in the end, real life is the serene middle-class peace of the imaginary English countryside. Epic Pooh, as Michael Moorcock had it.

Yet at the same time, it's more than that. Moorcock, for instance, is completely wrong when he claims that unlike epic, Tolkien and his imitators "ignore" death. It's deeply puzzling to read this right after Thorin's death-bed scene, let alone the Lord of the Rings. I also can't help being somewhat jarred by Moorcock interrupting his criticism of Tolkien's reactionary longing for the pseudo-feudal countryside to bestow plaudits on, of all people, J.K. Rowling! Similarly, while David Brin had the right idea in seeing Tolkien's works as a battle of Romanticism against modernity, his caricature of world history is unforgiveably stupid and massively racist in its Eurocentrism: everything was terrible until heroic white men invented liberty. Crucially, his description of Tolkien's stories as "lacking...a role for individual champions" and as a clash of a side that's "100% good" with one that's "100% evil" simply cannot be reconciled with the actual texts. So having said that I fundamentally agree with the view of Tolkien's works as racist, misogynistic and deeply reactionary, the fact remains that the critics' Tolkien isn't quite to be found in the pages of his books, either.

Just last year, Moorcock took on Tolkien again in the New Statesman, and had this to say:

“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.”

As anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with Tolkien's works knows, this is pure nonsense. Neither the end of the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings can possibly be considered a return to an unchanged beginning, and the idea that Tolkien's Middle-earth is permanent and unchanging is shockingly tone-deaf and completely unsupportable. So sadly, while Tolkien's most vocal critics do make some good points, they also seem to have decided that they're enlightened enough to be exempt from actually bothering to read him.


There are several things going on here, perhaps the most important of which is that Tolkien has come to stand for all modern fantasy, especially at its most racist and misogynistic. There's a strange way in which fantasy has become the imagined history of the worst aspects of our society, clearly seen when "historical accuracy" has replaced verisimilitude. "Historical accuracy" can now be used to demand ridiculous fictions of a racially pure white Middle Ages, or a disgustingly misogynistic prolonged rape fantasy rather than, say, actual history, let alone fantasy. Certainly in producing foundational works of fantasy that were racist and misogynistic, and had pretentions toward being an imaginary history of our times, Tolkien stands on the path that led us here, but especially on returning to the Hobbit after all these years, I strongly believe it's quite unfair to lay all the blame on him. Bigoted though it is, Tolkien's text is still light-years from the leering torture porn and thoroughly racist caricatures of a George R.R. Martin. Again, returning to the text itself is what makes both the heritage and the distance clear.

Another factor in the critical disdain for Tolkien is pure literary snobism, which fairly oozes from Moorcock's essay. His sheer indignation at the commercial success of the Lord of the Rings is just the latest installment in a long, long tradition of bashing Tolkien as "not real literature". I have very little to add to Tom Shippey's treatment of this in the deliberately provocatively titled Tolkien: Author of the Century, except to highly recommend John Carey's seminal The Intellectuals and the Masses. It's hardly without irony that in his deep contempt for Tolkien's popularity, Moorcock begins to edge quite close to the hatred of the "ignorant proles" he sees in Tolkien's works.

Speaking as a fan, I absolutely decry any attempt to explain away the many and deep problems of Tolkien's works. To write an entire novel supposedly set in a world to some extent analogous to our own and not manage to include a single active female character is simply monstrous. To insist on framing individual qualities in terms of race and blood, and even worse, insisting that his dwarves are a meditation on Jewish racial characteristics, is pure racism. My point in bringing up counter-examples, either of the more nuanced treatment of the "evil races" - stop for a moment to consider that in modern fantasy, this is still considered a reasonable phrase - or the lads and lasses who go on adventures, is not to make excuses for him. It's to point out that the actual text of his works is steeped in all these problems, but at the same time more complex than the critics so often make it seem. There is a constant tension in Tolkien's texts between the misogyny and the racism on the one hand, and counter-impulses on the other. Like the tension between the pagan and the Christian elements, this also allows for a subtler reading of the text, or even a subversion of it. Quite simply put, Tolkien is not ideologically dogmatic. To borrow his metaphor of the Beowulf poem as a tower, all the pieces of Tolkien's building don't quite fit together, and if you like, those are the cracks where the light gets in.

To me, this is why so many of us have managed to read, re-read and thoroughly enjoy his work and not see it as a sexist, racist paean to a quasi-Fascist past. Much of it has been our blindness; I, for instance, had never realized that the Hobbit genuinely cannot bring itself to depict a single female character. But some of it has also been that when these cracks showed up between the clear ideological structures of the text and the subversions and exceptions, we took to the latter rather than the former. I hope to continue my series of posts into the Lord of the Rings, which will hopefully give me the chance to explain why it's been a cornerstone of my personal feminism and anti-racism. The general point I want to stress is that one of the main reasons I wanted to do this close reading was to illustrate how the text is manifestly guilty of the oppressive, othering ideologies it stands accused of, but also that a close reading will display that Tolkien wasn't as consistent with these as his critics imagine. This is a point I will be particularly returning to in the Lord of the Rings posts.


If the Hobbit is no gleeful celebration of rape and slaughter like some of its prominent contemporary descendants, it doesn't shy awy from the darker sides of its story, either. People die so the dwarves can get their dragon-gold: not only some of Thorin's company and Thorin himself, but most notably, many of the Lake-men, who have their homes and livelihoods completely destroyed by the dragon the dwarves have roused. Again, if Middle-earth really was populated by only the 100% good and the 100% bad, it would be impossible to conceive of the squabbling over the dead dragon's hoard, where the Lake-men's reasonable requests are met with violence by the dwarves. It's not really made particularly clear in the narrative if, on the whole, the Lake-men wouldn't have been better off in the end if the dwarves had never showed up at all. In the modern jargon, high adventure and dragon-slaying does considerable collateral damage.

On a more personal level, Bilbo may seem like a happy-go-lucky accidental hero, but he also goes through quite a gamut of emotions and experiences. From the very beginning of the story, the epic romance of songs and tales is contrasted with the physical misery of actual "adventure", from the pouring rain and the trolls to the thunderstorms, orcs and wolves of the mountains, and the bleak near-starvation of the dwarves and Bilbo in Mirkwood. This contrast between the glorious, heroic world of the stories told at second hand and the miserable physical reality in which they happened at the time is present throughout, with the narrator at times remarking on how particular episodes would get re-told later. So not only is the experience of the adventure hardly all fun and games, but the text also shows an awareness and even a mild subversion of the way in which terrible experiences will become heroic epic, stripped of all reality. So to say that the prose of the Hobbit "coddles us" requires, again, very deliberately omitting a large part of the actual text.


A final point on which I don't quite agree with Moorcock is the quality of Tolkien's prose. I like it; I've gained distinct pleasure from reading it out loud. At times it's clunky, at times it's beautiful. On the whole, I find the Hobbit a distinctly enjoyable book, despite its glaring flaws. It deserves to be read on its own, not just as a prequel to the Lord of the Rings. The elements that later come to dominate the whole fictional world - the Ring, the Necromancer - are, respectively, a key prop and a shadow on the horizon of the story, but nothing more. I would urge everyone to read the Hobbit as a story in itself, without the massive weight of epic-to-come weighing it down. So many passages, like the riddle-contest with Gollum, the gradual arrival of the dwarves at Beorn's hall and Bilbo's repartee with Smaug are simply excellent. The dwarves' complete unpreparedness for any part of their great adventure that's at such complete odds with their bombastic songs and poetic declarations that it's irresistably funny to me. This is just a really good story. I honestly can't think of many works of fantasy I'd rank above it.

If someone's actually read through even one of these posts, you have my genuine gratitude. I've had a great time writing them; I hope I've managed to produce something that's been of some kind of value to someone else as well. Next time, I'm moving on to the only fantasy book I'd unhesitatingly say is better than the Hobbit: the Lord of the Rings.