Jun 20, 2016

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Great Commerce Tipping Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Leaving behind a massive traffic jam of cargo ships.

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

To conclude: what did I learn?

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

Jun 13, 2016

LotR LCG: Ships of the Grey Havens

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Dream-chaser's Fleet


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

Dawn Star

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


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

Silver Wing

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

The Umbar Navy

Corsair Warship

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

Light Cruiser

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

Scouting Ship

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

Some implications

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

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

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

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

Jun 6, 2016

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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