Jul 18, 2016

Let's Play War of the Ring

Now that I'm on this Tolkien kick, I decided to buy myself a thematically appropriate birthday present: a copy of the War of the Ring boardgame. I've heard quite a bit about it, and heck, just reading the description got me hooked.

So I went and got a copy of the second edition game from Ares Games; the game materials are dated both 2011 and 2015. Before we get to all the good stuff, I want to get my major complaints with the physical game out of the way. The box is huge and comes with a massive pile of figures; 205 of them, to be exact. They're made out of a soft plastic that bends rather than breaks, which is a good thing. However, Ares Games has made the deeply unfortunate decision to ship the figures in two massive piles, each in a flimsy plastic bag. This pretty much guarantees that at least some of your figures will literally be bent out of shape by the time you get them. Spears and banners are the worst affected, although a couple of figures in my set are almost bent over double. Here's a few examples:

It's a real shame, too, because the figures are actually quite nice. John Howe is responsible for most of the art in the game and also participated in designing the figures, so they show his signature combination of very high quality and an occasionally relaxed relationship to the source material: the mounted Elven elite figures look great - but the horses have saddles. One thing the figures have been criticized for is that excepting the unique characters, they only come in three colors: grey for leaders, blue for Free Peoples and red for the Shadow. The trouble with this is that in the game, even though one player does control the Free Peoples and the other the Shadow, each side is made up of various nations, and for several gameplay purposes, it matters which nation which units are from. At a distance, it can be really hard to tell one blue plastic horseman from another. To fix this, before we got started I decided to paint the Free Peoples figures' bases and color-code them according to nation. Also, my paintbrush slipped and I painted the bases of all the characters and non-Sauron Shadow units as well.

The other major problem is that while the box itself is large and sturdy, the interior is completely inadequate. If you want to protect your figures from further damage, you can't store them in the game box. Similarly, if you sleeve the cards, they'll no longer fit in the space provided. So you end up having to remove the plastic inside frame of the box and create your own storage solutions. So not only is the game massive, but you also end up having to put in a lot of work yourself. This is more like buying a Warhammer army than a board game.


With all this done, it was time to start approaching the idea of actually playing the game. A word of warning first. Officially, a game takes what, three hours to play? In reality, the first time we tried setting up the game, that alone took us over an hour. In addition to the two hundred figures, there are also four decks of cards, the character cards for the members of the Fellowship and the minions of the Shadow, and literally one million cardboard counters (actually 76). Also, have I mentioned that the board is massive? It comes in two pieces, each of which is the size of a regular large game board. It's also quite lovely to look at.

Each cardboard counter is also a piece of John Howe art, and they're absolutely beautiful. There are also, like I said, several of them. Here's what the game looks like fully set up:

There's quite a bit to take in here, so maybe a general introduction first. There are two players, one controlling the Free Peoples (blue) and the other the Shadow (red). Both have action dice, units and cards with which to do stuff. Basically, there are two games here. One is a strategy battle game, in which the Free Peoples try to fight off the Shadow onslaught. Capturing cities and strongholds nets you victory points; if the Shadow gets ten, it wins, and if the Free Peoples manage to fight back and grab four victory points, they win. An additional wrinkle is provided by what's called the political track:

The Free Peoples are made up of five nations: the elves, dwarves, Gondor, Rohan and the North. In order to join the war, each nation needs to be activated and moved up the political track by the players until they reach the At War state. For the Free Peoples, only the elves start out active, and everyone starts toward the low end of the scale. On the other hand, all three Shadow nations (Sauron, Isengard and the Southrons & Easterlings) start out active and high on the scale, compounding their advantage.

The wargame part, then, consists of players working to activate their various nations, muster their armies and defeat their enemies. This is quite heavily biased in favor of the Shadow. In parallel with the military confrontation is a second game, where the Fellowship of the Ring is trying to make its way to the Cracks of Doom and destroy the One Ring, while Sauron tries to hunt them down and corrupt them. If he succeeds, the Shadow wins; if the Ringbearers make it to Mount Doom, the Free Peoples win. Both players get a certain number of actions each turn from their action dice, and have to split these between moving or hunting for the Fellowship, and fighting the war. The two "games" interact in various ways; Sauron's armies can make it harder for the Fellowship to move, but friendly strongholds offer a chance to heal corruption - if they can be defended from the Shadow. The Fellowship can also activate friendly nations, and companions can leave it to mobilize and lead armies.

I think that's pretty much it! To be honest, at first this is a bewilderingly complex game. I don't know what anyone who isn't familiar with the Lord of the Rings would make of it, as it's hard enough even when you have a pretty solid idea of what's supposed to be going on. Now, though, it's finally time to start playing. For our first game, I decided to control the Shadow, and my brother led the Free Peoples.


Because the board is so large and complicated, it can look really tough to figure out what to do. Luckily, both the Free Peoples and the Shadow get event cards. These can be used for a whole bunch of things: boost your side in combat, recruit troops, activate nations and whatnot. Since you draw two event cards at the start of every turn and any Event results on the action dice can be used for more, quite often these will give you some direction for the early game. Because this was our first game, we didn't really know what we were doing. I decided that I wanted to go for a military victory and see if I could use my superior forces to steamroll the Free Peoples before they made it to the volcano. When I happened to get some useful muster cards, I was set: the armies of Mordor were coming.

To start with, I decided to strike north: the Black Gate was thrown open and a Nazgûl led the army of Mordor forth into the Dagorlad. Since Mordor wasn't at war yet, I assured the Free Peoples that these were simply ordinary, pre-scheduled summer maneuvers - exercise север-19 - and therefore nothing to worry about. Unsportingly, the imperialist Gondorians used our peaceful solidarity exercises as an excuse to raise their readiness level, and the Fellowship set off from Rivendell. In response, our comrades in Harad reorganized their defensive forces into a more secure posture, and we strengthened the defences of the legitimate people's administration of Minas Morgul against any possible revanchist provocations of the Denethorist clique. Tolkien did say that the idea of putting Mordor in the east was simply an accident of his fictional geography, and I realize that what I'm writing now might be interpreted as a commentary on that statement by uncultured readers, but let me assure you that any such analogies are phantasms of a bourgeois false consciousness; due to their class nature, analogies in general are only found in decadent imperialist literature.

Unseasonally bad weather forced the fellowship to divert to the Trollshaws, and a peaceful scientific Nazgûl was immediately dispatched to make meteorological observations in the region. Meanwhile, Sever-19 was proceeding according to plan. As part of our joint defensive readiness exercises, our brothers in Orthanc conducted a test of their civil defense infrastructure by raising their alert level, allowing comrade Saruman to join the exercise and continue his videotronic experiments with palantír technology. Despite these clear demonstrations of our peaceful intentions, the so-called "wisdom" of Elrond incited the misguided people of Gondor to mobilize against us, and the perfidious elves also began preparations for a war of aggression.

Unfortunately, the fellowship escap the meteorological observations in the Trollshaws were unsuccesful, but exercise Sever-19 went on regardless. Its second phase involved a rendezvous with a contingent from Dol Guldur and joint exercises in the Dimrill Dale, which were entirely unconnected to the rumoured presence of a band of imperialist spies known as the "fellowship" in the area. On the contrary, the peaceful actions of the joint Mordor-Dol Guldur forces were a powerful contrast to the provocation engineered in Erebor by the revanchist Gimli, whose slanders deluded both the people of the North as well as the dwarves into taking up arms against the peaceful regime of the Lord of Gifts.

Even the peace-loving people of Mordor won't stand idly by as elven-imperialist forces create an aggressive combination against them, but were forced by recent developments to consider themselves at war. By great good fortune, the peaceful solidarity maneuver Sever-19 had purely by chance happened to position a strong defensive army in the Anduin valley. Reluctantly but decisively, the joint Mordor-Dol Guldur forces set aside their works of peace and turned to war, launching a devastating pre-emptive attack on the perfidious realm of Lórien. The elves withdrew into their accursed forest, but fortified by the righteousness of their defensive cause, the heroic soldiers of Mordor followed them inside to root the elven provocateurs out of their counter-revolutionary dens.

The peaceful realm of Mordor had acted just in time, as the imperialist plot was completed by the crowning of a northern vagrant as "king" in the usurper realm of Gondor. To counter this revanchist threat, the armies of Mordor extended their defensive perimeter to the elven offensive fortifications of Osgiliath and deployed one of their most competent leaders, the People's Commissar for Angmar, to personally direct the pre-emptive attack on Lórien. Inspired by his decisive leadership, the defensive forces of Mordor rooted out the last of the imperialist holdouts in the Golden Wood.

While the counter-revolution massed its forces in Gondor, the working people of the north rose in solidarity against the oppressors, and the People's Commissar of Angmar immediately moved north to direct the army of northern liberation in a glorious counterstroke against the elven masterminds of imperialism. The terrorist provocateurs known as the Dúnedain were dispersed, and the righteous vengeance of the proletariat descended on the decadent bourgeoisie of the Shire.

As the northern army marched on the Grey Havens, the people's supreme command set the rest of their defensive plans in motion. While our agents of influence convinced the dwarves to remain outside the conflict, our Easterling comrades liberated the Iron Hills and smashed the illegitimate Brandist regime in Dale. The liberation army of Lórien marched north to pacify Mirkwood, while the free men of Harad freed Pelargir from Gondorite oppression and the hosts of Minas Morgul marched forth to lay siege to Minas Tirith. Finally, the scientific forces of Isengard drove the Rohanite bandits threatening their borders into their mountain hideouts.

During this glorious march to freedom, the people's committee for security in Minas Morgul intercepted a group of terrorist infiltrators. Several managed to escape, but the infamous spymaster and provocateur Gandalf was apprehended and killed while resisting arrest. This unexpected threat to the homeland served as a reminder to redouble military efforts against the elven conspiracy, and soon enough, the northern army of liberation completed the reduction of the Grey Havens. The campaign against the Rohanite bandits suffered a setback when the provocateur Gandalf made an inexplicable reappearance in Fangorn, inciting the demons of the forest to treacherously murder comrade Saruman. Deprived of his scientific leadership, the siege of the Rohanite hideouts continued indecisively.

With the puppet king of the Denethorite-elvish clique besieged in Minas Tirith and the counter-revolution in retreat everywhere, the final liberation of Middle-earth loomed on the horizon as the oppressive dictatorship of Thranduil fell. Tragically, even though the people's security forces of Mordor had succesfully neutralized several members of their so-called "fellowship", the hobbit terrorists Frodo, Samwise and Peregrin were able to carry out an unthinkable act of sabotage and plunge Middle-earth into an oppressive monarchist darkness. At the eleventh hour, the counter-revolution prevailed through the basest treachery.


That was our first game, and it was a damn near-run thing. I had nine victory points on my last turn, and had a decent chance of grabbing the tenth, if only those fucking hobbits didn't make it to the Cracks of Doom first. In the end, it hinged on whether the last hunt tile we drew had a stop symbol on it or not. It didn't, and the game was over. It really couldn't have been a much closer shave.

My military strategy was largely succesful: by the end of the game, I held Lórien, Dale, the Woodland Realm, the Grey Havens, the Shire and Pelargir, and it wasn't quite enough. One thing I really liked was how the game generated its own dynamic. In retrospect, one key moment for me was when the Free Peoples played the There and Back Again event card, which activated the dwarves and the north. At that point, I could easily bring the Witch-king into play; his arrival activates all free nations, but now this only meant Rohan, which I was going to attack anyway. Since I had several cards that I could use to mobilize in Eriador, the northern offensive worked out nicely, especially since my opponent was concentrating on building up his forces in Gondor. I had no intention of attacking Gondor, especially since Aragorn was there, and only sent the Morgul army out to contain him in Minas Tirith. I also delayed my attack on Rohan to maintain Saruman's army as a potential threat. This turned into another decisive moment, as I had the Fighting Uruk-hai card in my hand the very turn the ents destroyed Isengard; had I been able to play it, we'd have had a decent chance of taking Helm's Deep, but I couldn't play it after losing Saruman. So Gandalf not only got the fellowship into Mordor, but also made his way to Fangorn at exactly the right moment to save Rohan.

I only used a couple of character cards to harass the Fellowship, and they still sustained quite a tally of casualties: Gandalf, Boromir, Legolas and Merry all fell in Mordor. The game feels quite nicely balanced, though, because if I'd made more of an effort to stop the Fellowship, I wouldn't have been as succesful militarily. Again, which cards you draw will make a difference, and I like that strategy in the War of the Ring is a combination of a pre-conceived plan and succesfully making use of opportunities that arise.


In more general terms, I thought the mechanics worked very well. I especially liked the siege mechanics, which let a siege drag on considerably unless the attacker was willing to sacrifice their elite units to prolong the assault. All in all, this was a great experience. Since writing the above, I also got to try playing as the Free Peoples, and it was just as interesting and just as close. My opponent overcommitted himself, and I decided to leave Boromir and the hobbits to drink away their corruption in Thranduil's halls and go for a military victory. After an epic siege, a joint army of dwarves, elves, Beornings and men from Dale took Dol Guldur, and we very nearly succeeded in storming Isengard. In the end, though, the military superiority of the Shadow won out: Isengard held, and King Elessar fell in a massive battle over Pelargir. Again, it was a game that could have gone either way; a massively exhausting but thoroughly awesome experience. I like to think that when the Easterlings overran the Woodland Realm, Boromir and the hobbits escaped in floating barrels and eventually, somehow, made their way to Mount Doom...

Simply put, if you're at all into some combination of Tolkien and strategy gaming, you have got to try this game. I'm currently looking forward to not only rematches with both my opponents, but also an attempt at both the three- and four-player variants of the game; in the latter, there are two players on each side, while in the most interesting three-player setup, one player controls the Free Peoples, while the other two are effectively Sauron and Saruman. If any of these experiences are half as awesome as the two games we've managed to play so far, this game will have been worth every second of trouble and cent of money I've invested in it.

Jul 11, 2016

LotR LCG: To Isengard!

"But I rode to the foot of Orthanc, and came to the stair of Saruman; and there he met me and led me up to his high chamber."
- Gandalf, the Lord of the Rings, book II, chapter II

Having cheerfully abandoned publication order for good with the Grey Havens, I think we can now move on to the Voice of Isengard deluxe expansion. I already tried The Lost Realm and didn't like it, and Heirs of Númenor has been called frustratingly difficult so often that it doesn't sound like particularly good fun either. On the other hand, I've heard a lot of good things about Voice of Isengard, especially in terms of theme and narrative, so this was an easy choice to make while waiting to complete our collection of the Dream-chaser cycle.

John Howe: Orthanc Destroyed, 2000.


The Fords of Isen - DL 5

The first quest in this expansion sees us riding to Gríma Wormtongue's rescue. I love that the game is set before the Lord of the Rings takes place, in a time when Saruman is still considered one of the chief good guys, and rescuing Gríma makes perfect sense. We took a shot at this four-handed and boy oh boy that is a lot of Dunlendings.

The clever thing about the Dunlendings is that their mechanics are based on the cards in the players' hands. The Dunland Raider, for instance, does damage equal to the number of cards you hold when engaging you, and the Dunlending Bandit's attack value is based on your hand size. Some people don't like this mechanic as they feel it's too abstract and it's difficult to understand what it actually represents (e.g. this post and comments). I have to say that while I do feel that it's good for rules mechanics to be thematic if possible, I may well be inconsistent in that I also don't really actively visualize game events taking place as "real-world" equivalents. I don't, for instance, know what Thalin's ability is supposed to symbolize; because of the art, I kinda imagine him lurking next to the encounter deck and knocking all the enemies on the head with his axe. I similarly have no idea why we get progress when Legolas kills someone, let alone what Eleanor's ability to cancel a treachery and replace it with another card represents. This isn't to say the complaint about the Dunlendings is somehow wrong, but rather that it made me think about how I visualize the game as I'm playing it.

Another mechanic introduced in this expansion was Time, in this case meaning that we only had a certain number of turns to get to Gríma. Suffice to say that on our first attempt, we were completely overwhelmed by the Dunlendings and failed. Playing two-handed, we eventually succeeded in making it to the second quest stage, which then quite comprehensively defeated us: after a first stage spent fighting huge amounts of Dunlendings, you then move on to fight huge amounts of Dunlendings.

Overall, we weren't terribly impressed with this quest. The Time mechanic is interesting, but in this case it doesn't really add much to the experience, since you're either going to be overrun by the Dunlendings or not. In order to not be, you have to be able to fight off repeated attacks at about one million strength, as well as absorb at times obscene amounts of direct damage. What ends up being decisive, I guess, is the fact that the Dunlendings just aren't particularly interesting enemies. Having run through this scenario a couple of times, I also think there may be more merit to the idea of the "cards in hand" mechanics being somehow alienating than I had originally thought. It's a bit similar to the riddle mechanic in Dungeons Deep and Caverns Dim, which I also wasn't at all fond of. Whatever the reason, this is definitely one of the weakest quests we've played so far.


To Catch an Orc - DL 4

After all the Dunlending, Saruman sends our heroes after an orc. This is represented by a strangely fiddly mechanic where we have to take a whole pile of cards from our decks, set them apart and shuffle one enemy card into each player's set-aside deck. One of us has Mugash in their set-aside deck, and at various times we discard cards from them, looking for Mugash.

We took this quest on three-handed with the hobbit deck, and it didn't go too well. To get started, we had to put three locations in the staging area, and managed to draw a whole bunch of either surging cards or treacheries that added more stuff.

With the staging area conveniently full of locations, we were destroyed by a combination of massive threat, nasty shadow cards and a stupid dog.

While the idea of this quest is quite clever, I'm really not a fan of mechanics that take a whole pile of your cards away for no thematic reason whatsoever, so I didn't like the central concept here one bit. There also seems to be a pretty major problem with it: in a multiplayer game, what happens if the player who has Mugash in their set-aside deck is eliminated? As near as we can tell, that means the game becomes unwinnable. That seems a bit harsh to me. Apart from the set-aside deck, the rest of the quest was quite bland. So to be honest, this one isn't a winner either.


Into Fangorn - DL 6

In the last quest of the expansion, we have to catch the orc we caught in To Catch an Orc in Fangorn. I think. Anyway, after the previous two quests it's a bit of a relief that there are very few fiddly bits to this one. The major innovation here is the Hinder mechanic: enemies with Hinder don't attack in the combat phase, but remove progress from the quest instead. It's actually kinda clever, and works well with the huorn enemies to give an impression of trying to get through a thick, impassable forest.

We managed to catch Mugash and get damn near to finishing the whole thing, but we couldn't quite quest hard enough to beat out the huorns hindering us, and eventually got threated out. However, unlike the other two quests, we actually enjoyed this one, and felt like we had a decent shot at it. Once again, the official difficulty levels are baffling, since this was supposed to be the hardest quest in the box!


The player cards in the Voice of Isengard are of roughly two kinds. First, there's the cards built around the Doomed trait, most prominently the Gríma hero and ally Saruman.

The trouble with them, though, is that those two excepted, they're just not all that great. Okay, Power of Orthanc is pretty awesome, and a couple of the other cards are thematically very cool, but the Doomed trait does make them less than likely to make you many friends in a multiplayer game. Then there are card like Orthanc Guard which are just complete coasters.

The Rohan cards include the formidable Éomer, and are quite good if you're at all interested in the horse-lords. We've also had great success with the thematically appropriate combination of Legolas and a Rohan Warhorse, and I can't quite shake the feeling that I really ought to be getting more mileage out of Silver Lamp.

I've understood people have had some success with Gríma decks, and I do find the idea of inflicting horrible amounts of threat on your fellow players potentially entertaining. Also, seeing as how Éowyn and a bunch of Rohan allies were pretty instrumental in my first deck, I'll definitely be trying a Rohan deck at some point. On the whole, there's nothing spectacular here: several cards I don't really see being used much, but also some useful pieces that'll fit quite a few decks. Personally, I was almost a little disappointed. The Doomed archetype also hasn't been getting a lot of support since this cycle.


Disappointment is probably the right word to use for this expansion as a whole. I'll admit I'm affected by the fact that it's been sold pretty heavily as a must-have, but I'll be honest: after Khazad-dûm and the Grey Havens, this is the third deluxe expansion we've played through, and definitely the weakest. There's probably a considerable gap in perceptions between us and people who came to this as a new expansion after the apparently grueling Heirs of Númenor, but to us, the first two quests are frustratingly difficult and/or fiddly. In general, I like it when the designers come up with new stuff, but here the various mechanics didn't so much expand the experience as alienate us from it. The third quest is considerably better, but I wouldn't get this for the quests, and the player cards really aren't that great either. Overall, I have to say that The Voice of Isengard was a big let-down.


My Silvan deck has continued to be an absolute delight to play, but as our collection grows, I keep looking for minor tweaks to make to it. Right now, between my partner's Tactics deck and my Silvans, we don't have a whole lot of healing, or any way to get rid of condition attachments. My deck is also a little low on allies at the moment. Since the next item on our saga expansion shopping list is The Road Darkens, a solution to all these problems would seem to be Elrond.

To make space for him, I am, believe it or not, dropping Gandalf. With no resource acceleration, the cost of five is actually a bit steep, to the point where I can't actually remember when I've last played him. If I wanted this to be a viable solo deck, I'd probably need to include Gandalf, but since I don't really play solo right now, I'm going to try using Elrond instead.

The next saga expansion in line for us was The Treason of Saruman, which gives us Ent-draught.

With eight ents on the roster and all my heroes having only three hit points, this is an easy card to include. Ideally, I'll be looking to get copies on Rossiel and Boromir. To make space for it, I was able to shunt responsibility for Elf-friend over to Team Boromir. So here's what I've got:

55 cards; 50 Lore, 5 neutral; 3 heroes, 17 allies, 14 attachments, 20 events, 1 side quest; starting threat 22.

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

Allies: 17 (15/2)
Elrond (TRD) x3
Ithilien Archer (EaAD) x3
Silvan Tracker (TDM) x3
Wellinghall Preserver (AtE) x3
Wandering Ent (CS) x3
Treebeard (TAC) x2

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

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

Side quests: 1
Scout Ahead (TWoE)

Jul 4, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 22: Three is Company

'You ought to go quietly, and you ought to go soon,' said Gandalf.

Now that Frodo has made up his mind to leave the Shire, there are arrangements to make. He agrees with Gandalf that he'll leave that fall, after his fiftieth birthday, for Rivendell; retracing Bilbo's route, but leaving in secret if he can, so as to attract less attention. So far, no-one but Sam and Gandalf know his plans; therefore, there's a considerable public outcry when the news breaks that Frodo is selling Bag End, and what's more, to the Sackville-Bagginses! He announces he's moving to more modest premises in his native Buckland, which sets off all kinds of speculation as to whether the jools have finally run out, or if this is all a nefarious plot by Gandalf. The purported plotter himself leaves in June, though, promising to be back by Frodo's farewell party at the latest.

Summer turns to autumn, preparations are made, but there's no sign of Gandalf. Eventually September rolls around, and Frodo celebrates his birthday with his friends, but without a wizard. He's deeply concerned, but there's nothing he can do, especially since Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and her son Lotho are coming over to take possession of Bag End. Frodo's last things are carted off to his new house in Crickhollow by Merry and "Fatty" Bolger, and he hangs around until nightfall, waiting for Gandalf to show up. There's no sign of the wizard, but while he waits, Frodo does happen to overhear an unpleasant voice questioning a clearly frightened Gaffer Gamgee as to Frodo's whereabouts. The Gaffer tells the inquirer that Frodo's gone off to Buckland that morning and sends him off.

Feeling vaguely relieved that the strange visitor left, Frodo makes his way back to Bag End, and he, Sam and Pippin take their leave. They intend to walk to Frodo's new digs in Crickhollow, camping along the way, and the first stretch of the journey is a starlit walk across Hobbiton. The sparse description of their trip is quite lovely, and they end up camping out in a patch of fir-trees. There's even a momentary relapse into the fairy-tale narration of the Hobbit: a fox comes across the three sleeping hobbits and wonders what on earth brought them there, but the narrator tells us he never found out.

The hobbits spend the next day heading east along the Woodhall road, which will eventually take them to Stock and the Brandywine ferry, and thence Buckland. In the afternoon, Sam hears a horse or pony coming up behind them on the road. Despite optimistically suggesting it might be Gandalf, Frodo is almost overwhelmed by a desire to hide from the rider, and suggests they get off the road. The three of them quickly conceal themselves nearby, with Frodo staying slightly closer to the road to see who it is.

It's no Gandalf. Instead, coming down the road is a black horse, being ridden by a figure swathed in a black hooded cloak. It stops near Frodo and makes noises as if it were sniffing for him. Frodo is terrified of the rider, and feels a powerful compulsion to put on the Ring. He's actually in the process of rationalizing away Gandalf's express prohibition when the rider abruptly sits up and moves on.

A shaken Frodo returns to his companions and tells them what he saw. For his part, Sam confirms that a rider of the same description was the stranger the Gaffer talked to earlier, who was asking for Frodo. They keep going, but decide to stay off the road in case more Black Riders show up. They pass the crossroads where the road continues straight for Woodhall, and take the downhill left that leads to Stock, stopping for supper inside a hollow oak. As dusk is falling, they keep walking into the night and sing a hobbit walking-song.

When it's already dark, they again hear a horse coming and hide at the side of the road. It's another Black Rider, this time dismounted; like the previous one, it starts sniffing, and actually starts crawling toward a petrified Frodo, who is struggling to not put on the Ring. At the last moment, Frodo is saved by the sound of a company of elves coming toward them, laughing and singing. The Black Rider retreats, getting back on its horse and vanishing into the darkness.

The hobbits come closer to the road to watch the elves pass by. Frodo identifies them as High-elves when they sing about Elbereth, and as they've nearly passed the hobbits, the last of the elves spots them and recognizes Frodo. He introduces himself as Gildor Inglorion, of the house of Finrod. The elves are surprised by the sight of three hobbits in the woods at night, but the mood quickly darkens when Pippin asks them about the Black Riders. Gildor decides that they'll take the hobbits with them for the night. When Frodo thanks him in high-elven, Gildor laughs and names him Elf-friend.

The elves lead the hobbits on a long march through the woods, to a clearing on a hillside offering a spectacular view of the stars above. There the elves set up a meal, which they maintain is nothing special, but Frodo pronounces "good enough for a birthday-party". Once they've eaten, Sam and Pippin go to sleep, while Frodo and Gildor have a long conversation. Frodo reveals that Gandalf was supposed to show up but didn't, and Gildor shares his anxiety. Gildor guesses that Frodo is leaving the Shire and is uncertain of the future, even though Frodo won't reveal why he's going. In turn, Gildor doesn't want to answer Frodo's questions about the Black Riders, merely telling him that they're servants of the Enemy. Gildor somewhat reluctantly advises Frodo to keep going, and to not go alone. Eventually Frodo, too, falls asleep.


There's been a dichotomy in the book so far between the Shire as an idyllic, English rural paradise and as a close-minded, almost xenophobic, shut-in place where dreamers like Frodo don't belong. Of course, it's not quite that simple, because Frodo is, after all, also a solidly middle-class gentlehobbit like Bilbo was before him. Here he is talking to Gildor and coming off like a hobbit Pub Landlord:

"I knew that danger lay ahead, of course; but I did not expect to meet it in our own Shire. Can't a hobbit walk from the Water to the River in peace?"

"But it is not your own Shire," said Gildor. "Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out."

Broken Shire, indeed. But it's worth paying attention to Gildor's rejoinder, as it sums up the beginning of the book so well: the rural utopia where no-one ever has any real problems is a mirage, created by stubbornly pretending that the outside world doesn't exist. Because of the Ring, Frodo realizes that this aggressive know-nothingism isn't an answer. All of Ted Sandyman's acerbic barroom wit won't stop Sauron. The poignant nostalgia that Frodo feels for the Shire in this chapter isn't simply because he's physically leaving; it's also a nostalgia for a simpler time, when he could believe that the outside world could be fenced out, restricted to some exotic furnishings and interesting stories. For Frodo, that simpler Shire is now gone.

Reading this snippet of conversation between Frodo and Gildor today, it's impossible to be affected by how contemporarily relevant Gildor's comment is. I'm writing this in a Finland and a European Union hell-bent on fencing the world out forever, driven exactly by the kind of cynical, aggressive provincialism that is the darker side of the Shire. To me, there is no reading by which Tolkien's direct rejection of this small-mindedness can be interpreted as fascist. It seems to be exactly the opposite.


Frodo has several near brushes with the Black Riders in this chapter. The very night they leave Bag End, one comes up looking for him, and only the Gaffer being misinformed turns it away; had the Gaffer known they were still there, or had the rider shown up a day earlier, it'd likely have been shown right to Frodo's door. They also have two very close encounters on the Woodhall road, the latter one much more dangerous and only interrupted by the fortuitious arrival of Gildor's elves. At this point in the story, we don't yet know what the Black Riders are, but later on it will become obvious that these were very close shaves with certain death or worse. On the face of it, Frodo got very lucky several times.

This brings us into touch with another baffling aspect of Christian theology. Dogmatically, the Christian god is supposed to be omnipotent, i.e. capable of doing anything he likes, and also fundamentally completely good. The problem with this is obvious: if god is able and willing to stop evil, then why doesn't he do so? Even a casual acquaintance with the world we live in will clearly demonstrate that god is not, in fact, reaching down from the clouds to prevent evil. The experience of everyday life, let alone history, seem to decisively disprove some of the central tenets of Christianity.

To get around this massive flaw in their belief system, Christians through the ages have come up with a variety of excuses. There are two main variants. One will maintain that god does, in fact, intervene in the world and guide it, and that everything does, in fact, turn out for the best. This is obviously a massively privileged viewpoint that can only be held by people largely isolated from any real hardship. Voltaire lampooned it mercilessly in Candide. The more popular kind, which dominates modern apologetics, is to set up a convoluted chain of reasoning that maintains that god is simultaneously omnipotent, but restricted in his dealings with the created world. This is logically senseless, but that never stopped a theologian.

Both lines of apologetic thought end up maintaining that god intervenes in subtle ways to guide events to a good outcome. This is the concept of providence, which Tolkien certainly believed in. It creates an apologetically satisfying situation where believers can confidently maintain that when something lucky happens, god was looking out for them, but cheerfully shrug their shoulders at the most horrific evil, because you know, just because god is omnipotent doesn't mean he can do anything. Also, he's still super pissed that a lady ate some fruit once.

This is what Gildor has to say about his chance meeting with Frodo:

The Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures upon earth. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance or purpose. In this meeting there may be more than chance; but the purpose is not clear to me, and I fear to say too much.

This will be a constant refrain in the story: something seems to happen by luck, and someone questions if it was luck at all, without quite directly suggesting providence, but making it pretty clear. Here's an unusually direct attribution by Gandalf, discussing how Bilbo happened to find the Ring:

Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were also meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.

Didactic italics in the original. That's pretty much as close as Tolkien comes to outright saying that god, Eru in Middle-earth, is stacking the deck in favor of our heroes. So in Tolkien's theology, whenever something improbable but lucky happens, it's fair to say that we're meant to interpret it as providence. You might think that if god is willing to directly intervene in the events of the world, he might have done a bit more than turn aside a few Black Riders and save everyone a whole lot of trouble, but these are dangerous theological questions, and as a good Christian Tolkien didn't ask them.

Luckily, we're not told that Eru actually is omnipotent, so if we're not interested in reading the Lord of the Rings as a Christian work, we can simply accept that maybe the way god works in Middle-earth is through these little nudges, and that's all he can do. Or that they really are just blind luck. To me, again, the strength of Tolkien's stories as opposed to, for instance, the Narnia books, is that we can reject his religious framework entirely and they still make sense. In this case, in fact, much more sense.


An impatient reader, constantly skipping ahead to dialogue or action, won't make much of this chapter: sure, there is an unnerving scene with a Black Rider and a conversation of some import with Gildor, but mostly it's hobbits walking around in a forest. On a closer reading, though, this is pretty good stuff. I'm still a big fan of Tolkien's descriptive writing, especially of the way he writes the landscape. The Shire is compellingly beautiful in an understated way, and when seen through Frodo's eyes the bittersweet nostalgia is tangible. There are the lovely little touches like the fox and the hollow oak. This chapter succesfully takes us through a variety of moods: the nervous anxiety of waiting for Gandalf is powerful, as is the way the simple delight of walking through the idealized countryside of the Shire starts to turn into fear as the Black Riders arrive on the scene. Finally, the arrival of the elves lifts the scope of the story to starlight, Elbereth and the wider Tolkien mythos, and gives Frodo a moment of reflection with Gildor. Thematically, this all takes us further away from the initial image of the Shire as a paradise, as we follow Frodo's gradual alienation from his homeland.

Next time: shrooms.