Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Two Denethors

Of the differences between the novel and Peter Jackson's three films there are only a few that can really be considered dangerous. It's not really a big deal that Eomer was exiled in the film and not thrown in prison as he was in the book, and the fact that we skip over Old Man Willow and Tom Bombadil is disappointing but shruggable. But the need for Jackson and his two fellow scriptwriters to emphasize Aragorn-the-hero at the expense of, well, just about every other potentially heroic figure in the movie has meant that some of Tolkien's characters would sue for libel if, you know, they weren't fictional.

Denethor may have the strongest case.

The Denethor of the film has no redeeming features. From the moment we see his disheveled and haggard face peering out at us through bad hair, we dislike him. He rants, he spits, and if you bother to think about it you see pretty clearly that he is batshit insane. He not only denies help when it is offered, he refuses to request aid from the only people that could possibly save him -- the Riders of Rohan. He sends his elder son on a power grab for the Ring and his younger son on a suicide mission, and he does it all while ordering Pippin to sing. Oh, and he's a messy eater. A slob, really. The Steward of Gondor is a slob.

When he finally turns himself into a staggering bonfire, we hear Sir Ian intone, "So passes Denethor, of the line of Ecthelion," but what we're really thinking is, "That GOD that stupid-ass dude is dead; let's see more frickin' mastodons!"

Look now to the Denethor that Tolkien depicts for us.

Then the old man looked up. Pippin saw his carven face with its proud bones and skin like ivory, and the long curved nose between the dark deep eyes; and he was reminded not so much of Boromir as of Aragorn. -- "Minas Tirith"

Denethor is physically supposed to remind us of Aragorn; he has strong Dunedain blood, like Faramir and Prince Imrahil, but unlike Boromir, his eldest son. But if he is of the Dunedain, then why is he an "old man" at the age of merely 78? We learn in the Appendices to LotR that Denethor aged early because of his frequent use of the palantir, which unbeknownst to him was utterly under the command of Sauron, and because of this whenever Denethor looked in the palantir he was allowed only to see those things which Sauron allowed him to see. Thus, he saw armies growing always and beyond hope of defeat. And although he felt that there could be no victory against this foe, yet he was determined to fight it, and in this his body and mind fell to despair.

Many fans of Jackson's Return of the King recall the song Pippin sings for the Steward; a song the actor wrote himself the night before the scene was shot, so rushed were the scriptwriters at that time. In the novel, Denethor does reassure Pippin that his happy hobbit songs would be welcome:

'And why should such songs be unfit for my halls, or for such hours as these? We who have long lived under the Shadow may surely listen to echoes from a land untroubled by it? Then we may feel that our vigil was not fruitless, though it may have been thankless.' -- "The Siege of Gondor"

But in fact, Denethor does not command Pippin to sing at all. Instead, he questions him intensely on the people of Rohan and especially Eomer, though he seems to already know all the answers to his own questions. This is because he has been looking west with the Palantir, and knows much that has gone on there already. But my point here is just that, rather than getting fruit juice all over his face and listening to questionable songs while his son Faramir goes off on a suicide mission, Denethor actually spends this time gathering intelligence on a possible ally.

Oh, and it is worth pointing out here that in the novel the forces of Gondor still held their side of the river in Osgiliath when Faramir was sent to reinforce it, so although the mission was certainly perilous, it was not the certain death it is made out to be in the film. When Faramir and his men retreat to Minas Tirith, Denethor orders a sortie from the walls which allows Faramir to be brought -- injured -- inside.

Because Denethor may look old, and he may spend a lot of his time sitting around planning, but he is also resolved to spending the rest of his life in battle with Sauron.

'Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons? For I can still wield a brand.'

He stood up and cast open his long black cloak, and behold! he was clad in mail beneath, and girt with a long sword, great-hilted in a sheath of black and silver. 'Thus have I walked, and thus now for many years have I slept,' he said, 'lest with age the body should grow soft and timid.' -- The Seige of Gondor

Denethor sleeps with his sword and armor on so that he will never allow his body to grow too weak to fight. Can you imagine a bigger contrast to the raving kook of Jackson's film?

But I'm not done yet, because the strength of Denethor was not in his body. It was in his mind. His will is stern enough that he can do mental battle with no less than Gandalf himself, though against Gandalf the White he cannot hope but prove the weaker. This very interesting scene, in which Denethor and Gandalf both literally read each other's mind in a kind of psychic struggle, takes place in the chapter "Minas Tirith."

He turned his dark eyes on Gandalf, and now Pippin saw a likeness between the two, and he felt the strain between them, almost as if he saw a line of smoldering fire, drawn from eye to eye, that might suddenly burst into flame.

Denethor looked indeed much more like a great wizard than Gandalf did, more kingly, beautiful, and powerful; and older. ... And then [Pippin's] musings broke off, and he saw that Denethor and Gandalf still looked each other in the eye, as if reading the other's mind. But it was Denethor who first withdrew his gaze.

The Steward of Gondor is indeed mad by this time -- but his madness is a subtle madness that none save Gandalf and Pippin understand, and they only at the end. Denethor has used the palantir to see Sauron's ever-increasing strength, and he has decided the fight is unwinnable, but still he resolves to fight it. He comes to see Sauron as his own personal nemesis, and he is willing to sacrifice anything and everything to defeat that Enemy, even if it requires sacrificing his own sons. He lights the bonfires that send word north. He sends the Red Arrow to Theoden to remind the King of Rohan of his obligation. He calls up every available man from the southern provinces of Gondor. But few come to his call. Denethor only finally loses hope when he perceives that Faramir is going to die, and when the palantir shows him a fleet with black sails coming up the river from the south. This is actually Aragorn's fleet, but Sauron does not allow Denethor to see that, and the Steward knows he cannot fight an army of Southrons in addition to those forces already present. And of course, he knows nothing of Frodo's mission, so has no cause to hope, unlike Theoden, who learns of that small hope from Gandalf.

And that may be the best way to see Denethor, after all this: he is Theoden, un-saved. He is 'What if Theoden had not been freed from Grima's whisperings, and had fallen completely into despair.' Still a great man, indeed one of the greatest of Middle-earth ... but no match for Sauron, the Enemy he had chosen to oppose single-handedly.


The first time I read Lord of the Rings, I thought Merry was a girl. Hey, I was eight years old! And Merry sounds like a girl's name! Homonyms were, apparently, beyond me. I remember noticing that they used "he" a lot when referring to her, but hey, that must be wrong because, well, isn't Merry a GIRL?

I also have a steel belt buckle that read BILBO. My Dad made it for me. The belt it was made for no longer fits, needless to say, but that buckle could stop a frickin' bullet, it is that thick.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Middle-earth Thieves' World Cage Match

It is not really surprising that so many people come to Middle-earth, and LotRO, intent on playing dark, brooding, sell-swords who would as soon stab you in the back as look at you. These "dark and gritty" anti-heroes are the bread and butter of late 20th century fantasy fiction, and when I single out "Thieves World" as the best example I really do mean it as a point of distinction. There are only so many dark elf assassins that one man can take, and the fact that they wear their knives under black cloaks instead of trenchcoats doesn't make them any less trendy or overdone. It can be done well, as Thieves World (irregularly) attests, but these sorts of characters and themes are utterly at odds with Tolkien's setting.

When there's a shady character watching you from the corner of the Vulgar Unicorn, you can bet that he's sizing you up as an easy mark, and he's probably going to signal his three buddies waiting outside to jump you as soon as you go outside to take a piss. But when a shady character watches you from the corner of the Prancing Pony, he turns out to be the Heir of Isildur, the one hope for the restoration of the Kingdom of Gondor and Arnor. In Thieves' World, that guy watching you will be wearing a ring stolen off a southern bandit which poisons you with a touch, or which protects him from the dozen magical spells you could hurl at him to defend yourself; "Strider" is wearing a ring which is thousands of years old, which has been passed down from father to son through all the kings of the North, and which has no magical powers whatsoever. The cutpurse watching you in Sanctuary has a dozen knives of varying length hidden in every concievable body cavity; Aragorn is armed only with a sword that is broken in half.

Clearly, this is not your Daddy's fantasy fiction. What is going on here?

Tolkien's heroes are grand; the protagonists in the "realistic" fantasy fiction that has come since are identifiable by their smallness. They are ordinary people in (relatively) ordinary situations. Sure, they rub shoulders with orcs, ogres, and sadistic see-in-the-dark drow, but even these strange situations seldom seem noteworthy or unusual. While the heroes of Middle-earth are constantly amazed, horrified, and even intrigued by the fantastic things they come across, the veterans of the Vulgar Unicorn exist in a permanently jaded state. Nothing impresses them, nothing scares them, nothing prevents them from tossing off some sarcastic quip or noting how ironic this whole questing thing is, if you think about it.

It is easy to see why players try to make these common man heroes in Middle-earth. In some respects, Frodo himself is a very ordinary person. Indeed, all the Hobbits are pretty ordinary, and that is what makes them such great protagonists. But even Meriadoc was the heir to Brandybuck Hall, and Pippin was the eldest son of the ruler of the Took family. The closest thing you have to a common man hero in LotR is Sam ... and Sam is as pure of heart, just, and good, as any hero of any fairy tale ever written. We're talking about a guy who talks to his pony, for chrissakes, who kisses his master's hand and weeps once a chapter. There aren't many players out there who really want to make a character with the virtues of Samwise Gamgee. He's a great partner for Frodo on the Ring Quest, but when it comes to playable PCs we're really looking at people like Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf, and the late, great, Boromir. Grand, all of them. With ancient pedigrees and momentous quests. They are great men -- and as Boromir shows us, great even in their failings.

There are a few tragic heroes in Middle-earth, but bad things happen to them despite their heroic deeds, not because of their awful ones. Turin has sex with his sister, but unlike the Byronic heroes which modern anti-heroes are the grandsons of, he didn't know it at the time. The tragic anti-heroes that an alarming number of people bring to LotRO owe more to the bloodcurdling fantasy of Elric than to Tolkien. And it is beneficial at this point to recall that when he set out to write his fantasy epics, Moorcock explicitly sought to write something not at all like Tolkien. Indeed, as anti-Tolkien as possible. And it is from he that all those poison-wielding, sadistic, but oh-so-elegant and magically potent elves derive.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. And when you walk the road that goes ever on to Middle-earth, give up the smart-ass, Han Solo everyman characters that have become so much a symbol of postmodern fantasy and instead play by the rules of the setting. Embrace the great, grand, nature of these characters. Imagine someone bigger than yourself. Someone whose past is measured not in inglorious tavern brawls and knives in the dark, but in unrelenting bravery against a foe which is ultimately greater than he. For Tolkien's setting may not be petty, but it is still dark and depressing in its way -- the whole world sliding down into darkness from which no force mortal or elf can save it, and those players who shun Tolkien's setting because they think it too happy, too "bright and cheerful," are as innocent and ignorant as those pie-eating shirefolk.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Of Galadriel, the Teleri, and Swans

[Notes on continuing research]

Olwe was the king of the Teleri who came last to Aman and dwelled in Tol Eressea before coming to Alqualonde, the Haven of the Swans, on the east coast of Aman.

Olwe had one daughter, Earwen, who married the Noldo prince Finarfin, son of Finwe and half-brother of Feanor. It is also said he had sons, but their names are not recorded.

Galadriel, of whom so much is written elsewhere, was the last child and only daughter of this marriage of Finarfin and Earwen, so that she was of the Noldor on her father's side, but the Teleri on her mother's.

Thus we see that the massacre of the Kinslaying at Alqualonde would have been particularly hurtful for her, since these were her mother's kin.

Likewise, we now suddenly see why Galadriel appears to the Fellowship in a ship shaped like a swan -- the swan ships of the Teleri were legendary. It was some of these ships which were taken by Feanor and eventually burnt when he reached Middle-earth, and it was swan-ships which took the Teleri from Tol Eressea to Aman, in that case pulled by actual swans, the Swans of Osse, which appear to be a magical race akin to Eagles.

The connection yet to be made is the one from Galadriel to Dol Amroth, which bore the swan upon their standard. However, we do know that Galadriel resided for a time in the Elf Haven of Edhellond only 50 miles north of Dol Amroth, leaving that place for Lorien upon Amroth's death.

The Swan-Blade

I continue to research Imraheth's sword, the Swan-Blade, known later in Sindarin as Alfcrist. I discovered last night while in very enjoyable RP with several of my fellow Arrows that the sword was forged by the Teleri in Alqualonde and taken from them by the Noldor.

I learn this morning in research that the Teleri were esteemed even by the Noldor for their work with silver, and that Tolkien credits them with being the greatest silversmiths in Aman. So, the Swan-Sword is made of silver.

But Alfcrist of course is a Sindarin name, and the Teleri would have called it something different, for they knew not Sindarin and would have christened the sword in their own language. Fortunately, there is a wonderful article on Teleri at sindanoorie. There, I learn that a) the Teleri would put adjectives after the noun, b) that the word for Swan was "alpa" and c) that "lanca" was the word for an edge, specifically an edge crafted by hand or in nature, like a cliff.

So in Telerin the sword was Lancalpa, the Swan-Blade, though it might also be considered the Cliff-Swan. This may appear nonsensical, but it will be remembered that I am portraying Dol Amroth and Belfalas as a place of cliffs overlooking the sea. (Possibly Lancalpio, the Sword of Swans, if I am constructing my genitive plural correctly. And while we're on variations, if the Teleri name used lanc shouldn't the Sindarin use lang, meaning sword or cutlass, to get Alflang?)

Alfcrist's history continues to evolve. Fortunately, I was saved by another player last night before I had to say where the sword is now or why Imraheth does not have it! Thank goodness for a mopey Noldo with a memory of the kinslaying!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Race Race

Time for some totally unfounded and idle speculation on the future of LotR. Well, maybe not totally unfounded. I believe the developers have Dunedain, and possibly even Noldor, planned as races which players will be able to "unlock." While I have wondered about such a possibility since I came to the game, it was ony over the last few days that I began to see signs it may be true.

My evidence, such as it is, is very circumstantial and is based on the fact that two regions seem likely to open up which would be excellent Newbie Areas for those races. That is, all the current races in LotRO start off in their own area -- the Shire, Archet, Thorin's Halls, what have you. And there are indications that the developers are working on a settlement in north Eriador where the Dunedain hide out and store their lore. This would be the place Aragorn's mother went to after her son was born, and where he visited her before her death. The corresponding Elf region is, of course, the Grey Havens, which are located on the Eriador map but which we cannot yet reach thanks to swarms of Goblins and intimidating walls.

I understand that unlockable classes did very poorly in Star Wars Galaxies, where Jedi have become so common that the setting has been strained beyond the breaking point. (If it is any consolation, everyone wants to play Jedi in the tabletop game too. I doubt the new "Saga Edition" of the SWRPG will do anything to change that.) But in other games, and I am thinking specifically of City of Heroes here, unlockable race/classes have been implemented successfully.

The folks at CoH created an alien race (two of them actually) which had the ability to shift from one role to another -- this was their primary advantage. So a Khledian could be a tank or a blaster or what have you, depending on need. However, where the game designers made an error with these races was by making them measurably better in a fight than their non-alien counterparts, and balancing this out with special villains who only appeared when one of these aliens was on the team. I never agreed with this policy and still don't -- it makes the Kheldian into the center of attention as everyone on the team has to target that one special bad guy. I am all for allowing players more flexibility, but I am not for allowing them more power.

One other thing the designers at CoH did right was that the Kheldians actually gain more power when they have non-aliens in their group. This encourages the alien players to group with ordinary players, and discourages the "All-Alien Alliance" of snobs who refuse to play with anyone else. Of course, the alien characters also had some new game content -- new missions which other players could not get to. Not an overwhelming amount, but a steady quest line which could take a player through a satisfying portion of each character level. To unlock these classes, the CoH player had to reach 50th level (the game maximum) on an ordinary character. This usually took about 6 months to a year for roleplayers, though power-leveling techniques can no doubt accomplish it much faster.

So unlockable races can be done successfully. What remains to be decided is what form those races might take.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How Can A Language Be "Dead" If It Was Never Alive To Begin With?

The fine people at Sindanorie have used Tolkien's languages to write original poetry, translate lines given in English by Tolkien into Sindarin, and create things like Elvish haiku. Go! Refresh yourself in the emo-heaven that is Elvish poetry! And remember:

Minniel arthon ere, gwannathon os-san ereb.
Having entered the world in loneliness, lonely I shall depart from it.


A promising article on swans as depicted in Middle-earth. Hm, "swan-blade" sounds even cooler than Crist-en-Falas, the Sword of the Coast. (Translated from the Sindarin for those of you who are giving out cookies.)

"Alfcrist! Alfcrist for the Prince!"

The Divisions of the Elven Kind

One of my kinsmen in the House of Feanor asked, on the traditional "Tolkien Q&A" thread, about the different kinds of Elves in Tolkien's setting. What is the difference between Eldar, Noldor, and Sindar, etc? What other kinds of Elves are there?

I did not have the complete answer off the top of my head, but some research brought it to the surface and other players making Elf characters -- and who don't have a reading of the Silmarillion to their credit -- may find it useful.

Just click the title to be taken to the post on the House of Feanor forums.

Tolkien on Captains, Banners, and the Lore

From the day I came to the game, I could not help but notice the fight going on in the Captain forum. I had intended to play a Captain, but the forum was filled with people who were complaining about how broken the class was, how it was no fun to play, etc etc ad infinitum. It convinced me to play a Guardian which, whatever else you could say about it, at least had the most hit points and best armor. I figured I was less likely to die that way.

Part of the issue for these digruntled Captain players is the Herald, which some insist takes the focus away from the Captain himself and is inappropriate to the lore. These people usually go on about all the "fixes" they want made to the class. In Alpha, Captains carried their own banners, and this is usually the sign of a disgruntled Captain player: they want to get rid of the Herald. To make things more complicated, the Captain has always been prone to confusing players who are not exactly sure what he is supposed to do. Is he a tank? A DPS guy? A healer? What?

So in the last weeks of the Beta forums Tens, a dev responsible for overseeing the Captain class, posted what he saw the role of the class being. In that post, he noted firmly that the Herald was here to stay. He also suggested that if you wanted to argue that the lore did not support Heralds, you could do that in another thread.

So I did. But I did not argue that the lore did not support the Herald. On the contrary, a close reading of the novel reveals that if you have banners in the game, the only appropriate way to do that according to the lore is to have someone other than the Captain carrying them.

Read, and know that everyone screaming that the Herald was not in lore pretty much shut up by the time I was done. Nice to know I can silence a room when I need to.

Click the title to be taken to an archive of the post, which was erased from the forums when the Beta went down.

Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda

I first wrote this exploration of Aragorn <3 Eowyn for the official LotRO forums. Exploring ideas like this really spins my motor, and I admit I was a little disappointed I did not get much response. Part of this is due to the nature of the turbine forums -- Roleplayers tend to hang out on that forum, and the Tolkien category is something of a bastard step-child.

But I digress. Click the title for some hot Dunedain-Rohirrim action.

Monday, April 16, 2007

In My Own Defense

The reason I like Lord of the Rings Online is because it scratched my brain. There are a great many computer games to choose from, but what makes this one stand out to me is that it is fundamentally literary. As a game based on a couple of books, it rewards those who read, study, and analyze literature. That description could also apply to, oh, the Jane Austen Online MMO, but by happy chance LotRO happens to be based on books which are also examples of imaginative adventure fiction, which means that when you want a break from your reading you can run out and kill some barrow-wights and loot their stuff.

I've been a part of LotRO since Closed Beta. I joined about a week after their first stress test, which I avoided because it coincided with a "double XP weekend" on City of Heroes, my previous vice. Joining when I did allowed me to learn much about how the game plays at the low and mid levels, and I was very impressed with the degree of fidelity which the game designers had to Tolkien's work. On the day that Open Beta began, I created Imraheth, Captain of Dol Amroth, and I founded the Red Arrows, a group of roleplayers known on the game as a "kinship." (I know such groups are called guilds on other games, but those are games I do not play.)

Since that time the Arrows have grown to almost 50 members, and I have made a second character -- Eldiriel, "Maiden who watches the stars" -- to join a kinship called the House of Feanor. Technically, I have created a total of five characters but the rest have yet to see play. I made them chiefly because I wanted to reserve their names: Idis, Frana, and Vestri. Not particularly noteworthy names? Perhaps.

I have been modestly active on the official Lord of the Rings forums; when I do post a new thread it tends to be something I have done a lot of research on. I do not claim to be a master of Tolkien's world -- when the GM staff ran a trivia contest to commemorate the end of Closed Beta I was surprised at how many I got wrong -- but where I do stand apart is in my willingness to actually crack a book open to figure out the answer to a question. When the only tool you have is Google, every problem starts to look like an empty search bar; but good old fashioned research has allowed me to solve problems while also learning about context, style, and sources. I've been glad of this.

In the days and weeks to come, we will go many places, you and I. We will walk the cliffs of Dol Amroth, and the ruined Elf Haven of Edhellond. The shade of Greenwood the Great will cover our heads, and the Horn of Helm Hammerhand will be heard in the Deep. From the shores of Aman to the Sea of Rhun, with guides as strange to one another as Pukel-men and Blue Wizards, we will explore Middle-earth, the virtual paths of online play, and perhaps, if I am weak, some elements of my personal life.

Now you know why I called this "the Long Defeat."