Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tolkien's Lilith

In all of Tolkien’s novels, in his work on the Silmarillion and its unpublished relations, there are only three wicked women – and two of them are giant spiders. (We will get back to the third, Thuringwethil.) A pass through the legendarium reveals a great many women of virtue and character: not just Arwen, Eowyn, Rosie Cotton and Galadriel, but also Luthien, Melian, Varda, and more. And if we are looking for masculine villains, we have not just the obvious Sauron, Saruman, and Wormtongue, but also people like Dior and Maeglin, or even the morally ambiguous Feanor. Such ambiguity is allowed for men and male elves in Middle-earth, but if you are female you are either Good or a Giant Spider. Spiders are the Wicked Women in Tolkien’s writing.

Most of us know Ungoliant from the Silmarillion, but it is important to note that the version of the tale presented in that book is neither the earliest nor latest revision of that story. Rather, it is simply the version that Christopher Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay, his co-editor (whose wonderful fantasy novels quickly emerged from Tolkien’s shadow into sublime art of their own) chose to go with. Many questions left unanswered in the published story can be resolved if we look to the unpublished manuscripts. In particular, Morgoth’s Ring, the History of Middle-earth volume X is the center of the web when it comes to Ungoliant, Tolkien’s oldest, blackest, and most wicked of stepmothers.

Ungoliant began as one of the Ainur, the immortal spirits which include the Valar and Maiar. The Maiar are traditionally broken up by the Vala whom they served, and the safe bet is that Ungoliant was a servant of Melkor (whom Tolkien initially calls “her master”), but a very interesting possibility I would like to take credit for – but cannot – is that she served Vaire the spouse of Mandos. Vaire is a Norn-like goddess who spins: “who weaves all things that have ever been in Time into her storied webs, and the halls of Mandos that ever widen as the ages pass are clothed with them.” Considering the way in which Maiar tend to mimic the philosophies and practices of their masters (so that Sauron, like Aule, was a smith), Vaire seems an excellent progenitor for the spider-demon.

Regardless of her original house, Ungoliant was a servant of Melkor when she descended into the world and took upon herself the form of “a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains.” But she did not long serve him, and swiftly struck out on her own. She went to the south of Aman, where she dwelt for a long while when the world was lit only with the Two Trees, and the Valar seemed to have left her alone not out of mercy, but out of ignorance, since their eyes were always on the north where the Eldar dwelt and where their cities and monuments had been built. A creature of darkness and never-ending hunger, she hated light but also fed upon it – “she sucked up all light that she could find” – and when she did she cast it back out again in the form of “dark nets of strangling gloom,” or as a vomit that was darkness. “She belched forth black vapours” that were not merely darkness but “Unlight… a Darkness that seemed not a lack but a thing with being of its own … and it had the power to pierce the eye, and to enter heart and mind, and strangle the very will.” This was some vile stuff – quite literally Darkness-with-a-capital-D.

Melkor’s plan to capture the Silmarills involved Ungoliant, and he recruits her through a combination of threats and bribery. He even puts some of his own power into her, to make her more of a threat – something that would (if you will pardon the spider-pun) come back to bite him later on. There are differing versions of Melkor’s scheme; in Silmarillion, Melkor brings Ungoliant to the Two Trees, which he wounds and she poisons. Then, under cover of this new darkness and with Ungoliant waxing in power thanks to her meal, they break into the vaults of the Noldor, kill King Finwe (the first elf to ever die), and steal all the jewels there including the Silmarills. The other, later, version of the story – published in Morgoth’s Ring – casts Melkor as a more manipulative and smarter villain. He does not bring Ungoliant to the Trees, but instead uses her as a distraction and lets her destroy the Two Trees alone. While she is doing that, he is stealing the Silmarills, something he never expected Ungoliant to come anywhere near. Having loosed the demon spider on the Two Trees, Melkor had a perfect cover for his own villainous deeds and prompt escape. But she catches up to him before he reaches the vaults, and so she learns of the jewels of the Noldor despite Melkor’s plans.

Whichever version you are reading, the pair flee over the Helcaraxe, and Ungoliant’s Unlight is so great that even Tulkas the great warrior of the Valar, “was as one caught in a black net at night, and he stood powerless and beat the air in vain.” This is the same Tulkas that kicked Melkor around the block a time or two before now, but Ungoliant was not yet done. By now she has become so huge, so vast in her power and darkness that she no longer calls Melkor “Master.” She knows he is going to try to ditch her and, like a bad date, she refuses to get ditched. “All her eyes were on him,” we are told and finally she demands to be fed. He grudgingly gives her all the jewels from the Noldor – these would be elven jewels which, after their crafting by smiths would be glowing with inner light. She eats them all, and becomes even greater.

But she is still hungry and demands the metal casket which Melkor is keeping in his right hand. These, of course, are the Silmarills and their holiness is burning Melkor’s hand, but he will not give them over. Ungoliant attacks him and is about to kill him when balrogs who have been hiding nearby for many years hear his screams of panic and come to his rescue. Whips of flame are enough to drive Ungoliant away and she goes south again – this time far to the south of Middle-earth, off the map we have from Lord of the Rings. There, she continued to breed, eat, and make her webs until she had eaten everything she could reach and, like the hero of a bad Stephen King story, she finally eats herself.

Ungoliant’s personality is defined by two forces: lust and fear, eternally at war. Her fear is not unusual – every evil creature in Middle-earth is terribly afraid, even if they often seem otherwise. Orcs cower and cringe from their masters, Sauron is constantly afraid the One Ring shall be turned against him, and even Morgoth becomes so enslaved by fear that he refuses to leave his castle for centuries, lest someone come give him a good thrashing. Ungoliant’s fear manifests in her cowardly hiding, something very appropriate to the spider form that she did, after all, choose for herself. When Melkor comes to recruit Ungoliant, the conversation is not printed in Silmarillion, but we can read it in Morgoth’s Ring and it is fear that makes her hesitate – fear not just of the Valar but also of Melkor, whom she tried to escape by fleeing south.

But there is one force greater than Ungoliant’s fear, and that is her lust. To us, this word is about sex, and that may be going on here in a covert way, but ostensibly what Tolkien means when he says “lust” is hunger – the desire to consume. Melkor tries to bully her into helping him, but this attempt to play on her fear is not successful; it is only when he bribes her with glowing elf-jewels that Ungoliant crawls from her cave and again calls him “Master.” Tolkien reiterates Ungoliant’s lust at every opportunity – it was to be “mistress of her own lust” that she left Melkor in the first place. He promises to pay her “whatever your lust demands,” and when she drinks from the Two Trees she “swelled to a shape more huge and hideous than even her own lustful dream had ever hoped to achieve.” On the surface, this is lust-as-hunger. But I think we should be careful before dismissing the argument that when Tolkien writes “lust,” he means, well, lust.

You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to find the monstrous sexual themes of Ungoliant. She’s a perverted mother, breeding with her own children, eating her mates, and creating endless horrific spawn. Her home is the dark cave, and when she jumps Morgoth she enfolds him, wraps herself around him and makes him powerless. She is the vagina dentate, that both spawns and devours, vomiting out her Darkness like some nasty afterbirth. People should give Tolkien more credit as a horror writer.

Although there are vampires in Middle-earth (I know, I said we would get back to Thuringwethil; I lied) there’s definitely something vampiric about Ungoliant the spider. For one thing, she doesn’t eat, she sucks. And when she does, she drains the light/life of her victim into herself, becoming greater. This is the scene from Morgoth’s Ring when she attacks the Two Trees. Tell me this isn’t vampiric.

"Then with her black beak she pierced their rind, wounded them deep; and their juices gushed forth and she drank them up. But when no more flowed she set her mouth to the wounds, and sucked their tissues and wounded them, root, branch, and leaf, and they died."

We may as well write “Ungoliant sucks root” on the bathroom wall of the Prancing Pony.

Individually, all of these elements make Ungoliant a wickedly sweet villain, someone who can give us the epic heebie-jeebies. But taken together, they remind me of someone else: the Biblical demon mother Lilith. Now, Lilith has quite a modern history of her own and it is important to remember Tolkien is writing in the 1940s and 50s, long before Anne Rice and Mark Rein-dot-Hagen. Tolkien’s Lilith is the Judaic first wife of Adam, whose refusal to be on the bottom became a morality tale meant to instruct women on their proper place in society (that place being: on the bottom). Cast out by God, Lilith became the mother of a vast brood of monsters, a dweller in darkness who – by the Middle Ages – was bride to the fallen angel Sammael, a devourer of children, and queen over her life-draining vampiric minions, the succubi, lilim and lilitu. Ungoliant serves all these roles, just translated through the Middle-earth lens. Morgoth is both her Adam and her Sammael – the man she leaves, and the man she partners with, finally jumping him in a perverted intercourse complete with web-bondage and whips (albeit whips of flame). Lilith’s monstrous brood become Ungoliant’s unnumbered spawn, and Lilith’s night-dwelling habits (she was called “the screech owl”) manifest in Ungoliant’s ever-present darkness, her need to dwell in shadow while simultaneously hating and hungering for light. And in both Lilith and Ungoliant we have that overpowering lust, that unstoppable corrupting sexual fervour.

And that, my dear Bagginses and Boffins, is why Weavers are still played in the Ettenmoors even though their crowd control sucks. Well, it doesn’t really suck. Unless you’re a Tree. In which case … well. You know where to find their number. You'll call, won't you?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Ah-ooooo! Werewolves of Angmar!

One of the fissures which usually divide LotRO gamers is the one that separates roleplayers from the PvP crowd. On the surface, this schism has some pretty simple and solid grounding: it is very hard to roleplay in the Ettenmoors, especially when you are moving, fighting, or in a raid -- and you're pretty much always moving, fighting, or in a raid. However, beneath the logistics of typing while fighting, there is also a prejudice that says roleplayers are somehow pansies who are more interested in staying out of combat than getting in it.

There are roleplayers in the Moors, and there are more people who are interested in roleplaying there but who are unsure exactly what that would look like. In this, our first segment of PvRPMP, we'll look at Wargs. Why the warg? The warg is a very popular class for first-time monster players because the warg has stealth and a sprint speed, making it easy to avoid action in the Moors when you are nervous about getting jumped. Also, a few wargs can get together into an excellent ambush party -- what we affectionately refer to as a "gank squad." Wargs also appeal to the furry crowd, and are one of the more "monstrous" of the monster play options, allowing veteran players to try something they would not get to do in other games.

No one wants to be told how to roleplay and that's not my goal. Instead of setting borders, let's look at how big the park is, and what landmarks there are.

First off, wargs can talk. (This is especially good for wargs because they already have an excellent howling animation.) This scene comes when the leader of a warg pack has got Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarves caught up in trees:
He spoke to them in the dreadful language of the Wargs. Gandalf understood it. Bilbo did not, but it sounded terrible to him, as if all their talk was about cruel and wicked things, as it was. Every now and then all the Wargs in the circle would answer their grey chief all together, and their dreadful clamour almost made the hobbit fall out of his pine-tree. (The Hobbit, "Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire")
Thus, we can see that not only do Wargs talk, they even have their own language. In the same chapter we learn that Wargs are not domesticated animals. Rather, they are their own people who cooperate with Goblins in matters of war.
The Wargs and the goblins often helped one another in wicked deeds ... Then they [the goblins] often got the Wargs to help and shared the plunder with them. Sometimes they rode on wolves like men do on horses.

Later, in the Battle of Five Armies, some Wargs will turn on their goblin riders and eat them, which just goes to prove that evil sucks.

Now, what are Wargs exactly? The word Warg is Old English, Old Norse, and Old High German, and aside from its wolf meaning "also had the sense of an outlaw or hunted criminal." Tolkien explained he used the word for "this particular brand of demonic wolf" in a letter to fantasy and science fiction author Gene Wolfe, dated 1966. When demon-wolves appear to attack the Fellowship of the Ring on the slopes of the Misty Mountains, nothing is left of their bodies after death:
When the full light of the morning came no sign of the wolves were to be found, and they looked in vain for the bodies of the dead. No trace of the fight remained but the charred trees and the arrows of Legolas lying on the hill-top. ... 'It is as I feared,' said Gandalf. 'These were no ordinary wolves hunting for food in the wilderness....' (Fellowship of the Ring, "A Journey in the Dark")
Gandalf's fears are hinted at earlier, in the actual fight with the wolves, when he resists them with an incantation that summons fire. In that incantation he uses the word ngaurhoth, which is "Werewolves." The werewolves of Middle-earth are not the shapeshifters we have been conditioned to expect. Instead, they are demons in the form of wolves; their relationship to Wargs proper is not clear, but presumably Wargs are the weaker descendants of true Werewolves, which must be exceedingly rare by the end of the Third Age.

Werewolves have a long and vicious history in Middle-earth; the oldest one we know of was named Draugluin. He was "sire of the werewolves of Angband," where Morgoth and Sauron holed up for the First Age. "A dread beast, old in evil," he was nevertheless killed by Huan, the Hound of the Gods. Sauron himself was so enamoured of werewolves that he was called "Lord of Werewolves" for much of the First Age and kept many of them as servants. In his own effort to kill Huan, he adopted the shape of a werewolf, but Huan bested him. As per the rules of shapeshifters in Middle-earth, once Sauron's werewolf form had been destroyed, he was never again able to adopt it. The most famous werewolf of all was Carcharoth, the "Red Maw." Carcharoth bit off Beren's hand and swallowed a Silmaril; the fire of the holy jewel drove Carcharoth mad and he ate Man, Elf, and Orc in a rampage around Beleriand until eventually half the heroes alive had to band together to slay him.

From all of this, we can make some broad generalizations about what Wargs are and where they come from. The first werewolves, as "demons," must have been Ainur: lesser immortal spirits like Sauron or the Balrogs. They descended into Middle-earth and adopted wolf shape. Countless generations of interbreeding -- and their own ever-weakening power -- resulted in the breed of intelligent demon wolves called Wargs. Ordinary Wargs bleed and leave their corpses behind -- but the bodies of true Werewolves vanish with the sunlight. It is logical to presume that Werewolves continue to serve and even worship Sauron, Lord of Werewolves. Wargs on the other hand, far more numerous and common, are left more or less alone to do whatever evil they come across. Sauron does not try to control Warg packs directly; rare Werewolves are at his service instead.

When we go to make our monster characters, we're clearly told that our wolf-demons are "Wargs," and not werewolves, but if even a wizard has a hard time telling the difference, then nothing prevents us from playing either sort. Those who want to make a character with a long history, perhaps stretching as far back as the First Age, can do that using this mechanism. Your Warg is not a Warg at all, but actually a Werewolf, perhaps an old servant of Sauron back in Angband or Beleriand. You made it through the War of Wrath and somehow survived the sinking of the land. You may have an excellent dog-paddle. In the centuries that followed you may have hung out in Mirkwood around Dol Guldur, or kept a long vigil for your master while he was imprisoned in Numenor. Now that Sauron has openly declared himself in Mordor, you're as happy as an immortal demon in wolf-shape can be: you have Dunedain and Hobbits to kill, and once again you have a chance to taste Elf-flesh. However, you are much fallen from your original stature. The years may weigh heavily on you; much of your strength has gone, given out to hordes of demonic wolf cubs which you have inflicted on the world. A shadow of your former self, your life is one of cruelty, misery, and pain. Your joints ache. Your teeth hurt. But you still have it where it counts because your heart is black as pitch.

When Luthien needed to disguise her boyfriend Beren, she gave him the appearance of Draugluin the Werewolf; she did this using his skin and some good old fashioned song-magic:
By the counsel of Huan and the arts of Luthien he was arrayed now in the hame of Draugluin, and she in the winged fell of Thuringwethil. Beren became in all things like a werewolf to look upon, save that in his eyes there shone a spirit grim indeed but clean; and horror was in his glance as he saw upon his flank a bat-like creature clinging with creased wings. Then howling under the moon he leaped down the hill, and the bat wheeled and flittered above him. ("Of Beren and Luthien," The Silmarillion)
This is a great example of how shape-shifting may be explained for our own characters, at least those with ancient ties. Thuringwethil was not a vampire, but she was wont to adopt the shape of a bat when she wanted to, and Luthien mimics her trick in this passage. This suggests another type of character we might play: neither a Warg nor a Werewolf, but what the developers call "Ancient Evil": a lesser spirit of the Elder Days which, through magic, can adopt the form of a wolf for special occasions. (Like, say, Creeping.) These characters would have a more humanoid shape, and that shape might even be pleasing to the eye as Sauron sometimes was. But they probably have some item of apparel -- a wolf-skin is traditional -- which they can put on and, in so doing, adopt the form of a Warg. In this way, you can have your cake and eat it too. You can run with the pack as a Warg, but you can always slip off to RP opposable thumbs. Like the werewolf, these Ancient Evil would be former servants of Morgoth and Sauron, but they never made the permanent shift to wolf-form. Their powers are still much diminished (it is hard to explain a "mere" 50th level character as a veteran of the First Age without decreasing your power in some rather heavy-handed way) and they probably cannot sire offspring. That is, if you want to have wolf-babies, you have to be a wolf, and that means adopting wolf shape permanently. Ancient Evils who just put on their wolf-cloaks for a little run around TR can return to a non-wolf form when they want to put the moves on, but they can't sire cubs.

In this column, I have attempted to sketch out some basic outlines for Warg characters in the Ettenmoors. Tolkien doesn't really tell us much about them; you can read every line he wrote about Wargs in an hour. But we can see some important things right away: Wargs are not animals. They talk and have a society of sorts. They are descended from older and more powerful wolf-demons called Werewolves. And if you don't want to limit yourself to four-legged RP (there's a naughty joke here, but I am passing over it with unusual restraint) you can even play an Ancient Evil who dons a wolf-cloak every evening to get some exercize.

Just watch those hobbit-toes. They go straight to your hips.