On Tolkien, Old Friends, and the Resiliency of Magic

This post is reblogged from a Magic: The Gathering forum in which I participate. Though it’s relevant to this blog’s interests and themes, consider yourself warned: those who have never slung spells at their friends in a dingy nerd-gaming store may find the following rather arcane.


For reference: orco (Quenya, pl. orcor, orqui) and orch (Sindarin, pl. yrch) are the two most common Elvish words for the servants of Morgoth and later Sauron, in the Common Speech often named “goblins.” Any distinctions between them (orc, goblin, hobgoblin, uruk, etc.) depend strongly on dialect/locality and refer only to variations in size, intelligence, breeding, or superficial features. “Orc” is merely the Westronized (read: Anglicized) form of the Elvish words, and thus can indeed be interchangeable with “goblin” depending on context.

51DVTBCQ4WL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Freshman year of high school I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and so began the rest of my life. I remember one school night sitting in the Maple Grove Barnes & Noble, comparing The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game Core Book and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised Core Rulebook. I had been a fan of Star Wars for a lot longer than Tolkien, but at that point in my life there was no contest. It was a question of, “Will we play both, or will we just play LotR?”

Core rulebooks are expensive. I made the correct choice, and every Friday night onward I was in Stu’s dining room narrating a fellowship of absurdly overpowered heroes through the dangers of Tolkien’s Beleriand. We didn’t understand the rules very well early on, so Stu was routinely decapitating eight orcs with a single swing of his Dwarven axe and my wizard guy collapsed mountainsides to save the company from the minor inconvenience of finding an easier way around.

Subtle and quick to anger, and such.

Then senior year came along, and Magic: The Gathering started to creep into our circle of friends. For some I suppose that should read “started to creep back in,” but I had never played before. I vaguely remembered a bunch of nerds at a certain lunch table every day in middle school slinging their spells at each other, but beyond that I’d had no exposure. I find a lot of memories from high school harder and harder to access these days, but somehow I ended up at the Maple Grove Shinders buying the Elvish Rage and Zombies Unleashed preconstructed decks from Legions. We can partly blame my fondness for tribal decks on Tolkien, and partly on the Onslaught block, the most tribally-oriented bunch of expansions up to that point in Magic’s history.

blastodermMagic and I got off to a rocky start. On the one hand, it was great for spending early mornings in Wahlin’s classroom and avoiding the majority of our graduating class, most of whom I considered to be wankers anyhow. (Some I still do.) Many a time do I remember sliding two of those shamefully cramped desk-chair hybrids together, climbing in across from Stu and praying for a Blastoderm (which I had added to my Elf deck) so I could wreck his mono-red burn. I also enjoyed attending the Shinders Legacy tournaments, though I can’t ever recall doing particularly well until I turned my vanilla zombies into Zombie Clerics and started sacking Dark Supplicant to dig Scion of Darkness out of my library (who generally turns up with a horde of 2/2 Zombie tokens thanks to Rotlung Reanimator). I also had a B/R Dragon Reanimator for a while, which in hindsight I imagine was quite a pile, but could swing for lethal on turn 3 (Dark Ritual –> Buried Alive into Reanimate or Exhume targeting Bladewing the Risen andDragon Tyrant). It also allowed me to play 4x Terminate, which still remains on my shortlist of kick-ass creature removal.

But on the other hand, Magic also started creeping into Friday night LotR RPG, which as Narrator and resident guy-who-likes-Tolkien-so-much-he-learned-to-speak-Elvish I was decidedly not happy about. Roleplaying games are time-consuming affairs, and they require a lot of preparation; folks have to create characters, order pizza, make sure there are approximately 10,000 cans of Mountain Dew in the fridge, and so on.

So those of us not directly involved with LotR preparations camped out at one end of Stu’s massive dining room table and started dealing 20 in the meantime. As you might guess, the Magic-fever was virulently contagious and LotR-night quickly devolved into nine guys sitting around that same table in a massively-multiplayer Mexican standoff.

I’m not saying I didn’t have fun, but in a way Magic was the demise of a Friday night ritual that to this day claims the lion’s share of my favorite memories with the guys I still count as my best friends.

entombBut it was already senior year, and change is the only constant in the universe. The Geek Squad dispersed to their chosen institutions of higher learning, and I dropped out of Magic for a while, returning to it briefly with some guys in college, and again a couple years later when I discovered Reanimator (possibly my favorite pet deck of all time) was stomping the shit out of Legacy after the unbanning of Entomb and by adding blue for (surprise!) Force of Will, Daze, and silly things like Mystical Tutor — which was later banned, largely for the ridiculous ease with which it fetched every single answer AND every combo piece Reanimator cares about.

Several hundred dollars later, I stopped just long of 4x Polluted Delta and just short of 4x Underground Seas when I realized I wasn’t having any fun. A lot of the guys I was playing against at Monster Den in Minneapolis were incorrigible douche-bags, and moreover they spared no expense on their combos, while I simply could not justify paying over 150-200 dollars for a single scrap of cardboard. I was “employed” by AmeriCorps. What had I been thinking?

Luckily Magic cards don’t depreciate, and I recouped a lot of my financial losses and, incidentally, some of my self-respect. There was also the added bonus of getting back in touch with Derek, whom I hadn’t seen very much through my college years. I remember Jack playing some variation of Dead Guy Ale somewhere in there too, and maybe even Stu behind the wheel of Zoo.

Anyway, we tried LotR RPG again here and there, but it’s hard these days to make a game like that stick. People have jobs, people have kids, and some of us have a lot longer journeys to undertake than others. Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game was never the same, and at this point I suppose I regard its passing with an appropriate symmetry to Gandalf’s final words on the shores of Middle-earth: “Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

But the brevity of a single game of Magic has allowed it to outlive the more involved of our nerdy pastimes. When the Sundering Seas of modern adulthood deign to part we can still fling elves and orcs and lightning bolts at each other without feeling like our time is at a premium, and without feeling burdened by the frustrating notion that our story will end prematurely — as they almost always did anyway with tabletop RPGs, even back in high school when we had all the time in the world.

And Peasant Magic specifically accommodates the other reality of living in a capitalist society: money. We’re all paying off school loans or a car; some of us are public school teachers or we work for non-profits; some of us have kids and a mortgage, for chrissake. Peasant means everyone has equal potential to build and play the best deck in the format, regardless of whatever other financial concerns they may have — which in turn means that the emphasis is on having fun and spending time with friends. (Sometimes I think it should be called Proletariat Magic, but we’ll not speak of politics where Having Fun is our primary concern).

Whew. Sometimes… I get really serious about stuff. To lighten your mood, I submit these cards for your amusement. Feel free to call the goblins “orcs”; they already hate you anyway.

Radagast the Brown Does Not Allow Birds to Shit on His Head, or “What Dale thought of the first Hobbit movie”

As a matter of fact, nobody ever shits in Middle-earth. Ever. This also applies to an offhand complaint from Bilbo about something the Dwarves did to the plumbing in Bag End. If you want a fantasy story about people tending to their various bodily functions, go read A Game of Thrones.

Many reviewers have decided The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is long and repetitive, bloated by Peter Jackson’s attention to detail and his insistence on three films featuring additional material from the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings. The cleverest comment from the critics comes from Rob Humanick at The Projection Booth: “Butter scraped over too much bread, Bilbo might say.”

All of these observations are true. But I don’t think all of them need be criticisms. I probably shouldn’t comment on The Hobbit‘s running time, given I would have gladly drooled over a six-film series of LotR (one for each “book” in the novel) and would gladly do the same for movie versions of… yup, anything else Tolkien wrote that hasn’t been filmed yet.

But a complaint that the film is repetitive implies a poor familiarity with both the novel and the medieval genre upon which it’s based. Excepting PJ’s additional material (some of which is pure invention), Unexpected Journey more or less exactly follows the first 100 pages of Tolkien’s novel, which is indeed a children’s story but also a romance. And not like Danielle Steele, but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Romance as in a swashbuckling tale in which the hero embarks on a quest, takes part in adventures and divergences of varying dangers, and encounters other fascinating denizens of the world, both good and evil.

In that sense, Unexpected Journey is precisely what it should be. Once it gets going — which admittedly takes a good while — Thorin and Company get themselves into nothing but fires and frying pans, often literally. And said Company is made up of quite likeable fellows, who are alternately somber or merry, feisty or funny. The background on the Lonely Mountain, the Line of Durin and their misfortunes is all spectacular (though the fleeting shots of Smaug are clearly meant to tease), and it’s all mostly accurate with one big exception.

Which is where I begin to list my complaints. Azog? And he’s got a hook? (Linz thought it looked more like a rake.) Really? I don’t feel like this movie needed a Lurtz, and especially not Lurtz with a hike in his pay-grade, who has lines in some mystery language — the legitimacy of which I cannot comment on at this time. Except that is to say: PJ and Co. almost certainly made up words in Tolkien’s fictional world, and I really haven’t decided how I feel about that. Non-canonical Uruk-hai I don’t necessarily have a problem with as long as they’re minor, but making up words in Middle-earth? If there was ever a case for Tolkien blasphemy…

Azog is the lesser of two evils, though. Peter Jackson seems to have read some dialogue from the traitorous Saruman (“Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool!”) and taken it as literal truth. The Brown Wizard bumbles about in his forest totally perplexed as to why beasts of all kinds are dropping dead before his eyes, and then is nearly eaten by giant spiders before he figures out, “Ohh… but it is magic… a black magic!” In a later scene he totters into Dol Guldur and jostles loose the Witch-king, who had apparently been napping inside a statue (lolwut?) and we get a sneak peek at the Necromancer. The whole sequence feels rushed, anti-climactic, and untrue to Tolkien’s customary description of an encounter between such powerful representatives of good and evil. One does not simply pop in on the Lord of Mordor — and in any case Sauron would certainly not reveal himself so brazenly to someone so powerful as Radagast. And didn’t PJ’s own Fellowship of the Ring movie claim that Sauron “cannot yet take physical form”? Yet there he is, flashing the poor Brown Wizard from the front stoop of Dol Guldur.

Two final gripes: the “White Council” scene not only felt wooden, but it suggests factions within the Council that just don’t make any sense, and indeed conflict with everything Tolkien wrote about the group. Specifically, why would Elrond seem to ally himself with Saruman rather than Gandalf and Galadriel, with whom he shares far more of his (ahem) counsels? Further, they hold the Three Rings of the Elves, which would naturally bind them closer together rather than fracture their loyalties. All this is to say: the conflict seemed contrived for the movie’s sake, but it’s important that we remember Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel were all united in their belief that something should be done about the Necromancer of Dol Guldur, whereas Saruman was the only one arguing against them — and for very sinister reasons, as we learn in The Fellowship.

And last but not least, the rabbit-sleigh was embarrassing. I can’t help but be reminded of one of the most infamous exchanges in modern cinema, pertaining to the airspeed velocity of unladen swallows and the question of weight ratios.

Back to the good stuff. Martin Freeman as Bilbo was delightful — stodgy or comical as required, and definitely the character to whom the audience could most easily relate. His scenes with Andy Serkis approached perfection — high praise given that they’re arguably the most significant few moments in the entire story. He and Serkis provide a charming relief from the main storyline, which by this point has become a (mostly fun, but somewhat long) string of action sequences. Really the highest praise I can offer is this: at some point during the riddle game I realized I was leaning forward in my seat, hands gripping the chair, grinning ear to ear. Any movie that can make a grown-up feel like a little kid again is a good movie, and I’m quite sure Tolkien would agree.

And as long as I’m gushing over Bilbo and Gollum… there is a moment in The Fellowship of the Ring film in which Gandalf shares a very important bit of his legendary foresight:

One of the most disappointing scenes in The Return of the King is Peter Jackson’s handling of the destruction of the Ring. When Frodo goes back for Round 2 of struggling with Gollum over the “Precious,” eventually knocking himself and Gollum over the edge, he robs the scene of its most significant moment: in the novel, Gollum unintentionally steps too far and topples into the Crack of Doom. This is the Fate with a capital-F of which Gandalf spoke — the fleeting but sincere Pity Bilbo feels for Gollum leads to the salvation of Middle-earth over 60 years later.

Thankfully, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey captures that moment between Bilbo and Gollum perfectly. No dialogue, minimal soundtrack — just a few close-ups of some really beautiful, nuanced acting from Freeman and Serkis.

I could still go on for a while yet. The action scenes were a bit tiring at times, but they were fun nonetheless. PJ has done a lovely job balancing some of Tolkien’s more complex, adult themes with the child-like wonder we should always find in Middle-earth. I expected to hate the Great Goblin no matter how they interpreted him, but he was an even blend of the novel’s most common flavors: whimsical, wicked, and just a bit scary. I do miss the real people in real costumes as opposed to an entire race of digital lemmings, but it does tone down the fright-factor on the orcs and goblins, which seems fair for a story intended for children anyway.

Bottom line: I had a lot of fun watching this movie, even if I was having to shush my inner Tolkien-fanatic from time to time, and I cannot wait for The Desolation of Smaug (12/13/13) and There and Back Again (7/18/14). Everything that happens in Mirkwood should be a blast to see on the big screen, and if I know PJ, there will most likely be a big ol’ showdown between the White Council and the Necromancer, too. He might muck it up — but then again he might blow us away, too.

Jaws of Unquenchable Thirst — A Tidbit of Tolkien Ecocriticism

On a recent road trip back to the Twin Cities from somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin, the lady and I listened to an episode of This American Life about why General Motors has continually lost revenue to foreign competitors (namely Toyota) for the last 30 years. The show centered around the joint-venture plant called “NUMMI,” that is, New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., a cooperative endeavor between GM and Toyota that could have shown the United States’ biggest auto manufacturer how to increase both efficiency and sustainability while still maintaining profits.

In any case, you know the end of the story, at least generally speaking — GM didn’t learn nothin’, and went bankrupt because of it. This episode details the repeated opportunities the NUMMI plant afforded GM, and the repeated, persistent, idiotic refusal of GM’s top executives to change their company in ways that could have saved them from, well, its near-death experience last year. In every instance, they were more concerned with the immediate profits of CEOs and shareholders than long-term interests such as sustainable-energy vehicles, better working conditions for laborers, avoidance of Chapter 11 proceedings, etc. The episode is exceedingly interesting, featuring interviews with several high-level managers and executives who were involved with the NUMMI project.

On another car ride recently, this one likely from work to home or vice versa, I was listening to a story on MPR about the coal mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 people. Specifically, the radio host interviewed a Mine Safety Expert regarding investigations into Massey Energy Company’s safety policies. Once again, the corporation was more interested in its own profit margin than the lives of its workers, even to the point of implying in several memos (but of course not exactly stating outright) that worker safety concerns are always secondary. After all, the money comes from the coal, not from the miners making it out of the tunnels in one piece at the end of the day.

And, of course, there’s the catastrophic event of BP unleashing a Balrog* — er, millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Shockingly, they cut corners and greased up government officials (under the Bush administration, wouldn’t you know) in order to swell their coffers. And 11 people died, not to mention the as-yet untold damages to multiple ecosystems upon which thousands depend for their livelihoods. And, you know, the Earth is way prettier when not slicked with the decomposed remains of prehistoric lifeforms, but hell, if they don’t care about their sentient employees, who can expect them to give a fuck about a few pelicans?

I guess the solution is: Jesus H. Christ, you oblivious persons and wildlife, stop putting yourself in the path of these few dozen ass-wipes trying to make a buck. Or you know, a few billion that they don’t even know what the fuck to do with (Exxon-Mobil continues to be the United States’ most profitable company).

In the wide realm of Tolkien criticism (you saw this coming, didn’t you?), exploitation of resources in order to consolidate power (i.e., money) is frequently likened to the recklessly destructive actions of Saruman and his minions at Isengard. Indeed, Peter Jackson’s film version of The Two Towers goes so far as to have ol’ Sharkey saying “the forests will burn in the fires of industry,” which to me is about as clear a finger you can point at ecologically irresponsible organizations.

But as we drove home from WI that day (I was in the passenger seat, and thus probably waxing more philosophical than otherwise), looking at some pretty sun rays coming down through dark rain clouds, the concept of these corporations as individual entities (which, according to the Supreme Court, they are) struck me as something else entirely. They don’t even seem to be as rational or as deliberate as Saruman was in his machinations to conquer Middle-earth and destroy the natural world in doing so; they seem to me more akin to Carcharoth (also called Anfauglir, the Jaws of Thirst), the watch-wolf at the gate of Angband who, after biting off the hand of Beren that holds a Silmaril, is driven utterly mad by the jewel’s power. He rampages all across Middle-earth attempting to slake his now unquenchable thirst, inconsolable and unreachable to logic or reason of any kind, rending apart all who come in his path. The only choice left to Elves and Men is to either slay him or continue to suffer the swath of death and destruction he cuts through the green, living lands of the world.

To quote Théoden, “What can men do against such reckless hate?” The whole thing would be a lot simpler if “ride out and meet them” was the appropriate response, swords a-swinging and a-cleaving. But really, the day at Helm’s Deep is saved by the arrival of Gandalf and Théoden’s allies — the key word being “allies,” in that unity is required to defeat the hosts of the enemy. Holding true to the comparison, though, the Rohirrim didn’t really fight back until all was nearly lost. Such seems the likely outcome in our lives, as well.

Really the answer, I think, is to just wake up the Ents. Or, in the event we can’t find any, build some robotic ones, maybe. I think laser beams in their eyes would also expedite the whole process.

*Excuse the slip-up. Crude oil and Balrogs are just so similar. I mean, both are readily flammable, hide in deep underground caverns, and are, according to all evidence, impossible to stop once unleashed. Incidentally, crude oil and Balrogs tend not to cause problems if you just leave them the fuck alone. Just sayin’.

Some brilliant Tolkien passages

Blunt as Morgoth’s mace, that title. If you’re not into Tolkien, you will be both bewildered and bored to tears by the extent of this post.

Thus begins what will likely be a very long series of entries in which I’ll highlight and comment on a selection from the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien that I find especially insightful, moving, funny, etc.
As some of you may know from the succinct, conveniently-placed “Currently Enjoying” list to the right side of this text, I’m reading through The History of Middle-earth. What you wouldn’t know from that conveniently-placed list is that it’s the first time I’ve done so with the express intent of getting through them cover to cover. Retain your gasps, please; it’s extremely dense reading at times, particularly if you look at all the endnotes Christopher Tolkien sticks in there. But it’s also very rewarding for a Tolkien enthusiast to understand the truly lifelong creative process that went into Middle-earth.

Case in point: this entry’s selection, which comes from The Lay of Leithian, the poetic version of the tale of Beren and Lúthien, written in octosyllabic couplets and found in The Lays of Beleriand. In this excerpt from the poem (which, only about three quarters finished, extends over 4000 lines), we are treated to what is perhaps the very first textual appearance and description of Sauron, here called Thû. Beren and (Finrod) Felagund, disguised as Orcs, attempt to sneak past Tol Sirion, an Elvish watchtower now inhabited by Morgoth’s servants and called Tol-in-Gaurhoth (Isle of Werewolves). Enjoy!

An isléd hill there stood alone
amid the valley, like a stone
rolled from the distant mountains vast
when giants in tumult hurtled past.
Around its feet the river looped
a stream divided, that had scooped
the hanging edges into caves.
There briefly shuddered Sirion’s waves
and ran to other shores more clean.
An elven watchtower had it been,
and strong it was, and still was fair;
but now did grim with menace stare
one way to pale Beleriand,
the other to that mournful land
beyond the valley’s northern mouth.
Thence could be glimpsed the fields of drouth,
the dusty dunes, the desert wide;
and further far could be descried
the brooding cloud that hangs and lowers
on Thangorodrim’s thunderous towers.

Now in that hill was the abode
of one most evil; and the road
that from Beleriand thither came
he watched with sleepless eyes of flame.

….

Men called him Thû, and as a god
in after days beneath his rod
bewildered bowed to him, and made
his ghastly temples in the shade.
Not yet by Men enthralled adored,
now was he Morgoth’s mightiest lord,
Master of Wolves, whose shivering howl
for ever echoed in the hills, and foul
enchantments and dark sigaldry
did weave and wield. In glamoury
that necromancer held his hosts
of phantoms and of wandering ghosts,
of misbegotten or spell-wronged
monsters that about him thronged,
working his bidding dark and vile:
the werewolves of the Wizard’s Isle.

From Thû their coming was not hid;
and though beneath the eaves they slid
of the forest’s gloomy hanging boughs,
he saw them afar, and wolves did rouse:
‘Go! Fetch me those sneaking Orcs,’ he said,
‘that fare thus strangely, as if in dread,
and do not come, as all Orcs use
and are commanded, to bring me news
of all their deeds, to me, to Thû.’

From his tower he gazed, and in him grew
suspicion and a brooding thought,
waiting, leering, till they were brought.

[Beren, Felagund and Co. appear before Thû, he questions them, and grows still more suspicious.]

Thû laughed: ‘Patience! Not very long
shall ye abide. But first a song
I will sing to you, to ears intent.’
Then his flaming eyes he on them bent,
and darkness black fell round them all.
Only they saw as through a pall
of eddying smoke those eyes profound
in which their senses choked and drowned.
He chanted a song of wizardry,
of piercing, opening, of treachery,
revealing, uncovering, betraying.

As noted in a previous post, Sauron (or at least, the figure who occupied Sauron’s place in the narrative) was originally a great predatory feline called Tevildo, Prince of Cats. Tevildo was, to be quite honest, comically vain and not terribly bright, and therefore difficult to take seriously — more like to a crabby house cat than the eventual Dark Lord of Mordor. And though in Leithian his persona has almost completely morphed into the cunning, cruel, and hateful form we recognize, in common with the feline portrayal we still find a curious emphasis on eyes and watching, making it quite apparent that Sauron’s primary character element is one that survived almost thirty years of further revision and development, from the writing of The Lay of Leithian in the late 1920s to the publication of The Lord of the Rings in 1954 and 1955. The last three lines, with the repeated use of active participles, especially evoke a relentless gaze from which one cannot hide.

The feline origin of the Tevildo/Sauron character was, of course, not destined to completely die out, as we see in this passage from The Lord of the Rings:

“The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing.”

I always find those last four words particularly chilling. And, again, the sorcerous power to uncover all that is hidden:

“The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, and to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable.”

I read once that Tolkien’s editors/publishers were wary of a novel in which, after hundreds of pages leading up to a decisive moment with monumental implications (i.e., All Lands Covered in Darkness or… Not), there is no direct confrontation with the Enemy. But it is precisely this aspect of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings that allows him to function as such a terrible force: he cannot be faced directly, and thus he remains a mystery beyond all our power and our knowledge — literally a shadow.

And lastly, an image of Sauron painted by Tolkien himself:

A brief letter to Amarthiel, “Champion of Angmar”

Dear Amarthiel,

I’m not sure which Seeing-stone you got your grubby hands on, but please be informed that it cannot, in point of fact, be the Osgiliath-stone, which was far too large for one person to carry, and is in any case lost at the bottom of Anduin. Either sort your shit out and decide it’s one of the other stones that somebody somehow fished out of the bottom of the Ice-bay of Forochel, or I’ll not only kick your ass next time we meet, I’ll also proceed to delete all files containing your name from my hard drive for your blatant disregard for the Tolkien canon. kthanks.

Love,
Haldaran Casarmacil, Protector of the Shire

Wings or No Wings — That Is Not the Question

God what an atrocious title.

Anyway, according to The Encyclopedia of Arda, this single question receives more user input than any other of the literally hundreds of entries on their site — to such an extent that they have devoted several pages to the discussion of whether a Balrog has wings, whether they can fly (assuming they have wings), whether they can change shape and size at will (in order to accommodate both sides of the argument), etc. The subject has inspired scholarly essays, full-length book chapters, and a general feeling of chaos and uncertainty among Tolkien enthusiasts. If we don’t know whether a Balrog has wings, then gosh darn, is there anything we can really know for sure about Middle-earth?

To start — most coherent essays on this issue that I’ve read conclude that, based on painstakingly nit-picky considerations of what constitutes a metaphor, Balrogs probably don’t have wings in the same sense as, say, the Great Eagles (see: deus ex machina), or the Nazgûl’s flying beasts. To the No-Wings camp, this seems to justify the belief that Balrogs are utterly bereft of any sort of scary adornments attached to their backs, doomed to wander the darkened halls of Moria or Who-Knows-Where wearing an immortal sadface for their inability to take to the skies. (No-Wings folks don’t seem to raise any stink about visualizations of Balrogs with tails, despite the fact that Tolkien never used the word “tail” in reference to them.)

But just like the camp that says they do indeed have actual, honest-to-goodness wings, that interpretation takes a flying leap in reaching its conclusion. One thing is (almost) certain: Balrogs don’t fly. At least, we should assume this is true considering they fall to their deaths often enough that, if they could fly, they’d also have to be abysmally stupid (pun absolutely intended). But it is still entirely plausible that they might have wings, if only of a shadowy, ethereal sort. Why? Because they’re servants of Morgoth, and as such, there’s one thing they enjoy doing above almost anything else — looking scary.

Think about the most descriptive passages concerning what may or may not be wings on a Balrog: ‘His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings,’ and ‘…suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall…’ If Tolkien didn’t want us to imagine the shadowy cloud of a Balrog as looking strikingly similar to wings, why would he use the word twice within a few paragraphs, and in the only real physical description of this creature? Shadowy and ethereal does not mean functional, but it does mean it’ll be lookin mighty intimidating — which, as I’m sure none will deny, is exactly what Tolkien’s bad guys just loooove to do.This argument has been made before — i.e., “A Balrog can have wings if it wants to have wings, because it’s a lesser god and they do what they want.” Well… cosmetic, non-functional, scary-as-hell wings, definitely.

Further, let’s think about Tolkien’s use of his languages, as we always should. Their names in both Sindarin and Quenya mean “demon of power.” How do most people in the western hemisphere imagine a demon? Granted, there are many, many possibilities — even a cursory glance at Wikipedia’s page on demons reveals “demonology” to be a massive and convoluted subject (almost certainly more so than Tolkienology). However, my guess would be that a majority of people would describe a large, man-like creature with beastly features, horns, and wings, à la Lucifer and many other Christian visualizations of fallen angels (which, by they way, is more or less what Balrogs are). Search Google Images and see what comes up.

To my extensive (but necessarily incomplete) knowledge, Tolkien does not use the morpheme for “demon,” in any of his languages, to collectively describe a class of creatures other than Balrogs. “Orc” can also mean “demon” in his Elvish tongues, but it also carries other connotations, and as far as I can tell, “rog” in “Balrog” and “rauko” in “Valarauko” are not etymologically related to it. (“The word [orc] is, as far as I am concerned, actually derived from Old English orc ‘demon’, but only because of its phonetic suitability” — the author, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien) Regarding his use of the morphemes “rog” and “rauko,” though, this might be an indication that “demon” meant something fairly specific to him, especially considering that, despite being a devout Catholic and acknowledging The Lord of the Rings as a “fundamentally religious” work, he almost always avoided using words or concepts with any strong Christian connotations. Once the reader becomes aware of the meaning of the creature’s name, it seems nearly unavoidable that many should imagine it with wings, or at the very least, extremely wing-like forms expanding behind it.

Fortunately for the casual fan, but unfortunately for us Wing-Agnostics, Tolkien was actively against forcing a single, particular meaning on the reader. His primary interest was to entertain with an enjoyable fantastical narrative, and he frequently indicated his displeasure with both over-analysis of a text to the point of meaninglessness (“He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom” — Gandalf), and with the “tyranny” of authors who intentionally fashion a story so as to deny any freedom of interpretation. See The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien for many examples of this sentiment, as well as the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings.

My final conclusion, then, is basically an altered version of an above statement: Balrogs (almost certainly) don’t fly, but a Balrog can have wings if you want it to have wings, because Tolkien was an author who wanted you to enjoy the story to its fullest. My Balrogs have wings of shadow because I think they look more intimidating and evil that way, and that enhances my enjoyment of Tolkien’s writing. Tolkien was vague about the appearance of Balrogs — probably intentionally, what with the whole “cloaked in shadow” thing. It’s a fact we should face with excitement rather than frustrated deliberation.

As of two days ago, I have a much more important question on my mind. Balrogs: hosts or a handful? The answer could change my visualization of an entire age of Middle-earth.

A postcard from Middle-earth

Mmm. Rivendell.

So I haven’t been around Sure as Shiretalk the last week or two, and I’ll tell you why: over the weekend of March 27-28, The Lord of the Rings Online offered a $9.99 deal for the Mines of Moria and Siege of Mirkwood expansions plus 30 days of free play. So I’ve returned to Middle-earth in the guise of Haldaran Casarmacil, Protector of the Shire (I love the title system in LotRO). You’ll be happy to know I’ve leveled up four times since then; I’m currently sitting about halfway to level 43.

What I love most about this game is how incredibly true to the novel it feels. I’ve played most of the LotR-based games out there, and most of them are forced to sacrifice much of the subtlety and restraint employed by Tolkien — espeically regarding the use of “magic” — in favor of, presumably, attracting and entertaining a wider audience than die-hard Tolkien fans (why this “wider audience” requires all that flashy Magic Missile bullshit to be adequately entertained is entirely beyond me). But if not for Gandalf very occasionally creating fire or lighting his staff up like a lamp, The Lord of the Rings would be basically devoid of overt displays of supernatural power. Most of Middle-earth’s magic is in the land, in the creatures that inhabit it, and in the interactions between good and evil intentions — most emphatically not at the end of a wand or the tip of somebody’s fingers.

Unlike titles such as The Third Age (a Final Fantasy clone with flashy spells for every class) or The Two Towers/The Return of the King (aka Dynasty Warriors in Middle-earth), LotRO keeps the offensive magic and flashy sword-and-sorcery nonsense to the minimum necessary, and finds ways to work it into the game that effectively maintain Tolkien’s vision. Players have Morale rather than Health; you retreat to a rally point rather than die and get resurrected. Consequently, your hitpoints are affected by abstract stimuli, most notably fear, as well as the common orc-sword. For example, should you encounter a great source of terror like a Ringwraith or a dragon, you take a noticeable hit to your total number of HP (which is then removed when you either defeat that enemy or remove yourself from its presence; there are of course many ways to partially/completely counteract these fear effects). Accordingly, then, the “healer” class is a Minstrel who keeps his/her allies in the fight by inspiring them instead of performing on-the-spot surgery and blood transfusions.

Beyond that, the storytelling also feels very Tolkienesque; although I’m sure his perfectionism would’ve found countless things to disagree with, the quests and “Epic” plotline feel close enough to his style and sensibilities that a Tolkien fanatic/purist like myself can really enjoy the feeling of (near) total immersion in Middle-earth and its cultures.

One final comment: I cannot express how beautiful and how detailed this game is. When I first started playing, I wandered off to Weathertop to check out the scenery, and when I got to the top, I checked for the rock with Gandalf’s runes written on it. It’s there. Even locations that Tolkien left with almost no descriptions are startlingly, awesomely depicted. My jaw dropped when I first set eyes on the massive tower of Annúminas on the shores of Lake Evendim; Rivendell nearly broke my heart with its autumnal splendor; the Shire is every bit as charming and peaceful as you’d expect it to be.

In other words, I love this game. It’s a brilliant rendering of my favorite novel of all time.

Last comment: I’ve also loaded up the GoldenEye 007 again recently. God this game rocks my socks.

My Top Five Most Memorable Video Game Showdowns

Making a game that is entertaining in general is one thing, but creating really memorable confrontations between the player and their foes is quite another. There seem to be a handful of ways that game developers can rely on that will both depict the villain as powerful and difficult to overcome and allow the player to do it without too much frustration. It’s critical that both of these aspects are maintained, the first because you have to feel like you’re doing something important and hard, and the second because you don’t want the flow of the game interrupted.

One of the most common scenarios is the standard FPS approach, in which the player might have less innate power than their foe, but can sure as hell shoot bigger guns at them — seeDoom 3 or Return to Castle Wolfenstein. When that doesn’t work, perhaps because the enemy is invulnerable to normal attacks, you can let the player in on a secret weakness that they can then exploit (see any number of platformer games; check out Portal for a really unique FPS example). This last one seems more common to me, probably occurring more often for the sake of adding variety to a game. There are a few other possibilities for how we gamers can defeat the big bad bosses, but they usually fall into one (or both) of those general categories.

However, that’s not what I’m interested in right now. The confrontations I’m looking to record here are the ones that really stick with you for reasons other than their difficulty or originality. I’m looking for those showdowns that you’ll remember forever not only because of the showdown itself, but also for the build-up to it and the characters involved. My examples will be biased in favor of PC games since that’s what I play most; they’ll also likely not include anything from more strategy-based genres, because I want to focus more on the you-against-the-world/mano-a-mano sorts of battles. So, these are listed basically in the order that they occurred to me.

JC Denton vs. Walton Simons, Deus Ex

The world economy is falling apart around you. A man-made disease is killing off millions needlessly. You’re stuck in the bowels of a defunct deep-sea base, fighting off irritating little poison-spitting lizard-birds, the result of some mad scientist’s genetic experiments (“Green greasy greasels!”), and all the while some slimy-voiced douche-bag pipes his narcissistic plans for world domination straight into your brain. Where in god’s name is the fucking mute button on this InfoLink!? Well, you’re in luck, because said power-hungry creepo Walton Simons is coming to stop you escaping from the base, and his smug ass is definitely not armed well enough to handle JC Denton. At last, you get to reap your sweet revenge for all his angsty, meaningless rantings about you foiling his plans thus far. Generally, I find a good slice or two with the Dragon’s Tooth sword most satisfying.

Why is it memorable? Because Walton Simons is an affront to all that is good and noble in humanity, and you, a genetically-modified, nano-augmented superman, have the power to splash his guts all over the goddamn underwater cavern (or Area 51, depending on your choices), thus putting an end to the military head of one of the most dastardly plots ever devised to take over the world. I kid you not, the first time I killed him, I got up out of my chair, pointed viciously and shouted at my computer screen: “Eat shit and die, you smug. fucking. bastard.”

Death Egg Zone, Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Every now and then I bust out the old Sega Genesis and play through the favorites again, and Sonic 2 is always one of them. Some will tell you the original Sonic title is harder and therefore better, but my eight year-old self was probably better suited to the less frustrating sequel. It was still quite challenging, and didn’t feature any of the save-game nonsense of the third one (says the lifelong PC gamer). This meant that getting to Death Egg Zone was a real feat of patience and persistence, and all the more exciting because of it. I still get that tension in my gut when I run down that long hallway in outer space and start the face-off with the robot Sonic. Denying the player any rings at all for this level was a great move in that it means you can’t make a single mistake. Add to that a near-perfect soundtrack, and you’re in for an epic battle that’ll give you a lovely feeling of a job well done.

I particularly appreciate Sonic standing there all hands-on-his-hips glaring at a giant doomsday robot. Surely one of the eternal badasses of video gaming.

The Chaos Sanctuary, Diablo II

It’s a long haul to Hell, that’s for sure, and after chasing Big D across damn near the entire known world, all you want is his blood. But you can’t have it. At least, not right away. He’s still got minions a-plenty, and some of the most irritating kinds in the game. Heavy hitting physical/fire damage combos, mana-sucking casters that run away from you and cast again, and oh yeah — anybody like wielding melee weapons? Try it. I dare you.

Once you make it past the Iron Maiden-casting Oblivion Knights (or perhaps if; I’ve heard of people quitting the game because of those guys), you still have to deal with Diablo’s super uniques — the Grand Vizier of Chaos, Lord De Seis, and the Infector of Souls, plus their minions. Each is tuned slightly differently so as to offer challenges to various character types (the Infector generally proves hardest for me because he’s so obnoxiously fast). Then, at last, when the countless hordes lie dead about the Sanctuary, the ground shakes and Diablo at last shows himself, uttering possibly the most badass taunt ever thrown at PC gamers: Not even death can save you from me. After which, he proceeds to roast you alive with the dreaded Lightning Hose — the near-instantly lethal attack that has provoked an indignant “AWW, SHIT!!” from me more times than I can possibly count. Regarding town portals: cast early, cast often.

All in all, this battle with the Lord of Terror is one of the most memorable not only because of the skill, patience, and versatility required to get through it, but also because of the sheer build-up to this moment. A deliciously dark fantasy world complemented by great cutscenes and tense, addictive gameplay makes this showdown a satisfying (semi-)conclusion to one of the most popular RPGs of all time.

Batman vs. every last incarcerated criminal in Gotham City, Batman: Arkham Asylum

I have been waiting for a good Batman game since I was three years old, when I saw Tim Burton’s film with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson for the first time. And at last, we have a great Batman game. I can’t recall the last title I’ve played (if there is one) in which I had so much fun kicking the tar out of so many enemies all at once.

It’s on my Showdown list for a couple reasons. For one, the game does a fantastic job in making you feel utterly alone in the looniest loony bin on Earth, and that you are really, truly the only thing standing between Gotham and total chaos. And secondly, because every single encounter with the Joker’s thugs was so thrillingly, perfectly Batman, whether I swept through the shadows and hung them upside-down from gargoyles or just strolled right up and smashed all their faces into the pavement. No other game has made me feel so incredibly powerful, so (literally) able to take on dozens of foes at once and emerge the absolute, undisputed victor. Sometimes I sit up on a ledge someplace, look down at the oblivious goons wandering around below, and just enjoy the perfect satisfaction in knowing that every one of them will soon be beaten, broken, and unconscious, all because I am the goddamn BATMAN.

Beyond repeatedly exhibiting the Caped Crusader’s superior physical prowess, though, you can effectively plan out exactly how you want to engage your enemies — just like Batman would. Many of the combat sequences in Arkham reminded me of the finale of The Dark Knight in that they force you to flawlessly manage multiple enemies and situations at once. While the entire game is phenomenal, Arkham Asylum‘s combat is so finely, so impressively crafted that it turns me into a giggling mess every single time I snap some creep’s arm out of its socket. At long last, I am the goddamn BATMAN.

Sabotage at Soulforge, Thief II: The Metal Age

This one struck me as a strange addition to a list of memorable confrontations — I mean, unless you’re playing Normal difficulty (who does that, anyway?), deliberately fighting anybody in this game is usually a pretty convenient recipe for suicide. However, this level is such a great climax to a such a great game that I had to make the case.

So Karras, a thoroughly loony religious fanatic with a serious speech impediment, has decided all organic life in the City must die. You, as the master thief Garrett, are the only one sneaky enough to successfully navigate his massive, high-security cathedral/fortress, Soulforge, and turn his own maniacal plan against him. He’s got cameras, alarms and cartoon-bomb tossing robots a-plenty, and he knows you’re in there, too, so he’s put them all on high alert. And, like Walton Simons, he has an ego that seems to insist that he pester you constantly over his loudspeakers all throughout the cathedral. If I ever exhibit an unfair bias against persons with speech impediments, I blame Thief II.

Aside from being a very difficult, very long mission, full of not only Karras’s robots, but also plenty of tile and metal floors to be certain you make as much noise as possible, I chose this one because of all the weirdly ironic story elements that lead you up to this point. Garrett is the perfect anti-hero, yet here he is again saving the City from a maniac alongside an old enemy from the previous game. Though I despise Karras with every ounce of my nerdy being, he’s a fantastically written character — bizarre, exasperating and amusing all at once. His squeaking wail during the final cutscene is absolutely priceless, especially since it was you who forced it from him.

Well, there you have it. I have to give an honorable mention, though, to the sequence in No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way that has you battling ninjas in a trailer park near Akron, Ohio while a tornado rips the place apart. Eventually you end up battling the ninja leader inside a trailer that’s been picked up by the twister. Not something gamers are generally subjected to, and it was side-splittingly funny to boot.

Classic PC Game Reviews, Vol. I — Thief: The Dark Project

Appearing in 1998 was a tough business for any PC game if it wasn’t titled Half-Life, particularly for other first-person shooter types. Better just leave off the groundbreaking new genres until next year, lads.

But the folks at Looking Glass Studios didn’t, and aren’t we all glad. Thief: The Dark Project is the ancestor of all stealth-based games, period. It also happens to still be the most fun. No game before (or since) has so single-handedly created an entire sub-genre of first-person shooters (Thief is often called a “first-person looter” for obvious reasons).

The concept is straightforward (steal things and don’t get caught), but the execution is quite complex. Your character Garrett has plenty of tools at his disposal to deal with guards, locked doors, and inconveniently-placed light sources, but supplies are limited and many situations require you to rely on patience and three-dimensional thinking (the importance of “up” cannot be overstated) to get the loot you’re looking for. Imagine that — patience as a mandatory element in a first-person shooter. I cannot stress enough how refreshing that is in a gaming world that mostly has the FPS genre constantly shouting “OMFG TIME-TRAVELING KILLER ALIEN ROBOTS FROM OUTER SPACE GRAB YOUR BFG9000!!1!”

Further, in an era of gaming where detailed graphics and physics seem to take precedence over immersive storylines, Thief puts others to shame with its beautifully-crafted cutscenes and brilliantly-detailed fantasy world full of intrigue, revenge and the undead.

Speaking of which — Thief is also one of the most absolutely terrifying games I’ve ever played, surpassed in its cardiac-arresting potential only by Doom 3. To illustrate, I’ll relate an anecdote from the early days of my career in larceny and graverobbing: I was wandering through the bowels of an abandoned mine, trying to find my way up to the Hammerite prison above, when what should appear in the darkened hallway ahead but a corpse, rotting happily away in a forgotten mining tunnel.

“Gross,” thought I, as I stepped over it and headed on down the passage.

Suddenly a decidedly inhuman groan blasted out from my speakers (Thief is best played at high volumes to increase your sensitivity to loud or unnecessary noises). As unnerving as that was, I still had the presence of mind to spin my mouse in circles, frantically searching for the source of the sound. Nothing to be seen, so I just crouched down in the shadows and waited, which is generally the proper course of action until you know what you’re up against. Unfortunately for me, I was facing away from the corpse on the ground nearby, which as you’ve probably deduced by now, wasn’t really a corpse in the strictest sense.

Well, a few seconds later, I heard another unpleasant moaning sound, this time from away left. As I twisted to face the noise, a sickening *crack* took my health bar down to about two hit points, and I was staring in horror at a zombie looking to OM-NOM my brains. And he did. Oh, how he did.

My reaction? Near heart failure. This was the case for me on all four of the levels featuring undead foes, particularly “Return to the Cathedral,” which induced complete paralysis. I was literally incapable of moving Garrett through the level for several minutes for fear of disturbing the Cathedral’s ghastly residents. All of Thief‘s various elements — story, music, ambient noise, lighting — combine perfectly to completely immerse the player.

This is, usually, a certain road to death.

 

Other comments: Have you ever wanted to be Indiana Jones in a video game? Thief lets you do that in several levels, and far more satisfyingly than any of the actual Indy titles. Thief also accommodates many styles of play through three genuinely different difficulty settings and sheer open-ended level construction. It has also given way to an enormous fan-mission and fanfic following, which you can take part in at Thief: The Circle. Thief: The Dark Project certainly isn’t the most influential title of its time, but it was without doubt one of the most innovative. A must-play for anyone who prefers mind-over-matter gaming.

So — why is it underrated? Well, as mentioned before, coming out in close proximity to one of the best-selling and most critically-acclaimed games of all time is rough, especially when your game is drastically different from that particular title. But in my explorations into the demise of Looking Glass Studios in 2000, I’ve heard that Thief‘s unjustly low popularity-to-quality ratio was also due to a simple lack of effective marketing. The game does enjoy favorable opinions from pretty much everyone I talk to about it, but a strangely small number of those people have ever actually played it or its sequel, Thief II: The Metal Age.

So get out there a find yourself a copy. There’s a surprising number of supposedly brand-new copies on eBay at the moment, and the entire game consists of about 3 or 400 megabytes (insta-Torrent, anyone?), so you really have no excuse. With any luck, you’ll end up like me: aggressively shushing nearby friends who, with their noisy careless lifestyles, are sure to expose you to the heavily-armed guards around the corner.

5 stars of 5.