Middle-Earth Modules Ranked (Campaign Sized)

Now for the big guns. Here I rank all campaign sized Middle-Earth modules, and I include a citadel (Dol Guldur) and two cities (Minas Tirith and Minas Ithil) that have the same level of detail. That makes 26 modules total.

(1) Lorien and the Halls of the Elven Smiths. 5+ stars. Terry Amthor, 1986. This module is a Bible for all things elven, and has a joint focus on both sides of Khazad-dum: the Golden Wood and the Jewel Halls. The latter makes this module unique in devoting heavy space to a Second Age setting, and I remember breathing the antiquity as a DM; Eregion felt like the equivalent of New Testament times. Honestly, who could pass up the opportunity to visit Ost-in-Edhil during the forging of the Rings of Power? These were the days of the Noldor’s last realm, when magic was still unbridled, dwarves were good company, and when Sauron himself, in the benevolent guise of Annatar, “the Lord of Gifts”, walked among the firstborn and guided their labors. In these pages, Noldor culture is wonderfully detailed, the personalities of legendary figures like Celebrimbor brought so convincingly to life, and the magic items to be found in the Jewel Halls make TSR artifacts look like baby toys. As if these riches weren’t embarrassing enough, on the eastern side of the mountains lies the most precious domain out of any fantasy, and where Galadriel wields the power of her elven ring to enshroud it. The centerfold color map of Ost-in-Edhil rules the module, and many of its buildings are laid out. In the hands of a good DM, Annatar can be exploited to maximal effect in the elven city — fomenting discord and factionalism among the smiths, like an incarnation of Baal mingling among the twelve apostles. What can I say? Lorien the module is as unassailable as the Golden Wood itself.

(2) Dol Guldur. 5+ stars. David Woolpy, 1995. This is the 220-page monster that completely revamped Sauron’s abode from Southern Mirkwood (see #5 below), doubling the size, quadrupling the detail — all of which was fine to begin with, but who complained? Most of these remakes in the ’90s were uninspired, but with Dol Guldur ICE not only surpassed an excellent original, it landed the mixed equivalent of TSR’s Return to the Tomb of Horrors and Queen of the Demonweb Pits, pitting intruders against fears unfathomable, and the maia demigod who sat in its bowels. It’s one of those once-in-a-blue-moon modules you read and feel utterly sorry for the players in advance, while also laughing your ass off at their foreordained misery. I cringe to think how my characters would have fared in this version; they barely escaped with their lives as it is in Southern Mirkwood’s. The reworked design is on a staggering scale: we are now to understand that the original layout in Southern Mirkwood applies only to the period of 1100-1258 (though it was clear at the time that it was meant for the entire post-1100 period), for between 1258-1382 Dol Guldur is hugely expanded. Instead of eight levels, Dol Guldur now boasts a whopping sixteen: three precipices (the upper halls), seven levels (the middle halls), five strata (the lower halls), and the hidden Necromancer’s Hall. Radiating out from the seventh level, furthermore, is the Web, a vast network of orc warrens and warg dens extending for miles. It all adds up to over 520 rooms keyed with incredible detail, about 1200 rooms total, and none of that includes anything in the Web. It’s the most insane place in all of Middle-Earth to venture into, but then role-players are a pretty insane lot.

(3) The Court of Ardor. 5 stars. Terry Amthor, 1983. More than any other ICE module, The Court of Ardor had a profound impact on my imagination. I lived southern Middle-Earth in my daily fantasies, riding the Mumakani elephants, taking in the republic of Korlan, and having passionate love affairs with elves as evil as drow. One thing was clear to me at the time: this sort of thing would never be repeated. The gazeteer displays regions as rich as anything Tolkien developed — savage Mumakan, democratic Korononde, imperial Tanturak, reckless Hathor, aloof Taaliraan. All of which would be more than enough, but this entire sandbox is used as a platform for a quest, where the stakes are as high as in The Lord of the Rings. A group of evil Noldor have been trying to destroy the sun and moon since the First Age, and now, in TA 1703, are ready to enact a ritual that will do just that; a group of PCs must band together and prevent the ritual, and also ensure that the ringleader of this evil court, Lady Ardana, is killed by the son Morgoth fathered on her. The mission to save Middle-Earth — to keep the sun and moon alive, to destroy the gems of unlight, to procure the death of an elven lady who will keep resurrecting the same diabolical plot as long as she goes on living — is the module’s focus. The Court members are colorful NPCs, two of them actual demons, and I like the recurring theme of repentant male twins versus their evil sisters: Ardana’s children, and also the two Featurs, the female member of the Court, and her brother whom most believe dead, but is working against the Court from behind shadows, perhaps even with the PCs. An an absolute first-rate module.

(4) Mount Gundabad. 5 stars. Carl Willner, 1989. It’s the best orc dungeon ever designed, in or outside of Middle-Earth, and what a piece of cover art: I had a nightmare as a teen walking into Mount Gundabad’s hellish maw. The orc capital screams aggression, with its triple-peaked structure punching the sky up to 13,000 feet, and its interior sheltering almost 13,000 goblins — a bigger population than Fornost’s. The seething factionalism within Gundabad provides players with striking opportunities to mess with orcish politics. I’m a long time fan of modules that do this, like TSR’s Lost City, where it’s practically inevitable that characters will sympathize with (or even join) one of the Cynidicean cults who are at each others’ throats. The Free Peoples might have legitimate reason to help the Warlord of the Cloven Spire, for example, who seeks greater independence from Angmar and would thus undercut the power of the Witch-King. Alternatively, evil characters allied with Sauron could have fun throwing in their lot with the Warlord of the Twisted Spire, who not only favors stronger ties to Angmar and open war on the Dunedain, but gives new meaning to sadism. (I sure as hell wouldn’t trust him regardless of my allegiances. Some of the rooms in the Twisted Spire make my stomach hurt.) Self-serving neutral types might opt for the safest course and just back the current Goblin-King reigning from the Great Spire, since the odds are with him and he can offer richest rewards. None of this political intrigue is essential to a Gundabad campaign, by any means, but it does offer excitement beyond hack-and-slash dungeon crawls which in this case invite almost certain death to all but most experienced characters. The folks at ICE went over and above the call of duty with Mount Gundabad, and I count it a gem.

(5) Southern Mirkwood. 5 stars. Susan Hitchcock, 1983. Even if the staggering version of Dol Guldur (see #2 above) makes the earlier version in this module look like a turd, it’s actually still an excellent dungeon; Sauron’s abode is compelling in either case. And while many lament that ICE never got around to designing the the Barad-dur, if I had to choose, I’d pick the Hill of Sorcery over the Dark Tower any day. Mirkwood forest is far more insidious than Mordor’s wastelands, noxiously alive as I think of it, and it’s also under Sauron’s power throughout the entire Third Age. Adventures involving the Hill of Sorcery can thus be set in any time (after 1100), while Barad-dur isn’t even rebuilt until 2951. Not only that, the atmosphere of Dol Guldur is one of mystery: the Dark Lord hasn’t declared himself yet. Southern Mirkwood is worth having even if you have the Dol Guldur revision in any case, because this is a standard regional gazetteer; there’s more to the southern Mirkwood area than the Necromancer. The Eothraim of Rhovanion are found here (the module is geared, like many, for the 1640 period), long before they acquired the territory of Rohan, in the towns of Burh Widu and Burh Ailgra. Their Easterling foes are also given treatment, tribal Asdriags and Sagaths with fierce customs. Then there is Radagast the Brown, who is far from the senile fool most believe, indeed a force of salvation keeping the Necromancer’s influence at bay with druidical powers. Point counterpoint is the presence of the One Ring which has blighted the Gladden Fields over the centuries, banishing the river spirits that once existed, turning mud to quicksand, and killing enough morale to cause emigrations out of the area. The Necromancer rightfully steals the show, but the module is faithful to its overall region.

(6) The Northern Waste. 5 stars. Randy Maxwell, 1997. It sounds deceptively barren, but don’t be fooledthis region could be described as an “aftermath of Morgoth”. It’s given fascinating history involving demons haunting mountain peaks, sled-horde invasions led by Hoarmaruth the Ringwraith, dragons ready to pounce where you least expect, and Morgoth’s Well itself into which only fools or the most experienced players descend. There are pockets of hope here and there: in the Vale of Evermist, Noldor mystics work the will of Yavanna to heal a wounded land, and at the north pole stands a snow-elf (Nandor) paradise, of all things, kept warm by a shard of one of the lamps from the First Age. Amidst all this, the Lossoth do their best to eke out a living and hold off the terrors of the Urdic invasions. I’d always loved the Lossoth and found their treatment in Rangers of the North (see #10 below) disappointingly brief, so was glad to get their full story here. There’s some tasty cultural background on display, for instance in the war customs of Hoarmaruth’s minions; they don’t even believe in taking slaves and just throw all their captives (men, women, elders, and children) into bear pits for awful entertainment. Then there’s more insidious evil, like the Witch-King’s blight, extended on sorcerous winds from Angmar and turning Lossoth shamans into undead thralls. The cultures of these snowmen, icemen, and sea-hunters (the three Lossoth peoples) are worked over in great detail, and I’m particularly fond of the song-duels they use in place of violence to keep blood feuds under control: scurrilous insults prized as a high form of art. Noteworthy is that this was the last Middle-Earth campaign module published by ICE. Shortly after, on September 19, 1997, the company declared a moratorium on Middle-Earth products, and in 1999 lost their license completely. They went out kicking ass with The Northern Waste.

(7) Gorgoroth. 4 ½ stars. Anders Blixt, Coleman Charlton, John Crowdis, Peter Fenlon, Jessica Ney, & Keith Robley, 1990. No, it doesn’t have the Barad-dur, but it presents enough of Mordor’s interior to provide months of campaigning. The highlight is the city of Ostigurth, that radiates a deathly ambience that surpasses even Minas Morgul’s; a place where mannish captains hold forth at expansive banquets, while just down the road hundreds of corpses roast on public pyres. The city teems with life by thriving on death and offers loads of creative opportunities. Complete bios and histories of the Nine Nazgul are supplied, and this is a major selling point, as it showcases some of ICE’s finest scholarship. I always wanted the stories behind these mannish kings, and the 15-page treatment serves as a virtual seminar on the subject. It made me want to see modules set in far-flung places like Waw, Dir, and Chey, where the Ringwraiths carved out kingdoms of brutal terror. Another prize feature is Mount Doom, Sauron’s forging complex, which is more than I expected, and unreachable to all but the most resourceful players. Many more sites are mapped out: the Barad-wath tower overlooking Nurn, occupied (from 1640-2000) by Ren, the Eighth (and craziest) of the Nine; the Isenmouthe gate complementing the Black, held (from 1652-2000) by Indur, the Fourth (and most megalomaniacal) Nazgul; Minas Durlith, the only fortress of Mordor to withstand the assault of the Last Alliance. And there are dozens more NPCs besides the Nazgul: the Mouth, old players from Angmar and Dol Guldur, and new ones just as bad. The module was written by everyone under the sun (six authors), and so the results feel a bit patchwork, but it’s all top quality.

(8) Dunland and the Southern Misty Mountains. 4 ½ stars. Randell Doty, 1987. This one is a package of surprises. Half the module covers the region as advertised, while the other half features sites more interesting: a community of libertarian elves, a mutant dragon’s lair, and Isildur’s unmarked grave. It’s a case of the extras overshadowing the main feature, which turns out to be not a bad thing in this case. And if Dunland is overshadowed, it’s still done justice: the fifteen clans are described as they stand around the Great Plague period, each with unique character and cross-referenced as to how friendly they are with the others. Six call themselves the Daen Iontis (the “dispossessed” or “betrayed”) to show their displeasure with the way their ancestors trusted the Dunedain; their goal is to retake the ancient homeland and drive the Gondorians back into the sea. Two take the name of their ancestors, the Daen Coentis (the “skilled people”), and look to that heritage as a goal to re-attain. The other seven remain more neutral. But never mind that, it’s the elves of Amon Lind who steal the show: a small group of Noldor who left Eregion in the Second Age to continue their controversial projects without interference. Their hanging fortress in the Misty Mountains is a wonder, with transparent floors overlooking air, and walls containing pipes that play songs inducing a variety of spell effects — sleep, fear, holding, calm, or stun. They have (yes) air boats made with the rare metal Mithrarian which negates the effect of gravity. There are also questionable breeding experiments — human and elvish subjects merged with mammals like snow leopards and lynxes. While these elves aren’t really evil, they are certainly laws unto themselves, and their obsessions off-kilter, and there is rarely any disciplinary action taken on grounds of individual freedom. Dunland contains wonders I simply could never have expected out of a module devoted to a small region of primitives. I love it to pieces.

(9) The Lost Realm of Cardolan. 4 stars. Jeff McKeage, 1987. Cardolan is wild territory. On the one hand it exudes a sombre dignity, with sites steeped in more nobility than even Arthedain: the river/port cities of Tharbad and Lond Daer founded in the early Second Age, the burial grounds of the Barrow Downs going back to the First. On the other, its politics and landscape are so chaotic, and the princes such laws unto themselves that the king had effectively little control. It was more a smorgasbord of seven hirdoms (principalities) than an actual kingdom throughout 861-1409, that when it fell the princes hardly noticed and just carried on as usual, until forced to pack it in around 1700 and migrate to Arthedain or Gondor. The module is geared for the time of 1642 (soon after the Great Plague and the invasion of the Witch-King’s wights into the Barrow Downs), long after the fall of the monarchy, but with a little tweaking could, interestingly, be applied to the Times of Trouble (1235-1258), during the kingdom when civil war reigned and the royal compound at Thalion changed hands no less than eighteen times. Colorful personalities are detailed, with stats and bios provided for seven princes, best of all the usurping warlord Ardagor, a half-elf/half-troll abomination who hates orcs even more pathologically than men. The historical timeline is well fleshed out and does justice to a very complex nation. In my opinion, Cardolan is twice as tragic (though far less sympathetic) than Arthedain, being a victim of her own obduracies as much as outside influences like Angmar, and this is seen particularly in the fall from its peak of prosperity in the 1100’s from which it never recovered. It’s really one autonomy within another, with barons often barely heeding their hirs anymore than the hirs ever did their kings. Cardolan is a wild frontier with every castle for itself. A perfect sandbox.

(10) Rangers of the North. 4 ½ stars. John Ruemmler, 1985. The first Middle-Earth module I acquired will always hold a special place in my heart, though the cover is admittedly appalling, looking more like a magazine ad, perhaps because that’s exactly what it was, used on the back of Dragon in the ’80s to push ICE’s products. It gets highest marks for its treatment of the most tragic yet uplifting nation of men in Middle-Earth: Arthedain, chief among the three sister kingdoms of Arnor. And yet the module actually covers the entire history of the Dunedain starting in Numenor, to the founding of the two realms in exile, to the 2000-year lifespan of the northern one. The contrast with the south is captured perfectly: “As Gondor habitually reached for the sword and shield, Arnor looked to the stars and relied heavily on wizardry, lamenting each bloody encounter in song and verse.” As one built an empire, the other fragmented and died, but the latter was truly noble, in my view, and of course ultimately produced Aragorn who would reestablish both realms. There’s something incredibly haunting about Arthedain which taps into Tolkien’s “long defeat” theme — that evil can’t be defeated; any time it appears to be, it’s just a temporary holding action — and the module stirs tragic emotions in this regard. The specter of Angmar is always in the background, the crushing blow of 1975 waiting in the wings. Gandalf’s stats are provided here, along with the details of Narya, the elven ring of fire he acquired from Cirdan, a real selling point of the module. The unique features of the three northern palantiri are also described, and there’s even a Fourth-Age scenario premised on the recovery of the two lost seeing stones near the ice-bay of Arvedui’s shipwreck.

(11) Riders of Rohan. 4 ½ stars. Christian Gehman & Peter Fenlon, 1985. There’s resonant culture here. The Rohirrim are the closest to the Anglo-Saxons or even Norse in Tolkien’s world, courageous yet hopeless, “riding to ruin” to embrace that Ragnarok-like annihilation of all that is good. The long defeat runs in their blood, and in this sense they share more in common with the seers and rangers of Arthedain than most would think possible. But where the northern Dunedain are resigned to it, the horse-lords seem to thrive on it. It’s as if their history of repeated migrations and awful-odds warfare forged a culture of exultant fatalism. This module captures the mindset perfectly, as it chronicles the history of the horse-lords in their three stages: the Eothraim years of 1-1856 (Southern Rhovanion), the Eotheod era of 1856-2510 (the Anduin valley), and the Rohirric time of 2510+ (Rohan). This makes the module exceptionally easy to use anytime in the Third Age. Players can throw themselves into the Wainrider Wars, go against the Balchoth Confederacy, or bare their teeth against the Long Winter after the slaying of Wulf. It’s comprehensive in the way more ICE modules should have been; I’ll never understand the heavy reliance on a 1640 default setting. The mapwork is pretty good, notably Helm’s Deep, which is more fine-tuned than Aglarond in the Isengard module (see #21 below). The capital-towns of Framsburg and Edoras are presented for the Eotheod and Rohirric years (Buhr Widu for the Eothraim period was covered in Southern Mirkwood), and Druadan Forest is also showcased with a Wose village and circle of standing stones.

(12) Empire of the Witch-King. 4 ½ stars. Graham Staplehurst & Heike Kubasch, 1989. By rights this one should be up with Gorgoroth in the top ten, but it’s a bit crude and underdeveloped, especially considering that it’s a remake of the first Angmar module published in ’82. In fact, for me it should rank higher than the Mordor module; I was always more infatuated with Arnor than Gondor in my gaming days, my campaigns more Angmar-centric than Mordor-focused. And there’s something about Carn Dum that still grips me relentlessly. Angmar is a natural vacuum of life and all things joyful, whereas Mordor had to be fashioned that way. In such a landscape I can easily see a tribe like the Uruk-lugat taking root and thriving: gruesome even by orc standards, in thrall to the rejuvenated and beating heart of a vampire slain back in the First Age, and walking a thin line by holding their shaman in higher reverence than the Witch-King. As for the mannish priesthood, its practices are less about blood sacrifice and more about subtle brainwashing, but are just as chilling. And the assassin cult under command of the Angulion is a nice touch, rather reminiscent of the Amida Tong from ninja folklore in our world. Special orc communities are also given attention, including the bloodthirsty Uruk-lugat mentioned already, and the brutally efficient Uruk-kosh. It all adds up to a hellish landscape that only a Nazgul could hope to keep under control, and even that imperfectly. Again, the mapwork has a rather crude aesthetic, and the rooms of Carn Dum could have been juiced up more in this remake… but it’s an excellent product nonetheless, and I still shiver when I think of orcs who worship that pulsating heart, and man-priests who suck the life out of their students with litanies of hate.

(13) The Shire. 4 ½ stars. Wesley Frank, 1995. This insanely huge tome clocks in at 276 pages, but then I suppose Tolkien’s brainchildren deserve no less. And here they are, the hobbits, modern English peasants in a medieval feudal world. The Shire fleshes out the anachronisms: the use of surnames, reflecting common property rights instead of noble; the dislike of politics, and love of meals and festivals around hard labor; and the disdain of artistic imagination and scholarly endeavors, for which Bilbo Baggins, of course, was derided as a crank. This is all superbly integrated into the Shire’s geography, sandwiched in between Arthedain and Cardolan: “Hobbits have an open, cheerful nature that attracts them to Cardolani traditions — and most Shire-folk have ancestors born in that country — but their need for a safer life draws them to the stricter laws and stability of Arthedain.” And while not taken seriously by other races, something about their inherent innocence taps into dreams shared by the Siragale elves, Arthedain philosophers, and a wizard like Gandalf, since all of these know distant pasts when people lived in relative peace and without fear. Famous hobbits from different eras are detailed in the module, and there is a fabulous section on fireworks, a dozen different kinds. Most enjoyable are the layouts of famous hobbit holes: Bag End, Tookbank, and Brandy Hall. Bag End is even larger than I would have guessed, though Bilbo sealed off a number of rooms after inheriting the place from Bungo and Belladonna in 2934. The elvish glade of Woodhall (where Frodo enjoyed a respite with Gildor) is a special treat, with its magical wards and specially woven thickets keeping it safely concealed. Also detailed are typical elvish tree villages.

(14) The Grey Mountains. 4 stars. Craig Paget, Karen McCullough, & Joseph McCullough, 1992. These mountains are the playground of Morgoth’s drakes, and as such they’re an endless source of adventure for fools, the mega-experienced, or vengeful dwarves wanting to take back what’s theirs and retire fifty times over. I suppose you could say that dungeons and dragons are what the module is literally about, though if we’re magnanimous, “dungeons and dwarves” is more respectful of rightful claims. The dragons of Middle-Earth are twice as lethal as those of classic D&D, and fall into six breeds which I prefer over the rainbow kinds (yes, Dragonlance, I’m looking at you): cold-drakes, fire-drakes, ice-drakes, cave-drakes, marsh-drakes, and rain-drakes; and there are winged variations of the cold- and fire-, able to create local hurricanes just by stirring the air as they fly. The module provides stats and bios for 28 of them, including really nasty brutes like Scatha, Smaug, Ando-anca, Itangast, Throkmaw, and Uruial. And if this menagerie isn’t enough, there are also ice orcs, of all things, terrorizing the northern range with a priest-cult more terrifying than its military. Then there are the dwarves. The module can’t seem to decide whether it’s situated in the year 1640 or 2589, but of course it’s only during later times (2210-2589) that dwarves lived here until crushed by the cold-drake Ando-anca and forced to return to Erebor. There’s a real feeling of suspense conveyed by the Norr-dum setting and the splintered society under Dain I, as its about to replicate the tragedy of Durin VI in its final hours. And while the Balrog horror is far more epic than that of Ando-anca, The Grey Mountains is a surprisingly better module than Moria.

(15) Greater Harad. 4 stars. William Wilson, 1990. Greater Harad; the Seven Cities of the Sirayn; the intellectual hub and breadbasket of southern Middle-Earth. It’s a fantastic sandbox for setting adventures outside the familiar regions developed by Tolkien, with even more potential than the other regions of Harad. Near Harad may boast the naval port of Umbar, and Far Harad has the dazzling trade center of Bozisha-Dar, but Greater Harad eclipses them both with the size of its population, the extent of its lands, and the rigors of its history. Dynasties have risen and fallen as kings attempted to control this strip of earth. The culture is surpassed only by the elves and Numenoreans, to our world resembling somewhat of a cross between the Umayyad dynasty of Spain and imperial China (while the geography evokes northern Africa and the Middle-East). It’s a sophisticated but grim land where the proverb “one may have peace or freedom but not both” is proven time and again. The eastern port city of Tul Harar is the only place where citizens are truly free, a melting pot governed by a Gathering of Speakers; the other six cities are each ruled by a dictatorial Tarb, and at intervals throughout Harad’s history, the Tarb of Tul Isra actually rules all the cities (except Tul Harar). By far the most compelling city (to me) is the one in ruins after TA 1457, and displayed on the module’s cover: Charnesra, built from marble and sandstone, brought down by treacherous ambition, and now a base for underground cults launching suicidal sting operations across the land. Greater Harad is a great area for DMs and players to set up shop for many sessions of campaigning.

(16) Havens of Gondor. 4 stars. Carl Willner, 1987. This one takes the trophy for Gondor. Not the mightier Sea-Lords boasting the glory of Pelargir, nor the capital Minas Tirith which rightfully holds pride of place; not even the esoterically haunting Minas Ithil. Havens tops them all, and even its cover is a slam dunk. I can hardly think of an image (Amroth’s tragedy) more saturated in haunting loss: how the cliff-city of Lond Ernil became Dol Amroth. The module made me fall in love with the Belfalas region, as it was a segment of Tolkien’s world I knew so little about. ICE does a good job delineating its elvish heritage, relative independence, and strange aloofness from the dirtier politics of Gondor’s other provinces. After immersing myself in Havens, I wanted to walk the cliff-heights of Dol Amroth, sail the white ships, and visit the elves of Edhellond. I was intrigued by the half-elven blood of Dol Amroth’s princes (from TA 2004 onwards), and by Galadriel’s influences resonating from the Second Age. These weren’t the Grey Havens, granted, but they did feel surpassing in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. The Seaward Tower on the city’s western cliff is singled out for special treatment, and I like how Galadriel built it to commemorate the Last Alliance, infusing it with the power of Nenya “so that none but the Valar can bring it down”. The elf-haven of Edhellond is fairly presented, split in two parts, one above on a hill exposed to tasty sea breezes, the other below in a hidden harbor where its magic swan ships are kept. To this day I still have fantasies of growing old by the Belfalas coastline, frequenting the Lost Elf tavern, mixing with men and elves, and staring out to sea where that immortal king drowned searching his lost love.

(17) Sea-Lords of Gondor. 4 stars. John Morin, 1987. At the risk of sounding like a Castamir sympathizer, Sea-Lords defines the character of a nation better than any other Gondor module. There’s even a part of me that thinks the Dunedain would have been better off if the south had won, though that’s a matter of very ugly debate, and I personally wouldn’t support someone like Castamir anyway. Yet there’s no denying the Golden Age under Gondor’s four ship-kings, and the benefits to a southern capital with a naval focus remains an open question. Sea-Lords of Gondor has the wisdom not to answer it. In keeping with the spirit of all these modules, it simply presents the facts for DMs and players to mold however they wish. The era of the ship-kings (840-1149) saw Pelargir functioning as the nation’s capital in all but name, the home of the royal fleet, and a colonial ambition that ushered in success and peace never again enjoyed by men in the Third Age. What killed Gondor’s prosperity was the shift from a seaward focus to a landward one, especially by the 1300s, coupled with a morally enlightened thinking favoring allies over colonial subjects. Minalcar was a good man, but a highly questionable king in sending his son to wed a Northman princess; from that point, racist fears of a polluted line were all it took to cement the more substantive charge that the royal court at Osgiliath was failing its mandate. As for the mapwork, the City of the Faithful is the main feature, and if the contest between it and Minas Anor were determined by ICE’s mapwork, I’d pronounce Pelargir the capital at once. It’s built on a triangular plan at the junction of the Sirith and Anduin, the Sea-Lords’ Tower claiming the center on an isle where the Lord of Lebennin (often the Prince of Gondor) resides. Then there is Minas Daldor which guards the mouth of the Anduin, ruled by an insane bard believing himself to be a god. To the northwest of Pelargir is a haunted tor infested with semi-aquatic rodents, and the lost treasure of rebels who fought against Castamir during the civil war. It all conveys a feeling that the sea-lord province somehow wears on you after a while, that pride and ambition yield rebellion and madness… and perhaps, in the end, that’s the answer to our original question.

(18) Moria. 3 ½ stars. Peter Fenlon, 1984. Moria scores points for its versatile setting: it can be used in any age with few adjustments. It provides a thorough treatment of Durin’s folk, from their blasphemous creation under Aule down to the Fourth Age, and many things you’d think to ask about their customs, religion, military structure, and women. Yet it somehow never feels like ICE’s heart is in the project. On the other hand, it was a module I remember having very high expectations for, and I probably just never got over the letdown. It’s certainly not bad; it just could have been a lot more. That the dwarven rings of power aren’t detailed is an astounding criminal omission — Durin’s, at the very least, demands the same meticulous attention given to the elven and Nazgul rings in other modules. But kudos to the flexible setting. Khazad-dum was founded in the misty days of the first, absorbed the tribes of Belegost and Nogrod in the second (the Golden Age of trade with the elves of Eregion), and hit by demonic calamity in the late third. The Balrog period naturally offers the most in terms of dramatic conflict, and the module commendably extends beyond the usual 1640 focus to describe orc tribes (the “fire-ruler” and “slaver” groups), trolls, cave worms, and water-drakes that fill Moria’s halls in its time of darkness. It also does well in depicting dwarven technology, such as the elevators, fire wagons, and water wheels that make the mountain kingdom go round. The mapwork is a mixed bag, on the one hand, being comprehensive and showing all seven levels and seven deeps, and detailing important areas in the key. The problem is that this is done almost exclusively on route maps, with very few rooms zoomed in with standard dungeon layouts. This should be a module to brandish with enthusiasm; for all its diligence, regretfully, it comes up a bit short.

(19) Minas Ithil. 3 ½ stars. Mark Rabuck, 1991. This product is a blatant case of false advertisement, so much that I almost wrote a scathing letter to ICE when I bought it. Its cover broadcasts a winged Nazgul, promising the horrors of the 2002-3018 period, and just because it’s not called Minas Morgul doesn’t mean the unwary can’t be fooled. City modules are large (not to mention expensive), and there’s no reason why both the Ithil and Morgul periods wouldn’t both be covered — in the same way that Isengard accommodated both Gondor’s and Saruman’s occupation of Orthanc, and that Moria included the Balrog horror. Packaged in plastic back in the day, there was no way to skim through and see you were getting shafted. Everyone wanted Minas Morgul. As with my frustrations about Minas Anor (see “Minas Tirith” below at #20), there’s only so much detail required out of a “friendly” city for gaming purposes, and to pass up the opportunity of mining every nook and cranny at the Tower of Black Sorcery borders on incompetence. We thus end up with the curious embarrassment of one city module that falsely advertises with its title (“Minas Tirith”) and this one which criminally misleads with its cover — an implicit acknowledgment on ICE’s part that its choice of the 1640 period was less than wise. That said, I came to appreciate Minas Ithil once I got over my fury. It is an interesting city, and the building layouts are vast and precise, though as with Minas Anor, it feels like so much effort being expended on so little. The Tower of the Moon is obviously essential, as is the Queen’s Palace, and the University, and the arena for popular entertainment, and few other noteworthies, but most of this is just stuff DMs don’t need drawn out. I’m probably in the minority in preferring the architecture of this city over Minas Anor’s famous hill which grows out of the back rock; Minas Ithil’s main road winds up and around in complete circles, yielding seven “levels” in effect, but blurring together more seamlessly.

(20) Minas Tirith. 3 ½ stars. Graham Staplehurst, 1988. Once again, I need to discuss the cover, which is a splendid Angus McBride piece, but falsely pitched. The module isn’t set during the War of the Ring, nor at any time when the city was called Minas Tirith. Like most ICE modules, it follows the aftermath of the Great Plague, and thus when it was Minas Anor, and which is in fact what it’s referred to throughout the text. Admittedly this ends up not mattering much, since the city doesn’t change drastically throughout the Third Age. The stewards take over in 2050, the White Tower of Ecthelion is aggrandized in 2698, the White Tree dies in 2852… But it’s still a cheap trick, and foreshadows the outrageous stunt pulled in Minas Ithil which I ranted about above. But for what it does, it does well: the four-page color insert displays the city’s seven tiers, while the other side features a color map of the surrounding provinces of Anorien, Ithilien, and Lebennin. Within the module’s pages are all sorts of buildings laid out in unprecedented detail, though I remain underwhelmed by it all. The only places that really grab me are the libraries on the fifth level, the houses of healing and halls of the dead on the sixth, and of course the royal bastions on the seventh. You have to give Minas Tirith high marks for all the layout work, but despite its colossal ambitions — it’s 160 pages and the only hardcover module I ever acquired for any RPG — it’s something I could live without if I had to.

(21) Isengard and Northern Gondor. 3 stars. Christian Gehman, 1983. Isengard is an odd duck, certainly the most disjointed of the ICE modules. It divides its focus between the Kin-Strife and the period of Saruman’s residence at Orthanc, and whilst the latter is obviously essential, the choice of the year 1442 is bizarre. I personally find the political intrigue during Eldacar’s rebellion fascinating, but it’s a wasted esoteric exercise to delve into it here, and in fact, there is no reason why the entire module couldn’t have been set in the time of the Rohirrim — Isengard and the Riders of Rohan would have made a perfect unified product instead of being spread over two. I do have fond memories tied up in Isengard as a player, but it’s really lightweight and doesn’t take its mandate seriously. The rich cultural matrices of most campaign treatments are absent; in their place stand fragmented adventure scenarios. The only true selling point is Orthanc tower, which is impressively designed. The tower’s exterior is displayed on a four page color insert, along with all ten levels of the tower, and some rooms can be easily modified to accommodate either a pre- or post-Saruman setting. I.e. The guard rooms on the bottom levels can be for Gondorian soldiers or Uruk-hai. The rest of the module provides layouts for cities and fortresses in Calenardhon, long before it became Rohan: the fortress of Aglarond (later the Hornburg, or Helm’s deep), the cities of Calmirie (later Aldburg) and Ondirith (later Stowburg), and the Glittering Caves. None of which has any relation to Orthanc when it matters most, which makes Isengard, ultimately, a garbled edifice. Then too, the layout of Aglarond remains essentially the same as Helm’s Deep in Riders of Rohan, but less fine-tuned, confirming that the two modules should have been done as one.

(22) Far Harad: The Scorched Land. 2 ½ stars. Charles Crutchfield, 1988. A disappointing effort for a region with so much potential. It could have easily been the MERP campaign equivalent of TSR’s Oriental Adventures, standing on the vision of a distant alien culture with harsh codes of honor and shame. But none of this is fleshed out significantly beyond the impact of religious myths. There is the sun god Vatra, not warmly received by Harad’s people, who scorched the lands into desert. This was in fury over his wife, the moon goddess Ladnoca, who had turned against him for slaying her father. She is the common object of worship, and the coastal capital of Bozisha-Dar is named after her (“Gift of the Goddess”), despite its cosmopolitan outlook which pits it against the tent-city of Tresti leagues away. Aside from this dynamic, there isn’t much meat on the backbone of Far Harad; almost nothing about the desert nomads outside urban areas. The city of Bozisha-Dar contains some intrigue; the Council of Regents has been ruling stably there for the first half of the Third Age (the time period is 1640), and will continue doing so until the savage Sun-Lord dynasty takes control (2194-3019). I can think of many TSR classics I’d use in Far Harad — The Lost City, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, and certainly Tomb of Horrors, to name a few. There’s something about deserts that lend to pulpy D&D scenarious; I also approve the catalog of native wilderness creatures: sand devils, ghoul-like lesinas, sand drakes, and best of all, the Razarac (“Destroyer”) which is basically a desert Balrog. But all in all, Far Harad sits like an unfinished product; either the author lost interest, or he just didn’t know what to do with it.

(23) Ents of Fangorn. 2 ½ stars. Randell Doty, 1987. This was a module that couldn’t possibly live up to expectations. The best part is the cover which represents a cherished scene from The Two Towers. John Howe’s Treebeard is better, but Angus McBride’s is still very good, and what he’s serving up actually points to the next best thing about the module, a full description of the ent draughts. The third feature I like is the biographical information sketched out for the elders (Treebeard, Skinbark, and Leaflock) as well as demographical; we learn that there are about 150 ents in Fangorn (around the time of 1640), allowing some 160 square miles of forest area per ent, though there are many more of the wildly hostile Huorns. And that pretty much exhausts my accolades for Ents of Fangorn. The problem is that less than half the module actually deals with the ents. This wouldn’t be such a liability if the product had been called Fangorn and the Borderlands or Fangorn and the Caverns of Pain, and if those other parts were at least good. After hobbits, ents are the best thing about Middle-Earth, and if you’re going to sideline them, you’d best have damn good supplements. The supplements here are a Gondorian town and orc cavern, each about as memorable as the shit I took yesterday. For the positives, the egalitarian nature of the ents is well portrayed: their structure founded on a premise of mutual respect without a hierarchy of leaders, though elders like Treebeard are looked to as chief advisers; any ent can call a moot to discuss any topic. The draughts are fantastic, and their side-effects on non-ents completely worked out. For more negatives, the mapwork contains little about Fangorn Forest, which is a crying shame.

(24) Umbar: Haven of the Corsairs. 2 ½ stars. Brenda Spielman, 1982. If I were grading these modules purely on the basis of aesthetic, Umbar would go down worst. The cover art is primitive, the inner work crudely presented, and the writing lazy; there are even entire paragraphs copied verbatim in different sections. I realize this was ICE’s first stab at Middle-Earth — it was the very first module — but you’d think results would have been better for it. By the time of the module’s setting (TA 1607), the fallen Numenoreans have absorbed the Corsairs, and ICE does a good job avoiding political caricatures, particularly in the oligarchy of six, the Captains of the Havens who rule. I was half-expecting the module to portray the Corsair state as a tyranny of Castamir-monarchs, but it goes a wiser and more complex route. Bitter memory of the Kin-Strife is precisely what keeps an even balance of power in Umbar. The Captains are largely decent, if driven by various passions — one obsessing a lost wife, another a bon vivant, a female captain with royal ambitions, an effective crusader against dark worship — and certainly not evil in any Angmarian sense. Yet for all this, there’s something subterranean about Umbar. There’s bad religion; slavery; a dangerous wizard’s guild; amoral merchant families; nobles who would sell their own mother for a greater good; all as if Numenor’s legacy has become genetic to the city itself. Aside from the four-page color detachable of the city (one side) and the region around it (the other), the cartography of Umbar is crude as hell. The six tower holds of the Captains are laid out, as well as their castles outside the city — all very hard on the eye. The Lair of the Dark Worship is also scrawled up, and offers some classic adventure beneath sea caves.

(25) Shadow in the South. 2 stars. Chris Stone & Peter Fenlon, 1988. The problem with this one is that it doesn’t feel like Middle-Earth, and from me that’s significant; I’m anything but a Tolkien purist. But I want to at least feel the spirirt of Tolkien. For all the dramatic creativity displayed in frontiers like The Northern Waste and The Court of Ardor, and even the Harad modules, that strong Tolkien feel is always present. In Shadow in the South, the resonance collapses. I won’t deny I had fun going through it as a player, and even now I can see why: there are evil temples, vile tombs, and enchanted mazes to keep the boldest PCs occupied for many gaming sessions. But the land is fleshed out so artificially that it feels like Greyhawk — as if someone thew a bunch of hastily concocted cultures at the map and let them fall where they may. There’s also a certain laziness in vision by this point. The peninsula is called The Dominions of the Seven, ruled by lords of Numenorean descent who do their best to keep the shadow of the Storm King at bay. The number “seven” has been obsessed in these southern modules to the point of irritation: Far Harad ruled by a Council of Seven Regents; Greater Harad the Land of the Seven Cities; and now this. It only underscores how ICE is operating outside the geographical canon in a rather cheap way. The “shadow” over this peninsula comes in the form of evil minions operating everywhere, some openly, others from under rocks, most at cross-purposes with each other: the Army of the Southern Dragon, under command of the Nazgul Storm King; the Cult of the Dark Overlord, led by four liches; the Priesthood of the Black Hand, preaching openly for Sauron; the Slayers, a coalition of assassins; and the Cult of the Real Fire, holding Aluva (Eru) and Malkora (Melkor) in equal reverance, evangelizing every corner of the Dominions with obnoxious dualistic fervor.

(26) Northern Mirkwood. 1 star. John Ruemmler, 1983. This travesty of a module is written in a sophomoric and exclamatory style, nothing at all like the other ICE modules. “The lowly flea, mass murderer of Mirkwood? Impossible! No, it’s true.” Or: “Perhaps no creatures in Middle-Earth have tingled so many spines and inspired so many ‘Yechs!’ of disgust as the Giant Spiders of Mirkwod.” Still worse: “Enough of gruesome, loathsome, evil creatures! Consider the mighty monarchs of the woods, the Great Bears.” There is also plain incompetence, even silliness, as found, for instance, in this unbelievable description of orcs: “If they accidentally hack off a fellow orc’s limb, the injured orc is likely to say, ‘Hey, that’s okay! I have another!'” Does anyone remember those April Fool parodies in the ’80s issues of Dragon? That’s what I thought Northern Mirkwood was on first reading. Unfortunately, the entire module is as bad as the prose, for it doesn’t offer much beyond a bare-bones geographical sketch of the region and superficial overviews of the cultures of the wood-elves, dwarves, and the men of Long Lake. There is some useful background here, but not much; it’s very possibly the worst Tolkien accessory ICE ever published. The mapwork continues in offenses. First and worst are the Halls of the Elven-King, which are more like TSR’s Caves of Chaos, and what’s amusing is that the author seems acutely aware of how poorly he represented Thranduil’s home: “After reading this one might think that these halls are cold and damp, having perhaps visited natural caves; but this is not true.” But declarations of this sort mean nothing, for indeed these caverns do no justice to what the elven structure should look like; on top of this, the rooms are given almost no detail whatsoever in the key. It’s no surprise that ICE would later completely redo The Elven-King’s Halls in a fortress module (see here, where I rank it at #8 with a 4-star rating). The Lonely Mountain isn’t much better. Like Moria it’s portrayed with unsatisfying route maps (only the Chamber of Thror is given a proper layout), but Moria at least detailed the room contents.

 

Also see my rankings of the adventure sized modules.

Middle-Earth Modules Ranked (Adventure Sized)

The teaser for amazon’s Middle-Earth series got me revisiting my collection of ICE modules, and a huge collection that is. Most of them are the campaign sized, but I have some of the smaller adventure and fortress modules too. Of the sixteen adventures published by ICE, I acquired the first eight, and of the four fortresses, I acquired three. After around ’87-’88, I gave up buying these smaller modules and focused on the campaign-sized and city/citadel series only. Here’s the entire catalog of adventure and fortress modules; I don’t own the ones in italics.

All of ICE’s Adventure Sized Modules:

Bree and the Barrow Downs, 1984
Daglorlad and the Dead Marshes, 1984
Hillmen of the Trollshaws, 1984
The Tower of Cirith Ungol and Shelob’s Lair, 1984
Erech and the Paths of the Dead, 1985
Goblin Gate and Eagles’ Eyrie, 1985
Thieves of Tharbad, 1985
Rivendell, 1987

Brigands of Mirkwood, 1987
Mouths of the Entwash, 1988
Dark Mage of Rhudaur, 1989
Forest of Tears, 1989
Warlords of the Desert, 1989
Rogues of the Borderlands, 1990
Ghost Warriors, 1990
River Running, 1992

All of ICE’s Fortress Modules:

Weathertop, 1987
The Tower of the Teeth, 1988
The Halls of the Elven-King, 1988

Calendhad: A Beacon of Gondor, 1990

My ranking will exclude the titles in italics, making a total of 11 modules for consideration. (In the next post, I’ll rank all 26 campaign sized modules, since I own every one.) Interesting that with the single exception of Dagorlad and the Dead Marshes, my ranking follows the publication dates almost to a tee. The earlier the better: the 1984 publications (except Dagorlad) make my top 3, the 1985 publications come next, and then Rivendell almost last. Ditto with the fortress modules. Weathertop is best, and so on. Here they are. I did retrospectives for these modules years ago, and gave them two ratings, for history/culture and for maps/layouts, but not an overall rating in an actual ranking.

(1) Bree and the Barrow Downs. 5 stars. Heike Kubasch, 1984. There’s something primal about Bree and the Barrow-Downs, and not just because it was ICE’s first adventure-sized module. It sets a haunting stage: a crossroads village where men and hobbits co-exist, surrounded by ongoing tensions — bandits on the roads and evil tombs off them. This breathes classic D&D in a way few modules get at so simply and it’s aged tremendously well. In my view it holds the near equivalent status of TSR’s Village of Hommlet and Keep on the Borderlands, though it’s not necessarily tailored for low-level characters. The Barrow Downs would slay beginners in an instant. But the power of the wights goes beyond killing people who just happen to be stupid (or ignorant) enough to not stay away: “The wights are symbols that point to the waning of the Dunedain of the North since the coming of Angmar; men now lack the strength to keep their ancient graves free of unclean spirits.” This is a recent phenomenon: only in 1638 were the wights sent from Angmar to animate Arnor’s dead kings and princes and make the tombs their home for the rest of the Third Age. The module is set in the year 1700, making the undead presence a fresh wound, and thus primarily a killer of morale. Graphic brutality is fun — and rituals by which the wights carry victims into the barrows and deck them with jewels in preparation for ugly sacrifice are described here — but tone is just as important in RPGs, and Bree gets the tone perfect. The mapwork includes arial views for the villages of Bree, Staddle, Archet, and Combe; and there are interior layouts for 24 barrows — First-Age barrows, the royal barrows of Arnor’s kings (from 1-861), and the barrows of Cardolan’s kings and princes (861-1409). There are plenty of artifacts, magic items unheard of, jewels, and antiquated coin in these tombs, but stealing them without being killed or vilely cursed is the real trick.

(2) Hillmen of the Trollshaws. 5 stars. Jeff McKeage, 1984. One of this module’s major strengths is its flexibility. It’s suitable for almost anytime before the fall of Arthedain and dissolution of Angmar, whether during Rhudaur’s inclusion in Arnor (1-861), its independence as a sister kingdom to Arthedain and Cardolan (861-1349), its subservience as a puppet state of Angmar (1349-1410), or its complete dominance under Angmar (1410-1975). Rhudaur changed a great deal throughout these periods, and the module is designed to show its growth and decline, particularly at the capital of Cameth Brin, which is a horror show unto itself. The other strength is the cultural resonance. The primitive culture of the Hillmen contrasts sharply with their Dunedain overlords, notable for its rejection of both the Valar and Black Religion of Sauron in favor of ancestor worship, with a particular reverence for ghosts. Of which there are plenty to be found: the Ta-Fa-Lisch (dwarven ghosts) haunt Cameth Brin in the early days before the Dunedain take control. The layout of Cameth Brin (“The Twisted Hill”) dominates the product, and even its early structure is provided for those who wish to get involved with ghosts working in cahoots with Hillmen. After the Dunedain expansion of 166-339, it becomes Rhudaur’s capital, though no less ominous, with halls of enchanted darkness, surprising traps, and a generally schizophrenic feel that betrays haunted roots underneath an advanced Dunedain architecture, which in turn becomes usurped by Hillmen much later after the Great Plague. The barracks settlement of Tanoth Brin below the hill is also detailed, as well as the nearby town of Talugdaeri. Then there’s an exemplary troll lair for those desiring adventure outside of Cameth Brin. Add to all of this the color map of central Rhudaur, and the end result is pretty much what’s needed for a solid Rhudaur campaign any time pre-1975.

(3) The Tower of Cirith Ungol and Shelob’s Lair. 4 ½ stars. Carl Willner, 1984. Perhaps the most striking thing about this module is its advocacy of restraint in deploying the great spider: “Shelob does not attack everyone venturing into her lair, for if she did, no sane and fresh beings would come. She exacts her ghastly toll on perhaps a quarter of those merely passing through.” Sometimes the best approach is messing with PCs’ minds and allowing them to loot unscathed. For one, they won’t believe their luck and be constantly on guard against the worst; two, it pays off in future encounters when they do let their guard down. Shelob’s lair pays dividends even when her majesty stays off-stage: there are hatcheries swarming with young spiderlings, refuse pits more nauseating than a Siberian toilet, and larders where live prey are suspended upside down from the ceiling. Half of these victims are just as well destined for spider feed (the orcs and trolls), and all are 80% likely to be awake, accentuating the horror of the place. It’s one of those rare dungeons where a tense monstrous presence is felt at all times, however real or imagined. Anyone sauntering into Shelob’s Pit itself, however, is in for the reality of pure hell. It’s a 500-foot diameter cavity ringed by a narrow ledge, which her majesty will do her utmost to knock intruders off, and send them bouncing down a quarter-of-a-mile slope to the center of the floor. Where lies “a mass of bones, possessions, rotting flesh and filth so vile as to stagger the imagination and send anyone with a constitution less than 90 [15 in D&D] into a fit of violent retching”. The rest of the architecture delivers as it should: the Tower of Cirith Ungol with its eleven levels, and two orc dens in the Morgai Vale. The tower is held by Gondor in the module’s time frame (1640), and unlike the city module Minas Ithil, on which such a period was criminally wasted, here it’s ideal. It’s classic Keep on the Borderlands, in fact, with the lone bastion of Cirith Ungol raising a precarious fist against enemy incursions from Mordor.

(4) Goblin-Gate and Eagles’ Eyrie. 4 ½ stars. Carl Willner, 1985. The best old-school D&D modules managed to pack a lot in short space, and Goblin-Gate reminds me of that effortless economy. First, there’s the mountain city of the orcs, spanning close to forty miles; second the Northmen town of Maethelburg east of the mountain range; third the sky citadel of the eagles; and last a giant’s isle in a massive lake to the north of the High Pass. All of this in a 40-page module. True, the eagles’ lair doesn’t have much to it, and is described in a single paragraph, but aside from this point, the module delivers mightily. Goblin-Gate is essentially Mount Gundabad in miniature (see #4 in my ranking of the campaign modules), with a quarter of the population (around 3000 orcs) but the same infra-structure. The Great Goblin is as nasty as the northern Ashdurbuk, has a pair of warlords on hand just as treacherous and a priest whose sacrificial knife is just as busy. The warlords command gates instead of spires: the Wolf Gate, the Back Door, and (after the dwarf war of 2793-99) the concealed Front Porch that would ensnare Bilbo and the dwarves. Goblin-town itself is classic D&D nastiness, a network of caverns and twisting passages ending in wild feasting halls, torture chambers, and (again like Gundabad) a gladitorial arena where slaves and captives battle hideous creatures for their lives. The wild card of Goblin-Gate is of course Gollum (during the 2470-2944 period), an invisible predator who hates orcs as much as the Free Peoples, and he can be put to extraordinarily good use. “Lone intruders are 90% likely to be ambushed by surprise, but there is only a 20% that Gollum will attack a hobbit outright.” To run Goblin-Gate without at least one hobbit PC is a wasted opportunity; DMs can get plenty of mileage replicating the bickering and backbiting dynamics out of The Two Towers, let alone The Hobbit.

(5) Weathertop. 4 ½ stars. Peter Fenlon, 1987. This was the first in the short-lived fortress series, whose stated intent was “to provide DMs with extremely detailed overviews of individual towers, castles, citadels, and other fortifications of particular note”. It’s also the best, though that’s probably my love for all things Arnor talking. What can be said about Weathertop? It was everything: the realm’s greatest stronghold, home of the High Seer and chief palantir, and strategically situated on holy ground — all, of course, tragically gone after the Witch-King’s army demolished it in 1409. There’s potent history here, and the rocks are full of it. The module even traces back to the sacred times of the First Age when the hill was an astrological holy site for the Edain, though the treatment is understandably brief; the focus of the fortress series is on architecture rather than history. For the Third Age, the tower garrisons and civilian populations are detailed for all relevant periods, in particular the military forces supplied by each of the sister kingdoms (Arthedain, Cardolan, and Rhudaur) when Arnor split in 861, and possession of the hill was hotly contested. The layout of Weathertop is breathtaking, I believe the most thorough treatment of any stronghold put out by ICE with the exception of Dol Guldur. The critical part is of course the tower, and all rooms on all fourteen levels are fully detailed and even given artistic representations so you can tell just at a glance the function and contents of each room. In addition to guard halls and guest chambers are the armories, libraries, alchemical hall, sage’s hall, warden’s chambers, king’s chambers (for when he visits), and the seer’s chambers which contain the holiest of holies, the Hall of the Stone. The outer defenses are covered just as diligently: the lower and upper gates, the prison tower, bastions and watches, stables and smithies. It’s rare to see this level of detail in any gaming product.

(6) Erech and the Paths of the Dead. 4 ½ stars. Ruth Sochard, 1985. The Paths are among the most terrifying places in Middle-Earth, and with this module a DM could mine that terror effectively. In some ways I like MERP’s classification of the undead more than TSR’s; this product outlines the hierarchy: ghouls at the bottom, dumb corpses able to inflict disease but not drain energy; skeletons next, much more fearsome than the TSR breed, able to energy-drain, and cause fear and stun; then ghosts, devoid of physical bodies but intelligent and able to drain energy, sometimes even unconsciously; and finally, wraiths or wights, the worst energy-drainers, often spell-users, and able to mesmerize or dominate their prey by force of will. All of these can be found in the paths, especially ghosts, but that’s not all. There are also the weird pukel-creatures that lie dormant and animate in the presence of the living: stone men, rock lizards, granite spiders, stalactite birds, and even “living lightning”. This horror show is the product of oath-breaking, an act which carries devastating consequences in Tolkien’s world, as bad as a high-level D&D curse. The treachery dates to the end of the Second Age, when Gondor’s primitives (the Daen Coentis) refused to honor the Dunedain and march against Sauron, and the effects were instant: ore veins dried up, livestock died, harvests shrunk, artisans forgot their skills, and women became barren. People who died suddenly walked the tombs of the primitive nobles, tormented by local confinement. The paths thus sweat a despair that feels intrinsic to the place, something self-inflicted, unlike the invaded Barrow-Downs. It doesn’t come to together in the same flawless way of Bree and the Barrow Downs, but it’s one hell of an undead module just the same.

(7) The Teeth of Mordor. 4 ½ stars. Terry Amthor, 1988. Planting a Nazgul at the Black Gate was a shrewd move on ICE’s part, and makes The Teeth of Mordor as forbidding as Carn Dum and Dol Guldur. I got creative by investing the Teeth with a “split-personality”, as if Carchost and Narchost were a fossilized Demogorgon whose two heads strive to dominate and kill each other. On the western end, Carchost the “Fang-Fortress” has the obscene interrogation chambers and perverted chapel run by an ancient priest. But the astrologer captain Krusnak steals the show (in my fantasy), as he schemes to bring down Dwar whom he worships but envies. He wants nothing less than to become the Third of the Nine, and one out of four evenings actually believes he is the Dog-lord. He plots to obtain the ring of power he believes Dwar has in his possession (clueless that Sauron keeps the Nazgul rings during the Third Age while the One is lost). I made him recklessly unstable, though one of Sauron’s most efficient inquisitors, and his derangement contagious; at night the tower’s soldiers go on mindless rampages, terrorizing the wastelands at the back of Dwar’s hounds — joined, every fourth evening, by the “Dog-lord” himself. Meanwhile, over at the eastern leg, the real Dog-lord, for his part, tolerates this insanity, while storing up wrath to rend his astrologer limb from limb. Narchost the “Fire-Tower” mirrors the structure of Carchost, but has its own “personality” given by ICE, and which I revved up to the nth degree. The volcanic fissure makes Dwar’s audience hall a harrowing encounter area: a throne set in front of the crack, on a stepped platform of black glass, with access to the platform via a narrow bridge arching over liquid rock, and everything in the room obscured by smoking black-red shadows. The Teeth of Mordor is a fond memory for all the weird energy I put into it; it was roaring fun to get so much mileage out of my favorite Nazgul — “both” of them, for that matter.

(8) The Halls of the Elven-King. 4 stars. Tom Loback, 1988. This fortress module atones for the astounding display of incompetence in Northern Mirkwood (see #26 in my ranking of the campaign modules), and basically pretends that it’s the first stab at Thranduil’s halls. In a sense it is. The previous scribbled-up version isn’t remotely close to what could be thought of as the seat of Silvan royalty. By comparison this product belongs in the Louvre. The only thing that grates on my nerves is the first-person narrative style used in the map key, told from the point of view of a Dale merchant who visited the elves. It’s a nice try at something different, but memoirs are distractive to a DM who just needs the facts. In any case, Thranduil’s abode is now grounded imperatively in the memory of Thingol: “Both housed great halls built under large hills on the banks of a river. Both halls had limited access over the river by a single stone bridge. The borders east and west were protected by rivers, and both were situated in a deep forest.” Because it’s a fortress module (like Weathertop and The Teeth of Mordor), it benefits immensely from the mega-zoom shots of key rooms with detailed drawings. Every anvil, work bench, forge and barrel can be seen in the foundry, every tree pillar in the throne hall, every table and fire pit in the feast hall, and more. The two-page center displays an impressive 3D look at the halls through the outside hills, doing everything possible to bring to life ancient Sindarin architecture now fused with the primitive Silvan. The halls are given four levels (against Northern Mirkwood’s pitiful single one), a ground, an upper, and two below. Put simply, these are the Elven-King’s Halls as they should have been done in the first place.

(9) Thieves of Tharbad. 4 stars. Lisa Evans, Walter Hunt, Evan Jamieson, Richard Meyer, & Robert Traynor, 1985. The city of Tharbad is the “eighth principality of Cardolan”, steeped in nobility, but saturated in corruption; nominally ruled by the Cardolani king (861-1409) or Gondorian Canotar (1414-2052), but effectively a free city; a riverport that survived almost to the end of the Third Age (2912), long after the rest of Cardolan ceased to exist (c. 1700). It’s the closest thing to Lankhmar that exists in Tolkien’s world: a decadent overcrowded melting pot so unlike the grand cities like Annuminas, Minas Anor, and Minas Ithil. It’s fittingly set in the year 1410, during the chaotic aftermath of the Second Northern War, offering scenarios of extortion rings, food smugglers, and all levels of sordid thievery. The two-page color coded map of Tharbad is essentially the entire module, with certain buildings and sites laid out in more detail. The Gwathlo River divides the city into three parts: the north and south banks, and the island bridging them. The north side is dominated by guilds like the glassblowers, lampmakers, gravediggers, and singers, while the south boasts more educated talents such as scholars, healers, alchemists, and shipwrights. The center island, meanwhile, is the heart of the city, with King’s Row closest to the center, including the mayor’s office and townhouses of the seven hirs (princes) of Cardolan, as well as luxury shops and homes of the richest merchants; this area segues into the commoner’s quarter where the city is actually run by servants and artisans; finally, at the far eastern end is Middle-Earth’s version of Lankhmar, the poorest quarter of the entire city, a decaying labyrinth of streets swarming with thieves, whores, and drug-dealers.

(10) Rivendell. 3 stars. Terry Amthor, 1987. Only in Middle-Earth can you get an entire module out of an inn without it feeling like a cheat, but even here I’m pushing it. Rivendell may be where great decisions are made and Elrond wields the mightiest elven ring, but this module isn’t the masterpiece it deserves to be. Yet I can’t think of a way it could have possibly been done as outstanding as the Lorien module. Unlike the ethereal Golden Wood or the transcendent Grey Havens, Rivendell is rooted in a simplicity so pure it’s almost banal. It makes me regret even more that ICE never got around to the Grey Havens module it promised in the ’90s. I would have much preferred Mithlond over Imladris, and to see Angus McBride wrestle with more ineffable visions in his cover art. In any case, the vale surrounding Rivendell is a pocket paradise, as it functions according to Elrond’s command of the ring. Vilya can control weather and cause hallucinatory terrain, as well as heal, exorcise, and restore, and then also create air gusts and cause tornadoes; plus some generic bonuses common to all the elven rings. The surrounding culture of Rhudaur is briefly covered, and the module works perfectly in tandem with Hillmen of the Trollshaws; there are suggested adventures involving spying for Elrond in the region. It’s also perched on the doorstep of Goblin-Gate for any who want to depart hobbit-wise into the Misty Mountains. As neither an open colony like the Grey Havens, nor a secluded realm like Lorien, Rivendell is hidden yet accessible, but on a small scale to make just finding it a major task, and this is probably the kind of scenario I’d run, with enemies hot on the PCs’ heels a la “Flight to the Ford”.

(11) Dagorlad and the Dead Marshes. 2 stars. Ruth Sochard, 1984. This module isn’t half as good as its undead cousins, Bree and the Barrow Downs and Erech and the Paths of the Dead. By rights it should have been a smash. The marshes outside Mordor are plagued by a variety of scares: corpse candles, casualty-remains of the Last Alliance, covered with illusions to appear whole, lurking in the water, beckoning awfully; corpse lanterns, larger and more lethal versions of the corpse candles; and swamp stars, the hypnotic lights which lure victims to quicksand pits and other bog-snares. These fascinations, regretfully, are given fleeting coverage in favor of hugely dull sites. Where the towns of Bree and Sarn Erech integrated perfectly with their looming horrors, Caras Gwindor feels contrived, and the Dead Marshes just don’t scare us enough to care. I wanted suffocating underwater networks, and got Tol Malbor instead: the bandit hideout in the middle of the marshes — the “Isle of the Golden Fist” — its design is as fine as it goes, but it feels extraneous. And the bandits aren’t as juicy as they let on, having authority issues and baggage common to most outlaws, nothing more. Even from above Dagorlad fails. At the very least I was expecting to see the safeways taken by Gollum guiding Frodo and Sam, but they aren’t to be found. There is a Gondorian fortress protecting a nearby town, a marsh settlement, and a burial mound infested with ghouls — tacked on as an epilogue, of all things, when this sort of thing should have been commanding center stage.

 

Also see my rankings of the campaign sized modules.

The Nazgul, Part 1: Bios of the Nine

I’m working on a D&D project involving Tolkien’s Nazgul, and here are their bios. Most of this history derives from Iron Crown Enterprise’s Lords of Middle-Earth, Volume 2 (1987), though I’ve taken liberties, modified them to suit my campaigns, and also made them a bit more colorful. I used Paint to spotlight the regions in Middle-Earth ruled by each Nazgul. For all the detailed mapwork provided by ICE, no module or accessory ever showed the perspective of the nine regions together on one map. In the next post I’ll give the stats, items, and special powers of each Nazgul.

1. Murazor, the Witch King. The First of the Nine is the only Nazgul to have never ruled a kingdom prior to serving Sauron, which is ironic. If not for his brother he would have been the 13th king of Numenor. Murazor was the son of Tar-Ciryatan (r. SA 1869-2029), younger brother of the future Tar-Atanamir the Great (r. SA 2029-2221), proud and greedy, and he never forgave his brother for being firstborn. His jealousy shaped history: in SA 1880 he gathered a small fleet and sailed for Middle-Earth, trying to seize and control regions here and there, but accomplishing little more than pissing off his father who demanded that he return home. Sauron wanted to completely corrupt this Numenorean prince of high blood, and he filled Murazor’s ears with flattery, convincing him that he had the potential to become an invincible mage. Murazor did just that, traveling to the Barad-dur in 1883 and nearly destroying himself over the next century as he struggled to master the Black Art. He finally emerged in 1998 as the most powerful mage in all of Middle-Earth (after Sauron), and was rewarded for his efforts with a Ring of Power. From that point on he was the Dark Lord’s most trusted and valued right-hand. When Sauron was “killed” at the end of the Second Age, Murazor’s spirit, like the other Nazguls’, passed into the shadow realm until it reformed over a thousand years later in the Third Age (1050). He resided with Sauron at Dol Guldur between TA 1050-1276, and then left Mirkwood to establish the realm of Angmar (click on the map), which he ruled for almost 700 years (1300-1974) as the terrifying Witch King. It took him that long to destroy the northern kingdom of Arnor — the greatest tragedy of the Third Age. The next stage was Gondor: he went to Mordor in 1975, and marshaled the other Nazgul for an attack on Minas Ithil. The attack came in 2000 and the city was taken after a two-year siege. The sacking was merciless, and the chief scribe of Minas Ithil recorded famously, “If you desire to know what was done with Gondor’s finest, know that in our last stand, the orcs rode in the blood of our men up to the shoulders of their wargs.” Those who surrendered were crucified in a parade extending miles down the road to Ithilien. Murazor wasted no time filling the city with deadly magics and untold horrors, and almost overnight Minas Ithil (“City of the Rising Moon”) was transformed into Minas Morgul (“City of Dark Sorcery”). The Witch King ruled the ghastly place for the next thousand years (2002-3018), continuing where he left off in Angmar, now intent on destroying Gondor. Alas, such was not to be: he was killed in 3019 during the War of the Ring, slain by a princess of Rohan and a hobbit of the Shire.

2. Khamul, the Black Ranger. The Second of the Nine was another favorite of Sauron and spent most of his Third-Age centuries under the same roof with him in Southern Mirkwood. He came from a line of half-elven royalty, and prior to being corrupted by Sauron was the King of Womawas Drus (click on the map), from SA 1844-1999. Toward the end of that reign he lost control, as the lords renounced his rule in favor of Numenorean colonizers who established trade. In desperation Khamul sought the help of his elven stepmother who ruled the nearby Avar kingdom (and who had molested him as a child), and in 1994 she agreed to an alliance with him in return for his complete allegiance and loyalty. Knowing this was a deal with the devil, he agreed, which saved his kingdom (with her aid he mercilessly crushed his Numenorean rivals) but costed him his soul. For his stepmother was in the service of Sauron, and on his orders she gave him a Ring of Power in 1999. Khamul abruptly disappeared, leaving for Mordor to serve Sauron until his fall at the end of the Second Age. After reforming in the Third Age (1050), he was sent back to Womawas Drus to wage war on his homeland, which he took in 1099. He ruled the Womaw as the Black Ranger for 200 years, until recalled to Dol Guldur. For the rest of the Third Age (1300-3018), he remained at Dol Guldur (the Mountain of Dark Sorcery in Southern Mirkwood) as the commander of Sauron’s war host, and as the lord of the mountain itself in Sauron’s absence (especially during the Watchful Peace of 2063-2460). The only time Khamul was out of favor with Sauron was during 2850-2941, after Gandalf the Grey penetrated the mountain’s defenses and learned Sauron’s identity. Sauron was so incensed at Khamul’s incompetence that he tortured the Nazgul by natural fire and water for two whole weeks, and then put him under the Mouth’s authority for the next 91 years (the Mouth had always been under Khamul’s authority at Dol Guldur, and he relished this turnabout). The only time Khamul resided elsewhere was during the ten-year exile (2941-2951) after the White Council attacked Dol Guldur at Gandalf’s urging. Khamul stayed at Minas Morgul during that time, and when Sauron openly declared himself in 2951, the Dark Lord remained at the Barad-dur (with the Mouth) for the rest of the Third Age, sending Khamul back to reoccupy Dol Guldur with two other Nazgul (Adunaphel and Uvatha). Khamul had an acute sense of smell, and during the War of the Ring, it was he who almost sniffed out Frodo’s hiding place below the road in the Green Hill Country. He was killed when the One Ring was destroyed.

3. Dwar, the Dog Lord. The Third of the Nine was the most wrathful Nazgul and resisted any authority, including the Witch King. Born the son of a poor fisherman on the island of Waw (click on the map), Dendra Dwar knew cruelty and bloodshed since childhood. His story is a lot like Conan’s. He was forced to work hard since the age of seven, and when he was ten his father and mother were mutilated and killed in front of him by savage invaders. The invaders spared his life, but gang-raped him for days after the island’s sacking. Vowing revenge when he came of age, Dwar sailed north to the mainland at Wol, enlisted in the army, and learned the most brutal methods of war. He rose in the ranks as a warrior and expert tracker, and was assigned to breed and train the great Wolim warhounds. Hounds proved to be his calling in life, and in SA 1981 he emerged as the Lord of Dogs and led an army to retake Waw. After a two-year assault (1981-1983), he conquered the island which became known as the Island of Dogs — and which Dwar ruled far more savagely than the invaders he paid back. Indeed, his lust for revenge only increased, and he proceeded to conquer the neighboring lands of Wol, Hent, and Brod. He finally caught the eye of Sauron, who was so impressed with this merciless barbarian that he gave him a Ring of Power in 1999. Dwar continued ruling Waw in a constant state of war until 2250, when he went to the Barad-dur and started breeding the war-wolves of Mordor. He stayed in Mordor until Sauron’s defeat at the end of the Second Age. After reforming in the Third Age (1050), he was sent back to Waw to wreak more devastation, which he did for 590 years, ruling Waw as a vengeful tyrant and inciting its people to terrorize citizens on the mainland of Lochas Drus. He was recalled to Mordor in 1640, when Gondor’s Watch was abandoned after the Great Plague, and by 1656 he had fully taken over the Black Gate (the “Teeth of Mordor”), where he bred vicious war hounds and oversaw the main entry into the Black Land. He remained at the Teeth even after he and the other Nazgul took the city of Minas Morgul in 2002, since Sauron didn’t trust Dwar to live in close quarters with the Witch-King. Dwar cooperated with the other Nazgul during the War of the Ring, and died when the One Ring was destroyed.

4. Indur, the God King. The Fourth of the Nine had the satisfaction of being worshiped as a god during three long periods. But unlike Ren (the Eighth of the Nine), Indur was never delusional and certainly not a megalomaniac. He was a shrewd aristocrat of the Republic of Koronande who exploited the superstitions of a nearby nation. This was after abolishing Koronande’s republic and making himself king by fear-mongering — denouncing the Numenoreans as a threat to Koronande’s thriving trade — and assassinating those who got in his way. (He was called Indur Dawndeath because his enemies died in their sleep and were found in a hideously contorted state at dawn.) He reigned in this new kingdom from SA 1976-2000, until his tyranny got so out of hand that everyone demanded the return of the republic — and Indur’s head on a spike. Indur fled east to Mumakan (click on the map), the exotic and primitive realm known for its jungles, treasure-filled riverbeds, and oliphaunts, which was also home to many of Sauron’s agents. Sauron saw Indur as a means to tighten his grip on the South and gave him a Ring of Power that year (2000), offering him a new and much godlier throne. Indur took the Mumakan throne in short order, presenting himself to the people as the second coming of their mythical god Amaav. He reigned for 1261 years (2001-3262) as Ji Amaav II from the holy city of Amaru, utterly terrorizing both the Mumakani and surrounding peoples. He was finally summoned to Mordor, when Ar-Pharazon captured Sauron and brought him to Numenor. He stayed until Sauron’s defeat at the end of the Second Age. After manifesting in the Third Age (1050), he was sent back to Mumakan, and after centuries of warfare took the throne again as Ji Amaav III (1264-1640), until recalled to Mordor when Gondor’s outposts were abandoned after the Great Plague. Indur worked alongside Akhorahil from the ruins of the Barad-dur to prepare the Black Land for Sauron’s return. With the other Nazgul he took Minas Morgul in 2002, and he stayed in the city until 2063, when Sauron departed for the East and sent Indur down South for one last reign of terror as Ji Amaav IV (2084-2460). Returning at the end of the Watchful Peace, he stayed at Minas Morgul with many of the other Nazgul (except for Khamul at Dol Guldur, Dwar at the Teeth, and Ren in Ulk Chey Sart) until the War of the Ring. His notable contribution to that war was coordinating the oliphaunt attack on the Pelennor Fields, having brought the finest stock from Mumakan. He died when the One Ring was destroyed.

5. Akhorahil, the Storm King. The Fifth of the Nine may have been fifth in rank, but after TA 2002 he became the Witch King’s favorite lieutenant in Minas Morgul. No other Nazgul dared pull rank on him. Like Murazor, Akhorahil was a Numenorean with daddy issues. He had come to Middle-Earth in SA 1905 as a young adult when his father was commissioned by King Tar-Ciryatan to establish a colony kingdom in the south. That realm was Ciryatandor, which grew fast, and which Akhorahil wanted to rule himself. In 1918 he acted on that desire: he signed a hideous pace with a Haradan Priest, who tore out Akhorahil’s eyes and replaced them with two great gems, the Eyes of the Well, that gave him immense powers. Akhorahil used the artifacts to make his father kill himself and force his sister to marry him, and thus began his reign in the South as the Storm King. He beat and raped his sister-wife almost every day, and killed castle servants who displeased him in the slightest. By 1999 his realm had expanded to include Chennacatt, Isra, Kirmlesra, and Harshandat. This interfered with Sauron’s expansionist plans in the South, but rather than destroy Akhorahil, at the last minute he decided to co-opt him, giving him a Ring of Power in 2000. For the next 1261 years, the Storm King reigned according to Sauron’s designs, and his sister-wife fled in terror (only to be hunted down by him and strangled for her perfidy). In 3262 he went to Mordor, where he stayed until Sauron’s defeat at the end of the Second Age. After manifesting in the Third Age (1050), he returned to a part of his old empire, the Yellow Mountains in Chennacatt (click on the map), where he assembled the Army of the Southern Dragon, and threatened Greater Harad for the next 590 years. He was recalled to Mordor in 1640, when Gondor removed its watch on the land, and he coordinated efforts from the ruins of the Barad-dur for the return of his master. He and the other Nazgul took Minas Morgul in 2002, and from that point on he became the Witch King’s right hand. None of the other higher-ranking Nazgul dared question him, though this was mostly a non-issue, since Khamul was at Dol Guldur and Dwar at the Teeth. Only Indur stayed for long periods in the city, and he didn’t mind deferring to Akhorahil. (Khamul would have chafed, and Dwar would have been tempted to defy the Witch King, let alone the Storm King.) Akhorahil perished when the One Ring was destroyed.

6. Hoarmurath, the Ice King. The Sixth of the Nine was a raised in the matriarchal culture of Urd, in the center of Dir Forest (click on the map), and he became the man who brought that matriarchy to its knees. In SA 1992 Hoarmurath killed his mother, the last Matriarch of the Urdar, and sent pieces of her body to every forest in Urd announcing the new way of things. As a powerful druid, he caused the Forest of Dir to come alive in a way never seen before in the lands of Middle-Earth. The Vala Yavanna would have been in awe had that animation not been so evil and perverse. Dir became a nightmare forest realm that caused so many suicides that by the year 2000 the Urd population had dropped by over 20%. It was always winter in the forest, with brutally low temps even by Urdaran standards. The people called Hoarmurath the Ice King, and Sauron loved everything he heard about him; in 2001 he traveled to Dir and gave him a Ring of Power. Over the next two and a half centuries, the Ice King defeated the surrounding elven realms and acquired a massive kingdom, which he ruled for a thousand years more. Finally, in 3262, Hoarmurath went to Mordor and stayed there until Sauron’s defeat at the end of the Second Age. After manifesting in the Third Age (1050), he was sent back to Urd to recapture the “glory” of Dir Forest, which he did for 590 years, perverting the trees and warping the animal inhabitants on an even darker scale than in the Second Age. He was then recalled to Mordor in 1640, when Gondor abandoned its surveillance after the Great Plague, and immediately took over the Tower of Durthang. After he and the other Nazgul took Minas Morgul in 2002, he stayed in the City of Dark Sorcery, leaving command of Durthang to the werewolf who had served him there. Hoarmurath loved Minas Morgul: the Witch-King and Storm King had worked their sorcerous enchantments on every street to make it a year-round ice cold city — not as cold as Dir Forest, to be sure, but close enough to feel like home. Like most of the Nazgul, he died when the One Ring was destroyed.

7. Adunaphel, the Silent. The Seventh of the Nine was female though few knew it once she obtained her Ring of Power. From then on she always wore a mask and seldom spoke a word. Like the Witch King and Storm King, Adunaphel was a Numenorean determined to rule somewhere in Middle-Earth. She left Numenor in SA 1914 and settled at Vamag on the northwestern tip of the Umbar peninsula, building a citadel there and expanding a domain. By 1936 she had established an impressive realm with secret agents inside Umbar. She also acquired the services of a Haradan martial arts master, who began training her in the art of ninjutsu, and by the middle of the century she was a lethal killing machine. The Haradrim people adored her, and she was on the verge of an ultimate conquest of both Far Harad and Umbar in 1999, when Tar-Ciryatan caught on to her shenanigans and demanded that she pay him homage and taxes. Enraged, Adunaphel sent insults back to her king instead of homage, and the “gift” of his own Harad ambassador — sewn up in a rawhide sack, suffocated and dead by the time he reached the island — instead of taxes. Sauron, perceiving a valuable wedge against Tar-Ciryatan’s influence around Umbar, offered Adunaphel a Ring of Power in 2001, which she gladly accepted. She remained at Vamag for almost three centuries, becoming known as the Silent, hiding her beauty behind a ninja mask and rarely speaking a word. When Numenor finally conquered Umbar in 2280, Adunaphel was forced to leave the peninsula, and moved northeast to the mountains bordering southern Mordor. There she founded the stronghold of Lugurlar (click on the map), and ruled the arid reaches of Near Harad for a thousand years (2281-3262), until Sauron summoned her over the mountains when he was taken prisoner to Numenor. She stayed in Mordor until his defeat at the end of the Second Age. After reforming in the Third Age (1050), she returned to Lugurlar and reasserted her power in Harad for 590 years, and was recalled to Mordor when Gondor’s Watch dropped in 1640, and coordinated efforts in the southern region of Nurn. She and the other Nazgul took Minas Morgul in 2002, and she dwelt in the horrid city until 2951, when Sauron sent her to Dol Guldur to assist Khamul. Southern Mirkwood then became her home until the War of the Ring, and like most of the Nazgul she died when the One Ring was destroyed.

8. Ren, the Fire King. The Eighth of the Nine was a homicidal maniac, completely insane, and by the latter part of the Third Age the other Nazgul were hoping that Sauron would revoke his Ring privilege and destroy him. Ironically, Ren Jey was the only one of the nine who had been a genuinely good person for most of his life. He was a peasant of Chey, the son of an illusion weaver, and an illusionist himself who composed enchantments and raised horses and sheep with his wife. This idyllic life was shattered in SA 1994 when a plague swept through the Chey plains. Ren recovered from it, but suffered brain damage and lost his mind to delusions of grandeur. He began to believe he was superior to other men, and called himself the Fire King — the Son of the Exalted Volcano, Ulk Chey Sart, which was located in the southern Chey plateau (click on the map). Ren made a pilgrimage to the volcano in 1995, gathered a cult of followers there, and declared himself the Overlord of Chey. As the divine Fire King, he initiated a campaign of ruthless subjugation, waging jihads (holy wars) against all who refused to worship him, including his wife and kids. By the end of 1997, the Illusionist was the undisputed King of Chey. Infidels (called the “unclean”) died in countless purges, and Sauron, seeing great potential in this lunatic, gave him a Ring of Power in 2001. By 2100 the already weakened population of the 36 tribes (from the plague of 1998) dropped by a third. For practical reasons, Sauron advised Ren to allow his conquered subjects a middle option between death and worship of the Fire King: they could pay a special tax, called the jezya, which made them second-class citizens with minimal rights. This option kept populations from evaporating during the First Chey Expansion (2155-2693), as Ren brought jihad to the lands of Dalpygis, Khargagis Ahar, Heb Aaraan, and Orgothraath. He built an empire which resounded to his glory, though it was ultimately Sauron pulling Ren’s strings. The Second Chey Expansion (2899-3261) was just as ruthless, and added the lands of Vaag, Acaana, and Gaathgykarakan. Ren was at the height of his “godly” power when Sauron was captured by Ar-Pharazon and brought in chains to Numenor. Abandoning Chey, he left for Mordor in 3262 and stayed there until Sauron’s fall at the end of the Second Age. After manifesting in the Third Age (1050), he was sent back to Chey, where he opened his old temple under the volcano and began plotting the renewal of his Holy Empire. He expanded his hold into a huge underground city that became the Chey capital when he unified all the tribes by 1271. By that point he had waged — whether in person, by coordination, or delegation — no less than 140 jihads, and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of infidels who refused to either worship him or pay the jezya. He was called back to Mordor when the Watch on Mordor was dropped in 1640, and he immediately took command of the Barad-wath tower, which overlooked the gap between Nurn in the south and Gorgoroth in the north. He and the other Nazgul took Minas Morgul in 2002, but Ren stayed in the city for only a year before he lashed out at the other Nazgul for refusing to show him proper deference, and also because he hated Minas Morgul for the brutally enchanted cold. As a Nazgul he was immune to cold, but it offensively “opposed” his divine nature as the Fire King, and he demanded that the Witch-King unmake the frosty atmosphere. The Witch-King banished Ren for his insolence, and in 2003 the Fire King resumed his command of the Barad-wath, biding his time. When Sauron went east during the Watchful Peace (2063-2460), Ren made his move, unleashing a jihad on Minas Morgul. He had been secretly marshaling an army of orcs, men, and trolls at the Barad-wath, and in 2096 he judged the time ripe. The Witch-King and other four Nazgul residing in the city at this time (the Storm King, the Ice King, the Silent, and the Night Rider) were stunned by this outrageous move, completely caught off guard, and their superior numbers barely saved them. Ren was seized by the Witch King, thrown in the dungeons, and tortured so badly that even the fell beasts on the city walls cringed as his screams reverberated throughout the city. When word of this finally reached Sauron in the east, the Dark Lord was shocked but secretly pleased, and ordered the Witch King to release Ren and send him back to Chey. In his homeland the Fire King was given full rein, and he outdid himself for the rest of the Third Age (2098-3018), renewing his Holy Empire for the third time, slaughtering the secular forces who had taken over in his absence, and extending his influence further north and east than ever before. He met with fierce resistance to his religion, and committed four genocides (in 2162, 2486, 2775, and 2953) on groups of people who absolutely refused to worship him or pay the jezya. The Blue Wizard Pallando wrote in his chronicle that Ren’s holocausts throughout the third millennium of the Third Age amounted to the worst things inflicted on any of Middle-Earth’s peoples in the history of Arda. Ren was finally called back to Mordor during the War of the Ring, and given strict orders by Sauron to cooperate with the other Nazgul in the hunt for the Ringbearer, or suffer torment in the Barad-dur. He died when the One Ring was destroyed.

9. Uvatha, the Night Rider. The Ninth of the Nine was the fastest horseman of the Second and Third Ages (not even Gandalf on Shadowfax could compete), and as a result ended up being Sauron’s special courier, getting important messages delivered fast across long distances. Uvatha was born in the Olbamarl Caves on the west side of the Gap of Khand (click on the map), and like all Variags, he lived by the pain and uncertainty of nomadic life. He was an exceptional horse rider even as a child, and showed every sign of growing into a brutal warrior — killing his first man when he was six years old. Sure enough, he rose fast, and in adulthood was appointed Warlord of the main army of Lower Khand in SA 2000, deposing the dynasty the following year and assuming the crown, uniting Upper and Lower Khand for the first time in history. Sauron was impressed and gave him a Ring of Power in 2002. The Variags had always been allied to Mordor, but after Uvatha’s unification of Khand, the Variags became brutally efficient tools of conquest. Uvatha led the Variags for centuries, until ordered to Mordor when Sauron was taken captive to Numenor in 3262. He stayed there until Sauron’s fall at the end of the Second Age, and after manifesting in the Third Age (1050), he was sent back to his old dwelling at Olbamarl, and crowned himself King of the Varaigs 50 years later, after crushing the current dynasty. He was recalled to Mordor in 1640, when Gondor abandoned its surveillance after the Great Plague. He and the other Nazgul took Minas Morgul in 2002, and he stayed in the city until 2951, when Sauron sent him (and Adunaphel) to Dol Guldur to assist Khamul. Southern Mirkwood was his home base until the War of the Ring, but he did more traveling than staying put, acting as a courier to both the Witch King at Minas Morgul and Sauron at the Barad-dur. As the last of the Nine, Uvatha was basically the errand boy, and he knew it. But no one could deny his speed; none could outpace him on horseback. When the Nazgul leaped into the Ford of Bruinen after Frodo, the Witch King led the charge and was the first to get wet; but it was Uvatha who almost made it to the other side before Elrond’s flood smashed into him. Like most of the Nazgul, he died when the One Ring was destroyed.

 

Appendix

Here are the timelines for each Nazgul.

1. Murazor, the Witch King

Second Age

1820-1880 Numenor
1880-1883 Coastal areas of Middle-Earth
1883-1998 Barad-dur (mage training)
1998-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1276 Dol Guldur
1276-1975 Angmar (Witch King, 1300-1974)
1975-2002 Mordor
2002-3018 Minas Morgul

2. Khamul, the Black Ranger

Second Age

1744-1999 Womawas Drus (King, 1844-1999)
1999-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1300 Womawas Drus (Black Ranger, 1099-1300)
1300-2941 Dol Guldur
2941-2951 Minas Morgul
2951-3018 Dol Guldur

3. Dwar, the Dog Lord

Second Age

1949-1965 Waw
1965-1983 Wol
1983-2250 Waw (Dog Lord, 1983-2250)
2250-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1640 Waw (Dog Lord, 1054-1640)
1640-3018 The Black Gate

4. Indur, the God King

Second Age

1955-2000 Koronande (King, 1976-2000)
2000-3262 Mumakan (Ji Amaav II, 2001-3262)
3262-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1640 Mumakan (Ji Amaav III, 1264-1640)
1640-2002 Mordor (Ruins of the Barad-dur)
2002-2063 Minas Morgul
2063-2460 Mumakan (Ji Amaav IV, 2084-2460)
2460-3018 Minas Morgul

5. Akhorahil, the Storm King

Second Age

1888-1904 Numenor
1904-3262 Ciryatandor (Storm King, 1918-3262)
3262-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1640 Chennacatt (Storm King, 1051-1640)
1640-2002 Mordor (Ruins of the Barad-dur)
2002-3018 Minas Morgul

6. Hoarmurath, the Ice King

Second Age

1954-3262 Urd (Ice King, 1992-3262)
3262-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1640 Urd (Ice King, 1057-1640)
1640-2002 Durthang
2002-3018 Minas Morgul

7. Adunaphel, the Silent

Second Age

1823-1914 Numenor
1914-2280 Vamag (Lady of Vamag, 1936-2001, The Silent, 2001-2280)
2280-3262 Lugurlar (The Silent, 2280-3262)
3262-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1640 Lugarlur (The Silent, 1051-1640)
1640-2002 Nurn
2002-2951 Minas Morgul
2951-3018 Dol Guldur

8. Ren, the Fire King

Second Age

1969-3262 Chey (The Fire King, 1997-3262)
3262-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1640 Chey (The Fire King, 1271-1640)
1640-2002 Barad-wath
2002-2003 Minas Morgul
2003-2096 Barad-wath
2096-3018 Chey (The Fire King, 2118-3018)

9. Uvatha, the Night Rider

Second Age

1966-3262 Khand (King, 2001-3262)
3262-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1640 Khand (King, 1101-1640)
1640-2002 Mordor
2002-2951 Minas Morgul
2951-3018 Dol Guldur

“Fall” vs. “Rebellion” (Philip Esler)

A while back I reviewed Philip Esler’s book on the Watchers in I Enoch, and I consider its thesis unassailable. However, at one point Esler notes in passing that

“It is inaccurate to speak of the Watchers’ ‘fall’ from heaven, because it could suggest some kind of accidental or unplanned action. This was not a fall, but a planned descent by the Watchers to earth to marry human women (with whom they defiled themselves), preceded by a joint oath sworn by the Watchers not to turn back from this course (I Enoch 6:4-5).” (p 79)

This caught my eye, as I have always referred to the “fall of the Watchers” without thinking. But I Enoch 6-11 is admittedly different from Genesis 3, where Eve was deceived without any real intent to rebel against God. The serpent tricked her into thinking that God had made her capable of judging right from wrong, and Adam went along with it. Christian theologians would later expand on the Genesis story, where for example in Milton’s Paradise Lost the devil tells Eve that God actually wants her and Adam to eat from the tree, and that his order is simply a test of their courage. In C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, the Green Lady has no desire to disobey God, but she becomes convinced after long arguments with the devil that God secretly wants her to break his commandment — that God longs for one act of disobedience, so that his creatures may grow up and stand on their own. Thus he has given one special commandment “for the mere sake of forbidding”, precisely so that it may be broken.

The Genesis account, in other words, portrays a second-guessing of God made possible by the lies and deceptions of an evil agent. The Enoch story depicts a straightforward rebellion against God, unprompted by the cunning of an outsider. The Watchers just look down on earth, see beautiful women, and desire them (I Enoch 6:2). Far from trying to persuade the others with trickery, the leader Shemihaza is willing to rebel against God on his own (6:3), but the other Watchers assure him they are on board with his plan, declaring, “Let us all swear an oath, and bind one another with a curse, that none of us turn back from this counsel until we fulfill the deed” (6:4). The Watchers do that, and rebel against God and His court, leaving their home in heaven to mate with womankind on earth (7:1). The giants are born as a result (7:2), and their violence and hideous appetites tear apart the earth (7:3-5), triggering a chain reaction among all God’s creatures (8:1-9:11) — to which God retaliates by destroying the world with the Flood (10:1-3). Where the transgression of Adam and Eve resulted in severe punishment (men will have to labor hard for a living, women will labor painfully in childbirth), the revolt of the Watchers results in the obliteration of all living things.

In this light I can understand Esler’s distinction. The Watchers “broke the rules” more severely than Adam and Eve did. There’s a substantive difference between being led astray and second-guessing God out of confusion, and being purposefully defiant so as to bring about chaos and destruction. But if that’s the distinction we should make, then what about the elves and men in Tolkien’s stories?

“Fall” in The Silmarillion

For those unfamiliar with The Silmarillion (shame on you if you never read it), it’s the history of our world’s First Age, thousands of years before the events in The Lord of the Rings. It narrates the “fall” of the elves and its disastrous consequences — the elves’ rebellion against the gods (the Valar), their exile from paradise (Valinor), their evil oath to pursue the Silmaril jewels and kill whoever stands in their way, and their journey to Middle-earth to make hopeless war on the Enemy (Melkor). Because of the elves’ lust for the Silmarils, Middle-Earth is convulsed by wars over a 600-year period, and eventually all the kingdoms of the elves and men are destroyed. In the final battle, the gods intervene and the devastation is so great that a whole piece of Middle-Earth (Beleriand) is broken apart and swallowed by the sea. The Silmarils are recovered only to be lost again in tragedy.

Tolkien called his story a fall, but if we apply Esler’s distinction, does The Silmarillion depict an unplanned fall or a purposeful rebellion? Both actually, but more the latter. On the one hand there is the evil counselor Melkor (the renegade Vala), who deceives the elves with lies about the Valar. If not for his lies, it is doubtful the elves would have been turned to evil purpose. On the other hand, once the rot sets it, they act resolutely, intending to set up shop for themselves in Middle-Earth where they can rule various kingdoms and wage war to fulfill their hideous oath. In this the elves resemble the Watchers far more than Adam and Eve.

Here’s how the drama unfolds: The evil god Melkor, having recently been put on probation by the Valar (the fourteen gods and goddesses), ingratiates himself with Feanor, the most powerful and gifted elf of all time. Feanor has created the three Silmaril jewels which contain the light of the Two Trees, and Melkor wants them. He seeks to corrupt the Noldor (the high elves) by turning them against the Valar, as well as against their own Noldor kin. So he tells Feanor “secrets” which the Valar have supposedly kept from the elves: that the race of men will soon awaken in Middle-Earth and challenge the elves; and that Manwe (the highest of the fourteen Valar) has been essentially holding the elves captive in paradise, so that the Valar can keep them on a leash, and leave Middle-Earth to the race of men, who are weaker than elves and thus more easily managed from a distance. Melkor also poisons Feanor against his brothers Fingolfin and Finarfin, not least with the lie Fingolfin and his sons are attempting a coup against Feanor and their father King Finwe. Feanor believes the lies, in anger draws a sword on Fingolfin, and is banished by the Valar from the city of Tirion for twelve years. He and his sons and other Noldor go to Formenos in the north, accompanied by King Finwe who can’t bear to part with his firstborn son; Fingolfin is left to rule the city of Tirion. Melkor goes into hiding, since the Valar have now exposed his deceptions. Melkor soon comes to Formenos to ingratiate himself with Feanor again, but Feanor sees through him, rightfully guessing that Melkor lusts after his Silmaril gems, and throws him out. Melkor disappears, going deeper into hiding, and Finwe sends a word of warning to Valmar (the city where the Valar live). But even though Melkor has been outed, the damage has been done. He has sown enough dissent in Feanor and his sons to initiate an elvish “fall” from paradise.

Years later, Manwe tries to heal the feud between the Noldor and summons Feanor to a festival on the high peak of Taniquetil. Feanor is reconciled with Fingolfin, but in that very hour Melkor and the giant spider Ungoliant descend on the Two Trees outside Valmar and destroy them, cutting off light in the world (this was the time before the sun and moon). The Valar ask Feanor for his Silmarils, as they are the only way to restore life and light to the Two Trees. Feanor refuses, highly possessive of his Silmaril gems. But he couldn’t have given them if he wanted to: at that moment messengers arrive from Formenos saying that after destroying the Trees, Melkor hurried to Formenos, killed Finwe, stole the Silmarils, and crossed the sea to Middle-Earth. Feanor curses Melkor, and curses the summons of Manwe which brought him to Taniquetil at this hour. Soon after, Feanor comes with his group of Noldor to Tirion (though his 12-year banishment is still in effect), summons all the Noldor elves to speak to them, and openly rebels against the Valar. With his father Finwe dead, he claims the kingship of the Noldor against his brother Fingolfin, and scorns the decrees of the Valar. For all his hatred for Melkor, he repeats Melkor’s lies as he still truly believes them: that the Valar had tricked the elves in order to confine them in paradise so that men might rule in Middle-Earth. He calls upon the Noldor to leave Valinor and forsake the gods. Then he and his seven sons swear a hideous oath: to pursue the Silmaril jewels at all costs, after which they plan to rule in Middle-Earth as lords of light; and to kill anyone who might stand in the way of their cause. If the drama began like in the book of Genesis, with Melkor leading Feanor astray with cunning lies (as the serpent did to Eve), it ends like in the book of the Watchers, with thousands of elves proudly and defiantly rebelling against the Valar (as the Watchers did in the heavenly court). Feanor and his sons even swear a Watcher-like oath. Then they proceed to the coastal city of Alqualonde and kill many of the Teleri (the sea elves) when they refuse to join the rebellion and supply the Noldor with ships. This is the first kinslaying in history (elf killing elf), signaling beyond doubt that the Noldor have “fallen” from grace.

That’s what happens in the early chapters of the The Silmarillion. The rest of the narrative tells what happens when the Noldor reach Middle-Earth and rule kingdoms in Beleriand. The world is on borrowed time. Like the Watchers in I Enoch, the elves initiate actions that spiral out of control. There are reprieves here and there, but the trajectory is clear: the forces of good continue losing ground to Melkor, they end up doing more harm than good in the name of fighting evil (both intentionally and unwittingly), and after six centuries it finally takes an apocalypse, with the intervention of the Valar, to get Melkor in chains. In the process, the entire realm of Beleriand is destroyed and sunk into the ocean. The forces of good and evil are both decimated.

“Fall” in the Second Age: The Rings of Power and the Elvish Paradises

The story of The Silmarillion is followed by two brief accounts of the Second Age: the creation of the Rings of Power (involving the elves), and the destruction of the island of Numenor (involving the men). Both involve a fall, and in both cases the evil agent is Sauron, who had been Melkor’s lieutenant in the First Age. The idea of a “second fall” seems counter-intuitive. What is there to fall from? The elves and men have already fallen (or rebelled) in the First Age, and they remain in their broken states. Neither race has been reconciled to their original destiny. But in Tolkien’s world it is possible to “fall” lower than before, if one keeps opposing the will of the gods. First let’s consider the elves.

To deceive the elves, Sauron disguises himself with sorcery to look fair, and takes a new name (Annatar), as he wouldn’t stand a chance otherwise. He finds the elves’ weak point in suggesting that they work together to make Middle-earth as beautiful as Valinor. Out of their joint efforts come the Rings of Power, and with the Three Elvish Rings the elves work magic to establish places of refuge: the hidden valley of Rivendell, the enchanted forest of Lothlorien, and the Grey Havens on the western coast where ships sail for Valinor. We know these places from Lord of the Rings, as they are the safest sanctuaries against Sauron and his evil minions. This is especially true in the Third Age, when the elves are free to use their Rings (since the One Ring is lost and Sauron can’t dominate them when they use theirs). Elrond uses the Ring of Air (Vilya) to hide Rivendell and make it a place of healing; Galadriel uses the Ring of Water (Nenya) to make time pass differently in Lothlorien and insulate it from hostile penetration; and Cirdan at the Grey Havens uses the Ring of Fire (Narya) to warm hearts and give people courage. These refuges become the cherished pocket paradises of Middle-Earth, and it’s hard to see anything evil about them.

Yet for Tolkien these sanctuaries represent a second fall of the elves. They were nothing less than

“… a veiled attack on the gods, an incitement to try and make separate independent paradises. In this we see a sort of second fall or at least ‘error’ of the elves. There was nothing wrong essentially in their lingering [in Middle-Earth] against counsel. But they wanted to have their cake without eating it. They wanted the peace and bliss and perfect memory of paradise, and yet to remain on the ordinary earth where their prestige as the highest people, above wild elves, dwarves, and men, was greater than at the bottom of the hierarchy of Valinor.” (Preface to The Silmarillion, xviii-xix)

I remember first reading this explanation decades ago, and it was then that I finally “got” The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t the feel-good fantasy that was becoming popular in the ’80s. It’s a very somber fantasy about the long defeat of Eru’s (God’s) children, who keep falling and falling despite their best efforts. Sauron may have been defeated at the end of the Third Age, but The Lord of the Rings is about everyone’s defeat: the suffering and passing of Frodo, the foreordained deterioration of men in the Fourth Age — and not least the fading of the elves, as their earthly paradises are rendered impotent by the destruction of the One Ring, which nullifies the power of their own Rings. That’s what it takes to bring the elves back home to the true paradise of Valinor; and that’s why the Grey Havens epilogue is so moving and sad. The elves are finally reconciled to the gods — at the cost of their power.

But what kind of “fall” is this? Is it more akin to Adam and Eve in Genesis, or the Watchers in I Enoch? It seems that in this case the elves are closer to the Genesis model. There is no purposeful rebellion here. The elves don’t defy the Valar, invoke any oaths or curses, or act out in righteous anger. They genuinely believe the Rings of Power are a project for good, until Sauron reveals himself and they realize their error. In Genesis terms, they “see themselves naked for the first time” when Sauron puts on the One Ring. They are exposed and must use the powers of their Three Rings guardedly. There are no apocalyptic consequences to this fall. The elvish paradises are never destroyed. The elves’ punishment rather is that they are now tied to the fate of Sauron and will remain so throughout the Third Age. Their paradises depend on the evil of the One Ring to exist. When Frodo embarks on the quest to destroy the One Ring, the elves fear that outcome; they’re not fully on board with his quest. Galadriel tells Frodo, “Your coming is as the footsteps of doom. If you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Mirror of Galadriel”) The elves are screwed either way — whether the One Ring is destroyed or re-obtained by Sauron — thanks to their own investment in the Rings of Power.

“Fall” in the Second Age: The downfall of men and destruction of Numenor

To reward the men who fought against Melkor in the First Age, the Valar give them Numenor, a huge island they raise out of the sea about halfway between Middle-Earth and Valinor. They forbid the Numenorean men to sail westward, for fear they will get too close to Valinor which mortal men cannot set foot on. Naturally, this ban — like the ban against eating the fruit of the tree in Eden — is what will lead to their second fall.

This is how Tolkien describes the second fall of men:

“It is partly the result of an inner weakness in men — consequent upon the first fall (unrecorded in these tales), repented but not finally healed. Reward on earth is more dangerous for men than punishment. The fall is achieved by the cunning of Sauron in exploiting this weakness. Its central theme is (inevitably, I think, in a story of men) a Ban, or Prohibition. The Númenóreans must not set foot on immortal lands, and so become enamored of an immortality which their nature could not in fact endure.” (Preface to The Silmarillion, xxi-xxii)

It’s crucial to note that the first fall of men, which is the Genesis account, happened in the First Age, though Tolkien never describes it. (Tolkien didn’t want to explicitly portray the Judeo-Christian myths in his stories.) The transgression in Eden happened 200 years after the elves’ rebellion in Valinor, though where the garden of Eden is on Tolkien’s map is something he never clarified. It’s also noteworthy that Tolkien believes men need special bans to constrain them. While the immortal elves “fall” or “rebel” when they become gods of their creations (the Silmaril jewels, the Rings of Power), mortal men “fall” or “rebel” when they break a commandment to pursue immortality.

Under their first twelve Numenorean kings, the men obey the Ban of the Valar freely and willingly. The 13th king Tar-Atanamir the Great is the first to speak out against the Ban, and also the first who is unwilling to surrender his throne voluntarily before dying. Subsequent kings follow his lead with increased resentment, until they finally rebel under the 25th and last king, Ar-Pharazon, who captures Sauron in Middle-Earth and brings him back in chains to Numenor. Sauron wastes no time corrupting Ar-Pharazon with lies, and soon graduates from prisoner to chief counselor.

Specifically, Sauron denies the existence of Eru (God), saying that the One is a mythical invention of the Valar, and that the Ban is a jealous commandment to keep men small and inferior to the elves and Valar. He starts a new religion in Numenor, building a temple and leading hideous rites of blood sacrifice and necromancy. Finally he convinces Ar-Pharazon to go to Valinor and seize everlasting life. The king begins building a great fleet to attack Valinor, and within ten years he breaks the Ban and sails west. For this outrageous act of blasphemy, he and his warriors who set foot on paradise are buried by an avalanche of falling hills, while the rest of the fleet is swallowed by the sea, and the island of Numenor itself is completely destroyed by the Valar — pulverized by cataclysm and sunk into the ocean.

This “fall” is clearly more a rebellion like that of the Watchers in I Enoch than the ban-breaking in Genesis. Not only is there purposeful defiance, the men actually have the audacity to wage war on the gods. And while it does take Sauron’s lies to bring them to this point, the first grumblings of discontent come naturally, starting with the 13th king, without any prompting or trickery from an outside agent.

Conclusion

Comparing the accounts in Genesis and I Enoch to those in Tolkien’s stories yields the following:

Adam & Eve (Genesis)
The Watchers (I Enoch)
The Elves (The Silmarillion)
The Elves (II) (The Rings of Power)
The Men (II) (Numenor)
Deceived by an evil agent?
Yes (the serpent) No Yes (Melkor) Yes (Sauron) Yes (Sauron)
Unplanned fall or purposeful rebellion?
Fall Rebellion Rebellion Fall Rebellion
Consequence
Men labor hard to live; women labor hard in childbirth Destruction of the world (the Flood) Destruction of Beleriand (the War of Wrath) Elves are tied to the fate of evil; their powers depend on the existence of the One Ring Destruction of Numenor (Cataclysm and engulfed by the sea)

I have no idea how familiar Tolkien was with I Enoch. But these patterns are striking when we apply Philip Esler’s distinction between “fall” and “rebellion”. While there are serious repercussions to a fall, a rebellion calls forth a divine retribution that is wholly uncompromising: annihilation. I can’t help think the Watchers were in Tolkien’s mind when he wrote the rebellions of the elves and men.

“There cannot be any story without a fall,” wrote Tolkien, and he meant business by that remark. A proper story for him involved alienation from an intended harmony, and miserably unhappy endings. He was obsessed with the consequences of  those who “crave godliness” — whether elves wanting to be gods of their own creations, or men wanting immortality. The result may be fall (men in the First Age, elves in the Second Age) or catastrophic rebellion (elves in the First Age, men in the Second Age), but either way, Tolkien held out precious little hope for the children of Eru.

 

Beren and Luthien: “The Sorrow of the Elves and the Grief of Men”

beren-and-luthienIf the story of Turin is Tolkien’s most bleak and unflinching, Beren and Luthien’s is his most celebrated, and we’re finally getting the whole thing next year. The novella Beren and Lúthien (2017) will be published exactly 100 years since Tolkien’s wife Edith danced for him in a woodland glade in East Yorkshire (1917), inspiring a tale that meant so much to him that he had the names Beren and Luthien engraved on his headstone. It’s the romance between mortal man and immortal elf — the precedent for Aragorn and Arwen in Lord of the Rings — in which Lúthien’s father, the elvish King, opposes their relationship to the extent that he gives Beren a suicidal task to perform if he wants to marry her. Beren fulfills the task against every appalling odd, but dies for his efforts, and though granted a comeback by the Valar, prompts Luthien to give up her immortality in order to share some years with him before they both pay the price of a final death. It’s one of the best fantasy tales of all time, but like the Grey Havens in The Lord of the Rings, the epilogue is sometimes passed over in favor of thrilling perils on the isle of Sauron and in the throne hall of Morgoth. The fate of Beren and Luthien says a lot about how Tolkien felt about death and what comes after.

The story begins about 20 years before Turin’s does, and is prefaced before that by the Dagor Bragollach (“The Battle of Sudden Flame”) in the same way that Turin’s is by the Nírnaeth Arnoediad (“Battle of Unnumbered Tears”). Both battles are dire. Morgoth decimates the elves and men at every turn, which is foreordained since evil is mightier than good in pagan Middle-Earth, and the elves “did not understand that their war upon Morgoth was without final hope”. In the case of the Dagor Bragollach, its aftermath is even more cruel. The elvish high king Fingolfin, enraged at the devastating slaughter of his people, goes to Angband alone and demands Morgoth face him in single combat (see image, below left). He gives a good fight but is crushed in one of The Silmarillion’s most dramatic passages — a scene I hope to see filmed someday.

fall-of-fingolfin2

Fingolfin takes on Morgoth

This sets the stage for Beren. With the house of Beor (the first house of men) annihilated, only a dozen outlaws remain to harry Morgoth’s agents in the Dorthonian mountains. Their hideout is Tarn Aeluin (see image, below right), a clear blue mountain lake that has holy power tracing back to elder days. Not that it does them any good. One of the men is captured by Sauron, who promises to reunite him with his wife if he reveals the hideout’s location. The man tells him in desperation, to which Sauron laughs and says he can indeed join his wife in death, for he had actually killed her, and so kills him too. The outlaws are then routed and slaughtered, except for Beren who happens to be away.

tarn-aeluin

The hideout at Tarn Aeluin (Ted Nasmith)

What follows is The Silmarillion’s most precious story: Beren flees the mountains and enters the enchanted forest of Doriath. He comes upon the elven princess Luthien dancing in the glade (see image, below left). They fall in love — the first romance ever between elf and man — and plea their union to Luthien’s father, King Thingol, who is enraged at Beren’s presumption, and so gives him the impossible task of bearding Morgoth in his den and stealing one of the three Silmaril gems. This is a task he willingly takes on, enlisting the help of Finrod Felagund (the elf king of Nargothrond), who famously tries to sing down Sauron at the haunted isle of Tol Sirion. But Sauron’s songs have the deadlier power, and both Finrod and Beren are thrown into a pit. Luthien, meanwhile, chases after them on the back of Huan the Hound, who kills all of Sauron’s wolves and then defeats Sauron himself in wolf form, liberating the isle of Tol Sirion, while Sauron flees in the form of a vampire. The rescue operation isn’t in time to save Finrod, who has died from torture in the pit. Eventually, Beren and Luthien continue alone to Angband, the most perilous hell on earth, and in Morgoth’s throne room Luthien paralyzes him by enchantments, while Beren pries a Silmaril from his crown. They flee the hall, but are confronted by the werewolf Caracharoth (see image, below right) who bites off Beren’s hand and swallows the Silmaril gem — driving the werewolf ferociously insane and making him go on a killing rampage: “he slew all living things that stood in his path, and burst from the North with ruin upon the world”. Caracharoth finally ends up in Doriath forest; the elves of Thingol, with Beren’s help and Huan the Hound’s, bring him down, and cut the Silmaril from the beast’s stomach. Quest achieved, but Beren dies from fatal wounds (see image at the very bottom).

beren-and-luthien-2

Beren sees Luthien (Helen Kei)

It’s a dark romance that few fantasies have rivaled, and the final two pages up the ante even more. Here Luthien allows her spirit to fade so that she can plea to the Valar for Beren’s return to life. In Valinor she sings for high stakes, “weaving two themes of words, of the sorrow of the elves and the grief of men,” begging Mandos to be reunited with him. In an unprecedented move, Manwe grants Beren a second chance, and also gives her a choice — between living for eternity in the gods’ city of Valimar, or returning to Beleriand to live with Beren, but as a mortal subject to the same death he will receive. She opts for the latter, and in so doing trades the sorrow of the elves for the grief of men. We should consider what Tolkien meant by those phrases.

b-and-l-in-angband

Beren and Luthien in Angband (Justin Gerard)

The grief of men is that they die, but the sorrow of the elves is just as tragic, because they live beyond their time. Rereading Tolkien’s story put me in mind of Dale Allison’s Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things (2016), published this year. The first chapter of the book is a meditation on the fear of death, where Allison discusses how our increased longevity has effected our perception of death. In the days of Jesus, for example, life must have looked considerably different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. Imagine how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far. One reason divorce rates have skyrocketed in the past century is longevity. It’s just statistics: fewer people are willing commit themselves to a single matrimonial adventure if life is going to keep us around longer. There’s more to get out of life; more experiences to savor. Yet one must wonder, says Allison, “whether protracted life might not, after a certain point, become tedious. We’re already, without radical life extension, fighting boredom.” If science can prolong us to hundreds of years (and it will probably happen some day), it could be that we will become literally bored to death. Which is the exact sense, I would argue, that one gets of Tolkien’s elves. They’ve seen too much. The gift of immortality loses its luster, and I would imagine rather quickly. Even the incredible paradises the elves built for themselves — Gondolin, Doriath, and the Falas in the First Age; Rivendell, Lothlorien, and the Grey Havens in the Second and Third Ages — seem boring to them.

Elvish sorrow is depicted extremely well in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. A director like Spielberg would have probably given us the gleeful sprites of other fairy tales and fantasies. Jackson captured their sad dignity in the characters of Cate Blanchet’s Galadriel, Hugo Weaving’s Elrond, and Liv Tyler’s Arwen. Even Orlando Bloom’s Legolas managed to convey a morose loftiness around his silly ninja acrobatics. What many readers of Tolkien miss is that for all their special favor as Eru’s immortal children, the elves are essentially on the same footing as men. Their sorrow matches men’s grief. Men resist death to experience all they can. Elves soon realize that the best of life’s experiences offer transitory pleasures at best, and the more you experience them, the more they depreciate in value.

death-of-beren

Death of Beren (Anke Eißmann)

So what happened to Beren and Luthien? Tolkien never spelled out their fate, or the fate of any mortal. What happens to the elves is clear: if they happen to be slain, they go to the Halls of Mandos, and after a time can re-assume bodily form. Men also go to the Halls of Mandos when they die, but their souls are thereafter suspended to an unknown place, which for Tolkien would be the in-between state before the final judgment and resurrection — in the long distant future after the Judeo-Christian revelations. Allison is a Christian who doesn’t accept all the handed-down dogmas, but feels he must believe in an afterlife:

“Anyone’s death diminishes God unless there is something more than this vale of tears. If the brooding grave is everyone’s finale, if existence runs into pitiless nothing, then the forgotten and marginalized will remain marginalized and forgotten for all time. What good is God to them? I at least need a God whose love and rule don’t leave us alone with our greatest existential evil, a God who descends into hell to rescue the dead. I need a God who places heavenly crowns on the heads of the slaughtered infants of Bethlehem. I need the God of the old Roman catacombs, which are full of scenes representing delivery from death — Noah’s ark, the sacrifice of Isaac, Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, the three youths in the furnace, the raising of Lazarus.” (p 17)

I’m more schizophrenic on the subject. The skeptic in me dismisses notions of an afterlife while my intuitions suggest otherwise depending on the day. Middle-Earth lets me think seriously about the theme in its cycle of bittersweet tragedies. Like Frodo’s departure at the Grey Havens, Luthien’s song laments sorrow and grief impartially. Tolkien took the song literally to his grave, for reasons that I suspect went beyond nostalgic romance.

The Children of Hurin: Tolkien’s Bleakest Story

children-of-hurinTurin’s chapter in The Silmarillion has always been my favorite, and I had an orgasm when Christopher Tolkien published the expanded story in the novella The Children of Hurin (2007). Others have a hard time with Turin. His tragedy is bad enough to make Hamlet’s enviable. The whole Silmarillion is a tragedy, to be sure, but Turin’s is off the scales. Ruin follows him wherever he goes; he kills people who don’t deserve it, purposely and accidentally, including his best friend; he marries his sister not knowing who she is, gets her pregnant, and when they learn they are siblings they kill themselves. Their mother dies in grief, and their father rages against the world before killing himself too.

And yet, accepting its heavy-handed tribulations, Turin’s story is really nothing more than a microcosm of the history of the elves. Morgoth’s curse echoes the doom of Mandos, who damned the Noldor for rebelling against the Valar. When Morgoth captures and chains Hurin to the stone chair (see image, below left), he curses the man’s children for refusing to reveal the hidden city of Gondolin. I doubt it’s any accident that Turin was called Adanedhel (“Man-Elf”) by some; Tolkien was probably signalling something beyond a physical likeness, perhaps suggesting that Turin’s miseries amplified the doom of the elves on a more intimate level.

morgoth_punishes_hurin

Morgoth curses Hurin (Ted Nasmith)

The way I see it, the four stages of Turin’s exile from Doriath mirror the four phases of the Noldor’s hopeless war on Morgoth. (There were five battles of Beleriand, but the first was fought by the Sindar.) After being fostered by Thingol in the relative paradise of Doriath forest, he goes out to make a legend of himself, and is dealt tragedy in all four stages: (1) as an outlaw in the woods south of Brethil, under the name of Neithan (“the Wronged”), killing and preying on innocents; (2) as a scourge on the hill of Amon Rudh, under the name of Gorthol (“Dread-helm”), until he is captured by orcs, rescued by his elf-friend Beleg whom he then kills; (3) as the commander of the armies of Nargothrond, under the name of Mormegil (“Black Sword”), until the forces of Morgoth led by Glaurung the dragon wipe out Nargothrond and bring the kingdom to an end; (4) among the men of Brethil Forest, taking the name Turambar (“Master of Doom”) in an act of bravado, deciding that his curse is now finally over, only to receive the worst of it, as he marries his own sister Nienor (who he never met, and whose own memory was wiped by Glaurung’s enchantments), who becomes pregnant with his child, and then kills herself when Glaurung invades Brethil forest and breaks her spell of forgetfulness; Turin then kills himself in horror after slaying Glaurung.

saeros

Turin chases Saeros to his death (Ted Nasmith)

Even without the curse to drive his misfortunes, Turin is unpleasant by nature. What causes him to flee Doriath is the result of his overreaction to Saeros, who insults him at the royal dinner table, saying, “If the men of Hithlum are so wild and fell, of what sort are the women of that land? Do they run like deer clad only in their hair?” Turin responds by hurling a cup at Saeros’ head, and the next day making him run naked through the forest, which ends in Saeros falling to his death into a chasm (see right image). Despite the fact that King Thingol is willing to forgive him, Turin spurns the elven king’s grace in a pride that recalls Feanor’s rebellion against the Valar: “I will not go back to Menegroth and suffer looks of pity and pardon, as for a wayward boy amended. I should give pardon, not receive it.” This attitude seems his by nature, and independent of the curse which simply accentuates calamity to the worst results possible (like Saeros’ fall). Indeed, departing Doriath, he joins an outlaw band who do more to terrorize their fellow men and women instead of protecting them against orcs, and taking the aggrieved name of Neithan (“the Wronged”), he finds the life of amoral banditry easy enough to embrace: “He did little to restrain their evil deeds and soon became hardened to a mean and often cruel life.”

The text of The Children of Hurin clearly entertains a possibility, however small, that Turin could rise above the curse. As his fame and power increases throughout the four stages of his life, Morgoth begins to fear “that the curse that he had laid upon him would become void, and Turin would escape the doom that had been designed for him”. Turin could evade Morgoth’s wrathful design, but his pride (the oldest adage) guarantees his fall. He is doomed to the warped perception of “seeing with Morgoth’s eyes”, meaning that constant mistrust and fear of treachery makes him unable to receive (or return) good will and wise counsel. Turin alienates his friends in cycles, for example, Gwindor at Nargothrond, whose counsel of secrecy (along with messengers from Cirdan), Turin rejects in favor of immediate open warfare with Morgoth, which causes Nargothrond to fall.

nienor_awakes_2

Nienor in Brethil Forest (Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien said that Turin’s story was derived from elements in Sigurd the Volsung, Kullervo, and Oedipus, but I think Oedipus resonates most deeply of the three, for reasons argued by Soham Ganguly. A lot of the Sigurd and Kullervo parallels are superficial by comparison. For example, although Sigurd and Turin both slay dragons, Glaurung is more like the Sphinx whom Oedipus must defeat in a battle of wits; Glaurung delivers similar conundrums in the form of mental taunts. The lives of Oedipus and Turin are obviously similar: both are separated from their family and end up in royal houses in distant kingdoms; both, also, manage to establish stable kingdoms and bring about peace and prosperity for a time; Oedipus marries his mother, and Turin marries his sister, both ignorant of who these women are.

The incest theme pushes everything to a nihilistic climax in Brethil Forest. Years before Glaurung had given Nienor a complete memory wipe and he now removes the spell of her forgetfulness in a final stroke of malice (see image, below right): “Hail, Nienor, daughter of Hurin. We meet again ere we end. I give you joy that you have found your brother at last.And now you too shall know him: a stabber in the dark, treacherous to foes, faithless to friends and a curse unto his kin, Turin son of Hurin. But the worst of all his deeds you shall feel in yourself.” Glauring then dies from the wound Turin gave him — but so does Nienor. Aghast by the awful truth of what dragon has just said, and flooded with returning memories, she hurls herself off the cliff into the river below, killing herself and her unborn child. Turin, appalled, follows suit by skewering himself on his own blade.

glaurung-turin

Glaurung’s final malice (C.K. Goksoy)

It’s interesting that Glaurung’s first assault in The Silmarillion occurs in the Noldor’s third battle (the fourth Beleriand battle), the Dagor Bragollach (“Battle of Sudden Flame”), just as his first conflict with Turin occurs in Turin’s own third stage, at Nargothrond. The dragon then wreaks even more devastation in the Noldor’s fourth battle (the fifth of Beleriand), the Nirnaeth Arnoediad (“Battle of Unumbered Tears”), just as in Turin’s fourth stage, the dragon causes Turin and Nienor to kill themselves. Tolkien crafted parallels like this deliberately, and I’m increasingly convinced that he was using Turin’s story to amplify the theme of hopelessness that pervades Middle-Earth on account of the elves’ fall and rebellion.

death-of-morwen

Hurin and Morwen’s grief (Alan Lee)

The epilogue chokes me up, where after 28 years of captivity and torment, Hurin is released by Morgoth just so that his heart can be broken even more in the wake of his children’s suicides. Hurin finds his wife Morwen, who grieving dies in his arms (see left image). He is so bitter that he blames King Thingol for not watching over his family closely enough. He goes to Menegroth and throws the Nauglamir at Thingol’s feet: “Receive thou thy fee for thy fair keeping of my children and my wife!” To which Melian replies, “Hurin, Morgoth hath bewitched thee; for he that seeth through Morgoth’s eyes, willing or unwilling, seeth all things crooked. Long was Turin thy son fostered in the halls of Menegroth, and shown love and honour as the son of the King. With the voice of Morgoth thou dost now upbraid thy friends.” To which Hurin replies by bowing his head, walking out of Doriath, and killing himself.

Needless to say, many readers don’t care for this bleak and suffocating story, preferring Beren’s quest for the Silmaril, or Tuor fighting in the fall of Gondolin — which are tragedies, to be sure, like all the Silmarillion tales, but tempered by bittersweet moments and small reprieves. From the lines of Beren and Luthien, and of Tuor and Idril, will come Aragorn and Arwen, and temporary holding actions that postpone the inevitable day when evil has the final say. From Turin comes nothing positive at all. But for my money, Turin’s story is best precisely for the reasons people hate it. It’s literature at its finest, tragedy as it deserves to be told, and its nihilism aligns with the worldview of Middle-Earth more than most people realize.

Next up: Beren and Luthien: “The Sorrow of the Elves and the Grief of Men”.

The Best Scenes in The Lord of the Rings

Yesterday I featured the worst scenes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, the ones I removed in my special cut of the films. Today I rank the best scenes. It’s easy to get the impression from yesterday’s post that The Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite film, while The Two Towers and The Return of the King leave much to be desired. That’s not the case at all. Even before my ruthless editing, the third film has always been my favorite, because whatever its deficiencies it more than makes up for on whole. It’s tragic on a biblical level and an emotional juggernaut.

Of the following twenty scenes, seven are from The Fellowship of the Ring, four are from The Two Towers, and nine are from The Return of the King.

1. The Grey Havens. The best scene of the book is the best scene of the film, and breathes Tolkien’s theme of the long defeat: the failure of Frodo, the passing of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men. If it doesn’t make you cry, then you don’t have your priorities straight. If on my deathbed I could watch one scene from one film, it would be The Grey Havens from The Return of the King. The white shores and far green country awaiting Frodo would be out of my reach, but I’d take comfort anyway.

2. “Do You Remember the Shire?”/”The End of All Things.” I have to take these two scenes together, as they’re counterparts. In my (many) theatrical outings a decade ago, they overwhelmed me and affected me so much I was shaking. No film has ever had that kind of power over me. The first scene is the courage, finishing the one-way journey with no real hope of success. The second is the aftermath, the unexpected victory even in failure (Frodo claimed by the Ring), and accepting imminent death.

3. The Breaking of the Fellowship. This one’s a cheat, but really everything is a favorite scene from Aragorn and Frodo’s farewell to the closing credits. The Uruk-hai battle is fantastic, and the scene between Aragorn and the dying Boromir is probably the noblest in the trilogy. Frodo’s resolve to go to Mordor alone, remembering Gandalf, and Sam chasing after him in the boat all culminate in an emotional scene foreshadowing dark times ahead. This entire sequence stands as a serious cinematic achievement for its perfect closure despite being a cliff-hanger.

4. The Siege of Gondor & the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. This one’s another cheat, but once the boulders start flying, the battle for Minas Tirith doesn’t let up until the last oliphaunt goes down. It’s relentless chaos and destruction — the catapult attacks, winged Nazgul, Grond, and (best of all) the apocalyptic charge of the Rohirrim. Eowyn’s confrontation with the Witch-King exceeds expectations, and the army of the dead is a brilliant transposition from the book. Their victory implies that Theoden and Denethor were both right, that Sauron’s forces could not have been defeated by the armies of men.

5. Flight to the Ford. Beginning with Arwen and Frodo on horseback and ending with the incredible flood at Bruinen. Arwen’s close evasive action, coupled with the pulse-pounding choir music, still leaves me mesmerized after seeing it so many times. It’s a testimony to Jackson’s vision that he can alter a crucial scene from the book and make it even better. I also find it fascinating how horse chases work so well in movies, unlike car chases which easily become boring. This scene is the best horse chase in any film, hands down.

6. Gandalf and the Balrog (TT). My favorite scene of the second film is the flashback starter. The battle between Gandalf and the demon as they hurtle down the shaft makes the preliminary confrontation on the bridge look like child’s play. Great music goes with it too. Complaints about the Balrog’s wings continue to this day (Tolkien’s Balrogs of course don’t have wings), and it is rather silly that the creature is falling when it could have just flown upwards. But it doesn’t matter; this scene is a juggernaut.

7. The Morgul Vale. The most terrifying scene in the trilogy and true to the book. I could easily vote it the best purist scene, even if the Witch-King isn’t on horseback. It’s hard to imagine the terror of the Black Breath being conveyed so convincingly, but here it is. I was nearly cowering in my seat the first time I saw this in the theater, just like Frodo cringing and holding his ears against the Nazgul shrieks. Tolkien describes a “noisome exhalation of decay”, and the sorcerous reek on display is hideous.

8. Frodo and Bilbo in Rivendell/Gollumized Bilbo. We don’t get much of Frodo and Bilbo together in the Shire, which turns out to be fine, because their interactions in Rivendell are perfect. First is the scene by the waterfall, where Bilbo produces his finished book, “There and Back Again”, and they contrast their adventures. In the later scene, Bilbo passes over of Sting and the mithril vest and asks to see the Ring. His sudden demonic transformation nearly gave me a heart attack when I first saw it; it’s that scary.

9. The Mirror of Galadriel. I had forgotten how frightening some scenes in the first film really are. Peter Jackson started as a horror film director, and no one else — certainly not Speilberg or Lucas — could have made Lothlorien so ethereally haunting and Galadriel’s temptation so terrifying. Much as I love the way the Shire and Rivendell are realized in these films, it’s the eerie forest of Lothlorien that impresses me most. The scene at the Mirror is the best, and it’s great that we get to see the water ring Nenya.

10. The Voice of Saruman. This eight-minute scene is brilliantly acted by Christopher Lee and a vast improvement over the lame “Sharkey” epilogue from the book. The dialogue is pure Tolkien, even including the part about “the rods of the five wizards”. You can feel Saruman’s relentless contempt for Theoden as he goes on about Rohan being nothing more than a “thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek and their brats roll on the floor with the dogs”. It’s wonderful poetic justice when he’s impaled on his own machinery.

11. The Forbidden Pool: “A Clockwork Orange”. The waterfall and pool are just how you imagine them from the book, and the shot of Gollum squatting over and eating the fish is great. His regression to self-pity and schizophrenia after Frodo’s treachery is heartbreaking, and in the extended version the rangers beat the living shit out of him. Faramir comes off considerably darker than Tolkien’s character, and rightly so. This is the kind of reality lacking in most fantasy, where good guys are usually a bit too good to be true.

12. Frodo Poisoned/Sam and Shelob. The first part of Shelob’s lair is pretty good, but the second part is an absolute classic. The spider is played brilliantly against Frodo after his narrow escape (Shelob’s revenge), and her silent stalking (with no scoring) as she positions herself above to sting him is genius directing. The rescue battle shows Sam coming into his own, just like Tolkien wrote him, and his grief over “dead” Frodo is some of Sean Astin’s best acting.

13. A Knife in the Dark. Misty Weathertop, the steady advance of the five Nazgul, and the music all combine to offer a scene scary and gothic. And the sight that greets Frodo when he puts on the Ring comes right off Tolkien’s pages. Much like the Morgul Vale (#7), I could vote this one of the best purist scenes. Jackson nailed the Nazgul in a way that shows him at home in the horror genre.

14. “Where is the Horse and the Rider?” In the book Aragorn recites this poem (the Rohan anthem) as he approaches Edoras. But it’s far more cinematic to have the King of Rohan himself tragically recite this before going into battle, what he thinks is certain doom for his people. This one still gives me chills after so many viewings. Great theatrical acting on Bernard Hill’s part, and by far the best part of Helm’s Deep.

15. Pippin’s Song for Denethor. The editing here is brilliant. Pippin singing — cut to Denethor gorging — cut to Faramir galloping to suicide — cut back to the steward’s slobbering mouth — back to Pippin’s lamenting anguish — to Faramir again — it’s a uniquely memorable scene that has Jackson stamped all over it. Billy Boyd is a gifted singer. It’s impossible to forget the details of this scene, it carries such impact.

16. The Treason of Isengard. The interior of Orthanc is splendid, especially the chamber of the Palantir. The wizard battle between Gandalf and Saruman, absent from the book, could have come off rather cheesy. But it’s surprisingly well done. There’s none of the lightning or fireworks of B-grade fantasies; the wizards use telekinesis to beat the crap out of each other, and you can practically feel their bones cracking as they get pounded against the walls and floor. The score is perfect, and the choir reaches that intense crescendo as Saruman goes crashing through the double doors.

17. Arwen’s Fate. Elrond’s vision of the dead Aragorn, and Arwen wandering alone in the empty forest of Lothlorien, brilliantly captures the long defeat theme. Elrond’s monologue comes from Tolkien’s appendices: “Aragorn will come to death, an image of the splendor of the kings of men in glory, undimmed before the breaking of the world. But you, my daughter, you will linger on in darkness and in doubt. Here you will dwell, bound to you grief, under the fading trees, until all the world has changed and the long years of your life are utterly spent.”

18. The Black Gate Opens. The theatrical version wrecks this by omitting the Mouth of Sauron. In the extended version the Mouth displays the mithril vest in order to prove that Frodo is dead and the Ring is on its way to Sauron. Going into battle, the army of the west really has no hope at all, and Aragorn’s line (“For Frodo”) refers to the hobbit’s sacrifice — they are avenging his death rather than buying time for him. But it’s a great scene in either case. Even the theatrical version conveys hopeless courage as the Army of the West charges the hordes which outnumber them.

19. Sam’s Star. This really should have been in the theatrical version: Sam overcome by a single sign of beauty in the worst hell on earth, and Frodo on death’s door. The shot of Mordor here is the best in the film, a wasteland reminiscent of Ted Nasmith’s drawings. Much like other scenes between Frodo and Sam in Mordor (especially the sacred ones of #2), it’s diminished by commentary.

20. The Green Dragon. Here is hobbit culture at its purest. The hobbits get drunk and rumor-monger, the Gaffer tells Frodo he’s as cracked as Bilbo, and Merry and Pippin are just themselves — a couple of singing, boisterous clowns. Their song (“Hey-ho, to the Bottle I Go”) is actually a fusion of two songs from the book, one of which Pippin sings solo while taking a bath at Crickhollow. This scene renders the “Concerning Hobbits” prologue superfluous and shows more in a single minute than Bilbo’s voice-over explains in five.

Retrospective: Shadow in the South

And so, after all these retrospectives I come to Shadow in the South. It turns out to be a fitting exit point, because here I don’t feel like I’m in Middle-Earth anymore. From me that’s significant: it should be clear by now that I’m anything but a Tolkien purist. But there has to be a Tolkien “feel” to everything. For all the dramatic creativity displayed in frontiers like The Northern Waste and The Court of Ardor, and even the Harad modules, that strong Tolkien feel has been there. In Shadow in the South, the resonance collapses. I won’t deny I had a blast going through it as a player, and even now I can see why: there are evil temples, vile tombs, and enchanted mazes to keep the boldest PCs occupied for many gaming sessions. But the land is fleshed out so artificially that it feels like Greyhawk — as if someone thew a bunch of hastily concocted cultures at the map and let them fall where they may.

There’s also a certain laziness in vision by this point. The peninsula is called The Dominions of the Seven, ruled by lords of Numenorean descent who do their best to keep the shadow of the Storm King at bay. The number “seven” has been obsessed in these southern modules to the point of irritation: Far Harad ruled by a Council of Seven Regents; Greater Harad the Land of the Seven Cities; and now this. It only underscores how ICE is operating outside the geographical canon in a rather cheap way. The territories aren’t even clearly defined, the three major cities unremarkable, and the cultural milieus a hodgepodge. Something about these Pel and Drel mannish groups, the Fuina elves, the Mablad dwarves, the Chaialla barbarians… they’re all terribly uninspired and I forget the details as soon as I stop reading.

The “shadow” over this peninsula, to be sure, serves up plenty of nasty fun. Evil minions operate everywhere, some openly, others from under rocks, most at cross-purposes with each other. The Army of the Southern Dragon maintains a heavy presence, promising an invasion by the Nazgul Storm King; the Cult of the Dark Overlord, led by four liches, holds the lowest profile and plots (with Ardana from The Court of Ardor) to bring about Endor’s destruction; the Priesthood of the Black Hand preaches openly for Sauron, based in a northeastern city which protects dangerous religions on grounds of diversity; the Eyes of Malezar are an army of wights commanded by a vampiric sorcerer; the Slayers a coalition of crude assassins flying fell beasts; and finally (my favorite), the Cult of the Real Fire holds Aluva (Eru) and Malkora (Melkor) in equal reverance, evangelizing every corner of the Dominions with obnoxious dualistic fervor. As a player I was subjected to a lot of this business, and will never forget my ordeal in the House of the Black Hand, where I had to rescue of a woman going under the knife, on an altar below steaming dragon sculptures, and in front of hundreds of brainwashed converts. The tomb of Malezar left scars on my characers too. I did have fun tormenting the Real-Fire prophets and ridiculing the impossible Balance they strive for. All of these minions are given strongholds of impressive design, and if you can forget you’re supposed to be in Middle-Earth, you can have a great time with this stuff.

So that’s it. From Rangers of the North to Shadow in the South. Thirty-seven modules, about half of ICE’s output over a 17-year period (’82-’99). It’s been a fun ride, and I honestly wasn’t sure where I was going. But my nostalgia is vindicated. On whole, these modules hold up supremely well. They gave me endless enjoyment in my formative years, and still do as I reread them and relive wild memories. I can only hope they are still being used by today’s generation of gamers. Even if Tolkien would cringe at a lot of ICE’s liberties, I’d like to think he’d be pleased by the ambition — at very least, by the underlying reverence for his work.

History & Culture Rating: 1
Maps & Layouts Rating: 4

Retrospective: The Court of Ardor

More than any other ICE module, The Court of Ardor had a profound impact on my imagination. I lived southern Middle-Earth in my daily fantasies, riding the Mumakani elephants, taking in the republic of Korlan, and having passionate love affairs with elves as evil as drow. One thing was clear to me at the time: this sort of thing would never be repeated. The gazeteer displays regions as rich as anything Tolkien developed — savage Mumakan, democratic Korononde, imperial Tanturak, reckless Hathor, aloof Taaliraan. All of which would be more than enough, but this entire sandbox is used as a platform for a quest, where the stakes are as high as in The Lord of the Rings. A group of evil Noldor have been trying to destroy the sun and moon since the First Age, and now, in TA 1703, are ready to enact a ritual that will do just that; a group of PCs must band together and prevent the ritual, and also ensure that the ringleader of this evil court, Lady Ardana, is killed by the son Morgoth fathered on her.

The ritual that will bring about eternal darkness is the stuff of pulp fantasy, but it also mines some of Tolkien’s best myths.

“On that dark day when Ungoliant and Morgoth destroyed the Two Trees, and Ungoliant had consumed all of the gems of Feanor she later belched forth many — but they were changed. Instead of the radiant crystals of light they had been, they were dark, in fact they consumed light; they were of unlight. The eight largest of these (each about the size of a clenched fist) Morgoth gave for his cause, and Morthaur conceived a plan: a design which would focus the light-consuming powers of the eight gems in one great burst to drain both sun and moon of light. But the sacrifice of one of the blood of the Valar would be necessary to trigger the gems. Ardana would bear a daughter fathered by Morgoth.”

It turns out, however, that Ardana had not only one child from Morgoth, but twins, and the boy was stolen and raised in secret by a guild determined to bring down the Court; he is “fated” to kill Ardana (much like Eowyn was the Witch-King), and the PCs must protect him at all costs.

The mission to save Middle-Earth — to keep the sun and moon alive, to destroy the gems of unlight, to procure the death of an elven lady who will keep resurrecting the same diabolical plot as long as she goes on living — is the module’s focus, making The Court of Ardor unique. There are always suggested adventures at the end of ICE’s campaign products, but here it’s a single epic quest, and it interprets the sandbox rather than the other way around. The Court members are colorful NPCs, two of them actual demons, and I like the recurring theme of repentant male twins versus their evil sisters. Ardana’s children have already been mentioned, and there are also the two Featurs, the female member of the Court, and her brother whom most believe dead, but is working against the Court from behind shadows, perhaps even with the PCs.

It’s worth mentioning the Ardan Decks of Cards. Each Court member owns a pack, which consists of 21 special cards on top of the usual 52. The decks have quite a few magical side-benefits, but are primarily used by the High Lords to communicate with each other far away. The special cards bear the images of the Court members (plus some “dummy” celestial images), and when wishing to speak to a colleague, one focuses on the card with the appropriate image. The male Featur, however, has managed to sabotage the decks by implanting his own image on one of the “dummy” cards which sometimes resembles a mirror, other times showing the same image of his sister’s card (the female Featur) — which allows him to spy on the Court members both ways. The decks can be put to extraordinarily good use, but are also quite perilous in careless hands.

I can’t stress enough how affected I was by this module when I first read it. The Mumakan region is inspired, and while its cultures lie outside the Tolkien canon, they feel not in the least bit forced or contrived. And what’s brilliant about the quest is how pliable it is. The very year Ardor was published (1983), Dungeons & Dragons was taking its first steps out of the Golden Age and into the Silver, where modules began railroading PCs into pre-packaged narratives and foreordained outcomes. Ardor doesn’t do that. It lays down the framework, but nothing beyond bare-bones essentials. For instance, the eight strongholds of the High Lords could be necessary stopping points for the PCs, or some of them could, or they could all be irrelevant and just bypassed. If they are used, it’s a splendid excuse for touring 340 x 440 square-miles of Southern Middle-Earth and tasting exotic cultures. PCs can visit Middle-Earth’s only republic (Korononde), get involved in the lethal politics of Tanturak (whose emperor is an unwitting puppet of the Court of Ardor), mix with the insular elves of Taaliraan, or land in major trouble with the barbaric hordes of Mumakan. The fact is, this module can be used like any of ICE’s campaigns, with or without regard for the suggested adventure; DMs can set up camp and get loads and loads of mileage.

History & Culture Rating: 5+
Maps & Layouts Rating: 5

Last up: Shadow in the South.

Retrospective: Greater Harad

Greater Harad has become impossible for me to distinguish from the overhaul I gave it. I poured more ambition into this module than any other, and was immensely pleased by the result, but the resulting animal is something a bit different from ICE’s “Greater Harad”. To put this in context, the year of publication was 1990, toward the tail end of my gaming years — the last year you could say I was really invested in RPGs in a serious way. As a DM I remember wanting to design a complex campaign, and to push myself into places I hadn’t gone. Greater Harad turned out to be just the sandbox I needed for an epic plot involving prostitution cartels, demon-trees taking over a sunbaked land, and a sorceress with ambitions to resurrect the “glory” of an old age. Not only did the exotic cultures feel just right for what I needed, this southern region was outside the canon; so I didn’t have to worry too much about slaughtering Tolkien with my wild ideas.

Greater Harad, or the Seven Cities of the Sirayn, is set up as

“… the intellectual and economic hub of Southern Middle-Earth. Although Near Harad boasts the magnificent naval port of Umbar, and Far Harad shelters the dazzling trade center of Bozisha-Dar, Greater Harad eclipses them both with the size of its population, the extent of its lands, and the rigors of its history. Many dynasties have risen and fallen as kings attempted to control this verdant strip of earth… The breadbasket of the south, the lands of Sirayn are a prize worth holding. Even the Dark Lord and his minions scheme to control the area.”

The culture of the seven cities is surpassed only by the elves and Numenoreans, and resembles somewhat of a cross between the Umayyad dynasty of Spain and imperial China (the geography, meanwhile, evoking northern Africa and the Middle-East). For all its sophistication, however, it’s a grim land where the proverb “one may have peace or freedom but not both” is proven time and again. The eastern port city of Tul Harar is the only place where citizens are truly free, a melting pot governed by a Gathering of Speakers; the other six cities are each ruled by a dictatorial Tarb, and at intervals throughout Harad’s history, the Tarb of Tul Isra actually rules all the cities (except Tul Harar). By far the most compelling city (to me) is the one in ruins after TA 1457, and displayed on the module’s cover: Charnesra, built from marble and sandstone, brought down by treacherous ambition, and now a base for underground cults launching suicidal sting operations across the land.

So inspiring was Angus McBride’s cover piece (I love the serpent-head on the Tayb’s visor’s helmet), in fact, that I knew instantly it would be the focal point of my campaign. I came up with a sprawl situated in TA 2856, that started PCs in Tul Harar and ended them in Charnesra and the surrounding forest of the Sara Bask. I won’t get too self-indulgent with the details, but to outline: A prostitution network is being run in Tul Harar by a priestess of the Tayb (the “Silent One”) in the Charnesra ruins. Women have been disappearing in Tul Harar, most of them sold into prostitution, but one out of four going to the underground temple to be transformed into demon-trees that are taking over the Sara Bask. The PCs start in the free city at the behest of the Gathering of Speakers, until evidence leads them to race to the Mogholy Dask (a tomb on the coastal cliffs) to obtain an artifact being used to accelerate the perverse transformation. If they survive the tomb, they could be apprehended as they leave, or the artifact could at least be taken from them; or they could escape wholly intact if they’re really shrewd, but in any case, they are afterwards diverted to Tul Isra, the lethal capital of the Seven Cities, and where the demon “child” of a sorcerer that died back in the 1600s serves as advisor to the Tarb. After convoluted to-and-fro involving an assassination plot and confused identities, the PCs (if they’re still alive; if they’ve put 2 and 7 and 19 together correctly) backpedal to the ruins of Charnesra, and to an obscene showdown deep in the Sara Bask forest.

All of these sites — the Mogholy Dask, the palace of Tul Isra, the ruins of Charnesra — are to me completely unrecognizable as they stand in the module. Especially the Mogholy Dask, which I turned into a five-times fatal cousin of The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, where every bloody room counts. For instance, the six statues in the Hall of Might actually animate into high-level spellcasters, whose replicas are in the next room being healed by a daemon as their counterparts take damage from the PCs; there’s also the Chamber of the Mindless Orgy (best left to the imagination); a triple-agent NPC imprisoned in suspended animation; a chapel almost impossible to leave without the benefit of a talisman in another room; etc. As for my version of Tul Isra, it’s like being on another planet; the NPCs are outrageous; allies more dangerous than enemies; the city’s palace a floral death zone to any member of the animal kingdom.

In retrospect, does the actual Greater Harad measure up to everything I gave it? I’m not sure. I glance through it today and I see my own product; on closer examination, I think to myself, “That’s all ICE could do with this place?” Then on other pages I see the same loaded potential I evidently saw back in 1990. The seven cities compel even as they cry for more flare. The layouts have a wonderfully inspiring aesthetic, but a lot of their contents (before I got to them) are woefully stale. It’s a module I have a hard time being objective about; in the end I follow my gut feeling for high marks.

History & Culture Rating: 4
Maps & Layouts Rating: 4

Next up: The Court of Ardor.