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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hurin and Morwen’s grief (Alan Lee)

The epilogue is what really chokes me up. 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 and pissed 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. From page one I was living southern Middle-Earth in daily fantasies — riding the Mumakani elephants, taking in the republic of Korlan, 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 ever 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 exactly 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 gonzo 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 some of the most colorful NPCs I’ve seen in any gaming product, 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 so 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 dreaded 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.

Retrospective: Far Harad

I have a complicated relationship with the quartet of modules set in Southern Middle-Earth. The Court of Ardor is truly outstanding, and Greater Harad is something I made outstanding (or so I like to think), while the other two dance around the lackluster: Far Harad is just there, and Shadow in the South, for all its muscle, a jumble of artificiality. Yet if you had asked me back in the day, I would have rhapsodized about all of them almost as much as Ardor, and quite sincerely. In retrospect, I was more inspired by the ideas behind them than their actual content. My friend and I got good use out of them, but it’s painfully clear now that the best parts came from us.

Far Harad, in particular, is surprisingly barren for an exotic region. It could have easily been the MERP 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.

I do appreciate the module’s base value. It’s almost an archetypal sandbox (and literally), with little plot to it; the Council of Regents has been ruling stably in Bozisha-Dar 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). There’s no conflict outside vague tensions between the capital and Tresti, but it’s a perfect set-up. 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.

The mapwork delivers with about as much enthusiasm as the rest. Detail focuses on the city of Bozisha-Dar, particularly the mansions held by the seven regents which have some admittedly eye-catching design: the House of the River’s Breeze (built of white marble pillars and no solid walls) run by the Lord of the Port; the Mansion of the Moon (with windows barely translucent by day, but funnel moon- and starlight perfectly), held by the Ambassador to Tresti; the Palace of Water (a popular site of entertainment) for the Water Minister; the House of Warcraft (resembling a desert fortress) where the Commander of the City Guard resides; the cleverly constructed Nomad’s home (stone overhangs being fashioned in the shape of desert tents) supervised by the Watcher of the Caravan Grounds; the Palace of the Wood (mirroring the exotic flora of the Forest of Tears) run by the prestigious Ambassador to the Foreign Powers; and the Soul of the Desert (a microcosm of the Harad territory) for the Ambassador to the Nomads. For campaigns involving political intrigue these areas can be put to aesthetic use. But beyond this, and an overview of the sacred tent-city of Tresti, few areas are sketched out. 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.

History & Culture Rating: 2
Maps & Layouts Rating: 3

Next up: Greater Harad.