Spending the 80th Anniversary of the Hobbit Jotting Down More Notes on Yesterday’s Tolkien Thing

Okay, there have been lots of conversations going on that are conflating certain things and certain arguments as being one and the same, and this leads to a lot of goal-post moving, so I’m going to try to untangle stuff here.

  1. Dungeons & Dragons was not “Tolkien + a few other things”
  2. Dungeons & Dragons was “Lots of things, including some Tolkien”
  3. Elves in the Hobbit are substantially different from Elves in Lord of the Rings and later Tolkien Legendarium; they are not “Tolkienesque” in the way that the term is generally understood.
  4. “Dungeons & Dragons is a Tolkien/Middle Earth adventure game” is a false statement.
  5. Chainmail, however, does include significant elements from the Hobbit; saying that the fantasy portion of Chainmail is Tolkien-the Game, is not entirely ridiculous.
  6. The Hobbit was far more influential on Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons than the Lord of the Rings proper.*
  7. Elves in Chainmail are not explicitly “Tolkien elves”; they bear little resemblance to Lord of the Rings elves, though they do resemble elves from the Hobbit or the Rankin & Bass cartoon.
    1. Do people consider the Rankin and Bass elves “Tolkienesque”?
    2. Chainmail elves are mechanically identical to Fairies and share an entry.
    3. Chainmail elves can turn invisible at will;
  8. Orcs in Chainmail ARE explicitly “Tolkien Orcs”; their tribes are described in terms of “Hand Orcs”, “Mordor Orcs”, etc.
  9. Elves as they appear in D&D are substantially different from Elves as they are depicted in either the Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion. Though a case can be made that they bear similarities to the wood elves from The Hobbit, they bear a much stronger resemblance to humanoid fey races from Poul Anderson.
  10. PC Races in D&D do owe some to Tolkien, but only Halflings are explicitly Tolkienian
  11. Tolkien did not have a literary monopoly on stout and hardy dwarves who live in the mountains, mine for treasure, or craft fantastic weapons; it does not pass a reasonable-doubt check, but it’s not far-fetched to say they were, if they did not become, Tolkien dwarves.
  12. Shifts in D&D towards more Tolkienian/Tolkienesque/Tolkiengrotesque races and trappings are the result of Tolkien becoming the “Goto” name in fantasy from the late 70s on as Tolkien Clones and Branded Gaming Fiction began to dominate the market and public conscious and therefore the minds of the people playing and later the people developing the game; this was not by design.

Note that all of the above is completely separate from the original discussion that:

  1. I hypothesize that The Hobbit had little/no impact on the 1st and 2nd waves of 20th Century Fantasy, though I remain open to and will look for evidence to the contrary.
  2. The Lord of the Rings’ influence on fantasy in the 70s and beyond is undeniable; its influence on fantasy prior to the mid-60s highly suspect
  3. Questioning Tolkien’s influence on literature from periods immediately contemporary with him and the intervening years between the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings or the latter’s eventual paperback release =/= dismissing Tolkien’s work or his subsequent influence or denigrating it ala Michael Moorcock.

Lastly, if I’d remembered that this was the 80th Anniversary of the Hobbit, I probably would’ve avoided the topic entirely.

*:This one definitely needs citation, and I am looking for it, but it came from an interview with Gary where he pretty much comes out and says something along these lines.


A Brief Note on Tolkien’s Influence on Fantasy

Inspired by J. Manfred Weichsel’s remark describing Fritz Leiber’s “Swords and Deviltry” as “a mix of Dunsany, Tolkien, and Piers Anthony.”

Tolkien is often heralded as the lord and father of Fantasy, but consider the following:

The Sword & Sorcery genre predates the Lord of the Rings by decades.

All of the classic first wave Sword & Sorcery had been written and was already old news when Lord of the Rings came out. Lord of the Rings was published at the very tail end of the Pulp Era, and would’ve likely had very little immediate influence on those writers.

Robert E Howard’s, C.L. Moore’s, and many of Fritz Leiber’s Sword and Sorcery stories predate the Lord of the Rings. Even relative late-comer and Edgar Rice Burroughs fan-boy Philip Jose Farmer had already won a Hugo Award a year before the Lord of the Rings was published.

It would be interesting to see how much, if any, influence the Hobbit had; compared to much of the fantasy contemporary with it, this debut is relatively straight-forward: a guy goes on a long walk with strangers who press-gang him and gets some treasure from a dragon. The Ring is just a plot device, and the encounter with Gollum part in a series of episodic encounters on the way to said dragon. Given the corpus of fantasy fiction upon which the 1920s and 1930s Sword & Sorcery genre was building, it’s hard to imagine The Hobbit making a significant splash or being regarded as any kind of “serious seminal work” by the writers hard at work crafting the foundations of the modern fantasy genre.

I really don’t think there is a smoking gun; you probably are not going to find any of the important and influential fantasy writers from the pulp-era saying in the 1930s or 1940s “Man, that Tolkien guy is gonna change the way people read and write Fantasy forever!” If there is, though, I’d love to see it!

Alignment Part 3: Some Examples!

Part 1

Part 2

From the comments the other day:

I’m baffled.
Baffled by living in a world where people can’t figure out what words like ‘good’ and ‘chaotic’ mean and act like it is some obscure mystery.

You know, this is interesting, because in the first part of my explanation, I pretty much state that a major reason that Alignment doesn’t work is because people don’t understand what “good” and “chaotic” mean. The relativist approach means that someone can be playing as a demon whose very existence is a blasphemy upon creation and the laws of nature, but because the player wants the demon to be a “nice guy” or within the confines of his demonic culture he is an upstanding citizen, the player is able to declare for Lawful or Neutral Good, and then the rest of the group wonders why Alignment doesn’t matter at their table.

People DON’T understand the Law/Chaos spectrum any more than they understand the Good/Evil spectrum. For instance, many people think of Chaotic Good as the either the guy who does some good but is inherently selfish or someone who tries to do good but breaks laws while doing so. A lot of people would give Robin Hood as an example of Chaotic Good, but they’d be wrong, and here’s why:

While Robin Hood lived in the wilds and opposed King John and the Sheriff, he was not doing so from an angle meant to upset Nature’s law and/or the will of the heavens. On the contrary, he understood the natural and divinely bestowed rights of Man and fought against a power that was usurping them. Additionally, the power he opposed (John and the Sheriff) are portrayed as being in opposition to the rightful rule of King Richard – in this sense, Robin has positioned himself as an agent of the legitimate and rightful law that is respectful of the rights of man, acting on behalf of Richard, the true authority. Though certain trickster elements are incorporated, the classic portrayal of Robin Hood throughout many iterations in the 19th and 20th century* would be Lawful Good.

So, what would be Chaotic Good? One of the most remarkable literary examples in fantasy would be Tom Bombadil. He is good and beneficent, but he is outside the realm of Nature and Nature’s law. He is unaffected by the magic of the Maiar; in fact, he is so far outside of the scope of the strugle that Middle Earth is going through, it’s acknowledged by the characters in the book that it would be irresponsible to rely on him – though he’s unaffected by the Ring’s power and evil, he’d probably forget about it!

Melkor would be Chaotic Evil, because his modus operandi was the corruption of creation; everything related to him is described in terms of perversion and marring the true and good intentions of benevolent creators. As an agent of perversion, the more he took on a fixed, absolute, corporeal form with which to rule over his Earthly domain, the weaker he became.

Sauron, as a created being within nature (one of the fallen Maiar) adheres to the laws of creation set forth by the Gods (it’s one of the reasons why he is so vulnerable), and though he wields great power and is able to use that power to corrupt the minds of his foes and cast a shadow over the land, he is still within the sphere of Law. Yes, the struggle in Middle Earth during the 3rd Age is between Lawful Good and Lawful Evil, with Lawful Neutral free people and Neutral Good elder races throwing in with LG against Lawful Evil.

Okay, let’s break away from Lord of the Rings for a minute.

I think that one of the best examples of a True Neutral character might be Garrett from the Thief games.

“But he steals things!” you say; “He’s a law-breaker!” you say; “He may save the world, but he’s probably a bad guy! He’s Chaotic Neutral at best!” you say.

All right, those things are all true, but you need to look at the bigger picture.

While Garrett is a Thief who steals things and breaks the law, he is not a wholly evil person. Assuming that Expert is the canonical way in which Garrett completes the missions, it’s clear that he has a code, part of which is to avoid killing at all costs. There is, if my memory serves, only one mission in which Garrett is allowed to kill his fellow man, and that’s because of an oversight in updating the goals for a mission that did not originally feature human opponents (the magi in the Gold version of The Lost City).

In Thief’s cosmology, there is a conflict between Law, as embodied by the Hammers, and Chaos, as embodied by the Pagans and Fae.** The Hammers aren’t the nicest dudes, in part because from a thief’s perspective, they crack down and crack down hard on criminality; while the current crop of Hammers may seem unnecessarily cruel, their order and the God they serve ultimately fall into the schema of Lawful Good. The Fae who are worshiped by the Pagans are inimical to human life (as it is currently being lived), and the Woodsy Lord is intent on pushing man back into a primeval state. His domain is the Maw of Chaos, so it’s right there in the name.

Someone pointed out in the comments on the previous post that Planes can shift in the relationship to alignment as their leaders change, and we see something of that in Thief 2 with Victoria. Constantine is the sworn foe of the Builder and stands against everything they represent; he is Chaotic Evil in Thief’s cosmology. Victoria, on the other hand, is more pragmatic; I’d place her as Chaotic Neutral – while acting as Constantine’s second, she will have his back, but on her own, her primary concern is not a victory of Evil over Good but preserving Chaos against an encroaching order of Law. Even Garrett notices that the nature of the Maw has changed subtly under her. Neutral Good characters like Lt. Mosley are aiming to find some sort of middle ground between the “Chaos” of the pagans and fae and the Law of the Mechanists.

So Garrett’s place in the “prophecies” is as a balancing agent; when the pendulum swings towards Chaos in Thief: the Dark Project, he ends up finding himself allied with Law via the Hammerites who aid him in sealing the Maw of Chaos. In Thief 2: The Metal Age, the pendulum has swung back the other way, too far in the favor of Law, so he becomes an ally of Chaos to fight against the Mechanist takeover of the city. He is not in those positions because he is a nice guy or a bad guy, but because it is his destiny to act as an agent of balance in the greater cosmic struggle around him.


*:Earliest incarnations of Robin Hood which do not incorporate much of the now established lore would be closer to Neutral Good or Lawful Neutral, depending on the telling; before the notion that Robin Hood was stealing money from nobles and returning it to the unjustly taxed, most folks were happy with a Robin who was stealing from nobles because fuck the nobility; with nobles as pieces of a framework of divinely ordained Law, such a Robin would be slightly more chaotic, since he was acting against the natural order of things (divinely righted stripped of their rightful treasures) – when the definition of the order which Robin was opposing changed, along with his reasons for opposing it, the character became Lawful Good.

**:Note that Nature in Thief’s cosmology is depicted as chaos/chaotic as opposed to the mechanical order believed to be set upon the universe by the Master Builder.

Everyone is talking about Shannara this week, so I will too

With the 35th anniversary annotated Sword of Shannara coming out next week, there is a lot of buzz about the book that may have ruined fantasy. Brooks did not set out to ruin fantasy in much the same way that the Gracchi did not set out to cause the fall of the Roman Republic, but the aftermath is undeniable. Following Shannara’s commercial success, the demand for Tolkienian high fantasy was met with a new wave of Brick Fantasy. While most spec-fic had enjoyed popularity in shorter novella formats, publishers saw that the market for multi-inch thick sprawling fantasy trilogies was ripe. Though D&D was not birthed by this maelstrom, it certainly fed into it; by the 80s, spec-fic shelves were filled with trilogies, quadrologies and even sextets of books featuring some combination of guy-with-sword, dwarf, elf, and mythic creature (usually, but not always, a dragon) in some wooded/mountainous/pastoral tableau; by the 90s, everybody was reading Wheel of Time, Dragonlance, Shannara, or Drizzt, and though I saw his name in my friend’s AD&D Deities & Demigods, I never heard anyone actually talk about Fritz Leiber until my late 20s and Vance was just the name that people blamed D&D’s magic system on.

I can’t remember how old I was exactly, but I was fairly young when I was first exposed to Lord of the Rings. It was somewhere between kindergarten and second grade, but on a really long road-trip, after an “Are we there yet?” I was kept entertained by my parents for the duration of the car ride with a rather impressive retelling from memory of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Not long after that, the Hobbit was read to me as a bedtime story, and my father was both proud and disappointed when mid-way through Fellowship I announced that I had started reading it all on my own and was almost finished.

Fast-forward a few years (maybe 5th grade?), having finished LotR, the Silmarillion, the Prydain Chronicles, the Singreale Chronicles, and at least the first Dragonlance trilogy or so, I got the Shannara Trilogy from a relative for Christmas. Interestingly enough, I found Sword of Shannara to be a remarkable plod but felt slighted that the story wrapped up in a single (albeit 3-inch thick) volume; I mean, I was promised a trilogy! But the remarkable dullness of the characters, obvious knock-offery of the Nazguls Skullbearers looking for the ring sword, painful attention to tactical minutia, and awful twist ending weighed upon my little kid heart like an anvil! What do you mean that the next book in the series is about the first characters’ grandkids? Those first characters weren’t great, but I was already familiar with them, who are these new guys? But they were fantasy books and christmas presents, so I continued trudging on. I made it 3/4s of the way into Elfstones, but when it became obvious that the second book’s twist was that the whiny cleric girl was gonna turn into a tree, 11 year old me was all “FTS!” and went back to Dragonlance, because at the time it seemed so much better in comparison.

Happy 35th Anniversary, Shannara! Ya lousy bum…

The Hobbit 3 & Dwimmermount

I forgot to mention yesterday that I saw the Hobbit over my busy weekend because that was how forgettable it was.  But seeing as I run a fantasy & gaming blog, I feel as though I would be remiss for not commenting on it.

Smaug dying before the title drop is just one more sign of the overall flawed pacing of the movies. The second movie’s payoff is delivered in the first moments of the third, so what’s left? A two hour denouement that leaves you feeling kind of empty and blah.

Battle of Five Armies is a movie that constantly feels as though it wants to be more important than it is.   Its dramatic moments end up feeling forced because it knows what it is: a cynical cash-in that only exists in its present form to con the Weinsteins out of money and compete in a world of media in which people watch procedural dramas on Netflix or USA 9 hours at a time. The Shakespearean tragedy of Thorin and his madness is, in the end, completely overshadowed by all of the other ridiculous non-sense that has cluttered the films. Whatever gravitas Richard Armitage brings to the performance is lost in the poorly paced and predictably direction style we’ve become accustomed to in Jackson’s adaptations.

Killing Fili & Kili to make the Elfy Sue feel bad and understand what is love was less awesome than them fighting to the death to protect a mortally wounded Thorin until Beorn showed up to save him (spoiler: Thorin dies anyway). Given all the time devoted earlier to the goblins and that Beorn was even in the 2nd movie, one would think you’d’ve seen more goblins & wargs and Beorn would’ve shown up all super-bear to rescue Thorin.

Between this and the light cavalry successfully charging a line of heavy spearmen in RotK, I’m thoroughly convinced that Peter Jackson doesn’t actually know how to direct battle scenes, even ones that are spelled out explicitly in text.

Even more bizarre are some of the major geographical mistakes in the dialogue used to justify plot stuff. I mean, it’s bad enough that all of Middle Earth is within 20 miles of the Misty Mountains, but claiming that the orcs are after Erebor because it’s the key to reclaiming Angmar(over some 700 miles west of Erebor and on the other side of the Misty Mountains), showing Mount Gundabad (500 miles west) to be within reasonable walking distance for Legolas and Tauriel to go scope out, and Gandalf telling Legolas that he should go into the North (which would’ve sent him into the barren wastelands of the Forodwaith) to look for Strider made me want to pull my hair. Sauron being banished into the East for Dol Guldur I guess I could understand if we look at “East” as ideological or cultural concept rather than a cardinal direction (Mordor was very south and only slightly east), but the others were kind of baffling.

All in all, I think they would’ve done better to cut things off with Smaug’s death and given an American Graffitti style run-down of which characters died and who became the lords of what pre-credits. I find myself wishing that Middle Earth had gone out on a better note.

Now that I’ve crapped on Hobbit 3: Revenge of the Sith, I’d like to take a minute to talk about something that lots of other people have taken the opportunity to crap on: Dwimmermount.

Dwimmermount is finally a thing, and has been for some time, not that you hear much about it. Still, I find myself more curious about it than I thought I might be. While I can say ‘the brand is somewhat tainted by the kickstarter debacle and ensuing “OMG, OSR IS DEAD” drama in the wake of its delays’, I can’t really comment at all on the quality of the final product, and that’s something I’d like to change.

After nearly two years of Dwimmermount being something of a joke in the gameblog community (just google “9 rats 2000 copper”), does JM’s megadungeon deserve a fair shake? I wouldn’t even be wondering this if it weren’t for Jeffro Johnson’s glowing review. Previous things I’d read, based largely on those who’d been backers & gotten preview stuff, had been fairly ‘blah’ on the whole thing at best, with much more enthusiasm shown for the various ‘hacks’ such as Devilmount. So now that someone whose opinion I value in the gaming community has come out and basically said that everything I thought I knew about Dwimmermount is wrong, maybe I ought to give it a chance?

Even if I do end up crapping on it, it’s only fair to give it a chance before I do. I mean, I waited until having seen Hobbit 3: Escape from Fantasia before dumping on it, so I can surely extend Dwimmermount the same courtesy.

A few thoughts on Desolation of Smaug:

I know I’m super late to the party of DoS, but some rough family circumstances kept me out of the theatres over Christmas.  But I finally got around to seeing Hobbit II: Bigger Longer Uncut, and a number of observations were made:

The geography of Jackson’s Middle Earth continues to perplex and frustrate me. There is always a mountain range on the horizon. In every direction, whether they should be visible or not. I mean, yeah, I get that Middle Earth is a Flat Earth, but it looked like they got out of Goblin town and into the valley at most a couple miles south of Ered Mithrim

Beorn might as well have been a deleted scene. While his presence made sense in the book, he feels like a very extraneous part of a movie filled chock full of extraneousness.

Mirkwood felt really… Narrow?

The Silvan Dark Elves were indistinguishable from the rest of Jackson’s elves. Unless Jackson is saying that only Tauriel was a Silvan elf (hence red-head), which I think he does, because I’m pretty sure there was some dialogue suggesting that she was a Silvan elf as opposed to Legolas (and hence Thranduil)*. If Jackson had wanted to pad or elaborate, he’d’ve had a great opportunity here to explore why the elves in the Hobbit were so different from the elves in LoTRs, or at least show that difference. Being dark elves, they would’ve probably been a bit more worldly, more like classic fey, since they’d rejected their gods offer of heavenly paradise on account of it being an insufferably long walk to get there.

Instead of weird ‘different’ elves, we got more orcs to constantly be running from. Action went from over-the-top to cartoon. Like, at this point, the Rankin & Bass Hobbit feels like a much more serious film.

All of the scenes with Smaug were enjoyable, but the rest of movie falls pretty flat.

The obscene death-counts in what are essentially kids movies these days have gone to where they make those 80s ‘omg shocking highest death-counts in film evar’ flicks seem pretty tame.   DoS is a film filled with perpetual and casual violence from beginning to end to the point where you both forget that it’s there in the movie and forget that it’s not there in the books.

*Update: Thranduil and Legolas were Sindar, making them part of the handful of Grey Elves and High Elves who stayed behind during the 3rd age to rule over kingdoms populated by the various Nandor and Avari populations of Dark Elves.  Most of the Elves left in Middle Earth by the Third Age are probably these “Dark Elves” since most of the High Elven Noldor and Grey Elven Teleri prolly died when the entire world west of the Blue Mountains sank.

d20 Lord of the Rings?

Actually having looked at the Eclipse book briefly, I am completely boggled by d20 point-buy gaming.  That said, here is a pretty awesome series of articles breaking down some Lord of the Rings stuff.

Personally, I imagine a Middle Earth setting to be pretty much subject to Holmes Basic caps.  Other than progression of spells and maybe thieving skills, none of the scaling beyond level 3 makes much sense in any system.