Roleplaying The Enemy in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda

I’m not sure how this happened, really. I’d been following Yoystan’s Men of the West YouTube Channel for a while, but I think I really started going back to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda and Middle-Earth because of the season, and also due to roleplaying in a homebrew world with my friends. Last week, I talked about Role-Playing Magic and The World of Arda: basically taking the subtle natural magic of Arda and its world elements and making either a table-top or a massive-multiplayer online role-playing game with those particular aspects in mind. There are a lot of issues with adapting Tolkien’s sagas in that way, of course, and while I touched upon the fact that the players would always be subservient to the overall plotline and need to really have some personal stories as well as referencing to some extent that old paternalism in the Arda narrative with regards to women, and other human ethnicities, there is also the matter of the Orcs.

Yes. You read that right. Orcs. What if someone wants to play an Orc character in Arda? For Everquest and World of Warcraft, even some Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, this would not necessarily be an issue. But Tolkien makes it very clear that orcs are distortions, tortured mutations and descendants of the Elves that didn’t travel to Aman or the Undying Lands, or were captured by the Vala Melkor become the Dark Lord Morgoth before that point. They are warped and twisted, hating themselves, and everyone else around them. There is no noble Horde here against the Alliance of Azeroth. You have these angry, bitter, hateful beings that want to ruin the lives of other races that are more “whole” than they are. This is the same with Trolls, that are mockeries of the tree-like Ents, and even the Easterlings and Southron Men as well as the Black Numenoreans, and more besides of which I do not even have the knowledge. Tolkien makes it clear that these are bad creatures, and people. They have served Morgoth, and Sauron. They despise everything that is beautiful, and good, and true in Middle-Earth. They are the minions of the forces of darkness, and they will go out of their way to destroy even a sliver of hope: the heart of the Tolkien narrative itself.

However, does it really have to be that way? Could the Enemy be just as viable a player faction as the Free-Peoples of Middle-Earth? And can you role-play them in a way that stays true to Tolkien, or perhaps subverts the narrative in a way where it doesn’t take away from the original story, but adds to it? There can’t be light without shadow, after all, despite other philosophies that believe darkness to be a deformation of true radiance. And can you have fun playing the Enemy?

I believe it can be done. If I were to do it, just like the game with the general Free-Peoples that I mentioned in my last article, I would set in as a side campaign during some of the events of the Ages, or in-between lulls between major events in general: the ones that aren’t necessarily world-shattering upon first glance, or at least not obviously so.

So, Orcs are fascinating beings. What is known is that when they aren’t working for Morgoth, or Sauron they often congregate in different tribes where they engage in warlike and violent behaviour to achieve dominance among their people, and power. They are also related to Goblins as well, maybe as an offshoot. You have your warriors, and archers, as well as your Warg Riders: essentially Orcs that ride giant wolves. Goblins can have something akin to group or a nice adaptation of D&D pack tactics when fighting. Another thing to consider is that Orcs aren’t stupid. Of course, there are different breeds or races of Orc as well, but they are all cunning and can create weapons, and devices of war and torment. In fact, I would encourage there to be smart Orcs: beings with basic intelligence, craftiness, cleverness, and of course a thirst for battle.

I would have it so that if you play an Orc, or a Troll you can work your way through the ranks based on your battle prowess, your manipulation, and your cunning. Perhaps you believe that the Valar cursed your ancestors, and left you to suffer. The Lords that you follow, if you do, are the sworn enemies of the dark gods that abandoned you, leaving you to die helpless in a world you didn’t understand until Melkor came, and gave you a new sense of purpose. He changed you, twisted, and moulded you to be fruitful and multiply. This is your land. You love your god, and you hate him in equal measure. But this pain of being you reminds you that you are alive, and it also reminds you of all the other races that take their wholeness for granted. Likewise, perhaps you might not believe the Dark Lord made you, but you follow power for that is how you eat the flesh of others, which is your diet — as you have grown tired of eating your own — and you know that the more powerful and skilled you become, or the more resources you have, the more opportunities you will have for food and plunder.

Likewise, you might not want to follow any Dark Lord and simply plunder for the sake of it. You know, those Dwarves are always trying to kill you and you want a nice safe place in a mountain. Perhaps you’ve heard of Moria, and once the Dwarves dug too greedily and too deep, you sensed the presence of a power that is familiar and grand: something that doesn’t seem to care about you, and would tolerate your presence in a grander place while destroying all others that dare to defy it. Maybe you want treasures and golden baubles from those damned Men that are always roaming around, while having a cave to keep it all in so you can have meat, and loot a plenty as a Troll. Perhaps you want control over a part of the Misty Mountains that another Tribe of Goblin or Orc possesses. So you forge alliances and friendships. You have a broodmate or two. You fight alongside each other, propping each other up until the time when you don’t need the other anymore, or when you get hungry. And, if you do serve a Dark Lord, if you prove yourself you might be worthy of his blessings: of greater weapons, of artifacts forged from Utumno and Angband, or even from the very fires of Mount Doom itself.

I myself don’t know the particulars of Black Speech, that spoken in Mordor, or by the Enemy in general but if there is an enterprising Tolkien scholar of the language out there, I would find the Black Speech equivalents to Fëa and Hröa: perhaps ghâsh as “fire” could represent a dark being’s soul, while snaga, aside from meaning “slave” can also mean “the body.” Things have been made on the backs of slaves, unfortunately, after all, and they have been seen as objects. Perhaps in this culture the Orcs and Trolls — or as they would call themselves and perhaps be called in-game the Uruk and Olog — the former term of which actually being taken from mythology by Tolkien — see their bodies as slaves to their fire or hunger, and act accordingly on that as a virtue. That is merely my idea, and I think interesting enough to consider.

Of course, you also have the Men or humans that serve the Enemy, or have their own designs. Perhaps those from the East and South have their own cultures. The Haradrim have their Mûmakil riders: their oliphant mounts. The Corsairs of Umbar have their excellent seafaring vessels, ships, and skills. The Easterlings have a vast land and many different kingdoms and cultures that can be expanded upon: with their superb constructions of wagons and chariots to supplement their fighting skills. And there are so many others. They could serve the Cult of Melkor, like the fallen Numenoreans did, because they are jealous as all hell over the Elves living forever, and they want immortality, or they despise the former Numenoreans turned into the people of Gondor and Arnor due to their imperialism, or because they were favoured over them by cruel gods. They might just want better lands, or more resources. Some might want revenge for the deaths of kin in so many wars between the West and themselves. Perhaps they even have genuine grievances, or many a few more just want to get away from Sauron. Perhaps the Cult that was introduced in the unfinished New Shadow novel of Tolkien’s has its presence in Mordor or the East and South in different iterations.

And then, you can have some interesting classes too. While there are warriors, Wainriders, archers, your oliphant riders, sailor-lords, and the like, you can have Sorcerers and Witches. These beings can be from the East and South, but even the West. They have learned lore — sorcery — or gained artifacts from dark Maia such as Sauron. Their ghâsh can be improved upon through study of entropy and decay, as well as taking the lives of others through battle and blood sacrifices. Orcs and Trolls can have these powers, this equivalent to magic: though they manifest as poisonous herb-lore, fiendish constructions, spiritual pollution, and berserker rages. If you want to take liberties, you can even say that as a reward for serving your Lord as an Orc or Troll, you could be chosen to help breed the next of your kin: choosing survival of the strongest and the clever to create a chosen bloodline that could lead to Saruman’s Uruk-hai or even Sauron’s Olog-hai: sun-resistant Trolls.

Normal Trolls have their ghâsh drained massively if they are exposed to light, or sunlight, and will turn into stone. Most Orcs can be affected in a similar way, but while they won’t die, you will feel tremendous fear and hatred of the unforgiving light. And if you are a Sorcerer or Witch of Men, you can vastly increase your ghâsh or have it increased if you prove your worth to your Masters, but it will degrade your snaga: and you will become a Wraith over time as your dark spirit from the Other World consumes your body in the mortal one. Trolls and Orcs improve their snaga through learning combat and survival tactics while their ghâsh can collectively increase if they are in larger numbers against an enemy: representing the darkness that they embody.

So, here are some interesting scenarios. You can be powerful Orcs and Men of Saruman that undertake missions for the renegade White Wizard to prove your worthiness and get your time in the breeding pits: to know you will create a new future where your kin will rule the world under the Hand of Isengard: your Clan’s immortality assured as the dominant power under any Dark Lord really. Perhaps you are an agent of Saruman hired to collect some ring-lore that he can’t quite find elsewhere: and while you might not glean the significance of it, he could teach you a few bits of other lore or give you treasures or powers of other kind in exchange. You can be the Corsairs that destroy the fleets of Gondor, and prove your superiority, or one of the Easterlings or Haradrim that either fight each other, or create mutual trading pacts, or successfully back-stab your way into power. Or here is an interesting one: Sauron hears that some strange Blue Wizards have come into the East. He orders you, his best Uruks, and his best disciples of the Cult of Melkor to either apprehend the two Blue Wizards and bring them to him, or kill them. Or perhaps the two are already renegades and will teach you some lore in exchanging for serving them … or, likewise, pretend to be renegades, and teach you that lore to make sure that your lands never fully unify — at least not right away — and delay, if not destroy a fully unified East under Sauron’s banner.

And, who knows? You Easterlings and Southrons can eventually sue for peace with the West, and mutual respect. Maybe Sauron is gone, or you just want a way to get away from him so that you can save your family and your loved ones. Maybe it’s too late for those inducted fully into the Cult of Melkor, but if you have Numenorean blood perhaps you can be an Elf-Friend again and remember the mysteries of Eru Illuvatar. Perhaps you Uruks have had enough. You don’t want to serve these Dark Lords anymore. Perhaps your hatred of the Elves and Men empowers you, but you can see which way the wind is changing. Your new quest is to gain power, but also survive. You go off to find a new home, or a cavern, or a series of tunnels with which to hide from the genocide of your kind, and one day regain your numbers. Perhaps you will even become more clever. And, who knows? Maybe you had Elven and Human ancestry. Maybe you see just a bit of that light in the brokenness you always were … Perhaps it drives you to glorious battle and seek a great end for yourself that will eclipse anything else in your horrible life. Or perhaps … one day … you might become something more.

This … isn’t perfect. Like Black Speech itself, the Enemy was built by Tolkien to be fragmented and broken and brutal. I think you can still preserve that, but show that they have aspirations and personalities of their own. Some might change their ways. Some might die by them. You can tell some good stories, and even make them. I actually view these beings differently now, especially the Orcs and Trolls. While Order of the Stick made me look at Goblin Genocides for what they are in D&D, my own meditations on what happened in H.P. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth with the US Government and the town’s people as genocide — along with reading Ruthanna Emrys’ Innsmouth Legacy series — and my friend and sometime-publisher Gil Williamson’s Prancing Pony: in which the British come to Middle-Earth in the 1800s and see what is left of the people there, including the last of the Uruk-hai.

I don’t mind having the existence of evil or even other darker forces in a game or a world, but I do think having them fleshed out and even thinking out their world view and allowing for change in some places and meaningful stories can amount to a lot. I’ve written a lot more about this than I thought. But I hope this was interesting, if nothing else. It’s good to write such rambles on here again. That’s what Mythic Bios was designed to do after all. Until another time, my friends.

And remember: I see you.

Roleplaying Magic and the World of Tolkien’s Arda

Whenever I attempt to relax, one of the things that I do is watch a YouTube channel called Men of the West, created by a user with the handle of Yoystan. In it, he generally talks about aspects of J.R.R. Tolkien’s World of Arda, but specifically events, characters, artifacts, races, locations, and media pertaining to Middle-Earth. Fans like Yoystan are far more well-versed in Arda, and Tolkien’s works and backgrounds than myself, but they have inspired me to do some of my own crude and shallow research through the Legendarium of Tolkien. But there is one topic that has always intrigued me about Middle-Earth, especially with interest in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, and my own Dungeons and Dragons role-playing.


Of course, magic in this case is a misnomer. Perhaps the better word for what I am particularly interested in with regards to Tolkien’s Arda is its metaphysics, or how the rules of that world allow for certain events, and actions that we might deem as paranormal or supernatural to take place. Metaphysics in the world of Arda are predicated on its creation.

Arda was created by the Song of Eru Illuvatar and his Valar and Maiar spirits. It allows for song and oaths to shape the fate of those that utilize them. Prophecy and prophetic dreams also exist in this world. However, there are some crafts that exist in Arda thanks to the Valar, and their Maiar servants that were taught to the early ancestors of the peoples of Arda: Elves, Dwarves, and Men: specifically herb-lore, Dwarven Moon-letters, artificing such as ring-crafting, and even something akin to telepathy “thought-opening” and “Unwill”: though the latter is a rare skill. Arda also exists in two worlds, the mortal plane, and the “Unseen World” where Elves — or at least High Elves — exist simultaneously: perhaps allowing them, and other dark beings, to utilize spells of illusion or shape-changing. Certainly, there seems to be a category of metaphysics called sorcery: which is dark power that can be taught to Men — humans — by Maia such as the Dark Lord Sauron. Curses also exist that can keep human spirits from passing on, and certain areas of land can have traumatic events such as wars and battle imprinted upon them, or be sensitive to certain kinds of powers, or be protected by them.

The only ones that can really wield anything close to obvious magical  power are the Istari — or the Five Wizards — who are, in turn, Maia spirits given human form by their Valar patrons from Aman or Valinor to advise and guide the peoples of Middle-Earth against Sauron’s tyranny and manipulations. And the Wizards are extremely limited in what they can actually do, to make sure their powers do not dominate the peoples of Middle-Earth or actually cause irreparable damage to Arda itself.

Essentially, what I call the metaphysical situation of Arda is a subtle magic of sorts: forces of that universe — which is, arguably, supposed to be a mythological past of our own world, before the metaphysical rules of our reality changed many times — and something that can only be utilized in particular situations, contexts, or at certain times. George R.R. Martin does something similar with magic in Westeros and Essos, though there is a lot more emphasis on blood magic, and aspects of deities that may or may not exist in the forms that their worshipers believe them to be. It would make sense that Tolkien’s understated, limited use of magic — or metaphysics — influenced Martin and so many others, including the creators of Dungeons and Dragons that made spells far more overt.

So, one thing that the Men of the West YouTube channel also focused on at one point were attempts at an Expanded Arda Universe: through gameplay. And one thing that it has always found lacking is the “magic-system” in Lord of the Rings Online — a game that Yoystan otherwise praises in every other way — or even its selection of player races, and antagonists.

And, after reading up on this, I started to think to myself: what would a role-playing game — online or table-top — look like if it were based on what we knew about Tolkien’s Arda down as much to the rune as possible? This led me to writing out some thoughts on my social media on the matter, hoping to get input from other Game Masters and other players I know, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this deserves a post. And while I am not a Tolkien scholar, I do have some ideas as to what this world would look like, how it would be possible to construct a campaign, and what such a game could be about.

It’d be a question of looking at the heart of Middle-Earth and Arda, and focusing on the idea that “there is hope in the greatest darkness.” That is the spirit of Tolkien’s world. With this central theme in mind, should at least a table-top Game Master and player fellowship choose to use it, it would be a case of the metaphysics of the world shaping what happens in it.

Setting a game in Arda during the First and Second Ages, for instance, would be a very different endeavour and situation than making it situated in the Third Age with which many fans are so familiar. I would argue that it would be easier to have High Elf players in the First and Second Ages, for instance, along with a Higher Mythic Age element of Maiar abound and more supernatural beings like werewolves, Balrogs, and even Dragons. Roleplaying in Beleriand, the lost continent of Middle-Earth and central to many Elven Kingdoms and even old Dwarven ones could be fascinating. Of course, you could have intrigue and some battles from Numenor, the greatest civilization of Men as it is referred to, if you want to spend time in the Second Age. The Silmarillion and other Books of Lost Tales on those times could be useful but they are very mythological, though there could be some fun in that.

But in the Third Age, around the time of The Lord of the Rings, or The Hobbit is what I was — and many others would be — thinking about setting a game in with regards to Arda. If it is a tabletop role-playing situation, the Game Master can set limits on who is what in this world, and it would be easier to do so. For instance, High Elves have tremendous skill in their Arts and knowledge — and can see into the Unseen World and sense Wraiths and the like — which might give a fellowship an unfair advantage. Also, there aren’t that many High Elves beyond the titular characters in the novels at this stage in the game. Likewise, in a video game or a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, you can just limit what classes and races players can be: with non-player characters being exceptions, of course. And, it goes without saying, that there are no other Wizards aside from the Five.

What I would do is something like this. I would take all the different races and genealogies that commonly exist in Middle-Earth around the time of the tail end of the Third Age: the Forest Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits of course, and Men — Humans — and even include some Rangers with their Numenorean blood to make things interesting. So far so good. I would have Warriors in their permutations as Horse Riders, Archers, and even Rangers. Have some Hobbit burglars even just to be a troll (and in this case, not a literal one, as they will be enemies, trolls). The Forest Elves are a combination of different Elven families or ethnicities and perhaps I would grant them some higher statistics, and knowledge.

Healing in the game would happen naturally. If you are injured, you need to rest, or have medicine applied to you. It’d be like the role-playing system in the tabletop version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you get injured, you have to take time to heal. Of course, if your Human or Elf knows some herb-lore, you could expedite the process, but it is not an instant heal situation. In fact, I’d be really tempted to list one’s characteristics as Fëa and Hröa. These are two very fascinating concepts, created in Tolkien’s Elvish which are apparently translated as “spirit” or “soul” and “body.” I would have Hröa as one’s health meter, and Fëa as being necessary to perform certain Arts, herb-lore, crafts, and the like. The more powerful your Fëathe more sensitive you are to the Unseen World, and the more complex Arts you can understand and perform. Perhaps this would be a dynamic more suited to Elf characters, for obvious reasons, and perhaps some Numenorean descendants.

I would allow for some characters to be able to increase these basic traits. Elves, for instance, can increase Fëa and Hröa if they learn certain lore, and can start to perceive the World around them such as it is, perhaps even more than their heightened senses already do. However, I would make them more susceptible to any mood-affecting Arts or sorcery, and if their Fëa isn’t sufficiently recovered through meditation or what not, it can affect them physically. It would be interesting, however, for a non-High Elf to develop to a point where they can almost match their kin. I am even tempted to play with the concept of Elf characters being reincarnated from the Halls of Mandos if they are killed in battle, or they die, while Human characters — if they die — have to move on as their souls go to a place beyond Arda, and the player can have the option of playing as a descendant or a kinsman of theirs. It’d be closer in keeping to the metaphysical structure of Tolkien’s world.

It would really be cool if characters can learn how to train their traits through finding lore, or artifacts, or even wise people who might have, at one time, been taught a few tricks by other Elves, Dwarf smiths, or even Istari. It would be limited, of course, as secrets can be distorted or lost over time, and the power of Arda is not the same as it once was. But just think about an Elf learning how to sense the two Worlds, or a Dwarf figuring out how to make Moon-letters or doors — with time and effort — that can keep others away, or Humans learning powerful Oaths, songs or poems of power to bolster the morale of your group or army, some minor Spells, or wisdom. And everyone can learn some secrets of different locations that they find, perhaps even talk with a Maia or two and gain knowledge of subtle but useful skills. Perhaps there is a campaign where they go among the Easterlings and discover a cult dedicated to the Blue Wizards, and discover some lore from them: maybe in an attempt to figure what happened to the two who were lost so long ago, while never actually being anything but ambiguous about it like in Tolkien’s lore unless you want an interpretation.

Of course, you can train your Hröa through learning how to fight, how to survive in the wilderness and scout, to feed yourself, and through exercise and experience in battle. And there could be situations where you need something miraculous to happen, but you can’t just simply call on this power whenever you want: even as an Elf. You have to be in the right place, at the correct time, or like in some D20 systems you have a Fate Dice and you can only call on it once per session or — in this case — once per major event such as being in a battle with a Sorcerer who has a few Wraiths or Barrow-Wights on his or her side, and you have an Elven artifact that you need to repel them with azure light, or the sudden flood of a river in front of you to keep them all back.

It would be easy to find treasures of mithril and Elven blades that react to Orc presence. Orcs, Goblins, Wargs, Trolls — which would be stronger opponents — Mirkwood Spiders, Human Outlaws, Barrow-Wights, and Wraiths would be good antagonist non-player characters that you can fight, and outsmart. Perhaps you find some remnants of older more terrifying powers in remote places in Middle-Earth such as Balrogs, Dragons, or even some Maia that have gone renegade: shapeshifting wolves and vampires. I can see a quest to seek some Teleri elves (seafarers I believe) to find treasures in the waters where Beleriand used to be, or going to the East to see if you can find evidence of the Blue Wizards — as having done their part to divide the Easterlings against Sauron, failing to do so and being killed, or having made cults around themselves — or even trying to find those gosh darned reclusive Ent-Wives if you are particularly fascinated with herb and wood-lore.

You can participate in minor battles that are involved in major events. You could find all kinds of fascinating artifacts such as, again, some Elven blades you can find, some Dwarf-wrought weapons, documents and lore of lost knowledge, perhaps a lost remnant of a Wizard’s staff that wouldn’t even give you a tenth of an Istari’s power but could make for a useful talisman. Hell, you could even find the Lesser Rings of Power: which are practice rings made by Elven craftspeople that could give you … a few minor advantages in certain statistics. Saruman did, after all, examine what he could of ring-lore and maybe there are some samples of it still out there, though whether or not they are influenced by Sauron can be up to interpretation.

It seems like scraps, compared to what the protagonists in the novels encounter or use, and compared to Dungeons and Dragons, but I see all these opportunities as — well — Lost Tales in and of themselves, stories that happen in between the gaps of greater epics that are no less meaningful. They would be character driven games and campaigns, and you can focus on “fellowship” or “the day a group’s courage fails.” You could have an Elf wanting to prove themselves to their people, or a Dwarf wanting to recover their lost smithing, or a human woman masquerading as a man — or not — wanting to fight, a rare halfling that wanders from home and can’t keep their hands to themselves, or an Easterling who simply just wants to gain profit and survive and doesn’t like the influence being exerted on their lands. I’m not sure I would have Beornings — essentially were-bears — exist as player characters, but I would not rule it out in a tabletop situation provided it is roleplayed well. Perhaps Beornings are descendants of Men and Maia with an interesting Fëa as a result.

And just think about these characters meeting canon characters, and having a whole other kind of interaction with them. Elrond could probably, if he so chose, direct you with different kinds of knowledge, or perhaps you can meet a different Gondorian Stewards if you aren’t … quite playing at the end of the Third Age. Perhaps Galadriel has entertained other guests before, or you really got lost in Lothlorien. You might be told by a small village of Hobbits that you are not welcome there, or a passing … grey-robed and bearded man gives you some good pipe-weed, and some sound advice. Maybe even a firework or two, if you are good. Or you meet other original characters who could plausibly exist. Imagine learning how to ride by riders of Rohan, or dying in Dunharrow because you were foolish enough to go into the Mountain … or you find some cursed item just outside of it. And going into a barrow is always fun, or dealing with some Huorns and Ents in Fangorn Forest. There are a lot of possibilities.

This … could work as an online game, but that depends on the interests of the players and how much of an audience such a game world as an MMORPG could gain. Many people are used to flinging fireballs, or instantly healing from a cleric’s spell. Likewise, however, there is a paternalism in Tolkien’s world: with certain peoples of humanity, or races being inherently bad or limited to roles that could also be an issue, not to mention gender-roles.

But this system, as I have thought of it, could also be adopted into its own world. A low or subtle magic world that focuses on exploration and understanding of the environment around you, and the friendships you can forge, the poems and artifacts you can find, the songs you can sing together, and even the food you can make and eat and trade while having your battles with evil.

I guess what I’m saying is that it can be done, and it would be fairly beautiful.  I would attempt a table-top game of either a Lord of the Rings RPG like this, or a world with similar metaphysics. I know The One Ring RPG and Lord of the Rings Online do not quite have this, so I thought I’d just write about it here. Or perhaps only hardcore Tolkienites and scholars could attempt such a thing. I think this is the closest I might ever come to writing in Middle-Earth, though I make no promises. I don’t have any greetings or farewells to make in Elvish, but I hope you enjoyed reading this long digression into possibilities, this place of lore, which I feel belongs on Mythic Bios as it has been a long time since I have made such a ramble. And I wish you well.

I Think I’m Ready For Another Adventure

It’s been September for a little while now. Cool winds vie with warm air as Summer continues to want its time. The seasons tend to be greedy like that. And every year, at this time, I remember feeling a combination of fear and anticipation as school started again: as a whole new journey began.

Of course, after a while and as my Master’s work came to a certain point I had fewer–if any–new courses to look forward to and dread. Even so, in 2009 of this time I had Dragon Con as my next great journey–all the way into Atlanta–followed by forays into new places and meeting new people. But eventually by 2012, even that sense of movement began to ebb and fear–that natural fear of impending change–turned in on itself and became a deep sense of internalized anxiety followed by a sense of burn-out and a whole lot of being practically sedentary: in almost all the ways that mattered.

For about a year or so, my only real movements were–aside from meeting from friends–very reluctant journeys into practical matters and solitary walks. I can’t even remember a lot of last year’s September, but a lot of it was writing, writing, writing and the slow and inevitable realization that despite one inclination to shun connections and being the North American equivalent of Hikikomori–a recluse or a shut-in–I was now talking a different journey into making voice actually heard and slowly opening up in a different space in my life.

I’ve told you all about some of the somewhat modest developments in my life over time, including these recent ones, and I want to tell you a little more before going on my next journey.

I am working on The Dark Crystal Gelfling Gathering story and continuing to explore the world of Thra and its characters through story sketches. This is a recent one: it is the story of two urSkeks–though of one in particular named YiYa–who die before the Crystal is cracked. It is a brief look at YiYa’s existence, of a role that he didn’t have enough time to gain, and an attempt to give his demise some meaning aside from being a throwaway character. I tell more than I show, there are undoubtedly grammatical errors and perhaps some choppy sentences, but it is literally another foray into the world that I plan to look at with a little more depth. A journey does not happen all at once, but in increments and with setbacks and some insights along the way. The urSkeks came all the way to Thra to heal themselves, but they also got to explore an entirely different world and find out some things about themselves in the process. It is a nice background for me as I will continue on with how the Gelfling operate.

In other news, Sequart has published the second half of my article The Stitching Together of a Mythos: Kris Straub’s Broodhollow: which, in turn, focuses on a more neurotic young man named Wadsworth Zane undertaking a train ride of his own. And with Kris Straub’s comment today on my Twitter, stating that “@MKirshenblatt’s dissection of broodhollow and its origins is everything i ever wanted” fuelling my sails further I am also going to go on my own train ride: to Ottawa.

And by the time you read this, I will be on my way. I won’t be gone long and it is a relatively ad hoc journey. In fact, it’s almost completely out of character for someone like me: or the person I’d turned into this past while. While I am going out of some practical concerns–such as developing my skills and resources further to actually gain employment and even go so far as to create my own job–I’m also enjoying the prospect of meeting some old and new friends and, really, to get something akin to a vacation.

Some people might think to themselves, “But Matthew, you’ve not had a paying job or gone to school in almost two years. You’ve had about two years of vacation.” And that’s all very well and good an opinion, except that they would be wrong. I have been out of school and work for almost two years, it’s true, but almost two years of unemployment, of anxiety, of being shut-in, of not really having my own space, of doing a checklist and a report for Ontario Works, of looking for work, of networking, of constantly writing everyday–as enjoyable as that may be–is not a vacation. What it has been is almost two years of work and struggle and rarely, if ever, letting myself fully relax.

But I have been waking up. As much as I want to retreat back into the tiredness sometimes–especially when it gets stressful–I find I’m like I always am where when I am up, I’m up. I have built up a certain kind of momentum but I also recognize that I am going to have to take some paths I didn’t even think about and that sometimes they happen suddenly and that life does not stop when you want it to and–perhaps–that is a very good thing. Life happens when you make other plans and life happens when you make any kinds of plans, or you think you are going to be on a certain track for the foreseeable future and this is true of gods and monsters and careers and relationships of any kind. And even now, I don’t intend to really take a break.

It’s almost fitting that while I have a Project or two to catch up on, I will also no doubt be reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring on my journey by Via Rail on my seat by the window: watching the space I’ve been in for so long pass me by. A part of me is scared to be leaving the familiarity of my surroundings–both my comforts and my inconveniences and so relatively suddenly too–but there is another part of me, a part I’d almost forgotten about that is excited and looks greatly forward to meeting up with some awesome friends and to learn new things together.

To my friends and loved ones I love you all, and I will see you again on Monday because in the words of Bilbo Baggins–my favourite Hobbit–I think I’m quite ready for another adventure.

Looking Outward

Film Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

So now I’m going to do an actual review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey. And yes, there will be spoilers in addition to Middle-Earth references. So watch the movie first please, and I will try to be more specific with my Tolkien knowledge as well.

Anyway, let me start this off by stating that the last time I’d seen so many singing Dwarves was back when I first watched Snow White.

File:Snow white 1937 trailer screenshot (2).jpg

But all joking aside, I really liked this film and the entire world, the story thus far, and even the singing elements were incorporated well. The narrative begins slowly and much in the way that the multitude of trailers suggested that it would. I smiled when I saw Bilbo on the screen writing in what would become the Red Book of Westmarch.

I was puzzled, though not completely surprised, to see Frodo in those initial scenes as well. I know that many people have had some issues with him being there: saying that his and Bilbo’s interactions were superfluous to the plot and point of the story. But it was refreshing to see Frodo there: young and unburdened by the absolute hell he will be thrust into much later on in his own saga. He also provided a nice counterpoint to Bilbo as an old, and as a young Hobbit.

So now let’s get to the adventure. I’ve not actually read The Hobbit in some years, or read all of The Unfinished Histories and Tolkien’s notes, so you Tolkienites please bear my ignorance as much as you can. I really liked the encounter and banter between young Bilbo and Gandalf. But I think what I caught my eye in particular were two things in this beginning. First, I appreciate how each Dwarf that comes to Bilbo’s home looks and acts differently from his fellows. They looked very different from my kind of generic view of Dwarves in my head when I first read the story.

And then there is Bilbo. I’ve realized now that Bilbo has always been my favourite Hobbit for a variety of reasons. I guess I can relate to him: as the unwanted person thrown out of his comfort zone and not always wanting to be there. But there was one part in the beginning of the movie that Gandalf states: namely about how once Bilbo used to take after the adventurous Took side of his family before his mother died. And that really turned my head because, from what I inferred from that comment, Bilbo almost seemed to become sedentary and stuck in his ancestral Hobbit-Hole after his parents were gone. For a few moments, it made me wonder if it was a bit of fear or grief that changed Bilbo from a child to a more conservative Hobbit at the time. Even if it was unintentional on Jackson’s part, it was a nice detail.

The Dwarves, like I said, were fleshed out well and their singing more than appropriate given the nature of Middle-Earth as we have seen it through Jackson’s perspective and the gravitas of their quest. I talk about some scenes that really touched me when I watched this film and made me really relate to it, so now I can go on and mention some things I didn’t talk about in my previous post.

The panoramic views of the Shire and the path the company of fourteen (or thirteen and a half) take are breathtaking as always. I think that sometimes the film compensated for certain aspects by adding a lot of battle scenes. I don’t, for instance, recall Gandalf being involved with Bilbo’s dealing with the Trolls quite the way he had. At the same time, I loved how other things were inserted into the film narrative.

I absolutely loved Radagast the Brown. He is so unlike Gandalf or Saruman. He is kind of goofy and ridiculous, but he is still an Istari–a Wizard–and he acts like one when he needs to. There is something very shamanic about how he looks: especially with his fur robe and hat, and his sleigh of rabbits. I loved the nod to Middle-Earth lore with the mention of Ungoliant being the ancestor of the giant spiders of Mirkwood, and also Gandalf mentioning the two Blue Wizards whose names he … can’t particularly recall after two thousand years (which is fair because even now not everyone who has read the Middle-Earth books is sure what they were called or really whatever happened to them in the East). Now, what really intrigued me was the White Council. You know: Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond and our favourite White Wizard-before-he-becomes-an idiot-Saruman.

I do recall Gandalf disappearing, or not appearing, in the book’s narrative at various points and apparently Tolkien’s notes and The Unfinished Tales have explanations as to what the Grey Wizard was up to during those times. And believe me, he was not just smoking pipeweed or drinking red wine or … letting Galadriel stroke his hair. I like how they draw The Necromancer into this saga and even how Saruman has some hilarious lines. Really, he was so serious in the Lord of the Rings films, but his comment about Radagast, as short-sighted and arrogant as it is, is really kind of funny. It also makes some matters clear with regards to what might happen in the other two Hobbit movies, and I will get to that later.

Before I move on though, I really like that gesture between Gandalf and Galadriel. All I can say is that Elves have a very different culture from the race of Men and a very radical understanding of the world. Galadriel actually has a husband and consort–Celeborn (who is known as the wisest Elf on Middle-Earth, take from that what you may)–so the gesture between her and Gandalf could be as an old friend and colleague comforting another.

At the same time, it should also be mentioned that Gandalf is not human, nor is he an Elf. He is a Maiar spirit: one of five sent from the Undying Lands by the Valar (or gods) of Middle-Earth to help the land deal with Sauron: who is also a Maiar. He is a powerful spirit that has been manifested, or chose to manifest in flesh. Galadriel herself is thousands of years old, but Gandalf is much older. He could have looked very different back in the day and they both lived in the Undying Lands once. Also, he has worked with her and the White Council closely and Galadriel herself is probably the most approachable consolatory member of the rest. So whatever the case, there is definitely a history there between them and it is fun to think about.

Now onto other matters. I must say that I have never heard of, or really recall the stone giants in The Hobbit or anywhere in Middle-Earth and it makes me wonder if Jackson simply put them there. They look like animated humanoid rocks that throw each other, and I will avoid making a pretty self-evident crude joke about the matter, but they were jarring to see in an otherwise seamless film.

I really appreciate the rapport of riddles and then the subsequent treachery between Bilbo and Gollum. I never get over how sorry I feel for Gollum and the way that he is almost friendly but vicious with Bilbo, ultimately insane when his ring is gone, and then completely despondent. That last is actually heartbreaking to watch.

So … now for the end. My brother wondered just why it is that the Great Eagles took the whole company only halfway towards the Lonely Mountain and not directly to the Mountain itself. I also wondered about this and I’m pretty sure that How It Should Have Ended would have addressed this much in the same way they did Lord of the Rings. But it actually makes sense when you think about it. Gandalf and the White Council were very reluctant to let the company go to disturb the Mountain because of the Dragon Smaug. Even Gandalf was concerned that Smaug might awaken and ally himself with Sauron.

Now, if you’ve seen that ending and you see what one bird managed to do can you imagine what would have happened if a whole flock of giant Eagles with twelve Dwarves, a Wizard, and a Hobbit with a Ring of Power (that he might not put on as of yet) came to the Mountain right away instead? Place your bets as to who would actually prevail in that immediate struggle. Then wonder what Smaug might do after that. He might just go back to sleep. Maybe. Anyway, it’s kind of a moot point at this time considering.

All in all, it was an excellent movie. I suspect that the second movie will deal with Smaug himself, and then the third will focus on the aftermath and the Battle of the Five Armies. But for now, I give this film a five out of five because, I think I am quite ready for another adventure.

P.S. And my answer to How It Should Have Ended‘s Lord of the Rings are Nazgul … on Fellbeasts.