Dark and foreboding when we first see it in The Hobbit, Mirkwood looms large in Bilbo's tale. Drawing on old fairy tales and legends, Mirkwood is the quintessential haunted forest of modern fantasy. There is a mystery to it that lingers long after the book has been read. The blasted dead mountains and plains of Mordor may be hellish, but Mirkwood is the realm of nightmare. The north is a perilous fairy forest, with strange magics and forgotten secrets, while the south is the haunt of the Necromancer, whose grim tower is a jutting shadow above the forest canopy. It was inevitable that ICE would publish game books covering this vast forest for their Middle-earth Roleplaying game, and it makes sense that they divided it into two parts, since they are different realms.
These are among the earlier MERP game books, and it shows. The organization is a bit of a mess, and the typeface is small and cramped. I give ICE credit; they tried to cram a lot of material into these books.
book dedicated to the place. This book gives it more context, where it becomes something of an anchor against the encroaching dark that is permeating Mirkwood. However, as readers of The Hobbit know, that doesn't mean the Elven-king is a friendly face to those who travel through his realm, and his Halls are not a refuge. Those who stumble into the realm of the Wood-Elves won't be slain out-of-hand, but the best they can hope for if they persist in bothering them is to be locked in a cell until they give an accounting of themselves. A clean cell, to be sure, but a cell nonetheless; the Elves are inherently good folk, but they've been fighting a losing battle against evil for several thousand years, and they have not survived by welcoming strangers with open arms. A layout of the place is included, though it isn't as detailed as in the Halls of the Elven-King book, of course. Northern Mirkwood was published years before that book, so this would have been the lone sourcebook for the place for those who wanted it. However, the two together really help each flesh out the other. Without the Halls of the Elven-King book, the overview of the site in the Northern Mirkwood book is cursory and open for interpretation by the individual gamer or Tolkien enthusiast. That's not necessarily bad, as gamers often love tinkering with a setting, but someone reading this just to read it may find it lacking.
|One level of the delvings within the Lonely Mountain.|
|This may be Smaug. Maybe not. They didn't bother to label the picture.|
Some of the maps are notable, too. ICE had some truly gorgeous maps made of Middle-earth. Hand-drawn and meticulously-detailed, I wish they'd been collected into one big poster-sized map that would likely be a good-sized mural. Maybe they did make one, but I never saw it. All I ever saw were the sections done for the various sourcebooks, and altogether those don't cover all of Middle-earth. Still, what is included is still pretty cool. In addition, they include a smaller, black and white version for the gamemaster's use, which is labeled with where plants, animals, peoples, and creatures can be found. It's a really simple idea, but damned handy. Some of the maps inside the book are unspectacular, but the ones that are really make up for those.
|Let's not forget the giant talking spiders.|
The Necromancer was Sauron in disguise, as was revealed sometime during the events of The Hobbit, but that "secret" seems like it should have been blindingly obvious. If this was a spoiler to you, then welcome to Earth.
|Southern Mirkwood; Dol Guldur, the haunt of the Necromancer, is the bare spot in the southwest part of the forest.|
|Topographical map of Dol Guldur to the left.|
|Pants are optional among the forces of the Necromancer, apparently.|
|This is the book's interpretation of Radagast.|
As with Northern Mirkwood, people, places, and things are given a brief but substantive pass, placing everything in a fairly easy-to-grasp context for gamers and Tolkien fans. There are more nifty maps, as in the other book, which are really useful.
The biggest single chunk of the book deals, unsurprisingly, with Dol Guldur, and this is one of the only MERP books in which players can have their characters actually meet the Dark Lord face-to-face. It's not too likely, but it can happen. Even if it does happen, player characters are pretty much done for. Even in a weakened state, without his Ring, Sauron is no pantywaist.
|I have to confess I find it somewhat silly that Sauron has a throne in the dead center of an eye-shaped room.|
Beyond all that, Southern Mirkwood contains a few other minor sites, including a stronghold of Gondor and the home of a "seer." There are adventure and character ideas that are of some interest, and it's interesting to me that this was a feature of early MERP books that was either dropped or made less prominent in later books.
One big hit against both these books is the sizable game info-dump at the front of each. There is a solid block of relatively impenetrable gamespeak that would have to turn off the casual reader. Most MERP books are similarly afflicted, but it seems especially egregious to me in these. Something like six pages or more need to be plowed through to get to the true start of the book proper. It seems senseless to me to do that. Putting it all in the back of the book with the other game statistics seems like it would've made the books more accessible to non-gamers. But, this was almost thirty years ago, so the horse is long out of the barn.
Overall, though, these are pretty decent books. They're especially useful for a gamer, and could be used as a forest in any fantasy roleplaying setting once the serial numbers are filed off. The casual reader and non-gamer might find a bit of interest in the history and cultural essays in the books, though a good bit of it was extrapolated and made up whole cloth, rather than drawn directly from Tolkien's work.
These books are really evocative of nostalgia for me, as are many of the books I'll be discussing here. Long before the internet and its plethora of wikis and dedicated sites, there were only a handful of resources for anyone wanting more info about Middle-earth. So books like these came along through which I could pore, endlessly, usually late at night. There was no illusionary hum of activity that comes from Google searches and site-scrolling. It was a solitary pursuit. This is no "gosh things were so much better then" essay. It wasn't better. Different. Simpler. Quieter, after a fashion. But not better. Today, I could find pages worth of material about any Middle-earth region I care to know about, and much of it would be drawn straight from some Tolkienian source which may not have been unearthed yet years ago.
More melancholy? Yes, yes, like an old friend coming 'round as the evening draws down. Leafing through these books takes me back to a simpler time. Simpler for me then, of course, before time had begun to speed up for me, before the slow, stately, deep ringing of the bell that is the passing of the years began to take on the strident urgency of a fire alarm. These books, like all things we've held onto for decades, seem like faulty time travel devices, casting us back to an earlier age, but cruelly depriving us of the chance to do anything again, make our bad choices right, say the things we needed to have said then. This mood upon me now seems appropriate, though, because so much of Tolkien's Middle-earth narrative hangs upon the decisions of the past, and how they force the river of time to flow in ways those who made those decisions could not have guessed.