Sunday, July 22, 2012

Ents of Fangorn: Finally, an elf-free forest.

Tolkien really seemed fascinated with forests. He portrays all of them as being inherently perilous, and all have a mystery to them. As mysterious as they all were, Fangorn was probably the most enigmatic of the forests he placed in Middle-earth. Well, second-most, behind the Old Forest near the Shire, which was Tom Bombadil's domain. Actually, though, both were the remnants of a truly ancient superforest that covered a big part of Middle-earth at one time, so in some respects they're very similar. I'll give the nod for being strange to the Old Forest, simply due to Bombadil's presence. But Fangorn is a close second, and is, in some ways, more dangerous, because there is no brightly-dressed gnome around to save the day. Regardless, Fangorn is yet another of Tolkien's haunted forests, and one inhabited by some of the stranger inhabitants of Middle-earth.

Ents of Fangorn gets right to the point with its title. I guess that's understandable. After all, any trek to Fangorn is going to have to involve meeting an Ent or two, or you'll be dealing with some disappointed players. It's inevitable. Doesn't matter that Ents are so rare as to have never been seen - or even heard of! - by most of the people of Middle-earth, even Elves. Players will want some facetime with Treebeard. So this book rightly discusses the Ents for a few pages, detailing their culture and a few notable Ents. The most notable is Treebeard, of course.

One thing that's always bothered me in my numerous times reading the book is how hard a time I had visualizing Treebeard, or any Ent, really. I mean, I got that they were anthropomorphic trees, or at least resembled such. It didn't help that I was not too keen on any of the pictures I saw of him. I was reading Lord of the Rings once every couple of years long before Peter Jackson's movies, so my main source for Treebeard pictures were in things like Tolkien calendars by the Brothers Hildebrandt.

From the 1976 J.R.R. Tolkien calendar by the Brothers Hildebrandt.

The Hildebrandts were phenomenal, of course, but some of their interpretations never quite clicked with me. Treebeard was one such. I think they were good about reading the source material. Technically they did a great job. But it just didn't look like Treebeard to me. Still, the only alternative I had back at that time was from Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings animated film.

That film has its fans, I know, and I can understand. It's ambitious. Nobody else tackled it as a feature until Peter Jackson. I was not a fan, really, because I never cottoned to Bakshi's penchant for rotoscoping, and I disliked some of the character designs - and Treebeard was one of those. It's not bad, but it's just not what I envisioned as I read the book. The closest to what I pictured in my own personal theater of the mind was the Treebeard of the Jackson films, and that came years later.

Took me a while, but I warmed up to this interpretation eventually. It came to really imprint itself on my mind's eye.

I'm spending a lot of time on Treebeard because he is Fangorn, literally. That's his original, given name. Whether he was named after the forest or it was named for him isn't entirely clear, but I like to think Fangorn, the Ent, came first. He is the eldest of the Ents, and my own interpretation of what Tolkien wrote is that he was the first Ent. That may not be true, but it's the impression I got. Regardless, he's the oldest of them living in Middle-earth at the time of the Lord of the Rings. He left one of the deepest impressions on me while reading the book. He seemed like someone's old grandpa, absent-minded, slow to speak and act, but also warm-hearted and paternal.

Ents of Fangorn covers its subject with the usual MERP structure: game infodump at the beginning, history of the area, overview of flora and fauna, and charts and tables of critters, military units, and even weather. As with the Mirkwood books, it covers the region surrounding the forest. Bandits and orcs in the mountains provide potential for helping out the Ents, if need be. There are also some great maps, as usual with MERP books. I said with Mirkwood that the map labeled with the territory of creatures and characters is perhaps the most useful thing provided, and that's true here, also.
Treebeard's dwelling, where he hosted Merry and Pippin.
A nice side cutaway view of another location in the forest of Fangorn.

 All in all, it's a nice package, with a bit of reading for those interested, and enough game material to provide for a good slate of adventuring.

The downside is, as with a lot of MERP books, the time setting. The default here is that the time period is roughly fourteen hundred years before the time of the Lord of the Rings.While the forest of Fangorn doesn't change much at all, the entire political and cultural landscape surrounding it in this book is vastly different from what readers and movie viewers are used to. No Riders of Rohan and no evil in Isengard are the biggest differences. Given Fangorn's nature and the nature of Ents, though, this isn't an insurmountable problem. Used as a game source for just the forest, it's useful in any time period. The surrounding region's adventure sites are easily adaptable for other times, too. Still, it's a bit of a pain to have to fiddle with such stuff when I've paid for a book that ostensibly was exactly what I was looking for.

I want to mention the art in this book. The cover above is, as per usual with most MERP books, by the late Angus McBride. I always thought he did great renditions of Hobbits. His depiction of Treebeard is actually really nice. He nails the eyes, which were always one of the most distinct things about Treebeard as described by Tolkien. Wellinghall, one of Treebeard's homes, looks like I imagined it. McBride was a masterful artist, and his loss is still felt.

The interior art is by Liz Danforth, whom I've mentioned before. I'm a bit torn about her art in this book. She does great work on characters like Tolwen, an Elf healer who lives at the edge of the forest:

Or Malion, a Gondorian knight who is a captain of a settlement in the region:

Her depictions of Ents are distinctive:

Not bad. In fact, very good. Not the way I envision them, but nice in and of themselves.

Where I feel conflicted is when it comes to her depictions of Fangorn itself:

These are actually lovely pictures. Very evocative. However...Fangorn is an old-growth forest, primordial, foreboding, essentially the same as it has been for millennia. These pictures seem more like what I imagine Lorien would look like: smooth, subtly cultivated, almost ethereal. So, yeah, great pictures, but they don't fit the subject. But I'm not complaining, really. Danforth's work is among the best in any roleplaying game book.

One last picture I wanted to mention is by Jim Holloway. Holloway is one of my favorite artists working in roleplaying games. His stuff is memorable and often humorous. He did a lot of work for Dungeons & Dragons, as well as Middle-earth Roleplaying during the era this book was published (1987). Humorous or serious, his work is always fun, and it was a nifty surprise when this picture showed up towards the end of the book:


It doesn't fit the tone of the book, but anything by Holloway is welcome.

 The more of these books I go back and go through, the more useful they all seem now. I also feel a sort of low-grade stun when I see that this book is 25 years old as I write this. Incredible. It doesn't seem that long ago that I bought it. I've gone on and on about the passage of time and the emotional journey I go through again as I look at these books. It's weird to think how even the most trivial thing, the most insignificant purchase, can become a signpost of one's life simply by continuing to exist for long enough.

1 comment:

  1. I like how a lot of the posts in this series conclude with a recognition of books we knew and loved many years ago become like Palantirs looking at them in the here and now. It's appropriate for the material, and certainly something I spend a great deal of time reflecting on, myself.

    I like the Danforth and McBride Treebeards quite a bit. Like you say, not what I envision myself, but certainly worthy interpretations.