Friday, July 13, 2012

Fortresses of Middle-earth: Halls of the Elven-King...

Black butterflies and drunken elves. Those are two things that stuck out to me when I first read The Hobbit. Magical streams that cause deep sleep, paths that can't be strayed from, black squirrels, white deer, black stags...Mirkwood dominated the book in my mind.

There's something mysterious about even the most familiar patch of woods. It's easy to believe something strange and unknown lies within them, waiting to discover or be discovered. Throughout Tolkien's works, he presents a number of different woodlands, each possessed of its own secrets. The most mysterious of them all was Mirkwood.

Mirkwood is a darker counterpart to Lorien, with the Elven-King's realm an Unseelie Court to the Seelie ruled by Galadriel. King Thranduil of Mirkwood held sway over a wood haunted by giant spiders and a spooky atmosphere, quite unlike the starlit forests of Lorien.

Thranduil may have been the Elven-King in Northern Mirkwood, but his main stronghold was an underground fortress near the forest's edge. This fortress harkens back to the faerie mounds of legend, and is a labyrinthine place. This is where the dwarves were imprisoned by the elves, and from which Bilbo freed them after lurking about the place for who-knows-how-long, using his ring of invisibility. It's a clean, dry, civilized place, but still one with an otherworldly tinge to it, and sinister if one is not there as a guest, but rather as a prisoner. It's worth noting that Thranduil was the father of Legolas, meaning that Legolas was a prince and heir to the kingdom of northern Mirkwood.

Unlike Rivendell, the Halls of the Elven-King are an obvious site for a game adventure. The type of adventure is already spelled out for you in The Hobbit: infiltration, spying, and escape. The elves of Mirkwood, while not evil, are much more suspicious of strangers, and less likely to welcome anyone into their home.

This might be an interesting read for a non-gamer. The conceit for the description of the place is that it's a tale being told by a merchant who had dealings with the elves. Still, a lot of it is floorplans and descriptions of rooms that might wear thin after a while. The history of the place is probably more generally accessible, and like any of the Middle-earth Roleplaying books from ICE, it tries to cover several thousand years in only a few pages. Given the immortality of elves, this isn't as tough as it might seem; for a big example, there were only two kings in that time period, one of them the very one who held Thorin and Company prisoner in The Hobbit. It's a thin book, too, to boot, with a lot of maps and a few illustrations.

 The non-map illustrations have a faux-Bayeux Tapestry look to them. This adds to the alien atmosphere of the place, and gives the book a slight historical "feel" that is unlike other MERP books.

The MERP line extrapolates a lot of stuff out of necessity; a game book often needs to detail elements of the world that Tolkien either never addressed, or only touched upon. Sometimes the writers of the MERP books went a little astray from what seems "Tolkienian," but in this book they managed to do a decent job. Tree-forts grown into existence is a good example.

This is one of the better-done MERP adventure site books. With more substance, like a concentration on Middle-earth history, and more art rather than floorplans, this could have been a rainy-day book to leaf through. As it is, it's too flimsy for that, but it is good for those who might want to plug it into a fantasy game setting, Middle-earth or not.

Again, a map that has to be shown in two parts. Part the first...
...and part the second.

There's something dreamy about this book. Much of this has to do with the art, but the narrative description and extensive historical notes also contributes to it. It's a decent companion piece or quick reference for The Hobbit, though it's obviously not canon. ICE did a couple of books detailing Mirkwood itself, divided into Northern and Southern sections, so this one is a good companion for those.

Maybe the dreaminess has more to do with The Hobbit itself than with this book. That's entirely possible. I've read The Hobbit more times than I can remember, and I may well be projecting the mood I felt while reading that book onto this game book. I know that the entire adventure in Mirkwood always had a dreamlike quality to it, more so than almost anything else Tolkien wrote. I'm still struck by the image of Bilbo climbing out of the gloom and above the canopy of Mirkwood, seeing the black butterflies flying above the forest in the sunlight. It's a beautiful moment. I'm also struck by the image of elves drinking until they fall asleep, with Bilbo slipping around them as he works to engineer the escape of the dwarves. It's all a late-night fairytale.

1 comment:

  1. I agree about Mirkwood, its dreamy fairy tale quality, . That whole stretch of the Hobbit is just fascinating. I love - general comment about the Hobbit, of course, not this MERP - how the Elf King is angry with the dwarves for disturbing his people's feastings.

    Love that cover. Gets the imagination going. This is one I'd actually buy and read through, not to play but just to "sit in" for awhile.

    "...The conceit for the description of the place is that it's a tale being told by a merchant who had dealings with the elves...."

    Spin-off show! What the Opium Trader Saw...