Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Wizard in his Tower: Isengard and Northern Gondor

"My business is with Isengard tonight," Treebeard, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter IX: Flotsam and Jetsam 

Towers hold a certain kind of mystique in legend and literature. Jutting upward, pointing to the sky, they have an air of mystery to them, whether they appear in fairytales or occult legend. Rapunzel was imprisoned in one, Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into gold in one, Conan the Cimmerian found adventure in one, the Tower of London is steeped in history and legend, and, of course, the Tower of Babel may be the most famous of all.

The Tower of Babel as seen in Gustave Dore's The Confusion of Tongues.

 Even today, towers inspire fascination, with the skyscraper being the most prominent component of modern cities; having the tallest of these tall buildings confers considerable prestige upon the cities they shadow. Towers also loom up in other contexts in today's world, providing security in prisons, inspiration for worshippers, and nerve centers for airports.

So, it's not surprising, really, that Tolkien included so many towers in The Lord of the Rings. In Rohan, there was the Hornburg of Helm's Deep. Ancient Elvish towers stood to the West of the Shire upon the Tower Hills. The Tower of Ecthelion stood proudly above Minas Tirith. The Tower of Black Sorcery looms above Minas Morgul, which was once Minas Ithil, the sister-city to Minas Tirith. Grim Barad-dur is the focus of the greatest evil of Middle-earth as the abode of Sauron. 

And, of course, there was Isengard.

Well, technically, Isengard was the entire fortress, the ring of stone and the tower in its center. The tower was named Orthanc. Orthanc was built by some mysterious method in the Second Age of Middle-earth. It consisted of four piers (stelae? menhirs?) of obsidian-like material fused into one structure. I say "obsdian-like" because Tolkien describes them as "many-sided" and black, which strikes me as being a good description of obsidian, with the way it has facets when cut or broken.

It seems it may not have been obsidian, or at least not normal obsidian, because it was impervious even to the Ents, who could easily rip apart stone walls when they were angry. It sure wasn't for lack of trying that they didn't damage Orthanc.

Isengard was meant to guard the western approaches to Gondor. As Gondor's borders slowly receded, it eventually became an isolated place, and was granted to the wizard Saruman as his sanctuary and laboratory.

Wizards have a long history in legend of being associated with towers. It makes sense, really; towers are defensible, and give a good view of their surroundings. They also can be imposing and ominous, scaring away intruders. They place their inhabitants up above mortal concerns, figuratively and literally, and provide a good place from which to study the sky. This is an important consideration because of the one-time close association between magic and the stars and planets. Astronomy and astrology were once the same thing, essentially, and they figured prominently in magic creation. Even Doctor Frankenstein worked in a tower, at least in the 1931 movie. I'd love to have a screen shot to show you, but I don't. Just take my word for it. So, it seems natural now that Tolkien included a wizard in a tower in his book.

I'm discussing all this because the bulk of Isengard and Northern Gondor deals directly with, obviously, Isengard, and especially Orthanc itself. There is some material on Calenardhon, the northern province of Gondor that a millennium from the time setting of this book, given or take a century, will become Rohan. Herbs, animals, some cultural notes on the inhabitants, items of note and legend, adventure ideas, the lay of the land, and histories of the region, Isengard, and Saruman are all included, succinct and useful. 

Interestingly, there is a brief overview of the Druedain, or Woses, the primitive, Neanderthal-like people who had some friction with the Rohirrim, which is more substantive than the entry for them in Riders of Rohan. Given the brief though important role they play in the Rohirrim making it in time to aid Gondor, it strikes me that more about them should have been included in the book about Rohan.
Theoden meets with Woses led by Ghan-buri-Ghan in this painting by the Brothers Hildebrandt.

The Hornburg and a few other, lesser strongholds and settlements are detailed, but like I said, the star of this book is Orthanc. A nice, color map of the tower is included, with an interesting depiction of the fortress from the outside. It's unusual for the Middle-earth Roleplaying line to include a color picture of a site on a map. The map shows the layout of the multiple levels of the place, and there are other maps showing underground levels.

By popular demand; not a great picture, but the best I could do with what I have.

When it comes to how the book covers Orthanc, it is strongly reminiscent of Dungeons & Dragons adventures. It's a pretty standard "dungeoncrawl," though there isn't a lot of variety in the inhabitants of the place - mostly Men and Orcs, the latter appearing after Saruman's treason. There are quite a few tricks and traps to vex invaders. Oh, and Saruman lives here after a certain point. That makes the place especially dangerous.

This entry in the Middle-earth Roleplaying line is solid, though not as interesting as others in the line. The cover art is by Gail McIntosh, who did some of the covers for early books in the line. It's a well-done picture, but I think an image emphasizing Orthanc more would have been appropriate. The interior art is pretty sparse, and only one depicts anything of note, and even then it took me a while to realize it was meant to depict Saruman and Wormtongue.
Umm. No.
In all the times I've read Tolkien's book, I never had an image of Saruman anything close to this. And let's not even bother to discuss Wormtongue in this picture. I always thought the interior art in the MERP books was very hit-or-miss, and this book was a definite miss. From a technical standpoint, it was actually pretty good:

But from the standpoint of really evoking the setting? It just doesn't work. I suppose that the paucity of art in the book was actually preferable to a lot of art that didn't seem all that tied to the setting.

This book is an interesting contrast to the previous one I discussed, Riders of Rohan. I think I've had it even longer than that book, as Isengard and Northern Gondor is definitely from earlier in the history of MERP. Regardless, I've forgotten I owned it from time to time, including when I started to do this series of blogs. Doing the Rohan post jogged my memory, and I dug it out to write about next because it complements the Rohan book. I see why it doesn't evoke any kind of deep memories; it seems thin to me. Had it focused more tightly on Isengard itself, making it more of a site-based adventure, it may well have been a classic of its kind. As it is, it's useful, but forgettable.


  1. Nice review. I wouldn't mind seeing the color map of the tower that you describe.

    (Oh and don't forget The Dark Tower on your list of famous towers! Sorry, sorry - the King madness will pass sooner or later...)

  2. I wish I could have provided a look at it, or the other color maps in these books. They're too big to fit on my scanner. I'll see if I can scan enough of it to show it, or see if I can get a picture of it that isn't too bad.

  3. Thanks for posting that pic - that looks really cool.

    There's just something about Isengard that's always gotten my imagination going. That color map with the interiors is the sort of thing I'd have looked at for hours back in the day.

    Or, now, if I want to be honest.

  4. I know what you mean. It's definitely a stand-out, and it's too bad it wasn't in a book that had more "oomph" to it.