Monday, August 6, 2012

Off the beaten path: Dunland and the Southern Misty Mountains

My philosophy is that I'd rather a game book go off the rails into lunacy rather than remain on the rails and be boring. Dunland and the Southern Misty Mountains is one of those instances where the rails are a mere suggestion, with a rail car bouncing loosely along, much like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It never quite flies completely off and into the abyss of insanity, but you can see it looming below.

OK, so that's a bit of an exaggeration.

Much of the book is solid extrapolation, such as in how it attempts to derive the culture of the Dunlendings from what Tolkien wrote, or at least from what was suggested by what he wrote. The Dunlending culture in this book is vaguely Celtic in flavor. A good bit of the book is taken up with an overview of Dunnish culture, with attention paid to its history, tribes, customs, and territory. As a culture, they were traditionally hostile to the Dunedain and their allies, at least after they betrayed their oath to aid the Men of the West in their war with Sauron. The Dunlending culture was cursed, until by the time of The Lord of the Rings, they were a people in decline, living a desperate and wild existence in the empty lands in the southwestern part of the Misty Mountains and their surroundings. This is actually pretty interesting and useful material, even if one doesn't use it in the Middle-earth setting. As far as I can tell, most if it is made up whole cloth for this book. That's not bad, but it isn't a good source for Tolkienophiles.

Rohan and the Southern Misty Mountains
I've mentioned a number of times in this series of posts on the Middle-earth Roleplaying line that they have some beautiful maps. This is a good example of what I mean. It's only half of one of the maps covering the region detailed in the book. I chose to show this half because it covers some territory more familiar toTolkien fans - Rohan, Fangorn, and Isengard, called Angrenost on this map. It's quite a pretty map, a real work of art. It would have been fantastic had the entire thing been published as one big poster-map, but as far as I know it never was.

The Misty Mountains are an interesting locale in Tolkien's books. They harbor as many secrets as Mirkwood, it seems like. In The Hobbit, they are home to giants and underground goblin lairs. In The Lord of the Rings, they are home to Moria, also known as Khazad-dum, the legendary fortress-city of the Dwarves, now infested with orcs and much more terrible things. In both books, terrible storms seem to loom over them, waiting to strike, as though the mountains themselves begrudge those who trespass upon them. They retain this mystery and danger in this book, with giants, dragons, and Great Eagles calling them home. This is also where a touch of lunacy enters the picture.

Deep in the Misty Mountains, north and east of Isengard, lies Amon least in the Middle-earth of this book. I can't imagine this place ever being approved by Tolkien himself. Amon Lind is an isolated enclave of Elves who moved from Ost-in-Edhil centuries ago to "escape" the "confines" of Elven society. For the most part, they are pretty tame in their "rebellion" against Elven society. The strangest among them, though, is a sadistic Elven version of Dr. Moreau, experimenting with the grafting together of Men and Elves with animals. He uses these animal-men as servants and guards. Add in that Amon Lind also has a flying boat at its disposal, and the boundaries of what is truly Tolkienesque are pushed to the breaking point. This would all be interesting in another setting, but they just don't fit in Middle-earth, at least not in my reading of the source material.

OK, so I'm always quick to point out that it's easy enough to ignore or alter things you don't like in these game sourcebooks. That's true in this case, too. Eliminate the mad scientist elf and his creations, and Amon Lind becomes a lot more palatable to a Tolkien fan like me. I'd also get rid of the flying boat, even though some might try to justify it by pointing out Earendil the Mariner had one...which is a pretty weak justification. Earendil was a special case, a legendary figure granted the mystical ability to carry the morning star on his brow. So let's be reasonable. Amon Lind, with those few tweaks, can be an interesting surprise for those who explore deep into the Misty Mountains.

So what else does Dunland and the Southern Misty Mountains have to recommend it? Plenty. The usual slate of charts of characters and critters that can be encountered in the region is here, as well as details of the flora and fauna. The stomping grounds of a dragon is located in the mountains, as is the aerie (or eyrie, as spelled in this book) of a Great Eagle. This Eagle also guards the final resting place of Isildur, Aragorn's long-ago ancestor, a nice reference to Middle-earth history. In addition, and perhaps one of the nicest touches, is a tiny hobbit village, its inhabitants among the stragglers who have yet to migrate to the Shire.

Wild Hobbits? You bet.
The bulk of the book deals with the Dunlendings and Amon Lind. The remainder of the book is varied and interesting. Some tragic history, a bit of whimsy, a hint of all adds up to a surprisingly interesting book.

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