Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Once and future kings: Rangers of the North - The Kingdom of Arthedain

Even as a kid reading The Lord of the Rings, it struck me as a bad idea for the Rangers to protect the Hobbits so closely that the Hobbits, in large part, ended up as a backwards, naive bunch who took their freedom and safety for granted. I'm sure that's what Tolkien was getting at. But it still bugged me.

The Shire itself is a bucolic place. Quiet, sedate, civilized...seems pretty boring. Nice place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit there. Well, maybe you would, if you were a weary traveler and wanted a good place to eat and sleep, or go antiquing. You wouldn't vacation there if you were looking for something exotic and adventurous.

So it's not too surprising that Iron Crown Enterprises didn't create a Middle-earth Roleplaying sourcebook for the Shire until late. Before then, the Shire appeared in passing in a few supplements, often just a recognizable spot on one of the maps. This book, Rangers of the North: The Kingdom of Arthedain, was the closest thing to a true MERP sourcebook for the Shire until the publication of, naturally enough, The Shire in 1995. I don't have that book. Never even saw it. By that late in MERP's run, fewer and fewer of the books for it showed up in any book or game stores I frequented. Finding a copy now would involve luck and a good bit of money, judging by the hundreds of dollars I've seen it go for online.

Rangers of the North: The Kingdom of Arthedain details the entire region in which the Shire exists, and lays out the history of the area, focusing mainly on the origins of Arthedain. Arthedain was a kingdom that was once part of Arnor, the great northern kingdom of the Dunedain, who are Aragorn's people. Arnor was the counterpart and sister-kingdom of Gondor. Unlike Gondor, which remained relatively intact throughout its history, Arnor eventually broke up into three kingdoms: Arthedain, Cardolan, and Rhudaur. The latter two kingdoms eventually fell to the influence of Sauron - Rhudaur comes under the sway of the Witch-king and eventually is taken by his forces, while Cardolan survives for centuries until overrun by Angmar, the Witch-king's realm. Arthedain remains a bulwark, opposing Angmar for centuries more on its own, but even it, too, succumbs a thousand years before the time of The Hobbit. The survivors of Arthedain are few, and those not killed or who don't move elsewhere, including the royal line, scatter into the wild. There they live, becoming the Rangers, until Aragorn manages to claim the kingship of Gondor and resurrects Arnor, reclaiming the two kingdoms.

I assume these are, left to right, an Arnorien warrior, an Arthedain knight, and a Ranger.

While Arthedain stood, it granted land to the Hobbits, who had migrated West as the forces of the Shadow became more and more common. That land was what became the Shire. After Arthedain fell, the Shire was the last densely-populated, civilized area left in what was once Arthedain, so it makes sense that the Rangers felt obligated to protect it.

Now, I told you all that to illustrate just how much history, culture, and territory this book covers. As with Rohan, the area changed hands many times between mortal hands, unlike Elven realms like Lorien, Rivendell, or the Elven Kingdom of Mirkwood. This book is 56 pages long, and includes the usual flora/fauna/weather overviews and charts of people, creatures, and plants the players in a game could encounter in the region, as well as the wearisome game infodump at the beginning, this time five pages worth. It's pretty densely-packed.

From the standpoint of a gamer, this book makes for a great "lost kingdom" sourcebook. In fact, several other MERP books complement it very nicely: Lost Realms of Cardolan is the neighboring region; Hillmen of the Trollshaws covers part of Rhudaur; Weathertop - the Tower of the Wind lies near the borders of all three of the erstwhile kingdoms of Arthedain, Cardolan, and Rhudaur; Rivendell is nestled just beyond what was once Rhudaur; Bree and the Barrow Downs borders the Shire; and Angmar is the northern realm of the Witch-king that directly caused the downfall of all the kingdoms.

I didn't like this book for a long, long time. Part of it is the art. Technically, it's not bad. It just isn't very dynamic, in my opinion, and also seems to miss the point of the book. Besides the maps - which are almost completely outstanding - and a few spot illustrations that are there for the sake of breaking up the layout, there are a half dozen or so actual illustrations showing characters and situations in the region. The main problem I have with them is that none of them show characters or places that are familiar. No Hobbits, wizards, or Rangers that I can readily point to and say "oh, that must be so-and-so." There are no exciting scenes from Middle-earth history, which is really odd, and almost seems like they went out of their way to avoid illustrating any of the numerous historical events that occurred in Arthedain. Heck, why not a picture of Marcho and Blanco, the Hobbits who founded the Shire, actually founding the Shire? Or pictures of Rangers roaming the wilds, protecting what remnants of fallen Arthedain still stand? Or a picture from the enormous battle involving Elves, Men, and the forces of Angmar that overran Arthedain? Instead, the images we get include a picture of Northmen paddling a canoe, a static shot of two Arctic-dwelling folk called Lossoth, and a picture of what I assume is the seer Malbeth being tempted by what he might see in a palantir. I still dislike the art. The cover is the closest thing to being a dynamic picture, and even it doesn't really capture the setting - why is a Dwarf there, when an Elf or a Hobbit would have better represented the population of the area? Like I said, there is talent in evidence here, but the art order must have been off-course.

The maps, though, are pretty nice.

Annuminas, the long-ruined capitol of the nearly-forgotten Kingdom of Arnor.

Fornost Erain, capital of Arthedain, long-ruined also, such that the Hobbits call it Deadman's Dike.

A portion of Arthedain; the northern part of the Shire and Bree can be seen along the bottom.

 Another reason I disliked the book is that I really wanted a sourcebook of the region as I knew it from the main narrative of The Lord of the Rings. This objection has faded over the years. Now, I enjoy it for how much context it gives. As with other sourcebooks for MERP, I think it would work really well as a lost kingdom for another setting by simply renaming everything. Or not. Maybe use it as an "alternate universe" Middle-earth. It would also be a good source for a Fourth Age setting, when Aragorn, now called king Elessar, is rebuilding both Gondor and Arnor. There's a lot of possibility in this book, especially as much of it was never directly shown by Tolkien.

A lot of these books have caused me to enter a kind of reverie as I've paged through them. This one has, also, but it doesn't evoke as much nostalgia as some. This one evokes thoughts of the future. The place is full of potential, rooted in deep history. As I sit and think, my thoughts turn towards my own life. And why not? This sourcebook draws on a great work of literature, and all great literature causes us to reflect upon our own existence. We search for the meaning within it by relating it to our own experiences, or explore how we might react in the place of the characters. Reading the timelines and history of the Rangers, I'm struck by how powerful a will Aragorn must have had. Patiently wandering the wild, no real hope of ever achieving his destiny, yet still he strove onward, never wavering from his goal. I wonder how I would face the kinds of obstacles he faced. It's interesting to recall that Aragorn never judged others harshly, and understood everyone had their own limits; witness his flexibility in sending to take the island of Cair Andros those whose courage failed them in the march to Mordor. Rather than force them beyond their limits, he found a goal within their limits. It is up to the individual to know their limits, and decide just where those limits of hope and courage and love are.

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