Friday, September 21, 2012

Darkness in the North: Angmar, Land of the Witch-King

I've written of lost and forgotten kingdoms in Middle-earth, the lands they once occupied empty, with once mighty fortresses and elegant cities now rubble and ruin. Now, I'll turn to the reason behind their demise: Angmar.

Two books deal with this realm, Angmar: Land of the Witch-King,

and Empire of the Witch-King.

The latter is a revision and expansion of the former.

Angmar was an empire created with one purpose: the destruction of what remained of the northern kingdom of Arnor. While Gondor in the South prospered, Arnor, the northern realm of the Dunedain, had already fragmented into three lesser kingdoms due to the quarreling heirs of King Earendur. These three kingdoms were named Arthedain, Cardolan, and Rhudaur. For a few centuries they existed thus, nominally allied, often arguing, sometimes warring amongst themselves. They slowly but steadily declined due to this divisiveness. Eventually, Sauron decided to hasten their collective ends, and sent the greatest of his lieutenants, the Witch-King, to accomplish this mission. Slowly, and with the implacability only possible in one who is immortal, the Witch-King of Angmar worked for centuries to destroy what was left of the Dunedain in the North.

Rhudaur was subverted and became a vassal of the Witch-King. Cardolan, never as powerful as Arthedain, bore much of the brunt of Rhudaur's and Angmar's evil, eventually falling, with the Elves intervening to save Arthedain and push Angmar's forces back. Arthedain hung on for centuries, finally falling to Angmar about a thousand years before the time of Bilbo Baggins. The forces of Gondor and the Elves arrived only in time to demolish Angmar once and for all. But, Angmar had accomplished its purpose. The Witch-King fled, fated never to fall to the hand of a living man.
The Witch-King, posing dramatically.

There isn't much known about Angmar itself, as Tolkien didn't describe it too greatly. The Witch-King's forces were Orcs and Men, and, presumably, Trolls and assorted other dark creatures, maybe even Dragons, given Angmar's relative proximity to the Withered Heath, a stomping ground for Dragons. That might be pushing it, though. Angmar's location suggests it to be a cold, relatively barren land. Angmar had to have some resources and farming capability to support the Witch-King's armies, though it may have benefited greatly in terms of resources from the addition of Rhudaur to its empire. Angmar did have a capital, Carn Dum, which I would assume was a fortress-city. Beyond that, everything else is a guess.

So, all that is why Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) had a lot of leeway when detailing Angmar for its Middle-earth Roleplaying sourcebooks Angmar: Land of the Witch-King, and the later, revised and expanded Empire of the Witch-King. In addition, Angmar is an isolated, out-of the-way place, not really bordering any of the well-known places in Middle-earth, and tucked away in a stretch of history not that well-known to the average fan of Middle-earth. That makes these books easily usable in other games or settings as a plug-and-play evil fantasy empire. As Middle-earth resources, there isn't a lot here for anyone looking for direct-from-Tolkien info, but they're pretty meaty as generic game books.

Both books have a lot of information regarding the terrain, weather, flora, and fauna of the region. Empire of the Witch-King, the later and larger book, expands, naturally enough, on this information greatly, where Angmar: Land of the Witch-King concentrates more on fortresses and settlements. Empire of the Witch-King has this material, too, and even expands on it with cultural and military information.

Given its nature and reason for existing, a lot of military detail is given for Angmar. Unit composition, siege engines, bases, and chain of command are detailed. Related to this is a discussion of religion in Angmar. Tolkien rarely mentioned any kind of religion in his Middle-earth works, with a few oblique references in The Silmarillion to dark rituals among the corrupted Dunedain of Westernesse. Here, the MERP writers and designers construct a cult for the Dark Lord himself, which helps give structure and fervency to the Witch-King's followers. The impression is that Angmar's military is the backbone of Angmar's society, with everything focused on it.
Assorted ne'er-do-wells in the forces of the Witch-King.
And orcs. There are always orcs.

The writers of these books also devise some interesting encounters in Angmar for the characters belonging to players to encounter. There are various settlements and fortresses, of course, from human towns to Orcish villages. I was particularly interested in a partially subterranean Orc village, which is reminiscent of a Hobbit settlement, at least to my eyes.

In addition, there are isolated towers with dread magical secrets, Orc-infested mines, Elven scouts living in ruins, and even a safe haven or two. It all makes Angmar much more interesting as a place to explore and adventure than I would have initially thought.
An odd and mysterious tower in the mountains near Angmar.

Oddly enough, at least to me, there is a section on languages. There is a discussion of how the various factions and races of the Witch-King's servants communicate, given their disparate languages. Plus, there's a fairly extensive glossary of Orc words. I'm not particularly interested in such things, since I'd just as soon reference Tolkien directly, or one of the various books and websites that detail such things. Still, it may be an interesting resource for others.

There are some other sections not seen in other MERP books. There are brief sections on creating priest and Orc characters, which provide interesting alternatives for players. There are also brief overviews of how to go about designing fortresses and settlements in Angmar, which may be a bit elementary for some, but could jog a few ideas loose. Nothing spectacular, but different enough to add some interest to the book.

As is usual, there are charts. There are charts of animals, monsters, and characters that may be encountered. There are military unit encounter tables. There is a page or so of "medicinal" plants and drugs in the region. There is a table for determining weather at a particular time. Charts and tables were a hallmark of Rolemaster, the roleplaying game from which MERP is derived, to the point that some gamers still refer to Rolemaster derisively as "Chartmaster." MERP is nowhere near as dependent on them as Rolemaster, and in recent years I've come to appreciate them for how they help make the job of running MERP, and a game in Middle-earth in general, a bit easier.

The art in either book is, unfortunately, unspectacular. There is some obvious talent here; Jim Holloway, one of my favorite game artists, and whom I've mentioned a few times, has his art all over the interior of Empire of the Witch King. His usual tongue-in-cheek style is not in evidence here, which makes sense, given the subject. Still, while it all definitely helps bring the setting to life, none of it jumps off the page at me. There are some fairly nifty spot illustrations in the earlier Angmar: Land of the Witch King, though they are few and far between.

A reasonable depiction of a Ringwraith, I assume the Witch-King, on a Fell Beast.
I can't help it; this just amuses me.

The maps are, unsurprisingly, pretty good, though some in Angmar are rather basic and uninspiring. However, Peter Fenlon's maps in Empire of the Witch-King are spectacular, as always. I wanted to show this map in its entirety, but to do so I have to make it tiny. Trust me, though; it's very detailed and gorgeous.

The covers are both top-notch, though Gail B. McIntosh's cover for Angmar, while technically good, doesn't grab me. The cover of Empire of the Witch-King, by Richard Hook, an artist I don't recall seeing work on any other MERP book, is actually a very cool cover, with astonishing detail. Not sure what the Witch-King is doing with his sword there, but it does lend the picture a snapshot quality.

Empire of the Witch-King is the second most substantial of the MERP books I've posted about here so far (after Gorgoroth), weighing in at 126 pages. Angmar: Land of the Witch-King is 48 pages long, so its revision was a substantial one. Compared to most of the other MERP books, Angmar: Land of the Witch-King seems a bit thin to me. Empire of the Witch-King seems jam-packed, even taking into consideration that it has 58 additional pages.

These books evoke a mood and feel that isn't quite what I expected. Angmar is an interesting place as described, but it doesn't seem nearly as dread and horrifying as one might expect. As I thought about it, this makes some sense. It did not have the history of being the home of ultimate evil in Middle-earth as Mordor did. Mordor had been under Sauron's direct control for millennia, and his essence infused the land such that a memory of his evil lingered long centuries after his defeat at the end of the Second Age. Angmar, though, was more of an ad hoc evil empire, created from scratch and without the resources of evil found in Mordor (though these books have the Witch-King bringing along at least one of his and Sauron's lieutenants, the Angulion, who also appears in Gorgoroth). The Witch-King seemingly cobbled together his forces from what he found in the area, rather than bringing forces with him. There were some resources available to him, what with Mount Gundabad a few days' march away. Regardless, it strikes me that he took advantage of existing antipathies between the Men who were native to the region, and the colonists and conquerors that were the Dunedain, driving a wedge into the cracks created by the fracturing of Arnor. Rhudaur had been seized by tribes native to the area, who were fairly easy to convince to join with Angmar in driving out the Dunedain invaders, giving the Witch-King a forward base and source of troops and supplies. These Men weren't completely corrupted, not at first; they were just happy to act upon old grudges held against a once-unassailable enemy who had colonized lands that were once theirs. This all shows just how tenuous both Sauron's and the Dunedain's power was in this era, a striking contrast between the truly awe-inspiring power each held in earlier ages. Angmar: Land of the Witch-King and Empire of the Witch-King conjure up a conflict between two forces hanging onto power by their fingertips, both merely shadows of their former selves.

As presented in these books, Angmar is an interesting place, full of untapped potential. As with other MERP books, I have to say it's too bad that so much work now sits largely forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to say, "Empire of the Witch-King" has not left my head since reading it here.

    I have to agree with that last sentence. You're doing a good job here, blowing the dust and cobwebs off these works and revealing what glows within.

    And that riding-the-wolf pic is just great. If I was Catholic I'd cross myself. Not for protection but to acknowledge my humble presence at The Awesome's feet. We stand on the shoulders of giants and ride on the backs of dire wolves.