Wednesday, October 17, 2012

For now we see through a glass, darkly: Umbar, Haven of the Corsairs

Its name means "fate" in the language of the High Elves. A great seaport and mighty fortress, it was the base for the great Men of the West to launch their attack upon and subsequent humbling of Sauron. When Numenor was dashed beneath the ocean and the king who had forced Sauron to surrender was brought low, Umbar remained in the hands of those loyal to that great, corrupted king. Umbar would remain as a reminder both of the greatness of the Dunedain, and the evil that had brought their ruin.

It's clear that Umbar is one of the great cities of Middle-earth. Built by the Numenoreans at the height of their power, it predates the founding of Gondor by centuries. Given that, Umbar had the potential to be a center of culture in its world; unfortunately, the taint of Sauron's evil lingered within it for centuries, making it a base for strife and destruction against the forces of good that remained in Middle-earth.

Compared to Mordor, Umbar was a thorn in Gondor's side. At times, though, it was like a dagger to that realm's back, poised to strike at the times Gondor could least afford the distraction. Fortunately, some still remained in Middle-earth who were vigilant enough to see the potential for great harm Umbar contained. One of those was Aragorn, the heir to the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor. Taking on the name of Thorongil, he led Gondor's navy to demolish Umbar's fleet and shipyards, allowing Gondor to have decades to focus on the growing shadow in Mordor.

Umbar and its lands were home to the Black Numenoreans, the "King's Men" who still held onto the evil aspirations of Ar-Pharazon, the last king of Numenor. Jealous of and unfriendly to Elves, because those beings had the immortality the Numenoreans so desired, and filled with a fatal arrogance, the people of Umbar would have been intolerant and condescending, seeking to subjugate those they felt were beneath them. Their brethren to the north in Gondor and Arnor would be natural enemies, in the eyes of the lords of Umbar mere pretenders to greatness, rebels and usurpers of an empire they never made.

While Tolkien never stated it outright that I know of, Umbar was likely the home of at least some of the Ringwraiths, especially their chief, the Witch-King, as well as the Mouth of Sauron. The Numenoreans of old had been led into evil because they feared death, and Sauron's lies led them to invade the Undying Lands...where they were promptly destroyed by Eru, the creator of all things. This obsessive desire for immortality was undoubtedly part of the temptation of the Nine Rings Sauron offered to the kings of Men. This desire no doubt drove the man who became known as the Mouth of Sauron; ancient, so old that he'd forgotten his real name, using dark sorceries taught by Sauron to extend his life unnaturally, he epitomized how far the Numenoreans had fallen.

Such were the Men who lived in Umbar, and one can extrapolate that much of the culture in Umbar revolves around death and the pursuit of longer life. The utter destruction of Ar-Pharazon and his armies, as well as the entire continent of Numenor, must have had an even more horrifying effect on those who survived. The Faithful who founded Arnor and Gondor understood that immortality was not for them, that death really was the beginning of a new existence beyond the bounds of the world. For them, at least, and in that single way, they had a peace of mind their brethren in Umbar would never attain. For the remnant of Numenoreans who held Umbar, their only recourse would be to cleave even closer to Sauron, for only he offered any hope of escaping the death they saw as a punishment. This may have been especially true after there was ample evidence that they were damned...or, at least it would seem that way to them.

In some ways, then, the Men of Umbar can almost be pitied. There is a hopelessness to their existence. All choices were cast away by them long ago. Their empire was smashed from existence in a show of force that conclusively proved they were not on the side of right. Their remaining kin in Middle-earth were great friends of the hated Elves, and for a while the fortunes of those kin waxed to fullness as lords of Middle-earth, overshadowing once-great Umbar. Still, they chose a path that could only result in their own endless corruption. It's difficult to sympathize with that.

All that is my own interpretation of Umbar, based on my own reading of Tolkien. Given all that possibility for drama and intrigue, this Middle-earth Roleplaying book dealing with Umbar also has potential...but it doesn't really live up to that potential. Right off, I can say that this book doesn't have the space to truly delve into the potential of Umbar. Out of 52 pages, 9 1/2 are devoted to general information about the game and Middle-earth.

That said, the material that is here - in small, close-set type - is packed in tight. There are essays devoted to the climate, ecology, culture, military, and history of Umbar. The book is ostensibly a snapshot of the city and its environs in 1607 of the Third Age, but I think it could easily be tweaked to show Umbar of the late Third Age, when Sauron has returned and Aragorn is afield. In fact, there is a brief section at the end of the book about Umbar at other times that provides some ideas about how the city changes through time.
The region of Harad controlled by Umbar. The city is in the northeast corner of the map.
Umbar, as presented in this book, may be the closest to a typical fantasy roleplaying game city than anything else published in Iron Crown Enterprise's MERP line. There are various guilds that will be familiar to fantasy RPG players: thieves, wizards, merchants, and healers are the best examples. Smugglers, city guards, and armorers all have their own organizations, as well. A good bit of space is devoted to sailing, as Umbar is a sea power, of course. Ominously, a dark religion based on worship of Sauron is given some discussion. There are a few good-hearted folk in Umbar, hoping to stem the tide of darkness and bring the city back into the light. Above all, the Captains of the Havens rule Umbar.
Three of the ruling Captains of the Havens.

The remaining Captains of the Havens.
 All these factions work with and against each other, and intrigue is constant. It's the most interesting city put together for MERP; Tharbad comes a fairly distant second. Umbar has been corrupted too deeply and long for anything short of cities within Mordor itself to compare to its dangerous nature.

This is an early MERP book. The line had yet to hit its stride. Gail B. McIntosh's cover is good, but not as nice as her later covers for the Middle-earth Roleplaying line. Peter Fenlon's map of the Umbar region is not quite as sharp as his later maps, but it is still pretty. The castle and city maps were by others, and while serviceable, are not very inspiring.
Map of the city of Umbar. Not as sprawling and large as I would imagine such an ancient, important, continuously-inhabited city to be. Still, it's a usable map.
 The book's organization is not the best; for example, details about the Captains of the Havens can be found in at least three places. It would have been better had all that detail been consolidated into one single section. The artwork is sparse, and shows true talent, but there isn't enough of it, and not enough variety in what there is, for it to really bolster the writing. Still, despite all this, you can see the structure that would define MERP books soon after.

This was my least favorite of the major MERP sourcebooks. It never gelled for me, never really evoked a sense of place. As with many other MERP books, a closer reading really changed my assessment. Umbar, Havens of the Corsairs details a colorful, interesting region of Middle-earth. It extrapolates from what Tolkien wrote pretty well. With some work and close reading, this book would be a good resource for a game set in Middle-earth. For that matter, given Umbar's isolated location, it could be plugged into another setting, in a coastal, desert region. One has to meet the material halfway, but it's there, and worth the effort.

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