Saturday, December 18, 2010

An Unexpected Party

Professor Pope has proposed a public reading and discussion of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Even though I'll be taking chapters three and four in a few days, I wanted to chime in with some brief thoughts on the chapters that he's currently covering. Specifically, I'm looking at this project from a gamer perspective. What gaming-related thoughts do I have with these books now (as opposed to back in the day).

An Unexpected Party
"In a hole in the ground... yada yada yada"

Ok, if you are reading this blog then chances are you have already read The Hobbit and you already know that the first chapter introduces Bilbo, Gandalf, and the thirteen dwarves that are desperate to reclaim their ancestral halls from an nasty old dragon. Here are the thoughts that came to mind while reading the book to my boys:

I guess I knew this in the back of my mind, but The Hobbit seems loaded with anachronisms that would otherwise seem out of place in an ancient (presumably) European setting. If The Hobbit is simply read as a children's story or faerie tale then the existence of potatoes, tobacco, clocks, and even golf can be gleefully ignored.  But read as a critical moment in the history of Middle-Earth... well, Tolkien has some explaining to do.

There have been posts in this corner of the blogosphere postulating the maxim "D&D Is Always Right". Well, if we assume that "Middle-Earth Is Always Right" then it can lead us in interesting directions. They really did have tobacco, potatoes, clocks, and even golf in Middle-Earth. The trick is to explain it. One possibility is that these things were only vaguely similar to modern foodstuffs and leisurely Scottish pastimes. The teller of the tale could simply be using modern English to describe something in the closest modern approximation (much like how ancient Westron is rendered as English).

An alternative approach is that there really were potatoes, golf, clocks, and even fireworks in Middle-Earth. It's just that these things were forgotten in the mists of time and eventually reemerged in the modern era. Perhaps those New World crops we planted by ancient Dunedain mariners and we only rediscovered as Europeans crossed the oceans. Perhaps it was only dwarves that mastered the intricacies of clockwork and that humans had to wait thousands of years to discover the secret for themsleves.

Regardless of the explanation, these anachronisms give Middle-Earth a kind of timeless and familiar feel. And the existence of modern comforts helps emphasize the idea that the present age fell away from some kind of past ideal. While I disagree with that philosophy as it applies to real life, it is a useful and entertaining conceit in a campaign setting. Much that once was is lost for none now live who remember it.

The Other Hobbits
There are no other hobbits, though quite a few of Bilbo's ancestors are mentioned. I found this curious this time through the book. In The Lord of the Rings, the Shire feels alive with all manner of interesting furry-footed characters. Here, only hobbits that lead to the existence of Bilbo are mentioned. But these stories of Bilbo's ancestors (the Old Took, the Bullroarer) provide hints of a fascinating time for adventuring in Middle-Earth. It would be especially cool to have a game set around the time of the Battle of Greenfields (that time when gold was supposedly invented).

Minor Magics
The Old Took had a pair of daimond studs that fastened themselves. What an awesome little piece of treasure. I love the idea of little magics that are not so useful as they are just wondrous. And the whole setting seems infused with subtle magic. yes, spells are mentioned (the dwarves are mentioned as having put spells on their gold to protect it), but in all of The Hobbit (and The Lord of the Rings) there is very little spell-casting as we would know it in D&D. It's more often hedge magic, a enhancing nature or an item's nature through craft and lore.

Other Miscellaneous Thoughts
* Good thing they ate so much food the night of that unexpected party. Bilbo's going to be away from Bag End for a while and I can only imagine all the food rotting away.
* What does "enchanted gold" really mean?
* A lot of emphasis on familial ties and bloodlines. Bilbo's Baggins and Took sides are constantly competing for influence.
* None of the dwarves look anything like Gimli in the recent movies. They are not (yet) wearing armor. If anything, they look like something out of a Peter Mullen drawing (which is cool).


Carpe Guitarrem said...

I believe Tolkien does justify golf in-universe. There was a battle with the great goblin Golfimbur (or something like that), whose head got whacked off by a club and sailed through the air, landing in a rabbit hole.

I think it's Tolkien's rather tongue-in-cheek way of conveying the English ambience in a fantasy world.

I also really prefer LOTR's magic...I think a lot of people really miss the point when they put it up against D&D magic, and try to compare it. Its nature is utterly different. It's more like a fairy tale's magic than anything.

Risus Monkey said...

I agree 100%. But it's still fun to approach this ore literally (i.e. "Middle-Earth Is Always Right"). That means there really was golf in Middle-Earth and it began at the Battle of Greenfields. I imagine that it is probably an exclusively Hobbit pastime, but who knows?

Re: Magic: I also agree 100%. I'd love to use the Tolkien system in the next fantasy game that I run.