Monday, February 07, 2011

Queer Lodgings

I haven't had as much time to read The Hobbit to my boys as I would like, but we did complete the Chapter VII last night. The boys continued to marvel at the Eagles and laughed at Gandalf's tactic of gaining admittance to Beorn's home for the entire group. For my own part, I was surprised at how much I was inspired by this rather uneventful chapter to think of potential gaming connections.

Queer Lodgings
This chapter features two instances of Bilbo and friends receiving hospitality from potentially dangerous hosts. The chapter opens in the nests of Lord of Eagles (which has got to be unsettling) and quickly leads to seemingly idyllic forest hall of a skin-changer (werebear in D&D parlance). Unlike the peaceful respite at the Last Homely House, these encounters have ominous undertones. Maybe it's my warped mind, but I immediately saw subtle parallels between Bilbo's stay at Beorn's and Johnathan Harker's captivity at Dracula's castle. In both cases you have this dangerous host who specifically warns you not to poke around where you are not welcome (Beorn's bear parties and Dracula's locked doors). The implication being that if you don't heed the warning, your scary host become a lot hell of a lot scarier.

I think this is definitely an underused trope on my games. I like the idea of a party of harried adventurers finding refuge in the wilderness. But why make them feel completely safe? Let the party understand that there are conditions for their safety. If they slip up (and boy, it should be easy to slip up) then the hospitality is withdrawn and they back in the thick of danger. If they do manage to navigate their host's rules then they will be rewarded with a powerful ally (and one that they may hesitate to call upon).

Additional Thoughts
  • An interesting tidbit from the text is that the Lord of Eagles will eventually become King of All Birds. One would assume there are lords of ravens, thrushes, and other birds. Also, the annotations in my version of The Hobbit notes that the evidence is inconclusive for the Lord of Eagles being the same individual as Gwaihir from The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps Gwaihir was one of his "15 chieftains"?
  • Gandalf knows Beorn but Beorn doesn't know Gandalf. Indeed, Gandalf knows a lot about Beorn that you'd think would be secret (the whole skin-changer thing). I'm thinking he got this information from Radagast, whom is mentioned for the first time in the chapter. And who is Radagast and what is he like?
  • Is Beorn unique? Or does he have kin with the skin-changing ability as well? MERP postulates a race of Beornings, but I can't recall much support for this in The Lord of the Rings. Regardless, he could very well be a singleton if The Hobbit is considered in isolation. And how does he come upon his powers? Gandalf seems to discount the notion that he is descended from bears. But certainly, he is old and long-lived and came down from the mountains ages ago.
  • Beorn is served by a variety of intelligent animals. Would these animals be intelligent if not for Beorn? Perhaps Beorn's magical nature makes them intelligent? Beorn can speak with animals. Since the animals don't appear to speak human languages, perhaps all animals are marginally intelligent if one learns their speech?
  • The Great Goblin had 30 or 40 armed guards. This is interesting for reference when stocking humanoid lairs.
  • Interesting that Gandalf was wary enough to track Beorn during his absence. 
  • Were the bears that Beorn met real bears or skin-changers like himself (or a mix of both)?
  • This chapter contains the only reference (in the original version of the story) to the orcs and hobgoblins that dwell among the slopes of the Grey Mountains. Interesting fodder for a Hobbit-only campaign setting, as it expands the range of available humanoid threats.


Johnathan Bingham said...

I've been reading the Hobbit to Bear. We're not much farther along than you are (We are on the next chapter). It does inspire a lot or Role Playing ideas.

Trey said...

I think a lot of traditional gamers would have trouble with the "obey the rules, win an ally" thing. Using violence to overcome obstacles is some engrained.

But its a novel sort of "puzzle" nonetheless.

Risus Monkey said...

@Johnathan: It certainly take a while to read out loud, doesn't it? I keep wanting to go faster, but the boys keep asking questions and the simple act of articulating every word keep the pace very leisurely. But there is poetry is reading out loud, too. And reading out loud keeps me from skipping over stuff, which sometimes happens when I read for myself.

@Trey: I dunno, I think a certain type of traditional gamer would enjoy that puzzle. It's the younger, WoW-inspired players that I think would have problems. :)

Ent said...

Radagast - I hunger over more of an explanation of him from Tolkien...

I remember my first reading of the Hobbit - by gas light in a welsh cottage out of site of any other home - perfect!

Reading out loud is brilliant - it makes almost any book better...

Risus Monkey said...

@Ent: Sounds like a wonderful way to read the Hobbit. I used to do period readings of The Lord of the Rings (my read-leather bound version) is a big a old leather comfy chair. With Tolkien, the reading experience seems to extend beyond the words on the page.

Kaptain Kobold said...

Before we had the children my wife and I used to read novels out-loud to each other. We'd take it in turns to share favourite books.

Never did 'The Hobbit', but she did read me 'The Lord Of The Rings' (Thus saving me the effort of reading it myself :) ), whilst I introduced her to Flashman, John Carter of Mars, and Aubrey/Maturin.

I think she has read 'The Hobbit' to the children in the past. I did John Carter for them as well; they loved it.

Risus Monkey said...

@Kaptain: That's awesome that you and your wife read to each other. The closest I came to that was reading a former girlfriend HPL's "The Statement of Randolph Carter" over the phone. :)

Joel said...

As far as Beornings, there's not a lot of basis for it, but in the Lord of the Rings, when the fellowship are given lembas, someone (Gimli, I think) compares it favorably to 'the honey-cakes of the Beornings'.

Risus Monkey said...

@Joel: Cool, thanks for the reference. At least there is some indication that Beorn was one of many.