Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Clouds Burst

The appearance of The One Ring PDF (not yet purchased but looking pretty tempting) has brought my thoughts back to The Hobbit reread. The last installment was a brief post about the book's shortest chapter.  Here we return to real action in what is certainly the climax of the story.

The Clouds Burst by Alan Lee
The Clouds Burst
After a long standoff, a delegation of Elves and Men seek audience with Thorin. Something has changed and Thorin believes that his opponents have received word of the approach of dwarven allies from the Iron Hills. Instead, it is revealed that they possess Thorin's heart's desire - the Arkenstone of Thrain! While Thorin rages, Bilbo admits his complicity and Gandalf reveals himself in dramatic fashion. Thorin grudgingly agrees to swap Bilbo's share of the treasure for the Arkenstone, though "more than one of the dwarves in their hearts felt shame and pity" at the treatment of their burglar.

This is the low-point of Thorin's behavior, or perhaps it is the high-point of the effects of the treasure hoard upon Thorin's mind. In a previous post, Erin commented that it was Smaug's lingering influence on the hoard that may have been the root of the problem. The hoard itself was cursed with the dragon's evil aura. I love this idea and would use it in a game if only I could think of a way to do it with subtlety. It's one thing to have an NPC become corrupted by a treasure hoard, it's quite another to have PCs suffer similar effects. Then again, some player characters will naturally display pathological greed when presented with certain types of treasure (especially magic items).

The Dwarven Host
On the next day, a host of dwarves appeared round the eastern spur of the mountain. In true Dungeons & Dragons fashion, they were clad in exceptionally fine mail, were exceptionally strong, wielded two-handed mattocks, carried huge packs, and had braided beards tucked into their belts. Bard and Thranduil are understandably distressed at this new development and Bard advocates a preemptive strike. Oddly, it is the Elvenking who (despite lingering enmity at the dwarves) councils patience, hoping for some change of circumstance that will prevent bloodshed. His hopes are nearly dashed as Dain orders his troops to attack. But before things come to blows, a black cloud of bats appears that heralds the arrival of a common enemy.
"Dread has come upon you all! Alas! it has come more swiftly that I guessed. The Goblins are upon you! Bolg of the North is coming, O Dain! who father you slew in Moria. Behold! the bats are above his army like a sea of locusts. They ride upon wolves and Wargs are in their train."
The Battle of the Five Armies
And so begins the set-piece action sequence of the book. And though I suspect it will take up a good portion of the upcoming Peter Jackson films, the description of the battle is strangely brief in this book (especially when compared to similar battles in The Lord of the Rings). I am quite fond of the how the battle is described, with dramatic ebb and flow and wonderful atmosphere. From an RPG perspective, I think it is an excellent model of how to handle medieval/fantasy warfare in game and my thoughts turn to Gurps Mass Combat, the gold standard for rules as these things go.

Half-way through the battle, Thorin and company emerge from the mountain in glittering armor to join the fray. Lacking Orcrist (still with the Elfking), Thorin now wields the traditional dwarven axe. Other than some description of how they battled Bolg's personal retinue, most of the details of their involvement will not be revealed until the next chapter. This is because Bilbo, observing from a defended position up on the mountain, is knocked out by a blow to the head (a nice way to fast-forward things once the outcome is decided).

Other Notes
  • Wrapped in a cloak and hood, Gandalf appears to be a nameless old man when the delegation of Elves and Men arrive with the Arkenstone. It's kind of interesting that Thorin and the dwarves do not recognize him right away, but it seems to be in keeping with how things work with wizards. It would be fun to reveal a previously incognito NPC in a game session like this, but I think players would have a hard time buying it unless the NPC was known to be magical and mysterious.
  • Thorin "shook Bilbo like a rabbit". This is only the latest in a long line of rabbit-hobbit comparisons. When I think about it, hobbits really are rabbit-like, living in warrens, munching on garden vegetables, and being small and generally timid.  I can imagine an alternate fantasy world where a diminutive race of country dwellers might have a greater lagomorphic resemblance. Perhaps an epic fantasy version of Bunnies & Burrows?
  • The five combatants of The Battle of Five Armies are Elves, Dwarves, Men, Goblins, and Wolves. Interesting hat the wolves are included as a separate army and this continues the talking animal motif. Odd that the Eagles aren't included, but perhaps not so much since their appearance marks the end of the battle.
  • Bats "fasten vampire-like" on the stricken. This is cool imagery and makes me think that vampires or some kind of vampire-like creatures exist in Middle-Earth. I remember that they appeared in MERP and I vaguely recall mention of vampires in the Silmarillian
  • There is mention of Gandalf preparing "some last blast of magic" before the Eagles arrive. It makes me wonder if he had been slinging spells during the first part of the battle.


Jarrah said...

At the risk of bring rather crude an uncouth... i know that in MY ongoing fantasy campaign, Hobbits/Halflings are renowned for doing something else much like rabbits...

..hey, there's not much to do in the Shire of a nighttime :p

faoladh said...

In Swordbearer (co-authored by Dennis Sustare, who also gave us Bunnies & Burrows), one of the races is "Bunrabs", described as a "…race of furry humanoids [who stand] about half the height of a man, covered with brown fur, and resemble a cross between a bloodhound and a rabbit". I've planned a variation on them as the hobbit-niche race in my fantasy world. I intend to use the social structure envisioned in GURPS Bunnies & Burrows (as I do not have the original game, though I understand that there is little difference) for them, pretty much straight.

Steve Zieser said...

Vampires also make an appearance in the One Ring game, which I am really digging right now.

You've also got me wishing for more talking animals to have shown in up in LotR. I think we get the thoughts of one fox in the Shire, but that's about it.

Rob Barrett said...

That fox is Tolkien's goodbye to the style he used in The Hobbit.

Risus Monkey said...

Arg, Blogger ate my previous (longer) reply.

@Jarrah: I was thinking the very same thing!

@faoladh: My B&B experience is limited but from what I've seen, I think it would be a hoot. And I love the idea of usong a rabbit-like race to fill the hobbit niche.

@Steve: How's the art in The One Ring? Methinks I need to hold out for the hard copy on this one. I think I'm going to love it.

@Rob: I *totally* did not remember the talking fox. Gotta look for it on the LotR reread.