Mon
Dec 23 2013 3:00pm

Advanced Readings in D&D: J.R.R. Tolkien

JRR Tolkien Lord of the Rings FellowshipIn “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons and Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more.

Finishing up Appendix N, we come to the heavyweight on the list, the one they call “The Professor,” the one, the only, J! R! R! Tolkiennnnnnnnn! Yes, we saved J.R.R. Tolkien for last, so get ready for all the hobbits halflings hobbits you can shake a stick at.

Tim Callahan: We had to bring this reading project to a close with the most epic of all fantasy epics, the most influential of all Appendix N novels, the big hulking oliphant in the room, Professor J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

But in talking about The Lord of the Rings—and I do certainly want to talk about this book, because I love the heck out of it, and I didn’t realize how much I loved it until I reread it recently—we also have to talk about the other oliphant in the room: that Gary Gygax didn’t much like Tolkien’s stuff.

Maybe “didn’t much like” is too strong of a description when you’re talking about a book that Gygax himself specifically listed as an influence on Dungeons and Dragons, but it’s certainly true that Gygax consistently tried to distance himself from the Tolkien influence and, more importantly, from the perception of the Tolkien influence.

Those “hobbits” and “ents” and “balrogs” in the original D&D little brown books certainly implied a close connection between Middle-earth and the fantasy world of D&D adventure, but here’s what Gygax said about the whole thing a few years before he died: “I’m not a big Tolkien fan, though. I did love the movies, but I yawned through the books. I found them very droll and very dull. I still don’t give hoot about Hobbits.”

He credits the Tolkien connection with helping to popularize the game Gygax helped to invent, but as the rest of Appendix N indicates, he was into things beyond the walls of Minas Tirith. Not all D&D players are. The Tolkien influence permeates the game, thanks to all the players who came along and brought their Legolas-leaning elves and their Gimli-geared dwarves into the party. And we can’t forget all the Dungeon Masters who sent their characters on a quest through dark lands and corrupting influences so they could destroy an artifact of power before it fell into the hands of the ultimate evil.

But, really, is that so bad? Isn’t D&D a lot like the Tolkien books, and isn’t The Lord of the Rings like a D&D super-adventure, even if Gygax had sweatier, grungier, pulpier, weirder things in mind?

Mordicai Knode: All due respect to the esteemed Mister Gygax, but I don’t believe any of that for a moment. I think, and this is very much just my personal speculation, that his public antipathy for Lord of the Rings stuff is just sour grapes from being burned by litigation from the Tolkien Estate. I mean, the game has freaking halflings in it. Which tells a vastly different version than not giving a “hoot about Hobbits.” Now, I guess you could say it was Arneson or various players who asked or insisted to have Tolkien elements included in their campaigns or as characters, sure, I’d buy that too. After all, in the interview we did with Wizards of the Coast, you more or less argued that point, that Gygax’s more Lankhmarian Greyhawk ended up overshadowed by players, fans and other writers who focused on the more Lord of the Rings aspects of the game. But for real, treants, halflings, orcs, balors...heck elves and dwarves, rangers, sentient magic artifacts—though filtered through Elric, spoofing the Ring—all of this stuff isn’t just on accident.

A thing I’ve always meant to do is to get four people together, have them make two characters—a primary and a backup who will be on the adventure, troupe-style—and then just give one of them randomly the One Ring. Not like, a super powerful MacGuffin, I just mean I want to run a straight up alternate universe Lord of the Rings saga. Or I’m tempted to start it off pre-Hobbit, see if people deal with Smaug or The Necromancer or what. Evolve a parallel story, where events in Mordor play out differently, where things morph and change based on what the players choose to do.

I should be upfront: when I was a kid I was obsessed with Tolkien. I don’t mean “obsessed” the way people normally talk about their favorite books; I mean, I went into a deep hole. I read the Lord of the Rings for the first time in elementary school, really young, and then I just took off. I was the kid with a corkboard covered in all of the pages I tore out of the Appendices; runes and cirth, photocopied pictures of Galadriel from the Middle-earth Role Playing game, maps, Sindarian glossaries; the sort of stuff I only dimly remember enough to try to get people to play along with The Elvish Meme. I just read everything, all of the books, all of the Lost Tales, Morgoth’s Ring, Tolkien’s correspondences, just the monomaniacal mind of a tween, devoted completely to Lord of the Rings...though really, The Silmarillion was always my specific jam.

TC: I never went even close to that deep, but out of all the Appendix N books, the Tolkien stuff is definitely the formative influence for me. As I mentioned in that WoTC interview, The Hobbit was in my elementary school curriculum, and I read The Lord of the Rings back in 4th grade with a kind of passion I never had for any other books. I loved Middle-earth. But...I never finished the series. I dabbled in The Silmarillion, but even with The Lord of the Rings, I got to the second half of The Two Towers and just lost interest. Then I tried rereading them again in college and the same thing happened. It wasn’t until I saw the Peter Jackson movies that I actually found out what happened at the end of the story. Even the animated Ralph Bakshi movie gave up halfway through!

But I read the whole thing all the way through this past year—aren’t you so proud of me?—and here’s what struck me: The Lord of the Rings is far better written than almost everything else in Appendix N. It’s not just a seminal influence on the fantasy genre because it’s famous. It’s a seminal influence because it’s pretty damned great.

It’s impossible to deny that Tolkien is great at world-building—is anyone better?—but that’s not the only thing that makes The Lord of the Rings so remarkable. He also manages a delicate tonal balance between human-scale (or hobbit-scale) events and landscape-crushing battles. The story starts out as a provincial almost-comedy with ominous overtones and by the end it is the story of an entire multi-faceted culture and the great struggles between good and evil, but not in an abstract way, in a concrete, individual way. It’s vast and specific and none of the other authors in Appendix N pull it off like Tolkien does.

MK: There is a reason that the Professor is the standard in the world of fantasy; he stands up to the hype. He’s got conlang skills that blow pretty much everyone else out of the water, even those who come later, and he builds from the ground up. Languages, history, mythology, geography; his worldbuilding isn’t just slapping a name with too many consonants and an apostrophe on a single “big concept” kingdom, it starts small and that granularity lends...well, incredible verisimilitude. I was happy to see Weta Workshop use the same philosophy; in one of the extended edition interviews someone was all “oh, we have lots of details that never really get shown, swords with runes that the camera never focuses on, costume design details that go past too fast to see, but we figure that they all build up to lend depth to the world.” Well, yeah, yes they do. I’m glad this has become the standard; I don’t think Game of Thrones would be as big of a hit if it didn’t also have an author who lavishes care on the minutia of his stories as well as costume and prop design people who then put a corresponding level of attention to the details.

That isn’t all there is in Tolkien though; it isn’t politics or detail that make the story, it is that there is a heart to them, an ethos. Without being preachy, without resorting to his friend Clive Staples Lewis’ heavy-handed allegory—I like Narnia but I don’t think anyone could call The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe “subtle”—he manages to discuss some very big topics. I wrote about the role of Tom Bombadil as Tolkien’s ideal exemplar before, even using D&D terminology. At the end of the day, Tolkien has questions about freedom and tyranny, about sacrifice and responsibility, about justice and liberty. Questions, not easy answers; we see in the text a sacred monarch taking up the throne, with Aragorn and the Ring as a sort of inverted Fisher King and the Grail, but the choices characters make aren’t easy, and they come at a price. Yeah, maybe living amongst nature, unfettered and pacifist, would be lovely...but it can’t stand against tyranny, and so what can men do against such reckless hate? Consent versus compulsion, that is at the root of it, and at what cost?

All of which are questions you can and should be asking in your game. Sure, D&D is as much a game about hacking and slashing your way through monsters as it is anyone else, but I don’t think that precludes it from having ethical depths. Heck, it is a game that actually asks you to put your characters code of ethics on your character sheet, in the form of alignment. You have a chance to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to ask big philosophical questions of the story and play out hypotheticals...I think questioning deeper issues is a natural extension of the game. So yeah, I’m going to keep bringing up issues of diversity in depictions of characters and talking about the legacy of colonialism in portrayals of orcs and other “demihumans,” because I think that is germane to the hobby and the genre. Tolkien may be imperfect, but the story of Gimli and Legolas is one of acceptance, and even the Easterlings are painted with questions: how did Sauron enslave them, what threats forced them to march to war for him? Not every game is the right one to spring defenseless orc cubs on the players, after the PCs finish breaking into the orc’s home and killing them for defending it, but sometimes, yeah, bringing it up and asking big questions is the right thing to do.

TC: Absolutely! Absolutely to everything you just said, and while the D&D game mechanics favor treasure hunting and loot-gathering over anything else, the moral component is essential, even if players ignore it. But ignoring it is a moral choice, and there are consequences for that too.

I don’t know that we need to spend so many words explaining why The Lord of the Rings is important and amazing, but like many great and popular works it has its share of critics and part of my own embrace of Appendix N isn’t just that I was curious what the other recommended reading was like, but because I wanted to shake off the stale Tolkienisms that have become so embedded within and around the game. When we started talking about this Gygaxian reread in the spring of 2012, I wasn’t even aware of Joseph Goodman’s Appendix N-inspired Dungeon Crawl Classics game or Jeff Talanian’s Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, which eschews the Tolkien influence to create a D&D variant that is all Robert E. Howard sweat and stabbing and vile magic in a setting that’s a blend of Lovecraft and Ashton Smith. But as I’ve read the Appendix N authors, I’ve also been digging into these not-quite-D&D games and loving the weirdness that they have embraced.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I love Tolkien. I think The Lord of the Rings is the best book on the Appendix N list. I think Middle-earth is a fascinating setting.

But I have no desire to run any games in that setting. I’m not interested setting up wars between orcs and men, or role-playing an Elven high council, or sending an innocent group of halflings on a heroic journey. For me, that’s the fantasy game equivalent of doing the dishes or mowing the lawn. A chore that’s become mundane.

I’d say, and I’ve never quite thought about this before, but now I’m thinking it might be true, that my default setting for any fantasy role-playing game I run—no matter what system I use or what I call the continent—is specifically post-apocalyptic Tolkien. Ten thousand years ago, the events of The Lord of the Rings, or something very much like it, may have happened. But those records have been lost to time. Only some of the remnants and artifacts and below-ground structures remain, even if they are unrecognizable. New societies have risen and fallen since then, and the world is a strange and dangerous place. Go seek adventure—and treasure—if you must. Survival not guaranteed.

But Tolkien is the bedrock of all that. Even if the details have been buried deep and the decorations washed away.

MK: I’m not sure I totally agree; I think elf queens are the best. I know I use a lot of hyperbole, but I want to be clear that I’m not exaggerating when I say Galadriel is my favorite fictional character. You’re right though that I don’t think people should really be running straight out of the gate Tolkien pastiches. It works best with a twist; what about the weird fungus elves or the moon dwarves? What about the orc senate, the only democratic body in a world of monarchs and tyrants? Or the halfling tradition of “Mister Underhill,” the anonymous persona adopted by any hobbit who needs to get vengeance for mistreatment by the big folk? Tolkien built Middle-earth, he knit the bones of it together, and it looms high over the genre. The least we can do by way of gratitude is to stand on the shoulder of giants, and build something of our own.

...or run a Middle-earth campaign. I’m not the boss of you, do what you want. Actually, it sounds kind of fun. I played Middle-earth Role Playing constantly in junior high—graduating to Rolemaster when my Noldor magician past level ten—and I have fond memories of setting up near the Grey Havens and dealing with the vampire lord Sauron set to try to take over that corner of the world. What kind of campaign are you going to run? I want to tell the story of the orc bard who writes the ballad of the death of Fingolfin!


Tim Callahan usually writes about comics and Mordicai Knode usually writes about games. They both play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons.

40 comments
Mordicai Knode
2. mordicai
Seriously though, orc bard, tale of Fingolfin & Morgoth, that is a great pitch, I'm cribbing it from myself for my next PC.
Colin Bell
3. SchuylerH
@Mordicai & Callahan: E- Queens of the Fair Folk, Mordicai? I spit and touch iron at your words...

LOTR was one of the first fantasy novels I read and, by extension, one of the first SFF books I read. Granted, I always looked at it from an unusual angle since the first dozen fantasy novels I read were all by Terry Pratchett but I'm still fond of the trilogy, even as I wait for the genre as a whole to break free from its influence. (The rest of Tolkien I didn't get round to for a while, so I don't really have the same connection with them.)

Is it very D&D? I think it's probably too slick for all that. Maybe D&D! The Major Motion Picture in ultra high definition and surround sound, with a flock of dramaturges flitting around the edges and more resources than you could imagine (though if you haven't seen it already, the story of how Don Wollheim illegally made LOTR a massive success with a cheap, pirated, paperback edition is worth reading).
JohnnyMac
4. JohnnyMac
The Christmas chaos leaves me without the time or energy to make insightful comments on Tolkien re D&D. So I will confine myself to wishing all a Merry Christmas/Happy New Year/Other Seasonal Observances of Your Choice.

And thank you Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode for a great series of posts!
Colin Bell
5. SchuylerH
@4: But of course. Merry Christmas, Newtonmas, Cthulhumas and any other festival you care to observe. If Tor wishes to furnish us with another gift, say, a re-read of the additional books from the 1981 Basic D&D Rulebook mentioned in the Offut thread, then I for one would be positively agog with cheer.
Walker White
6. Walker
Your desire for the post-apocalypse Tolkien shows just how much influence Vance still has over the game. Because that is what The Dying Earth effectively is.
jon meltzer
7. jmeltzer
When I was still playing D&D (back in the days when the Elves were at Cuivienen) there was a story going around about a campaign that went through some strange misty portal-like portal to encounter a group consisting of four hobbits, two men, an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard.

So, what do you think happened next? Well, it did. And it was quick. Fireballs and vorpal swords, you know. This party had taken out beholders and balrogs, and it wasn't going to screw around with some random roadkill.

Sauron then appeared, took the One Ring of a hobbit's corpse, thanked the party and sent them home. What else could the poor GM have done other than kill all of them?
Mordicai Knode
8. mordicai

3. SchuylerH

Hiss! Yeah, I'm a fan of Bright & Terrible, Dark & Terrible, Seelie & Unseelie, yes. You better carry cold iron & stay on the path, or the witch of the wood will get you...

4. JohnnyMac

I'm all about a secular Solstice gift festival! Same to you & whatever other things you might be celebrating!

6. Walker

I don't know that I agree; structurally, contextually, but I think the Dying Earth is longer dead than that!

7. jmeltzer

Reminds me of the Head of Vecna...
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
10. hoopmanjh
2. Mordicai -- If you haven't already, check out Jacqueline Carey's Sundering duology.

Myself, I don't think Gygax's attitude about Tolkien was entirely sour grapes -- there was also an article in an early Dragon magazine where he basically said that he loved the Hobbit but thought LotR was trying too hard or something.

Having said that, I think the most significant thing he took from Tolkien wasn't Elves or Dwarves or Hobbitses or Orcs -- it was the idea of the "adventuring party", which enabled him to create a game where you could be acting out a sword & sorcery-style kill & loot adventure but with six or seven characters with different, complementary skillsets, as opposed to classic S&S which was pretty much either solo protagonists or hero & sidekick.
Alan Brown
11. AlanBrown
First, let me say that, even though I never played D&D, I very much liked this series of columns. Mr. Gygax was apparently compiling his Appendix N list as I was in the midst of my high school and college reading binge, and almost every author we discussed I was familar with, and most I enjoyed. So it was fun to discuss the old favorites. And I enjoyed the way our discussion leaders jumped back into the conversation frequently. This is exactly the type of interaction that makes Tor.com one of my favorite websites.
And since Tolkien has been discussed to death, I will tell a little story instead of discussing him even more. My extended family was attending a con many years ago, and my youngest brother, who was 16 and new to cons, woke up early one morning, and went down to the lobby to get something to eat. We figured that was what had happened, so we walked down to the lobby to find him and get breakfast, and there he was, chatting with two people who looked very familiar. And he proceeded to introduce us to this nice older couple who had just bought him breakfast, whose names were Ian and Betty Ballentine. We hardcore fans in the family just stood there in awe, as the nice old couple walked away. "Do you know who that was?" I asked. "Well," he replied, "They said they work in publishing, and I think they have something to do with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, because they were quite happy when I told them it was my favorite book."
So, anyhow, happy holidays to each and all of you, regardless of which holidays you celebrate!
Mordicai Knode
12. mordicai
11. AlanBrown

I'm super happy you were here participating; you brought an immediacy to the conversation that can't be duplicated. I think Tim & I will cook up something soon for our next project, so I hope to see you then!

P.S. Sitting next to Tom Doherty is a similar joy to your anecdote & one of the many perks to working closely with Tor.

10. hoopmanjh

See, it is crazy to me, since my jam is totally The Silmarillion, & if anything is trying too hard, it is that brilliant, glorious thing.
Brian R
13. Mayhem
To be honest, while Tolkein is understandably at the heart of most modern fantasy, and it is important not to underplay just how crucial his work is, I don't actually like it all that much on the whole. Individual moments, yep, among my favourite in literature. The whole tale .. not so much.

My problem is that his worldbuilding was more focussed with linguistics and the grand sweep of history, and less with the specifics of plot and geography.
Which means each time he writes himself into a corner, he uses a fairly poorly set up deus ex machina to get out of it again. To his credit, Shamus Young's DM of the Rings skewered this rather nicely. An awful lot of what happens seems like a poor DM railroading the plot, Gandalf is the biggest NPC xp whore ever, and the backstory keeps getting more convoluted, then dropped, then jammed back in again.

The Armies of the Dead for example are like the ultimate weapon, yet they then put them away before going off to fight a futile battle. Yes, there is a story reason why, but its pretty flimsy. You have an unstoppable superweapon, YOU USE IT!
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
14. hoopmanjh
Aha! Thank you, Dragon Magazine CD Archive! From Dragon #95, "The influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on the D&D and AD&D games : Why Middle Earth is not part of the game world"

"Though I thoroughly enjoyed The Hobbit, I found the "Ring Trilogy" ... well, tedious. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the Professor's dedicated readers, I must say that I was so bored with his tomes that I took nearly three weeks to finish them."

For whatever it's worth.
JohnnyMac
15. sueno
This Advanced Readings series was fun to read. Thanks for all your literary dungeoneering.
JohnnyMac
16. Eugene R.
mordicai (@12): I would agree; I liked The Silmarillion best of all the ur-Tolkien works, the one with the most mythic, Norse-saga-poetry feel. But, I'm just crazy like that. :)

And were I running a Middle Earth campaign, I would set it pre-LotR, in the mid-Third Age, using the Rise and Fall of Angmar as the narrative spine.

Mayhem (@13): Thank you for bringing up Shamus Young's wonderful inversion of LotR and D&D, GM of the Ring, which brilliantly puts the polyhedral cart before the Rohan horse, showing both the affinity of the game for the books and the equally difficult task of getting any game to recreate a work of fiction (which, perforce, is pretty much the definition of "railroading" of characters by an author).
Colin Bell
17. SchuylerH
@6 & 8: I always thought that the Dying Earth books took place after Vance's space operas of the Gaean Reach, though I bet we could shoehorn his excellent Lyonesse trilogy in the prehistory (or from LOTR's perspective, far future) if we tried.

@10: That's an interesting idea: that Tolkien's influence helped open D&D to multiple players.

@11: Thankyou for sharing your anecdote.

@14: I've been reading a Gygax interview on TheOneRing.net. He says that the trilogy moved too slowly for him as a pulp swords and sorcery fan (though he liked Bombadil and the Nazgul) but also that his players demanded lots of Tolkien material in the games, much of which had to be replaced with suspiciously similar substitutes after the first edition.

@12 & 16: The Silmarillion can be useful in that regard. It's this great mass of stuff, hundreds of pages of stuff just waiting to be strip-mined for ideas.

(Mordicai, the other day I was shelving some of my newer Le Guin novels (Annals of the Western Shore) and I came upon Always Coming Home. I thought "Well, the idea is decent but there's not much of a plot going on there, just hundreds of pages of songs, folk tales and customs." I wondered who would enjoy reading a book which is all worldbuilding until I realised I already knew the answer.)

Of course, Happy Insert-Appropriate-Festival-Here. According to Tolkien, the 25th of December is also the day when the Fellowship left Rivendell, so we might as well celebrate that while we're at it.
JohnnyMac
18. Nechtan
@SchuylerH, Mordicai and all: In that case, Happy Fellowship Day, everyone
JohnnyMac
19. BDG
I have to confess I've never enjoyed LOTR. I've attempted three different times and each time I have to put it down because a) the nastolgia for a golden age that never was and b) everyone who looks anything like me is evil or corrupted or corheresed into an evil army and I honestly can't stomach it. So I have no doubt about his talents as a writer and as an academic but his fiction work is not for me.
Mordicai Knode
20. mordicai
13. Mayhem
&
16. Eugene R.

Oh yeah, Gandalf as a joke of "Oh, so the DM brought one of his PCs from an old campaign in as an NPC? Oh, brother!" always always always cracks me up. That said, I think there are enough moments where the deus ex machina doesn't happen that it makes the "cavalry" work when they do. The eagles are coming!

Personally, I'm a sucker for Darths & Droids.

14. hoopmanjh

It may just be that I'm a partisan, as I mentioned, but I don't buy it, I just don't!

15. sueno

It was super fun to do; I hope we inspired somebody to try some of the books!

16. Eugene R.

I like the Fall of Arnor, but then-- tragedy, or parallel reality?

17. SchuylerH



18. Nechtan

Happy Fellowship Day...tomorrow!
Rich Bennett
21. Neuralnet
Just want to say thanks for this reread series, it was great and I even got turned on to a couple of new books to read.

as a kid growing up playing d&d I always thought it was based on Tolkien. But I do agree that Tolkien is a little dry at times with too much history. Gygax was definitely going for more of a hack n slash adventure. But all of that Tolkien detail really added a lot of depth to d&d IMHO. The game wouldn't be the same without it. Plus I still suspect that litigation with the Tolkien estate really forced them to distance the game like the re reader mentions.
David Levinson
24. DemetriosX
I never went as deep into LotR as Mordicai, but I did read it regularly every 6 months for the first 6 or 7 years after I first encountered it. I also corresponded with one friend in tengwar when I was away at college.

The influence of Tolkien on early D&D is really impossible to deny. Gygax was definitely talking sour grapes through his hat. His elves are entirely Tolkien elves and neither Sidhe, nor Norse elves, nor the silly elves of children's literature (including the Hobbit -- tra-la-lally? Seriously?); the dwarves are Tolkien dwarves (including the plural), not Norse dwarves; orcs are totally JRRT; and the first iteration of hobbits in ODD were so horrendously overpowered, I hate them utterly in gaming and usually exclude them from any campaign I run.

As for Tolkien being a vector for the game, I think it's more a case of the time being ripe for both of those sorts of things in the 70s. There was simply an explosion of high fantasy in the period that was even expressed in the music. There's a reason for the canard that songs in the 70s were all 14 minutes long and about hobbits.

This has been a terrific series and I think it does deserve a wrap-up post at the very least. And maybe a discussion about what Appendix N would or should look like today.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
25. hoopmanjh
Things were definitely wilder and woolier back in the day -- in the first issue of The Dragon there's an ad on the inside front cover for a revised edition of a TSR game called The Battle of Five Armies.
JohnnyMac
26. Eugene R.
mordicai (@20): Prof. Tolkien would be far from the first or last fantasy author to rely on the occasional deus ex machina - GRR Martin pulled the old "cavalry coming over the hill" card out for the Battle of the Blackwater.

Fall of Arnor - I would expect it to fall (I ran Pendragon, so I am used to tragic endings), but the actions of the PCs would influence just how hard the fall would go. So, I guess it is a tragedy in a parallel reality (as it always is once the PCs get their grubby hands on my pristine and majestic plots).

DemetriosX (@24): Agree on the undeniable influence of Tolkien on D&D, Mr. Gygax's demurrals notwithstanding. I have confessed before that the reason I read LotR was *because* I was playing D&D in high school and I needed to learn more about the various flora and fauna like ents and hobbits/halflings and why elves and dwarves disdained each other. And I was really, really grateful that the prologue, "Concerning Hobbits", spared me from the "tra-la-la-lally" stuff in The Hobbit until I was older and could appreciate it on its own terms.
JohnnyMac
27. Nathan Carson
Many thanks for this series. It moved me to delve deeper into my Conan and also caused me to track down Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds (which I devoured--next up, Futurians. Are there more of these?).

I also ordered a dusty old copy of Dunsany's OOP autobiography. So as you can see, I've been sent in surprising directions by the series, having done a bit of my own Appendix N spelunking over the last 30 years.

Cheers and hope to see the Basic list or somethig comparable tackeled sooner than later.
Mordicai Knode
28. mordicai
I am busy eating, drinking & being merry. Also, watching Star Trek: TOS this Xmas!
Colin Bell
29. SchuylerH
@28: Clicking around has revealed that you are now the proud owner of some 2001 comics! Clarke, Kirby and Kubrick, it's almost too good to be true...
Mordicai Knode
30. mordicai
29. SchuylerH

Oh, I had a pretty good haul! Kirby's name isn't even ON those comics, it is NUTS! So, it should come as no surprise: 2001: A Space Odyssey is boring & confusing, with cerebral conflict & social friction replacing like, Sweet Action Scenes, so obviously it is my favorite. Plus a bunch of video games so...see everybody in like, February...
Rafael
31. Ryamano
@19 BDG

So, you must've read until the Two Towers part where Sam meets the Haradrim for the first time. If you've gone that far, how can you let the book lie down? You've passed the most boring parts (the beginning, Tom Bombadil and the Ents, according to me), from now on it's all action and drama. As another person of color, I must say that this fact you pointed out has never bothered me.

The manicheism of Tolkien's tale bothered me somewhat, but then I read his letters and reread Shagrat and Gorbag's dialog, of how these two orcs wanted to settle down somewhere far from "big bosses" after the war, and I saw how Tolkien's catholicism didn't allow him to create a race of people who was irredeemable. This was overlooked in the adaptation of orcs and goblins into the first RPGs, where these races were always chaotic evil and players were completely justified into attacking their lairs and killing them all. In Tolkien's works this kind of adventure doesn't happen. The dwarves do stumble upon goblins in The Hobbit, but they kill only to make their way out of their lair, it was never their intention to commit genocide on the other race. And the orcs the Fellowship of the Ring battles are either invaders ordered by Sauron or Saruman or who have already committed genocide on the dwarves of Moria. So, no pre-emptive attacks on Orc settlements and actually no wars to the end of orc-kind happen.
Iain Coleman
32. Iain_Coleman
Mayhem @13:

You have an unstoppable superweapon, YOU USE IT!

I believe congratulations are in order. You have managed to identify the precise, polar opposite of the point of the story.
JohnnyMac
33. BDG
@31 Ryamano

Because I thought it was some kind of duty as a fantasy reader. I decided I wasn't getting what I wanted out it after the third time and moved onto works like the Malazan Series and Acacia trilogy.

As for the function of the Orcs and the non-white people I'm not going to get into because my opinions on the subject will get everyone in an uproar but I'll say this: the man was definitely a product of his times, life and, religion and all the baggage that comes along with that. This is not a good excuse but it'll do.
Mordicai Knode
34. mordicai
31. Ryamano

You are talking near & dear to my heart. I think promoting orcs as PEOPLE is the right way to play & portray fantasy, personally. I've written about it before, but I mean it; orcs are my jam, & orcs as characters is the way to go.

33. BDG

See above; I think orcs DEFINATELY are a symptom of colonial thinking, & I think making orcs fully enfranchised & non-evil chacters is one way to show the evolution of that thinking into a more representative system; ultimately undermining the entire logic for something better.
JohnnyMac
35. Gorbag
@34. mordicai

Tolkien was never comfortable with the idea of orcs as irredeemably evil beings; several HoME books quote his attempts to fit them into his mythopoeia without breaking it. I found an idea he certainly played with, quoted in Unfiished Tales, that the Druedain and the orcs were related, that both considered the other renegades, very interesting. It could quite profitably used as the basis for very many stories.

And there's several main directions you can take the orc-story in - orcs as a race of sentient, moral beings; orcs as supernatural beings (have fun with the implications of that!!!); orcs as a state of mind or being for a character in a story ... all with complete sentient responsibility for their own actions, unless you want to portray them as victims.
JohnnyMac
36. Gorbag
Additional note on orcs: Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock and Harry Harrison have significantly expanded the concept of "orc" with respectively: The Helliconia Trilogy's ancipitals, The Prince of Ruins and his people the Melniboneans, and the Yilane in the Of Eden trilogy.

To wit: the ancipitals are the pre-existing "demon divinities" of the humans on Helliconia with decidedly Chaotic leanings; the Melniboneans are likewise "demon divinities" among the Young Kingdoms with a curious mixture of Chaotic and Lawful leanings; the Yilane have a much more granular "personal" mixture and thus can't be fitted into such a scheme on a "racial" basis - but that is how the humans react to them, as beings with Chaotic leanings.

FWLIW :)
JohnnyMac
37. a1ay
I think the most significant thing he took from Tolkien wasn't Elves or
Dwarves or Hobbitses or Orcs -- it was the idea of the "adventuring
party"... as opposed to classic S&S which was pretty much either solo protagonists or hero & sidekick.

Not disagreeing at all, but it's worth mentioning that this isn't original to Tolkien. Parties of heroes with various different personalities and skills have been going off on adventures for as long as humans have told stories. The Fianna, the Argonauts, the Achaeans before the walls of Troy, the Court of King Arthur, the Four Musketeers...
JohnnyMac
38. a1ay
32 is funny.

Also, the point about the Army of the Dead - and this is made clear in the book - is that they're a one-shot weapon that relies on fear for impact. After the Corsair ships are taken, the king of the dead says "our debt is repaid" and he and his army vanish. Aragorn didn't have the option of keeping them around. Plus, how effective would they be against Sauron's army? These guys have Ringwraiths in their command structure, they're unlikely to be worried by a few insubstantial dead humans.
JohnnyMac
39. a1ay
I think orcs DEFINATELY are a symptom of colonial thinking

Since they're the ones that want to conquer and subjugate everyone else's countries, wouldn't that make them, if anything, the colonialists? I'm sure there's a colonial allegory to be made, given that the orcs are a race of sallow-skinned beings with Cockney accents from the smoke-shrouded industrial region that want to sweep over the peaceful, enlightened, civilised rest of the world and rule it for ever (with the help of their native allies) as part of their empire... just maybe not the one you were thinking of.
JohnnyMac
40. Brandoch Daha
Tolkien uses "viewpoint voices" to express his views on various matters; I think we can take King Theoden and Faramir as two of the significant viewpoint voices in relation to colonial matters.

For example, King Theoden with his speech to Saruman: "for were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine for your own profit as you desire"

And Faramir speaking to Frodo and Sam: " ... 'I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves. War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Númenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise."

Those words can't be parsed as compatible with the ambitious, expansionist, colonial power Britian used to be at the start of the 20C.; it's more a repudiation of all such ambitions.
JohnnyMac
41. Kirth Girthsome
en thousand years ago, the events of The Lord of the Rings, or something very much like it, may have happened. But those records have been lost to time. Only some of the remnants and artifacts and below-ground structures remain, even if they are unrecognizable. New societies have risen and fallen since then, and the world is a strange and dangerous place.

In other words, Robert E. Howard's "Hyborian Age". Cimmerians as the "devolved" descendents of Numenoreans, what's not to like?
JohnnyMac
42. a1ay
40: Those words can't be parsed as compatible with the ambitious,
expansionist, colonial power Britian used to be at the start of the
20C.; it's more a repudiation of all such ambitions.

Good point.

Worth noting a couple of things at this point:
not everyone in Britain thought that the Empire was a good thing, or agreed with the way it was ruled; there were many incidents of expansion that aroused significant dissent among politicians at home, very often on the right wing of politics, for whom empire-building was an expensive and occasionally ethically worrying distraction from the core business of the UK, viz. selling stuff, making money, and defending the home islands against attack. (Think "paleocon" for a US equivalent.)

and, by the early 20th century, Britain really wasn't expansionist or ambitious; it was at the top, and meant to stay there. The great colonial expansions were almost a century before - the colonisation of the Dominions and the haphazard acquisition of India.
JohnnyMac
43. Holger Carlsen
May I suggest, Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode, as a follow up to this series that you began, you continue with the Andre Norton novels Quag Keep and Return to Quag Keep, both of which happen to have Tor as their publisher. Then you can move on to an entry on Gary Gygax's Gord the Rogue novels -- Saga of Old City, Artifact of Evil, Sea of Death, Night Arrant, City of Hawks, Come Endless Darkness, Dance of Demons -- before covering his The Anubis Murders, The Samarkand Solution, Death in Delhi, and Infernal Sorceress. After that you can take on his Sagard the Barbarian Books (The Ice Dragon, The Green Hydra, The Crimson Sea, and The Fire Demon). But first Quag Keep and Return to Quag Keep, for obvious reasons.

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