The Shadow of the Shadow: Isildur as Amazon’s Main Character

Yay. Some more leakages.

About the upcoming Amazon Second Age series, that is. Fellowship of Fans can reveal that, as of episode 3 of Season 1, we will see Isildur as a focal point character:

My first thought?

I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not think the show is doomed. I regard the fandom’s professional doom-merchants with a fair bit of contempt, especially since most of their material tends to be Culture War potshots and/or clickbaity nonsense. On the whole, I am actually something of a cautious optimist about this project, at least until I actually see the finished product. It’s just that this is one of those occasions where my excitement is dampened by an uneasy foreboding that “yeah, they’re making a mistake here.”

Now, if they are introducing Isildur in episode 3 of the first season, that means we are skipping from what appears to be a two-episode Prologue (the Two Trees, Finrod, et al), into the last few centuries of the Second Age. Which inherently begs the question – what the hell happened to the material from the mid-Second Age? The Forging of the Rings, Celebrimbor, and Company? The War of the Elves and Sauron? The corruption of the Nine? It’s all a bit head-scratching.

But that isn’t really my major concern. Not yet anyway. They – surely – will have to cover that Ring material too, since we’ve literally seen Ost-in-Edhil on the initial map, with all the implicit promises that stem from that. Combining Isildur with Celebrimbor in the same season just means a meshing or compression of timelines, or some form of non-linear storytelling (think the Witcher, only less confusing). Eru only knows what they plan to do there, though I suppose we must wait and see. But I will throw things if I don’t get to see Celebrimbor’s corpse as a battle-standard.

No, my bigger immediate worry from this update is that we are jumping straight into the profoundly screwed-up era of Númenor, without having built up a genuine affection for the place. I had visualised a first season starting off with Númenor being portrayed as fair and beautiful, its people wise and benevolent… only for the corruption to seep in, season by season, until we wind up with human sacrifices to Melkor.

Show the poison at work, before Sauron even sets foot on the island, but most importantly, show us what we are losing, and make us care about it. By jumping straight into the early fourth millennium, we merely see Númenor as another Westeros, full of backstabbing and scheming, and going from bad to worse. Sure, that’s fun and all, and consistent with Tolkien’s own material, but starting off the show with that – rather than ending with it – lessens the stakes. Darkness-induced apathy, and all that… enough to make the eventual Downfall a matter of putting a bunch of irredeemable arseholes out of their misery, rather than as the culmination of a millennia-old tragedy.

(Speaking of which, they surely aren’t mad enough to put the Downfall – the most visually spectacular event in the history of fantasy television – in the early or middle part of the show? This climax needs to wait until the fourth season, and the notion of having it any earlier, as was discussed by Fellowship of Fans, makes me seriously uncomfortable).

The counter to all of these objections would be “well, if they start with Tar-Palantir, we can still show ‘good’ Númenor turn to evil under his successor.” The problem is that that would be a gross misrepresentation of what Tar-Palantir actually is. He’s not some Marcus Aurelius figure from Gladiator, the personification of the good old days before all went to custard and worse. He’s basically a sort of Old Testament Prophet, a Jeremiah wailing at his people to repent their wicked ways before it’s too late. You don’t use a character like that for creating the impression of a stable status quo. You use him to ratchet up the emotional stakes – this is Númenor’s last chance, people! Will they listen, or will they continue their slide…? In short, you put Tar-Palantir in the late middle of the Númenorean tragedy, not at the beginning.

Phew. I’m sounding like quite the Jeremiah myself today. But it gets worse. Fellowship of Fans play up the similarities between the casting description of Isildur and the portrayal of Aragorn in Jackson’s film trilogy. It might just be my phobia of this series excessively tying itself into Jackson, but that is not a good thing in my mind. I would have thought that the script-writers could do more with Isildur than “let’s put Young Aragorn in Númenor! Only this time he fails!” Again, we shall have to wait and see, but I really hope this show does not go there.

Now, Fellowship of Fans is right in one important sense. The structure of the Second Age source material does not make for easy storytelling. The time-gaps are vast and late Númenor is indeed much more action-packed than earlier eras (as an aside, I think this update is probably the nail in the coffin of seeing Aldarion and Erendis). But to my mind, the solution would have been to allow the Forging of the Rings (and the aftermath) to supply the meaty plot narrative for the first couple of seasons, while the show takes some time to develop Númenor as it was before things went wrong. Then shift the story to Númenor for seasons three and four, before we finish with the Last Alliance in season five. I’d have zero problems with Isildur being the focal character for the last half of the show, but having him from the first season feels off.

We’re clearly getting an extended Akallabêth, plus prologue Elves, plus Dwarves, plus Hobbits… but Eru only knows how they’re fitting the Rings in. In a project that started out with the Ring-verse, dropping clues 3,7,9, and 1 days apart, the Rings are clearly a cornerstone, and we will presumably see Isildur have his run-in with the One Ring at some point in season five… but to get to that, we need to see the Forging first. And how any of this gels with a Prologue that gives us Finrod and the Two Trees is a real head-scratcher. So many questions, so few answers…

Dark Lord Musings: Why Sauron Joined Team Melkor

It has often been noted that Tolkien’s two great Dark Lords had quite distinct motivations for their villainy, Melkor/Morgoth being what we might today term ‘Chaotic Evil,’ and Mairon/Sauron being ‘Lawful Evil.’ One was obsessed with destroying Creation because it was not his, the other was obsessed with governing Creation “for its own good.”

To refresh, I can strongly recommend reading Tolkien’s Notes on Motives in The Silmarillion (http://fair-use.org/j-r-r-tolkien/notes-on-motives-in-the-silmarillion/), as found in Morgoth’s Ring (The History of Middle-earth Volume X). Specifically these relevant paragraphs…

Morgoth:

… when Melkor was confronted by the existence of other inhabitants of Arda, with other wills and intelligences, he was enraged by the mere fact of their existence, and his only notion of dealing with them was by physical force, or the fear of it. His sole ultimate object was their destruction. Elves, and still more Men, he despised because of their weakness: that is their lack of physical force, or power over matter; but he was also afraid of them. He was aware, at any rate originally when still capable of rational thought, that he could not annihilate them: that is, destroy their being; but their physical life, and incarnate form became increasingly to his mind the only thing that was worth considering. Or he became so far advanced in Lying that he lied even to himself, and pretended that he could destroy them and rid Arda of them altogether. Hence his endeavour always to break wills and subordinate them to or absorb them in his own will and being, before destroying their bodies. This was sheer nihilism, and negation its one ultimate object: Morgoth would no doubt, if he had been victorious, have ultimately destroyed even his own creatures, such as the Orcs, when they had served his sole purpose in using them: the destruction of Elves and Men.

Sauron:

Sauron had never reached this stage of nihilistic madness. He did not object to the existence of the world, so long as he could do what he liked with it. He still had the relics of positive purposes, that descended from the good of the nature in which he began: it had been his virtue (and therefore also the cause of his fall, and of his relapse) that he loved order and coordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction. (It was the apparent will and power of Melkor to effect his designs quickly and masterfully that had first attracted Sauron to him.) … Sauron’s love (originally) or (later) mere understanding of other individual intelligences was correspondingly weaker; and though the only real good in, or rational motive for, all this ordering and planning and organization was the good of all inhabitants of Arda (even admitting Sauron’s right to be their supreme lord), his plans, the idea coming from his own isolated mind, became the sole object of his will, and an end, the End, in itself.

Well and good. But this distinction – fascinating though it is – creates an interesting quandary. How did Sauron square his desire for rational ordering of the world with his support for the entity hell-bent on destroying the world? One cannot very well order the world for the material benefit of its inhabitants if both the world and its inhabitants are non-existent. Tolkien cites Melkor’s ability to Get Shit Done as something attractive to Sauron… which is vaguely unsatisfying, since being effective at wrecking Creation ought to still conflict with Sauron’s fundamental temper.

(Tolkien in a subsequent paragraph does note “Sauron had not served Morgoth, even in his last stages, without becoming infected by his lust for destruction”. But being infected by such tendencies is still a long way from wanting to see the world burn, especially because enslavement, rather than annihilation, remains the chief tool in Sauron’s toolbox).

So what, exactly, is going on here? In my opinion, it’s an issue that Tolkien rather leaves dangling… at least so far as his essays are concerned. This question does not impact so much on the actual stories. But if ever there was a fandom that likes to fill in world-building and philosophical gaps, it is this one. I myself have a few ideas, some of which potentially overlap with each other. Which is why I’m writing this blog post at all…

(i) Morgoth lied to Sauron

I have a soft spot for this rationalisation, in part because it is oh-so in-character for Morgoth to lie to even his chief servant, and it even adds a whiff of genuine tragedy to Sauron’s storyline. Under this hypothesis, Morgoth hid his nihilism from Sauron, essentially telling him that “when Arda is mine, you shall have your desires fulfilled.” And poor Sauron – star-struck and intoxicated by the prospect of power – bought the lie wholesale, deluding himself for millennia that Morgoth’s destructive behaviour was simply a means to a positive end. After all, a bit of destruction can be fun, after a hard day’s work running bureaucracy…

(ii) It’s Just Business

Here, Sauron had a much better idea of what he was getting into. He knew full-well what Morgoth was up to, but thought he could still steer his boss in a particular direction (or leech off the opportunities presented by the rebel Ainu), rather like Saruman thinking he could deal with Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. The underlying differences in worldview can be dismissed as Sauron realising that Morgoth’s end-goal was actually impossible, and that his master’s destructive tendencies were self-limiting. Moreover, Morgoth’s power had dispersed into Arda itself. With Morgoth having done the hard metaphysical work, Sauron could simply piggy-back off him, for his own advantage… without his precious plans being overruled or constrained by the Valar.

(iii) Sauron as Macbeth

I am in blood Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

Under this scenario, Sauron was initially lured in… realised his mistake, but decided that it is simply too damned hard or painful to repent of his misdeeds, so he might as well double-down on Team Evil. This, of course, is floated as an explicit possibility at the end of the First Age – that Sauron really did sincerely repent, but could not quite bring himself to subject himself to the judgement of the Valar. But such thoughts might actually have occurred earlier in Sauron’s career, potentially multiple times, once he saw Morgoth in action. On the other hand, Sauron does not generally strike me as the self-loathing sort.

(iv) The Lesser Evil

Strange though it sounds, it is potentially possible that Sauron grew to dislike Morgoth, a dislike kept hidden by out-and-out fear. It’s just that he might have seen his master’s destructive eccentricities as less irritating than the dithering, incompetent, and inefficient Valar – Melkor may be an idiot, but he can at least Get Shit Done!

*

Such are my contrived explanations for how a sophisticated planner and administrator could wind up as chief servant (and spiritual successor) to an Anarchistic Toddler. It is also interesting to note that Sauron’s post-First Age career is an ever-deepening descent into cynicism, so far as his treatment of Morgoth goes. The Valaquenta suggests Sauron was less evil, in that “for long he served another and not himself,” but in the Second and Third Ages, the homages become decidedly self-serving. Sauron setting himself up as Melkor’s High-Priest in Númenor was naked pragmatism, not devoted sincerity, while in the Third Age, Sauron was telling his followers that he was Morgoth Returned, which would not have gone down well had his old boss ever learned of it.

(I cannot yet get my hands on The Nature of Middle-earth, but I am aware it includes references to eastern Orcs, who took a dim view of Sauron’s attempt to assume his master’s old mantle. Sauron’s pragmatic motivations for draping himself in Morgoth’s legacy cannot be understated, regardless of what he actually thought of his old boss).

Waitemata Burning: Narrowing Down the Auckland Outbreak

So the Auckland Coronavirus Outbreak has been steadily increasing in case numbers. Not exploding, Melbourne-style, but definitely increasing. The question then becomes… how is this happening, and where is this happening? Well, I’m pleased you asked that. Because I do think we can mine the available data for clues.

Consider the following graphs:

It is quite clear: the epicentre of the outbreak has moved away from Counties-Manukau (South Auckland), and towards Waitemata (West Auckland). Specifically, the South Auckland cases have largely levelled off, while West Auckland has been surging since early October. Well and good, and I’d also note that early October coincided with Brian Tamaki’s infamous protest rally – perhaps Destiny Church has more followers in the West?

Narrowing things down further… the cases winding up in hospital. Now, of the hospitals in the Waitemata DHB region, Waitakere Hospital is quite small. North Shore Hospital is the larger one in the region. Yet the cases are winding up in Auckland Hospital, and not the North Shore. That suggests the Waitemata cases are concentrated in the areas closer to Auckland Hospital than North Shore. Potentially around New Lynn?

If it is New Lynn, however, it’s worth noting that the ethnicity of the cases do not look like the suburb at large. There are too many Maori cases, and too few Asian… which suggests that the disease remains confined to a very specific subset of the community, many of whom happen to be unvaccinated. The increase is thus probably not running through the wider community. Not yet anyway, which suggests that lockdown compliance is still keeping a lid on this thing.

Anyway, I myself can report that as of yesterday, I am fully vaccinated. Yay. 🙂

The Chronicles of Kregsmal and Krunch: Volume I

As noted previously, my weekly DND campaign with Annalax and Gertrude has been put on ice. I expect it to return eventually, but for now it is very much on hiatus.

The remainder of the group have decided to run an entirely new campaign in the meantime. This campaign follows the Witchfire Trilogy from the Iron Kingdoms setting… with DND Fifth Edition mechanics. So new character time.

Enter Kregsmal.

Now, after over sixty sessions playing squishy characters (a Rogue and a Bard), I felt it time for something more beefy. Something that could take a hit. So I went for a Barbarian. Not just any Barbarian either. Kregsmal uses unarmoured defence… but does not fight shirtless. He really loves to fight in shirts, actually, and the silkier and fancier, the better. Kregsmal is basically a dandy himbo – extremely kind and charming in social situations, but with all the intelligence (or lack thereof) one associates with DND Barbarians.

Oh, and he thinks his giant maul-hammer, Krunch, is sentient, and talks to it on a regular basis. Kregsmal goes so far as to insist on Krunch’s personhood. And to buy it drinks.

Kregsmal Thorntip: Level 2 Human Barbarian

  • STR: 18
  • DEX: 10
  • CON: 16
  • INT: 8
  • WIS: 10
  • CHA: 16

Kregsmal had the opportunity for a feat at Level 1. He grabbed Magical Initiate, for Mending, Prestidigitation, and Thunderwave. Mending and Prestidigitation are for cleaning and repairing his precious shirts, while Thunderwave allows some (non-raging) crowd control. As you might notice, I am not trying to optimise here, just going with what I consider fun. Oh, and because the Iron Kingdoms setting takes a dim view of magic, this has been rationalised in-universe as mechanical cleaning implements, and a mechanical thunder-glove.

Session One

We started off with everyone at Level 1. And because a fair few people couldn’t make it this session, it was just three of us – Kregsmal, Grinder Stonehide (a Fell Caller. Basically a sort of Warrior Bard), and Ace (a Fighter. Who fights by throwing metal playing cards at opponents). There was just one problem. Between Kregsmal’s 8 INT, Grinder’s 5 INT, and Ace’s 1(!) CHA… this was just asking for something messy to happen. And sure enough, it did.

All three characters had been approached by a mysterious figure seeking assistance. In the case of the other characters, this mysterious figure used rather brutal leverage, but Kregsmal was bought off with the gift of those mechanical cleaning items. The figure told us individually to meet at a certain tavern in a certain city, and wait there for a contact. Well and good.

Kregsmal and Grinder got into a hearty conversation at the bar (note that Kregsmal is pretty dim, but Grinder’s Intelligence is so low that if it were any lower, he’d need to be watered daily). Ace was less talkative – having 1 in Charisma means he doesn’t talk directly to other people. He was reduced to talking to Krunch instead, with Kregsmal passing the words on.

Then the contact turned up. Unremarkable looking, he told us we needed to pass a test first. Which terrified Kregsmal (a test? He can’t even write!). Except that the test apparently involved clearing out a location for a gentleman’s base of operations. Excellent. Kregsmal and Ace were ready to head off to find the place, and our Barbarian decided to grab Grinder away from the bar.

And by grab, I mean literally grab. Grapple-check.

*Kregsmal rolls Natural 1.*

Grinder – thinking he was under attack – literally flung Kregsmal over the bar. At which point the tavern erupted into a general Bar Brawl.

Kregsmal stood up in astonishment. He’s a bloody Barbarian. Getting thrown over a bar is not something that normally happens to him. He then noticed that everyone in the tavern was fighting everyone else.

Now, Kregsmal is a sweet-tempered fellow, in most situations. A free-for-all-fisticuffs over alcohol is not one of those. He’s still a Barbarian, and Krunch likes to talk back occasionally. Besides, someone took a swing at Mr Grinder.

A metallic card flew into the attacker’s throat. Bloodthirsty fisticuffs. The best kind of fisticuffs.

Kregsmal didn’t even bother with Krunch. He picked up the now-dead attacker, and speared the corpse into two other tavern-goers. Rawwwrrr.

By the time the brawl was interrupted by the town guard, Kregsmal and Ace had killed several people. Krunch was covered in blood, brains, and skull fragments. Grinder bizarrely had not killed anyone, though he did upturn a table (the monster!).

Kregsmal and Ace (and, somewhat unfairly Grinder) were lugged off to prison. Not to worry… they were broken out of prison by a mysterious female wizard… who promptly disappeared.

Then it was off to sort out that test thing. Grinder obligingly broke down a door, and Kregsmal tried to make a new friend out of a passer-by. Neither covered themselves in Intelligence glory, which is only to be expected.

It turned out that the test was actually down a well. The three doofuses climbed down via rope… only to run into some face-hugging flying critters of darkness. Kregsmal dropped Krunch, and grappled the critters. This time there was no failure… and Grinder and Ace made short work of them. Through into the next room, where some redecoration was needed… Grinder got gobbled up by an Ooze in the process, and that was much more touch and go. But we eventually cleared that room out too.

(Kregsmal was rewarded with a leather cow-bell. Which apparently enables him to talk to cows).

Session Two

And now we come to Actual Campaign Plot. Kregsmal, Grinder, and Ace spent the session as caravan guards, together with the rest of the PCs – our mysterious female wizard friend (named Jean), and a pair of taciturn Winter Elf sisters, one a Paladin, the other a Cleric. The Paladin rides an Elk, affectionately named ‘Elky.’

(Kregsmal is a bit wary of those Winter Elves. He’s heard rumours from childhood that Winter Elves eat children. The Paladin coldly played along).

The caravan made its way through a fog-ridden swamp… only to be ambushed by horse-eating goblins. The fog affected visibility, so it was really a matter of fighting at short-range. Kregsmal did get one with a javelin attack, though he missed another with Krunch (poor wee hammer!). Not that the surviving goblin lasted long. It made a desperate leap to grapple the Elk-riding Paladin, missed… and cracked its head open on a rock. Which can’t have helped Krunch’s temper either.

The combat ended with:

(i) No loss of horses, for which our employer was very grateful.

(ii) Elky one-shotting a goblin with a firmly-placed hoof.

(iii) Kregsmal holding the last goblin aloft by the hair, to be swung at like an ugly green pinata. Huzzah. Grinder beheaded the little bastard, and Kregsmal took the opportunity to drop-kick the skull off into the swamp. Something about Kregsmal’s good-naturedness vanishes when violence is on the agenda.

A bit further on, we found a strange-smelling pond, and a further ambush from two-dozen Rodents of Unusual Size. This time, our Barbarian got a chance to wheel out Thunderwave… which while doing substantial damage to the Giant Rats, did a fair amount of inadvertent damage to Ace. Krunch took out its frustration on the Rats in the manner one normally associates with the Queen of Hearts playing croquet.

The last Rat, however, was a canny little bastard. It nabbed the Paladin’s Claymore, and actually started wielding it. Only for the Paladin to roll well with Animal Handling, and adopt the Rat as a pet. Ratty, to go with Elky.

No-one ever called our Paladin imaginative.

“Go West, Young Virus”

The Auckland Coronavirus Outbreak potters along, not helped by the perception that the Government is disturbingly enthusiastic about “managing the virus” or loosening the border. Health Minister Andrew Little said today he envisages 90% vaccination rates (which we don’t have) eventually leading to 5,000 cases in Auckland a week… which nationwide would be 2,000 cases daily. Enough to easily destroy the Health System. Which means any liberalisation is utter madness.

But there has been an interesting shift in the nature of the outbreak. The plague has long since been flushed out of the Pacific Island community, who suffered in the early days, has found a home among (younger) Maori… and now appears to be moving West in Auckland:

To generalise: the Counties-Manukau DHB region is South Auckland, Waitemata is West, and Auckland is Central City. Counties-Manukau’s numbers have been broadly consistent for a good forty days… but the surge is on in Waitemata. Something very ugly is happening in West Auckland.

(But at least it seems to be getting flushed out of Waikato. Good on Hamilton!).

Making ‘Second Age’ Hobbits Work: Amazon Series Speculation

Time for a good old-fashioned fandom furore. The Tolkien fandom hasn’t had a proper one of those since the Great Nudity Scandal of October 2020… so it clearly must be time to pontificate from on-high about a television series we still know vanishingly little about.

This time the subject matter is Lenny Henry and his merry band of proto-hobbits. Now, I wasn’t initially intending to comment on this development, for two reasons: (1) Henry is a comedian by trade. Shit-stirring for amusement is the man’s profession, and (2) given the way certain sections of the fan community have been reacting, I didn’t want to get dragged into what amounts to a glorified Culture War. Such things strike me as simultaneously dull and unhelpful, emitting more heat than light.

But here I am nonetheless, stirred from my slumber by a new Fellowship of Fans YouTube video:

The video raises some solid (and non-Culture War) objections to proto-hobbits in a Second Age series. The argument goes that there is very little source material to work with, and, besides, after Jackson we’ve arguably reached hobbit saturation. Can’t the Second Age just be the Second Age without the mundane tentacles of the Third Age interfering with our Epic storyline? Time spent on invented Harfoot drama takes away from Celebrimbor and Company, and all because Amazon wants to appeal to a viewing public who think Middle-earth is all about short people with hairy feet.

It’s a fair enough argument, of course. But allow me to engage in some harebrained speculation here. Speculation that involves constructing a role for proto-hobbits that makes sense in a Second Age narrative.

What if these proto-hobbits were partially representational of the Men of Middle-earth?

I’m not suggesting that the proto-hobbits replace all non-Númenorean Men. One can keep the Easterlings, the Haradrim, the ancestors of the Rohirrim, and so on. Merely that these proto-hobbits be established as residing in Middle-earth when the Númenorean ships turn up… with all the fun of First Contact.

Now, the primary role of hobbits in Tolkien’s work is as an audience surrogate – people reading or viewing the material will identify with the little bastards, because they are culturally more similar to us than anybody else in the setting. We are psychologically programmed to like them. As such, when the Númenoreans (initially) treat them well, we will appreciate the Númenoreans’ kindness and benevolence (though maybe not the habitat destruction). And when the Númenoreans subsequently turn to Imperialism and tyranny…

I think you can grasp what I am getting at here. By having hobbits – rather than just Men – on the receiving end of Númenor’s slide into Darkness, the series would amplify the horror. Bring it much closer to home, so to speak, because these aren’t just faceless barbarians getting terrorised by the Men of the Sea, but the very audience surrogates themselves.

Better yet, it squares a particular thematic circle. As I have noted previously, the Second Age of Middle-earth is the era of Catastrophe, not Eucatastrophe. Its two major plot threads concern Falls (both literal and figurative). How can we make proto-hobbits Fall? We can’t. Not easily anyway. They’re too small and humble. But we can tie them in with someone else’s Fall. The Elves of Eregion would be a poor fit, but the Númenoreans at the height of their Empire-building? That’s a powerful thematic statement and no mistake.

The Night of Parmenides: accepted

A bit of good news on the writing front. My 3900-word short story, The Night of Parmenides, has been accepted by SpecFicNZ for their upcoming Aftermath anthology, to be published in early 2022. This is my first published short story to be explicitly set in my home-town of Dunedin, New Zealand, and I have gone out of my way to feature certain North Dunedin landmarks. It also shows that casually reading Ancient Philosophy for several years has side-effects.

Aftermath, incidentally, is framed as a post-apocalyptic New Zealand-themed speculative anthology, focused less on disasters and more on ordinary people overcoming disasters. No prizes for guessing why SpecFicNZ opted for that…

Mairon: The Actual Source for the Blasted Name

Long-time Tolkien geeks – or those fated to run across a certain internet phenomenon – might know that ‘Sauron’ is not actually the real name of the Lord of the Ring. ‘Sauron’ is just an abusive Elvish nickname, meaning ‘the Abhorred.’ Sauron’s actual name, at least originally, was ‘Mairon.’

Well and good. But there’s a problem with that. Some people, myself included, like to have the actual source and context for the name, and this particular source is not even found in The History of Middle-earth, much less The Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales.

It’s buried deep in issue 17 (2007) of the meaty linguistic journal Parma Eldalamberon:

http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Parma_Eldalamberon_17

Alas, there is no easy way of reading this material online. One must find… workarounds… in a manner that would probably please Sauron himself. So to save everybody time, here is the relevant section, from pp.183-184. of the journal issue:

SAWA-, disgusting, foul, vile: [Q saura, foul, vile, whence name Sauron.]* prefix sau- as in: saucare, doing or making a thing very badly. Not used in Sindarin as a prefix; but the adjective saur occurs in sense ‘bad’ of food etc., putrid, also substantive saw, filth, putrescence.

also Q söa, filth (sawa). [Added in left margin.]

*This name is also used in late 3[rd] Age Sindarin and could be a genuine Sindarin formation from saur; but is probably from Quenya. The ancient Sindarin name for Sauron was Gorthaur, of quite distinct origin: from NGOR ‘terror’ and THUS, evil mist, fog, Darkness: ngor(o)-thuso > Gorthu ‘Mist of Fear’; c.f. thû, horrible darkness, black mist < thuse.

Sauron’s original name was Mairon, but this was altered after he was suborned by Melkor. But he continued to call himself Mairon the Admirable, or Tar-mairon ‘King Excellent’ until after the downfall of Númenor. The Quenya form equivalent to Gorthu was northus, norsus, stem norsur-.

No. THAW- , cruel. Saura, cruel. Gorthaur.

[DLN under the heading Some prefixes, subheading ill. The note on Gorthaur was added in the left margin against the explanation of Sauron, written in pencil with an “X” next to it.]

SAWA ‘bad, unheathy, ill, wretched’.

[See PEN-. C.f. Etym. THUS-. *thausa. Q saura ‘foul, evil-smelling, putrid’.]

**

So there you have it: a truly obscure bit of lore that has become ‘common knowledge’ within the Tolkien fandom. The only analogy I can think of is Maedhros’ hair colour, but at least that appears in The History of Middle-earth (Volume XII). This material doesn’t. It really is that obscure.

Schrödinger’s Wraith: The Status of the Witch-King of Angmar, 15th-25th March, T.A. 3019.

My recent re-read of The Lord of the Rings reminded me of one of the vaguer head-scratchers in Tolkien. The status of the Witch-King of Angmar between his death at the Battle of Pelennor Fields and the Destruction of the One Ring ten days later… was he, in the immortal phrase of The Princess Bride, All Dead or Only Mostly Dead? It’s one of those questions I haven’t settled in my own mind, so today I figured I would share my indecisive musings with the world. As one does.

Recall the basics: on 15th March, T.A. 3019, the Lord of the Ringwraiths meets his doom at the hands of Éowyn and Merry Brandybuck. Merry stabs him behind the knee with the barrow-blade, whereupon Éowyn gets him in his invisible face.

“A cry went up in to the shuddering air, and faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of this world.”

Ten days later, the One Ring’s destruction ends the power of the Nine Rings, thereby destroying the Ringwraiths altogether.

There are two possibilities for that ensuing ten day period. Either the Witch-King – a mortal Man, whose time on Earth had been unnaturally stretched unto four millennia – immediately receives the Gift of Men, and leaves for what lies beyond the Circles of the World. Or enough of his soul is still bound up with his own Ring, that he is still stuck on Earth as an impotent spirit. His final release only comes ten days later, along with his wraith colleagues.

There are arguments for both positions, so I thought I would sketch them here.

(i) All Dead

Recall that the Witch-King is not immortal in the sense that Sauron is. He’s an incarnate Man, with fëa and hröa, which means he has to play by Aristotlean-style rules rather than the more Platonist rules of the Ainur. Separation of spirit and body is Death, and, as a Man, Death means he must journey to Mandos, and thence Beyond the World for a final reckoning with Eru.

Sauron cannot interfere with this Gift of Men, while the effect of the Rings of Power slows the exterior passage of time. What one sees with the Ringwraiths is that their lifespans have been stretched beyond breaking point – they are not undead in the classic sense, nor true ghosts. Their hröar are still very real – and vulnerable – even if they have now faded into the Unseen Realm. Which in turn arguably means that the Witch-King was All Dead after Pelennor Fields.

This view is further supported by Tolkien’s essay, The Hunt for the Ring (the full Reader’s Companion version), where Tolkien notes the Witch-King’s surprising fear of Frodo Baggins:

[the Witch-king], the great captain, was actually dismayed. He had been shaken by the fire of Gandalf, and began to perceive that the mission on which Sauron had sent him was one of great peril to himself both by the way, and on his return to his Master (if unsuccessful); and he had been doing ill, so far achieving nothing save rousing the power of the Wise and directing them to the Ring. But above all the timid and terrified Bearer had resisted him, had dared to strike at him with an enchanted sword made by his own enemies long ago for his destruction. Narrowly it had missed him…

Escaping a wound that would have been as deadly to him as the Mordor-knife to Frodo (as was proved at the end), he withdrew and hid for a while, out of doubt and fear both of Aragorn and especially of Frodo. But fear of Sauron, and the forces of Sauron’s will was the stronger.

There is an existential fear here, rather than annoyance at the mere inconvenience of losing his body. The Witch-King really does anticipate his own destruction… he might be mighty in spells and dark magic, the sorcerous paraphernalia of his limited serial immortality, but the enchantment of the barrow-blade can break through all of that. It also really does say something that, even for the Lord of the Ringwraiths, Sauron can still inflict the terror of something worse than Death.

(Further in support of this position: there is zero consideration, either from the West or from Mordor, that the Witch-King might ever return, notwithstanding Sauron’s infamous necromantic abilities. This might be a function of limited time-frame, however).

(ii) Only Mostly Dead

The closest Tolkien ever comes to addressing this question directly is in a footnote to Letter 246:

The situation as between Frodo with the Ring and the Eight* might be compared to that of a small brave man armed with a devastating weapon, faced by eight savage warriors of great strength and agility armed with poisoned blades. *The Witch-king had been reduced to impotence. (September 1963).

The Witch-King is not a Sauron or Saruman, of course. His (unseen) body is an integral part of him in a way it is not for them. And yet, rather than taking the Witch-King out of Arda altogether, Tolkien opts for a turn of phrase that evokes Sauron’s post-Ring fate… impotence. The word implies helplessness, of course. But also arguably continued – albeit futile – existence within the Circles of the World.

How could this be explained in the context of the Gift of Men? Well, for a start, there is already the famous exception of the Dead Men of Dunharrow – entrapped by their Oath for over three millennia. So far as the Ringwraiths are directly concerned, we have Gandalf’s comment:

“The power of their master is in them, and they stand or fall by him.” 

Gandalf is clarifying that the flood at the Ford of Bruinen was insufficient to kill the Nine. If the Ringwraiths were merely invisible Men with unnaturally extended life, one could imagine (as Merry actually does) that they are vulnerable to conventional death by drowning. But they are not – these are creatures bound by the power and will of Sauron, as operating through the Nine Rings.

So while the enchantment on the barrow-blade indeed helps kill the Witch-King at Pelennor Fields, there might well have been ten days where the Gift of Men was delayed – that is, the Witch-King’s disembodied spirit was stuck within the Circles of the World, still enslaved by the power of the Ring. Which in turn raises the question of whether he could have eventually been brought back to a more meaningful existence, had the One Ring not been destroyed at Orodruin. The attitude presented in the narrative is that Pelennor Fields was truly the End for the Witch-King, but as noted above, that might have been affected by perceived time constraints.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the One Ring finds its way back to its old master, and the Dark Lord has all the time he needs to engage with such a question. The key is that any return of the Witch-King would not have been after the manner of Sauron’s own various re-embodiments. A dead Man cannot rebuild his own body. No, Sauron would have had to wheel out his fabled necromantic techniques (alluded to in Morgoth’s Ring), perhaps finding another body for his old chief servant.

(Unless, of course, the Dark Lord were feeling sufficiently contemptuous of the Witch-King’s failure to let him stew in impotent undeath. Sauron is notoriously petty, and as noted above, even the Lord of the Ringwraiths was in terror of him. If so, the Witch-King’s fear of destruction might not actually be an allusion to fear of True Death, but rather fear of permanent torment at the hands of his master. It’s enough to make you feel sorry for the guy).

**

Such are my thoughts on this vaguely ambiguous question. My own leaning (and overall preference) is for the second position. I truly love the idea of the Witch-King’s spirit eventually slinking back to the Dark Tower, and having to endure Sauron’s mockery for the rest of time. On the other hand, I can appreciate the idea that Éowyn and Merry do indeed send him to his fate beyond the Circles of the World, out of reach of even the Necromancer himself. It’s these sort of ambiguities – the less-famous ones – that make re-reading Tolkien such a pleasure.

No, It’s Not Surrender. But We Are Dicing With Death.

After a month of nattering about Auckland’s Covid outbreak, I really wanted to write about something else. Really. But the truly moronic media response to New Zealand’s Coronavirus Strategy is a sight to behold. Apparently, as per both domestic and international commentators, we have “abandoned Elimination and surrendered to the inevitable.”

Ugh.

It’s not true, at least in any meaningful sense – for reasons I will go into shortly. For now, New Zealand has changed its Tactics, not its Strategy – the active suppression measures to keep Coronavirus down are still very much in place, and there is no interest in “giving up” New South Wales or British style. We would still dearly like to see this outbreak mopped up, and abandoning the public health system to the tender mercies of the virus cannot be on the agenda. The problem is that the Government appears to be lazily drifting into dangerous waters, to a degree where we might be literally Dicing with Death, making it far too easy for the Lord Haw Haws and Tokyo Roses in the death-cult media to declare Victory for the Virus.

(Speaking of which, my raw anger at the New Zealand media’s wall-to-wall narrative cannot be understated. Day in day out, they have played the role of propagandists of death, framing every aspect of the response in terms of business desires, rather than human life. Articles are written about the necessity of reconnecting with the world, and about the superiority of Australia, but never about the potential collapse of the Health System. So screw them all).

New Zealand’s fundamental problem is this: Level 4 lockdown succeeded in crushing the initial outbreak in its tracks. As of today, there were a mere 24 cases. It’s just the remaining cases are associated with Auckland’s criminal underworld, who (for obvious reasons) do not obey lockdown regulations or even tell the truth to contact tracers. These are the people who have kept this outbreak rumbling along for so long – it is not a matter of an invincible virus.

The question then becomes – how to deal with this? The Government’s response has been to lower Level 3 restrictions on Auckland, and pushing vaccines wherever possible (though it has been dragging its feet on vaccine mandates for some reason). This is what I mean by Dicing with Death… it is all very well to decide that the remaining cases won’t respond to alert levels, so we might as well give the compliant more freedom, but the danger is that the public takes this as a signal to relax too much. Which might potentially cause Auckland’s cases to explode, Sydney and Melbourne style. And if Auckland explodes, it is only a matter of time before it starts spreading into the rest of the country. I’d like to imagine that the Government would use the Cook Strait to keep it out of the South Island, but I am not getting my hopes up there.

So it’s not Surrender I’m worried about. Not yet. It’s still actually possible (maybe even plausible) that this outbreak potters along with ten to forty daily cases, until vaccination and a shortage of available muppets causes the disease to die out around Christmas. It’s that terrible, uneasy feeling that the Government is drifting and unenergetic, at a time when the media is actively chipping away the social licence for active measures.

(Vaccine mandates. Vaccine Passports. Tight restrictions on all travel in and out of Auckland, and under no circumstances open the international border, regardless of how much the privileged elites whinge. We can still do this, people).