Session thirty-three was highly abbreviated, via having to move house in a short space of time. Oh well.
The party decided to ignore the tree-monster and continue the attack on the Giant Troll. Tarsin – flying on a giant summoned bat – dumped some high-grade oil over the Big Fellow, so our Cat Sorcerer could set the thing on fire. Annalax and everyone else were getting in some impressive attacks, so eventually the Troll did a runner. Overcoming his fear, it was the Ghoul who finally took the foe down. Yay.
As for the tree-monster… the Ghoul did some Detect Magic on the Troll’s summoning spell. Turned out this wasn’t exactly a summoning spell. It was Major Image.
The tree-monster was an Illusion.
Which cheered up the party no end. Annalax, as an Arcane Trickster, silently tipped his hat to the Troll for pulling it off.
The remaining trolls were taken care of, with Annalax wheeling out his sword for only the third time in the entire campaign, via Dusk Warp. Sure, it was a swing and a miss, but it isn’t every day this happens, so I thought I’d note it. Meanwhile the demons were sated with death and destruction, so they retreated back into Ember’s mind.
Then a giant explosion interrupted proceedings.
Manfrey, Arcadia’s maniacal leader, had blown up a third of the city as a demonstration. It worked too – the besieging Fae Army decided to flee, leaving the defenders victorious against all odds.
Understandably, however, the remaining inhabitants of Arcadia were not amused at having a third of the city destroyed without prior notice. The entire poor district at that. Manfrey didn’t care, of course – his plan worked, therefore it must have been a truly brilliant plan. There was a reason the war council did not want to invite this fellow to proceedings.
Annalax was rather miffed to learn that the missing third included his recently-purchased house. Noticing that Manfrey had very little popular support, a dark plan formed in his head…
You see, Annalax knows a thing or two about assassinations and coup d’etats. He is a Drow, of course. Sure, he’s a lower class Drow, so he’s always been a spectator rather than a participant, but he considers such things standard operating procedure. Manfrey – unpopular with elites and peasants alike – was walking around with a great big ‘Overthrow Me’ sign on his back. Annalax figured that a coup was coming, so it might as well be a coup that helps him and the party.
So he reached out to the war council, about the possibility of removing Manfrey from office. They were, unsurprisingly, extremely keen on the idea, since it meant power in Arcadia would revert to them. Annalax’s price? He wanted Lolth worship permitted in the city. As he sees it, he can get money whenever he wants, but spreading his faith to hostile territory? Beyond price. It turned out though, that the war council did not have the legal authority to do this. So Annalax suggested a compromise: he could establish a ‘new’ city underneath Arcadia, where Lolth worship is permitted. That worked. Huzzah.
Next step: cozying up to Manfrey. Congratulating him on his success, expressing interest in explosions, offering to purchase a couple of nice big barrels of material… and getting the party invited to dinner.
You see, this was not a risk-free operation. Manfrey was a Level 17 Artificer, with an obsession with damage-dealing. We were a bunch of Level 6 nobodies. Direct combat would be unthinkable – as Tarsin’s player noted, even if we caught him sleeping, we would have one round to kill him, or else TPK. But Annalax was not thinking of directly fighting Manfrey. He had another idea, which he shared with the party.
The party was basically on-board with this. Sure, Ember – for military reasons – declined to take any part, but he did not try to stop us. Meanwhile, Annalax also popped into the Potions Shop to get a nice, powerful sleeping draught. The store-owner did not believe Annalax’s line that he needed the draught for a large insomniac friend (Annalax rolled a natural 1 on deception), but 150 gold still talks, if you get my drift.
That night, we had some nice boar-and-spirits with Manfrey, on makeshift plates. The Ghoul easily distracted the fellow, while Annalax stuffed Manfrey’s drink with sleeping draught and psychedelic mushroom powder. Now, this was the risk in the plan. Sure, Annalax had advantage on this… but a couple of low rolls would have resulted in problems. Big problems. As it was, Annalax rolled a 19 and 20 (+11 Sleight of Hand). So Manfrey did not notice a thing, while Prestidigitation disguised the taste.
It worked. Manfrey – under the influence of the mushroom powder – did hold a gun to the Ghoul’s head, but he then passed out on the table. The rest of the party (but not Annalax, who was too busy arranging explosive powders in close proximity) looted the place. Clearly, our Drow is having an influence. Once everyone was sorted, Tarsin used magic to light the (slow-burning) fuse, and we all did a runner.
Manfrey died the way he lived. In the middle of a giant explosion. Our assassination attempt was a success, which basically meant we had pulled off a coup d’etat on behalf of the war council. Just as well, really. If Manfrey had survived the explosion, it’d have been a TPK. As it is, everyone in Arcadia merely put the thing down to a ‘tragic accident’, and the war council took charge.
As noted, Annalax was not actually doing this for money, but he did make sure that the rest of the party were paid for their assistance. Tarsin – a surprisingly quick learner on matters financial – was even able to get himself an extra large payment, via lying to the council about the number of people involved. Annalax is a terrible influence on innocent minds. To keep Ember’s conscience quiet, we arranged for him to get a share of the reward, and Annalax bought him a fresh bag of holding, to replace the one with Godriel’s corpse in it. The Ghoul, on the other hand, has gotten decidedly cold feet about the whole thing. Apparently, he didn’t realise that overthrowing Manfrey meant killing him. Which is not something that would have ever occurred to Annalax… but anyway, the Ghoul no longer trusts Annalax. Probably wise.
While this was going on, there was another development in the party, one that will have much longer-term effects. Thendwyn, our Dreamland Cat Sorcerer, decided to adopt a child from the local orphanage. Aforementioned child is very keen on guns and adventure, though given the make-up of the party, I am not sure we are doing the poor thing any favours by taking it on campaign.
Anyway, with Manfrey out of the picture, there was the question of how best to beef up the city’s defences before the Fae inevitably return. The Ghoul suggested the Wild Huntsman. Annalax was on board with this – the Wild Huntsman has helped the party out of tight spots before, and the fellow is on relatively good terms with Her Ladyship in the Waking World. Tarsin was rabidly opposed (as a follower of Shub-Niggurath, Tarsin thinks the Huntsman is unimportant). The party opted to seek the Huntsman’s assistance over Tarsin’s objections.
Which means we will need to seek out an appropriate offering… in the Mountains of Madness. Oh joy. The session ended with Tarsin attempting some sort of crazy Shub-Niggurath ritual. Well, as long as it doesn’t destroy the world, let the mad old coot try…
Back to the Annalax Index: https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2021/01/07/the-adventures-of-annalax-a-compendium/
TheOneRing.Net has got its paws on the official synopsis of the upcoming Amazon Tolkien TV series. It’s a development that brings to mind the line about Sauron deliberately releasing Gollum from the dungeons of Barad-dûr. Amazon knew exactly what they were doing here, in terms of drumming up publicity:
To my mind, this is mostly a fairly predictable Second Age synopsis – well, mostly predictable. We will get to that. For now, I am shaking my head at the amount of virtual ink that has been spilled over the “greatest villain” line. For example:
For goodness sake, people. It’s a series set in the Second Age. The Dark Years of Middle-earth, when Sauron was at the peak of his power, and when Morgoth was languishing in the Void. Of course it’s Sauron the line refers to, not Morgoth. “Greatest villain” does not necessarily mean “most powerful villain,” nor even “most consequential in-universe villain”. It can also refer to the “best” villain, or at least the one most commonly associated with Tolkien in popular imagination… Sauron. The Lord of the Ring. A villain who was also far cannier and shrewder – and intellectually more interesting – than his old master. Enough said, really.
No, the parts of the synopsis that leapt out at me were:
Now, I fully understand the need on the part of the Amazon writers to fill in the gaps. The Second Age is not the most documented era in Tolkien – the Dark Years designation works on multiple levels. But these three elements are the odd-ones out of the wider synopsis. They actually sound much more Third Age (or even First Age) than Second.
“Unlikely heroes”? There are no hobbits in the Second Age. No audience surrogates. Rather one encounters the more classical hero, in the sense of a traditional epic. These characters are larger than life, not even an ordinary bloke like Beren, who stumbles into something much bigger. And they tend to be much more morally questionable over the course of their careers. We may cheer Isildur as he rescues the fruit of Nimloth… but we all know what he will do at Orodruin later on. We may cheer Celebrimbor’s warm cooperation with the dwarves… but we all know about the Rings of Power. And so on.
Indeed, rather than “hope hanging by a thread”, after the manner of the Third Age, the Second Age is characterised by an on-going theme of the Fall, both literal and figurative. The two major plot-strands of this time period, the Rings of Power and Númenor, are both studies in failure, of good becoming corrupted. This is partly through Sauron’s influence, but it is also through the innate desires lurking in the hearts of Elves and Men. Even a more domestic drama like Aldarion and Erendis is not about hope, but rather a study of two morally grey characters in conflict. And recall that whereas the Third Age gives us the unalloyed heroism of Gondor and Rohan holding out against Mordor and Isengard, the Second Age gives us Mordor versus Númenor – a Great Power rivalry of competing slave Empires. Not a lot of hope in that source material, and even the Last Alliance defeating Sauron ultimately proves deceptively hollow. The Second Age is the age of catastrophe, not of eucatastrope.
The final interesting element is the reference to the “darkest depths” of the Misty Mountains. Now, it’s not impossible that the writers might bring the Balrog’s destruction of Moria forward a few thousand years… but what other story elements could justify venturing into the depths of the Mountains? The relationship between Khazad-dûm and Eregion is the only one that springs to mind. But if this is a reference to that, referring to “darkest depths” feels unnecessarily foreboding. Khazad-dûm at its height was full of light, not darkness, and beyond the aforementioned friendship, the dwarves did not play a massive role in the events of the Second Age. In short, I feel that this reference might signal an invented story-line. Not that I am complaining, since it may be a very good story-line, but I think it worth speculating about.
That concludes my thoughts on the leaked synopsis. I do feel that the greatest villain thing is a bit of a red herring, since it can only be Sauron (not Morgoth), but at the risk of jumping the gun a bit, it looks like the series – rightly or wrongly – will be inserting some Third Age themes into a Second Age story.
In the interests of keeping my D&D campaign write-up coherent, I thought I would adopt the same system I have used with other multi-part blog post series. An Index/Compendium.
Sessions 1-6: The Waking World to the Dreamland:
Sessions 7-8: Ocean and City:
Sessions 9-14: The Moon:
Sessions 15-16: Of Trains and Travel:
Sessions 17-18: Shenanigans:
Sessions 19-26: The Mountains of Kadath and Leng:
Sessions 27-28: From the Mountains to the Sea:
Sessions 29-current: Forests and Fae:
The session started off so well.
Annalax – suitably chastised – spent a pleasant morning with his new girlfriend (he would say paramour, of course, but for our purposes, girlfriend is easier*). He told her about Waking World Drow, and their worship of Her Ladyship. And he started to teach her the Drow Language – of which Dreamland Drow are ignorant. So, yes. He was trying to turn her into something like her Waking World self, just less homicidal.
*To clarify: this relationship wasn’t simply about the
kinky sex chastisement, though that was obviously part of it. It was about power. Annalax knew that sleeping with the trusted assistant of an incredibly powerful wizard opens up opportunities. He is a Drow, remember. He’s a manipulative bastard, even in bed.
Annalax spent the rest of the day off-loading certain accumulated items. Alan the Wizard’s filched silverware, carpet, and telescope, together with the merchant’s pepper, nutmeg, and silks went for 1,800 gold. Which Annalax split evenly with the party. He does that, to encourage buy-in with his schemes. After discovering that the city’s Quartermaster was not interested in his stockpile of muskets, he shrugged, and headed out to purchase some real-estate.
Not just any property. A house next to a graveyard. Ostensibly because Annalax wanted some gloomy inspiration for artistic endeavours. He decided he liked watercolours, for some reason.
This was actually a plan to kill multiple birds with one gravestone. So to speak. This allowed a safe and secret way for the (tunnelling) Ghoul to access a food supply, while also allowing the establishment of another shrine to Her Ladyship.
Alas, the Property Commission made it clear that this property was not to be used for unauthorised religious purposes. Annalax shrugged. He’s from the Waking World, after all, and knows how to be surreptitious with his faith. For now, it was only 250 gold, and a great treat for the Ghoul.
The Ghoul did not need to be told twice. He had a very tasty snack on an ancient Arcadian war-hero, and emerged with not just an understanding of military matters, but also a valuable sabre and medallions. Annalax’s eyes lit up on seeing this, and headed down to the local tavern to get the inside word on wealthy collectors in the area.
Sure enough, Annalax located an elderly and wealthy gentleman with a taste for such memorabilia. A deal was reached, and Annalax cracked open a bottle of his own “fancy-ish wine” to celebrate. There was much to celebrate. A cool hundred platinum (split 50-50 with the disguised Ghoul) easily made-up for the property investment. Then Annalax decided to push his luck. He was still carting around two Tiefling horns from his time in Leng.
Annalax – discreetly – marketed them to the gentleman as rare aphrodisiacs.
The gentleman’s response? A perfectly understandable “why don’t you just take the horns of dead Tieflings?” Annalax fobbed him off with bullshit about regulations – he didn’t have the presence of mind to say that the Tiefling horns needed to be taken from living Tieflings, not dead ones. Bugger. But with sufficiently good Deception rolls (hooray for Expertise…) he somehow pulled it off anyway. A further fifty platinum (again, shared with the Ghoul) in the coffers. Our poor Dungeon Master is starting to think money is meaningless.
But then there was another question… how are the horns supposed to be used? Annalax suggested an ancient and secretive method of powdering, which requires accessing an ancient manuscript. Excusing himself, he told the gentleman that he would be back the next day with the manuscript. The Ghoul knew a couple of ancient dead languages, so a bit of forgery and gobbledygook created a passable copy that very night… Annalax just had to go back the next day, to make even more money…
But it wasn’t to be. We’ll get to that shortly.
The rest of the party? The Ghoul has been covered. Ember and Elknel were off befriending nocturne orphans. They care about orphans, apparently – Annalax does not see the point. The Dreamland Cat Sorcerer was having a nap. And Tarsin, our mad Druid? He was outside the city, gleefully turning sections of the forest into swamp.
Poor Tarsin. He was just doing what he does. But completely isolated? He was a sitting duck for the Fae, who attacked him unawares, and knocked him unconscious.
Tarsin woke up to discover himself a Fae captive. Some Charm Person and insincere Fae promises later, and Tarsin agreed to be a Fae agent inside Arcadia. Not that anyone else (in-game) knew about this, of course.
That night? There was a War Council. All the important people in Arcadia were at dinner, discussing what to do about those pesky Fae. Godriel was there, Annalax’s girlfriend was there, the elderly collector of memorabilia was there… you get the picture. Our party was not sufficiently important, so Annalax and friends had dinner in a different part of the castle. Thank goodness.
With help from Tarsin, a group of Fae snuck into Arcadia. A combination of poison and judicious application of Cone of Cold later? The Fae literally wiped out the entire collection of Arcadian grandees, Red Wedding-style. Including Godriel and Annalax’s girlfriend. Oh well. Our Drow will have to find other avenues for power and
kinky sex chastisement.
On learning of the assassination, Ember tried to take command of the disastrous situation. Realising the Fae armies were on their way, he tried to get all the city civilians inside the Inner Walls for safety. Annalax? He basically found himself with a ringside seat to the sort of shenanigans he associates with Drow Great Houses. Hell, the very idea of taking out an entire political leadership with poison made him positively homesick.
(It also ties in with Annalax’s religious fanaticism. Arcadia prevented him building a shrine to Her Ladyship… and look what happened! The city leadership was taken out via the most Drow move imaginable).
But Annalax knows what happens when one Great House takes out another. It’s an opportunity for free-for-all, so long as you stay out the way. After coldly grabbing some items from his dead girlfriend’s corpse, he headed to Godriel’s House with the Ghoul.
Arcadia was in uproar, of course. A bit of minor sacking was perfectly understandable, and Annalax wasn’t being entirely greedy. He had an idea.
Recall the primary in-game reason Annalax doesn’t simply use his Silver Keys to flee the Dreamland. If he did that, the demons inside Ember might well destroy the world. So Annalax needs the Ember problem dealt with first. And Godriel was the only person capable of dealing with the Ember demons.
So Annalax’s plan was this. Stuff Godriel’s corpse into a Bag of Holding, and hunt around for a list of her wizarding contacts, to see who might be capable of reanimating her. Sure, she was as mad as a bag of ferrets when alive, and one can only speculate on what she would be like as an undead, but it was a gamble Annalax was willing to make. Someone needed to deal with Ember, even if they’re both unhinged and undead.
So Annalax and the Ghoul raided Godriel’s House for her list of contacts. Annalax pocketed her jewellery box and some magic books along the way, but he couldn’t find the needed list. Luckily the Ghoul – weirdly distracted by Godriel’s closet – did find it. Annalax grabbed the contact book, and headed back to Ember, while the Ghoul – under Annalax’s terrible influence – raided the memorabilia collector’s house for rare sabres and medals.
No, the party aren’t murderhobos. They’re just looterhobos instead.
Enter session 32. The Big Guns.
Having gathered together the next-in-line people for the War Council of Arcadia, there was some dispute about whether evacuation were even possible. After all, these are Fae were are dealing with… they can pop up anywhere in the surrounding forest, and wipe everyone out. One of the subservient demons can open a short-lived escape portal to a safe location, but who is to escape through that? The party doesn’t need it, of course – we can do a runner via Tarsin’s Parliament of Giant Owls. Annalax rationally suggested that we auction off portal places… after all, the people who would pay the most would be those who value escape the most. But no, courtesy of Ember and Elknel, we sent the city orphans to safety. For free.
There was also some amusing back-and-forth over defence responsibility:
Tarsin now knows about politics, I suppose.
Someone on the Council with some knowledge of procedure then remembered something. There was one last genuinely important person left in the city. An eccentric figure named Manfrey, who wasn’t at the dinner because he never socialises. Manfrey is an Artificer who specialises in ballistics. Cannon. Guns. Explosions. You get the picture.
So we grabbed Manfrey, and put the ballistics-loving weirdo in charge of the city of Arcadia. What could possibly go wrong?
Speaking of which, there was another idea (well, actually two. Annalax suggested assassinating the Fae Queen and her top advisers, only to be told that no-one had the ability to do that). But recall the powerful demons lurking in Ember’s head? The ones that might destroy the world? What if we let them out, just for a little bit. Fae versus Demons, with us hoping that the Demons do as we think they’ll do? Tarsin actually did a deal with the chief Demon along those lines, with the price being that he needs to visit a certain temple at some point.
Ember thinks Tarsin’s insane, of course. Though to be fair, Tarsin is.
A city defence consisting of ourselves and some badly outnumbered lower-level soldiers, plus cannon, plus demons. Versus a monstrous army of genocidal Fae. Oh, and our temporary commander has never met an explosion he didn’t like.
With the demons off doing their thing on the front lines, those of us with decent Perception noticed a band of Fae trying to sneak around and enter the city from the flanks. The party decided to deal with them.
Courtesy of an
earth explosion collapsing tunnel, Tarsin was able to bury the intruders. Five survived, and dug their way out: two large variant trolls, and three smaller ones. Cue battle.
The Ghoul was knocked unconscious in the course of proceedings, while one of the trolls got a critical hit on Tarsin. These critters had a magical hair weapon which allowed for a fair amount of damage. Annalax tried an illusory cannon on his first turn, as a distraction (he hadn’t hidden yet, so couldn’t get sneak attack). Alas, the cannon did not seem to do much, so Annalax thereafter resorted to standard hide-and-shoot. Which was very, very effective.
In fact, Annalax took out two of them, including the troll that had just knocked our Ghoul unconscious. I imagine this hilarious image of the little guy celebrating his victory… only to collapse with a crossbow bolt in the neck.
Tarsin was also using his very own personal collection of zombies. One of whom was Annalax’s dead girlfriend. Not that Annalax cares, of course. He is a Drow. That relationship was based on pleasure, pain, and power. Right now personal survival takes precedence, and if zombies achieve that, so be it.
Afterwards, this did lead to an interesting theological shouting match between Annalax and Tarsin. The former – pointing out his effectiveness with the crossbow – put the victory down to the Favour of Lolth. Tarsin, pointing out the earth explosion, put the victory down to his deity, Shub-Niggurath. The revived Ghoul just wanted to eat the troll corpses, while Elknel was trying to lecture him on the importance of Healing Potions. Why yes, our Ghoul did not have any, fool that he is.
The session ended with a battle against another troll incursion. One enormous super-troll and a band of ordinary-sized ones had managed to breach the walls. Annalax put his daily Faerie Fire to use against the Big Guy, while Elknel got a critical hit against him. Even so, the Big Troll still had copious health left, and summoned a tree-monster to help. The Ghoul rolled a natural one, and was paralysed with fear.
Damn it, where is Saruman when you need him?
Back to the Annalax Index: https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2021/01/07/the-adventures-of-annalax-a-compendium/
One of the books I read in 2020 was She, by H. Rider Haggard (1887). I thoroughly enjoyed it, as being an exemplar of a good old-fashioned adventure story. I also noted with amusement the influence it had on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Seriously. Compare the respective climaxes – it is blatant.
But one other influence the book clearly had in later media? J.R.R. Tolkien. To a degree that genuinely surprised me.
Having now also done a follow-up re-read of another of Rider Haggard’s works, King Solomon’s Mines (1885), I thought I would look at the way these two Victorian adventure books wound up influencing Middle-earth. I am far from the first to notice the connection – see the Wikipedia page on Tolkien’s modern influences – but with the earlier author still fresh in my mind, I thought it appropriate fodder for a blog article. It is worth remembering that Tolkien was not simply channelling Beowulf, the Eddas, and Kalevala in his creative work, but that he was also interacting with more recent material.
There is a case for seeing She as a cornerstone of early Modern Fantasy – there are bona fide supernatural elements, and the tropes it uses show up in so much of subsequent literature. On the other hand, it is a classification with which I personally disagree. Much as Shelley’s Frankenstein gets anachronistically shoe-horned into the science-fiction genre, She is not fantasy in itself. She is very definitely an Adventure Yarn with fantastical elements… which just happened to anticipate what would happen later. You can see how Rider Haggard feeds through into E.R. Burroughs’ Barsoom, and thence into inter-war sword and sorcery, but Rider Haggard was working in the shadow of the non-fantastic Treasure Island. Modern Fantasy as we recognise it would have to wait for William Morris.
But wait… I was talking about J.R.R. Tolkien, wasn’t I? By good fortune, She is one of the handful of books that Tolkien explicitly acknowledges as an influence. In a 1966 interview with Henry Resnick, Tolkien remarked:
I suppose as a boy She interested me as much as anything—like the Greek shard of Amyntas [Amenartas], which was the kind of machine by which everything got moving.
The shard of Amenartas is a purported ancient text, included by Rider Haggard as a means of providing some exposition to the story. Well and good. It is the incident that incites the start of the adventure. But the shard is no ordinary ancient text, at least in terms of presentation. Rider Haggard gives facsimiles of the fragment, in actual Greek:
And Latin. And Early Modern English:
Don’t worry. Rider Haggard helpfully transcribes and translates the text. But the sheer effort the author went to, in terms of making the artefact look real and believable is noteworthy. It rather recalls the One Ring inscription, and the inscription on Balin’s Tomb, not to mention in-universe Tolkienian texts like The Book of Mazarbul and Thror’s Map. In terms of actual historical exposition, there is also a decent comparison between Rider Haggard’s protagonists puzzling out the Shard, and Gandalf learning about the Ring via the forgotten Scroll of Isildur in the archives of Minas Tirith.
(Yes, I am aware that Rider Haggard did not invent this trope. Jules Verne provides a runic manuscript in A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1871). But Tolkien cites Rider Haggard, not Verne).
There are also several other apparent influences of the book on Tolkien. For ease of discussion, I will now cover them in turn:
Perhaps the single cheekiest Tolkienian shout-out to Rider Haggard is the city of Kôr. In She, the city of Kôr is an ancient ruined city, so ancient that it was already long abandoned when Ayesha turned up, thousands of years before the narrative begins. Kôr predates the Egyptians, in terms of antiquity, and it adds some glorious atmosphere to the setting.
It may therefore interest you to know that Kôr was the original name of the great Noldorin city, Tirion upon Túna. The home of Finwë, Fëanor, et al. Moreover, in Tolkien’s initial conception – found in The Book of Lost Tales – the city ends up abandoned. An early Tolkienian poem, titled Kôr: In a City Lost and Dead, describes the scene, after the Elves have left it.
“A sable hill, gigantic, rampart-crowned
Stands gazing out across an azure sea
Under an azure sky, on whose dark ground
Impearled as ‘gainst a floor of porphyry
Gleam marble temples white, and dazzling halls;
And tawny shadows fingered long are made
In fretted bars upon their ivory walls
By massy trees rock-rooted in the shade
Like stony chiseled pillars of the vault
With shaft and capital of black basalt.
There slow forgotten days for ever reap
The silent shadows counting out rich hours;
And no voice stirs; and all the marble towers
White, hot and soundless, ever burn and sleep.”
This poem was actually written in 1915 (see The Book of Lost Tales, Volume I, p.136.), before Tolkien had even started on what we now know as the legendarium. To call it fanfiction would be crass, but there is a sense that Tolkien was using Rider Haggard’s Kôr as an inspirational jumping-off point for his own imaginative efforts – as though he wants to provide the ‘true’ story of an ancient city. One built by Elves, not Men, and one not abandoned because of a mere plague (as in Rider Haggard), but for other reasons. And because this is J.R.R. Tolkien we are talking about, he also justifies the name of the city via his own invented languages, in much the same way that his Quenya name for a certain Second Age Island invokes Atlantis: http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/K%C3%B4r
In terms of the later Tolkien mythos, I cannot help but think that Moria and Osgilliath both owe a bit to Rider Haggard’s Kôr. Both are ancient ruins by the time of the narrative, with the former featuring copious dark tunnels after the manner of the Tombs of Kôr, and the latter having been decimated by a plague, much like Rider Haggard’s city was destroyed.
(ii) Galadriel and Shelob
Rider Haggard’s Ayesha is one of the more memorable villains in adventure literature. She not only gives the book its literal title (She), but the expression She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed has entered the wider English language.
She – the character – is also clearly an influence on two rather distinct characters, Galadriel and Shelob. The former has Ayesha’s glamour, as the beautiful and immortal sorceress, who has ruled her strange little domain for millennia with little influence from the outside world. Indeed, a cheeky summation of Rider Haggard’s book would be what would happen if Galadriel had set up shop in the ruins of Moria (minus Balrog), waiting centuries for Peregrin Took (yes, really) to turn up, as the reincarnation of her lost love. Ayesha is dark-haired, however, not a blonde like Galadriel, which given Tolkien’s own tendency to use dark hair and grey eyes (a la his wife, Edith) as a shorthand for beauty, is an interesting change.
The other Galadriel feature that might well owe something to Ayesha is the Mirror. The Mirror of Galadriel is a basin of water that shows our protagonists a variety of visions. Ayesha meanwhile has her own version:
“Then gaze upon that water,” and she pointed to the font-like vessel, and then, bending forward, held her hand over it.
I rose and gazed, and instantly the water darkened. Then it cleared, and I saw as distinctly as I ever saw anything in my life—I saw, I say, our boat upon that horrible canal. There was Leo lying at the bottom asleep in it, with a coat thrown over him to keep off the mosquitoes, in such a fashion as to hide his face, and myself, Job, and Mahomed towing on the bank.
I started back, aghast, and cried out that it was magic, for I recognised the whole scene—it was one which had actually occurred.
“Nay, nay; oh Holly,” she answered, “it is no magic, that is a fiction of ignorance. There is no such thing as magic, though there is such a thing as a knowledge of the secrets of Nature. That water is my glass; in it I see what passes if I will to summon up the pictures, which is not often. Therein I can show thee what thou wilt of the past, if it be anything that hath to do with this country and with what I have known, or anything that thou, the gazer, hast known. Think of a face if thou wilt, and it shall be reflected from thy mind upon the water. I know not all the secret yet—I can read nothing in the future….”
Much as Samwise Gamgee interprets Galadriel’s actions as magic, to a degree that Galadriel finds vaguely puzzling, here we have our protagonist talk of magic to Ayesha. The difference is that Ayesha admits that her powers are comparatively limited, as Holly straight-out tells us later:
For it must be remembered that She’s power in this matter was strictly limited; she could apparently, except in very rare instances, only photograph upon the water what was actually in the mind of some one present, and then only by his will.
Galadriel’s power stays much more mysterious, of course. Tolkien would not ruin the effect by comparing her Mirror to photography!
But Ayesha is a villain, and Galadriel is not, though she obviously has it in her. The darker side of Ayesha arguably manifests itself in Shelob. Quite apart from the very name inviting comparisons (She/Shelob), with Gollum even using the term ‘She’ during his little debate, Ayesha lives in the dark tunnelled tombs of abandoned Kôr. Shelob lives in the dark tunnels of Cirith Ungol. While Ayesha does not actually eat people, she is territorial and a murderer, and her relationship with the local tribes rather evokes the fearful respect the local Orcs have for “Her Ladyship”. Billali could even pass for a less mad and less malevolent Gollum-figure.
(iii) The Bridge Over the Abyss
The comparisons between Tolkien’s Moria and Rider Haggard’s Kôr do not stop at both being ancient and abandoned relics of civilisations. Both of them have a Bridge over an apparently bottomless abyss, albeit Tolkien’s is man-made (or, rather, dwarf-made), and Rider Haggard’s is actually a natural formation:
Ayesha called to us, and we crept up to her, for she was a little in front, and were rewarded with a view that was positively appalling in its gloom and grandeur. Before us was a mighty chasm in the black rock, jagged and torn and splintered through it in a far past age by some awful convulsion of Nature, as though it had been cleft by stroke upon stroke of the lightning.
This chasm, which was bounded by a precipice on the hither, and presumably, though we could not see it, on the farther side also, may have measured any width across, but from its darkness I do not think it can have been very broad. It was impossible to make out much of its outline, or how far it ran, for the simple reason that the point where we were standing was so far from the upper surface of the cliff, at least fifteen hundred or two thousand feet, that only a very dim light struggled down to us from above.
The mouth of the cavern that we had been following gave on to a most curious and tremendous spur of rock, which jutted out in mid air into the gulf before us, for a distance of some fifty yards, coming to a sharp point at its termination, and resembling nothing that I can think of so much as the spur upon the leg of a cock in shape. This huge spur was attached only to the parent precipice at its base, which was, of course, enormous, just as the cock’s spur is attached to its leg. Otherwise it was utterly unsupported.
“Here must we pass,” said Ayesha. “Be careful lest giddiness overcome you, or the wind sweep you into the gulf beneath, for of a truth it hath no bottom;” and, without giving us any further time to get scared, she started walking along the spur, leaving us to follow her as best we might. I was next to her, then came Job, painfully dragging his plank, while Leo brought up the rear. It was a wonderful sight to see this intrepid woman gliding fearlessly along that dreadful place. For my part, when I had gone but a very few yards, what between the pressure of the air and the awful sense of the consequences that a slip would entail, I found it necessary to go down on my hands and knees and crawl, and so did the other two.
Tolkien’s Bridge is also fifty feet, whereas Rider Haggard’s is fifty yards. Moreover, Rider Haggard’s Bridge does not actually extend the full-way across. It turns out that one needs to carry a plank to bridge the rest of the way. When the plank falls into the abyss, our protagonists find themselves stuck trying to cross what amounts to a broken bridge over an endless drop. Tolkien’s Bridge also breaks, but in an actually advantageous way, since it takes out the Balrog, and makes it harder for the Orcs to pursue the fleeing Fellowship.
It is worth pointing out that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade also utilises the Bridge Over the Abyss trope, though as we shall see, the comparisons with that keeping coming too…
(iv) Immortality and Its End
Recall the purpose of the Great Rings in Tolkien – they slow down time, and enable the Elves to continue living in an unchanging world. Galadriel’s Realm is sustained via the power of Nenya, one of the Three. When a mortal gets his hands on a Great Ring… they find themselves similarly unchanged, though that has consequences, as the Ringwraiths or Gollum could tell you.
The Destruction of the One Ring ends all that is done with the Great Rings. Galadriel’s Realm has time wash over it. The Ringwraiths finally die (presumably because time has finally caught up with them after more than four thousand years). Bilbo Baggins ages dramatically. And Gollum? We obviously never get to see the effects of the Ring’s destruction on him, but he offers a poignant prediction:
We’re lost. And when Precious goes we’ll die, yes, die into the dust. ‘ He clawed up the ashes of the path with his long fleshless fingers. ‘Dusst!’
Gollum has not studied Ring lore, yet somehow his long possession has given him an insight. Those 478 or so missing years are going to suddenly catch up with him… dust indeed.
Now the common modern visualisation of sudden and rapid ageing is the famous scene at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (which terrified me when I was a child). But it is actually a very old trope. Rapid ageing shows up in Irish myth, as in the Immram story, The Voyage of Bran, or in the later tale of the Land of Youth. And Tolkien would have been aware of the mythic and folkloric precedents.
But it also shows up in She.
It turns out that Ayesha is not naturally immortal. She has been granted her unchanging longevity (and apparent youth) via bathing once in magical fire. And she wants to share this with our protagonists, whom she also wishes to live forever. To demonstrate how safe this is, she bathes a second time.
It turns out that bathing a second time removes the effects of the first time. So Ayesha goes from being young and beautiful to showing her true age. Which is several millennia…
Our protagonists decide against bathing even once, because they would much rather accept their own natural mortality than engage in this twisted form of immortality. A sentiment that Tolkien himself spent much of his own work articulating.
(v) The Party
A minor point, but in rounding out my comparisons between She and The Lord of the Rings, I would note that the initial trio who set out from Bag End – Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, and Peregrin Took – actually correspond pretty well to the three English protagonists in She. Frodo maps onto Holly, middle-class, and well-educated in ancient lore and language. Sam is Job, the loyal, honest, yet occasionally mistrustful working-class servant. Pippin is Leo, the himbo aristocrat of the group.
These character archetypes were in use long before Rider Haggard, of course, but I do think the comparison is worth mentioning.
King Solomon’s Mines (1885)
I have discussed potential influences of She on Tolkien at some length, but what of another of Rider Haggard’s famous Victorian Adventure novels, King Solomon’s Mines? This one lacks the overt fantastical elements of She, albeit there is maybe a hint of something unnatural going on with Gagool’s age. And unlike She, we have no explicit confirmation that Tolkien actually read it.
There are, however, some comparisons that could be drawn, even if they are not as clear-cut as the other novel. We don’t have anything quite as elaborate as the shard to incite the adventure, but Rider Haggard does furnish us with a map, which is at least vaguely Tolkienian. Anyway, on with some suggested similarities…
(i) Gollum and Gagool
Gagool the horrid and incredibly aged wise-woman is arguably one of the influences for Gollum. Not so much in terms of personality, since Gagool is at least sane, but rather in terms of physical appearance and a certain plot point she is involved with.
Much like Gollum, Gagool is ancient by mortal standards, to a degree where no-one – including the most aged of her people – can remember her as being anything other than elderly. She talks of events of three centuries past as though she remembers them personally, and while she may be lying (she is highly treacherous), there is the sense that there is something indeed supernatural going on. And like Gollum, she is hideous, small, and shrivelled. Something that no longer looks quite human, though which is still more than willing to cling onto the very dregs of a desiccated existence.
As for the plot point….
Gagool is forced to lead our protagonists to the fabled treasure chamber of Solomon, since only she knows the way. She opens a hidden door, and waits until our protagonists are inside the chamber. While the protagonists are mesmerised by the gold and diamonds, Gagool treacherously abandons them by closing the door. The door in question is a huge wall of solid rock that ascends and descends from the ceiling.
Gagool does not quite escape, however, since she is herself trapped under the door, and crushed into pudding. No-one really misses her, though our trapped protagonists have other concerns, what with now being entombed in solid rock.
I think one can see an analogy with Gollum promising to lead Frodo and Samwise through to Mordor, only to treacherously abandon them in Shelob’s Lair. Gollum, however, manages to live another day, and though he too pays for his treachery, at least he isn’t eaten by Shelob.
(ii) Eat the Treasure
If She and The Lord of the Rings both explore facsimile immortality, King Solomon’s Mines and The Hobbit both share a warning against greed. A major point of the later Hobbit is Thorin caring about treasure more than is healthy, eventually culminating in a notable exchange:
‘I declare the Mountain besieged. You shall not depart from it, until you call on your side for a truce and a parley. We will bear no weapons against you, but we leave you to your gold. You may eat that, if you will!’
One cannot eat gold, of course. Bilbo is understandably distraught at the prospect.
Now consider the malevolent Gagool, speaking to our protagonists as they stand agape at the diamonds of Solomon’s Treasure Chamber:
‘Hee! hee! hee!’ went old Gagool behind us, as she flitted about like a vampire bat. ‘There are the bright stones that ye love, white men, as many as ye will; take them, run them through your fingers, eat of them, hee! hee! drink of them, ha! ha!’
Gagool is telegraphing our protagonist’s fate, by taunting them: one cannot eat or drink diamonds, any more than one can eat or drink gold, so wealth matters little when you are trapped. As with Thorin and Company, Allan Quatermain and his friends are to learn the hard way that there are more important things in life than treasure. And in both cases, the warning carries the same mocking phraseology.
(Both do learn, of course. Just as Bilbo realises he can’t take a fourteenth share of the Hoard back home with him, and contents himself with a chest of gold and a chest of silver, so Quartermain decides against excessive looting, and goes home with a modest number of diamonds. It still makes him a wealthy man).
(iii) The Acquired Hidden Heir
In referring to the protagonists of She, I noted that they map fairly well onto the initial protagonists of The Lord of the Rings. The same cannot really be said of King Solomon’s Mines, with one notable exception.
Both parties pick up an unplanned-but-useful extra. King Solomon’s Mines sees a chap called Umbopa join the expedition. Ostensibly as a servant, but we soon realise he’s rather more than that. He’s Ignosi, the rightful King of the country they are travelling to, and a fair amount of the story deals with the challenges of restoring him to the throne. In short, he plays a similar sort of role to Tolkien’s Aragorn, who goes from being a mere Ranger Guide at Bree, to being the returned King in Minas Tirith.
(Denethor is hardly Twala though, and neither is Boromir Scragga).
Hidden Heirs are, of course, an ancient and well-worn trope, and there is no reason to think that Aragorn was influenced by Umbopa/Ignosi any more than by countless other stories. However, as with the She trio, I just thought the comparison was worth mentioning in passing.
(iv) The Awkward Englishman in Chain-mail
I have earlier suggested that King Solomon’s Mines actually has some similarities with The Hobbit, rather than The Lord of the Rings. So in rounding out my discussion of the book, I thought I would point out one last comparison. A relatively minor one, but still:
The Hobbit’s protagonist, Bilbo Baggins is gifted the famous (and useful) mithril shirt by Thorin. His immediate thought is that he looks absurd (albeit magnificent), because Bilbo is at heart a Victorian gentleman. He also winds up being knocked out in a subsequent battle, because while he’s clever, and good at throwing things, he is not much use in genuine combat.
The narrator of King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quatermain, and his companions are gifted chain-mail shirts before a battle. One of those companions, Sir Henry, takes to it like a duck to water, but Quartermain and Captain Good are notably more awkward. Good carefully tucks his chain-mail shirt into his pair of “very seedy” corduroy trousers, giving rise to the sort of comic relief you see with Bilbo wearing armour. As a bonus, Quartermain gets knocked out in a subsequent battle, because while he’s clever, and excellent with a rifle, he’s not much use when ammunition is scarce, and fierce warriors are charging at him.
I think the comparison arises less because Tolkien was deliberately channelling King Solomon’s Mines when he writing The Hobbit, and more because it is an inevitable consequence of putting Victorian gentlemen in an technologically ‘older’ and more heroism-focused world. The temptation to play the juxtaposition for comic relief is simply too great to pass up.
Phew. A fairly lengthy post to start the year, and one that is not exactly breaking new ground in Tolkien analysis. Nevertheless it is one that suggested itself in light of last year’s reading material. As you can see, She has a much better claim at being a Victorian precursor to Middle-earth, which is only appropriate given that Tolkien himself cited it, though King Solomon’s Mines is not without potential points of comparison. On my re-read of the latter, I was indeed struck by the line about eating diamonds, and how well it fitted with the themes of The Hobbit.
Anyway, if you haven’t read the Rider Haggard works in question, I can strongly recommend them. A bit dated in some respects (they were published in 1885 and 1887, after all), but there is much worse out there.
Completed reads for 2020:
As with 2019, 2020 was a pretty successful year on the reading front, but rather hard to compare with other years, since a third of the list is short medieval Welsh poems, read individually. Ditto Irish and Norse stuff. Basically, there was no good and accurate way of recording my reading material without making the list appear padded.
Also a year notable for being decidedly old-school in its subject matter. Comparatively few works from after the Second World War, and very few twenty-first century works of fiction. Though I’d imagine a fair few people from ages past found themselves reading Aristotle during isolation from plague outbreaks, so there is that…
As per my blog tradition, here is where my blog viewers came from in 2020:
The top four remain as per 2019. After four years at #6, New Zealand gains a spot. Brazil is up four, and The Netherlands jumps from #16 to #10. Germany drops two, Spain and Sweden one, and Hong Kong drops from #9 to #49.
My most-viewed blog post of 2020 was my suggested Tolkien Reading Order: https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2019/01/08/a-tolkien-reading-order/
My most-viewed blog post of 2020 that was actually written in 2020 was a rant about Hector and Lenore in Castlevania: https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2020/03/08/hector-lenore-and-castlevania-season-3/
The most notable shift in viewership in 2020 was my August 2019 blog post about a suggested reading order for Plato: https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2019/08/18/a-platonic-reading-order/. This was one of my obscure pieces, before an uninterrupted boom from March to December 2020 catapulted it into the top three overall posts for the year. Seriously: ten consecutive months of traffic increases, unprecedented among anything I have ever written. As I have noted before, there is a curious correlation between the Plato Boom and the arrival of the Coronavirus. Make of that what you will.
Completed reads for December:
A few re-reads to round out the year (though I had not previously read the Christie and the Conan Doyles). King Solomon’s Mines in particular was a childhood favourite, and it was interesting to see whether it held up (it does, and even the racial thing is pretty decent for 1885. The biggest case of values dissonance is probably the elephant hunting).
A while ago, I took a look at the 1985 Soviet adaptation of The Hobbit, in all its unique glory: https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2017/10/25/the-soviet-hobbit-1985/
But it turns out that this was not the only Soviet cinematic/televised stab at Tolkien’s work. In 1991, they began work on an animated version of The Hobbit, which was subsequently aborted due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union later that year. By good fortune, the Prologue/Pilot Episode, amounting to about six minutes, actually survives:
So we get The Lonely Mountain, Dale, Smaug, Gandalf, and the Dwarves. We never get to see Bilbo, let alone any of the subsequent adventures, which means that properly reviewing it as an adaptation is rather difficult. From the bare six minutes, the animation is pretty decent, and arguably might have wound up more Purist than the live-action 1985 effort (there is great emphasis on the Bells of Dale). This Gandalf, however, looks much more assertive than other versions. You really don’t want to mess with him – not because he’s Odinic, a la Rankin-Bass, but because you think he’s fully capable of punching you in the face. It’s also interesting that the festive inhabitants of Dale engage in a bit of old-school Soviet fraternal kissing.
According to Wikipedia, there was also an attempted Soviet adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring in 1991 – Khraniteli – but that appears to be totally lost.
The clock has just ticked over midnight here, making it officially 25th December. In a year that has carried with it some… unique… challenges, it is nice to finally have a day where Good Cheer and the better aspects of humanity outweigh the ubiquitous negativity.
In short, 2020 has not been the best of times, and 2021 might not actually be much better. But screw it: today it’s Christmas!
As I have noted before, my favourite Christmas song remains Good King Wenceslas, to a degree where I have retold the tale in one of my more infamous short stories. However, another long-running favourite of mine is The First Noel, a song that I have always found quite haunting. It is also one I fondly recall mangling during violin practice in my childhood. So here is a delightful choral rendition:
Merry Christmas to all of you out there!
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