Monday, 1 February 2010

Narn i Hîn Húrin and D&D vs Tolkien

I bought Unfinished Tales, Christopher Tolkien's first "History of Middle Earth" books (though not one of the actual History of Middle of Earth series), to read on the flight back to England. I'm about half way through, and what else is there to say except that my admiration for J. R. R. Tolkien's work has advanced to an entirely new level. The stories in the book are as unfinished as the name suggests but that doesn't detract from their sheer weight and majesty; the incomplete and fragmentary version of the Narn i Hîn Húrin (Tale of the Children of Hurin) contains moments of staggering beauty and power - it should put to bed forever the ridiculous argument that Tolkien was not a great prose stylist. Like the argument that H. P. Lovecraft was not a great prose stylist, it stems from a complete inability to recognise when writing, while not sounding contemporarily fashionable, is perfectly achieving, in tone and rhythm, what it sets out to achieve. Tolkien set out to write myth, and the writing style he used is faultless for realizing that goal.

What interests me about the
Narn i Hîn Húrin vis-a-vis the raison d'etre of this blog (if you'll pardon my French) is that while it reads just like the best works of medieval literature (it could have been written by the same forgotten Icelandic genius who penned Egil's Saga) it also kind of reads like an Actual Play report on a solo campaign of D&D. Turin Turambar slays orcs, has random encounters with wandering petty-dwarves, delves in ancient dungeons, hangs out with outlaws, kills dragons, and has the kind of rambling adventures that tend to happen when two humans are interacting, rather than those that occur in a tautly plotted novel. He even has a 9th-level plus style endgame, in which he settles down and becomes a ruler, although of course that all goes horribly wrong in the end.

This makes me think again about MERP, and the whole idea of the suitability of Middle Earth for setting a "traditional" style game. There is a school of thought, I know, which will argue that the kind of games I like - sandboxy, unplotted, random - don't really fit with with Tolkien's vision, which requires a more narrativist and larger-than-life mode of play. (A game for heroes as opposed to rogues, let's say.) Games in Middle Earth, the theory goes, are not suitable for the chaotic, amoral, player-choice based, random sort of game that "old school" play is supposedly all about. The
Narn i Hîn Húrin should serve as a rejoinder to that. Especially during its more anarchic periods, Middle Earth is just about perfect for a sandbox game; it has ancient ruins to explore and ancient treasures to find, politics by the bucketload to get involved in one way or the other, and miles of mapped and catalogued wilderness to adventure in. And it certainly doesn't require its PCs to be goody-two-shoes'; Turin is defined mostly by his tendency towards violence and self-destruction, not by his heroism.

D&D has never been a great bedfellow for Tolkien, but I would argue that is more to do with mechanics than it is to do with philosophy. The ease with which magic can be manipulated in even OD&D, and the abstraction of its combat, just don't fit the gritty and almost low-fantasy vibe of Middle Earth. That's a problem, but the tonal/philosophical dichotomy between dirty Sword & Sorcery roguelike D&D on the one hand and heroic High Fantasy Tolkien on the other seems, on a reading of works like the Narn i Hîn Húrin and The Silmarillion, and actually even The Hobbit, decidedly off-base.


  1. For that matter, if you look at even the highly-acclaimed edition of MERP had a magic system that ultimately resembled D&D with some cosmetic changes.

  2. Can you post a few excerpts? I'm one of those guys who's never really liked Tolkien's prose style (the Ent "hound is hungry" poem and a few other bits excepted) and I'd like to see a sample of what you consider the best.

    Since we tend to like a lot of the same books.

  3. I would argue that the ease at which magic can be manipulated in D&D doesn't really jibe with most pre-D&D fiction.

    In this regard, Tolkien is no different than Howard.

  4. Narn i Hin Hurin as well as the saga of Feanor and his sons adheres more closely to the pre-christian moral dynamic of Beowulf than the Catholisised heroic romance of LoTR. Turin Turambar resembles, at least superficially, his distant descendant Aragorn, but in many ways they are very different. Turin is a passionate force of nature with the deeply flawed personality of a Wagnerian protagonist, whereas Aragorn is another archetype altogether, Christ-like, a redeemer of makind.

    I find the gritty and tragic nature of the goings-on in the First Age very appealing for this reason. The motivations of the characters are more mythic-teutonic in general. Feanor is vengeful and possessive (a trait that will be echoed later on), the people of Gondolin are concerned with their own protection to the detriment of the rest of the world, even Beren and Luthien are moivated by their total obsession with one another. Nobody goes into Angband because they want to save the world - they do it out of love.

    I'm not sure if it's in unfinished tales or The First Lost Tales but there is a moment where Melko is chased up a pine tree by Huan (or a Huan analog)which is deliciously archaic and rustic - a far cry from the world-shaking stuff the cycle would evolve into.

    Beleriand is also very sandboxy. The fragmented wilderness with a few city-states or havens is actually characteristic of much of Middle-Earth for much of its history.

    That said, I would not like to play in Middle-Earth because I fear it would besmirch the beauty of the creation. Admittedly though, Tolkien himself intended for his work to be the foundation for others to continue. Which has occurred in ways,and to a scale, he could not possibly have conceived.

  5. I would say that I don't think LoTR is where Tolkien was at his best. I haven't read all his work, but I think his more mythical stuff - some of the appendices to LoTR, and the Simarillion, for example - are way better than his more straight fantasy stuff.

    I also disagree that Middle Earth is unsuited to sandbox gaming. Even just practically, it has two perfect advantages - the whole world has been created for you and, by and large, everyone involved in the game understands the world in a similar way, and deeply. This enables them to interact with the world much better than if they were playing in a sandbox of the DMs creation, or from some less famous production. Imagine sandbox gaming in Talislanta!

    Also of course, Middle Earth has several different ages with different sweeping background campaigns with which the PCs can interact at any level, and the world itself is awesome fun. I think in fact that the closest I've ever come to sandbox gaming (not my favourite style of game) was in Middle Earth, for these reasons. Choose an age, choose a level of adventuring (gritty, mythic, anything in between) and go for it...

  6. I think the reason why the tale resembles both mediaeval literature and a sandbox campaign is that they both have something in common. The Norse sagas, one of the most important influences on Tolkien, recount, at length, the adventures of armed rogues as they meander around a lawless frontier land in search of treasure and glory. Obviously the audiences the skalds would usually have had an appetite for detailed accounts of Njal and co's morally dubious activities.

  7. Aldarion and Erendis. It's the missing Norse saga.

  8. I've read these works many times and never thought of Turin's wanderings that way - awesome! Thanks.

  9. I largely agree that Tolkien isn't necessarily anathema to D&D: For example, there's a 100 year span after Morgoth and co. break out of the siege of Angband in which Beleriand is largely overrun and lawless. Tons of adventure possibilities there.

    Where I would quibble just a bit with the tale of Turin is the sense of inevitability (a northern Doom, if you will), that haunts his footsteps. Turin is "fated" for a bad end, either because of Morgoth's curse and/or Turin's own ill-choices. That kind of thing strikes me as very hard to simulate in an RPG, unless you have players willing to play along.

  10. Rach: Well, I think it was pretty different from D&D actually. It wasn't especially Tolkien-esque but the spell lists were flavourful and I liked the idea of spending development points to get higher powered spells.

    Zak S: Sure, I'll put something up over the next few days.

    Trey: You're probably right about that. D&D rendered magic into essentially a form of technology when before it had been a form of mystery.

    Thomas: I think the First Age is perfect, as you say, but I would really like to run a game in the Second Age, with Numenoreans colonising/exploring/conquering Middle Earth. Lots of opportunity for sandboxy goodness there.

    faustusnotes: I'm coming around to the point of view that Tolkien was at his best when he was myth-making rather than novel writing, too, but that's not to say I don't love LOTR. I'm like Christopher Lee - I could read it once a year and I would never grow bored of it.

    Thomas: Yeah, there's something very D&D-ish about the sagas, because the main characters have the kind of amoral and anarchic approach to life that D&D characters tend to have. Egil's Saga is my favourite, and Egil just *is* a chaotic evil fighter.

    Chris: Just started that one. ;)

    'Sean': It doesn't entirely work that way, of course, it just struck me as I was reading it.

    Brian: Sure, I wouldn't want to argue that you could emulate something like the Narn in an RPG - just that if you shear off the curse of Melkor and the final doom, the Narn sort of resembles what might happen in an RPG campaign.

    One element of the Narn I would love to incorporate into an RPG is the idea of curses, though. Not only do you have Melkor doing it; it seems dozens of characters get to lay curses on other people during the course of the story, and they invariably come true. It would be very hard to stop players abusing that sort of thing if you developed a mechanic for it, but it's a very interesting concept for an RPG to explore.

  11. I must say I agree! Very good post and nice insightful comments.

    This type of discussion on the relation of Tolkien to D&D seems much more interesting and productive, than simple musings on how much he influenced the game.

  12. I think I'm not as much of a Tolkien fan as you, Noisms, but I'm still a fan for all my many criticisms of it. I think the LoTR is his most readable work, but his other work is more impressive.

    Anyway, I think it's an excellent gaming world and great for sandboxing. I also don't think it's incompatible with D&D, really. The 4th Age, particularly, seems suitable to it.

  13. As a younger man, I just couldn't make it through LOTR. I sort of wrote off Tolkien even though I loved the Hobbit. Picking up the Silmirillion changed all that. And the story of Turin even more. It's my favourite piece of Tolkien's myth.

    In re Tolkien vs. S&S, think of how easily the plot of Turin could have been written by Michael Moorcock: existentially-challenged anti-hero, black sword that kills him at the end, and so on and on. But that said, Moorcock didn't write it: Tolkien did. And he was a good writer.