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.