Saturday, July 26, 2008

I think it's the Elves' fault

There's probably not a richer, more fully realized fictional world from a single pen than Tolkien's Middle Earth. It's a world with a history so detailed that a game like War of the Ring can properly be considered a historical wargame, even though the "history" in this case never really happened.

But considered from the richness of the source material, it may well be that a wargame designer has much more to go on with War of the Ring than, let's say, the Battle of Kadesh.

The challenge for designing a game like War of the Ring is that, like a history-based game, it has to have fidelity to its source material in a way that a fiction-based game usually doesn't. Fans know the "facts" about Elves, Orcs, Ents and Hobbits as well as they know the facts of Sherman tanks, Spitfire fighters and 44-gun frigates.

Tolkien created a very rich world, indeed, one with three "ages" each lasting several millennium. But one odd thing about that world was its technological stasis. While things changed, wars were fought, empires rose and fell, the base level technology appears to have changed very little over all three ages. Only at the close of the Third Age are their hints of technological progress. This, of course, is in stark contrast to our world. In the equivalent time covered by the Third Age of Middle Earth the civilizations of our earth went from stone tools to spaceships and the weapons of war from bronze spears to supersonic aircraft.

How could this be so?

The easy answer is that it's because the author made it so.

But that's an unsatisfying answer, because Tolkien's works are so skillful at making us believe in them that there must be some internal logic that explains how the world could be so unchanging.

As the Third Age of Middle Earth ends and the Fourth Age begins, it's made clear that the Fourth Age is the Age of Man. Humankind had, however, been on the scene for quite a while, slowly increasing in numbers and influence over the various ages of Middle Earth. The men of Middle Earth are recognizable human beings, with all the flaws and virtues of the race. Yet despite having the same human nature as the people of our earth, the men of Middle Earth seem strangely incurious about how the world works and how to do things better.

While human nature is the same, the nature of the world these humans inhabit is significantly different than ours. On our earth, by the time human beings started creating civilizations, they had already outcompeted the other tool-using hominids they might have shared the world with. Men, and men alone, colonized the earth.

The men of Middle Earth, in contrast, arrived in a world that already had ancient races and civilizations. How much the ensuing human settlements were the products of human creation and how much was borrowed from the already resident races in Middle Earth isn't really clear. But men were not alone and they shared this world with many sentient and semi-sentient races.

Many of these races were few in numbers or none too smart or lacked thumbs and had relatively little influence over the wider world. Creatures such as dragons, eagles, trolls, giant spiders and wargs didn't build civilizations. Often individually powerful, they were not able to challenge the civilized races for territory and usually lived in remote and inaccessible places.

The men of Middle Earth had to contend with three other major sentient, civilized races that had cultures, languages, tools, weapons and organization.

The Dwarves were a very ancient race, perhaps the oldest in Middle Earth, but their influence over the world was limited by their nature. They were standoffish and tended to mine their own affairs. They preferred to live in the hills and mountains of Middle Earth and spent a lot of time underground. Their relations with men seemed generally proper and there was little cause for conflict between the two. The men preferred the fertile plains and lowlands over the hills anyway. In our own earth's history there are many cases of lowland folk and highland folk who live in close proximity for generations yet retain separate cultures. Examples range all over the world from Scotland to Taiwan. In our world, there's often been the problem of the highland folk becoming raiders at the expense of the lowlanders, although usually the lowlanders have numbers on their side and can avoid conquest.

In Middle Earth the Dwarves seem much more interested in digging than raiding, but the same cannot be said for the second "civilized" race, the Orcs, or Goblins. These creatures, while able to assume the trappings of civilization and make tools and weapons, don't seem to have the creativity needed to innovate. They make corrupted copies of what other races make, and what they can't make they steal. This puts them in conflict with men, of course, but also with the Dwarves, because the Orcs also prefer the highlands and the dark, secret places under them to the plains and open air of the lowlands. Indeed, Goblins and Dwarves are constantly at war. yet despite warring for thousands of years, neither ace was able to exterminate the other. The Dwarves seem to have the edge in prowess and organization, but the Orcs always seemed to have an edge in numbers.

Neither dwarf nor Orc adequately explains the static nature of human civilization in Middle Earth, however, Indeed, the constant warring against Orcs ought to have stimulated improved weaponry. Eventually, on our Earth, the more advanced lowland-based civilizations used technology and organization to prevail over the highland peoples, although here and there the hills can still be wild places (Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, for example).

No, the blame, or credit, for the unchanging nature of Middle Earth must rest with the Elves.

They dominated Middle Earth from their arrival until their departure. The Orcs were corrupted versions of the Elves and hated and feared them. The Dwarves were sullen rivals of the Elves, but seemed to have little insight into them. And men loved the Elves, respected the Elves and envied them.

While the Elves had access to some magic and secret knowledge, in many ways they were like the men and the men were enough like the Elves that the two races could intermarry.

But the singular feature of the Elves was their agelessness. It appears they had a lifespan that was so long that they were immortal, for all practical purposes. They aged imperceptibly. They rarely became ill, and if they did seemed adept at healing.

They were not, however, really immortal, for they could die from trauma. They could and did die in battle. I would assume that every so often they died in accidents, although perhaps not so often as people do. They didn't have motor vehicles and industry to claim lives. But their must have been some attrition and Tolkien implies that the numbers of elves dwindled over time. While they could have children, they had little drive to do so. This makes sense for such a long-lived race. It would be easy for them to suffer from overpopulation if they bred like people.

But as effectively immortal beings, they naturally had a different outlook on time than humans. People know life is short, and in an agrarian society such as Middle Earth it tends to be shorter. Knowing that their time is short gives people the drive to do things and makes them impatient and always searching for quicker and easier ways.

For the Elves, in contrast, knowing they had plenty of time, there was less urgency to innovate and do things more efficiently. Were Mithril mail and Elvish blades magic? Probably, but much of their quality may have come from patient metalsmithing. How good a sword can a swordsmith make if he has an unlimited amount of time to make one?

And for the Elves, having plenty of time probably meant that once they found an acceptable way to do things they didn't have much incentive to find a better way to do it. If they did something twice as fast it just meant they'd have twice as much time to fill. While the burden of time didn't hang too heavy on them, they clearly were not a driven race.

For men, who admired the Elves and followed in their footsteps it would have been hard to conceive of doing thing differently than the Elves. Imagine standing before an Elf who has already lived 5,000 years and trying to tell him you've figured out a better way to do it in your measly 40 years alive. Elven mastery of magic made this problem even worse, putting would-be inventors in a very difficult spot. There's little indication that men could do magic. The wizards Gandalf and Saruman were beings that had taken human form but were not men.

No, doing things as they had always been done suited the Elves. The Dwarves were also satisfied with their status quo and Orcs apparently couldn't think of new ways of doing anything. The one race that might have created new technologies was overawed, intimidated and, perhaps, even encouraged by the Elves to not strive to exceed their lead.

Ah, but what about the Hobbits? They may be the proof of the rule. While long-lived compared to men, they were quite mortal compared to Elves. They seem to have had very little contact with Elves, although they had heard tales. Off in their little corner of Middle Earth they did seem to be a fairly industrious lot. Compared to the races they were latecomers, yet they seemed to have developed a cozy little civilization. They had mills and seem. actually, rather more culturally advanced than the Middle Earth norm. While everyone else was stuck in the year 1500 the hobbits seemed to be creeping into the 1750s.

But they were few, they were little and they were ignored.

Men listened to the Elves, and the way the Elves did things were good enough and had always been good enough. Only when the Elves left and Men were forced to stand on their own did they discover their creative energies. Tolkien implies that the other races and various other creatures in Middle Earth were doomed to extermination or driven into hiding at that point.

The Age of Men had begun and things would never be the same again.

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