For an avid fan of the Tolkien legendarium and The Lord of the Rings Living Card Game, few statements can stoke anticipation for the next round of adventure packs like these words from Lead Developer Caleb Grace: “Our second goal for the Against the Shadow cycle was a little more ambitious. We really wanted to push the narrative focus.” Most excellent! But what story will we be focusing on? The first round of spoiler cards gives us our initial clue.
Prominently displayed as the top card is a shadowy figure with a namesake nabbed from a little known nook of Tolkien’s narrative – The Hand of Castamir. Just as the reference to Ungoliant in the inaugural scenario of the core set caught my attention for the apparent care that the FFG design team was taking to steep their game in the literary lore of our beloved professor, this card spoiler signals that Mr. Grace and his gang have once again done their homework to bring us the “The Steward’s Fear”, a “tale of corruption within the heart of Gondor”. The theme of blood and worthiness runs thick in this narrative so muster your resolve to inherit your destiny. As noble heirs of Númenor, we’re about to delve into the darkest days of Gondor’s history as we stand against the shadow of the insidious Hand of Castamir!
EXPLORE THE LEGEND
Nonetheless it was not until the days of Valacar that the first great evil came upon Gondor: the civil war of the Kin-strife, in which great loss and ruin was caused and never fully repaired.
Castamir the Usurper is the chief villain of this ominous turning point in Gondor’s history, recounted in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings in the section titled “Gondor and the Heirs of Anárion”. During the “days of Valacar” (about 1500 years before the time period of our card game), Castamir is the royal Captain of Ships and “supported by the people of the coasts and of the great havens of Pelargir and Umbar”. The unrest begins as King Valacar grows old and prepares to cede the throne to his son Eldacar, a half-blood prince from his marriage to the short-lived daughter of a foreign king from the northern realm of Rhovanion. Unlike Eldacar, Castamir is “one of those nearest in blood to the crown” and it is in large part due to Gondorian prejudice against the “lesser and alien race” of Northmen that he is able to rally the “greatest following of all the rebels” to unseat the newly crowned Eldacar in 1437.
But Eldacar proves more valiant than Castamir expects. As he besieges the young king in the city of Osgiliath, the Captain turns to increasingly cruel and destructive tactics including starving the people, burning the city, and capturing and murdering Eldacar’s son. In the end, Eldacar escapes back to his motherland in Rhovanion, but the city is left in flames, the Dome of Osgiliath is destroyed, and the palantir is lost in the waters. The people note that the “destruction done at his bidding far exceeded the needs of the war” and their initial love for him is “further lessened” when Castamir, now ensconced on the throne, does nothing to rebuild the city, but rather fixates on his fleets and plans to move his capital to Pelargir.
In light of this “haughty and ungenerous” nature, many of the Dunédain reconsider the exiled Eldacar and “folk flock to him” in exile. After ten years of Castamir’s rule, Eldacar seizes his chance and attacks from the north. A vicious battle ensues at the Crossings of Erui and “much of the best blood in Gondor [is] shed”. In the course of the battle, Eldacar engages Castamir in direct combat and personally slays him in vengeance for the slaughter of his son. The sons of Castamir, however, survive the battle and retreat with their ships to Pelargir. Now Eldacar takes up siege, but without his own naval power, the sons of Castamir are able to sail away in their father’s fleets to Umbar where they establish a “lordship independent of his crown”.
Following the end of the Kin-strife, the blood feud between the descendents of Eldacar and Castamir continues stewing for a couple centuries as Eldacar’s grandson subdues Harad. But in 1634, the conflict is escalated by Castamir’s great-grandsons when, sailing with the Corsairs of Umbar, they attack Pelargir and assassinate King Minardil, the great-grandson of Eldacar. This time, however, full-scale war does not erupt due to the “second and greatest evil” to befall Gondor in the Third Age. This is a “deadly plague [which comes] with dark winds out of the East” and devastates the population of Gondor, wiping out all the remaining children of Eldacar’s line and beginning the poisoning of Greenwood the Great (an event well portrayed [but taking place nearly 1500 years later] to the dismay of a bird-poop stained Radagast in Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit film).
After the plague, the Gondorian throne is next claimed by Tarondor, a nephew of Eldacar’s grandson who presides over a “slow nursing” of the fabled realm’s withered strength. Tarondor’s son has grander schemes in mind though, and in 1810 he “gather[s] his forces” and “[takes] Umbar by storm”. At last, 373 years after Castamir the Usurper began the Kin-strife with the siege of Osgiliath and exile of Eldacar, the “last descendents of Castamir perish”. Although the cycle of bloody violence between the houses of Eldacar and Castamir has finally ended both direct lines of succession, the kingdoms of Gondor and Umbar remain locked in episodic warfare until the end of the Third Age. Indeed, Umbar is “never again completely subdued until the days of Elessar” when Aragorn and the Army of the Dead finally defeat the Corsairs and ride up the Anduin River in their ships in The Return of the King.
One of the reasons that I enjoy this story is that in a mythology that has faced criticism of racism for some of its portrayals, the story of Castamir and Eldacar calls for a progressive interpretation that I would argue is quite pronounced throughout Tolkien’s work. At the end of the day, noble blood does not make one noble, but rather his or her deeds. Long life is not a right by pedigree, but can be garnered or squandered by how it is lived. And finally, ethnic purity is not a virtue to maintain and lord over others. Instead, racism is a self-destructive force that, unless checked, will corrupt a civilization and consume its heart from the inside out. The tale of Castamir may take place a millennium and a half before the events of our LOTR LCG timeframe, but The Hand of Castamir stills lurks in the darkness of a corrupt and shadowy past – a treacherous enemy to resist if the Free Peoples of Middle Earth are to survive.
SHOWCASE THE ARTWORK
Squinting at the pixelated spoiler image while browsing through our existing card pool led me to determine that the artist for The Hand of Castamir is regular FFG contributor Tiziano Baracchi. He doesn’t seem to have this latest work online yet, but judging by the impressive collections of previous LOTR LCG pieces showcased on his website, Deviant Art, Elfwood, CGPortfolio, and Facebook, I have high hopes that we will see it eventually.
UPDATE (April 28): Mr. Baracchi kindly posted a high resolution version of this artwork in response to my Facebook post. Thank you!
Mr. Baracchi is an Italian artist who has been working with FFG since 2006 and has created the artwork for several of our favorite heroes, most notably Dain Ironfoot, Beravor, and Denethor (click names for links to awesome higher resolution images). In an undated feature interview with It’s Art Mag, Mr. Baracchi talks about his process for painting a character saying that “personality” is the most important thing to focus on for a good portrait and therefore he puts most of his effort into eyes, expression, and body language. “I really enjoy telling stories through portraits, or at least trying to,” he says. Sounds like our kind of guy here at Master of Lore!
Personally, I find the artwork for The Hand of the Castamir most intriguing in this regard. While at first the character seems expressionless, a closer look reveals a man with slicked back hair, a goatee, and condescending gaze. He seems to be sitting in an opulent room plotting over a map of the southern realms and the artifact before him on the table could be a historical scroll recording the sordid history of Gondor or the fall of Númenor. His body language is indeed “haughty and ungenerous” and I imagine this “villain” is the descendent of a disgruntled cousin or bigoted uncle of Castamir intent upon overthrowing the Stewards and restoring a more pure line of Kings from Umbar. I can’t wait to take him on!
The second image of Castamir that I’d like to showcase is also a commissioned piece, created by Liz Danforth for Middle-Earth Role Playing from Iron Crown Enterprises. Ms. Danforth is an American artist based in Tuscon with a prolific career illustrating and designing games since 1976. The line drawings she created for the MERP project provide a licensed likeness for many of the obscure characters of Tolkien’s legendarium never featured in any other product, including other characters from the Gondorian Kin-strife. Ms. Danforth’s official website shows a fuller range of her interests and artwork as well as this impressive list of cards that have featured her illustrations over the years.
From left to right: Vidugavia (King of Rhovanion whose daughter was Eldacar’s mother); Castamir the Usurper (note the ship on his chest); and Tarondor (nephew of Eldacar’s grandson who ruled Gondor after the Great Plague)
For our final artistic depiction of Castamir, we’re going to turn to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films and, in fact, to Mr. Jackson himself. In the extended edition of The Return of the King, the scene where Aragorn confronts the Corsairs of Umbar after braving the Paths of the Dead features cameos from many of the film crew including the director as the captain of one of the ships. While none of them are credited for their roles in the film, Decipher used these cameo characters in their Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game “Siege of Gondor” expansion in 2004. They named Mr. Jackson’s character “Castamir of Umbar” hearkening back to the racist rebel of an earlier age. Well played!
DISCUSS THE CARDS
Without having played “The Steward’s Fear” scenario yet, we will be more challenged to discuss thematic play, but with the game text of the card and hints given in the teaser article, we’ve got a place to start!
First of all, although the The Hand of Castamir has a secret identity, he is a unique enemy. As the game promises to plunge heroes “deep into an underworld where nefarious plots and deadly villains await them”, it seems as though he is the one we are looking for, the rebel leader behind the conspiracy to usurp the throne. Thematically, I’m a bit suspicious of these plotters’ description as “Mordor sympathizers” as I doubt Castamir and the antagonists of the Kin-strife were any more friendly to Orcs than they were to the mixed race kings and provincial people that they killed or marginalized.
That said, the animus of Castamir has much older origins than the Kin-strife and the teaser article for “The Blood of Gondor” shows that this deeper lore is where we are headed. The first colonists of Umbar to return from Númenor in the Second Age were influenced by Sauron who had ingratiated himself to the king’s councils and gradually twisted their exercise of benevolent nobility into arrogance and domination. Perhaps the scroll on our villain’s table could even be the Akallabêth and The Hand of Castamir is sympathizing with Sauron’s words to Ar-Pharazôn, the proud Númenorean king, that “being men of might and pride and great lineage… kings do not brook denials, and take what is their due.”
Thematically, this is the contemptible line of thought that motivates The Hand of Castamir’s ability to unleash a string of relentless attacks as treacheries come off the encounter deck. Like Castamir the Usurper’s siege of Osgiliath, this will mechanic will doubtless damage our heroes with “destruction done at his bidding” which “far exceed[s] the needs of the war”. Yikes! But just as Eldacar regrouped in the kingdom of Rhovanion to mount his counterattack, we will be able to do the same. The “new Outlands trait”, which is promised development in this cycle, will provide our heroes the chance to marshal the “people of the many outlying provinces that rally to Minas Tirith in her times of need” and I look forward to a commanding a multi-national army of allies like the Ethir Swordsman to defeat the reactionary forces of The Hand of Castamir and quell the Steward’s fear. For Gondor!