There is nothing quite like the feeling of the first step of any grand adventure. The first day of a new job or new school year; loading up the suitcase for a flight or road trip to a new destination; or, in the case of our beloved collectible game, ripping the plastic off a fresh pack of crisp cards flush with new possibilities for play.
Yet in each of these cases, despite the newness of the journey for us, there is also the sense that we are following paths that echo the passage of those who have gone before. There are maps, books, anecdotes from former travellers — rich references to the past that inform our expectations and connect us to a community that is deeper than ourselves. Our journey will be our own, unique and unpredictable. But the path remains, both preceding our walk and prevailing in our wake, and the story goes on.
This quality of adventure is replete in JRR Tolkien’s imagination and the metaphor of “the Road” is certainly one of the defining themes of all his work. As Frodo related to his friends at the start of their travels in The Fellowship of the Ring, “[Bilbo] often used to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river; its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” In keeping with this theme then, it is entirely fitting that the first location of the first scenario of the core set for The Lord of the Rings Card Game is a distant part of the very road Frodo was walking upon when sharing Bilbo’s quote. It is an evocative location that captures the essence of what it means to take a journey in Tolkien’s world. “Home is behind, the world ahead, and there are many paths to tread.” Are you ready? Let’s take a journey along the Old Forest Road!
EXPLORE THE LEGEND
Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?
After waxing philosophic about “the Road” in Chapter 3 of The Fellowship of the Ring titled “Three is Company”, Frodo points out that the road they are walking on, the Great East Road, will in fact, become the Old Forest Road that goes through Mirkwood. However, the first reference to the Old Forest Road that readers encounter in Tolkien’s work is not in the text itself, but rather from the map included in the front of most editions of The Hobbit. There, on the Professor’s hand-drawn map, beyond the clearly demarcated “Edge of the Wild” and running in a firm line through the widest center of the Mirkwood is the Old Forest Road.
Looking at the map, it would be only be natural to assume that this “main forest-road to the south” is the route Thorin’s company would take on their journey. It is the thickest line on the map, boldly labeled, and clearly an ancient and storied path. But after they meet Beorn, he warns them that “that way was now often used by goblins” and is “overgrown and disused at the eastern end and led to impassable marshes where the paths had long been lost.” Instead, Beorn directs the company north to a “little-known” wood elf path where Gandalf leaves them to enter the forest while he attends to “some pressing business away south” with the Necromancer.
With this change of plans, the Old Forest Road fades into mystery and, besides Frodo’s oblique reference in Fellowship, is not mentioned again in JRR Tolkien’s published work. While its name and prominent placement on the Wilderland map suggest some epic, mythic history, the feeling after reading The Hobbit is that this lore has been lost. To be sure, it would have remained so had Tolkien’s son Christopher not began collecting, editing, and publishing his father’s vast uncompleted writings. One of these stories is the “Disaster of the Gladden Fields” which was released in Unfinished Tales and tells of Isildur’s ill-fated journey north along the Anduin River after he had claimed the One Ring from Sauron in the War of the Alliance. He is ambushed by Orcs while “passing the north borders of the Gladden Fields, marching along a path that led to Thranduil’s realm as it then was.”
While this tells us nothing more about the Old Forest Road, in the footnote to this passage, Christopher states that this “path” is near the Men-i-Naugrim, Sindarin for “Dwarf Road”, and that the Men-i-Naugrim is, in fact, “the Old Forest Road described in The Hobbit, Chapter 7″. Moreover, in “an earlier draft of this section”, Tolkien wrote that the “ancient Forest Road… led down from the Pass of Imladris and crossed Anduin by a bridge (that was enlarged and strengthened for the passage of the armies of the Alliance)”. And so, 43 years after the release of The Hobbit, in the parenthetical aside of an obscure footnote referring to a previous draft of an unpublished work, readers finally received a tantalizing glimpse of the adventures that may have transpired on this legendary pathway. Dwarves traffic between their ancient kingdoms in the Second Age and the Last Alliance of Elves and Men marches behind the banners of Gil-galad to face to Sauron, the fearsome foe of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth in open battle.
Of course, by the time Beorn warns Bilbo to stay off the “main forest-road to the south” in The Hobbit, all of this history was nearly 3000 years old and beyond recall. Yet the idea that the current world and its paths might have been trod upon by the long forgotten heroes of yore inspired Tolkien and infused his work. Language was his gateway into this forgotten past and he preoccupied himself comparing the names and words of modern languages like Finnish and Welsh to Old English and Norse mythology, trying to discover hidden links that could summon the stories deeper than memory beneath the world we live in. Tolkien would often first create languages, character names, or maps without any idea what might lay behind a location like the Old Forest Road. His creative process was then to “discover” the meaning through drafting and redrafting his tales, starting from the beginning each time.
Tolkien’s longing for a journey that is both new and exciting, while simultaneously walking in the ancient past is perhaps best expressed in The Lost Road, his uncompleted and unpublished “time-travel novel” included by Christopher Tolkien in the fifth volume of The History of Middle-Earth. In The Lost Road, Tolkien’s semi-autobiographical character Alboin is a lover of languages and an Oxford graduate living in modern England. Alboin frequently dreams of names or words in Eressëan (or “Elf-latin”) but he does not know what they mean. In particular, he often dreams of the word Númenor and a “storm upon Númenor” and “the eagles of the Lord of the West coming upon Númenor”.
As Alboin grows older, these “Dreams” (the word is capitalized by Tolkien) grow more and more frequent and he acquires a mysterious nostalgia that is beautifully described in the following passage:
Surveying the last thirty years, [Alboin] felt he could say that his most permanent mood, though often overlaid or suppressed, had been since childhood the desire to go back. To walk in Time, perhaps, as men walk long roads; or to survey it, as men may see the world from a mountain, or the earth as a living map beneath an airship. But in any case to see with eyes and to hear with ears: to see the lie of old and even forgotten lands, to behold ancient men walking, and hear their languages as they spoke them, in the days before the days, when tongues of forgotten lineage were heard in kingdoms long fallen by the shores of the Atlantic.
One night, Alboin has a particularly lucid dream in which he is visited by Elendil, who says that he is “of Númenor” and “the father of many fathers before you”. Elendil informs Alboin that his “long-hidden” and “half-spoken” desire “to go back” can be fulfilled, though he must choose to take his son Audoin with him. The narrative ends abruptly as Alboin makes his choice. “The summons is at hand” and he and his son fall suddenly into darkness.
The final chapter in the typescript takes place in Númenor and is a conversation between Elendil and his son Herendil about Sauron and Manwë and the Gift of Death to Men which fits quite well with the Middle-earth legendarium as it was later published. Presumably, if finished, The Lost Road would have taken Alboin and Audoin back in time to the Second Age where they would have interacted with Elendil and Sauron and witnessed Númenor’s final destruction and its fall under the waves.
Remarkably then, this novel would have situated the legends of Middle-earth firmly within the realm of north Europe’s actual history, presenting the fall of Númenor as the ancient Atlantis of classical Western mythology since the time of Plato.
Among these many curiosities, it is fascinating that the text of The Lost Road is contemporaneous with The Hobbit, preserved in a typescript from Stanley Unwin dated November 30, 1937, just two months after The Hobbit was released. It was about this time that Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings, leaving most of his earlier work like The Lost Road uncompleted in his devotion to that task. Still, his longing for adventure in an ancient world, that just might be our own, can be clearly perceived as the foundation of his most famous stories.
So while the Old Forest Road was undeveloped in The Hobbit beyond a line on a map, once created it remained a part of Tolkien’s world that was drawn inexorably back into the mythology of Middle-earth as he kept redrafting his tales. In this respect, the process of “discovering” the history of the Old Forest Road is typical of the path Tolkien wished to travel in all of his work — to find the “lost road” which collapses time and connects modern life to ancient legends.
SHOWCASE THE ARTWORK
The card art for the Old Forest Road was created by Ben Zweifel, the most prolific location artist for the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle. His attention to detail is almost impossible to see with his work reduced to playing card size and the full resolution version reveals strands of cobwebs across the trail while his signature glowing lights motif is provided by a few small blue flowers. You can check out more of Ben’s work, including other Lord of the Rings pieces, at his website.
The next image is once again from Professor Tolkien himself and according to Douglas Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit, has “perhaps the most curious history of any” of his drawings. This image was the only printed plate in the first British edition of The Hobbit and the border at the top of the picture was cut off when the block was made. Since Tolkien “gave the original to a student”, the full original will never be restored. Though it was reproduced for the 1938 American edition of The Hobbit, it was redrawn as a line drawing, perhaps to save printing costs.
Tolkien had originally painted this piece as a watercolor in July 1928 as the scene from The Silmarillion when the elf Beleg meets the Flindor (later renamed Gwindor) in the forest of Taur-na-Fúin in the tale of Túrin Turambar. But this is still not the end! Many years later Tolkien retitled it Fangorn Forest for the 1974 J.R.R. Tolkien Calendar and it was only when it appeared again in the 1978 that Christopher Tolkien finally revealed its full context. What a versatile Tolkienesque forest!
Finally, although the Dwarven company of The Hobbit did not take the Old Forest Road through Mirkwood, I cannot resist sharing this incredibly cool piece of artwork of their “passage through Mirkwood” from Peter Jackson’s new Hobbit films. Classic Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe have been working together on what they say is “probably the first serious cinema production where the actual concept art has been done in 3D”. Pull out your old blue and red 3D glasses and have a look at their vision for a shot from the upcoming installment. Then enjoy the short 1:47 clip in which the distinguished artists explain their process creating this piece!
DISCUSS THE CARDS
Given its mysterious origins and elusive lore which draw you into reflection upon the course of ancient journeys, the Old Forest Road is the perfect opening location of the first scenario of The Lord of the Rings Card Game. As much fun as The Hobbit saga expansions were, I still much prefer the deluxe expansions and adventure packs which give us the opportunity to travel to those parts of Middle-earth that remained unexplored in the pages of Tolkien’s books. Bilbo’s adventure turned north and Frodo and the Ring went south before they could walk upon the Old Forest Road, but our heroes get to travel there in the first scenario of the game!
That said, the game text of the Old Forest Road does not really capture the “overgrown” and goblin infested nature of the path as it is described by Beorn to Thorin’s company. Instead, readying one character makes it feel more like a refreshing jaunt through the park! It seems that the card was designed more as a mechanic to give players a fighting chance against that initial Forest Spider than to confront them with a treacherous and ill-advised path. I suppose it’s possible to imagine that the heroes have received a warning similar to Beorn’s quote on the card and are therefore bracing themselves for action as they travel, but that could be fairly and generically applied to any number of locations in the game. At the very least, this Old Forest Road certainly makes more sense than its previous incarnation in Decipher’s Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game, in which this dangerous trail overrun by goblins and leading to impassable marshes allows you to heal two Elves!
I was inspired to write about the Old Forest Road after the first edition of Cardboard of the Rings Boromir’s Buffet in which Brian created a brilliant map marking all of the scenarios in the core set and Shadows of Mirkwood cycle on a map of Middle-earth. To follow up, I decided to pull out all the uniquely identifiable locations from these scenarios and put them on the map as well. The exercise made me realize just how easily locations are overlooked despite their gorgeous artwork and thematic connection to Tolkien’s lore. Have fun exploring the map below!
Hopefully the next time you play these scenarios, you will feel a bit more like Tolkien’s Alboin, seeing “the lie of old and even forgotten lands” and “ancient men walking” as you travel to the Gladden Fields where Isildur fell, the Wood Elf Path where Bilbo adventured, the Necromancer’s Pass where Gandalf handled his “business away south”, and the Old Forest Road of the ancient Dwarves and the great march of the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. Happy questing!