It’s been about four months since our heroes stumbled out of Fangorn Forest and back to Saruman with the wizard’s prize, a fearsome orc named Mugash, in tow. But now, at last, we are finally ready to set out once more in the service of Orthanc to seek the secrets of Celebrimbor, the Elven-smith who created the Rings of Power, in the “Wild Lands” northwest of Rohan. The Dunland Trap has been released!
Personally, I am stoked about the beginning of The Ring-maker cycle because we will be exploring a region of Middle-earth that is almost entirely undeveloped by Professor Tolkien. As Boromir says to Celeborn in The Fellowship of the Ring, “All that lies north of Rohan is now to us so far away that fancy can wander freely there.” These are the ruins of the Second Age Elven kingdom of Eregion, destroyed by Sauron after the creation of the Rings of Power, and the old borderlands between Gondor and Arnor, long abandoned since the ravages of the Great Plague and Fell Winter. The deforested plains, deserted cities, and defiled marshlands of this region are the perfect setting for FFG to let their “fancy wander freely”. As they flesh out the details of cultures and geography only mentioned in brief on the far fringes of The Lord of the Rings narrative, yet absolutely central to the history of the War of the Ring in Middle-earth, how will FFG expand Tolkien’s story? Let’s follow the clues from Tolkien’s text and FFG’s spoiler articles to venture a guess, starting with The Dunland Trap.
While my pack hasn’t yet arrived in the mail, FFG has provided full spoilers for The Dunland Trap, which means we can begin our exploration of this mysterious region and its inhabitants without any further delay. Unlike my feature articles and “hasty strokes” which discuss a single card in rigorous depth, this piece will take us on a broader overview of the lore behind the names and keywords of the locations and enemies in our newest adventure. So without further ado, let’s head northwest from Isengard into the hills of Dunland to see what is in store for our heroes!
QUEST: THE ROAD TO THARBAD
Although we begin our journey on The Road to Tharbad, our heroes target destination is not this broken crossroads between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Men, but rather the ancient ruins of Ost-in-Edhil, the capital city of Eregion where the Rings of Power were forged around 1590 of the Second Age. But on our way, we must take the road to Tharbad, which Boromir traveled on his way to the Council of Elrond. Boromir called it a “long and wearisome journey” in which he lost his horse attempting to ford the Gwathló River at the ruins of Tharbad. Of this path, Tolkien later wrote that:
When Boromir made his great journey from Gondor to Rivendell – the courage and hardihood required is not fully recognized in the narrative – the North-South Road no longer existed except for the crumbling remains of the causeways, by which a hazardous approach to Tharbad might be achieved, only to find ruins on dwindling mounds…
This Old South Road was once “the chief route of communication” between Gondor and Arnor, before the Northern Kingdom fell. At that time, “both kingdoms shared an interest in this region” and “maintained the Bridge of Tharbad” and “a considerable garrison of soldiers, mariners and engineers”. However, by the time of The Lord of the Rings, the “long causeways” had fallen into decay. Hobbits called the part of this road north of Tharbad “the Greenway” because it had become grown over with grass in its disuse since “the Northern Lands had long been desolate”. Around the time of our adventure, Saruman had began trafficking this road again with his minions (just as we will be doing), discretely trying to discover why Gandalf was so interested in the Shire and beginning to import the pipeweed that Merry and Pippin discover in the storerooms of Isengard after its fall. Years after we fall into The Dunland Trap, Saruman will take this same route to escape to the Shire under the nom de guerre “Sharky” to exact his revenge on the Halflings who robbed him of his chance to fulfill the ambitions we are kindling with our Ring-maker quests. As you check out the map below, note that future adventures in this cycle are titled Trouble in Tharbad and The Nîn-in-Eilph.
LOCATION: THE ENEDWAITH
All of the locations in The Dunland Trap feature the Enedwaith trait which refers to the Sindarin name for the whole region between the Gwathló (Greyflood) and Isen rivers. The name means “Middle-folk” and was given during the Third Age in reference to Men that lived in the area between the Two Kingdoms in Exile. These were descendents of early Númenórean settlers who survived into the Third Age until the Great Plague and Fell Winter eliminated the remnants of their inhabitation over a thousand years before our adventure from Isengard up the road to Tharbad.
The fullest episode in the history of this region comes in “The Port of Lond Daer”, a philological essay included as Appendix D in the “History of Galadriel and Celeborn” in Unfinished Tales. Here we learn that the Enedwaith was once “occupied by vast and almost continuous forests” until the Mariner-king of Númenor, Tal-Aldarion chose the mouth of the Greyflood for a “timber-port and ship-building harbour” which was later called Lond Daer. Over the years, the forest-dwelling ancestors of the Dunlendings who lived in the lush region saw their “awe of the Númenóreans” gradually give way to hostility as “the tree-felling became devastating”. At this point, they “attacked and ambushed the Númenóreans when they could”. Far from being defeated however, we are told that “the Númenóreans treated them as enemies, and became ruthless in their fellings, giving no thought to husbandry or replanting”. In classic colonial style, the Númenórean modus operandi became seizing land from the native peoples while extracting all the natural resources. By the end of the Second Age, the “devastation wrought by the Númenóreans was incalculable” and “most of the old forests had been destroyed”.
The first name given to the northern boundary of the Enedwaith was Gwathir which means “River of Shadow” because “huge trees cast great shadows on the river” but after the denuding of the forest, the name becomes Gwathló meaning “Shadowy Fen” after the swamps which remain after the trees are gone. Having already fallen morally, the stage is set for the final collapse of the greatest kingdom of Men.
As you scan the locations awaiting us, note that Hithaeglir is simply the Sindarin name for the Misty Mountains and that the unique Munuv Dûv Ravine where we will encounter the eponymous trap of the scenario’s title is an FFG creation not taken from anywhere in Tolkien’s lore (the flavor text is a quote referring to Nan Curunír, the Wizard’s Vale). Here we have our first original location to add to the list of female heroes and orc captains imagined by FFG to expand the world of Middle-earth beyond the Professor’s pages. While we will travel through some trees venturing close to the Hithaeglir, it is on the Plains of the Enedwaith where we see the effects of the Númenórean deforestation in the artwork. As a vengeful interplay unfolds between these locations and our card draw, remember the history of Númenórean colonization that has contributed to the harsh repercussions our heroes receive for what previous foreigners have done in this land.
While the “wild men” of Dunland and their vindictive attacks on our company are not new to us following The Voice of Isengard, FFG has gone a step further in The Dunland Trap by expanding the tribal culture of the Dunlendings by introducing Chief Turch and two members of the Boar Clan. This keyword and any detailed development of Dunlending culture is entirely an FFG invention and I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes in The Three Trials or The Antlered Crown (more on my guess at the end)!
Like most 21st century players, I am a bit unsettled by the idea of “civilized” heroes mowing down the barbarous “savages”, but as we have seen in the previous section on locations, Professor Tolkien’s text does offer a much more nuanced view of the conflict between the “wild” men and “civilized” men than might be gathered in a first glance at the topic. In fact, in his description of them in “The Battles of the Fords of Isen” in Unfinished Tales, Tolkien himself uses quotation marks around “wild” indicating his awareness that this loaded term is coming from a particular cultural viewpoint, in this case, that of Rohan. This is exemplar of Tolkien’s preference for “history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the readers” as opposed to allegory which foists the “purposed domination of the author” upon his subjects.
The history of Dunlendings then, is that of a displaced and denigrated race that actually makes me quite sympathetic to their cause as we blunder into their trap (and hopeful for my guess about where the story will go). As Tolkien writes in “Of Dwarves and Men” in The Peoples of Middle-earth:
It must be said that ‘unfriendliness’ towards Númenóreans and their allies was not always due to the Shadow, but in later days to the actions of the Númenóreans themselves. Thus many of the forest-dwellers [of Enedwaith] were as later historians recognized of the Folk of Haleth; but they became bitter enemies of the Númenóreans, because of their ruthless treatment and their devastation of the forests, and this hatred remained unappeased in their descendents, causing them to join with any enemies of Númenór. In the Third Age, their survivors were the people known in Rohan as the Dunlendings.
The most immediate grievance the Dunlendings are addressing in the Third Age, however, isn’t their ancestors’ mistreatment at the hands of the Númenóreans but rather the relatively recent land grant from Gondor to the Eorl the Young for his help in repulsing an Easterling invasion a mere 500 years before The Lord of the Rings. At that time, the “enmity of the ‘wild’ Dunlendings seemed of small account to the Stewards” and Rohan was established in the lands where they had been “drifting steadily and unchecked” in the years following the Great Plague. Once again, the Men of the West had usurped the Dunlendings’ holdings.
This conflict begun between the Rohirrim and the Dunlendings took its most decisive turn about 250 years before The Lord of the Rings. Found in Appendix A “The House of Eorl”, the story goes that King Helm of Rohan refused to grant the hand of his daughter to the son of Freca, an upstart nobleman who also had “much Dunlendish blood”. When Freca threatens King Helm with his Dunlending posse, Helm calls him “fat” and tells him to leave. Freca’s posse sees that King Helm’s men “far outnumber them” and they draw back. Then Helm says, “Freca, your folly has grown with your belly,” and delivers “such a blow with his fist that [Freca] fell back stunned, and died soon after.” This epic single punch kill of the Dunlending usurper Freca is what earns Rohan’s King Helm the name “Hammerhand”.
But “such a blow” is not easily forgotten. Freca’s son Wulf waits until Rohan is dealing with its next invasion from the East and strikes back. Wulf and his Dunlending armies overrun Rohan, slaying or enslaving everyone who cannot escape to the mountains, and driving Helm back to take refuge in the Hornburg (which was known after as Helm’s Deep). While Wulf sits on the throne in Edoras as the “King” of the Golden Hall, Helm and the surviving Rohirrim are holed up in the mountains. Then comes the Long Winter of 2758 (not to be confused with the later Fell Winter which spells the final end of Tharbad). “Fierce and gaunt for famine and grief”, Helm sneaks out of the Hornburg “by himself, clad in white” to “stalk like a snow-troll into the camps” of the Dunlendings where he would “slay many men with his hands”. Helm Hammerhand’s feats become legend among the Dunlendings and they “believed that if he bore no weapons no weapon would bite him” and that “if he could find no food he ate men”. Helm would blow a great horn before his raids into the besieging camp and soon the sound of its blast echoing in the Deep could send the Dunlendings into great fear. Helm Hammerhand’s final fate is one of those iconic scenes in Tolkien’s lore that can only be told in his own words:
One night men heard the horn blowing, but Helm did not return. In the morning there came a sun-gleam, the first for long days, and they saw a white figure standing still on the Dike, alone, for none of the Dunlendings dared come near. There stood Helm, dead as a stone, but his knees were unbent. Yet men said that the horn was still heard at times in the Deep and the wraith of Helm would walk among the foes of Rohan and kill men with fear.
After this, the Long Winter breaks and Helm’s nephew Fréalaf comes down from Dunharrow to defeat Wulf, reclaim Edoras, and drive off the Dunlendings. But their rivalry is not quelled. It is at Fréalaf’s coronation that Saruman makes his first appearance in Rohan, “bringing gifts, and speaking great praise of the valour of the Rohirrim”. Shortly after, he is given the keys of Orthanc and though Fréalaf “was glad to know that Isengard [is] in the hands of a strong friend,” Saruman’s seeming friendship slowly begins to turn to evil and he exploits the Dunlendings’ disdain of Rohan to build up his base of power. Gamling understands this dynamic at play in the Dunlendings’ participation in the Battle of Helm’s Deep saying:
They hate us, and they are glad; for our doom seems certain to them. Not in half a thousand years have they forgotten their grievance that the lords of Gondor gave the Mark to Eorl the Young and made alliance with him. That old hatred Saruman has inflamed. They are fierce folk when roused. They will not give way now for dusk or dawn, until Théoden is taken, or they themselves are slain.
It is into this toxic brew of ancient wrongs and sinister agitation that our heroes are stepping in The Dunland Trap. Yet while the “wild men” of the Boar Clan may be our “enemies” in this scenario, never forget that the word “wild” in Tolkien’s work always has a complex connotation that goes beyond good and evil to something not primitive, but primal. Indeed, it is primal mercy and awe that ultimately begins to heal the relationship between the Dunlendings and the Rohirrim following Helm’s Deep. Although the Orcs all fought to the death, “a great many of the hillmen had given themselves up; and they were afraid, and cried for mercy.” Erkenbrand shocks them by showing compassion, that transformative virtue in Tolkien’s world and our own. He reveals Saruman’s treachery and sets them to “repair the evil” of the battle by making burial mounds for the Orcs before exhorting them to “go free back to your land”. While this is not the ceding of the Westfold that some might see as justice for the ancient past, it does leave the men of Dunland “amazed” since Saruman had led them to believe captives would be “burned alive”.
Unlike The Drúadan Forest in which we were able to make similar conciliatory inroads the Wood Woses, it appears that in The Dunland Trap no Erkenbrand-style reconciliation will be possible as we fight to survive in the Munuv Dûv Ravine. I do suspect, however, that the moral complexity of the Dunlendings is going to be explored throughout the cycle. As Boromir stated at the outset, there is room for “fancy to wander freely” in this region and FFG clearly has plenty of thoughtful new additions to Tolkien’s lore up their sleeve. So here’s my guess (hope) for where this cycle is going with the Dunland plot. The victory condition in The Dunland Trap doesn’t involve defeating all the enemies and the description of The Three Trials says that our heroes will be meeting the Raven Clan and facing Guardian spirits in order to recover an ancient Dunlending artifact called the Antlered Crown. This is the title of the final adventure in which we are told “war has broken loose” in the hills of Dunland and the Raven Chief is a victory point enemy. Is it possible that our journey through Dunland will lead us to empathize with the history of these displaced tribesman, learn more about their culture, and ultimately ally with one of the clans to bring some peace to a civil war in their land? Unfortunately, as ambassadors of Saruman, such an effort might only serve to strengthen his influence over Dunland, but only time will tell. After all this reading and anticipation, I’m more than ready to find out. Bring on The Dunland Trap!