Gondorian Fire is a card that captures a feeling of raw, massive, elemental power. Framed in the red border of the aggressive Tactics sphere, Michael Rasmussen’s artwork portrays a lone archer standing poised at a battlement beside a flaming cauldron. There is a single fiery arrow nocked in his bow. Sailing up the river behind him is a massive ship, engulfed in a bright orange inferno. Tiny figures scamper about the deck attempting to quell the blaze. But it is clearly too late. They, like their ship, are about to be incinerated by the awesome power of Gondorian Fire.
Ever since its release in the “Assault on Osgiliath” adventure pack, Gondorian Fire has become a staple attack boost in Gondor themed decks. Coupled with the vast resources that come from the Steward of Gondor or a dedicated Errand-rider, this card can turn any Man descended from the line of Númenor into an unstoppable powerhouse who can destroy even the game’s strongest enemies with a single blow.
But what does this card actually represent in Tolkien’s lore? “Gondorian fire” is never mentioned in The Lord of the Rings and, surprisingly, flaming arrows never appear as a weapon used by Gondor or any other faction in Middle-earth. Have our designers then wandered into ‘Tauriel territory’ here, creating new story elements with no textual basis or purpose other than to serve their own fantasies? I have more faith in them than that. In fact, I think that the card title and art direction for Gondorian Fire may show us that Lukas or Caleb (the Against the Shadow designers) have gone beyond Tolkien’s work to the real world historical sources that inspired him. Before you finish reading this article, we’ll not only have explored the history of Gondor in Middle-earth, but a little bit more of our own!
EXPLORE THE LEGEND
When creating a fictional world, where does anyone get their inspiration from? For our game designers, the source is Tolkien’s lore and legends about Middle-earth. But what about Tolkien himself? How did he come up with the idea of a hobbit, craft the culture of Dwarves, or invent an incorporeal villain named Sauron?
In his compilation of essays titled Tolkien and the Study of His Sources, Jeff Fisher argues that, as much as anything, J.R.R. Tolkien should be seen a “medieval writer”. This applies not only to his style of writing (producing works of “striking originality” by “melting down and reforging” existing popular myths) but also to the sources that inspired him. Indeed, medieval literature was not only Tolkien’s professional expertise, but also his personal passion. Even the most casual Tolkien fan knows the Professor crafted his tales in some measure from elements of Beowulf and the Bible, Old Norse mythology and Greek classics. The Rohirrim may be “Anglo-Saxons on horseback”, Númenor is inspired by Atlantis, and Tolkien compares Elendil to Noah. So where did the idea of Gondor come from? And could the answer to this question also yield our game designers’ inspiration for Gondorian Fire?
Before we go too deeply into that question, however, we must honor our Professor’s caution against the very endeavor we are undertaking. Tolkien was famously disapproving of source criticism and dismissive of those who tried to figure out where he got his ideas from. Responding to an inquiry into his sources from The Observer in 1938, Tolkien insisted that he did “not remember anything about the name or inception of the hero [Bilbo]” and that, as a source, Beowulf “was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing”. Years later Tolkien wrote to one Mr. Rang saying that he remained “puzzled, and indeed sometimes irritated” by efforts to guess at the “sources” or “hidden meanings” behind his work. Yet Tolkien’s clearest statement against source criticism comes in his popular essay, “On Fairy Stories”, in which he says that, “[w]e must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.” In other words, just enjoy the story and the card game. Who cares where the ideas came from!
While the Professor makes a legitimate point, I’m still curious. Plus, I don’t think that reading a recipe ruins a good meal. It might even make you appreciate it more! Besides, despite all his gruff condemnation of source criticism, it seems that what really rankled Tolkien wasn’t guesses, but bad guesses. The Observer article had guessed that Tolkien’s idea of hobbits came from possible encounters with hairy African pygmies during his childhood in South Africa. Mr. Rung had proposed that Sauron could be a derivation of saura, the Greek for ‘lizard’ familiar in the English word ‘dinosaur’. As a distinguished scholar and philologist, these ideas were, at best, absurd to Tolkien and, at worst, downright offensive.
Yet even while wishing these bad source critics would simply “be satisfied with the soup”, Tolkien has written dozens of letters delightedly explaining the “bones of the ox” for a good many of his words and ideas (Dwarf names from Old Norse and Black Speech from Old Irish in his response to Mr. Rung, for instance). Therefore, I think that if we simply agree to remain smart about it, we would have the Professor’s permission to proceed. It will actually be quite easy in the case of our Gondorian Fire because we don’t need to guess! Tolkien has explicitly told us some of the ingredients of Gondor. Ancient Egypt and Italy are two; but there is another, and this is the one that I surmise gave our designers the idea for Tactics Boromir‘s favorite attachment.
Lest we spoil the fun and give away the answer though, let me first test your medieval history by outlining some of the similarities between Gondor and the real world empire in question. Both were the vestigial remnants of an older, larger, and greater classical state. Their capitals were both relocated to strategic cities fortified by a ring of walls as a bulwark against invaders from the East. And both atrophied in decline over the centuries, requiring neighboring allies to help repel increasingly frequent siege attacks. Have you got it?
If you’ve read Tolkien’s most famous letter, then you might. This letter is Tolkien’s summary of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings sent to his publisher in 1951 (and now included as a preface in many editions of The Silmarillion). It includes the following lines, which begin by talking about The Lost Realm that will be featured in our next deluxe expansion:
But in the north Arnor dwindles, is broken into petty princedoms, and finally vanishes. The remnant of the Númenóreans becomes a hidden wandering Folk, and though their true line of Kings of Isildur’s heirs never fails this is known only in the House of Elrond. In the south Gondor rises to a peak of power, almost reflecting Númenor, and then fades slowly to a decayed Middle Age, a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium.
That’s right, Gondor is part Byzantium! In case you’ve forgotten your high school history class, the Byzantine Empire was Eastern Rome (after splitting from the West similar to Arnor and Gondor). Byzantium survived for nearly a millennium after Western Rome fell to Germanic tribes in 476 and even rivaled its classical grandeur at times in the 7th century. Most of Byzantine history, however, was a steady decline that recalled but never reclaimed Rome’s former glory. The Byzantine capital of Constantinople was protected by a three-tiered defense named the Walls of Theodosius. This is echoed by the seven rings of “the half-ruinous Byzantine City of Minas Tirith” (as Tolkien describes the Gondorian capital in a different letter to his publisher). Just as Turks from the East made steady gains against Byzantium throughout the latter life of the kingdom, the forces of Mordor encroached upon the White City in Middle-earth. And as those attacks became more intense, Byzantium needed the Catholics of western Europe to aid in the defense of their Greek Orthodox city, similar to Gondor’s appeal to Rohan in The Return of the King. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields has many similarities to the Battle of Constantinople in 1453, with one major difference. In world history, Constantinople fell to the Turks, but in Middle-earth, Gondor prevailed.
It is this identification of Gondor with Byzantium that finally brings us to our goal of figuring out where Lukas and Caleb got the idea for Gondorian Fire. Byzantium was one of the longest surviving empires in the history of the world and one of the main keys to their longevity was an innovative weapon known as “Greek fire”. Here is how Greek fire is described by Byzantine historian Judith Herrin:
Greek fire remains a mystery. It was probably made from crude oil acquired from naphtha wells in Crimea, mixed with resin, but the precise proportions and the hydraulic mechanism for projecting are still rather unclear. Some combination of the substances nonetheless created the most important weapon in the Byzantine military arsenal, which could be forced onto enemy ships, causing terror and destruction.
The formula for Greek fire was so important to maintaining military superiority that it was officially made a state secret by Constantine VII in the 10th century. No foreigner could ever know its true source. As a result, the only history that remains of this frightening weapon is a curious 9th century illustration (below) and the awestruck records of enemies who faced Greek fire in combat.
This passage is from one Liutprand of Cremona, a Russian chronicler describing their failed attack on Constantinople in 941:
The Greeks began to fling their fire all around; and the Rusii seeing the flames threw themselves in haste from their ships, preferring to be drowned in the water rather than burned alive in the fire.
Replace the “Rusii” with “Easterlings” and this 10th century chronicle could be the art direction for our 21st century player card! Of course, the artwork on Gondorian Fire depicts an archer with a flaming arrow rather than a flamethrower, so the historical analogy is imperfect. Still, Tolkien didn’t feature any incendiary weapons in his lore and our designers got the distinctive name of this card from somewhere. Given the Professor’s identification of Byzantium as an inspiration for Gondor, is it a bad guess that its source is Greek fire? Lukas or Caleb, if you’re out there, please let me know. Have I correctly identified one of the “ox bones” in your ingredients for the LOTR LCG? Or should I stop rambling and take to enjoying your soup with a side of humble pie?
SHOWCASE THE ARTWORK
Michael Rasmussen is a tough guy to find online. In fact, he’s the first artist that has completely eluded me. He seems to be active on BoardGameGeek from time to time and advertised for his work in 2009, but his website link is broken and I’ve tired of scrolling through Google results about a Danish cyclist of the same name.
Despite this, Mr. Rasmussen has been quite the prolific artist for FFG and is still producing work. Hall of Beorn‘s card search for his name reveals he has painted 41 cards for the LOTR LCG over the life of the game, including several iconic locations and Celebrimbor’s Mould from our latest expansion. Interestingly, his work on Gondorian Fire is the only player card he’s ever made. I’ve chosen to showcase his Pelennor Fields card from “The Massing at Osgiliath”. The scenario fits in with the history we’ve been discussing and perhaps the smoke on the horizon is rising in part from devastation wrought by FFG’s Gondorian Fire.
Our second image today comes from The Lord of the Rings Online, a game that I understand I should probably get into as a lore junkie. This Gondorian Swan Knight is portrayed as a soldier of Prince Imrahil, who happens to be another particularly good target for Gondorian Fire. His gear was apparently created with the “Skyrim Mod for Gondorian Armament” which may mean something to players of the game. I just think the soldier looks incredibly cool and the stylized cross emblazoned on the helm evokes a thematic Byzantine character.
Finally, I’d like to share the latest map I’ve created for Master of Lore’s LOTR LCG Atlas. It is the “half-ruinous Byzantine City of Minas Tirith” as imagined in the locations of “The Steward’s Fear” adventure pack and populated by some Gondorian themed player cards. Unfortunately WordPress does not play nicely with ThingLink so you’ll have to click the image to check out my interactive pop-up version. The map is from Karen Wynn Fonstad’s fantastic Atlas of Middle-earth which is always by my side while cracking open a new scenario in our game. Please click below and take a look. I hope you won’t be disappointed!
DISCUSS THE CARDS
Strategically, Gondorian Fire is the most powerful attack boost in the entire game. The only limit to its power is the number of resources you can generate on a single hero. Put quite simply, this is bonkers. All you need is a hero with the Gondor trait, something easily achieved with the Steward of Gondor attachment. Throw some action advantage in with Unexpected Courage or Cram and you can create a superhero. Regular readers will remember that I defeated “The Three Trials” by taking the Path of Need to allow Prince Imrahil and Gondorian Fire to consume all three Guardian enemies in a single blazing round.
Of course, heroes that come with the Gondor trait in the Tactics sphere will be the easiest (and most thematic) fit. That roster has recently expanded to include Boromir, Beregond, and Mablung. Of these, there’s no doubt that Boromir is the best choice as his built-in readying ability coupled with Gondorian Fire can turn him into a Byzantine beserker of unrivaled potency. Anyone looking for a deck list to unleash this beast should check out “Boromir’s Fire” by Tracker1 on Board Game Geek. More recently, we’ve received Faramir’s sidekick Mablung whose ability to gain a resource when engaging an enemy makes him quite a cool choice as well. Simply taking on a bad guy will provide Mablung with the requisite resource (imagine oil, naptha, and resin) needed to ignite his fire and fell his foes.
Strategically, there are really no special tricks or secret combos to unveil here. Just power up and plow through enemies. Thematically, however, things do get a bit more complicated. While there is some record of the Byzantine Empire using flamethrowers with Greek fire in open land battles, the medieval weapon was mainly deployed in naval warfare. Striving for the most thematic usage of our incandescent attachment then will send us looking for a sea-based scenario.
The closest we get the Great Sea in any of our adventures so far is in the inaugural quest of the Heirs of Númenor expansion “Peril in Pelargir”. At the time of its release, I remember this quest seemed nearly impossible. Just recalling my early frustrations makes me begin entertaining dark fantasies of going back with Gondorian Fire to incinerate those nasty Harbor Thugs. Yes, I can see it now! Boromir has inherited the Wealth of Gondor. He has been blowing the Horn of Gondor. He is supported by his father, the Steward of Gondor. He is flush with resources. He kindles his Gondorian Fire to life. But wait! Those tattooed thugs have smug smiles but only 1 defense and 3 hit points — hardly worth our fiery fury. Maybe this isn’t our best choice.
Besides naval battles, the Byzantines also used Greek fire to repel invaders at the Walls of Theodosius in the siege of Constantinople. Now I have my perfect thematic play — “The Siege of Cair Andros”! Boromir is marshaling The Defense of the northern Anduin crossing. A sinister Siege Raft piled with bloodthirsty orcs approaches The Banks. And then (if I may channel Liutprand) the Gondorian “[begins] to fling fire all around” engulfing the wooden craft in flames and sending its charred remains to the bottom of the river. Source critics of the LOTR LCG world, you now not only know where the idea for Gondorian Fire came from, but the source of my next playthrough as well. Yes indeed, Battering Rams are looking fantastically flammable…
Until next time, happy questing!