The Moment of Courage and Despair

One of the things that people commonly underestimate is the depth of grief and despair to be found in the works of JRR Tolkien. This is, without a doubt, a big part of the huge impact that his work had on me, starting as an early adolescent to the present day. I could either say that I struggle with depression, or that I perceive the world around me and feel tremendous grief and despair about it, and either one, or both, would be true.

A friend recently @ed me on Twitter, wondering what I had to say about eucatastrophe, as I’ve written and thought about it in the past. Eucatastrophe is, in brief, a “The eagles are coming!” moment, as found at the climax of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is an idea that Tolkien first described with that term, but not an idea original to him by any means (of course). Tolkien learned it from Christianity, and would say that his idea of eucatastrophe is merely patterned after the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, he argued that we find ideas like eucatastrophe compelling precisely because they mirror the great story of God saving the world. It come up in his poem Mythopoeia, if you look for it, and in many of his writings. Dig in – I’m not going to cite everything here.

My friend said the following on Twitter:

“Because Holy Christ, do we need a little eucatastrophe right now. I honestly don’t know how else a deliverance from global social media-fueled capitalist fascism will occur.”

Now, this is a Unitarian Universalist saying “Holy Christ,” so you know it’s serious and they’re at wit’s end.

Since he asked me, I thought about what I might say on the topic of eucatastrophe, because I definitely share his despair about the situation of the world. And rightly so – if you are optimistic about the next 100 years for humanity and the natural world, I’m comfortable saying that you are ignorant of, or willfully ignoring, a lot of things. And to be clear, I don’t blame you. If you can’t escape the burning house, you can try to make sense of the flames. Maybe that’s all we can do.

The eucatastrophe is by definition unexpected – it is something you did not anticipate or even imagine happening. Even if you don’t believe that Jesus came back, you can probably agree that after his crucifixion, no one around him expected him to come back. None of his followers behaved as if he was going to come back – not even the women, who were clearly the smart and courageous ones.

Let’s say my friend and I are right, and only an eucatastophe can save us, and millions of other species as well, at this juncture. That means that our current moment is some moment before this eucatastrophe. But what is the moment before eucatastrophe like? The main eucatastrophe scene in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings occurs while the point of view character is unconscious, but let’s look at the one from The Return of the King, starting with preparation for the last battle at the Black Gate in the chapter “The Black Gate Opens.”

During their preparation for the last battle, Gandalf says this:

‘We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dur be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless – as we surely shall, if we sit here – and know as we die that no new age shall be.’

Bilbo growing in courage is a theme of The Hobbit, and courage without hope is a theme in The Lord of the Rings, becoming a more dominant one as the story progresses. Even the small glimmer of hope that Gandalf clings to here is snuffed out in the same chapter, as we will see. But this is the kind of decision-making that occurs before the eucatastrophe – no reasonable hope of victory or success exists, and yet they resolve to see the fight through to the bitter end.

Here we get the admixture that is found in many places in Tolkien’s writing – a combination of faithfulness and fortitude in the midst of a hard task. Here Tolkien drew upon his understanding of Roman Catholic moral theology and virtue, as well as the grim courage in the face of certain death that typified the Germanic heroic literature which was his professional life. It is, in the best sense I think, martyrdom. It is something we can see reflected in, for example, Daniel chapter 3:

16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. 17 If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.[b]18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

Like many of the heroes we see in The Lord of the Rings, including Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, Theoden in Helm’s Deep, and now the Captains of the West preparing to march on Mordor, here we have the heroes of the story resisting not because they expect victory but because they simply refuse to give up. Being faithful to what they value and believe is more important than winning, and even the hopelessness of their situation cannot turn them aside.

But even the small hope that Gandalf holds out is later extinguished.

When they reach the Black Gate, neither the Captains of the West nor the first-time reader knows what has happened to Frodo and Sam, but the Mouth of Sauron relishes the opportunity to crush everyone’s hope:

The Messenger put these aside, and there to the wonder and dismay of all the Captains he held up first the short sword that Sam had carried, and next a grey cloak with an elven-brooch, and last the coat of mithril-mail that Frodo had worn wrapped in his tattered garments. A blackness came before their eyes, and it seemed to them in a moment of silence that the world stood still, but their hearts were dead and their last hope gone.

As the moment before eucatastrophe is drawn out, even small hopes are extinguished. The hopes of the strongest, the leaders of this last desperate attempt at buying time for true victory, are crushed. Not long after this, battle is truly joined, and everyone’s hope is lost. Now nothing seems to stand between them and a painful, meaningless death.

The wind blew, and the trumpets sang, and arrows whined; but the sun now climbing towards the South was veiled in the reeks of Mordor, and through a threatening haze it gleamed, remote, a sullen red, as if it were the ending of the day, or the end maybe of all the world of light. And out of the gathering mirk the Nazgul came with their cold voices crying words of death: and then all hope was quenched.

And we, as the reader, are privy to Pippin’s last thoughts, which hint at eucatastrophe for us. But from Pippin’s point of view, this is his death, ending in defeat as he thought would happen all along, crushed and suffocated beneath the weight of a troll-corpse, one more lump of carrion for the crows.

‘So it ends as I guessed it would,’ his thought said, even as it fluttered away; and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear. And then even as it winged away into forgetfulness it heard voices, and they seemed to be crying in some forgotten world far above:

‘The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!’

For one moment more Pippin’s thought hovered. ‘Bilbo!’ it said. ‘But no! That came in his tale, long long ago. This is my tale, and it is ended now. Good-bye!’ And his thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more.

We see that there might be some hope to keep us reading, as we look at see that we have 3/4 of the book left to go through (including Appendices) before we’re done. We know the story continues, but Pippin does not. As far as he knows, all of his friends are dead or will soon be killed, and the Shire will be destroyed, and all the known world will be plunged into darkness.

Wrath, Grief, and Ruin

The moment before eucatastrophe is a time of wrath, grief, and ruin. Wrath, as we see Gandalf seize the tokens from the Mouth of Sauron, in memory of his friends, and then he drives the ‘Messenger’ off in terror. Fine. There is no hope. Gird up your loins, then, because we are coming for you.

Grief, because in learning that Sam and Frodo are apparently captured, sentenced to long, slow torture spanning years until they are utterly broken, Gandalf is losing two beloved friends and companions. Not only the hope of the world was with them, but Gandalf’s love, concern, and friendship. Pippin can’t help but cry out, revealing that they know to whom those things belonged, and the Mouth of Sauron delights in their pain as eagerly as if he was wearing a red MAGA hat.

Ruin because this was the end. At that point, no one in leadership had any expectation of survival. They came to terms with the fact that all they had left to do was to go down fighting.

So then, if we are in a similar moment, what is it that we can look toward that will save us from social media-fueled capitalist fascism?

Nothing.

Fight anyway.

The Means at the End

This is a dangerous place to leave the discussion, because one could easily imagine the MAGA-bomber giving a similar answer – that wrath, grief and ruin drove him to the last desperate act of political assassination. Any number of people, driven to horrific violence, might tell a similar story of perceived loss, and of what they saw as courage in the face of terrible odds.

For this reason, any movement that seeks to resist social media-driven capitalist fascism, or however else you imagine the looming end, must be nonviolent. 

Because a terrible end to this human story seems so inevitable; because the odds are so overwhelmingly stacked against any such resistance; because the forces of evil are so thoroughly ascendant, there is no other option that has any hope of leading to moral ends. In the story of The Lord of the Rings, violence didn’t work. It didn’t bring hope or lasting victory. In our current story, we thought that we defeated the Nazis back in 1945. Little did we know that millions of Americans would support a President who our own Nazis would see as their last, great hope, who would sing the praises of authoritarian dictators and vilify the press, campaign on explicit bigotry and nativism, and basically follow the blueprint of 1930s Germany.

In the face of wrath, grief, and ruin, driven to extremity, human beings who hold up violence as an option will almost invariably turn to violence. This is where the imagery in The Lord of the Rings falls short in applicability to our situation today. We aren’t fighting orcs, we are fighting other human beings who are on the wrong side of history for some human reason. They are not driven by the supernatural will of the emissary of a fallen angel, but driven by recognizable, human motivations like fear, addiction, greed, cowardice and apathy.

The means with which we fight must be humane above all else. 

Here, radical ideologies are often unhelpful, but Christianity might be a powerful resource. Earlier, I described the moment before eucatastrophe as martyrdom from Tolkien’s Roman Catholic point of view, and the martyrs, as far as I know, died resisting nonviolently. (Know a lot about martyrs? Comment below)

To live in this moment before eucatastrophe, we need much more MLK Jr. than we need Aragorn. But to see and understand this moment, I think we can look to the works of Tolkien, to understand our current moment. If it is the moment before eucatastrophe, we will of course not know, but the heroic thing is to fight anyway, with or without hope.

Epilogue

‘Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.’

The above quote from Gandalf is not quite accurate, given climate change, but important nonetheless I think. There is always another evil – we are only responsible for the fields that we know.

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #6

D&D Firearms Fix

The way that 5E D&D handles firearms doesn’t make much sense. You can look at videos of a bullet striking a breastplate and compare them to videos of an arrow striking a breastplate and see the difference. So I reworked firearms for D&D. Against a gun all medium creatures are AC 10 – your studded leather armor will have no impact on that bullet, which will also go through chain and plate armor. Small creatures are AC 11. Large creatures are AC 9, and so on up. Firearms also do double the dice in damage that’s listed in the DMG. Adamantine and mithril armor still counts against firearms, as long as it is solid (mithril chain won’t help). Shields grant +1 armor. 

To balance things out, and for some slight realism, one-handed firearms take 2 full rounds to reload and two-handed firearms take 3 full rounds to reload. That’s still quicker than people can actually reload black powder weapons, but it’s a balance between that and D&D. It means that firearms will be more like what they are in, say, the Three Musketeers or Pirates of the Caribbean – good for a deadly opening volley, and then you close and fight.

I like this hack because it makes firearms more interesting than other weapons. Firearms should be scary. As an alternate rule, you could say that any plate armor can grant its AC bonus against flintlock firearms if the armor was built by people familiar with flintlock weapons. Breastplates during the early age of gunpowder were able to deflect bullets, though these weapons quickly outdistanced armor.

An Initiative Mod: Act First or Act Last

In a system where an initiative roll determines action order, have the option of declaring that you act first or you act last in the round. The benefit for acting first is that you get advantage on your action, or another kind of appropriate bonus (+2 in Pathfinder, etc.), but you have disadvantage on all defenses for the rest of the round (or your attackers have advantage or a bonus on their attacks against you). You throw yourself into the fray at the cost of safety.

Conversely, you can declare that you are acting last, hanging back and seeing how things play out before you act. This choice gives you advantage on all of your defenses for the round, or an appropriate bonus, as you see things coming.

If more than one character declares they are going first or going last, they all receive the same bonus and/or penalty, and still act in the order of rolled initiative compared to each other. So, with initiative rolls of 12, 11, 9, 7 and 6, where 9 and 7 both say they are acting first, 9 and 7 move to the top of the initiative list, both get advantage on their attack, and both have disadvantage on all defenses for the round. 9 still goes before 7.

Alignment

For any game with an alignment system, you can use the so-called Five Moral Foundations (with a sixth one added during research on the Five due to feedback). Those moral foundations are: compassion, fairness, liberty, loyalty, purity, and tradition.

  • Compassion: define the circle of compassion, and then the DM can push that. Who is most deserving?
  • Fairness:  what is unfair that needs to be made right? Push: what will you give up in order to be fair?
  • Liberty: your own, and others. Who needs to be set free?
  • Loyalty: to whom or what are you loyal? What about when you’re asked to do something wrong? What about dissent?
  • Purity: what, or who, is disgusting? What is the poison that must be cleansed?
  • Tradition:  what traditions do you hold dear? Push: how will you deal with innovation and change? What about corrupt authorities? 

Villains and heroes have the same alignment system, because it is easy (and interesting) to imagine a villain rooted in each of these six moral alignments. Most people on both sides of every war in history has felt loyalty to their cause. Many genocides are driven by an out-of-control drive to remain pure, and purity language is found movements like Nazism for example. Compassion is hard to make the core of a villain, but could easily lead a person not to act decisively when they need to, in order to prevent more harm.

This hack also makes “know alignment” style spells and abilities more interesting. You detect a villain’s alignment, and get “Liberty.” This doesn’t tell you that they are “evil”, but it does tell you something about what they want and believe, which could be important in defeating them, or even converting them to your side.

Any cool hacks you want to share? Leave a comment!

Save Against Fear 2018: Aftermath

This year, Save Against Fear was awesome. For me, it was just 3 solid days of happiness. Possibly the best convention experience I’ve ever had. I hope it was good for everyone else there, too. Folks looked happy, and I saw a number of people just walk in from the Mall and check out what was going on. (One way to tell – Save folks are almost all white, so when I saw POC there I was pretty sure they were walk-ins, and it was great to see them)

Friday

I got there bright and early to run Satanic Panic in the first slot of the con. It was a ton of fun, and I really like some things about the system. It does what it does very well, I think, even for a playtest version of the full game, which is all I had. The game isn’t about whether you succeed or fail at using skills, but rather about whether you can manage your collateral damage and the amount of panic that you cause in the community. The players had tactical decisions to make.

The main challenge for me, as Game Master, was dealing with the fact that there are no skill rolls. The agents always succeed if it is within reason. So I had to tamp down my instinct to call for rolls and just decide what happens next. It was good, though, and I remembered that I enjoy a mechanic in games that lets you succeed without rolling, both as a player and as a GM. I’d just never run a game where that was the only mechanic.

For players, I had two game designers and one woman who had never played a tabletop RPG before. She actually came to the table thinking it would be a panel discussion or presentation on the history of the Satanic Panic, but she stayed to game and did a fantastic job.

Next, after cramming some Subway into my gullet, I jumped into a Pugmire game with Eddie Webb! Basically, it was a refurbished version of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the 1980 D&D module, which is a great fit for Pugmire. The game was fun – everyone brought their best, I think, and we apparently bypassed all of the main threats (accidentally) and then rolled a natural 20 at the end of the scenario. In essence, we defeated the Barrier Peaks. Pwned.

Saturday

Once again I woke up early and drove out to Harrisburg Mall so that I could play in Barak Blackburn’s Retrostar game, “Galactic Run 83.” This was actually a game put together by Jack Berkenstock so that he could play with his friends all at the same time. The game is simple, but was a ton of fun, mostly because of the work that Barak put into the scenario. It is the first game I’ve played that included a puppet as one player-character, and the character sheets were cassette tape inserts complete with a character soundtrack on the tape. Baller.

In the middle of the day, I facilitated our Game Designer’s Panel, which was recorded so that perhaps someday you could enjoy it as well. It featured Joseph “Bear” Thompson, Rich Thomas, Eddie Webb, Doug Levandowski, and Barak Blackburn.

I got to play in a game of Kids On Bikes with the designer, Doug Levandowski. It was another very fun scenario, featuring the curse of Hamlet and more than one punch to the nards.

Sunday

The third day of Save was quieter, but I got to play in a playtest of the Critical Strengths Engine. In brief, it is a RPG being designed for therapeutic use from the ground up, and Jack ran a Pugmire scenario for me and four therapists. We gave some recorded feedback and filled out forms and handed our materials back in. I’m not sure I’m supposed to talk about, so I won’t, but it did motivate me to work on some new RPG projects for The Bodhana Group. With any luck, you’ll be seeing those sometime in the future.

Save Against Fear 2018

The time has come once again for Save Against Fear, the fundraiser convention that we run to support The Bodhana Group.

I love TBG, and I’m proud to serve on the board and support them however I can. In case you don’t know – The Bodhana Group uses games in therapy, primarily with children and youth who struggle with mental illness, Autism Spectrum Disorder, grief and other socio-emotional challenges. We are working on multiple games, research projects to put rigorous data behind what we do, and are running multiple groups in collaboration with care providers in the York, PA area.

Save Against Fear is an awesome, small, local convention held in Harrisburg PA. The schedule is flush with games, including multiple opportunities to game with game designers like Eddie Webb, Doug Levandowski and Jason Godeski among others. I think we’ll actually have six or seven designers in total, running their games. We also have plenty of Pathfinder Society games, board games, a game auction, and a huge collection of games that you can sign out and play.

I will be running Satanic Panic for a full table, and I will also be moderating our Game Designer’s Panel which should be a blast.

I know, this is basically a commercial for Save Against Fear, but if I can only go to one convention in a given year, this is the one I attend. It’s fun on its own terms, and in addition raises money for a good cause. Pretty much everyone you meet there will be awesome, because a nonprofit that uses games to heal children attracts some special folks, as you’d expect.

Maybe I’ll see you there this weekend.

Prayer (Goodbye Zu-zu)

Tonight our hamster died, so I decided to tell a story about prayer.

When we first got our hamster, Zu-zu, my daughter was so excited. She was 6 at the time (now 7) and was just enamored with this little creature. We had seen her at the pet store that afternoon and gotten her on an impulse, as we tend to do. We go to the pet store because it cheers us up, and is something we can do for free, but sometimes we come home with a creature.

Not long after, Zu-zu escaped her cage in my daughter’s room right around bedtime (Zu-zu turned out to be an elite escape artist). We went through the entire upstairs part of our house, but to no avail – the hamster was nowhere to be found. My daughter was really upset at the loss of her new pet. Eventually, hours after bedtime, she fell asleep, still tearful. I felt a lot of sympathy, and also had my own situation to feel bad about – I had stood up two wonderful women from my church with whom I had a lunch date.

I tried all I could think of to contact the two of them and apologize, and try to find a way to make amends, but they weren’t responding. I felt miserable about it because these were two genuinely good people whom I had just failed. They were the kind of people who would be really hurt by this kind of thing, as well.

That night, upset on my daughter’s behalf, and on my own behalf, I prayed. Now, I have a well-documented ambivalence with regard to prayer. Suffering from depression and anxiety, I’d been told many times that I could just pray these things away. They were all in my mind, after all. If it wasn’t working, it was because I was a failure – not faithful enough, secretly evil, too full of doubt, whatever. And working in a hospital as a chaplain, I had seen plenty of good people pray and still suffer for no discernible moral or theological reason. Balance that with the many stories of answered prayers I’ve heard as a pastor and a Christian in general, as well as the painful stories of unanswered prayers.

But, anyway, I prayed. I prayed that we would find Zu-zu, and that my two friends from church would forgive me. I didn’t know what else to do, and even I pray when I’m desperate.

That night, my daughter had a dream. She woke my spouse and I up to tell us about it. In her dream, she found Zu-zu in her room, standing on her hind legs and cleaning her face and smiling at her. So I thought, OK. I went into her room, looked around for a while by the light of my cellphone, and there was Zu-zu, standing on her hind legs, cleaning her face with her little paws.

The next day, my two friends let me know that they forgave me, and we made new lunch plans.

Prayer is weird and doesn’t make any sense. When put to a rigorous test, it tends to fail, yet billions of people believe in its efficacy. I wrote a whole book about not praying, but there it is. I prayed, and that’s what happened.

I remember the flood of thankfulness that I felt, the wonder that things had turned out OK after all. And my 6 year old having a predictive dream about finding her hamster – that was genuinely weird. Yes, sure, she could have just seen her hamster while half-asleep, thought she dreamed what she had, and told us about it. The hamster was in the dark and behind a dresser, but sure. That’s what could have happened. And my two friends might have just chosen that day to let me know that they forgave me. Just a coincidence.

Prayer is like that. It’s frustrating.

Goodbye Zu-zu.

On Being A White Male

I know, no one cares. Way too much is about being a white male already. That being said, I can’t fully understand what it is like to be anything else. And being a white male is distinct from whether I understand what it is to be a white male – which I continue to try to do. 

My dangerous TL;DR: it is clearly easier to be white and male than non-white and non-male in American society. That being said, I think it is common to overestimate how easy it is to be a white male.

One way to sum up American society would be: America is made by white males, for white males. I’m not arguing that point, it is clearly the case. What I do want to do is to add two Mad-Lib blanks to the statement and then fill them in and explain why. So the statement would become America is made by _____ white males, for white males _____.

I would fill in those blanks with the following, to make a more accurate and telling statement: America is made by rich white males, for white males to destroy ourselves and everything around us.

If you are not rich, America is not for you

Why is race as a social construct not overwhelmingly rejected as obviously false and harmful? Perhaps at a time when ignorance let us pretend that it had some basis in science, 100 or more years in the past. But why isn’t race categorized with phrenology, where it belongs?

One short answer is that the social construct of race is enough to divide poor white folks from poor people of color, so that they don’t realize that they have the exact same interests, which are in complete contradiction to the interests of the wealthy and ownership class. This is why millions of white Republicans vote against their best interests, and have for four decades solid. You can sit a white Republican down and point to how their votes lead to policies that materially make their lives measurably worse in every way, and yet there is no change. Why is that? Tribalism is part of it, but race is a huge element. Why do Red States publicly, vocally detest public assistance while simultaneously needing more public assistance than Blue States? Because public assistance is, in their perception, racialized. It is something lazy black and brown folks get from the Democratic Party, which is of course why they overwhelmingly vote Democratic, in this view.

Why is Silicon Valley doomsday-prepping? Why are they researching how to create Gault’s Gulch on Mars, or how to automate their home defenses, or how to mind-control their employees? Out of the understandable fear that a large segment of the population will realize that this whole system is designed to harm the vast majority of us for the profit of a few.

If you do not destroy yourself, America is not for you

The moment you decide to stop participating in societal self-harm, you will be pushed. As soon as you stop over-working and under-sleeping and self-medicating and emotionally anesthetizing, things start to fall apart fast. As soon as you ask, “Why would I sacrifice for a company that won’t sacrifice for me?” the cracks begin to show. Right when you decide that productivity and efficiency are not moral values – that they may very well be immoral ones – America turns ugly, is revealed in its ugliness.

Even dipping your toe in, asking, “Wait, what would a good life look like? What would flourishing look like?” brings a swift answer – it looks like nothing  you have ever experienced thus far. Asking that question, you are in uncharted territory. The system is not designed for you to flourish, and when you start trying to flourish, the system will push back.

Clearly, our society is made for white men, but it isn’t made for us to find joy and flourish and live good lives. It is a “blueprint for self-destruction”, to quote Utah Philips as I often do. It is a hand-grenade with a slow fuse, but the pin is pulled.

If you do not destroy everything around you, America is not for you

In 2018, it is impossible to even participate in our economy without materially contributing to the destruction of everyone and everything around us. With tremendous effort, and insight, and sacrifice, and planning, it might be possible to live a zero-sum life where the good you do and the harm you do are balanced out. I’m saying it is possible in theory, but it is so difficult that I’m not sure how one would do that. People who try end up looking absurd to those around them.

The system we have now is rocketing downward at such a break-neck speed that our brains haven’t evolved to even comprehend it. 21 Trillion dollars unaccounted for in war spending; species going extinct up to 10,000 times faster than they would be without us; ten football fields of rainforest burned and clear-cut every day; gallons of water wasted to produce every pound of meat – we are not capable of understanding the damage we are doing. The facts of our system beggar the imagination.

And as white men, what we’re offered is the chance to be in charge of this absurd horrorshow. That’s the carrot; that’s the dream. Someday, if I work  hard and keep my nose clean, I can rise to the upper reaches of this charnel-house of misery, exploitation, and the destruction of beauty.

…yay?

America is made by white males, for white males, but not by the vast majority of white males, and not for our flourishing. It’s like being born as Edward Scissorhands. As long as you are called upon to cut or stab people and things, including yourself, you are well-suited, even rewarded. This is just what we built you for. The moment you try to stop cutting and stabbing people and things, you find out that you have a serious problem on your hands (pun intended). You have been shaped in a way that doesn’t let you flourish, and that even keeps people around you from flourishing.

I think this is where some of the bitterness that white males express toward Feminism and Black Lives Matter comes from, the push-back and hostility when some people talk about “White privilege.” Because 99% of white males, just like 99.9% of everyone else, are living in the midst of a society that destroys them, and pushes them relentlessly to destroy the people and things around them. Occasionally we snatch some joy or meaning from life, but it’s such a battle. It seems like only a judgmental asshole would call this privilege, especially at first. (I get why that response is infuriating to everyone who isn’t a white male, too.)

The big disadvantage of being a white male

There are innumerable advantages to being a white male – sort of. Advantages in a horrifying system that is destroying all of us are…still advantages. But the big disadvantage of being a white male in America is that nothing I’ve said so far is intuitive or obvious. In fact, it is profoundly counter-intuitive and only realized with significant struggle. What is probably screamingly apparent to people who are not white and male is genuinely not apparent to us without some degree of effort – sometimes a ton of effort. We are white, and the world is bleached. We are male, and the world is chauvinized (enjoy my neologism).

At first glance, and at two-hundredth glance, America seems like just the place for us. Just look at it! We’re represented in all media. We’re in control of everything. We’re assumed to be competent when we are not, and assumed to be extraordinary when we are merely competent. If there is any place where we should be flourishing, surely this is the place!

Only we’re not. More of us are giving up on life, and committing suicide, and becoming nihilists. It’s shitty here and the fight to make our lives anything but shitty is a real one, and many of us lose that fight. If you take the “Red Pill”, then the reason for this lack of flourishing is “because Feminism.” If you are racist, or racist-adjacent, then the reason for this lack of flourishing is “because minorities.” Neither one is at all true, but figuring that out takes another whole round of struggle.

If you aren’t a white male, I imagine that it is much more apparent that this place is not for you and your flourishing. You’re under-represented. You’re not in control of anything, or hardly anything – not even your own body! An obviously shitty situation that is unfair, and infuriating, and dystopian, and claustrophobic – but easier to see clearly from the start. Or so I guess.

One response to this is clearly, “I demand a seat at the table.” And you fight for generations, and perhaps get that seat. And then you have a seat at the table where they create a world that pushes us to destroy ourselves and each other. I imagine it takes a while to realize that, and then what? All that long struggle to be at or near the top of the dystopia instead of the bottom.

But this is a post about white males.

The only way out

The only way out I can see is for white men to join the movements for liberation of women and people of color, not as self-sacrificing Saints of Woke-ness, but for our own survival and self-interest. Not so that we all have a seat at the table, but so we smash the table and burn down the shitty building it’s in, and build something else that doesn’t drive us to destroy ourselves and each other. Misogyny and racism are weapons used against us, just as they are weapons we are taught and encouraged to use against others.

And in the short term, maybe the foreseeable future, this will probably have to look like getting everyone a seat at the table. Because there is no way forward, no hope at all, in smashing this table, this system inimical to human flourishing, without the help and leadership of those who are not white and who are not men. And there are absolutely those white men and others who act in bad faith, climbing the ladder and pulling it up behind them, for reasons ranging from bigotry to perceived self-preservation.

This place is really fucked up, and it wasn’t made for 99% of us. We can’t flourish here unless it changes. And we have so many allies in fighting for that change, if we get our heads out of our collective asses and realize that it’s long past time.

I was going to write about the White Ethnostate and MGTOWs, but I’ll leave this here. I imagine I’ve said something here to upset everyone, so that’s fun.

Part 1: Orc Is A Process

There is a lot of speculation out there as to where orcs come from in the Tolkien legendarium. There are a lot of answers to this question. The slimy mud-pits of Peter Jackson’s Isengard come to mind, for example.

Some things we “know”: there seem to be no orc nor goblin women at all. There are no children, adolescents, etc. No orc villages where they grow up and raise crops. We have no idea what they eat in Goblin Town, when they can’t get dwarves and a hobbit. Orcs are, when we meet them, either singing tormentors or war-wearly soldiers who fear the secret police. We know that over time, mountain tunnels re-fill with orcs. They breed, if they breed, in secret, like vermin. They are described as “…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” (Letter 210) (I’m not going into the implicit racism here and elsewhere in Tolkien’s works – but there it is) In an unpublished letter to a Mrs. Munsby, he said, “There must have been orc-women. But in stories that seldom if ever see the Orcs except as soldiers of armies in the service of the evil lords we naturally would not learn much about their lives. Not much was known.” The ambiguity is increased by Tolkien’s method with his own legendarium, which I appreciate – treating it like a set of documents with multiple authors and a lot of uncertainty.

I just re-read The Lord of the Rings for the many-teenth time, and part of what was on my mind was this whole orc question. The text itself does not answer the question, and even reading Tolkien’s other writings and letters gives no clear, definitive answer. One theory found in the Silmarillion is that when Morgoth captured elves he twisted them, by slow torturous arts, into the first orcs. We know that Morgoth, and by extension Sauron and Saruman, cannot create new forms of life but can only twist what already exists. In the context of the Silmarillion, this is presented as a theory among the elves that they don’t know to be true.

So, if that is true, how did Saruman begin to create the half-orcs and goblin-men we see as early as when the hobbits first reach Bree? We can look at the White Wizard because, unlike Morgoth or Sauron, Saruman created orcs and goblins over the course of the story we know, and I think that the way his creations are described gives us insight into where orcs and goblins come from.

There must be some mid-way point between non-orc and orc that Saruman was able to reach while working in secret. Now, one assumption is that he bred half-orcs, meaning he presumably kidnapped humans and forced them to have sex with orcs. So the pits beneath Isengard would have been rape-pits. Now, Tolkien is famously uninterested in where dwarf-children come from – the only implication that dwarf-children even exist is that dwarves who used to live in Dale were highly-skilled toymakers. In this, Tolkien is simply drawing on his source material: Germanic myth and legend, equally uninterested in where dwarf-babies come from. (Come to think of it, all of his elvish characters also enter their particular stories as full-grown adults, and the elf-children tends to refer to elves who lived near the creation of the world rather than literal children.) But Tolkien is no more interested in dwarf-children than the Norse Sagas and Eddas were, and this disinterest is also applied to orcs.

My theory is that orcs are the result of torment. This explains a lot of things in the story, while bringing in the theory (attributed to the elvish creators of the stories Bilbo presumably translated in The Silmarillion as Translations From the Elvish by B. B.) that the first orcs were born of elves, twisted and tormented in the prisons beneath Angband in the First Age.

It Explains Goblin Town

When we first meet orcs, it is in The Hobbit, and they are called goblins. What do we learn about them? They are tricky – they have a clever trap designed to help them capture travelers who take refuge in a particularly desirable cave. Once the goblins have captured the dwarves, they sing a song about how they are going to drag them down underground to work as slaves, presumably until they die. In An Unexpected Journey, the Goblin King goes into greater detail, spelling out the torture as well as slavery that the dwarves have to look forward to.

But what if the reason that the caverns beneath the Misty Mountains slowly fill with goblins and orcs over the years is because they are capturing travelers, like the dwarves, and tormenting them underground until they become orcs themselves?

It reminds me of the short story of a person who is tortured by a devil in hell. Eventually, the devil hands the person the torture implements, because they have become a demon, and then a new person is sent to them in order to be tormented. Hell is self-sustaining.

It Explains Sauron’s Control of the East and South

We are told more than once in the Lord of the Rings that Sauron holds sway over the Haradrim, Corsairs of Umbar, Easterlings, and similar peoples living south and east of Mordor. Then why, one wonders, would he use orcs at all? Why not just bring up human conscripts, as he does during the War of the Ring, all the time? Why are his minions almost invariably orcs?

In my theory, he has control of these regions so that he always has a fresh supply of people to torment and turn into orcs. Additionally, this explains why orcs are racially coded as dark-skinned and/or Asian – just as people living in the East and South of Middle-Earth would be. If all of the living orcs were descendants of the first elves Morgoth captured and twisted to his own purposes, why would they have features reflecting the lands that Sauron controlled? They would all have twisted elvish features, one would assume.

One can speculate, perhaps, that Sauron lacked the power to capture and twist elves the way that Morgoth, most powerful of the Valar, could. Maybe Morgoth’s orcs, some of whom are still clearly around (note the conversations Sam overhears in the tower of Cirith Ungol between orcs who seem to remember the First Age), were superior, and Sauron is only able to round up humans who are easier to corrupt, to create his own orcs. That would fit with the overall theme, in the ancient world and in Middle-Earth, of decline over the centuries on all sides.

It Explains Why Mordor Is So Awful

Mordor, as a stronghold, makes no sense. High walls, literally raised by Sauron’s power and by his orcs after the fact, sometimes manufactured out of slag and industrial waste, encircle this land, keeping foes out and allies in. Within those encircling mountains is a horrific land where almost nothing grows, where the water is almost undrinkable, and the ‘air itself is a poisonous fume’ as Boromir explains in the first Peter Jackson film.

Mordor is precisely the kind of place that orcs would create – wherever we see them, they trample and harm and vandalize – but why would Sauron create it? Mordor makes no sense if orcs are just another species of being, like elf or dwarf or hobbit, but Mordor makes perfect sense if orcs are created by torment. They have to live in a perpetual hell in order to remain sufficiently orcish. The walls have to keep the orcs in as much as keep foes out, because torment is what makes an orc.

It Explains Saruman’s Half-Orcs

This is precisely why Saruman is working with what appear to be half-orcs or goblin-men – he has not had the time to twist his own slaves sufficiently to make them into full orcs. They are larger than normal for orcs, who are described as smaller in stature than most humans, and they are still able to move around freely during daytime, but they are sufficiently orcish to have all of the cruelty he desires in a personal army. This is why he is able to send some of the less-goblin-looking north as spies and, later, as ruffians serving the Boss Lotho. The orc-ing process is not complete. Throughout The Scouring of the Shire, the impression we have of Lotho’s men (really Sharky’s men) is that they are orcish humans. They have the racially-coded features, and the seemingly innate small-mindedness and cruelty, but are not so orcish that the hobbits know to resist them at first they way they would if they were invaded by a small army of goblins. (Ask Golfimbul)

It Connects Orcs to Wraiths

Wraiths are once-great humans, kings of Numenorean descent, twisted and warped so profoundly that they lose their physical bodies and all sense of individual will. They are called wraiths very intentionally, as wraith shares an Old English root word with wreath and writhe – to twist, or to be twisted. Orcs created by ongoing torment would fit the strong theme in Middle-Earth that evil can only corrupt what is and cannot create something new.

Against Authoritarianism

Not only are orcs twisted and cruel, but they are also thoroughly authoritarian, especially in the case of the orcs of Mordor. During the chapters following Shelob’s attack on Frodo, Sam overhears a lot of orc-talk, and it is almost always preoccupied with bosses, punishment, secret police, traitors, and so on – orcs here would fit perfectly well in a dystopian story like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. This is a connection that Tolkien made intentionally – he said once in a letter that his own political leanings were more toward anarchism, as in the ‘abolishion of control.’ The heart of evil, for Tolkien, was the will to dominate other people. But in orcs, we have a people who are dominated and truamatized so thoroughly that they replicate their trauma wherever they go.

We all know of people like that, I think.

Trump Makes Orcs

Tolkien wrote to Christopher in Letter 71:

Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction: your vigorous words well describe the tribe; only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For ‘romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory’, and its wars are still derived from the ‘inner war’ of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels. But it does make some difference who are your captains and whether they are orc-like per se!

To Tolkien, orcs were realistic, much as they have been panned since as irredeemably evil cannon-fodder. I’m not sure about entirely realistic, but if orc is a process, as I believe, then we can see that process at work wherever we look.  For example, who could possibly work at a concentration camp that served as a detention center for small children stolen from their asylum-seeking parents?

Orcs, that’s who.

And who is currently flourishing? Who is getting their way? We have a whole, large contingent in the United States of people who seem to mainly take pleasure in other’s suffering and discomfort. We have the vapid, nihilistic cruelty of Internet trolls, waves of rape threats aimed at any woman who dares appear in a science fiction film or comment on…anything, and a President who seems to have been elected solely to tear down various institutions. It is easy to see this as an age of orc-behavior, hurting for the sake of hurting, combined with growing comfort with regard to fear and authoritarianism.

In his refections on the Fourth Age, the so-called Age of Men, Tolkien talked about how he saw a rise in “orc-mischief,” that is, non-orcs behaving in orcish ways. A young cult arises in Gondor decades after the death of King Elessar – one can imagine such a cult arising on 4chan or through Breitbart. Hell, it already has. It’s called the alt-right by people who have forgotten what “Nazi” means.

The story of the Fourth Age never got off the ground for Tolkien, so among other things, we don’t know from his work what can be done about orcs, short of fighting them. This is where the presentation of evil in Middle-Earth is limited, as it is in any story. We only have the stories we have.

Perhaps the question is, what is the torment that has created these particular orcs? Because if I’m right, and if this is a meaningful comparison at all, then ending that torment, whatever it is, might be the way to halt the orc-process.

Another question that I’m thinking through, given the idea that orcs are created by torment, is why are almost all of the people engaging in orc-behavior in our day and age white? Even a cursory glance at American history reveals a panoply of torment aimed at non-whites by whites. Genocide and slavery and exploitation and apartheid. So why are all of these Trump-voting orcs white?

Thoughts on this interpretation of orcs? Of our current situation in the US? What do you think is the torment and its source?