Saturday, February 11, 2012

Retrospective: Corsairs of Umbar

If I were grading these modules purely on the basis of aesthetic, Umbar would go down worst. The cover art is primitive, the inner work crudely presented, and the writing lazy; there are even entire paragraphs copied verbatim in different sections. I realize this was ICE's first stab at Middle-Earth, but you'd think results would have been better for it. Ironically it was a late purchase for me; I had trouble tracking it down, and finally located a used copy around the time Dunland and Fangorn were hitting the stores. Its age couldn't have been more plain, though there's something profoundly nostalgic about these old modules from '82-'83. Maybe it's the miniscule type requiring bi-focals or a magnifying glass. Anyway...

In my retrospective of Havens of Gondor, I said that Dol Amroth was the closest thing the Dunedain had on the Grey Havens, and in Sea-Lords of Gondor I floated the benefits of a Pelargir-centered empire. Umbar requires some backpedaling on both fronts. As offensive as it sounds, it is the Corsair state, more than Belfalas, that parallels the Grey Havens. The key to understanding this is the fall from grace, a subject about which Tolkien wasn't fooling around, and made plain that elves were just as guilty as men. The elves shunned the paradise they should have returned to (Valinor) and made their own with the elven rings; men craved that paradise they couldn't have and thus made war on it. Men, in other words, wanted immortality just as elves wanted to be gods of their own creations, and Umbar tows the line of fallen Numenor in the same way that the Grey Havens (and Rivendell and Lothlorien) extend the Silmarillion tragedy. Umbar is nothing less than a microcosm of Ar-Pharazon's "victory" over Sauron, which was in fact the opposite, and molded Elros' people into Black Numenoreans.

By the time of the module's setting (TA 1607), the fallen Numenoreans have absorbed the Corsairs -- some would say that Castamir's legions represent a Third-Age fall, but that's inaccurate -- and this returns me to Sea-Lords. Though I sincerely maintain that a southern Kin-Strife victory might have been best for Gondor, the question is at what cost. More Pelargir means more Umbar, and thus the latter's invidious influences. ICE does a good job avoiding political caricatures, particularly in the oligarchy of six, the Captains of the Havens who rule. I was half-expecting the module to portray the Corsair state as a tyranny of Castamir-monarchs, but it goes a wiser and more complex route. Bitter memory of the Kin-Strife is precisely what keeps an even balance of power in Umbar. The Captains are largely decent, if driven by various passions -- one obsessing a lost wife, another a bon vivant, a female captain with royal ambitions, an effective crusader against dark worship -- and certainly not evil in any Angmarian sense. Yet for all this, there's something subterranean about Umbar. There's bad religion; slavery; a dangerous wizard's guild; amoral merchant families; nobles who would sell their own mother for a greater good; all as if Numenor's legacy has become genetic to the city itself.

Aside from the four-page color detachable of the city (one side) and the region around it (the other), the cartography of Umbar is crude as hell. The six tower holds of the Captains are laid out, as well as their castles outside the city -- all very hard on the eye. The Lair of the Dark Worship is also scrawled up, and offers some classic adventure beneath sea caves. A catalog of ship designs leaves the city's naval superiority unquestioned: Corsair raiders, coast patrols, slavers, and merchants; Black Numenorean progs, catamarans, and palanrists; Haradrim galleys, merchants, and "lively winds". (Though it would have been nice to see these drawn.) Umbar is a rather unappetizing product, but one I'm oddly attached to for its seniority, and the way it kaleidoscopes the fall of man.

History & Culture Rating: 3
Maps & Layouts Rating: 2

Next up: Far Harad.


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