Wild Lands and Strange Visions
Guest Writer Michael Kersten Looks Forward to the Haradrim Cycle
With the recent release of The Sands of Harad expansion for The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, we—as a small band of Middle-earth's greatest heroes—have taken our first steps into the streets of Umbar and the deserts of Harad. We have fought for our lives in darkened alleys and under the blazing desert sun. And we have met Southrons who have wanted to kill us, as well as those who have offered to fight beside us against the forces of the Dark Lord.
Now, as we look to continue our adventures with The Mûmakil and the Haradrim cycle, we find ourselves with many questions about these surprising Haradrim allies. Why would they help us? Why should we trust them? And what place—if any—do they have in the world of Middle-earth that J.R.R. Tolkien created?
To get our answers, we turned to guest writer Michael Kersten, who offers us a much closer look at the nature of these unsung Haradrim. A fan of Middle-earth ever since he wore out his read-along record of The Hobbit as a wee halfling, Michael has been exploring his love of Tolkien's work since 2013 at Master of Lore, his thematic blog about The Lord of Rings: The Card Game.
Guest Writer Michael Kersten on the Haradrim of the Haradrim Cycle
"[Frodo] found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams."
–J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Travelling the Last Desert. Fighting were-worms. Trapping a mûmakil. These are “wild lands” and “strange visions” indeed! With the Haradrim cycle fast upon us, we also find ourselves “wondering at times” about a region we have never seen—Far Harad. Our adventures are about to take us completely off the edges of our familiar maps of Middle-earth. We are travelling to locations only alluded to in the main text of The Lord of the Rings and entering lands that are nothing more than distant legends throughout much of the West.
From a few tall tales in the Shire to some savage skirmishes on the southern border of Gondor, our records provide only the briefest sketch of the cultures of the Far South. What do we really know about the "big folk down away in the Sunlands?" How do they live? Who do they serve? And aren’t they all just enemies of the Free Peoples?
Professor Tolkien offers us very little in response to these questions, but if we want to get into the spirit of the tales he penned, we know that it is exactly when we journey heroically into such unknown wilderlands that we will have the most incredible adventures—and even discover deeper truths about ourselves along the way. Join me as we explore what Tolkien actually wrote about the Haradrim, where this cycle has room to create in the gaps, and what this all means for players of a game proudly based on the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien!
Meeting the "Cruel Haradrim"
The first place that we encounter Harad is on the map included in the back of most editions of The Lord of the Rings. There, nestled in the bottom right corner below Mordor, is a curious region named "Near Harad," which of course teases the existence of a "Far Harad" beyond the border of the map. Indeed, a dotted line traces a road through South Gondor, a region marked in parentheses by Tolkien as "a debatable and desert land," and off into the unknown. It is called the Harad Road and is presumably the path we will ultimately need to locate in order to make our way back to familiar lands in the final quest of our upcoming cycle.
As readers, we get our first impression of Harad's people from Boromir at the Council of Elrond, and it isn't pleasant. Reporting on the "sudden war [that] came upon us out of Mordor," the Captain of Gondor lists "the cruel Haradrim" among the growing allies of the Nameless Enemy.
When Frodo and Sam meet Faramir and his Rangers in Ithilien, we learn that the animosity between Gondor and Harad isn't anything new. In their first conversation with the hobbits, both Mablung and Damrod both enthusiastically "curse the Southrons." As they lie in wait to ambush them along the road, Damrod shares a brief history lesson saying:
"'Tis said that there were dealings of old between Gondor and the kingdoms of the Harad in the Far South; though there was never friendship. In those days our bounds were away south beyond the mouths of Anduin, and Umbar, the nearest of their realms, acknowledged our sway. But that is long since. 'Tis many lives of Men since any passed to or fro between us."1
Mablung bitterly observes that the "cursed Southrons" are now coming "up the very roads that craft of Gondor made" of old. This distaste is shared by nearly every other character who mentions Harad. Faramir also calls them the "cruel Haradrim" and counts them among the "Men of Darkness." Before the great Battle of Pelennor Fields, a Gondorian messenger reports that the coming host of Minas Morgul has been joined "by regiments from the South, Haradrim, cruel and tall." Even the pitiable Gollum gets in a negative word as he watches Southron soldiers marching into the Black Gate, saying the Men of Harad are "not nice; very cruel [and] wicked."
Certainly these descriptions fit our first encounters with the Harad in our card game as well. Who can forget the immediate attacks of the Haradrim Elite (Heirs of Númenor, 53) or the fierce strength of the Southron Company (Heirs of Númenor, 27) from Into Ithilien? Further enemies from the South in The Assault on Osgiliath, The Land of Shadow, and now The Flame of the West confirm the assessment of Gollum and Gondor. The Harad are nasty and cruel. Curse the Southrons!
Two Sides to Every Story
There is no doubt that the Haradrim marching to the Black Gate are under the sway of Sauron and harboring ill intent against Gondor. But as is often the case with Tolkien's creations, characters that initially seem unambiguously good or evil reveal shades of complexity as you draw nearer a deeper understanding.
So it is that we come to one of the most celebrated passages in all that Tolkien wrote. Sam Gamgee expresses a deeply moving sentiment as he witnesses the Men of the West chase after the retreating Men of the South, "hewing them down" from behind as they flee. Sam sees a Southron warrior fall and "[come] to rest in the fern a few feet away" with "green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck," "scarlet robes tattered," and braided hair "drenched with blood." Likely drawing upon his own insights as a British soldier in the fiercely nationalistic battlefields of World War I, Tolkien writes:
"It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies and threats had led him on a long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace."2
Although this "flash of thought" is quickly driven from Sam's mind, it lingers in ours. What really happened in Harad prior to the war? Who drew first blood in the "dealings of old" that Damrod spoke of? Why have Men turned against Men? Might this fierce warrior have been, just like Sam Gamgee, simply trying to live a peaceful life when he was seized by powers greater than himself and joined into battle?
Despite his harsh words against the Haradrim, the learned Faramir seems to recognize that a part of Harad's grievance lies in the history of his own people, the Men of Númenor. After the battle, he confesses to the hobbits that when his ancient ancestors came to Middle-earth, most "fell into evils and follies," became "enamoured of the Darkness and the black arts" and "given over wholly to idleness and ease" or "[fought] among themselves, until they were conquered in their weakness."
Appendix A tells us more about these fallen Men of Númenor. In the Second Age, they traveled south first "as teachers and friends" of the men along the coasts of Middle-earth who were at that time already "afflicted by Sauron." But eventually "their havens became fortresses" and their ships "returned laden with spoil" from the lands held in their "subjection." Rather than freeing the Men of the South from the Dark Lord, they followed his example of domination.
What did they despoil from the land? We get a clue from Gollum in The Two Towers. Never one to fail to spot a shiny object, Gollum remarks that the Southrons at the Gate have "gold rings in their ears; yes, lots of beautiful gold." It is not hard to imagine the "proudest and most powerful" Númenorean King, Ar-Pharazôn the Golden, greedily exploiting the wealth of Harad when he landed at Umbar with his great navy. Ar-Pharazôn did conquer Sauron, but foolishly brought him back to Númenor, where the Dark Lord "bewitched the King," became the chief advisor in his court, and "turned the hearts of all the Númenoreans" save a few Faithful.
After the drowning of Númenor, Gondor was founded in Middle-earth by this remnant of the Faithful. As Faramir recounts to the hobbits, they did not practice evil arts and instead restored “the old wisdom and beauty brought out of the West.” But the less savory legacy of Númenor left behind on the coastlands by Ar-Pharazôn remained. Though these so-called Black Númenoreans “dwindled or became merged with the Men of Middle-earth,” they “inherited without lessening their hatred of Gondor.” Beginning with the second Ship-King, Eärnil I—whose map (Assault on Osgiliath, 87) we have long been using to retrieve our Spirit events—battles raged in the South between Gondor and Harad. Gained for a time by Gondor, Harad was eventually lost again as a consequence of a civil war called the Kin-strife. To hear Faramir tell it, the Men of Gondor “brought about their own decay.”
Like the cruel Haradrim of the South, these Men of the West were also deceived by the Shadow, led astray, and committed awful deeds with darkened hearts. Both sides of the battle have a history marked by shameful choices and cruelty to others. The line between good and evil doesn't run between whole peoples. It runs right through them.
The Bold Men of the South
We see this in the last battles of The Return of the King where Tolkien ascribes qualities to the Haradrim that are among the finest given to Men. At the Pelennor Fields, they are called "bold men and grim, fierce in despair," heroic descriptions often used for the Rohirrim and Gondorians as well. At the Black Gate, the Southrons are "proud and bold." While the creatures of Sauron run "hither and thither mindless" after their master's defeat, the Men of Harad recognize "the majesty and glory of the Captains of the West." A few fight on and most retreat, but "some cast their weapons down and sue for mercy." They acknowledge a just king.
The final mention of the Haradrim in The Lord of the Rings serves to confirm that Sam Gamgee's flash of insight beside the fallen Southron in Ithilien is correct. We learn that under Aragorn's reign, Gondor "made peace with the peoples of Harad" and accepts "embassies from many lands" including the South. This later diplomacy suggests that the Haradrim are not "really evil of heart" but, like all Men, inclined to nobility and trust.
The Haradrim cycle finally presents fans of Middle-earth with the chance to meet some of these valiant Southrons of Harad. Unlike the later Númenorean Kings of the Second Age and the “cruel Haradrim” who marched up the road to fight Gondor, these new characters do not give in to the lies and threats of Sauron. They are “bold men and grim.” They know the deserts and jungles of Far Harad like a Wood-elf knows the forest or a Hobbit knows his vegetable garden. They tame Oliphaunts like the Rohirrim break their horses. They are heroes to their people and may become allies to our cause.
Sam never finds out the name of the fallen Southron in the ferns of Ithilien. In fact, Tolkien never gives us a name for anyone from Harad. But the glimpse he has provided stretches a wide open canvas for brave warriors, intrepid scouts, and noble lords from the Sunlands of the South. It is therefore that we carry our quest into and beyond The Sands of Harad like Frodo Baggins setting out from the Shire, with wonder and dreams. Wild lands and strange visions await. Professor Tolkien has left a most intriguing blank page for us to explore. How will we choose to write our story?
1 & 2: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
Begin Your Homeward Journey
Now that we find ourselves stranded in Harad—far from the safety of Gondor and home—we discover the land is full of surprises. The Southrons who previously attacked us didn't represent every Southron. There are Haradrim—like Kahliel (The Mûmakil, 1), Jubayr (The Mûmakil, 6), Firyal (The Mûmakil, 8), and others—whose hearts pump blood every bit as noble as our own, and we are thankful to call them our allies.
What other surprises await us in the far lands of the South? What dangers must we endure on our homeward journey? And what pleasant discoveries may we make? There is only one way to learn, and our journey begins with The Mûmakil. This first Adventure Pack in the Haradrim cycle arrives at retailers later this month!