Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Fall of Gondolin, The End of Tolkien

The three 'Great Tales' of J.R.R. Tolkien, conceived early in his life, are now the final word on his fantasy world of Middle-earth. 
As I have mentioned previously, I have been a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings since I was in high school.  I have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy several times throughout my life.  Tolkien was, hands down, the most important fictional writer of the first half of my life.  I bought a first edition of The Silmarillion (1977) at the University of Georgia bookstore when I was a freshman.  I grabbed a first edition of Unfinished Tales in 1980.  The depth and breadth of his work astonished me and, as is my way with most things of interest, I absorbed everything I could about his stories of Middle-earth.

By the time The Book of Lost Tales came out (in two volumes, 1983-1984), I was starting to think that Tolkien’s family, and his eldest son, Christopher, in particular, were trying to milk more money out fans and readers with a bunch of incomplete story ideas and discarded drafts of tales that I had already read.  After Lost Tales, Christopher carried on with his History of Middle-earth project and I became disinterested in his work, which was basically the publication, over multiple volumes, of different versions of the stories his father revised and discarded while working on his trilogy and the tales of the Silmarils.  It all just seemed too greedy and commercial to me, at the time.

Years later, I saw what Christopher was doing in a different light.  It finally occurred to me that his father had struggled with his massive fantasy world and the myriad of characters and stories that took place there over a period of time beyond reckoning, from the creation of Middle-earth through three ages of history.  J.R.R. Tolkien, as with many writers, went through many iterations of his story ideas.  Names changed, events were altered, ideas were refined and/or completely discarded.  Christopher simply wanted to bring this great mass of creative content to life for those of us who were so enamored with Arda and Middle-earth.

In my 40’s I began purchasing some of these additional edited works.  The Lays of Beleriand is Volume 3 of the History, The Shaping of Middle-earth is Volume 4, and The Lost Road and Other Writings (Volume 5) were added to my collection.  I was not particularly interested in previous drafts of The Lord of the Rings (featured in three volumes in the History series), but the variations of the central tales involving The Silmarillion captured my attention.  Later, I purchased Morgoth’s Ring (Volume 10) because it offered special insights about how Tolkien viewed the nature of evil in Middle-earth (and, by analogy, in our modern world as well).

Then, in 2007, The Children of Hurin was published.  I was excited to read this one because, unlike most of the History Series, there was enough finished material here from his father for Christopher to piece together an authentic and complete new story of particular significance about Middle-earth prior to Tolkien’s famous trilogy.  My favorite chapter in that work is the story of the Battle of Numbered Tears (Nirnaeth Arnoediad in the elvish language Tolkien invented), which had great implications for Middle-earth.  It was here that Morgoth defeated the combined armies of elves, dwarves, and men and began a long, dark period of evil’s reign.

Hurin was part of what J.R.R. Tolkien considered three great ‘unfinished’ and critically fundamental tales regarding Middle-earth, from what he termed "the Elder Days".  After the Battle of Unnumbered Tears the great warrior Hurin is captured and imprisoned by Morgoth, who also puts a curse on Hurin and his family so that evil will befall them all their lives.  His son, Turin, is sent to the hidden elvish Kingdom of Doriath for protection in those dark times.  Meanwhile, Hurin’s wife gives birth to a daughter, Neinor.  Ultimately, the dragon Glaurung enchants Neinor and causes her to forget who she is.

The narrative proceeds through several misadventures befalling Turin, which leave him basically an outcast.  Years later, he meets Neinor.  The two fall in love and marry, ignorant of the incestuous nature of their attraction. She becomes pregnant, but before the child is born Turin does battle with Glaurung and terminally wounds the beast with his sword.  Blood from the dragon is spewed upon Turin during the melee and he faints under the combination of toxicity, fatigue and pain.

Much as in Romeo and Juliet, Neinor finds Turin seemingly dead.  Glaurung recovers enough to sow the dragon’s final malice before it dies.  It tells Neinor the truth about her incest with her brother and the child she is carrying.  Upon which Nienor commits suicide.  Turin then awakens (of course) and, learning of the death of his lover and that she was, in fact, his sister, he falls on his sword.  Later, Hurin is released by Morgoth and arrives at the graves of his children, suffering further when his wife, Morwen, ends up dying in his arms.

This is a dark, ultra-tragic tale, which is reflective of Tolkien’s fundamental disenchantment with World War One and with the beginnings of modernity.  The grim bleakness that affected Tolkien is reflected throughout all of his works, less so in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings than in The Silmarillion and his unfinished works, of which The Children of Hurin is the most complete.

Last year came another tale of heroism and misfortune, Beren and Luthien, probably Tolkien’s greatest story of all.  Unlike Hurin, however, Beren and Luthien, while offered as a complete story in The Silmarillion under the chapter “Of Beren and Luthien," is featured in its various incomplete fragments as a story in development that had several iterations and was only arranged in a completed fashion later by Christopher Tolkien.  The completely pieced together story is NOT part of the Beren and Luthien, however.  The 2017 book, like much of The History of Middle-earth, is offered as a study of Tolkien’s struggle with various aspects of the narrative.

The seed of this epic story was sown as The Tale of Tinuviel, written in 1917, one of Tolkien’s earliest forays into Middle-earth, unfinished, of course.  Beren and Luthien contains large passages from The Lay of Luthien (part of the History’s Volume 3).  So there is an equitable mix of prose and poetry.  While not as finished as Hurin, Beren and Luthien is probably the most important of the many stories conceived by Tolkien, including The Lord of the Rings itself.  Tolkien took a special interest in this narrative and related to it very personally, going so far as to see Luthien in his wife and to have her headstone engraved with “Luthien” at the time of her death.

This is a story of profound love, obviously. It is also another tale of forbidden love.  The human warrior, Beren, ended up as an outcast after The Battle of Sudden Flame.  He happens upon the elf princess Luthien, daughter of the king of Doriath, and they fall in love.  Beren asks the king for Luthien’s hand and the King, knowing his daughter’s desire to be with Beren, agrees to their marriage under the extraordinary condition that Beren bring the king a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown, something considered impossible given the Dark Lord’s immense power.

Nevertheless, so great is his love, Beren starts out on a long quest to steal the sacred jewel.  Luthien ultimately follows.  Together, through much adventure and hardship, the task is accomplished.  Two of the many things that happen along the way are that Luthien becomes pregnant with Beren’s child, and Beren is mortally wounded.  Luthien sings a song of such despair that Mandos, one of the mighty Valar, grants Luthien the wish that Beren will be returned from the dead at the price of her forsaking her immortality and be subject to mortal death like a human.  Beren and Luthien, live out the rest of their lives together uneventfully in a secret place, raising their son, Dior.

It is a classic love story, filled with emotional depth and high adventure, threading the central story of the Silmarils (more important to Tolkien than the more famous Ring of Power) through the end of the First Age and into legend by the time of The Lord of the Rings, set at the end of the Third Age.  Among all of Tolkien’s many regrets, the fact that he was never able to get this story into finished form and published (his publisher had little interest in The Silmarillion), was the most heartrending.  Despite writing the most popular work of fiction in the 20th century, Tolkien felt that his primary vision was a complete failure.  It was only after his death that his son Christopher brought it to light.  It is another of the three ‘central’ tales of Middle-earth before the Third Age, slightly alluded to in the Ring trilogy.

In his introduction to Beren and Luthien, Christopher Tolkien wrote: “In my ninety-third year this is (presumptively) my last book in the long series of editions of my father’s writings, very largely previously unpublished…”  But it was not to be so.  This year he published The Fall of Gondolin.  In this introduction, he quotes the sentence above and adds: “I used the word ‘presumptively’ because at the time I thought hazily of treating in the same way as Beren and Luthien the third of my father’s ‘Great Tales’, The Fall of Gondolin.  But I thought it improbable…The presumption proved wrong, however, and I must now say that ‘in my ninety-fourth year The Fall of Gondolin is (indubitably) the last’.”

The Fall of Gondolin is one of Tolkien’s earliest stories.  The writing began in 1916 while serving as soldier in World War One.  Unlike so many of Tolkien’s other efforts, the original narrative is a complete story. Though he would toy with expanding it later, as Tolkien did with virtually everything he wrote, those efforts would not push the story to any particular conclusion.  Tolkien abandoned the work in the early 1950’s.  The version of this story presented in The Silmarillion goes beyond the original story with the added adventures of Tuor discovering Gondolin.  

But, to me, the original story is complete, if brief.  That version of The Fall of Gondolin has fleshed-out characters and lengthy details of an incredible battle when Morgoth attacks the fortified elvish city.  The great drama of the battle as told in the earlier work (what Christopher calls “the old story”) is reduced to a rather bland, factual account in The Silmarillion

So this new Tolkien book is a kind of a return to his roots, where he began his quest to interpret Middle-earth.  The book gives us “the old story” of The Fall of Gondolin exactly as it was first published in 1984 by Christopher as a chapter in The Book of Lost Tales: Part Two.  All the dramatic details of the battle are present.  The new book also contains several other fragments and versions of the story along with a lot of interesting insight on the development of the tale in Christopher’s excellent commentary.  

The great issue in Christopher’s mind is why his father put so much effort into expanding the story only to leave it unfinished.  Written around 1951, "Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin," the title of “the last version”, is a long narrative of how Tuor searches for and ultimately discovers Gondolin but strangely ends just as Tuor reaches the hidden city before the great battle is fought.  Only “the old story” tells of the battle for the city.

The Fall of Gondolin was central to Tolkien’s vision of the Elder Days of Middle-earth. So why did Tolkien abandon “the last version”?  According to Christopher, it was because Tolkien’s publisher refused to consider The Silmarillion for publication after The Lord of the Rings was completed.  Tolkien sank into depression that his grandest stories would never see the light of day after he had toiled so long to write a trilogy he was induced to produce but nevertheless always considered a minor effort compared with his more expansive narrative. Simply put, Tolkien would have rather written a fully fleshed out Gondolin, Beren and Luthien and Hurin but instead The Lord of the Rings consumed him not out of personal drive but, rather, at the insistence of his publisher.  Tolkien became disheartened at what seemed to him to be forced labor as prospects for the larger stories were squashed.  All work on Gondolin and most of the rest of The Silmarillion ceased.

The highlight of the whole narrative, for me, is the battle for the city written in 1916 - 1917.  Here we find the great struggle between Morgoth’s (known as Melko in this version) vast army of Orcs, dragons, and Balrogs commanded by Gothmog, the Lord of the Balrogs.  The battle is full of back and forth action, obviously inspired by what Tolkien witnessed in the trenches of the First World War.  Tuor is heroic in the city’s defense, but less so than Ecthelion, the King of Gondolin.  Incredibly, Ecthelion slays three Balrogs including Gothmog, at the cost of his own life.  Even these great feats of heroism are not enough to save the city, however.

With this 2018 publication, the long matter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings, taking up many volumes, is ‘indubitably’ complete.  Christopher Tolkien has done the literary world a great service in bringing to light his father’s unfinished works and multiple variations of stories over roughly a 35 year creative period.  Far from being a mere enterprise of cashing in on the Tolkien name, The Silmarillion and all its many unpublished pieces and forms is a fascinating look at how the author struggled with this sprawling epic only to become famous for something he never really intended to write, while his primary narrative project ended in his utter despair.

It is simultaneously wonderful and sad that, as a lifelong Tolkien fan, I have now read the final pieces of Tolkien’s literary puzzle; that the stories I loved in high school (and still do to this day) are juxtaposed against a much vaster, almost limitless, canvas.  The foundation for this fantastic infrastructure resides with the three great, tragic pillars of the Elder Days mentioned in this post.

This nostalgic and melancholy appreciation for Tolkien’s work in the context of my life as a reader is very similar to how the elves themselves feel on Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age, the time of The Lord of the Rings.  Their days are over and they are fading into the west toward Valinor.  The rule of Man has arrived and the Fourth Age is about to begin.  The elves accept their fate but experience their time on Middle-earth as a distant glory, a fragmented greatness, a loss and faintness of precious things that have vanished for a people who are immortal and must bear the weight of the past forever.

The Fall of Gondolin is the end of Tolkien.  All we can do is marvel at his rich and entertaining fantasy realm, most of which was published incomplete long after his death.  But it is similar with any classic author.  The literature is still touching and enjoyable to readers, like the past deeds of long-dead elves, like the glory of their immortality as they walked Middle-earth, did battle against evil, and sought to live in creative harmony in Tolkien’s multi-cultural, multi-racial realm.  

It is worth emphasizing that all three of these Great Tales are essentially tragic.  Virtually all of Tolkien's close friends died in World War One.  The post-war malaise that affected all of Europe weighed especially on Tolkien's heart.  So it is understandable that while The Lord of the Rings is laced with tragedy, the stories Tolkien held most dear are far more tragic.  He poured his innermost self into The Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin as he did with most of the major themes of The SilmarillionFor Tolkien, a devote Catholic, the Christian concept of the "Fall of Man" was not an event in the past so much as a continuing misfortune.  Humankind continued to fall and to fail.  This is the central tragedy of his life experience and his epic fantasy stories.

Fortunately, these unfinished tales and fragments of stories found life after Tolkien's death, and the literary world is richer for it today.  I understand how Tolkien experienced and expressed tragedy as an underlying theme throughout Middle-earth. Tragedy is a classic aspect of western literature.  Tolkien viewed world "progress" as more of a diminishment than an advance.  I can't say that I agree with him on this account, though certainly in these dark days of American democracy it seems like he wasn't far from the mark.  But as I assess the fullness of Tolkien's published and, more importantly, his previously unpublished works, it isn't the tragic nature of it all that affects me so much as the simple sadness that this long journey is over.  It has passed as the elves passed into the West, as all things pass through the mechanics of evolution and change. 

I feel fortunate to be here at the journey’s end, knowing these books will go ever on even as I remember the first time I read the trilogy in my youth, happily ignorant of the extent of Tolkien’s vision and discontent.  I have enjoyed a front row seat to what has been revealed during my lifetime in The Silmarillion and all the other volumes.  They are all "old stories" now.  Yet some of them are "new" in a way.  The Fall of Gondolin was never rendered in such a complete and satisfying manner as in 2018.  Its fragments are fresh even if the text is over 100 years old.  To read some of this for the first time, along with the rest of the world's Tolkien fans, is a cheerful experience despite the sadness of arriving at the end of the road.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Election 2018: Do You Want To Win in 2020?

Frustration with the Trump presidency was rabid among my Democratic friends before yesterday's mid-term election.  Early last evening, they were hit with existential despair as it gradually became obvious there would be no “Blue Wave.”  The Democrats took control of the House of Representatives.  That was expected, though they may fall short of gaining 30+ seats some progressives hoped for.  The Senate remained Republican with the conservatives even taking a couple of seats away from the Dems.  Among high-profile races Ted Cruz defeated Beto O’Rourke in the Texas senate race.  A clear win for the Trump brand.  

It was better news for the Democrats at the level of governor races. Here is probably where they performed their best in 2018.  They managed to flip seven states from red to blue, and won a total of 15 states, surely the strongest showing for what I would call the Blue Ripple.  Still, the Neocons managed outpace them, winning 19 states, with usually liberal Massachusetts and the critical swing-state of Ohio among them.  No mandate there for either side.  Georgia is currently ‘too close to call’ but it is not seriously so in my opinion.  If the Democrats hope to beat Trump in 2020 they need to put Georgia in play.  Perhaps Stacey Abrams’ loss to Brian Kemp by less than a percentage point might mean a competitive race from Trump in the next election.  A faint reason for hope there.

Trump went out of his way to make this mid-term a referendum about him.  He realizes that his personality is greater than the overall Republican party itself.  To that extent, what we have is a muddled message and clearly not anything remotely close to a repudiation of President Trump.  The right-wing gravitational pull remains intact.  This country is nowhere close to being receptive to the “progressive” message. 

The fact that liberals (let's call a spade a spade) have had to rebrand themselves under another banner is indicative enough of how out of touch they are with the main stream.  Medicare for allFree college education.  These and several other left-wing pipe dreams are not only outside the mainstream (and therefore untenable on a national level for the 2020 election) they are BAD policy suggestions.

Simply put, to address a perceived social issue in a vacuum is juvenile politics.  We may have health access issues for some Americans.  Our college students may be swimming in debt. But giving these things away as entitlements is not the answer and the majority of the American people know it.  Neither approach addresses the core problem.  Healthcare and higher education cost too much in this country – for everybody.  THAT is the fundamental issue.  While the rise in healthcare costs has been somewhat addressed, no one is addressing the costs of college, or of much of anything else in this country.

The Republicans want to have their cake and eat it too.  They want lower taxes and a lower debt.  It ain’t going to happen.  Likewise, the Democrats want to give stuff away when the fact of the matter is, if nothing is done to address costs you are just throwing new sources of money into the void of bureaucracy, which will just gobble it all and beg for more.  And the cost to the American taxpayer, the size of the national debt, will continue to grow at a rate threatening future generations.  That is totally irresponsible on the part of both parties.

But the debt was not an issue this year.  For whatever fickle reason, it didn’t matter that this country is now over $21 trillion, over twice as much as when I blogged about it in 2009.  This will catch up to us one day in the not too distant future.

The time for giving shit away to every mediocre citizen of this nation is gone, if it were really ever here at all.  There is no new New Deal.  That is old history.  The problem Democrats face going forward is that their liberal wing is contributing at least as much to the polarization of American politics as the right-wingnuts out there.  Anyway, with Trump in control of the Senate he will continue to control the judiciary and it will continue to digress into a conservative cesspool of outmoded, backwards thinking legal and ethical standards.  A win for the Trump brand.  

Meanwhile, the Democrats can use their control of the House to pester the Trump administration with budgets and with investigations against our narcissistic demagogue of a president.  My fear is that if they push too hard against Trump without a mandate (there was no mandate for either side in this election) it will backfire on them just as all this liberal "give shit away" crap will backfire.  Press too hard on Trump’s alleged crimes and misdemeanors and you will end up creating broader voter sympathy for the asshole.

And so it goes.  This midterm was actually the beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign.  The results are mixed, just as they were in 2016.  The House rests on popular vote, which the Dems won.  But the Senate is more of a State/Electoral College institution – and it sides with Trump.  Apparently, nothing has changed but for the Dems meager control of the House which, at best, can create gridlock and minimize the damage Trump can do outside of judicial matters.

My liberal friends don’t like it when I say the ‘progressive’ message doesn’t fit in 2018.  Some of them proclaimed that they were not being "radical" at all, they were simply returning to their roots of the Roosevelt presidential era.  That doesn’t change my response at all.  Even if you are going back to your roots, you are still out of touch with what the message needs to be.  It is not a simple Left versus Right.  It is far more nuanced than that and requires and mix of liberal (on civil rights, for example) and conservative (on fiscal restraint) initiatives. 

To all you liberals out there, I have two pieces of advice.  Stop calling yourself ‘progressives.’  That rebranding makes you look even more stupid than some of your policy suggestions actually are.  Secondly, you can either be "idealistically right" or you can get elected.  You can’t be both.  Some soul-searching compromises are in order to be competitive nationally.  Do you want to win in 2020?  Then, quite obviously, carrying forward with your messaging in 2018 will only get Trump reelected.  That’s the fundamental takeaway from this midterm business.   

Do want to be right or do you want to win?

Note: I followed the election on fivethirtyeight.com and on this excellent live map offered by Axios.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Gaming the Battle of Rossbach

The finest army and cavalry in all of Europe.  Frederick the Great's Prussian infantry wing and cavalry wing are ready to attack at the start of the Battle of Rossbach.  This shows you how the interface looks for John Tiller's wargame, The Seven Years War.
Frederick the Great has fascinated me for decades.  I have several biographies about his life and pertaining to his legendary generalship during the Seven Years' War.  This was really world’s first global war.  The naval powers of England, France, Spain, and a few other nations fought for interests in India and North America as well as across continental Europe.  Prussia, the nation ruled by King Frederick, had no navy to speak of so it was confined to the European mainland.  Some of the most famous battles in military history were fought by Frederick during this war.

I have played John Tiller computer wargames as a hobby also for decades.  I reviewed one of his games on this blog back in 2009.  But that doesn’t reveal how many of his games I own and how much time I spend playing them.  Let’s just say it is an on-going part of my life; sometimes more, sometimes less.  I have probably bought and played a dozen or more games by Tiller since 2009 and I have been buying his games since the late 1980's.

Tiller’s most recent release is The Seven Years War, so I have spent a good bit of time lately tinkering with that game and playing through some of the battles it simulates.  As usual, Tiller is generous with all the content that comes with his games.  All the major battles of Frederick’s career are featured in this release; which is so cool from a sheer research perspective.  You can easily compare troop strength, quality, battlefield terrain and leadership between the many battles, giving you a nice bird's eye view of the war as Prussia and its adversaries knew it.

John Tiller’s The Seven Years War is a simple two-player game (with a few exceptions the sides are Prussia vs. Allied Austrian, French, Russian armies) with a lot of solitaire capability, which is how I play.  It is not only packed full of battles, it also offers a “campaign mode” to allow players to explore alternate strategies which will generate varying battles based upon decisions made by players.  Tiller delivers yet another game with far more replay-ability than I will ever take advantage of, but it is wonderful to have all this stuff to toy with now and then. 

Each Tiller design affords the player a glimpse into the mechanics of warfare (strength, speed, quality, morale, supply, etc.) for the time period in which it is set.  My Chancellorsville review reflects the mechanics of an American Civil War battle.  My Tiller games each capture the “feel” of warfare in their respective time rather accurately.  Games as diverse as 1776, Salerno, Kursk, Gettysburg, and Vietnam are all examples of game-able Tiller designs, each containing different scales and rules to represent the mechanics that commanders had to deal with at the time.

Tiller’s Napoleonic Battles Series has always been among my favorites.  These games can take a lot of time to play.  If you play, say the Battle of Leipzig, you have many dozens of decisions to make every turn and this slows play down to where it can take weeks (in mini-sessions while still living a normal work/family life) to complete a game.  For that reason I enjoy playing Auerstadt, a small but significant battle won by Napoleon’s chief lieutenant, Marshal Devout in 1806.  The smaller numbers of forces involved allow me to play a game of that battle in a leisurely day.

I mention this for two reasons.  First of all, it is useful to compare the “game system” between Tiller’s Napoleonic designs and The Seven Years War.  It teaches the player the subtle differences in warfare between the two eras.  More on that in a moment.  Secondly, there are battles of all sizes featured in Tiller’s latest design.   To list only a fraction of those contained in the game along with the respective army strengths:   Lobositz contains Austrian: 31,622 / Prussian: 28,866;  Prague - Austrian: 72,430 / Prussian: 65,424; Kolin (Frederick's first major defeat) - Austrian 52,487 / Prussian 33,288; Rossbach - French: 29,412 / Prussian: 20,782;  Leuthen (Frederick's greatest victory) -  Austrian: 65,242 / Prussian: 38,238; Zorndorf  - Russian: 46,530 / Prussian: 35,189; Torgau - Austrian: 56,228 / Prussian: 39,852; Freiberg - Allied: 36,398 / Prussian: 23,533.

For purposes of reviewing game play and the mechanics of warfare during this period I chose to play the Battle of Rossbach, which, due to its manageable size, can be played in the course of an afternoon, whereas the Battle of Prague would take much longer due to so many more troops/commands being involved. 


A zoomed out view of the first screen.  You can see the Prussians ready to pounce as the Reichsarmee cavalry prepares to attack.  At the bottom of the screen, the French infantry begins to form at the top of a hill.  Off to the left are smaller, separate French and Imperial contingents.  They are under restricted movement for this scenario.  They cannot move unless they are threatened with attack.  This overcautious strategy by the French allows Frederick to concentrate his attack despite his inferior numbers. 
The Seven Years War is the second installment of Tiller's Musket and Pike Series of games, which basically simulate early modern warfare before Napoleon.  Each game turn represents 15 minutes of "real" time, each hex is 100 meters across, and most units represent battalions of infantry and cavalry and batteries of artillery.  Each turn is broken down further into phases for game play.  Basically, the first side/player gets to move.  The second side/player conducts defensive fire.  Then the first side/player gets to conduct offensive fire followed by close combat known as melee.  This last phase includes cavalry charges.  Then the first player and second player switch and the phases are repeated.  Each side's turn ends with recovery of fatigued, disorganized, and/or routed units.

In the Rossbach scenario, as with most scenarios, the Prussian side moves first.  Frederick and his Prussian commanders always believed in controlling the initiative.  This might seem surprising given the troop numbers provided above.  In every case, the Prussians were outnumbered.  But by using initiative, speed, and higher quality soldiers, Frederick was able to strike at concentrations of his choosing, thereby mitigating his numerical inferiority in most cases.  Such was the case at Rossbach, a classic Prussian victory historically.  Though outnumbered, Frederick ordered an immediate attack before the Franco-Imperial army was fully deployed.  

Before we get into my replay of the scenario let's take a closer look at the mechanics which drive this game, comparing them specifically to the Napoleonic series as a means to measure how warfare differed in the 1750's from the early 1800's.

The largest change in The Seven Years War from, say, the Auerstadt game, can be found in the infantry.  In Frederick's day a line of muskets was considered the most effective means to deliver firepower against an opponent.  Infantry deployed in columns for shock melee attacks was not standard practice before the Napoleonic period and the column capabilities in Auerstadt do not exist in The Seven Years War.   The square, a defensive practice employed by infantry against cavalry in Napoleon's time, is also not available.  Infantry tactics were less evolved against charging cavalry.  Also, there are not as many light infantry troops so skirmish lines, routine in every Napoleonic battle, are almost nonexistent in The Seven Years War.

Cavalry is less effective charging than in the Napoleonic period.  When charges take place, everyone involved on both sides is still pretty much disorganized by the act of charging, but fewer actual casualties are incurred.  (Perhaps another reason no one had thought up the idea of infantry defending in squares.)  As for artillery, it is the least affected arm compared with warfare 50 years later.  There are a lot of smaller caliber cannons - like 3-pounders - in The Seven Years War but overall artillery works the same way in both Tiller series.

Before beginning the Battle of Rossbach scenario (or any game of the series for that matter) it is best to assess the quality of your troops and of your leaders.  These are the factors that control how much fatigue and casualties a unit can handle without becoming combat ineffective.  Once disorganized or routed, your leaders come into play as far as getting your units back into fighting condition again and recommitting them before the battle is over. 

Overall, the Franco-Imperial Army (French infantry augmented with “Imperial” forces from southern German states – what remained of the Holy Roman Empire known at this time as the Reichsarmee) has about 30% more troops than the Prussians.  But, the French are slow to maneuver and react.  

Prince de Soubise is in overall command of the French and he possesses rather pathetic ratings of “E” for command (which affects how well other leaders under him can move and attack with their troops) and “D” for leadership (which is used for assist morale checks of troops within his range).  These ratings work like grades in school.  “A” is best and “F” is worst.  Prince von Hildburghausen commands the majority of the cavalry, which is provided by the Reichsarmee.  His ratings are also an “E” for command and a “D” for leadership.  Long story made short, these two leaders are incompetent when it comes to handling and rallying their troops.

By sharp contrast, the Prussian leaders are highly rated and their troops of consistently higher quality.  Frederick II himself, being one of the greatest generals in military history, is rated an “A” for both command and leadership.  This ensures that his troops will always receive the highest bonuses when checking for morale and reorganization.  All leaders under Frederick’s direct supervision will likewise receive the best modifiers when checking to commit troops to battle or to rally them from disorganized states that inevitably occur once contact is made with the enemy.  The Prussian cavalry general is Marshal von Seydlitz who is also rated an “A” in both categories, allowing the Prussian cavalry to hit hard and still run rings around the Reichsarmee.   

In a nutshell, the Prussian army of 1757 was the best-led and best-trained army in Europe.    While the typical French-Imperial unit has a quality rating of “D”, the typical Prussian is a “B” with a few “A’s” scattered through the ranks.  These quality ratings reflect how much fatigued and casualties a given unit can take and remain combat effective.  Generally speaking, “D” units become disorganized when fired upon once or twice.  “B” units can take more punishment and can usually handle being fired upon unless, of course, they are taking canon fire.  In any case, “B” troops can stay in line longer and therefore produce more firepower overall through time than “D” troops.

Superior leadership and superior troop quality usually reflects the outstanding tactical capabilities of the Prussians compared with their adversaries.  It is the primary reason why, even though constantly outnumbered, the Prussians chose to attack.  They were simply better than whoever they were up against.  In some later battles, the quality of the Prussian soldiers falls to a “C” because new recruits brought in the replace casualties are not as well-trained as the soldiers filling the ranks at the beginning of the war.  Likewise, in later battles, the Austrian, French, and Russian armies improve in quality somewhat, with more training and experience.

But at the time of Rossbach this was not the case.  No nation could field a force of the overall caliber and quality of the Prussians.  This scenario is an excellent example of how an outnumbered army of quality can attack and defeat a larger army less competently led or trained.

The scenario begins with the Prussian army already pretty much aligned for attack.  Meanwhile, the Imperial cavalry, with some French support, is attempting to get around the Prussian left flank and attack it.  The French infantry is deploying along the high ground, initially defending in place until fully deployed.  Then, later in the game, they can attack the Prussian army, supposedly after the Imperial cavalry has put it in disarray.  That plan would never be implemented, however.

For his part, Frederick has two primary wings to his small army.  On his right, he has superb infantry already positioned to attack.  All of his cavalry are deployed on the left and are ready to charge under the superb leadership of Seydlitz.  The Prussians are able to attack the Imperial cavalry while it is still in column and not aligned for combat.  This quickly scatters large portions of it.  


The Prussian attack begins.  Advanced infantry strike the Reichsarmee cavalry while it is still in column, routing several battalions of cavalry.  Meanwhile, the Prussian cavalry is arrayed to charge. 

The Prussian cavalry quickly destroy the unprepared Reichsarmee, although some swirling, chaotic fighting still occurs.  The Prussian infantry have begun to plow through opposition as the main French infantry deploys in line.

It isn't quite a cakewalk for the Prussians, however.  This 'command report' indicates the number of units that are in various stages of disorder or reorganization.  Some Prussian battalions have routed and must be rallied by the excellent Prussian field commanders.
The rest of the Reichsarmee cavalry regroups as best it can and counterattacks but the Prussians are too good for them.  All this leaves both sides disorganized and this part of the battlefield slows down after a couple of game turns as the leaders now race to get their respective forces reorganized.  Meanwhile, the Prussian infantry have plowed through some of the scattered cavalry and are attacking uphill into the main body of French infantry.  

In the end, the Franco-Imperial army still held the high ground but its cavalry had disintegrated and it had lost about 20% of its infantry.  All objective hexes were taken by the Prussians which would further demoralize Prince de Soubise’s army.  In the span of 20 game turns (about 5 hours) the French suffered 4,719 infantry losses (killed and wounded) and 4,914 cavalry casualties, which together account for almost one-third of their entire army.  For their part, the Prussian infantry suffered 4,266 losses, no small sum.  But the cavalry performed spectacularly, only losing 989.  Still, altogether this constitutes about 25% of the smaller Prussian army, a high casualty rate even for a victory.  14 French leaders were killed or wounded (which leads the further disorganization) compared to 4 Prussian leaders.


The Prussian infantry press on uphill, driving the French before them.  The cavalry is mostly reorganizing itself.  A few stray French and Imperial units are behind Prussian lines.  They will most likely be captured.

The end of the battle.  The Prussians have secured every objective hex, destroyed the Imperial cavalry and bloodied the badly organized French.  Though at the cost of almost 25% of his force, Frederick has won a great victory.  The French will retreat.
It is a major Prussian victory.  Their army, though bloodied by their own attack, is still organized and ready for more offensive action.  The French have suffered grievously and have poor quality troops (mostly “E” ratings) forming the last line of defense.  At the end of the game, the scenario assumes that they will quit the field.  Frederick is smart enough not to pursue.  In the grander sense, he will not waste his army entirely, but build it back up for its next battle, which will be Leuthen, his greatest victory.  His twin victories at Rossbach and Leuthen, where he was outnumbered both times, are among the greatest military accomplishments of the eighteenth century and were an inspiration to future commanders, including Napoleon himself.


Zoomed out view of the battlefield situation and the end of the scenario.  Alternatively, the Prussians can advanced on the detached Franco-Imperial forces to the left if the player wishes to explore that historic possibility.  Tiller's games always have a lot of replay value.
Tiller’s games are a lot of fun and give the player multiple insights into the capabilities and nature of warfare in whatever time they represent.  The Seven Years War carries on Tiller’s fine reputation for offering a content-rich simulation experience that gives the player a glimpse into the historical period and nature of the art of war at the time depicted.  A great gaming value for the price that I will likely keep playing on and off for years.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Reading Gravity's Rainbow

Proof of purchase.  I bought my present copy of Gravity's Rainbow back in 1997.  It still has the receipt in it. 
Over the course of this blog, I've been cycling through some works of literature I have in my library that I wanted to touch once again.   I've revisited Moby Dick, War and Peace, The Magus, Ulysses, and Dahlgren, among others.  The first mention of my intention to reread Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow was back in 2012. Recently, I got around to tackling that complex novel.  I read it, puzzlingly, a couple of times back in my 20's but it really was low on my to-do list since then, although I fully intended to pick it up again someday.

That day came in late-summer and, while reading other things as well, I finished the novel about two weeks ago.  Though I still own many paperbacks dating from my youth, my original copy of Gravity's Rainbow didn't survive for some reason.  I now own a classic Penguin edition of the novel, which has sat neglected on my bookshelf since 1997.  I know this because the receipt of my purchase from Books-a-Million in Dothan, Alabama sat inside the yellowing pages of the paperback.  Seems strange to finally read a book I purchased 21 years ago, but that's the deal.  I guess I always knew I'd get back to it eventually.

Being much older with this reading now, I had forgotten much of the book since the last time I read it in the 1980's.  General impressions are that the prose is dense and complex but also beautiful and poetic at times.  The book is funnier than I remembered.  The amount of sex in the book was more than I recalled.  The themes and the characters seemed more pronounced and understandable this time around.  Overall, I am glad I made this effort, though I probably won't be reading it again.

Gravity's Rainbow begins in Europe near the end of World War II and follows an odd assortment of characters through a meandering narrative arc well into the aftermath of the war.  What the book is "about" is difficult to nail down.  There is no solid story line, rather, the work weaves in and out of multiple characters, interactions, perspectives, ideas, themes, and events to create an overall effect on the reader, one that is filled with ambiguity and little resolution.  The story is best thought of as a kaleidoscope that just sort of morphs  into ever-new considerations, most of it ultimately dissolving into quirkiness and even neglect. 

That sounds less satisfying than Gravity's Rainbow actually is.  At times, Pynchon's writing is as good as anything I've come across in western literature.  He is obviously a master of prose.  Like Ulysses, it is best not to take the work too seriously, even though Pynchon is wrestling with a lot of serious ideas about our postmodern condition. Moments of humor (slapstick, one-liners, satire, absurdity) abound throughout the work.   Gravity's Rainbow deals with diverse subjects and uses multiple writing techniques to explore: the impact of international corporations on individual free will, the relationship between business and warfare, the paranoia induced by modern life, the intermingling of sophisticated and crude culture, and even the supposed relevance of the Tarot, seances and other occult schemes within techno-corporate reality.  

But this mix of ideas and influences has vast implications.  Again like Ulysses, it is possible to delve deeply into Pynchon's prose.  He works in hundreds, if not thousands, of references to all sorts of cultural phenomena and historical events.  I don't pretend to grasp the book in anything other than an amateurish fashion, just appreciating it on its surface.  I am unconcerned to how deep the rabbit hole of this narrative goes, other than to appreciate the fact that it is densely packed prose.  My reading this time around was a much more casual one.  The novel is fully entertaining without understanding Pynchon's seemingly endless capacity for minutia.

As such, I will only discuss the most rudimentary aspects of the work in this review.  There are several "major" narratives woven together in Gravity's Rainbow but I will limit myself to how I experienced the book and the aspects of it I focused on the most.  This is nothing more than a basic representation of what the book is like.  The narrative has dozens of major characters (and hundreds of minor ones) but the central character, for lack of a better term, is Tyrone Slothrope, a US Army lieutenant stationed initially in London.  Because Slothrope went through a form of behavior modification and psychological conditioning when he was younger (and even during the course of the novel, perhaps throughout his life) he has an uncanny ability to predict where V2 rockets will strike based upon erections he has achieved during his many sexual exploits around the city.  When Slothrope gets laid, a V2 rocket strikes that location within a few days.  Every.  Time.

Slothrope goes through several thinly disguised identities during the course of the novel as he continues his quest across late-war and post-war Europe to uncover the secrets of a classified German rocket design.  He experiences many sexual encounters and, like several other characters, gets high on various drugs (from pot to hash to heroin) whenever possible.  Pynchon plays with the tension within Slothrope as he searches for the secret rocket and for a true understanding of his hazy, conditioned past.  Simultaneously with this, he remains an unfixed character in that he keeps hiding under disguises.  The interplay between his past and his unsettled present makes his character rather nebulous and dynamic.  He doesn't evolve so much as he simply morphs due to the changing circumstances of the narrative.  It is an interesting examination of what it means to be a 'person' in modern society. 

Slothrope's quest serves as a loose thread stitching together a myriad of other narrative elements, some one-off episodes, others parallel subplots that gradually wax and wane in importance as the story unfolds.   The novel is told in four parts, each with many "episodes" (short chapters).  The first part, 'Beyond the Zero,' introduces most of the major characters and explores themes of free will, Pavlovian behavior modification, the possibility reverse time flow (given the accuracy of Slothrope's erections syncing with future rocket attack locations), and the sexuality of the rocket itself.

In part two, 'Un Perm' au Casino Hermann Goering  (French for "A Furlough at the Hermann Göring Casino"),' Slothrope is 'assigned' to the French Rivera and learns of the secret German rocket produced, in part, by a couple of major international corporations.  Slothrope becomes increasingly paranoid that he is being monitored.  He escapes and, disguised, ventures across war-torn Europe.  In part three, 'In the Zone', Slothrope searches for more information regarding the secret rocket throughout the various military zones established by the allies in post-war Germany.  Slothrope adopts the disguise of 'Rocketman' and his life continues to be fueled by sex and drugs as it is gradually revealed he has been experimented upon since he was an infant. 

Finally, in part four, 'The Counterforce', the various narrative elements surrounding the principle characters are expressed in a variety of writing styles, certain characters are experienced and expressed as hallucinations and gradually Slothrope simply dissolves out of the narrative, fading, neither alive nor dead, he simply vanishes from the novel entirely. 

Gravity's Rainbow presents several challenges to the average reader.  Much like in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, there are a large number of characters with varying emphasis being placed upon them.  Sometimes the "major" characters shift into the background in favor of "minor" ones and the narrative seems to meander through material non-essential to the primary story line.  Even the main story itself keeps disappearing and reappearing over the course of the novel, hiding behind the entertaining but seemingly unnecessary details of subplots that come and go.  At any moment, Pynchon will shift perspective within a episode and it is often unclear that we are now seeing things through the eyes of a completely different character from a few paragraphs previously.  For this reason the narrative is not linear or concrete, rather it is plastic and flexible.  A lot of what happens is simply in a character's mind and isn't "real" at all.  This results in some potentially confusing passages.  For example, at one point the story becomes invested in a light bulb as if it were an actual character and we read a long section from the light bulb's perspective.

Then there is the challenge of the often shocking nature of what happens in the work.  There are episodes of brutal violence, along with various forms of fetish sex, torture, and even some pedophilia.  Many readers will find some sections objectionable due to the graphic content, but none of it is gratuitous.  Each time Pynchon pushes the limits of what is decent and what is obscene, it is to further the story in a manner that would not be possible without the details and happenings of these events.   It is worth noting that the novel was selected for Pulitzer Prize consideration in 1974 but led to such divisive debate within the Pulitzer Advisory Board (some felt it was the most brilliant novel of the century, others found it completely unreadable and obscene) that no book received the prize of literature that year. 

Then there is the "Broadway musical" aspect to the novel.  There are many episodes scattered throughout the work where the characters suddenly break into song and dance.  These are miniature stage-like performances that, while revealing further aspects of the characters and the narrative, are also purely silly and indicate the light, humorous undertone of the novel's otherwise grim and critical nature.  It is best to take Gravity's Rainbow as a largely absurd, humorous and entertaining book that just happens to reflect upon aspects of our post-World War II condition.  

One primary theme of the novel is the impact of major corporations on the perpetuation and conduct of the war itself.  Pynchon seems to be saying that, rather than politics (which is rarely mentioned in the novel), war is capitalism by other means.  Several fictitious corporations are mentioned in connection with the German V2 rocket program.  Slothrope's quest for a specially designed rocket involves knowledge of materials and technologies developed by corporations which drive the military pursuits of the war as well as threaten the individuality of a few of the characters, turning them into mere pawns of larger systems - a common postmodern literary theme.

As I already mentioned, as weird as all this sounds, Pynchon's prose is often incredible.  He employs a variety of writing techniques to great effect.  He frequently incorporates the styles of other writers and even from films.  In my reading I was most impressed with some of his transitions between episodes.  He sometimes ends an episode mid-sentence from the perspective of one character or event only to complete the rest of the sentence in the next episode from the perspective of a completely different character or event.  In this manner, among other means, he keeps the narrative loose and dynamic and, perhaps, he is indicating the simultaneous and similar aspects of life itself among otherwise unconnected personas.   

I have already mentioned his exquisite prose style, poetic, humorous, shifting from third-person to various first-person perspectives without warning the reader.  A great example is when the character of Pirate Pentrice, an intelligence officer known for his banana breakfasts in the novel, has  a shared fantasy about being condemned to hell with Katje Borgesius, a sadomasochistic woman who has several lovers throughout the course of the narrative.  Pynchon offers this brilliant passage when Prentice first realizes where he is – this is a great example of the author’s mastery of prose.

“Without expecting to, it seems Pirate has begun to cry.  Odd.  He has never cried in public like this before.  But he understands where he is, now.  It will be possible, after all, to die in obscurity, without having helped a soul: without love, despised, never trusted, never vindicated – to stay down among the Preterite, his poor honor lost, impossible to locate or redeem.

“He is crying for persons, places, and things left behind: for Scorpia Mossmoon, living in St. John’s Wood among sheet-music, new recipes, a small kennel of Weimaraners whose racial purity she will go to extravagant lengths to preserve, and husband Clive, who shows up now and then, Scorpia living only a few minutes away by Underground but lost to Pirate now for good, no chance for either of them to turn again…for people he had betrayed in the course of business for the Firm, Englishmen and foreigners, for Ion so naïve, for Gongkylakis, for the Monkey Girl and the pimps of Rome, for Bruce who got burned…for nights up in partisan mountains when he was one with the smell of living trees, in full love with the at last undeniable beauty of the night…for a girl back in the Midlands named Virginia, and for their child who never came to pass…for his dead mother, and his dying father, for the innocent and the fools who are going to trust him, poor faces doomed as dogs who have watched us so amiably from behind the wire fence sat the city pounds…cried for the future he can see, because it makes him feel desperate and cold.  He is to be taken from high moment to high moment, standing by at meetings of the Elect, witnessing a test of the new Cosmic Bomb – ‘Well,’ a wise old face, handing him the black-lensed glasses, ‘there is your Bomb…’ turning then to see its thick yellow exploding down the beach, across leagues of Pacific waves…touching famous assassins, yes actually touching their human hands and faces…finding out one day how long ago, how early in the game the contract on his own life was let.  No one knows exactly when the hit will come – every morning, before the markets open, out before the milkmen.  They make Their new update, and decide on what’s going to be sufficient unto the day.  Every morning Pirate’s name will be on a list, though it fills him with a terror so pure, so cold, he thinks for a minute he will pass out.  Later, having drawn back a bit, gathering heart for the next sortie, it seems he’s done with their shame, just as Sir Stephen said, yes past the old shame and sacred now, full of worry for nothing but his own ass, his precious, condemned, personal ass…” (page 544)

But, despite all this angst, Pirate and Katje become practitioners of Nietzsche (my interpretation) and decide to dance of the edge of the abyss.  “And they do dance though Pirate never could before, very well…they feel quite in touch with all the others as they move, and if they are never to be at full ease, still it’s not parade rest any longer…so they dissolve now, into the race and swarm of this dancing Preterition, and their faces, the dear, comical faces they have put on for this ball, fade, as innocence fades, grimly flirtatious, and striving to be kind.” (page 548)

Gravity’s Rainbow is a massive, complex, yet absurd and whimsical story mixing multiple serious themes, an enormous cast of quirky characters, expressed in language play and a loose narrative that shifts and frequently simply dissolves.  Thomas Pynchon crafted a novel that is clearly distinctive and representative of the late-hippy 1960's-1970’s, when it was written.  It captures the zeitgeist of the time in a way as crazy as the Vietnam-war era itself.  While a challenge to read and pushing the limits of public acceptance in terms of sexuality and drug use, Gravity’s Rainbow is nevertheless rewarding to those with patience and persistence.  The narrative is more of an experience than a concrete story, often disorienting, much like the world at the time it was written, and perhaps even more so like the world today.  In that sense it is a rather prophetic work – a prophecy about how identity and meaning, calamity and ambiguity work in our world today.