Exile and Return in Tolkien’s World

Gerrit Nuckton — 59 Juniper Drive — Atherton, CA 94027 — USA

Whether by intentional design or not, a common theme appears throughout the pages of Tolkien’s works dealing with Middle-earth: that of the return of certain characters from self-imposed exile, banishment, or even death. This article examines the exile/​return motif as a plot device and opportunity for character development in a role-playing context.

Exile/​return motifs can generally be approached from one of two perspectives: 

  1. Protagonists attempt to keep antagonists from returning, or
  2. Protagonists themselves attempt to return from exile in the face of opposition from antagonists. 

Such themes can be put to good use in a game by providing plenty of intrigue for players or, similarly, by adding more role-playing potential to a situation as characters investigate what has transpired in their absence. A villain once thought dead can add drama to certain situations by being brought back into the game at an unexpected moment as a living menace or perhaps as an undead.

There are, of course, limitations when it comes to the use of exile/​return motifs in a campaign. Constantly bringing back characters and peoples from banishment or defeat could become too predictable if the tactic was overused by a GM. Characters might be tempted to act with reckless abandon if their players can expect that there is a likelihood resolving the dilemma, irregardless of their actions in the present.

In contrast to game settings where resurrecting deceased characters is commonplace, Death in Middle-earth has a finality to it which places considerable restrictions upon future prospects for return. However, on rare occasions circumstances do arise which enable the transcendence of Death, as with the Oathbreakers in the Paths of the Dead or the nine kings cursed with a serial deathlessness as wraiths. To be sure, such situations can be entertaining but should be handled with great care so as to maintain game balance: after all, characters who become immortal could upset the balance of any game because of their great power.

Holding Back the Return of the Shadow

The relentless resurgence of evil is a central feature of Tolkien’s imagined history, and this theme is perhaps best exemplified in the character of Sauron. Beginning with the defeat of his master at the end of the First Age, Sauron wastes little time in filling Morgoth’s shoes, continuously returning to threaten the Free Peoples throughout the Second and Third Ages until his own final destruction in the War of the Ring.

In Eregion, Sauron deceives the Elven-smiths in the guise of Annatar, the Lord of Gifts.” He reappears after a thousand years of the Third Age as the Necromancer of Dol Guldur, driven out briefly by the White Council but returning in secret to occupy his fastness in Mirkwood for another five centuries. Finally, the Dark Lord succeeds in resuming his ancient enthronement in the Black Land, heralding the beginning of the end of the age.

In a campaign of extreme importance, PCs might assist Gandalf and the White Council in removing Sauron from his perch in southern Mirkwood. There is also the possibility of a campaign centered on the foundation of the realms-in-exile by the Faithful under Elendil’s leadership in the face of Sauron’s efforts to annihilate them. During the Second Age, Númenórean adventurers might aid their lesser brethren in Middle-earth against the rise of Sauron’s fledgling empire.

It is surely a telling sign of the importance of the theme of recurring evil that the only story Tolkien ended up writing concerning the otherwise undefined Fourth Age was entitled The New Shadow,” which dealt with yet another resurgence of the otherwise definitively defeated legacy of Sauron. In his article Beyond the Third Age: Role-playing in all ages of Arda” (OH 1: 719), Anders Blixt offers one possible framework for a campaign based on the shadow’s latest return.

Sauron’s evil returns in the form of his daughter, Aelindur, who has survived since the Second Age. Aelindur uses her cunning and magic to great effect, especially to entice Southron and Dunlending peoples to regain territory lost to Gondor in the time of the War of the Ring. Since the Istari and the more powerful Elven leaders have left the world, her threat is even more pronounced. If a GM were to run such a campaign, perhaps Galadriel and Elrond or one of the more powerful wizards could return to assist characters if Gondor were to fall under Aelindur’s dominion.

Fighting the Dark Lord’s Minions

In the course of the struggle against Morgoth or his servants, it is often the case that protagonists will find themselves displaced from their beloved homeland and on the run. Under such circumstances, the immediate (and realistic) goal is not to wholly annihilate the shadow, but to recover from its grip what has been lost. This heroic form of resistance is most pronounced during the First and Third Ages, when the Free Peoples are more often than not on the defensive in the face of superior odds. The wars of Beleriand form the archetype of this kind of struggle, when the Valar abandoned Middle-earth to the dominion of Angband, because of the rebellion of the Noldor. The guerrilla bands led by heroes such as Barahir or Túrin, driven from their homelands into a hostile wilderness by the servants of Morgoth, are emblematic of the Evil Years” of the First Age. As Anders Blixt suggests, campaigns set in this environment would require PCs to be able to survive a mercilessly cold climate while battling a seemingly unstoppable foe (OH 1: 11). A parallel situation may be found in the Third Age during the loosing battle of the Men of the North against the might of the Witch-king of Angmar.

Capture by the enemy is another ever-present danger facing desperate resisters, since not all prisoners are slain. Some are carried off to Angband to have their will broken by Morgoth’s power, so that they may be sent back to their homeland as unwitting spies. Such returned prisoners might be PCs, or friends of PCs, whose former comrades must now discern whether they can still be trusted.

In the later Third Age, many of Morgoth’s surviving minions are scattered over (and under) the face of Middle-earth and masterless. The dragon Smaug drives Durin’s folk out of the Lonely Mountain, as does the re-awakened Bal-rog of Moria. In campaigns reminiscent of Thorin and Balin’s quests to recover their mansions from their foes, PCs could participate in the cleansing of Moria after the events of the War of the Ring.

The Dominion of Men

Many of the exiles and returns that take place in the history of Middle-earth have nothing to do with the Dark Lord or his minions (even when these may inadvertently benefit from the weaken-ing of their foes thereby). In particular, during the Second and early Third Ages, the loss or recovery of one’s own is caused not by superhuman malice, but by the evil that Men do to themselves and each other.

The power-hungry Númenóreans who came to Middle-earth in search of wealth and spoil subjected many lesser Men to a rule hardly distinguishable from that of Sauron. A campaign set in this violent age could assume the perspective of one of these oppressed peoples, struggling to drive their unwanted rulers back over the sea (only to be faced with the rival empire of Sauron should they succeed).

Early in the Third Age, the vanquished but still dangerous Black Númenórean lords of Um-bar fought on for nearly a century to reclaim their haven from its investiture by the followers of Elendil, before they were utterly destroyed in 1050 by King Hyarmendacil — or were they?

PCs wishing to assist these exiled lords in regaining a measure of their former power in Um-bar or elsewhere face many challenges.

Umbar continues to play a pivotal role in the drama of exile and return following the Kin-strife, when the returning King Eldacar forces his enemies to abandon Gondor for the sanctuary of their kinsman’s power in the south. As the Corsairs of Umbar, these rebels spend the next three hundred and sixty-two years trying to regain the throne of Gondor (or at least to take cruel re-venge upon its inhabitants for their exile). The originating event of the Kin-strife is itself an ideal setting for protagonists seeking to return or antagonists seeking to hinder them.


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