Simple Hobbits Have Lots of Friends - Michael Martinez' J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle-earth
Here is an excerpt:
One of my pet peeves through the years has been the injection of thieves guilds and other role-playing motifs into Middle-earth. I once watched in disbelief as a mailing list of gamers defined Tharbad to be a din of iniquity, dominated by a thieves guild, without any apparent regard for the way Tolkien's world actually worked. I should say, "without any apparent regard for the way I believed Tolkien's world actually worked."
It took a silly movie to make me think about Tolkien and thieves' guilds in a new way. I'm referring to Eddie Murphy's Dr. Doolittle 2, in which the doctor (who hardly resembles the now less-famous literary doctor of yesteryear) is recruited by the animals of an endangered forest to help them save their turf.
The movie is cute, filled with jokes and gentle jabs at the Mafia. The endangered forest is secretly run by a beaver who sends out a possum (that's Opossum for those of you who like silent vowels) and a raccoon as his messenger boys. "When you meet the beaver, you should treat him with the respect he deserves," the raccoon tells the doctor at one point. "Listen, when the beaver offers you a fish, you take it!" he admonishes in another scene. "I am just a simple fisherman who is blessed with a lot of friends," the beaver tells Murphy's character.
Not exactly a thieves guild, but there are certain elements of the Mafia mystique which have crept into role-playing games. A well-designed thieves' guild always has a mafia-like atmosphere. You don't just casually break into the guild and demand to see the bosses. They're busy people. They have wives and children to support. They need their space, just like everyone else.
Now, Tolkien never mentions a thieves guild. In fact, he rarely mentions guilds at all, and when he does he isn't talking about typical medieval bakers guilds. But there is something mafia-like in the way Tolkien depicts Lotho Sackville-Baggins' takeover of the Shire. I mean, think about it. He uses his money to buy up a lot of farms and plantations in the Southfarthing. And then he establishes a trading relationship with Isengard.
Or was that the other way around? Maybe "Pimple" Sackville-Baggins was rich, but not rich enough to achieve his dreams. So he went looking for friends in new places, and he found Isengard ready and willing to help. Isengard sent him money, wagon-drivers, carpenters, and bully-boys. With all due respect to the members of our hard-working labor unions, the connections between the mob and labor unions have been documented through the years in our courts, and exploited through the years in novels, movies, and television shows. So maybe Southfarthing Wagon-drivers Local No. 2 was just a front for the organization.
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