“Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment. Those who listened unwearily to that voice could seldom report the words that they had heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke, they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell.” – The Two Towers
This week, the world received the news that Christopher Lee, better known to Tolkien fans as Saruman the White had taken the last ship into the west. At 93, his death can hardly be considered a surprise, but here at Dor Cuarthol, we wanted to pay tribute to the man who brought this character to life.
Christopher Lee led a long and full life: he fought in the Second World War, and to many of elder generations, he will be remembered as Dracula, for his work in the Wicker Man, or even as a Bond Villain.
For me though, Christopher Lee remains inseparable from two parts, both taken on very late in his career: Saruman the White of Middle Earth, and Death of discworld. Both are parts defined in large part by their voices: Lee may not actually have been able to speak in capitals as the disc’s reaper did, but it isn’t hard to see how the casting team picked him for the role. [As a strange aside, anyone not familiar with Lee’s work on the symphonic metal concept album “Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross” should check out the videos on youtube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvKRbi2ovDY ]
Saruman the White was the chief (although not ultimately the Wisest or Greatest) of the Five Istari sent to Middle Earth early in the Third Age. The others were Gandalf the Grey, Radagast the Brown, and the two Blue Wizards who long ago disappeared into the East, and whose names Gandalf tells Bilbo (in the Hobbit films) he has entirely forgotten – fortunately for you, we can confirm today that the individuals you’re looking for are Allatar and Palando.
The unfinished tales tell us that the Istari, although clothed in the likeness of aged, mortal men, were in fact Maiar – that is to say, the same type of creature as Sauron himself, or the Balrogs. Gandalf’s “true” name is Olorin, and Saruman’s is Curumo.
Whilst the Blue wizards are unlikely to trouble designers of the Lord of the Rings Card Game, the other three have already appeared, and I’m going to think today, a little about the Saruman cards we’ve seen so far.
Saruman first appeared as an ally. For those familiar with his later treachery, this may seem odd, but the card game is (primarily) set before the Ring sets out from the Shire, when Saruman is still head of the white council – indeed our illustrious heroes spent an entire cycle helping him unite the Dunlendings, forge his own Ring of Power and create the Uruk-Hai.
Even for those who didn’t spot ahead of time what Saruman was upto, this card fits well into a distinct playtype, that of the Doomed deck. Doomed cards allow you to trigger effects much more cheaply (in terms of resources) than would otherwise be the case, but with the added cost of a threat raise.
Saruman himself embodies this doomed mechanic well: for a mere three resources, he is a neutral ally (so affordable turn 1 by most) with 3 willpower, a whopping 5 attack, four defence and four hit-points. The sum of his stats are comparable with ally Gandalf, although he is a better attacker, but a worse quester. The catch for the 2-resource discount is the “doomed 3” text, which raises everyone’s threat when he enters play.
His ability is also strikingly different: whereas Gandalf lowers your threat or draws you cards, Saruman takes the fight to the encounter deck, and can treat a non-unique enemy or location as out-of-play for the round: at first sight, this can seem like a very marginal effect, but there are moments when it can prove highly useful, such as when you need a round’s respite before being bashed again by a Hill-Troll, or you desperately need to send your Northern Trackers to work on the staging area, but can’t cope with the Twisting Passage sat there. (I still have nightmares about The Long Dark.
Personally, I can’t say I’ve got all that much use out of the Doomed player-cards so far: I did build a solo deck with Saruman’s lackey Grima, Lore Aragorn and Theodred, which was fun, but in multi-player people seem strangely reluctant to have their threat raised by ten on round one…
Power of Orthanc does see fairly regular inclusion, but other cards like The Wizard’s Voice never quite seem to make the cut. Hopefully, the rise of the new Valour mechanic, and related cards which reward you for a threat over 40 will see this become a more viable deck archetype.
Another reason for Ally-Saruman not being flavour of the month, is that we’re still not that long past the Treason of Saruman box in which [spoilers] Saruman appears as an enemy.
Because the game just doesn’t like you very much, enemy Saruman has an extra point of attack, an extra hit-point, and has 1 more threat than his ally counterpart’s willpower. He’s also immune to player card effects, indestructible, and cannot leave the staging area, but you can probably lock him in his house, and leave him under the watchful guard of a treeherder.
Christopher Lee was already nearly 70 when he played Saruman for the first time, and even in the Fellowship of the Ring, he appears more for his command presence and might vocal intonations than his dynamic on-screen activity, but that didn’t stop him from playing a major part in the feel of a very fine Trilogy of Films. Whilst it would have been nice to see more of him, perhaps in the Scouring of the Shire, the last thing Return of the King needed was another ending.
As a parting tribute to the great man, I leave you with a couple of cards: one simply an alternate art for the Saruman ally card, and another an event, inspired by the scene in Lee’s final foray into Middle Earth
Christopher Lee: 1922-2015