“Many folk used to dwell away north, a hundred miles or more from here, at the far end of the Greenway: on the North Downs or by Lake Evendim.”
“Up away by Deadmen’s Dike?” said Butterbur, looking even more dubious. “That’s haunted land, they say. None but a robber would go there.”
“The Rangers go there,” said Gandalf. “Deadmen’s Dike, you say. So it has been called for long years; but its right name, Barliman, is Fornost Erain, Norbury of the Kings. And the King will come there again one day; and then you’ll have some fair folk riding through.”’ – Homeward Bound
Old Barliman’s quote here is, I think, a great indication of the state of the world, or at least the North, during the time of the War of the Ring. What was once a proud land where king’s ruled and brought law, justice, peace, and culture, is now a smattering of myths and legends that Men living just leagues away will not go and see for themselves. It’s also a fine indicator of the victory of the Enemy in his earlier machinations. Long had Sauron brewed his vengeance for the heirs of Númenor and his victory was almost complete against the northern kingdom: Arnor is, during the War, completely annihilated, reduced to bands of wandering rangers. As chance/fate/God would have it, the remaining chieftains maintained their royal lineage from father to son and those efforts of destiny become manifest in the person of Aragorn, son of Arathorn.
But Strider is heir to a broken kingdom whose time is not yet come. Left to him, and his kindred, is half a continent’s worth of ruins and memories.
The North Downs are such a repository. Here was once a thriving portion of the kingdom of Arnor and, later, its successor-kingdom Arthedain. Now the place is largely the home of roving orc-bands, brigands and thieves. The once majestic seat of Fornost is now called Deadmen’s Dike and remains a place of fear, though Rangers go there still. For us adventurers, it’s both better and worse: things are more civilised than they appear to be in the books, but also more dangerous. Fornost is completely inhabited by evil, wights run rampant, and towns burn, but there are settlements and camps there of Rangers and lesser men. It is both wild and tame.
Most players approach the North Downs from Bree, though there is a westward border with the Evendim region and another entrance further west at Nen Harn. But, for the majority, the first sight of the North Downs is the ruined town of Trestlebridge. Right from the start, this is a huge discrepancy with the book: in the North, besides Bree and the surrounding towns, the only “settlement” of Men we can see in the books is the Forsaken Inn and that’s barely mentioned in passing. What could a complete town be doing here, and why have orcs destroyed it so? We come to find that orc raids have become a greater problem in recent times (go figure) and that Trestlebridge has borne the brunt of the damage. The Lorebook tells us that Trestlebridge is a settlement of Bree-folk that arose to “support trade” along the Greenway during the time of Arnor. It fell to ruin but slowly was rebuilt and now finds itself in trouble again here in the present.
Due north up the road leads us to the Fields of Fornost where Turbine has taken the idea of “Deadmen’s Dike” very literally: the fields are haunted with ghoulish hounds and ghosts, shades of the fallen kingdom of Arnor. The road takes us straight to Fornost which is, as I said, home to hundreds of orcs now. Little is known of Fornost. It can be safely said that it was not built by the Númenóreans, but after the formation of Arnor. It seems to be a capital city but fell into disuse when the King relocated to Annúminas and then resumed the role, once Arnor was split, as the capital of Arthedain. It was toppled again by the Witch-king and now, at the time of War, it is only a makeshift gathering place for the Rangers.
Turning east things get weird. At Amon Raith there is an enclave of villagers who have fled their farms thanks to orc attacks. Further east we see those (mostly) abandoned farms and wonder why they’re here and if people actually lived there outside the game. Surely Barliman would not have spoken of the area with such terrible awe if it were known that farmers hung around up yonder way. This is further complicated by the instance of Stoneheight, a full village that is under siege. But the final bit of civilization we get in this area is Esteldín (‘Hidden Hope’), a secret Ranger base apparently built upon the ruins of a former town called Dolindîr. One possibility is that the farmers are relatives of the Dúnedain (or Dúnedain themselves) who maintain the land to benefit their cause. We know the Rangers are wanderers now, but it doesn’t seem completely outside the realm of possibility that there were some farmers mixed in somewhere. Dudes’ gotta eat!
This little theory is evidenced further by one of the quests we get in Esteldín, ‘Ruins of Arthedain’. We’re called to investigate the history at various homesteads. Each of these belonged to some kind of minor lord or landowning family in the former kingdom of Arnor and, as it so happens, one of the remaining farmers is an heir to one of these families. Possible, not probable. Essentially, Turbine took the opportunity to make the North Downs a peek into a possible past and present of the heirs of Elendil. Maybe not all of them were rangers; maybe some were farmers or craftsmen or the like who clung to their land by their fingertips over the years. It’s an interesting foil to the remains of Rhudaur, just south in the Lone-lands, and the smarmy bands of hill-men that infest the ruins there. On the one hand you have a goodly civilization of people clinging to a significant past, on the other is a ragtag people worshiping the Shadow.
Even further east from Esteldin we find more and more parts unknown; a settlement of the Earth-kin, a war camp full of Orcs and, to the north, a gateway to the evil land of Angmar. This might be one of my favorite sites in Eriador. A wretched monument to the Witch-king and his minions; a sign of welcoming power to orcs and evil men, but a horrible warning to those who side with good.
North and south of Esteldin lie more bastions of good, settlements of elves and dwarves. Both are there on errand: the dwarves have found old mines now overrun by the Dourhands (even old Dori has tagged along!), the elves are come to revive what used to be a refuge and is now defiled by orcs. In the climax of that book of the epic story, the three factions (the Men of Trestlebridge, Dwarves of Othrikar, and Elves of Meluinen) are brought together by the Rangers, led by Halbarad, to stand against the coming armies of orcs.
So that’s really a lot going on up here in the North Downs. For a zone that was probably envisioned as a lonesome place, with only the odd wandering Ranger there in the hills, it has become a centerpoint for the arrival of many different factions fighting for control. We catch a glimpse into what was and what could have been, and the honor of one’s lineage. It’s a beautiful zone as well and one in dire need of a revamp because, as anyone will tell you, the quest flow just isn’t really there. But go there, and be reminded that the King will come again there one day!