As a younger man, I read Tolkien, of course; everyone I knew did. Being a fantasy roleplayer meant that you dutifully read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at least and many also read The Silmarillion (Christopher Tolkien not yet having published any volumes of The History of Middle-earth when I entered the hobby). I read them all, but I can't say I was much enamored of them. In fact, as stories, I found them all, The Hobbit included, rather boring. Now, I loved Middle-earth as a setting -- all the little details, languages, etc. But I didn't think much of the stories Professor Tolkien decided to tell about his world, which only goes to show, I think, how shallow my love for Middle-earth was back then.
Consequently, when Iron Crown Enterprises started producing RPG supplements describing the various lands and peoples of Middle-earth, I had very mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I looked forward to reading even more details about the setting, but, on the other, I wondered, "What's the point?" I was never going to set a campaign in Middle-earth. The setting seemed much too focused on a particular set of stories that, at the time, didn't really excite my imagination all that much. I also wondered how many new details could possibly be included in these supplements. After all, Tolkien was dead and I already owned all the books he wrote about Middle-earth. What more could there be?
So, I ignored ICE's Middle-earth products initially. It wasn't until I saw advertisements in the pages of Dragon in 1983 for a supplement called The Court of Ardor that my interest was piqued enough that I considered buying a copy. Based on the ads, The Court of Ardor was filled with "ancient swamp ruins & island citadels held by dark elven lords and their fierce minions." That didn't sound like anything I remembered from Tolkien, yet here it was and released under ICE's Middle-earth banner, no less. So, I went off to the bookstore and picked up a copy, both excited and confused at the prospect of some place in Middle-earth that I'd somehow never heard of.
The Court of Ardor was written by Terry K. Amthor and filled with 62 pages of dense text and some gorgeous maps by Peter C. Fenlon. The supplement described a land far to the south of Middle-earth called alternately Ardor or Mûmakan, which was home to number of elven lords who had cooperated with Morgoth during the First Age. I remembered nothing of this from The Silmarillion and, though I'll admit my appreciation of the finer details of Tolkien's world were shaky at best, it struck me as strange, if not impossible, to imagine evil elves in Middle-earth. Stranger still was that these evil elves used magic associated with a Tarot-like deck of cards supposedly created by Morgoth himself. There were also peoples and places that had no connection to Middle-earth in the supplement as well, not to mention an epic plot line involving Morgoth's half-elven children and the continuation of their father's plan to destroy the Sun and the Moon.
As a kid, I was baffled by all this. The Court of Ardor was undeniably cool, but it was also undeniably inappropriate to Middle-earth. I couldn't figure out then (nor now) just how this product was ever released under the Middle-earth label, since, except for names here and there, it was seemed like it took place in its own fantasy world rather than in Tolkien's sub-creation. But it was also strangely compelling and while, in retrospect, I find it a little too over the top for my liking, it is quite well done and I can easily imagine how someone who took it up and ran with it would have a great campaign using it. I myself did not, mostly because, while I liked many of its ideas, I somehow found myself in the odd position of simultaneously thinking it didn't belong in Middle-earth and finding it too strongly associated with it to be able to use it.
I am led to understand that many elements from The Court of Ardor were later incorporated into a different ICE product, a non-Tolkien setting for RoleMaster called Shadow World. I've never seen that product, so I can't speak to how close the connection is, but it's interesting to consider that, once upon a time, a game company could even imagine inserting a wholly original setting into an existing one without any qualms. IPs tend to be much more tightly controlled nowadays; I doubt we'd ever see something like this again. Of course, I still have very mixed feelings about the fact that this was ever done. My appreciation of Middle-earth has increased greatly since 1983 and the inappropriateness of The Court of Ardor is even more apparent to me now than it was then. Yet, as I say, there's a strange power to this supplement and, like the various alternate takes on "Star Wars without the saga" making the rounds, there's a part of me that remains intrigued by a Middle-earth where Mûmakan, its evil elves, and epic plot lines fit right in.