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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor's Uneasy Relationship with J.R.R. Tolkien's Mythology

Is Shadow of Mordor faithful to the ideas set forth by J.R.R. Tolkien? The answer is complicated.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

This article contains spoilers for the end of Shadow of Mordor. Consider yourself warned.

Before Peter Jackson came around and showed everyone otherwise, a large contingent of filmmakers considered the Lord of the Rings books impossible to properly adapt for a feature film.

There had been a handful of animated films in the '70s, but up until 2001, filmmakers were at a loss as to how to capture the epic action setpieces, the extensive lore, and Tom Bombadil. Games similarly struggled with Tolkien's mythos. Though there were some exceptions, most developers were stuck trying to compress Lord of the Rings into arcade-like action games, dull RPGs, and iffy strategy games.

By comparison, Middle-earth: Shadow of the Mordor is one of the best, if not the best, Lord of the Rings games to date, but despite the best efforts of the development team, hardcore Tolkien fans still have plenty of issues with the approach that it takes to the lore. These are four of the biggest:

The death and return of Talion: This was one of the biggest issues most Tolkien fans had before Shadow of Mordor was officially released. As many Tolkien fans pointed out in the months leading up to launch, humans from middle-earth simply cannot come back to life. Pieter Collier, who runs the Tolkien Library, put it to me this way, "Alas, in Middle-earth men cannot be resurrected in Tolkien's works. This is rather crucial, since it is the gift of men to be able to die. Resurrection happened exactly once, with Beren, and that required Eru himself to approve it. Mortality is not something to be feared, or at least it wasn't before Morgoth put a shadow of fear on it. Mortality was Illuvatar's gift to men: the ability to leave the circles of the world."

The response by the developers, for their part, was somewhat confusing. In a reddit AMA posted a little more than two weeks ago, director of design Mike de Plater explained it this way: "Is Talion Dead: Yes he is. So in that sense he does have more in common with the Nazgul or the Barrow Wights. The Nazgul are very interesting in terms of whether they have "flesh" or not—for example, Merry is able to stab the Witch King in the heel. Also, it's ambiguous whether they are wearing the Rings of Power (holding them) or they are held by Sauron to enable him to exert his domination over them."

Interestingly enough, in the game it seems as if Talion is actually not dead at all. Rather, he is on the point of dying after his throat is cut, but his spirit never leaves his body. That resolves at least some of the contradictions in the lore, though that brings into question the problem of Celebrimbor himself.

Celebrimbor's powers: Celebrimbor is not a well-known figure in Tolkien's lore, but he is nevertheless an important one. It is Celebrimbor who forges the rings of power, after which Sauron tortures him to death for failing to reveal the location of the three elven rings. In Shadow of Mordor, he is an amnesiac spirit wandering middle-earth who eventually merges with Talion and gives him special powers.

Basically, there's a lot going on here, but at issue is just how much power Celebrimbor actually has. Even with characters like Gandalf, Tolkien was always rather circumspect with his depiction of magic. It's less gaudy than what you might see in Harry Potter, where magic is typically accompanied by a variety of pyrotechnics. In Shadow of Mordor, however, Celebrimbor (through Talion) is capable of binding opponents to the ground via flame, slowing down time in combat, and teleporting via the unseen world. He can also control and dominate Uruk, which opens a whole different can of worms.

De Plater admits that Shadow of Mordor pushes magic pretty far in his AMA, "Regarding Magic and the level of power, we are perhaps more at the epic end of the spectrum, but we felt this was legitimate because we are within Mordor and Celebrimbor is not constrained in his use of power in the same way that Gandalf was. He has no hesitation about interfering or facing Sauron directly. We get a bit of a taste of what this could look like when we see Dark Galadriel."

This is an issue that is peculiar to action games in that developers often feel the need to give their protagonists special abilities in order to really drive home the power trip that accompanies playing their game. In this case, however, Celebrimbor's epic magic is somewhat at odds with its depiction in Lord of the Rings, where it tends to be considerably more rare.

Oh, and Celebrimbor probably wouldn't make Talion's eyes glow blue.

The compressed timeline: This has been pointed out more than once, but it bears mentioning that Shadow of Mordor compresses the existing timeline quite a bit in its quest to tell a story. In the period in which it's set, Gondor has long since abandoned its fortresses along the border of Mordor, and the Nazgul are already in the process of building an army. What's more, Gollum doesn't appear in Mordor until well after the period in which Shadow of Mordor is supposedly set.

De Plater acknowledges as much in his AMA: "You are right about the timeline and we have compressed some of the events, in the same way as the films, and we have associated the return of Sauron to Dol Guldor with the restoration of the Nazgul."

Comparatively speaking, it's a relatively small concession, especially for a non-canonical work like this one. But it nevertheless bears mentioning in light of the fact that Shadow of Mordor's development team was so ardent about being true to the lore. It just goes to show how hard it can be to make all the pieces fit together when trying to tell a new story within the world of Tolkien.

Talion's quest for power and domination: At the end of Shadow of Mordor, Talion stands victorious after having prevented the physical resurrection of Sauron. He then proclaims his intention to try and forge another ring of power, suggesting that he's ready to try and use Sauron's own power against him in much the way that Boromir suggested in the films.

The quest for power is a recurring motif in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as embodied by the One Ring. The most heroic characters are the ones who shun the power of the ring (Faramir), resist its temptation (Galadriel), or simply have no interest in the ring to begin with (hobbits).

In Shadow of Mordor, Talion is shown to be consumed by a desire for power. De Plater says as much: "In regard to the style and tone we are very focused on the themes of power and the consequences of power and ruthlessness. Our characters are indeed taking a path more like Boromir, Saruman or Galadriel and Gandalf's temptation to take the Ring."

If that's the case, then there can be only one end for Talion: A slave to Sauron who loses everything he holds dear in his quest for revenge. Shadow of Mordor does indeed seem to be setting up Talion for such an end, which would be thematically appropriate, but it also begs the question of whether Celebrimbor—who is generally portrayed as a good and honorable elf—would ever go along with such acts following the recovery of his memory. At a guess, that answer is a "no." And if Celebrimbor ends up falling into darkness and actually becoming evil, then WB will be taking some serious liberties with the lore.

The fact of the matter is that Shadow of Mordor's focus on action and revenge is somewhat at odds with the themes of the books. Though hardly pacifist, the books by and large portray their heroes as being victims of the times, forced to take action against a greater evil. When the war is finished, they happily return to their homes and families, or journey off to the Grey Havens. It's weird to have an anti-hero for the lead character in a series that is so much about the battle between good and evil.

Collier, for his part, seems decidedly bemused by the liberties the story takes with the lore, "Like many fans, I am always happy to return to Middle-earth; I will jump at any chance to do so, and I will even overlook certain non-canonical elements. However, there must be many stories of heroes they could have used instead, ones that would fit more snugly with the present text of the legendarium. Doubtless, Tolkien fans can think of many. If they insisted on creating a new character, at least doing so in a much less overtly disruptive way would've been a possibility; and an easier one at that, than creating such a logged backstory."

As for a character who might be a better choice, Collier tentatively cites Tuor, who is grandfather of Eldrond. But, of course, that gets to heart of licensing, and which parts of the lore Warner Bros. actually has access to. To this day, Christopher Tolkien continues to refuse to sell the rights to The Silmarillion, which contains Tuor's story among many others.

In some ways, it's easy to question whether it matters. Plenty of adaptations take major liberties with their source material. The films based on The Hobbit are rife with such moments ("Rhosgobel Rabbits," Collier sighs). Mostly, it's important that the adaptation be faithful to the spirit of the source material. Understanding and respecting the themes of the original story means that a lot of inconsistencies, like Shadow of Mordor's compressed timeline, can be forgiven. Where it begins to get dicey is when it diverges from the core themes of the original series, which Shadow of Mordor arguably does.

In the end, of course, Shadow of Mordor is precisely what it sets out to be: A very good videogame that is generally faithful to the look and feel of the films. For the majority of people, that will be enough, and it will almost certainly be receiving Game of the Year plaudits from various corners of the Internet. As for whether it's a successful adaptation of Lord of the Rings, that's very much up for debate. We'll just have to see where Monolith takes Talion and Celebrimbor next.

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Comments 26

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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #1 cldmstrsn 4 years ago
    I swear they have said this is not official lore so basically this makes all the complaints moot. Having said that the article was a good read but this being the first LotR I have ever bought its tons of fun and could care less about the cohesiveness of the lore since like I mentioned is not part of the official canon.Edited October 2014 by cldmstrsn
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #2 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    I think all of the problems raised by this article are good. But my problem with this game is that it just doesn't "feel" like it belongs in the Lord of the Rings universe. It doesn't have the same spirit. The Lord of the Rings story is all about feeling powerless in the fact of some great danger, but perservering anyway. Whereas in this Shadows of Mordor game you are essentially a superhero who just happens to be in Mordor.

    Thematically, it doesn't feel like a Lord of the Rings game at all. Perhaps they've made a good game (although I dislike this style of game,) but they certainly haven't made a good Lord of the Rings game. They've made a superhero game with superficial LoTR trappings. That's all they've done.
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  • Avatar for Pacario #3 Pacario 4 years ago
    I just wonder what the famously intractable Tolkien would say about all of these "games" if he were alive today. (Not to mention the current Hobbit movie trilogy.) It's hard to imagine he would endorse most of it.
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  • Avatar for Punk1984 #4 Punk1984 4 years ago
    The game is a good game on it's own and it does a good job of carving out a spot in Middle Earth.
    The problem is how this sits in the wider legendarium, the last game (War in the North) did a better job of adapting itself to the themes of the Lord of the Rings. The idea of being a small diverse group standing up against evil. While the story wasn't as engaging as what is presented in Shadow of Mordor it still seemed like it fit.
    But that is the problem with video games, the player needs to feel powerful- so often Tolkien's protagonists feel hopeless- the player needs to be unique- Tolkien's protagonists rarely act on their own.
    The thing that both War in the North and Shadow of Mordor do that makes me feel good about the expanded Middle Earth universe is stay true to Middle Earth. If not in dates, themes and feelings at least in building the world in a way that feels true. While not the Morwen of Silmarillion Queen Marwen feels like she fits in. (Although the addition of Saruman felt kind of ham fisted.)

    As a Tolkien fan and avid reader, I am satisfied and hopeful with where the expanded world is and is going. We should at least applaud it for not being as bad as it could be.
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  • Avatar for Punk1984 #5 Punk1984 4 years ago
    @Pacario He was originally optimistic about film adaptations. He probably would have liked seeing so much of his later material added into the Hobbit. But in the end you're right he would not have been a fan. (His son is famously antagonistic)
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  • Avatar for lanmao #6 lanmao 4 years ago
    I expected this game to have a much more definitive ending. The cliffhanger I got was an unwanted surprise.
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  • Avatar for DogNozzle #7 DogNozzle 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 I agree. The thing is, while Tolkein's works are sort of founding documents for "fantasy" as a genre as we know it today, I don't think they really fit into the genre very well retroactively. Combine that with this kind of game's focus on action and sprikle in a bit of revelling-in-brutal-violence and you end up with something that feel kind of crass IMHO.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that this game should have been a Warhammer license instead.
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  • Avatar for Thad #8 Thad 4 years ago
    However, there must be many stories of heroes they could have used instead, ones that would fit more snugly with the present text of the legendarium.

    I'd love to see an RTS focusing on Durin son of Thorin and the dwarves' defense of the northlands during the War of the Ring.
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  • Avatar for Lord-Bob-Bree #9 Lord-Bob-Bree 4 years ago
    @Punk1984 I disagree that the player needs to feel powerful. For example, games like Amnesia or DayZ. Requiring the player to feel powerful limits what games can be made.
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  • Avatar for Thad #10 Thad 4 years ago
    @Punk1984 Of course, it also bears noting that the reason he sold the rights in the first place was that he wanted to make sure his family was taken care of.

    Whether or not he would have liked the films, the games, etc. he would have been very pleased to know that his family achieved significant financial success from them.

    Less pleased that it took a damn lawsuit against New Line to get it.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #11 Kat.Bailey 4 years ago
    @Thad Wasn't that War in the North?
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  • Avatar for Thad #12 Thad 4 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey Never played it, but I don't think it was an RTS, or especially concerned with Durin's Folk.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #13 SatelliteOfLove 4 years ago
    At least they had singing in it.

    Oh well, maybe they'll have a Silmarillion game before long, after seeing that pic up there.
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  • Avatar for hal9k #14 hal9k 4 years ago
    Great piece, Kat. I'm generally not too concerned with how games relate to canon for franchises like this or Star Wars, but the differences are still interesting to discuss. I can see how the tone of a revenge story is different from LOTR, and may not really fit the setting despite making for a good game.
    @lonecow I swear I read something about a Bronte-inspired MMO a couple of years ago, but I searched for it extensively today and couldn't find anything. So: failed kickstarter, April Fool's joke, or hallucination? I hope someone knows what I'm talking about, it would be nice to know I didn't imagine it.

    What other classic works of literature should be adapted into games? Atticus Finch: Ace Attorney? Bartleby the Scrivener Teaches Typing?
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  • Avatar for funkstar #15 funkstar 4 years ago
    @lonecow

    Didn't you hear? None of the SW extended universe is canon now!
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  • Avatar for alexb #16 alexb 4 years ago
    @hal9k I think he would prefer not to.
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  • Avatar for Punk1984 #17 Punk1984 4 years ago
    @Lord-Bob-Bree Both of those are very unique cases and not exactly the normal mass market game that gets made at large publishers. Most action games revolve around the power fantasy.
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  • Avatar for Punk1984 #18 Punk1984 4 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey War in the North was an action game set mostly in the northern Misty Mountains and Mirkwood.
    You may be thinking of Battle for Middle Earth 1&2.
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  • Avatar for Punk1984 #19 Punk1984 4 years ago
    I'm in the middle of my annual re-read of the legendarium and it strikes me that of every character Talion is most like Hurin's son Turin with his temper and bull headed drive... *spoiler* just without such a tragic ending.
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  • Avatar for hal9k #20 hal9k 4 years ago
    @lonecow That was it! Thank you - I was going crazy yesterday trying to prove to myself that I didn't imagine it.
    @alexb Followed by the computer putting itself to sleep.
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  • Avatar for CHEIF33 #21 CHEIF33 4 years ago
    Great article. Well written. I do wish someone would write about all the good things,they did.With the comments I read.Most were very interesting. Now,we know what the development team went through. We have great game.Which could have been junk.But,it wasn't. Most game/movie tie ends,not very good.My thought on how many books have had games,veer off the material being used?
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  • Avatar for procion #22 procion 4 years ago
    I find it worrying that Gollum can see Celebrimbor, although it is explainable once one finishes the game, but I also feel that the developers have totally missed the message that Tolkien was conveying throughout his canon, especially at its end when the Shadow of Sauron is vanquished. This was why Tolkien could never get a sequel to LotR off the ground. The Fourth Age had begun and Sauron and his inherited evil from his chained master Morgoth, had been vanquished. The game is exceptionally well made and challenging and fun to play, especially the combat, but it is so very violent. Perhaps in the wake of gamergate, the more and better acceptance of women into the gaming fold will temper this violence we see throughout games (although women can be very harsh with each other). What I was constantly reminded of playing this game, especially in regards to the orcs was Edwin Muir's infamous review of FotR "The astonishing thing is that all of the characters are boys masquerading as heros. The hobbits, or halflings, are ordinary boys, the fully human heros have reached the fifth form; but hardly any of them knows anything about women except by hearsay." I must go on to add that the orcs with their cockney/Hampshire accents must have failed the fifth form but in this case fit so perfectly, especially as I kept encountering them in the game, into Muirs review perfectly. And that to me grates, especially since Muir's barbs succeeded in greatly irritating Tolkien. Muir would have had a field day if he was a party to seeing or hearing the orcs in Shadow of Mordor. They remind me, in this game, of the naughtiest, dirtiest schoolboys, but they never swear in case their master Sourotton hears them and comes a-spanking. And of course this constantly brought to my mind too the insatiable unthinkable: thoughts of female orcs, orc relations, husbandry, rearing, whelping, churching, suckling, weaning, ugh I'm making myself sick at the thought. All of that green flesh and wanton orcgies[sic]. I think I had better stop... now.
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  • Avatar for fantasywind #23 fantasywind 3 years ago
    Glowing eyes are not a problem, I explain it to myself that Talion is roughly the equivalent of a Barrow Wight, and when Frodo saw one, it's eyes were glowing :).

    But seriously think the main cause of the 'uneasy' relation is that the game tries to connect more with movies (and that's why the whole 'Sauron is disembodied Eye' nonsense, in book it is implied and later confirmed by Tolkien letter that he regained physical form already, there are also problems with timeline since some events from book in that case are erased in game-world like Ringwraiths assaulting Minas Ithil to make it into Minas Morgul, or the fact that Uruks appeared OUT of Mordor several hundred years before The Hobbit even took place).

    I think personally that making a game using only book lore and accurately is possible. There is no need to compress established timeline, there is no need to try to aquire rights to Silmarillion (though the Unfinished Tales on the other hand might come in handy). It is possible to make a game basing it only on Lotr and The Hobbit license and still make an engaging personal storyline for an invented character.

    The possibilities are endless, you could play as a common gondorian soldier in any possible time, though especially interesting would be to play in time period of civil war in Gondor, known as Kin-strife and have true RPG open world to explore kingdom of Gondor and it's surroundings. You could even get a choice to either support Castamir the Usurper or exiled rightful king Eldacar and help him return to power in grand engaging political conflict.

    You could play a Dwarf during war with dragons in Grey Mountains and be a witness to important event of death of king Dain I by unnamed cold-drake or even during War of Dwarves and Orcs. You could be a Lake-man of Esgaroth, Man of Dale and explore little known kingdom either before or after time of The Hobbit and even have place for lots and lots of inventions for example to describe the mysterious land of Dorwinion at the shores of Sea of Rhun, we know nothing of it except for that it has gardens and vineyards that produce the best wine in the Westlands hehe. You could make an interesting open world game taking place entirely during war with Angmar in the North having to explore kingdom of Arnor in times of it's glory before it fall and when all it's cities were destroyed (and you could make it much more populated than it is in main narrative of Lotr since it is truthful to the lore, and you would have many towns and villages, great cities of Tharbad, Fornost, Annuminas you could elaborate more upon splintered states of Rhudaur and Cardolan, you could do a lot of things epxloring the land of Eriador to it's fullest, and it is HUGE, enough to outsize Skyrim hehe).

    As for magic system here it would be more difficult but it can be managed, since even Dunedain are capable of some sort of magic, they made those daggers with ''spells for the bane of Mordor'' after all, Elves and Dwarves also have certain magical abilities, especially for crafting items of power (we know also there is sorcery some people can learn, Frodo was even taken for a 'travelling magician' after incident in Bree.

    Or the true prize...playing as one of the skin-changers like Beorn or his ancestors/descendants, possibly others of his kind. Beorn was a "skin-changer and no doubt a bit of magician" as Tolkien wrote in letter. You could have a truly magnificent game with such a character, for those liking violence, imagine the carnage you could make in bear form.

    Interesting thing in SoM we are doing the exact thing that we are warned against by Tolkien: "Since in the view of this tale and mythology, Power, when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason) is evil..". It is I think modern trend that people are more fascinated with darkness, after all the popularity of all those 'dark and gritty' fantasy these days with so called 'grey morality'.

    As I said there is lots of possibilities for Lotr games.

    Hell I could even play as a professional burglar in great port city of Pelargir made a la Thief game series haha (what, you didn't know there are burglars in Middle Earth? "a really first-class and legendary burglar would at this point have picked the trolls' pockets-it is nearly always worthwhile if you can manage it-, pinched the very mutton off the spite, purloined the beer, and walked off without their noticing him. Others more practical but with less professional pride would perhaps have stuck a dagger into each of them before they observed it. Then the night could have been spent cheerily." Bilbo wasn't evil but he became a burglar of sorts hahaha).Edited December 2014 by fantasywind
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  • Avatar for fantasywind #24 fantasywind 3 years ago
    @procion Orc females existance is confirmed by Tolkien in one letter (but as we see Orcs mostly as soldiers in armies little is known of their daily lives), also in The Hobbit it is said that Gollum ate a little "goblin-imp", "young little sqeaker" that wandered into his lair, I take that it means an Orc-child :) haha
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  • Avatar for Dajji77 #25 Dajji77 3 years ago
    I'm part way through the game (and don't know how it ends yet) and it most definitely seems to be setting up Talion/Celebrimthingy to become evil. At one point Celebr.. the elf says "It is a gift. Let us use the weapon of the enemy against him." This is a word for word quote of Boromir in the movie. No way did the writers misunderstand that line.
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  • I was very much in love with The Lord of the Rings when I read it for the first time when I was 15. I re-read it many times since. But now I'm 29, and I've read many other great fantasy books and I don't have that kind of adoration a lof of fans do anymore. That being said, what I actually loved about Shadow of Mordor is how it deviates from the lore. It brings Middle-Earth up to date. I remember that Faramir said somewhere that he wouldn't tell a lie even to deceive an Orc. That might have been a great show of heroism back in the day, but now it's sounds so silly you can't even take it seriously. The truth is that The Lord of the Rings, while still amazing, haven't aged all that well. It's greatest quality is the potential it has to bring other stories to life and I truly hope for more stories like Shadow of Mordor.
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