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

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.

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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Kat Bailey

Editor in Chief

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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