Warning: this article is a discussion of the story of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War and as such contains spoilers
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, the latest in a long line of games inspired by the Lord of the Rings universe, released this month to much publicity and praise. A sequel to Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Shadow of War expands the original gameplay mechanics of battling and controlling the armies of Sauron, resulting in a rich, addicting gameplay experience that far exceeds its predecessor.
As a game, Shadow of War is certainly an achievement. However, some players will not simply be looking for great gameplay. The Lord of the Rings universe has an army of dedicated fans who want to see its lore treated with respect. Shadow of War is an addition to the expansive history of Middle-Earth. How does it fare in that regard?
Author J.R.R. Tolkien left the world a staggering amount of written records on the world he created. Still, as with any other great work of fiction, there are gaps in the storytelling waiting to be filled by other creative minds.
Monolith chose to place its series in the half-century between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As the second game’s release drew near, Tolkien fans wondered: would Shadow of War introduce exciting new additions to the lore, and would it be faithful to the existing material?
The short answer: yes, and definitely not.
If you haven’t played the game but still care to read this article, you can get a good synopsis of the Shadow of War main story here.
Basically, Talion the undead ranger and Celebrimbor the undead Elf continue their war against Sauron’s forces. Unable to prevent the fall of the Gondorian city Minas Ithil in the game’s opening act, Talion forges an army of Uruks with the help of the New Ring of Power. After numerous fights with the Nazgúl and many fortress assaults, Celebrimbor betrays Talion and leaves him to die. Using one of the Nazgúl’s Rings of Power, Talion survives and continues his war against Sauron. Sauron and Celebrimbor do battle and end up merging into one conflicted entity. After decades of keeping Sauron contained in Mordor, Talion succumbs to the Ring and becomes a Nazgúl himself, until Sauron is defeated in the events of The Lord of the Rings.
Shadow of War includes many interesting pieces of lore for Tolkien fans, but the game doesn’t always have its story straight. It provides several exciting glimpses into the world of Middle-Earth, but some of these glimpses misrepresent the events and characters of Tolkien’s fiction.
What it Gets Right – Familiarity
Aside from my own knowledge of the source novels The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Silmarillion, all information about Middle-Earth canon comes from the official Lord of the Rings Wiki.
Shadow of War surrounds itself with recognizable events, characters, and landmarks from the Tolkien universe. Lord of the Rings fans who pick up the game will no doubt be filled with excitement at the chance to interact with some of this familiar territory – when it is presented faithfully.
Perhaps the most exciting event that Shadow of War shares with the existing mythos is the fall of Minas Ithil. This once-great city of Gondor is referenced numerous times in The Lord of the Rings, and its successor Minas Morgul plays a large role in both the novels and the Peter Jackson films. As depicted in the game, Minas Ithil really was besieged and conquered by the Nazgúl, and it really did house a Palantír that came into Sauron’s possession after its fall.
The opportunity to personally take part in such an important event in the history of Middle-Earth is without a doubt one of the most intriguing parts of the game for hardcore fans.
While some creative license is understandably taken, the game does a pretty good job of drawing from existing content to create the many locations and landmarks across Mordor. Two of the regions in the vanilla game are taken straight from the books, while the other two are named after preexisting landmarks.
In Shadow of War, players get to interact with many important figures from Tolkien’s legends, including the Witch-King of Angmar, a Balrog, and Celebrimbor himself. The writers obviously did their homework when providing the background to these characters, and seeing each of them come to life is a treat. However, sometimes they took liberties with the characters that leave them irrevocably changed.
What it Gets Wrong – Characters
As the Mordor games state, Celebrimbor was a skilled smith among the Elves of Eregion in the Second Age. Deceived by the smooth-talking Sauron, Celebrimbor forged nineteen Rings of Power, each of which became bound to the One Ring Sauron forged in secret. When he became aware of Sauron’s treachery, Celebrimbor hid the three greatest of the Rings from the Dark Lord. Sauron overthrew Eregion and slaughtered Celebrimbor for his resistance.
In Shadow of Mordor, Celebrimbor’s backstory is more or less correct, and the moment when the player learns the identity of their spirit friend is a great “aha!” moment for fans. However, the events of Shadow of War mess with Celebrimbor’s character in some questionable ways.
Celebrimbor’s betrayal of Talion and his plan to dominate Middle-Earth do not jive with the Celebrimbor of Tolkien’s writing. His act of hiding the three great Rings from Sauron in the Silmarillion was a selfless act of bravery in the face of evil. He even resisted torture at Sauron’s hand and refused to give up information on the Rings. Celebrimbor’s turn to evil in Shadow of War is a complete reversal of Tolkien’s portrayal of the character, and it leaves a sad tarnish on the Elf’s legacy.
In addition to changing his character, Shadow of War attributes a level of power and importance to Celebrimbor that completely contradicts Tolkien’s depiction of the Elf lord. In the entire textbook-like Silmarillion, Celebrimbor is mentioned in only three sentences, which briefly tell of his forging of the Rings and subsequent death. The Elf has no power to resist Sauron’s wrath, as the Dark Lord slaughters him without a second thought.
Shadow of War sets up Celebrimbor in direct opposition to Sauron, a “Bright Lord” to contend with the Dark Lord. With a new Ring in hand, the Elf spirit is depicted as being of equal strength with Sauron, able to take control of his armies and survive a direct confrontation with him. Celebrimbor is the driving force behind the story of Shadow of War, but the character from Tolkien’s mythos is simply not that important.
Even with a Ring, Celebrimbor should not be able to contend with the will of Sauron. He is simply an undead Elf, while Sauron is a being of much higher power. The entire story of The Lord of the Rings hinges on the fact that none in Middle-Earth could defeat Sauron in open battle. The game takes a random Elf from Tolkien’s history and places him on a pedestal so high that it belittles the story of the novels, the story of all Middle-Earth fighting desperately just for a long-shot chance of laying Sauron low.
The problems with Shadow of War‘s Celebrimbor are closely tied to the problems with its version of Sauron. To be honest, I found the Sauron in this game to be quite the disappointment.
First of all, Sauron is annoyingly absent throughout most of the story. The Witch-King and the other Nazgúl are the main antagonists, confronting Talion and Celebrimbor again and again. Sauron is present in name only, used as nothing more than a scare tactic from the Uruk captains. Finally, at the end of the third act, the player gets to fight the Dark Lord as Celebrimbor. Unfortunately, the Sauron in this boss fight is a total pushover. An average player can guide Celebrimbor to defeat Sauron in the first try.
Sauron is a Maia, something akin to a minor god in the Tolkien mythos. His power exceeds that of any Elf, let alone one as comparatively young as Celebrimbor. The fact that he so easily fell before Celebrimor in Shadow of War, New Ring or not, is a mockery of the main antagonist of The Lord of the Rings.
Even more egregious than the boss battle itself is what happens to Sauron afterward. For some inexplicable reason, Celebrimbor fused with the Dark Lord upon attempting to dominate him. This merge is the game’s explanation for the genesis of the Eye of Sauron. The lidless, fiery eye is only a symbol in the original novels, but Peter Jackson’s film trilogy gave it a literal manifestation. In Shadow of War, the Eye of Sauron is something of a containment field for both Sauron and Celebrimbor, flickering back and forth between red and blue. In the game’s epilogue, it is revealed that The Dark and Bright Lords stay together through the War of the Ring, perishing together after the Ring’s destruction.
The idea that Sauron is only part of some strange, schizophrenic villain throughout The Lord of the Rings is such a strange and unacceptable idea that it will surely be rejected by many fans. The entire portrayal of Sauron from the game’s beginning to end is ridiculously belittling for such a great villain of literature.
Shelob’s changes in Shadow of War are definitely the most noticeable. Appearing only as a humongous spider in the written and cinematic portrayals, the game’s Shelob can take the form of a woman. In human form, she does something disturbingly close to seducing Talion through much of the game’s first act.
The wording used to describe Shelob in The Lord of the Rings is distinctly feminine, so I suppose I could forgive this drastic physical reimagining… maybe. But there are other changes to the great spider that are even harder to accept.
In Shadow of War, Shelob serves as a sort of guiding character for Talion. She gives him visions of the future, sends him on missions, and inspires him to keep fighting. Ultimately, she is portrayed as a force who contends with Sauron behind the scenes, manipulating Talion and Celebrimbor to bring about Sauron’s end.
The Shelob of the books, however, is no enemy of Sauron. In fact, she is described as his pet. While she is not directly in Sauron’s service, the Dark Lord allows her to remain in his domain undisturbed because she is a useful deterrent of unwanted visitors.
While Shelob certainly has a mind of her own, she is not a grand player in the schemes of Middle-Earth, interested only in her children and her next meal. Everything about Shadow of War‘s version of Shelob warps the original character in strange and uncomfortable ways.
Of all the character changes in Shadow of War, I was the most incensed by that of Isildur. Known across Middle-Earth as the prince of Gondor who cut the One Ring from Sauron’s finger, Isildur arrives in the world of Shadow of War as a Nazgúl enslaved in Sauron’s service. After multiple confrontations, Talion destroys Isildur forever, releasing him from his living death.
I was furious when I saw Isildur as a Ringwraith. Throughout the Third Age, the name of Isildur stood as a beacon of hope for the Men of Gondor. It was only because of Isildur’s blood in his veins that Aragorn was respected as King of Gondor. In fact, Sauron only turned his attention to Aragorn because of his relation to the last mortal to face him and survive. To see Isildur’s name defiled in a such a manner in Shadow of War gave me a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that took some time to shake.
Yes, Isildur was corrupted by a Ring of Power, but that was Sauron’s Ring, and this corruption led to Isildur’s death, not his conversion to a wraith. As much as they obviously wanted name recognition, I believe Monolith went too far with this massive change to Isildur’s fate.
What it Gets Wrong – Timing
In addition to the many character changes, Shadow of War presents many issues that conflict with the timeline of Middle-Earth events.
We return to Minas Ithil for the first example of timeline issues. As awesome as it may be to take part in the city’s fall, the siege of Minas Ithil actually took place over 900 years before Sauron returned to Mordor. In Shadow of War, the time from when Minas Ithil fell to when Talion became a Nazgúl was measured in “decades.” If the game truly wanted to fit into the canon, Talion would have to hold off Sauron’s armies in a 900-year-long endgame, which wouldn’t make sense for many reasons.
The timing of the Nazgúl themselves is completely out of wack in Shadow of War. In the Tolkien mythos, the Nine were first seen as early as the Second Age. This means the Nazgúl were already serving their master before his defeat at the hands of the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, a battle referenced at the opening of the Peter Jackson films.
In Shadow of War, however, the creation of at least three Nazgúl are shown as happening much later. Helm Hammerhand, who lived roughly 4000 years after the first canonical appearance of the Ringwraiths, is seen joining their ranks in a flashback cutscene. As mentioned before, Isildur, whose actions brought about the end of the Second Age, is also shown transforming into a Ringwraith long after they should already have been formed.
And of course, Talion himself becomes a Nazgúl right before the events of The Lord of the Rings, making him a far younger Ringwraith than the Tolkien universe ever leaves room for. In addition, Talion was never a king of men, and the novels explicitly state that each Nazgúl was a king in life.
There are several other inconsistencies in both timing and character depiction across the lore of Shadow of War, but I would be impressed if anyone has even read this far, so I will rest my case.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is absolutely brilliant from a gameplay perspective. In fact, in my opinion, it falls behind only Breath of the Wild for game-of-the-year honors thus far. However, Tolkien fans beware: you will experience a vastly different Middle-Earth than the one to which you’ve grown accustomed. Take pleasure in the extra glimpses into the world, but treat what you find as the non-canonical material it truly is.