Shadow of Mordor Canon or Not?

One of the most anticipated video games of 2014 is Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. While it’s not the first movie licensed game with a plot that’s tangential to the events of LotR and The Hobbit, it’s certainly gotten a lot more press than others (The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age and The Lord of the Rings: War in the North come to mind). Gamers look at the trailers and pass judgement on the nemesis system (which allows the player to manipulate bad guys to do their bidding) or compare the gameplay to that of the Batman Arkham games or the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Many Tolkien fans, however, have a different reaction: Is Shadow of Mordor canon?

At First Glance

The three story trailers released thus far (“Banished from Death,” “Make Them Your Own,” and “The Bright Lord“), along with a few interviews, reveal this information that stands out to Tolkien fans:

  • Talion is a Man (a Gondorian, by the sound of his name) who cannot die
  • A wraith or spirit is somehow bound to him (which seems to be a form of possession, although it’s not clear). That wraith is later revealed to be Celebrimbor, the creator of the Rings of Power.
  • Whatever it was that happened to Talion gives him the ability to exert control over bad guys (at least over Orcs).
  • Gollum becomes a sidekick of some kind to Talion and Celebrimbor.

Okay, so this sounds pretty crazy, right? Should Tolkien be rolling over him his grave?

The Creators’ Intentions

Michael de Plater, the director of design on the game, did a fairly in-depth interview with Gamespot. When asked about reactions to the “wraith/human hybrid,” de Plater had this to say:

The one I get frustrated with is, sometimes people say “Oh, we haven’t seen exactly this thing before in Tolkien’s writings, we haven’t seen an exact example of this type of wraith, therefore it can’t happen.” But in reading Tolkien, there’s nothing like the army of the dead until we’ve seen the army of the dead. There’s nothing like the barrow-wights until we’ve seen the barrow-wights. There’s nothing like the dead marshes until we’ve seen the dead marshes. There’s not exactly a consistent way in which the ringwraiths are handled. Do they have flesh? Do they not have flesh? Are they physical? Are they corporeal? Are they incorporeal? I think a key part of the authenticity is that you do want to introduce something with a bit of mystery and a bit of wonder, but is still authentic in the canon, in the myth, in what we already know. I don’t think we would ever want to limit ourselves to only showing things that have been specifically included or shown in the books.

This is a much more thoughtful and reasonable answer than I would have expected. De Plater further enhanced his credibility by quoting Tom Shippey (one of the most respected Tolkien scholars of our time). Later in the interview, he comments, “Different media do have some differences, and we want to make the best game we can make that’s absolutely true to the material.”

So, to summarize. The creators (I’m assuming that all of the people driving this game are on the same page as de Plater) have stated that:

  • they know they can’t please purists 100% (very true).
  • there are a lot of utterly unique things in Middle-earth, thus showing room for some invention on the part of others.
  • Tolkien didn’t necessarily have all of his facts solidified (which is particularly true of evil creatures).
  • they deeply respect the source material and want to bring in rich detail from said material.
  • they (rightfully) acknowledge that a video game is a completely different medium from a book and they may have to make some changes in order to create a good game.

Although I was already beginning to change my tune on whether or not Shadow of Mordor is canon, this interview still opened my mind a little further. Even if I disagree with some choices, I can’t help but respect well-reasoned arguments like this.

But is Shadow of Mordor Canon?!

Bearing in mind Michael de Plater’s comments, let’s go through the biggest red flags from the trailers.

A Man Who Can’t Die

Celebrimbor tells Talion that he’s been “banished from death.” His statement seems pretty accurate, so we’re going to assume that it is. (We can’t know for sure until the game comes out, of course.) Does this have any precedence in Tolkien’s writings?

There are a number of Men who endure a lot throughout the history of Middle-earth. Beren, of course, came back from the dead along with Lúthien. They were given a special grace, though, so it’s not reasonable to apply it in this situation (Silmarillion, 187). Túrin Turambar also came close to death a number of times. It is also said that he will come back during the Last Battle and deal the final death-blow to Morgoth (Lost Road, 367). (Special thanks to James for his wonderful article on Dagor Dagorath, where I found this reference.) Again, this seems to be a unique case.

One example that may be most pertinent is that of Húrin Thalion. He was captured by Morgoth and given a particularly cruel torture. Morgoth cursed Húrin’s children and then gave Húrin the ability to see how their lives played out.

Then Morgoth cursed Húrin and Morwen and their offspring, and set a doom upon them of darkness and sorrow; and taking Húrin from prison he set him in a chair of stone upon a high place of Thangorodrim. There he was bound by the power of Morgoth, and Morgoth standing beside him cursed him again; and he said: ‘Sit now there…with my eyes thou shalt see, and with my ears thou shalt hear; and never shalt thou move from this place until all is fulfilled unto its bitter end’ (Silmarillion, 197).

So Morgoth was able to give Húrin unnatural powers of sight and hearing. While the ability to frustrate the nature of Man (that is, to prevent him from dying) is a rather more profound change, there’s still a precedence for giving mortals “extra” power.

Possessed by a Wraith

I use the term “possession” loosely. It’s far too early to understand the exact nature of Talion’s and Celebrimbor’s relationship. However, one thing does appear to be true–they are somehow bound to each other. This seems like another major departure from Tolkien’s world.

There are, however, the case Barrow-wights. These mysterious, ghostly creatures took possession of the barrows (graves) of old kings of Men. It’s unclear whether the wights took possession of the bodies of those kings, but it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.

There’s also the Dead Marshes. Something took lurked in the waters–something that took on the likeness of the Elves and Men who died there. The battle that was fought there was thousands of years before the events of LotR. Barring some kind of intervention, it’s impossible for the bodies to still be in tact. (There’s another example of unnatural attributes!)

Interestingly, most of the cases that we’ve discusses so far have all been related to evil creatures. While Celebrimbor isn’t evil, the curse that apparently binds them together is certainly evil. While there isn’t textual evidence to support this theory, it almost appears that evil creatures have more power because they don’t hesitate to break the laws of nature.

Wraith is an Elf

Not only is Talion possessed by a wraith, but that wraith turns out to be the spirit of an Elf who’s been dead for at least a few thousand years old. This may be particularly confusing for those who aren’t familiar with Elves and their nature. Here’s a quick synopsis:

  • Elves are immortal–as long as Arda (the world) lasts, each Elf will continue to exist (REFERENCE).
  • Elves do die, but only if they are killed or if they become incredibly weary (REFERENCE).
  • When Elves die, their spirits are summoned to the Halls of Mandos, which is a sort of purgatory. They ponder their past lives there; it’s unclear how long they typically spend there (REFERENCE).
  • After their time in Mandos is complete, Elves get new bodies that are identical to the ones they had before. They have all of their previous memories, too. The goal is for the Elf to pick up the life that he or she led before death (REFERENCE).

The spirit of every Elf who dies is summoned to Mandos; however, the spirit is not compelled to Mandos. It is possible for an Elf to refuse the summons (Morgoth’s Ring, 223). It is stated that if the spirit of an Elf refuses the summons, that spirit cannot interact with the living or participate in any of the events of history (Morgoth’s Ring, 223). This would seem to disprove the canonical nature of Shadow of Mordor. There is an interesting tidbit in this passage, however.

[I]n ancient days, while Morgoth was in Arda, or his servant Sauron after him…the [spirit] would flee in terror of the Shadow to any refuge–unless it were already committed to the Darkness and passed then into its dominion. In like manner even of the Eldar some who had become corrupted refused the summons, and then had little power to resist the counter-summons of Morgoth (Morgoth’s Ring, 223).

Again, we see the special power that evil creatures can wield. While it isn’t fair to say Celebrimbor was corrupted fully (Sauron tricked him, after all), it’s not out of the question to claim that he had too much pride for his own good. If Sauron had somehow exerted more control of Celebrimbor, it would make sense that be may not even be able to leave Middle-earth.

Sidekick Gollum

This element was, I’m sure, a strategic addition to help orient movie fans to the world. Gollum is a distinctive and familiar face–and the only “evil” (corrupted may be a better word) character who has, well, character.

The argument could be made that Gollum wouldn’t become a sidekick for another creature–that he only cared about his Precious. It’s a fair argument. We do know from LotR that Gollum had some “friends” whom he believed would help him (Fellowship, 56). Indeed, someone did help him escape from the Elves in Mirkwood (Fellowship, 249). I’m not trying to claim that Talion and Celebrimbor were the friends referred to, of course. But it would make sense for Gollum to have had some interaction with other creatures. And it also makes sense that he would have been drawn to Celebrimbor as the maker of the Rings of Power.

So is it Canon?

While it’s clear that the specific elements of the game aren’t text book canon, so to speak, neither are they major departures from canon. (I can think of at least one Hobbit animated feature that strayed much further away.) There is one element, however, that stands starkly and indisputably in contrast to Tolkien’s work: (seemingly) good people using evil tactics.

Tolkien was a devout Catholic. He believed that there was such a thing as objective good and objective evil. This belief permeates his writing (TTT, 428). He also believed that a good intention doesn’t excuse evil actions (as evidenced by Gandalf’s, Galadriel’s, and Faramir’s categorical refusals to use the Ring). In fact, Tolkien had an aversion to even trying to understand evil motives.1 The uniqueness of Shadow of Mordor‘s gameplay is certainly opposed to Tolkien’s views. The player learns to control Orc-chieftains and their minions in order to achieve (apparently) good goals.

In my opinion this, more than anything else in the game, would be Tolkien’s biggest complaint (although he surely would have many others). Indeed, this radically different perspective may be enough to render the story uncanonical, no matter how faithful it is in other respects. One can always make the argument, of course, that not every individual in Middle-earth was as dedicated to high morals as were the heroes of The Lord of the Rings. While it may not be ultimately true to Tolkien’s vision, it will still be interesting to see a grimdark version of Middle-earth

1 Tolkien Gateway. I own both books cited in the article, but I don’t have them available for reference currently. As soon as I do, I will edit this blog post to include the specific references.

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  10 comments for “Shadow of Mordor Canon or Not?

  1. HenryVIIII
    August 11, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    Yeah, because Tolkien wrote the things he did maybe? Christ of course it is not the same thing as ‘we have not seen anything like the army of the dead until the army of the dead’, because game creators are writing this, not Tolkien. By the same logic I can write a story about magic aliens visiting Middle-Earth and say ‘it can still be canon because we didn’t see anything like the dead marshes until we got to the dead marshes’.
    And you can please the purists, by making a Lord of the Rings game not some made-up crap with the Middle Earth name slapped on it to sell copies.

    Of course this is not canon.

    • Emily
      August 12, 2014 at 9:09 pm

      That’s a good point–because the game is essentially fan fiction, it can’t be canon. I didn’t really mean to say that the game is indeed canon. I meant that it isn’t as far away from canon as maybe it could be.

      The only game I’ve seen that comes anywhere near close to being purist is Lord of the Rings Online. Even that isn’t really canon because it inserts the player character into the events of LotR. Have you seen any games that are closer to canon? I’m fascinated by video game interpretations of Middle-earth.

  2. September 19, 2014 at 2:14 am

    I think this is a useful and interesting discussion… if you substitute the phrase “consistent with Tolkien” for “canon”, because the latter term tends to be understood in different ways by different people. My understanding of “canon” is that it describes a body of work that is both authoritative and in all respects (specific details, general themes, etc.) self-consistent. In that sense I think there is no Middle-earth canon, because although Tolkien’s writings on Middle-earth taken together are authoritative (by definition, since they are by Tolkien), they are not self-consistent; Middle-earth did not reach a final form but was forever a work in progress. Nevertheless, it is certainly possible to argue whether a licensed adaptation or a piece of fan-fiction is more or less consistent with the vision of Middle-earth that Tolkien presented.

    • Emily
      September 20, 2014 at 3:33 pm

      That’s an excellent point, Graham. I agree with you that using the word “canon” is sticky because it means different things depending on the context and who is using it.

      In order to have a useful discussion, you have to use consistent, well-defined terms. Canon is the wrong word to use in this discussion. I’ll be more specific in the future. Thank you!

      • September 21, 2014 at 5:31 am

        It occurs to me that there is an additional complication in the sense of a Tolkien “canon”, in that Tolkien’s writings can be viewed as translations of sources written by different authors (Bilbo, Frodo, “loremasters” etc.). For example, I always imagined that the stone-giants in “The Hobbit” were just an embellishment that Bilbo invented (although, as Douglas Anderson argues persuasively in “The Annotated Hobbit”, they might have been a form of mountain-troll).

        • Emily
          September 28, 2014 at 11:05 am

          That certainly does add another layer of complexity. I haven’t read much about the development of The Hobbit, but the whole “Riddles in the Dark” situation leads one to believe that not everything in that book can be taken at face value.

          Actually, now that I think about it, calling Bilbo by that name technically isn’t canon. I’m pretty sure that in the Common Speech his name was Bilba, but Tolkien translated it to be more familiar to English speakers.

  3. Mike
    September 26, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    Woah neat, exactly what I was myself wondering after I noticed the glowing reviews this morning. Totally agree with your last point there; I was listening to an interview with the devs, they said something to the effect of “we really wanted to explore this theme of Boromir-esque ‘using the weapon of the enemy'”. Looks like a sweet game but I am certain that, especially considering his convictions, Tolkein would not have regarded this as consistent with his “secondary creation!” ( Will be something to keep in mind whilst enjoying the game next week. Thanks for the article!

    • Emily
      September 28, 2014 at 11:12 am

      Glad you enjoyed it! I haven’t heard that interview yet, but it makes a lot of sense. It’s almost a “what if?” scenario when you look at it that way.

      Of course, it’s impossible to know exactly what Tolkien would have thought of it. I fell pretty certain in saying that he wouldn’t have been happy with the game because, in his mind, it’s glorifying the choice to use the weapon of the enemy. However, he did set out to write a sequel to LotR in which the young boys of Gondor were forming gangs and imitating orcs. (He abandoned it because he found it too depressing.) I don’t think Tolkien would have necessarily been opposed to the proposition that something like this might have happened in Middle-earth. But he wouldn’t have wanted to tell this story, for sure.

  4. Mike
    September 26, 2014 at 4:27 pm

    No need to get snippy up there, obv (considering the subject and context) she did not mean to say ‘Tolkien wrote it’.

    • Emily
      September 28, 2014 at 11:08 am

      Thanks, Mike! I understand the frustration, though. Shadow of Mordor looks like it will be a departure from a lot of what Tolkien wrote, so it’s bound to upset some people. I may even end up annoyed with the game by the end! Although I certainly hope not.

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