Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and the Themes of J.R.R. Tolkien

I consider myself to be a very shallow Tolkien scholar. Yes, I’ve read the books, and I’ve perused the Silmarillion and a number of Tolkien’s letters and other works. Which, to a large portion of the world probably marks me as a deep Tolkien scholar (“You’ve read his letters?“), but to the world of experts who have taken the plunge into Tolkien’s larger body of work I am simply a n00b. But that means that I can avoid the traps that many self-described Tolkien scholars fall into, such as sticking just a bit too close to the details that Tolkien describes at length.

It’s for this reason that I was able to enjoy Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor a bit more than the other experts. They argue that Talion can’t come back from the dead, or that Celebrimbor could never be a Wraith as Tolkien describes Wraiths, or that Mordor would never have any wildlife like there is to be seen in Nurn, or some other bit of trivia that, if we’re being super honest here, doesn’t matter in the slightest. Not when we have a game that actually, surprise surprise, deals with themes that are closely tied to the themes of The Lord of the Rings!

I had inklings of it back when I played the game when it came out in 2014 and was being hailed as the Game of the Year, but it wasn’t until my most recent play-through that it really struck me just how closely the game follows the internal logic not of Tolkien’s world but of his themes. And I replayed the game just before the Middle Earth: Shadow of War announcement, which goes to show just how good the game is on its own. The Lord of the Rings is, in part, a work about Good and Evil. And if we are to distill the concepts of good and evil in Tolkien’s mythology (not an easy feat, and one I will try to not do a disservice to here), we find that the fight at the center of the War of the Ring is one of Free Will Vs. Domination.

Many of the main conflicts of the Lord of the Rings stem from the ability of the One Ring being able to dominate those who wear it and corrupt them. And how does it corrupt people? Into wanting to dominate others, impose their will on others. Boromir’s main failing is the attempt to take the Ring from Frodo by force. Gollum’s whole being has been consumed by the Ring and he will do almost anything to anyone to get it back. And to contrast with Boromir we have his brother Faramir who not only refuses the Ring, but lets Frodo continue on his journey with it, thereby not imposing his will on Frodo.

And the other main power of the One Ring was the ability it gave Sauron to dominate the other Rings that he had helped fashion. The Ring bearers of Men and Dwarves were heinously affected, turning the 9 kings of Men into the Nazgul and turning the kings of the Dwarves to even more excessive greed and lust for gold, while the Elven Rings that Celebrimbor had forged in secret were unaffected except for the awareness of Sauron’s intent that it brought to them, allowing them to remove their rings.

And this of course leads directly to Shadow of Mordor, where the wraith of Celebrimbor is revealed to have been captured and tortured by Sauron into helping complete the One Ring. Celebrimbor stole the One just as he finished and attempted to usurp Sauron’s throne and save his captured family, but of course Sauron has put too much of his essence into the One and so at the crucial moment the One returns to Sauron and Celebrimbor is cursed to wander Mordor as a wraith. Until Sauron is tired of Celebrimbor’s interference and so sacrifices Talion in an effort to draw him out. Talion is able to use the power he gains by being bound to Celebrimbor to “brand” orcs and Dominate them, so that they no longer follow the whims of Sauron but instead only follow “The Bright Lord”, also known as Celebrimbor.

This of course is where the message of the game and how it relates to the themes of Tolkien’s work get a bit muddled. Because the game play of Shadow of Mordor feels amazing. It’s incredibly fun to assassinate Orc Warchiefs from above, or to develop a rivalry with an orc that became a captain for killing you in the first place, or to defeat an endless stream of orcs while attacking one of their strongholds. Talion is fun to control and his abilities make exploring the environment of Mordor and attacking its orc army all the more relishing.

But the story of the game tells a slightly different story, where Talion, at first separated from his wife and son by being brought back to life as opposed to entering the Halls of the Dead with them, at the end of the game decides to abandon his quest to be reunited with his family and instead joins Celebrimbor’s quest for vengeance and power. It is a tragedy what happens to Celebrimbor as he is corrupted by the One Ring, and it is a tragedy what happens to Talion as he is corrupted by Celebrimbor in turn. Talion’s quest for vengeance isn’t a righteous one. It isn’t even a successful one, as we well know, since Talion and Celebrimbor can’t and won’t defeat Sauron, Frodo will by bringing the Ring all the way to Mount Doom so Gollum can fall in with it.

Video games like Shadow of Mordor are inherently a power fantasy, built on the various ways you can commit acts of violence against artificially intelligent enemies. Shadow of Mordor’s gameplay seems to be sending a different message than its story. It says violence and the domination of the orcs is awesome, and fun, but also that these things are inherently corrupt and fruitless. One interpretation is that the Nemesis system, the part of the game so lauded for its ability to create emergent stories, is a part of the way that we can rectify these two messages. Yes, the game says, killing these orcs is fun, but where does it end? The nemesis system ensures that there are always more orcs to kill, always more opponents waiting to strike you down in retaliation. Talion can’t defeat evil though violence, he can only stem the tide temporarily, or even worse bring about a worse retribution later. Dominating the orcs doesn’t work, because the orcs don’t stop being vile, and in turn Talion becomes vile for taking away their right to choose. In the DLC pack “The Bright Lord”, the orc warchiefs are terrified by the idea of becoming thralls of Celebrimbor, and beg you to kill them rather than eradicate their will and impose your own. Talion isn’t a hero, he’s an anti-hero at best. He’s what would have become of Boromir if he had taken the Ring, corrupted and just as evil as the power that he hoped to destroy.

I’m incredibly excited to see the sequel to Shadow of Mordor, Middle Earth: Shadow of War take the next logical escalation of Talion’s corruption. The way that Shadow of Mordor was able to stay true to many of the themes of Tolkien’s work was a breath of fresh air for a shallow Tolkien scholar such as myself, and I trust the team behind it to continue those themes. As Talion takes the next step on his path to becoming just yet another dark lord, creating another Ring to dominate orcs and eventually the other peoples of Middle Earth, just as Sauron does, his story will grow darker and more seductive, and I can’t wait to experience that seduction in a safe place like a game yet again.

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