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A Tolkien Scholar's Take on Shadow of War - Two Left Sticks

A Tolkien Scholar’s Take on Shadow of War

Get ready for some Middle Earth mayhem. Monolith Productions released an epic gameplay walkthrough for its upcoming open world action game Middle-earth: Shadow of War yesterday.

After its original reveal last week, Shadow of War still had a lot of questions surrounding it. Players wondered if this game would live up to the excellent example its predecessor set. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor came out of the gate strong with a large open world, bloody and brutal combat system, and the innovative Nemesis system.

Right away the gameplay trailer answers that question with a resounding, guttural “yes!” From the start, it’s clear the scope of this game is way more epic. The battle in the debut gameplay is much larger than anything in Shadow of Mordor. Monolith is clearly trying to capture the feel of large-scale battles in Tolkien’s work. There’s also the same gory combat and Nemesis-built custom enemies (and now allies) that players loved in the first game.

Photo credit: Polygon

Taking Liberties

But even with all that in mind, there is still one big unknown: the story. From the little Monolith has revealed, it’s clear that Monolith is still taking a fast and loose approach with J.R.R. Tolkien’s work.

To say that Shadow of Mordor took some liberties with Tolkien’s world would be an understatement.

Games have adapted Tolkien’s work in a number of different ways. Yet Monolith has used Tolkien’s world as the backdrop for new stories, carving their own path into Middle-earth. How do these games fit into the many game adaptations of Tolkien’s work? How does Shadow of War hold up under scrutiny from an actual Tolkien scholar?

For Shaun Gunner, chair of The Tolkien Society and a Tolkien scholar, it certainly doesn’t. He defined two kinds of adaptations: those that look like Tolkien’s work and those that feel like his work. For him, Monolith’s games are more the former. In an email conversation, Gunner said, “Visually, these games look like Middle-earth; but they don’t feel [Gunner’s emphasis] like Middle-earth as described by Professor J.R.R. Tolkien.”

It may not be canon, but it’s definitely badass. Photo credit: Ars Technica

Founded in 1969, The Tolkien Society is an educational charity and literary society that studies and promotes Tolkien’s work. Members, like Gunner, have devoted their time and effort to Tolkien and the world he created.

‘What If’ Scenarios

Boromir’s dream of using the One Ring to fight Sauron in The Fellowship of the Ring inspired Monolith’s story. But the way they’ve interpreted that scenario is “a little far-fetched” for Gunner. This “what if” scenario is less a challenge question of Tolkien’s work and more a violent power fantasy.

“It’s not really a challenge that can exist within the bounds of the story Tolkien wrote,” Gunner said. “So ‘What if Bilbo had killed Gollum,’ sure. But this is ‘What if a man dies and a dead elf lord bonds with his body to turn him into a wraith and then he is able to control orcs?'”

In the last game Talion, a Gondor ranger, seeks revenge against the Black Hand of Sauron, who killed him and his entire family. Revived from the dead and possessed with the spirit of Celebrimbor, an ancient Elven smith and the one who helped forge the Rings of Power, Talion uses his new wraith powers to chip away at Sauron’s forces.

That’s a great foundation for an action game, just not a story in Tolkien’s world. Shadow of Mordor gave players the tools to kill and manipulate their enemies with flashy powers. It was, like many other games, a power fantasy. Tolkien’s work, especially Lord of the Rings, critiques the idea of power and often focuses on the idea of power as a corrupting force. Monolith’s games challenge that theme, but Gunner said, “It’s not really a challenge that can exist within the bounds of the story Tolkien wrote.”

Even Tolkien would admit that riding a dragon is OP. Photo credit: Polygon

Gunner did admit that games can offer effective and challenging “what if” scenarios of Tolkien’s work. He cited Battle for Middle Earth II as “an excellent game which really did challenge our ways of thinking about Middle-earth.”

Good Adaptation or Good Game

Shadow of War’s story may fall flat under the scrutiny of a Tolkien scholar, but that doesn’t mean it will be a bad game. Even Gunner admits there’s a difference between a good adaptation and a good game.

“Undoubtedly the Shadow of War will be an incredibly popular game, but that will be due to good game design, not thanks to Tolkien,” Gunner said.

Some games like the Arkham series can straddle the line between authentic adaptation and being a great game, but it’s not easy. Taking the themes that are at the core of Tolkien’s work and wrapping them in a new story inside an action game was, and still is, a bold move on Monolith’s part. Even with its challenging interpretation of Tolkien canon, it’s hard to deny the appeal of Shadow of War. Great combat, cool powers, and now dynamic, large-scale battles make Shadow of War a game to look forward.

Players will be able to slice and dice their way through Middle-earth and canon when the game launches on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on August 22.

Cody Mello-Klein
Cody Mello-Klein is a writer, gamer, part-time baller, and full-time shot caller from Boston. He's a sucker for a good story and is still waiting for another Cormac McCarthy novel. He has worked as a narrative designer and has an interest in the ways games can tell unique, emotional, and provocative stories. Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer for occasionally witty remarks.

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29 thoughts on “A Tolkien Scholar’s Take on Shadow of War

  1. Pretty annoyed at the snobbishness of fandom’s. let’s get one thing straight. And I say this as a 47 year old Tolkien Fan. It’s not a history, it’s not a mythology it’s a fiction. Yes, is damn good Fiction and feels like mythology but it’s still fiction. As soon as people realise that and don’t cling on to every word as if it was written in stone like some mythical being the better. Now as to the games. Well, Shadow of Mordor does not impact one jot on what Tolkien wrote. It’s a story that could happen in Middle-earth as Tolkien mentions people can become wraiths. He also mentions there were many more Rings of Power than the ones we know about, so again it can fit. Shadow of War, we know little about apart from a trailer and a longish skirmish that can happen in the game. There’s also the fact that we see Minas Ithil become Minas Morgul, which we know happened. It was just very vague how. So until somebody has actually played the game all this posturing is pointless. And why shouldn’t we enjoy more Middle-earth? And in this medium. Just because the Professor never wrote about it doesn’t mean we should be deprived of it? So bring on the many adventures of Talion. And a big raspberry to the Purists.

    1. “Well, Shadow of Mordor does not impact one jot on what Tolkien wrote. It’s a story that could happen in Middle-earth as Tolkien mentions people can become wraiths.”

      No, it could not happen. It contradicts the established history and lore all the time. The game is supposed to take place between the events of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. By that time Mordor had already been under the rule of the Ringwraiths for around a millenia. They had conquered Minas Ithil thousand years earlier and it had become Minas Morgul. There was no gondorian garrison at the Black Gate. Dead people do not come back alive via black magic. These events could not take place in Middle-earth.

      “There’s also the fact that we see Minas Ithil become Minas Morgul, which we know happened. It was just very vague how.”

      What? We know when that happened. It happened centuries before the War of the Ring and the events of these games.

      “And why shouldn’t we enjoy more Middle-earth?”

      It is not Middle-earth. You can enjoy the game for all that I care but claiming that it is even remotely compatible with the lore is bullshit.

      1. Yes it is Middle-earth. Its’s called Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and the new one is called Middle-earth: Shadow of War. It also happens to be an officially licenced product and uses designs from the films, also an official licenced product because Tolkien sold the rights. You might not like it, but it is Middle-earth.

    2. Celebrimbor most certainly did not ever in Tolkien’s Legendarium have his spirit latched onto a mortal man granting him wraith powers. Yes, men have become wraiths, but there is a set of cosmogonical and spiritual laws that permeate the world of Middle-earth and Valinor that are violated by the events of the game.
      As for there being other Rings of Power you forget what Gandalf said about them: “The lesser rings were only essays in the craft before it was full-grown, and to the Elven-smiths they were but trifles.”
      Clearly from Gandalf’s own testimony no other Rings of Power were made that rivaled the One in power and use. So the game’s story is, in fact, a direct contradiction of the lore.
      There is no shame in enjoying the game (I didn’t, but that is just me and my raspberry-inducing purism) and if you do I have quarrel with you. But saying the story could happen in Middle-earth without contradicting Tolkien’s lore is simply incorrect. The nature of wraiths in Middle-earth and the nature of wraiths in Shadow of Mordor are not the same. The sort of events that happen in this game would not be permitted under the divine will and design of Iluvatar who created the world. The Nasgul became wraiths when their spirits faded as the will of Sauron dominated them. Talion became a wraith with his will and self maintained when the spirit of Celebrimbor possessed him. How you can see both events as the same sort of thing is beyond me.
      I have Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and the Silmarillion an uncounted multitude of times. I have also read through Unfinished Tales, The 12-volume History of Middle-earth series, The Children of Hurin, The Letters of Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, and much of Tolkien’s other work. I believe that gives me somewhat of an authoritative understanding of Tolkien’s universe and I cannot accept the nonsensical idea that these games feature events that could happen in Middle-earth. The notion is absurd.
      However, if you enjoy the games; enjoy them. Just don’t make statements that aren’t true. I’m not going to direct a raspberry at you though. Because that would be juvenile.

      1. Edit: That was supposed to be “I have no quarrel with you” not “I have quarrel with you.”
        My lazy failure to proofread struck again I am afraid.

  2. As a hardcore Tolkien aficionado I am actually offended to the core by the audacity of taking Tolkien’s world in this blasphemous and contrary direction.
    I feel that this and Shadow of Mordor are an egregious assault upon the late professor’s themes , views, and story telling.
    In summary, these games are not for me.

    1. These games are definitely not for purists. However, the great thing about fiction is that people can interpret and adapt a world as rich as Tolkien’s in different ways. Shadow of Mordor may not end up being a faithful Tolkien work but it offers gamers a different look at Mordor and the world. There’s room for pure adaptations and these weird, violent revenge fantasies (that aren’t strictly Tolkien-esque).

      1. The interpretation and adaptations though will appeal more to casuals more often than not though.
        I won’t say hardcore Tolkien fans will not like the games, but I have a feeling people who have been entrenched in the lore for years like myself will be less likely to appreciate it.
        I bear no ill will to the players. It’s my own principles in respecting Tolkien with which I refuse to play them.

        1. That’s perfectly fine. This is why I wanted to pose the question “Can a game be a good game but a bad adaption.” It’s an interesting conversation to have for sure.

          1. Whether it is a good game in its own right is difficult for me to say since it is not my genre. I’m more of a Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest kind of guy.

  3. Yeah, thanks for proving all my points about Tolkien fandom. It’s not sacred. I’m a huge fan. I have been over 40 years. The way you all act is like it’s a personal affront. I had it for several years during the making of the films. Every little thing that wasn’t in the “sacred text” of the books was dismissed as “blasphemous” – it’s hysterical. It didn’t happen. It’s fiction. All out of the head of one person. The way you all act is like it’s digging up the Professors grave. It’s such an overaction. It’s a game. The first is a very good one and it’s fun to play in the Middle-earth sandbox. I bet half of you don’t even game. Just another thing to moan about. But like the films this will bring a new generation of people to the books. And that is keeping Tolkien’s legacy alive. Whether you like it or not. But, for pity’s sake. Lighten up. 🙄

    1. It doesn’t keep his legacy alive at all. It is an ugly mimicry. The same way orcs are an ugly mimicry of Elves.
      And if you have been a fan for 40 years and still seem to think that Shadow of Mordor could happen with no contradictions to the lore then you have spent 4 decades paying little attention.
      And as for “I bet half of you don’t even game” I can only respond by saying most of us prefer to read. Gaming is not an elite culture. Reading is. You should be doing more of the latter clearly.

      1. well, pal. I do read and I read LOTR when I was 7 and I have read it and everything else a lot since, I’ve had 4 different editions of LOTR because they end up getting battered through so much reading them. I just happen to like gaming. And there we have it the utter snobbishness I mentioned in my first post. You probably think you’re a bigger fan than me. Put it this way – when the contestant on Mastermind chose it as his chosen subject in the 80’s. I got every one right. And yeah, you managed to nail your colours to the “Snob” mast there. Hope it made you feel superior.

        1. The snob label really doesn’t bother me.
          Congrats, though, on winning the trivia questions. I have had similar experiences. Shall we also count how many orcs we have killed in battle and tally them up too?

          1. No, because they don’t exist. I seem to able to differentiate between reality and fantasy, and history and fiction.

      2. Side note: let’s not prioritize different forms of culture. You can read, I can game, you can read and game, and I can game and read. We can both like each of those things. One is not more “elite” than the other. Just want to clear that up. We don’t want to bash games here :p

        1. I apologise. I just dislike that “You’re not a true gamer” rubbish. I don’t hold gaming in such high regard as I do books and the “true gamer” thing is more irritating than insulting.
          I am not one to bash games either. As I noted earlier I enjoy JRPGs. I just don’t my disdain for Shadow of Mordor has anything to do with my gaming activities. And what little gaming I do I don’t do with any sense of pride or superiority. It’s just video games for heaven’s sake. It’s not like reading Milton.

          1. And it’s just a book. And that’s the point. It happens to be my favourite book as well. Whilst the Elder Scrolls happens to be my favourite gaming lore. It’s as close a gaming mythology as much as Toljien’s is a literary one. But I really think that Fandom’s need to lighten up a lot. Let’s embrace that people are still loving this world he created. I don’t know much about Shadow of War yet and how it fits in but I couldn’t find anything in Shadow of Mordor to impact on the story we know and I did look. Sauron returned to Mordor after being banished from Dol Guldur. Who knows what Mordor was like before he came back? Tolkien doesn’t say. But it’s fun to play in that Sandbox. And yes it will get people picking up the books like the films did. And look, I’m sorry if I come across as abrasive but it annoys me how everything is so dismissed out of hand without experiencing it and it’s a throwback to the days of when the films were being made.

          2. I was more than a bit rude myself and for that I take blame. But the fact remains that my attitude toward Tolkien and how he is approached is fundamentally different from yours. I think we can agree to disagree without animosity.
            The Lord of the Rings is my favourite book too. In fact, I read a passage of it every day. The same way some read daily devotions. When I finish I start again from the beginning the following day. I am always reading Lord of the Rings. It’s a part of me and I get somewhat defensive to a fault on what I perceive to be its integrity.
            As for Elder Scrolls I am also a fan, but I lean more toward Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the like. Skyrim is good, but I honestly thought Morrowind was better.
            For me The Shadow of Mordor went too far and I couldn’t reconcile it with my own fondness for the books. I didn’t like the Hobbit movies much either. But that is just me.

  4. No but I can differentiate between being snobbish and not. You say gaming isn’t an elite pasttime and yet reading is. I do both. Some of the stories in gaming are very good, in fact I’d go as far to say better than other mediums. It was such a snobbish thing to say. And that wasn’t sarcasm. That was just a superiority complex.

    1. Meh. As I said I am OK with the snob label. I know what I am. I disagree with you. You disagree with me. And I am a snob.
      We can agree on those three points at least.

  5. Rick – great points! I’m actually doing a free short course (from Coursera, US company) at the moment about literature, gaming and other media. The course focuses on Tolkien’s LOTR, Peter Jackson’s adaptions and Standing Stone Games (ex-Turbine) The Lord of the Rings Online. This whole process of remediation is fascinating.
    RicK – I think LOTRO as a game would be more up your street, does a great job with recreating Middle-Earth in the same way the “paper and pencil” rpg like Cubicle 7’s The One Ring rpg does or Fantasy Flight Games LOTR Living Card Game does.
    As for Shadow’s of Mordor – yep, the premise did put me off. Tone felt more like a mash of “Evil Dead” and Game of Thrones/”A Song of Fire and Ice.” Not so much Tolkien. I agree with Shaun regarding two types of Tolkien games – ones wearing the skin and ones attempting the soul. LOTRO is the latter, Shadows is the former. And guess what, I’m a gamer (PC/console and paper/pencil) and I read books!

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