One of the best games of 2014 was Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. The thrilling third-person action game set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy universe continued with the sequel Middle-earth: Shadow of War in 2017. The combat and novel mechanics may be excellent, but the liberties taken with this universe’s lore could confused, or even offend, hardcore fans of Tolkien’s work.
Where does the ranger Talion’s adventure fit in with Tolkien’s timeline of Middle-earth? Does this game and its predecessor count as real Lord of the Rings canon? Here’s a deep dive into the biggest ways Shadow of War impacts LOTR canon.
Warning: Spoilers follow for Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War.
Like the first game, Shadow of War takes place in the 60 years or so between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo keeps the One Ring in the Shire. We explore Mordor with Talion, an undead human ranger who used to guard the Black Gate, and Celebrimbor, the elven lord turned wraith who is bound to Talion after a ritual. Talion’s adventure(s) could conceivably fit as “canon,” but the games create a series of inconsistencies and other discrepancies that don’t match up neatly. In some cases, they overwrite established canon. In many others, they’re gratuitous ways to include characters or imagery that fans will recognize (aka, fan service).
Things get pretty complicated, but here are nine ways Shadow of Mordor and War drastically change LOTR canon.
9. Celebrimbor’s origins are expanded and changed
Shadow of War mines the lesser-known story of Celebrimbor, a canonical Elven lord — first mentioned in The Fellowship of the Ring — who used a magical hammer Sauron gave him to forge the Rings of Power, including the nine Rings of Man that go on to corrupt the kings of man into the Nazgul. Without him, a “lord of the rings” in Lord of the Rings doesn’t really exist.
As any Tolkien-head knows, Sauron tainted all of these rings except the three Elven rings (possessed by Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond). Celebrimbor even assists in forging the One Ring, but he’s betrayed by Sauron and killed. This is all legitimate canon. He’s never named outright in the movies, but his presence is palpable once you know about him.
In the Shadow games, Celebrimbor appears as an amnesiac wraith that lingered in Mordor for around 3,700 years following his death. He bonds with the human ranger Talion during a summoning ritual — magic that doesn’t really exist in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Together, they become a superpowered, immortal being in a way that makes for a really cool video game premise, canon be damned.
Normally, the spirits of dead elves should go to the Halls of Mandos in Valinor to potentially be reincarnated. But this is Sauron’s dark magic after all, so who knows what is really possible here?
8. Talion shouldn’t really exist
At the start of the first game, Talion is a captain of Gondor that guards the Black Gate of Mordor, which is an area that isn’t visited all that much in the books. When we visit anywhere near the Gate in the books, the entire area is overrun by Sauron’s army. Now, considering these games take place decades before The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s entirely plausible that Talion and his regiment were stationed there.
More problematic is Talion’s resurrection: Much like Celebrimbor, Talion’s spirit should have moved on to the Halls of Mandos upon his death. The etymology of “talion” itself comes from the Latin for “eye for an eye,” fitting for a character so focused on vengeance for his afterlife.
7. Shadow of War creates a new Ring of Power
The main plot point at the start of the new Shadow of War is Celebrimbor’s creation of a new Ring of Power free from Sauron’s control, which grants much of the same power but none of the corruption (supposedly). He uses it to dominate the minds of orcs and build up an army that can fight Sauron.
Is it as powerful as the One Ring? Definitely not. If there’s one part of Shadow of War that we should reject outright, it’s this one, because this could have incredible implications were it taken as canon.
6. Sauron’s Forces
Though Shadow of War offers up a lot of questionable details about how this went down, we might as well accept this one as full canon. It’s fact that at some point, Sauron’s forces took over Minas Ithil — the last human bastion protecting the rest of Middle-earth from Mordor — and renamed it Minas Morgul. Fans of the movies might remember Minas Morgul as the creepy green city that the Nazgul rode out from in Fellowship of the Ring, the same that Sam and Frodo later passed by in The Two Towers.
The main reason why the Witch King of Angmar takes control of the city is to seize the Palantir (a seeing stone) that’s kept there. It’s later brought to Barad-dûr, Sauron’s home base, and later used to corrupt Saruman the White. So in that sense, the Shadow games to backfill some vital context that makes the main story make a bit more sense.
5. Shelob takes the form of a human woman
In Shadow of War, Shelob inexplicably takes the form of a beautiful woman. Yes, Shelob, the giant spider that drained orcs and humans — and almost Frodo — of their blood. During War, she tricks Talion out of his new Ring and spends time using it to peer into the future before giving it back after she realizes he needs it to fight Sauron.
In Tolkien lore, Shelob is the greatest offspring of Ungoliant, who’s the primordial spider. Supposedly, she existed “before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dûr.” Sure, Shelob is really old, but she’s still supposed to be just a big spider, not some kind of shape-shifting seductress. This is a strange departure for the game to make, seemingly to establish a beautiful elder female character comparable to Galadriel in some ways.
4. Talion defeats the Balrog Tar Goroth
Remember how Gandalf basically died fighting a Balrog? Gandalf, who is essentially a magical angel? Well, as Talion you can totally fight and kill a Balrog. Orcs awaken the Balrog Tar Goroth during Shadow of War, and Talion defeats him with some extra help from his army. Keep in mind that Balrogs pre-date even Sauron. Their powers are on par with the Wizards of Middle-earth but they served Morgoth, Sauron’s evil predecessor. They’re all supposed to be long dead, but at least two are still burning to destroy everything they encounter in this age.
Experiences like fighting a Balrog make these games feel similar to Star Wars: The Force Unleashed when it comes to canon, which is to say it explores a really fun “what if?” scenario that isn’t “real.” It’s cool to think that Darth Vader had an ultra-powerful secret apprentice behind the Emperor’s back, but we all know it didn’t actually happen. And Talion taking down a Balrog is the equivalent of Galen Marek fighting a Bull Rancor.
3. Isildur never died. He became a Nazgul.
Whatever happened to Isildur, Aragorn’s ancestor, after he died? By most accounts, he was killed by orcs at the Disaster of Gladden Fields (the movies offer up an oversimplified version of what actually happened) and left dead in the river. He’s often remembered for cutting the Ring from Sauron’s finger, but he kept the Ring for himself until it dropped into the river where Gollum would find it many years later.
Shadow of War would have us believe that the orcs dragged Isildur all the way back to Sauron after he died, and the Dark Lord “put a ring on it.” Literally. In these games, Sauron put one of the Rings of Power given to Men on Isildur’s finger This resurrected the dead king and transformed him into a Nazgul. During War, Talion fights and destroys Isildur, releasing his spirit rather than dominating him with the new Ring. Isildur can finally rest in peace.
Celebrimbor doesn’t like this one bit, so he abandons Talion. Instead, the wraith possesses Eltariel, an elf assassin-type sent by Galadriel (not to mention those canon issues).
2. Shadow of War explains Sauron’s Eye
This one’s a bit bizarre, but in the final confrontation against Sauron at his tower, the Dark Lord severs the hand of Eltariel/Celebrimbor, essentially de-powering them while using imagery that’s already been used in two big ways within the Tolkienverse.
Sauron is then somehow able to fuse with Celebrimbor and the two remain trapped in the tower as a flaming eye, constantly struggling to dominate one another. Hence all of the fiery anger and rage.
The flaming eye we see in the Peter Jackson films atop Barad-dûr isn’t quite what’s presented in the books. Still, War adopts the flaming energy fueling the eye and presents it as a physical manifestation of the ongoing struggle between Celebrimbor and Sauron. It’s another way in which playing these games can fundamentally change how you watch the movies and read the books if you take it as canon.
1. Talion becomes a Nazgul
The biggest bombshell from Shadow of War comes at the end when we learn Talion’s ultimate fate: Talion becomes one of the Nazgul.
After he’s abandoned by Celebrimbor, Talion begins to die. His only option is to take Isildur’s Ring, which he uses in the final fight against Sauron. He then uses the power to contain Sauron’s forces in Mordor for as long as he can, but he eventually goes full-on Nazgul, which would make him one of the Ringwraiths that hunts Frodo.
“They were once men, great kings of men,” Aragorn tells us of the Nazgul. “Then Sauron the deceiver gave to them Nine Rings of Power. Blinded by their greed they took them without question, one by one falling into darkness and now they are slaves to his will.”
This canon definition doesn’t really fit in with how Isildur and Talion as Nazgul functions in Shadow of War, but it’s interesting to go back and watch the movies and think to yourself: Was Talion the one that sniffed for hobbits at the tree? Was he there on Weathertop? How did it feel when he was drowned by the magical flood? We can’t know, but it’ll be fun to rewatch the movies with this in mind.