Exploring Shadow Of Mordor's Place In Middle-earth

by Tim Turi on Nov 20, 2013 at 12:00 PM

Update: Shortly after publishing this story filled with conjecture about the events of Middle-earth around the time Shadow of Mordor takes place, the official Twitter account for the game revealed that the game begins "...the night Sauron returns to Mordor." This revelation adds exciting new context to the cover story and this article.

As we revealed in the December issue of Game Informer, Monolith Productions is working on a next-gen action game that fits between J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As its title suggests, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor takes place in the inhospitable lands that have long been under the evil Sauron's influence. Intrigued by the downtime between these two beloved tales, we examine what's known to be happening in Middle-earth around the time of Shadow of Mordor.

Spoiler warning: Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy have been around for decades, but some people may be experiencing the fantastic story for the first time via Peter Jackson's films. With that in mind, I discuss the conclusion of The Hobbit in this article. Also worth noting is that Peter Jackson's films alter the existing lore to varying degrees. While some discussed events apply to both the books and the films, I'm mostly referring to the books in this article. SPOILERS LIE AHEAD. 

It's common knowledge that in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins takes the One Ring from Gollum. This token, forged in the fires of Mount Doom and imbued with Sauron's dark power, is eventually handed down to Bilbo's nephew, Frodo. While anyone with passing interest in The Lord of the Rings likely knows the path of the Ring from there, some may be unaware of Gollum's tale after losing his Precious. Monolith has confirmed Gollum plays a key role in Shadow of Mordor, so closer inspection of this ill-fated creature is warranted.

Gollum wanted the Ring back so badly that he braved the world beyond his dank home in the bowels of the Misty Mountains to hunt for it. Unable to track Bilbo and the Ring's course, Gollum headed toward Mordor. During Gollum's journey into Mordor, agents of Sauron tortured the twisted being for information about the One Ring until he revealed what little he knew about the mysterious Hobbit: the name Baggins. Gollum was freed after this interrogation but later caught by Aragorn, a Ranger of the North and future king of Gondor. Aragorn later handed Gollum off to Gandalf who questioned the creature further. After learning about the Ring's history, Gandalf handed Gollum over to the Elves of Mirkwood. Orcs later besieged the Elves, giving Gollum an opportunity to escape and continue his search for his Precious.

While we don't know the specific year protagonist Talion (read more about him here) encounters Gollum in Mordor, lead writer Christian Cantamessa offers some insight: "Because Gollum has considerable time in Mordor searching for answers, his connection to our story and our character is that he appears in a moment in the story when we want answers," says Cantamessa. "If there is a truth out there, [Talion is] looking for it. He could be one that has come across at least elements of it."

A glimpse into Monolith's foreboding land of Mordor

Talion wants to learn why he has been cursed with immortality by being fused with a wraith, and Cantamessa's words lead us to believe that Gollum will face yet another firm interrogation at the hero's hands. Or perhaps the two will become unlikely allies, like Gollum's hesitant cooperation with Frodo and Sam. But that's all purely hypothesis. As an aside, we also know that Gollum encounters the gigantic spider Shelob in Mordor, a problem he wriggles his way out of by promising to later deliver more scrumptious morsels by way of Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. Whether or not Talion meets the massive arachnid is to be determined, but it's a definite possibility and could make for a thrilling battle.

Gollum isn't the only foul creature being driven from its home near the end of The Hobbit. If you watched Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, then you know that an evil being called the Necromancer (a.k.a. Sauron) is gathering power in the ruins of Dol Guldur. The stronghold originally belonged to the Elves before Sauron began rebuilding his power as the Necromancer following his defeat by Isildur during the War of the Last Alliance (when the One Ring was cut from his hand). Once Gandalf and the rest of the White Council agreed that the Necromancer was in fact Sauron, they drove the evil entity from Dol Guldur. His power not fully restored, Sauron fled back to Mordor. While we don't assume that Dol Guldur will play a role in Shadow of Mordor, it's interesting to note the events that forced Sauron back into Mordor prior to the game. These events will also likely play a larger role in Jackson's upcoming sequels to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

As Sauron slowly builds his forces in Mordor, the vigilant Ranger stations and cities nearby gradually become more affected. In the fiction of Shadow of Mordor, humans have developed a fringe settlement in the region of Udûn. Mordor isn't yet the blasted hellscape we know from The Lord of the Rings, so living off the land is dangerous but not impossible. These unfortunate souls are among the first to be attacked and forced into slavery by the mounting Uruk threat. Sauron's forces also attack Talion and the other Rangers of Mordor's Black Gate. Talion and his family are murdered, but the Ranger is mysteriously bound with a wraith, which prevents him from joining his loved ones in the afterlife.

We don't know much about the enigmatic wraith fused with Talion, but examining the other spirits of Middle-earth and Mordor's history may offer clues. Wraiths and other spirits appear under varying conditions in Middle-earth. The Ringwraiths were twisted into spectral abominations due to Sauron's influence. Wights haunt the burial mounds of the Barrow Downs. Lights flicker above the flooded mass gravesite of the Dead Marshes. The Oathbreakers are an army of shades cursed to a ghostly existence after breaking a promise to aid Isildur in battling Sauron.  There is not one set process for the manifestation of a wraith or undead specter, and Monolith is creating its own justification for Talion's curse. The wraith linked with Talion could be a restless spirit from the War of the Last Alliance or some other unfortunate incident stemming from the Mordor's tumultuous, millennia-old history. We know the wraith has its own agenda, though its motivations seem to overlap with Talion's to some extent. 

Director of design Michael de Plater and lead writer Christian Cantamessa discuss Shadow of Mordor's story

The events during and immediately following The Hobbit are important for setting up the state of Middle-earth when Talion's adventure begins. Sauron is the overarching foe of the entire world, and for obvious reasons we know that Talion isn't going to conclusively defeat him in Shadow of Mordor. Despite this, Monolith assures us that in addition to tending to his personal quest, Talion's actions will also have a bigger impact on the whole of Middle-earth. We know things get a lot worse in Mordor before they get better. In the same way that Peter Jackson's films are the director's personal take on Tolkien's lore, Shadow of Mordor is a new story being told by Monolith. We're excited to see what role Talion plays in the eventual triumph over Sauron.

The end of Talion's quest could tie in with several important events that occur around the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. Sauron's Ringwraiths are on the prowl for the Ring, and it's possible the former Ranger could cross paths with these dark horsemen. Gandalf spends time researching in the archives of Minas Tirith, which is near enough to Mordor's creeping shadow. Before Osgiliath falls during The War of the Ring, the forces of Gondor use its ruins as a tacit outpost. Talion's key role in the larger story could be simply that he delays the growing might of Sauron, inadvertently giving Middle-earth more time to prepare.

These are just a few musings and possibilities that are swirling around during the lull between Bilbo's quest and his nephew's journeys. Monolith has a wealth of great lore and possibilities to explore with its exciting new project, and guessing where Talion's journey for vengeance may take him is half the fun.

We welcome other Tolkien enthusiasts to explore this timeframe between the two tales with us in the comments below. Which leads did we highlight that you think are cold? Where do you hope Monolith guides the tale?

The main image of this story come courtesy of the Tolkien Gateway. A special thanks to the dedicated editors of the Tolkien Gateway and The Lord of the Rings wikia.

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