Middle-earth and Non-Canonical Stories
Canon and lore are sacred cows to many fans. Any deviation from the clearly established is met with scepticism and on occasions outrage. It is the hill they are prepared to die, defending. In the past I have felt equally as strong about this matter as others but over the years I have become increasingly relaxed about such things. I guess once you realise that your childhood memories cannot be ruined, despite what some claim, then you cease to worry as much. If you do not like an adaptation, extrapolation or continuation beyond the canon of a particular IP, then you simply say, “it’s not for me” and move on. Not liking an idea or concept because it doesn’t conform your preconceptions and personal tastes does not give you the right to try and quash it. So overall, I don’t mind Tom Cruise being Jack Reacher. A female Doctor Who is fine with me. I even like the movie adaptation of Raise the Titanic.
However, as I mention, I wasn’t always this easy going. Tolkien’s body of work has long been something I enjoy and hold in high esteem. Thus, when both The Lord of the Rings: War in the North and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor were both announced respectively in 2011 and 2014, I was highly sceptical. Initial marketing showed a great deal of imagery devoid of any context. How could a Ranger be a Wraith and why were Eagles being used as mounts? Yet over time, as more information filtered through, it became clear that these were not total bastardisations of Tolkien’s work and I ended up buying and enjoying both games. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it was their innovative extrapolation of the lore that was one of the primary reasons I liked both titles so well.
What becomes apparent when playing The Lord of the Rings: War in the North and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is that although they are derived from Tolkien’s work, they are more of a continuation of Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations. They certainly have the same detailed aesthetic and action focus. However, the stories of both games have creative plots that are based heavily in Middle-earth lore. The Lord of the Rings makes it clear in the Appendices that the War of the Ring was fought on multiple fronts. Both Gondor and Erebor were assailed by Sauron’s forces and Dol Guldur was destroyed by the Elves. So, the threat of third front hailing from Angmar, as seen in The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, is hardly a stretch either narratively or militarily. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is equally as creative exploring the fate of Celebrimbor. It delves in to many aspects of Tolkien’s work from the Blue Wizards, Saruman’s hunt for the ring, as well as the ongoing wane of Gondor.
These games along with Standing Stone Games’ Lord of the Rings Online succeed as they journey beyond established canon, due to the love and affection their writers have for the source material. Rather than abandon established ideas, these games develop them and frequently fill in the grey areas of known lore. When one considers the magnitude of Sauron’s empire, surely he would have a much wider chain of command, other than just the Nazgûl. Hence, I do not balk at the Black Númenórean Lieutenant named Agandaûr, or the three Black Captains; the Hammer of Sauron, the Tower of Sauron and their leader, the Black Hand of Sauron. All make sense and play a specific role in the Dark Lord’s military hierarchy. Furthermore, we have seen in the source text, that Orcs and Uruks have personalities, as well as aspirations and agendas of their own. Thus, I found the character Ratbag in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor very plausible as he tries to do a deal with Talion to establish his power base. Also, having made some checks, I cannot find any definitive proof that Smaug was the last Dragon in Middle-earth. So I have no major prejudice against Draigoch or Úrgost.
Sadly, where I am happy to accommodate the aforementioned games non-canonical narratives, I feel that I have to draw a line with fan fiction. The standard of knowledge, research and writing seen in LOTRO, The Lord of the Rings: War in the North and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor simply isn’t present in grassroot fan generated content. Many fan writers just don’t have the necessary skills to forge a compelling narrative. It’s something you’ll see in many Star Wars and Star Trek fan films. They will often sport exemplary production values given the financial constraints but the dialogue is usually amateurish and embarrassing. Boundless love and enthusiasm are no substitute for genuine talent. Star Trek Continues transcends the traditional fan film label, due to the pedigree of those associated with the production. The Hunt for Gollum and Born of Hope don’t quite hit that level of professionalism, although they certainly raised the bar for Tolkien based fan movies.
It was recently announced that the three-way legal dispute between the Tolkien Estate, Middle-earth Enterprises and Warner Bros. has now been settled, which raises the question of further game development of Tolkien’s IP. Middle-earth: Shadow of War is due to be released on October and I am very interested as to where the story goes next. I see from trailers that Shelob is now part of the narrative, which is a bold move indeed. If this title is as equally successful as its predecessor then surely more games of this idiom will follow. Because of the specific terms of the licence, future material is somewhat tied to the scope just The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Yet because both of these books encompass a vast world of lore, much of which has never been fully explored or even fleshed out, we are potentially faced with a very creative opportunity. At present, due to the standard of what has already been released, I do not fear what may follow. Therefore, perhaps some fans should try and take a fresh look at this situation and revise their opinions regarding non-canonical stories.