LOTRO: The Pros and Cons of Complex Lore
Professor Tolkien has created one of the most complex and rich fictional mythologies found in twentieth century fiction. There is both detail and ambiguity to be found in his collected works. For example, the line of Númenórean Kings or the family tree of Elrond are clearly explored and catalogued. Yet there are many more obscure and esoteric references littering the various texts, that pique the imagination by alluding to more nebulous people and events. What was the fate of the two Blue Wizards, Alatar and Pallando? What was so special about Queen Berúthiel cats which she used as spies? Are there really Were-worms "the East of East"? It is this balance between richly detailed faux heraldry and vague apocrypha which makes Middle-earth such a credible and living world.
Over the past twelve years Turbine and now Standing Stone Games have tapped into this vast wealth of lore and extrapolated it when writing the various narratives for their MMORPG. They have incorporated both the well know and the obscure. Broadly they have done this in a clever and respectful fashion. The central plot device for the initial game Shadows of Angmar is that the Witch-king's Steward, Mordirith, was once his greatest foe: Eärnur, King of Gondor. It’s a bold idea but not too outrageous to seem impossible. The writing is quite detailed and well researched so overall the idea is successful. Expanding Dunland and exploring the feuding clans and how Saruman exploited such a situation to his own benefit, is also a creative undertaking. Finding a village of Hobbits of Stoor antecedents in the region is also a nice lore-based reference that is expanded into a wider narrative. More recently, the Black Book of Mordor storyline has boldly addressed what happens after the War of the Ring, in the absence of Sauron’s controlling power. I enjoyed that the Cold Drake, Hrímil Frost-heart, was in fact a former ally of Morgoth, who eschewed his predecessor.
Yet building upon and adapting this complex lore is not always successful or well received by fans. For example, the recent Update 24: Vales of Anduin had an interesting plot line feature in the quest “The Stolen Gift”, in which it was explained that the Beornings shapeshifting ability was directly attributable to the wizard, Radagast the Brown. He allegedly bestowed them with a “gift” of knowledge allowing them to use this technique to take the form of Bears. Furthermore, it was a secret that was then stolen by the Gauredain, men of the wolf, and the Ungoledain, men of the spider. Such a plot device has opened up many further questions and not all are prepared to suspend their sense of disbelief to this degree. However, the debate that has ensued has interesting arguments on both side and certainly has encouraged LOTRO players to explore the source texts to seek further insight.
Another issue that has arisen in recent years is LOTRO developers being a slave to convention. The story of Beren and Luthien and their doomed relationship is well known in established Middle-earth canon. It is an important tale and naturally is relevant to the parallels between Aragon and Arwen, except this time round the relationship does not have such tragic overtones (the incompatibility of lifespans not withstanding). However, the writers at Turbine/Standing Stone Games now seem to habitually couch any sort of mixed race or even inter-generational relationship in “doomed terms”. Need I mention Calenglad and Gwindeth, Wynmar and Noriel or Nona and Horn? And let us not forget the struggles between Father and Daughter with such characters as Golodir and Lorniel as well as Laerdan and Narmeleth. I’ve wondered at time whether a staff writer had a bad relationship at a key time in their life and never got over it? As for Calenglad, he’s clearly trying to punch above his weight.
Fans like lore. It is part of the appeal of many franchises. Fans like to learn and become knowledgeable as a sign of their devotion to that which they love. But lore and canon are a double-edged sword and fandom is only a short step away from the myopia of fundamentalist zealotry. What some Tolkien fans forget at times is that the MMORPG The Lord of the Rings Online is an adaptation of the professor’s work and not a pure representation of them. To accommodate the requirements of the MMO game genre, a lot of concessions have to be taken onboard right from the get-go. Therefore I see both the pros and cons of strong lore in a franchise and see adaptation as being a means to experiment in presentation and interpretation, especially when the source material was intended to be as such. Hence, I can accommodate LOTRO’s iteration of Middle-earth and simultaneously enjoy the radical departure from accepted canon presented in a game such as Middle-earth Shadow of War. But that is not the way that everyone rolls so inevitably controversies will arise and opinions will differ.