The Lord of the Rings is hard to adapt. Yes, we have Peter Jackson’s masterful films, but Tolkien’s world is difficult to modify for other media while retaining its spirit. In part, that’s because the bad guys are really, really cool.
As a teenager, I understood I was supposed to admire Aragorn, Elrond, and humble Frodo—but I covered my amateur sketchpads in Balrogs. My friends and I used to play a miniatures game based on the wars of Middle Earth, something between Dungeons & Dragons and chess; the rulebook itself recommended players take turns playing the Free Peoples and the Forces of Evil. This was ostensibly to keep the game fair, but we all knew it was for a simpler reason: no one wants to go home without playing the Witch King of Angmar.
All this goes double for video games, in which we’re used to finding promises of vicarious violence. Games set in Middle Earth provide opportunities not only to battle but to play as the calamitous enemies of Men and Elves; even Gollum gets his own game this year, just in time to cross-promote Amazon’s Rings of Power.
Though it’s now eight years old, the acclaimed video game Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor messes with these expectations. It’s enduringly interesting, not only as a game but as a wider commentary on Tolkien’s vision and legacy, despite its many narrative liberties. Shadow of Mordor is a stealth-based adventure set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The story follows Talion, a Gondorian ranger, his family murdered as the Dark Lord Sauron returns to the land of Mordor to build his forces. At first killed with his wife and child, Talion is resuscitated and bound to the amnesiac ghost of a long-dead elf king. This makes him immortal—or rather, “banished from death,” as the ghost tells him. Together, man and wraith work to disrupt Sauron’s armies of twisted orcs from the inside-out, sowing terror throughout their ranks and manipulating that fear through their own designs.
The game is faithful to Tolkien’s lore, so much so that the innovations it brings to the table highlight elements of Middle Earth’s story in new and often unsettling ways. Players familiar with Middle Earth will identify Talion with Aragorn, the deuteragonist of The Lord of the Rings and the rightful ruler of the human kingdom of Gondor. It was in this heroic spirit that I began my adventure, watching over his shoulder with controller in hand.
However, it became clear that Talion was not exactly analogous to the regal and courageous Aragorn. Talion is stealthy and cunning, terrorizing the orcs before brutalizing them in front of their subordinates, routing them in packs, chasing and cutting them down. When the deformed Gollum makes an appearance, Talion stalks the loping creature in a sequence that provokes unavoidable comparison: Talion and the wraith operate much more like the treacherous Smeagol than like the other heroes of Middle Earth.
Gollum’s searching interest in the wraith, whom he calls the “Bright Master,” also reveals that the elf is none other than Celebrimbor, the forger of the Rings of Power. Tricked by Sauron into making the rings that would enslave the free races of the world, Celebrimbor also fashioned the three Elven rings that could oppose and contest the “One Ring to Rule Them All.” But Sauron discovered Celebrimbor’s plan, murdering his family and abducting Celebrimbor to Mount Doom, where he would perfect the powers of the One Ring. Celebrimbor’s rage doomed him to remain in the world as a wraith before becoming attached to Talion. From here, the narrative pivots the player’s goals away from Talion’s survival and towards Celebrimbor’s revenge.
Placing the player “over the shoulder” of Talion and Celebrimbor, Shadow of Mordor follows a standard set-up for interactive media, as explained by game theorist Tanya Krzywinska: “[The game] facilitates a . . . benign connection between player and the hero-protagonist avatar, working to place both on the side of good, a coincidence of perspectives consolidated by the game’s [third-person] mode.” This shared perspective plays out through the first half of Shadow of Mordor, as Talion and Celebrimbor disrupt and destroy orc society in efficient and creative ways. Because of this, it becomes more and more difficult to ignore the brutality of their methods. Despite the evil and cruel nature of the orcs, I soon felt that the punishment Talion inflicted was often cruel and unusual. Whenever Celebrimbor psychically interrogates the creatures for information, the terror on their faces is chilling and clear. As Talion sneaks among their ranks, we hear the orcs having conversations that reveal familiar desires: to gain the respect of their peers (though earned through fear and violence); to have a leisurely life (though made possible by human slaves); to enjoy good drink as much as anyone else (though their version of it is catastrophically flammable). They feast, they gossip, they hunt for sport—and they know what it is like to fear and to be humiliated.
Despite themselves, the orcs provoke sympathy—and this is by design. The game isn’t looking to justify orcish violence, but it still strings out this tension and tests it when Talion and Celebrimbor discover the power to “brand” orcs. This magic allows them to dominate the creatures into becoming fearful but obedient servants. At this point, Talion finally breaks silence on behalf of the player and declares that no living being, no matter how vile, deserves to be subjugated in such a way. Celebrimbor, however, counters with an argument to chill the blood of any who well remember the tragedy of Boromir that closes The Fellowship of the Ring: “It is a gift! We shall use the weapons of the Enemy against him.” Later, Celebrimbor even declares that he is following the path Sauron carved for him, using the Dark Lord’s own magic to defy him. The elf intends to build an orcish army of his own, and at this point the player recognizes they are witnessing the rise of a new Dark Lord.
By compromising the connection between player and hero-protagonist that Krzywinska describes, Shadow of Mordor sets up the player to identify as the villain, with no prior warning; what might not come as a surprise in a game like Grand Theft Auto comes as a surprise here. And through the surprise of Celebrimbor’s spiritual fall, and his dragging Talion down with him, I considered that Sauron’s own fall may have happened in much the same way. Shadow of Mordor teaches us that the identity of the Dark Lord does not lie in a specific being but emerges from a set of behaviors. Historian Joseph Loconte reminds us what being a Dark Lord meant for Tolkien, who wrote that “The act of ‘bulldozing the real world’ . . . involves ‘coercing other wills.’” Theologian David Tracy says much the same thing, in even icier terms: “The Christian understanding of sin is . . . the horror of the self’s eternal struggle to absorb all reality into itself: to force, with both the arrogance of pride and the sloth of self-dispersion, all reality into my needs and my desires or else level it. We make a desert and we call it peace.” In Tolkien’s mythology, this struggle leads the demigod Melkor to become the first Dark Lord in his desire to control the process of creation. Seduced by Melkor, Sauron, a lesser spirit, continues this legacy as the next Dark Lord after the former’s fall and banishment from the world. By the end of Shadow of Mordor, Talion and Celebrimbor, in their very struggle against Sauron, seem poised to inherit his mantle.
This struggle, this instinct for control that is central to Tracy’s definition of sin, is also at the heart of Rene Girard’s understanding of human anthropology. One of the most influential thinkers of the late twentieth century, Girard’s massive project pivots on this insight: “If individuals are naturally inclined to desire what their neighbors possess, or to desire what their neighbors even simply desire, this means that rivalry exists at the very heart of human social relations.” We can’t soothe this instinct towards rivalry by acting on our ambitions, either. In fact, pursuing and securing power only exacerbates the problem: “We feel that we are at the point of attaining autonomy as we imitate our models of power and prestige. This autonomy, however, is really nothing but a reflection of the illusions projected by our admiration for them. The more this admiration intensifies, the less aware it is of its own mimetic nature.” The harder we work to carve our own identities, the more we tend to imitate those who are already more like the “selves” we want to be than we are.
Girard has a simple but theologically charged term for this sort of phenomenon, this rivalry that cannot recognize itself: he calls it Satan. This Satan appears throughout The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur cannot recognize the folly of keeping the One Ring for himself as a trophy of Sauron’s defeat. This failure leads to Isildur’s death and precipitates the events of Tolkien’s trilogy. Echoing this event at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, Boromir cannot recognize the Satanic nature of his own impulse to use the Ring’s power to defend his home; he pays for his ambition with his life, repentantly defending friends who have now come to fear him. The writers of Shadow of Mordor continue this theme as Celebrimbor, so confident that Sauron is the enemy and that he is not like Sauron, follows the same Satanic path that first made Sauron the Dark Lord.
All this tracks with an enduring theological view that evil operates rather like a parasite. Girard argues, using the Bible, that Satan is a sub-personal phenomenon that occurs in and amongst human creatures: “The mimetic concept of Satan enables the New Testament to give evil its due without granting it any reality or ontological substance in its own right that would make of Satan a kind of god of evil.” But even if we believe in a more literal Satan, we should benefit from this caution that evil is most pernicious and effective when identified with something “out there.” Sauron is far from the only entity in Middle Earth in whom Satan has done its work, in whom the desire to dominate and subjugate has manifested as open conquest. Yet he somehow represents them all. The debate still rages over whether Sauron himself, in Tolkien’s mind, represented Adolf Hitler. Certainly the Nazi campaigns of World War II display ambition and subjugation in all their terror, but, where The Lord of the Rings operates as a mythology about England, I believe Sauron represents something far closer to home. Just as Tolkien created the Shire to represent England at its best, so Sauron is the shadow of England at its worst, the sooty and brutal legacy of industrialized imperialism. Barad-dûr may symbolize the iron arm of the Third Reich, but it is also a turn-of-the-century London covered in coal dust and smoke, full of the throngs of the poor. In this, Tolkien understood that identifying evil as strictly outside, as something Other to battle, guarantees that one’s own potential for evil remains unidentified and so continues to grow.
My friend Jonathan Heaps refers to this, in more immediate and contemporary terms, as the “negative partisanship problem.” By this, he means “supporting one [political] party because of an aversion to its opponents” while failing to recognize that “my judgment of who is silly and who is dangerous is, in fact, a problem.” The problem lies not in having made a judgment but in the way my judgment cascades to imply that someone on the other side of the line is wrong, and not only wrong but irrational, and not only irrational but bad. This triple-knot of self-justification leads to conversations of the sort I had with a youth-pastor-in-training who described his eschatology thus: “I imagine it’ll be like Lord of the Rings: Jesus will lead us into battle like Aragorn against the damned, and we’ll cut them down like they’re orcs.”
I don’t think this person understood the tragedy of orcs in Tolkien’s world. I don’t think he appreciated what a red herring it is to go looking for black-and-white morality in Middle Earth. But his pitch did not surprise me, and we’re seeing a growing body of evidence—from Jesus and John Wayne to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill—that American Christian identity feels most alive when it feels embattled against not only evil but pure, inhuman evil. It is the same embattled posture for which Christ admonishes Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me” (Matthew 16:23, NIV). There is plenty of context to tell us that Christ was not talking past Peter, to the proverbial Devil on his shoulder, but to him. He called the disciple his accuser and his adversary, a human agent through which the forces of rivalry would do their disordering work. By identifying, in Rome, an enemy to be overcome by a triumphant Messiah, Peter closed himself off to Christ’s central admonition: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (v.24).
In a world of polarizing politics, with enemies in abundant supply, it is a spiritual necessity for Christians to identify not only with the heroes of their narrative but also with the villains. We must even identify as the villains at times—as the sources of rivalry and toxic competition that prevent us from living in community as the Church. Without such self-awareness, not only do we fail to realize the Kingdom, but we obscure the Kingdom’s very nature and purpose. Our mediation between Christ and the world becomes an embarrassment.
On the most basic level, this means recognizing the competitive and dominating impulses in our day-to-day interactions: in the classroom, on the job, in the home. We are often conscious to “resist the Devil” when he appears in external temptations or obstacles to our own plans; we are rarely as vigilant about the internal, envious impulses that make us agents of Satanic activity, pining for happiness and success at the expense of others. Such habits and attitudes prime us to fail (or, God forbid, to succeed malignantly) in our larger-scale interactions. Whether it be over issues of doctrinal purity, ecclesial structure, or even the impact of Christian identity on national and global politics, we must see ourselves as agents through which “anti-Christ” processes operate: acts of self-legitimation that we insist are really acts of Gospel witness.
“The Christian story legitimizes only one kingdom, the Kingdom of God,” says Merold Westphal. “In the process it delegitimizes every human kingdom.” This echoes Tolkien’s warnings about those like Boromir and Celebrimbor who legitimize their desires to “use the weapons of the Enemy against him.” Westphal reminds us that “the Christian narrative places ‘us’ under judgment as well . . . For whenever Christians tell the biblical story in such a way as to make their systems the repository of absolute truth or to claim divine sanction for institutions that are human, all too human, they become [something other] than biblical.” We can only avoid such politics through the Spirit who exposes and forces us to face the Satanic self-preoccupation at the core of who we think we are.
For this reason, I think it’s time for Christians to take a little less inspiration from moral paragons like Aragorn. In Tolkien’s stories, the subtler heroes are those who resist the lure of the One Ring, who recognize that the legacy of the Dark Lord can bloom anew in them. Such self-knowledge allows Faramir, brother of the fallen Boromir, to deny the Ring without a second thought. Sam Gamgee’s love gives him tunnel-vision beyond all ambition, allowing him to save Frodo when he succumbs to Sauron. More famous still are the words of the ancient elven Lady Galadriel as she contemplates wielding the power of the One Ring and announces, in the potency of her magic:
“In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”
This is no simple beat of temptation. Galadriel authors herself as Sauron’s vanquisher and successor. It is that very ability to imagine herself on the Dark Lord’s throne that rescues her, and all Middle Earth, from the Ring’s seduction. She recognizes the enemy is not external, that the threat does not begin and end at the boundary of Sauron’s body, but works within her own body as well. The Ring would work its enchantment precisely by convincing her otherwise. Galadriel is a model for us when she recognizes, with Girard, that “Satan is always someone.”
In fact, it may very well be her.