“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
You know this part. Bilbo Baggins went on a surprise walk — an unexpected journey, if you will — with some friends and ended up finding some neat jewelry. They made some live-action movies about it, along with a super-’70s animated movie, and Mr. Spock sang a song about it. (No, seriously, go watch that music video. We'll wait.)
Many years later, Bilbo's “nephew” (actually, his first and/or second cousin once removed) had to take a trip to throw away Bilbo's jewelry, because it turned out to be some pretty ill-conceived thievery on Bilbo's part. You know this part, too. They made some other movies about it. They were pretty good, so long as you don't have strong opinions on whether or not balrogs had wings (don't @ me).
Both of the Middle-earth games take place in the 60 years between Bilbo shoplifting and Frodo destroying the evidence. Sure, they take some liberties with Tolkien's canon — adding to it in some places and … finessing it in others — but they're undeniably Middle-earth stories.
So how do these games fit into Tolkien's world? There's no short answer to this question — Tolkien tended to be a little wordy, to say the least. But we're here to give you a crash course in Tolkien’s daunting lengendarium. We're going to gloss over a lot, and we'll be a little irreverent about some of it, but we'll be accurate enough that you can understand Talion's place in the world and what's going on in Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Let's start with something simple, and then we'll see where that takes us.
Before we get started: a note on spoilers. First, a blanket spoiler warning for, we guess, just all of Lord of the Rings. Second, we're going to try to avoid spoiling anything about the second game, but we'll end up spoiling the ending of the first game. But that's kind of on you, because it came out three years ago.
What's a tark, and why do the orcs keep calling me that?
Tark is the orcish word for, effectively, humans. (A quick side note: Humans are called “Men” in Tolkien's writing. He was a product of his time, and as uncomfortable as it is to use Men exclusively, we're going to be faithful to Tolkien from here on.)
Men were the second race created by Eru Iluvatar, Tolkien's big-C Creator (we'll get to Eru in a minute). The first race was the Elves. The big difference between Elves and Men was mortality — Elves are immortal, while Men die. Elves and humans got along pretty well for a long time, but slowly, and with Sauron's influence (he'll come up again, too), things got tense. The whole "Why do we have to die and you don't?" thing made a lot of people unhappy. There was a war, a continent got destroyed and Men ended up spread all over the place.
Another quick aside: Hobbits are technically Men. Tolkien's writing doesn't really have an answer about where they came from or how they got so short — maybe island dwarfism? — but they're officially related to Men.
So all of these things I'm stabbing are orcs?
The short answer is yes. They're orcs in service of Sauron (more on him in a minute).
All orcs were created by Melkor, an evil Vala (we'll get to them, too), either by torturing Elves or by making them from scratch, depending on which of Tolkein's writings you prefer. There's just a lot of different kinds of orcs. The big badass Uruk-hai from the Lord of the Rings movies, the Moria orcs that chased the Fellowship through the mines in Fellowship of the Ring and even the Misty Mountain goblins in The Hobbit movie are all orcs. (Tolkien used orc and goblin mostly interchangeably.)
But there are other kinds of sword-fodder in the games, too. Notably, Middle-earth: Shadow of War includes Olag-hai, which are a kind of troll (like the ones that almost ate Bilbo in The Hobbit) that Sauron bred into less-vulnerable-to-sunlight warriors — kind of like the way Saruman made the Uruk-hai.
You'll also meet (and murder) caragor, which are like feline versions of the wargs from the books and movies; graugs, which are like trolls, but different; and drakes, which are not dragons like Smaug, but also not fell-beasts like the ones the Nazgul (we'll get to them) ride. But, really, they're basically fell-beasts.
It's probably time to talk about Sauron, huh?
Yeah, but let's back up a little first. In the beginning, Eru Iluvatar (Tolkien's big-C Creator) created the universe. (Bear with us here; we'll keep the sermon short.)
Actually, Eru existed before the universe (or even time, which makes the whole "before" thing kind of paradoxical). Before there was a universe to exist in, Eru created the Ainur from his thoughts. You can think of Ainur like the Greek/Roman pantheon of gods. There were two kinds of Ainur: the more powerful Valar and the slightly less powerful (but still made-of-god-thoughts) Maiar.
Anyway, Eru created the Ainur, taught them Music (it was a whole thing), created all of existence, then left most of the day-to-day operations to them. So, then there was a universe and a world, Arda. The Valar were in charge of Arda and getting everything ready for the Children of Iluvatar — Elves and Men. The problem was a Vala named Melkor. Melkor was basically the god of surly teenagers, and he was always causing problems.
Melkor kept breaking all of the nice stuff the Valar had and rebelling against his father. Melkor created orcs (and trolls and plenty of other nasty things), stole some stuff, started a few wars, caused Arda to shatter into continents (like Middle-earth and Valinor), and after way too long, got kicked out of existence.
The problem is, Melkor had a lot of friends among the Maiar — including his second-in-command, Sauron. After Melkor got kicked out, Sauron took his place as The Big Bad.
How about that Sauron guy, huh?
Sauron had big plans. One of his schemes was to take over the world by handing out Rings of Power. Sauron went all Undercover Boss and taught some Elves to make the Rings. You heard this part in the movie: "Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky, seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone, nine for Mortal Men doomed to die…" (Remember the whole mortality thing from before?). One of the Elves he taught to make Rings was named Celebrimbor.
See? This is directly about the game; we just took the long way around to get here.
In secret, Sauron made the One Ring (the one Bilbo pockets) to control the others. He was only kind of successful, though. Celebrimbor figured out that something was up, so the Elven Rings didn't get the full dose of mind control, and the Dwarves were basically too stubborn for the mind control to work. His real successes were the nine Rings he gave to Men. These nine humans got hit hard with Sauron's power and (eventually) became the Nazgul — the dementor-guys that kept trying to hobbit-nap Frodo.
There was a war about the whole “tricking us into making the Rings of Power” thing. It ended with Sauron mostly defeated and driven back to his base of operations in Mordor. In the game's version of the lore, Sauron captured Celebrimbor during this war. Sauron made Celebrimbor finish the work on the One Ring and give it a will of its own. Long story short, Celebrimbor stole the One Ring, there was a bit of a war, the Ring betrayed Celebrimbor, his family was murdered and he got beaten to death with his own hammer. You know, the perfect recipe to create a vengeful ghost with unfinished business.
So is Celebrimbor like the ghost army from Return of the King?
Not really. The warriors that Aragorn summons to fight for him in Return are a group of oath-breaking bannermen, who were cursed by Isildur (more on him in a second) for not fighting against Sauron alongside him. It was a whole thing.
But back to the One Ring. Now that we know where it came from, we can follow its journey a little.
After a long time and a couple more wars, Elves and Men teamed up and decided to take the Ring away from Sauron. This is the opening you see at the beginning of Fellowship. The leader (well, one of the leaders) of Men was a guy named Isildur. His sword got broken in the final fight, but he still managed to cut off Sauron's finger and the One Ring along with it. And then Sauron "died." But, being a Maiar — remember that whole made-of-god-thoughts thing? — Sauron didn't so much "die" as just "lost his physical form."
Physical form, you say?
As one of the Maiar, Sauron isn't mortal. He's a not-quite-all-powerful godling, so he can't really die in a normal sense. But he can get his teeth kicked in and it takes him a while to recover enough to physically come back to the world.
We actually see this happen to another Maia over the course of the story — Gandalf the Grey. All of the wizards — Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast and those two poor, unnamed blue guys — were a kind of Maiar called Istari. That's why, when Gandalf is "killed" by the balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dum, he came back as Gandalf the White. It was Eru (from before), in fact, who sent Gandalf back with a little extra jolt of Maiar power — hence all the glowing when he shows up in Fangorn Forest.
So, wait. Does this mean Sauron isn't dead dead?
No, he's gone. When Sauron forged the One Ring, he poured most of his power into it like a horcrux. When the Ring was destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, Sauron was destroyed along with it.
Any other Maiar we should know about while we're on the subject?
Funny you should ask. There are.
Back when Melkor still was moping around and wrecking stuff, Sauron wasn't the only ally he had. There was also a quasi-Maiar/spirit-thing named Ungoliant, who took the form of a giant spider. Over the course of their trying-to-rule-the-world shenanigans, Ungoliant kept getting more and more powerful and larger and larger. It got to the point where even Melkor was scared of her. Melkor betrayed Ungoliant and tried to run away (which she didn't like), so she attacked him. She was just about to eat him when Melkor cried out in panic. This brought some of his other Maiar buddies, the balrogs, to his aid, and they drove Ungoliant away.
After Melkor was defeated, the balrogs went into hiding and mostly disappeared from history. Except for that one the dwarves found in Moria. And the one that [SPOILERS].
For her part, Ungoliant fled to a distant corner of Middle-earth and had a bunch of babies — one of which was the giant spider Shelob. (Shelob will eventually get blinded by a gardener named Sam 60 years after the Shadow of games.) Even though it doesn't come up in Tolkien's works, this makes Shelob's appearance in Middle-earth: Shadow of War reasonable, if nothing else. She's the child of a Maiar-like spirit, so she's probably got some magic powers of her own.
But back to Isildur's Bane
Where were we? Oh yeah. Isildur took the Ring from Sauron, but didn't destroy it, much to Agent Smith's chagrin. Its sway — the will Celebrimbor gave it — won him over, and he kept it for himself. Not too long after that, though, he got ambushed and killed — hence the reason Elrond calls the Ring "Isildur's Bane." Isildur dropped the Ring into a river and then it just kind of sat there.
Many, many years later, a Hobbit named Andy Serkis found the Ring on his birthday, and everything went downhill for him from there. Over his Ring of Power-extended lifetime, Smeagol became Gollum and went to live in the Misty Mountains. That's where the Ring betrayed Gollum and slipped off his finger when he wasn't paying attention. (Quietly slipping off of fingers to get back to Sauron is kind of a theme for the Ring.) The Ring waited there, just on the ground in a tunnel under a mountain, for a sticky-fingered Hobbit named Bilbo. Then things really kicked off.
And that's where the Ring is during the events of the Middle-earth games. Bilbo took the Ring back to the Shire in his pockets and mostly just used it for a party trick.
So here we are
The Lord of the Rings series is all about the One Ring, really, but the Shadow of games are more about Sauron’s betrayal and murder of Celebrimbor. They’re about resisting and fighting against Sauron and his forces. We already know how their story ends — spoiler: Sauron’s still the main Big Bad in 60 years — but now you know how the whole story began.