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Lord Of The Rings: Why War Of The Rohirrim's Main Villain Is Uniquely Terrifying

In the years since Warner Bros. Discovery announced a new anime movie called "The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim," we've learned that Miranda Otto will reprise her role as the shield maiden Éowyn and that the film will be released on December 13, 2024. While details were relatively scarce until mid-June, the movie's promotional push swung into full gear at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, where attendees were treated to a 20-minute teaser of the movie. Multiple interviews and first-look exclusive images were released online at the same time, including a fascinating glimpse of the film's primary antagonist, Wulf — a villain who is uniquely terrifying in the Middle-earth ethos.

Wulf (voiced by Luke Pasqualino), son of Freca, is a Rohirric royal who invades Rohan, toppling its government and seizing its capital. What makes him a special character in Tolkien's legendarium is that he's a mere mortal. In a world overpopulated with villainous Dark Lords who can't die, monstrous arachnids, and corrupt Wizards, Wulf is just another dude with a grudge — and a legitimate one, too.

"We have an exceptionally great antagonist in this story. He's been one of my favorite antagonists to have written across all of the films I've worked on," veteran Middle-earth producer Philippa Boyens told Entertainment Weekly, adding, "He's a really fascinating character and exciting too. You don't know what he's going to do, and some of the choices that he makes are just breathtaking in a good way."

Wulf brings a human dimension to Middle-earth's darker side

Wulf isn't a cookie-cutter villain. Nor is he like Sauron or Morgoth, sitting off on the edge of the story like a brooding cloud or all-seeing spotlight. Philippa Boyens and director Kenji Kamiyama have had an empathetic antagonist handed to them on a silver platter.

In the limited source material that we have, Wulf starts the story as a victim of a power struggle. Tolkien tells us that Wulf's father, Freca, asks Rohan's king, Helm Hammerhand, to arrange a marriage between Wulf and Helm's daughter (who is nameless in the source material — more on that in a minute). Helm is insulted by the offer and hits Freca so hard, he kills him. The appendices of "The Return of the King" book, where Tolkien recounts the story, adds, "Helm then proclaimed Freca's son and near kin the king's enemies; and they fled."

The traumatic scene of Freca's death has an ethnic element too. Freca claims descent from a Rohirric king, but Tolkien emphasizes that the noble family appears to have married into the neighboring Dunlendish tribes (the wild-looking men who swear allegiance to Saruman during "The Lord of the Rings"). This is a no-no for Rohan's royal lineage, who are already at odds with these northeastern neighbors at this point. Of particular note, Freca's mixed bloodline is described as manifesting through dark hair, a unique feature amongst the light-haired people of Rohan, and something that Wulf in "The War of the Rohirrim" also clearly sports.

Wulf goes on the warpath

While Wulf initially escapes Helm's forces, he doesn't let the deadly incident go. As the new leader of his people, he takes his time and plots his revenge. Four years later, Rohan and Gondor come under a multi-pronged assault from several enemies at once. Some of these come from Dunland, and "The Return of the King" reveals that Wulf is their leader. Wulf seizes Edoras, where the young warlord sets himself up as king. He kills one of Helm's sons, Haleth, in that early fighting, adding to the personal vengeance factor between the two families.

Yet throughout all of this, Wulf isn't a unilaterally evil dude. Sure, he's angry and hellbent on revenge. But in another interview with fan site TheOneRing.net, Boyens points out, "What's fascinating is the choices that Wulf makes ... conquering Edoras, if he'd settled down and become a good and wise ruling king, none of this history would have been spoken of. You know, it would have been a challenge by one lord to a lord whose time had potentially passed." The producer adds that while Wulf doesn't go down this good path, "He makes other choices, and they're very interesting choices — and where those choices come from is really fascinating."

In Tolkien's texts, Helm's nephew ends up playing a critical role in toppling the villain. However, we're guessing that Warner Bros.' newly minted protagonist, Hèra, will have something to do with that victory as well.

Who is taking on Wulf in War of the Rohirrim?

At the 2023 Annecy Festival, it was revealed that the primary protagonist of "The War of the Rohirrim" would be Hèra, Helm's daughter. Hèra is an interesting choice, if only because she is technically Helm's unnamed daughter (the one that Freca tries to marry to his son, Wulf). Voiced by Gaia Wise, Hèra is clearly being positioned as both an inspiring and headstrong woman of Rohan, much in the same vein as Éowyn in "The Lord of the Rings."

Wise herself spoke about this aspect of the character with EW, saying, "She would lay down her life for her people. Comparing her to Arwen and Eowyn, they're already fully formed women. What I loved about Hèra is she's fierce, she's complex, she's rebellious."

Hèra is a great choice for a protagonist for one reason in particular: We know nothing about her. The source material for "The War of the Rohirrim" is literally a three-page stretch of text in "The Return of the King" appendices. It's light on the details, which means the creative team is going to need to fill in a lot of gaps to make this work. Who better to build a story around than a young, unnamed character who is the catalyst for the whole narrative? Building out the Hèra character along the lines of a younger, less developed Éowyn is a great way to give her agency and create a more complex story without overly tampering with what Tolkien actually wrote.

What else did we learn about The War of the Rohirrim?

Between the Annecy footage and the EW and OneRing exclusives, what else did we learn about "The War of the Rohirrim"? One surprise announcement was that the Big Man himself, Peter Jackson, has been quietly executive producing the movie all along. Philippa Boyens detailed Jackson's motivation for this, saying (via ScreenDaily), "Peter in particular wanted to give [director] Kenji the space to find his own way into the film." It was also revealed that the current runtime is a whopping 2.5 hours — long for an anime, short for a Tolkien flick.

The visuals were another major factor. It took the collaborative efforts of over 60 companies to complete the animation, which consists of hand-drawn, computer, and performance capture animation techniques. While some stills were shown at the 2023 Annecy Film Festival, this year fans got a solid dose of actual footage, and the response was positive. Fan site Fellowship of Fans quoted one attendee on X (formerly Twitter) who was present at both last year and this year's festivals (and had lingering concerns after the 2023 reveal), who said, "[Compared] to last year it's much prettier, I'm reassured and I can't wait to see it in the cinema."

The anime style is a distinct first for Middle-earth media and one that most fans appear ready to experience in a full-length feature film format. The 20-minute preview was reportedly greeted with thunderous applause. Hopefully, that energy keeps up from here to December 13th, when the movie is set to charge into theaters.