Your Guide to Understanding The Mortal Instruments

Photo: Rafy/Unique Features

When the lead character of a would-be fantasy franchise says, “This is so confusing!” do we mere mortals have any hope of making sense of the story? Like so many other supernatural YA epics with love triangles, The Mortal Instruments has built a strong cult following over the course of five novels (plus one more on the way), which collectively detail the deep mythology of a world that involves magic, angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, warlocks, and quests to vanquish evil. Our way into this story comes via a teenage girl named Clary Fray, who suddenly discovers the Shadow World, a realm hidden from normal folks, when she witnesses three entities called Shadowhunters killing a demon posing, Grimm-like, as a club kid. With the first movie arriving in theaters today, Vulture put together a primer to help you make sense of it all.

Half-angel, half-human hybrids, Shadowhunters are sometimes referred to as Nephilim. They are trained to fight demons from an early age, but their numbers are dwindling; the only way to create more Shadowhunters is with a magical chalice called the Mortal Cup, one of the titular instruments. The first Shadowhunters we meet — Jace, Alec, and Isobel — look as if they’re normal teenagers, and they seem to be the only Nephilim left standing in New York until Clary joins them. Churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship store weapons for the Shadowhunters in secret hiding places marked by runes.

The Shadowhunters are abundantly covered in markings that look like really cool tattoos, and they all serve a purpose. These magical runes are angel’s marks. They can burn regular people (referred to in the series as Mundanes), drive them insane (turning them into mindless beings called Forsakens), or even kill them. But for Shadowhunters, they can ward off evil, heal a wound, open a locked door, or instill great courage. The rune Clary keeps drawing over and over in the movie is a mark of initiation known as the angelic power rune. This was the first and most powerful rune given to the Shadowhunters by an angel named Raziel. It’s used to imbue weapons with angelic properties. Most runes are temporary and fade into scars. Other runes never go away. But if you want a rune on your skin, you need a stele to draw them. Bonus: Steles can also heal wounds and do other neat tricks.

The Mortal Instruments
There are three of them: the Mortal Cup, the Mortal Sword, and the Mortal Mirror; the first film is concerned only with the Mortal Cup. Think of it as a Holy Grail — it’s a religious relic with the power to create more Shadowhunters. The angel Raziel mixed his blood with the blood of humans in the Cup, and those who drank from it (and managed to survive) became Shadowhunters. As for the other Mortal Instruments: The Sword is used in trials to determine if a Shadowhunter is being deceitful and the Mirror (which is actually a lake) is an entrance to the Shadowhunters’ home country. Together, the Mortal Instruments can be used to summon demons and angels.

The Villain
Why is it so bad that Valentine (played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in full rock star mode) wants the Mortal Cup? The film skips over a lot of exposition about his dastardly plans and goes for a big action showdown instead, so you might miss why he’s such an evil dude and how his plans involve torture and genocide. Valentine is part Voldemort, part Darth Vader (and he also has own “Luke, I am your father”–style revelations to impart). He lies, manipulates, and seduces Shadowhunters to succumb to the Dark Side, which is how he created his own splinter group, the Circle of Raziel, a sort of Death Eaters 2.0, to create a more “pure” lineage. And he cares not that his actions to acquire the Mortal Instruments, summon a demon army, and kill off the Downworlders would also kill the Muggles — sorry, Mundanes.

The Lovers
As Clary joins the Shadowhunters, she and Jace start to fall for each other, but a couple of things stand in the way of the would-be couple. First, Jace’s Shadowhunter pal Alec is jealous, because he carries a secret torch for Jace. Second, Clary’s BFF Simon is in love with her. And third, after they’ve already kissed, Jace and Clary are told that they are brother and sister. In the books, the reader is lead to believe for a while, just as Jace and Clary are, that Valentine is father to both of them. But in the film, the audience is told beforehand that this is a lie, so that no icky incest issues arise from this “revelation.” Still, even if we do know about it, the characters aren’t sure where to put their hands anymore. Awkward!

The Protectors
Clary’s mom Jocelyn, when she was a Shadowhunter herself, stole the Mortal Cup from Valentine and hid it. She has also hidden some of Clary’s memories of her childhood and thus her Inner Eye, so that she wouldn’t see the Shadow World or know about all these Shadowhunter shenanigans. The block on Clary’s mind has to be updated every two years or so, or it wears off — and that deadline is upon us. Attempting to keep these two safe is another former Shadowhunter, Luke, who also happens to be a werewolf.

They take both physical and ethereal form, so they’re tricky to kill — and if you do manage to kill one, it just returns to its own dimension. The first of these creatures Clary sees is a shapeshifting Eidolon demon, disguised as a New York club kid. The second one she meets is a Ravener demon (at first appearing to be a dog, but then revealing itself to be something a tentacled horror), which attacks her in her own apartment and infects her with poison. Soon she learns that there are demons everywhere in disguise, which is why Jace tells her she can’t trust anybody. Any friendly-looking dog or little kid might be a Drevrak demon or a Behemoth demon — or worse, it could be a Greater Demon, such as Abbadon, the Demon of the Abyss; Azazel, a prince of Hell; or Agramon, the Demon of Fear, which, like a boggart in Harry Potter, can shape-shift into whatever terrifies you. In the film, Valentine wants to throw a big demon party and sets up a summons to call them to him. Those that show up are unnamed but could be Iblis demons, as they have the ability to shift between physical form and smoke. Being inter-dimensional, demons exist on a different frequency from humans. Shadowhunters use a Sensor to detect that frequency, which is conveyed in the film via music. (Did you know that J.S. Bach was a Shadowhunter? Explains all those fugues.)

Shadowhunters aren’t supposed to be fighting these half-demon hybrids, which include vampires, werewolves, faeries, and warlocks. The two sides have a peace treaty known as the Accord, which must be renewed every fifteen years. But Valentine believes that the Downworlders are true demons and should be exterminated to “cleanse” the world.

The City of Bones
Below the streets of New York is another city — a catacomb where all the Shadowhunters are buried after they die. Ruling over this necropolis are the Silent Brothers, who have no eyeballs in their sockets and whose lips have been sewn shut. (Since they can’t speak, they communicate via telepathy.) Part of their job is to watch over the Mortal Instruments.

The Controversy
Judith Rumelt, the author of The Mortal Instruments, rose to prominence under the pen name Cassandra Claire (later changed to Cassandra Clare) with her fanfic The Draco Trilogy — in which Harry Potter and Hogwarts goon Draco Malfoy swap bodies, allowing the latter to become the romantic hero and enter into a love triangle with Hermione. Clare was accused of plagiarizing dialogue from sources such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, and Pamela Dean’s The Secret Country. Clare claimed her trilogy was an homage to these other works, and that other writers were meant to guess the various sources as if it were a contest — but she was banned from nevertheless. The Mortal Instruments series isn’t based on The Draco Trilogy, but does bear a few of its marks. Without the Inner Eye, however, you’re unlikely to notice them.

Your Guide to Understanding Mortal Instruments