This week, Wowhead had an interesting post about the contents of a new WoW book – Folks & Fairytales. The book is interesting in that much like Blizzard now insists that Chronicle be presented, the book is explicitly a weaving of in-universe stories that characters tell each other. This is used as a framing device to make the stories unreliable – there is an amount of uncertainty of how much is true and how much is embellished or outright fabricated.
The last time I wrote about Sylvanas’ redemption arc, I was…not enthused, would perhaps be the best turn of phrase for it. I still am not, but this material gives me a more pointed and meaningful tool to use in analyzing the story of Sylvanas, and to point to specific things about it that give me pause.
Thus, going forward, the post is going to be spoiler-laden, including a brief summary of the points raised by Wowhead, although I would strongly encourage you to read the whole thing there.
A lot of the recent ramp-up of Sylvanas’ story has to do with setting her into place for what mostly appears to be a redemption arc. Shots of Sylvanas in cinematics show her frowning, saddened, or contemplative, seemingly having a change of heart as she watches the plans of the Jailer in action and sees what his vision of the universe is. We get a small taste of this in her last cinematic with Anduin in the launch content of Shadowlands, and the 9.1 reveal trailer shows a longer, sadder look with no words – a shot posed and framed entirely to create this doubt in our minds about what Sylvanas actually wants and if the means the Jailer is taking are worth the ends as she sees them.
However, a large part of the effort to move Sylvanas into a redemption arc is happening outside of the game. The origin of the bond between her and the Jailer is rooted in the short story Edge of Night, which was written after Wrath of the Lich King and details Sylvanas throwing herself off of Icecrown Citadel to her second death, before being brought back to life with a fleet of Val’kyr at her side, now able to grow the ranks of the Forsaken and to prevent herself from being killed again – provided a Val’kyr remains to suffer that fate instead.
However, Folks & Fairytales offers a new tale, one that clarifies the relationship between Sylvanas and the Jailer slightly, using her sister Vereesa as the conduit to tell it.
Firstly, it should be established that the stories shared in the book are largely folktales, things that would have commonly been told to others in-universe, with a usually-clear distinction of how and why the story is told. This one, however, is different – it seems to be told to us directly by Vereesa. Yet, the story also sounds like a dream journey, and ends with her forgetting the story before it could be told, a peculiar inclusion to make here. This sets up two possibilities, neither of which is exclusive of the other – that the story is, in-fact, canon and did happen, but may also be an incorrect retelling or a dream journey that does not correspond to real events. However…the story told also seems to paint a fairly consistent picture that fits with the events of the game that we have seen to this point, especially in Shadowlands.
The basic retelling of the story is this: Vereesa follows a song that leads her to a graveyard, which leads to a meeting with a Spirit Healer who offers Vereesa a trip to the Shadowlands to find her sister and to bring her back to life if she can be convinced to leave the afterlife of her own free will. Vereesa agrees and discovers herself in a beautiful forest (which, given the context, is likely Ardenweald) but then cannot find Sylvanas’ soul, calling out for her sister. This calling sends her into a fall, with Vereesa then winding up in the Maw, meeting “The Banished One,” who is clearly the Jailer. The Jailer tells her that Sylvanas will not be found here…”not yet,” before a flashing sliver of a soul leaves the Jailer’s palm and swims through the river of souls. Vereesa chases it to discover that the fragment is indeed Sylvanas, a piece of her at least, as the resurrection of Sylvanas as the Banshee Queen at Arthas’ hands has likely begun. The Jailer banishes Vereesa out of the Maw, striking at Sylvanas’ soul-fragment with a mace, as the soul-fragment shows fear and pain in response. Vereesa awakens, her memory of this story faded, and returns to war.
So…what does this mean?
Firstly, setting aside the narrative construct of a folktale or an unreliable retelling, we only stand to learn from this story if we accept it as-written. Therefore, I will continue here assuming the whole thing is true – that Vereesa was granted passage to the Shadowlands, that she did travel to both Ardenweald and the Maw, that the Jailer met with her, seemed sure that Sylvanas would be his someday, and then struck at Sylvanas, dismissing Vereesa from his realm and ending her traipse through the afterlife, unsuccessful in the journey given to her by the Spirit Healer.
Secondly, the implication of this story is that Sylvanas’ life was deemed worthy of redemption and peace in the groves of Ardenweald. This…kind of doesn’t fit, as the naturalistic themes of Ardenweald and the spirits sent there for their afterlife don’t map neatly onto Sylvanas. You could argue that a High Elf is still an elf, an ancient soul that has been around since the world was young, and you could argue that Sylvanas as Ranger General of Silvermoon was still possessed of a connection to the land and nature as Hunters are, but also, I think that the placement of her soul is the least relevant detail other than knowing that she was not sent to a correctional realm like Revendreth or the Maw originally. So I won’t hang up on it more than I have in this paragraph!
Thirdly, the story sets up an interesting wrinkle in the tale of Sylvanas and the Jailer. The assumption to date, based on the threadbare nature of the link of Edge of Night to Shadowlands (the Jailer is not mentioned in Edge of Night, after all), is that Sylvanas made a choice to accept this fate, that she returned in time for Cataclysm with a goal in-mind – enacting the plan of the Jailer. This story casts doubt on that, instead planting the seed that perhaps Sylvanas did not make a choice of her own free will, but was instead coerced, threatened, or otherwise bound to the Jailer through other means. It also puts the relationship between the two into a much more one-sided affair – in Shadowlands thus far, we are led to believe that the Jailer and Sylvanas are a team, and while the Jailer runs the ship, Sylvanas has leeway of her own in most things, save for the last cinematic where she is sent to deal with Anduin. It also demonstrates a degree of reliance on Sylvanas for the Jailer’s plan – he identified her very early as crucial to the plot and has worked to bring her into the fold for much of the current timeline of Warcraft.
Lastly, it creates something I’ll be revisiting later – plausible deniability. Sylvanas being a soul fragment means, in theory, that she may not be responsible for her actions, that the parts of her character that would rein-in the malicious and violent side of her may not be present, and thus, what we have seen is a husk possessed of the worst parts of Sylvanas Windrunner – a capricious, self-satisfied, self-serving, arrogant ruler who sees her people only as means to an end and is willing to entertain any amount of other people’s suffering if it serves her goals.
So let’s laser-focus on those last two items. The current assumption, based on the in-game material, is that Sylvanas made a willing choice to join the Jailer, and while she may be coming to doubt that decision’s correctness, she made it herself all the same, as a complete, unsundered whole, shaped by the life and undeath she has lived to date. This short story upends both of these points.
I want to start with the last one first – if Sylvanas is indeed a soul-fragment and not a whole soul, then, the argument that I have seen from Sylvanas fans follows that she is therefore not responsible for the atrocities committed by what remains. You could argue this from a million different angles and each is no more correct or incorrect than the last because all of it is tied up in how you view the concept of a soul, so I will say that I don’t want to pretend my reading is the correct one or any more correct than any other. Having said that, here’s my take – if we assume that the sliver of her soul depicted in this new story is her Courage, as is said in the story, then that sucks, but what is left over is still a part of Sylvanas that acted out in horrific ways. The flipside to the assumptions I see about this is that if what remains is capable of acting out on genocides and wonton destruction, that is still a part of the whole and is therefore still an accurate representation of that person. If my soul were sundered of its best stuff, would what is left be capable of two genocides and a prolonged war designed solely to inflict misery? I would certainly hope not, and believe that it would not be a possibility.
We then must circle back to the third point – the nature of coercion. There is an argument to be had that Sylvanas acted under coercion, that there was an element of control and force exerted long ago, and that the Jailer is ultimately accountable for the actions taken in service of his grand plan. That argument is true to a point, I believe. Where it becomes problematic to me is that again, it is a question of scale. If I am coerced into action in reality, through blackmail, threats of harm, or other means, there is still a reasonable litmus test that establishes if I am culpable for the acts I committed under what I claim to be coercive force. Sylvanas’ actions do not pass this test on the face of them, but I am somewhat intrigued to see this explored further.
In the current story of Shadowlands, Sylvanas is presented as having bought-in to this vision, and the Jailer does not seem to act too forcefully with her in regards to carrying out the plan. The closest thing we see to a coercive threat is in the final cinematic of 9.0, where the Jailer’s tone veers in that direction without actually posing any real threat. In fact, it still seems somewhat more like that of a mentor – the Jailer continues to have Sylvanas handle things and seems to have confidence that she will do so correctly. There is a lot of ground to cover to make clear that Sylvanas has been coerced in-game – the current content, frankly, does not cut it.
Now, if we continue assuming that the Folks & Fairytales story is true, then it creates an interesting new conundrum.
The Difficulty with Retcons In Long-Established Fiction
In The Burning Crusade, the announcement of Draenei as a playable race for the Alliance caused a stir, as Velen was part of the Eredar, and in prior lore, the Eredar had corrupted Sargeras. This, coupled with numerous discrepancies about the Broken and the Warcraft III depiction of all Draenei as Broken, led to one of the more infamous stirs in the game’s history, as Chris Metzen later had to post a sort of apologetic explainer about the nature of the change and why it had been made. Now, Sargeras corrupted the Eredar with promises of power, bringing two of the three members of the Triumvirate into the Burning Legion, while Velen broke with his partners and those that remained with him were the Draenei.
The game has, since then, had some difficulty with its long-established history, to put it mildly. Having a rich lore from a multi-decade media property is a strength for the most part, but as the game has started shifting to a more serialized narrative, it creates problems.
In my last post about Sylvanas, I opined and ranted at-length that Sylvanas’ characterization was too swiftly changing, moving from place to place at breakneck pace and without exploring the character too deeply.
The retcons and clarifications added in this folktale create a different problem, however – it serves the current lore better if Sylvanas was in-fact coerced into serving the Jailer by him severing a fragment of her soul to push her towards him, but it makes the prior lore less valuable and more confusing.
As I said above, let’s continue to assume that the folktale is 100% accurate as presented. Given that, we have to assume that Sylvanas’ entire history in World of Warcraft is as a sundered soul, a fragment with her best qualities trapped in Warcraft’s closest analogy to Hell while her worst traits were unified with her undead body by Arthas. If we assume this, it creates a huge challenge to her older characterization – if Sylvanas as we have known her was incapable of acting kind or courageous, no longer possessing those traits in her very being, then her characterization in Legion is a hot mess. At the Broken Shore, she showed a courage in action and a camaraderie of sorts with Varian Wrynn in his last moments, and showed some degree of sympathy for him – traits that, if this story is true, should not be present. Now of course, there are all sorts of layers we can add to this – manipulators can and often do act in ways that emulate the emotions and range you would expect, perhaps her expressions were rooted in different emotions or feelings, the shots of her looking at Varian show little and thus offer enough vagueness so as not to be inconsistent with this characterization from the folktale, etc. – and I think those are interesting concepts to layer in.
It does paint an interesting picture though, because it shows a problem with retcons for long-running franchises. Most of my guildies, friends, and myself have played the game for 10+ years, through much of the story arc that has defined Sylvanas. For players who’ve been there for the ride, the changes offered by this new short story actually undermine the story we followed for so long – make it inconsistent, full of holes, and difficult to reconcile. On the other hand, the game’s model for new players pushes away from all of that legacy content pretty handily, such that a new player who starts today would only really see BfA and Shadowlands content, and thus only know Sylvanas as she is today – and this story thus slots in nicely, creating the subversion needed to make a face turn make sense. It serves the current story exceedingly well, but alienates the long-time WoW players who’ve seen Sylvanas be more nuanced in the past, nuance which we’re told via this short story should not have been present.
And thus a conflict arises. If WoW’s playerbase was largely recent converts who’ve only seen the current level 1-50 new player path, they need to be convinced of Sylvanas’ redemptive potential because they’ve only seen genocidal maniac Sylvanas. However, the playerbase is, largely, made up of long-term players who’ve been around for much of her story, and while the audience that hungers for Sylvanas’ redemption is mostly in that block, they also have context to a kinder Sylvanas, or at least one less openly bloodthirsty. For many, Sylvanas has current actions to atone for and the question of her redemption is more nuanced and open-ended – how low is too low for redemption? What were her ends, and even if she accomplishes something miraculous does it remove the blood debt on her ledger? Do we find ourselves agreeing with her ends? Is she acting of her own free will or being coerced, and to what extent does that coercion taint her actions?
What I find fascinating is that both audiences need something quite similar in concept – a comprehensive reason to forgive her and move forward, but in practice, the differences are in scope and scale. Arguably, a new player to the game needs more context and understanding to come around on her because she has only been a villain in the game for much of the last 3 years. Meanwhile, veteran players could make due with less, provided that it connects to her story in a significant way, and what that looks like is probably quite different for someone like me compared to an actual Sylvanas fan.
Some Final Musing On Sylvanas Being Redeemed
In some great comments from new reader Lostalife1 on my last Sylvanas post, I found an interesting challenge and thought exercise for the whole thing – what outcome would satisfy her redemption in my mind? Honestly, I’m not even sure what would work for me. In theory, there is a possibility in the current story that the outcome the Jailer and Sylvanas are working towards is a good one, a righteous one, and our current depiction of Warcraft’s afterlife is ever-so-slightly askew in a bad way such that the possibility of that definitely does exist. The biggest obstacle to that for me is this: it would have to be so staggeringly and unquestionably good that I don’t see it happening, because I don’t trust Blizzard to write that story that well. Even then, I also struggle to even imagine what would be righteous enough to meet that bar.
Sylvanas’ current character opines on the nature of choice, of life and death and the frailty of life. The argument she poses to Anduin in the Torghast cinematics is one of choice – that instead of forcing people into a cycle with no choice and no meaningful escape, that the Jailer and her will instead break the cycle, allowing everyone control over their own fate. This dovetails nicely with all versions of Sylvanas – the choice she wants to allow was not given to her by Arthas, the choice to serve the Jailer, if the folktale of Vereesa is true, was also not given to her. Sylvanas has been, by these accounts, a passive agent in her own life, swept towards varying fates at the hands of others, and she wants a world where no one else must be subject to that kind of treatment.
However, I find this also falls victim to a simple flaw – her plan to get there did not offer choice to her victims. She did quite a number on the population of Night Elves, Worgen, and Undead in a few short battles, and forced a war with thousands more dead, not all of whom were offered a choice. The Horde under her leadership sieged towns in Kul Tiras, burned down Teldrassil, and staged a protracted war for Darkshore with more Night Elf casualties and forced resurrections into her service against their will. Thus, the stakes of her plan with the Jailer will have to be more than choice over life or death, because the very path to the present is lined with corpses for whom that choice or indeed any choice were not offered.
But then I must turn my eyes to the future of Shadowlands, and that makes something more interesting about all of this. The Jailer is meant to be our ultimate villain, and the recent developer interviews state quite plainly that we will want to see him fall by the end of it all. That, to me, tells a story of two plans – Sylvanas’ and the Jailer’s. Who is acting upon who in this scenario? Sylvanas will be the first to be tested (and who knows what fate awaits her at the end of the Sanctum of Domination?) but the patch story about to be told should hopefully delineate the two stories and plans neatly, and must do so to establish the stakes past Sylvanas. Sylvanas could be working for the Jailer quite diligently, but that does not have to mean the two have identical plans or motivations. I don’t have a lot of feelings about what is my preferred outcome there, because I think there’s a path through that story that is perhaps more interesting than I would have expected, but it would take some time to reason my way through it. The more I think about it, if the relationship between the two is in some way antagonistic, it could be interesting to see Sylvanas as the antagonist to the Jailer, creating an odd alliance of convenience between her and us. Perhaps her life buys us a way forward, and her plan brought to fruition makes it easier to forgive her?
I didn’t intend to land here when I started this post, but I want to say quite clearly that I think a flat redemption of Sylvanas is still awful storytelling. I do think, however, that the story of Sylvanas could still be interesting and even compelling fiction if done right. I retain a lot of the same concerns I did in my rantier post – I don’t believe current Blizzard storytelling can get there, and Steve Danuser’s public comments about the Sylvanas story still paint a picture of a writer who is refusing to understand and engage with the arguments made against a redemption arc for Sylvanas.
I want to say that I do think you can redeem Sylvanas in an interesting way, though. What that way is, well, I am not possessed of enough confidence or ego to say out loud yet, but I think I’ve workshopped some possible angles here through the current storytelling or at least established what about it isn’t quite clicking for me.