Monday, 6 July 2009

Desperately Seeking Ner'Zhul

The thing about Northrend is that it's all about Arthas. They do their best to pretend it's all about you, but this just underlines the fact that no, it's about Arthas.

In a fit of pique I decided that if I wanted to play a game that was all about Arthas, I'd play Warcraft III. Which I did.

I suck at it, by the way.

I'm only halfway through the second mission of the Scourge campaign (which is at least giving me renewed enthusiasm for my Death Knight and making me really tempted to dual-spec Unholy) but I've started to notice something. Or rather, be reminded of something.

The Lich King, right. Isn't actually Arthas at all, is he? He's Ner'zhul.

I remember when I first played the game (and got about halfway through the Scourge campaign before realising I sucked and quitting) I was a little bit confused by this - I knew a little bit about WoW (mostly from the board game in point of fact) and I'd always thought Kel'Thuzad was the big bad of the scourge, not a minion of somebody else, and I'd been deeply confused by the fact that the Lich King was apparently an Orc, of all things.

Since then I've got more into WoW, and I've looked more into the lore and the background and it turns out that Ner'zhul is actually kind of awesome. Former high Shaman of the Shadowmoon clan, he was tricked into serving Kil'Jaedan, believing himself to be saving his people (this of course parallels the way he would later trick Arthas into becoming his servant, believing he was saving Lordaeron). Unlike Arthas, however, Ner'Zhul turned away from the Demon when he realised its nature, and it was his advice that saved Durotan of the Frostwolf clan from taking the Blood of Mannoroth (which, incidentally, is the only thing that made it possible for the New Horde to exist). Of course he also blew up Draenor, and he ultimately cared more for his own advancement than the good of the Horde, but that doesn't change the fact that he refused to hand his people over to the Demons, and it was as punishment for that defiance that he was transformed into the Lich King.

(The question of why an Orc from a shamanistic society ruled by a warchief would call himself a king is something that I don't think any of us need to dwell on too much)

By comparison, Arthas' story is rather less interesting. He shares a great many personality traits with Ner'zhul, but when you get right down to it Arthas was an uppity princeling who wanted too much too soon, while Ner'zhul was a leader in his own right long before his corruption and transformation into the Lich King.

In Wrath of the Lich King there is no reference to Ner'zhul whatsoever. A bit of cursory googling around the subject reveals that in Arthas: Rise of the Lich King, Arthas consumes Ner'zhul, essentially reclaiming his identity despite having sacrificed his humanity.

This, to be frank, annoys me.

This is going to get into difficult ground, because I'm about to do that thing that really annoying people do with Lord of the Rings, where I start drawing parallels between fictional races in a computer game and real races of people in the world. I fully admit that I might just be an aggrieved Horde fanboy who's trying to justify his indignation, but here's the thing.

What you have here is two characters. One of them is - and let's not beat around the bush here - a young, blonde-haired blue-eyed white man from a recognisably European culture. The other is an elderly shaman from a tribalistic society whose ancestral homeland and adopted homeland look an awful lot like Africa (what with the elephants and zebras and everything).

Somewhere along the line, somebody at Blizzard decided that the blond-haired white guy was more interesting to write about.

The thing is, I do actually get this. When I first played Warcraft III I was really annoyed that the Lich King was just some Orc I'd never heard of. Looking back on it, part of the reason I had that reaction was because I instinctively react better to stories about blond white guys from places that look like Europe than to stories about non-white guys from places that look like Africa. This is, in fact, a problem.

The book Arthas: Rise of the Lich King contains the following passage (courtesy of the internet):

“We are one, Arthas. Together, we are the Lich King. No more Ner’zhul, no more Arthas—only this one glorious being. With my knowledge, we can—”
His eyes bulged as the sword impaled him.
Arthas stepped forward, plunging the glittering, hungering Frostmourne ever deeper into the dream-being that had once been Ner’zhul, then the Lich King, and was soon to be nothing, nothing at all. He slipped his other arm around the body, pressing his lips so close to the green ear that the gesture was almost intimate, as intimate as the act of taking a life always was and always would be.
“No,” Arthas whispered. “No we. No one tells me what to do. I’ve got everything I need from you—now the power is mine and mine alone. Now there is only I. I am the Lich King. And I am ready.”
The orc shuddered in his arms, stunned by the betrayal, and vanished.

Now leaving aside the fact that Arthas is still saying "No one tells me what to do" like a spoiled child - how the hell is this Paladin-school dropout supposed to have overcome the will of Ner'zhul, who was a master Shaman *and* a master Warlock *and*, let's not forget, the freaking Lich King while Arthas was still whining to Uther the Lightbringer. I mean, I know DKs are OP and everything but what, was Ner'zhul in PvE gear?

The whole thing smacks of a rather nasty retcon. Blizzard (and, if I'm honest, most of the player base) loves the image of "Arthas the Lich King". The Fallen Paladin. The Great Betrayer of Lordaeron. So they had to get rid of Ner'zhul, because they wanted the face of the Scourge to be Arthas. They wanted the iconic image of Wrath to be a man with blond hair, pale skin, and blue-green eyes.

One of the things I love about the Horde is that they provide a way to play a different sort of fantasy hero: one that isn't a knight in armour or a wizard in a high tower. Yes sometimes the Horde cultures look a little bit offensive (trolls genuinely bug me) and there's a fine line between inspiration and appropriation, but on the whole I think it's a genuinely positive thing. But when Orcs and Tauren are sidelined in favour of Humans and Elves (even Blood Elves, this isn't just a Horde/Alliance thing) it sends the message that the cultures whose imagery those races draw upon are less interesting and important than the cultures who inspired the humans and the elves.

Or, to put it another way: "elderly orcish shaman tricked into betraying his people, then tortured and transfigured into a disembodied spirit of death, and fused into the body of a human prince and seeking revenge against both the living, and the demons who destroyed him" is an interesting and unique character. "Fallen Paladin" is the third most cliched character concept in fantasy.


  1. Good post, food for thought. I haven't read "Arthas" yet, so I didn't know that they had decided that the current "Lich King" was just Arthas, and Ner'Zhul was essentially no more. That does make the Lich King considerably less interesting, and rather badly harms the end of WC3:TFT. I liked the idea of this entity that is an imperfect merging (and with two people so different as Ner'Zhul and Arthas, how could it be anything else?) of these two. In fact, I wonder how "canonical" the book is on this front.

    As to why he's constantly referred to in-game as Arthas, that actually makes sense. How many people actually know that "The Lich King" was Ner'Zhul? Does anyone other than high-level Scourge or Burning Legion members? And does anybody at all know about the merger? Whereas Arthas was the head of the Scourge in Lordaeron (and the invader of Quel'Thalas), and therefore the "face of the Scourge" to the outside world even before he became "The Lich King." To an outsider, for all anybody knows, "Lich King" is a title, and Arthas simply deposed the last one.

  2. I've been thinking about that, and it actually makes more sense to me that people would know about Ner'zhul than Arthas.

    For a start, the figure called "The Lich King" showed up *before* Arthas turned evil, and when Arthas destroyed Quel'Thalas he very distinctly did it in the name of the Lich King. The Acolytes in WCIII distinctly call out "My life for Ner'Zhul".

    If anything is going to be unclear to the majority of people, it would be the fact that Ner'Zul and Arthas became one being at the end of TFC - Arthas went alone into Icecrown after all, how did anybody find out that he had become the Lich King?

    Then there's the Orcish perspective to consider. Sure the average human might not have heard of Ner'zhul, but every Orc should have - he's a major figure in their history after all.

  3. I didn't know about the stuff in the book either. That really is incredibly boring that Ner'zhul was just written out like that.

  4. Good point, though I'm still not entirely sure I agree, at least in regard to Alliance players.

    An entity called "The Lich King" clearly existed before Arthas went bad. However, looking at what happened in TFT without omniscience, (a) Arthas disappears from Lordaeron and heads to Northrend. (b) the next canonical appearances of Arthas (of which I'm aware), years after the fact, he's clearly the head of the Scourge - calling out threats in Stormwind and Orgrimmar during the pre-Wrath world events, showing up at Lights' Hope Chapel (and the DKs of Acherus clearly know he's the Lich King, as he's been a houseguest for a time). After the DK defection, presumably, everybody came to know (if they didn't already) that Arthas is the Lich King. The easy assumption (without knowing about the merging thing, which is a bit weird) is that Arthas deposed the prior Lich King, and most people (other than perhaps the Orcs, who as you point out, would know who Ner'Zhul was) would not much care.

    The Lich King often communicated with people telepathically. I don't think it unreasonable to consider that he might have continued to do so. Which could be another vector for the information that (to external appearances) Arthas was now the head of the Scourge (and thus the "Lich King" that Scourge members still refer to).

    You're definitely right, though, that at the very least, for the Orcs, there should be greater interest in Ner'Zhul's connection to the Scourge, and I had forgotten about the acolytes, so I guess that isn't totally hidden knowledge. For humans, forsaken, blood elves, and dwarves, the focus on Arthas makes sense lore-wise, as he was a brutal antagonist to all of them before he merged with Ner'Zhul.

  5. A merger makes it personal for both factions, too, not just a fight for survival. If they are fighting a blended Ner'Zhul and Arthas, things can get ugly and have more meaning. An Arthas-only Lich King is loses some of its meaning for the Horde, and they may as well just fight defensively, or leave the Alliance to its problems.

    Then again, I've never liked Arthas. "Uppity princeling" is a good description of him, and the novel doesn't really help flesh him out. He was too easily manipulated, and too easily "corrupted". He's an unsympathetic weakling who happened into power, not a tragic fallen hero. Ner'Zhul would indeed be more interesting.


    As for the racist overtones, it's unfortunate that there's pandering to the dominant player base, but it happens. It's the easy road for the writers, but yes, it's disappointing.

    I'd love to see some good Tauren lore, m'self.

  6. Tesh above has just said exactly what I was going to do - there's much less motivation for Hordies to give a damn about Arthas without Ner'Zhul. I mean, yeah, there's the whole destroying the world deal but it becomes more meaningful if the Lich King is a terrible synthesis of the best/worst of Horde and Alliance.

    Also, hmmm, the paragraph you quoted. I can't believe in a fit of madness I bought that book...

  7. Good post.

    I hadn't realized Arthas had dispatched Ner'Zhul either. The merged personalities fits better imho, and is so much more interesting than Arthas alone.

    I've always thought of Arthas a a weak, whiny prince, more than a powerful person like Ner'Zhul, but haven't read the book yet.

    Although much of what I've heard is the same - should have fleshed it out more and made two, instead of leaving out details,etc.