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.