The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how, but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.
A few months back, I started on an overview of the Third War. As you can see from reading it, the following week, I did not in fact talk about the Third War at all. If you're familiar with my Thrall piece for KYL, you understand this is something that happens to me from time to time. I fully intended to go into more details about the war, but I got sidetracked by something shiny or a colorful ball of twine or what have you.
But with Wrath of the Lich King a month from its exit from center stage, it's time to look back again at the war that made it all possible.
After the Culling of Stratholme, Arthas Menethil had taken his first steps into obsession. The Culling itself is often treated as an indefensible act that proves Arthas was already evil, but I personally see it as the first tipping point, when a young and idealistic man who wanted to do right by his people was presented with an untenable choice and let his own impulsive nature decide. Waiting outside the city for the residents to turn into undead and destroying them as they attempted to escape was, after all, neither a more merciful nor a more prudent option. In the end, Arthas made the choice he did, and in so doing alienated both Uther, his direct superior as a paladin (and one who has his father's ear, to boot) and Jaina, his on-again, off-again romance. This left him free to pursue Mal'Ganis to Northrend.
His actions would change the face of Azeroth and her nations forever.
The roof of the world
At the time, not much was known of Northrend by the peoples of the Eastern Kingdoms. There had been some expeditions sent to the forbidding roof of the world, and some small colonies had been settled in its more temperate climes, but it was for the most part a wilderness of harsh climates, hostile cultures and unknown mysteries. It was in the area known to us today as the Dragonblight that young Prince Arthas made landfall and began his preparations to find and destroy Mal'Ganis, the object of his obsession.
Amazingly, his old friend and weapons trainer Muradin Bronzebeard was also in Northrend at the time. I've often wondered how, exactly, Muradin learned of Frostmourne and began to seek it out, since the Lich King had brought the blade with him to Northrend and forced it out of his icy prison in order to use it in his elaborate plan for escape and revenge. Since we know the Lich King always intended Arthas to find the blade, did he whisper its location directly into Muradin's mind?
After helping Muradin against waves of undead that threatened his expedition, Arthas decided to seek out the runeblade the dwarf told him about in order to use its power to destroy Mal'Ganis. So devoted was he to this task that when news from his father in Lordaeron called Arthas' ships back home, he went to extreme lengths to avoid answering his father's summons. Arthas hired mercenaries to burn his own ships, then diverted his angry, homesick soldiers and their justifiable anger onto those self-same mercenaries, who were then killed.
Having successfully trapped his men, Arthas led them against the undead and, with Muradin's help, found the cavern where Frostmourne lay. Defeating an elemental revenant set to guard the blade, Muradin and Arthas read the inscription and learned of the blade's curse, but nothing was beyond Arthas at this point. What the Culling did not destroy in his once idealistic spirit, the betrayal of his own men and his mercenaries had.
So must power scar the spirit
Whomsoever takes up this blade shall wield power eternal. Just as the blade rends flesh, so must power scar the spirit.
This warning, carved beneath the runeblade, proved true. Taking the blade did indeed scar young Arthas Menethil, rendering what remained of the young, eager paladin as cold and dead as the people of Stratholme he'd tried to protect from the curse of undead by destroying them himself, as chill and foreboding as the cavern he'd found the blade in. Leaving Muradin's seemingly lifeless body where it lie (the explosion of the runeblade's icy pedestal smashing the thickheaded dwarf into an unconsciousness so profound that an uncaring Arthas took it for death), the former paladin led his remaining forces against Mal'Ganis. The dreadlord confronted Arthas, believing himself safe because (as he explained) the second Arthas took up the runeblade it had rendered him a soulless servant of the Lich King, prompting him to look within himself to see the Lich King's will.
Sure enough, Arthas was now a slave to Frostmourne and the Lich King. However, the Lich King whispered in his new tool's mind that he should indeed have his vengeance against Mal'Ganis, and the dreadlord was quickly (although as we now know, not permanently) dispatched. Some time after this, Arthas turned Frostmourne on his own men, rendering them lifeless slaves as well. Certain members of his forces like Falric and Marwynn were favored with more autonomy than the vast majority of his forces and retained personality and mind. Most did not.
Arthas then returned to Lordaeron, months after he had left it as a driven, obsessed but still fundamentally noble person who wanted the best for his land and people. Slaughtering his aged father, King Terenas Menethil, with Frostmourne, he assumed the throne of a nation soon to cease its existence.
Under its new king, Lordaeron became a nation of corpses and victims, and although many did flee to safety in the south, those who did not escape the regions today known as Tirisfal Glades and the Plaguelands were either slain and converted or trapped in enclaves like Tyr's Hand. Madness, walking in the form of Arthas, had claimed the land and dredged its gaping graves for undead fodder.
But murdering his father and his nation was only the beginning. In order to carry out his master's plans, Arthas would have to claim the urn containing his father's ashes, and to do that, he would have to murder Uther the Lightbringer himself. He did both. He then marched his horrific armies north through the Eversong Woods, through the ancient elfgates defending the city of Quel'Thalas and right to the Sunwell itself, despite the heroic resistance of high elven heroes like Sylvanas Windrunner, the Ranger General of SIlvermoon. Sylvanas herself, for her efforts, was taken captive by the death knight fratricide, who tortured her for daring to stand against him and ripped her spirit from her body to linger in undeath as a banshee.
Arthas struck down Anasterian Sunstrider, the King of Quel'thalas, and brought the remains of the fallen necromancer Kel'Thuzad to the Sunwell itself. He hurled them into the font of magic for the high elves, utterly befouling and destroying it in the process of raiding the necromancer as a lich. In so doing, Arthas had by this point destroyed two of the most ancient nations in the Eastern Kingdoms -- but all of this was merely a warm-up. The true danger was yet to come, as the purpose of the raising of the Scourge and the creation of the Lich King was at hand.
The death knight and lich led their undead forces to Dalaran, the magical city of the Kirin Tor. Despite the best efforts of the most powerful mages the continent had to offer, they seized the Book of Medivh and used its magical secrets to tear open a portal potent enough for Archimonde the Defiler to step bodily onto Azeroth again -- the first time the Legion was able to enter the world in force in over 10,000 years.
The Defiler returns
Archimonde's arrival left the Scourge in somewhat of a position of playing second fiddle. The Defiler quickly moved to appoint trusted Legion dreadlord Tichondrius to oversee their corpse army and declared no further need for the Lich King, even as Kel'Thuzad warned Arthas not to trust them. The Lich King had seen it coming; his death and rebirth at the hands of Kil'jaeden had removed any blinders the former shaman Ner'zhul had about the Legion and their habitual betrayals. Indeed, the perfidy of the Legion was exactly what the Lich King had hoped for, as it rendered Kel'Thuzad and Arthas free agents, no longer part of the general Scourge forces under the demons' control.
Knowing of the existence of Kalimdor and the ultimate plan of the Defiler to destroy the night elves who had balked the first demonic invasion of the world of Azeroth 10 millennia before, the Lich King sent Arthas to find and push over the one domino that would lead to the Legion's defeat.
Next time in Know Your Lore: the clash of orc and night elf, the command of the prophet, the ascent up the slopes of Mount Hyjal of armies of the Legion, and the Defiler's ultimate fate. I'm busily taking all the exciting shiny things out of my workspace even now to prepare.
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.