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Know Your Lore: The hour of the king

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.

The King of Stormwind wears the crown on a troubled brow. He inherited the mantle as a child, not through a peaceful succession but through bloody violence and the destruction of his home. He wore it in exile and only came home with the death of the man who saved him and carried him away from the sight of his entire world burned to the ground. His entire life has been shaped by violent loss, by tragedy and death -- his mother dead before he even knew her, his father murdered and butchered in front of him, his replacement fathers cut down, his wife taken from him in a moment's passing by an errant rock thrown from a mob.

His early rule was most notable by his lack of desire to actually do much rulership, busying himself by riding the land in search of his father's killer or drifting though a haze of loss after his wife's death, a haze seized upon and manipulated by someone who was supposed to be a close advisor. The circumstances of his disappearance from the throne and his return have been discussed in detail. For now, all we need to do is accept that they did little to encourage him to view the throne as anything but a responsibility to be maintained in the face of constant peril.

Following the Northrend campaign and its heavy cost both to King Varian and the kingdom as a whole (Bolvar's death, as well as the many deaths at the Wrathgate; the invasion of Undercity and the destruction of Putress; Horde troops ambushing Alliance forces engaged with the Scourge; the astonishing cost in lives and resources), it would have been difficult for either the King or the kingdom to quickly recover. The eruption of Deathwing and the Cataclysm he caused did not allow the luxury of time. Reeling from one blow, they suffered another and another.

How it ends for Wrynn kings

Let's list off the things Varian has experienced or even directly acted upon during the time following the fall of the Lich King:
  • He led a dream army of the greatest warriors in the Horde and the Alliance to battle the Emerald Nightmare as it manifested on Azeroth.
  • He defended Stormwind from the elemental invasion that presaged the Cataclysm and led a small force of Alliance veterans to kill Kai'ju Gahz'rilla and Prince Sarsarun, respectively.
  • He invaded an occupied Ironforge to rescue his son from Moira Thaurissan (not being aware that Anduin had already escaped) and, with a small band of SI:7 agents, effectively toppled Moira and forced the creation of the Council of Three Hammers.
  • He reconciled with Genn Greymane and the people of Gilneas (the Worgen) and defended Ashenvale from a Horde offensive under Garrosh Hellscream, disarming the Horde leader in single combat.
  • He dealt with an assassination attempt by the Twilight Prophet and his Twilight's Hammer forces. This attempt nearly killed Varian and would have, had his son Anduin not called upon the Holy Light to rescue him from his grievous wounds.
It's been a ludicrously busy reign for King Varian since he returned. I didn't even mention the Theramore peace conference, fighting with Garona, or his appearances in Dalaran or the Crusader's Coliseum, as they took place before the fall of the Lich King. What's interesting about all of this activity is that it has helped highlight Varian as a deeply troubled and flawed man who recognizes that he is deeply troubled and flawed without necessarily being able to stop himself.

His relationship with his son Anduin (named for Anduin Lothar) has revealed that in many ways, Varian is consumed with fear that he will lose his son the way he has lost everyone else he's ever loved. His experiences in the novel Wolfheart show just how driven by the fear of that kind of loss Varian is and how much he had to do to find it in himself to face that fear and the rage that created it.

No matter how dark, it can get darker

Contrasting Varian to his current chief rival, Garrosh Hellscream, we see immediately that Varian's entire life has been defined by violence that in many ways was directed against him and his people by orcs just like Garrosh. Blackhand the Destroyer and Orgrim Doomhammer led the orcish Horde that burned his city and did so not for any slight the humans of Stormwind had ever offered them. No, the orcs of the Horde attacked humanity and burned their city entirely because they'd already destroyed their own world in service to pure evil.

Doomhammer killed Anduin Lothar after the hero had driven the Horde back from the very walls of Lordaeron, where a very young orphan named Varian Wrynn was sheltered following his father's assassination. The repeated losses of his life -- of family, loved ones, even replacement figures -- have made Varian someone who would do anything to avoid losing anyone else. Every death (like Bolvar's) that touches his life is an agony to be endured.

This is how it ends for Wrynn kings.

Varian's anger has all too often left his own people afraid of him. Strangely enough, despite his noted antipathy for the Horde, it's often led individual members of the Horde to respect him (as in his working with Baine Bloodhoof and other Horde warriors during the Emerald Nightmare's invasion), because it's so similar to how they view leadership and a leader's proper behavior. But during and after the events of his near assassination, we saw a Varian who had finally come to terms with who he had been, who he now was, and who he needed to become. Despite his real and genuine rage and fear over what has been taken from him, we see a Varian growing to terms with his lot in life.

Death stalks the throne of Stormwind

Varian has never really had a great mentor -- or, more accurately, he's lost them. His father's death would have been traumatic enough if he had not witnessed it, witnessed Garona Halforcen cutting Llane's heart out, because becoming king at such a young age basically meant that he stopped being the child he still was. Even Arthas Menethil noticed that when Varian came to stay in Lordaeron, Varian did not at all act like a child. How could he? But that loss was compounded, and compounded again.

Varian came to learn that you couldn't rely on anything remaining yours. Your father figures, your kingdom, your wife, even your memory could be taken from you. His rage and fear over each theft drove him forward, focused his hatred on the beings he saw as responsible for his losses. Lordaeron, the greatest city of humanity and his refuge as a child, defiled by the Forsaken who kept innocents in cages and wreaked unholy plagues upon them, aided and abetted by the same orcs that killed his father, burned his city, and treacherously killed Lothar.

It had been Terenas Menethil who had convinced Varian to stand against Genn Greymane and Thoras Trollbane, who wanted to wipe out the orcs entirely after the Second War. The orcs rewarded Terenas for his mercy by helping defile everything he ever had. Storming into Lordaeron, Varian saw the horrors the Forsaken casually inflict upon anyone who comes into their clutches, huddled victims in cages poisoned and murdered by Putress and the Royal Apothecary Society to develop new plagues, including the one that killed Bolvar and the other Alliance soliders at the Wrathgate. He saw the confirmation of his entire life's experiences, the evidence that even dignity or the sovereignty of your own flesh can be stolen from you.

Dying to live free

Ironically, through his attempt to kill Varian and his son, Archbishop Benedictus accidentally allowed Varian to take the lessons learned in the Howling Oak to heart. Genn's introduction of the worgen ritual allowed Varian to channel his rage on his own terms, but it was Benedictus' bringing Anduin and Varian together (although he did so hoping to kill them both) that allowed Varian to finally let go of the fear of loss that crippled and hindered him as a king and a leader.

Perhaps it was because he managed to prevent his son's death at the near cost of his own life, and in so doing, managed for once to cheat the fate that seemed to dog him his whole life. He did not lose Anduin that day. Varian accepted his fate -- this is how it ends for Wrynn kings -- that he would die in front of his son as his own father had died in front of him, but at least his death would buy his son life, as his father's death had managed to buy Varian escape from the burning city of Stormwind.

And in Anduin's refusal to accept Varian's death, we see the first step in breaking that chain, of freeing Varian from the fear of his past losses and becoming King in fact as well as name. And it is this difference that will allow Varian to wage a different war than Garrosh. The truth is, the reason Varian has hated the Horde up until now has been that he believed he knew them and that he was the way he was because that was what was needed to defeat them. To fight monsters, you must become a monster. To counter the fury of Hellscream, you needed the fury of Lo'Gosh.

But the king must rise above trading blow for blow, loss for loss. Lothar did not lash out in fury or vengeance; he acted to protect his people. Terenas knew when to put down the sword, that wanton butchery inflicted upon the people of the Alliance did not mean the Alliance could or should embrace it in return. Now Varian has learned, slowly and fitfully, that resolve does not have to be rooted in rage, that determination can exist without vengeance, that protecting those in your charge can be done without losing control. In battle, yes, the wolf, but never rabid.

When Varian marches on Orgrimmar, he will not come as Lo'Gosh or even Goldrinn. He will not come as Doomhammer, who burns everything and murders innocents. He will not even come as Garona, a knife in the heart. Varian will come to Orgimmar as Varian Wrynn, King of Stormwind, who once watched his own city burn, and he will not force another child to watch the same.

But come to Orgrimmar he shall, because soon is the hour of the king.

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.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Lore, Know your Lore, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm, Worgen, Mists of Pandaria

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