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.
Every villain in the Warcraft universe has a story behind why exactly they're a villain. For some, it was the corruption of the Old Gods that slowly drove them mad. For others, it was the promise of great power by agents of the Burning Legion. But it's rare that we see a villain that is simply a villain without any kind of outside influence. Garrosh Hellscream is one of the better villains in Warcraft solely because he does evil things, but doesn't believe that they are evil -- instead, he believes that they are simply the right thing to do.
But before Garrosh Hellscream was an orc who pretty much represented pure, unmitigated evil in its most concentrated form. He knew the corruption of his entire race was at stake, and he went ahead and traded it for the one thing he craved above all else -- power. Gul'dan may not have come from bloodlines that boasted glory, but he was ridiculously intelligent, cunning, and cruel. To Gul'dan, it wasn't about performing evil deeds. It was about amassing as much power and prestige as he could -- and the rest of the world could burn, for all he cared.
Gul'dan's history is largely unknown. Where, exactly, he came from is a mystery -- but we do know he was a member of the Shadowmoon Clan, and apparently showed enough shamanic potential that he became apprentice to Ner'zhul. Although orc clans acted and were led separately, Ner'zhul was viewed as the spiritual leader of all the clans, a tremendously high honor. To be Ner'zhul's apprentice was in its way much like being a secondary heir to the throne. And maybe it was that thought that kept Gul'dan glued to Ner'zhul's side, oozing ingratiating loyalty and fully supporting every decision Ner'zhul made.
When Ner'zhul began speaking to what he thought was a spirit, when he learned of the supposed draenei threat, when he told the clans to prepare for war, Gul'dan was with him every step of the way. After all, the spirits were bestowing the assorted shaman of the clans with great power. When that power began cutting the shaman away from their elemental ties, Ner'zhul began to worry -- and when Ner'zhul at last discovered Kil'jaeden's deception by speaking to the ancestral spirits at Oshu'gun, he was fully prepared to back out of the deal, cut off all ties with the demon lord and try to regain what the shaman had lost.
Gul'dan, on the other hand, wasn't prepared to do that at all. He followed Ner'zhul to Oshu'gun, heard that Kil'jaeden was essentially a liar that had damned the orcish race to corruption, and instead of immediately agreeing with his master, turned around and told Kil'jaeden of Ner'zhul's deception. Why? Because Gul'dan didn't care about damnation. He didn't care about corruption. The only thing he cared about was power -- something that he could never truly have as long as the orcs were looking to Ner'zhul. Kil'jaeden, on the other hand, could give Gul'dan everything he ever wanted -- up to and including the servitude of the orcish race itself.
And that was something Gul'dan could really get behind.
Kil'jaeden stripped Ner'zhul of his power, gave Gul'dan even more power as a reward for his acts as traitor. In Gul'dan, Kil'jaeden saw what he'd envisioned for the orcish race -- ruthless, cruel savagery. Ner'zhul may have been spiritual leader of the orcs, but he wasn't really evil at heart. Gul'dan, on the other hand, would do anything Kil'jaeden asked of him, so long as he was rewarded with more power in return.
And so Gul'dan began the task given to him by Kil'jaeden. He came to the gathered orc clans and told them they needed to unite if they expected to deliver the final, crushing blow to the draenei. He told the shaman of the clans that he had a better alternative to mastering the elements, one far more powerful. Gul'dan was directly responsible for the first formation of the Horde -- but he was no fool. He knew he was not viewed with the kind of respect necessary to lead the Horde. So he brought in Blackhand and offered him the position of Warchief of the united Horde.
He formed an elite sect of former shaman that had readily agreed to perform the dark magic Kil'jaeden had gifted to them all, one that worked silently behind the scenes to carry out Kil'jaeden's plans, and then he let Blackhand in on this little secret. By doing so, Blackhand was duped into thinking he held a position of great power -- and Gul'dan was free to manipulate both Blackhand and the Shadow Council as he saw fit. He watched as the orcs of the Horde slowly developed green skin, he watched as the very world itself slowly succumbed to that corruption.
And he absolutely didn't care. In fact, it was exactly what he wanted. Because it was what Kil'jaeden wanted, and Gul'dan knew that the demon lord still had more power to give. He happily sacrificed orcish children, aging them in unnatural, painful rituals to create more Horde soldiers. He fed the blood of a pit lord to his kin, because he knew it would make them strong. And when at last Shattrath City fell, Gul'dan suddenly found himself with no master to be found. Kil'jaeden had disappeared, leaving the orcish race to their own devices.
They wouldn't be alone for long. Eventually Gul'dan was contacted by a mysterious stranger -- the sorcerer Medivh, who was in fact possessed by Sargeras, leader of the Burning Legion. Medivh had a suggestion for the warlock, a gateway to an entirely new world ripe for conquering. More importantly, he had power to offer Gul'dan, power to rival that of gods, and he would bestow that power to Gul'dan if and only if the Horde conquered Azeroth. Gul'dan didn't even think twice before agreeing.
Together, Medivh and Gul'dan constructed the Dark Portal that would serve as gateway between Draenor and Azeroth. Once opened, the Horde rushed through, slaughtering everything in sight. With Blackhand acting as his eager puppet, Gul'dan easily pushed the Horde to the heights of victory -- but his new master, Medivh, was about to meet his end. Gul'dan didn't try to warn Medivh, nor did he try to protect his master from his demise. Instead, he delved into Medivh's mind, searching for the source of his reward. He was deep in that mental link with Medivh when the Guardian was killed, and the backlash from his death sent Gul'dan into a coma.
And without Gul'dan at the helm, the Horde Gul'dan had so carefully constructed quickly fell apart. Orgrim Doomhammer had discovered Gul'dan's duplicity through the capture and torture of the half-orc assassin Garona, an agent of the Shadow Council. With Gul'dan out of the picture, Doomhammer quickly killed Blackhand and murdered the majority of the Shadow Council, seizing control of the Horde for himself. Gul'dan awoke to find himself with only Cho'gall, the ogre leader of the Twilight's Hammer, and his necrolytes still loyal -- the rest of the Shadow Council was dead, and the Horde itself was united under Doomhammer.
In what was likely the worst move Doomhammer would ever make, he offered Gul'dan the chance to live in exchange for information on Blackhand's followers. Gul'dan went one step further, offering to slaughter his own allies and place their souls and the souls of the slain Shadow Council in the bodies of fallen knights of Stormwind to create the first death knights, powerful soldiers to fight at the Horde's side. Doomhammer agreed to that, too -- even though the death knights were ultimately loyal to Gul'dan, in the end.
But one thing was left unresolved for Gul'dan -- the source of power that had been promised to him by Medivh in exchange for bringing the Horde to Azeroth. He never received it. On the evening of what would have likely been the Horde's victory over Lordaeron, Gul'dan slipped out of the war altogether, taking the Twilight's Hammer and his followers along with him in search of that source of power -- the Tomb of Sargeras. With his forces abruptly depleted, Doomhammer was forced to retreat, and the Horde eventually lost the Second War.
As for Gul'dan, he found the Tomb of Sargeras, deep under Azeroth's oceans, and he used what power he had to bring it to the surface. Taking only his most loyal followers with him, Gul'dan threw open the doors and stepped inside to find his destiny. It turned out that his destiny involved being ripped to shreds by hordes of angry demons that dwelt within the Tomb. Gul'dan met his demise, and the rest of his followers were slaughtered by Doomhammer's forces once their location was discovered.
Maybe that would have been the end of Gul'dan. But oddly enough, even after death he continued to influence the world around him. His skull was considered a powerful artifact, one that possessed an incredible amount of demonic energy, and a small remnant of Gul'dan's soul. Those that held the skull could still hear his whispers of power unending. It was used to open portals on Draenor, destroying the world and creating what we know as Outland today. Its powers corrupted the forests of Felwood into the tainted horror they are today. And it fully corrupted Illidan Stormrage, transforming him from night elf to demon in an instant. Even in death, Gul'dan still managed to ruin everything he touched.
Not once, not for a single moment in his entire journey from apprentice to artifact, did Gul'dan ever regret his actions. Not once did he think of the welfare of the orcish race, not once did he wonder if what he was doing was truly the right thing to do. He didn't care. He had no morals to question. He had no friends to talk sense into him -- he had no friends at all, simply those who were useful to him for a time, allies that could and would be happily stabbed in the back if it somehow benefited Gul'dan to do so.
The difference between Garrosh Hellscream and Gul'dan is an important distinction that defines both characters. Garrosh Hellscream committed acts that could be seen as evil, but he committed those acts fully believing that they were being done for the right cause -- for the good of the Horde. Garrosh doesn't see himself or his actions as evil, because in the end everything that he is doing, he is doing to supposedly benefit the orcish race. Gul'dan, on the other hand, committed acts that could be seen as evil, but he knew full well that they were evil. He knew that they were the wrong choices to make. He knew with absolute certainty that he was signing away the soul of the orcish race -- and he didn't care. He simply wanted power. Not for the Horde, not for the orcs, but for himself.
That kind of villain is the most dangerous kind. Not because they possess untold power, but because they lack any kind of moral compass to keep them from using it to their own advantage. That kind of villain will stop at nothing, even ending the world so long as if, when the world ends, they are standing triumphant atop the steaming pile of rubble. We'll see Gul'dan again in Warlords of Draenor -- not at the height of his power, but just when he was beginning to claim it.
And if we're smart, we'll put him in his grave before he gets much farther, and shatter his skull before we do so.
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.