“Together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”
– The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
There is a certain thread of mythology that I have always found more compelling than all others. It is the story of the long defeat. When the world was young it was a golden age where gods walked the earth among men. The best, strongest, and purest achieved immortality, heroes were truly heroic, and the world was full of glorious beautye and exquisite harmony.
But there was a fall.
And since that original taint entered the world, there has been a steady slide into darkness. The defeat at the end of all things is inevitable, yet there are still the brave and the pure who fight the hopeless battle to preserve what is true and beautiful, and to drive back the darkness. They do this, not in the hope that the taint can be reversed. Defeat is sure, and any battle is merely a delaying tactic, a glorious fight for “ruin and the world’s ending”. The joy remaining is joy tinged with pain, hope and regret mingled. The hope the heroes strive for is a hope not in the world, but somewhere unknowable beyond its boundaries.
The concept of the long defeat was popularized by Tolkien, and has leaked into much modern fantasy as a result. It is a theme which is prevalent in WoW as well, which is probably one of the reasons that the lore is so appealing to me. The world of Azeroth is gripped with perpetual struggle. As cataclysm after cataclysm tears the landscape apart, there is hardly a race left that has not suffered the near destruction of their society.
The Draenei spring to mind, as refugees and victims of mass genocide, the tattered remains of their civilization has been on the verge of defeat for milennia. The Night Elves, in a heroic act of self sacrifice renounced immortality to save the world. The gnomes are a refugee people, decimated and driven from their home, forced to rely on the dwarves and humans for sanctuary. Those same humans have only one of their great cities remaining, having lost Stratholme and Lordaeron. King Terenas’ empty throne in the Lordaeron ruins is a melancholy and evocative reminder of what humanity once had. The dwarven society was shattered by a series of brutal civil wars from which they are only now recovering.
The Horde races have it no better. The orcs were corrupted and posessed by the Burning Legion, used as slaves, and divided from each other. The Darkspear trolls were driven nearly to extinction and expelled from Stranglethorn – they are essentially another refugee culture. The Tauren were fighting a losing war with the centaur when they allied with the orcs to prevent their extinction. The Blood Elves have suffered the destruction of their civilization, not once, but over and over. Most recently, their capital and homeland have been physically sundered by the Scourge, and their beloved prince Kael’thas Sunstrider betrayed them. Of all the horde races, the Forsaken have lost the most – their lives. Sylvanas Windrunner, is perhaps the most tragic character in WoW – still fighting even after her death to preserve a people who are literally decaying.
The world has progressed (or rather, regressed) significantly since the idyllic old Kalimdor before the sundering. There, demigods such as Cenarius mingled freely with the fledgling races. Wonders like Nordrassil the world tree flourished. Immortality was granted to entire peoples. The titans blessed their creations with life and freedom, and the uncorrupted dragon aspects still cared for and guarded the world.
Since that time, we have seen the world disintigrate into the fragmentary corrupted plane it is now. The gods die, the dragon aspects seek destruction instead of preservation, and it is only the few, brave souls who are still fighting to push back the spreading darkness. When we enter the Warcraft universe, we are entering into the long defeat as Tolkien envisioned it. There are a few moments both in gameplay and in lore that for me perfectly encapsulate the joy in the midst of destruction – flight over the shattered landscape of Hellfire Peninsula, an herbalist’s lifebloom causing flowers to spring instantly from the snows of Northrend, the transformation of the Death Knights at Light’s Hope Chapel. The redeeming sacrifice of Grom Hellscream, which is simultaneously a victory and a defeat. The corruption and redemption of the order of Blood Knights, and the voluntary enslavement of the naaru M’uru.
I find that stepping back to look at the world and its lore from this angle revitalizes my sense of awe and mystery in the game world. It is less about mechanics and how I can eke out 2% more dps from my spec or my gear, and more about how I, as Rhii– resolute and solitary as one of the few surviving draenei–or as Myrhani, penitent yet driven, one of the redeemed Blood Knights of Silvermoon–am stepping forward into the breach armed only with what skill and knowledge I’ve gleaned in my too brief training. Stepping into the shoes of such heroes as Uther the Lightbringer and Alleria Windrunner, Rhonin and Lady Liadrin. Standing forward with my (few) surviving companions and driving back the night – even just a little. Even though I know it’s not forever, and that the evil we defeat today will be replaced with a greater one tomorrow.
The battle is epic and eternal. Stand with me and fight.