WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE SANCTUM OF DOMINATION ENDING CINEMATIC, THE 9.1 COVENANT CAMPAIGN, AND THE BOOK FOLK & FAIRY TALES OF AZEROTH.
The ending cinematic for the Sanctum of Domination raid is out and causing quite a stir. There has been a lot of criticism, some legitimate and some awful (disagreeing on the story decisions of a video game is never a justification for death threats; don’t send death threats in general, people). I wasn’t a fan of the cinematic either, but there’s been enough negativity already. We’re not here today to critique it.
Instead, I want to talk about a theory that has been percolating in my head for a little while now. The cinematic further convinced that it is worth sharing. I think Shadowlands’ story is building towards either a redemption arc for both Sylvanas and Arthas, or an argument that we were wrong to kill Arthas instead of redeeming him and that redeeming Sylvanas is a way for our characters to atone.
Sounds pretty eye-grabbing and inflammatory, right? Well, I have evidence and read on after the jump to see it!
Sylvanas turns against the Jailer after he says, “All will serve,” reminding her of Arthas. She shoots an arrow at him while shouting “I will never serve!” but the Jailer catches it. He restores the missing portion of Sylvanas’ soul, and she passes out while the Jailer escapes to wherever the next patch is set.
What stood out to me, regarding my theory, is the vocal cameo by Arthas. References and callbacks to Arthas are so common in Shadowlands that its likely a matter of when, not if, he will show up in the (spectral) flesh. This one reminded me of his most recent appearances prior to the cinematic: the book Folk & Fairy Tales of Azeroth, and another chapter of the 9.1 covenant campaign.
Folk & Fairy Tales of Azeroth is a collection of short stories by various authors. Some are “rooted in canon,” others are in-universe folklore, or simply “another traveler just telling a tall tale.” Of significance to my theory is “The Paladin’s Beast” by Madeleine Roux.
This story falls under the in-universe folklore category. The book explains “The Paladin’s Beast” was a popular bedtime story from Lordaeron told to “fussy princesses and princelings who refused to sleep,” which given the timeline would mean Calia and Arthas. A super-abridged version of the story goes as follows:
When Uther the Lightbringer was a newly appointed paladin, he went on a quest to prove his resolve. Uther got caught in a storm and fell into a lake. He emerged from the lake no longer in Lordaeron, but another world. Uther met a young maiden named Lady Miatharas (an anagram of “I am Arthas”), who assumed he was a knight coming for the annual tournament, where knights competed to slay a beast.
Uther decided slaying this beast would be the way to prove his resolve he had been searching for and agreed to compete. Miatharas urged him not to, as the beast always won. Unswayed, Uther prepared to face the beast. Miatharas gave him one last warning: that if he tried to fight the beast, he would be killed.
The beast turned out to be a decayed-looking dragon with power over frost magic, like nothing Uther had ever seen. He noticed that despite its horrific abilities, and all the people it killed, the dragon was bound by chains, and he saw fear and pain in its eyes. Uther realized that unlike the knights, who had chosen to fight, the beast was forced to fight against its will.
Remembering Lady Miatharas’ warning, Uther laid down his hammer and refused to fight the beast. His act of compassion calmed the beast and it surrendered. Later, Miatharas came to congratulate Uther on his victory. He noticed that Miatharas had bruises that perfectly matched where the beast was shackled.
Miatharas explained that she was forced to fight as punishment for disobeying her father and “breaking his line.” She then told Uther that he could return to his world now, but that he would not remember what transpired. She also said, “Many years from now, on a broken field blazing like fire. You will think of me, and I hope the memory will bring you comfort. Though I fear it will not.”
Uther returned through the lake to Lordaeron and found his armor was cracked as if it were pierced by an icy blade. True to Miatharas’ words, he remembered nothing of his adventure. But many years later, on a broken field blazing like fire, as Arthas plunged Frostmourne into Uther’s chest, he remembered.
As stated before, that was a very truncated retelling. I left out many details and characters for the sake of brevity. For those interested in more detail, Wowhead has an excellent summary and analysis. Of note is author DiscordianKitty’s interpretation of the story’s events: “If this story is to be believed, it means Uther received a prophecy long ago, warning him that the only way to defeat Arthas the Lich King would be through compassion.”
This is not the only time the idea that Arthas should have been defeated with compassion instead of violence comes up. While not yet available on live servers, the penultimate chapter of the 9.1 covenant campaign was tested on the PTR. The chapter, called “A New Path,” is about Uther searching for his lost soul fragment.
In the chapter’s first quest, “A Paladin’s Soul,” Thenios explains that “Uther was struck down by a mourneblade. When such a weapon is wielded with rage, it can shatter a soul into fragments. If the Jailer holds part of Uther’s soul, it cannot be fully mended until the lost piece is restored.”
A lost soul piece held by the Jailer, which must be restored to heal the soul entire. Where have we seen that before? As the questline progresses, our characters accompany Uther through his memories.
In one of these quests, “I Intend to Live Forever,” we relive Uther’s final battle with Arthas. As it plays out, current Uther, Kleia, and Polemarch Adrestes comment on the famous scene from WarCraft III.
Pelagos says: What is this place?
Kleia says: This is the moment of your death, isn’t it?
Uther says: He came for the urn… the one that held the ashes of the father he slew.
Polemarch Adrestes says: Why this memory, Uther? Why linger here?
Uther says: In that moment… I failed him. I did not uphold the virtues. Compassion, least of all.
Uther says: My heart had never been so cold. I faced him not as a mentor, or even a friend, but as a bitter foe.
Polemarch Adrestes says: Perhaps. But confronting this memory has taught you the value of compassion more than any scripture ever could.
Polemarch Adrestes says: Take that lesson to heart, Uther. The past may be immutable, but the future has yet to be written.
Uther says: I will. Arthas… If only I had tried to save you…
The idea that Arthas should have been treated with compassion rather than violence, saved instead of killed, is brought up once again. Note that Uther is talking about Arthas being worthy of compassion well after the purge of Stratholme or the events in Northrend. This is after Arthas took up Frostmourne, killed his father, and was then on his way to invade Silvermoon. That’s the Arthas Uther thinks he should have tried to redeem instead of fight. The same is true of “The Paladin’s Beast” where Miatharas clearly represents post-death knight Arthas with her frost powered undead-looking dragon form.
In the final part of the quest chain, “New Sigil of the Kyrian.” Upon accepting the quest, Uther and Pelagos have a conversation about Arthas and redemption:
Pelagos says: Uther, pardon my asking but… what fate befell Arthas in the end?
Uther says: At the moment of his death, Devos and I claimed his soul… and cast it into the Maw.
Pelagos says: Without the Arbiter’s knowledge? So… he might yet have had a chance at redemption?
Uther says: I will never know. It was not my choice to make. Devos led me down a dark path.
Pelagos says: Now that I have seen the Maw for myself… I cannot say that any soul deserves such torment.
Pelagos says: Perhaps some can never be forgiven… but you have shown me that they must be treated with compassion.
This time the idea that Arthas might be beyond forgiveness is approached. It reminds me of his original death defeat in Wrath of the Lich King. I always found the ending cinematic’s moral that even if Arthas was himself in the end, he had done too much to ever atone for and thus “saw only darkness before (him).” That is a rather unique moral. But this suggestion is still coached in the idea that it is compassion, not violence, that should be used to stop characters like Arthas.
Between “The Paladin’s Beast” and the 9.1 quests, we have been given an argument that it was wrong for at least Uther to fight Arthas instead of redeeming him. It has become prominent enough that I think this is not just talking about Uther but is an overarching narrative for the expansion. Uther, and by extension our characters (who finished the job), failed Arthas. And that is where we come full circle to Sylvanas.
Sylvanas’ actions have been compared to the Lich King’s since Cataclysm. Her Warbringers short used a near shot for shot comparison to show Sylvanas has now done to others everything Arthas did to her. And as of Shadowlands, we know both were manipulated by the Jailer.
We can even compare Sylvanas’ missing soul fragment to still vague condition of Arthas’ soul after he took up Frostmourne. The inscription on Frostmourne’s dais read “Whomsoever takes up this blade shall wield power eternal. Just as the blade rends flesh, so must power scar the spirit.” That sounds an awful lot like Uther’s condition in the Shadowlands. Devos even says “Your soul… is wounded?” regarding the scar left by Frostmourne on Uther’s spirit. 9.1 confirms that Uther’s soul split effected him spiritually and not just physically, furthering the similarities to the inscription.
So where does this leave us? Sylvanas is no longer an antagonist and seemingly wants to help us, or at least wants the Jailer stopped. We have yet to see what her character is like post merging with her missing soul fragment, save for her now having blue eyes and warning us that the Jailer must not reach the Sepulcher. The constant references to Arthas make his return seem inevitable as well. From everything outline above, I do think it’s likely that we will either see both characters redeemed or come away with the idea that Sylvanas’ redemption is a way for our characters to atone for failing to do the same for Arthas.
I am not the biggest fan of either outcome. I still like and stand by the moral from 3.3, that once you go as far as genocide, you have done too much to ever get the kind of redemption story Blizzard has done in the past for the likes of Illidan or AU Grommash. Maybe Sylvanas and/or Arthas will get a different sort of redemption arc, something closer to what Revendreth offers, perhaps? No matter how it plays out, this would give Shadowlands an overarching theme. It would have something to say about the nature of redemption and culpability and mercy beyond just Sylvanas being a completely different character every other expansion. With the final chapter of the 9.1 untested on the PTR, and a novel about Sylvanas coming out in Februrary, hopefully we will find out soon™.