May the Horse Be with Him
By Christie Golden
Pocket Books, 2009
The prophet smiled now, sadly. “It is not only with our eyes that we see, Prince Arthas. It is with our wisdom and our hearts. I will leave you with one final prediction. Just remember, the harder you strive to slay your enemies, the faster you’ll deliver your people into their hands.”
There’s a sad art to reading bad books, an art with one central tenet: lower your expectations.
With that in mind, I can tell you that Arthas: Rise of the Lich King by Christie Golden was about as bad as (and in very rare moments, much, much better than) I expected. Set in Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft Universe (the setting for their insanely popular game World of Warcraft), Arthas charts the rise and fall of the titular Prince Arthas Menethil as he goes from champion of justice to supreme evil, from paladin of the Light to Lich King.
First a little about Warcraft. The franchise is the prize stallion in Blizzard’s small but elite stable of games. Beginning with the 1994 Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, its fourteen year history sports three real time strategy games with two distinct expansions, an intended and aborted adventure game, and an ongoing story with a richness and complexity beyond most of its competitors. I still recall cracking open the first game’s manual to discover not just unit and structure descriptions, but also pages of history from each side’s point of view, culminating in a detailed map of the sort to make a Tolkien fan’s heart leap. The first games chronicled the perpetual wars between humans and orcs, trolls and elves, demons and undead, across the high fantasy landscape of Azeroth and its adjoining planes of existence. Empires rise and fall, the universe is in constant peril, with the writers and developers inventing new threats or (sometimes literally) resurrecting old threats to give the beleaguered inhabitants of Azeroth something to craft war about.
preview for World of Warcraft
In 2004, when the technology had advanced sufficiently and Blizzard’s psychotically high quality standards were met, the company unleashed the gaming goliath called World of Warcraft. A Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG), Blizzard departed from their usual ‘armies and military bases’ gameplay model to give players a more up close and personal experience. Users play as heroic individuals of distinct races and classes, sharing a detailed world with hundreds of other players, trading, teaming up against monsters and even crossing swords and spells with each other on the battlefield. With over 11.5 millions monthly subscribers, WoW is a industry giant, the sort of game investors dream of. I’m a player myself, though not a particularly hard core one, a ‘recreational user’ so to speak. It was the continuing story that really sold me. A chance to meet the Warchief of my beloved horde, to battle the Burning Legion and the Undead Scourge, to walk in the steps of the great Gul’dan, Destroyer of Dreams, all while accompanied by my fellow gamer friends? Heck yeah.
So I figure I am amongst the most charitable possible readers of Arthas: Rise of the Lich King. I’m well versed with the story of Warcraft, at least as it has been told in the games. I played WoW explicitly so I could keep track of Warcraft events. I’m an informed reader, and something of a fan. If anyone can be kind to Arthas without picking up a check from Blizzard, it should be me. And, like I said, there is an art to reading bad books.
So how was Arthas?
For the most part, Christie Golden’s book reads like a fantasy redo of Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace over in the Star Wars saga, complete with impetuous desire for responsibility and power and the perceived treachery of a lover. And in these moments, the book’s failures mirror those of the Star Wars prequels. The prose is generally wooden and often overwrought (the opening line is “The wind shrieked like a child in pain”). The romance between Arthas and Jaina Proudmoore is silly at best, horribly sappy at worst, and the constant nods to the source material will be meaningless to Warcraft newcomers and heavy-handed to fans. The value of a game book like this is its ability to enrich the world it inhabits, showing readers things they did not or could not witness in the games, and I get the sense that the author herself was as bored writing those scenes she pulls almost verbatim from Warcraft III as I was reading them. Maybe more so.
|Still, Arthas does have its moments, where Golden takes it upon herself to invent the psychology of a golden boy who gives up his very soul. Arthas’s complexities are centered around a handful of scenes never shown in any of the games, almost all involving his attachment to his horse named (out of defiant hubris) “Invincible,” whose birth and death the prince and the reader both witness. Arthas helps Invincible into the world shortly before learning a southern kingdom, Azeroth, has fallen to a rapacious horde of evil orcs. He meets with the now orphaned prince of fallen Azeroth, Varian Wrynn, and sees a possible future for himself, not death but a life in the shadow of failure, a failure to protect his people:
Monarchy is depicted as remarkably enlightened in this book, a familiar fantasy staple. There is one painful scene where Arthas comforts his sister over her upcoming arranged marriage. The sister’s tearful complaint crescendos into a limply sentimental pseudo-feminist harangue against political weddings meant, I suppose, to acknowledge the darker side of medieval feudalism. It’s a waste of pages, as typical as it is anachronistic, though it’s only one of the many such lapses that dot the text. Such moralistic groaners about noble refinement and racial prejudice (against orcs, mind you) like:
Jaina very carefully did not look at Arthas as she replied, “While His Highness gives me a lovely compliment, I do not think that refinement has any bearing on one’s desire to see justice. Indeed, I think it rather more likely that a refined individual would not wish to see sentient beings slaughtered like animals.”
are balanced by simply misplaced contemporary idioms such as: “Blackmoore was here today because he had messed up. Badly.”
And while I consider being spared regular attempts at ‘authentic’ medieval dialect a considerable mercy (I’ll take ‘messed up’ over ‘prithee, thou knavish blaggart’ any day), Golden does the fantasy setting very little honor by depicting magic as either bland, goofy or both:
[Jaina] pointed to a squirrel perched in a high branch, nibbling on an apple, and murmured a spell. At once it transformed into a sheep, a look of comical surprise on its face as the branch broke beneath its weight and it started to fall.
This sort of thing is like Rowling without the cleverness, and undercuts Jaina’s role as a gifted wizard in a world of arcane magic and danger. Warcraft’s dark edges have always been tempered with a certain humor, it’s true, but when the games’ occasional wackiness gets transposed, it loses most of its amusement on the way.
Golden fast-forwards through the war between the orcs and Arthas’s kingdom, which left me feeling torn. While the book seems in dire need of getting to the point, a page-long treatment of a war for humanity’s very survival is under-satisfying. However, this may be for the best. Cloistered away from the war’s worst ravages, Arthas is left fresh for a much more personal, individual trauma, a trauma that stands out as one of the story’s better moments.
Arthas’s previously developed sense of duty gets tangled when, while riding the now grown Invincible across the snowy kingdom, he leads the steed into a fatal leap that cripples the horse, forcing Arthas to kill the animal with his own hands, an event that marks the prince for the rest of the book. The parallel between horse and royal subject, personal and princely failure is obvious but never explicitly stated, a surprisingly delicate move on Golden’s part. It’s the most convincing addition she makes to Arthas’s psyche, and it grants a dimension to Arthas’s struggles that make them more interesting than those of the aforementioned Anakin Skywalker:
Invincible regarded him calmly, trustingly, as if he somehow understood what was about to happen, the need for it. It was more than Arthas could bear, and for a moment tears again clouded his vision. He blinked them back hard.
Arthas lifted the sword and brought it straight down.
He did this right at least…
The plot picks up shortly after this. The scene with Invincible gives the story the fuel it needs to push onwards. Arthas is inducted into a heroic order of holy warriors and then, in the course of his duties around the kingdom, encounters the rising threat of a plague, spread by a shadowy cult for unknown reasons. The reasons don’t remain unknown for long: necromantic agents are behind it, spreading the plague with contaminated grain. The disease doesn’t simply kill, it turns its victims into undead monsters. It’s a little difficult to take the characters’ surprise at face value; they live in a magical world of teleportation, elementals and resurrection, but zombies are a big surprise? Most of this plot is pulled wholesale from the games, and Golden appears to be on cruise control, taking time out only to rekindle Arthas’s excruciating romance with Jaina, something I was very glad I didn’t witness in-game.
The most interesting parts are those when events are recast in light of Arthas’s growing sense of guilt. His failure to protect his people from the plague brings back memories of Invincible, and makes him more and more determined to stop at nothing to stem the tide. His motivations are further complicated by his decision to perform mercy killings on an entire infected city, connecting guilt with aggression, self-blame with projected guilt, and simultaneously alienating him from his uncomprehending friends and allies.
Ultimately, Arthas chases the cult’s leader, a demon named Mal’Ganis, across an ocean to the inhospitable northlands, a place resembling Dante’s innermost infernal circle. In a deranged frenzy of futile desperation and yet more guilt projection he forces his men to continue the increasingly suicidal chase by hiring mercenaries to burn their fleet, the only way home, then points the finger at the mercenaries and leads his own men in a charge against them. He finally closes this intensifying circuit of selfishness/self sacrifice by taking up an evil, cursed sword (dubbed Frostmourne), vowing “I would gladly bear any curse to save my homeland.” One gets the impression that he wants a curse, that this is a sort of spiritual suicide, tinged with a distinct feeling of vengeance against his friends and companions.
As it turns out, his taking the sword is his final step towards fulfilling his destined role as a minion of the true master of the plague, a grandly evil entity known as the Lich King. Arthas has been chosen as a champion of death and returns to his kingdom a twisted shadow of himself, murdering his father and releasing the plague en masse. Again, this feels very Star Wars, complete with his sense of lingering goodness, some last chance at redemption, his “last vestiges of humanity – of compassion, of [Arthas's] ability to love.” It’s not a terribly prominent part of him, it seems, because the rest of the book involves his endless battles, now in the name of darkness and undeath. In the book’s final bout, a dream vision in which Arthas confronts manifestations of his own psyche, he chooses to destroy that “last vestige” and (quite literally!) embrace evil once and become the new Lich King:
Arthas stepped forward, plunging the glittering, hungering Frostmourne ever deeper into the dream-being that had once been Ner’zhul, the Lich King, and was soon to be nothing, nothing at all. He slipped his other arm around the body, pressing his lips so close to the green ear that the gesture was almost intimate, as intimate as the act of taking of life always was, and always would be.
But this neat little moral tragedy is made problematic by some scraps of prose and a single vital scene, and it’s these elements that give Arthas its almost accidental value. One of his first decisions as death’s errand boy is to raise Invincible from the grave, an act that is explicitly linked to Arthas’s witnessing of Invincible’s birth, the moment in his childhood when his sense of duty first forms:
The grave erupted, showering bits of earth. Bony legs pawed, hooves seeking purchase on the shifting soil, and a skull thrust upward, breaking the surface. Arthas watched breathlessly, a smile on his too-pale face.
I saw you being born, he thought, remembering the membrane shrouding a wriggling, wet, new little life. I helped you come into this world, and I helped you leave it… and now by my hand you are reborn.
Any number of times during his evil conquests, Arthas is depicted as possessing a strange affection for his undead minions. For all that Golden would like us to think that Arthas chooses darkness over compassion, it is in fact his very compassion that drives him into darkness. Furthermore, the book comes very close to achieving what Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (in The Parallax View)considers the defeated potential of the Star Wars prequels, to show that “the origin of our ethical commitment [is] precisely our ‘excessive’ care and attachment” (The Parallax View) that is so easily perceived as evil. Arthas’s dedication to saving his people is so great, his attachment to Invincible so strong, that he in fact dooms his people and Invincible in, and even as a central part of, the process of trying to save them.
This stroke of philosophical genius is, I contend, almost entirely unintended, but it is unmistakably present. It gets smoke-screened behind the supposed seductive allure of power and the corrosive influence of vengeance, the classic and banal paths to evil, but through it shines this remarkable filament, one that jumped right off the page at me.
It’s no accident that these are details Golden has added to the story of Arthas, the details never shown and never mentioned in the games – details I give her full credit for, though I sometimes doubt how much of their significance she sees. Golden is operating within her bailiwick, that of the franchise writer. With over two dozen novels to her name, she makes much of her living giving literary voice to inherited worlds. If I were tasked with writing a trilogy of novels to be marketed at hardcore fans more interested in canon than quality, I wouldn’t strain myself either. Arthas and its author therefore share a singular quality: both rise above their limitations, becoming better than they themselves know or mean. While this certainly offers no redemption for Arthas the character, it comes as a salvation to Arthas the book, one just as badly needed.