Knight Artorias, the super powerful heroic spirit summoned to fight for the Holy Grail and Burger King sponsorship.
Wait no let me try again.
Knight Artorias, King of England!
Okay fuck hold up.
Knight Artorias, heroic soldier of Anor Londo, face of nobility, loved by his friends and feared by his foes, a true symbol of what a warrior should be. Of course, that is only the Artorias we are told about, not one we ever see. The disembodied voice of item description tells us of a legendary hero, our personal experience presents us with a feral killing machine, leaving us to determine which, if either, can be trusted. This problem lies at the heart of the Souls games, which revel in the knowledge that truth is a constructed affair, Dark Souls even constructs a kind of optional sub-scenario based around problematising the narrative the game has given you. Dark Souls’ mystique relies on the presence of competing powers struggling over the control of history. It relies on truths untold and on one’s ability to extract a narrative from competing lies. It also presents a standard heroic knightly quest to lead players on, all the while quietly snickering about the kind of people (and players!) who are duped by this sort of thing.
It’s regrettable, then, that so much analysis (and indeed the sequel) focuses on the concept of warriors with noble intentions gone awry, on the inherently truthful word of the narrator and the notion that mythology can be trusted. If I had to sum up my understanding of the philosophy of this series, I would say that it is based on demonstrating that truth is defined by the powerful, not just through overt lies but omission and revealing just enough. In other words, the Souls series is about the naturalising of ideology.
It isn’t hard to see the echoes of real world culture in Dark Souls: you’ve got Arthurian knights, bickering Greek pantheon-esque gods (right down to literally just throwing Zeus in the game) and a whole wealth of allusions to Eastern cultural mythology that I am significantly less qualified to comment on.
Taking Gwyn and Artorias, our conglomerated western crusader god and chivalrous knight as viewed from the outside, we see at face value: powerful figures who sacrifice and fight for their people, men desperately holding back an ill defined tide that threatens to sweep them into history. A slight peek under the surface, though, and in both cases they are also men responsible for countless deaths in a crusade against something that is defined in Anor Londo as the inevitable consequence of allowing a lesser ethnic group to organise their own social structures. The latter is, of course, the natural consequence of the former, but little is often said about this; more often than not, these characters become tragic figures forced into regrettable actions by circumstances out of their control. They didn’t want to slaughter countless numbers of people, but those people forced their hand.
Gwyn is the tale of a man so obsessed with the continuation of his age, and the encroaching loss of power entailed by his inability to halt history, that he ends up wiping out not only the civilizations of humans, but his own from the inside. In the Souls final boss tradition, he is found in a pathetic state, a barely alive being of pure violence and desperation, hunkered over his flickering symbol of power. The build up juxtaposed against the reality creates a sense of sympathy for him that, much like the entire narrative leading up to meeting him, is entirely artificial and formed by the power of what the game and the system it is built upon wants you to see. The big twist of Anor Londo is that it is being perpetuated on the burning of humans to sustain the realm of the gods. Further investigation reveals the gleaming sunlight of the city is, in itself, an illusion. By extension it is understood the whole quest of fighting your way to Gwyn, as instructed by a passed down tale and the guidance of the Church, is all a carefully orchestrated system of belief designed to create struggles in humans that can ultimately be harvested for the good of its creators, or a video game as we call it. That much of the discourse on this series focuses on its challenge and how it is allegedly built to make overcoming the odds feel good is testament to this. The system works! The motivated struggle on to fuel the continuation of this state of affairs: the unmotivated drop out and linger on, represented by the hollows littering the landscape, humans band together to help each other meet the trials of their gods, and like the NPC who teaches them to do so, they find they’ve struggled under the auspices of a parasitic illusion.
Gwyn is credited with creating “disparity” by forcing the world into historical progression from a state of pure stillness, but Gwyn now stands at the top of an ordered system that will itself do anything to keep the world from changing. Gwyn fears “the dark”, he perhaps sees it as a return to a world he destroyed, but instinctually, he knows the truth: just as his “age of light” was an inevitable step of history, so too is this “age of dark”. The “Abyss” is seen as the harbinger of all this, and is consistently localised by the gods as arising from the works of humans. To a man who seized control of reality from other grand powers, just the mere sight of the coming together of creatures “beneath” him must be terrifying, terrifying enough for a society based on his ideals to come up with all manner of fairy tale stories of what the humans get up to when nobody’s looking. It is in this context that the Abyss is to be understood as a foundation on which Gwyn’s waning control is based, to put it in a cliché – without light, there is no dark. It’s notable, then, that the means of continuing this “age of light” is the ritual burning of powerful and distinguished human figures, the most frightening possible creatures to Gwyn’s mind. Human culture, achievement and mythology is curbed by transforming it into fuel and keeping them subservient to a religious order that preaches the goodness of Gwyn and his fellows.
No outbreak of the Abyss within the game is provably related to the actions of humanity. Our personal experience of the Abyss is turning up to places of mass murder on the part of the gods, justified by humans allegedly falling to their “nature”. We encounter horrifying tragedies, transformed people and unknowably dark realms, but who is to say any of this is the origin of these stories. Gwyn has the entire city of New Londo drowned in a flood reminiscent of the tale of Noah’s Ark. He does so because of the unforgivable sin of their leaders flirting with the Abyss, but from what we understand of it, how can we know they were up to anything but their own self-determination, just as the powerful nations in reality crush any others that present even the most minor existential threat to the universalising of their ideology. Did the people of New Londo die simply so they would never be seen to thrive? For all our own experience, we have no way of knowing if the the Abyss took root in New Londo before or after the controlled genocide of its population. Could the gods’ own increasing desperation and violence be the true source of their fears? It is surely no accident that a game created by Japanese developers features a Western coded civilization obliterating the city of another.
We personally relive the historical fall of the ancient human civilization of Oolacile, but even here we come to it at the time of its loss to the Abyss. Artorias is said to have entered the city to fight the Abyss, but should this be understood in the same terms as Gwyn’s approach in New Londo? After all, for all the tales of Artorias’ nobility, other major characters of his knightly order include – a cannibal, an assassin and a wolf defined both as a symbol of Artorias himself and an unceasingly loyal army dog (that takes up the knight’s sword no less). We encounter Artorias as a man gone wild, supposedly broken and corrupted by exposure to the Abyss. His entry into the game as a character instead of a myth is through a brief and violent scene of him murdering a transformed human and then leaping into battle with the player in a blind rage. Is this truly a man who has been corrupted, though? If the truth so rarely matches up with the myth, then who is to say this isn’t what the unromanticised vision of this man is actually like? His crusade against the Abyss, in truth, being a brutal campaign predicated on keeping humanity from advancing their own social order? Again, was the Abyss here before Artorias turned up and began suppressing people, or did it arise from that act in itself? Bloodborne contains something of a thematic parallel serving as a potential answer in the form of Ludwig. Another heroic mythologised figure who stood at the head of the Church’s crusade against those corrupted with “beasthood”, another noble mission backed by the work of assassins and state surveillance. Ludwig, too, is only ever encountered in person as a howling beast of a man, obsessed with his own righteousness, literally appearing atop a mountain of corpses and an endless river of blood. Does the church’s perpetuation of their own analogue to the Abyss reflect the work of Gwyn and Artorias? Does the DLC title “Artorias of the Abyss” imply a causative relationship shared in part by Ludwig’s obsession with the Moonlight Greatsword? (Itself a metaphor for the tale of heroism the standard deluded follower of the main plot and its trappings.)
Obviously I think so. To take it even further, I ask where these corrupted and transformed humans come from. Is it humanity gone wild? The Four Kings are said to have been granted a part of Gwyn’s soul, and by that alone stand apart from most, but their and their disciples’ continued existence in the Abyss of New Londo seems mostly to stem from the intervention of forces that seem to be playing even the gods, a counterpart to Gwyn’s lying serpent god in the form of what is essentially a different game route choice of lying serpent god. They are altogether different to the victims of Oolacile however: the population of New Londo is either dead or formed into some kind of undying wraith-like existence; the population of Oolacile is (barring the exception of the saintly Dusk who I will get back to) entirely transformed into ravening beastlike mutated horrors. So, at the very least, the Abyss is inconsistent about this, but the thing is, throughout the game we see evidence of humans deliberately transformed for the work of the gods – snakemen serve Seath, who also has a basement full of women he’s transformed into squids, players can pledge service to the ancient dragons and in so doing start to become like them. The transformation of humans seems a standard practice by the time we reach Lordran, could Oolacile be a burned down testing ground in the style of Old Yharnam? Who is to say that the dark sign, and undeath itself, is not an imposed state?
In our own descent into the Abyss in Oolacile, beyond the ravaged city and the mutilated people, we find a more still and reflective environment. A major enemy creature (and a favourite visual of mine) emerges in the form of a mass of Humanity sprites. Living and moving representations of an enigmatic resource we’ve been collecting and burning all game. These creatures are not themselves a part of the darkness (though I will concede this can be taken as entirely due to the nature of presentation,) but rather creatures inhabiting it. Humanity is the most open to interpretation component of the whole game, here they could be the souls of the people of Oolacile separated from their bodies, they could be Abyssal creatures unto themselves, they could be anything. In interpreting the Abyss as arising from scenes of great tragedy, though, the soul angle becomes compelling. Like ghosts in almost all fiction, these figures come to represent the ongoing consequence of a great crime. Manus himself is said to originate this Abyss, but is he too not simply another ghost of the past dredged up? If Humanity is truly the Dark Soul that mirrors Gwyn’s Light Soul, then perhaps Manus was merely the first to suffer from Gwyn’s paranoid campaign.
What is Humanity though? (Bloodborne’s “insight” has a lot of crossover here) A spell obtained from Oolacile’s Abyss claims to grant the resource a will – “The will feels envy, or perhaps love, and despite the inevitably trite and tragic ending, the will sees no alternative, and is driven madly toward its target,” the sprites of the Abyss behave in much the same manner, damaging you merely as a side effect of a desperate drive to touch you. Driven as it is by human desire, and the consequence of its loss being demonstrated as hollowing – the loss of drive and purpose, Humanity can very easily be defined as essentially the emotional core of a human being. A constant economy of Humanity is defined by the interactions of characters lower down the feeding chain of the world, the hopeful and the victimised produce humanity in abundance and are preyed upon; mindlessly by those who have lost their own, and cruelly by those who live solely by the consumption of the feelings of others. It is different from souls, the resource harvested from all life and used to level up your character. Humanity can only stave off hollowing or be sacrificed to gods who do not possess it. Humanity consumed does not harm you, but Humanity granted a will does, albeit not necessarily intentionally. Could it simply be that by the time of encountering these DLC scenario enemies, we as players have become something other than human, gorged as we are on the souls of all of our own legendary opponents? Manus sits at the core of this Abyss, so obsessed with a pendant that he reaches through time and forces the game to continue a good long while, before the developers of the game came out to inform the community that the Pendant item they’d obsessively tried to document the function of had no function whatsoever. Do we not have more in common with Manus than any given citizen of Oolacile? As beings raised on the stories of Anor Londo, do we only see dark because we have no capacity to see what is truly there? Has Gwyn’s order simply erased all other possibilities from our senses?
What else is striking about Manus is that his obsession seems to arise from the pendant’s relation to a woman. Dusk is a saintly figure that, prior to the DLC, stood as the only representative and evidence of Oolacile ever having existed. Manus’ desire isn’t solely the pendant, but the delving into more and more history, more areas, more item text, more NPCs. Manus reaches forward to a Dusk who is perpetually entombed in a crystalline, static state and, via our own investigation of the same woman, we reach back into the legend of Artorias and all the big stories we’ve been hearing about through our repeated adventures. Dusk as a point of obsession doesn’t end at this metaphor though, she seems to be the basis of much of the imposed culture and obsessions of Anor Londo itself, at least insofar as she is the earliest example of it. “It” being the image of the ever-suffering woman saint, whose value is derived from her damaged innocence. Her image is canonised in culture through the institution of “fire keepers”, all women who sustain Gwyn’s bonfires (made up of human bones) by the weight of their massive stores of Humanity. Images of holy motherhood and femininity lie scattered around the religious sites of Lordran, but rarely are they touched upon in dialogue. The imagery of Dusk’s saintly presence is influential enough that even Gwyndolin looks to be dressed in the same manner as her. These women are the low level workers of Gwyn’s immoral light, they’re the kind face given to the the system of sacrifice entailed by these bonfires, and in turn, they receive all the suffering and the blame. Bonfire Keeper seems to be the only role afforded women in this society, they are to be figures of compassion and humanity existing for the empowerment of the warrior classes. Their abundant Humanity is a resource to be drained, but is also seen as a sin unto itself. Two prominent church saints encountered in the game are sacrificed for the world around them – one by the machinations of a church appointed guide out to consume her humanity, the other tethered, caged and literally rendered voiceless by her service as the fuel that powers the most useful bonfire in the game. She, in particular, demonstrates the absolute servitude of women in the church. If you allow her to be consumed for Humanity and then return her to life, she merely scolds you for granting her a tongue with which to sin.
Which ultimately leads us to the most prolific consumer of holy-sinful women in the game – Seath the Scaleless, a figure who has an entire organisation dedicated to the capture and subsequent experimentation on women. Seath is obsessed with immortality, his whole existence is defined by jealousy over being the only dragon born without it, it is the humanity of these women and its capacity to fuel the continuation of civilization that he pursues. In other words, he wishes to obtain the immortality inherent in reproduction and Gwyn, like any self-respecting reactionary, allows this because of his need to control the means of reproduction. Women are rendered industrial property cloaked in flowery metaphors about societal responsibility and noble suffering. Gwyn’s own daughter gets to be the goddess of fertility and little else.
Seath’s obsession and theft of women underlines another running theme of Anor Londo’s society, in that male practitioners of magic cloaked in the garb of academia are lauded figures, while pyromancers are said to be barbaric followers of swamp witches. Women practicing the soul arts that Seath and Logan wield are cast as feminine threats to social order due to their magic being “aligned with the moon,” the opposite to Gwyn’s masculine sun, and by implication another harbinger of darkness, and by further extension still, Humanity. Gwyndolin is a prominent demonstration of this culture, claimed to be “a son raised as a daughter” due to her being associated with the moon. Of course this reads as a culture unable to deal with the concept of an individual existing outside of birth assigned gender roles, necessitating both hiding her from the world, and finding a way to render her existence in the same sacrificial, sinful and consumable terms as all other women Gwyn’s culture consumes. Gwyndolin cannot be a woman with her own life, because no woman can be and so she is instead rendered something akin to Bonfire Keeper.
Gwyndolin’s small body suggests a child born of a human mother (given Gwyn being Zeus that should come as no surprise,) and her weird snake legs suggest the later experimentation of Seath. If Seath’s stable of crying human-turned-squid women were part of his drive to acquire immortality, then Gwyndolin’s existence as not only a human-god but also a different kind of woman would presumably make her deeply attractive to him. On Gwyn’s part, the knowledge that the squid women drop the prayers of Gwynevere’s priestesses suggests an established and sanctioned flow of holy mothering woman to subject of experimentation. The only reason one could think Gwyn would allow such a thing is if he believed Seath’s immortality could generate some kind of immortal Flame Keeper, to finally transmute a woman into an idol in totality. Perhaps his desperation went so far as to allow Gwyndolin to become a subject. Keep in mind here that in Gwyn’s absence Gwyndolin is the one to perpetuate the cycle of human sacrifice, creating an illusion of both Anor Londo and her presentable sister to do so. Could this be a role that she was groomed for in a culture that could find no other use for her? The funnelling of undead to the kiln via the epic video game plot is about as close to an eternal bonfire maintainer as anybody has come. The presence of a dragon-god child hidden away within the secret vault of the Painted World further suggests a concept of Seath being given whatever access to Gwyn’s children he desired.
That unpleasant note aside, Seath and Gwyn are not the only ones pursuing an eternal fire. The quite literally demonised denizens of the Great Swamp are a section of humanity shunned even by other humans. Their magic is derived from the chaos flame created by the holder of the Life Soul, a woman now known as a powerful witch destroyed by hubris. Her attempt at copying Gwyn’s great flame is said to have consumed her society and transformed her into a mother of demons. So the Witches of Izalith are cast as villains for the twin crimes of controlling a means of reproduction outside of Gwyn’s society and for attempting to stake their own self-determination upon it. Izalith stands as the hell to Anor Londo’s heaven, and it is striking that its progenitor gods are a cabal of magic using women whose followers are cast as deviant and frequently racialised. In Izalith’s demons and the further flung human practitioners of pyromancy, Anor Londo has yet another ethnic group to portray itself against, and an image of what unrestrained female power causes. Not to mention the raw concept of an imperial power defining another nation as a breeding ground for the “wrong” kind of life.
All of this is to say that Gwyn and Artorias represent something. They represent the power of the heroic masculine individual myth, their enemies are all cast as lesser beings, associated with femininity and deceitful collectivism. They are the vanguard of a society that cannot reckon with the march of history or existences contrary to their own, and seek to crush them wherever they thrive. They are a force desperately aware of their faltering relevance and their dependency on those they rule, they burn those who possess the means of creating the future as fuel to sustain their order. They do all this with the power of being the storytellers, the people who define the myths that drive the activity in their world.
Gwyn and his companions represented a new step of historical progress from the static world of before. Gwyn now fears an age his society itself defines as being overrun by a race they see as inferior, and who value all the forces of disparity entailed by his own reign. Gwyn helped usher in Light, Dark, Life and Death but he will only suffer one of these to exist, even as his attempts to wipe out and control the rest only perpetuate the world he has built. To me, the coming “age of man” has always represented the ultimate conclusion of Gwyn’s failure to exert supreme control over the oppressed races of the world, the enslaved women and his crushed allies. Gwyn cannot fully define the rise of a new age as an impossibility, and if one is to turn away from his faltering flame, they walk out into a world defined solely by blank space, by being undefined in a game that leans so heavily on the uncovering of history. The Dark is a new world defined entirely by being unknowable and therefore by possibility which is ultimately what Gwyn fears the most.
So, to me, Dark Souls is a game about a man’s attempt to forestall the material progression of history via the use of historical mythology about knights and crusades and subservient women and so on. It is then very frustrating that much of the cultural memory of this game is about heroism, achievement and embattled heroic men in a dark and unforgiving world and that their unending refrain is that a female coded class of players is out there failing to appreciate this knightly journey and simply need to Man Up.
As a kind of final side note, I’ve also always found it upsetting that the sequels leant into the idea of Light and Dark being about the rise and fall of empires and grand projects of kings, but I don’t wish to drag those into this because for all I feel they’ve lost and for all I find troubling about them they have interesting worlds of their own.