Welcome to Lore of Warcraft, a new series that will explore the ever-changing Lore of the Warcraft Universe. Today’s article is Part 1 of what I hope to be a very long series: Sargeras.
The Lore of the Warcraft Universe has always been a bit messy, to say the least. A game that started it as a RTS about Humans killing Orcs has turned into the biggest MMO on the planet, a title it had held for 12 years. As such, the Lore, or backstory if you will, of the game’s setting has gone through multiple iterations, most of them clunky at best.
That has all changed with the release of World of Warcraft: Chronicle Volume 1. With the release of Chronicle players finally have a Lore that makes sense and fills in as many plot holes as possible without completely changing the story as a whole, no easy feat when you consider that the Lore of World of Warcraft is recounted in dozens of novels, comics, audio dramas, and in-game content.
This is going to be part one in a series of posts about WoW Lore. Today’s post will be about the “big bad” of the Warcraft universe, Sargeras.
In the Beginning (The Old Lore)
The development of the character of Sargeras is an interesting one, which frankly intrigues me. I don’t have time to go into it in detail but a bit of backstory is needed to make sense of the changes and why they are so profound.
Warcraft I & Warcraft II
The first game in the Warcraft franchise, Warcraft: Orcs and Humans offers little information on the Demons (Daemons as they were called at the time) and the Burning Legion they serve. They were used as heavy damage dealers, on par with Water Elementals. No mention is made of Sargeras until Warcraft II: Tides of War was released. In the Warcraft II manual we see our first mention of Sargeras:
It is rumored that Gul’dan has entered into a pact with a sect of Daemons loyal to the Daemonlord Sargeras who are willing to aid the Warlock in finding their master’s Tomb.
As we can see, far from being a big bad, Sargeras was a demon lord of a particular sect of demons. Which makes since as the Burning Legion had not been created (from a Lore perspective) yet.
In fact, we get more information on both Sargeras and his future lieutenant Kil’jaeden from the words of Gul’dan himself:
[Medhiv]’s face broke into a wicked sneer as he proceeded to show me the image of an ancient tomb upon which was etched the name of the Daemonlord Sargeras. The Tomb of Sargeras! The Daemonlord who had instructed my own tutor Kil’jaeden was entombed upon this pathetic little world! Destiny had chosen to lay the hand upon my shoulders alone, for Kil’jaeden had told me that the lost Tomb contained power absolute – enough to make any who could control it into a living god. Medivh pledged that he would grant me the location of the Tomb if only I would use the Horde to destroy his enemies…
As we can see Kil’jaeden was already an established part of the Warcraft lore as Gul’Dan’s tutor. Although in this iteration of the lore Kil’jaeden reaches out to Gul’dan first rather than Ner’zhul. However Sargeras is simply another demon lord, one who is dead and is buried on Azeroth.
With Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos we finally have a fleshing out of the Lore of Azeroth and specifically The Burning Legion. Here we have Sargeras elevated from a mere demon lord to a fallen Titan. The lore of the Titans has only changed a little bit from their original conception and will be covered later. Suffice it to say the Titans are supremely powerful beings who ordered Azeroth (along with countless other worlds) millennia ago. The Titans themselves are very similar to The Celestials from Marvel Comics.
In Warcraft III Sargeras is described as a former Titan. Originally tasked with fighting the demons he eventually became distraught by the futility of his task:
The noble Sargeras, unable to process the raging doubt and despair that overwhelmed his senses, lost all faith in not only his mission, but the Titans’ vision of an ordered universe, as well. Sargeras began to believe that the concept of order itself was folly – and that chaos and depravity were the only absolutes within the dark, lonely universe.
In this version of the lore Sargeras is Luciferian in his downfall: a member of the pantheon who falls from grace. Similarities are also drawn between Sargeras and Morgoth, the big bad of Tolkien’s Legendarium, but it should be noted that Morgoth is inspired mainly by Lucifer himself (Tolkien was an extremely devout Catholic).
However, rather than corrupting his fellow Titans into rebellion Sargeras turned to another army:
In his madness, Sargeras shattered the prisons of the Eredar and the Nathrezim and set the vile demons free. The cunning demons, bowing before the dark Titan’s vast rage and power, offered themselves to him and swore to serve him in whatever malicious way they could. From the ranks of the powerful Eredar, Sargeras chose two champions to lead his demonic army of destruction.
Kil’jaeden the Deceiver was chosen to seek out the darkest races in the universe and lure them to Sargeras’ shadow. The second champion, Archimonde the Defiler, was chosen to lead Sargeras’ vast armies into battle against any who would stand against the dark Titan’s will.
Here we see that both Sargeras and Kil’Jaeden are retained in this new version of the lore. Kil’Jaeden was necessary as the teacher of Gul’dan and his inclusion as Sargeras’ right hand. But using Sargeras as the new big bad would lead to some serious complications down the line as we shall see.
The “Death” of Sargeras?
Keep in mind that Warcraft II established that Sargeras was dead and his tomb was in Azeroth. Although no mention of Sargeras is made in game, the Warcraft III manual places Sargeras at the head of the Burning Legion. This is fine for the lore but it is still never mentioned how Sargeras died and how Azeroth became the resting place of a Titan.
No mention of his death is made in the Warcraft III manual, but he had to have died for him to have a tomb. So where did his death occur?
The answer came in the form of Aegwynn. When Warcraft III was in development several novels were released in order to help flush out the lore and backstory the game. One such novel, The Last Guardian details the death of Sargeras as well as the birth of Medivh and his later resurrection.
In this novel we learned that Aegwynn, Medivh’s mother, was the Guardian of Tirisfal charged with protecting Azeroth from otherworldly threats. Eventually she came upon the avatar of Sargeras, a demon that took all of her strength to defeat. As the story goes she was able to defeat Sargeras’ avatar but the demon used this moment as an opportunity to invade Aegwynn. Once inside Aegwynn’s mind he was able to influence her, and later her son Medivh, into opening the dark portal so the orcs could invade Azeroth. When Medivh was killed he was freed of Sargeras’ influence and Sargeras’ soul was sent to the twisting nether.
But why did Sargeras need to use an avatar to invade Azeroth, instead of using a demon army as he had before? And why did Sargeras not make an appearance in Warcraft III?
The Avatar of Sargeras
In 2005 we got our answer. The release of World of Warcraft was preceded by the first two novels of the War of the Ancients trilogy. In the novels we learned that Sargeras had already stepped through the portal at his end when the night elves destroyed the Well of Eternity. As such, his body was destroyed (or more accurately) “he ceased to be”.
From a lore standpoint most people interpreted this to mean that Sargeras was cast into the Twisting Nether, unable to take physical form on Azeroth or presumably any other world. He was still able to communicate with his demonic allies but was unable to physically interact with them.
Now we finally had a reason why Sargeras was forced to use an avatar when he fought Aegwynn, as well as why it was Archimonde that we saw in Warcraft III and Kil’jaeden that we saw in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, but not Sargeras himself.
In fact, this is seemingly confirmed in game: during the Sunwell Plateau Raid Kil’Jaeden speaks these words (emphasis added):
Now I shall succeed where Sargeras could not! I will bleed this wretched world and secure my place as the true master of the Burning Legion. The end has come! Let the unraveling of this world commence!
One can assume that Kil’jaeden would not be able to even dream of doing this if Sargeras were able to prevent him. After all Sargeras is a Titan and infinitely more powerful than even the most powerful Eredar. This seems to give us confirmation that Sargeras is still trapped in the Twisting Nether and therefore can only make himself corporal in the form of avatars which contain only a small fraction of his power. Which again would explain why Aegwynn was able to defeat an avatar of Sargeras because it has less power than the real thing.
So here we finally come to what was the primary lore of Sargeras up until the release of Warcraft Chronicle: Sargeras begins as a noble Titan who is corrupted during his war with the demons. He founded the Burning Legion and travels from world toward destroying it. He attempted to invade Azeroth but his forces were fought back by the night elves. His body was destroyed or at the very least exiled into the twisting matter. As such, he was unable to take physical form. Some 9,000 years later he sent his Avatar into Azeroth which was defeated by Aegwynn. Sargeras’ spirit invaded Aegwynn mind (some versions of the lower states that he was trapped inside of Aegwynn) and he later invaded the mind of her son Medivh. He used Medivh to orchestrate the Orcish invasion of Azeroth in an attempt to see Azeroth destroyed. But Medivh was killed and Sargeras was exiled into the Twisting Nether once again.
The new Lore
As you can see, the development of Sargeras went through many iterations, and was molded by different creative teams over the course of 20 years. The very idea of a Burning Legion did not exist until development of Warcraft III began, and therefore during the first two Warcraft games there was no need of a “big bad”.
Curiously the development team of Warcraft III decided to elevate Sargeras, a demon who had been established to have died, to the leader of the Burning Legion and as a former Titan. Perhaps the developers wanted to use a familiar name, and decided to flesh out to the backstory of Sargeras a bit more. Only two demons in previous Warcraft lore had ever been named: Kil’jaeden who is described as a “demon” and Sargeras who is described as a “Demon Lord”.
It is perhaps because of this that they decided to elevate Sargeras, rather than simply creating a new character from scratch. It certainly would’ve saved the development team a lot of headaches in the future, especially when it came to development of World of Warcraft and all of the novels that followed.
Nevertheless Warcraft had its “big bad”. But the story of Sargeras, and particularly of his downfall, was always a little week. In addition, the lore was so convoluted, having been written by multiple authors at multiple times with what appeared to be only a tenuous link to the overall grand lore of Warcraft that frankly it was hard to keep up with.
When Blizzard decided to release World of Warcraft Chronicle and finally detail the lore and backstory of the World of Warcraft universe, they decided to change Sargeras’ a story once again.
Although most of Sargeras’ story, particularly the latter part of the story, remain intact, his early storyline has been changed slightly. The Chronicle details not only the origin of Sargeras but also the origin of the Titans and of the universe itself which had until now been unknown.
The Fall of Sargeras
In this iteration of the lore, Titans are born as World-Souls that grow within a rare number of worlds. As these World-Souls mature they awaken and become Titans. In the old lore, the Titans were described thusly:
The Titans, colossal, metallic-skinned gods from the far reaches of the cosmos, explored the newborn universe and set to work on the worlds they encountered. They shaped the worlds by raising mighty mountains and dredging out vast seas. They breathed skies and raging atmospheres into being. It was all part of their unfathomable, far-sighted plan to create order out of chaos. They even empowered primitive races to tend to their works and maintain the integrity of their respective worlds.
Chronicle tells us that the Titans are in fact as massive as worlds. This is how Chronicle describes the Titans’ physical appearance:
their bodies are covered in mountain peaks and rivers, their forms wrapped in cloaks of stardust and their eyes shining like brilliant stars
The Titans are made up of the worlds from which their World-Souls emerged. Chronicle also changes the purpose of the Titans. In the old lore (described above) the Titans’ task was simply to bring order to creation. This purpose was a little one-sided and Chronicle changes this purpose to instead searching for more World-Souls. As the Titans find a planet with a nascent World-Soul they foster it until it emerges. If they find a planet without a World-Soul they still place it under their protection. This process has gone on for millenia, and only a few worlds have been known to foster World-Souls.
The Demons (mainly the Nethrezim) come from the Twisting Nether, and can only be slain there. They can manifest physical bodies on mortal planets, and seek to corrupt the denizens of each world. As the Titans went about searching for other World-Souls, they discovered the Nathrezim and other lesser demonic races, and had to remove them from each world.
Just as in the old lore, Sargeras (along with his friend Aggramar as his lieutenant) was tasked with fighting the demons while the rest of the Pantheon continued their search. For eons the two fought the demons, but Sargeras began to recognize demons whom he had kill previously. He did not know at the time that some demons can only be killed in the Twisting Nether and therefore created a prison to cage the demons he faced.
One day Sargeras found a world with a young World-Soul inside of it. As he drew closer he heard its thoughts; but instead of the tranquil thoughts of a growing World-Soul he found dark dreams and soon realized that it had been corrupted by the inhabitants of that world: The Old Gods.
Chronicle explains to us that The Old Gods (my personal favorite part of Warcraft lore as they are inspired by the Cthulhu mythos) are beings created by a group of creatures known as the Void Lords. Void Lords dwell within the void, also known as the shadow. The Shadow and the Light are the two fundamental forces of the Warcraft universe and it is in the places where these two forces interact that creation began. The Void Lords themselves are not as powerful as the Titans, but they are envious of their power and seek to destroy them.
Since they cannot match them in strength they devised a strategy: to corrupt a Titan. They had apparently made attempts to do so with waking Titans to no avail, so they decided they would try it with a Titan when it was at its most vulnerable: in a World-Soul state.
To do this, the Void Lords created The Old Gods and scattered them across the known universe. Since neither the Titans nor the Void Lords know which world will have a World Soul, they seek out all worlds and try to place Old Gods in all of them.
On this planet which Sargeras had discovered rested one such World-Soul. It had been corrupted by the Old Gods and its dreams were dark and dangerous. Sargeras knew that if this corrupted World-Soul were to awaken it would be more powerful than all of the other Titans and would destroy them all. Sargeras killed the World-Soul and returned to the Pantheon to inform them of his decision.
The Pantheon felt that Sargeras had been wrong and that the World-Soul might have been saved. Sargeras, who had actually spent time fighting the demons and the Old Gods and knew their power, decided that if the Titans would not help then his former enemies would. Sargeras had come to the conclusion that, given the threat that a Dark Titan would create, he must destroy all worlds in order to prevent the Old Gods from creating a Dark Titan.
Thus Sargeras released his former prisoners and created the Burning Legion with the express purpose of destroying all of creation to prevent a Dark Titan from being born.
How the New Lore Changes Everything
Sargeras’ fall from grace is handled much better in this new version. Instead of simply being driven mad by the evil denizens he has fought, he is in fact trying to fight an even greater evil and willing to use any method to complete his goals. This turns Sargeras from a pure villain to more of an anti-hero.
The true tragedy of Sargeras here is that in trying to defeat the Void Lord’s plan to create a Dark Titan, he has himself become one. Although we can presume that a Dark Titan of the Void Lord’s creation would be more dangerous, we can’t see much of a difference as Sargeras’ express purpose is not to destroy all worlds.
Additionally, we have a much more logical reason for why Sargeras needed to send and Avatar into Azeroth: because his true form won’t fit. The Chronicle describes Sargeras as destroying an entire planet with a single swing of his sword. If the real Sargeras were to show up on Azeroth there is literally nothing that could be done to stop him.
Lastly, the Chronicle establishes a greater threat than Sargeras: the Void Lords, the Old Gods, and a possible Dark Titan. Sargeras seems to think that a Dark Titan, corrupted by the Old Gods, would be more powerful than the entire Pantheon combined. We don’t know what the Void Lords want to do with a Dark Titan; perhaps they want to destroy creation (which if so essentially makes no difference in the end run) but if that were the case then the Void Lords should be on the side of Sargeras. No, it is logical that the Void Lords would do something even worse than destroy all life were they to succeed. Sargeras, instead of being seen as the embodiment of evil, has now become a tragic character which makes him much more interesting.
One last thing to note, and this helps explain why the Burning Legion keeps invading Azeroth, and possibly why we’ve been able to stop them time and time again, is that Azeroth has a World-Soul inside of it. And this World-Soul is described as being the most powerful Titan to ever have been born.
Which is a problem because Azeroth has Old Gods. Old Gods who had existed on the planet for millennia before The Titans came and ordered Azeroth. Now the Titans removed Azeroth of its corruption (for the most part) and we can presume that this nascent World-Soul is on track to grow up to be a good Titan but the question remains: what if the Titans were wrong? What if our planet is the incubator to a future Dark Titan more powerful and more evil than Sargeras?
Which begs the question: should we then be helping Sargeras destroy Azeroth to prevent an even greater evil?
Blizzard probably hasn’t decided on an answer yet but there are some clues regarding its viability, and they come from the End of Time (on Azeroth). Back in Cataclysm we needed to retrieve the Demon Soul in order to destroy Deathwing. To do that, however, we had to travel to the End of Time on Azeroth to retrieve the Hourglass of Time. At the End Time we see one of several possible futures for Azeroth should Deathwing (a servant of the Old Gods) succeed, all of them bad. When we finally face off against Murozond (who is in fact a future, corrupted version of Nozdormu) and finally kill him we are given this script:
You know not what you have done.… What I… have… seen…
This is pretty damn cryptic, but we know a few things. We know that at some time Nozdormu will become corrupted, by what we do not know. He will go mad by a vision of the future. Is it the vision of his own demise? Or is it a vision of something worse, perhaps of a Dark Titan awakening.
Which is exactly what would have happened if Deathwing had succeeded and the Old Gods (his masters) had taken over Azeroth again. But whatever corrupted Nozdormu, it occurred in the future. As of Legion Nozdormu is uncorrupted and as such it can’t be a vision of Deathwing succeeding who is in fact dead.
Is it possible that Nozdormu eventually sees a future where a Dark Titan awakens and brings an evil greater than Sargeras into the universe? And if so, then not only is our struggle against Sargeras futile, it is destructive for all other life in the Universe.
These are deep questions without any real answer, And besides, this is all about a video game. But the point of all of this is that in updating the lore Blizzard has finally made sense of World of Warcraft’s big bad and created a much more interesting and compelling story.