On the Dragons and the Fire. Part two in the Dark Souls series.
Throughout history, the gods we’ve worshipped (or created fictional societies to worship) have borne a number of different faces, but similarities are easy to spot between the pantheons. There is always a sun god (or god of Light). There is always a god of the dead (or at least an underworld). There’s always a struggle between , etc. Dark Souls shares these similarities, of course, but I don’t want to start with the similarities. Let’s start with humanity instead.
Certain cultures (notably Greek and Norse religions) are known today for gods that behave in a particularly human manner: They squabble, they screw around, they father illegitimate children with mortals, and, generally, they are fallible. This probably doesn’t strike you as odd. After all, why shouldn’t mankind want to link their gods to themselves in some way (see also: Christian God creating man in his own image)? It is odd, though. To posit a link between ourselves and the divine is one thing, but to shrink that gap to merely a difference in physical capability betrays a narcissistic fantasy: “Were I [man] to ascend to godhood, I would still remain me.” Ah, yes. I’m sure you wouldn’t change at all if you won the lottery either.
That the limits of our influence in turn influence who we are should be obvious, but taken to its extreme, it has some weird implications that, for one reason or another, tend to get explored only rarely in fantasy/sci-fi literature (which, weird on its own, is probably the only branch of literature that would ever touch the subject). To that end, in the process of designing a world for a game I worked on once, I walked through the following thought experiment:
Say you’re a wizard. You can shoot fireballs out of your hands. That doesn’t much alter the way you relate to people, though you might have a more relaxed view of the morality surrounding assault and arson. Still, nothing out of the ordinary. Now suppose you find an artifact that grants you the ability to persuade anyone around you of anything. If you can describe it, you can make them believe it: the sky is green, the British are attacking, they are in love with you, whatever. Putting aside the fact that you’ve just encountered an entire encyclopedia of ethical dilemmas, even the way you relate to people is seriously fucked. Maybe you are still tied to a semblance of humanity by the human needs you experience, but the way you operate in society will certainly no longer look human. Perspective check, now: All you’ve found is the Tablet of Splendid Oratory–why the hell would earthshaking nigh-omnipotence look more human?
For the purposes of that game world, my co-designer and I ultimately settled on a history where four wizards had become so powerful (orders of magnitude beyond the above example) that they ceased to interact with the world as individual identities. Rather, they ascended to the point where they were concepts, influencing the nature of reality and the thoughts of those that observed it. The four were known as Love, Hate, Change, and Stasis. A minor detail: As part of the game world’s origin story, the former three collaborated to murder the fourth. Wait…that sounds kind of familiar.
Keep the notion of ascension to godhood in mind–we’ll come back to it. For now, let’s talk about how Dark Souls’ gods fit in. Since it’s super short, I’ll just go ahead and include the entire transcription of Dark Souls’ opening cinematic here (1):
In the Age of Ancients the world was unformed, shrouded by fog. A land of gray crags, Archtrees, and Everlasting Dragons. But then there was Fire and with fire came disparity. Heat and cold, life and death, and of course, Light and Dark. Then from the dark, They came, and found the Souls of Lords within the flame. Nito, the First of the Dead, The Witch of Izalith and her Daughters of Chaos, Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, and his faithful knights. And the Furtive Pygmy, so easily forgotten.
With the strength of Lords, they challenged the Dragons. Gwyn’s mighty bolts peeled apart their stone scales. The Witches weaved great firestorms. Nito unleashed a miasma of death and disease. And Seath the Scaleless betrayed his own, and the Dragons were no more.
Thus began the Age of Fire. But soon the flames will fade and only Dark will remain. Even now there are only embers, and man sees not light, but only endless nights. And amongst the living are seen, carriers of the accursed Darksign.
First, because I just abhor subtlety: Good god, Bad god, and Chaotic god team up to murder Static god(s). I’m apparently so fucking clever.
Second, recall the three layers of reality from the previous essay. This is an origin story, essentially mythology, so there is probably nothing happening on the literal level (or at least we can safely conflate it with the metaphorical). The metaphysical is fairly straightforward: In the beginning, the world is just mist, rocks, trees, and dragons, along with whatever unenlightened vermin scuttle below them in the dark. Then fire shows up, the vermin find it and become gods. The greatest of them do battle with the dragons, they get one of the dragons to defect (2), and, one of the gods mysteriously does not participate. Victorious, they begin the age of fire, but since fire, by its very nature, tends to burn out, they have a problem. Begin game.
There are things worth calling out about the pantheon, many of which I already have. God of light, check. God of death, check (though death has a very different meaning when one is Undead and one’s entire experience is constrained to the metaphysical). The Pandora-esque role of the Witch of Izalith in birthing the demon race is also an interesting spin, though my choice of adjective ought to tell you that it, also, is referential. The novel twist is the inclusion of mankind (the pygmy) within the pantheon, on par with the gods. Neat worldview on the metaphysical level, but it has deep implications for the underlying metaphor.
Regarding the metaphor: I’ve mentioned it multiple times now–let’s talk specifics.
Start from first principles: Gwyn is God–capital “G” Christian God–as much for his role as God of light as for his Sistine-Chapel, Statue Edition appearance in the Ringed City (3). But Gwyn didn’t come from nothing. Neither did light. The story explicitly states that light was the result of the bifurcation inflicted by the Fire, and Gwyn himself simply found his Lordly role within the flame.
This all sounds about right, because God didn’t come from nothing either. Historically speaking, the first written record we have of the Christian God (or Hebrew God, technically) dates to around 12,000 years ago. Fire, long considered to be the poetic beginning of man’s ascension above nature came long before (archaeological consensus estimates it around 1 million years back). However, it is not at all clear that fire was the first tool we used. At an estimated age of 3.3 million years, stone tools predate fire by far. I’ll preempt the archaeological blowback: Stone tools preserve incredibly well, evidence of fire, not so much, so it’s entirely possible this chronology does not accurately describe our own world, but we’re not really talking about reality here–we’re talking about a story, and there are enough specifics here to claim that the story Miyazaki is telling is meant to reflect a certain history of mankind, that the triumph of the Lords over the dragons is meant to represent a shift in man’s perspective on itself: It is the moment where, rather than being ruled by nature (stone, stasis, what is), it begins to rule over nature, and the trappings of the Fire (religion, mythos, the pursuit of knowledge) begin to shape its perspective on the world.
Of course, the Fire is not literally fire. Though, historically and poetically, fire is a turning point, it isn’t really a motive force–it’s more just another notch on humanity’s collective tech tree. Moreover, don’t forget what exactly it is that’s turning. Per Nietzsche:
Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.
(On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense)
More bluntly, it’s highly doubtful that mankind actually rules over nature now, much less that it did a million years ago when it first built a campfire. What shifted wasn’t mankind or nature, but mankind’s perspective. Thus, what Fire represents is not a physical force but a conceptual one, one with the power to reorient everything we see without leaving so much as a charred stain on reality itself. What I’m describing is a value, both in the general sense that this is what values do and in that the Fire represents a very specific value. It has gone by a number of names throughout the ages, among them Virtue or the Form of the Good, but in my opinion, the most useful is Truth, and the whole metaphor–from the nature of the Dark Soul to why Gwyn had to die–weaves itself from there.
(1): I know two paragraphs are missing. They’re mostly off-topic here–we’ll get to them next essay.
(2): I am taking this very much at face value. Lots of details about Seath, most particularly that he is scaleless, suggest he may not truly be a dragon, but for now, I’m ignoring them. As his place in the pantheon is concerned, he seems to represent an ideal of scholarship, and the piece of Gwyn’s soul that is bequeathed to him may be a commentary on the privileged position academia has held throughout history as a subsidiary of religious institutions.
(3): It’s worth mentioning that my second reaction upon seeing this depiction was to ask what it meant that Gwyn feared the pygmy: “What would it mean if God feared man?” Except God is dead–who do you think killed him?