“Father! Is it… over?”
“At long last. No king rules forever, my son.”
“I see… only darkness… before me.”
Top Ten Feels #2 : “Souls’ Torment” played during the fall of Arthas Menethil – World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King.
So I’m actually cheating a little bit on this one, as the particular piece of media that affects me so isn’t visual in nature by itself, but is instead only a song. But oh, what a song. And since the song originates from a visually interactive experience, I think that the spirit of the conditions that I laid down for myself is met, if not the letter.
Again, astute readers will have undoubtedly noticed that I’ve mentioned this character before, and therefore shouldn’t be too surprised that the crown prince of Lordaeron would be appearing on this list. That being said, I think I should go into a little more detail about why I love this character and his story arc than I did in my previous post, so I’ll start off by delving into the back story. (Please bear with me!)
*** Back Story ***
Arthas Menethil starts his journey as the crown Prince of the northern country of Lordaeron, one of the greatest human nations to emerge from the chaos of the Second War. An inductee to an order of holy Paladins (who actually take their jobs and their religion seriously rather than charging headlong into bunny rabbits or saying “ni” all the time), he begins anxious to prove himself to his father, the king, and to his paladin mentor, Lord Uther the Lightbrigner.
As Arthas and Uther are adventuring around the countryside to deal with tiny bands of marauding orcs in the wilderness left over from the Second War, they receive an order from the king to investigate reports of a mysterious plague that are coming from the northern-most reaches of their kingdom. Once there, they discover that the plague is actually a virus (most likely on loan from the Umbrella Corporation) that kills its victims and then re-animates them as ravenous undead ghouls, which go on to further spread the disease.
It is as the campaign to halt the advance of the Plague begins to take shape that the tragic elements of Arthas’ story begins to unfold. Faced with an implacable, ruthless, and relentless adversary, Arthas begins to harden his heart as he is forced to make a series of small sacrifices in the name of the greater good of his kingdom: Abandoning a section of a town to defend the main square, sending squads of troops to their deaths so as to fortify the entire regiment, and so on. These small sacrifices pave the way for greater ones to follow, as he learns to deprive the plague of its food by cutting down infected people before they’ve turned. This leads to the Culling, where he has one of the largest cities in all of Lordaeron burned entirely to the ground because a portion of its population has been infected. And still his heart hardens further, and his mind turns more and more towards hunting down the source of the plague and making it pay for its crimes (hopefully before Chris Redfield beats him to it), all the while turning an ever-more blind eye to the atrocities that he is committing on his own.
Warnings—from his mentor Uther, his lover Jaina, and even a mysterious prophet—about the dark path that he was marching down go unheeded, and he pushes ever closer to the apparent source of the Plague in the icy lands of Northrend. There, he kills his last true friend as a blood sacrifice in order to gain access to a weapon—Frostmourne—that promises to destroy the Plague… but is instead revealed to be its harbinger, and Arthas its unwitting champion.
Arthas and Frostmourne go on to wreak havoc as newly minted champions of the Undead Scourge, beginning with the willful murder of his own father, the King, continuing with a brutal campaign to convert all of the northern nations of Azeroth, and finally culminating in the act of traveling back to Northrend and merging his own identity with that of the malevolent entity which created the Plague and exerted control over its undead minions. This merging obliterates both Arthas and the entity to give birth to The Lich King, a cruel and merciless being of immense power and undeath which revels in the mockery of its host’s former humanity.
After many years of preparation by all the races of Azeroth, Northrend is invaded, and eventually after a long and bitter campaign, a small group of elite heroes led by a stalwart paladin—Tirion—breach the Lich King’s fortress of Icecrown Citadel and confront him atop his frozen throne…
*** End of Back Story ***
So that brings us to the setting where this song starts: Atop a towering frozen spire of ice and unholy metal, a small band of intrepid heroes stand ready to charge against the perverse bastardization what once used to be a proud and noble soul. And as the battle is joined… this song begins playing.
You know the saying that writing about music is like dancing about architecture? There have been but preciously few other times where that analogy is more appropriate then it is here. I’m still going to try and dance my heart out though, darn it!
This song, oh my goodness this song just has all of my feels. Everything in this song is so brilliantly emblematic of Arthas’ mindset and the utterly depraved perversion of his humanity. For starters, the only thing that even passes for spoken verse in the entire song is a disjointed and distorted echo of Lordaeron’s national anthem, “O Thanagor”, whose lyrics exalt their King, calling for him to reign forever. For the Lich King, such a call may yet be fulfilled, though only the damned would rejoice at its realization. Going further, the ambiance in the background of the music is evocative of the bitterly cold wind-swept tower atop which the conflict takes place, and the deep string instruments that saw back and forth with their lilting pace conjure in my mind the conflict that rages within Arthas’ mind, as what little good which yet remains in him struggles in vain against the crushing cancerous weight of his own cruelty. Even the startling cacophony of trumpeting horns mid-way through helps to add to the gravitas of the song by reinforcing the projection of the Lich King being locked in a desperate battle against those who would dethrone him, almost as though the desperate heroes are but a distraction to the true conflict within himself.
But it’s as the song draws towards its conclusion that really makes me start to tear up. The conflict both within and without reaches a crescendo, and when that does, the concentration and body of the Lich King is broken, Arthas emerges through the music, and in a final, desperate plea, he begs all of creation for forgiveness for his butchery.
It is a plea that is answered only with echoes of the empty void.
This song, more than any other that I can think of, is so densely packed with symbolic meaning that it’s difficult for me to fully explain why I love it, and why it appeals to me on as many levels as it does. Part of it has to do with my fascination with tragic characters, and my complicated relationship with karmic retribution. There’s something very cathartic to me about tales of people of great standing who are corrupted through their own ambition and hubris, and are ultimately brought down in a violent end. This song also is strangely rewarding in the sense that it is one of the few pieces of media anywhere I know of that exemplifies my principle view on the afterlife, in that it is a cold, eternal void that embraces both the great and the small alike.
This song really does have all of my feels, and I’m proud both to have it on this list and to like it as much as I do.