The Burning of Teldrassil: Morally Grey or downright Evil?

So now we know who burned the World Tree Teldrassil, and boy it was a doozy of a reveal…

Needless to say there are spoilers aplenty in this article for the second part of the War of the Thorns questlines, so if you’ve avoided it so far (how?), then come back and read this later!

Ok, so now we know that it wasn’t some third party like Azshara (that was not on my radar) or Jaina trying to provoke war between the factions by inciting the Alliance to go full on as revenge for the burning of Teldrassil.

Blizzard, when the burning was first teased at Blizzcon last year, told us not to jump to conclusions and that the story would be “morally grey”. Of course everyone’s first suspicion was that it would be Sylvanas, given she was in the official artwork for the scene:

Sylvanas, Nathanos Blightcaller and Saurfang stand before an as-yet unburnt Teldrassil…

So when Blizzard stated that we should wait for the story to play out, everyone who likes Sylvanas, myself included, breathed a sigh of relief and immediately began working out theories as to who it could be. Theories ranged wildly:

  • Alleria Windrunner
  • Anduin Wrynn
  • Malfurion
  • Azshara
  • Agents of N’Zoth
  • And of course Sylvanas herself

I personally thought that it could’ve turned out to be the Alliance themselves, burning it in a Scorched Earth move to prevent it being taken by the Horde, giving them access to an important and strategically fortified location, especially so close to the Exodar and the home of the Draenai (like anyone would really care about the Exodar anyway!).

So yesterday the cinematic for Warbringers: Sylvanas was released alongside the second week of the War of the Thorns questchain, as it was finally revealed who burnt the tree:

Now, as a long-term player of the Horde for over 9 years, I got to know Sylvanas’ character pretty well. She was my favourite leader Horde side after Green Jesus decided to go off the reservation in Cataclysm. I loved her characterisation and her ice-cool cunning and desire to preserve her people’s way of life. In that, she was no different from any of the other leaders on either faction, and that’s acceptable.

However in Cataclysm things started to get a lot greyer, morally speaking. Sylvanas, after Icecrown and the defeat of Arthas, tried to kill herself by throwing herself from the peak of Icecrown to the ground below. However she was resurrected by the Valkyr and since then she has both been protected by them and used them to create more Forsaken in a somewhat similar fashion to how Arthas raised the Scourge.

This is how her character remained until Legion, when at the beginning of the expansion the Horde lost yet another leader in Vol’jin (his reign lasted pretty much a single, weak expansion), after losing Thrall to his doubt and the deposing of Garrosh. Up stepped Sylvanas, appointed by Vol’jin with his dying breath, stating that “many will not understand”. And he was right. For as much as I love Sylvanas, she has always been more concerned with the Forsaken than she has ever cared for the Horde as a whole. Baine or Lor’themar would’ve been a more solid choice IMO.

So for the duration of Legion Sylvanas seems to carry out her duties as Warchief with a degree of “Ok, this could possibly work”, but as the expansion began to draw to a close, things started to go south with her characterisation…

With the introduction of Allied Races, Sylvanas began to show players that she was more concerned with the player’s loyalty to her and her wishes than those of the overall Horde: “Serve the Horde, Serve ME well, and you shall be rewarded…”

Then came the War of the Thorns…

Jesus, that first week, as a horde character, was bloody hard to play through:

Your first job after working for two years with the other members of your class, from both sides of the factional divide, was to kill Malfurion Stormrage.

Like I said in my tweet, thank god my Druid isn’t still Horde, because I would have had a much harder time than I already did being directed to kill the guy I’ve just spent the past two years working alongside to bring the Legion threat to an end. It was a dick move, but the worst was yet to come…

So, in the cinematic that reveals everything, Sylvanas is at the World Tree, and she has beaten whatever Alliance forces were defending it. She gives the order to invade the tree but first comes across a Night Elf lying dying on the ground (Delaryn?), and from the conversation that flows the Night Elf tells Sylvanas that she can never win because she’s made Life itself her enemy, and she cannot kill hope.

To which Sylvanas side-eyes Teldrassil, looks back to the stricken Night Elf and replies “Can’t I?”.

She then makes the Night Elf watch as she gives the order to “Burn it!”, and Sylvanas’ descent from morally grey to full on evil is complete.

This is her “killing the younglings in the Jedi Temple” moment. Her point of seemingly no-return, as by ordering it to be burned, she’s also condemning the hundreds of Night Elf men, women and children still living there to die a horrific death by fire.

It was at this point I, and I’m sure a fair percentage of the rest of the Horde player-base picked our collective jaws off the floor at the double bluff and thought to ourselves “This is gonna end up like Garrosh all over again, isn’t it?”, and to be fair, right now, it’s hard to see otherwise.

After the reveal a lot of butthurt flew around, as you’d expect. Unacceptable attacks on the Devs and particularly on author Christie Golden, the new Story developer for WoW were rife, and accusations of “lazy writing”, “same old predictable dull Blizzard writing” and “ruining her character” were flung around like burning pitch from a trebuchet, ironically echoing Sylvanas’ actions.

I’ve said it on Twitter already, but I’m more than willing to accept what has happened, process it and not pass judgement on the writing team just yet. It’s still very early and judging a piece of art from the first few brushstrokes is pointless.

Am I concerned with Sylvanas’ actions? Yes, of course.

Am I concerned with the direction her character seems to be taking? Definitely.

Am I worried that for whatever reason, WoW is going to turn into a Good vs Evil storyline? Absolutely, because unless you’re morally questionable yourself, then playing as an outright evil character has never sat well with me.

Am I hoping that Sylvanas redeems herself? Completely. I don’t want Sylvanas to be evil, or be responsible for evil actions, even if it is in the name of war.

Am I glad I’m playing mostly Alliance characters now? Gods yes.

But I’m willing to give the devs & writers time and room to let the story develop at a natural pace, and flow naturally into the rest of the expansion.

I’m hoping that her actions will eventually push the horde out from under her and bring both sides towards an absolute and lasting peace. That these actions highlight both the horror and futility of a full scale conflict between the two factions. I also hope that by the end of this coming expansion, as I do with every expansion, that the factional divide will be a thing of the past, and allow players to play any race on either side.

The franchise is over 20 years old now, and while it may have been borne of the premise of red vs blue, I for one am tired of the bickering, posturing and playing out of a pseudo-conflict that I know intellectually neither side can truly win for meta-reasons.

Let’s make Battle for Azeroth the last big hurrah for the faction war and move the overall narrative forward, at long last.