We’re now taking a break from games.
After Warcraft Adventures failed to materialize, Blizzard released a series of four books to set the stage for Warcraft 3. Today, we’ll be looking into Of Blood and Honor by Chris Metzen, a simple, low-stakes story about a human, an orc, and a tower.
This is a fairly short book. With only 128 paper pages, Warcraft Wiki classifies it as a novella. I went in blind, knowing only the basic premise and not expecting much. In some ways, I was pleasantly surprised. Before we get to the book itself, however, let’s discuss the motivation for small-scale stories like this one.
The Importance of Peasants
At one point in the Mass Effect Retrospective, Shamus Young talks about the importance of showing the world through the eyes of regular people.
Warcraft 1 and 2 are about large-scale war, about whole army deployments and battles that decide the fate of kingdoms and continents. And even this story is highly abstracted by the gameplay, where peasant villages and invader fortresses alike are represented by the same kind of bases with the same tech trees. With such abstraction, it’s not easy to imagine the wars as they actually occur in-universe, with looting and pillaging, with scorched lands and ruined lives.
Warcraft Adventures gives us a taste of the aftermath of the wars from the perspective of an orc raised in human captivity. The orcs lost, were forced to live in a way contrary to their nature, and as a result, were reduced to despondent drunkards. And now we’re seeing how the wars affected human society — through the eyes of a single paladin. And it makes us care about the world the way Warcraft 1 and 2 just didn’t, and couldn’t by design.
As an example of a game that’s effective at fostering empathy for the common people, consider Final Fantasy XIV.1 Like many good RPGs, it has a very long, very sweeping and high-stakes story that takes you all across the continent, and occasionally beyond, and where the stakes of the main plot range between national and cosmic. But between saving kingdoms and saving the whole world, it also doesn’t forget to present the players a wonderfully detailed and thought-out setting that retains depth at every level of resolution, from cosmic to individual.
In one story arc, you’re thrust into a country that years ago was conquered by an evil expansionist empire and turned into a colony. The people in occupied villages give sidequests. Here’s how a pretty typical sidequest in that region plays out, paraphrased.
The hero, with their badass weapon in their badass armor, is strolling through the village. They see a lone woman sitting on a bench away from the others, staring at the ground dejectedly.
Jane Q. Peasant: You best just go past me if you don’t want to get in trouble.
The hero approaches her, and continues to stand nearby.
Jane Q. Peasant: Looking for the downtrodden, aren’t you? Well, you’ve found one. My bad leg is aching like hell, there’s a tea I drink to ease the pain, but I’m out of these animal parts I use to brew it, and– You’ll help me? Just like that?
The hero goes into the forest, kills the animals, collects the required parts, and returns.
Jane Q. Peasant: You… actually returned? But I never expected anyone to ever… It was the imperial soldiers, you see. My father was deathly sick, so I went into the forest, spear in hand, to gather herbs for him. But I stumbled into an imperial patrol. They said I must have been with the resistance because I was armed, broke my leg, and by the time I limped back to my father’s hut, it was too late for him. And the imperials decided to make an example of me, and forbade others to help me…
The point of this quest, of course, is not to make you kill animals and loot their parts. The fights are trivial. The point is to make you read the quest dialogue played at the beginning and the end, and through it, paint a small corner of the overall picture — that of banality of evil, the occupiers abusing and reveling in their power and committing petty, pointless cruelty just because they can.2 By the time the player does a few such quests, they can’t wait to kick these imperial bastards out — all without them wearing spooky stormtrooper armor and without evil monologues where the big bad guy cackles maniacally while gleefully murdering civilians.3
This is how you make players care about your world.
Let’s now see the aftermath of the Second War from the perspective of a human torn between his responsibilities, family, promises, and conscience.
Where a Paladin Sees Past Appearances
Our protagonist is Tirion Fordring, aging paladin of the Silver Hand and veteran of the Second War. He lives a quiet life with his wife Karandra and his little son Taelan, and rides around his domain on his trusty stallion Mirador.4 He’s hardly a “peasant”; he’s a Lordaeronian noble, governor of the prosperous principality of Hearthglen “at the crossroads between the towering Alterac Mountains and the mist-shrouded shores of Darrowmere Lake”, ruling from Mardenholde Keep where the Alterac Mountains are within sight.5 Nonetheless, he was basically a rank-and-file paladin during the Second War, small potatoes compared to the likes of Uther and Turalyon.
Tirion is not a saint, but he is nonetheless a well-tempered man who has seen the horrors of war and prays every night (yes, the narration says that) that his people never see it again. It has been twelve years since the war ended, and the orcs have been captured and rounded up in “guarded reserves”. Almost all humans, including Tirion himself, see orcs as nothing but beasts and savages devoid of any good. And now, there are rumors that orcs are once again on the rise.6
One day, straying too far from his usual route, Tirion encounters a lone orc at an old, rickety abandoned tower, and is revolted. They fight in what seems like excess detail to me, and are pretty evenly matched; this was written before Warcraft entered an age of superheroes where named characters can mow down faceless mooks by the dozen. Eventually, Tirion gains the upper hand, but instead of finishing him when he’s down and clutching his bloodied leg, lets him rise and continue the fight, as the honor of a paladin demands. This astonishes the orc, who gets back on his feet and salutes by raising his fist to his heart. That, in turn, surprises Tirion, who gets the first hint that his opponent is no mere bestial brute.
The fight resumes. However, the unstable tower collapses around them, knocking Tirion out…
…And while he’s unconscious, we get a flashback of his initiation as a paladin by Archbishop Alonsus Faol, where he takes a vow to vanquish evil wherever it be found, and protect the weak and innocent with your very life. These words will be important to the story.
Tirion awakens back home, in his bed, and thinks it was all a dream first. However, as his wife questions him, it becomes clear what happened: his horse brought him back, unconscious, tied to his saddle, though Tirion doesn’t remember who did that. Eventually he realizes it was the orc who saved him from the collapsing tower.
We’re introduced to a few more characters. There is Arden, the captain of the guard at Mardenholde, the “everyman” character who, throughout the story, tries to talk Tirion out of his lofty paladin ideals in favor of common good. There’s Barthilas, a young and brash paladin who missed his chance to prove himself in battle in the Second War, being inducted into the order shortly after it ended, and now longs to fight orcs. Since the story has no real villain, and all characters with the authority to impede Tirion’s goals are themselves virtuous, Barthilas exists largely as a character for the reader to hate — a paladin in name only, having no respect for anyone but himself, willing to kill an orc on the spot just for being an orc, vengeful, and a sore loser.
Barthilas learns that Tirion faced an orc, and believes he might be a forward scout of an advanced orcish army. He wishes it was him fighting that orc, calls for the woods to be scoured immediately, and overall acts demanding and disrespectful of Tirion, leading to probably the most hilarious-in-hindsight quote in the entire book:
Tirion clenched his fists and tried to keep his voice even. The advisors, who had kept silent during their heated exchange, seemed incensed by Barthilas’ disrespectful rantings.
“You’ll watch your tone with me, boy. I am still governor of this province, and your direct superior as a Paladin.”
This will be funny later.
Back home, Tirion comforts his son, who’s afraid of “green men”, as he calls orcs, and decides to visit the orc again — alone — to learn the truth himself. Arden doesn’t like this, and suspects something.
He finds the orc, who calls himself Eitrigg and turns out to speak the human language, again to Tirion’s surprise. Until now, he believed all orcs to be mere beasts and savages, yet here is this one, speaking intelligently and eloquently, and with sadness in his eyes and with pain and sorrow and his voice.7 It is at this point that the narrator switches Eitrigg’s pronouns from “it” to “he”, signifying how Tirion’s perception of him changes.
Eitrigg delivers a rather clumsy infodump about the Horde’s past, which is what we already know from Warcraft Adventures (though since that game was never released, this is technically the first time we hear this in a published Warcraft story). The orcs were once a proud shamanistic race living off the land as honorable hunters. Then, the warlocks turned them to practicing dark magic, surrendering to madness. There was no opposing them. Some tried, like the noble clan chieftain Durotan, but few heeded his warnings, and he was exiled for his dissent. It was even rumored that the warlocks consorted with demons.8
Reflecting on the Horde dissenters and their fate, Eitrigg then asks another question that will be important later. “Have you ever stood against the will of an entire nation, human? Have you ever questioned an order, knowing that to disobey meant immediate death?”
Touched by the story, and despite his doubts and fear of consequences, Tirion pledges an oath to keep Eitrigg’s secret safe and to protect him from harm to the best of his ability.
(As a side note, Metzen has this really strange obsession with honor, as if he’s contractually obligated to mention it at least once per page. An honorable paladin finds an honorable orc warrior who tells him about the honorable old days of the honorable orcish traditions, and as a matter of honor, Tirion swears an oath. Honor.)
Where the Feces Hit the Ventilator
Back home, however, Barthilas tries to pry the truth with all his usual lack of tact, to no avail. Then we get a scene of Tirion with his wife Karandra, and… let’s not sugarcoat it, it’s bad. She’s a Wet Blanket Wife, the kind of character who only exists to guilt-trip the hero for putting his duties above his family. We have one female character in this story, and she’s a discredited character archetype with all the depth of a sheet of tissue paper. She wants to know the truth about Tirion’s solo excursion as well, but he can’t tell her because of his oath to Eitrigg.
Soon, Saidan Dathrohan, Tirion’s old friend and superior as a paladin who takes his duty seriously, arrives with a surprise visit. Barthilas alerted him to the existence of orcs in Hearthglen, and now Saidan wants to make sure for himself. Tirion can’t lie to him; he confesses that he encountered an orc in battle, but omits the details of his later off-record contact with Eitrigg. Nonetheless, Saidan is adamant that Tirion lead him and others to the place where he saw this orc, which is the abandoned tower. Barthilas is practically shining with glee.
It gets ugly. Eitrigg feels betrayed by Tirion, who he believes led his human companions to the orc’s hideout intentionally. Barthilas tries to fight Eitrigg, but is easily overpowered and, sore loser that he is, complains that “the bastard creature fought dishonorably”. Tirion screams to the accompanying footmen not to kill him, surprising everyone, and eventually snaps, lashes out against guards whipping the subdued orc, and demands he be set free “as a matter of honor”. He does confess that Eitrigg saved his life, but in his rage, loses the ability to make any kind of coherent argument except for empty appeals to honor. Sigh.
It doesn’t work, and with a heavy heart, Saidan arrests his friend on charges of treason. Eitrigg is also captured, to be publicly hanged.
Where All Seems Lost
As a noble convicted of treason, Tirion is put on trial in Stratholme’s Hall of Justice, presided by four of the highest-ranking lords within the Alliance, like every major trial of Lordaeron. These four jurors are Lord Admiral Daelin Proudmoore of Kul Tiras, Arch-Mage Antonidas of Dalaran, Archbishop Alonsus Faol, and the young Prince Arthas of Lordaeron.9
And the judge is none other than Uther the Lightbringer, leader of the Silver Hand. He absolutely roasts Barthilas when the boy tries to speak out of line and spout dirt at Tirion. Saidan, called as a witness, gives his own, weighted and bewildered testimony. Tirion gives his own account, saying that Eitrigg was an honorable opponent, saved his life, and Tirion himself gave him an oath to protect him.
With Uther’s prodding, the jurors are swayed to mercy, in a sense. Uther announces his verdict: Tirion will be cleared of all charges if he disavows his oath to “the creature” and reaffirms his commitment to the Alliance. Arden and Saidan practically beg him to accept these terms. Eitrigg, on the other hand, will be hanged.
Now, if this was Dragonflight, Tirion would give a rousing speech in defense of the inherent dignity of all thinking beings and the sanctity of life, and Uther and Saidan would be swayed and convince the court to relent and release Eitrigg to live his life in the wilds as he sees fit. However, this is the Warcraft 2 era Alliance, so Uther, again with a heavy heart and taking no pleasure in this, sentences Tirion to excommunication from the Light and personally drains out his holy power. Wait… Uther can do that?!
Tirion struggled against despair. Never in his life had he felt so naked and powerless. Images of Taelan and Karandra sifted through his tortured mind. He had to get a grip on himself. He had to think of his dignity. On wobbly legs, he stood and faced the court once more.
Tirion is stripped of his lands and titles, removed from the Silver Hand, and sentenced to exile from Lordaeron. His wife and son, however, are allowed to remain in Mardenholde, since the crime was not theirs. And again against his better judgment, Uther appoints Barthilas as the governor of Hearthglen in Tirion’s stead.
For doing the right thing, our hero has lost everything. No one is at fault, and everyone is at fault.
The Not-So-Bad Ending
Tirion has another argument with his wife, and she angrily leaves him without even trying to see things his way. Ugh. Determined to at least save Eitrigg and fulfill his oath, he sneaks into Stratholme by himself as the orc is about to be hanged, alone with no plan, and frees Eitrigg from the hangman’s noose while Barthilas is busy making a hateful speech.
This is an extremely brazen act, as they have no means of escaping. Tirion is alone against the entire city guard, and Eitrigg, beaten and whipped to near-death, is in no shape to fight. However, a deus ex machina arrives in the form of Thrall and his stealthy squad, who have come to free their comrade at the expense of a few human lives.
…Yes, this section runs on protagonist-centered morality. We’re supposed to cheer that Eitrigg gets to live, but Thrall’s force causes mayhem in the city and kills a number of city guards who were just doing their jobs. Barthilas, too, goes down, pierced by an orcish spear from the back. Thanks at least for killing this douchebag.10
Tirion escapes in the chaos with an unconscious Eitrigg. Somehow, despite weighing way less than him, Tirion succeeds in dragging the orc out of the city. Though excommunicated and supposedly unable to draw on the Light, he still makes a desperate plea.
The Light could not be taken from him, he insisted. Men could strip him of his armor and titles, they could take away his home and his wealth—but the Light would always been within him. It had to be.
And the Light answers, thus giving us an early clue that it’s not something that can be bestowed or taken away by a formal hierarchy. Eitrigg is saved and completely healed — even his infected wound disappears. The two are approached by the new orc leader in black plate armor, who introduces himself as Thrall, and accepts Eitrigg of the Blackrock Clan, whom he knows by name, into the renewed Horde. Tirion is free to go, as long as he doesn’t attempt to follow the orcs. Before they part, Eitrigg names Tirion his brother, bound by blood and honor.
Completely and utterly alone, the former paladin departs into the wilds.
In an epilogue, years later, twenty-year-old Taelan Fordring is inducted into the Silver Hand, taking the same oaths as his father, who watches incognito as a hooded traveler.
It’s… pretty good for a tie-in book? That’s my overall feeling, at least.
Oh, also, the word “honor” is used 67 times throughout the book, counting the title and postscript. By the end, it lost all meaning to me.
When I opened the book, my immediate question was: what’s with the names?
Tirion Fordring. Mirador. Arden. Barthilas. And yet you’re telling me this story takes place in a pseudo-European human kingdom?
So far, Warcraft seems to be going with a “detached fantasy” feel for its human names without reference to any particular real-life culture, even though the human nations are very obviously European coded. The only real-life name has been Lothar, whereas everyone else has had fantasy names like Daelin, Terenas, and Aegwyn (sic). Of Blood and Honor continues this tradition, but since we’ve gone down from kings and generals to individual knights and citizens, it ends up feeling weird to me.
The phonetics of names we think of as “generic fantasy” were heavily inspired, of course, by The Lord of the Rings, whose naming system is largely based on Tolkien’s constructed Elvish language, Sindarin, seen in names like Legolas “green leaf”, Minas Tirith “tower of guard”, and Mordor “black land”. Later fantasy writers subconsciously borrowed the phonetics without the meaning behind them, resulting in, say, Forgotten Realms having names like Nasher Alagondar, Cormanthor and Beregost.11 You know, the kind of names a dungeon master makes up on the fly.
And sometimes these writers make up names that end up accidentally meaning something in Sindarin, which results in them being unintentionally funny if you know enough Elvish roots. So when I’m reading about Tirion Fordring and his stallion Mirador, I can’t help but wonder why the character is named Lookson North-hammer and his horse Treasury-land. It’s like reading a fantasy book taking place in a mountainous land of samurai, shoguns, ninjas, sakuras, and thatched-roof dojos, but for some reason, all characters have names like Silevir, Alagos, and Nalloriel.
But maybe it only feels weird in hindsight because I’m so used to the widespread use of real-life Anglophone names in Warcraft 3 and World of Warcraft. I’ll get to that later.
The Prose and the Story
The prose is… fine. It’s harder for me to judge than it would be for a native English speaker, but it seems just right, neither obtusely lofty, nor patronizingly simplistic — a pleasant surprise, considering how corny and derivative the dialogue tends to be in Blizzard games produced with Metzen on the writing team. There are some awkward word choices12, and occasionally, the narrator has a weird habit of explicitly spelling out the characters’ feelings even when it’s evident from the text. For example:
“The future of our people is no longer your concern,” Barthilas said coldly. “I rule Hearthglen now, Tirion. And as long as I do, I swear that there will never be peace with the orcs! On my parents’ departed souls, I swear that every last orc in Lordaeron will burn for what they’ve done!”
Tirion was shocked by Barthilas’ words. There was no reasoning with the young Paladin. He had given over completely to his rage and grief.
I suppose both showing and telling is better than just telling.
I’m also saddened that the story’s only female character, Tirion’s wife Karandra, is so flat. She exists only to constantly nag Tirion about putting his duties and principles above his family, and refuses to listen to anything he says. You know, because women always choose emotions over reason or something. Unfortunately, this won’t be the first shallow love interest Metzen will write.
And, of course, there’s the protagonist-centered morality at the end. Thrall’s orcs rampage through Stratholme, killing numerous human guards who were just doing one job, but hey, that’s a small price to pay for saving a single named orc!
Still, I enjoyed this story. It’s pretty trope-y, and the characters are pretty basic, but it explores the moral conflicts inherent in this type of story. To Be Lawful or Good is a stock fantasy moral dilemma for paladins, but really, this story is too nuanced for such a crude tool as D&D alignment. It would be perhaps more useful to see it as a series of clashes between different Ultima virtues. We see Tirion’s sense of Honesty to his superior and wife conflict with his Honor towards the oath he gave to Eitrigg; his sense of Justice for the victims of the Second War conflict with Compassion for a weakened orc who did him personally no wrong; Uther’s own duty of Justice as the judge of Tirion’s trial conflict with the Spirituality he shares with a fellow wielder of the Light; and even Barthilas, the hate-sink character, still displays Valor in his eagerness to prove himself in battle, overpowering his Humility and leaving him a fool in the eyes of all the other paladins.
It’s refreshing to see a story about paladins where they’re not saints. Tirion is imperfect, Uther is imperfect, Saidan is imperfect, and they’re all imperfect in different ways. They’re distinct characters and don’t feel like discount clones of each other spouting empty platitudes about the Light.
It’s also refreshing to see a Warcraft story that has no real antagonist, just a lonely dissenter in an uncaring system of people just doing what seems best to them. And it’s not easy being a lonely dissenter — for either an orc or a human. While we as readers want to see Eitrigg free and Tirion acquitted, for the characters themselves, given their limited knowledge, there are no easy answers. Of Blood and Honor almost feels like a novelization of an RP plot, and I mean it in the best possible way.
Of Blood and Honor is fairly detached from the rest of the Warcraft narrative so far. We’ll return to it once the characters first seen here appear in other works.
Next we’ll be looking at Day of the Dragon, the first Warcraft book by Richard A. Knaak. Whereas in Warcraft 2 and Warcraft Adventures, Alexstrasza and Deathwing were simply powerful dragons who just happened to be red and black respectively, this book forever changed the way dragons were written in all Warcraft media going forward — both for good and for ill.
Full width screenshots from Final Fantasy XIV and Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Screenshot from the webcomic The Order of the Stick by Rich Burlew.
I’ll be occasionally returning to that game when we get to World of Warcraft, to illustrate how it achieves its strength in areas where WoW is traditionally weak, especially the story. And once in a blue moon, I’ll talk about things FFXIV does worse than WoW. ↩
Also some of the colonial abusers are locals elevated to power, who were once abused themselves and now perpetuate the cycle of abuse on others. I’m just giving it as an example of how things are not that simple. ↩
Though in fairness, the game has these too. It just earns them first. ↩
This was the part where I burst out laughing at the names. I’ll say why at the end of this post. ↩
Yes, the geography here is out of whack with World of Warcraft. I’ll talk about it in time. ↩
The timeline is wonky in the narration here. The text insists twice that Tirion has served the Alliance for thirty years as a paladin, yet the Second War, explicitly, only ended twelve years ago, and lore-wise, paladins did not exist before the Second War. This will only get murkier as the dates of the First and Second Wars are further retconned and the timeline compressed. ↩
The narrator also says that as a paladin, Tirion has an emphatic ability to sense the emotions of others, which is how he knows the orc is sincere. I don’t really like it, as it cheapens his character development, is redundant given everything else he learns without any magic, and raises the question of why none of the other paladins in the story sensed that Eitrigg was just a lone hermit and no threat. ↩
Rumored? Warlocks summoned daemons openly in Warcraft 1! ↩
This is Arthas’s first appearance in Warcraft lore, though here he has only a cameo appearance. ↩
What do you mean he gets better?! ↩
Metzen seems to be fond of using “dynamic” to mean “vigorous”, as it’s also how he would later characterize Varian Wrynn. ↩