Crossroads Conversations: Sylvanas Windrunner, Buddhist Empress

“I teach suffering. Its origin, cessation and path. That’s all I teach.” — Buddha

Due to an internet outage there was no Crossroads Podcast last week, so I’m going to use this opportunity to revisit a discussion we had on the show a while back. Before the latest World of Warcraft expansion came out, the pre-patch caused quite a stir among the community.

Many were outraged by the direction the story was headed. I saw something beautiful.

Whether you play Warcraft or not, read on for a counterintuitive discussion of philosophy. If you do play, I’m primarily examining the character of Warchief Sylvanas Windrunner and the burning of Teldrassil.

Life Is Pain

“It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.” — Seneca

Aesthetic is key to how we judge morality. My favorite example: in Norse mythology, light elves and dark elves had no inherent morality. Not until outsiders discovered and interpreted their stories through the modern Western worldview, which assumes that white-skinned beings are good and black-skinned beings are evil. Thanks for that, Tolkien.

In Warcraft, the pandaren have a very Buddhist “feel”. They speak with Chinese accents and like to sit cross-legged on lily pads. Not to say they don’t represent Buddhist values–I actually love their in-game culture and the views they express. The point is, the limited amount of actual philosophy worked into the game is magnified by their aesthetic.

Then we have Sylvanas Windrunner, Warchief of the Horde, an undead dark elf straight out of Norse mythology. When I propose to fellow Warcraft fans she might be Buddhist, they laugh. They don’t notice the signifcance of a statement she makes right before the Burning of Teldrassil: “Life is pain. Hope fails.” Sylvanas explicitly states the core tenets of Buddhism, nearly word for word straight out of Siddhartha’s notebook. The beliefs are right, but the aesthetic is wrong. To many, the key elements of Buddhism are tea and cherry blossoms, rather than the practice of living without attachment.

Aside from Buddha, another philosopher comes to mind at the statement that “life is pain”: Seneca. Well, any of the Stoic philosophers would work, such as Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. I just happen to be most familiar with Seneca.

Stoicism is a Western parallel to Buddhism. It, too, starts with the assumption that life is suffering, but differs slightly in how one should deal with that fact. Buddhism teaches you to let go of attachment: if you let go of pleasure you’ll be free from pain; let go of hope to be free from fear; and so on. Stoicism teaches you to embrace everything. Love pain as much as you love pleasure. Love fear as much as you love hope. I think both are valid paths to peace and happiness, Stoicism just speaks more to me personally.

I think it’s safe to say practices at least a small measure of Stoicism. It would be impossible to function on a day-to-day basis if she didn’t. She’s died three times, had her soul ripped from her body, failed her people in their darkest hour, been turned into a puppet and forced to watch herself murder those she’d sworn to protect, and for a brief moment, after attaining the one thing she truly desired and having nothing left to live for, she committed suicide and managed to experience true oblivion.

What Buddha would call Nirvana. The cessation of self. The true loss of attachment and desire.

Then she faced a choice: to find freedom from the eternal pain of life, or to be brought back and serve selflessly.

She chose pain and service. Seneca would be proud.

Hope Fails

“If you stay in the center and embrace death with your whole heart, you will endure forever.” — Lao Tzu

Buddha teaches that attachment is a sure path to suffering. Since nothing lasts forever, you will inevitably lose anything you are attached to. Many recognize how this applies to material possessions, but fail to see it applies also to ideas, art, morals, traditions, philosophies, relationships, personal identities, goals, life, societies, worlds, and probably even the universe itself.

Hope is an attachment to something in the future that has not come to pass yet. It is a lose-lose situation: you’ll suffer because you never get what you hope for, or you’ll get it and suffer when you lose it.

Lao Tzu, another Chinese philosopher who predates Buddha by just a generation or two, also talks about hope in his Tao Te Ching. I’ve been getting really into his brand of Taoism recently and have already talked about it at length on this blog, so I’ll try to keep this short, even though just about every verse in the book seems to be written about Sylvanas specifically.

The Tao Te Ching warns that hope is dangerous, but does not advocate withdrawing from the world like Buddhism. Instead, Lao Tzu teaches wei wu wei, doing not-doing, which sounds like not doing anything but is the opposite. Wei wu wei is doing your work for its own sake, pouring your whole heart into it without attachment to outcomes. It’s the difference between writing a book because you want to be a rich and famous bestselling author and writing because you’re a writer and writing is what you do regardless of whether you receive any reward or recognition for your effort. You don’t hope for anything. You simply do.

Sylvanas Windrunner’s work is to lead the Horde. She is not a popular leader. The majority of the entire world hates her. Leadership has its own rewards, of course. Many despots enjoy the material luxuries of their station, or simply enjoy power. Sylvanas, a living corpse, does not eat nor drink, only breathes when the mood strikes her (usually in order to sigh), and lacks the ability to enjoy consorts. She doesn’t even sleep, so silk bedsheets wouldn’t do much for her.

What about power? It’s a humorous-yet-not-untrue observation that many of the world’s worst tyrants used power to compensate for a lack of sexual function. Deprived of all physical pleasures, does Sylvanas crave a different kind of fulfillment?

Not really, no. Thanks to books and short stories narrated from her perspective, we do not have to speculate about what goes on in the Warchief’s mind. She does not enjoy her position. Sylvanas came back from oblivion to take on the task of leading the Forsaken–a collection of undead like her–after being shown a vision of their bleak future without her. She rose to leadership of the entire Horde after being ordered to do so by her dying predecessor. It was the last thing she wanted, but duty demanded it.

Sylvanas does the work of Warchief devoid of hope. What is there to hope for? She will always be reviled, and there is no possible reward in it for her. There is not even any chance of success. The duties of the Warchief are ongoing, not something that can ever be completed. Sylvanas has embraced doing not-doing for as long as she holds her position. As she cannot die of natural causes, there is a non-zero chance she has signed up to struggle and suffer for eternity.

Her work is exemplified in the War of the Thorns, the campaign leading up to the conquest of Teldrassil. Many in her Horde questioned the decision to rekindle war with the Alliance so quickly. Most accepted that the war was inevitable, but urged her enjoy peace for as long as it might last.

For one who knows that life is pain and who holds no hope in her heart, there is only work. Sylvanas does not desire a reprieve from her work. Her work is to ensure that her people endure, and she accepted no delays.

The conquest of Teldrassil was one of the most ambitious campaigns waged in the history of the Horde. It had to be. The Horde has always been somewhat on the back foot, somewhat at the mercy of the Alliance. That state of the world is one of those attachments Buddha warns about. The Alliance takes the distribution of power.

Teldrassil is another example. The World Tree, the capital of night elf civilization. A living attachment which is never questioned. By taking it, Sylvanas shatters the established order, creates chaos and confusion. She acts according to Lao Tzu, dumping the water from the bowl so it may be filled anew, tearing down the established order to make room for a new one. To make space for the Horde’s future.

Only Sylvanas didn’t quite conquer Teldrassil, did she?

Now He’ll Understand

“You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame. How could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?” — Friedrich Nietzsche

We relate the aesthetic of Buddhism to pretty and peaceful things, which makes us forget it is a philosophy primarily concerned with suffering, despair, and the quest for annihilation. Friedrich Nietzsche gets the opposite treatment, being associated with the aesthetic of nihilism and angst-fueled teenagers. Yet I’ve not found a philosophy more full of beauty and laughter than Nietzsche’s.

In the moments before she commits an act that changes Azeroth forever, Sylvanas Windrunner stands on a beach, in the shadow of the World Tree, in the dissonant calm that follows a desperate battle. She engages in a philosophical debate with a defeated night elf captain, who questions her motives.

“Life is pain. Hope fails. Now he’ll understand.”

“He” is High King Anduin Wrynn, Windrunner’s counterpart on the Alliance. Though he is her main enemy, and has certainly grown to hate her, she has no hatred for him. She views him only with mild exasperation, as if he were a wayward child. Which he arguably is, especially in comparison to Sylvanas.

Anduin, just on the cusp of adulthood, is naive, emotional, and a religious zealot. Though he has high-minded ideals, many of his decisions are poorly thought out, and Sylvanas bemoans the positions he puts her in. She misses his capable father, Varian. It speaks volumes that Sylvanas would rather face off against an opponent with a great chance of defeating than one who exposes his own weak spots. She chooses to take advantage of his weakness–her duty to the Horde demands it–but she would prefer a fair fight.

Though she wins the War of the Thorns, Sylvanas loses the debate on the beach. Sylvanas argues that the taking of Teldrassil will make Anduin “understand”. Her dying opponent tells her she is wrong. Sylvanas reconsiders her own position, then concedes defeat. Her campaign, for which so much blood has been shed, will fail to accomplish what she needs to accomplish. It takes a measure of grace and humility worthy of a Buddhist Empress to concede defeat to an enemy who is already at your mercy. Many commanders would have blocked out the criticism and charged ahead with their plan, resulting in disaster.

Sylvanas suppresses her ego and changes the plan to accomplish the mission.

What is the mission? What does she want King Anduin Wrynn to understand?

Nietzsche gets mistaken for a nihilist, but really is concerned with transcending nihilism. To create your own destiny and unlock the true beauty life has to offer, you must first plunge into the abyss of nihilism. It is a trying ordeal, in which you discard everything you know and confront the meaningless darkness of your own existence. Those who emerge from the abyss are on the path to becoming the “ubermensch” and a life of fulfillment and peace. Many never emerge, however, and wallow in nihilism forever.

I would advise anyone who wants to take the plunge to do so with the utmost care, so the journey does not break you. Sylvanas, unfortunately, does not have time to lead Anduin through the ordeal by hand. His naive zealotry is a threat to her Horde. She needs to make him understand that the established order is wrong, that he is not seeing the world accurately, that life is pain and hope fails and they must embrace these truths.

She needs him to understand that now.

Sylvanas thought taking Teldrassil would be enough. She was wrong. Instead of taking it, she lights it on fire, watches it burn to ash before her. Her expression is zen. She is at peace.

Sylvanas understands.

Will Anduin?