Framing Drangleic II: A Kinship of Castles
by Jesse Miksic
The mysterious castle is absolutely at the root of Gothic, as a genre and a style and a bundle of ancient conventions and cliches. It’s taken on many forms – the abbey, the monastery, the monolith, the prison, the fort – and in some of the most challenging Gothic stories, it’s intentionally subverted or left absent… but it’s such a central set-piece of the genre, it would be negligent to open a discussion of anything Gothic without turning a nod toward these massive, impregnable metaphors.
Dark Souls II makes a wild, echoing declaration of its Gothic influences, throwing itself full-force into every dark-medieval trope it could get in its undead fingers. Of course, the designers realized how important the Mysterious Castle was to Gothic, so they didn’t hold back. They may have even gone a bit to excess… even sticking to the narrowest definition (only large stone structures that have distinctly castle-like interior and exterior architecture), there are three different mysterious castles in Dark Souls 2. If you broaden that definition a little bit, allowing for any large man-made fortress-like structure, there are actually nine different castles in the wider world of Drangleic. Honestly, that’s a bit over the top.
This stone fortress motif is so pervasive, in both Gothic literature and Dark Souls II, I can’t afford to ignore it… and I can’t think of a better tribute than to note the greatest castles in Drangleic, and call attention to their referents in the larger Gothic literature-scape. It’s a loose exercise, a little jaunt of playful intertextuality, so I’m not going to stick tightly to the Gothic plateau (1750-1830). This isn’t meant to be an exercise in exclusivity, so you’ll get the benefit of my entire, sadly limited bibliography of Gothic-influenced reading.
Without further ado, counting down the top five castles in Drangleic, and drawing connections with the great Gothic haunts:
#5: Forest of Fallen Giants
as against Black Forest Castle Ruins, The Necromancer (Lawrence Flammenberg)
The first entry on our list is also probably going to be your first stop in Drangleic, provided you play through by the most sensible path. According to the lore, it was once a fortress protecting the northern territory of Drangleic, and it was the defensive bulwark when the giants attacked Drangleic (dear Vendrick: not your wisest moment as head of state).
Part of what makes the Forest of Fallen Giants so beautiful is its sense of ancestral history, the mysterious signs of destruction wrought upon its battlements. Late in the game, you get a glimpse of this destruction actually being carried out, but you never get to see the intact fortress. This is a cruel omission on the designers’ part… how great would it have been, getting a clear sight of that towering statue with its massive sword, before it was beheaded and plunged into the fort’s outer wall?
This fortress has a fairly obvious analogue in ye olde Gothic literature: the ruined castle deep in the Black Forest, the centerpiece of Ludwig Flammenberg’s novel The Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest. The Necromancer is a curious little novel, one of peak Gothic’s most eccentric works, a series of vignettes of banditry and intrigue that gravitated around a mysterious sorcerer who claims to commune with the dead. The haunted castle and the wicked sorcerer are closely linked: throughout the whole convoluted, multiple-nested narrative, the protagonists keep returning to the castle ruins, and in tandem, they keep crossing paths with The Necromancer and catching glimpses of his mystical powers.
Aside from the surrounding landscape and the crumbling walls, these two fortresses have an additional quality in common: they’re both characterized by the interplay of multiple levels. In the upper levels of Flammenberg’s castle, there’s a spacious courtyard where groups of cavaliers and bandits linger, feeling bold and confident; beneath this courtyard, there’s a pitch-dark passage where the Necromancer performs his rituals, a ghastly vault dedicated to the dark arts. The secret passage and the dark corridor, generally leading to forbidden knowledge and mortal danger, is one of the central Gothic motifs.
And the Forest of Fallen Giants, too, is a structure of interpolated elevations, platforms and catwalks and ladders and elevators locked in disturbed choreography, from the deepest depths (the cavernous resting place of the Last Giant) to the top of Cardinal Tower. As with Flammenberg’s castle, these levels have psychological significance: from the tower, a massive raven carries the player to a distant prison; in the depths, the Player Character faces a forgotten memory that, paradoxically, has yet to be fully apprehended.
#4: Heide’s Tower and Cathedral of Blue
as against The Dark Tower, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (Stephen King)
Okay, I’m taking a major liberty here… you might even call it cheating… because I haven’t actually read the whole Dark Tower series, and I don’t know much about the structure itself. I just wanted an excuse to discuss the shape and texture of Dark Souls 2, as it relates to the first Dark Tower book, The Gunslinger.
I mean, it’s not that there’s no connection at all… Heide’s Tower is a ruined relic of a great kingdom, an architectural marvel sunken into the sea. The whole world of The Gunslinger has the same spirit: the isolated towns waiting to be demolished, the abandoned tunnels through the mountain. The world is so empty, so haggard and exhausted, that Roland and Jake are compelled to fill the empty space with their nostalgia.
The Gunslinger is a strange book, harnessing certain romantic and gothic tropes – the family saga, the tunnel, the fear of female sexuality – and transplanting them into a fanciful hybrid world, a leathery Old West interspersed with memories of regency romanticism. Into this setting, Stephen King transplants a cosmic rivalry for the ages, a devastating spiritual war between the gunslinger and his ultimate-evil counterpart, the Man in Black. This is a severe mutation of those Gothic tropes, but they’re still recognizable.
Several of these Gothic tropes appear in Dark Souls II, as well, but the connection between these works that I find most remarkable is their treatment of space. The Gunslinger and Dark Souls II are linked by their decoupling of setting from geography. That is to say: the laws of nature and physics aren’t prioritized in the creation of these fantasy worlds, so the interconnected settings can take on a more surreal, dreamlike, and expressive quality. Gothic novels hinted at this tendency – their settings were definitely imbued with potent psycho-symbolic significance – but the conventions of plausibility were always at work. It took later literary personalities… especially postmodern romantics like Borges, and horror authors like King… to tear these conventions down and use the world to its fullest expressive effect.
In The Gunslinger, there’s no explicit transgression of natural laws. However, the locations aren’t situated geographically… there’s never a map, or a clear path, or even an explicit destination. In their pursuit of Walter O’Dim, Roland and Jake follow a sort of symbolic terrain, from barren wasteland to alpine forest to subterranean tunnel.
Dark Souls II has the same sort of fluid geographical logic, sending you outward from Majula to various distant locations, positioned like spokes reaching out from the hub of a wheel. Where The Gunslinger was merely obscure about its natural laws, Dark Souls II is downright defiant… in one bizarre case, you take an up-elevator from the side of a mountain, and end up far deeper underground. In another case, you enter a tunnel on a gray afternoon, and a few yards later, you emerge in a late-night thunderstorm.
Of course, there’s also the excursions into memories – memories of times both brighter, and more dangerous – that both narratives hinge upon. This is worthy of an entire investigation, all by itself… what does it do to these sparse, desolate Gothic fantasies, that right at the climax, the reader is suddenly transported to a nobler time, an honorable world right on the cusp of collapse? That Dark Souls II‘s structure so clearly echoes The Gunslinger seems almost beyond the reach of coincidence.
#3: Lost Bastille
as against Mr. Rochester’s Mansion, Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
and also The Monastery, Melmoth the Wanderer (Charles S. Maturin)
Dark Souls II‘s Lost Bastille is a massive structure, reachable by two different routes, and encompassing three different game areas: Lost Bastille itself, Belfry Luna, and the tower called Sinner’s Rise. This is where you encounter the entity known as the Lost Sinner, a woman who’s spent centuries punishing herself for a cosmic crime. This is also where you have a chance to collect the first of four Great Souls, and where you can light your first Primal Bonfire.
The Gothic tradition’s most obvious analogue is a monastery that appears in Melmoth the Wanderer. Melmoth was written by Charles Maturin, the “last true Gothic novel,” a pinnacle and swan-song of the movement. The monastery to which I refer is a Catholic institution where one of the protagonists – Alfonso Moncada, youngest son of Spanish aristocrats – is detained and forced into monkhood. He spends what seems like years… certainly several dozen pages… enduring the monastic life as daily torture, which becomes torturous for the reader, as well.
The similarities here are mostly atmospheric and aesthetic. The monastery is a place of grinding cruelty and hopelessness, and Moncada’s only chance turns out to be a descent into a hellish network of subterranean dungeons that threaten to flood before he can escape. The monastery recalls the Bastille’s relentless oppression, its sense that these residents have been shuffling, weary, waiting for eons to be disturbed and mercifully destroyed. It’s only fitting that in both cases, the only way out is through a flooded tunnel of barred cells, a prisoner’s watery grave.
Moncada’s monastery is well and good, but to capture the soul of the Lost Bastille, I need to note another reference, an infamous residence that emerged from the melancholy imagination of late Gothic author Charlotte Bronte.
There is a grand tradition, in the Gothic corpus, of secret rooms and hidden cells that contain and delimit the incredible, chaotic power of the uncontrolled female. There are dozens of examples, but none so famous as Mr. Rochester’s mansion in Jane Eyre. The madwoman in the attic – subject of so much feminist reflection – is the embodiment of female rage, the existential hazard that promises to burn the whole patriarchal edifice to the ground.
In comparing these two fortresses – the collapsing prison of the Lost Bastille, and the aristocratic shadow-world of Mr. Rochester’s mansion – we find a delightful inversion, the Bastille’s miles-deep dungeon reflected in the lofty attic prison where Mr. Rochester keeps his disastrous love. The Lost Sinner has scrawled all over her walls, and you’d imagine that perhaps, when Grace Poole has left her alone, Bertha has done the same.
And isn’t it a poetic touch that Bertha’s room is lit by a single hearth, as against the Lost Sinner’s crime of lighting the First Flame, and the primal bonfire she protects?
#2: Iron Keep
as against Manfred / Otranto’s Castle, The Castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole)
Two emblems of stern patriarchs who doomed themselves with pride and haste: the Iron Keep and Otranto’s Castle, two of the great impassive bastions of the Gothic tradition.
The player discovers the Iron Keep deep inside a mountain, sinking into a sea of lava (whether this is magma from the earth, or a pool of actual melted iron, we never quite know). Back-story, gleaned from some of the item descriptions, informs us that this disaster happened when the keep’s monarch “delved too deep,” in the words of good ol’ Gandalf. In the depths of the mountain, he unleashed the Smelter Demon, which promptly killed him. From the king’s charred remains, another demon was born, the monstrous, minotaurian Old Iron King.
The Castle of Otranto is widely considered the first properly Gothic novel, the spark that set the whole Gothic movement aflame in Romantic literature. It’s a story about the pride and folly of Manfred, the ruling patriarch of an old estate, as he tries to secure his family’s legacy by marrying off his children: first his son, and then his daughter. Unfortunately, Manfred has to contend with an ancient prophecy that foretells the estate’s demise: “the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.”
The events that befall Manfred – eventually leading to his family’s great tragedy and collapse – are the direct result of Manfred’s own arrogance and paranoia. Of course, he’s a flawed male in a Gothic tragedy, so one of his great flaws is his lust: lust for a princess once promised to his son, and lust for the title and distinction that would keep the castle in his family. Like the Old Iron King, Manfred releases a demon, but his is internal, rather than external: it’s his own capacity for lust and violence that leads to the demise of the familial structure he wants so badly to preserve.
The Castle itself is a weird echo of these themes. From the start of the story, it’s afflicted by a series of supernatural disasters, the sudden, fatal appearance of pieces of armor that are far too large for a normal human. It also has a secret passage to the nearby abbey, an effective escape route for terrified princesses and their clandestine lovers.
And though the Iron Keep is all glowing magma and spikes and chains, it shares, with Otranto’s castle, a sense of twisted, misshapen masculinity, a fierce lust for weight and order that grew so heavy and excessive, it eventually overheated and set the whole thing ablaze. All it takes is a single blow – a massive helmet, or a demon rising from molten iron – to set the whole process off: the spectacular, inexorable collapse of the father’s legacy.
#1: Castle Drangleic
as against the Abbey of St. Clare, The Monk (Matthew Gregory Lewis)
When I remember my journey to Drangleic Castle, I remember the long approach through the pounding rain, guarded by two monstrous Mastodon Knights… I remember the confusion of the puzzles (a bit Zelda-like), where I had to release souls into the empty hearts of the golems in order to open doors. Even more, though, I remember how the King and Queen’s palace rose into the air, and simultaneously burrowed into the earth: how it gave way to the Shrine of Amana, and then to the black corridors of the Undead Crypt. I remember how it was a site of poisoned transcendence, a monument to glorified ruin, and ultimately, a grave marker atop a perilous catacombs. Taken as a whole – encompassing all three of those levels – it’s a monumental architecture of turrets and tunnels and psychological descent.
The Castle is a monument to Vendrick’s vanity, channeled through his misguided love for Queen Nashandra. It’s haunted by both their ghosts, once side by side in a grand throne room (now empty), but subsequently separated by sealed doors and protective spirits. There’s no place in the game that feels so empty, despite being fully populated by hollowed soldiers and suits of armor; of all the castles and strange ruins and blasted wastelands of Dark Souls 2, Drangleic Castle is the only one that seems to always be looking back at you.
The castle is echoed, ultimately, in the central abbey of one of the darkest, most twisted novels in the original Gothic tradition: The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis, a book that may wrest some disquiet even from today’s jaded readers. It is the story of several characters, but the centerpiece – the eponymous Monk – is Ambrosio, a man who, at the start of the novel, is considered the most pious and admirable of all the abbey’s residents. The novel tells, ultimately, of Ambrosio’s fall, and of the lives and ideals he destroys in the process.
The parallels between Ambrosio and Vendrick are interesting, but not conclusive. Both are heralded as models of virtue in their respective kingdoms. Both fall victim to sexual temptation, coming under the power of demonic women. Both bring destruction on those around them, including their entire kingdoms, through secondary effects of their questionable judgments. Interpreted thematically, their residences serve to amplify these similarities: the correlations between the abbey, a corrupt seat of divinity where Ambrosio falls from grace, and Drangleic Castle, where Vendrick sees his kingdom dragged into the dark orbit of his beautiful, monstrous queen.
These parallels are all about public and private spaces, gilded exteriors and obscure, protected interiors; the structure and the substructure, the conscious and the unconscious, the Symbolic and the Semiotic. In both settings, there’s a visible patriarchal structure above-ground, screaming and whimpering its own dominance, but ultimately revealed to be destitute and devoid of redemption. In both cases, beneath the podium and the great hall and the empty chair, there’s an inner network of chambers, a place reserved for the dead (or Undead): the perfect alcove for hiding a great prize, or secreting away a fading patriarch.
And in both cases, the final seal fails, and the secret is unearthed. As always, this must lead to a reckoning: the overturning of the family system, the ascendence of a new protagonist, and the collapse of an order once thought to be eternal and divine.
This is the story of Drangleic Castle and the Abbey of St. Claire. Of course, it’s also the story of Gothic as a whole: the opening of the final door, the penetration and self-destruction of the dominant order. It’s the story of Otranto’s dispossession and Melmoth’s curse, of Mr. Rochester’s fall from grace and Vathek’s smoldering heart. And it’s a story of the eternal mother and father figures, the symbol and the body, the patriarch and the earth-mother. And in Dark Souls 2, this story goes much deeper than mere castle architecture.
This analysis has probably ranged far enough at this point, and planted enough seeds of unfinished conversations. After all this aimless interpretation, there may be a sense of emptiness, a feeling of coitus interruptus: that the reading of Gothic alongside Dark Souls 2 has no real purpose, because no wide-ranging, thread-binding conclusion was reached. I hope this isn’t too disappointing for the reader (if it is, then you probably didn’t enjoy Dark Souls 2 for the same reasons I did). If that’s your feeling, then I apologize, but for this dedicated fan of the mysterious ludic and Gothic, the elaborate universe of intertextual connections is rich and fascinating, full of suggestive discoveries and errant pathways.
Our thematic, cultural, and mediated landscape is full of strange echoes. We have nothing to lose, and much to gain, by taking a moment to listen to them.
Piece part of a 3-part series of essays on Dark Souls II. Read Part I here.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1874. Reprint. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.
Flammenberg, Lawrence. Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest. Peter Teuthold, trans. Valancourt Books, 2007. Kindle.
Lewis, Matthew Gregory. The Monk. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Maturin, Charles Robert. Melmoth the Wanderer. 1820. Reprint. London: Penguin Books, 2000. Print.
Shibuya, Tomohiro and Yui Tanimura (dir). Dark Souls II. Tokyo: From Software, 2014. Video Game.
Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. New York, NY: Classic Books International, 2009. Print.
About the Author:
Jesse Miksic is a designer, critic and content creator living in Brooklyn, New York. Jesse maintains a cinema and media theory website here.