Framing Drangleic III: Daughters of Shadow, Sons of Flame
by Jesse Miksic
Gothic’s a strange movement. Always was, still is, always will be.
I’m not talking about goth kids and their Bauhaus, any more than I’m talking about the Visigoths and their invasions of the Roman Empire. Nay, rather, I am talking about the historical/cultural anchor, the classic literary movement that’s hooked deep into our collective consciousness, providing the referent for the common use of the word: the movement, flourishing in the 18th and 19th centuries, called Gothic Romance.
Historians have spent lots of words trying to define and encircle Gothic literature, and as every introduction to every book on the topic will tell you, it turns out to be a fuzzy, hazardous category. This isn’t because it’s sophisticated, of course… like the classic pop genres, Western and Romance and High Fantasy, Gothic literature is focused very narrowly. It can almost be summed up entirely as a collection of common tropes, and this approach has been attempted many times. The odd part, though: not only did it flourish for nearly a hundred years… an incredible life-span for such a limited construction… it also continues to resonate and influence, lending its distinctive brooding attitude to everything from horror novels to street fashion to tabletop role-playing games (RPGs).
And, of course, video games.
Aside from its longevity and narrowness, it’s got another defining characteristic, another little touch of the strange: its stories were relentlessly, almost unbearably focused on a single motif… the dangers and dark secrets at the foundation of patriarchal systems… but it was never really aware of this, its own central theme! After all, until feminist theory grew bright enough to really illuminate those dark corridors, there was no vocabulary to describe all these thematic commonalities. Until they gave it a name, it was just a feeling. And yet, it’s so pervasive, written so deeply into every Gothic story… how could it have been accidental?
In this essay, I’ll be teasing some of these themes out of a video game called Dark Souls II which just came out earlier this year, so the high plateau of Gothic literature is long gone. Still, the game is so shamelessly Gothic, so incessant in its references, that it might as well have been titled Drangleic; or, The Dire Tale of Vendrick’s Castle. And like its many forebears, its ancestors from the 18th and 19th centruies, it shares that fundamental obsession: the obsession with the family structure, the cracking and crumbling of the father’s law, and the poisonous threat of female power.
But I’ll argue something else: that Dark Souls II takes the theme just a little further, taking something that’s implicit in all Gothic, and making it an organizing principle, writ and legible right there in the characters and the architecture.
There’s a very astute, hard-working book of criticism on this topic, the use of gender motifs in Gothic. It’s titled Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic, written by Anne Williams, first published in 1995. Williams weaves a coherent, feminist-informed theory of Gothic literature, emphasizing its pervasive troubled-family themes. She discusses the connection between Gothic and the larger Romantic tradition, and she argued for a distinction between Male and Female Gothic. It’s a book full of sharp insights and penetrating readings, and it brings a worthy richness to its intersection of subjects.
Starting in Part Two, Williams expounds upon a particular binary pattern that she sees repeated in virtually all Gothic literature. This binary is active in plots, characters, settings, and attitudes, pitting a column of male-associated concepts against a column of female-associated concepts. Rendered in tabular form, it ends up looking like this:
No Gothic novel mobilizes all of these dichotomies at once, but they pervade the genre, a reliable structure organizing its tropes and imagery. In addition to its Gothic inheritance, Dark Souls II has a number of unique motifs, which can be described by a similar table (or even added to the previous columns, if you really want to argue genre continuity). The table in Dark Souls 2 looks like this:
These motifs are repeated incessantly throughout the game, and though there’s some crossover between the columns (the Iron Keep is so deep it burns), the table as a whole is reliable and consistent. Of course, to be completed, each column needs a header, a semiotic landmark that can anchor those themes to the rest of the narrative.
The names at the tops of the columns: Vendrick and Nashandra, of course.
Just as your journey starts with Vendrick, so he serves as our first artifact for analysis. As the Player Character, you are assigned the task of meeting Vendrick in order to become the next monarch, with the dim possibility of breaking your curse. In dialogue and item descriptions, you discover a few things about Vendrick: he built the kingdom on the ruins of four Great Old Ones; he had a brother, Aldia, with whom he maintained a troubled relationship; he stole from the Giants, and fought a war against them; he tried to save his kingdom from the curse of the Undead.
The Player Character’s first task is to recover the souls of the Great Old Ones, whom Vendrick himself once defeated. These represent the victory that enabled Vendrick’s ascendance, and in encountering them, you’re initiated into the symbolism that underlies the game’s narrative. All four of the Great Old Ones are buried deep under the earth, from the Lost Sinner in the wet, abyssal darkness under Sinner’s Rise, to the Old Iron King, who sank so deep he has to fight you from a pool of lava. Each of these four monsters guards something called a Primal Flame, which, once lit, allows the player character to return to the hub town.
According to in-game lore, a kingdom was built upon the remains of these monsters… built by Vendrick, the great monarch, who “linked the flame” and “peered into the essence of the soul.” Of the four Great Old Ones, only two are explicitly female, and their feminine presence is, shall we say… ambiguous. Nonetheless, the structure quickly becomes apparent: the primal feminine is linked with darkness, earth, depth, and disfigurement, and the kingdom was built upon its suppression. This falls squarely within accepted schools of feminist thought.
In the memories of Drangleic’s residents, Vendrick becomes the paragon of masculinity, a symbol of strength and a bearer of the flame. You, the Player Character, are a sort of surrogate champion, an ancestral avatar for Vendrick’s redemption. As you play through Dark Souls II, you’ll encounter all the interconnected symbols of Vendrick’s masculinity: his bond of brotherhood with Aldia, his regal charisma as a belov’d king, his virility as a husband to a beautiful queen, his rashness and bravery in his dealings with the Giants, and his association with the dragons that seem to rule over his skies. Vendrick is the patriarch, the architect of the kingdom’s symbolic framework, the absent father whose mark is left indelibly upon the world.
So what, then, is Nashandra, the king’s lover and his kingdom’s bane?
For one thing, Nashandra is the sole remaining regis of Castle Drangleic. For another, she’s the game’s final boss. More important to the current analysis, however, is the Queen’s backstory, as told by Chancellor Wellager:
The King had a dear Queen, a woman of unparalleled beauty.
Long ago, the Queen came to us, alone, from a faraway land.
She warned our Lord of the looming threat across the seas…of the Giants.
The King crossed the ocean… And defeated the Giants, with the Queen at his side.
The Queen…Brought peace… to this land, and to her King.
A peace so deep…it was like…
Nashandra is directly associated with the dark, and her traces are all over Drangleic Castle: a portrait that curses the player, a dark wooden seat in the throne room beside the king’s lighter throne. She is also the embodiment of one of Gothic fiction’s defining attitudes, which is what ultimately qualifies her to sit, brooding, at the top of our second column in the table above: the attitude founded on fear of femininity.
No genre has ever been so anxious about female power and sexuality as Gothic Romance. Anne Williams thoroughly investigates this effect in Art of Darkness, pointing out the dangerous, dangerously liberated females in The Monk, Bluebeard, Jane Eyre, The Castle of Otranto, and the Alien trilogy. The trope survives even today in, for instance, Stephen King’s Misery and Carrie, among other notable Gothic-inspired works.
Nashandra takes a form very much like the mad Mrs. Rochester – “Bertha” – in Jane Eyre, being apparently confined to Drangleic Castle, waiting for you to free her so she can complete her cycle of devastation. However, unlike Mrs. Rochester, she isn’t cowed or disabled, stripped of her power, kept restrained, or made subservient to the master of the house. Instead, Nashandra has completed her coup, laying waste to the patriarchal structure that gave life and vitality to Drangleic. According to the lore, she accomplished this coup by turning patriarchal aggression back on itself, starting a war with the Giants. The Giants were known to be insatiably proud and jealous, and by goading Vendrick into antagonizing them, Nashandra managed to turn one king’s vanity against another’s pride, thus causing the patriarchal structure to turn around and self-destruct.
Before we go on to describe Dark Souls II‘s gender war and its outcome, it behooves us to note one other way gender manifests in the game’s imagery.
There’s an odd asymmetry about the enemies’ genders in Dark Souls II. It could be attributed to the adolescent target demo, or to the fantasy genre’s immaturity, but in the context of this analysis, it takes on a special literary importance. This is the gender asymmetry of the game’s bosses. You may notice that some bosses are gendered female: the Lost Sinner, Mytha the Baleful Queen, Scorpioness Nadja, and the Duke’s Dear Freja. It’s worth noting that these female bosses are fleshy and sexualized, carrying their heads, bodies transformed into grotesque hybrids, or in the case of the Lost Sinner, restrained but infiltrated by an insect, and showing an incredible physical presence, like a professional wrestler with a broadsword.
Compare this to the plethora of male bosses, and note the difference: whereas the female bosses seem to be all body, slithering and oozing artifacts of flesh and beastly fascination, the male bosses are almost all suits of armor. In most cases, they’re actually empty, or they might as well be: there’s no firmer repudiation of physical presence than the robotic anonymity of the Pursuer or the Looking Glass Knight. For enemies like the Smelter Demon, there’s clearly – explicitly – no body inside that shell at all.
This correlation – female physical presence and mutation, versus the towering, empty male suit of armor – is another angle of refraction for the themes listed above. The female is the earth and nature, after all, and the male is the gilded castle and culture. This asymmetrical binary structure will only become more pronounced as this analysis develops.
These themes of gender are integrated into Dark Souls II‘s larger backstory, the chronicle of a cosmic war: the forces of light, flame-bearers, castle-builders and ancient dragons, versus the forces of femininity, darkness, the flesh, the impenetrable depths of the earth. In the course of the game, you are the one who lights the fire, so naturally, you are aligned with Vendrick’s side of the conflict. It’s you, the Emerald Herald, the Ancient Dragon, and a ragtag band of non-player characters, all fighting for Vendrick’s legacy, even if you occasionally have to defeat his champions in order to prove yourself.
You, it turns out, are the next stage in a perpetual dialectic of light and dark. It started deep in the shadows of pre-history, when the four Great Old Ones ruled; it culminated and reversed when Vendrick defeated them, the pendulum swinging back toward the sun. Nashandra, the king’s mistress, was the pull of gravity that dragged that pendulum back toward darkness, plunging the kingdom into a peace that was “like the Dark.” And as the Emerald Herald leads you through your tasks, she recruits you for the side of light, looking to get a monarch back on the throne.
Your job, in Dark Souls II, is to surpass the accomplishments of Vendrick, your surrogate Oedipal father. You start by destroying the four Great Old Ones, and then you meet Vendrick’s queen, the spirit of misfortune that dragged him into the depths. You get to see what Nashandra has wrought, and in this patriarchal universe, it isn’t pretty: she has supplanted him on the throne, rising to a great height on his castle tower, and she’s driven him deep into the earth. It’s a great reversal, accomplished by a woman determined to throw the patriarchy into disarray: Vendrick, paragon of manhood, is feminized, and Nashandra, usurper and agent of the dark, occupies the throne of he who once linked the flame. Vendrick’s last act as king was, of course, to build in impenetrable barrier around himself, sealing away the great Signifier, the King’s Seal… a potent focal point of Drangleic’s Symbolic structure.
You, the player character, get to carry out one of the most profound Oedipal fantasies in all of literary history. You get to kill your own sullen, defeated father, and then you get to achieve what he couldn’t: you claim the Giant’s Kinship, and you execute your father’s betrayer, his treacherous wife.
Before I come to my coda, I have to stress: the Gothic tradition may have been full of anxiety about threats to the patriarchy, and it may have shown us some cracks in the symbolic order. However, it never questioned the fundamental legitimacy of that order; indeed, even though Otranto’s particular claim to his estate was illegitimate, Walpole’s novel ends with the rightful patriarch taking over the Castle. And even though The Monk shows how a father figure may be vain and vulnerable and corrupt, it never questions the legitimacy of fathers… indeed, Ambrosio is a sort of exceptional case study, and his downfall is lamented and rightfully punished.
Bluebeard is the strongest case Anne Williams makes for a Gothic text actively undermining the culture’s symbolic structures. In Bluebeard, the young wife of an eccentric aristocrat discovers that he’s actually a serial wife-murderer, his dominance and his estate built on the bodies of women. Even in this story, however – whose status as a Gothic work is debatable – the anti-patriarchal argument is contingent at best, ultimately solved by the intervention of more males (the wife’s brothers) to make right the twisted patriarch’s wrongs.
Dark Souls II steps beyond this framework, earnestly and decisively, by making an explicit critique of patriarchy… not through text or voice-acting, but through narrative cues, potent implications, and consistent choices in character and level design. This critique states, in so many words, that the patriarchal structure that you’ve been fighting for… the rule of law and masculine dominance… is actually empty and impoverished, unworthy even in its ultimate ascendance.
Just think: the King is a shuffling, wandering husk, buried behind his last hopeless protectors.
The Ancient Dragon, who gives you the key to the Giants’ memories, is “merely a prop.”
The male bosses, sullen remnants of the king’s army, are all empty suits of armor.
The throne room is eternally vacant, and all the torches in Drangleic Castle are permanently snuffed.
The primal bonfires aren’t actually necessary to progress in the plot… they’re just decorative teleporters, offering you a quick way back to the hub-town.
Even in the Giants’ memories, the soldiers of the supposed Pax Drangleic are all dying, and the fort’s guardian statue is beheaded. It’s a vision of the patriarchy’s self-destruction.
The king’s throne is “not the real throne”…
And the real throne closes over you, apparently swallowing you up into the earth.
That’s the challenge that Dark Souls II presents to the Gothic tradition: the challenge of ultimate emptiness, the failure of the father – not just losing to the giants, or succumbing to the dark queen, but the failure to offer any authenticity or substance in the first place. However malign the unleashed female, its defiance is hollow, because its counterpart was always an empty shell. This is a world where heroes are fallow, where symbols are impotent and unresolved. Look past the fear of the female, and you find a patriarchy that was always already a waste.
Dark Souls II inhabits the last stronghold of Gothic tradition – the patriarchy – but even as it defends this bastion from the Female and the Dark, it goes about razing it to the ground. This is its contribution to the Gothic, and its challenge to it. It’s nihilistic, yes… a fatal deconstruction of the Gothic dogma… but it’s also liberating, isn’t it?
Because once you fight through the hell of Drangleic on behalf of a king’s symbolic law… only to look that king in his hollow eyes, and find only emptiness… what is there, at last, to bid loyalty to, except for the blade, the throne, and finally, the Dark?
Piece part of a 3-part series of essays on Dark Souls II. Read Part I here. Part II here.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1874. Reprint. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.
Lewis, Matthew Gregory. The Monk. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Perrault, Charles. “Bluebeard”. The Complete Fairy Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
Shibuya, Tomohiro and Yui Tanimura (dir). Dark Souls 2. Tokyo: From Software, 2014. Video Game.
Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. New York, NY: Classic Books International, 2009. Print.
Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Jesse Miksic is a designer, critic and content creator living in Brooklyn, New York. Jesse maintains a cinema and media theory website here.