He is the lord of the living flame. Even among the contentious and fratricidal elemental lords, his is the fist that burns away life. It was he who, when the Titans reordered Azeroth and crafted the elemental planes, first made war upon his former brothers and sisters who served the Old Gods in the time before. He personifies his element like no other. More important to us, however, is that he is both the first elemental lord we as players could possibly have faced (Ragnaros was indeed the only elemental lord to even be in the game until Cataclysm) as well as the one whose return to Azeroth solidifies that this is, indeed, a true disaster in the making. For he seeks nothing more and nothing less than the total annihilation of all mortal life and the complete consumption of the entire world in flames.
He is Ragnaros. He is the Firelord. He will set Azeroth to burn until it is consumed utterly. Unless he is stopped, we will all die in flames.
The history of Ragnaros dates back innumerable thousands of years to the dim time before time when the Old Gods held sway over Azeroth and the elementals wages unceasing war on one another for their amusement (or for whatever unfathomable reasons they had), never allowed to do more than keep the endless chaos of the world at a fever pitch. The Old Gods commanded each of the elemental lords, who in turns commanded the other elemental beings. This state of affairs continued until the coming of the Titans. Now, depending on who is telling the stories, the Titans came to Azeroth first, shaped it, and then had to return after the Old Gods infested the planet like parasites, so deeply rooted into the world that the Titans couldn't pull them out without destroying the place. The other story is that the Old Gods were here first, wreaking merry havoc until the Titans arrived and put a stop to it.
Either way, the Titans went toe to tentacle with the Old Gods and smote them. Seriously. The war between these two groups of diametrically opposed forces went on and on for eons, as both groups were vastly powerful entities barely comprehensible to mortal minds. To give you an idea, Algalon, who can unmake entire worlds and has done so repeatedly, is just a servant of the Titans. Ridiculously powerful entities like the watchers in Ulduar and Uldum? Just constructs, creations of the Titans. Isorath, the enormous maw erupting from the Twilight Highlands? A mere slave to the Old Gods. Both C'Thun and Yogg-Saron were encountered and defeated by armies of the most powerful heroes Azeroth had to offer when but a mere fraction of their full power. C'thun had died at least once before, and even after he died at the hands of armies of powerful champions, he still managed to twist and corrupt Cho'gall. That's right, the Old Gods can die, and it does not stop them.
As long as this battle raged, Ragnaros was on the front lines of it. The Firelord loved the chaos. As is his nature as a being of pure primordial fire, Ragnaros seems to desire to consume everything. He tolerates the other elements exactly as long as they provide fuel for his flames, and works unceasingly to melt stone, fill the air with smoke, and boil away the waters.
By fire be purged
So bellicose was the Firelord that he wasted no time in creating a new war when the old one ended. Even after the Titans defeated the Old Gods and chained them in the heart of Azeroth, he plotted. They created the Skywall, the Abyssal Maw, Deepholm and the Firelands to contain the Old God's elemental slaves. Ragnaros was not satisfied. He was not at all content to rule over one fourth of the elemental planes. If the elementals were to be chained into a seething cauldron of elemental conflict, so be it, but Ragnaros intended to rule that prison entire.
So came the elemental sundering. Understand this: It was Ragnaros and Ragnaros alone, the king of fire elementals, who first practiced the foul act of consuming another elemental being's essence. In effect, Ragnaros attempted cannibalism upon Thunderaan, son of Al'Akir the Windlord. Ragnaros made overtures of friendship to the air elemental prince, and when the younger elemental was caught unawares, Ragnaros' servants Geddon and Garr ambushed him and held him so that he could not retreat to his home skies. So pinned, fixed like unto a wall, all Thunderaan could do was see the great blazing hammer of Ragnaros come crashing down. There was no chance to escape it and nothing he could do but be battened upon, broken and drained, his essential being divided among the Firelord's servants like a trophy or a toy. The Talisman of Elemental Binding used to pin Thunderaan and divide him was given to Ragnaros' servitors.
This act of pure aggression, far more destructive and sinister than any allowed before their defeat by the Titans, set the four elemental lords on the path of constant conflict so desirable to Ragnaros. Endless war suited him. It was his nature to seek to spread, as fire does. It would be inaccurate to describe Ragnaros as evil in the same sense that one would describe a mortal so, for Ragnaros is fire uncontrolled, dangerous, relentless, always seeking to consume and leap free. The spark that starts the forest fire when not tended is Ragnaros. The hearthfire that burns down the home, the dry brush caught alight, the eruption of magma from the deep places of the world are all akin to Ragnaros. He is too large a fire to be gentle or reasonable. While a smaller fire elemental can be bargained with, reasoned with, or even threatened by a shaman, Ragnaros transcends such puny matters. You cannot coexist with a forest fire, or reason with a city ablaze, or talk a volcano out of erupting.
Taste the flames of Sulfuron
Ragnaros would have happily continued his endless war with his sibling elemental lords had it not been for a mortal sorcerer whose reach far, far exceeded his grasp. Dwarves, descended from beings formed of pure elements by the Titans, have ancient lore that they barely understand. A mere few hundred years ago, three clans of dwarves, the Dark Iron, Wildhammer, and Bronzebeard clans, went from neighbors sharing the ancient dwarven fortress city of Ironforge to rivals, then enemies. After the death of Modimus Anvilmar, the last king of all dwarves, the three clans began their steady fragmentation. Eventually, the Dark Irons decided to settle their differences by invading the Wildhammer city of Grim Batol and Ironforge and destroying both clans at once. It almost worked.
Thaurissan, the head of the Dark Irons, found himself ultimately pushed back. His wife Modgud died while leading half of the Dark Iron forces in their attack on Grim Batol. Now facing two angry dwarven armies and forced to retreat back to the Dark Iron city of Thaurissan (named after its royal house ... it would be fair to say that the Dark Iron rulers are a touch egotistical), he knew the Wildhammers and Bronzebeards would destroy him. Facing the utter annihilation of his clan, the Sorcerer-Thane of the Dark Irons delved into ancient magics little understood and called forth what he hoped would be a powerful servant to help destroy his enemies.
Now free to once again move in the world of mortals (a freedom the other elemental lords did not share) but unable to directly control his own kingdom in the Firelands, Ragnaros focused his efforts on building an empire within the Molten Core, the burning heart of the Blackrock Mountain. He enslaved the surviving Dark Irons (including the remnants of the Thaurissan lineage) and set them to work building him an army of golems, combining ancient Titan secrets with elemental magics. Unfortunately, over time the forces of the Black Dragonflight interfered, as following Deathwing's seeming defeat and absence from Azeroth, his children Nefarian and Onyxia had assumed control of the flight and created an aerie atop the mountain's peak. A stalemate, dragons and their orc servants atop the Blackrock Spire while Dark Irons and the elemental minions of Ragnaros dwelled in the Blackrock Depths, became a deadlock.
You have allowed these insects to run rampant
Eventually, the deadlock was broken by outside agents. The black dragons meddled too far in the politics of the mortal races, attracting their attention to the mountain, and Ragnaros' servants were embroiled in these affairs by virtue of their interference. Eventually Ragnaros' sacred fane in the heart of the Molten Core drew their ire, and in his half-summoned condition, he was unable to bring his full power to bear. Mortal insects, running rampant through the hallowed core, banished Ragnaros back to the Firelands. He moved quickly to reassert his dominance and seethed at his defeat.
Ironically, it would be the father of the two dragons who had caused him such discomfiture who would provide him with his chance for revenge. Neltharion the Earth-Warder, now the demented Deathwing, actually summoned Ragnaros forth onto the sacred slopes of Mount Hyjal where the World-Tree Nordrassil had but recently recovered from the devastating explosion that slew Archimonde and ended the Third War. It seems that Deathwing intended Ragnaros to serve as a powerful distraction, as his elemental minions would keep the Dragon Aspect Ysera and her allies, the Ancients, occupied and unable to interfere with his plans to destroy and remake the world. While Deathwing and Ragnaros could hardly be said to be allies (there's too much ill will between the Firelord and the Black Dragonflight for that), their goals currently align. To burn the World Tree is a temptation too great for the ultimate fire to resist.
The Firelands encroach onto the sacred mountain, and the hordes of elemental fire pour fourth from the Sulfuron Keep to destroy in the name of their dread master. The power of Cenarius, Malfurion Stormrage, Hamuul Runetotem and a remarkably handsome draenei warrior have only pushed back the reckoning, and the Firelord promises to strike with every bit of his legions of flame and fury. He promises that we will all taste the flames of Sulfuron.
If he is not stopped, it doesn't matter what Deathwing intends for Azeroth, because Ragnaros fully intends to burn it all.
For more information on the subjects discussed in this Know Your Lore:
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.