The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how -- but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.
As a leader of the kingdom of Stormwind, Varian Wrynn's track record leaves much to be desired. Swayed by tragedy and the sneaky, manipulative claws of a particularly clever black dragon, Varian was completely out of the picture in vanilla, at which point the surrounding human territories began a decline from which they have yet to fully recover. Varian returned in Wrath, and promptly began the campaign to wipe out the Lich King, sending his best soldiers north.
While the campaign in Northrend was successful, we also saw the beginnings of the clashes between Varian and the Horde -- clashes that would continue in Cataclysm, and ramp up with alarming speed in Mists of Pandaria. Or ... that's what we thought we'd see. In truth, Varian's spent much more of this expansion absent than he has being a driving force for the Alliance. Where has Varian been, and what has he been doing?
To understand Varian's actions, we have to look at what's led up to the events in Mists of Pandaria. Namely, Theramore's destruction. In the novel Tides of War, Varian sends his best soldiers and leaders to help Jaina Proudmoore defend Theramore from Horde attackers -- which was exactly what Garrosh Hellscream intended all along. After launching an attack that failed to capture the city, Garrosh ordered a retreat. While the Alliance celebrated their victory, Garrosh revealed his actual plan, ordering a mana bomb dropped on Theramore and leaving no survivors.
While Rhonin, Jaina and Kalecgos were able to detect the presence of the bomb and evacuate most of the civilians before it dropped, there were still those that refused to leave and chose to stay behind. They died. Every single last one of them, save Jaina, who only survived because she was shoved through a portal the moment before the bomb struck. Varian's best commanders? All dead, vaporized when the bomb struck. Garrosh was hoping, in an ideal world, that Varian would be among those at Theramore.
Two things came of this situation -- first, Varian lost some of his most prized, respected, and competent leaders. Second and more importantly, it forced Varian to realize that Garrosh was not just some giant stupid hulking orc. Garrosh was a dangerous tactician with a remarkably keen mind. Underestimating the Horde cost Varian not just his military leaders, but an entire Alliance settlement. Had Varian known about the mana bomb, he could have made some sort of counter to weapon, or simply evacuated everyone from Theramore well beforehand, leaving Garrosh with nothing but an empty city to stare at while Theramore's forces launched an attack on an unattended Orgrimmar instead.
Patience and reasoning
This says much to Varian's current actions in Mists of Pandaria -- sort of. Theramore was a huge cautionary tale, one that taught Varian the value of looking before leaping blindly into a situation. It's a very Tushui way of looking at the world, which only emphasizes why Aysa and the other followers of that philosophy decided to join sides with the Alliance. Theramore was a lesson learned, and when it came to any further actions against the Horde, it was clear that Varian intended to analyze every aspect of that situation before taking action.
But we still saw flashes of Varian's temper at this point. Varian has a few major weaknesses, but none so major as the welfare and fate of his son, Anduin. Anduin is the only child of Varian's beloved wife, who was killed during Defias riots. Anduin was the only bright spot in Varian's life, the one thing that led him out of the cloud of depression after Tiffin's death -- a depression that was happily encouraged by Onyxia. And when she saw exactly how much Varian was affected by his son, she took steps to make sure that Varian was removed from the situation by having him kidnapped.
Onyxia's plan backfired, and Varian was returned home. But Anduin's fate, welfare and future have been a constant source of anxiety and stress for Varian. Part of the driving force for Alliance players to go to Pandaria is Anduin's disappearance. Varian is beside himself, demanding the location and safe return of his son. Anduin, in the meantime, has been struggling to escape his father's death-grip on his well-being and actually exert some sort of independence.
Varian and Pandaria
And this is where the story almost seems to fall apart. Anduin is found, then lost again by Alliance players, merrily choosing to go find the Vale of Eternal Blossoms instead of returning home like a good boy should. Eventually, Anduin makes his way to the Vale. And then, at long last, he is reunited with his father. After filling Varian in on what exactly is going on in Pandaria, Anduin heads out to speak with Jaina -- leaving Varian to take a small group of Alliance players and oust the Horde from the Temple of the Red Crane along with Tyrande Whisperwind. While the events of patch 5.1 were certainly fascinating in terms of political play and Dalaran, for Varian, the waters seemed to muddy at this point. Certainly he approached the Horde forces at the Temple with demonstrated patience and reserve. For Varian, it was a sign that his approach to the Horde was a good one.
Even the capture of the Divine Bell was a good move -- he waited and let the Horde find the location of the Bell, and then promptly had Alliance forces sweep in and remove it before the Horde could get their hands on it. But the aftermath of that situation resulted in a few key things that should have affected Varian dramatically -- first, Jaina went on a rampage and forcibly removed the Sunreavers from Dalaran, ending all hope of any kind of alliance with the sin'dorei.
Second and much more importantly, Anduin managed to get himself into trouble again. Not only did he get himself into trouble, he attempted to confront Garrosh Hellscream on his own and nearly got himself killed. Hellscream even assumed the prince was dead and happily laughed about it. Anduin, barely clinging to life, was rescued and taken back to the Alliance base. Velen was presumably summoned to heal the young prince as Varian swore his revenge. All good story. Hell hath no fury like the parent of an injured child, mind you.
Yet ... when we next see Anduin, he's chatting it up with Wrathion in the Tavern in the Mists. Varian is nowhere to be seen. To be certain, Anduin has a set of Alliance guards at his side, along with Sunwalker Dezco, who also seems to be acting as protector of the king's son. But Varian? Varian is simply absent. Varian has been absolutely obsessed with Anduin's safety and well-being ever since he made a triumphant return from Onyxia's kidnapping. He's tried, multiple times, to keep a close eye on his son, almost to the point of smothering the kid with well-intentioned attempts to keep Anduin safe and out of enemy hands.
Varian even went so far as to send military forces to Pandaria with the express intent of retrieving his son. Yet Anduin goes off on his own, yet again -- this time, on a solo mission to confront Garrosh Hellscream, and is returned crushed beyond recognition. He is sprawled on death's door, and it is absolutely, without question Garrosh Hellscream's fault. But Varian, instead of whisking his son back to the safety of Stormwind's walls and out of reach of anything remotely green-skinned or bell-shaped, instead lets Anduin wander around Pandaria on his own -- with a couple of guards. And this is after Anduin has already proven he can simply mind-control a guard or two to wander off on his own, if he decides that's a good idea.
This makes so little sense that I still cannot fathom exactly what is going on in Varian's head.
From what we have been presented with so far in lore, Varian has a fierce distrust and hatred of anything that happens to be Horde. He also has a fierce, unwavering devotion and love for his son -- Anduin is without a doubt one of the highest priorities in Varian's life. Realistically, this probably stems from some sort of deep-seated abandonment issues -- everyone Varian has ever loved in his life has been systematically ripped away from him. It only makes sense that he'd be overprotective, and it definitely makes sense that this would lead to inevitable clashes with Anduin as he tries to establish his independence.
From Theramore, Varian learned that Garrosh Hellscream and the Horde are far more clever than originally estimated. He learned that despite his fierce hatred of the Horde, he could not afford to simply throw Alliance armies at it and hope that it would fall. He had to take the tactics of patience and observation, to ensure that there would be no needless deaths in the upcoming war. Varian is a tactician, he isn't just a mindless barbarian. Which is why his actions post-5.1 make very little sense.
A father devoted to his son's welfare would not simply let him wander the world after he'd nearly gotten himself killed. A father witnessing the near-death of his son would not simply say "All right, let's go help the dwarves now." We are presented with a situation in Blood in the Snow in which Varian is trying to enlist the help of the dwarves, presumably to fight Garrosh -- but it's never really made clear. And that lack of rage at Garrosh Hellscream, that lack of mention of Anduin's well-being post 5.1 is particularly unnerving, because it simply doesn't fit with Varian's character as it has been presented to date.
Jaina or Varian
As Alliance players, we were delivered two big moments in patch 5.1. The first was Jaina's major outbreak as a main character, along with the events in Dalaran. The second was the near-death of Anduin Wrynn. Both of these situations directly affected Varian Wrynn, yet as we moved on from Operation: Shieldwall, we followed Jaina's story. Anduin's story and Varian's story both continued on, but it almost seems as if we are missing something vital that happened in between the end of 5.1, in which we see a desperate father, and the beginning of 5.2, in which we see Varian off doing something else entirely.
Now don't get me wrong, Jaina's story was a perfectly valid and interesting story to follow. But at this point, I'm not sure what to make of Varian Wrynn. The character we've watched grow and evolve since he first appeared in Wrath of the Lich King has made none of the moves expected of him -- nothing that would be easily predictable. The Varian Wrynn of Wrath, the Varian of Cataclysm, even the Varian of the launch of Mists, post-Theramore, would not have simply let Anduin go off on his own. Not when the Horde are running rampant all over Pandaria.
It feels like we missed a short story, a vignette, a conversation that happened between father and son. Or possibly a conversation that happened between Velen and Varian, after Anduin had a little time to recover. One in which Varian finally got over that unrelenting need to keep his son close at hand and out of harm's way, possibly with Velen's help. Or one in which Anduin finally stood up to his father and asserted himself as, if not quite an adult, old enough to make his own decisions and deal with the consequences.
The result is a character who feels incredibly disjointed and out of place. Varian Wrynn started out as an incredibly strong character in Wrath of the Lich King, with a fiery personality that some loved, others hated, and a pretty bizarre explanation for where he'd been, not to mention his strange dual personality. He was by and large absent in Cataclysm, and his absence was felt keenly in every revamped leveling zone Alliance players were left to play through. The bulk of his character progression was shelved to one particularly good novel -- Wolfheart -- and one short story. In game, we barely saw him at all.
Which is why Mists of Pandaria is so equally beautifully done, and frustrating beyond all reason. One would expect that an expansion written around this concept of renewed war between the Alliance and Horde would feature plenty of Varian Wrynn. Yet it seems as though Varian is by and large floating behind the scenes, making a brief appearance here and there so we know what he's been up to before disappearing again. These aren't the actions of a leader -- or rather, they aren't the actions of a leader that anyone really feels thrilled about following.
It's sad, in a way -- largely because of those marvelous novels and short stories we've been given. Varian Wrynn in Wolfheart is a vibrant, compelling, well written character who has something to prove, and doesn't quite have the capability of proving it. He's a father who isn't quite sure how to handle a son that can't simply be kept safe within the palace walls anymore. He's a man who struggled with internal conflicts that threatened to ruin every relationship he'd ever carefully fostered, whether it be friend, subject, or son. And thankfully, his struggles weren't neatly wrapped up over the course of the book. He had his moment of victory, and the keen knowledge that his struggles would continue whether he wanted them to or not. It's part of being a father, part of being a king.
Unfortunately, that Varian hasn't made the leap to the game just yet. I hope we see him in patch 5.4, because that guy? That's the kind of leader a player can get behind.
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.