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Why Varian Wrynn is a fool (and why it may not matter)

Allison Robert

For a while now I've been mulling over points raised by Daniel in his much-discussed article, "Why Varian Wrynn Is Right," and we've received a number of requests to address the issue from the Horde's point of view. Well...this article isn't going to do that. It started off that way, and then I realized that Varian's personal issues and the Horde's approach to the problem are really two entirely separate matters. At some point in the future, I'd like to examine the Horde's take on the newly-resurgent antagonism between the factions, because it's not something I can adequately address here without turning this into a 10,000-word tract.

Today, we're going to deal almost exclusively with Varian and his share of responsibility for the current mess. I'm a little ambivalent over Blizzard's decision to include most of the backstory and explanations for Varian's behavior in a comic series, because I think it's one of the factors that's resulted the character's being poorly received by most players. Choosing to include so much of his characterization out of the game in a product most players will never read necessarily impacts how Varian's motives are going to be evaluated. If all you've got to go on is what you see of the king from ingame events...he doesn't look so great. This isn't a defense of Varian so much as a commentary on the somewhat inconsistent approach to his character that's resulted. I haven't read each of the comics, but I'm familiar with the storyline, and this article doesn't assume that you need to have read the out-of-game books or comics in order to follow the argument.

There are two serious problems with Varian's approach to Alliance/Horde relations that exist wholly apart from any discussions concerning his history with them, or whether one of the two parties is more justified:

1. Varian does not have the moral, political, or hereditary right to represent the Alliance as a whole or make diplomatic decisions on its behalf.

2. Having had a free and conscious choice over whether to re-assume both the privileges and responsibilities of kingship, he does not have the right to pursue a personal grudge over the interests of the Stormwind kingdom.

We'll address #1 first:

1. Varian does not have the moral, political, or hereditary right to represent the Alliance as a whole or make diplomatic decisions on its behalf.

The Alliance has never been guided by a single political ideology or culture. It is bound by common purpose with respect to opposition of the Horde and outside threats. In the absence of these, there's evidence ingame that the coalition would simply crumble, because -- while the interests of the Dwarves and Gnomes overlap somewhat, the same cannot be said of the Draenei, the Night Elves, and the Humans. Indeed, the Bronze Dragonflight has stated, in what was a startlingly frank admission for them, that the Alliance would never have existed without a common threat to unite them. The infighting among the races, and more particularly the human kingdoms, would have consigned Azeroth to the flames of the Burning Legion if the Orcs had never invaded.

The Stormwind kingdom is a large and influential political entity, but it's far from being the oldest, most stable, or even the most powerful in Azeroth (that honor likely belongs to the Dwarves, more so if you consider the Wildhammers' pact with the Bronzebeards). Varian's "election" to representative of the Alliance races is mostly, I assume, a storytelling mechanic born from the need to create an equivalent to Thrall. That doesn't make it a good one.

But let's give Varian the benefit of the doubt for the moment and examine his potential competition:

Mekkatorque: The Gnomes are occupied with the Gnomeregan problem, and they're still dependent on Ironforge, with limited resources of their own. With that said, the Gnomes are a fairly apolitical bunch anyway. Offered the chance to act as representative for the Alliance as a whole, I'm not sure Mekkatorque would take it, even though he might very well be the most objective person for the job.

Tyrande: Tyrande is nominally and by tradition the head of Night Elf government, but whether she admits this or not, she's in the middle of a power struggle with Fandral Staghelm. The existence of Teldrassil is testament to the unfortunate fact of Staghelm's power, just as it's evidence of an unhappy and fearful population of Night Elves who resent the loss of their immortality in the Third War. Staghelm's power bid aside, Tyrande would not necessarily be the best representative of a political body (the Alliance) that both she and her people are unenthusiastic about at best. The Night Elves are an extraordinarily xenophobic, bordering on racist, society. They're in the Alliance because they have to be, not because they want to be.

Velen: Velen has the experience, wisdom, and moral fortitude to act as the Alliance's representative to the Horde, but it's not going to happen in the near future if it ever happens at all. From the perspective of other Alliance races, the Draenei are simply too new; their shared history, though it encompasses important events, is too limited. Moreover, in any talks with the Horde, which would almost certainly include Thrall and a contingent of Orcs, the elephant in the room is going to be the latter's ugly history with the Draenei and the ambivalent feelings it provokes in Orcish society. Orcs like Saurfang feel tremendous regret. Orcs like Garrosh see no need for it.* Which perspective is more widespread in Orgrimmar, we have no idea, but suffice it to say that this makes their dealings with the Draenei complicated at best, on top of more recent (and equally ugly) history with the Blood Elves.

Bronzebeard: By contrast, the Dwarves suffer from none of these problems. They've been in the Alliance forever and a day, have gained tremendous respect for their soldiers and the sacrifices they've made, fought against the old Horde in the first two wars and alongside the new Horde in the third, and have had the opportunity to see both the Horde and the Alliance at their best and worst (Magni is unlikely to have forgotten the near-death of his brother at the hands of yet another hotheaded Human royal -- Arthas). And, as Sean of Blogatelle observed, there's actually some similar cultural ground between Dwarves and Orcs, particularly in that "both are furious warrior races with a spiritual bent."

The only thing the Dwarves don't have going for them is the bad blood the Explorer's League has created by digging all over Tauren lands, and the attempt to excavate in Frostwolf territory. Nevertheless, Tauren are sufficiently easygoing that the former can be overcome, and both Thrall and Magni have the sense to recognize that neither of these two unfortunate situations merits attention in the face of greater threats from Northrend.

Given this, I am more than a little disturbed that Magni seems to have been passed over as the Alliance representative. That's OK; Blizzard wants an "anti-Thrall," and Magni doesn't fit that narrative. But it doesn't change the fact that Varian is not the logical pick for the job. He is the recently-returned ruler of one human kingdom out of many, and he is by no means current on the present concerns of each Alliance race.

Moreover, he's had administrative problems in the past, to the point of riots in the streets of the newly-rebuilt Stormwind, when he was unable to override the House of Nobles (then admittedly under the influence, but by no means controlled by, Onyxia in the guise of Katrana Prestor) and compensate the Stonemasons adequately for what must have been their enormous labor and materials cost (canal system? Multiple bridges? Thick walls able to withstand siege weaponry? An enormous cathedral in addition to an equally enormous castle? An underground prison system that doesn't get flooded by the canals? Shops, homes, decorative statues and stonework, and a garden district? Add it all up -- Stormwind was not cheap to build). Although the lore doesn't get into the actual state structure of the Stormwind kingdom, this strongly suggests a political system reminiscent of early medieval Germany, where the real power typically lay with the barons and not the king. As David's written, that governmental model seems pretty consistent with the cultural trappings Blizzard designed for Stormwind.

We have one of two possibilities here:

A). Varian has more power than the House of Nobles, or:

B). Varian has less power than the House of Nobles.

If it's A, he's simply incompetent, is indirectly responsible for the existence of the Defias, and has no business representing the Alliance as a whole.

If it's B, he's more a figurehead than an actual statesman and lacks the power to make decisions on behalf of the Stormwind kingdom, let alone the Alliance as a whole. The direction the comic and game seem to be taking him swings heavily in the direction of A, which is somewhat inconsistent characterization given that the Defias matter was somewhat retconned to try to explain away Varian's inability to compensate the Stonemasons.

But even these problems could be overlooked if Varian were a masterful diplomat and simply the best person for the job -- but he's not. Varian is dangerously prone to overreaching the limits of his authority, which brings us to our next point:

*Garrosh himself is not guilty; none of the Mag'har Orcs are. But it's important to note that he's making this argument on behalf of all Orcs.

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