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Know Your Lore: The orcs, part 2

Matthew Rossi

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.

One of the problems in covering the history of the orcs is that after the Rise of the Horde period, we've done it already quite a few times. The history of the orcs is the history of the Horde. Just in covering Orgrim Doomhammer's life, we've covered the formation of the Horde to a great extent.

What's interesting when considering the orcs as a people is how they were betrayed by their own virtues. The orc tendency to revere the spirits, their genius at preserving clan individuality yet coming together in times of crisis, their willingness to respect their elders and heed their wisdom -- all of these traits were twisted under first Ner'zhul and then Gul'dan. While Ner'zhul was proud, even arrogant, his initial actions in kindling the war against the draenei were sincere. He believed that the spirit of his dead wife Rulkan had returned to warn him of the draenei threat, accompanied by a "great one" who would teach Ner'zhul new magics to use to protect his people.

No matter Ner'zhul's flaws, it cannot be denied he was sincere. Yes, he hungered for power and respect (even though he was in fact powerful and respected) and yes, he prosecuted the war with the draenei when he really only had the word of Kil'jaeden that the draenei were evil and plotting against the orcs. And yes, Ner'zhul ignored for a time that he was losing the respect of the ancestor spirits and that the elements grew distant from him. He put himself ahead of his role as elder shaman. It cannot and should not be denied. But even in his most aggressive moments, Ner'zhul was neither blind nor a fool. He began to realize that his spiritual advisor, Kil'jaeden, resemble a draenei and hated Velen with a fervor the orc could barely comprehend. He began to wonder why the spirts would not speak to him.

And so he made his way to Oshu'gun.

Ner'zhul learned from the spirits at Oshu'gun that he had been tricked, that the ancestor spirits did not want war with the draenei ... that his wife, Rulkan, had not been visiting him but that Kil'jaeden himself had been manipulating him. The spirits at Oshu'gun, having revealed this to Ner'zhul, then utterly abandoned him. Even his deceased mate refused to help him.

This left Ner'zhul, now resolved to turn his back on Kil'jaeden, with no effective means to oppose the eredar lord. In this way, the spirits themselves could be said to be just as culpable of the fall of the orcs as Ner'zhul himself. The orcs had, for countless years, followed the cycle of the land and the wisdom of the spirits. Ner'zhul was elder shaman, yes, wise and skilled in the ways of the spirits, but he was not the only shaman. Even if we consider Kil'jaeden's great power and ability to deceive, the ancestor spirits and elementals had a great many other shaman to make use, a great many others they could have shown the truth.

Furthermore, once Ner'zhul had learned the truth himself and had resolved to oppose Kil'jaeden, the spirits could well have supported him. Yes, what he had set in motion was horrible, but he had done so after being deceived. By choosing to utterly abandon Ner'zhul at that critical moment, the spirits thus chose to abandon the orcs entirely and left them at the mercy of what was to come.

This cannot be ignored. The orcs relied on the spirits of their ancestors and the elements, and those spirits turned away from them at this pivotal moment.

We've discussed before how Gul'dan betrayed Ner'zhul and his people in a deal with Kil'jaeden to take Ner'zhul's place. Here we see a kind of malevolent perfection at work. Ner'zhul never intended to do evil. He allowed himself to believe because it fit into his secret desires for power and respect, but he sincerely cared for his people. Gul'dan did not, and what's more, Gul'dan cared for nothing -- not his people's traditions, not their respect, not generations of communing with the spirits. But while he cared for nothing but himself, he did understand his people and their ways, and he used them like a master. Gul'dan ruled the orcs from the moment of his pact with Kil'jaeden, but he did so by making them believe he was their servant, that what he was doing was what they wanted him to do. It was Gul'dan who resurrected ancient traditions to create the Horde and who installed Blackhand, head of the Blackrock Orcs, as its first warchief.

There were of course orcs like Durotan and Draka of the Frostwolves who saw through this, but even among those who were suspicious of Gul'dan (Durotan had the advantage of receiving warnings from Ner'zhul, who Gul'dan kept alive in a form of mockery), there was very little chance of opposing the first orc warlock. As the spirits abandoned them, Gul'dan had an answer, and that answer was magic that the orcs could direct and control rather than having to entreat the distant ancestors to grant it to them or enter into complicated negotiations with the elemental spirits. Ner'zhul had been rendered powerless by the spirits' decision to turn their backs on him, but Gul'dan possessed power that did not rely on asking, and he taught that power to the orcs. For a people who had spent years upon years at the mercy of their world and its environment, suddenly gaining power that was entirely independent of that environment and that could be used to shape it was intoxicating. Many shaman who found the spirits had left them turned to the warlock magics. Soon, the orcs discovered they were very capable at manipulating those fel energies.

The change of orcish society from one of wandering, separated clans who lived nomadic lives, following game and fending off ogre and gronn attacks to one where all clans were united under a single leader (the warchief) was accomplished by Gul'dan's skillful use of the already existing elements of that same nomadic society he was supplanting. Gul'dan carefully always played the part of advisor rather than attempting to rule himself. Gul'dan not only created in Blackhand a puppet ruler for his Horde, he created the Shadow Council to give himself control over the rising warlocks that took the place of shaman in orc culture while distancing himself from day-to-day control. To the average orc, Gul'dan was simply one wise leader among many, and his near-total control of the Horde entire was nearly invisible.

United in this manner, the orcs proved that they were more than capable of destroying the nearly immortal, magically sophisticated draenei even without the help of their own ancestor spirts and the elementals. Warlock magics and unity under Blackhand allowed the orcs to bring superior force to bear and, in time, to utterly destroy their enemy. By the time Gul'dan presented the orcish war host to Mannoroth, the orcs were so steeped in violence and fel magic that the idea of drinking the pit lord's blood didn't even shock or repulse them. Gul'dan's facility for manipulation must be credited here. While it was Grom Hellscream who first drank from the blood of Mannoroth and it was Kil'jaeden who suggested it, it was Gul'dan who got the orcs to do it.

The fall of the Temple of Karabor, the destruction of Shattrath City, the near-total end of the draenei people and the slow deterioration of Draenor following the war can all be laid on Gul'dan's tally, but he couldn't have done it without his understanding of his people and the same traditions he himself discounted. By doing so, he set the stage for the orcs as they appeared during their invasion of Azeroth.

Next week, we'll discuss how the orcs rebuilt their society following the Wars.

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.

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