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Know Your Lore TFH: The origins of the pandaren

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.

Last week, I mentioned how little we know about the pandaren. This week, we're going to speculate on what that could mean. Like all speculation, this is not meant to be taken as established game lore. This is just us playing around with some what if's based on the few things we do know. We all know how the Tinfoil Hat works by now, yes? So let's put it on and start speculating.

We're told that the pandaren (along with the jinyu and the hozen) revolted against their mogu masters and overthrew them in a long, protracted series of horrific battles that cost many lives on both sides. Eventually, despite the mogu having access to ancient and terrible magic and fearsome weapons, their society (dedicated to slavery and domination) was simply too rigid and dependent on others to perform the tasks the mogu did not wish to and it could not adapt to the new reality of all of its slave races attacking it. As we saw when the mogu created the saurok, their arrogance led them to be unable to perceive how other people thought. Instead, they assumed all peoples thought as they did. Cooperation in a mutual goal instead of dominance baffled them. In the end the mogu lost, and were cast down from their seats of power.

But for two thousand years after that, the pandaren held control over the architecture of dominance that the mogu created. It was not until the reign of Shaohao, the last pandaren emperor, that the true nature of the sha was understood and Pandaria was sealed behind its mists for 10,000 years. What were the pandaren before that?

Grinning and bearing it
Know Your Lore TFH The origin of the pandaren
One thing that always strikes me when thinking about the pandaren is the lack of pandas in Pandaria. Not the lack of pandaren, mind you, but the lack of pandas. Can you think of a single panda you've seen anywhere in pandaria? When I went to Ashenvale or the Grizzly Hills, I saw furbolg (the bear-men common to Kalimdor and Northrend) living alongside bears, actual bears. but there are no pandas anywhere in Pandaria. Why is this? Is it perhaps because the original bears of Pandaria left it long ago?

We know that many other races in Pandaria draw their current state of existence from the waters of the Vale of Eternal Blossoms. The jinyu, the mogu, and even the grummles were all to one degree or another altered by the waters of the Vale, although in the grummle's case this seems to have been directed by the mogu. The mogu also uplifted the saurok, although without the waters of the Vale so far as we can tell.

I find myself wondering if the pandaren are similar to the tauren, a race that simply resembles a native animal rather than is descended from one. Then it occurred to me that I don't actually know that about the tauren. The shu'halo have no idea where they come from outside of myths that they were made from the earth itself by the Earthmother. Then I began to wonder about the pandaren of Northrend we mentioned last week, and the furbolg, Azeroth's other race of bear-like humanoids.

Bearing up under pressure

Despite their relatively tribalistic society, the furbolg have an ancient association with the night elves that dates back to before the War of the Ancients, as the pandaren themselves do. Since we know the ancient Mogu Empire also predates this period of time, I began to wonder about these potential connections. The mogu dominated the region that is today known as Pandaria, and made little if any effort to leave it so far as we can tell, implying that even before the Sundering that area of the ancient supercontinent of Kalimdor was isolated in some fashion. Yet those pandaren we found in Northrend imply that there was some cultural exchange, as did tales of pandaren emperors sending ambassadors and items to the night elves before they allowed the Burning Legion's invasion. What exactly was happening in the distant, pre-Sundering past?

Some have argued that in those days, Neltharion the Earth-Warder directly acted to prevent wars and conflicts on the surface of the world by isolating them from one another as best he could. Clealy this didn't always work - the ancient Aqir went to war with the troll empires, as just one example. But we can imagine that the mogu would have been exactly the kind of culture that Neltharion would have wanted to keep isolated, with their soul corrupting magics and their flesh twisting ways. Also considering the presence of the Sha, entities of pure negative emotion, and we have another reason Neltharion might have wanted to ring the area with natural obstacles. The extremely mountainous Kun-Lai Summit, the large peaks and valleys of the Jade Forest, suggest there was to some extent barriers to entry even before the mists descended. So might there have been such an effort by the Earth-warder to isolate the various races of Azeroth from one another, and doesn't it therefore follow that there was a time before that effort? Clearly, the races of Azeroth clashed.

Bear arms and rights thereof

This leads me to consider again those Northrend pandaren, who have clearly lost a great deal of what makes modern pandaren seem like themselves. They're far more feral and aggressive looking, clearly much closer to the furbolg. If these were recent pandaren transplants, that would make little to no sense. That's why I think they are in fact ancient pandaren, a remnant population from before the mogu even existed.

Back when Kalimdor was all one continent, before the coming of the mogu, troll empires, aqir, even the night elves, it would have been far simpler to travel from one end of the world to the other. Consider that both the trolls and the furbolg have stories of the Titans arriving on Azeroth, meaning that they would have existed at the least before the Titans returned to do battle against the Old Gods. In this ancient, ancient world where elementals ran amok and beings of enormous power made war upon one another, did the extant races of the world take sides? And was it in this ancient conflict that the first Ancients arose?

We don't know, of course. We don't know how or why the Ancients came to be, although they always seem to inhabit a middle realm between pure myth and tangible reality. So imagine that these ancient war at the dawn of the world had at least some mortal witnesses, and a few mortal survivors. With so much chaos and upheaval, with the original Emerald Dream no longer perfectly matching the world following the invasion of the Old Gods, and the death of a Titan we can then concieve of the need to repopulate the world. To repair, at least to some extent, the damage the Old Gods caused. The fact that we have pandaren in Northrend as well as Pandaria, the absolute north and south of the world, argues for a relatively wide geographical range that would really only have been possible before Neltharion began making it harder for races to intermingle. The fact that the ancient pandaren of Northrend so resemble the furbolg of the same area, the same furbolg who also exist in what remains of Kalimdor, makes one wonder. Who were Ursoc and Ursol before they became Ancients? Were they pandaren?

I'll stop with the bear jokes now

The bear ancients seem to be very similar in temperament to the pandaren of Pandaria, being fearsome warriors when provoked but generally being more interested in balance and yes, pleasures of eating than in making war. While they suffered greatly for their attempt to hold off the Burning Legion during the War of the Ancients and 'died' (as much as any immortal being can be said to die - even Malorne has returned from his 'death' at the hands of Archimonde) it's not surprising that they sought to prevent the invasion. What interests me is, were they known to the pandaren emperors? We know the August Celestials protect Pandaria now, and that they existed during the reign of Shaohao since he consulted Xuen the White Tiger, but that doesn't mean that they were always the only protectors of the area.

It becomes possible to imagine that before the second arrival of the Titans, there was no real distinction between pandaren and furbolg. That these bear like beings walked the land, at one with nature and the elements (as both races are now, shamanism still being a part of both cultures) and their greatest leaders included two figures who would become as gods, watching over their people. As races such as the mogu began to arise following that first greatest war between Titans and Old Gods, some of the children of the bear were isolated in what is today Pandaria by an Earth-Warder seeking to prevent the spread of the mogu, and were so shaped by the land itself and its Sha infestation into a people who reward positive emotion and deliberately repress the negative. The land itself made them distinct from their cousins, while those pandaren who were not so isolated but rather lived near their furbolg kin in Northrend came to resemble them greatly. Selection pressure based on niche and habitat did the work.

We have no way of knowing, of course. But it fits.

Next week, preparing for war in Krasarang Wilds.

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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