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Know Your Lore: The evolution of Varian Wrynn

Know Your Lore: The evolution of Varian Wrynn
Anne Stickney
Anne Stickney|February 3, 2013 8:00 PM
Know Your Lore The evolution of Varian Wrynn
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.

We can't really take a good look at Garrosh Hellscream without taking a look at his Alliance counterpart, King Varian Wrynn. Varian is an enigma in his own right, although for different reasons than Garrosh. Where Garrosh was a character that was introduced and shown in every aspect in the game itself, Varian is notable for being ... absent. He wasn't there for vanilla WoW. He wasn't there for Burning Crusade. Varian didn't make his first appearance in game until the launch event for Wrath of the Lich King, and exploded onto the scene with an attitude that threw a lot of players off.

Where Garrosh saw all of his development play out in-game, even the odd disconnected moments, Varian saw his play out through a series of comics and novels. Most of his history is a big question mark to many players. While not quite as big an unknown as Lor'themar Theron, people still wonder -- who is this guy? Where did he come from, and why was he so angry when he returned? And perhaps most importantly -- where did he turn from angry leader in the Ulduar cinematic to the far more patient leader we're seeing in Mists?

Oddly enough, his story and Garrosh's mirror each other far more than you'd think.

Know Your Lore The evolution of Varian Wrynn

The boy who would be king

It's hard to write about Varian Wrynn, and it's got nothing to do with his character, and everything to do with how that character was presented. Because Varian's story was so entwined with print material, it's very difficult for the average player to see who this guy is, and what makes him tick. We've been presented with a lot of different Varians in game, the latest being the somewhat more patient leader of armies, the first being his impressively violent debut in Wrath of the Lich King. But all of the in between is littered in a series of comics, novels and short stories that many may not have read.

What you do need to know about Varian Wrynn is that he was just a boy when his father, King Llane Wrynn, was killed. He was there to witness the moment that his father was murdered. Garona, a half-orc who had until that point been pleasant and incredibly smart, open to diplomatic matters and capturing the tentative friendship of the king, was Varian's only real reference point for the orcish race. And when Garona went from diplomat to murderer right before Varian's terrified eyes, that was the impression he was left with -- one that still haunts him to this day.

To Varian, this is the legacy of the Wrynn line. It isn't a peaceful reign, it isn't a noble or proud lineage. It's a lineage that ends, ultimately, in death -- brutal, uncompromising death that occurs the moment a Wrynn lets his guard down. King Llane trusted Garona, and that trust left him a corpse in the throne room, his heart torn from his body and taken by the half-orc. And that was only the first loss Varian would experience in his young life.

Varian was swept north along with the survivors of the orcish assault to Lordaeron by Anduin Lothar, right-hand of the king and almost a second father to Varian. Lothar also met his end at orcish hands, although Varian wasn't there to witness it directly. But you can guarantee that when Varian heard the news, the first thing he remembered was that horrifying moment in the throne room, when he went from heir to the throne to orphan in a split second.

Know Your Lore The evolution of Varian Wrynn

Loss and legacy

Varian's life after Lordaeron was a rinse and repeat of that moment of loss. Arthas killed King Terenas in cold blood, something that likely shocked Varian and only served to prove the point that in this raw and brutal world, you could not afford to trust anyone. The only light in his life was his wife, Tiffin, who was ripped away during the riots of the Stonemason's Guild. And then, the only moment of joy left in his life was his son, Anduin. But even that was ripped away by Onyxia's manipulations.

Onyxia separated Varian into two versions of himself, two aspects of his personality. In doing so, she ripped away the one thing Varian had that he knew he could count on without fail -- himself. Varian was now two individuals -- the placid, easily-manipulated noble, and the manifestation of every ounce of rage Varian Wrynn carried with him since the moment of his father's death. There is a reason they called Varian "Lo'gosh" in the gladiator pits. It was the orcish name for Goldrinn, the Ancient of the hunt, the battle -- the Ancient that represented the rage and ferocity that lives within us all.

Only Varian Wrynn didn't just have that ferocity living within him; he was the ferocity, unleashed. The parts of his personality that kept that rage in check were ripped away. If Onyxia had had her way, the rage-filled barbarian would have been killed, but he managed to escape. And although, at the height of that final showdown with Onyxia, those two halves of Varian were restored ... he would never be the same man. Prone to flares of temper followed by abrupt moments of contrition, it was clear that Varian was not the same man -- or the same father.

Onyxia's influence continued on after death. For even though he'd been united as one man, Varian still had that propensity for violence within, and that ripped the final, most cherished, most beloved thing Varian Wrynn had left from his side.

His son, Anduin.

Know Your Lore The evolution of Varian Wrynn

What we leave behind

There's a reason Varian tries so hard to keep Anduin safe, and there's a reason he tried to push Anduin to become a warrior, a fighter. King Varian Wrynn has seen the worst of what the world has to offer, repeatedly. He's seen what the world has to offer those that are kind. His father was willing to consider Garona something akin to if not a friend, at least an individual to be respected and perhaps admired, and it resulted in Llane's death. His wife was sympathetic to the Stonemason's Guild, and their gratitude was shown in a riot that resulted in her murder. King Terenas treated Varian as an equal, a ruler in his own right, and his son Arthas was a beloved fixture in both Varian and Terenas' lives ... and we all know how that story ends.

This is why Varian Wrynn is so utterly against the thought of diplomacy, of compromise. Because he has been shown time and time again that the moment you relax, the moment you begin to hope for a brighter future, the moment you let your guard down is the moment that you die. The moment that you trust in an individual is the moment they turn on you. And Anduin was showing every inkling of turning into the kind of hopeful idealist that King Llane had been, that Tiffin had been. To Varian Wrynn, this was as good as signing your own death warrant, and he was not about to let his son be taken away.

But in that eager ferocity to keep his son close and mold him into an echo of himself, Varian ended up pushing Anduin further away. It wasn't that Varian was a cruel man, it was that he was desperate to keep Anduin away from that cruel fate that seemed to be the destiny of the Wrynn line. And in that desperation, time and time again Varian reverted to that barbaric side of his personality, frustrated and angry that his best efforts simply didn't work -- and scared his son away.

In the novel Wolfheart, Varian finally began to understand the nature of his rage and how to keep it in check, with the help of the worgen, who were well aware of the duality of Goldrinn and how to keep Goldrinn's "gifts" under control. Has Varian settled down? No, absolutely not. But he's tempered his fierceness with the realization that flat-out attacking anything that threatens will only open yourself to retaliation.

The key to being an effective fighter, an effective hunter, an effective leader isn't in brute strength. It's in understanding that which you hunt, predicting its every move, and waiting until that perfect, dazzling moment to strike -- the moment in which the enemy traps itself.

Know Your Lore The evolution of Varian Wrynn

The Alliance

You'll note in Varian's story that there is little said about the rest of the Alliance. There's good reason for that. The Alliance as it stands today was barely united before Varian was whisked off by Onyxia. Did the various races of the Alliance work together? Yes. Were they held together by Varian Wrynn? Absolutely not. In his absence, the night elves had their own troubles. The gnomes of Gnomeregan struggled to recover from the downfall of their capital city. The dwarves continued their research into history, less concerned with Stormwind and far more concerned with the activities of the Dark Iron.

In short, the Alliance may have presented a united front, but they were hardly united at all. It was as much a merging of convenience as the Horde. But where the Horde had Thrall at the helm, the Alliance counterpart was completely absent. They didn't have one person to lead -- they simply worked together and helped each other as needed.

What we are seeing with Mists of Pandaria are those first tentative steps of King Varian Wrynn as a leader, a decisive entity that seeks to unite the scattered forces of the Alliance into one organized unit. Because in the end, Varian Wrynn isn't really the leader of the Alliance -- he's much more of a military leader, a commander. In fact, Varian Wrynn is what Garrosh Hellscream is trying to be. He's not a political leader, because the Alliance doesn't need one political figurehead. He's the leader of the Alliance forces -- a military commander.

The most ironic part about this situation is how well Varian and Garrosh mirror each other. Both came from a state of constant depression -- Varian from personal losses, Garrosh from his father's legacy. Both were determined to rise above and prove themselves. Both intend to lead their faction to glory from a military viewpoint. But where Garrosh falters is that the Horde is not just a military organization. It's a strange, motley family of castaways. And that strange, motley family of castaways isn't entirely on board or happy with Garrosh's way of ruling.

Know Your Lore The evolution of Varian Wrynn

Mists of Pandaria

And that is where Varian Wrynn will win the game. He may not have vast years of experience as a ruler, but he's got a very keen mind. He may not be a political leader, but the Alliance doesn't need one political leader above all others. Varian can look at Garrosh and at the Horde as a military campaign, and make his choices based on that concept -- all the while quite aware that the Horde is crumbling right out from under Garrosh's feet.

So how do you go about ripping the rug from under Garrosh Hellscream? Through something that Varian has recently learned for himself -- patience. Observe and watch. Predict Hellscream's next move, and be there waiting before he makes it. It doesn't matter what kind of numbers the Horde happens to have, because they are faltering. They aren't standing united, Hellscream's tearing them apart from within. All Varian needs is to be patient with the hunt, and wait for the prey to trip over itself.

Is it the most exciting way to resolve a conflict? Not as it appears to players. But it's the way that will inevitably win. Varian doesn't care about making a big splash. He doesn't care about showy acts of aggression and strength, he doesn't care about proving his power. What he cares about, what he has always cared about, is making Azeroth a place that is safe. Safe for the Alliance, safe for Stormwind, and safe for his son.

Varian Wrynn was just a child when his idyllic safe haven was ripped away by orcish hands. He lost his father, and the rest of his life has been an avalanche of losses and emotional strife. But this strange, extraordinary man has managed to somehow perservere through it all, one way or another. And although his life may be one drenched in the blood of those beloved, those lost, Varian will never let that grief overwhelm him.

Instead, he throws himself with eager ferocity into the one thing he can control. Varian is no longer a shattered man, a broken set of dual personalities. He has the cunning and the patience to know when to retreat, when to observe, when to lick his wounds, and when to attack.

As far as Garrosh Hellscream is concerned ... it's only a matter of time before the wolf wears him down. And he will be made to pay.

For more information on the people and places and events mention 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.
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Know Your Lore: The evolution of Varian Wrynn