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.
They are the first of the troll Empires, the first of the troll tribes, and in fact, the first of trolls as a cohesive race. The Zandalari have seen it all, from the very dawn of civilization to the evolution of the night elves to the Sundering to countless wars to present day. They have been watching both the culture and the assorted tribes of trolls splinter further and further, into smaller and smaller tribes. They have been watching as their race continues down the slow path towards eventual extinction, with little choice in the matter.
The Zandalari are tired of watching. As some of the first known intelligent races on Azeroth, they have seen it all, from vast troll Empires to splintered sub-groups. They are not about to walk that path to extinction quietly. After all, there's another, far more ingenious option available. And although their first plan may have failed, their second plan is far more likely to succeed, given the strength of their allies of old. In patch 5.2, we're about to face off with the Zandalari for the second time -- the first being the revamp of Zul'Gurub and Zul'Aman in Cataclysm.
But who are the Zandalari? Why should we care about this random group of trolls over any other?
Please note: This post contains some spoilers for patch 5.2 content.
From the dawn of time
The Zandalari were the earliest known trolls -- they are the tribe from which all other tribes on Azeroth originated. They are old. They pre-date the Sundering, they may even pre-date the Titans first visits to Azeroth, for that matter. In Mists of Pandaria, we learn that the Zandalari had not just a functioning relationship with the mogu, but an alliance. What were these progenitors of the troll race as we know it today up to, back then?
Oddly enough, they were scholars for the most part, valuing knowledge and history above all things. But not all of the Zandalari felt the same way, and that's when the first major split of the troll tribes occurred. Those that felt conquest and fighting were far more important than scholarly pursuits left the Zandalari, and instead staked out Empires of their own. This is where the Amani and Guribashi Empires originated -- and why they were so incredibly violent.
Yet the Zandalari tribe did not simply fade away, it merely took a slightly different bent. Those that remained behind were the scholars and the mystics, evolving into a tribe that sought to preserve troll history. While they did not attempt to overthrow the new troll Empires, those Empires had a great deal of respect for the Zandalari, because they were a living example of where all trolls had once come from.
The timeline for the split is still unclear in terms of when it happened in relation to the rise of the mogu and the enslavement of the rest of Pandaria. However, blue posts state that the Zandalari allied with the mogu when both the mogu and the Zandalari were the most powerful Empires -- suggesting that the alliance happened before that split into Gurubashi and Amani.
The rise and fall of the Mogu Empire
And that makes an incredible amount of sense, when you think about it. When the Zandalari originally allied with the mogu, it was to help them keep the pandaren from rising up and fighting back. What is incredibly interesting in this case is when you take into consideration what we've learned about the mogu in patch 5.2. The mogu were originally creations of the Titans, affected by the Curse of the Flesh and gaining not only flesh and blood, but emotions like greed, anger, fear and pride.
It was Lei Shen that finally united the mogu with one purpose in mind -- enslaving the lesser races and forcing them to serve, just as the mogu had served their Titan masters for untold centuries. In an odd way, Lei Shen was attempting to take the place of his Titan masters and force the assorted races of Pandaria to take the mogu's place in that equation. After all, for one to rule, others must serve underneath.
This is when the Zandalari Empire allied with the mogu. And the very fact that many of the Zandalari observed this behavior may have eventually led to that split into Amani and Gurubashi -- some trolls decided it would be best to mirror the mogu's actions. In an odd way, the mogu may very well be responsible for the evolution of troll culture into what it is today.
We know how that particular tale ended -- the Zandalari were pushed from Pandaria, the vast land was soon ruled by pandaren hands, and the Zandalari became nothing more than the stuff of nightmares for pandaren children. But on the Zandalari side of the story, things took a much different turn.
Splintering into self-destruction
Although the Amani and Gurubashi Empires were wholly separate from the Zandalari, the former Empire still held the respect of both offshoots. The Zandalari weren't interested in overthrowing the rest of the world or conquering far-off lands -- they were far more interested in preserving the history and culture of the troll race. If we want to continue comparisons to Titan constructs and facilities, while the Amani and the Gurubashi were dead set on conquering the land, the Zandalari were more like the Titan facility of Uldaman -- a storage facility created for the purpose of preserving Azeroth's history.
And as the Amani and Gurubashi splintered even further, the Zandalari held strong. When the Sundering ripped through the world and splintered it into the continents we know today, the mystics of the Zandalari were powerful enough that they managed to create wards and keep their realm from being destroyed. After the Sundering was complete, the Zandalari lowered the wards and discovered that the rest of the world around them had sunk into the ocean, leaving the Isle of Zandalar in its place.
The Zandalari became the stuff of legend, continuing their pursuit of knowledge and historical preservation for the thousands of years that followed. As always, their focus was not on the rest of Azeroth, but solely on the troll tribes that walked its surface. The Amani and Gurubashi Empires were shattered by the Sundering just as much as the ground they walked upon, leaving both mighty Empires nothing to do but splinter further and further into the tribes we know today.
Zul'Gurub and the Rise of the Soulflayer
And so, the Zandalari watched the world around them, observing the trolls as they splintered into smaller and smaller tribes. But in Stranglethorn Vale, the story was a little different. The Zandalari had heard tales of the resurrection of the Gurubashi Empire, and were pleased at first. But when they discovered the reasons behind that resurrection, their pride quickly turned to horror, for the blood god Hakkar was not what it appeared to be.
Historical accounts referred to Hakkar as "the Soulflayer" -- an ancient blood god that filled his followers with the seeds of rage and hatred. These seeds eventually blossomed into carnage and all-out war, which suited the blood god nicely, as he fed on the blood shed in his name. And as more blood spilled, the more powerful Hakkar would become, until no one would be able to stop him.
The Zandalari quickly sent out a regiment of fighters to Stranglethorn Vale, seeking to ally with the assorted jungle tribes of trolls. After filling in these tribes on the horrors of what the Gurubashi were up to, the united tribes brought down Hakkar, casting out the Atal'ai priests that had summoned him into existence and banishing them to the Swamp of Sorrows. Satisfied, the Zandalari left -- but the Gurubashi Empire, just on the verge of resurrection, fell apart soon after.
In patch 1.7, players first encountered the Zandalari for themselves. Unlike any troll tribe to date, the Zandalari were willing to speak to both Horde and Alliance, for one simple reason -- they needed help. It seemed that the Atal'ai priests were at it again, seeking to bring Hakkar the Soulflayer back into existence by using the now-deserted capital of the former Gurubashi Empire, Zul'Gurub.
But the Zandalari could no longer ally with the other troll tribes in Stranglethorn Vale. Too many of them had unwittingly fallen under the sway of the Blood God. This is why the Zandalari sought the assistance of the Alliance and Horde. They needed to put a stop to Hakkar. Nothing more, nothing less. And when Hakkar was destroyed, the Zandalari rewarded those that helped, then sent them on their way.
That was not the end of the Zandalari's dealings with the rest of the world. As reports of travels to Northrend filtered through the world, the Zandalari traveled north as well -- this time, to seek out the Drakkari, another offshoot of the original tribe. What they discovered in Northrend horrified them. While Zul'Gurub had been a demonstration of a Blood God out of control, and the Amani efforts in Zul'Aman were merely an example of asking the Loa for assistance and getting that assistance, the Drakkari were doing the unthinkable.
The Drakkari had their own gods, which was standard for the trolls. But instead of seeking the help of these gods, the Drakkari instead sought to sacrifice them in order to steal their power. In all of troll history, gods and Loa were creatures to be worshiped and appeased -- the thought of sacrificing a god was anathema to everything the trolls had ever believed in all of troll history.
Something was incredibly wrong with the Drakkari. Part of it was the influence of the Lich King and the Old God that slept beneath Northrend -- but part of it was a truth that the Zandalari simply didn't want to face: The troll race was dying. Each successful splinter into another tribe was stripping more and more of the culture that trolls had embraced for untold generations, until at last the tribes were simply devouring themselves out of sheer desperation.
To the historians, the remnants of that once proud, first, mighty troll Empire, this simply could not come to pass. But tragedy struck the Zandalari at the worst possible moment.
Deathwing's arrival on Azeroth was sudden -- far more sudden than the Sundering. The Zandalari had no time to prepare, no time to set up any magic wards. And as Deathwing ripped a hole between Deepholm and Azeroth, the world shuddered and splintered in response, including Zandalar Isle, the last bastion of the first troll Empire. As Azeroth crumbled into pieces, Zandalar Isle shattered beyond recognition, destroying what was the height of troll culture, the one place on Azeroth where troll history was carefully preserved.
Is it any wonder, then, what the next move of the Zandalari turned out to be? Citing a mysterious prophet known only as Zul, the Zandalari immediately stepped into action, calling for a meeting of all remaining troll tribes. The Zandalari had lost everything, and in a desperate bid to rebuild the Empire of old, they sought to reunite all the scattered troll tribes into one. One can speculate that part of this was due to the observations gathered by the Zandalari that had witnessed the second rise of the Soulflayer, the fall of the Drakkari.
The troll tribes were splintering out of control, with nothing left to guide them. The Zandalari represented the entirety of all troll history -- the triumphs, the tragedies, the failures. It is entirely possible that this wasn't a prophet's words so much as the realization that in order for troll culture to survive -- in order to avoid losing all the knowledge gleaned, the knowledge lost with Zandalar Isle's destruction -- these splinter tribes needed guidance. The Zandalari represented that guidance.
And if the Zandalari could united the trolls again, re-establish the original troll Empire, perhaps the loss of all of that history wouldn't be as devestating a blow. That history, that knowledge would live on, in a new Zandalari Empire, forged from the shattered pieces of the old.
Unfortunately, the Zandalari's best efforts weren't enough to stop the other races of Azeroth from rising up, just as the pandaren had so many centuries before, and putting a stop to the plans of the shattered Empire before they even had a chance to begin.
A return to the old ways
But this wasn't the final gasp of the Zandalari. At the end of Cataclysm, something happened to remove the mists surrounding the forgotten isle of Pandaria. And just as the Zandalari thought that all was lost, a glimmer of hope remained -- the mogu. The allies of old, before the Sundering, before the cataclysm, before the trolls began their long descent into oblivion. The mogu didn't just represent an old alliance come back to life.
They represented the opportunity to re-establish the Zandalari Empire at the very height of its power. It wasn't enough to unite the scattered troll tribes -- the Zandalari needed help from the creatures who had, once upon a time, taught them the value of ruling with an iron fist. The creatures who had demonstrated the ways of subjugation. The creatures who at one point dominated the world side by side with the Zandalari Empire, and stood triumphant.
There was just one problem left to address. The mogu still existed, hidden away here and there, lurking in the nightmares of pandaren children. But the one who stood above them all was long gone, his Empire broken, his body long left in a tomb to slumber. Lei Shen, the Thunder King, was no more, and his united Empire died with him.
And the Zandalari just smiled and laughed. If there was one thing they'd held over the thousands upon thousands of years of their existence, it was mystic power, the sort that brings the dead back to life ... it was only a matter of time before Lei Shen would live again.
The Isle of the Thunder King
Although there is no question that what the Zandalari are doing is wrong, there's still something sad about this tale. In the Throne of Thunder, we fight the Council of Elders -- the most powerful representatives of each of the major troll tribes. One by one, we wipe them out. One by one, we ensure that the Zandalari Empire will never come back to light. And one by one, we crush that last remnant of Azeroth's history, snuffing it out of existence.
In a way, perhaps the struggles of the Zandalari are sort of a subtle mirror to World of Warcraft itself -- its evolution from a game that relies heavily on the history of old, the stories entwined with the RTS games that existed long before the MMO. Just as our characters take out the last bastions of that original troll Empire, destroying the years of history it holds in the minds of its elders and mystics, so have we as players systematically stomped through those villains of old. Kael'thas, Illidan, Vash'j, the Lich King, Kil'jaeden, Deathwing -- all have fallen at our feet. Observant players have pointed out that we have little of the old history left to snuff out.
The Zandalari represent the desperation of wanting to cling to the past, the insistence that history must repeat itself in a cycle that will never end. Yet the other races of Azeroth are standing, whole and united as one, rising up to break that cycle and step into the future, whatever that future may hold.
Perhaps Mists of Pandaria isn't just a tale of home, of family, of what is worth fighting for. Perhaps it also stands as a warning, a subtle reminder to those that play the game. History cannot repeat itself forever, and the days of Warcraft I, II & III are long gone ... it may be well past the time for us to step forward from the shackles of tales told long ago, and step into the present.
For more information on related subjects, please look at these other Know Your Lore entries:
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.