Know Your Lore: The life and death of Sylvanas Windrunner
Often when we discuss Sylvanas, we begin at the Banshee Queen. And since her death, forced undeath, and escape from the control of the Lich King, Sylvanas has changed the face of the world of Azeroth. There’s no denying it — for good or (more often) for ill, Sylvanas Windrunner is a power to be reckoned with.
But she had a life before her death, and that life had value. The greatest horror of her modern condition is that it ended the potential of the Ranger General — the woman who stood against the Scourge and protected her people was no more. Yet can Sylvanas be said to have forgotten them, exactly? Ruler of a kingdom of the desecrated, who is the Banshee Queen? And what does she have in store for the people of Azeroth?
There will be spoilers for Legion in this KYL
Scion of the Windrunners
For concision’s sake, we can define Sylvanas’ life before the coming of the Scourge in broad strokes. She was the middle daughter of the prestigious Windrunner family of High Elves, squarely between eldest sister Alleria and youngest sister Vereesa. In addition to the three sisters, the Windrunners also had a brother named Lirath, as well as uncles and aunts and cousins. Interestingly, while all three of the Windrunner sisters would join the order of Rangers, it was Sylvanas who in time became Ranger-General of Silvermoon, in part due to Alleria’s aggressive nature and Vereesa’s inability to navigate the political nature of their people. Sylvanas excelled at politics.
But the coming of the Second War changed life for the Windrunners. The High Elves saw no real threat to them in the attacks of the Horde, but decided to aid the Alliance of Lordaeron in order to discharge the ancient debt the Elves owed Humanity. In the process Sylvanas’ sister Alleria traveled south to assist Turalyon’s forces. In so doing, she discovered that the Horde was using dragons to attack the forests of Quel’thalas, and rallied Sylvanas to lead the Rangers out and help trap the Horde between Elf and Human forces. In the end Sylvanas helped decisively rout the Orcs, but it cost her. Eighteen of the Windrunners, including her brother, had died in the Orc push on Silvermoon.
Each of her sisters took the news in their own way. Alleria dedicated herself to revenge on the Orcs who’d killed her family and tried to destroy her people. Vereesa was still considered young for an Elf, barely out of her apprenticeship. Sylvanas didn’t have the luxury of pursuing a personal vendetta — she was Ranger-General, and the safety of Silvermoon had to come first. She continued to fulfill her duty. It was in this period, when the High Elves still considered themselves a (reluctant) part of the Alliance, that Sylvanas first inducted Nathanos Marris into the order of Rangers, defying even Prince Kael’thas to do so. When Alleria was reported missing and presumed lost, one of the casualties of the Alliance Expedition to Draenor, it was Sylvanas who wrote her sister’s memorial. It was placed on her statue, displayed outside of the gates of Stormwind.
Your heart flew straight as any arrow upon the wind, sister. You were the brightest of our Order. You were the most beloved of our kin.
But even with Alleria gone, presumed dead, the duty continued. Sylvanas would protect Quel’thalas and the High Elves, as she had against the Horde. It was who she was.
The coming of the Scourge
Things began to fall apart for the Alliance of Lordaeron after the Expedition. Gilneas and Strom didn’t see the point in paying for Nethergarde Keep when the Portal had ceased functioning following the Expedition, and they certainly didn’t understand why they should pay to keep Orcs alive in camps when there was a simpler and far less costly method to deal with them, namely utter extirpation of all Orcs still on Azeroth. With the coming of Lord Daval Prestor and his departure from the scene, the rifts became ever more obvious, and to the High Elves it became clear that the Humans would not stay unified.
This led to a consensus among the Elves of Silvermoon. They generally saw themselves as having discharged their old debt to the Arathor line, and the last living descendant of King Thoradin had perished atop Blackrock Mountain. Simply put, they didn’t owe the Humans anything anymore. Without any reason to stay entangled in an alliance with them, the High Elves simply pulled back behind their borders and let the Humans squabble about what to do next. To King Anasterian and others it would all pass, and their kingdom would continue on as it always had.
Thus Sylvanas found herself Ranger-General of an isolationist power looking to the past, when its future was looming before it. Her people ignored the chaos in Lordaeron, and so, when Prince Arthas Menethil became a Death Knight in service to the Lich King and murdered his own father, it was up to Sylvanas and the Farstriders to defend their kingdom.
Many things worked against the Ranger-General. The first was betrayal from within. A magister named Dar’Khan Drathir, greedy for power and prestige in High Elf society, had betrayed them all and switched allegiance to Arthas and his Scourge. With Dar’Khan’s help, the Scourge would bypass the ancient Runestones that defended Quel’thalas’ borders and make their way to the Elfgates despite heavy resistance from Sylvanas and her rangers. Once the first Elfgate fell, Sylvanas realized that she couldn’t defeat Arthas, but still she resisted in hopes that a defense of the city could be mounted while she bought time for the magisters. Unaware of the full scope of Dar’Khan’s betrayal, she didn’t realize that the magisters would not be mustering a defense because Dar’Khan had bound the Sunwell’s magics.
Even so, she fought on, driving Prince Arthas mad with frustration. He’d expected to simply march the Scourge to the Sunwell, and instead, he had to fight for every inch of land between him and his goal. In the end the treachery of the traitor Dar’Khan and the sheer numbers of the Scourge proved too much for Sylvanas — meeting Arthas in single combat, she could not stand against the runeblade Frostmourne and died with the unholy sword buried in her chest.
But this would not be the end for Sylvanas. Because in so thoroughly resisting Arthas she had earned not respect, which one would have to argue was due her, but rather a towering resentment of her that would be realized in an act of revenge at once horrifyingly vast and yet staggeringly petty. Sylvanas would find no rest in her grave. And Azeroth would see the coming of a new power when the Banshee became a Queen.
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