Know Your Lore: Illidan Stormrage
Illidan Stormrage is one of the most well-known figures in Warcraft lore, although the majority of his story took place long before World of Warcraft — he was first featured back in Warcraft 3. However, his origins go all the way back to the beginning of Azeroth’s tumultuous history over ten thousand years ago, during the War of the Ancients. During the war, Illidan seemingly turned on his brother, joined the side of evil, then turned around again just in time to help save the day. It did not, however, help him get the girl — and as great as his love may have been for Tyrande, it wasn’t enough to win her heart.
Illidan’s story took him from Azeroth to Outland and back again, to the icy peaks of Northrend and at last, to the heights of the Black Temple. It isn’t a love story, although it might have started out that way — it’s instead the story of a man so single-minded, so obsessed with doing the right thing, that he completely ignored all the wrong things he had to do while on his quest to be absolutely right.
War of the Ancients
The War of the Ancients began when Queen Azshara and her Highborne sorcerers inadvertently caught the attention of Sargeras, leader of the Burning Legion — largely due to the tremendous amount of magical energy they were playing with. Sargeras reached out to Azshara’s counselor, Xavius, and offered to help him in his grand scheme to cleanse the world and remake it as a reflection of Azshara’s splendor, and Azshara was completely fine with the plan. Soon, the Highborne unleashed the Burning Legion on the kaldorei, heedless of those that were slaughtered to make room for the glorious new world Azshara dreamed of. And Malfurion Stormrage discovered this plan, got together those who were also horrified about Azshara’s designs on the world, and went to war to put a stop to it.
Illidan was Malfurion’s twin brother, and where Malfurion had a gift for druidic arts, Illidan didn’t share that same gift — instead, he was far more adept with arcane magic. The two did share one thing, though — a love for the priestess Tyrande Whisperwind. And although Illidan went out of his way to better himself and try and impress the young priestess, she eventually chose Malfurion, something that didn’t sit well at all with Illidan. So he left to go to Zin-Azshari and feign an allegiance to the Queen and the Burning Legion, by offering to hunt down and obtain the Demon Soul, an immensely powerful artifact. Sargeras was so pleased with Illidan’s plan that he gave him a “gift” — he burned Illidan’s eyes from their sockets and gave him fiery replacements that could see all forms of magic.
But Illidan didn’t turn tail on the night elves. The Demon Soul was powerful, yes, but it had the power to close the portal that was letting the demons through. By doing so, Illidan would save the kaldorei from certain destruction, and not at all coincidentally impress Tyrande as well. The War came to an end, not by Illidan’s hand, but by the efforts of his brother — and the destruction of the portal triggered the Sundering, a cataclysmic splintering of the continent of Kalimdor into the continents we see today. And as the world spun out of control, Illidan filled seven vials with water from the rapidly receding Well of Eternity, in an effort to preserve the font.
His reasoning was sound enough from his perspective. Illidan wanted to create a new Well of Eternity to replace the old one. Why? Because if the Burning Legion ever made a return, they would need the magic of the well to combat the demonic army. After the Sundering, Illidan traveled to the peak of Hyjal and poured three of the vials into a small lake, quickly creating a new Well of Eternity and catching the attention of the kaldorei in the process. After nearly killing Jarod Shadowsong, Illidan was confronted by Malfurion and Tyrande, the appointed leaders of the night elves after Azshara’s fall.
Needless to say, Malfurion was not happy with Illidan’s actions. He pointed out — again, with sound reasoning — that the entire reason the Burning Legion had come in the first place was due to the powers of the old Well. Creating a new Well would just draw the Legion’s attention again. But Illidan wouldn’t see reason, so enthralled with the Well’s powers, and so convinced that he was right in his decision that he simply wouldn’t see it any other way. He held no remorse for his actions, nor did he regret the creation of a new Well, insisting that it would be needed in the future.
Rather than order his own brother’s execution, Malfurion instead ordered Illidan to be imprisoned in the Barrow Dens. Jarod’s sister, Maiev Shadowsong, offered to watch over him as Warden, and Malfurion agreed. It was a life sentence — and considering the fact that the night elves suddenly gained immortality thanks to Nozdormu, Illidan was going to be locked up for a very, very long time. Ten thousand years passed, during which kaldorei civilization continued to blossom and thrive, and Illidan sat in the dark and served his time.
One would think, or hope, that with ten thousand years worth of sitting in the dark, Illidan would have realized the recklessness of his actions, but he didn’t. And ten thousand years later, when the Legion once again made its presence known on Azeroth, Illidan was freed. Not by his brother, certainly not by Maiev the Warden, but by Tyrande, who was convinced that Illidan could help fight the Legion as he did so many years ago. So she slaughtered the guards who kept him imprisoned and set him free, much to Malfurion’s disapproval — he was convinced that his brother remained unchanged after all that time locked away, and would do little to help. Illidan immediately set out to prove Malfurion wrong.
He traveled to Felwood to fight the Legion there, and while he was there, he encountered Arthas, who was acting as a champion of the Lich King at the time. They fought to a standstill, and when Illidan asked why Arthas was there, the former Prince of Lordaeron told Illidan of the Skull of Gul’dan, a powerful demonic artifact that was corrupting the forests from within. If the Skull was destroyed, Arthas pointed out, the corruption of Felwood would stop. Illidan didn’t trust Arthas, but he sought out the Skull regardless — after all, Arthas also explained that the Skull was an item with great power, and if there was something Illidan could do to make himself stronger, he’d take it.
If he could make himself stronger and halt the corruption of Felwood? So much the better, especially, Illidan reasoned, in the eyes of Tyrande. So Illidan tracked down the skull, and rather than simply destroy the item outright, he unlocked its power and claimed it for his own. Did it make him powerful? Absolutely. But it was not without cost — by absorbing the powers of the Skull, Illidan was transformed into a demon. He destroyed the Legion’s forces in Felwood, but the transformation outright disgusted Malfurion and did little to impress Tyrande. Malfurion banished Illidan from the forests, and left with Tyrande.
As for Illidan … he had now become one of the creatures he fought so hard against. And that came with a price. When the Legion was defeated, Illidan was immediately confronted by Kil’jaeden, who offered him one last chance to serve the Legion. It turned out Arthas was not, in fact, working with the Legion, but working against it along with the Lich King, and Kil’jaeden wanted the Lich King destroyed, for he had grown far too powerful for the Legion to simply control. But the Skull of Gul’dan had some strange properties — it possessed the memories of Gul’dan, and within those memories Illidan could sense a powerful artifact, a memory of an item Gul’dan had tried to claim long ago.
To help him retrieve the artifact — the Eye of Sargeras — Illidan reached out to the naga, calling them to the surface and enlisting their aid. Eager to mete out their revenge against the night elves, the naga, led by Lady Vashj, quickly agreed, ushering him to the Broken Isles and the Tomb of Sargeras. However, they had additional problems to contend with. Maiev Shadowsong, furious at the loss of her fellow wardens, was intent on capturing her former prisoner, and tracked him all the way to the Tomb. Illidan escaped, traveling across the seas to the Eastern Kingdoms, with Maiev in quick pursuit. Once there, Illidan began to cast a spell, using the Eye of Sargeras to literally tear Northrend apart and destroy the Lich King.
Malfurion sensed this disturbance and traveled to put an end to it along with Maiev. Along the way, Tyrande was lost, thought dead — or rather, claimed dead by Maiev, who was still furious about Tyrande’s part in Illidan’s escape. They encountered Prince Kael’thas, leader of the blood elves, while traveling to confront Illidan. And they succeeded in destroying Illidan’s plans, but Kael’thas let it slip that Tyrande was not, in fact, dead as Maiev claimed. Eager to prove himself, Illidan rushed off to rescue her and return her to Malfurion. Grateful for his brother’s assistance, Malfurion told Illidan he was free to go — as long as he never threatened the night elves again. Illidan agreed, created a portal to Outland, and fled.
Why did Illidan head to Outland? Because he knew he had failed the Legion, he was living on borrowed time, and he had to hide someplace where they would never find him. Maiev, ever the clever hunter, managed to pursue Illidan all the way to Outland, capturing and imprisoning him. But he was set free by Kael’thas and Vashj — Kael’thas was in search of a cure for his people’s addiction to magic, and pledged his service to Illidan in exchange for a cure. Illidan fought relentlessly to free Draenor from the Legion’s grasp, eventually coming to the Black Temple. There, he met Akama, a broken draenei who also vowed to fight at Illidan’s side if it meant the end of the Legion’s presence.
And they triumphed, claiming the Black Temple for themselves, just in time for Kil’jaeden to make another appearance. Illidan quickly covered for his indiscretion, claiming that he was simply gathering his strength and his forces for another attack on the Lich King. Kil’jaeden offered him one more chance to prove himself, and sent him off to Northrend to live up to his word. Illidan was defeated by Arthas, left to die as the former Prince of Lordaeron ascended the throne and became the Lich King. Vashj and Kael’thas took him back to Outland to recuperate.
At that point, Illidan could do little but bolster his forces and try and come up with a way to defeat the Legion, should Kil’jaeden reappear. He had his allies, but the word of those allies was shaky at best — and in the end, Kael’thas ended up turning from Illidan and siding with the Legion instead. Maiev, captured and held prisoner, was set free thanks to Akama and adventurers. Akama had had enough of Illidan’s rule, and wanted to see the Temple reclaim at least some shred of its former glory. By the end of Burning Crusade, players confronted Illidan atop the Black Temple, and with Maiev’s help, killed him.
Illidan spent his life trying to be a hero — trying to be the hero he thought Tyrande wanted, trying to be the hero the night elves needed, and doing everything to become as powerful as he could in the process. But he overlooked the fact that more often than not, power comes with a price. And in the end, Illidan ended up unwillingly serving the very creatures he sought to destroy, continually on the run from the Legion and even trying to turn the Legion’s demons on their former masters. He was never quite a villain on the scale of someone like Deathwing, who wanted to see the world end, the Lich King, who wanted to usher the world into an age of undeath, or Azshara, who wanted to see the world razed and reborn in her image.
He was just a man who desperately wanted to be the best man he could be, to impress his fellow night elves, and to ultimately get the girl. When it became clear he would achieve neither, he retreated into the Black Temple and tried to outlast the fate that eventually caught up with him.
Yet is Illidan actually dead? That’s a really good question, especially given Alex Afrasiabi’s tweet regarding demons. According to the tweet, demons cannot be killed, they simply return to the Twisting Nether. Although we definitely saw a corpse, it might just be that Illidan did, in fact, survive — and has simply spent the last several years stewing in the Twisting Nether, bucking against the leash the Legion continues to hold over him, and looking for an opportunity to break free.
After all, there are still worlds that need saving.
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