Saurfang's Journey to Reclaim Honor - War Campaign Finale Analysis (Spoilers)
High Overlord Saurfang saved many lives outside the Gates of Orgrimmar, ending the Fourth War before it truly began. In this analysis of Saurfang's heroics in the War Campaign finale, we'll break down his risky, courageous gambit, look at his concept of honor, and speculate on where the role of Warchief could go next. Here be spoilers!
Saurfang and Honor
Honor is an important concept for Saurfang, one that has weighed heavily upon him throughout
Battle for Azeroth
, serving as the centerpiece of each piece of book, quest, and cinematic media featuring the old soldier. Patch 8.2.5's War Campaign is the culmination of Saurfang's struggle, as he reflects on the dark deeds of the Old Horde and tries to grapple with how he can forge a new identity, as well as a new Horde, that leaves the cycle of blood and dishonor behind.
This isn't to say that he hates war or fully embraces a life of peace without bloodshed, but his reasons have changed. He led the Might of Kalimdor, combined armies of the Alliance and the Horde, against the Qiraj full of conviction that his cause was just, and although signs of weariness were beginning to show, he marched during the Northrend campaign without question. The loss of his son and dark path taken by Garrosh tested his resolve, but still, he fought against the Legion with similar resolve to his earlier battles. Saurfang even initially relished the War of the Thorns, though the Burning of Teldrassil shook him to the very core, triggered by Sylvanas praising him for shamefully backstabbing Malfurion:
"This was your victory. None of this--not this battle, not Malfurion's defeat--would have happened without you. You have earned this honor.
Saurfang felt numb. You have earned this honor.
Saurfang's guilt intensifies when Sylvanas, furious that Malfurion survived and that the Night Elves still believe in hope, burns Teldrassil.
Saurfang would remember this moment in his dreams forever. He would relive his shame, and all the new ones to come, over and over again.
You have led your Horde in the service of death, Malfurion had said.
How could Saurfang face the soldiers he had led into this war? How could he explain what they had done?
He couldn’t. He would never know how.
But the burden would be his, always, until his dying day.
As Saurfang turned away, he hoped that day would come soon…
While Saurfang often spoke of the horrors of past wars, the guilt and shame he felt after decades of blood soaked battle, he was still resolved to fight the enemies of his people... but all that time he was a protector, defending his people from greater threats which sought only to destroy them - the Qiraji, the Scourge, the Burning Legion; now he felt only shame in both his own actions and those of his Horde, which continue through the "Old Soldier" cinematic as Saurfang is about to lay down his weapons and surrender to the Alliance, his dialogue with Zek'han undercut by flashbacks of dying Night Elves. In this cinematic, the optimistic Zekhan gives Saurfang a renewed sense of hope for a new Horde, and it is Zekhan whom Saurfang looks to for inspiration before starting his impassioned speech while driving Sylvanas back in during their Mak'gora.
Sylvanas was never burned by such matters of honor or morality, taunting Saurfang when he's upset over the use of the blight:
Saurfang: I had to see it for myself. Was this your plan all along? Is this how you meant to achieve victory? This...honorless travesty?
Sylvanas: Honor means nothing to a corpse, Saurfang. You have the luxury of underestimating death, but it is something with which I am intimately familiar. Maybe you don't care if your people die so long as it is honorable.
This quote comes full circle as Saurfang, through the Mak'gora which ended the Fourth War, demonstrating that honor can still save his people.
Much of Saurfang's guilt stems from seeing the current Horde go down a path similar to that of the Old Horde of the First and Second Wars, one that mistakes blood and death for honor and glory. This was a Horde tainted by the blood of the Legion, responsible for ending thousands of lives for no other reason than bloodlust. He is offered a chance of redemption and redefining what it means to be an honorable member of the Horde in the cinematic "Lost Honor", in which Anduin helps Saurfang escape the Stockades: Saurfang says he spared Anduin's life so that he could eventually take down Sylvanas, to which Anduin responds that he can't - not by himself -and leaves the cell door open.
We see throwbacks to "Lost Honor" when Saurfang asks Anduin for his support in Mak'gora, referring to their conversation in the prison cell which set Saurfang down his path of redemption and sacrifice. Anduin, in return, gives Saurfang his father's sword Shalamayne to demonstrate they stand as one.
Saurfang's quest for honor didn't stop with him alone, he journeyed to Nagrand to convince Thrall to return to the Horde in "Safe Haven." Thrall, reluctant after his own failures, is told by Saurfang that old soldiers like him don't get to hide. When Saurfang is about to start Mak'gora, Thrall quotes his line back at him, showing his acceptance of the path Saurfang has chosen.
Saurfang's struggle with honor culminates in a dialogue with Anduin leading up to the War Campaign finale. In this cinematic, Saurfang admits that the actions of Sylvanas are not an aberration - they are similar to the behavior of the Old Horde. He goes further, stating that the foundation the Horde was built upon a lie, acknowledging his complicity in it, yet Anduin convinces him that he can still move beyond his past, as the Alliance has learned to do with the likes of Arthas tarnishing their legacy. To change and grow, one must first admit one's faults, and Saurfang has finally voiced years of inner turmoil.
In the three War Campaign cinematics, Saurfang is portrayed in an honorable light, even beyond his climatic sacrifice. Parallels are repeatedly made to other heroic figures.
Saurfang challenges Sylvanas at the gates, just like his son challenged Arthas at Wrathgate. While Saurfang the Younger fell in battle, later raised as a death knight against his will, he was mourned as a hero.
Varian sacrificed himself so the Alliance ship could escape the Broken Shore at the start of Legion, plunging Shalamyane into a Fel Reaver. Both him and Saurfang cried For Azeroth, defiantly splitting Shalamane in two, before meeting their demise through sinister magic.
Saurfang often dreams of his son's funeral pyre, both in "Old Soldier" and "A Good War." While he's ashamed to wear the necklace sometimes, he proudly wears it at the Gates of Orgrimmar and is laid to rest with it, surrounded by members of the Horde.
At his funeral, both Thrall and Anduin deliver eulogies for Saurfang: talking about his deeds as Supreme Commander of the Might of Kalimdor during the Ahn'Qiraj war, as the leader of the Horde charge against the Lich King, as one of the main defenders of Azeroth against the third invasion of the Burning Legion. Thrall talked about how Saurfang always strived for honor, and how his legacy will live in the Horde's deeds, and Anduin talked about how Saurfang's courage on this fateful day has spared the lives of thousands on both the Horde and Alliance sides. Does this make up for Saurfang aiding Sylvanas with the Teldrassil campaign? The choice is up to you, but the cinematic series is choosing to present Saurfang in a heroic light, after constant self-doubt.
Why Did Saurfang Challenge Sylvanas?
Saurfang, in front of all the inhabitants of Orgrimmar and the Alliance army, challenged Sylvanas to a ceremonial Mak'gora, a traditional duel of honor to the death. While everyone seemed to know that Saurfang was doomed, facing Sylvanas who never plays fairly, the Mak'gora ended war before more blood was shed.
Saurfang goes into the Mak'gora knowing he is going to die. As he gazes out on the Gates of Orgrimmar, the city he protected for years, he realizes that so many deaths will occur if the war truly begins. Recognizing that those defending Orgrimmar are also the Horde's "brothers and sisters," he believes he can end the war with just one death; his own. The old Saurfang thrived in blood and battle, his decision to push all that aside in favor of saving lives is radical.
WoW players may be familiar with several Mak'gora that ended in death and shame. The duel between Cairne Bloodhoof and Garrosh Hellscream in the build-up to Cataclysm ended in the former's death due to Magatha Grimtotem secretly poisoning Gorehowl. While it isn't canon, the Warcraft Movie mak'gora between Durotan and Gul'dan has significant parallels to that of Saurfang and Sylvanas, with Gul'dan restorting to horrifying shadow magic to win. That Mak'gora was a doomed battle as well, but Durotan went in knowing he could use it to change the Orcs perceptions of Gul'dan, triggering the Warlock's downfall.
In a show of unity, Thrall and Anduin lend Saurfang their familial weapons, both tied to strong notions of honor and conviction. They too suspect the Mak'gora will end in death for Saurfang, that his true chance of victory will be unmasking Sylvanas in order to unite the Horde against her, rather than defeat her outright. After retiring Doomhammer, Thrall wields the Axe of Durotan, storied weapon of the Frostwolf Clan inherited from his father after the former chieftains untimely death for refusing to follow Gul'dan during the First War. Anduin holds Shalamayne, twin-blades forged during War of the Ancients and passed down to him from his father Varian Wrynn, another now passed Warrior with strong convictions of honor who sacrificed himself on the Broken Shore to save his people. As Shalamayne's magic is only revealed to those deemed worthy of wielding it, Saurfang holding the glowing blade is a sign of his restored honor, and dual-wielding both weapons of the Horde and Alliance is a strong message of unity.
Unifying the Horde
Despite fabled weapons, restored convictions, and his own legendary combat prowess, Saurfang can't really get a hit on Sylvanas. While she's known for her agility and talents with archery, and served as Ranger-General of Silvermoon in life, she's now supernaturally skilled in melee combat as well, dodging all of Saurfang's attacks, knocking the axe out of his hands, and slashing him multiple times with daggers laced in shadowy magic. To bystanders watching close-up, it is clear that it is not a simple duel. To those watching far away, Saurfang could even appear untrained and weak, easily outmatched by the Warchief.
After scoring a few initial hits on Saurfang, Sylvanas plays to the crowd, demeaning Saurfang's disloyalty to her and her followers, though she seemingly does so only for showmanship, as readers of "A Good War" may remember that Sylvanas considered Saurfang disposable, musing how he was useful now but she'd get rid of him in the future.
Sylvanas continues to press her advantage, but goes too far, taunting Saurfang with "Death comes, old soldier. And all their hope dies with you." Saurfang, looking up at Zek'han, remembers the young Shaman's message of hope and pride in the Horde on the night before the Battle for Lordaeron, and roars back at Sylvanas "You cannot kill hope!" The first time Sylvanas heard that line, from Delaryn dying at Teldrassil, she grew so incensed that she set the island on fire.
Now, in close combat, she grows enraged and distracted as Saurfang then presses his advantage, pushing Sylvanas back with every swing as he speaks of Sylvanas' failures:
You tried, at Teldrassil, you failed. Hope remains. You sent us to kill each other, at Lordaeron, you failed. Hope remains. Here we stand, and you. Just. Keep. Failing. The Horde will endure. The Horde is strong.
In a move similar to Varian's last stand at the Broken Shore, Saurfang splits Shalamayne into two blades, finally getting in a hit--right on Sylvanas' eye. Throughout
Battle for Azeroth
and in several Old God whispers throughout the years, eyes have been used to symbolize a path between dreams and reality, such as "The hour approaches when all eyes shall be opened." Now, Sylvanas' eye is wounded, with ominous black smoke trickling out, reminiscent of the Old God tendrils in
Rise of Azshara
; here she drops the pretense and reveals her true nature, screaming "The Horde is
." (We'll focus on Sylvanas in a separate post, but it's worth noting the parallels to Azshara taunting N'Zoth in calling him the "God of Nothing")
After her outburst, she almost seems taken aback, pausing for a few seconds as if she didn't intend to let that slip. We see a closeup of her face nervously darting around, we can also see her skin glowing molten red in the cut-not bleeding, just bright rid, the color of the Nightmare's corruption and N'Zoth's eyes. Sylvanas has always been a charismatic leader, able to garner support from several different races due to her decisiveness throughout the War Campaign, even Saurfang went along with her initial plan to attack Teldrassil, thinking it would secure the existence of the Horde for decades. With that one line, however, Sylvanas revealed how little she cared about the Horde at all and immediately lost trust.
Realizing she was baited and the game is up, Sylvanas quickly moves to a plan B, further insulting the Horde and dispatching of Saurfang with a sudden burst of dark and never before seen shadow magic before he has time to strike again with the glowing blades of Shalamayne. In the moments before he's hit by Sylvanas' shadowy blast, Saurfang has a curious expression on his face, almost a grin as if he knows he's succeeded in undermining the Banshee Queen. In a final act again echoing Varian's defiance against Gul'dan on the Broken Shore, Saurfang cries "For Azeroth!" as Sylvanas unleashes her magic upon him; despite everything, even the loss of his own life, the old soldier has finally won. Sylvanas, disgraced in front of her people, taunts the onlookers one last time while flying away with the ominous words "Savor this, nothing lasts."
Ending the War
While Sylvanas survives, an act that may sow even
more discord with vengeful Night Elves and Worgen
, Saurfang accomplished what he set out to. Through the Mak'gora and revealing Sylvanas' duplicity, he unified the Horde without spilling any blood besides his own, and the Fourth War ends outside the gates of Orgrimmar with no further death. As Eitrigg notes after the War Campaign:
Honor, champion. It saved the lives of thousands today. And it has saved my life more than once.
Saurfang and I were both from the Blackrock clan. Blackhand chose us to lead his armies. We committed terrible acts under his command.
I couldn't live with the shame. I went into hiding after the Second War was over. But not Saurfang. He helped other orcs move past their guilt and strive for lost honor.
He was a fearsome warrior. But that isn't what made him a hero. He gave us hope when we needed it most. Back then, and now. That will always be his greatest deed.
Sylvanas' sudden rage and burst of dark magic to end Saurfang's life is an act that resonates deeply with the Tauren and Orcs, as the memory of Carine Bloodhoof dying by unexpected poison is still fresh in their minds. But Sylvanas also also alienated many members of the Forsaken and several others who have had a more flexible concept of honor, using plague at Lordaeron, repeatedly emphasizing that she views
as disposable and beneath her. If the cinematic didn't make it clear that this includes even the Forsaken, she specifically discusses her people at the end of the loyalist campaign:
Though I cared nothing for the living, I did pity the Forsaken. For the great injustice that made them what they are. I understand the cruelty of fate better than anyone. But despite all I taught them, they stubbornly clung to hope. To life. They will learn the truth, along with all the rest.
At the end of the cinematic, Sylvanas' banner-carrier, also Forsaken, taps her banner as a sign of respect to Saurfang, soon echoed by the rest of the Horde watching from the ramparts and opening the gates of Orgrimmar to the fallen hero. Just like Zek'han represented the new Horde to Saurfang, perhaps the banner carrier represents a new type of Forsaken, learning to navigate free will and Undeath in a post-Sylvanas Horde.
Who is the Next Warchief for the Horde?
When Vol'jin died at the Broken Shore, the Legion cinematics emphasized the importance of succession. Even at Vol'jin's funeral pyre, Sylvanas was proclaiming herself the new Warchief of the Horde and leading the crowd in rousing cheers.
Saurfang's funeral is a much more muted affair, with everyone present celebrating his life and honor, rather than focusing on who would rule next. Both Anduin and Thrall gave speeches praising Saurfang's courage, while Zek'han blew the traditional horn for everyone to kneel and pay their respects. The camerawork emphasizes the unity of the crowd as well, with many group shots of everyone paying respect to Saurfang, compared to the legion cinematic which placed Sylvanas high up on the screen, towering above the crowd in isolation.
Thrall is the obvious choice for Warchief, as he initially created the new Horde, was both beloved, and led the Horde in a relative period of peace for many years. While Thrall previously said he didn't want lead the Horde again in the "Safe Haven" cinematic, he's changed his mind on other things since then - most notably the idea of once again working with Jaina for cross-faction peace. Lor'themar and Baine are also strong candidates, as they are seasoned leaders who have made tough choices and filled prominent roles for several expansions.
However...what if there wasn't a Warchief? The purpose of the war was to break the cycle of hatred, and Saurfang references the dishonorable legacy of the Old Horde in the "Negotiation" cinematic, noting that Sylvanas follows in the legacy of past tarnished Warchiefs like Blackhand and Garrosh. To break the cycle, perhaps a new form of leadership is needed, one that does not have its roots in tyranny and oppression. And should the Horde continue to work closely with the Alliance, dissolving the two-faction structure, there may be additional reasons to change their leadership structure.
With so many Horde leaders filling prominent roles in Battle for Azeroth, perhaps we will see a council-style of rule with representatives of each race working together. There is, of course, a notable absence similar to
Tyrande missing for the Alliance
- Talanji is conspicuously absent from the Horde. As the Alliance killed her father, she may not be so keen on suddenly working closely with them or the idea of peace. We also can't forget about Vol'jin, one of the Horde's past honorable Warchiefs, who even from beyond the grave is investigating the mysterious manipulation that led to Sylvanas appointment as Warchief in the first place. While the inhabitants of Azeroth now realize that Sylvanas was simply using the Horde as pawns in her own dark plan, we don't have all the answers, and Vol'jin is still out there searching.
While it's still unclear how
Battle for Azeroth
will end or what will happen in 8.3, and who if anyone was really victorious in the War Campaign, Saurfang's long and storied character arc is finally at an end. The Old Soldier has earned his rest.
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