Corruption through Luxury: Artifacts from Argus
When the Draenei were first introduced in Burning Crusade, everyone only noticed two things: Alliance shaman and the perplexing spaceship retcon. Blue posts have admitted that the draenei lore could be stronger, as the few quest hubs further the narrow vision of the Draenei as pious refugees frozen in The Burning Crusade. The Draenei had a major role as guardians of the Light that fought the hated demonic Eredar, but long ago, back before Draenor—all Draenei were known as Eredar, proud masters of both Light and Magic. On the planet Argus, the Draenei developed a luxurious and sophisticated society, and much in the same way as the power-hungry magic-addicted Highborne, grew rash and tempted by demons. Archimonde and Kil’jaeden joined Sargeras with the promise of infinite power and knowledge, destroying the culture on Argus and leading Velen to rebuild on Draenor with his loyal exiles, hiding all magical traces in his new society to avoid detection. This shift in Draenic values is echoed in the archaeology fragments that evoke a fantastical society at odds with their current austere culture.
These artifacts, flamboyantly luxurious with scathing curatorial notes, warn the reader of excessive luxury, of ornate flourishes that mar a valuable item and symbolize the disintegration of one’s character. Their creation and use can shed light on the types of eredar that decided to follow Sargeras, those that cared more about appearances than reality.
In medieval literature, a common theme is that money corrupts. There are countless proto-fairytales that describe rich characters either outwitted by commoners or hiding their bad actions with gold. The entire premise of Das Nibelungelied, the epic poem that served as the inspiration for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, is that heroic nobility, demonstrating their power and intellect through luxurious gatherings, deceive each other in private with devastating results—civil war and death. All main characters value the elaborate processions and feudal visits except for Brunhild, a warrior -princess who values her physical strength and does not initiate the cycle of deception. In one of the most popular medieval tales, One-Ox, the poor hero outwits several rich men and their losses grow in severity. They are entranced by the fantastical stories One-Ox makes up precisely because they are tantalizingly absurd, from pursuing a donkey purported to make golden coins to believing that if they jump into the sea, they will find a fortune instead of a watery grave.* In Cassandrino the Thief by Straparola, a poor rogue outwits a sluggish priest and is handsomely rewarded with gold for his cleverness. However, he is admonished to behave in a respectable and modest manner upon receiving his monetary reward. Instead of using the gold to buy personal goods, he invests it in trade and becomes a well-respected businessman.**
Both on Argus and in these tales, the threat of corruption through luxury looms. The wealthy Eredar, unable to see the glaring flaws in their flashy and elite artifacts, were prime candidates ripe for demonic corruption because their intellect was dimmed and their judgement was poor. The resulting new culture, led by Velen on Draenor, was more modest as all traces of magic were purposely hidden. Like the Night Elves, magic served as a painful reminder of how a culture could be torn apart so easily. However, unlike the Night Elves, the Draenei did not abandon magic completely, simply practicing it in moderation.
Picturing dramatic oil paintings of Draenic nobility or elaborate crystal chandeliers seems impossible when looking at the décor of the Exodar and Blood Watch, but it’s entirely possible Velen’s subdued aesthetics was a response to the overly-ornate style of the magical Eredar, as well as a precaution against his people traveling down the same magical path. There’s a lingering sense that the Draenei, when left to their own devices, will revert to aesthetic choices not appreciated by the rest of Azeroth. While there’s some pretty unflattering armor choices in the game, the two that WoW directly critiques in-game are Queen Azshara’s Dressing Gown, a night elf artifact, and Modoru’s gown, sewn by an elderly Draenei for her grandson at Star’s Rest. While the gown is a loving reminder of his family and culture, it raises suspiscion in the night elf sentinels on duty, trained to loathe the ways of the past. Both these garments, which look perfectly normal, are subject to ridicule because they value excessive ornamentation over practicality. While it is never advisable to dismiss all of a culture’s offerings, many characters in WoW have strong feelings of hatred towards particular eras and will dismiss all aspects of a culture, good or bad, in their hate.
The Draenei have learned, better than other cultures, to embrace balance instead of pushing towards an extreme. Draenei buildings are large, sparse, elegant, and just a touch otherwordly with their supernatural purple accents. Luxury is not absent, but used sparingly to create stunning architectural effects. While Scryer Rise in Shattrath City is in much better condition than Aldor Rise, the Draenei quarter has more awe-inspiring architecture even though the bed in the inn is falling apart with a tattered cover and leaves for a mattress. Telredor in Zangarmarsh is a town dramatically built on top of a tall mushroom. The views are breathtaking and the inhabitants know it, constructing alcoves and balconies with reclining chairs in addition to luxurious nooks next to utility bedrooms with bunkbeds.
Several Draenei artifacts hint at a luxurious society beneath the recent sorrow. The Anklet with Golden Bells is described as follows: “This slim loop of purple metal is adorned with seventeen tiny bells and larger yellow beads of blown glass. It might have been worn by a dancer or a young socialite.” While the Draenei do have jewelry on their tails, personal appearances are not emphasized in any of the quests. When WoW does depict socialities in game, namely Harris Pilton and Ricole Nichie, they use blood elf models while the Draenei serve as the butt for fashion jokes, such as Modoru. Yet in some long-ago time, Draenei too participated in an elitist society, building a culture around wealth and family status instead of communal and religious rituals. The appearance of the jewelry reveals great craftsmanship but also flamboyance in the description of numerous bells and bright beads. There is also some ambivalence as the curator cannot tell whether the owner was a pampered socialite or a trained dancer, both types apparently serving a similar function as a decorative object to be gazed at during parties.
Another artifact of great craftsmanship is the Fine Crystal Candelabra, described as “This piece once held a full dozen candles. It is virtually dripping with blue and purple crystals connected by fine chains and ornate scrollwork. The artisan’s initials are engraved on the bottom: ‘V. T.'” The Draenei’s love for purple-hued things is apparent in Azeroth today, but the appearance of ‘fine chains,” “ornate scrollwork,” and elaborate crystals tangled in the dripping candles is decidedly Baroque. Ornamentation instead of practicaltiy has won out. Currently in Shattrath or Exodar, there are no such candelabra–simply dazzling purple curtains, large glowing crystals, or ropes of pure light hanging from the ceiling.
In other Draenei artifacts such as the Dignified Portrait, Baroque Sword Scabbard, Strange Silver Paperweight, and Carved Harp of Exotic Wood, the descriptions of craftsmanship have sinister implications. The Dignifed Portrait is described as follows: “This is a very serious oil painting of a very serious draenei gentleman. While the artwork overall is flattering, you get the sense that the artist thought his subject was quite the jerk, because you can see at the very bottom edge of the frame that the gentleman was not painted wearing pants.” As with the Candelabra, the player learns that Draenic culture had a subset of skilled artisans that were proud of their craft. In this portrait, the player also learns that the artisans may be at odds with their patrons. Certainly the painter behind the Diginfied Portrait was, in drawing his subject without pants.As the artwork remained in relatively good condition, the painter’s revenge must have gone unnoticed by the unobservant sitter and his circle of friends, who probably would have destroyed it if he had noticed. (Or as vidyala suggested–perhaps the painter cleverly hid it underneath the frame!)
The inclusion of the Baroque Sword Scabbard confirms the hypothesis that some archaeology fragments were meant to include and critique life-before-Draenor since magic, a key component of society on Argus, was hidden by Velen on Draenor to avoid notice from the Burning Legion. The flavor text reads: “This sword sheath is almost distasteful in its ornamentation. Every bit of exposed surface has been carved, gilded or inscribed upon. It is likely the weapon this scabbard once carried was highly magical or ceremonial in nature.” The unknown curator assumes that the scabbard was carved precisely because the wielder knew it held magical powers. However, decorating the scabbard was ineffectual–it has lost its magical powers and now looks ridiculous. The player can infer that on Argus, magic and ornamentation were entwined together even though it didn’t lead to the best long-term results. Flashy displays of magic signaled to the Burning Legion that the Eredar were hungry for more knowledge without reflection.
The Strange Silver Paperweight is a prime example of wealth over taste. Semi-precious metal is turned into a decorative paperweight instead of being used for more practical objects such as weapons or currency. The material is left in a melted lump without any further attempt at decoration: “If this object was not used as a draenei paperweight, then you have no idea of its function. It appears to be a blob of petrified mercury with one flat side so that it can sit on a desk.” The curator’s language is hesitant, assuming it must be a paperweight that belongs to the Draenei while implying that he/she has seen nothing quite like this before in the homes of any current Draenei. Perhaps it was simply a lump of semi-precious metal left out on a table to impress visitors. Or perhaps it was a paperweight, but one used mostly for show in the home of a nobleman, that the artisan disliked.
The Carved Harp of Exotic Wood is melodramatic, drawing the musician in with its craftsmanship and then controlling the mood. The description reads: “This small harp was held in one hand, like a lyre. It has a deep wooden sounding box with seven strings knotted around a tuning bar. It is capable of playing music, but seems to only produce sad, melancholy notes.” The skill of the musician is consumed by the exotic power of the harp, which makes anything sound sad. Small and unassuming, it hid powers inside that only the artisan would know. This is a twist on the lyre from antiquity, which was associated with Apollo, the god of balance and light. Here, the lyre is Dionysian, drawing the musician into passionate emotion and blinding the listener to cheerful reality.
Even a rare artifact, The Last Relic of Argus, has something funny about it. This hearthstone, “one of the few things the draenei were able to take with them on their flight from Argus,” teleports the player to obscure locations across Azeroth and has an extremely long cooldown, 12 hours. While Argus is still remembered fondly by the Draenei, an outsider wonders if this relic is honestly valuable. It’s magical and sentimental, but it’s not convenient. And this is one of the “simple” artifacts from Argus that was worth saving, imagine the ones left behind! The inscription on the bottom reads “I long for Mac’Aree,” possibly the grandest city in Argus according to Jessera of Mac’Aree, a homesick NPC on Bloodmyst Isle. While he has spent thousands of years in exile, temperately practicing magic, he longs for the unbridled luxury of his earlier life.
The artifacts that are free from this ambiguity come from other places besides the nobility of Argus: the Plated Elekk Goad, Scepter of the Nathrezim, and Arrival of the Naaru. The flavor text for the Scepter describes the threat of the Burning Legion in a straight-forward manner: “The Nathrezim, also known as dreadlords, act as intelligence agents and interrogators of the Burning Legion. While they are powerful foes on the battlefield, they prefer to turn nations against each other through manipulation and guile.” After reading the descriptions of the luxurious artifacts, one sees that manipulation is a key theme, that the artifact’s purpose is obscured by ornamentation or that the artisan was more clever than the recipient. The Plated Elekk Goad is the one item that does exactly what it should do, without additional fuss. It talks of training Elekks in Nagrand, alluding to a peaceful time between the Draenei and Orc before Gul’dan’s corruption.
When Velen disagreed with Kil’jaeden and Archimonde, he prayed for guidance–a crucial moment captured in the Arrival of the Naaru. The Naaru answered his prayers and revealed visions of the world under the Burning Legion’s reign as well fantastical visions of the Light. This gave Velen the strength to lead his followers into exile and to trust the Naaru, as the remaining Eredar allied with Kil’jaeden and Archimonde transformed into corrupted demons. The artifact depicts a turning point in the history of the Draenei, expressed in a simple tone fitting for its place in history. It’s equivalent to the Sundering for the Night Elves, a climatic time of betrayal by leaders and corruption by magic. With the help of the Naaru, the Draenei moved towards a healthier balance between Light and Magic.
So when Jessera Mac’Aree reminisces, “On Argus, Mac’Aree was the most sacred of our cities. Would you believe me if I told you that the walkways were lined with precious minerals? That the rivers glittered even in complete darkness? I long for those days… How long has it been? A thousand years? Ten-thousand?” it may be tempting to succumb to his vision of luxury. However, after examining the background behind these artifacts, we’re skeptical of his claims–the walkways were probably filled with cracks and the magic that fueled the glittering rivers also created years of sorrow.
* Jan Ziolkowski, Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales.
**Ed. Jack Zipes, The Great Fairy Tale Tradition.