The Sable Church tells us to work towards the Darkness, yet it also tells us not to let the First Flame go out; it tells us to take the flame for ourselves.
Dark Souls IIIPlatforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Publisher: Bandi Namco
Developer: From Software
Release date: 2016-04-12
“In the beginning, there were two places of existence: There was the Above, and the Below. Above was grey, with Dragons who had existed forever. Nothing changed, nothing progressed, and nothing lived or died. [Below was dark] but that was about to change, because when the Flame came it created Disparity. Now there was Light and Dark, and the Light illuminated the creatures who were hiding. These creatures emerged to inspect the Flame, and these were the ones who would become known as Giants. For within the Flame was great power, and four Giants claimed this power. They claimed it, and it shaped them.”
So begins the first major lore video by VaatiVidya, Dark Souls lore guru, laying out the beginnings of this world. The first paragraph of Genesis as it were. The important Giant from this introduction is Lord Gwyn, the one who “stood for the Light”, and led a rebellion against the Dragons to take the surface. The Age of Fire begins with this victory, as Gwyn establishes his kingdom of Lordran, and humanity emerges to worship this Giant, this :ord of Light, this God and King.
This is the Age of Fire, an age fueled by the First Flame, but the flame is fading. In each Dark Souls game we set out to renew it. That’s our goal, our holy mission. We fight our way to the fire and then we offer ourselves up to it, giving up our bodies as if we are kindling that helps the fire burn a little brighter for a little longer. It’s a cycle that we’ve participated in for three games now, and each game hints that it has happened countless times in between, as well.
But why? Why sacrifice ourselves to keep this world alive? This is a horrible world, one of pain and sadness and constant horror. Why subject ourselves to so much death? “Enough death to leave you broken,” says another warrior we meet along the way. Why do we break ourselves for this already broken world?
The answer, as it often is for questions such as these, is a matter of faith.
The Way of White
The First Flame doesn’t fade quickly. It’s a long drawn out process that Gwyn and other Giants have tried to stop. However, Gwyn’s four chosen kings were corrupted by a primordial serpent, an ancient being who seeks the Age of Dark, so the god flooded his kingdoms to contain these new enemies. The other gods, Gwyn’s children, then panicked and fled. The Witch of Izalith, one of the original Giants, tried to create a new flame, but it backfired and consumed her, birthing Chaos Demons into the world. With no kingdom, no family, and no friends, Gwyn did the one thing left to him. He sacrificed himself to the Flame to keep it burning, a boost of fuel to combat the coming Darkness.
By the time Dark Souls III was released, a society had formed around this process. The Way of White is a religious covenant for all things related to Gwyn, and it teaches us the nobility of sacrifice. We give ourselves to the Flame as Gwyn did, continuing the cycle he started, making us as gods as well. Those that survive the burning become Lords of Cinder, an honorary title that bestows royalty upon them, no matter the person’s origin. A prince, a priest, a Giant, or a common man can all become Lords of Cinder.
Society teaches us this is right, and we want to believe it’s right. We naturally want to fight the darkness because it’s an easy metaphor for evil and horror. However, in previous games we didn’t actually have to “link the fire”, as it’s called. We could have ignored that mission, done nothing instead. We had a choice, a choice that Dark Souls III makes more complicated, and that choice speaks to our relationship with the gods and men of this world.
How much faith do you have in the Flame?
No Faith in the Fire
If the original Dark Souls was about the victory of survival in the face of death, then Dark Souls III is about the desire for death in face of survival. It twists our heroic sacrifice, revealing the darker consequences of what once seemed like a noble and heroic act.
In Dark Souls III we’re an Unkindled soldier brought to life because the Lords of Cinder have abandoned their thrones. The Flame is fading again, and the Lords have been called to join in a mass sacrifice, yet only one of them showed up. The rest just don’t care.
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There’s Aldrich, who a fellow warrior describes as “...a right and proper cleric, only, he developed a habit of devouring men. He ate so many that be bloated like a drowned pig, then softened into sludge, so they stuck him in the Cathedral of the Deep. And they made him a Lord of Cinder. Not for virtue, but for might.”
This was a powerful and evil man, forced into the sacrifice precisely because he was powerful. There was no honor in it, just practicality, yet he’s still given the title and all the honor that comes with it. He has no actual desire to save the world, and (speculation here) he likely thinks himself strong enough to survive whatever comes after. So when it comes time for him to sacrifice himself again he ignores the call.
Then there are the Abyss Watchers, a special Undead military group formed to fight any threats from the Abyss. This eventually led them to become Lords of Cinder (as a group, since they all share a soul) but even as Lords of Cinder their first duty remained combating the Abyss. In Dark Souls III we find them at the entrance to the Carthus catacombs, a deep tomb that sits on the very edge of the Abyss, and they’re not fighting monsters, they’re fighting and killing each other. It’s probable that they spent so much time on this abyssal border that they themselves became corrupted by the Darkness. Their zealotry became their undoing, and now the Abyss has spread past them, into the lands they wanted to protect. They’re still Lords of Cinder, but they’re no help to anyone now.
Then there’s Yhorm the Giant, King of the Profaned Capital. By all rights, he was an honorable and noble ruler. Then something called the Profaned Flame became a problem for his kingdom, so he became a Lord of Cinder to put it out. Fighting fire with fire, well, it backfired: “The Profaned Capital was consumed by fire after Yhorm the Giant became a Lord of Cinder. The fire, born of the sky, is said to have incinerated naught but human flesh.” Now Yhorm himself is all that’s left of his kingdom. Without his people he has no reason to want to save this world.
Then there’s Prince Lothric, youngest son of the current royal family, who is not actually a Lord of Cinder. He was supposed to sacrifice himself, but he and his brother instead “…rejected their duty to become Lords of Cinder, and settled down far, far away to watch the fire fade from a distance.”
The only Lord who sits on his throne is Courland, a common man who linked the fire in a previous cycle when all hope seemed lost; a true hero. He’s here even before you arrive, but there’s a curious feature about him: He’s missing his legs. Either he’s so devoted to the sacrifice that he crawled here… or he simply never left.
All the Lords have shirked their duty, but maybe they’re on to something.
The Sable Church
The Furtive Pygmy was the first human, it claimed the Dark Soul and waited for the fire to subside… While Gwyn fathered the Age of Fire and set up his kingdom, the Pygmy shattered the Dark Soul and fathered Humanity…T he Dark Soul is unique in that it can grow and spread through humans. By the time the Furtive Pygmy was killed it was already too late. The Dark Soul had already been split. And it continued to split and grow like a disease. And as the Darkness grew, the Flame did fade, and Gwyn’s kingdom began to fall.”
-- VaatiVidya, Gwyn and the First Flame lore video
Humanity doesn’t come from the Light; we come from the Dark. We are, each of us, parts of the titular Dark Soul that’s slowly consuming the world. The Way of White teaches us that Gwyn sacrificed himself to save the world, but perhaps the truth is he sacrificed himself to save his world.
Another primordial serpent, Kaathe, explained this alternate history way back in the first Dark Souls: “Lord Gwyn trembled at the Dark. Clinging to his Age of Fire, and in dire fear of humans, and the Dark Lord who would one day be born amongst them... Lord Gwyn resisted the course of nature. By sacrificing himself to link the fire, and commanding his children to shepherd the humans... Gwyn has blurred your past, to prevent the birth of the Dark Lord.”
So Gwyn kept the world alive for himself and his children. In telling his children to “shepherd the humans” he was really telling them to convince us that we too need to sacrifice ourselves to the First Flame. The Way of White is an elaborate manipulation to trick humanity into working against our interests. We come from the Dark, we are part of the Dark, and we should return to the Dark. We shouldn’t be fighting the Lords of Cinder, forcefully dragging their ashes back to the fire to be burnt, we should be allying with them to let this world die.
That sounds kind of bad on its face, cravenly nihilistic even, but if this series has tried to teach us anything, its tried to teach us not to fear death. The Dark Souls games are notoriously difficult. You will fight and you will die, it's inevitable, but we shouldn’t give up after that failure because in this world death is not the end of life. Indeed, at this point in the fiction, the population of Undead humans vastly outnumbers the population of living humans. And these Undead aren’t zombies, they’re thinking and feeling people. Nonetheless, they’re expelled from the lands of the living. They’re stuffed into asylums, sent on suicide missions, hunted, and (re)killed en masse. It’s no surprise then that they eventually unite under their own religion, it’s what oppressed people do. Thus the Sable Church of Londor is born.
The Sable Church preaches the virtue of Undeath. More than that even, it preaches of the virtue of Hollowing: After being resurrected over and over again so many times an Undead may lose their mind, turning Hollow. Though the mind is gone the body still remains, now a kind of feral beast, a true zombie, and the lowest form of "life". Or so The Way of White would have you believe.
One of the founders of the church, Yuria, tells us that Hollows are actually “the most honest expression of Man.” Another founder, Lillian, “…is said to recount tales that portray the suffering and conflict of Hollows.” To the Sable Church, Hollows are not mindless things to be disposed of, but misunderstood beings capable of suffering. Whereas the world would kill them, the Sable Church offers sanctuary.
There’s a particular item in Dark Souls III that can reverse Hollowing in the player. The detailed item description says, “Inhabitants of Londor, the Land of Hollows, use this secret treasure to feign normalcy. Occasionally, a Hollow fools even himself, and turns upon his own kind.” This description is important because it suggests Hollows are not mindless, that they understand their nature and even how the world perceives them. It suggests self-awareness and an awareness of others, as well as an ability to manipulate that awareness within others and themselves. Mindless beings do not hide their nature. So when Yuria says Hollows are the “honest expression of Men” she’s not saying that Men are mindless, thus the mindless Hollows are honest in their beastly nature. She’s saying something more complicated: That Hollows, a form of life several stages removed from “living,” exists closer to the Darkness that birthed us, and is thus a more honest form of life. These dead beings are quite holy.
The living have had their time in the spotlight. The Age of Fire was for the gods, and the living were tricked into furthering it along. It’s time for the Undead and the Hollows to rule. The Sable Church tells us to work towards the Darkness, yet it also tells us not to let the First Flame go out; it tells us to take the flame for ourselves.
Dark Souls III is the first game in the series to offer us three possible endings. Previously, we could either sacrifice ourselves and link the fire, or walk away from the Flame and let it die. In the third game we have a third option: Take the power of the Flame for ourselves. The fire still goes out, the Age of Fire still ends, but this ending gives the Hollows more power. It makes us the Dark Lord that Gwyn feared. It’s a more permanent ending, rather than just let the flame fade and possibly be reignited again, we take it for ourselves. The Age of Dark made certain and permanent.
But this all goes back to a matter of faith, and as we've seen, faith can be manipulated.
The Sanctity of Death
Prince Lothric refused to become a Lord of Cinder, but he didn’t come to this decision on his own. We learn that he had a mentor who “doubted the linking of the fire”, a seemingly minor piece of trivia, but throughout the castle there are statues of a particular being that should raise our concerns: A primordial serpent, one of those immortal beings working to bring the Age of Dark. It’s not a stretch to assume this was the mentor who led Lothric astray.
Additionally, if we kill Yuria, she begs Kaathe for forgiveness as she falls to the floor. That’s Kaathe the primordial serpent, the one who originally told us of Gwyn’s trickery. These beings (or this being, it’s just as likely that all these encounters with a primordial serpent though history have been Kaathe) have been working towards an Age of Dark since the Age of Fire began: They corrupted Gwyn’s four chosen kings, one convinced Prince Lothric to refuse his family’s legacy of Lordship, and Kaathe is the mastermind behind a religion that praises death and darkness.
This invites a direct comparison between Kaathe and Gwyn, who do you trust? One of these churches is lying to you. It feels like a new question for the series, yet this conflict of faith has existed since the beginning. Kaathe asked us to not to link the fire in Dark Souls; what did you think of the request then? The opposition to Gwyn and the Way of White is not actually new to Dark Souls III, but what is new is that this opposition is enshrined in its own religion rather than being spoken by a lone serpent creature (the symbology of which immediately makes Kaathe suspect). That new presentation gives the accusations new power.
The only way to fight a religion is with another religion. You can’t combat belief with non-belief -- love for Gwyn would never be quelled simply by blaspheming Gwyn -- you must present a contrasting belief, e.g., love for Gwyn can be quelled with love for Undead/Hollows. This speaks to the human desire to believe in positive ideals: We’re hesitant to work towards the end of the world, but we’re happy to work towards the start of a new world even if that means forcefully ending another. This is all doubly true if that new world offers sanctuary from the violence around us.
In giving us that new third ending, Dark Souls III is saying the mouth matters more than the message. It highlights the persuasiveness of organized religion, a persuasiveness that takes effect even before a pilgrim opens their mouth to speak. Kaathe was doomed to fail when it was simply him telling us the truth of the world, when he just asked us serpent-to-person not to link the fire. That kind of straightforward entreaty can’t stand against the strength of religious belief. The existence of subsequent games proves that failure: Even if we listen to Kaathe and don’t link the fire, someone else does; the world remains spinning long enough for Dark Souls II to come and go, and then remains spinning still until Dark Souls III. Even if we, as the Chosen Undead, rejected the Way of White, we still couldn’t bring about the Age of Dark. We needed something more. Kaathe needed something more.
The Sable Church is that something more.
Dark Souls has always been a game about cycles -- the cycles of rulers, civilization, Ages, and time. It’s only fitting then that the central religion in both previous games was the Way of White, which preaches the holiness of cycles. Dark Souls III is about the failure of cycles -- the Lords of Cinder refusing to return to their thrones. It’s only fitting then that the central religion of this final game is the Sable Church, which preaches the opposite message:
Death is holy. Endings are holy.