The Meaning of Dark Souls and the End of Lore

The Meaning of Dark Souls and the End of Lore

As the months approached the release of Dark Souls 3’s final DLC, The Ringed City, the community’s factual chokehold on the series tightened like a noose around the neck of Schrodinger’s cat. Answers were demanded, identities were at stake; theorists had actually begun posts on the internet that began with “I believe…” but if anything is made more apparent in Dark Souls 3, it is that A prisoner is one who has staked everything on a belief,” for one truth, one reality, is only made true in relation to another. – Dark Souls 3, Prisoner’s Chain.

Long before the release of Dark Souls 3, it had been clear to the quieter few that any “true” ending to Dark Souls as a whole would have to exist outside the fourth wall in the mind of the individual, not unlike the Usurpation of Fire, in which male and female, fire and dark, are combined in ritual and in metaphor. The final painting in the Ringed City DLC is both a mirror to ourselves and the microverse that avoids the big crunch, the painting of “you” found through the ultimate quantum-Souls revelation at the bottom of reality’s funnel. Merely assuming the series had no meaning all along, however, would be to flip the entire implication on its head, and like the dwarf on Zarathustra’s shoulders, misunderstand the very riddle the series has posed from the start.

Under the withering dusk lies a desert spread across the horizon. Ashes have buried the structures of old. Could this be the end of an age, or the end of the world?

I have previously described the Souls series as analogous to the state of society and man. Like Sisyphus rolling a soul-boulder up Kafka’s castle, the protagonist is poised between divine authority and his own madness, in which effort in either direction causes a reverberating compulsion toward the opposite end. Gwyn and Vendrick are the quintessence of Frazer’s Sacred King, the sacrificial solar deity behind almost all ancient mythologies who “awaits the end of the world” when they will be slain and overthrown—each beginning a pygmy, and dying a “colossus,” to his successor.

The metaphor “dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants,” while distinct from its origin in the Greek myth of Orion, refers to progress made upon ages past. Nietzsche refutes the notion in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” in which the dwarf on the giant’s shoulders fails to understand the grandest of ideas: two contradicting gates that lead to the same destination: “moment.”

The Chosen Undead, Bearer of the Curse, and Ashen One, all begin as descendants of the Furtive Pygmy, dwarves, and set their gaze beyond old memories, giants, toward the next Age of Fire. Like Zarathustra, they must first make pilgrimage down into “katabasis,” into the depths, Blighttown, The Pit, or Farron Keep, before reaching the sun above. Arriving at “The Land of the Sun,” Anor Londo, they find the sun and the “The Great Mother,” Gwynevere, to be an illusion. At last, they slay the Sacred King, and like Zarathustra’s dwarf, stand on the shoulders of a giant “before the decrepit  gate” of the final revelation “without really knowing why,” or without comprehension.

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To Nietzsche, the dwarf symbolized the “Scholar,” who misunderstands Zarathustra’s riddle to be just “old words” or a platitude leading to nihilism. He is the part of us who says “the cycle of fire and dark are meaningless,” and who believes Aldia’s words that man is nothing but an “exquisite lie.” The scholar is bound to his hunt for an objective truth “beyond the scope of light, beyond the reach of dark,” but is blind to the broken ground on which he stands.

“I’ve seen your kind, time and time again.
Every fleeing man must be caught. Every secret must be unearthed.
Such is the conceit of the self-proclaimed seeker of truth.
But in the end, you lack the stomach.
For the agony you’ll bring upon yourself…” – Sir Vilhelm

The problem with seeking truth or identity solely in the fire or dark, or disregarding them entirely, is that they are part of one source. Each side exists only as the absence of the other, no different than the Yin and Yang or any field in quantum physics. Frampt and Kaathe are theorized to be one serpent with heads on both sides (caduceus shield) while the Reversal Ring in Dark Souls 3 shows the same concept with male and female. If the state of hollow and dark in Dark Souls is hunger and desire, then the fire is the object of that desire. Neither state is right nor wrong, yet  both are “evil” in their extremes. We see the extreme manifestation of the dark in the worship of the Deep, and the opposite in the systematic enslavement of the lords to link the flame, for “Shadow is not cast, but born of fire. And, the brighter the flame, the deeper the shadow.” – Vendrick, Dark Souls 2.

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This dilemma causes some to seek escape outward through worship of the dragons. Others seek escape inward, living in pocket universespaintingsworlds within worlds, as they unearth every secret and burn each to the ground once the defects,  or bugs, are found. Both strategies are forms of slavery, and “as above, so below,” arrive at the same destination.

In many ancient mythologies, before the existence of time and space was the “cosmic egg,” the state of reality before the big bang and outside our bubble universe in which all potentialities exist. It is often depicted with a snake wrapped around it: the “Kundalini,” Sanskrit for “Ring” in reference to the coil of a snake harboring potential energy. In one interpretation, a sword was said to come down and divide the egg in two, creating light and dark, male and female. The sword kept cutting, producing so many opposing forces until the result was the universe in which we live: a grand necessity resulting from a near infinite combination of on and off switches, 0 and 1, excitation and inhibition, or positive and negative spins emerging from the “implicate order.” Just as it is theorized that our universe is comprised of the exact amount of matter and gravity to equate to a sum of zero energy, modern cosmology, ancient mythologies, and the Souls creation myth, all base their assumptions of reality on this notion—that existence or mankind is nothing more than the result of divisions or folds of no-thing. Call it “the Unmanifest,” the “All,” “God,” the “Implicate Order,” or “The Dark Soul,” it is both everything and nothing, and of which humanity is a splinter.

“The world began without knowledge, and without knowledge will it end.
Dost not this ring clear and true?” – Locust Preacher, Dark Souls 3

We find such an egg at the bottom of the Ringed City, at the “end of the world.” The lore hunters are given their final prize, but what is it? There is nothing within the egg, nothing before time and space, there is no answer as to what the “Dark Soul” is on a factual level, because it was made real, or meaningful, only in relation to us. Reaching out for it causes it to collapse. All locality is lost, and there in the sinking sands, our enemy is revealed.

Embraced by the soft light of dusk is a woman in eternal slumber. She holds a half-cracked shell amid the dry overgrowth. Her name is Filianore - one who sleeps for the sake of the people.

“And when I found my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound and solemn. It was the spirit of gravity. Through him all things fall.” – Nietzsche

In Iron John, author and poet Robert Bly makes a distinction between “psychological” and “mythological” thinking, in which the prior minimizes and trivializes, and the latter enlarges and empowers, a subject in the mind. Semantics aside, the idea suggests that through knowledge, we learn to take a step back from knowledge. By choosing to see the whole rather than its parts, which quantum physics tells us where never there to begin with, we shoulder the weight of significance back into the world of man.

“One met the dark with learning. But in the end, learned his knowledge was wanting.” – Locust Preacher, Dark Souls 3

The true devil then, is the scholar within us, our very drive to devour, our hunt for world within world, fact within fact, embodied by the Slave Knight Gael whose red hood prevents him from looking anywhere but down into smaller scales of dissolution. He consumes the Dark Soul, and it is with the blood of his agony that we awaken. Victorious, our reward and answer is silence. There is nothing left, “not a smithereen…” and so we rear our heads back up to the arch tree from which we so tortuously descended. What could we have been blind to up there? What meaning could be found? Climbing back upon the shoulders of giants again, in our final pilgrimage we rediscover “the truth of the old words,” and ascending into greater scales again, give the “Blood of the Dark Soul” to the painter girl who uses it to create a painting named after us. What aspects of our lives have we been blind to? What meaning could be found? If we have no name, she paints us a world of “Ash,” signifying that we still require more katabasis, “Ashes Work,” or suffering to understand the truth, that neither gate nor abandoning them had meaning, for meaning exists only in this moment, as the contrast of forces—or colors—on the canvas of you.

We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world” – Snow from Solaris by Stanislaw Lem”


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I have over 1000 hours in the Dark Souls series, and live in Japan with my wife as a translator.

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15 comments on “The Meaning of Dark Souls and the End of Lore”

  1. Avatar Dragonscholar says:

    I agree that the final DLC bringing answers to all our questions would have been contrary to the very spirit of the series. Part of what awed me from the first game was the feeling that you are part of a complicated world you will never fully understand. There are mysteries beyond your reach. Taking that away would be an awefully bad decision.

    On the other side, some core elements could have been better adressed or at least partially answered. I consider that all in all, there is enough lore on the 4 Lords of the first game. The last DLC gives us interesting hints on the nature of the Dark Soul as well, with a quite fitting mood to end the series.

    The one thing I feel would be central and yet missing is Velka. She is the catalyst of the series, sending undeads to kill the gods and move on to a new age, of which she would probably not even be a part of, being a godess herself. I fell like her not being present at the end of the story is a strange choice, as it would have come to a full circle, although I am glad there are still many loose ends left to discuss.

  2. Avatar announakis says:

    :-O
    a confirmation of what I have been suspecting for a long time: I am an idiot.

  3. Avatar Poprocky7 says:

    I got to say, I’m glad I got to read this, it’s inspiring to just except the series as it is and as it was, you referencing quotes from characters in the series and authors puts a foundation on it all.

    Keep up the great work!!!

  4. Cavalar says:

    Great article, appreciate the style and quotes from acknowledged philosophers, bringing their ideas to comparison with several similar concepts in our beloved series. A little portion of context I should have probably missed, due to my native non-english language, but still I do find author’s idea great and certainly interesting and inspiring for almost any Souls fan. Thank you

  5. Avatar Thaloss says:

    I love your post, in the end it is up to us to interpret to the story. It is the spirit with the series that we’ll not known everything. Still I find the delivery of the DLC on the messages to lore theorists to be too ‘heavy-handed’, almost if wanting us to stop having fun. I would like to see the game world as both metaphorical work of the real world, but at the same time it would be a history, archeaological leftovers of its own escapism place.

    Although it is their decision, and I appreciate the new vision Miyazaki, Tanimura and the rest of Fromsoftware would bring to us the next time. The world ends without knowledge, but the point of it isn’t the knowledge, rather the fun times we had with it.

    The literature sources are certainly interesting, it may not be what From was intended, but a good story can be viewed from many angles.

  6. Wes says:

    Thank you all for the kind comments, I really appreciate it.

    Japan has a very close connection with Nietzsche within their history of thought, so I tend to see him in a lot of Japanese games or literature. Of course, parallels can surely be found everywhere. Tomes could be written about the ‘mythology’ of DS1, 2, or 3, as some things seem so subtle, yet so purposely designed to have meaning. While they may never have been meant to have meaning intentionally, if you believe in Jungian theory, that myths and archetypes are "hard-wired" into the universe, then that opens up a beautiful way of looking at it. Regardless, it is up to us to determine what something means.

  7. Avatar Thaloss says:

    It is true, I think Nietszcherian ideas is very prevalence in tragedy and romanticist side of literature as well, it could feel ‘so edgy’ sometimes, but considering the nature of the game story. It wouldn’t be far off. The game deals deeply with the stories of human emotions and ambitions in a very theatrical way. The meaning is certainly intended, but it might not be the one we think because we usually relate it to our experiences in our life, differently in each individuals.

  8. Wes says:

    While it could be said that the two DLCs add nothing new, where they succeed is by using the fire and dark as a discussion of emergentism vs reductionism within an epistemological backdrop; what can we say is “true” and at what price?

    Fillianore is blinded by root-like formations, unable to see that the egg she carries is hollow. We see a statue of Gwyn giving The Chloranthy Ring to the Pygmy king, flowers lead to Fillianore’s rest, and roots flowing beneath her, all testament to the idea that at some point, the condition for life is a leap of faith. The image of sand and rubble from kingdoms past is the mental landscape left after every earthly form has been renounced as “illusory.” The egg may be hollow, but this is of no functional importance, and this same message can be found in Tenshi no Tamago (Angel’s Egg), from which Miyazaki likely got his inspiration. The final scene of The Ringed City is therefore a cautionary tale of the effects of over-inquiry and the relinquishment of what is.

    The NPCs in The Ringed City teach us that both fearing knowledge, and seeking knowledge, causes suffering. Joseph Campbell described the opposing forces of reality to be like two horns, and if we get “hooked” on either, we die (Sam Keen interview). In Buddhism, these are fear and desire, and enlightenment is a process of becoming detached–when necessary–from both. Nietzsche agreed: regardless of the choice we make, we can never escape the present moment and the truth that neither offer final salvation.

  9. Avatar Dragonscholar says:

    And doesn’t Patches/Lapp wishing you: " a fine dark soul, to you" seem like breaking the fourth wall and mocking your quest?

  10. Avatar Thaloss says:

    We’ll never be sure if It’s breaking the fourth wall. I mean, he could just asked the white haired pygmy if he had seen you running around. Maybe he’s just doing it in a cheeky way? after all, being kicked by him put you in a position that you could continues your quest.

  11. Avatar Nahztek-Shadowpath says:

    It’s definitely breaking the 4th wall to wish us a Fine Dark Soul.

    And just a bit strange that he said that he would put you in his prayers (in terms of the 4th wall)

    I thought Patches despised clerics? Isn’t praying a cleric thing?

    The end sequence with Lapp was like a farewell from M and crew. Of course that’s obvious. And that is definitely breaking the 4th wall. In a good way.

  12. Avatar dn1nd says:

    Ever think that Patches was one of the Few undead that saw through all the Lies and that he hated Clerics for their blind faith to a lie.

  13. Avatar Nahztek-Shadowpath says:

    Pre-TRC, after all the Lapp info was out, my friend was saying how funny it would be if Patches turned out to be the furtive Pygmy.

    It put this picture in my head of a tongue-in-cheek alternate ending. Patches points out a shiney and kicks you down a hole. You get it and it’s the pendant from DS1 starter items.
    Patches looks down at you and starts laughing. More laughter from behind kicks in as Frampt and Kaathe join in beside Patches.
    Laughter continues.
    Credits roll.

  14. Wes says:

    dn1nd, that certainly appears to be what’s going on. In a certain sense he is the good guy all along, who needs nothing from the world: he is free from the curse of want, is not hollow etc.
    However, in order to reach this state of unwanting he had relied on purging stones, so even he needed something. As time went on, they gradually stopped working for him until he required their very source, the purging monument.

    He appears to accept the futility of it all in his final cutscene, pushing us down in the direction of the Dark Soul well knowing that if we are to ever stop wanting, it will require obtaining the object we seek, or in our case, find it never existed / or was within us all along. As for a fourth wall break, it does seem that the Ashen One communicates things to characters without us witnessing it. People assume we are to do this, do that, and certainly seek the Dark Soul. Prince Lothric called it, "Mark my words, Ashen One… You remain among the Accursed." Whether it’s a fourth wall break or not is up to you, but it might as well be given the subject matter at hand. And I totally felt the same way Nahztek, it was like a farewell from the team, a "enjoy it, you asked for it.." and then sudden silence as we are forced to confront our very own selves.

    On a side note, I find it interesting that the purging stones, that Patches had used to be free from the curse throughout his entire life, have a face of a skull on them. To me, it makes me think how death awareness causes us to let go of all greed and live in the moment. After the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow had his first heart attack, he took on a quiet life and began developing a theory on just that, the "plateau experience," a kind of opposite from his famous concept "peak experience," a shift from seeking to being, or expectation to appreciation.

  15. Avatar Dragonscholar says:

    This is epic. Patches being the Pigmy is quite the thought!

    Also consider this very important piece of evidence: in the only representations we have of the Furtive Pigmy (the first game’s opening and the statue in TRC), he is seen crouching, just like our trusty friend Patches. This theory is now confirmed.


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