Friday, 23 October 2015
Eldar Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Review, 3rd Edition)
The Third Edition was an interesting era for Games Workshop. It was ultimately a revolution, a twist to shift the direction of the setting and step away from neon colourful era to something much grimmer. It was the shift away from Adam West to Kevin Conroy, and while it might have produced some of the best lore to date, it wasn't without its failings. Even without getting into split feelings over the turn or certain fan issues, especially when it came to serious substance. The best lore was reserved for the likes of the Index Astartes, and substantial background lore only started to be added back into the book in late 2001. The early codices of this Edition by comparison felt extremely bare bones, which brings us to today's book.
To be blunt, this book is simply lacking lore in many regards. There's a definite shortage of the usual areas you'd expect of a truly great codex, skimming over a lot of the detailed history or variation which makes an armybook stand out. However, what little is on offer is astounding, establishing and building many ideas which still define the race to this very day. It's enough to make you forget how little is really on offer at first, because in all honesty it vastly outstrips so much of what we see in some modern books. How so? Because, unlike a few too many codices of recent years what's there isn't present purely to justify the existence of new shiny things or focus upon the army. Instead it's all about cultural identity.
Take, for example, the final page of the book. It's a single in-universe document, a detailed report by an Inquisitor which examines the starting points of the race's language. No, before you start laughing, just hear this out. So often in the lore the eldar are described as thinking on an entirely different level, beyond that of humanity in all regards. It's a very hard thing for any writer to produce, and in many cases authors only bring this to life by sidestepping the subject entirely. However, this article not only gave insight to this idea but better established the age of this alien race than any timeline ever could. It does this by taking a few choice words and then going into their origins, their meanings, the way in which they are woven into their society. Then, it starts to build upon that, showing how each word has multiple meanings or tones, and how they can be misread:
"Thus, the name given to their most prevalent war engine, Faolchu, is most readily translated as 'Falcon'. However, Faolchu is not just any bird of prey, but is in fact the legendary Falcon of Eldar myth. It is a word that is replete with implications of vengeance and retribution, of justice and the slaying of wrongdoers. In this way Faolchu appears in many texts and is wrongly translated as meaning the warcraft of the same name, rather than the concept of revenge."
Only a good paragraph or so is offered to each part, ranging from the use of their names to the locations, but it's enough to give the race a little more depth. When it discusses the subject of names it goes into the different meanings and connotations carried by each syllable, and how so often that has been built upon their religion in some way. While their gods might be dead, the very core nature of their society is linked so intrinsically to them that they're carried on by their existence, with some elements or serious shifts only adding new shades to certain terms. Believe it or not that ever popular term "mon-keigh" was formed millennia before the eldar encountered humanity, and is a more general word than many realise.
While perhaps not the single most complex or overly intricate way of presenting their culture (and, as ever, owing a lot to Dune), this text's presence helps to sell the reader on the book's ideas. It certainly does a far better job than many, far more popular, franchises would over the years, which rarely even took stabs at building their races in such a way. Looking at you Star Trek.
Perhaps understandably to a degree, many passages, texts and terms come from the Imperium's perspective. The opening paragraphs to the final quote on the back cover are of humans regarding these aliens, and the reader only "sees" through their eyes for brief moments. It's only either during certain short stories or the like that the narrative truly shows things from their perspective, and these are always fleeting examples at best. As ever, this is an understandable approach to take but it ultimately ends up being a double edged sword. While on the one hand it succeeds at making the race seem alien, seem beyond human and with little to link us, it also distances them. It makes the reader relate too much to the human factions and not so much with the very army they are examining.
A few years down the line writers would attempt to take things much further with Codex: Necrons and it would negatively impact that book. So much so that, upon the complete re-writing of their entire lore, the author was falsely praised with giving the army an identity and sentient HQ choices. The way this particular codex sidestepped it was thanks to two elements: A wider variety of characters and more distinct units, and those same short stories mentioned before.
Every few pages or so, the reader would be granted a look at part of their army, from the Warlocks to the Aspect Warriors. However, what separates the success here with those of other codices is the way they use these stories. Rather than focusing purely upon visceral action or using it to shill a particular unit, they're introspective, quiet and showing the species' mindset. This is true across the board, and while it would have been an easy thing to show each of them slaying hordes of foes, we instead get moments such as Iyanna reluctantly summoning another dead warrior and her grief to add some real variation. Some, for lack of a better term, surprising humanity within their own societies. As a result of this, the reader is given just enough information to connect with the eldar, but it never crosses the line which makes them stop seeming alien.
This is the thing people so often forget about these books, they largely used the same storytelling tools as the bad ones. There wasn't some massive jump in how they presented each army in turn, or even how they structured certain books. On a basic level they were largely the same, but the authors of certain ones knew how to make better use of what they had on hand than the bad ones. To parallel this with films, codices such as this one are like giving Guillermo Del Toro £200,000 and one year to shoot a film in. He might lack some of the flashier or more extensive elements, but you're still going to end up with something extremely well crafted. By comparison, you could give Michael Bay eight times the cash and three years, but only end up with "They can never be Ultramarines!" as the sole cultural expression of the book.
However, while Codex: Eldar might execute certain ideas and elements extremely well, the lack of certain bare basics is still keenly felt in many areas. Chief among these is the lack of a real history, a real introduction to the race fully outlining events such as The Fall or how they came to reside among the stars. Their basic story just seems to be absent from this tale, and in its place you have very little to help define or fully establish the nature of each craftworld. At best, you have the Phoenix Lords, some representing certain craftworlds, but even in that case they seem distinctly lacking. With so many on hand, the book only has the space to offer up a paragraph for each.
Much of the actual lore itself is crammed in and around the rules, never allowed a chance to truly flourish or become the center of attention. The story is certainly a prominent part of the book, but at times it seems to be playing second fiddle to both the hobby and the crunch. As such, you have the introduction discussing why the player should take this army but that's really about it. The rest instead then jumps to the actual army itself, with the occasional moment of lore before spending most of the book's middle upon the models. Yeah, much as we might complain about the padding in modern codices, the old ones had it as well, and it's almost as egregious. It covers just about all the bases, from the primary units to the heroes, but in all fairness there is a little justification for its existence. Rather than the expected parade of showpieces, you have a series of painting tips and even some customised units to help inspire players to give armies their own identity.
Ultimately the Codex: Eldar of this edition is flawed to be sure, but it's certainly a book well worth looking into. As a book on lore? Perhaps not quite so much as you'd hope, but at the same time its ideas hold up extremely well. Better yet, it can serve to inspire new writers covering the lore, showing how much can be done even when you're limited to a small portion of an already thin book. That and the artwork, as has been shown here, really holds up and it's quite a surprise it's not been used more often.
Still, this is just the start. Join us here as we look into the book's rules held up and the limitations of their own era.