The Swarm and the Saint, the Horde and the Hero
My interests, when it comes to the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000, can be summed up quite easily with two simple strokes that divide my favorite armies into four overlapping categories. On the side of “Good”, or what passes for it in the Great Galaxy of Grimdark, I favor strongly the Blood Angels and Space Wolves, both Space Marine Chapters of the Imperium of Man. On the side of Evil, which does not need parentheses, for in such a harsh fictional background, even the heroes could be labeled as villains, I prefer the Orkz and the Tyranids, the first a race of brutish warriors equipped with legendary toughness and ferocity, and the second a Hive Collective of insatiable hunger and incalculable size.
Ah, so you have never bothered to look into the cobbled together mess that is the fiction of Warhammer 40,000? Well, I think then, it is time for a brief lesson on this hodgepodge of science fiction and and fantasy concepts. The general overview of the Universe is something like this:
Mankind was originally in a bit of a fragmented position, occupying random chunks of the Galaxy and mainly trying to live day by day while fighting one another and invasive alien species. Suddenly, this superman who turns out to be a demi-god with vast psychic powers conjured up by a bunch or primitive far-seeing shaman-mystics back in the B.C. years shows up. Supposedly this guy was behind the scenes for everything major in history, and finally decided to say screw it and become the Emperor of Mankind. In the process of doing so, he creates a bunch of genetically enhanced super soldiers, including a dozen or so Primarchs, super-warriors he created using his own DNA. Some have psychic powers, some are charismatic, some are really, really, really (emphasis on all three reallys) good at organization. One has angel wings. One is really bloodthirsty. Another likes to drink and fight all the time. So he uses this mixed bag of deadly supermen and genetically enhances entire legions of men with their DNA, and puts each legion of “Space Marines”(note the wonderfully creative name) under the command of their own “father”. So, joined with the military of any planets they conquer, they run around the galaxy spanking the snot out of any aliens in a xenocidal rampage somehow held together by the iron will of their entirely (well except for Lorgar, but let’s forget him) secular leaders who follow their “father’s” even-more-iron will and insurmountable charisma.
Now, all this time, what has been allowing various gifted people to have psychic powers is this thing called the Warp. Now, in the Warp, there are creatures that can take physical form when the Warp tears. Many of these things are not nice, as the Warp is made up of the combined psyches/souls/what-have-you of every living thing in the universe. The most powerful Warp entities are the Chaos gods, Tzeentch, the bird-like fiend of Hope and Change (which makes our current president’s campaign slogan highly ironic), Nurgle, the rotting beast of Disease, Decay, and Death, Khorne, the warrior of destruction, violence, and blood, and Slaanesh, the creepy Dr. Frankenfurter of Warhammer, a being of excess and desire, Lord/Lady of Pleasure, spawned by the drug induced orgies of the Eldar (Space Elves, to be simple about it). Yup. Those darn fickle elves partied so much they birthed a hideous entity they would come to call She Who Thirsts. There’s nothing like creating a soul-devouring deity with your unchecked desires.
I won’t even post a picture that has anything to do with Slaanesh. They’re all creepy and give me the heebie jeebies.
So, these four Chaos gods start whispering things into various ears within the Primarchs, and the New Imperium of Man suddenly has a giant civil war on its hands. After a long war costing countless billions of lives, they manage to fight off Chaos by a hair, but the Emperor is mortally wounded in the process and is kept as some sort of mostly-dead-mortal-shell thing by the Golden Throne, a contraption that uses the souls of Psykers (people with mind powers) to keep him from being completely dead. It takes a thousand of them a day to keep him kicking. And if you think that’s grisly, well, suddenly this religion based around the Emperor as a god-figure springs up, and they get an Inquisition, and it’s like a very hideous version of the Catholic Church with lasers in space, in what is left of an Empire that once spanned the Galaxy. Technology barely advances and is treated like religion, heresy abounds, atrocity is the name of the game, and aside from the corruptions of the Chaos gods and their servant daemons, a handbasket full of violent alien races are making inroads into Man’s home as well. When the tagline says “In the grim darkness of the 41st millennium, there is only war.”, it is not kidding. What they don’t quite tell you until you read further than that is this: the entire concept is so over the top and exaggerated that the sheer insanity of it becomes humorous.
So, now that you have been educated about where these freaks come from, on to the specific groups themselves.
On the side of “Good”, I will begin with the Space Wolves. Now, Space Marines do need some preparatory description. The best way to think of them is simply as genetically enhanced super-warriors inside nearly impervious robotic armor, which are also monks. These are not the peaceful, simple-laborer Catholic or Buddhist monks, though. These are monks who worship the god-Emperor of Mankind and their founding Primarch, and recite Litanies of Hate and invoke blessings to turn on their machinery before going to war. These are psycho-indoctrinated soldiers who come screaming out of the sky and open fire on you with what are essentially hybrids between machine guns and rocket launchers. One fully armed Space Marine could probably take out a division of any modern day armed force by himself. A squad of ten is capable of taking over a planet by utilizing brains, stealth, and superior firepower. They are roughly seven feet tall without the armor, and hit eight or nine feet when wearing it. They can spit acid, crush a man’s skull with one hand like an egg, eat almost anything they can chew, and go weeks without eating and days without sleeping with no performance loss. They have heightened senses, a reinforced skeleton, two hearts, an assortment of other organs that let them do things like survive in extreme heat, cold, or temporary vacuum. In their armor, they can punch through metal walls, withstand blasts that would wreck our tanks, and carry what amounts to an SUV around without any real trouble at all. Each is trained in every conceivable mode of warfare and all manner of battle tactics, and is required to be proficient in each. This description only concerns the rank and file Battle Brothers of each Chapter, not the specialists or commanders of those thousands of different mini-cultures with their own heraldry, traditions, and customs.
The Primarch of the Space Wolves, Leman Russ, was raised on a an icy planet called Fenris (you will find this heavy-handed naming common throughout the Universe of Warhammer), where the people were pretty much hyper-vikings constantly warring with one another for survival. He joined the Imperium when the Emperor beat him in single combat. This Chapter has strong Norse themes and roots, and are somewhat genetically modified further than their peers with even keener senses and longer canines than is normal. They use wolf imagery like mad, and wear pelts and claws and teeth and skulls as adornment on their armor. They are notorious for rushing into fights and enjoying long bouts of tale-weaving and heavy drinking afterwards. They are proud warriors with a respect and admiration for the forces of Nature, and more humanitarian than most Chapters, fully embracing their role as protectors of the Imperium. They tend to buck all manner of authority but their own, and like all Space Marines, hold their forebears and traditions in unshakeable regard. A summation of their philosophy can be found in this quote: “It is the way of Fenris. We stay as long as we can. Fight as hard as we can. Kill as much as we can. Only when we can do no more do we move on.”
The Blood Angels are similar to the Space Wolves in their Humanitarian aspect, and their Primarch, Sanguinius, was angelic in more than his winged and noble appearance. When the Emperor was besieged on Terra, in the heartland of the Imperium, he died protecting him and thereby saved Humanity with his sacrifice. I do not think it so strange a thing that this Chapter has extremely Catholic imagery and rituals, down to drinking the preserved blood of their Primarch from ornate chalices as part of their religious observances. In fact, the Chapter has often been described as a bunch of Catholic Vampires. All tend to be fair and long haired, and like the Church, enjoy the arts, especially painting. Also like the members of the Church, they struggle with an innate flaw, although instead of Original Sin, it is the Red Thirst, which leads, if not kept in check, to the Black Rage. This anger and hunger stems from some sort of psycho-genetic link to their Primarch, and the moment when he was slain. The Black Rage is a nearly insensate state of madness and battle lust, and those who fall into it must be shepherded by the spiritual masters of the Chapter, and are only unleashed upon the enemy when the need is great. They have a special organization titled the Death Company which these men are organized into, and they fight with a cold fury until killed. This flaw is combated by an intense life of prayer, meditation, and the release of artwork, mostly painting, as mentioned before. You have to admit, this is all strikingly familiar.
Now for the Bad Guys.
Orks are a simple bunch. They were originally genetically engineered to combat one of the other races in Warhammer 40,000, the Necrons, a bunch of stone-cold killing machines, literally. Their sole purpose is to fight. An ork starts out as a spore in the ground, then eventually claws his way to the surface and right away begins beating on other orkz. You see, the more orkz fight and survive those fights, the tougher and larger they get. They thrive on violence. Eventually, when one ork gets big and tough enough, he starts to lead a band of them, and they fight other bands. If he survives, and becomes more massive and nasty in the process, he leads what is left of all the other bands as a Warboss. Repeat this process a hundred or so times, and you have what the Orkz call a Waaaaaaagh!!!, or a massive army of the creatures bent on looting and destruction. The more Orkz there are, the meaner and tougher each ork gets. The race has been described, with only a small degree of exaggeration, as one where you could shoot their arms and head off, and put a few rounds in their chest, and you’d still have to do some hard arguing to convince one wounded in such a manner that it was dead. Combined with this natural durability and ferocity is a queer sort of cunning, which allows them to master and loot pretty much anything they can get their hands on, and turn it into weaponry. They also have a few odd members of their breed with psychic ability, the power of which fluctuates with the number of ‘boyz, as they call their average soldier, present. It is often said that if there were a way they could stop infighting and unite, the Orkz would blaze through the Galaxy like fire through last week’s newspaper.
The Tyranids are a sort of Horde as well. It is unsure from whence they came, but the multiple times they have entered the Galaxy to prey upon its denizens, they have devoured everything in their wake indiscriminately and barely been repelled. They are highly evolved swarms of organisms that function with one Hive Mind. It is unsure what the exact nature of this Hive Mind is, whether it be a collective of all the smaller primitive minds of each organism or a central intelligence, but what is certain is that the Swarms evolve at a rate unprecedented by anything else. Their claws and teeth are engineered to the point where they can rend metal, and various bio-plasmas and acids make up their arsenal of firepower. All who stand against them fall under wave after wave of utterly fearless single-minded beasts refined entirely in a way that befits wholesale slaughter. Those who have been defeated are then absorbed as biomass to create yet more monstrosities, along with their own dead and creatures too wounded to be useful. After a victory, a planet is stripped of all organic material, which is then converted into biomass for the Hive Mind to use. It has been estimated that the Galaxy has only seen the tendrils of a much larger force that is slowly investigating a new territory.
So, why I have I gone on for so very long about a fantastical Science Fiction Universe setting for a game most of you will never play, and many of you will find strange, stupid, or both?
Because, I think, my favorite factions in this game parallel ways of thinking, both ancient and modern, secular and religious. One of these patterns of thought happens to apply to mine own.
In the olden days, when Vikings actually existed and men cherished far more dearly tales of combat and strife, as opposed to “RAAHN, STAWP IT” being cried out incessantly by whoever that tanned creature of a woman was on Jersey Shore, there were grand sagas of legendary heroes that opposed foes of massive dimensions, either in numbers or with one really big bad dude. Beowulf, Sigurd, Thor, and the like, all of them were legendary warriors of intense stature and martial prowess. They possessed the courage, the mettle, the fighting spirit that all Pagan heroes require to be heroes at all. They are also extremely individual people, in that they are men who stand out, who go their own way, though bound by custom and duty. They are not unthinking, nor are they brutes despite their bloodlust and strength, but are skilled and tempered by experience and cunning. This is something quite readily apparent in the way the Space Wolves are treated. Despite their over-drinking and unnecessary celebratory fighting, they are skilled and brave warriors, always ready to give their all for Lord and Land and Honor. They keep a rugged individualism about themselves, keeping their own council and spitting in the eye of those would keep that right from them.
On the other hand, you have the dragons, the monsters, the ogres, the raging hordes of killers who do nothing but pillage and rape and slay and steal. You have the darker side of ancient pagan nature here, a monster craving flesh for its gullet and other satisfaction for the various desires given to it by nature. It does not put overmuch thought into things aside from getting those wants, it has a hunger, and it must keep that hunger sated. Like Fafnir, like Grendel and Grendel’s mother, the Orkz too have needs, a bloodlust they must fill, but due to their nature, they never can get enough. There is no real self here, no real individuality, no dream beyond satisfying their innermost desires. They go where they please, sure enough, and individuals here and there might distinguish themselves as particularly good at satisfying their universal craving for wanton destruction. But they are all of too like a mind and a too much a servant of their own passions and wants to have any sort of real individuality.
Since the Advent of Christianity upon the Globe, something quite new and wonderful has arisen. A Blessed sort of Individualism that at first seems like it crushes the individual itself as part of a larger whole has sprung forth into Creation. The Catholic Church seems to many like a large number of brainwashed zombies lurching in the same direction. Nothing could be further from the Truth. The intent of Catholicism is not to take away Man’s Will, but to return it to him from the bonds of Sin and Death. A man still has passions if he is Catholic, but he meets them in a manner not unlike that of the Heroes of Old meeting a foe in battle. He must become a rugged individual, a man well versed in the Inner War of the Soul. His temptations prowl about like hungry curs, seeking his life and lives of those around him. In his Heart, he stands alone but for the Aide of God. He must learn skill, and cunning, and strength, and courage. He must become the consummate warrior, a hero, a Saint. The Church is not a gathering of zombies. It is a gathering of Men who chose to free themselves, and then free others, the way all true Heroes must. So do the Blood Angels behave. They fight enemies within and without, training and praying hard and with great vigor. They are both scholarly and adept at portraying the beauty in things. While they do all have one cause, they have chosen that cause. They bow respectfully to higher authority, but do not allow secular needs to overrun their own conscience, and are all the more respected and righteous for doing so. They come to the aide of those besieged by darkness, as befits their name. They, like the Church, are made up of individuals seeking the good, organized by a higher power into a work of art that goes about saving the Universe.
What are the Tyranids then? Secularism, or as I prefer to call it, the New Paganism, for the parallels are deliciously funny(and something I will most likely touch on in a later post), is quite similar to them in its function. Among the Tyranids, you have a massive group shackled together for the purpose of doing one thing, and one thing alone; what it is programmed to do by its nature. Tyranids devour because they were born to devour. Secular thought, Secular Humanism in particular, emphasizes the ability of Humanity to solve its own problems, by way of the equipment we are given by Evolution and the processes that govern it. Under this school of thought, the entire human race is simply this sort of machinery, this group of organisms doing what they do best, doing as they were birthed to do. The individual is subservient to the many, and able to be cast off if needed, for it is only as valuable as it is useful. Now, at this point, many will claim that this is not so, that you see strong individualism all the time. I say, not so! The Tyranids again serve me well as example. There are many forms the organisms in the swarm may take, even members who stand out in stature or individual intelligence or function, but a part of the swarm they remain. Social creatures without a Hive Mind, but enslaved to the ultimate survival of the many in this way, fare no better. The “individuals” you see are merely useful in their skills or their special adaptation, and if the usefulness fades, so does their value. This pseudo-individualism is the rallying cry of many in the Secularist movement.
Another part of the problem with this is the lack of Objective Right and Wrong. The current moral mode of the day is that right and wrong are subjectively determined by our needs as a people (read, as a species). There is therefore no real choice, no individual decision at all to be made in that kind of moral system. When making a moral decision, you are now choosing between varying degrees of function and usefulness, and you are serving the purpose for which the species created you. If you choose poorly many times, or your morality is not helpful to the race, you become detritus that is merely something that will be removed in the next generation. There is no choice in this kind of choosing, there is no real choice in selecting a different shade of gray. Their is no Individual in this kind of lazy and weak individualism, where in the end you serve the same function as everyone else, just in a different manner or form.
And from this I conclude that the Catholic Church, and Christianity as a whole, is the most rugged Individualist group on the planet.