Gwyn, Lord of Cinder and former Lord of Sunlight, sits at the centre of the tangled labyrinth that is Dark Souls. The harmful consequences of his presence spread through every capillary of this world and propel the Chosen Undead’s actions. Gwyn isn’t evil, but his ailing stature and increasingly desperate deeds have become a corrupting influence on the realm he was trying to protect. Whether you want to rekindle the flame and begin a new Age of Fire, or let it die and plunge the world into the Age of Dark, Gwyn must die first.
Deicide isn’t unheard-of in games, but Gwyn – powerful yet pathetic, dangerous but not evil – is such a striking deviation it invites a lot of questions. And not all can be answered by the game itself. Why cast a sun god in the role of ultimate antagonist? What is that strange, sympathetic connection between Gwyn and the realm of Lordran? Why do we kill an incarnation of the sun in order to bring back the light? And why do we do it over and over again, witnessing Gwyn being reborn with every New Game +, only to kill him yet another time?
We could be content with looking to Dark Souls’ own expansive and rich lore for answers, but a glance over those high walls yields other perspectives. In 1890 anthropologist Sir James George Frazer published his life’s work, the seminal The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, which by 1915 had been expanded to a whopping 12 volumes (don’t worry, there are abridged editions of a mere 800 pages). In this monumental undertaking Frazer expounds a complex thesis about the mythical and magical origins of kingship by comparing similarities between rituals, customs and myths from all over the world.
With apologies for the sacrilege, I'll try to boil down his thesis into a couple of the key aspects that relate to Gwyn. Frazer argues that in prehistoric antiquity, kings, imbued with magical and divine authority, were ritually slain by their own subjects and replaced by new kings who would eventually be killed as well. The reason for this, Frazer claims, was a supposed sympathetic bond between the body of the king and his realm: if the king grew old and weak so would his realm, to the detriment of his subjects. Killing a king in his prime, on the other hand, meant passing along his still uncorrupted and ‘preserved’ virility or life force down to his successor(s).
In this context the killing was less murder or even sacrifice than a kind of forced rebirth, which would also rejuvenate the natural world and bring fertility. Frazer claims the ubiquitous practice was eventually mitigated as societies first found substitutes or scapegoats to die in the king’s stead, and finally only enacted the killing symbolically (as in the burning of effigies or other mock executions). He goes on to argue that traces of this custom survive down into his (and our) time, through traditional folk customs and myths about gods that are killed and reborn (such as Osiris, Dionysus and, of course, Jesus Christ).
All of this resonates through Dark Souls and its treatment of Gwyn. In fact Gwyn embodies that idea of what might happen if a god-king lives well past his expiration date. His ailing, old and desiccated body is a perfect analogue to his realm of Lordran which, too, is now a failing husk of its former self. Gwyn is more than just another symptom of this dying cosmos: he is the cause and source of its slow degradation.
Through his sheer continued existence Gwyn threatens the natural order, and it is up to the Chosen Undead to kill him and finally take his place. If we adopt Frazer’s logic the player is not deposing Gwyn, but becoming Gwyn by claiming his life force as our own: a concept which, as can be seen in the amassing of souls from slain enemies which enhances our power, is at the molten core of Dark Souls.
It’s no revelation that Dark Souls is a game of cycles and repetitions, both mechanically and in its lore. Dark Souls (and the sequels) make it clear that the killing of Gwyn is not a final restoration, and will bring no happily-ever-after. Even if we decide to rekindle the fire it is only a temporary deferral, one that must be enforced repeatedly, potentially to infinity. As Frazer would explain it: there is no end, and the king must die again and again if the world is supposed to go on, if the sun is supposed to rise again.
The links between the sun, fire, and sun gods so central to Dark Souls is another aspect illuminated by Frazer. Here he is writing about the summer solstice or Midsummer Day, when the course of the sun in the sky begins to decline:
“[H]aving still to learn his own powerlessness in face of the vast cyclic changes of nature, he [that is “primitive man” in Frazer’s outdated language] may have fancied that he could help the sun in his seeming decline–could prop his failing steps and rekindle the sinking flame of the red lamp in his feeble hand.”
One widely practised way of “supplying the sun with fresh fire”, as Frazer puts it, is the ritual kindling of bonfires. He lists various related “fire-festivals” which were performed, for example, on Samhain in Ireland or Easter Eve in parts of Germany, during which all flames were first extinguished, and then relit from a common source, a sacred flame; what in a Dark Souls context we might describe as ‘linking the fire.’
This is where the ritual nature of Dark Souls, and yet another example of its brilliance, comes in. Being a game, it is up to the player to enforce and right the violated laws of this cosmos, whether by (re)kindling the bonfires or killing Lord Gwyn. Playing Dark Souls, with its deliberate pacing and repetition, eventually comes to have ritualistic aspects because, despite this world's harshness, there’s a comfort and purpose in going through the familiar motions time after time. We gladly start a New Game + after killing Gwyn not because the world will be thrillingly unfamiliar (as it would be in, for example, a roguelike) but precisely because everything stays much the same, and we look forward to the repetition and to overcoming the sun god yet again.
If we accept Frazer’s compelling speculations they would suggest that in playing Dark Souls, whether conscious of it or not, we’re acting out a ritual which, in various forms, has been practiced by humanity long before it was ever turned into stories. Or as Frazer himself puts it: “We shall probably not err in assuming that many myths, which we now know only as myths, had once their counterpart in magic; in other words, that they used to be acted as a means of producing in fact the events which they describe in figurative language.”
There’s a wonderful irony in how Dark Souls, an example of a modern medium that often appears blithely disconnected from the past, turns all of us into unwitting participants in the re-enactment of an ancient ritual drama. Playing Dark Souls may not make the sun rise in the morning, but it does set the bar sky-high for the incorporation of of myth, magic and ritual in video games. Gwyn is dead; long live Gwyn.