Before I launch right in, let me just put one big fat disclaimer at the beginning of this monster of a rant: I am a huge Sylvanas stan. I have her statuette. I’ve written a bunch of stories about her. I am hugely inspired by her and I think she’s a really interesting character with an interesting backstory.
I can be both a Sylvanas stan and be interested about the introduction of Calia Menethil, and I’m here to explain why.
In life, Sylvanas had it pretty sweet. She was a noble from a good family, a family with loads of money and a heredity military title (which she took the mantle of when her sister deferred it), and she was also generally acknowledged to have been one of the most beautiful women in Quel’Thalas. She was also kind of arrogant; can’t really fault a girl with all that going for her for being like, “Actually, I am pretty great.” She had a family who loved her, she was being dicked on the side by the best archer humanity had to offer, and had by all accounts a very bright future ahead of her.
Being killed and enslaved by Arthas was such a plot twist: she’d gone from leading the perfect life to having everything life had gifted her torn from her.
Instead of crumbling and losing her mind (as we see so many banshees in Warcraft do), she cobbled herself together, was instrumental in the defeat of Arthas, reclaimed her body and then set about trying to forge meaning for all the undead Arthas had created in her quest to stop Arthas once and for all.
Each step of the way, each hurdle she’s faced, she’s sucked up all that pride that used to define her while she was alive and just did what needed to be done, regardless of what her old allies now thought of her. There’s incredible personal strength in those acts.
However, as a counsellor, while I can admire her fortitude and congratulate her for working with what she had to build a new purpose for herself, I do just need to take my foot off the DARK LADY FOREVER pedal for a moment.
Sylvanas did need courage and fortitude to reinvent herself: but she was already set up very well by her past and her experiences to date to become the hero she is.
She was brought up in a military family and stepped easily into a military role where she controlled and commanded forces. People deferred to her. She had every reason to believe she was capable of everything she wanted to do and was fully in control of all her choices at every point (except for that brief period where she was mind-controlled by Arthas, of course!). Her response to hardship is to fight, and to toil, and to struggle, because that’s what she knows. That’s what she’s been taught. That’s what’s worked for her in the past, and it’s what she was raised to do. So, naturally, that’s what she did even after her death: continue to be a hero.
Not everyone is brought up believing they can be and have whatever they want.
For example, Calia wasn’t.
Calia was the crown princess of Lordaeron, sure. She was rich and privileged (just as Sylvanas was), but instead of being raised in a military family, she was raised in a royal one.
Where Sylvanas was trained as an elite archer and stepped easily into role of Ranger General, Calia was told to sit still and not mumble. Where Sylvanas was able fuck whoever she felt like (even a HUMAN!), Calia was treated as a political brood horse by her father and when she got pregnant from shagging the help, the rest of the family had to huddle together to protect her from her father finding out. She couldn’t even raise her own daughter or be with the man she loved.
Sylvanas was taught she was exceptional, incredible, and of course likely to succeed, and Calia was told to sit down, shut up, and do as she’s told.
There’s a memorable scene in Arthas where Calia is sobbing because her father has decided to marry her off to some distant noble in a politically savvy match and there’s absolutely nothing she can do about it. Her helplessness in that scene is palpable. She felt trapped.
Sylvanas was brought up fighting, Calia was brought up being taught not to fight.
So. This is where personal experience start to shape personal responses to danger and trauma.
By now, everyone knows the three responses to a threat: fight, flight and freeze. Say someone mugs you. Some people will fight the mugger, some people will try to run from the mugger, and some people will panic, freeze and just… stand there, paralyzed, doing what they’re told. How people respond to threats is largely defined by their previous experiences and how they’ve been raised as children.
The differences between Sylvanas and Calia defined their responses to danger. Children who are raised like Sylvanas: raised capable by their parents, who are taught they strong and that they have every reason to believe they will succeed, more often have a ‘fight’ response to danger. You can see this repeated over and over in how Sylvanas responds to threats and perceived threats: she will tackle the threat head on with an unerring belief she can succeed over it.
Children who are raised in controlled environments, whose parents have not raised them as capable and with a degree of free choice, who have repeatedly told them to shut up and do as they’re told and punished them for showing individuality? They are far more likely to exhibit flight/freeze as their response to danger. And this is what we see in Calia’s history.
When her family were killed by her own brother, she didn’t pick up a sword and try and avenge them. And why should we expect her to? She had no military training, she’d been coddled and protected her entire life, what could she have possibly done? She 100% would have died and for nothing. So, of course, she ran and hid.
Her backstory is no less tragic than Sylvanas’. After fleeing the palace, she hid in a ditch for days while mindless undead under her own brother’s orders searched for her to kill her. She couldn’t fight. She had no way to defend herself. That experience of wondering at each moment if she would be slaughtered just like her family was gave her life-long nightmares and flashbacks. When she reunited with the father of her child and fled with him to Kalimdor, believing this the only way to keep her daughter safe, they ended up being killed in front of her just like her first family was. She watched pretty much all the people she loved cut down in front of her while she was helpless to save them. Helplessness has been ingrained in her from her childhood.
She spent a few years ‘lost’ (and why wouldn’t you be, if everyone you love is dead and everyone else hates you for something your brother did?), but then fell upon undead priest Alonsus Faol who helped her renew her faith and move towards peace and purpose, and started trying to help her unravel her learnt helplessness.
In the years just before Battle for Azeroth (and, notably, Before the Storm), she lived and worked at the Netherlight Temple, searching for her own peace while every night she had horrible nightmares and flashbacks.
I often see people ask “Where was Calia?” before BFA, with the implication that she’s done nothing useful and has been hiding out and chilling at a resort beach somewhere, sipping a martini. Wrong. Anyone who’s played a priest can tell you she was very much part of the war effort and very much assisting both Alliance and Horde forces as priest in the Class Order campaigns, she just wasn’t in the limelight. She tells your player character in the priest campaign and in Before the Storm that helping people makes her feel a sense of purpose, and it’s very much something she wants to focus on moving forward. She also feels a sense of obligation to atone for what her brother did and help other Lordaeron citizens killed by him.
It’s only been very recently Calia has begun stumbling through the process of learning that she can help people and she is capable, and also feeling around what ‘helping people’ looks like. She wasn’t brought up doing anything except exactly what she was told, she certainly hasn’t been any sort of leader before with anything more than a hollow title. Furthermore, she’s had to unlearn a whole lot of early conditioning about sitting down, shutting up and letting a real leader take control in order to get to a point where she feels like she might actually be useful in fighting for causes that are important to her.
Now we’re at a place where it looks like Calia is angling towards Forsaken leadership.
To be fair, people have been worrying this would happen since Before the Storm, because there does seem to be considerable foreshadowing in that about Calia feeling responsible for the fate of the citizens of Lordaeron. There’s even a line (narrated by a Forsaken) about how many of the Forsaken still consider Calia one of their regents, despite what her brother did.
As a result of that, there’s been a spate of “NOT MY QUEEN!” memes about Calia, many of them extremely brutal and vitriolic, accusing Calia of ‘stealing’ the throne, of being evil, greedy and narcissistic, and a bunch of really other quite extreme things.
I can understand the concern: people love Sylvanas, especially people who’ve played as Forsaken for 15 years. Many people also remain worried about the direction Sylvanas is being taken in the narrative of BFA, and are absolutely certain that the writers have an Alliance-slanted bias and want to demonise the traumatised dead woman. The idea of Calia waltzing in and just claiming the throne Sylvanas recently vacated is repugnant to them. “She didn’t earn it!” they say. “She’s not Forsaken!” And yeah, they’re right: she didn’t and she’s not.
However, despite the fact she didn’t rally any troops and she certainly didn’t play any part in the defeat of the Lich King, it’s a mistake to see her as an Alliance darling handed the Forsaken throne on silver platter.
Since her death, Sylvanas has always had a vast number of people in Azeroth dislike her, but she’s also had a self-made faction of people who have almost unerring support of her. Lor’themar himself said he trusted her and believed in her for many years ‘as all Sin’dorei do’. Sylvanas may have had a lot of rejection and hardship, but she’s also had a lot of adoration and support.
Calia has not. Her family is dead twice over. Her friends are dead. Any value she had to her people as a crown princess, as far as she is aware, is dead and gone. Alonsus Faol helped her find a type of peace in faith and helping people—that’s really all she’s got. Calia has had an extra battle to fight on top of Sylvanas’: learning that she can be of use, and that she has any value as a person. She does not see herself as deserving of the Forsaken throne, and hasn’t got romantic notions of ruling them. In fact: she says multiple times she feels unfit to lead.
It’s quite ironic that of the two characters, the one who isn’t a crown princess is the one who feels like a good leader! Not to say Sylvanas doesn’t deserve it—she’s worked hard for this particular leadship position, at least—just pointing out in the differences in the characters’ expectations of themselves.
Given all this, I’ve watched the frothing hatred of Calia the WoW fandom has produced with much interest.
Calia isn’t a great hero like Sylvanas, although she’s framed sympathetically in the book and in the game. The most remarkable thing about her is how normal she is compared to many of the other NPCs in WoW. She doesn’t really have any special powers, she’s not a particularly notable priest. She doesn’t do anything special, and her entire existence is framed by the atrocities her brother committed and her attempts to move past that.
Even if Calia ends up leading the Forsaken as will probably happen, she’s isn’t Sylvanas, she isn’t going to be like Sylvanas, and I don’t think we can realistically expect that it’s going to last that long.
My own observations is that much of the hate comes from people just really disliking some of the writing decisions this expansion—which is understandable, no one likes to have their favourite character framed as a villain for several patches before she’s redeemed or whatever—but that’s actually super interesting:
Because the same people who’ve been claiming Sylvanas shouldn’t be hated as a character because of the plot she’s been placed in are the same people hating Calia for exactly that reason.
Really, when you take her as a character in isolation to her role in BFA, Calia is inoffensive. Her existence is wouldn’t bother anyone (or even be that interesting to anyone) if she wasn’t being angled towards Sylvanas’ throne. The anger being directed at Calia seems to be for a bunch of things completely unrelated to her: that her existence is apparently proof the narrative team are Alliance-biased, that her existence is proof the narrative team hate Sylvanas and want to demonise her, that the writing team don’t understand minority group attachments to the Forsaken as a race of shunned and hated people and think we’ll all be delighted when a non-Forsaken ‘light-forged’ undead person who’s never been hated or shunned floats in on a cloud and takes it over, concern about the Christian-coding in The Light and the fact Calia is clearly quite evangelical about her faith, etc, etc.
And while I have no interest in telling people to like a character they don’t, I would ask people super angry at fucking Calia to take a step back and see if you can separate how much you hate the direction of the story from the character you’re spewing vitriolic hatred at.
Both Calia and Sylvanas are deeply traumatised women. Both Calia and Sylvanas have felt stripped of their identities and their bright futures and flung into darkness they don’t deserve. They have different upbringing and difference responses to trauma, but both of them are trying to forge a new identity and make the best of what the awful cards they’ve been dealt. Sylvanas’ journey has been full of far more heroics and Great Feats which everyone loves and is inspired by, but I’d ask you not to discount Calia’s own private journey. It’s not flashy, it’s not Hugely Inspirational, but it also took a great deal of quiet strength and personal fortitude for her to arrive at where she is now.
Calia may not have forged the Forsaken, and she may not have been treated as a monster as they have been, but she’s spent her life being ‘That Monster’s Sister’, and all you have to do is jump on Tumblr to see how fucking hated she is for that. Furthermore, she’s not claiming to be exactly the same as they are. She’s not trying to be Sylvanas. All she wants to do is try and help. She’s undead. She’s surrounded by other undead people and the person she loves most in the world: Alonsus Faol, is undead. Lordaeron citizens aside, it makes perfect sense it’s the undead people she wants to try and help.
Also—and I realise this is super contentious—it wouldn’t be out of the question for at least some of the Forsaken folks to feel a kinship with her. She may not be heroic and adored like Sylvanas, but her journey was more like theirs: a slow and private struggle to feel like it’s possible to be worth something to the world again. Not special. Not Destined for Greatness. Just a private person who’s lost everything and is trying to carve out meaning and find peace.
In general, I’ve found it entirely possible to like both Sylvanas and Calia and be interested in where their story is going. They are both products of their experiences and both complex and interesting characters. Calia may not be as flashy or heroic as Sylvanas, but her journey is equally as inspiring as someone recovering from trauma myself.
Calia is not Sylvanas and will never be Sylvanas, but that doesn’t mean she can’t give hope and meaning to some of the Forsaken, and it doesn’t mean she will make a terrible (if most likely temporary) leader of the Forsaken.
You don’t have to hate her just because you love Sylvanas. I don’t.