Welcome, 40K fans, to a series of articles I am writing about some of the deeper aspects of Warhammer 40,000.
These articles are a thought exercise, and by writing them I hope to improve my thinking about 40K and its fiction (and maybe about much more). Topics in this series will be wide-ranging and will not shy away from moral or philosophical issues that some may consider sensitive or even controversial. I would rather risk the conversation, so while you or I may not agree, I look forward to hearing why. Consider yourself warned for lore spoilers as well. Also, check the Tactics Corner for more great articles on gaming in 40K!
An Impossible Premise
This may be the hardest case I have to make, so naturally I wanted to dive right into it like a ship with no gellar field. It is likely that I’ll have to come back to this subject often, so we’ll go ahead and call this “Part 1.” That way, we can go back and see how the arguments have evolved a bit over time. For now, I am going to argue for the case that good exists in 40K, and where it manifests itself.
Starting With the Bad
There are some sayings in our community that go around that aren’t explicitly stated in the lore, but are so overwhelmingly implied that it may as well be the bedrock foundation for 40K. One of the sayings goes something like “There are no good guys in 40K.” I’m sure you’ve heard it before. If not, you’ve read it now. It doesn’t take a lot of hard thinking to accept that statement as-is. After all, we call the universe the Grimdark for a reason. War, famine, disease, bloodshed, corruption, cruelty, nihilism, vain sacrifice, and entropy are wrapped in a weighted blanket of despair in the 40K universe. Even the afterlife is tainted with the promise of eternal torment by malevolent gods. By all imaginings, 40K makes the word ‘bleak’ seem optimistic depending on who you talk to. It is a dark, awful, terrifying, and unapologetically depressing way to imagine the future, so why do we want to spend so much time there?
What can the depictions of life in this uncaring universe offer to us of enough value to not just send us into dreary fits of depression? Why would the people in such a universe even bother trying to exist at all (except, of course, for our entertainment)? And are we all so addicted to depictions of misery for our entertainment that we can just accept the nightmare as it is at face value? Are there no lessons in there for us? This may be true for some of us as readers as well (and I would recommend a good counselor if so), but I think it is a bit more nuanced than that for the majority of us.
We’ll get to that, but first we have to properly lay the groundwork for the idea that good exists in 40K, and the groundwork for that is the absolutely undeniable existence of evil and malevolence. There are many manifestations of this in 40K, but I think the ultimate manifestations exist in the forms of the main pantheon of Chaos in the warp.
The Differences Between Chaos and the Warp
While sometimes used synonymously, Chaos and the Warp are not the same thing. I will attempt to lay out my reasoning for that here. Considering how the Warp is described in a myriad of inconsistent ways throughout all the codexes and novels, I’m basically amalgamating my understanding of the warp here in a way that I think makes the most sense, and hopefully my arguments here justify why I didn’t just copy a word-for-word definition out of a codex or index. Beyond that, we are playing in the figurative realm here. Hard and fast definitions are hard to come by, and harder to nail down. Even so, not all interpretations of something are equally valid, and I hope to lay out why mine is a bit better constructed than some I have heard or read.
The warp is a hard thing to define, much like the shape of water is hard to define. If you want to give water (or any liquid) shape, you have to put it in a vessel. Put water in a cup, and the water inside the cup becomes the shape of the cup. A beaker? Beaker-shaped water. A bladder? Bladder-shaped water. You get the picture. The warp acts much the same way, except that instead of a collection of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, you have a collection of thoughts, concepts, instincts, urges, feeling, emotions, and everything that we are aware of as fully conscious beings. Though, the water is less those things, and more like how water would taste if it were flavored by all of those things if those things had flavors. Hatred might taste like bile. Envy might taste like spoiled fruit. Violence might taste like a rotten ghost pepper, and so on.
The warp–often called “the great ocean” in 40K by the psykers who can manifest its properties much in the same way as someone putting water into a container–is a cognitive and spiritual realm that exists in another dimension outside of time that is inextricably linked to the physical realm by the consciousness of the beings living in the physical realm. Its energies manifest themselves as the concepts, thoughts, and feelings of all those who live, have lived, or will live. It is a realm of imagination that brings action and imagination into afterlife, and it often bleeds into the material realm and causes havoc. In this way, the warp is much like the ocean itself in that the water of the world collects the particles of life as it washes over reality/the world and deposits them into a briny, undrinkable ocean full of predators.
I have often heard the warp simplified in description by calling it hell. I think that is correct in some respect, but lacks finesse. It is hell in the sense that there are entities there that wait to devour or enslave your soul for time and eternity, or at least that’s the classical depiction of hell. It is also hell in the sense that conscious life made it that way, as the warp takes the flavors that the inhabitants of 40K give it–like salt in the ocean. It is the place you don’t want to be, and it is the place that you made with all of the darker parts of yourself. It turns out that there have been a lot of evil and malevolent influences on the warp, and the manifestations of that certainly helped to carve the potential of the warp into hell. That is what Chaos is, after all–the thing that makes the warp like hell.
Khorne, god of war and violence, is a manifestation of the wars of eternity in their savagery, hate, and horror. Slaanesh is the epitome of unbridled excess and lack of self control; the never-ending hunger of indolence and privilege desensitized and desperate for meaning but looking in all the wrong places. Tzeentch is the blind pursuit of knowledge to the exclusion of morality and conscience; a selfish and covetous being obsessed with control and yet out of control as it leaves the victims of its pursuits in death and misery without a care. Nurgle is the broken, malevolent illness of our hearts that is blind to its own suffering as it spreads misery to others, it is a cycle of misery and malice that takes joy in the pain it inflicts upon others and addicting them to it like a Stockholm syndrome. There is more to say about each of these gods and what they may represent, but this short summary will serve for our purposes today. Chaos, of course, is what we could easily and accurately call the manifestation of pure evil as thought of and acted out by all conscious beings in the 40K universe past, present, and future.
Figuratively speaking, Chaos as a concept existed long before 40K, and primarily in a figurative sense. Chaos was analogous with opportunity and potential. One of the big psychological thinkers who talked about Chaos in this manner in the 20th century was Carl Jung, and I find his view on it to be particularly useful for this conversation. Jung often compared Chaos to part of the old alchemical practices of those who sought to create a philosopher’s stone, or a secret to wealth (gold) and long life. Many men considered the great thinkers of their times, such as Sir Isaac Newton, were practitioners of this proto-science.
“Jung viewed the alchemist’s efforts to create gold as a symbol of their quest to transform the adept’s soul, and he saw the alchemist’s equivalence of their prima materia with ‘chaos’ as verification of his view that such chaos is the raw ingredient of psychological transformation. The European alchemists identified this chaos with the ‘chaotic waters’ which served as the raw material for creation (Mysterium Coniunctionis, 156, 197), prior to the separation of the opposites symbolized by the ‘firmament.’ Jung understood the alchemists to hold that all material transformation and psychic healing arises through chaos, quoting the alchemist Dorn regarding the disintegrating, yet reintegrative effects of the chaos:
Man is placed by God in the furnace of tribulation, and like the hermetic compound he is troubled at length with all kinds of straits, divers calamities, anxieties, until he die to the old Adam and the flesh and rise again as in truth a new man (quoted in Mysterium Coniunctionis, 353, n. 70). For Jung, the psychological meaning of such ‘transformation by chaos’ is a confrontation with one’s personal, and moreover, the collective unconscious.”The Red Book of C.G. Jung – Sandy Drob
This is a remarkably positive view of chaos, though no less destructive. Even so, it opens a vast opportunity for reflection on how the enemies of Chaos can be looked at in their attempts to defeat it. What if the Imperium, the Emperor, and all enemies of the warp are metaphors for a personal psychological journey of transformation, and that these storified simulations of good and evil are a ‘furnace of tribulation’ that serve to offer the opportunity for races in the 40K universe to rise again? This is important to consider, and we will in another article, but first it is necessary to prove that there is good in 40K.
The Opposite of Chaos is Order, but Does That Make Order Good?
The great enemy of Chaos, or at least the greatest enemy of Chaos by the pantheon’s own admission, is the Emperor of mankind. The Pantheon has named him “Anathema.” It’s easy to infer that they mean “opposite” by that label, but the definition has some important differences to consider, especially in the historical sense. Here are the definitions of anathema:
- a person or thing detested or loathed:
- a person or thing accursed or consigned to damnation or destruction.
- a formal ecclesiastical curse involving excommunication.
- any imprecation of divine punishment.
- a curse; execration.
So, when Chaos labels the Emperor anathema, they aren’t just saying that they hate him. They are casting him out, they are cursing him, and they are marking him for punishment. The excommunication definition has some tasty implications, because it is almost as if Chaos itself recognizes or at least one point recognized the Emperor as a peer, or a manifestation in the warp that could be as divine as they are. That is a conversation for another day.
Chaos is undoubtedly evil, and its pantheon has cast the Emperor out, curses him, and hates him. But does that make the Emperor good? Well, sort of. It makes what the emperor represents, which is ultimately order, their most hated ideal. The Emperor’s power and influence has an unmaking influence on the creatures of Chaos. It is as if the Emperor’s light and will unravels the disordered nature of the daemons of Chaos, and even the unaffiliated predators of the warp. Indeed, the Emperor’s perception as a protector, a wise king, a force for light, and a symbol of hope for a future free of the malevolence of Chaos as acted out by the uncounted masses of mankind must–by the nature of the Warp as a reflection of the thoughts and emotions of conscious beings–be good. In that sense, the Emperor’s own reflection in the warp has good elements in it, whether he intended it or not, due to the honest intentions and actions of true believers in the ideal Emperor.
Even so, too much order makes for tyranny (which is definitely bad), and there’s not much argument against the idea that even when not attached to the throne, the Emperor had a tyrannical addiction to order in his vision for what should be. You could say that the Throne of Terra was gilded with good intentions gone wrong. We talked last week about many of the myriad ways and systems through which tyranny can manifest itself. For that reason, the Emperor cannot be totally good, as he is invariably influenced in the Warp by how many people act out tyranny in his name.
A Footnote on the T’au
The T’au are like mini-manifestations of the same concept of too much order becoming tyrannical, and their ‘Greater Good’ philosophy quickly falls apart as tyranny as soon as you read about their enslavement of the Vespid, among other stories of suppression, control, and domination. Their philosophy might even be more insidious, for it in some respects robs its followers the ability to choose. Farsight’s awakening demonstrates that quite clearly. Anyone who says T’au are the “good guys” hasn’t really thought about it enough, or is deliberately trolling you.
Finally to the Good Part
Ok if the Emperor and the Imperium aren’t the good guys, what does that leave us with? Aren’t the Chaos powers also tyrannizing and trying to enslave the souls of all mankind and conscious life in the worst ways possible? So, how do we win, then? If Chaos is bad, and Order is bad, then what side are we supposed to take? Isn’t there somewhere out there that is truly good, or does good not exist at all in 40K like people are so fond of saying? How do we identify the good?
Well, if concepts such as hatred, envy, nihilism, selfishness, betrayal, and malevolence lead to evil manifestations in the Warp, what about manifestations of selflessness, compassion, love, nobility, loyalty, and honor? We can’t really expect that a universe like this, or even a race like humanity, can exist in the real world and survive without these things, and these stories have a basis in reality otherwise we wouldn’t be able to understand them. It has to make some kind of internal sense or we can’t engage in it or get invested in the stories. The evidence of human history points to a remarkable tolerance for drudgery and misery by a large swathe of humanity, of course, but not an eternal one or one without joy. People eventually rise up against tyranny, and tyrannical systems fall apart much like the Imperium does and is slowly falling apart. Yet even in the midst of the bad, people find ways to make life worth living. If the Warp is a reflection of reality, then it must also reflect the acts of good in the universe, or it doesn’t follow its own rules. Yes, 40K is very much prone to that sort of all-bad-no-good mentality by design, but again, if it was just that, it would be less engaging than it is.
I think there is a growing case to be made that good concepts exist and manifest themselves in the 40K universe in meaningful ways. What evidence of these manifestations do we have? Several, though not as many as I think are appropriate given what we understand about how the warp works. I think that as time goes on and authors (and us) think about 40K and the Warp more, we will continue to see these manifestations grow in number, though the ethos of 40K writing and investment in the theme demands that the good in the warp be limited in scope and power so we don’t have to give up our addiction to the grim darkness of the far future. They do have a brand to maintain, after all.
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT
There are a few examples, and I will focus mostly on one, but consider this your MAJOR SPOILER ALERT for some material you may not have read yet. This comes from the Darkness in the Blood novel by Guy Haley, as well as Ruinstorm by David Annandale, The Unremembered Empire by Dan Abnett, and The Herald of Sanguinius by Andy Smillie. Consider yourself warned, and also encouraged to buy and read all of them.
In Darkness, there are a lot of highly figurative themes dancing about, and they center around the Blood Angels chapter of Adeptus Astartes. There is not a better example of a metaphor for psychological development and individuation than the Blood Angels in all of 40K fiction, and while you all may rightly scream the words “YOU’RE BIASED” at the screen at this comment, I nevertheless stand by it and am correct. I will explain why in the paragraphs below, but also in future articles. This is getting long, and I need a lot more space to make the comprehensive argument that my thesis as stated above deserves, but this will suffice for now.
The Sanguinor is an interesting being. The composition of the name is interesting in a linguistic sense as well. Sanguinius uses the suffix ‘-ius’ to denote ‘belongs to’ or ‘made of.’ So, Sanguinius’ name simultaneously means “belongs to the blood” and “made of hope.” In that same way, the Sanguinor’s name uses the suffix ‘-or,’ which means “the person or thing that performs [action].” This means that the Sanguinor’s name means “the person or thing that performs hope.” That’s a good thing to chew on, since names can have important meaning, and sometimes even accidentally end up adding more depth to something that was intended in the beginning.
For those who don’t know, the Sanguinor started as a proxy for Sanguinius when he was made Emperor of Imperium Secundus during the Horus Heresy. This was done mostly as a security measure to protect Sanguinius from assassination, and was accomplished by having one of the Sanguinary guard forsake his identity to take on the persona of Sanguinius. Evidently, he did so in such a complete and honest way that by the end of the Ruinstorm novel, this herald of Sanguinius (a non-psyker) began manifesting powers that gave him strength to contend with Chaos. This was manifested in his ability to contain a powerful demon prince of Chaos undivided long enough to have it blasted by planet-killing ordinance. This would have killed a normal person, but at this point the Sanguinor was more than a normal person or an Astartes. As an example of individuation, the Sanguinor took upon himself the burden of sacrifice voluntarily, and was able to transcend his current state of being after death (much like Jung describes in the quote above about the ‘new man’). The Sanguinor would go on to show himself over the next 10,000 years as a glowing angel of light appearing deus ex machina-style to rescue Blood Angels and their successors from hopeless situations.
The nature and meaning of this transformation was not described in any form of much substance until the Darkness in the Blood novel by Guy Haley, where Mephiston gets to witness the Sanguinor as he contends with another warp entity of Darkness (the Sanguinor’s opposite and all that that implies) before his eyes.
“The warp is a mirror to the material realm,’ said the bloody angel. ‘The shape of the warp is the shape of the mortal soul, If it harms us, we only have ourselves to blame… These creatures are the reflections of your bloodline. The golden angel [Sanguinor] is your purity… Thousands of years of sacrifice, denial and endless war. Every time one of your brothers creates a work of beauty, or lays down his life for those weaker than he, it strengthens the angel in gold… He was once a man, like you. Into him has poured all the nobility of your kin for one hundred centuries. See how powerful he is.”Darkness in the Blood, 228 – 232
So, here we have evidence of exactly what I’ve been getting to with this thesis: actions of good have positive consequences in the Warp, and create beings that are manifestations of good actions in reality. To further add to the pile:
“‘The warp itself is not evil, always remember that, Mephiston. It is corrupted, but it contains everything, and that includes good as well as evil. It includes you.”Darkness in the Blood, 233
It is fair to point out that this all happens in the warp, and an argument can be made that this conversation is tainted by that. The book itself addresses that, and that leaves us to decide whether or not we take this seriously. I contend that it makes a lot of sense and fits in with the understanding of the warp as depicted consistently across 40K fiction.
Good exists in 40K in the same way that evil exists in 40K. It certainly appears to be the case that there is more evil in 40K, but that does not mean that no-one or nothing is good, or that characters or us as readers cannot align ourselves with what is good. It is important to think in those terms as well, insomuch as good is a concept we must align ourselves to and not a thing to manipulate until it serves our own purposes. Now that we know that, we can begin to ask more questions about who or what is good going forward. I look forward to expanding on this topic sometime in the future, and hope you will be there for that as well as I navigate all of this.
One thing I can unequivocally declare as good is BattleHaven.
My troubles are far from over this year, but one of the things I keep coming back to is how much I’m looking forward to BattleHaven this year. Sarah, who runs the show, is an incredible host to me and my wife. We are fed well, play tons of games, enjoy the scenery, and get to soak in all the best things about being a Wargamer. What better place to discuss topics such as this than at BattleHaven? I would love a chance to sit around a fireplace and talk about the wider implications of 40K with anyone who would listen. The only thing missing? You, of course!
As it turns out, Sarah has a couple spots left to fill, so if you are interested at all in going, then get in touch with her at BattleHavenEvents@gmail.com. If you mention that Captain Morgan sent you, she’ll knock 10% off your trip package.
An Ongoing Conversation
If you found this interesting, please check out my page Captain Morgan’s Librarius. This is the space where I test these ideas in their first drafts, and also talk about all the other parts of the hobby that I enjoy from painting, community, gaming, and all the rest. It’s also the best place to converse with me about this and many other topics in 40K. Likes and shares are appreciated. I hope you enjoyed this week’s read, and I’ll see you again next time!
And remember, Frontline Gaming sells gaming products at a discount, every day in their webcart!