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!
Setting the Stage
It is worth noting here that we are discussing an event that occurred based on the lore of the tabletop game as very loosely outlined in a series of rulebooks, short stories, lore excerpts, art compilations, throwaway lines of text, and codexes. As such, discussion of the narrative and themes of the Horus Heresy story ultimately revolve around a narrative built around an event that (for all intents and purposes) had already happened in many ways that couldn’t be altered. After all, the outcome of the Heresy wars was decided, so great lengths were taken in the course of the novels to delve into why it happened. In this sense, more effort was put into the “why’s” of the heresy than into a resolution of an unknown finale. How the authors justify the actions of loyalists and traitors alike to create a compelling narrative is part of how this analysis of Loken is able to work in the first place – the end is known, but the journey isn’t. Inasmuch as the journey is good, the books have succeeded in entertaining readers, but in doing so the characters in these stories have to undertake relatable human journeys, which means that they don’t start their journeys at the end of their development.
The Loss of Innocence
What do we mean by innocence when talking about Garviel Loken? It is hard to imagine a decades-old galaxy-wide bio-engineered super-soldier having innocence. Of course, innocence isn’t here as a “guilty vs. innocent” comparison but is instead the lack of knowledge or ignorance that he and many other Astartes operated under. The Horus Heresy series ripped the bandage off this revelation time and time again as the shock of betrayal left the loyalist forces with analysis paralysis at the moment itself followed by a burning hatred and crippling sense of loss so powerful it shaped them as warriors for years to come.
If we are to analyze Garviel Loken’s journey as a human journey, then we have to relate it to human development. This gets tricky since, by the time the story of the Horus Heresy series begins with the novel Horus Rising, Loken is older than most humans in the real world could realistically expect to be. This makes relating a loss of innocence journey to Loken somewhat more complicated than it would for a child or through the lens of a young adult (as is so common in popular fiction), especially considering that innocence is a trait often associated with children and adolescents. While that is true, we also have to keep in mind that Loken and many of his brothers are effectively children and adolescents in many respects. The transformation into Adeptus Astartes takes place in the adolescent stage of regular human development. While we don’t have the backstory of Loken as an adolescent prior to ascension into the ranks of the Astartes as we do with Abaddon, we can extrapolate from the overall themes of candidate selection that it was a grueling process that weeded out weak candidates, and likely the Loken-that-was endured significant hardship and violence as a young man.
To be the subject of such hardship as a young man, and then to go through a psycho-conditioning process means that it is isn’t unreasonable to consider that his psychological development was interrupted and stunted in ways that allowed him (and all the Astartes) to function as the weapons they were intended to be. After all, weapons don’t ask why. Astartes during the time of the Horus Heresy were conditioned to kill and fight wars based on the dogma and precepts of the Imperial Truth, and not a little bit of manipulated psycho-conditioning built around the thesis of that ideology. These tools were designed to replace the normal development of the psyche, but instead of accelerating the development of fully individuated beings, the Imperial Truth and surrounding dogma merely acted as an incomplete placeholder for actual psychological development.
Inasmuch as conflict was abundant and the Astartes had very little time to contemplate the philosophy of their crusade or the ramshackle nature of their understanding of proper modes of being, the progression of the Imperium prospered. That isn’t to say that there were no Astartes who engaged in thinking about the Imperium and their role in society, as Loken clearly demonstrates with his visits to one of the greatest Imperial philosophers and orators available. The mentality of the Imperium was put together well enough to preach to many newly conquered or integrated worlds, but inasmuch as its fundamental premise about a secular galaxy was false, it would not last. Once increasingly-idle Astartes minds were exposed to the true nature of the universe, it was only a matter of time before cracks started to form.
The Psychology of an Imperium
In this sense, victory defeated the Emperor. The conquest at Ullanor and the Emperor’s departure from the crusade marked a tipping point where the greatest conflicts in taming an errant galaxy were resolved, and the Astartes were left to consider things that had simply never come up while enemies and war were more abundant. The Imperial Truth was the great Imperial Lie, and it would be remiss for me to overlook an underlying theme that begins at the start of the very first book – that an empire (or a person) built on lies can’t last. So it is for the Astartes, and as we will see with the journey of Garveil Loken, the consequences of these lies getting exposed will have a varied effect on the psyches those lies were the foundations of.
This analysis could delve all the way back into the original motivations of the Heresy’s main architects and their cascading influence on the other legions (namely the Word Bearers), but that threatens a journey down an entirely different rabbit hole. The Word Bearers’ own legion-wide psychosis and determination to collapse reality into Chaos deserves its own, long essay series. For our purposes here, it is enough to acknowledge that they were the architects of the heresy and that the tendrils of their plots took form within the Luna Wolves legion in the form of the warrior lodges. Their efforts sought to exacerbate the undeveloped nature of the Astartes psycho-conditioning with a combination of doubt, undermining of authority, misinformation, and chaotic sorcery.
It is also worth noting that not every legion embraced the Imperial Lie with blind faith, and that even some legions that did were able to produce more developed Astartes than others. The White Scars openly understood the truth of the Warp and the dangers contained within. While there were portions of the legion that betrayed the Emperor, most were culled. The Space Wolves were similarly an exception to much of the rules surrounding the Imperial Truth. For whatever reason, the Emperor allowed them to keep many of their traditions, which were haphazardly applied to concepts in the Imperial Truth. Even so, the Wolves were not so much enlightened by their traditions but were insulated in a different kind of ignorance by those traditions.
Other legions, like the Ultramarines, had already begun to address the problems associated with a final victory over the Imperium’s foes. The Ultramarines, while fully immersed into the dogma of the Imperial Truth, had developed the capacity for growth by preparing for leadership and stewardship of the worlds they conquered, in addition to their integration into the governing structures of their baseline human counterparts. This integration would make the rumors of eventual Astartes obsolescence fall upon deaf ears, and the efficient administration and integration that Guilliman’s legion was known for not only could become a model for other legions but also would put Guilliman again in a position to rival Horus’ influence. Even so, the Ultramarines still weren’t quite individuated or developed enough to consider betrayal, except for the example of Aonid Thiel.
Some legions did a better job of weeding out outside influences (such as the lodges of the Word Bearers) by keeping an internal police force of sorts, such as the Blood Angels did, though their ‘side’ on the Heresy War was more decided by the jealousy and hatred of Horus for Sanguinius than anything else. The Lion was also one who could internally police his legion, though the circumstances of the Horus Heresy would distract him from those duties long enough to cause grief for him later on. His need to micromanage the process and his secretive nature absolutely contributed to the schism of his legion post-scouring. His warriors had no foundation for their loyalty beyond a shallow expectation of absolute obedience.
How This Ties Back to Loken
The Luna Wolves (the Legion of Garviel Loken) had none of these advantages and his legion was psychologically underdeveloped. Horus’ own ambitions to be seen as the best infected his legion’s mentality – a sense of pride in the legion and its figurehead that set them up for the fall that would come later. This is a very relatable and human flaw. Humans often look to idealogues or have personal idols, and some would prefer to ignore the flaws in their idols than accept the truth of those flaws. Loken fell into this pattern with Horus in the opening trilogy of the Horus Heresy series. Lacking the safeguards present in the other legions such as the White Scars open-eyed knowledge of the warp, the Wolves’ own enigmatic superstitions, the internal policing of the Blood Angels, or the forward-thinking of the Ultramarines left the Luna Wolves psychologically vulnerable.
After all, if their Primarch sire is so infallible, then it becomes easy to justify his violations of the oaths and creeds the legions all paid lip service to. Horus being so great, it must be the oaths and the creeds that were insufficient, and worthy of abandoning. In a way, it is hard not to see that as a somewhat valid perspective, since there were enough lies in Imperial Truth to cast the whole mission of the Emperor into doubt. This is the great weakness of closing humanity’s eyes to the real dangers of the warp with the lies the Emperor told about a secular universe. That only made it easier for the even more sinister lies of the warp to take advantage of the weak minds of the legions who fell and were unable to distinguish the difference between truth and deception.
Nowhere is Loken’s innocence (or lack of knowledge) more present than in Horus Rising. In chapter 6, Loken has a conversation with Euphrati Keeler about the first cracks in the loyalty of the legions, and his inability to see the dangers inherent in ignoring the flaws of your idols and peers.
“What has to happen before you forsake your loyalty to the Legion and recognize your loyalty to the rest of us?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
“Yes, you do. If a brother turns on his brothers again, will you cover that up too? How many have to turn before you act? One? A squad? A company? How long will you keep your secrets? What will it take for you to cast aside the fraternal bonds of the Legion and cry out ‘This is wrong!’?”
“You’re suggesting an impossible-”
“No, I’m not… If you saw the rot, a hint of corruption, would you step out of your regimented life and stand against it…?”
“…It’s not going to happen,” Loken said. “That would never happen. You’re suggesting civil disunity. Civil war…With Horus as Warmaster, as our guiding light, such a possibility is beyond countenance.”Horus Rising, Chapter 6
Loken is working as hard as possible to avoid considering the betrayal of his idol, or even of himself. He isn’t even thinking about how it could happen. He is ignoring it because accepting it could happen shatters his worldview. This naivete sets up the true shattering of his psyche that comes with the final ultimate betrayal of Horus, and it is hammered home by all of the opportunities he had to consider it but looked the other way.
Relating to Loken Through PTSD
The first shattering of his world happened with the wounding of Horus at Davin and his near death. Loken, in his grief, participated in clearing out the human remembrancers and ship population on the vengeful spirit that barred the way to the medical bay. At that moment, he betrays his values and ideals and struggles to reconcile the person he thought he was versus the person he really was (as manifested through his actions). This is one critical part of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – it isn’t just the things that you experience that give you trauma, it is also (and perhaps more so) the things that you do that you never imagined yourself capable of doing. While Loken makes the honorable attempt to atone for his actions by extending his protection to naysayers and those who would speak to power, he is ultimately unprepared to meet the dishonorable means that his rivals and enemies use to circumvent his protections. His uneducated naivete fails to protect him from the truth of the maliciousness those around him are capable of, and he walks around as if wearing horse blinders, repeating “it could never happen” like a mantra until the hammer falls at Istvaan III.
To make things worse, he survives the final confrontation that left him for dead while all his other loyal brothers perished. This creates a sense of survivor’s guilt that compounds his trauma, breaking down his psyche and leaving something broken in its place. This is where Loken’s low point is, trapped and abandoned on Istvaan III with only the dusty corpses of his friends and their betrayers to comfort him. Imprisoned as much in mind as in body and constantly reliving the horrors of the betrayal, Loken surrenders to madness. How can he recover? We’ll explore that in the next installment.
An Ongoing Conversation
If you found this interesting, please check out my page Captain Morgan’s Librarius. You can also check out the content on my new YouTube channel for audio versions of my articles and other 40K videos. These are the spaces 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, and gaming to 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!
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