Every Dark Souls veteran is likely aware of the fact that the world of the game goes through cycles of prosperity and dearth, ages of fire and ages of dark. Here I wanted to point out how From closed the largest one spanning three games. In the Ringed City DLC, we came to the end of Gael’s storyline and, without knowing it, to the end of Gwyn’s as well.
The cycle starts in Dark Souls 1 with Gwyn, a god, a king and owner of a soul of light. Whereas, Dark Souls 3 ends it with Gael, an undead human, a slave and the closest thing to the real dark lord.
Their presentations and roles during their respective games are also opposed. Gwyn’s first portrayal was grand; a powerful, imposing king flanked by hundreds of his knights holding a massive soul in his hands. Throughout the game his influence is felt on most parts of Lordran. From the trials of the Chosen Undead in Undead Parish, Blighttown and Sen’s Fortress to the black knights patrolling the areas surrounding Anor Londo he is always a hostile, if absent, agent. In the end, meeting him at the Kiln of the First Flame is a bit of anti climax. Instead of being this grand lord holder of inconmensurable power, he has lost his mind going completely hollow (and is incredibly easy to parry.) He much, like his soul, is nothing but a shadow of his former grandeur. Even the theme in the fight seems to reflect the waning and failure of Gwyn. What’s more, he doesn’t even get his own cutscene like the other lords. He’s sad, he’s to be pitied and mercy killed. Gwyn doesn’t even know we exist, his whole country is against use and in the end dies like a dog.
Let’s look at Gael on the other hand, he is first found prostrated in front of the altar of at the Cleansing Chapel asking for fire and very courteously requesting the help of the Ashen One. He can later be summoned at the Ariandel chapel to help with the boss inside and later yet be found leading us through the Dreg Heap and the Ringed City marking the way for us with rags torn off his treasured cape (wish you had kept them for that final fight, huh?). At the end of the world, he has collected each disparate part of the dark soul and eaten the dry blood of the pygmy lords and, while he at first appears to have devolved to a mindless state in the same way Gwyn did, his objective of collecting a whole dark soul is still remembered his objective. Halfway through the fight he becomes fully conscious again, remembers his old swordplay and harnesses the power of the dark soul to the fullest. Gael considers the Ashen One his superior, helps him several times throughout his journey and dies after an impressive fight.
Gwyn represents the fear of a man who is poised to lose everything he has built. While Gael represents the hope of a man willing to give up whatever little he has and is for a future even if it is an uncertain one. And yet despite their differences they both end up dead at the end of our sword.
Is this a point about the futility of it all? that whether you grasp tightly to the past or you embrace the cycle of death and rebirth you will end up in the same place? maybe, to some extent, but I don’t think that the deaths of Gwyn and Gael are particularly important. After all that is how every boss ends up in Dark Souls save a few exceptions. I think what is more important are the actions each of them took in function of their passions. Gwyn threw himself into the flame and Gael hunted the dark soul until the end of time. In service of their purposes both gave up on their personal happiness. How selfless and how human.
And isn’t that, in the end, the core of the Souls games? the human experience, the desire for purpose, fear and hope of what comes next. We all inevitably move forward into the future, without any knowledge of it; we can’t do anything about it. We may never shake off this curse of humanity, weakness, mortality, failure, but we can choose to embrace it like Gael or do as Gwyn and reject it.