Welcome back to Carcosa, mortal! In this series, I’m discussing the modern epic, deep-diving some unusual examples of the form that speak to our times. If you’ve missed parts 1 and 2 of this series, never fear, you can find them at the links below:
If you’re up to date, then let’s jump right in to part 3!
Before the existence of copyright, storytelling was more communal. It was not only okay to borrow one writer’s ideas and expand upon them, but encouraged. Just be sure you did it better than the original lest you lose face. In Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic of circa 900 AD, we are treated to an abridged version of the German legend of Sigmund. Within the tale of Beowulf itself is reference to another legend, one that influences the titular hero. Homer’s stories, too, refer to other Greek legends, probably penned/told by contemporaries or predecessors of Homer. There is even a common misconception that The Iliad tells the story of the destruction of Troy, including the Trojan Horse. In fact, The Iliad ends with the moving funeral of Hector. The story of the Trojan Horse is filled out in another incomplete poem and briefly alluded to in The Odyssey. The escape of the Trojan people and their journey to the promised land of Latium, which would be founded as Italy and Rome, is a tale told by Virgil hundreds of years later in his epic The Aeneid, a story that casts new light on Troy and re-moulds Odysseus (not entirely convincingly, I must say) as a villain as opposed to the clever hero we knew.
What is clear is that this story was so vast, so inspirational and intriguing, that it was like lucrative ore, loaded with rich minerals and gold. Much like Lovecraft’s mythos, it has been mined and mined for generations. Shakespeare re-imagined Troy again in the 17th Century with Troilus & Cressida, focusing on overlooked characters and giving a shocking twist to the Achilles myth. 2750 years after the original Iliad, David Gemmell would write his own novel trilogy, Troy, offering yet another re-imagining of the city’s fall from a soldiers-on-the-ground perspective, effortlessly modernising a mythic narrative about gods and monstrous warriors. All these authors have offered their own contribution to this grand, mythic tale, making it into the rich tapestry we know today.
The creation of the Horus Heresy series by Black Library, Games Workshop’s publishing wing, harks back to this ancient mode of storytelling. The tale of the Heresy is set in the future, using sci-fi technology such as gene-seeding, biological enhancement, and bionics to re-imagine the heroes and magic of older narratives, although later in the story real gods do also play a part; the negative emotions of mankind have birthed four atrocious horrors in the warp, the iconic Chaos Gods: Khorne, God of Bloodshed and War, Nurgle, Lord of Decay and Death, Slaanesh, Master of Excess, Pleasure and Pain, and Tzeentch, The Fate-Weaver, God of Knowledge and Changer of Ways. Just as the Greek and Roman authors had their pantheon of deities which were integral to the narrative, the Horus Heresy creates its own pantheon of dark gods and also demi-god heroes in the form of the all-important super-enhanced Space Marines of the Adeptus Astartes and their leaders: The Primarchs. Milton evolved the Christian framework by creating his own ‘orders’ out of Satan’s legions and the nine hierarchies of angels, but the Horus Heresy goes one step further in creating something entirely new, using old cabalistic gods (Khorne/Kharneth) and Sumerian deities (Nurgle), among other influences, as inspiration.
The story takes place some 10,000 years prior the events of the grimdark Warhammer 40,000 game but thousands of years after The Great Crusade, which was the Emperor of Mankind’s attempt to colonise the known galaxy with his legions of Space Marines (thus locating the story in media res, a middle-point in a much larger story). The narrative spans hundreds of worlds, with a myriad of characters from different races, religions, military chapters and hidden cults (so many characters in fact that all the books have a dramatis personae at the front to ensure we know who everyone is – literal epic catalog). The depth of lore is such that this is not a story that can be written by one person. Like the Fall of Troy, many writers have contributed to the task. Currently, there have been 52 books in the series (plus accompanying audiobooks), with stories by well over 20 authors. In 2019, the series will end with a book entitled The Buried Dagger.
The Horus Heresy unashamedly borrows elements of Christian theology (The Emperor of Mankind a kind of god-figure betrayed by his favoured Luciferic son Horus Lupercal), as well as Egyptian, Norse and Indian legends and myths. It is, for lack of a more elegant phrase, a melting pot of mythological ideas, taking the best of everything and forming it into an epic Science Fiction extravaganza that tackles themes of brotherhood, betrayal, sacrifice, redemption and faith. The Primarchs, commanders of the vast Space Marine chapters each gifted with one facet of the Emperor’s personality (much like the Egyptian gods are each a facet of Ra’s personality), are also like Christ’s apostles, except there are 18 of them (originally there were 20, but 2 were lost in the warp never to be recovered).
In a similar vein, though Horus and his relationship to his literal creator, The Emperor, parallels the Christian dynamic of Satan and God, the Horus Heresy feels like a Greek tragic play more than Milton’s rebel-narrative of Paradise Lost. Horus is a tragically conflicted figure. He stands against his father’s hypocrisy and lies, seeking to reveal the truth to his loyal battle-brothers. The Emperor has created the Primarchs, and his Space Marine legions, using Chaos itself, the very thing the Emperor decries as heresy. The Emperor punishes all those who come into contact with Chaos, including his own gene-son, the Primarch Magnus the Red, whom the Emperor imbued with his psychic attunement (and therefore natural affinity and ability to communicate with Chaos). Is it Magnus’ fault he is drawn to the warp when the very trait he has been bestowed by the Emperor is his psychic power?
In the process of trying to overthrow his father, Horus becomes corrupted by Chaos himself, a dramatic irony of epic proportions. Ultimately, in his quest to defeat the Emperor, he loses everything, even the very things which first positively separated him from his monomaniacal father-figure. Horus was once the ‘most loved’ of the Primarchs, a charismatic leader who unified the legions despite their differences. He achieved this through his understanding of human psychology, able to relate and listen to his brothers as well as ordinary ‘un-enhanced’ human beings, the ‘lesser mortals’ of the Warhammer universe. The Emperor, on the other hand, is aloof and often fails to understand human thinking. For example, he names Horus ‘The Warmaster’, placing him ‘First Among Equals’, thus setting him above his Primarch brethren, a mistake anyone with any understanding of the human heart can immediately see will lead to dire consequences. In one scene of hilarious meta-commentary, Malcador, the Emperor’s loyal regent, remarks that many of the problems with the Primarchs could have been averted had they been created as women. Again, a severe oversight on the Emperor’s part.
During the course of the heresy, Horus becomes embittered, ruthless and uncaring, unwilling to listen to the tactical advice of his brothers, and throwing away allies on a whim. He loses his ability to connect with people and understand the human heart, in a bizarre way, turning into a mirror of the xenophobic, egocentric, patriarchal godhead of the Emperor, the very thing he wanted to oppose. There is a wonderful moment of clarity in the audiobook Warmaster (John French) that illustrates the influences of Greek tragedy on the story, when Horus reflects that the nine Primarchs who have turned upon the Emperor to aid him are the ones he holds in least regard. As he cradles the skull of his former friend, the Loyalist Primarch Ferrus Manus (a scene which directly parallels Hamlet), Horus laments that he has only ‘broken things’, monsters, and psychopaths, at his side, not real men of strategy and conviction like Ferrus. All the people he admires are fighting on the Emperor’s side. He wishes he could make them see reason, and already cannot see that the very thing he admires in them is the thing which means they will never side with him.
Stylistically, the writing in the series varies in tone. It has to, given there are so many hands on deck. However, all of the Heresy stories are unified by the faux-Latin of the Imperium and the archaic technology; remember, epics bridge the past and future. The arcane technology of the Warhammer universe is more like Fantasy than true Science Fiction, a re-creation of the Triremes of ancient Greece, save they battle in the cold gulf of space rather than the sea. But deeper even than that, the formality of military discourse is used as a clever way to write dialogue in an elevated, regal style that doesn’t slip into parody, or sound like the many hackneyed Fantasy novels that imitate epic speech in clumsy ways. They tread the line between modern and fable, and it works. Whilst the prose is more of a ‘hard-boiled’ affair, it nonetheless uses the presence of the warp, and the grandeur of the battles and characters, to make way for sublime imagery that transcends simple action sci-fi or space opera. Particularly when it is in the hands of writers such as Dan Abnett and Aaron Demski-Bowden, who craft their novels with the loving, painstaking artistry of poets. These writers use thematic riffs and motifs, bringing lines of resonant dialogue back in compelling and surprising ways, much as Homer uses repeated images ‘Dawn showed her rosy fingers’, for emotive effect. In one of the most dramatic examples of this, Dan Abnett takes the iconic battle-cry of the Space Marines: ‘For the Emperor!’, and twists it on its head at the end of his novel Legion, making it into a chilling declaration of a sunken costs fallacy. The line is delivered by the character you least expect to say it, and in a manner that is a perfect juxtaposition of ideal versus reality. For the Emperor is a battlecry of an old era, the Great Crusades, not of this time now when things are much more complicated. As such, there is a kind of ‘call and response’ effect in many of these novels, authors giving us new spins on characters first created and explored by other writers.
But what of our epic hero? Well, there are many heroes and villains in this vast saga, but Horus must be the central character. The heresy is, after all, named after him. Like Milton’s depiction of Satan, Horus is an anti-hero, someone we route for but who we know is ultimately wrong and must fail. He hails from Cthonia, a planet of gang-lords and industrial conflict (unusual place and orphaned) where he swiftly rose to power. He is one of the 20 Primarchs, super-enhanced with incredible speed, strength, reactions and healing abilities (unusual power and royal heritage). Horus, however, seems more powerful than even his super-powered brothers, being the ‘first son’ to be found by the Emperor and therefore benefiting from direct one-to-one tutelage from him. Only one of the other Primarchs was thought to be a match for Horus, and that was Sanguinius of the Blood Angels. Even then, Horus is purported to have slain Sanguinius in the final battle of the Heresy aboard the ship: Vengeful Spirit. Horus has a sense of justice, which is why he opposes his father in the first place, though this is corroded and warped over time by the malignant influence of the Dark Gods. He wields the Talon of Horus, a master-crafted Lightning Claw forged in the depths of Mars, as well as a mace called World Breaker, which was forged by the Emperor himself. He is armoured in a suit called the Serpent’s Scales which is surrounded by a force-field (special equipment). His tragic flaw is his ambition, paralleling Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This ambition ultimately blinds him, sending him going down the wrong path. Ironically, it is also the trait he has inherited from his gene-father. Horus was encouraged to be ambitious, because the Emperor saw it as a strength and saw himself in Horus above all the others. Sadly, the Emperor should have instead tempered Horus’ ambition. Horus himself thought that Sanguinius (whom he admired above all other Primarchs, and which makes his murder of Sanguinius all the more tragic), should have been the Warmaster, for he truly embodied the Emperor’s spirit. If Horus had instead been the right hand man and aid to Sanguinius, the galaxy might have been all the better for it.
Horus has many guides, all of which seem to mislead him and take him down the wrong path, such as the Word Bearers Erebus and Kor Phaeron. In later books, Maloghurst, a dark sorcerer, takes over the role, nursing Horus as he lies wounded by the Spear of the Emperor and entering his dreams. All of these prophets, priests and guides are really extensions, however, of the Dark Gods themselves, whose true aim is to neutralise the Emperor, who is too powerful a threat to them. Unfortunately, all this at the expense of Horus. The Horus Heresy really subverts the idea of the ‘epic guide’ altogether by showing us that sometimes common sense and intuition – which is what guides most of the heroic loyalists in the narrative – is a better compass than false philosophy or ideals. Horus is corrupted by over-thinking and scheming. If he had listened to his heart, he might have thrown off the influences of his heretical brethren.
Lastly, hell. Hell is ever-present in the Warhammer universe in the form of The Eye. No, not the Eye of Sauron, though clearly there is an allusion there to a previous epic, but the Eye of the Warp, a great vortex-portal in space that leads to the kingdom of the Dark Gods. There are many instances where, either through dreams or literal tears in reality, Horus and his servants (and even some of the Loyalist Space Marines) must go to the Eye, and chance an encounter with the Dark Gods and their servants. In one particularly memorable scene in Vengeful Spirit (Graham McNeill) Horus enters a portal on the planet Molech (Molech perhaps a corruption of moloch, the plant that Odysseus must consume in order to resist the magic of Circe). This portal was once used by the Emperor to reach the stronghold of the Dark Gods. With the powers the Emperor found therein, he created the Primarchs and the Adeptus Astartes. We do not follow Horus through the portal. He returns moments later. Millennia have passed for him, more than millennia in fact; Horus has visibly aged, which is impossible, given that the Primarchs supposedly live forever. Horus led demonic armies and brought thousands of worlds to his heel in this time. He effectively conquered hell itself. He returned to use his newfound knowledge to destroy the Emperor once and for all.
This is really secondary to the true hellish descent of the narrative, however, which is the descent of Horus’ mind. While the Warp is ever-present and literal, it is nothing compared to the horrors of Horus’ corrupted morality, and his continual descent through the many entries in the series. Horus commits many atrocities, including chemical bombing his own brethren from orbit after they make planetfall. The ‘drop-site massacre’, as it later comes to be known, is one of the most visceral, heart-rending, awful moments in the entire series, where many characters we love are obliterated without a chance to fight and die honourably: the true desire of any Space Marine. He robs them of dignity in his betrayal. The real hell is Horus’ and his corrupted followers’ minds, not the Eye itself, which is merely a mirror image of all the hatred, fear and negative emotion of human and alien kind. This powerful subversion is what makes the Horus Heresy work, and what has made it so successful and enduringly popular with fans. Without this psychological depth, it would merely be Myths in Space.
We’ve now come to the end of part 3 of this series. I do hope you enjoyed it. In part 4, the final part, we’ll look at our third example of a ‘modern epic’, a hit TV series… If you want to find out more, or ask me any questions, feel free to leave a comment on my website, or to message me on Twitter!
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Until next time, my friends!