Dark Souls III: Irina, Eygon, Cruelty and You
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Dark Souls is a great series for tracing tropes and archetypes. There are all kinds of characters in whom you can recognise antecedents from previous games, dynamics and relationships that replicate themselves across the series. Today I want to focus on a pair of characters in Dark Souls III, Eygon and Irina (both ‘of Carim’), that I think are representative of a particularly interesting and omnipresent motif.
There’s a lot to the motif, which makes it difficult to sum up concisely. There is always a saintly victim figure, treated with a strange admixture of religious devotion and vicious abuse. The figure clearly has an important role to play in the series’ spiritual world (they are frequently fire keepers, and failing this, fulfilling an overtly spiritual role as, for example, the pilgrim Thea in the first game does), but this spiritual power does not translate into worldly power — in fact, seemingly the opposite.
(Anastacia after her magical revival)
These characters are almost always disabled, in some sense. Dark Souls III’s fire keeper is blind, as is Quelaag’s sister in the first game (and the Maiden in Black, from Demon’s Souls); Anastacia is mute; even the quite physically capable Darkmoon Knightess, who otherwise is something of an exception to the archetype, is said to be seriously deformed beneath her armour. The doll from Bloodborne appears to be literally an inanimate object brought to life. Further, when the player is able, through magical means, to ‘cure’ these disabilities, they are not met with any great praise for doing so. The fire keeper is unwilling to see; Anastacia is unwilling to speak.
These saintly sufferers are always women. I don’t intend this as a complaint about the series’ treatment of female characters; these games are hardly short on capable women, from Eileen the Crow to Sieglinde of Catarina to Lucatiel of Mirrah. But it is certainly a detail worth noting, firstly because the notion of passive suffering as saintly purity recalls a long history of depictions of women, and secondly because the second party in this dynamic, who, as mentioned, fulfils a role somewhere between devotee and persecutor, is always a man.
This is where it seems best to list the pairings of characters that I think most clearly represent the motif: Petrus and Rhea of Thorolund; Lautrec of Carim and Anastacia of Astora; Gehrman and the Doll; and of course, Irina and Eygon of Carim. Garl Vinland and Maiden Astraea from Demon’s Souls, while serving as clear visual and thematic inspiration for Irina and Eygon, do not appear to match the abusive dynamic under discussion here.
So, Eygon. You first meet him waiting outside a dark, locked cell. Inside the cell is Irina. Inquiring about this, you hear from Eygon that she is ‘a lost cause. Couldn’t even become a fire keeper. After I brought her all this way, and got her all ready. She’s beyond repair, I tell you.’ Immediately you see the strange dynamic at play here. Eygon is seemingly both Irina’s captor and, on some level, on her side. He strikes a note of hostility usually reserved not for a relationship of mutual antagonism but for a hopelessly embittered intimacy.
Being a good diligent soul, you find another way into the cell and speak to Irina herself. She is in a dark place. ‘The dark surrounds me,’ she says, ‘nibbles at my flesh. Little creatures, they never stop biting. So please, hold out your hand, and touch me…’ In one of the most affecting moments in the game, you do. And the moment of intimacy seems to make things better for at least the time being. The dark things give Irina some respite. Concurring with her guardian-captor, she declares herself ‘unfit to tend the flames’ but offers to assist in your quest all the same.
(A moment of quiet respite with Irina)
‘How very quaint, pitying creatures that are beyond help,’ Eygon sneers. ‘Very well. I’m sick of looking after her at any rate.’ The same bitterness, but then: ‘I am allied to you as long as you ensure the girl’s safety. And only for that long…’ The exact relationship between Eygon and Irina is, like much of these games’ lore, shrouded in obscurity. Are they blood relatives, past lovers, or simply strangers thrown together by Eygon’s knightly duty to protect Irina? Considering the way in which he mixes malicious insults with a serious concern for her safety, some combination of the two latter scenarios seems likely. As time goes on, we will see just how seriously he takes his terms.
Back at Firelink Shrine, your base of operations, you learn that Irina, too — perhaps ironically given her fear of the dark — is blind. She requests that we bring her divine tomes written in braille. For now, Eygon is nowhere to be found, seemingly glad to have foisted his ward on us. Returning the requested tomes to Irina allows her to teach you new miracles, a school of magic broadly focused on defensive and healing effects.
Eventually Eygon returns ‘to see how she’s getting on.’ You never actually see him check on her. In fact, throughout the whole game Eygon and Irina are almost never actually beside one another, and Irina only once (as we will see later) even refers to Eygon’s existence. ‘This cesspool of doddering oldfolk and degenerates,’ Eygon continues, ‘She must fit in perfectly here.’ Clearly more than anything, he has come to gloat.
Like most subplots in these games, there are a couple of ways this can end. The branching point relates to a pair of divine tomes quite unlike the others, and the question of whether you should learn the miracles from them. Upon being presented with these tomes, Irina warns us they are ‘forbidden’ and mentions again the ‘little creatures that nibble at me in the darkness…’ Meek, subservient, and accustomed to abuse, Irina, of course, does not outright refuse. She leaves the issue entirely in your hands.
The more positive ending for Irina, and, I suspect, the one vastly fewer players achieved, involves avoiding the miracles from these tomes altogether, and simply learning everything she can teach you from the regular, un-profaned tomes. At this point, with no subsequent reappearance from Eygon, Irina finally takes up the mantle of fire keeper. Her warnings against the dark tomes, though timid, were taken seriously. Though fragile, with her boundaries and her dignity finally respected she was able to flourish.
This, as I have said, is not the ending most players actually achieved.
(Irina as fire keeper)
The miracles from the ‘profaned’ tomes are different from the rest. They focus more on wounding and sabotage than medicinal or defensive effects. Their effects are alarming. One spell turns fallen corpses into exploding traps. Another summons a swarm of insects — ‘Little creatures, they never stop biting.’ It ought to serve as a warning but doesn’t. Irina teaches you the spells — what else can she do?
When you next return to the shrine, Irina is nowhere to be found. Her usual place sits empty. Perplexed, you go hunting. A little way outside, you find her — and a very angry, very hostile Eygon. ‘This knight of Carim does not forgive betrayal. Even a broken woman deserves her dignity…’ Here is Eygon, constant verbal and perhaps physical abuser of Irina, defending her dignity. From you.
There’s something to be said for a story that shows you a monster, then surreptitiously leads you into following in his footsteps, even surpassing him. Rescued from one who would abuse her trust, Irina found herself under the questionable protection of another who did the same.
Eygon cannot be reasoned with. When he’s dead, Irina is once again terrified, talking about the ‘little creatures’ and begging to be touched. You reach out a hand, but she doesn’t seem to recognise the touch, continuing to beg as if you were not there. You don the gauntlets stripped from Eygon’s corpse and do the same again. This time she recognises the touch. ‘Oh, you again,’ she says, ‘touch me, one last time. And kill me, as you promised you would.’ This is the one moment in which Irina acknowledges the existence of Eygon, and here it is evidently because she believes herself to be talking to him. Could she have been so afraid of him that she would not even dare discuss him with another?
With nothing else left to gain, you fulfil the request.
( Eygon’s usual demeanour)
It’s a distressing conclusion, not only because of its violence, but because it seems on some level to validate Eygon’s extreme and seriously abusive protectiveness. Was Irina better off in that cell than in your care? Was a life in the dubious custody of one who seemed to despise her for her weakness, and specifically threatened her life, the best she could hope for? In what context was the promise of death made? Did she want to die, to escape either the shame of failure or the pain of Eygon’s mistreatment? This being Dark Souls, there are no simple answers to these questions.
The clearest messages one can take from such a bitter conclusion, I think, are an awareness of abuse as something facilitated by power imbalances, not only by caricatured monsters; the fact that the worst horror a person can experience may be inflicted by those who ostensibly care most about them; and the sad familiar story of a person moving from one abusive situation to another, the latter involving the very person they thought to have saved them from the first. Above all, what’s most admirable in this story is an acknowledgement of (yet not an excuse for) the disturbing inseparability of tenderness and cruelty.