Dark Souls: Prepare to Transition Edition
Updated: Mar 21, 2022
Gender and the Dark Sun Gwyndolin
By Ask Vestergaard
This article is sponsored by the Development Trust Fund
Image Courtesy of Steam
Yeah, we get it: Dark Souls is hard. It’s basically a meme at this point – games are no longer challenging, they’re “the Dark Souls” of whatever genre they belong to. And the series isn’t just hard to play – it’s hard to parse. With a narrative conveyed entirely through item descriptions, environmental storytelling, and the cryptic monologuing of depressed poets, the game thrives on vagueness and ambiguity. Moreso than perhaps any other piece of media, the plot of Dark Souls – if you can call it a plot – is fundamentally up to interpretation. And nowhere is this clearer than with one of the game’s most fascinating optional bosses:
So, let’s take a look at the lastborn child of the Lord of Cinder, the Blade of the Darkmoon, the final god of Anor Londo. Let’s take a look at the Dark Sun Gwyndolin, and a few of the many possible ways in which Dark Souls explores gender expression through their character.
The Cisgender Reading:
That was a whole lot of fantasy-schmantasy lingo I just put you through, so let me just give you a little background info. The world of Dark Souls is dying. Once, long ago, there was an Age of Ancients, a fantastical analogue to the Ancient Greek and Roman conception of a ‘Golden Age’ ruled by Titans – the Titans in this case being immortal dragons. Then followed a great war, a Titanomachy of sorts, spearheaded by the lightning bolt-wielding god Zeus – ahem, sorry, I mean the lightning bolt-wielding god Gwyn – which culminated in the slaying of the great dragons and the dawn of the Age of Fire. By the time Dark Souls begins, the Age of Fire has grown bloated and cancerous, and the hegemony of Gwyn is little more than a carcass holding on to power. Gwyn is now Hollow, a shambling husk of himself nursing the coals of his once blazing Age, and the only god left in his once shining capital city of Anor Londo is his child Gwyndolin.
But enough exposition. We’re here to talk about gender.
Remember what I said about the plot of Dark Souls being conveyed by item descriptions? Nearly every weapon or ring or piece of armour that has any relation to Gwyndolin makes sure to mention that he uses masculine pronouns but was “raised as a daughter” because Gwyn required a child spiritually aligned with the moon – a celestial body that was considered by Gwyn’s court to be feminine.
This, then, is one possible reading of Gwyndolin’s gender presentation: Gwyndolin is cisgender (he identifies with the gender he was assigned at birth), is a man, and is a crossdresser. While not entirely necessary, this interpretation also comes with the added baggage of Gwyndolin’s childhood being a coercive one. He was forced to take on a feminine role in order to fulfil a predetermined position in his family’s hierarchy. One item in Dark Souls III, the Reversal Ring, is found in Gwyndolin’s quarters and “causes males to perform female actions, and vice versa”. Yet this could imply both agency and powerlessness. One the one hand, it is possible that Gwyndolin chose to keep the ring on and could take it off at any time; but on the other, as long as he had it on, perhaps it entirely consumed his identity and left him as little more than a puppet dressed as a woman.
The Transphobic Reading:
No discussion of Gwyndolin’s gender presentation is complete without dredging through the filth that is transphobia – or, more specifically, transmisogyny. This is something that is true of pretty much any analysis of the Dark Sun, but becomes more insidious when reading her as a trans woman written by cis men. The titbit that she was “raised as a daughter” that crops up so often could imply that she merely acts feminine, but it could just as easily be an uneducated and/or transphobic storyteller writing a trans character while entirely misunderstanding the concept of gender. This is extremely common in media, and is a fundamental misconception about being trans: that trans people, no matter how they act, are still defined by their primary or secondary sex characteristics and are purposefully tricking people. If this is the case, the misgendering use of he/him pronouns would be, in the eyes of a transphobic writer, ‘correct’.
It gets worse. When the player first arrives at the bastion of imperialism that is Anor Londo, the city is bathed in golden-red sunlight and teeming with towering knights in glittering armour. But this is all an illusion: the gargoyles, the golden guardians, the very sun itself – they are all lies. Anor Londo is dark and cold and empty, rotting behind a façade of its halcyon grandeur. A façade constructed by Gwyndolin. Gwyndolin is manipulative, Gwyndolin is deceitful, Gwyndolin has feet that are literally made out of snakes. But not only is she a liar, she is a liar because she is trans. The idea that trans folk – specifically trans women – are manipulative is an extraordinarily dangerous prejudice. And if the asynchronous multiplayer messages left outside Gwyndolin’s boss room are anything to go by, what with their gratuitous use of the “tr*p” slur, this is a reading that many players ascribe to – and is certainly not a reading that game developer FromSoftware disincentivises.
Couple this with Gwyndolin’s ultimate fate in Dark Souls III, devoured by a roiling mass of sludge that puppeteers her lifeless corpse and robs her of any semblance of femininity in death, and the result is frankly sickening.
It is no surprise, then, that many people have sought to reappropriate Gwyndolin, or at least provide a more charitable interpretation. So: let’s take a look at the Dark Sun Gwyndolin as a trans woman who maintains her role as a trickster figure but is not a blatant caricature of transmisogyny.
The Transfemme Reading:
One immediate “problem” with this interpretation is that Gwyndolin is constantly referred to with he/him pronouns, but anyone familiar with queer coding in media knows that the Author is very much Dead. Authorial intent is not the be all and end all of analysis, and since Gwyndolin is very clearly coded as trans, it is not difficult to support a reading that consolidates that notion and ignores the pronouns that Hidetaka Miyazaki and his fellow writers from FromSoftware have prescribed her. The clomping foot of canon-obsessed nerdism would, of course, kick indignantly at the idea that art exists outside of the dictates of its creators, but if the interpretation has evidence to support it, then it’s valid.
So, here’s the interpretation.
From the very start of the original Dark Souls, you are told that you are the Chosen Undead, fated to Link the First Flame and prolong the Age of Fire. In layman’s terms, you’re a zombie marshmallow on a quest to burn yourself to a carcinogenic crisp to extend the reign of the aristocracy. You are told this by the first character you meet, you are told this by a depressed bastard moping by a bonfire, you are told this by a meat-moustachioed snake with human teeth, and, once you finally reach Anor Londo, you are told this by Gwyn’s daughter Gwynevere, the Princess of the Sun.
But like the sun, Gwynevere is an illusion – a facsimile cast by a lonely sister. The quest in Dark Souls has you murdering your way through a fantasy aristocracy on your way to find and kill Gwyn, the Lord of Cinder. Although they’ll kill you hundreds of times first, you end up killing every Lord you face.
And that just leaves Gwyndolin. Although you can reveal the illusion that has cast a sheen over the darkened Anor Londo by giving the vision of Gwynevere a good thwack in-game and can face and kill Gwyndolin in her endless spectral hallway, you will almost certainly not do that on your first time playing. The intended first playthrough of Dark Souls ends with the player sacrificing themselves to Link the First Flame. It ends with them never meeting Darkstalker Kaathe (yet another meat-moustachioed snake with human teeth) who tells you that it is possible to let the Fire fade and usher in an Age of Dark. It ends with every single pillar of the aristocracy, Gwyn included, dead.
Everyone – except for Gwyndolin. It is entirely possible to read Gwyndolin as the primary instigator of the entire game’s events: she fabricated the Prophesy of the Chosen Undead, she led you to Anor Londo, she spoke to you through the mask of her falsified sister, she sent you to butcher all that remained of the old hegemony, her father included, and then she convinced you to kill yourself to extend the Age of Fire.
The Age of Gwyndolin. The Age of a Trans Woman.
For she is a trans woman. Why wouldn’t she be? There is no one left to coerce her. There is no one more powerful than her. She has absolute authority, absolute agency, and the absolute power to define her own gender expression. She straight up gave herself illusory breasts. She is the Queer Queen of Anor Londo.
The Transmasc Reading:
… or he’s a trans man.
What? How the Hell can a character both be interpreted as a trans woman and as a trans man?
Well. Although Gwyndolin was likely born with male primary and secondary sex characteristics, it is entirely arguable that he was technically assigned female at birth – Gwyn raised him as a girl, dressed him in feminine garb, and slipped the Reversal Ring upon his finger.
In Dark Souls III, the Reversal Ring is found locked in a chest in the same tomb where Gwyndolin is encountered in the original game. We cannot possibly know how it ended up there, but one possibility is that Gwyndolin removed it and embraced his masculinity, transitioning away from the gender that was imposed upon him from birth. Once Gwyn and the other Lords were finally gone and there were none left to oppose him, he was finally free to be who he truly was – a man. While Gwyndolin’s death by the mouth of Aldrich the Devourer is harrowing for anyone who identified with Gwyndolin as a trans character, the transmasc reading ensures that it is only a violation of life, rather than a violation of gender. What remains of his half-digested body in Dark Souls III is masculine, with illusory breasts no longer padding out his robe. He might be dead, but at least he can still be seen as a man – and that can be a comfort, however slight, to anyone sickened by the way he was so gruesomely disposed of.
There is, however, another possible comfort. Dark Souls III takes place countless centuries after the events of the first game, but several well-known characters make reappearances in it – Gwyndolin included, albeit as a rotting flesh puppet. How did Gwyndolin make it to the events of the third game if it is entirely possible for the player character to kill him in the first? There are a few possibilities.
Firstly, and this is something that is very common with sequels in games that have multiple outlines, perhaps only the ending where Gwyndolin survives is ‘canon’. Secondly, and much more interestingly, a fundamental theme in Dark Souls III is the fact that the world and its history are imploding in on themselves. Time is convoluted in the Dark Souls games, with phantoms from the past accompanying wayfarers of the present and ancient cities rising from the foundations of modernity.
And then there’s a third possibility: he never died. It is possible that the version players can kill in Dark Souls was just an illusion. But surely that doesn’t make sense – the reward for killing him in the game is his soul, and you can’t get a soul from an illusion, can you? Well, every enemy in the sunlit version of Anor Londo is an illusion, and they all drop souls, including the area’s infamous twin bosses Ornstein and Smough, both of whom drop a boss soul just like Gwyndolin’s. Additionally, if you kill Gwyndolin but do not dispel the illusion of Gwynevere, Anor Londo remains sunlit – something, or someone, must be keeping the illusion intact.
And if Gwyndolin survived the player, perhaps he survived Aldrich the Devourer as well.
I’m usually not a big fan of digging deep into a game’s lore to find every tenuous thread I can to support any conclusion I want – it often feels pointless and overreaching. But I cannot deny that the culture of trans readings surrounding Gwyndolin is absolutely fascinating and well worth exploring – especially since it has a very real impact. It is an excellent case study in how vague storytelling can both support readings that empower marginalised voices while also simultaneously creating toxic caricatures that marginalise them further.
Is Dark Souls’ emphasis on ambiguity a good thing, then, or a bad thing? I don’t know. But it is definitely a difficult thing.
So, in conclusion – the Dark Sun Gwyndolin truly is the Dark Souls of gender expression.