Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Born to Greatness

Part one: Born to Greatness
Part two: The Beckoning Sky
Part three: Never to be Free
Written by J. Robert King
Appeared in The Duelist #29, 32 & 34.

We start on a dark night, with a twelve year old Crovax reading a book about his favorite hero: Lord Windgrace. Suddenly he hears singing coming from his dad's parlor. He's not only forbidden from entering there, but it is said to be haunted by a ghostly hag. With his head still full of adventure stories he goes in anyway, and discovers an amulet. When he picks it up Selenia appears, who says she has to obey the owner of the amulet. A random comment from the young boy makes the angel smile, and that smile seems to be enough to get him to fall in love with her. Being a kid he first tries to command Selenia to be happy, but she tells him she can't be truly happy until she is free. Crovax immediately tries to find something hard to break the amulet, but stops when he sees the bust of his father. He vows instead to free her when he is a man and can stand up to his father.

Part two picks up fifteen years later. In the intervening years Crovax visited Selenia often, and tried to leave with her three times, only to be caught by his father's men or to the dangers of Urborg each time. This time though he's made it all the way to Zhalfir, where he runs into a strange ship. The ship is, of course, the Weatherlight, and after some antics involving a scuffle with Tahngarth he joins the crew. At night he summons Selenia, who asks to be released. He says he'll do that soon, when they are far away and free. At which point the Weatherlight surprises Crovax by lifting into the air.

The finale starts with Crovax being alone on the bridge, as acting captain. This means he can marry people. (Which, yes, is a myth in our world, but it can still be true on Dominaria.) He summons Selenia and tells her that today she will be freed and they will married. But when he destroys the amulet, Selenia is teleported to Urborg instead. Turns out that his father has made a new crystal to summon her, and that precisely at that moment Volrath's forces are attacking the manor! Then the story covers what we already saw in Gerrard's Quest: the fight with Gallowbraid and Morinfen, the death of Rofellos, Selenia kicking ass and being freed, but then being taken to Rath. The Crovax/Selenia parts play out a bit differently here though. I'll go into more detail in the continuity part of the review. For now, suffice to say that we get a neat scene with Crovax taking Selenia's new prison from his dad's corpse, which gives us a good look into Crovax's conflicted feelings (He hates the old man for stealing Selenia, but it's still his dad), we see that Selenia asks to be released again upon being summoned, but that Crovax orders her to kill the Rathi monsters first, and that Selenia speaks the following words while being dragged to Rath:
"Another claims me Crovax. I am not free. I was never free."

There seem to have been some delays in the production of this story. At the end of Sisay's Quest the next story was promised for issue 28, so Born to Greatness starts a month late. And while Quest and the later parts of this story appear on a bi-monthly basis, there is another one-issue lag between parts one and two. As a result we end up quite a bit into the future, with part three sharing a magazine with coverage of the Combo Winter and Urza's Legacy previews. But since I want to complete the timeline of the Rath cycle events before moving on to Urza's story I'm taking a little trip in the proverbial DeLorean to cover Born to Greatness now.

I've said before that I find Crovax to be one of the most interesting characters in the Weatherlight Saga (at least in the first part, he gets far less interesting in Nemesis), and that I was thus looking forward to this story. You'll be pleased to know that it didn't disappoint. Although short, only nine pages in total, it gives us a detailed and subtle look at the relationship between him and Selenia. It doesn't answer all my questions, which is a bit annoying, but you can't blame this story for the fact that they stopped telling the Weatherlight backstories when they had so much more to reveal.

Crovax's story in Rath block seems like a typical "start of darkness". He's motivated by love, but in the end he's forced to kill Selenia and is cursed for his efforts. But really, Born to Greatness is Crovax's fall from grace, in a much more subtle way. Throughout this story we see him finding excuses for not freeing Selenia, and I think this is what really shows Crovax straying, pun very much intended, from the side of the angels. In part one he seems genuinely in love, immediately trying to free her upon hearing that's what will make her happy, but he's also still a kid, and one with a very stern father. You can't really blame him for not freeing the angel when he says "Father would kill me" and you're not quite sure whether that's supposed to be taken literally or not.

In part two you discover he tried several times to get Selenia away from his ancestral manor, which is nice, but you also get the first hint that something is off. At the end he says he will not release her until "we are far away, alone and free". Ehm... how much freer do you want to be then on a ship that's on its way to another continent? And why does being alone matter? Selenia doesn't seem to think it does. Then in the last part he does free her, but only after he has set up things so he can marry her, and then when she has been re-imprisoned he not only refuses to release her until the Rathi invaders are dead, but actually gives her a direct command, seemingly for the first time since the night he discovered her.

Or maybe you were falling for longer than you realized...

The story doesn't give much of Crovax's motivation for all this. He seems to have convinced himself that he is doing the right things all along, growing ever more oblivious to Selenia not giving a toss about the trimmings of her release. I've got two possible theories for Crovax's actions. Either he's (subconsciously) afraid that she'll leave him is he frees her, or he's so wrapped up in his own view that things should be perfect for Selenia's release that he doesn't realize just being released under any circumstances would be perfect to her.

Both explanations could stem from Crovax's rather odd upbringing. He seems very isolated, referring to his childhood as a prison, and has quite a few daddy issues. Plus he is raised to be a nobleman, with all the privileges that come with it. He's constantly thinking about the future he deserves, his destiny, and gets immensely frustrated when Sisay doesn't immediately accept his offer to join the crew, which he sees as part of this destiny. The story is called "Born to Greatness", after all. He's a nobleman who has fallen in love with a slave, and for all his talk of freeing her, I don't think he ever quite stopped thinking of her as his possession. Which is obviously symbolized by him carrying her around in a locket. He never truly connected with her, since he has been literally objectifying her. This turned his love into obsession over the years. By the end of this story Crovax has turned from an innocent boy into an obsessed man. All the torment and vampirism that follows is just an epilogue. Knowing this makes him shouting "she is mine!" in Rath and Storm even creepier.

While Born to Greatness makes Crovax a darker character, it's done in such a nice, subtle way that I don't begrudge it for that. Heck, despite being extremely short, it is one of my favorite stories among all the stuff I've reviewed so far! It certainly made me think much deeper about characterization, motivation, communication, people's upbringing and the effect of power structures on people's outlooks than any of my previous reviews, and I like stories that made me think.

Now I just hope people won't get odd views about me, now that my two favorite characters in the saga, Crovax and Starke, have been revealed to be extremely self-absorbed and misogynist. They're interesting, not nice! Read about Crovax, act like Orim everyone, that's my advice!

  • Selenia introduces herself as "An angel from the plane of Serra". Up to now we've only seen Serra hang out on Ulgrotha, but by the time The Duelist #29 came out Wizards was about to release Urza's Saga and the novel Planeswalker, which introduce Serra's Realm.
  • Little kid Crovax says he will be a king later in life, but that seems to be just grandstanding. He also says he will be a giant, which is even less likely.
  • Crovax and his brother Jolav feature in this story, and sisters are mentioned, but no other brothers. There must have been some miscommunication between Orim and Crovax in Rath and Storm for her to think he has multiple brothers. It would seem churlish to count that as a continuity error though. Especially since this story does explain why she would get a low opinion of Crovax's dad from his stories.
  • Selenia is initially tied to a red amulet, and later to "a ring of glowing orbs, held together by twining gold". In Gerrard's Quest Crovax does wear a red amulet that flares when his home is under attack, and the Selenia-summoning amulet he gets of his father's corpse looks like two orbs tied together. But if you look closely you'll see that Jolav and their father are also wearing the same type of red amulets! It seems J. Robert King did look at the comic before writing Born to Greatness, but didn't notice that detail. Perhaps Selenia was tied to a type of amulet that the family wore anyway? Or perhaps the Selenia amulet was so important to the rise the family in Urborgan politics that they started using it as a symbol?

With those last two trivia points we've really already moved into continuity discussions. There are more differences between Born to Greatness and Gerrard's Quest. Dialogues don't even remotely sync up, with Quest even implying Crovax never summoned Selenia before! But we've seen many, many problems with Quest up to this point. Things really become a lot easier if we consider that whole comic questionable continuity. But that's a discussion for next time. For now there are two other big things to talk about. The Windgrace situation and the Selenia situation.

Let's start with that first one. Those of you active in the MTG lore fora may have noticed that Crovax is often called Crovax Windgrace or Crovax of Windgrace. It's even where you'll be directed to when you search for "Crovax" on the MTGSally wiki. How his family is connected to Lord Windgrace, the panther warrior planeswalker, has been cause for discussion in the community for a long time. So when this story starts with him reading a book about Lord Windgrace, you'd think this was the place for some revelations. But no! Crovax mentions liking Lord Windgrace, and wanting to be like him, but he never says anything about sharing the name.

It gets even stranger. Crovax isn't called Windgrace in any of the sources I've reviewed so far. Not in Rath and Storm, not in Gerrard's Quest, not in The Duelist and not on The Duelist Online. He's just "Crovax" in all those sources "Crovax of Urborg" at most. This is the only time Windgrace is brought up in relation to Crovax, and it doesn't make the connection everyone else seems to have made.

Is this another example of what happened with Sivitri Scarzam, where Jeff Lee got some things wrong on his website, and the original source was by then so obscure nobody caught it, leading to the mistakes becoming accepted as facts in the community? Can the fact that various chroniclers or Magic Lore, up to and including such authorities as the MTGSally Wiki and Issar Roon, refer to Crovax's family as the Windgraces be traced to a simple miss-remembering or miss-translation of Crovax reading about Windgrace?

I'm reserving judgment for now, I want to read Crovax's later appearances first, maybe it's from there. We haven't seen mention of his family being part of the Bloodline Project either (because that project hasn't been invented yet), which is another part of his backstory everyone seems to know. Maybe I'll find the source for both claims at the same place? Meanwhile, I'll ask around on the fora and mail some other storyline old fogeys, maybe they'll remember where this story first turned up. But my digging so far has unearthed some threads on Phyrexia.com, dating back from around the time Planeshift was released, which featured both people convinced that Crovax had the title of Lord Windgrace on the one hand, and storyline guru's of old, like Squeeman and Eidtelnvil, failing to find any evidence for that. So for now, the idea that this is all a big misunderstanding looks very plausible!

Isn't that an anticlimax? The answer to the age old question "How did Crovax's family end up with the title Lord Windgrace" may be "They didn't"!

Now, on to Selenia. In The Art of Magic the Gathering: the Rath Cycle it was said that she was "generated" to guard over the family estate. Here she mentions being from Serra's Plane. Which is corroborated with a card that was released shortly after, the Urza's Saga version of Persecute. Selenia is from Serra's Realm, and was captured when the Phyrexians followed Urza there!

Even though this is from Urza's Saga, I'll discus it now since this scene isn't featured in the Planeswalker novel or, as far as I remember, ever acknowledged in the rest of the Weatherlight Saga. It is however a crucial bit of information that explains a lot of Crovax's story in the Rath cycle. If Selenia was planted on Urborg by the Phyrexians, it means they are to blame for the vampiric curse, it explains why signs of this curse were already present before Selenia was killed, and it reveals that the Phyrexians were grooming Crovax for evincarhood (or some other top job) all along, just like they groomed Vuel. It also explains the way-too-coincidental bit in this story where Crovax's ancestral home is attacked at the exact moment he frees Selenia. It does introduce a new coincidence, where Crovax just happens to end up on the same ship as Gerrard, but since he mentions earlier escape attempts being thwarted by the creepy crawlies of Urborg, maybe there were Phyrexian agents in the swamps all along, guiding him to the Weatherlight? That way they can mess with Crovax and lure Gerrard at the same time!

Of course, some other questions do arise. How did Crovax's dad end up with the amulet is the most obvious one, but not the most pressing, at least not to me. A Phyrexian agent could've posed as a merchant, they could've planted it in the mansion of some minor lord that Windgrace(?) Senior was about to conquer... maybe a distant ancestor worked for the Phyrexians and the angel has been in the family ever since. Any explanation could work, so pick the one you like.

Much more important to me is the question that actually impacts this story in a major way: did Selenia know this was going on? We really have no idea. In Rath and Storm Crovax said she had no memories, but she could of course be faking that. She was a loyal (if disturbed) minion of the Phyrexians on Rath after all, and her last line here is "I was never free."

I like to think she didn't know though. That her memories were erased and didn't return until her second prison was broken. Otherwise Crovax's possible fears that she would leave him would be justified, which gives this story a very weird undercurrent. Plus having her think she's going to be free, only to go from one enslavement to another is exactly the sort of sadistic twist of the knife you'd expect from a horrible bastard like Yawgmoth, who never got over his thing with Rebbec and thus probably delights in tormenting lovers.

Finally, some notes relating to the timeline. As mentioned, in part one Crovax is 12, and part two happens 15 years later. At that point Sisay, Hanna, Tahngarth & Squee are all already aboard. This is a bit problematic, since according to The Duelist Online Crovax is 37, and Squee is 10. So if Crovax is 27 when he joins the ship... are they keeping a baby goblin as their cabin boy? Or is it a different goblin cabin boy?

We are not told when part three happens in relation to the other two. If you believe Crovax when he says he'll free Selenia soon at the end of part two, then part three has to happen around the same time, since it opens with him releasing her. Buuuuuut... that would place it 10 years before Rath block, and since Gerrard is 26 in Rath block, he'd be only 16 in this story. At which point he's supposed to have just been involved in Vuel's right of passage, so him joining the Weatherlight can't have happened yet. So if we assume the dating for part two is correct, it seems Crovax was an even bigger prick to Selenia than it seemed, and actually delayed releasing her for several years!

So, something has to give. Either the dates in this story are wrong, or Crovax is younger than The Duelist Online claimed, or Squee and Gerrard are older. Thus we are back to the big continuity snarl that I've slowly been uncovering over the past months. I'd say it is about time to try and make sense of it all, don't you think?

Hopefully you will all join me next time when I review the Rath Cycle as a whole, do a little comparison with the current Zendikar story, try to find a good explanation for the continuity issues and finally give that old timeline another update!


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  2. You have mentioned in the past that Jeff Lee has had incorrect information, but people believed his website due to him having trustworthy sources.

    Do you think that Pete Venters and Teri McLaren originally intended Crovax to be related to Windgrace, and they shared that information with Jeff Lee's 'Legends of Magic'?

    or do you think this is more of a misunderstanding/ mistranslation/ fanfiction?

    I still think about how now everyone believes that Tivadar worked with lord Ith during the goblin crusades, yet MTG.com says that it was Tivadar + Rasputin.

    1. Jeff Lee never got to covering the Weatherlight Saga. I only invoked him in my article to give another example (the case of Sivitri Scarzam) where a mistake got widely accepted by the community. I have no idea where the Crovax/Windgrace correlation first came from. It might even be those Phyrexia.com posts! At the moment I'm leaning towards it being a misunderstanding, but I'm reserving full judgment until I've covered the rest of the Weatherlight Saga.

      The Ith/Rasputin is really bizarre, in that Jeff Lee stated it was Ith years before MTG.com revealed it was Rasputin. Either Lee or Pete Venters must've mixed up the two, but at the time there was very little that connected them. Them both being W/U Wizards didn't happen until much later, as Ith initially didn't have a card!