Sylvari Culture- Preconceived Notions:

This week has proven to be a very excellent source of information about our favorite plant-race, the Sylvari. While I found the first day’s contribution of the new design to be interesting, I was actually the most interested in the article that came out today and yesterday on the blog. We got a much more in-depth analysis of the teachings of the Sylvari, their place in the world, and of the Nightmare Court. It’s time to go over their strange history and go down speculation lane.

Planting a seed

As the blog informs us, the history of the Sylvari started all the way back during Guild Wars 1 with two people- a Human and a  Centaur. Ronan (Human) was a member of the Shining Blade, a group that fought against the tyranny of the White Mantle and were ultimately responsible for the ascension of Queen Salma to the throne. One day, Ronan was separated from his patrol and he happened upon a cavern containing some strange seeds guarded by powerful plant monsters. For some reason he decided that he wanted to take one of these seeds and plant it in his home village. What motivated him to fight some monsters for some seeds that he had no idea what they were? Perhaps it was simply dumb luck. Perhaps it was an insatiable curiosity which was later imbued upon that seed and by extension the Sylvari. Regardless of his motivations, he procured one of these seeds.

When he arrived home, he found that his entire village had been slaughtered by the White Mantle and the Mursaat. Here’s another interesting point- he decided to give up fighting forever and hang up his sword, figuratively speaking. Most people I know would probably have been driven to exact revenge upon the enemy at all costs; after all he was already fighting against them in a guerrilla group. Perhaps the seed he carried was influencing him, or perhaps he was already influencing the seed. Either way, his actions ended up looking a lot like those of a potential Sylvari.

After putting his loved ones to rest, he finished off his original plan and planted the seed near their graves. He established the area to be a safe haven for any travelers weary of fighting. After some time he met Ventari, the Centaur mentioned previously. Sharing a mutual weariness of violence and warfare, the two became the stewards of  their little grove. The strange tree grew fairly quickly in terms of normal tree growth and provided a shady area for the two old fellows to live in. Time passed fairly peacefully for the two and they were both eventually taken by age. Before Ventari’s passing he carved lessons he had learned in life onto a tablet and laid it at the base of the tree.

The early stages of the Pale Tree from GW1

The Pale Tree in fact appears to be sentient, although that fact was likely unknown to Ronan and Ventari. It learned from their times of peace together and their memories and actions lived on for hundreds of years in the “mind” of the tree. To this day the Centaurs and Humans have had fairly consistent animosity towards one another, but Ronan and Ventari proved to the Pale Tree that they could coexist peacefully. In order to guide its children, the Pale Tree fashioned The Dream, a way of teaching the unborn Sylvari things about the world, something of their potential place in life, morals and ethics. When the first Sylvari were finally born from the tree, Ventari’s Tablet was one of the first things they discovered.

Other trees??

Before continuing on about the Sylvari and their culture, I’d like to rewind and talk about something that really caught my attention in the previous passages. Ronan found a cave with several seeds. First of all, where did these seeds even come from? What were the creatures guarding them? Most importantly, does this mean there is potential for other Pale Trees? Was Ronan and his situation special in the process of growing the tree, or were the seeds just waiting to be planted. While there isn’t any talk about there being other trees right now, I could see this as a really cool plot device in future expansion content. Just imagine if those seeds made their way to Cantha or Elona (or both). How would the imperialist nation of Cantha affect the growth of a tree there? Could we find Sylvari that are raised as loyalists to the emperor of Cantha? What kinds of foliage would they have? Would they be affected by local plant-life in appearance, or would they still look the same as the Tyrian Sylvari? Given how much influence the starting years of the tree’s life had on both the tree and its children, the possibilities could be endless for other trees. Heck, some could even be evil because they were grew near constant strife and warfare. Anyway, I just thought that was really interesting to think about; now back to the main story.

Lessons from the Tablet

As foreign as the Sylvari are to humankind, just try to imagine things from their point of view for a minute. A lot of the Sylvari lore reminds me of many religions in our world. Imagine if instead of being taught from your parents and priests about the 10 Commandments, you were instead brought into the world as a full adult, shown what your virtues (commandments) should be from your creator, and were born right next to the tablet containing the Commandments. That’s some pretty powerful stuff. You would have your entire religion or life code imbued in you from the very start and would already be a fully established individual, largely free from many of the potentially life-altering experiences of growing up.

Instead of learning by example what society, right, wrong, honor and dishonor are, you simply are born “knowing” it. While all Sylvari have a different experience in The Dream, they all seem to be given most of the same baseline ideals. Much of the conflict in modern society really does seem to stem from all the things we are told growing up. Who to trust, who to hate, who is right, who is wrong. The Sylvari as a race are largely not susceptible to that kind of issue, though the Nightmare Court certainly does play some part in that. I’ll get to them in a bit though. These kinds of disputes though would likely only arise within their own race if other trees like theirs existed; it could be a really fantastic way to create some interesting conflicts among them. Interestingly, their lack of vastly different teachings and the fact that they cannot conceive children (only the Pale Tree does), the Sylvari are much more open about sexual/romantic relationships than most cultures, both in the real world and in Tyria. They don’t have gender roles, they don’t need to reproduce, so there is really no reason that homosexual/heterosexual relationships are any different in their eyes, especially since the sexual differences are pretty much entirely cosmetic.

Given the manner of their “birth” and the tablet’s teachings, the Sylvari have a very strong sense of honor. I find it fairly interesting because normally concepts like honor and chivalry are bred from long-lasting civilizations that have evolved through time to decided exactly what falls under “proper” behavior, even if it isn’t entirely logical. Think about table manners today- almost every knows them, at least somewhat, but a lot of them seem really really arbitrary. Some things like not chewing with your mouth open are pretty obvious, but some of the more subtle ones like how many pieces of silverware you should have, which spoon or fork are for which dishes, not putting your elbows on the table (even if you aren’t eating) can seem pretty random. That’s why I find it so interesting that they are simply born with ideals about honor and dignity; they kind of missed a middle step of hundreds of years of cultural change, largely because they were imbued by Ronan and Ventari. According to yesterday’s article, their system of justice often involves formal duels between conflicting parties. For conflicts that cannot be resolved they turn to the Firstborn Sylvari for guidance.

All of these concepts are essentially pre-programmed into the race as they are being created. Their whole system is pre-conceived for them as they are being made by the tree rather than a system that is learned. They are essentially born as productive adults with a strong sense of responsibility, and that really makes their race quite strong if you can eliminate those who would have learned the wrong lessons growing up. Of course, they aren’t perfect, and that leads us to the Nightmare Court.

Why are Ronan and Ventari the moral authority?

It has been said that many Sylvari have deep reflections upon the teachings on the tablet. Trying to find hidden and deeper meanings in teachings is a common past-time among humans in the real world. To go back to the Christianity analogy, there were times when people were branded heretics for posing such ideas like the earth not being the center of the universe or even the solar system. It is the nature of humans to question authority and teachings to try to find greater truths; sometimes it leads to discovery and enlightenment, sometimes it leads to violent rebellious behaviors. Apparently the Sylvari inherited this characteristic as well. Instead of asking if the earth was round or the center of the solar system, some Sylvari asked why exactly these codes of ethics and honor were correct or true. Who were Ronan and Ventari to say what is right in the world? Why should we be bound by someone else’s ideals? Maybe the world is not all flowers and honey (pardon the joke).

Thus the Nightmare Court was born. They believe that Ronan and Ventari “contaminated” the tree with their ideals. The honor and society of the Sylvari are lies, the real world is a much more harsh and cruel place and such constraints on behavior only slow the race down. Although the Nightmare Court was founded by the second generation, one of the Firstborn now rules it. Faolain, companion and lover of Caithe has fallen into the Nightmare and now rules and guides others who believe the same as she does. While most Sylvari don’t appear to convert to the Nightmare, there are a percentage that are now born to it, roughly 10-15%.

The Nightmare Court does not appear to be directly confrontational with their brothers and sisters in the way that the Flame Legion is for the Charr. Instead, they prefer a more subtle approach. The experiences of the Sylvari are absorbed by the Pale Tree and help to shape the future generations and their dream. Thus, instead of open warfare, the Nightmare Court seeks to influence the Dream such that in the future, all new Sylvari will come to see the world as they do. Interestingly though, neither the Nightmare Court nor the “Normal” Sylvari seem to be affected by the corruption of the Elder Dragons. Even though the Nightmare Court is against the Sylvari’s way of life, they both fight the Elder Dragons because they need a world in which to live and the Dragons seek to end it.

Affecting change through actions

While the Nightmare seeks to overcome the Dream, such a process works both ways. I find it interesting that the Sylvari in many ways embody the philosophy of teaching by example. Instead of showing children how to live, they live how they think they should and the next generation is directly influenced by it. While they do not share a hive mind, they do share a common point of origin that is shaped by all of their actions. How will the Sylvari act in another 250 years? We have seen the Humans battered and beaten but with faith and loyalty far stronger than the past. The Charr have cast off religion and become an industrial superpower. The Asura have left the underground and see more value in other races and have become powerful members of trade with their technology. The Norn are more likely to band together with others as their homelands have fallen prey to the Dragons. Although we won’t know (Unless there is a GW3), it’s fun to speculate on how the Sylvari might turn out. Will they learn their lessons about the Nightmare and have it as more of a lesson of what not to do, or will the corruption of the Nightmare take over and turn the race evil? Perhaps they will simply come more into parity and be 50-50. Will the race embrace others, or will they reject other races as too unpredictable and ultimately untrustworthy?

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11 Responses to Sylvari Culture- Preconceived Notions:

  1. D is for Dour says:

    This was a really great read on the Sylvari! Very in depth discussion on what their culture is like 🙂

  2. GW2 Fan says:

    That is one lengthy post… and I read every word, enjoying it greatly 🙂 Nice to see someone more putting thought into the Sylvari and their ways other than obsessing with their sex lives. Your thoughts on Ronan finding the seed and then whether Ronan influenced the seed or vice versa were intriguing. Perhaps the gods had a hand in that chain of events. GG!

  3. Zesbeer says:

    i love the idea of other pale trees it also makes you wonder if the Sylvari really did start 250 years ago or if they have been around for a long time before that.

  4. greibach says:

    Thanks for your comments! I have found Sylvari week to be one of the most interesting so far. There are a lot of underlying things going on within their culture that I find really fascinating and I have to really tip my hat to ANet for making such an interesting race out of a concept that could have been far more ridden with standard fantasy tropes.

  5. Valencount says:

    Glad to see someone else has contemplated the idea of other trees. I can understand where the nightmare court gets their ideas. A tree deep in the wods drops a seed to the ground. eventually it takes root and grows into another tree without the influence of humans. How then would a Sylvari be if a ‘pale tree’ grew completely naturally, without intelligent life nurturing it and leaving behind lessons?

  6. ArcherAvatar says:

    Yet another outstanding, in-depth post… well done sir. I especially enjoyed the “Other Trees?” section but, the entire post was quite good. (I’m a sucker for well thought out speculation.)

    I truly hope the origins of that seed Ronan found (as well as the cave he found it in) are somehow a part of GW2’s content. Most of my characters will be members of the Durmand Priory and I’m hoping their investigations might shed further light on the origins as well.

    I’m actually not sure how ANet will handle further “in-game lore investigations” without the use of the old, traditional quest system but, I’m dying to find out.

  7. shadowedsin says:

    Good post, the only thing I am wary of is the usage of pre-programmed. The Sylvari awakened with a basis of persona that is formed from individual memories, I however am not sure to say that they all receive the same standard of information. The simple fact that some may end up in Nightmare like Faolain of their own precognition seems to show that the Tablet is not an ingrained set of ideals but rather their foundation of Dream Sylvari morality.

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  9. Trodamus says:

    From the GW books I’ve read, Sylvari born from the dream view it as just that — a dream, something ephemeral and not an overruling, ironclad driving force.

    Further, early in their life Sylvari are less …coherent as their “fully grown” body grants more and more personal experience to their newborn mind / soul. The end result being that an “adult” Sylvari is much more the product of their own experiences and the dream is more a tool to consciously use rather than a corrupting force.

    But obviously, the benefits of the nightmare can be seen, and it’s much more intriguing to have a dissenting faction that’s trying to win the minds of its people, rather than using conquest.

  10. greibach says:

    Yeah, I didn’t mean to imply that they are *fully* pre-programmed like robots or anything. My point is more that instead of slowly learning the customs, morals, ethics and history of their culture as they grow up, they are imparted much of that before they take their first step into the world. They come into the world with a much greater sense of understanding than any normal race.

    They certainly can grow and change their ideas as they go out and explore life; that much is clear from Faolain alone. I just find it very interesting how developed they are as soon as they awaken and the implications that would have relative to a normal youth and adolescent period.

  11. Leonim says:

    As a side note about other (or previous, since the seeds would come from womewhere obviously) Pale Tree’s siblings.

    It is noted here and there that the Pale Tree do bore less sentient lifeforms (aka special pets for the Sylvari rangers)… and maybe (no confirmation on that) help in the creation of their (plant-grown) house architecture as well.

    Thus without having been influenced by Ronan and Ventari’s community at his side when the Pale Tree was young (and learning, lets say most influencable), his fruits would not have been Sylvari (not human-shaped, perhaps not even sentient).

    As it seems that the Tree’s fruits are “made” to mimic the surrounding fauna… an explanation (like another) to the (seemingly unevolved) plant-“monsters” guarding the seeds from Ronan.

    I’m personaly very curious about one thing in particular : the strong sense of antagony/purpose (and more-or-less intimate knowledge) that the Pale Tree seems to have towards the Elder Dragons.

    Guild Wars universe is very spritual after all, to the physical point and effects : roaming souls, afterlife realms, resurrections and spirit energy. to name a few.

    For instance, imagine somewhere in Arbor Bay, an elder centaur under the shade protection of this peculiar tree, giving his morning lessons to young humans – and unknown? to him to this sentient companion tree.

    It is not the first time that Ventari sheperded a peaceful secluded haven enclosed in nature at the roots of a giant tree (Ventari’s Refuge in Maguuma Jungle actually). It seems the wise centaur’s very existence shaped the Pale Tree in more than one ways, quite natural as the longest companion they both had.

    That jungle which was once home of the resisting Shining Blade (Ronan’s patrols) and before that of the Druids : a human tribe who turned to spirits to mend and protect this sentient jungle.

    Thus the Pale Tree is to me like a spectacular exception to its kind (sentient plant from Maguuma region), born from a dream of peace, nurtured by the spiritual force of the community living (and dying) around, lead by the noble ideals of Ventari’s teachings… and highly concerned by the dreams/vibes and nature-wrecking awakening of the Elder Dragons.

    It must have been lonely to wait for its hope-feeded fruits to finally hatch.

    On another linked topic, I understand the Nightmare Court’s troubles very well, in thinking about what would have happened if the Tree hadn’t been influenced by those events… but imo it is rather a moot point, since they would not have been (their very existence).

    To make a simple analogy : it would be like cursing our human roots for not having wings… and similarly the desire is strong to experience that *unnatural* experience that is flying.

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