If you’re a Halo fan who has been at least somewhat active in the community over the last few years, you probably are aware that public opinion of Halo’s writing has been quite negative, and for good reason. Overall, Halo 5: Guardians did a huge disservice to the universe as a whole. Fireteam Osiris’ introduction for game fans was incredibly underwhelming, exploration of the relationship between the Master Chief, John-117, and his fellow Spartans of Blue Team was nowhere to be found, and the phenomenal narrative masterpiece that was Halo 4 had its most touching moment — the passing of Cortana — made meaningless by a pointless resurrection of the character that lead to nothing satisfying.
And yet, despite this, lately I’ve been looking upon Halo 5 with loving eyes. The reason why is because of the immense justice that it does for the Sangheili (the Elites) in the post-war setting.
In the half-decade or so that passed since the end of the Human-Covenant War in Halo 3, the Arbiter, Thel ‘Vadam, returned to the Sangheili homeworld of Sanghelios and began an effort to lead his people through what was unmistakably a time of turmoil. With the Covenant gone, the majority of the Sangheili were left without a purpose, without direction, and without a sense of identity. Thel, then, was faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of returning his people to the glory they once held several millennia ago, before the existence of the Covenant.
When Halo 5 rolled around and we finally got to see Sanghelios for ourselves, we also got a chance to see how Thel’s undertaking was going — to see what he was envisioning for the Sangheili’s future, and to see how successful he was at initiating progress and working towards making it a reality. This article aims to go into what Halo 5 showed us in-depth about the Sangheili from an artistic and cultural expression standpoint, and why it’s important. A good friend and fellow lore-junkie of mine, Grizzlei, is collaborating with me on this, and she’ll be tackling the topic of the “Sangheili Renaissance” from a social and political angle. Make sure to follow her Twitter (linked above) as well as her blog to see when her half comes out!
Anyway, without further ado…
Part I: A Look at the Past
Before talking about the Sangheili rediscovering themselves, it’s important to go over how they became lost. Thousands of years before the events of the mainline Halo games, the San’Shyuum (the Prophets) were at war with the Sangheili. The San’Shyuum were terrible soldiers, but they had one critical advantage: weaponized Forerunner technology that could be used from the skies.
Prior to this, the San’Shyuum found a Forerunner Dreadnought on their home planet and used it to propel their species forward into the stars and onto a quest to find more Forerunner treasures, ultimately wishing to discover the Halo Arrays and activate them, ushering in what they believed would be a “Great Journey” that would elevate them to godhood. When they arrived on the Sangheili world of Ulgethon after detecting relics there, they discovered the Sangheili, who they tried to be diplomatic with. Unfortunately, the Sangheili too viewed the Forerunners as gods, but believed using their technology as weaponry was heretical. As a result, the Sangheili butchered the San’Shyuum ambassadors, and the war began.
Eventually, the Sangheili were forced to integrate Forerunner technology into their munitions for the sake of survival, and the fighting became so bloody on both sides that everybody realized it was a pointless conflict and a waste of life. Therefore, the two species came together under one banner: The Covenant Empire. The Sangheili would now join the San’Shyuum on their quest for divine salvation and act as their military forces, while the San’Shyuum handled most political, religious, and (most relevant to this article) artistic matters.
Though the Sangheili were able to integrate many of their beliefs into their duties in the Covenant, one thing that was not allowed in the empire was their artistic expression. Nearly everything, from small arms to entire navy vessels, were forcefully redesigned to fit the idea of what the San’Shyuum found aesthetically pleasing. This meant that the Sangheili weren’t able to display their pride in who they were as a society, as well as their love of the worlds where they came from.
Part II: Embracing What Was Lost
After the downfall of the Covenant, both the Arbiter’s forces and the fractured remnants of Covenant Sangheili who opposed him began to embrace the munitions designs of old, creating new-and-improved versions of vehicles like the Wraith, Phantom, Banshee, and Spirit, among more. Here are some examples of pieces of Sangheili tech in Halo 5 that are confirmed to be inspired or based on old designs and/or are based on life forms the Sangheili have interacted with:
There’s more that I could get into, but it would take a long time and it would be a longer list. In general, the latest iterations of vehicles and ships the Sangheili are using follow this trend, and I really love that. It showcases that they’re embracing who they were before the Covenant, before the San’Shyuum threatened their survival and forced them to submit to the will of the Forerunner Dreadnought.
When you walk through a camp of Swords of Sanghelios soldiers in Halo 5 and can see ancient curveblades (pictured above) littered about, Wraiths that look like alien crustaceans, and ships in the sky that resemble aquatic predators, there’s a real sense that these pieces of technology are an extension of the culture and society that existed before the Sangheili were led down a destructive path by the San’Shyuum, and that they’re connecting with that past. It’s even visible through weapon variants you can use in Warzone, like Storm Rifles that have explosive bolts or Plasma Pistols that create small gravity wells when an overcharged shot is fired. These modifications show the Sangheili embracing and exercising their ability to be creative — something that the San’Shyuum would have found “unelegant” for sure. And while it may seem odd that they’re choosing to express art through combat equipment, something important to consider is that art often imitates life — and the Sangheili love a good fight.
I feel inclined to draw a line in the sand and defend these artistic choices because I feel that it’s important for the Sangheili to feel distinct from the Covenant in this way. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be improved on; in fact, I think there’s a lot that could be done to do so. But I don’t want 343 Industries to simply revert back to the vehicle and ship designs from the “classic” era in Halo Infinite. In my mind, forcing the Sangheili to use equipment that looks exactly like what they used in the Covenant is the equivalent of freeing a slave, but forcing them to wear slave clothing. The San’Shyuum and their manipulative ways were like shackles to the Sangheili. Now that they’ve broken free of their chains, I think it’s critical that they get to keep equipment and gear that conveys that they’re separate from the Covenant Empire now. I want their munitions to be a visual representation of their worlds, their style, and their culture — not a reminder of their darkest days.
But, as great as this artistic expression is, it also isn’t specific to Arbiter. It’s something that all of the Sangheili are doing. At the start of this piece, I said that my aim was to go in-depth about how he specifically was leading his people forward. While artistic expression was undoubtedly important to talk about, seeing the true extent of the “Sangheili Renaissance” requires a closer look at the Arbiter and the Swords of Sanghelios. This, of course, leads us to…
Part III: Fighting For a Better Future
This is, in my opinion, the aspect of this discussion that’s the most interesting.
A primary theme within Arbiter Thel ‘Vadam’s ranks is working to fight against and move past what I’ll jokingly refer to as “Toxic Sangheilinity,” or toxic and destructive elements of Sangheili culture that predate even the Covenant Empire itself. A large portion of this is related to the sociopolitical things Grizzlei is covering, but there’s a decent amount of it on my side of the spectrum as well. Let’s begin by examining the medical camp you can find in the “Alliance” and ‘Before the Storm” levels:
In “Alliance” as you approach the camp, you can hear a patient arguing with a medic trying to help him.
Sangheili Patient: “I would rather take my own life than let you touch me!”
Sangheili Medic: “That life is not yours to take. You belong to the Arbiter, and he believes you are worth repairing.”
Sangheili Patient: “I refuse to be shamed by a…medic.”
Sangheili Medic: “Then die, coward! Fail the Arbiter and have the shame of your dereliction follow your clan for generations.”
In case you didn’t know, the Sangheili have had a deep-rooted hatred of spilling blood since…forever. In their culture, spilling blood is the equivalent of losing one’s honor. This is why wounded Sangheili often take their own lives — they would rather die than live out the rest of their life as a dishonorable warrior. Medics and doctors, then, are despised because treating wounds often requires more blood to be spilled before the healing begins.
In this exchange, though, it’s the medic who ends up winning out the argument. After this, the patient shuts up and accepts treatment, and you get a real sense that the Sangheili under Thel’s lead are starting to realize just how stupid this element of their culture really is. The conversation between two other medics nearby this area does an amazing job of illustrating why.
Sangheili Medic 1: “‘Mdama Keep…their plasma blades burn less intensely, harder to cut armor, but the injuries are more grievous and do not cauterize.”
Sangheili Medic 2: “So the blades leave Sangheili alive, but too wounded to fight?”
Sangheili Medic 1: “Most choose suicide to preserve their honor.”
Sangheili Medic 2: “Making any wound a death blow…barbaric!”
Yep, that’s right. The Covenant are losing so badly that they’re resorting to using blades designed to prey upon and abuse this toxic hatred of bleeding, using its association with extreme dishonor as a means to encourage suicide in the Arbiter’s ranks. It’s here that we get a clear example of why associating dishonor with belief is so toxic and destructive: not only does it contribute to a needless waste of life, it also presents enemies with a very powerful weakness to exploit if they are aware of it. Cham ‘Lokeema, a Sangheili from one of the mission logs, comments on this as well.
‘To spill blood outside of battle is a great dishonor’. Words burned into all Sangheili since they were young, and to me. And for a time, I believed. I watched my brothers die around me and never dared give aid. ‘Stitching a wound closed brings dishonor, setting a broken bone brings dishonor.’ Words of the ignorant who never saw undetonated Needler rounds pulsing beneath a brother’s skin. If shame is the price of compassion, so be it.
— Cham ‘Lokeema
It’s fantastic that Thel and his followers have recognized this and worked to challenge this belief about doctors and bloodshed, because when the conflicts are over and the Sangheili forge their new future, they will be infinitely better off because of it. As Darth Revan famously said, “Honor is a fool’s prize. Glory is of no use to the dead.”
Another interesting thing I noticed while walking through the Swords of Sanghelios camp was the audio log containing details about a Covenant assassin called Rhu ‘Vrath who infiltrated the ranks of the Swords and had planned to kill Thel, but ended up changing his mind at the last second.
“When I joined the Swords of Sanghelios, I remained loyal to Jul ‘Mdama. Today, I had my chance to kill the heretic, the false Arbiter. He was readying his armor. My hand fell to my weapon, then I saw the mark branded on his chest. He bears the mark, yet at that moment, I felt shame. His eyes caught mine and I looked away. It is strange. Perhaps there is more to him than I thought.”
— Rhu ‘Vrath
There’s a very clever dynamic happening between these two Sangheili.
Both of them recognize what’s happening, and neither of them decide to become violent.
For one, “He bears the mark, yet at that moment, I felt shame,” is some great poetic irony. Rhu ‘Vrath’s entire motivation for assassination is strongly implied to be that he believes Thel will bring shame to the Sangheili, yet when he sees the infamous Mark of Shame on Thel’s chest, the only shame present was that which existed in his own heart. It’s not made clear why he felt shame, but if I were to guess, it’s most likely because in that moment, Rhu ‘Vrath saw everything that Thel has built, everything he’s achieved for the Sangheili…and realized that the Mark of Shame had no real meaning at all. He realized that Thel will eventually bring peace, freedom, justice, and security to his new empire — an empire in which the Sangheili will not only survive, but thrive.
I apologize profusely for that prequel meme.
Considering the fact that Thel has faced numerous assassination attempts ever since he became Kaidon of ‘Vadam, there is absolutely no way he didn’t notice what Rhu ‘Vrath was doing when he looked at him. Another writer friend of mine, Haruspis, made a good point about this moment in particular in one of his analysis pieces.
“And then Thel looks at him, Thel, who is an intelligent person and would surely pick up on this Sangheili’s body language, and says nothing. Does nothing. He silently gives Rhu a second chance without broadcasting it, which is Thel in a nutshell – the same Sangheili who offered Tartarus, the one who tortured him and gave him the Mark of Shame in the first place, a chance to join him when Thel realises that the Sangheili and Jiralhanae have been subject to the lies of the San’Shyuum.”
— Haruspis, Halo 5, Level-by-Level Analysis – Alliance
The decision for Thel to simply say nothing and do nothing in response to nearly being assassinated speaks incredible volumes about his integrity, and harkens back to that pivotal, heroic moment in Halo 2 where he extends an offer of peace to Tartarus. Thel doesn’t want to fight if he doesn’t have to, because unlike most Sangheili, he sees the value in convincing his enemies to put their weapons down and join him peacefully.
I like to believe that Thel and Rhu shared a silent moment of mutual understanding here. Both of them recognized the lack of value in trying to kill one another. Both of them understood it would have been a pointless, life-wasting endeavor. Both of them understood that drawing a weapon to kill those you don’t agree with immediately impedes progress for the Sangheili, not makes way for it. And in this way, we can see how the Sangheili are starting to abandon another toxic trait of their culture — the way their people have traditionally turned to violence and civil war so quickly. Though it’s too late for Thel to reach peace with Jul’s Covenant, there’s an underlying bit of hope here that in the future, Thel can defeat Sangheili who oppose him and the Swords of Sanghelios with his words and his ideals, and not with his blade.
This theme of Thel and his soldiers forging a “new” Sangheili is summarized perfectly by the words of Thon ‘Kemtra:
“We set camp within sight of Sunaion. Audacious, but brilliant. We Swords of Sanghelios are united under no less a warrior than the Arbiter himself. He who exposed the countless lies of the San’Shyuum, and drove back the Covenant. The Arbiter shapes our future with deference to our past. ‘Let us never forget those who have journeyed into the howling dark and did not return,’ he once said. Have you ever heard such wisdom?”
— Thon ‘Kemtra
Thel using Lord Hood’s famous quote from Halo 3 is so excellent because it fits exactly with the themes at play here. Thel’s goal isn’t to erase Sangheili culture norms and the past memories of his people, he simply wants to build upon them and improve them. Phrases like Hood’s, or “The Arbiter shapes our future with deference to our past,” show that his goal is to expand and progress forward using the culture that’s already there, not break the Sangheili down and try to form a new foundation.
The ideas put forth by Halo 5 for the Sangheili as a whole, both artistically and culturally, show the beginnings of a huge shift for the species that has me incredibly excited to see where 343 Industries takes it in Halo Infinite and beyond. I hope this article gave you some good insight, and I can’t wait to see what Grizzlei puts together regarding the social and political aspects of this “Sangheili Renaissance.” I’ll be sure to link it on this post when she’s finished her half of the project.
Thank you all for reading, and keep an eye out in January for my next piece, which will be some reflections on NieR: Automata, a game I recently completed and a game that I think just might take the award for “Best Narrative Ever Told In Gaming”. Also, thanks to Haruspis for the article’s header image.
Have a happy holiday season! I’ll catch you in 2019.
Brendan “Lor” Lowry