I was thinking the other day about Horus.
I have formed the view that the Horus portrayed by the 40k canon thus far makes him a far less interesting character than he potentially could be. It strikes me that an alternate, more nuanced view of the Warmaster, would make him far more compelling as both a protagonist and antagonist in the setting.
Horus in the canon
At the moment, Horus is portrayed in the canon as a dupe. Whilst mortally wounded he is tricked by chaos and the manipulation of Word Bearer advisors, and ostensibly comes to genuinely believe (or is portrayed in the canon as genuinely believing) that he and the other Primarchs are to be cast aside by the Emperor after the end of the Great Crusade.
Despite being portrayed as among the noblest and most skilled of the Primarchs, when pushed to his limits by malignant powers seeking to deceive him, he cracks and proves malleable enough to be driven into the arms of the Gods of the Warp.
The problem for me with this portrayal is that it makes Horus, effectively, Anakin Skywalker. In the same way that many regarded Anakin’s fall from grace as sudden, clumsy and unconvincing in the Prequel Star Wars movies, I think this attempt to build a modern tragedy out of Horus’ downfall comes across as melodramatic and flawed.
The problem with Tragedy
I don’t think tragedy plays well for modern audiences. Ideas like fate, or characters who are doomed from the start irrespective of what they do, tend not to resonate with those born in in the 20th & 21st centuries.
Those raised to believe in self sufficiency, initiative, freedom, those who haven’t been raised in a heavily religious environment and those who believe in the march of scientific progress in my opinion subconsciously reject many of the concepts and tropes central to classic tragedy.
Horus’ fall is portrayed in the canon as a straight tragedy. The fallen angel. I think this is largely a mistake.
In order to make Horus’ downfall seem all the more tragic, he has to be built up as noble and good, “beloved” by all of his Primarch brothers, a pure-as-the-driven-snow paladin brought low by the cunning and devious powers from beyond the galaxy. He has to be tricked. He has to be deceived.
Does anyone else find all this a bit…artless?
Playing it a different way
What if Horus was fundamentally different to how he is portrayed in the canon? What if he was portrayed from the beginning as an antihero?
The antihero has a long and inglorious history as a character type. Look at Richard III. Look at Iago. Modern examples would include Frank Underwood from House of Cards (or Francis Urquart from the original British drama.) The “magnificent bastard”, fourth-wall-breaking manipulative genius gleefully engaging in evil for his own purposes is clearly a concept which resonates extremely well with modern audiences.
What if Horus was portrayed in this way? Wouldn’t that be fun?
Wouldn’t it make more sense if, from the start, Horus had always intended to overthrow the Emperor? If every step he had taken was designed to enable Horus to become humanity’s supreme overlord?
What if Horus was-and had always been-wicked?
Wicked is an underused word these days. It’s become a cartoon word, applied pretty much only to to witches. However, it defines a particularly powerful and repugnant class of wrongdoing: conscious, knowing evil, evil that is not deceived, evil that knows it is doing wrong but does it anyway, whether for sheer devilry or for advancement.
I think the entire Horus Heresy setting would play better if Horus were wicked from the very start.
The wicked Horus
Imagine the backstory to such a Horus.
From the start, he knew he was better, cleverer than those around him. He exercised his power and found he enjoyed it. He no doubt came to rule in some way (as did most Primarchs) and came to love it. He reasoned from his first conscious moment – in the same way that Perturabo did – that he was different from those around him, and that there must be a reason for this. He would have likely grasped the fact that he was a genetically engineered super warrior, and that one day his creator would come for him.
He wanted to rule all he could survey. All that was survey-able. His ambition was limitless. He was totally amoral: he regarded morality as a tool used by the strong to dictate terms of servitude to the weak. He knew that his creator would one day arrive; even before the Emperor came for him (and remember Horus would have been young when this happened) Horus would have been plotting the Emperor’s downfall.
Upon encountering the Emperor, and realising the vast extent of his “father’s” power, Horus resolved to cloak his ambition, to appear endlessly loyal. In time he genuinely came to respect his father, and to learn to outwardly express love that he was, at heart, incapable of genuinely feeling. Maybe there was a kind of fondness here, even a kind of sadness that he knew in his heart of hearts that they one day must clash; but Horus would say to himself that he knew his own nature and his boundless ambition was simply a sign of his being true to the nature his father had created for him.
In time, Horus would come to meet other Primarchs. To his delight, he would learn that, despite, their vast powers, they were individuals, as easily manipulated in their own way as anyone else once one truly understood them.
He learned not only to command the Primarchs, but to truly control them, through massaging egos, setting them against each other, encouraging conflict, creating cliques. Those less malleable were sidelined, or moved to theatres of war far removed from the ability to create alliances against him.
Horus was clever enough to adapt constantly, to reshape, to improvise on the fly. Adversity is just another stepping stone. Setbacks would be reshaped into opportunities. A military setback rectified by another Primarch (Gulliman, say) can be used as an opportunity to appear humble, thus encouraging Gulliman to appear more bombastic than normal, prejudicing his chances of being declared Warmaster.
Slowly, surely, over the long decades of the Great Crusade, Horus drew his plans against the Emperor. He drew all military power and authority to him, subtly undermining those who could rival him. He forged a cadre of the more deluded and unstable Primarchs, those who he knew could be tipped into rebellion. He placed those prone to depression and paranoia into depressing and vicious conflicts.
He came to know of the powers of the warp, (from the Emperor originally, and in more detail through Erebus) and, never truly understanding them, amorally saw them as just another weapon. He had no time for them himself, and would never truly give himself to any higher power (his ambition demanded the overthrow of all “higher” powers) but he intended to use the vanity of these “gods” to bring low the Emperor. He aligned Primarchs in his circle to powers of the warp Erebus advised him would suit their characters, always intending to kill those tainted by Chaos, and indeed chaos itself, when they/it could no longer assist him.
The Heresy took place. Events began to spiral beyond the control of even his vast abilities. Hubris turned to anger. Mistakes were made, plans broke down. His “backers” – the chaos powers - demanded results. Horus gambled – he was ever a gambler – and lost. At the last he regretted his mistakes, felt guilt for the damage done. But he never regretted his ambition, and would if given the chance again have tried again in a different way.
Now imagine that character arc portrayed through the voice of a witty, amoral, utterly cynical super-genius. Imagine his asides to the reader, his insights into the setting, his secretly “calling” much of the myth and legend around the Emperor.
Wouldn’t the wicked Horus make for a more fun read than “Horus the fallen angel”? Wouldn’t he make a more interesting character?