(Warning! The following is positively dripping with spoilers and speculation)
Dark Souls is a bit of an oddity when it comes to story-telling. It doesn’t lock the player into lengthy dialogue trees and it doesn’t bind you into unskippable cutscenes. There are no shelves of readable literature and no conveniently discarded notes to flesh out the backstory. In Lordran, narrative is ambient and information is at a premium. All we have are item descriptions, word of mouth, and heaping barrels of online speculation.
For this particular dive into the hazy realm of Dark Souls contemplation, I’ve hovered over the summon sign of Dtoid user, Chechosaurus (also known as Haydn Taylor), to help unravel the secrets behind Dark Souls own illustrious double act: Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough. The relationship between the pair is cryptic to say the least, but if Dark Souls has taught me anything, it’s that any problem can be solved with a little ‘jolly cooperation’.
I think the logical place to start in analysing such a curious relationship is by separating canonical fact from our own rambling conjecture.
Dragonslayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough guard the hallowed halls of the Anor Londo Cathedral. They doggedly protect the illusion of Gwynevere and act as a final test before the Chosen Undead is entrusted with the Lordvessel. Through armour and weapon descriptions, we’re informed that Ornstein is believed to the captain of Lord Gwyn’s four knights. A famed dragon slayer, he earned his title with adept use of his lightening-infused spear that would bury ‘deep within a dragon’s hide’. Smough, on the other hand, is a little less graceful than his lithe companion. From his title, we can only assume that he acted as Gwyn’s royal executioner, scuppering his chances of knighthood by grinding ‘the bones of his victims into his own feed’.
Personally I have a few doubts as to whether or not Smough sought a knighthood. Swift with a hammer he may be, but smashing shit to pieces and using bone-dust as table salt is hardly the behaviour of one eyeing up a promotion.Instead, I think of Smough more as an unwieldy psychopath kept on a very tight leash: a mad dog in need of the strictest of owners.
How these two wound up together in Anor Londo is another of Dark Souls abundant mysteries. It’s a tantalisingly unanswered question that gives birth to wild theories and rampant speculation. It’s one of the many unknowns that drape Dark Souls in an unmatched air of intrigue that, much like Ornstein and Smough’s agonisingly tricky boss battle, keeps me running back for more beautiful punishment.
I have to resist the urge to write off Ornstein and Smough’s relationship as ‘Brokeback Anor Londo’ but I was determined to shoehorn that in somewhere, so there you go. Moving on from my schoolboy attempt at humour, I do genuinely see the relationship between these two as one of the more fascinating aspects of the Dark Souls lore and, like nearly every point of interest in the game, you don’t know how much you’re interested in it until long after you’ve done it. There exists a certain bond between the Dragon Slayer and the Executioner and although it is an ambiguous one, I believe that it’s a bizarre form of begrudging friendship. This is primarily illustrated through only a few nuanced interactions whilst the bulk of their individual natures are expanded upon through the classic medium of item descriptions which allow us to further understand what sort of relationship they shared.
Given the surrounding evidence, I am certainly inclined to agree that Smough falls into the ‘unwieldy psychopath’ category. However, the description of his hammer makes him out to be as mad as a bag of genies on crystal meth; it also explains how his perverse actions were responsible for ‘ruining his hopes of being ranked with the four knights.’ This leads me to believe that Smough’s story is a little more complicated than we originally suspected. My initial response to this is how Smough, after being discovered as a no-good bone eater, decided to embrace that part of his personality and his depravity consumed him entirely. However, this does not explain why he has remained in Anor Londo with Ornstein to guard the illusion of Gwynevere. What business does he have guarding the Lordvessel? The only explanation I can forward is that his connection with Ornstein holds him there – whether it is due to a sense of duty towards Ornstein or because he has no choice is a matter of contention. However, he certainly presents an imposing form and an appropriate test to any would be adventurer seeking the Lordvessel. Perhaps that is his only purpose now?
It’s funny that you mention ‘purpose’ as I think the term applies more to Ornstein than it does to Smough. As the commander of Gwyn’s personal guard we can only assume that the Dragon Slayer was fervently committed to his master’s protection and defined himself accordingly. With his true lord out of the picture his allegiance passed down the line of deific command. That leaves us with two options: If he’s unaware that Gwynevere is an illusion then his loyalty lies with her, duped into her protection by the outcast Gwyndolin. Alternatively he’s complicit with Gwyndolin’s deception and is thus in league with Anor Londo’s last deity. Either way his presence boils down to an unshakeable loyalty to Gwyn’s household. With the head honcho gone his sole purpose is to obey and protect his master’s offspring. Luckily for Ornstein, he achieves it by doing what he does best: introducing that spear into the gooey confines of his opponent’s bowels.
Smough, however, is much harder to get a read on. I highly doubt their present coupling is an accident. The fact that Smough was even considered for a knighthood proves that, in my opinion, some sort of extended history exists between the pair. If Smough was in line for promotion then it’s likely that, as the four knight’s commander, it was Ornstein who put forward his name for ascendancy. Therefore, something must have happened that convinced Ornstein to take Smough under his electrically-charged wing. The specifics of that may be another of Dark Souls mounting mysteries, but it’s clear from the way Ornstein handles Smough’s death that he showed some form of respect for his fallen ally, no matter how crazed Smough became as time wore on.
I would suggest that Ornstein is unaware of Gwyndolin’s deceptive illusions. The illusion of Gwynevere, and by extension the sun, is essentially to keep up appearances. Anor Londo has already fallen to dark so who is Gwyndolin trying to deceive? The player? I don’t quite buy into that. Dark Sun Gwyndolin hardly commands the respect of his peers – Gwyn raised him as a girl, there is no statue of him in the halls of Anor Londo, he retreated to his father’s tomb where he lives vicariously through the only one of Gwyn’s children who appears to not have been disowned. To me, this suggests that the only way he could persuade Ornstein and Smough to stay in Anor Londo was to make them believe that Gwynevere remained. There is no evidence in the city of Anor Londo which would even imply that Gwyn had a third child and it is more than likely that Gwyndolin’s existence was kept a secret (a point which opens up a different debate entirely).
One of the more interesting matters regarding Smough is how he has a statue dedicated to him in Anor Londo. Was he really so revered as an executioner that his was to be preserved in stone forever? Also, we have no indication that he was ever considered for a knighthood but we do know that he had hopes of one according to the description of his hammer.
You mentioned how Ornstein handles the death of Smough with sombre resignation, which does indeed suggest that the Dragon Slayer felt some form of responsibility for the Executioner. However, if Ornstein falls first, Smough shows no such courtesy – he does not hesitate to smash the still warm body of Ornstein which, if you look closely, is still breathing. This would suggest one of two things – Smough harbours some sort of resentment towards Ornstein or his ‘eerily gleeful’ disposition negates any sentimentality he may have for his handler/comrade.
Aha! I was hoping we’d touch on Smough’s rather psychopathic bereavement process. Of the two options you’ve forwarded it’s tricky to settle on which is the most likely. In the case of the former we’d have to theorise as to why Smough would begrudge Ornstein to the extent of scoring a gory final blow. Could it be jealousy, perhaps? If Smough had his hopes of knighthood crushed then an existence alongside the order’s captain must eventually cause some ill-feeling. You smash my hopes, I smash your body. In a way it’s all rather fitting; although I doubt the notion of poetic justice is within Smough’s personal lexicon.
If not jealousy then perhaps he has no choice in his current charge? As we’ve said it’s difficult to find a line of reasoning that clarifies as to why Smough is tasked with defending the Lordvessel. Perhaps the reason is that Smough has not been entrusted with Gwynevere’s protection and is instead kept there against his will by Ornstein? But doesn’t it just beg the question as to why a statue of a prisoner would be raised in honour outside of their gilded cage?
That leaves us with the possibility that Smough’s splattering of Ornstein is down to a crazed bloodlust brought on by a pitched clash with the player. It certainly wouldn’t be out of character for a bone-munching executioner who ‘loved his work’. For all we know it could be beyond the Executioner’s control. Maybe Smough has long-since degenerated into a perpetual state of sadistic brutality and the care of an old ally has become Ornstein’s secondary purpose. It would explain the Dragon Slayer’s lament at his passing, and if Smough has lost himself to the baser aspects of his personality then that would explain the crushing of his erstwhile companion. It may be an unfitting end for the captain of Lord Gwyn’s esteemed knights, but after all, this is Dark Souls.
It is interesting how you suggest that Ornstein was the one to smash Smough’s dreams of being a knight. Based on what we have seen, it does seem to be rather likely. Ornstein clearly places a great deal of significance on duty and honour and it looks to me as though he would be unwilling to accept Smough as an equal given his bone-related inclinations. However, that is not to say Smough wasn’t met with at least some degree of reverence within the upper echelons of Anor Londo. I would suggest that his statue was constructed prior to Smough’s mental collapse and the exodus of the Gods.
However I would agree with your suggestion that Smough has long since degenerated into a personification of his worst traits. This is a sound explanation as to why Ornstein reacts in the way he does - ‘the care of an old ally’. As we have established, Ornstein is a man of honour and despite what Smough may have become (or may always have been) Ornstein has some sort of unbreakable loyalty or attachment to the Executioner. For me, this is furthered by the music during the encounter with Ornstein and Smough which appears to reflect their individual characteristics. The honourable knight Ornstein is represented through triumphant and proud wails from the brass, whereas the darker string and organ sections, coupled with the vocal drones, play off Smough’s malignant nature. The radically different aspects of the music are tied together in much the same way as they are – two very different beings, inextricably attached.