AIKAL [1/∞]: Joneleth Irenicus

Image credit: BioWare, Black Isle Studios.

Like most people, I’ve always been drawn to villains and anti-heroes. Maybe because it’s easier to relate to those kinds of character, or maybe it’s because no one can pull the “Completely Pure And Good Without A Single Mean Bone” trope without being a snorefestival of bores — except Steve Rogers (sorry Superman, I know you tried).

One character that often crosses my mind even after so many many many years is Jon Irenicus, from Baldur’s Gate II. His story resonated with me as it was, but it was Dorotea’s mod “The Longer Road” that cemented him as one of my favorite characters of all time.

This post will be long, so I’ll be dividing it in three parts. First, a quick backstory for those unfamiliar with the game. Then, my opinions about it. And finally, some quotes that I think define the character.

A bit of backstory

Jon Irenicus, whose name is said to mean “Shattered One”, was originally an elf by the name of Joneleth, an extremely gifted young mage and lover of Ellesime, queen of Suldanessellar of the Forgotten Realms universe. Knowing that even foolish elves, by luck or favoritism, had become members of the Seldarine, their pantheon, Joneleth believed that his genius and skills made him more than worthy of godhood. To achieve that kind of power, he took over the Tree of Life, around which Suldanessellar was built, and whose existence is tied to all of elvenkind. For his crime of trying to usurp something that belongs to an entire race and potentially commit genocide, he was sentenced to have his connection to the Tree severed.

Death would be kinder, he later learned. His punishment had taken away what made him elven, effectively stripping away his immortality and his very soul. Without the higher functions of his being, he was left with just instinct, base emotions and pure intellect. Without complex feelings, he could never even contemplate his mistake or atone for his crime. Without an elven soul, his body begun to decay and could only be held together through magic and sheer power of will. He embarked on a bitter quest for vengeance, obsessively seeking nothing but to achieve godhood and humiliate the proud queen who so easily discarded him. Without access to the Tree of Life, he concocted a plan: he would take the soul of a god, effectively stopping his decay and enabling him to assault Suldanesselar.

During the Time of Troubles, when gods were forced to walk the earth, the God of Murder, Bhaal, sired many offspring who would carry his essence. His faithful would sacrifice those god-children in order to liberate the divinity dormant inside them and give Bhaal his rebirth. Many of those children were rescued and scattered throughout the land, giving Irenicus plenty of opportunities to obtain a divine soul. The mage been perfecting the craft of removing souls and forcing them into different bodies. He experimented on all sorts of creatures of different complexities, hailing from various planes, including children of Bhaal. When he found a suitably powerful godchild, the only thing left to do was to awake their divine essence and then extract it.

Defeating Irenicus is the overarching plot of Baldur’s Gate II. It goes without saying that the player gets to murder him in the end. That’s where Dorotea comes in. Like many fans of the game, and specifically of the character, she felt the end of his story to be lacking. The canonical story had so much potential, the game carried so many little details, but it was all mostly unexplored. Mentioned once and then forgotten. He never got the chance to redeem himself, the punishment for the crime was the worst kind of torture one could endure — to fade away, and yet he was left unable to learn anything from it. So she wrote an extensive and beautifully executed mod, The Longer Road, that gives the player the opportunity to have Irenicus in their party after his defeat for the entirety of the Throne of Bhaal expansion.

Not only does she manage to write him perfectly, always keeping in character, but she also made sure that diverting Irenicus from his path was no easy task. He is, after all, a genius without the ability to feel anything but anger and desire, both emotions being safely buried by his intellect after so many centuries. Irenicus could smell betrayal and manipulation from miles away (sometimes even imagine it in his paranoia), and would never respect someone he believed to be beneath him. The player character had to be extremely intelligent to be able to induce Irenicus to do anything, and full of a honest kindness to even have a chance at making him change his mind.

Image credit: BioWare, Black Isle Studios.

What it means to me

The Longer Road is, to me, an essential part of the Baldur’s Gate tale. It is canon as far as I’m concerned. Nothing in it is out of character or in disagreement with canonical events with the exception of Joneleth’s banishment to eternal torture in the Abyss, still lacking a soul and the capacity for remorse. The whole mod adds a complex and emotional layer to the story of the Shattered One that the original game was severely lacking.

Joneleth’s story is one of pride, arrogance, entitlement, of unrecognized talent and ignored efforts, but, most of all, it’s about someone who loses all ability to feel higher emotions. Empathy, regret, affection, purpose, peace — those things are inaccessible to the Shattered One. He is left with nothing but base desire, contempt, anger and emptiness, all the while desperately trying to curb the more useless urges with his untamable willpower and intelligence. Rendered fundamentally incapable of self-awareness and empathy, there is nothing left for him but discomfort, despair, and decay. He clings to logic in order to filter his thoughts, because it’s the last higher function he still owns, and even that will eventually vanish because of his curse.

The crime that warranted him such a horrendous punishment was indeed terrible, but no creature, regardless of their faults, should ever be submitted to pointless suffering. The penance not only failed to restore the lost lives and undo the destruction, but also made the punished utterly unable to repent. It took a reckless, cruel being, and turned him into a complete monster. And worst of all — the sentence was given by the gods themselves, who should be above rage and pointless revenge. Gods who deemed Joneleth unworthy of being one of them, despite his talent surpassing that of several members of the pantheon, and despite the fact that the Seldarine were capable of foolish and cruel acts like any mortal. Joneleth should have been, in all justice, put to death. But after centuries of agony and deterioration, the Seldarine had committed an injustice that could not be fixed by punishing him even further by taking whatever was left of his life.

Irenicus was a brilliant mage. His mental faculties defined his sense of self, and those were fading away just like his body. In an attempt to resist complete disintegration, he desperately seized whatever part of him he could salvage. He halted the physical decay through enchanted garments, and focused his whole existence into the last thing he could still remember as his own, what he felt still defined him and made him an individual — the ambition to achieve godhood. In time, that was all that was left.

What touches me the most about this story, even more than the moral dilemmas and the question of what constitutes a god, is how relatable his predicament is. I doubt many people can boast about being a powerful mages seeking godhood, but a lot of us relate to feeling like our soul was taken away. Joneleth, shortly after his exile, tried in vain to feel something again. He surrounded himself with images and mementos of his former love, Ellesime, in the hopes that some kind of spark could still be recreated — this is a fact of the game even without the mod. A beautifully tragic detail that the original story doesn’t expand upon. He watched, decade after decade, his sense of self slipping away, until there was only a hunger for destruction — of himself and those who damned him to this suffering. We see him bare the remains of his rotten heart to Ellesime, quietly admitting he tried but cannot remember her love anymore, yet we cannot interfere with the story. There is no option but to serve the Seldarine and bestow upon him their punishment yet again, over and over.

Through the whole game, I was in a frantic effort to protect my character’s loved ones from Irenicus. Upon learning he was experimenting on “my” sister, who grew up with “me” and also carried a divine soul, I rushed through side-quests because it was only in-character thing my protagonist would do in that situation. But the more I learned about “my” nemesis, the more I wanted to have the chance to speak to him and find some sort of outcome that would benefit us both without making even more victims. I wanted to say “hey, Joneleth, you should have died for your crime, but since they decided to endlessly torture you instead, I’m up for helping you get your soul back”. Where I come from, in the universe I inhabit, it’s not called recovering a soul as much as “therapy” and “medication”. But the outcome is basically the same: give people their ability to feel, think, and eventually rebuilt their lives. He had been punished for centuries already with a torture much worse than death.

I felt so strongly about Jon Irenicus during the game, to the point it drove me to search and find the Longer Road mod (and then dig through its files to read all possible dialogues), yet it took me years to find out why. Like I said, I’m no model of self-awareness. Eventually, I realized the source of my feelings were the identification I felt. Clinging to logic and intellect because it’s the last filter you have to decide what is good and what isn’t, being incapable of “higher” emotions, doing bad things because you can’t make yourself care anymore, persisting in existence simply because of some sort of inertia, because surviving is what you have always done despite the constant discomfort — the Shattered One is the embodiment of mental illness and the depths it can go to.

Like all characters, he is a slice of the human psyche, a tiny bit of his creator’s mind. But unlike most, he represents something that is part of many people — and a powerful part at that. A part that, sometimes, defines a person for years or even for their whole lives. Adding to the identification, beyond his emptiness and anger, his biased memories that recalled only what was most painful, his sense of entitlement and betrayal, there is also his ambition and methodical nature. Joneleth was a wizard, which is the closest thing you get to a scientist in a high fantasy setting. Not only he had strongly academic inclinations, he was also questioning divinity itself. In a universe were gods do exist, he defied them. His quiet despair, his quest for knowledge, and his passionate (and sometimes painful) skepticism all helped clarify things I felt. They helped me understand part of my own thoughts and emotions regarding these subjects.

These stories are epic, with ascending heroes and murderous demons and falling empires, but this only adds to their “purity”: they represent aspects, symbols, embodiments of complex human emotions, distilled and concentrated so that they can be seen for what they are, understood, digested, and then, maybe, resolved.

Many times during the darkest moments of my continuous depression (cheesy, I know, but it’s how it goes), I thought about Joneleth and his resignation as he tells the protagonist: “there is no way out for me, there never was”. I’ve repeated those exact words to myself countless times during what is now most of my lifetime. Maybe one day I’ll tattoo them, carry them on my skin like I carry a few other reminders. Because even if there is recovery, even if one day I don’t feel those words to be true, they have defined my reality for so long that forgetting them would mean forgetting a part of myself.

A few quotes

Some of these are in the original, unmodded game, while others are part of The Longer Road. Nothing like the character’s own words to paint a picture of his nature.

First and foremost, the very first words you hear as you begin the game (the link leads to a collection of cutscenes):
“Ah, the child of Bhaal has awoken. It is time for more…experiments. The pain will only be passing; you should survive the process.”

“I have no desire to go into the fine details of my research with you, child of Bhaal. You will never understand the particulars anyway.”

“There is no way out for me. There never was.”

“No, you’ll warrant no villain’s exposition from me.”
(This is one of the few games where I had the pleasure of actually having to engage my mind in understanding the villain, instead of having his drama spoon-fed to the point you can only see one side of it — the side that is spelled out to you.)

“Life… is strength. That is not to be contested, it seems logical enough. You live, you affect your world.”
(This is the moment in game where it first becomes obvious that he clings to logic and reason in order to evaluate reality, as he is deprived of gut instinct and other finer feelings. Between anger and academic analysis — the only things he still possesses — he tries to rely on the latter.)

“I cannot be caged! I cannot be controlled! Understand this as you die, ever pathetic, ever fools!”

“I… I do not remember your love, Ellesime. I have tried. I have tried to recreate it, to spark it anew in my memory, but it is gone… a hollow, dead thing. For years, I clung to the memory of it. Then the memory of the memory. And then nothing. The Seldarine took that from me, too. I look upon you and feel nothing. I remember nothing but you turning your back on me, along with all the others. Once my thirst for power was everything. And now I hunger only for revenge. And I… WILL… HAVE IT!”
(This dialogue is key in convincing him he is losing his logical capacity as well, as his anger surpasses his resolve in this moment, to the point his main goal — power — is ignored in favor of what will satisfy the fury — revenge.)

“I told you, I am not afraid to die again. It is just another transition in an endless cycle of our existence. While there is consciousness there is still hope. It is the termination of all the processes of the mind, the ‘true death’ that may defeat me at the end. But this is not likely to happen while I continue to deny the entropy, and challenge annihilation with every fibre of my being.”

“You rest each night uneasy. Yes, you are weary. You struggle daily. It will not end, you know. Not until you acknowledge what you are. Your actions affect so many others than yourself. You will come to realize how little choice you have. You will do what you must, become what you must, or others will pay for your cowardice. Follow, and receive the gift you are owed by the blood in your veins. Follow, if only to protect the weak that fell because of you.”

“… perhaps there is something to your words, child of Bhaal… But my wounds are too deep! I cannot forego my revenge it has become an essential part of me, and abandoning it would be akin to losing the last part of myself that is still me. Can’t you see that I simply cannot let it go? I have lost my soul. Do you want me to lose my quintessence as well?”
(To which the player character can respond: “You are hasty to limit your quintessence to your lust for revenge on Ellesime. Maybe it is also your arcane genius, your ambition to live and have the last say, not merely your passion for self-destruction?”)

“Death cures all, godchild. There is a chance still that I will not be forced to make that choice, as you might perish in your quest dragging me back into the Abyss with you. Admittedly, right now that solution has a certain appeal.”

“You dare call me a coward? Insolent worm, what do you know about courage? You must be one of the few intelligent creatures alive who understands what it means to be stripped of one’s soul. Can you even imagine the magnitude of my gamble? I had almost everything one could ever desire, and yet I risked it all and more for the sake of breaking the barriers that my limited mortal mind had erected between itself and the infinite knowledge of the Universe!”
(I must say this sounds very Faustian of him. Unsurprisingly, I’m a huge fan of Goethe’s Faust as well.)

“I fear I have an advantage over you. I know precisely what the Seldarine’s mercy is going to be, and I will spit on their travesty of ‘divine justice’ yet again given half a chance. Save your breath for a more qualified convert.”

“My existence in the Abyss is not something I would care to discuss with you. You have seen the beginning of it, and the end, and I would rather keep the details about what went in between to myself.”

“Frankly speaking, death does not frighten me anymore, child of Bhaal. It feels familiar, like an old trusted enemy. Like you. Did not I tell you once that death is bred in your bones?”

“Of course I know about your dreams, godchild! I can ‘remember’ them as if they were my own! When you ripped your soul back from me, leaving me to rot in the Abyss, I lost it all… But after you brought me back with the help of the treacherous slave who deems himself my ‘friend’, you forged an even stronger bond between us. My new flesh is bound to your soul, and what remains of my essence is kept together by your strength of will, at least on this Plane. Now I have your emotional memories again — but not my own.”
(This is tragic on so many levels. It becomes apparent later on that he clings to these emotions that are actually the godchild’s — the player character’s — while at the same time being paranoid and terrified that the godchild will use their “soul link” to manipulate him with them, clouding his rationality with the intensity of things he hadn’t felt in a long time.)

“You… you dare pity… me? You, a mere slip of a boy who knows nothing of life, of its many empty promises, torturous compromises and great sacrifices! What are your pitiful ‘feelings’ compared to the power I held in my hands! What are your ‘tender’ memories measured up against the cloak of divinity? Innocent fool — you will never make it to the end of your quest. I wish I had never started this senseless conversation.”

“Why would you ask? I… I cannot remember! Now you have done it again, godchild, and this time you did it on purpose. You are deliberately tricking me into believing that you care, and trying to trap me with my own words!”
(He cannot remember so many things. Like the depressed, it’s like everything fades away, except memories of painful events and negative experiences, to the point that one can mistakenly believe that there has never been a single joyous day in their life.)

“Once again, you are trying to ‘impress’ me with your pathetic brand of wisdom! You are spewing trivialities at me with the air of a prophet delivering divine revelations! Don’t you think that with my centuries of experience I would have heard it all by now?”

“You bore me, Bhaalspawn. Understand that over the past century or two I have considered these issues not once but a thousand times. Do you think it likely that the mere sound of your ‘divine’ voice will make me feel repentant all of a sudden?”

“Logically speaking, continued existence, no matter the conditions of it, is always preferable to the alternative. Circumstances can be improved, and a void may be filled by a graft, if a suitable match can be found — as you well know.”

“Typical. If I had a sense of humor left I might find that funny. I do not, on both accounts.”

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