YES, DARK SUN GWYNDOLIN IS A TRANS WOMAN, NO, YOU CAN’T HAVE HER
let’s talk about who runs the show in the story of dark souls.
because it’s dark sun gwyndolin. from the start of the game, all you know is some scrap of legend passed around the human lands about how a chosen undead will venture forth from the undead asylum to lordran, land of lords, and ring the bell of awakening, though you quickly find out it’s more complicated than that. who do you think concocted that legend in the first place? the gods of anor londo, and there’s only one of them left by the time you show up. when you ring the bells of awakening, it wakes up kingseeker frampt, a primordial serpent, who gives you the next bit of direction — to brave sen’s fortress, reach anor londo, lost city of the gods, and retrieve the lordvessel therein. who do you think he works for? the lady of the darkling gives you more direction once you reach anor londo, telling you to enter the central cathedral, where at the far end you will receive a revelation. who do you think she works for? then, once you reach this chamber of revelations, the goddess gwynevere bestows the lordvessel upon you, and tells you to seek the souls of the powerful lords that remain in lordran to fill it, and succeed her father, the lord gwyn, which will occupy you for the rest of the playthrough. except the real gwynevere left anor londo ages ago, and the one you speak to is an illusion. who do you think crafted that illusion? when you finally fill the lordvessel and open the kiln of the first flame and confront lord gwyn at the heart of it, you can choose to link the flames at the bonfire that appears when you kill him. this is what everyone you’ve met so far (assuming you don’t do anything clever like find the rogue serpent darkstalker kaathe) wants you to do, and if you do it, then you’re treated to a cutscene of your character immolating themselves at the first flame, thus extending the Age of Fire — the age of the gods — with their very life-force. who was the last of anor londo’s deities again?
dark sun gwyndolin. her strength is not in direct confrontation (though she gave me a fair bit trouble on my first playthrough), but in her machinations behind the scenes. her strength lies in, dare i say it, her memes — the self-perpetuating concepts, beliefs, and directives she established to shape the fate of any undead who reaches lordran, even beyond her potential death. and when the fanbase talks about this incredibly powerful and interesting and complex character, they inevitably start saying the foulest things about her.
because she’s a trans woman.
dark souls is a monument to the promise of video games as a medium.
it is an incredibly compelling and multifaceted thing. every aspect of it, from the sounds, the music, the mechanics, the graphics, the writing, the atmosphere, the position it places you in as a player and the position it places you in as a character within its world, the storytelling and the methods it delivers them to you, everything weaves together and augments itself into this beautiful, challenging, grandiose game. while some parts feel rushed or incomplete simply due to time and budgetary constraints, there are few to no parts that feel out-of-place. it feels as though every time i revisit them and spend time digging into them, i make new connections, however small.
dark souls, and demon’s souls before it, have been incredibly influential to me. these are universes where the wisest teachers, the most stalwart warriors, the most powerful witches, and often your staunchest allies are women. they are games that show you that patriarchal authority is rotten and hollow and not to be trusted — that terrible things have been done in its name and before can call your work done you must strike down its figureheads personally. the same cannot be said of dark souls 2, but that’s a story for another time. these games had let me navigate and interact with formidable, beautiful, intriguing, fantastic, and often brutal worlds as a woman (and then, when i got far enough, as a woman who could turn into a goddamn dragon) before i could even articulate why that was so meaningful to me. i could be eva in a world that believed in me and let me press on no matter what came, even death.
others have written before on how well from software wields ambiguity, but it bears repeating. it is perhaps the greatest strength of dark souls. from this ambiguity, a ceaseless bounty of rich interpretations can be harvested by any who spend the time to feel them out. but not all interpretations are treated equally, and not all of them deserve the same consideration.
because communities and discourses and media are shaped by the pressures and pains of white supremacy, the patriarchy, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, and transmisogyny. this is especially true of the discourses within communities that spring up around media. when left unchecked, the interpretations people put forward as The Most Correct tend to gravitate towards the ones that offer the least challenge to these oppressive overarching cultural pressures. consider, for example, that out of the innumerable characters in dark souls whose faces are obscured by some sort of headgear, the wikidot wiki only has screenshots showing the underlying faces for two: sieglinde and siegmeyer of catarina, the human land whose inhabitants are established (somewhat clumsily, during the character creation process) as generally having dark skin and black features. the screenshots show that their underlying models (which are never otherwise visible unless you purposefully try to get your camera stuck inside their helmets or hack their helmet models to be invisible) have white skin. it’s as if the people running the wiki — the people trying to establish it as The One Comprehensive Source Of Dark Souls Knowledge — feel the need to directly say “no, you can’t think of these characters as black, you cannot say this wrong thing, The Canon says they are white.” and don’t get me started on what the wiki has to say about gwyndolin.
because dark souls, let’s be real, has a problem with transmisogyny.
it’s been there from the start and it’s bled into the community surrounding the game in some really ugly ways. dark sun gwyndolin, as she is presented within the game, is kind of a mealy-mouthed insincere evasion of trans womanhood. we call this concept coding, because coding is that thing that lets authors go “noooo, i didn’t write a trans woman character, i wrote a character who just happens to share all the traits of one and whose role and actions within the story just happen to follow those reserved trans women characters in the stories we cis writers tell about them. but not a trans woman.” it’s present even in the original japanese, though the issue is exacerbated by the english localization. so let’s talk about it! let’s talk about how she is presented in both, because they are essentially two slightly different interpretations of the same nebulous digital space. one can be said to be closer to direct authorial intent, which is why i’m talking about it, but also: direct authorial intent ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
disclaimer: i don’t know japanese! i relied on folks who do to help me out with some of the translations here.
so first of all, she’s voiced by someone who is, ostensibly, a cis man: one harry lister smith. if you think this disqualifies a character from being a trans woman, you clearly haven’t been paying attention to one of the biggest ways transmisogyny operates in media. consider it a mercy i didn’t fill that sentence with links, because i could have. it operates by robbing us of our own voices and insisting that we are interchangeable with cis men. smith’s voice acting, as well as that of the rest of the voice cast, is present in the japanese version — director hidetaka miyazaki wished to impart a certain mysterious aesthetic inspired by his experiences with western fantasy and thus only opted for english dialogue — but the subtitles, obviously, are different. and any time she refers to herself in the japanese subtitles, she uses the pronoun 我 (ware), which, to my understanding, is a sort of gender-neutral royal We to indicate her status as A Pretty Big Deal.
edit: medium user @Kaijin wrote an excellent correction to the following translation section, which you can read here! the gist of it, however, is there is no ambiguity in the original text. however, i think it’s safe to say the intent to write a character coded as a trans woman but Not Actually An Icky Trans Woman is still there. “boy raised as a daughter” is one of the first tropes cis writers blunder into when they want to write a character who is simultaneously amab and femme.
the japanese item descriptions are far more coy about gendering gwyndolin. the closest you get to a pronoun anywhere in them is one instance in the description for her robe, gloves, and waistcloth (the descriptions for these being nearly identical). here, for example, is the original text for her waistcloth:
彼 (kare), by itself, is a third person male pronoun. however, when placed in the context of the following character, の (no), it can be read as 彼の (ano) and some ambiguity enters the picture — again, from what i’ve been told; i make no claims of expertise in the fields of japanese grammar or translation. it potentially changes the meaning of the sentence so that it could be referring to a subject that is not near to the speaker or listener. it is often used in mythical or fantasy settings. so while it could be translated as “the clothing in which he was raised as a daughter,” it also could potentially be translated as “that which you hold are the clothes in which the daughter was raised some time ago.” generally “ano” is spelled using kana — あの — so the decision to write it with such syllabic ambiguity is deliberate. also? it fucking hurts. and they ended up completely scrapping it anyway during the localization process:
Waistcloth of the Dark Sun Gwyndolin,
protector of the forsaken city of Anor Londo.
The power of the moon was strong in
Gwyndolin, and thus he was raised as a
daughter. His magic garb is silk-thin,
and hardly provides any physical defense.
(sidenote: kingseeker frampt will eat just about any item in the game in exchange for souls, including armor pieces. most go for about 100 souls apiece, but he pays 1000 for clothes that ladies wear or that have goddesses involved. this includes gwyndolin’s moonlight set. you know what sucks? relying on gross, predatory dudes for validation of our womanhood.)
i bring up the original text simply because i have seen countless, countless transphobes, whether on tumblr, on twitter, on the various wikis, in all the miserable lore videos on youtube, or anywhere else, fall back on the english translations as if they were the indisputable word of god and represent the purest form of authorial will, giving them carte blanche to keep calling gwyndolin a man, or male, or any number of gross-ass slurs (ask me how many times i’ve seen “amazing trap ahead” left outside her room*). but if that were true, then wouldn’t the language it was originally written in, in which she is only ever gendered ambiguously in a way that doesn’t neatly translate, represent a higher authority than that of another party’s translation? the real answer, of course, is that enshrining canon as unassailable and infallible is bogus and bigots will use any excuse to reinforce their bigotry, no matter how tortured their logic gets.
*Do Not Actually Ask Me
so to sum, the english localization team took a look at this femme as fuck goddess who narrative text got really coy around and whose self-professed gender is Better Than You, Peasant, and went “right, Actually A Boy” and then a million gamer bros took that scrap of text and went “Bro, i can only imagine femininity as poison? so i bet gwyndolin only does that because of a coercive childhood.”
consider her known powers and her position within the game: she is the last deity in anor londo. she answers to no one but herself. she has created an illusion of her sister (and of the goddamn sun itself) to guide hapless het chumps to the kiln of the first flame where they can kill her asshole dad again and then toast themselves to prolong the age of fire for her direct benefit. she has assembled a secret cadre of devout assassins to enforce this and directly rewards them for their service. as far as any fictional character can be said to have agency, she’s got it. there’s literally nothing about her as she presents herself that implies that she appears any way other than exactly how she wants to. and the fanbase’s reaction is so telling! i’ve seen so many posts from cis dudes ascribing the motivations behind her appearance to the punitive and stringent will of some other authoritative figure in the story, generally lord gwyn, because they can’t imagine someone would ever choose this. they see a character living in the femme neighborhood of AMAB gender expression and their first instinct is to infantilize and objectify her directly in the face of the game itself saying “this character is powerful” — here’s a hint: this doesn’t happen to male characters.
the point is: the ultimate arc of your actions in the world of dark souls was set in place and shaped and directed, diegetically, by a trans woman. if that concept challenges you, perhaps you should ask yourself why.
even if i’m wrong, even if there’s no ambiguity in meaning in the original text and it’s meant like a hammer to the knees rather than a just-kidding slap to the face, i can still definitively say that the decision to write about her and to frame her in such a way was informed, on some level, by a disrespect for trans womanhood. she is ultimately a fictional character who was written by a team of folks who were probably primarily cis and dudes. she was not necessarily written to be a trans woman, but her character, her background, and her presentation within the game are not coherent outside of the contexts of trans womanhood, and more specifically transphobia, and even more specifically transmisogyny. but while there’s pain in that truth, there’s also some amount of power to be salvaged — while there was disrespect in her creation, there was possibly some amount of compulsion or attraction towards trans womanhood as well. i’ve seen a hell of a lot worse out there than “literal goddess running everything behind the scenes, served by an untold number of gay girls willing to kill for her.” that said, this compulsion still did not lead to an honest representation of our experiences. as such that decision is ours to critique and gwyndolin is ours to reclaim if we so choose, and i do so choose. i’m doing it right now. it’s great.
ultimately, sometimes stories and worlds reach transness in strange ways. they aren’t always good, especially when cis people write them. when a story presents us with a character that is coded so overwhelmingly with trans womanhood — like gwyndolin — and then turns around and insists on her maleness? that hurts. that’s transmisogyny. canon is a rickety shack. when a group of people speaks out that the section of shack apportioned to them is actively hazardous to them, what does it gain you to argue with them, to insist they stay in their place? because what it gains us to claim gwyndolin as one of ours is the idea that we can be powerful, we can be influential, we can look as glamorously monstrous as we please. you don’t need that. you have so many characters telling you that already.
anyway, dark sun gwyndolin is a trans woman, she’s ours now, we rubbed our gay little faces all over her and she’s got the trans cooties and you can’t have her back.
special thanks to @MrsEilaLitvyak for her help with the item descriptions!