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Balore & the Fomori (Castlevania) – Character Development

Balore & the Fomori (Castlevania) – Character Development

Greetings, all you beautiful viewers at home
or out and about; it’s the month of March again (at least, at the time of uploading
this—I hope), which means that it’s time for a yearly tradition of sorts on this channel. For those who might be new here, let me give
you a quick summary: I like to dedicate the month of March to exploring topics related
to Ireland and its bountiful folklore. But despite my choice of words there, Irish
Paganism and folklore aren’t all too commonly explored in the medium of video games, especially
in comparison to something like Nordic, Greco-Roman, or Japanese sources, but given how Ireland
tends to be on most peoples’ minds because of St. Patrick’s Day on the 17th, I’d
like to think it’s still festive to use the occasion to talk about instances where
video games actually do incorporate Irish legends in detail. However, there was a bit of a problem getting
this video prepared; aside from missing a video for March last year, I had a run-in
with idea block and spent both January and February without any particularly solid and
new ideas. I could always go back to Type-Moon’s Fate
franchise, since it offers some of the most detailed portrayals of Irish legends, but
I’ve already done that twice, and quite frankly, I’ve burned myself out on Fate
for a fair while longer. But then a bout of sudden inspiration hit
me while I was watching a playthrough of Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. Towards the end of the game, in the Arena
section of Dracula’s Castle, there’s a boss named “Balore,” already drawing directly
from Irish folklore, and I could quickly tell from his boss battle that he was close to
the mythos. Certainly enough to warrant an appearance
on this show. Not only that, but I found out that one, Balore
has been a recurring boss in the Castlevania series, and two, that there have also been
regular enemies based on the historical Balor’s people, the Fomorians. While the Dullahan is without a doubt my favourite
creature from the old stories of the Emerald Isle, the Fomori would absolutely be my second
favourites, and I’m excited to finally have an outlet to talk about them, even if this
might not be as long or super in-depth as other recent topics. The explanation will probably go on longer
than the comparisons to Castlevania, but this wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened
here. I have an opportunity, and in the end, that’s
what matters most. I’m the Kitsune Hawk, and today, we’ll
be taking a look at how the Castlevania franchise has interpreted the fearsome Fomori of Irish
folklore, both as bosses and as regular enemies! So get out your pencils, trivia enthusiasts,
because this is Character Development! So as far as Balore and the Fomor enemies
go, they’re part of the “Metroidvania” or “Koji Igarashi” era of Castlevania,
so we’ll be discussing a few of the series’ entries on the Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS. These games aren’t exactly super familiar
to me, as I’ve always been more of a “pre-Symphony of the Night” kind of Castlevania fan, so
I apologise if I end up making some minor errors here. But of course, before we can start talking
about Castlevania’s interpretations, I need to go over the mythos of the Fomorians, including
their recurring role in the legends of old Hibernia. So let’s jump right into the meat of the
matter, then. The Fomori, or “Fomorians”—either term
is acceptable—are a race of non-human beings mentioned several times in Irish folklore,
though some of the details surrounding them are more consistent than others. Much of this can be chalked up to the purposeful
alteration and/or poor preservation of Irish Pagan legends at the hands of Christian scribes. One of the main sources of Fomorian lore is
The Book of Invasions, an 11th century compilation which sought to organise various folktales
and historical records into a single, cohesive historical narrative telling the early history
of Ireland. Unfortunately (yet also expectedly), this
narrative involves some rather… messy blending of Irish Paganism with stories and characters
from the Bible, though it also provided a very influential model for understanding the
island’s origin stories: the idea of “the Six Invasions.” According to the model of the Six Invasions,
the human settlement of Ireland, as well as the foundations of Irish culture, occurred
through the successive arrival of six different populations. The Fomorians, however, were already living
on the island by the time the first invasion occurred, having originally come from somewhere
beneath the ocean, and they often terrorised their new and unwanted neighbours. They fought against the followers of Partholón,
who led the second invasion, fought, captured, and enslaved the followers of Nemed, who led
the third invasion, and engaged in several battles with the Tuatha Dé Danann, the people
of the fifth invasion. At the same time, however, the Tuath Dé had
a very complicated relationship with the Fomori; the two groups killed each other for control
of Ireland, and the Fomorians forced the Tuatha Dé Danann into acts of tribute that bordered
on slavery, but they also married and produced children together. All-out war between the Tuatha Dé Danann
and the Fomori broke out after the former group had subdued the Fir Bolg (who led the
fourth invasion) and evicted an unpopular half-Fomori king, Bres, from their leadership. Anything but happy to be ejected from power,
Bres appealed to his Fomorian kinsfolk by asking for a war, and what ensued would become
the final major conflict between the Fomori and the Tuath Dé, so you can best bet that
the story gets especially exciting and dramatic here. Among the Fomori at this point in the myth
was their reigning king, a titan of fearsome strength named Balor, who had a special eye
that, once opened, unleashed total destruction upon everything in its gaze. Some versions ascribe a venomous or petrifying
quality to it, though the most common interpretation is that it set the land and everything on
it ablaze. Stepping up to the plate to fight Balor was
Lugh, a warrior and master craftsman among the Tuatha Dé Danann, as well as the giant’s
grandson, for that added twist of drama. Using a stone and a sling, Lugh struck Balor’s
eye so hard, that it went to the back of his head, setting the Fomorian army on fire before
Balor collapsed in death. Other versions state that Lugh hurled a red
spear into Balor’s eye, killing him instantly, but regardless of the details, the message
is the same: Balor’s greatest weapon was also his greatest weakness. The Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh ended soon
after the death of Balor, and it was the greatest defeat for the Fomori; most of the survivors
were promptly rounded up and forced into the ocean. From the sea, they came, and to the sea, they
would leave, but that doesn’t mean that they were completely gone. Indeed, tales set in later times—including
the legends of Cú Chulainn, himself a descendant of Lugh—mention the continued existence
of Fomorians in Ireland, albeit with greatly reduced prominence. The term “Fomorian” even became synonymous
with sea raiders, as if their descendants became vengeful pirates, scouring the waters
and adjacent coasts. Descriptions of the Fomori are just as varied
as their roles; many tales emphasise their appearance as strikingly grotesque, sometimes
as giants with asymmetrically-deformed bodies, sometimes as giants with only one eye, one
arm, and one leg, and sometimes as creatures with mixed human and animal—typically goat
(or cow)—anatomy. At the same time, however, there are also
tales that describe the Fomori as “darkly beautiful,” especially in the case of halflings
born from the intermarriage of Fomorian and Tuatha Dé Danann. This conflict in consistent descriptions might
be a by-product of cultural exchange between the Irish Gaels and the outside world; it’s
possible that the Fomorians were influenced by stories from seafaring peoples who made
prior contact with the Irish, such as the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and early Norse. Comparisons have been drawn between the Fomorians
and the Vanir and Jötnar of the Nordic-Germanic religion, as well as the giants and Cyclopes
of the Greco-Roman religion, and the slaying of Balor in particular sounds notably similar
to the Biblical duel of David and Goliath. Biblical interpretations, both medieval and
beyond, have also theorised that the Fomorians were the possible progeny of Cain (the first
murderer, who was condemned to wander the world) or otherwise, the progeny of Ham (the
forsaken son of Noah, whose bloodline was cursed). However they got here, they’ve since become
a prominent inclusion of Irish folklore over the centuries. So with that mouthful of exposition now done
and established, let’s get back to Castlevania, but instead of starting with Balore, let’s
instead begin with the “Fomor” enemies, which appear in Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
on the Nintendo DS. These come in two varieties: the Black Fomor,
found along the Misty Forest Road, and the White Fomor, found in the Mystery Manor and
the Library of Dracula’s Castle. It might have been just a little more fitting
to have them appear closer to the water, given the legend’s abyssal origins, but for all
I know, these could be like the original variety of Fomorians, or the stragglers from the end
of the story. Most likely, though, is that I’m reading
way too much into the enemy placement. Anyways, getting back on track, these enemies
have a very distinct “human and goat hybrid” look, not unlike the more famous image of
Baphomet or other similar demons, even casting glyph incantations as their method of attack—but
as far as their physical appearance goes, it happens to be shared with one of those
aforementioned interpretations of the Fomorians, mentioned within The Book of the Dun Cow,
a manuscript from the early 12th century. Of course, it’s also likely that this portrayal
was already influenced by the beastly images of medieval Christian devils, since it wasn’t
uncommon for entities and creatures of Pagan origin to be equated with demons. They don’t really do much else, though,
given that they’re just plain old fodder enemies instead of bosses or characters of
story importance (like other episode subjects for this show), but at the very least, it’s
neat to know that they might have been influenced by a particular version of the Fomorians. A bit of newfound appreciation to end on. So then, let us now move on to the giant who
provoked this episode, Balore. That’s, uh, “Balor” with an “e,”
just to be clear. Rather than being broadly based on the Fomori
as a whole, he’s clearly inspired by their most famous leader, the colossal king with
the baleful eye. And can I just say that I love the visual
illusion going on here; probably due to the technical limitations of the Gameboy Advance,
we can only see Balore’s face and forearms, while the darkness obscuring everything else
gives Balore the extra-menacing appearance of a giant sealed away in an underground cage. Just imagine what kind of havoc he could bring
if he were freed. Balore’s fight has two phases of sorts,
in which he focuses on two different methods of attack; for the first half, he uses his
fists, with one of his eyes closed for the duration. After taking enough damage, Balore will open
his other eye, and, just like the Irish legends, it will bring destruction to everything in
its sight, setting the ground on fire. At the same time, though, you’ll need to
weave around the attacks to strike Balor’s baleful eye and finish him off. It’s short and sweet, but I really admire
how it plays out like the legendary duel between Balor and Lugh as best as it can. A bit disappointing that Balore’s Soul gives
you his punch attack instead of the eye beam, but that was the developers’ preference
between the two, so at least it was considered. Moving forward, Balore would reappear in both
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (both on the Nintendo DS),
but from this point on, his appearance was significantly altered. Rather than being a tan-skinned giant inside
a dark cage, Balore is now a bluish-green colour, we can see most of the upper half
of his body, and his head is covered by a metal brace of some sort, definitely looking
more like the monstrous imaginings of the Fomorians. He retains the characteristic baleful eye
of destruction, but rather than setting everything in its gaze on fire, it’s a large, almost
screen-filling laser instead. Considering that Dawn of Sorrow is a sequel
to Aria of Sorrow, maybe this is meant to be a sort of zombified or decaying version
of Balore, having become scarred and weaker since his initial defeat. Like seriously, the guy got demoted from being
a later-game boss in Aria of Sorrow to being one of the first bosses in Dawn of Sorrow. And if I’m being totally honest, his redesign’s
kind of a downgrade in my eyes… if you’ll pardon the pun. But I suppose what matters most is that each
of Balore’s boss fights offers a subtle, but still accurate portrayal of the giant
and his eye of devastation, though I’d personally rank Aria of Sorrow’s version over the shared
redesign in Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin. And with that, we’ve more or less gone over
everything there is to cover with Castlevania’s take on the Fomorians. At least, for now, unless some miracle happens
and they show up again in another Castlevania game in some way, shape, or form. Do pardon my (probably) visible excitement
at the topic, as well as the shorter length of discussion this time around; like I mentioned
toward the beginning of the video, in the realm of creatures from Irish legend, the
Fomori are another favourite of mine, especially for the air of mystery around them. I can’t say I can think of very many video
games that have used the Fomori as a story element—at least, off the top of my head—so
seeing Castlevania showcase two, debatably three different portrayals of the Fomori makes
me quite happy. Even though Balore is a boss that doesn’t
have much significant plot relevance in any of his appearances, and even though the Fomor
are just regular enemies that you can otherwise ignore and forget about, their presence and
attention to detail is still something that you can sit back and appreciate. Stop and smell the monstrously deformed abyssal
roses, you know? And for the prospective game developers and
writers who might be watching, the Fomori provide quite a bit of lucrative potential
to work with. Why did they come to Ireland in the first
place? What happened to the main population after
they were banished back to the ocean? What if they looked like hybrids of humans
and deep-sea aquatic life? Could you tie them to something like the works
of H.P. Lovecraft? With any luck, this won’t be the last time
I get to talk about the Fomori, and I hope I can address one of these questions if there
is indeed another occasion. Keep your eyes peeled, though, as I’m not
done talking about the Book of Invasions just yet; if things work out, there’s another
topic I’d like to explore that involves the epilogue of the Tuatha Dé Danann. One that starts to sound somewhat similar
to the fate of the Fomori.

7 comments on “Balore & the Fomori (Castlevania) – Character Development

  1. I first heard the names in this video, and became acquainted with the story of the legendary battles between the Danu and the Fomori, thanks to del Toro's use of Nuada, Nuala, and an old, tired, and resigned version of Balor in Hellboy: The Golden Army. I'm sure that most of us outside of the video game community heard of them this way as well.
    Being half Irish, from my mother's side, I am always eager to see Irish/UK centered folklore videos from this channel. This also applies to channels that read stories from Reddit or other sources about encounters (in the modern day) with such creatures as banshees, dulahans (love that video, btw), the Sidhe, and even faeries and leprechauns.

  2. Damn it Christianity! Why can't you leave shit alone?! Ireland's culture and religion was noice but you gotta wreck shit again since it's heretical.

  3. Just got recommended this video. I really like what I've seen here, but might I suggest turning the background music down just a bit? It's a bit difficult to hear you over it.

  4. There's one issue with the Zombified Balor theory. While yes, Aria of Sorrow takes place in 2035 & Dawn of Sorrow in 2036, Portrait of Ruin (which has the exact same Balor but flipped horizontally) takes place in 1944, almost 100 years earlier.

  5. I knew of the 'Balor' by name, and it's solely because both old and new editions of D&D wanted to use Tolkien's Balrogs as monsters, but due to copyright lawsuits from the Tolkien estate, they instead had to rename them 'Balor'. They do this to this day! They're still winged fiery daemons with whips like in Tolkien but have no eye lasers, and aside from the name about the only thing they have in common with the actual mythological Balore is that they're huge and tough to kill.

    The backdrop of the Fomori is fascinating stuff. Guessing the Atlanteans were sick of living in the sea and decided to take another island.

    As a last note, seeing Tir Na Nog on the Speccy featured here is the most obscure sideturn you could have possibly made for this channel and I love you for it.

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