Most people would praise Halo for its intense action before its intelligent storytelling. The classic science fiction shooter series certainly isn’t short on excitement, but the story it tells, particularly in the second and third games, is far more complicated than it first appears. When examined closely, the Halo series weaves a tale of religious fanaticism as complicated and rich with allegory as any, and this story has a lot to teach.
This story of fanaticism and blind faith is illustrated in the main villains of the first three games, the Covenant. A collective of many different species and worlds, the Covenant are driven by a shared faith that they’ve been chosen to partake in a ‘Great Journey,’ which will take them to paradise and potential godhood. The tenants of their faith are given to them by their prophets, named Mercy, Regret and Truth.
These three prophets tell their subjects that to begin this journey, they are to activate the mysterious Halo rings, which they’ve told their followers are gateways which mark the start of their ‘Great Journey.’ The rings, as it turns out, are not gateways at all, but weapons designed to wipe the galaxy clean of life in order to starve a dangerous organism known as the Flood. This religious belief dictates the actions of the Covenant, and creates every single obstacle the heroes must overcome.
DENYING & DESTROYING EVIDENCE
The first thing the Covenant do is either deny or attempt to destroy anything (or anyone) that contradicts their beliefs. The purpose of the rings is abundantly clear for all those willing to look. When questioned, the station monitors will reveal the truth to any willing ears. Rather than speak with the monitors in the original game, the Covenant ignore the signs and subsequently unleash the flood. This is shown in a pivotal line from the AI Cortana.
They must have known. There must have been signs.Cortana
The importance of this brief line can’t be overstated. There were signs. You as the player interact with them. The Covenant, willfully blind with belief, choose to ignore them.
The Covenant, as groups in the real world often do, destroy evidence that could contradict or disprove their beliefs. There’s perhaps no greater example of this than the Covenant’s genocidal campaign against humanity. Humanity, it turns out, are the rightful heirs of the Forerunner technology and the Halo rings themselves, something that contradicts the Prophets’ teachings. The Prophets become aware of this early on. In an effort to maintain their power, they begin the campaign to eradicate humanity, thereby destroying all evidence of their deceit.
The Prophets, most notably the Prophet of Truth, serve as the main villains in the original series. By design, their names are a contradiction of who they are. The Prophet of Truth, for instance, spends most of the series telling deliberate lies. Operating much like leaders of a cult, the Prophets work to keep their subjects ignorant through censorship of dissent, physical torture, and rewards for those who please them.
Making examples of those who question or displease them is central to the Prophets’ power. The treatment of Thel Vadamee, the future Arbiter, is a perfect example of this. After the destruction of the first ring, the prophets use Thel as a scapegoat for the incident, stripping him of rank and having him publicly tortured. His punishment not only enthralls the Prophets’ devotees but also frightens any potential dissenters into silence. The impact this has on Thel himself is definite. Stripped of all he holds dear, he becomes putty in the Prophets’ hands and does whatever they ask in a desperate bid for approval.
Longing to regain his status, Thel partakes in several tasks at the Prophets’ request, all of which are to help them retain power. Thel’s first task is to kill the Heretic, a Sangheili rebel who attempts to expose the Covenant religion as a lie. Thel is introduced to this mission with a video of the Heretic blaspheming against the Prophets. The video he sees is heavily edited, relying on a quote mine in order to entice Thel’s rage. The Prophets are careful not to show Thel any video of the Heretic explaining the true function of the rings, lest Thel perhaps makes up his own mind. They show him just enough to make him angry, but not enough to make him think. Thel kills the Heretic before learning the truth, thus fulfilling the Prophets’ goal. They use him as a tool to keep the Covenant, and himself, ignorant.
There are other characters in the Covenant who are perhaps aware they’re being lied to, but follow the Prophets anyway. No better example of this exists than Tartarus, the leader of the Brutes and one of the Prophets’ most devout followers. Tartarus is a brutal megalomaniac who sacrifices his will to the Prophets, most notably the Prophet of Truth.
Around Truth, Tartarus is shown to be an almost timid pushover, even doing things he otherwise wouldn’t do to keep his Prophet happy. In perhaps Tartarus’ only show of compassion, he attempts to save the Prophet of Mercy from death by a Flood parasite. He doesn’t, but not by his own choice. Truth demands he not. Though the decision clearly troubles him, Tartarus doesn’t question the order. Doing something he otherwise wouldn’t shows how little of Tartarus there really is. He could think for himself and even does for a moment. In the end, he chooses not to.
Tartarus is unwavering in his belief, even when presented with direct evidence disputing it. In the finale for Halo 2, Tartarus attempts to activate one of the Halo rings. A newly enlightened Thel, now wise to the Prophets’ deceit, attempts to enlighten Tartarus as well. Calling on the ‘Oracle’ (343 Guilty Spark), Thel has the monitor explain the true purpose of the Halo rings to the Brute leader. Guilty Spark’s explains things in no uncertain terms, yet in spite of this, Tartarus doubles down on his fanaticism and attempts to fire the rings anyway. Tartarus is a testimony to the danger of being set in our ways. He refuses to let himself know and think and sacrifices truth to preserve his ignorance.
THE LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA
It would be appealing to say such behavior is only found in the Halo series, but as a species, we’ve tangled with the Covenant in the real world as well, often at the cost of our progress and knowledge. In the ancient world, the Library of Alexandria was perhaps the greatest repository of knowledge on the planet. In this library were contained scrolls that spoke of the vastness of the universe and how life evolved over time, centuries before the times of Galileo and Darwin. An anti-intellectual movement in Alexandria saw the city purged of great thinkers, and the library was left to rot. Countless wonders enshrined in the library had to be re-discovered, doing untold damage to humanity’s long term progress. Halo tells a similar story.
The Covenant seek to fire the rings, which not only destroys all life, but also all the strides made by that life. Once the rings burn the galaxy of all things sentient, all the science, history and art accumulated over the eons is lost to time, leaving life to start over again. The Covenant aren’t just destroying life with their fanaticism. They are destroying knowledge itself. In this new Alexandria, they are the ones who left the library to rot.
For all its action and spectacle, Halo is a compelling story with a lot to teach. It is, for this reason, I always preferred the character of Thel to Master Chief, because Thel’s story is one of being challenged. Thel begins the series much like Tartarus as a blind zealot. Like Tartarus, Thel is faced with evidence that contradicts his most cherished beliefs. Unlike Tartarus, Thel doesn’t double down on his fanatacism, instead opting for the far more painful path. Thel asks questions, finds a new truth, and though the journey is difficult, he becomes a better, more enlightened person. We are often faced with Prophets of Truth in our lives. When that time comes, we all must remember to ask questions. When that time comes, be Thel.
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