The Sylvari: born of the Green Man and Other Folklore (Guild Wars 2)

Guild Wars 2, the sequel to the online role playing game Guild Wars, is currently in beta and is rumored to be scheduled for a summer 2012 release. Among the game’s much-anticipated features is the release of an entirely new playable race of fairy-like beings called the Sylvari.

The Sylvari are humanoid plants who are all born of the same parent, a great sentient tree that provides them with knowledge and shelter even after birth. This tree parentage recalls strongly the bond between a dryad and her tree that appears in such stories as Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Dryad,” The Chronicles of Narnia, and of course all the way back to dryads of Greek mythology.

In an interview introducing the Sylvari, Guild Wars game designer Ree Soesbee claims that, “The Sylvari are entirely unique. They are new to [the world of Guild Wars]; they’re new to every world. There’s never been a creature like this in the fantasy genre.” And while the Sylvari do combine elements of fantasy creatures in a unique new way, they owe strong debts to folklore, some that are obvious, such as those to elves and dryads, and some that are slightly more obscure.

The Green Man is one such image; he is neither plant nor man, but something in between. Typically a Green Man is a carved or etched image of a man’s face shaped out of leaves. As with many images from medieval and pre-medieval folklore, the Green Man is an enigmatic figure, although he is widely believed to represent the rejuvenation—and even resurrection—inherent in the cyclical nature of the seasons.

Although a Green Man is usually just a face in architecture, fantasy writers and folklorists have imagined figures with entire humanoid bodies made up of living plant material long before the Sylvari. J. R. R. Tolkien’s ents likely drew some inspiration from the Green Man; Robert Jordan in his Wheel of Time series invented a race called the Nym—a giant race of humanoid plants with a magical affinity to nature and growing things. Modern advertising has even leveraged the Green Man imagery in the form of the Green Giant, the mascot for a brand of frozen and canned vegetables.

Even in most fantasy stories, however, the Green Man is a solitary male figure shrouded in mystery. In fact, all the legendary creatures that seem to have inspired the creation of the Sylvari are deeply mysterious in folklore, operating only at the edge of human perception, and many storytellers have taken up this aspect of such creatures in their reinterpretations of them. The developers of Guild Wars 2, have taken a new and different approach in allowing the Sylvari to be revealed in great detail to the players.

By allowing a player to actually choose the Sylvari as his or her own character the game designers of Guild Wars 2 are inviting an intimate level of scrutiny for this race in terms of culture, temperament, abilities—both magical and otherwise—and even, perhaps especially, anatomy—how their bodies are built of leaves, bark, and vines that form what the game designers call an “illusion” of human features. Guild Wars 2 promises to strike a balance between scientific detail and mysticism that will hopefully satisfy both the curious and the fanciful minded observer.