Chasing Death

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
you. Charles Bukowski, “Bluebird”

Book Valkyrie introduces the mighty Odin from within his own domain: an ambitious ruler hungry for power and military gain, with little regard for anything else, least of all family and sentimentality — even as his daughters hold out hope that their devotion will one day touch his heart. Gwendolyn’s conflicting self-image that roots in the relationship to her father colours the entirety of her story arc as it determines the actions she takes, while also setting the mood and themes for the books that follow.

Sister Dearest

With her display of the spear’s might for the king, Princess Griselda boldly won the right to lead the charge of the Valkyries.

For we who have spent so long in the shadows of the men, she is the lodestar that guides us through the night. Text: Memorandum of a Valkyrie of the Ragnanival army

Griselda is Gwendolyn’s only family member aside from Odin, their mother having passed away before the start of the story and only ever being mentioned fleetingly. As Ragnanival’s first princess and leader of the sole female unit in the Aesir forces, Griselda is hailed as the “champion of the Valkyries”, admired and adored by all who follow her command.

What is known about Griselda, however, is only imparted to the player through secondhand accounts, for Griselda passes away during the early stages of the Cauldron War in the very first scene of Book Valkyrie.

Griselda: It’s so… quiet now… The sound of battle seems so far away… It seems I cannot follow my king into the final battle.
Gwendolyn: No… Don’t give up…
Griselda: Gwendolyn, please take this. I have no use for it now. This spear has slain many foes, making a mountain of corpses… The king— Father will undoubtedly praise my actions.
Gwendolyn: I’m sure he will…
Griselda: …Do I see tears in your eyes? You’re too kind, Sister… Please, do not cry… Your older sister will leave the world as a great warrior. Valkyrie: Prelude, Act 1. Storming Battlefields

In her final moments, Griselda entrusts Gwendolyn with the Psypher Spear: an instrument of death used to further Odin’s victories, and symbol of her devotion to his ambitions. Although this last conversation between sisters is deeply private and touching, the last thoughts that govern Griselda’s mind all concern her father — more precisely, her expectations of his reaction to her own death.

While it can’t be stated with full certainty what the relationship between Odin and Griselda was like and whether Griselda’s feelings on it mirror Gwendolyn’s, these last words of hers imply that she, too, suffers from her father’s emotional distance: Rather than speaking of Odin as her father when she is at her most vulnerable, she thinks of him as her king first and foremost; rather than mourning her own death and the separation from her family members, she rejoices and takes comfort in the thought that her military achievements will be of use to him, earning her his acknowledgement in death. In her final moments, Griselda thus defines herself as a soldier, not as a daughter.

Gwendolyn’s relationship with Griselda is not presented as a rivalry for Odin’s affection, but as one of sympathy: When Gwendolyn personally reports to Odin following the Aesir’s crushing defeat in the first battle of the Cauldron War, she emphasizes how bravely Griselda fought for him to the very end, and offers him Griselda’s spear. Odin takes brief note of his daughter’s death, remarking that “she was the most gallant and noble of all [his] warriors”, then proceeds to explain the spear’s properties to Gwendolyn and orders another assault to be launched on the enemy forces. Shocked at his nonchalant demeanour, Gwendolyn drops her soldier front to give voice to her own feelings:

Gwendolyn: Father… Is that all you have to say about Griselda!?
Odin: Words will not bring your sister back.
Gwendolyn:
Odin: ‘Tis no time for sentimentality. Valkyrie: Prelude, Act 3. Demon Lord’s Throne

In speaking up for Griselda, Gwendolyn might also be speaking up for herself, seeing how she is soon to follow in her sister’s footsteps, and equally having been unable to win her father’s affections up to that point. After all, if Griselda’s accomplishments and death fail to elicit any emotional reaction from Odin, how would it be any different in Gwendolyn’s case, who is already lagging behind her sister?

My Father, My King

There’s a scene from a later book that is set before the start of the Cauldron War, wherein Gwendolyn dons her late mother’s dress, hoping to surprise her father. Instead of recognizing it, however, Odin chastizes her for being concerned with her image as the king’s daughter, saying that she should strive to follow Griselda’s example, before turning back to his duties.

Odin is written as a single-minded and pragmatic leader for the majority of the game. His feelings for Griselda and Gwendolyn are ambiguous as it’s unclear whether he truly doesn’t have much love for them, whether he fails to recognize their need for his acknowledgement and love, thus failing at expressing himself adequately in emotional matters, or whether he has steeled himself in that regard so as to play the part of the immovable sovereign. What is evident is that his two daughters come second to his ambitions and position, something that only becomes more blatant as the story advances.

What Gwendolyn can infer from Odin’s words and actions (or lack thereof) is that her father is not capable of loving her as a person, much less as a daughter, and only by proving her worth as a soldier on the battlefield can she earn his love, or, at the very least, his recognition — any sign that shows her that he acknowledges her in some way, anything to let her feel special to him in some way.

When Griselda falls in battle, it isn’t just her position as the Valkyrie Commander and the Psypher Spear that are passed on to her sister: Gwendolyn also bears the weight of the Valkyries’ expectations, though the trust and admiration Griselda received from her followers don’t necessarily extend to the second princess, especially as it seems that Gwendolyn is rather new to service.

Beyond that, Griselda’s parting must also have sent mixed signals to her sister: Firstly, in entrusting Gwendolyn with the spear, Griselda hands her a tool to define herself through her merits on the battlefield, which only reaffirms Gwendolyn’s mentality that she needs to have purpose in order to be loved. Secondly, Griselda’s last words (whether she truly believes them or whether she’s merely attempting to comfort herself) seem to have left a deep impression on her sister: The idea of a meaningful death on the battlefield is glorified — not just as part of a Valkyries’ pride, but also because giving one’s life is the one way to gain Odin’s praise.

Thirdly, to echo what has already been stated further above, by reporting Griselda’s death to Odin, Gwendolyn witnesses his lack of meaningful reaction firsthand: If not even the death of his own daughter, an accomplished warrior and asset to the army, is able to move Odin, perhaps nothing will — and perhaps that ought to be Gwendolyn’s cue to stop expecting anything of her father, to stop living her life according to false hope.

All that said, Griselda’s passing of the spear — a destructive tool that disrupts the natural order of things — seems symbolic of passing on all those conflicting feelings and that warped definition of love, as Gwendolyn is left to find the answer she seeks on her own.

Be Still, Treacherous Heart

Following her sister’s passing, Gwendolyn thus throws herself into battle, going as far as abandoning reason in order to find the glorious death she’s after. Her first words after Griselda stops breathing say it all:

Griselda… I won’t let you be alone for long. I shall be by your side soon enough. Valkyrie: Prelude, Act 1. Storming Battlefields

The earliest notable instance of this is when the Aesir suffer heavy losses against the Vanir in the first battle and ought to retreat due to the overwhelming enemy forces, among them the infamous Shadow Knight: Oswald, one of the game’s protagonists. Upon running into the Shadow Knight, however, Gwendolyn engages him head-on, dismissing the warnings. When Oswald pins her down, but hesitates to take her life, Gwendolyn provokes him by outright asking him to kill her. Though he lets her go and the battle is lost due to the lack of leader, Gwendolyn stubbornly storms back into the fray. What Gwendolyn displays is neither valour nor loyalty, but merely her own death wish.

Shortly after Odin’s perfunctory acknowledgement of Griselda’s fate, Gwendolyn’s inner conflict manifests itself in the form of a blue bird. Visible to her eyes only, it speaks the thoughts that she tries so hard to suppress, taunting her by laying bare her innermost feelings behind her hardened front and calling her out on her delusional hopes.

Bird: So you’re going to battle in order to win your father’s love…
Gwendolyn: That’s not true. I’m fighting for my kingdom and my own pride. I may fall in battle, but that is a fate all our countrymen face.
Bird: …Don’t try to hide the truth from me. You seek death, so that you may earn the love you so desperately seek…
Gwendolyn: Quiet!
Bird: I am but a phantom. I represent your innermost thoughts. ‘I am pathetic. I've never been loved since the day I was born.’ Giving your life for your father will not make your death worthwhile. You will simply die, like Griselda died.
Gwendolyn: Stop it… If I sacrifice myself for my duty, Father will surely show his love for me. Surely… Valkyrie: Chapter 1, Act 2. Demon Lord’s Castle

This phantom blue bird makes multiple appearances throughout Gwendolyn’s story, always in moments where Gwendolyn doubts herself the most as she is faced with important choices, struggling with her contradictory desires. The contrast between Gwendolyn’s proclamations and the bird’s utterings is highly interesting, as Gwendolyn presents herself as confident, steadfast, loyal and devoted, not to mention self-sacrificing, while in truth she is deeply insecure, second-guessing herself more often than not. The bird speaks the ugly truths about herself that Gwendolyn cannot, particularly how desperate she is for her father’s love and how calculating she is about earning it, for openly admitting to it would mean showing weakness — behaviour not befitting a soldier, let alone a daughter of Odin’s.

Though Gwendolyn first meets the bird with hostility, striking at it with her spear in an attempt to silence it, in time, the bird’s words don’t necessarily come across as mockery, but as a second — and much more honest — opinion on the state of things: a kind of guide born from Gwendolyn’s subconscious.

Fittingly, Odin Sphere’s attention to detail shows itself in one of Gwendolyn’s numerous idle animations (in video games, an idle animation is something that occurs when the character controlled hasn’t moved or acted for a short while): When Gwendolyn stands still, the blue bird flutters by to keep her company.