Paths of the Eldar
In this White Dwarf article, Games Workshop legend, Jes Goodwin, takes a very close look at the origins one of Warhammer 40,000’s most iconic and popular alien races – the fey and mercurial Craftworld Eldar.
Essex-born Jes Goodwin has had a long and distinguished career with Games Workshop as an artist, designer and sculptor, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a range or race he hasn’t had a hand in at some point down the years. Amongst these, Jes has long been associated with the Eldar, from the early days of lead troopers, right up to the present day’s titanic plastic war-engines.
Ancient, technologically puissant and immeasurably arrogant, the Eldar are the remnants of a great and powerful empire that once bestrode the galaxy like living gods. Through their decadence and hubris they wrought the Chaos God Slaanesh, whose birth-screams ripped the very heart out of their empire, and left the survivors scattered, each reacting in their own way to try and survive in a hostile universe. Some fled deep into the webway port-cities, and in time would become the Dark Eldar. Some fled to the maiden worlds and led a hard life shorn of comforts and distractions and became the Exodites. Finally, many fled the impending cataclysm aboard vast space-arks known as Craftworlds, and became, appropriately enough, the Craftworld Eldar.
The Eldar are one of the cornerstones of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and one of its most enduringly popular races, whether they are the original Craftworld Eldar, their twisted Commorrite kin, or the capering Harlequins. Although, as we would discover when delving through the Games Workshop archives, the Eldar race in Warhammer 40,000 didn’t begin aboard the Craftworlds…
Raiders, Corsairs and Rogues
The Eldar, like much of Warhammer 40,000, trace their design history back to the first edition of the game, Rogue Trader. From this venerable tome the ancestry of much of Warhammer 40,000 as we know it can be glimpsed, albeit through the lens of 30 years and many a revision. Much in the way that Orks were originally Space Orcs, Eldar were originally Space Elves.
The very first model that could be construed as Eldar, the Dark Elf Space Trooper, appeared in the White Dwarf of March 1987 as part of a selection of Warhammer 40,000 models that were released as a taste of things to come. “The very first Space Elf model was a bloke in a chainmail catsuit with a hoover,” laughed Jes Goodwin, alluding to the first model’s rather strange and elaborate firearm, when we asked him about the design history of the Eldar race. Jes is certainly the man to ask, as he has had a hand in the design and development of the Eldar race since the very beginning. Starting with a set of models dubbed RT04, a dozen named Space Elves. “I tried out a combination of different types of armour, using chainmail to denote the mesh armour,” Jes continued, “and played around with a version of power armour shaped to the body. We went slightly punk with the haircuts,” he added, by way of explaining the rather distinct hairstyles of those original models.
The original incarnation of the Eldar lacked many of the trappings of the Eldar of today, with those who interacted with the galaxy at large being mercenaries and rogues, having far more in common with today’s outcast Corsairs or even the debased Dark Eldar. These early Eldar, in time, received an army list in Chapter Approved – The Book of the Astronomican, dubbed Eldritch Raiders, for Eldar Pirates. However, there were the seeds of what would be nestled within, such as references to the Craftworlds and what would, in time, become the webway.
If you’re hungry to learn more about the Eldar, a great place to start is The Eldar – a Warhammer 40,000 omnibus, which includes twelve different stories of the Eldar. It’s a fantastic read for Eldar fans both new and old.
Kiss of the Harlequin
“The Harlequins predate Aspect Warriors,“ Jes Goodwin informed us. “In fact, back in the early days of Rogue Trader, there were more models for Harlequins than Guardians or any other type of Eldar.”
It’s true. The Harlequins first strode onto the Warhammer 40,000 stage in September 1988, making them arguably the first distinct Eldar faction, years ahead of the Craftworlds. The Harlequin troupes as they were are very recognisable to modern fans, with elements such as the Solitaires and the infamous Harlequin’s Kiss represented.
Today, like their Craftworld and Commorrite brethren, the Harlequins are a distinct and separate force, but their equipment and vehicles echo their kin, in part to keep the faction distinctly Eldar, but it could also hint at common ancestors of equipment, ur-weapons and patterns of vehicle from before the fall of the great Eldar Empire.
The Craftworlds have always been alongside the Eldar, even mentioned in the original edition of Warhammer 40,000, dubbed Rogue Trader. Here, they were little more than mysterious world-ships, and it wasn’t until 1990 they were refined into the remains of Eldar civilisation following its destruction by the birth of Slaanesh.
Vast beyond imagining, each was the remnant of an Eldar home world before the Fall of the Eldar Empire, the last home of many flora and fauna now extinct. Each are the heirs to a particular strand of Eldar culture, sovereign and an entity unto itself. Because of this, whilst each Craftworld is broadly in accord with others, there are rivalries and feuds, and it is not unheard of for Craftworlds to go to war with another.
The Coming of the Craftworlds
It was in White Dwarf of July 1990 that the Eldar would undergo a momentous transformation, from space elf brigands into something far more, something distinctly Warhammer 40,000, something unique. It was in that article that so many core concepts and ideas of the Eldar race were brought into being, many of which will be recognisable to fans and hobbyists today. It described the tragic history of the Eldar race, from the fall of the Eldar empire (known amongst the multifarious Eldar factions simply as ‘The Fall’) and its role in the birth of Slaanesh, the Path structure the race embarked upon to counteract such an event happening again, the Warrior Aspects Shrines and their place in the Path structure, the great and terrible Avatar of Khaine that sat at the heart of every Craftworld, the very first description of the Eldar myth cycle and their multifarious pantheon of gods (Although the Laughing God made his appearance alongside his capering subjects in 1988), and even things like Wraithbone. All of these had their start in this fateful article. As Jes Goodwin explained to us as we discussed the evolution of the Eldar, “That all started there, bringing in the Aspect Warriors, and the original Space Elves became the Guardians.” Even the Eldar’s dedicated psyker caste (dedicated as every Eldar is highly psychic), the Warlocks and Farseers, were introduced here. “The Warlocks and Farseers were added as a wizard caste, which is very elven, and appropriate for a older race than humanity,” Jes continued, explaining the seed of the concept.
Indeed, these core fundamentals of the race remain in place after all this time, expanded out in exciting and inspiring ways, but still building on that strong foundation. For example, wraith-constructs and Warrior Aspects have remained true to their original incarnations, but have expanded to encompass a variety of new units, weapons and characters that have been added over 26 years.
The two pieces of art on the right in many ways neatly capture and explain the Eldar in two single images.
The first on the right, by Jes Goodwin and dating back from around the time of the very first Codex Eldar in Warhammer 40,000 Second Edition, neatly encapsulates the Eldar race in a single picture. Contained within is an Aspect Warrior and with him the Path system, the Craftworlds, their wraithbone structures, and even the Eldar pantheon (that statue of Asurmen would show up years later in the Dire Avenger set as an optional piece of base decoration).
The second is by John Blanche, another Games Workshop legend whose influence can be felt across the entire range of products. It is a rare depiction of the Eldar Craftworlds from the outside, showing off the vast worldships, eerie and alien when compared to the hard angles of Imperial vessels.
Aspects of the Path
Every Craftworld Eldar’s life is dictated by the Path structure, which serves as a method of keeping the Eldar in check against the sloth and debauchery that brought about the end of their empire. When on a Path, an Eldar will take upon that role. Throughout their lifetime, an individual can change their Path, so any given Eldar may have walked dozens of Paths, so a meek artist may become a great and terrible warrior, then in turn become a caring healer.
The Warrior Path is an addictive one, and those who done the war-mask of an Aspect shrine risk becoming lost on that Path, becoming an Exarch, one of the high priests of the Eldar god of War, Khaine. Above the Exarchs are the founders of the Aspect Shrines, the six Phoenix Lords of Eldar legend.
From Corsair to Guardians
At a glance, one can see the link between Jes Goodwin’s original RT04 Space Elves and the Eldar Guardians of today, although the Dark Elf Space Trooper’s chainmail catsuit and weaponised vacuum cleaner have been left behind. However, tracing the design from then to now, you can see the evolution from 1987 to the present day as a gradual refinement rather than a leap from one to the other.
Starting with the original RT04 Space Elves, eight of the 12 had the distinct coned helmets that have become as much an Eldar signature as gems and shuriken catapults. They each had mesh undersuits (harking back to the Dark Elf Space Trooper’s chainmail) but over that was body armour that was distinctly of an Eldar style, kin to the modern armour worn by the current Guardians. These Space Elves were still unformed in background, being the rogues and mercenaries as described on page 7, and their equipment shows this, with selections of melta-guns, lascannons and autoguns, even if a few wielded shuriken weapons. Following the fleshing out of the Eldar race in 1990, these models would be re-branded as Guardians, and supplemented in time with models purposely designed as Eldar Guardians, including lasgun-wielding plastic Guardians. “As they were in plastic, there were limitations to the technology at the time,” Jes Goodwin explained when we asked why there was the move from the original mesh armour and undersuits to something more akin to the modern style, “Hence why they don’t wear chainmail any more. This led to the bodysuit, which in design functions a lot like biker leathers, with the armour as part of the suit itself.”
The Guardians would be revised as a multi-part plastic set, all wielding the signature shuriken catapults the Eldar are now famed for. This set, which you can buy today, is the latest stop in a journey of carefully honing and refining a design, true to the original ideas and concepts.
The signature weapon of the Eldar, the Shuriken Catapult was originally intended to be used by anyone in Warhammer 40,000, much like every other weapon in Rogue Trader. Elegant and silent, they were a natural fit for the nascent Eldar, slicing into enemies with storms of monomolecular shards.
Shuriken weapons have a solid core of ammunition rather than a clip like other solid ammunition weapons, and each molecule-thick shuriken is sliced off this block. An Eldar warrior can let off hundreds of these in a heartbeat, reducing a foe to bloody ribbons.
Ghosts in the Machine
Like many races in the past of Warhammer 40,000, Eldar had access to Dreadnoughts and battle robots, although they had a distinctly Eldar twist. They were split into two categories, the towering Spirit-Warriors who were based on the Dreadnought, and the man-sized Ghost-Warriors. Instead of an artificial brain or punch-cards they were driven by the souls of dead Eldar, a concept that would form the basis of the Eldar constructs as the race and the faction began to take on its own distinct identity.
The gemstones on Eldar models have become an integral part of the look of the race, tied to the Fall, the birth of Slaanesh and how they cheat death.
Not all the bumps and lumps on Eldar technology is, in fact, a gemstone though. Some are simply blisters of electronics and hardware, as Jes Goodwin explains: “Every blip on an Eldar model doesn’t have to be painted like a gem – they’re not all gems. If it’s got a setting around it, it’s a gem. If it’s hasn’t, it’s a blip.” But painters who adore a challenge fret not, “It’s not a hard and fast rule.”
As the Eldar’s background began to be fleshed out, one part was the nature of spirit stones, Slaanesh and the Infinity Circuit. Every Craftworld Eldar has a spirit stone that traps their soul upon death, for to vanish into the warp would be to fall into the ravenous maw of Slaanesh, and the eternity of suffering that the Prince of Chaos set aside especially for the Eldar race. Spirit stones are also installed into the Infinity Circuit of a Craftworld, the artificial limbo where the Eldar’s dead reside. From here, in a time of dire need, the Craftworld’s Spiritseers can rouse the dead in warrior-forms of wraithbone, but to do so is regarded as akin to necromancy.
The Ghost-Warriors would in time become the Wraithguard, and the Spirit-Warriors became the mighty Wraithlord. This would later be expanded to include the fierce Wraithblades, the Hemlock Wraithfighter and finally the colossal Wraithknight.
The mighty Wraithknight in turn can also trace its ancestry to the introduction of the original Imperial Knights in White Dwarf of June 1990. Here, they were simply the Eldar equivalent of the clomping Imperial constructs, built with the grace and finesse intrinsic to the Eldar. They were subsequently re-imagined as kin to the wraith-constructs, albeit with the dead pilot aided by their living twin, to create a fighting machine far more deadly and graceful than the wildest dreams of the Adeptus Mechanicus’ arcane science.
Wraithbone is another hallmark of the Eldar race, a, psychoconductive plastic that almost all Craftworld technology incorporates. It is crafted by Bonesingers, who shape it to their whim, from the smallest trinket to the largest Void Stalker battleship. “Vehicle frames are wraithbone,” Jes Goodwin tells us, “The rest is just resins and plastics.”
That being said, the Eldar do make extensive use of it, from the mighty forms of the Wraithlords to the razor-sharp blades of their swords and the ornate frames of their shuriken catapults.
Wild Riders and the Engines of Vaul
The very first Eldar vehicle was the classic Jetbike, released all the way back in October 1988, with its Harlequin variant (with the iconic grotesque canopy which lives on after a fashion atop the Harlequin Skyweaver) hot on its heels the following month. Its distinctive shape would inform the Eldar vehicle design, and would carry on in its plastic descendant, released in 1994, who would in turn serve with distinction in many an Eldar army until the updated Eldar Jetbike in 2015. Even then, the common design hallmarks between the Craftworld Windriders, Dark Eldar Reavers and Harlequin Skyweavers nod toward their shared ancestry.
The Falcon Grav-tank did not appear until 1997, being the first plastic vehicle bigger than a Jetbike or Vyper. In time, the Falcon was followed by the Fire Prism, the Nightspinner and the long-awaited Wave Serpent. “We opted for organic shapes from wasps and things – lethal looking shapes,” Jes Goodwin explained, when he talked to us about the design philosophy behind the Eldar vehicle range. “These guys [the Eldar] would benefit from the sleek curves offset with the sharp angles and axes. Blocky, boxy shapes may say ‘tank’, but also feel too Imperial. How do you keep each range different? That became an abiding thing for us as we expanded the ranges, and how we looked at whole range design rather than individual model design.”
The latest additions to the Eldar armoury are the two flyers, the Hemlock Wraithfighter and the Crimson Hunter. Each represent the distinct strands of Eldar warfare in the 41st Millennium. The former represents the growing use of the Eldar dead, and the latter represents the Eldar Aspect Shrines and the Path of the Warrior, being an Aspect Shrine dedicated entirely to aerial warfare.
Who knows where the Eldar will be in another 30 years?
This article was originally published in White Dwarf magazine – get your subscription today for more great content delivered to your door.
- Black Library
- Latest News & Features
- Warhammer 40,000