DkS 2 – Strowen : “You're finished. You'll go Hollow. Yes, you will become one of them. Hollows prey upon men, feast upon their souls. This is the fate of the cursed. Heh heh heh…”
DkS 3 – Locust Preacher : Fear not, the dark, my friend. And let the feast begin!
II. “Losing you humanity” : the ambiguity of Dark Souls 1
III. “You’ve gone hollow!” : two different reactions
IV. Hollowing is Dark unshackled
Dark Souls, as far as I can see, is a lot about the duality of human nature : humans, in themselves, are savage beasts driven by desires, but they also have reason, morals and civilisation, which keep those desires in check. This is illustrated, I believe, by the Darksign : humans are selfish and greedy creatures of dark, but they are also shackled by a ring of fire imposed by the gods, which gives them their human appearance and dictates their life. Humans must live by the standards of the gods, even though their human nature always aims to break free and go back to savagery. The games, I believe, by the thematic of fire and dark, are a lot about this precise problem : nature vs civilisation, emotion vs reason, despair vs hope, greed and destruction vs purpose and fulfilment, etc.
So what, then, is hollowing? What does it represent? Is it linked with fire and dark, or is it something else completely? Does it mean, like some elements would suggest, that because of the Darksign, humans will over time be drained of their dark soul, becoming empty husk devoid of any kind of soul?
Mostly because of the main theme of the games (fire and dark), I’ve always had problems with this theory, which doesn’t seem to fit at all. It is, however, shared by many and, even though many evidences seem to contradict it, there is a very good defense for it. Since it might actually be true, I’ve decided to start from scratch and examine all the evidence I could find on the subject. You might not agree with my interpretation, but hopefully, by the end of this post, we’ll all have a better understanding of what hollowing actually means in Dark Souls.
II. “Losing you humanity” : the ambiguity of Dark Souls 1
In Dark Souls, as we all know, you are either in human form or in hollow form. There is also an item called “humanity”, which is presumably a fragment of the dark soul and can be used to “restore your humanity” upon death. So it seems pretty simple : when you die, you lose your dark soul little by little until you’re completely hollow, but you can reverse the process by consuming the humanity of others.
And yet, things are more complicated than that and what is actually happening in Dark Souls 1 is way too vague to draw any solid conclusion. What does it mean, first of all, to “restore your humanity”? Does it mean restoring your “dark soul”? Maybe, but how? Was it in a different state than usual, or was it actually leaving the body? The latter could be true, especially if we were actually consuming humanity to restore hollowing, but that’s not exactly what we do in Dark Souls 1 :
DkS 1 – Rite of Kindling : This secret rite allows bonfires to be bolstered further with Kindling, so that even more Estus can be collected. Kindling was a sacred rite passed down among clerics, but all Undead can imitate the process in the same manner that they restore their Hollowing with humanity.
Undead can restore their hollowing by imitating the process of Kindling : they do not simply consume humanity, but rather use it in a strange ritual, probably to kindle something. To kindle what? The bonfire? Some kind of inner fire, the seal of fire of the Darksign? I don’t know, but I think we can all agree that all of this is pretty vague.
And things get even more confusing when you consider Dark Souls 2 and 3, where the humanity item isn’t even used to restore hollowing. In Dark Souls 2, you regain human form by remembering who you are through a human effigy of yourself, while in Dark Souls 3, you do it by using a purging stone, which “reduces undead curse build-up and cures hollowing”. Dark Souls 3 is actually pretty interesting, because it tells us two things : the curse of the Undead isn’t just about losing a part of yourself, it’s also something tangible that can spread and be accumulated, and that something is the dark of humanity :
DkS 3 – Dark Sigil : A black gaping hole in the flesh that resembles the brand of an Undead. The darkness of humanity seeps from this bottomless pitch-back hole, the gap filled by the accumulation of the curse. This Dark Sigil will never heal, but there is a tale told of a Fire Keeper who returned from the Abyss, and brought great comfort to a bearer of the curse.
The above description pretty much tells us that the sigil is the curse and that it will never heal, and also that the darkness of humanity seeps from it, just like the “blood of the dark soul seeped from the hole within Slave Knight Gael”. This seems to indicate that hollowing isn’t about losing your dark soul : on the contrary, it seems to be about the spreading of the darkness of humanity, a spreading that causes you to lose yourself and your sanity.
III. “You’ve gone hollow!” : two different reactions
DkS 1 – Darksign : The Darksign signifies an accursed Undead. Those branded with it are reborn after death, but will one day lose their mind and go hollow.
DkS 2 – Darksign : "An accursed mark. The Darksign induces death, returning the player to the last bonfire rested at, at the cost of all souls held. Do what you must to gather the pieces, scraping them into some semblance of a whole, before the will to do so fades."
DkS 3 – Darksign : The Darksign is the sign of an accursed Undead. Carriers of the Darksign are reborn after death, and eventually lose their minds, turn Hollow.
In all three games, hollowing is about losing your mind, your “self”, your sense of “whole”, and never explicitly about losing your dark soul. Most human NPCs, indeed, will think that you’ve lost your mind as soon as you attack them, because that’s what a hollow does :
DkS 1 – Rickert of Vinheim : “Hrm? Well, this is unusual. You haven't lost your head ”. When Killed : ”No…impossible… Why didn't I see? …You've gone Hollow…”
DkS 1 – Andre of Astora : When attacked and made hostile : “Well, you've got some nerve! Coming at me like that! I'll tear you to shreds! You bloody Hollow!”
DkS 1 – Big Hat Logan : “Mm, you seem quite lucid! A rare thing in these times.”
DkS 1 – Griggs of Vinheim : When attacked without made hostile : “In the name of sanity!”; “Cease! Have you gone mad?” When attacked and made hostile : “Curses, you leave me no choice! You aren't yourself any more. Forgive me! ”
DkS 1 – Petrus of Thorolund : When attacked after his confession : “What is it, fool? Driven to madness by emotion? So be it. You'll make a fine Hollow!”
DkS 1 – Quelaana of Izalith : “Now, go. Whatever you do, do not crack and go Hollow. Lest my time spent on you be wasted.” “Now, go. Don't you dare let yourself go hollow.”
DkS 1 – Rhea of Thorolund : “You're no Hollow, are you? Thank goodness. Please be careful. There are two fierce Hollows not far from here. They were once brave knights… my former escorts. Who would let such strong spirits be Hollowed so? Heavens… Is there nothing… Nothing at all to be done?”
DkS 1 – Undead Merchant Female : “Tell me honestly…You think I've gone to the other side, don't you? That I've cracked my head and gone Hollow…You do, don't you? I can see it in your eyes. You'd trust a patch of moss over me…
DkS 1 – Undead Merchant Male : Attacked and made hostile : “You've gone mad, have you!? “I'll teach you! You lousy rat! Yulia! Yulia!”
DkS 2 – Saulden the Crestfallen Warrior : When attacked :”What on earth are you doing! Have you come unhinged?” Re-encounter after defeat : “Still flirting with madness?”
DkS 2 – Lucatiel of Mirrah : “Have you heard of the Undead? These poor souls affected by the curse. An Undead gradually loses his humanity, until his wits degrade completely. Finally, he turns Hollow, and preys upon others. And a Hollow can never be human again.” “I've found my thoughts growing hazy. My memories are fading, oldest first. The curse is doing its work upon me. I am frightened…Terribly so…If everything should fade…What will be left of me… “Loss frightens me no end. Loss of memory, loss of self.”
Hollowing, and Lucatiel is pretty clear about this, does mean losing your humanity, but what this actually seems to be referring to is the self and the mind, not the dark soul, which is never even mentioned. This tells us several things. First of all, that for the humans of dark soul, even though it is their “true” form (more on that later), hollows are viewed as “inhumans”. Humans see themselves as beautiful, civilised and rational people, certainly not as deprived and mindless beasts. For better or for worse, they have embraced the shackle of the gods, their illusionary and “fleeting” form (to quote Aldia) granted by it. To look and behave like a hollow, for them, is not human.
Only for them, though. If you attack any other NPC than a human, in Dark Souls, they do not call you hollow or mindless : they simply accuse you of being human :
DkS 1 – Hawkeye Gough : When attacked and made hostile : “Ahh, so this is true human nature. Artorias is in your debt, but thou leavest me little choice…May you perish, for the good of all!” When killed : “Humans…hmph…”
DkS 1 – Lord's Blade Ciaran : When attacked and made hostile : “Hmph, you human…always taking what you please. Then, I shall do the same.”
DkS 2 – Weaponsmith Ornifex : When killed : “You humans are all alike…”
DkS 2 – Grave Warden Agdayne : When attacked and aggroed :”Crude human, know your place!”
DkS 2 – The Rat King : When attacked and aggroed : “I will destroy thee, filthy human!”
If mindlessly attacking people and behaving like a hollow is seen as “inhuman” by mankind, other species see it as all too human. Most will trust you, but also seem to know better when made hostile : you’re human, after all, such behaviour should be expected. Others, like the rat king, show outright contempt and disdain for humanity : being randomly attacked by a greedy human isn’t surprising at all, because such is human nature :
DkS 2 – The Rat King : “Leave this place, human. We have no time for thy kind. Humans bring nothing but filth.” “I know thy kind, base plotters and schemers all.” “Long ago, I struck an accord with a human chieftain. 'Twas agreed, Humans would rule the lands lapped by the sun's rays, and rats, all that was below. But humans are liars all, schemers and cheats.” “ Humans are creatures of greed. The time came they broke their word, and hunted us down. I had their word the underworld was ours to rule, untouched as it is, by the rays of the sun. The more humans coveted, the more blinded they became as to what truly mattered. And that is why I pity the fools called humans.”
These two points of view can be explained, I believe, again by the duality of the darksign. Sealed by a ring of fire, the darkness of humanity is normally contained and humans behave normally, with purpose : they build towns, they have knights, schools of magic, etc. They behave rationally and act civilised : they don’t randomly attack people on sight, for instance. That’s how humans usually are, and that’s how they view themselves. But when the fire fades and the shackle of the gods loosen, the dark nature of humanity starts to manifest itself again and hollows appear. Humans may see them as inhumans, but other species know the truth : dark is the true nature of men. There is, indeed, a third reaction when you attack a NPC in Dark Souls : when they do not accuse you of being human, they say you have succumbed to dark :
DkS 1 – Dark Sun Gwyndolin : When killed : “O Heretic, swathed in Dark…An eternal curse upon thee…”
DkS 2 – Felkin the Outcast : “This land…lies closest to the Dark… Th-that is…that is why I came here. This kingdom…collapsed long ago. All that are left… Are either Undead or Hollow… Save a few misfits like myself…hah hah.” When attacked and aggroed : “You've let Dark…take control…”
IV. Hollowing is Dark unshackled
DkS 3 – Holy Knight Hodrick : “Well, what's happened here? This pit is for Hollows, not for the likes of you sane folk. Or perhaps you are a Hollow, posing as otherwise?” “Beware, the shackles of the Gods are fragile. You might need this. Etch it on your heart if you feel your sanity slipping.”
DkS 2 – Vendrick : “Drangleic will fall, the fire will fade, and the souls of old will reemerge. With Dark unshackled, a curse will be upon us… And men will take their true shape…”
These two quotes, I believe, tell us everything we need to know about hollowing : with the fading of fire, the shackles of the god are fragilized, dark is free to spread (it is “unshackled”) and humans become hollow and insane. Hollowing, therefore, does not mean that you lose your dark soul : on the contrary, it means that the darkness of humanity is let free. A hollow is a being that is one with the dark and is the true form of man. This is actually something that Vendrick says twice, along with Yuria of Londor :
DkS 2 – Vendrick : “One day, fire will fade, and Dark will become a curse. Men will be free from death, left to wander eternally. Dark will again be ours, and in our true shape…”
DkS 3 – Yuria of Londor : “The Age of Fire was founded by the old gods, sustained by the linking of the fire. But the old gods are no more, and the all-powerful fire deserveth a new heir. Our Lord of Hollows, it shall be, who weareth the true face of mankind.” “Ahh, our Lord and Liege. Thine heart is fix'd upon the linking of the fire. But brave usurper, I prithee, wrest the flame from its mantle. So that we Hollows, in most honest shape of man, may have it for our own."
This couldn’t be any clearer : hollow is the most honest shape of man, and in that state, dark is his. This actually explains a lot, notably all the similarities between the dark and hollows :
- The agglomeration of veins near the hearts of hollows that very closely resembles the soul of a Fire Keeper, a soul mostly made of humanity (Dark).
- The pus of man, a manifestation of the Abyss within the bodies of hollows.
- The fact that “They”, who came from the Dark, all look like hollows.
- The fact that the furtive pygmy and the pygmy lords all look like hollows.
- The thirst for souls and power that characterises both hollows and beings of dark :
DkS 2 – Scythe of Want : The old one of the Abyss was reborn in death, split into minuscule fragments, and spread across the land. After regaining their shapes, they crawled forth, yearning for strong souls, in search of greater power
DkS 2 – Dark pyromancy flame : The flame rewards those with a thirst of power. The more Hollowed one is, the stronger its effect.
- The fact that equipment made from hollows is “imbued with the power of dark” :
DKS 2 – Bone King Set : "Skeleton lord Helmet/Armor/Gauntlets/Boots.High dark defense." "The very men who were ordered to hunt down the Undead were themselves hollowed, and founded a kingdom of bone."
DKS 2 – Roaring Halberd : Halberd forged from the soul of a Skeleton Lord. Imbued with the power of dark. The unsettling skull carved into this halberd recalls the final moments of the Skeleton Lord from whom it was created.
So there it is : hollowing, in the series, is intrinsically tied with the fading of the flame and the spreading of the dark soul. When civilisation, moral and reason start to fade, when man is overcome by emotion (“What is it, fool? Driven to madness by emotion?” – Petrus of Thorolund, DkS 1), by greed (“Vince and Nico were fooled by a lout named Patches, and turned into Hollows.” – Rhea of Thorolund, DkS 1. ; “If one's shackles are cause for discontent, perhaps it is time for some good old fashioned greed ” -Covetous Gold Serpent Ring, DkS 3) or despair (“You won't stand a chance. You'll be eaten alive. But, go along, if you wish. If only to deepen your despair!” – Cresfallen Merchant, DkS 1 ; “An old fable in Londor claims that the lure of the clutch ring reaches out to the crestfallen, who might otherwise be overcome by despair” – Magic Clutch Ring, DkS 3), his primal nature reemerges and he becomes a selfish, mindless beast driven by desires. Hollowing is about giving up, cracking and letting yourself go : when your goals seem unreachable or stop to have any meaning, when you feel unfulfilled, insignificant and empty (“hollow”), you might as well just give in to greed and insanity.
Question is, is that a desirable state?