Three Houses' Edelgard is the antagonist that defined a new generation of Fire Emblem

Four years ago, Nintendo released Fire Emblem: Three Houses, a new generation of Fire Emblem that would go on to become the single best-selling strategy RPG of all-time at over 3.4 million copies sold as of this writing. Many who played this game found an intricate world filled with compelling characters to fall in love with. However, not all fans found the cast of characters so lovable. 
In fact, one character in particular drove a divide in the fanbase that Three Houses players still discuss to this day. If you played Three Houses and engaged in even just light discussion around it, you likely already know exactly who I'm talking about. That character, of course, is the leader of the Black Eagles house, Edelgard von Hresvelg. 

Now, I might be slightly biased. In fact, any Three Houses player will be slightly, perhaps more sympathetic to whichever house route you played first. For me, that was Edelgard - and I’m here to talk about why I consider Edelgard to be one of my favorite Fire Emblem characters in history, and one of my favorite antagonists in all of gaming.

This article will contain spoilers for Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and is intended for those who have played it already.

Up until the midpoint of Fire Emblem Three Houses, it would be natural to assume Edelgard is a normal student at the Officers' Academy like everyone else there. However, underneath her cool exterior is a girl that is preparing to shift the continent. The reveal of Edelgard as the enigmatic Flame Emperor, one of the main belligerents in the first half of the game, was a shock to many who reached that point.  Edelgard's ascension to power by taking the reins of the mighty Adrestian Empire sets the stage for the second phase of the game: a war that engulfs the entirety of the continent of Fodlan.

Fire Emblem Three Houses has a slight problem with the way its overall story is structured. In order to truly get the full story and context for a lot of characters' motivations, it necessitates multiple playthroughs of the game with the different routes contained within the game. Unless you're truly dedicated to this game, the chances of some people knowing the full story is rather low unless they go out of their way to research it. Anyone who just plays one route won't understand the motivations of all three house leaders since they don't get the opportunity to know them. 

Since Edelgard is the villain in three out of the four routes in the game, it's easy to paint her as this evil conqueror who declares war on the other nations out of the blue for the sake of her own ambitions. However, she has solid and, dare I say noble reasons for her declaration of war. Let's talk about Edelgard's past, and what influenced her to make this decision.

Edelgard is more than just a cover star, house head, or teatime partner.

To start off with, Edelgard wasn't even the first in line for the throne of the Adrestian Empire. She was the ninth child of the current emperor, and the fourth daughter. In the Blue Lions route, you learn that Edelgard and Dimitri are step-siblings through Edelgard's mother. After Edelgard Dimitri parted ways when Edelgard returned to the Adrestian Empire, she was kidnapped along with all of her siblings by the Agarthans, otherwise known as Those Who Slither in the Dark (TWSitD). The Agarthans were interested in experiments to create Crests artificially, and so they performed them on Edelgard and her siblings. After the experiments were over, Edelgard was the sole survivor as her siblings either died or were driven mad. The experiment was successful, as Edelgard possessed two Crests: the Crest of Seiros and the Crest of Flames (the Fire Emblem).

Golden Deer players likely know that Lysithea also has two Crests. This is due to the fact that Lysithea was also subjected to the same experiments by TWSitD, which led to her two Crests. Lysithea also makes it well-known that she doesn't have long to live, as possessing two Crests greatly shortens one's lifespan.

Edelgard is in the same position as Lysithea; she is also faced with a shortened lifespan and she knows that she has to act quickly if she wants to accomplish her goals before she dies. While not explicitly stated by her, I imagine that is one of her driving forces to quickly force Fodlan into submission. However, to do this, she has to take down the Church of Seiros, who has allowed Crest-bearers to rule over most of the continent. Her objective is to achieve social change, and remove the barrier between the commoners and the nobility. She plans to create a meritocracy, where people are raised to positions of power through effort and skill, as opposed to being born into high ranks. 

Despite knowing the reforms she would be implementing will draw the ire of the continent, she believes it is the path forward for many commoners to break free from the corrupt nobility. To achieve her goal, she seeks the removal of Rhea, the archbishop of the Church of Seiros, which has a stranglehold over the nobility of the three countries of Fodlan. The nobility of Fodlan gained most of their power through association with the Church of Seiros. By declaring open hostility against the Church, Edelgard will effectively declare war on the Kingdom of Faerghus and the Leicester Alliance since their rulers are more likely to side with their nobility to keep their countries stable. 

What drew me to Edelgard was how different she was compared to most Fire Emblem antagonists, especially out of the games released in the past ten years. While you get to know her a lot better than most of the other Fire Emblem antagonists, it was a breath of fresh air to see a villain fighting for more than conquest for the sake of conquest. Edelgard is treated as the villain because of her desire to start a war to change the continent rather than allowing it to stagnate because the nobility wishes to keep it that way. 

The morality of the conflicts in recent Fire Emblem games were very black and white. One side are clearly the good guys, which is you as the player, and one side are obviously the bad guys. While it's easy to rally behind the cause of the faction you play as, not everything is cut and dry as that in war. One of the main themes of Three Houses are the morally grey actions of the majority of its characters, especially the house leaders. Depending on your point of view, and your own personal experiences, who is "right" or "wrong" in this game is entirely up to interpretation. Do you think that a corrupt system that raises up those born with a particular bloodline should continue to avoid war, or are you willing to challenge the corrupt system and change it, even if it means throwing people's lives into chaos? 

Edelgard is the latter, and her past trauma has driven her to this mindset that something must be done to change the social system that the continent has fallen into. She is an extremely driven character but for those who don't know her, her calculating and standoffish nature can make her seem like a cold-blooded conqueror who is just seeking power. However, there is a complex character underneath her cool demeanor. However, players who haven't played the Black Eagles route can get a sense of who Edelgard truly is. The answer lies in the theme song of Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

The theme song for Fire Emblem: Three Houses is called The Edge of Dawn (with the alternate version being Seasons of Warfare) which is the song that plays during the opening of the game. The full version also plays during the ending credits on three of the four routes of the game. The only one it does not play on is Crimson Flower, the route where you side with Edelgard.


Why is that you may ask? If you listen to the lyrics of the song, the opening verses might sound a bit familiar if you know the context. If you made it to the second half of the game, who is the character that these lyrics best describe? Who hides behind a mask and claims to have a "blackened heart, scorched by flames"? The Flame Emperor herself, Edelgard. In case you thought this song was somehow not meant to be from Edelgard's perspective, the song in Japanese is called "Lady of Hresvelg".

A short summary of the song is that Edelgard is pouring out her feelings for Byleth, and hoping they can stay by her side. However, the main takeaway that I got out of it, is that Edelgard is a deeply conflicted character. She knows what she's doing, but deeply regrets the pain and suffering she is about to inflict on others, especially to the other students of the academy. Perhaps for some people, it may be contradictory for Edelgard to feel bad for the pain and suffering she will inflict on others in a war that she started. 

In the second verse of the song, you can get a sense of her desire to live out her days normally like everyone else there. Since she had such a traumatic childhood, she often longs for the simple things in life. However, her desire to change the continent cannot wait for long due to her shortened lifespan. To enact the change she needs, the removal of Rhea and the dismantling of the Church is key.

One of the strongest examples for my love of Edelgard comes from her relationship with the protagonist of Three Houses, Byleth. Out of the three lords, Byleth has the most impact on Edelgard, in my opinion. Claude keeps everyone, including Byleth, at arm's length at all times, Dimitri is spurred on by all of his friends including Byleth to break out of his depression, while Edelgard sees Byleth as an equal and someone she can confide her emotions to. 

Her admiration and trust in Byleth could be interpreted as feelings of deep love. Some of the cutscenes and images that are burned into my mind when I think about Edelgard are: the reunion at Garreg Mach shortly after Byleth's awakening in Crimson Flower, the look of utter devastation when she thinks Byleth dies at the end of the game and the relief that spreads across her face when she realises they're alive, and even her resignation of her death at Byleth's hands in Silver Snow and Verdant Wind. These character moments with Byleth really emphasize their dynamic together, and it's easily one of the highlights of Crimson Flower.

Edelgard is also a staunch supporter of those she can call her friends. Her cool exterior keeps people away but at heart, Edelgard is a kind person who is always thinking about others. If you listen to her support conversations with some of the other characters from her house like Dorothea and Bernadetta, Edelgard becomes an icon for those two. Dorothea and Bernadetta come to idolize Edelgard for her strength, and they try to break through Edelgard's walls to become her friend. Edelgard returns their gestures, and helps give them advice to boost their confidence. 

One of my personal favorite support conversations are the ones she has with Lysithea. As I mentioned earlier, Lysithea and Edelgard are products of the same gruesome experiments performed by TWSitD. The two kindred spirits take solace in each other, with Lysithea pledging herself to Edelgard's goal. Lysithea is the only character in Crimson Flower that can be recruited outside of the first half of the game, precisely because of this relationship.

That's not to say Edelgard doesn't have her flaws. Playing a little devil's advocate here, she is by no means a great human being. She's a controversial figure for a reason. Her shortened lifespan has driven her to act more on logic than emotion, and she is a firm believer of the ends justifying the means. That is part of the reason she teams up with TWSitD, and allows them to move about as they please. Even in Three Hopes when she opposes them, most of her actions are still driven by practicality. In Three Hopes, Edelgard has a support conversation with Monica, where Edelgard confirms to Monica that she was willing to leave Monica for dead because she didn't want to stand in the way of TWSitD since Edelgard needed them. Only through Three Hopes' circumstances does Monica survive. By teaming up with TWSitD, it's easy to mark her as a villain by association. 

Creating a great villain or antagonist that can win the hearts of many is quite the accomplishment, but Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo have managed it. Edelgard is perhaps the most morally gray character in all of Three Houses/Three Hopes. 

She isn't some kind of devilspawn that some people would have you believe, but a complex character that is looking to enact change by force. She knows her revolutionary ideals will thrust the continent into war, but she truly believes that her war is justified. She wants to create a world where people aren't manipulated or taken advantage of because of an arbitrary birth trait. She has seen far too much suffering from such a young age, and one can easily understand the reasons that drive her forward. She wants to make sure that others don't go through what she did. 

She is cold and warm, calculating and considerate, logical yet empathetic of others' emotions. Above all, Edelgard is an extremely well-written character, one of the franchise's best antagonists, and one of my personal favorite characters in the entire series.