The story of Elden Ring is a broad, confusing one–like the Elden Ring itself, it’s fractured, made up of tiny pieces as its different characters serve a variety of masters and enact their own plans. Even as you play it, you might find yourself lost as you interact with other Tarnished and hunt down demigods in an attempt to become Elden Lord. Heck, it’s not even especially clear most of the time what terms like “Elden Lord” and “Elden Ring” even mean.
We’ve been poring through Elden Ring’s lore for weeks now, piecing together its vast and complicated backstory and the motivations of its many characters to get a sense of what’s happening in the game. The story of your Tarnished character is to fight through the world and try to gather Great Runes to become Elden Lord–but that simplified explanation belies the fact that you’re taking part in the war between various political factions and a bunch of nameless gods, all of whom are vying to control the Lands Between. The fate of reality itself in this place hangs in the balance, and if you’re successful in your quest, you can choose how to reshape the world.
There’s a lot of granularity to the story of Elden Ring, but these are the broad strokes of what’s happening: What happened before your arrival, why you’ve come to the Lands Between, what you’re trying to accomplish, and who’s trying to stop you.
More deep dives into Elden Ring’s story:
A story about Death
Like the Dark Souls games and Demon’s Souls, your relationship with dying is at the center of Elden Ring–and actually, it informs a lot of what’s happening in the world. In the Lands Between, a strange place “beyond the fog,” the very structure of reality is dedicated by the will of its gods and demigods. And one of most important things about the Lands Between is that Marika, who is both the land’s goddess and its queen, altered reality to put an end to “Destined Death”–the rule of nature that all things, including the gods and demigods, will pass away.
The gameplay loop of Elden Ring, like the other Soulsborne games, sees you facing tough enemies and often dying while trying to fight them, either because they stand in your way or because you’re trying to gain their power–and often both at the same time. However, because of the actions of Queen Marika and your role as a Tarnished, death is somewhat trivial; you’ll awaken at a nearby Site of Grace or Stake of Marika when you fall in battle. Enemies respawn when you rest at a Site of Grace for the same reason: Death is largely broken in the Lands Between, and most everyone has been alive for a really long time. It’s why you hear the howls at night of the many crucified characters scattered around Limgrave, why so many enemies look like zombie knights, and why a few people seemingly wander around aimlessly or dig at the ground, as if they’ve lost their minds. As in Dark Souls, a lot of people seem like they’ve been alive so long that their wits and intellect have failed them.
When people do die, their souls generally return to the Erdtree, the big golden tree at the center of the world that’s both the primordial source of life and, now, the major component of the Elden Ring and the “Golden Order.” There seems to be some kind of eternal life or resurrection possible through the Erdtree, although it’s not super clear what’s going on there. The fact that souls physically return to the Erdtree, rather than ceasing to exist or being destroyed, is why Elden Ring includes so many ghosts, as well as gameplay elements like Spirit Ash–there are a lot of souls floating around. Returning to the Erdtree is also why you enter so many catacombs dungeons that end with a boss room full of Erdtree roots; the proximity makes it easier for the souls to get where they’re going.
Into this world come the Tarnished, a name for people who were once from the Lands Between but who were exiled long ago, heavily implied to be descendants of Godfrey (ne Hoarah Loux) the first Elden Lord who was expelled from the Lands an age or more ago–though the direct lineage and connections here are never made explicit. After the events that are laid out in Elden Ring’s opening cinematic, the Tarnished who had died in the outside world were beckoned back to the Lands Between to compete to become Elden Lord.
The fight to become Elden Lord, your ostensible goal throughout the game, seems strange at the outset of your journey–a lot of people ask you or tell you that that’s what you’re trying to do, but you basically just wake up in the Lands Between with no idea why you’re there. That’s because the role of “Elden Lord” is extremely powerful and important, with a lot of people and forces hoping to use that role, or whoever earns it, for their own ends. And a lot of those ends have to do with how death works, or doesn’t, within the world. A number of people want to change the role of death in the world of the Lands Between, and they need the power of the Elden Ring and the Elden Lord in order to make that happen.
Marika and the demigods
To understand the whole deal of the Elden Lord, you have to understand how reality in the Lands Between work, and how it is ruled over by Marika and her family, who are both god-like beings and the equivalents of feudal kings, queens, and lords.
First up, there’s the Elden Ring, a magical object that governs the rules of reality in the Lands Between–it’s that gold thing on the title screen when you boot up the game. The ring is made up of Great Runes that seemingly govern different elements of the world. In removing the Rune of Death, Marika was able to change how death worked in her kingdom. The Elden Ring isn’t native to the Lands Between, though. It was sent to the world by the Greater Will, a cosmic force known as an Outer God.
The Greater Will exists somewhere far away from the Lands Between, so to exert its, uh, will, it has emissaries and agents. Marika is one of those agents–she was originally of a people from outside the Lands Between called the Numen. Emissaries of the Greater Will, the Two Fingers, chose Marika to become an Empyrean, a person who could be elevated to godhood and serve as a vessel for the Elden Ring. Marika fulfilled that purpose and eventually became a god. So at the top of the hierarchy is the Greater Will, then Marika and the Elden Ring, then, seemingly, the Two Fingers, then the demigods, who are Marika’s children and step-children.
While Marika had the power of the Elden Ring behind her, she didn’t find the Lands Between empty. In fact, quite a few people lived there, with civilizations and gods of their own. They included giants in the mountains, dragons (who may have been subjects of the Greater Will before Marika), and humans, as well as various other races scattered throughout the world. With control of the Elden Ring and the Rune of Death, Marika established the Golden Order, a sort of “Church of Marika” that also encompassed the rules of reality in the Lands Between. And she started a campaign to bring the other civilizations to heel under her monarchy and the Golden Order. For that, she needed someone to wage war on her behalf–a king to her queen, essentially. The role of consort to Marika was known as the Elden Lord, a person who would wield massive power in the Lands Between as Marika’s right hand.
For her first Elden Lord, Marika chose a powerful warrior called Hoarah Loux; in his new royal position, he was renamed Godfrey the Golden. Under Marika’s orders, Godfrey waged war on the giants and various other races. (When you get to the Mountaintops of Giants, you find a whole lot of frozen giants there, thanks to Godfrey.) He also had children with Marika: Godwyn the Golden and the twins, Morgott and Mohg.
Godwyn was, apparently, Marika’s most favored child in the end, and he would go on to fight the dragons, even befriending a few thanks to his prowess in battle. Morgott and Mohg, however, were both “Omen” children–strange, powerful, cursed beings with horns growing all over their bodies. The Golden Order, it seemed, shunned the Omens, cutting off their horns at birth, a procedure that usually killed them. Royal Omen children weren’t treated quite so heinously–instead, Morgott and Mohg were sent into to live in the jails and sewers beneath Marika’s capital, Leyndell.
Meanwhile, the campaigns of Marika and Godfrey were going pretty well, and the influence of the Greater Will spread across the land. Among the armies they sent out into the world was a champion named Radagon, who advanced in the ranks and eventually stood as a major leader among Leyndell’s forces. He brought an army to bear against one of the countries of the Lands Between that wouldn’t come under the Golden Order’s purview: Liurnia of the Lakes. In Liurnia stood the Raya Lucaria Academy, where sorcerers trained using powers derived from the cosmos, at odds with the power of faith granted by the Golden Order. The country had monarchs of its own, the Carian Royal Family, and powerful knights who also wielded powers of sorcery.
Radagon and his forces found they couldn’t defeat the Carian soldiers or the sorcerers of Liurnia, and when he met the Carian royal, Rennala, on the battlefield, the two fell in love. So Liurnia came under the Golden Order’s governance not through force, like the other parts of the Lands Between, but through a marriage alliance between Radagon and Rennala. They had three children: Rykard, Radahn, and Ranni.
Eventually, though, Godfrey ran out of people to conquer, and for some reason, Marika decided to take away his title as Elden Lord. She sent Godfrey away, along with his warriors, to live outside the Lands Between. It sounds like this was the origin of the Tarnished–Marika intended for Godfrey and his warriors to live, struggle, and die outside the Lands Between, before returning stronger. That whole deal is open to interpretation, though.
Meanwhile, after Godfrey was pushed out, Radagon left Rennala–a move that devastated her–and returned to Leyndell to become Marika’s new consort, the second Elden Lord. Because of the new marriage, Rykard, Radahn, and Ranni became Marika’s stepchildren and were elevated to the status of demigods.
Radagon and Marika then had two more demigod children together: the twins Miquella and Malenia. Like Morgott and Mogh, though, these last two were also born cursed, but in a different way. Miquella could never grow up, forever trapped in the body of a child, while Malenia was cursed by the Scarlet Rot, a disease that ate at her from the inside despite her immortality.
Still, despite various curses, Marika and her family lived and ruled for quite a long time this way, raising a society in the Lands Between and governing as a powerful royal family. But slowly, things began to shift.
The Night of Black Knives and the Shattering
Marika had taken over the Lands Between completely, spreading the Golden Order just about everywhere. She was extremely powerful, thanks to the Elden Ring; she had a powerful army of soldiers and clerics, thanks to the Golden Order; and she had control over the Rune of Death, which meant she could deal death specifically to whoever she chose, but she and her family (and to some degree, everyone in the Lands Between) were otherwise effectively immortal.
In order to keep the Rune of Death safe, Marika entrusted it to Maliketh, her half-brother. The thing about Maliketh is that he’s both a beastman–half-wolf and half-person–and Marika’s “shadow.” There’s more to the shadow situation, but suffice to say that, as her shadow, Maliketh served Malika with unwavering loyalty. She didn’t really treat him equally well, though–his job was to safeguard the Rune of Death and pretty much nothing else, which sounds like he was stuck locked away somewhere with this incredibly dangerous power.
One night, however, someone managed to steal a piece of the Rune of Death from Malekith. Combining it with some black daggers, a group of assassins sneaked into the capital and killed Godwyn. Many were captured or killed as they tried to escape, but the damage was done. For the first time in history, a demigod had been killed.
The next part of the timeline is a bit hazy, because Godwyn’s death did massive damage to Marika and the Golden Order, but it’s not exactly clear when everything happened as a result of the Night of Black Knives. At some point, either immediately after Godwyn’s death or some time later, seemingly in a fit of grief, Marika used her hammer to shatter the Elden Ring. That broke the ring up into a bunch of smaller runes, some extremely powerful and some not, and scattered them throughout the world. Radagon tried to repair the ring, but couldn’t, and Marika soon disappeared. Again, there might have been peace for a while, but thanks to the destruction of the Elden Ring, things were already falling apart.
Eventually, both Marika and Radagon were missing in action. With the Elden Ring destroyed, the Golden Order started to crumble and a power vacuum was created. The various demigods got hold of pieces of the Elden Ring, called Great Runes, giving them even more power. Some wanted to restore the Golden Order, some wanted to take power for themselves, some wanted to change the rules of reality using the Elden Ring, and some had other Outer Gods to whom they pledged their loyalty. The demigods, each trying to claim the role of Elden Lord for their own agendas, plunged the entire Lands Between into a huge civil war called the Shattering.
The Lands Between were quickly sectioned off into small territories, each with their own armies. There were clashes between several of the demigods, culminating in a huge battle between the two greatest warriors among them: Radahn and Malenia. They fought on an expanse of sand dunes in Caelid, but neither could defeat the other. Though neither of the demigods was beaten, their battle had enormous effects on the land, though–it spread Malenia’s disease, the Scarlet Rot, all through Caelid, while decimating both groups of forces. The Scarlet Rot is nasty stuff that has no cure, with the ability to eat away at limbs and affect the functioning of the brain. Radahn was so badly infected with Scarlet Rot that he lost his mind. Malenia, too, was greatly harmed by the sickness; she channeled the power of the Rot within her in order to match Radahn’s strength, and in so doing, lost a lot of her will and sense of self as she succumbed to the affliction.
After that massive battle, the wars of the Shattering died down somewhat, but they left most of the Lands Between in ruins. With the demigods unable to beat each other (or unwilling to risk being beaten by one another), they retreated to strongholds and fortresses with their Great Runes.
While several of the demigods are currently making their own moves the Elden Ring–whether they’re communing with other Outer Gods, trying to grow their power, or standing in defense of the old ways–there’s nobody to break the stalemate between them. Since no one can claim the Elden Ring to fix it and the Golden Order, and take leadership in the Lands Between, things are just stagnating in a state of semi-civil war. Nobody dies, nobody can win, and everything’s ruined.
And that’s where the Tarnished come in. Called back to the Lands Between by some strange force, they find themselves guided by Grace–a big golden light only they can see. The Grace seems to be subordinate to the Two Fingers, and thus, the Greater Will, and it pushes Tarnished toward hunting down the demigods and claiming their Greater Runes so they can repair the Elden Ring and become Elden Lord. Basically, with the demigods unable to do the job, it’s being outsourced to random warriors. You meet so many Tarnished in the game because you’re by no means the first to make this attempt. And in fact, many of the Tarnished you meet have been at this for so long, their ability to see Grace has faded away. You’re not only coming in at the end of Marika’s long reign to find the Lands Between mostly in ruins, you’re also coming in at the end of the institutions of the Tarnished, like the Roundtable Hold, which are also languishing.
Agendas and Outer Gods
While your mission to eliminate the demigods and claim some of their Great Runes is at the center of Elden Ring, there’s a whole lot of other stuff happening as well. You’ll find a ton of other characters scattered throughout Elden Ring, each of whom is exercising their own plans. A lot of people want to become Elden Lord, including most of the Tarnished and demigods you encounter. Some of them will try to use you to accomplish their goals.
The primary driver behind your quest is the Two Fingers, the agent of the Greater Will. Usually, information about the Two Fingers and their orders for you would come through a Finger Maiden. These maidens are pledged to their Tarnished, guiding them to follow the wisdom of the Two Fingers and serve the Greater Will. They also help you by channeling runes at sites of Grace, allowing you to increase your power. When you start the game “maidenless,” it means that, for some reason, you didn’t get a Finger Maiden–and thus, unable to increase your abilities, you’re pretty much doomed. Luckily, a strange woman named Melina agrees to serve as your Finger Maiden, provided you help her on her own quest.
The Greater Will wants you to mend the Elden Ring for its purposes, but while lots of people are competing to become Elden Lord, they don’t all want to do so because the Greater Will tells them to. There’s a huge amount of conflict in the Lands Between because, since the Shattering, the place is pretty much up for grabs. The Greater Will has dominated for eons, but other Outer Gods also exist, and their followers are also vying for control. A bunch of them are discussed throughout the game if you pursue information about them, and their influences are all over the place.
Take, for instance, Malenia and the Scarlet Rot. Once you venture into the areas of the game that concern the Rot, you’ll learn that it’s related to a whole Rot Goddess, complete with its own worshipers. There’s also the Frenzied Flame, another Outer God that seems diametrically opposed to the Greater Order, trying to enact an age of chaos on the Lands Between. You’ll find more mentions of more Outer Gods as you go, and uncovering their purposes and agendas illuminates more of Elden Ring’s world. There are also people who want to break free of the control of the Outer Gods altogether.
There also is a group of demigods known as Empyreans–those chosen by the Two Fingers as candidates to ascend to full godhood, just like Marika did. The rules for how Empyreans work are unclear, but we know that these characters are meant as potential candidates to serve as successors to Marika. Once someone has been chosen as an Empyrean, they get a perfectly loyal wolf shadow–Marika had Maliketh in this role. The Empyreans we know about are the twin children of Marika and Radagon, Malenia and her brother Miquella, as well as Ranni, Radagon’s daughter with Rennala. There’s also another Empyrean we know almost nothing about, a character referred to in the lore as the Dusk-Eyed Queen. So there are demigods who want to become Elden Lord, teaming with Marika and the Golden Order; factions and cults who want to reshape the Elden Ring according to their own beliefs; and Empyreans who might want to become full-on gods themselves and replace Marika altogether.
Thus, making your way through the world of the Lands Between, you’re going to run into a lot of different people who will tell you a lot of different things, and integrally, some are going to lie to you to get what they want. Others will try to kill you to take what you have. Everyone wants to become Elden Lord and claim the power that comes with it. Who you choose to help or hinder, and what you choose to do with the power you gain along the way, is up to you.