All hail Miriel, the turtle pope
To say that I’m currently enjoying Elden Ring would be a comical understatement. Whenever I’m not playing it, there’s an extremely high probability that I am thinking about it. Its stupendously expansive world is dense; there’s almost always something worth exploring anywhere you look. I’ve spent hours and hours lost in this world and I’m finding my interest and investment continue to deepen.
I’m not even close to beating this game. The game feels too vast in scope to discuss it in a way that does it any justice. So instead, I’m going to talk about a character I stumbled on in my adventures, someone who immediately stopped me dead in my tracks, who I feel an innate fondness for and who I think is an embodiment for so much of what is great about Elden Ring’s atmosphere.
Liurna of the Lakes is the second major area of the game a player is likely to encounter after Limgrave, the game’s starting area. Its central feature is a sprawling wetlands area. While exploring, I came across a crumbling church structure called the Church of Vows. Inside was a giant tortoise wearing what was clearly a Pope’s hat. This is Miriel, my favourite NPC in Elden Ring.
Needless to say, the sight of a giant tortoise in a Pope’s hat stopped me in my tracks, but I approached them and was delighted to learn that I could talk to them. This tortoise is Miriel, Pastor of Vows, steward of the church we were both currently standing in. Like all the non-playable characters I’ve encountered so far, Miriel stays stationary citing their advanced years, and also apologizes for the rundown state of the church. All-in-all, this was a very warm and welcoming first impression.
Miriel stands in stark contrast to most of the other non-playable characters (NPCs) I’ve encountered thus far. NPCs in Elden Ring tend to be some combination of standoffish, condescending, untrustworthy, and extremely cryptic. The reason for this is that it contributes to the unforgiving, deeply odd and epic atmosphere the game has created. Elden Ring would be a vastly different game if the characters all fawned over you and told you precisely where you needed to go next to progress quests.
But it’s exactly this backdrop of vaguely hostile interactions that makes Miriel stand out so positively. Miriel doesn’t speak in riddles. They give you a pretty big hint regarding Radagon that’s helpful without giving away any answers. When you ask them to teach you incantations from other faiths, unlike the other incantation teacher who denounces them as heresy, Miriel keeps an open mind, saying ‘Let us learn together’. Miriel is exactly the level of nice that you’d want someone you’ve just met to be. They aren’t standoffish, but they also aren’t so friendly as to trigger suspicion. However their demeanour is only part of what makes Miriel so compelling to me.
Miriel’s location, The Church Of Vows has an interesting backstory of its own, as Miriel tells you. It was the site at which Queen Renala of the Carian Royal Family married her wartime-enemy-turned-lover Radagon of the Capital (where the giant golden Erdtree that looms over the world is located). The church was meant to signify the union of these two opposing sides. It’s located in a way that keeps the monuments of both houses — the Renala’s Academy and Radagon’s Erdtree — in view. For a time, everyone lived in peace. But when turmoil engulfed the land, Radagon cast Renala aside and left her heartbroken. Renala has now trapped herself in the Grand Library of the Academy, cradling the egg given to her by Radagon.
The unhappy story shouldn’t come as a surprise, since it’s entirely in keeping with the tone of Elden Ring so far. The only other game by FromSoftware that I’ve played before is Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and it is set during a time of transition, in the last days of the rule of the Ashina clan. A similar kind of transition/downfall, called the Shattering, seems to have happened in Elden Ring, but unlike Sekiro, Elden Ring opens well after this transition has taken place. The world in Elden Ring isn’t so much in decline as it is in stasis at rock bottom. There’s no fear that things may get worse in Elden Ring because the worst has already happened. The landscape is dotted with rundown forts, barely-standing ruins, fragmented pieces of structures and even the ghosts of people.
Put in this context, Miriel and the Church of Vows seem like yet another example of the lingering traces of faded glory. This is made even more obvious through Miriel’s inability to walk, their legs not being “what they used to be”. The Church of Vows, which commemorates a union that has been broken, has literally fallen apart. And Miriel, with their ailing, aging body exists as an embodiment of the sadness entrenched in this broken church, doomed to look after the church the best they can. Their kind and friendly disposition feels like even more of an accomplishment, when you know Miriel could have easily become bitter or fallen into despair. Miriel lends the Church a benevolence and an air of comfort. They elevate the sadness of the church into a place that is falling apart but is still loved. It’s a truly unique and memorable combination of emotions.
I think one of Elden Ring’s defining aspects is its deliberateness. Even though the game world is massive, it feels like a lot of care and thought has been put into every nook and cranny. All of this to say — why the pope hat? From a Watsonian, in-game lore perspective, I have no idea. But outside of the game-universe, I have a few ideas Undeniably it lends Miriel an air of absurdity, which is another aspect of Elden Ring’s atmosphere and has probably played a huge role in their popularity among players. If you see a giant tortoise in a pope hat, you are going to sit up and pay attention. The mitre (as I learned is the proper name for a pope hat) also immediately indicates to the player that Miriel is connected to religion in some way. But for me, the most noticeable thing the pope hat does is give the whole sad situation an air of bathos.
Bathos is a storytelling technique that juxtaposes something sad and serious with something silly and humorous. Miriel’s pope hat does give the atmosphere of the church some absurdity, but it makes me feel even worse for them than if they didn’t have the pope hat. But at the same time, it undeniably also lightens things up, and that air of silliness takes the edge off the sadness somewhat.
Ultimately, Miriel is a source of comfort in a harsh and unforgiving world. Their unfailing kindness and gentleness is a reprieve for when things start to get too much too much. Miriel also offers words of encouragement and advice regarding a kinder and better way forward.
“My faith does not waver. The miracle rooted in these grounds will, once again, mend the world. And this time, its bounty will not be squandered. If you would be Elden Lord, Tarnished, I hope that you, too, will share my faith.”
If Miriel believes the world can get better, than I believe the world can get better.
An Ode to My Favourite Character in Elden Ring was originally published in SUPERJUMP on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.