The Dark Angels of Warhammer 40K are experiencing a renaissance of captivating lore

The cosmos of Warhammer 40,000 moves at a very slow pace, with major narrative threads remaining motionless for years, sometimes even decades. This has been the case for one of the game’s most popular groups, the green-armored Dark Angels Space Marines, since they were introduced to the game in the 1980s. However, in March 2023, Lion El’Jonson, the long-lost leader of the Dark Angels, was resurrected. His return in the Imperium of Mankind is now creating ripples inside the First Legion, as it’s known, for the first time in 10,000 years. And it could be a prelude to something even more controversial to come.

Image: The great throneworld of Terra, Warhammer 40K’s version of Earth. In a hive city that contains billions upon billions of people, millions of pilgrims march along an enormously tall bridge. The bridge stretches down to the rest of the hive, a place of industry and darkness.
Image: Games Workshop

Cover art for The Lion: Son of the Forest, now available on Amazon and as an Audible title.
Image: Games Workshop

The galaxy of Warhammer 40,000 moves at a pace akin to one that is glacial, with major narrative themes that have been stagnant for years and at times even decades. The story related to the popular factions of the game, like the green-armored Dark Angels Space Marines, has virtually remained unchanged since their introduction in the 1980s. However, Lion El’Jonson, the long-lost leader of the Dark Angels, made a reappearance in March 2023 after being missing for 10,000 years. His comeback and presence in the Imperium of Mankind are causing ripples within the First Legion for the first time in a decade. And it might signal the start of something even more divisive.

Each Space Marine chapter was fashioned from a Primarch, one of the Emperor’s genetically engineered sons. Initially, there were only 20 Primarchs, and over a span of 10 millenia, they’ve been reduced in number — killed, lost, gone missing, or transformed into chaotic demons by the forces of Chaos. For a long while now the only Primarch left standing was Roboute Guilliman, Primarch of the Ultramarines chapter and administrator extraordinaire. In the current narrative of the game, he has taken up the leadership of the Imperium, the 40K universe’s de facto main character, which has left him in the extremely undesirable position of managing all the paperwork for a star-spanning empire and tempering the inevitable decline of that same star-spanning empire as it has descended into religious fanaticism.

Over the past decade, the central theme surrounding El’Jonson was that he had been secretly entombed inside the Dark Angels’ fortress monastery, known as The Rock, not deceased but merely dormant. Then, at some point last year, he woke up unexpectedly, arriving just in time as described in the campaign book Arks of Omen: The Lion. This enabled him to rescue the entire Dark Angels’ chapters’ collective bacon. Lion El’Jonson is not a politician, and he’s certainly not there to handle paperwork. His stand-alone novel, The Lion: Son of the Forest, the aforementioned campaign book, and the new Codex Supplement: Dark Angels, which went up for pre-order this past weekend, make this abundantly clear. While Guilliman is overseeing the galaxy’s most convoluted Asana board, the Lion is a wandering knight, safeguarding even the most remote provinces of a ragged empire.

Instead of being confined to a desk, the Lion spends his time tearing through hordes of Tyranids and demons, but what’s truly fascinating is how he is now dealing with his rebellious sons. The Dark Angels are all the Lion’s boys, and they’ve been extremely disobedient while he was enjoying a 10,000-year slumber following the implosion of his home world, Caliban.

The return of the Lion seems to have helped put the brakes on this all-consuming paranoia.

Cover art for The Lion: Son of the Forest, now available on Amazon and as an Audible title.
Image: Games Workshop

During the Horus Heresy — the massive civil war between the Imperium and a Chaos-fueled rebellion of Space Marines that took place 10,000 years ago — a whole host of Dark Angels defected and turned traitor. Some of them consumed Chaos to gain immense power, and others simply felt betrayed by the Lion and his stern ways. These traitors were christened the Fallen, and the Dark Angels have gone to great lengths to conceal their betrayal.

The prevalence of the Fallen has become the primary secret upon which the chapter’s most prestigious knightly order, known as the Inner Circle, has been devised. At this point, members of the Inner Circle may have actually exceeded the Fallen themselves, exacerbating the error with all forms of abductions, murders, and an institutionalized regime of torture designed to coerce them into repentance or death. Even entire military campaigns, vital conflicts where the Dark Angels were tasked with supporting lesser Imperial military assets, have frequently been abandoned entirely in favor of pursuing the Fallen.

The return of the Lion has, it seems, aided in putting the brakes on this all-consuming paranoia.

In the Arks of Omen campaign book and in the novel Son of the Forest, we learn that the Lion has accepted many Fallen back into the fold after personally working to redeem them. He is the father of all these Space Marines, and he seems more than willing to take the time to corral all of his unruly boys into the get-along sweater, integrating them back into Dark Angels’ front-line units.

This shift in narrative focus is a welcome relief, especially after decades spent with the Lion locked in a state of torpor. The Fallen are still a threat, but that thread feels less like an all-consuming black hole that drags the Dark Angels away from everything else, damaging their reputation in the process. Now, they’re positioned more as Knights of the Round Table, adventuring through the grimdark galaxy in defense of their father’s ideals — and working toward redemption in the eyes of the Emperor of Mankind.

They still love secrets; in fact, a bunch of Inner Circle Companions have suddenly shown up in Dark Angels army lists. These shrouded figures have sworn a vow of secrecy, and everyone just has to accept them showing up and assisting with all of their operations, because papa Lion vouches for them. I think it’s safe to bet that these are Risen, being integrated back into the fold in a way least likely to cause a fuss.

We’ll likely see more of the new internal structures of a post-Lion Dark Angels in an upcoming novel: Lazarus: Enmity’s Edge by Gary Kloster, as the Dark Angels certainly have a lot on their plate. The galaxy is under siege by an unstoppable swarm of Tyranids, and half of the Imperium is in the clutches of Chaos. Fans are eager to see a reunion — and perhaps a bro hug — between the Lion and Guilliman. But in Warhammer 40,000, nothing is ever simple, and the Lion may be forced to either compromise and acknowledge the megachurch that runs the Imperium… or find himself embroiled in another civil war.

Codex Supplement: Dark Angels and the Warhammer 40,000: Dark Angels Assault Army Box were previewed using retail products provided by Games Workshop. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships, but not with Games Workshop. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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