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Lion El’Johnson strides out to battle against a green backdrop. It is snowing lightly. In his hand the sword Fealty, and on his arm a shield said to have belonged to the Emperor himself. Image: Games Workshop via YouTube

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Warhammer 40K’s Dark Angels are enjoying a golden age of new lore

It’s a new era for these solemn, secretive knights

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Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

The galaxy of Warhammer 40,000 moves at a glacial pace, with major narrative threads frozen in place for years, sometimes even decades at a time. That’s been true of one of the game’s most popular factions, the green-armored Dark Angels Space Marines, basically since they were introduced to the game in the 1980s. But in March 2023, Lion El’Jonson, the long-lost leader of the Dark Angels, returned from the dead. His reappearance in the Imperium of Mankind is now making waves 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 divisive to come.

Each Space Marine chapter was created from a Primarch, one of the Emperor’s genetically engineered sons. In the beginning there were only 20 Primarchs, and over 10 millenia they’ve been winnowed down — killed, lost, gone missing, or turned into slavering 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 game’s modern canon, he has taken up leadership of the Imperium, the 40K universe’s de facto main character, which leaves him in the wildly unenviable position of both doing all of the paperwork for a star-spanning empire and mitigating the inevitable decline of that same star-spanning empire as it has descended into religious fanaticism.

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

For the last decade or so, the schtick about El’Jonson was that he was secretly entombed within the Dark Angels’ fortress monastery, known as The Rock, not dead but merely asleep. Then last year he mysteriously woke up, arriving in the nick of time as described in the campaign book Arks of Omen: The Lion to pull the entire Dark Angels’ chapters’ collective bacon out of the fire. Lion El’Jonson is not a politician, and he’s certainly not here to do paperwork. His stand-alone novel, The Lion: Son of the Forest; the aforementioned campaign book; and the new Codex Supplement: Dark Angels, when went up for pre-order this past weekend, make that eminently clear. Whereas Guilliman is running the galaxy’s most convoluted Asana board, the Lion is a roaming knight, protecting even the most far-flung provinces of a ragged empire.

Rather than fly a desk, the Lion spends his time ripping through hordes of Tyranids and demons, but what’s really interesting is how he now deals with his wayward sons. The Dark Angels are all the Lion’s boys, and they’ve been spectacularly naughty while he was enjoying a 10,000-year catnap after the implosion of his home world, Caliban.

Cover art for The Lion: Son of the Forest by Mike Brooks shows The Lion clad in green armor striding through a purple wood with sword drawn
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 went traitor. Some of them chugged down Chaos for immense power, and others simply felt betrayed by the Lion and his stern ways. These traitors were dubbed the Fallen, and the Dark Angels have gone overboard in trying to hide their betrayal.

The fact that the Fallen even exist is now the central secret on which the chapter’s most prestigious knightly order, known as the Inner Circle, has been created. And at this point members of the Inner Circle may have actually outdone the Fallen themselves, compounding the error with all manner of abductions, murders, and an institutionalized regime of torture designed to force them to repent or die. Even entire military campaigns, vital conflicts where the Dark Angels were tasked with supporting lesser Imperial military assets, have regularly been abandoned wholesale in favor of chasing the Fallen.

The return of the Lion has, it appears, helped hit 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’s the dad of all these Space Marines, and he seems more than willing to take the time to wrestle all of his unruly boys into the get-along sweater. Redeemed Fallen, dubbed the Risen, are now even being integrated back into Dark Angels’ front-line units.

A red-robed Inner Circle Companion as depicted in a recent Games Workshop YouTube video. Image: Games Workshop via YouTube

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. The Dark Angels certainly have lots to worry about. The galaxy is under siege by an unstoppable swarm of Tyranids, half of the Imperium is in the clutches of Chaos, and the Lion is pretty unhappy to know that during his long nap, the Imperium started worshiping his dad, the Emperor, en masse. While the Lion seems pretty happy to know his brother Guilliman is alive, he’s much less pleased with the existence of the state religious branch known as the Ecclesiarchy.

That may end up causing some major political chaos for the Lion, and we’ll have to see whether his dedication to the Emperor’s ideals ends up causing major turmoil in a galaxy that has dropped those standards in favor of worshipping the Emperor as a god. 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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