There has always been some measure of controversy regarding the Arbiter’s inclusion in Halo 2.
Loyal fans who had been prepared for the singular journey of the Master Chief deep into the heart of the Covenant war machine had now found themselves there, in the heart of the machine — but as an agent of it rather than a force against it. They took on the mantle of the Arbiter, a shamed and fallen Elite commander — the embodied consequence of the player’s actions one game earlier.
And with this inclusion many would argue that the role of Spartan-117 was somewhat diminished and that Halo’s story had become too complex for its own good. Whether you agree with the handling of the Arbiter’s tale within the trilogy is definitely a matter of subjectivity and personal opinion. Whether or not the Arbiter’s story is, in fact, a compelling one is fairly conclusive. He is a hero and villain in one, complicated and in many ways contradictory — a perfect foil for the single-minded Spartan protagonist.
With new information on this enigmatic character culled from the pages of Tobias Buckell’s Halo: The Cole Protocol, we can take a closer look at who the Arbiter was in the past, who he is now and why his story remains one of the most fascinating subsets within the franchise’s fiction.
A Child’s Dream
Sangheilios was the homeworld for the Sangheili race — the Elites — the once-lofted military prowess of the Covenant. The same race who would eventually choose honor over lies and bind their goals with humanity’s. In so doing, they would crush their former allies, ultimately saving the galaxy from obliteration by the Halo array.
The Sangheili planet, much like other sentient-occupied worlds, was divided into nation states or provinces. Within those we find individual “keeps,” family-established communities which span out for miles within the confines of specific geographic territories. The keep is ruled by a male Sangheili referred to as the “kaidon” and a separate council of elders who serve at his disposal. Most, if not all, governing bodies on Sangheilios mirror the feudal law found within our own Middle Ages. The serfs serve their masters, the masters report to the elders and the elders periodically offer the state of the keep to the kaidon; but he alone remains the most powerful and significant figure within the keep’s realm.
As we’ve witnessed in our own history, a feudal system of rule sometimes gives way to violent quarrels over territory and property rights — and Sangheili history is not at all distant from this societal reality. Perhaps this is the reason their race is known for their military cunning and expertise; and the reason that their younglings are taught from the earliest of ages how to defend themselves — even unto death.
They were a war-bred species which expressed deference only toward the morality of honor and loyalty. They carved their family stories on a keep wall referred to as “the Saga,” an engraved record of the most important events and individuals within their familial heritage. Carefully scribed were the heroes and stories of their family — an epic, perpetual fable that every single Sangheili male child would aspire to partake in, hoping one day to have their own story scrawled along the sacred corridors.
One such child was Thel ‘Vadam.
Little is known of Thel’s early years, but following Sangheilian tradition, he likely found himself preparing to join the Covenant’s war machine at an early age.
The Vadam lineage remains one of the youngest to aggregate on Sangheilios. During the first age of exploration, when the Sangheili were still discovering new places on the face of their own planet, the Vadam family began to take shape.
The ancestral stories show that the earliest Vadam were skilled sea-farers, braving the tumultuous and raging oceans of Sangheili — an environment made particularly brutal by two separate lunar pulls on the planet’s surface. Eventually, the Vadam discovered the Kolaar mountain range in the land of Yermo, an immense series of cliffs which had formed around a rich, thirty-mile wide valley and a massive bay connecting it to the ocean and its commercial thoroughfare. In the valley was a large river which was fed by a powerful spring underneath the mountains; this natural fortress would become the Vadams’ source of power for generations to follow.
Like most Sangheili populations centers, Yermo was found on the coastal region, set apart from the continental interiors of the planet which were mostly vast blankets of nearly uninhabitable desert. The Vadam family prospered here under the same meritocracy that had governed their species since its earliest of beginnings.
Even with this government of absolute rule from a respected kaidon, the Sangheili were not unfamiliar with cross-provincial wars or threats from outside their individual realms. Ever so often, even some within a single family would rise up and attempt to overthrow the existing kaidon in a play for local power. This was the story of another Sangheili — the legendary Ther ‘Vadam.
An internal enemy of the presiding keep had issued a coup d’état on Ther’s right to rule. The following war saw a dramatic transition in power and Ther, as well as all of his allies, were imprisoned in their own keep’s jails. They were humiliated and tortured, starved almost to death — most of them, the honorable ones, committed suicide.
Nevertheless, Ther was driven by the desire to regain his previous title. Once he had become greatly emaciated from lack of nourishment, he managed to squeeze through his cell’s bars and into a stony cleft. Outside of the cleft, high above the valley, he made his way down to the valley floor’s forest, finding sanctuary near Yermo’s ancient river.
Ashamed to be a vagabond in his own land and driven to one day reclaim it back, he fled into the desert. For years he survived in the barren wilderness at the center of his continent, summoning every particle of strength left in his being. It was during that time that he began to plot his revenge. In the desert he allied with nomads and criminals, many of which were compelled by his tale of betrayal. Conscripting them to his cause, he forged a militia intent on one day retaking Vadam keep.
Ther and his fledgling group of mercenaries returned to his home in Yermo, hardened by the desert and well-prepared to enact the plan he had been engineering for years. When they invaded the keep, they rent it from its presiding captors, tossing the bodies of Ther’s enemies down into the valley and river below.
He returned to the same jails where he had once been imprisoned. There, he saw many of his previous allies. They had not escaped like him, nor had they committed suicide like their honorable brothers. Believing them to be useless and cowardly, Ther executed the lot and rebuilt his kingdom with the mercenaries he had befriended in the desert.
Although the Vadam Saga had many stories, Ther’s was one which resonated most with one small Sangheili child — and the tale would become a catalyst for the rise of the Arbiter and his unquestionable impact on the events of the trilogy.
Two years prior to Thel’s own swift ascension in the Covenant hierarchy, a ruthless Elite by the name of Ripa ‘Moramee bore the mantle of the Arbiter in a crucial play against the newly-discovered human race. Interestingly, Thel would be selected to play a similar role just before the same war came to an abrupt end.
Like most Sangheili children, Thel ‘Vadam never knew his real father. He was chosen by an uncle to be sired and trained from the earliest of ages. He would learn about their culture, their language and their history — but most significant of all he would learn about the art of war.
As a youngling, Thel was trained in vicious hand-to-hand weapon combat by the esteemed Lak ‘Vadamee. For decades, Lak would represent the closest thing Thel would ever have to a friend, still offering guidance to Thel long after he was finished teaching. All the while, the young Sangheili had nurtured the belief that he would one day rise to the title of kaidon, just as Ther had, and that he would have the tenacity and will power to hold firm to that title, even against impossible odds.
Eventually, Thel joined the Covenant military, becoming ‘Vadamee, the additional suffix displaying his allegiance to the San’Shyuum and their sacred quest for Forerunner treasures. Although the Council of Masters, the presiding body who determined the readiness of those joining the war effort, was composed of both Prophets and Elites, Thel would not have been surprised if their decision to appoint him was unanimous. The San’Shyuum most certainly respected the Vadam lineage, as they found it impossible to eradicate during the hostile years which marked their races’ first encounters. Defended by the immense Kolaar mountain range, even the San’Shyuum with the Forerunner machines at their disposal had not been able to quench the fire of Vadam.
For years, Thel would serve nobly in the Covenant military, bringing race after race into its submission.