Dimitri’s War: Kill every last one of them.
There are no heroes in war and Dimitri is no exception. Dimitri is the eldest son of King Lambert, and the legitimate heir to the throne of Faerghus. His life’s story; however, begins with a single historical event known as the “Tragedy of Duscur”. During his childhood, the royal family was attacked and murdered while on a diplomatic mission to the nearby land of Duscur. Dimitri was the only survivor. Helped by an existing prejudice against the people of Duscur, the ruling nobles in Faerghus blamed the Duscur people for regicide and initiated a genocidal war of vengeance. Most of the population was exterminated and what little remained of Duscur’s land and people were forcefully incorporated into the Kingdom of Faerghus. Dimitri himself did not blame the people of Duscur for the attack, but found that he, even in his role as crown prince, could do nothing to prevent or stop the violence. Instead, he found what little salvation he could by interfering with the attack on a single Duscur citizen saving the man’s life. Survivors guilt and the knowledge that whoever plotted the death of his family had gotten away with it would plague him for the rest of his life.
Dimitri’s main character arc is defined by his emotional struggles, and mental illness. In contrast to Edelgard, he has no internal model of the world that he is building off of, and instead reacts to events as they are coming at him, because of this he doesn’t really stand out as a character at first. During the first half of the game, he presents himself as a prim and proper royal boy; polite, reserved, and only just a little bit cynical about the role of nobility in the world. Most of his characterization is presented to us through other people. Byleth’s and Dimitri’s interaction with Felix stand out the most. Felix is constantly referring to Dimitri as a “wild board” or a “beast” which should be locked up for everyone’s protection. At first this seems out of character as it clashes with with Dimitri’s polite and reserved presentation. However, as the game progresses we get to see more and more of Dimitri’s dark side. As Those Who Slither In the Dark make their presence known it gets progressively harder for Dimitri to keep his emotions in check, and when he doesn’t he is constantly apologizing for letting his anger, and his emotions get the better of him.
It is only when Edelgard reveals herself to be the Flame Emperor that Dimitri snaps and loses whatever little control remained over his emotions. In that moment Dimitri’s world reaches a level of clarity it had never reached before. He decides that Edelgard is personally responsible for everything: for Lonato’s defiance of the church, for Flayn’s kidnapping, for the magical experiments at Remire, for Jeralt’s, Byleth’s father, death, and most importantly for murdering Dimitri’s father and adopted mother during the tragedy of Duscur. Edelgard denies this, but the denial is rejected out of hand by Dimitri, “It was foolish to think I could reason with a lowly beast.” Yet, as Felix predicted earlier, it is not Edelgard who is the beast here, it is Dimitri. The final few chapters of the academy phase depict several of his failed attempts to kill her, and as those failures stack up even Dimitri comes to internalize his own beast-like mentality. Eventually, Dimitri’s own kingdom turns on him and the opening chapters end with a world that believes he was executed.
The Dimitri in the war phase is very different than the Dimitri of the academy phase. Upon reuniting with Byleth, after the five year time skip, Dimitri is a shadow of his former self. We find him held up in the monastery, violently executing Adrestian officers and lowly bandits. Still hell bent on killing Edelgard, but without any plan of action beyond marching up to her and punching her head off. The first chapters of part 2 includes no character development from Dimitri and very little interaction. He spends the entire time talking with nobody, none of his supports progress, his skills cannot be trained, he does not join in any of the monastery events. He projects power and brutality, yet he himself has none. Byleth, not him, has control of his army. His friends and subjects limit what he can and cannot do. He is little more than a Ghoul who seeks vengeance for the pain and suffering Edelgard’s plan has brought to the world. It is only after the bloodbath of chapter seventeen that he finally snaps out of it.
Chapter seventeen, The Blood of the Eagle and Lion, is the thematic core of the game. It is a reenactment of chapter seven which is itself a reenactment of a historical battle. Each year, at the academy, the students reenact a war between all three of Fódlan’s political powers. At first this battle is a ‘mock battle’ and the death mechanics of the game are temporarily put on hold. It is a sporting event that symbolizes the peace that has prospered between the powers since that destructive war long ago, and demonstrates the church’s role in maintaining the peace since then. After the initial battle, the three houses are seen partying together representing their unity. Chapter seventeen is the same battle over again, but the death mechanic is put on overdrive. It is by far the bloodiest chapter of the entire game, and canonically represents the final chapter for at least a third of the student body regardless of who you side with.1
From Dimitri’s perspective, the story of the eagle and lion begins after chapter fourteen when Dimitri captures an officer of the Adrestian army, Randolph, and threatens to torture him to death. Byleth prevents this by killing the officer and denying Dimitri his fun. Randolph’s sister, Fleche, vows revenge on Dimitri. During the events of chapter sixteen Fleche is allowed to join Dimitri’s army because she desires revenge, and this desire appeals to Dimitri’s own desire for revenge. However, Dimitri is unaware that Fleche wants revenge on him. As a result Fleche is allowed to intercept and murder messengers sent to Claude which fuels Dimitri’s distrust for Claude resulting in a three way bloodbath between the three houses. After the battle, Fleche attempts to assassinate an emotionally defeated Dimitri. Fleche is prevented from Killing Dimitri by Felix’s father Rodrigue at the cost of his life.
The thing that finally wakes Dimitri up from his emotional slumber is the thing that put him in it in the first place: Dimitri’s empathy. He feels the emotions and suffering of the people around more than he feels his own emotions. Yet, he cannot reconcile these feeling with the reality of the world around him. He ‘hears the voices of the dead’ and seeks justice for those who have been wronged, yet it is only on Gronder field at the battle of the eagle and lion that he wakes up to the reality that his pursuit of justice is itself an injustice. He blames Edelgard for the death of his family, yet she wouldn’t have been much older than he was at the time and likely would have had no say in how it went down even if she was involved. Likewise, Randolph’s only crime was fighting in a war he had no say in starting. Fleche sought justice for her family just as Dimitri sought justice for his, and neither would find resolution in the death of the other. Instead, both simply contributed to the endless cycle of violence. Earlier in the game Dimitri would say to Byleth, “I wonder which is best, Professor… To cut away that which is unacceptable, or to find a way to accept it any way…” I believe that it is only after Gronder that this question was answered. The Tragedy at Duscur would always be with him, and no amount of cutting could ever remove the injustice from his life. His only option was to accept that which has happened, and to focus on those who remain alive instead of seeking endless and meaningless retribution for those who are gone.
After the battle, a transformed Dimitri reclaims his throne, restores his relationship with Claude, and battles Edelgard back to her throne room. His focus is no longer on causing Edelgard pain, but instead ending a violent and brutal war. In a final stand Edelgard allows herself to be transformed into the Cult’s crest weapon ‘Hegemon Husk’, and the two engage in one final battle. After a long and gruelling battle2 Edelgard is defeated and the war finally ends. Victory; however, is not cast as victorious but tragic. During the final cinematic a defeated Edelgard sits before Dimitri expecting death. Instead Dimitri wordlessly offers her a hand instead, she replies by throwing the dagger Dimitri had given her as a child when she was visiting Faerghus; she wants nothing to do with Dimitri’s future and the war cannot end while Edelgard lives. After stabbing her through the stomach Dimitri removes the knife from his shoulder and leaves it with her before walking with Byleth out of the room. Right before exiting Dimitri empathetically looks back at Edelgard, but Byleth grabs him and pulls him through the door; his responsibility is to the living not the dead.
The problem with stories like this is that it is always easier to demonstrate all of the wrong ways to change the world then it is to demonstrate the right way. What makes Edelgard such a great villain is that she so remarkably represents everything we are taught to value in an individual: she is strong, decisive, driven by a vision powered by something she firmly believes in, she is unemotional and chooses not be driven by them. All of her actions are her own, and she accepts both responsibility and credit for those actions. Yet, all of these qualities are what makes her a villain. Her refusal to see through the lens of her emotions makes her blind to the suffering others. Her focus on goals creates an environment that is tolerant of evil. The only person who sees a separation between her goals and those of the cult is herself. It’s easy to be swayed by her vision of the future as the church is guilty of most of the crimes she condemns them for. The church does rule at the expense of commoners, they do support the crest system, they do violently suppress those who speak out against them, yet this desire for a better world does not create one. Instead, her inability to see through any eyes except her own makes her become that which she hates the most. During her final hour, she embraces the power of the crests, and transforms into the Hegemon Husk, a crest powered beast, exactly as Rhea does in her final hour. The crimes of the church do not excuse the death she brings to the world through war. It is her war as she is the one who decides that death is the only way forward; it is only through her death that the war really ends.
I do think that there are some lessens that the characters come to understand about how we interact with a corrupt society. Dimitri’s story emphasizes the power of empathy over ideology. Dimitri begins the game with a strong sense of right and wrong, but is unable to reconcile that with the world around him because the voices he hears are those that only he speaks for. He refuses allegiance, compliments, and even friendships because he believes he doesn’t deserve them. Likewise, he seeks justice for people who never asked for it. His redemption comes because he starts to listen, he liberates Faerghus before eliminating the empire because that is what his people are asking for, he rescues Claude because Claude asks for it, and finally he kills Edelgard, not because he wants to, but because she has decided that her war can only end on her terms.
Edelgard’s story emphasizes the need to reconcile action with intention. It’s difficult to take her at her word that she wishes to produce a better world because there is a disconnect between the things that she says and the things that she does. She pretends to be angry at the crest system but instead of focusing her energy against those, like the cult and the ruling lords in Adrestia who weaponize the crest system, she instead rages against something external and easy to demonize. In this way she allows the Adrestian Empire to use even her suffering as a weapon against its enemies. In the end, instead of beating the system Edelgard became the very thing she was always meant to be: a weapon designed specifically to preserve the Adrestian way of life. Edelgard’s story is a demonstration of how worthless good intentions are if the actions associated with those intentions are not focused on solving actual issues.
This isn’t to say that Dimitri’s ending is in some sense a ‘good’ ending. In it, none of the systematic issues with Fódlan are addressed. The tragedy of Duscur is never truly resolved, the people of Duscur are never avenged, the crest system Edelgard abhors still stands, the church still exists, and the cult is neither defeated, nor even implied to have been defeated in his Epilogue. For all intents and purposes, the only winner is the status quo. Yet, there is hope as a new generation takes power. Dimitri, now king of Faerghus, goes on to rule a now united Fódlan, and Byleth takes over as the archbishop of the church. Together these two have tremendous power to shape a new Fódlan. Positive change is not guaranteed, but perhaps a leader willing to listen can push things in a better direction.
If Three Houses has anything to say, it is not that history is written by the victors; instead, history is written by the survivors. The thing that has most successfully stuck with me about Fire Emblem: Three Houses as a game is that it is an admission that war is complicated. It is a tragedy, sometimes necessary, sometimes absurd, sometimes horrific, sometimes heroic, and always a matter of perspective. It is what happens when one worldview decides that it cannot exist alongside another one. It is the collision of two realities travelling at great speed. It is a insatiable flame that births a new world; yet, such a world is rarely what any of the inputs intended.