"I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it’s a fucking comedy."
- – Arthur Fleck - Joker (2019)
"You know... clowns can get away with murder!"
- – John Wayne Gacy, allegedly to the police officers who arrested him
The Harlequins are galactic clowns. Or more accurately, galactic thespians. Or even more accurately, galactic Juggalos. They are the Eldar followers of Cegorach, the Laughing God. They are the performers and entertainers of the Eldar, the self-appointed protectors of the Eldar's pre-Fall history, which they perform in extremely elaborate plays involving not only elaborate costumes, scenery, acrobatics, and a troupe of dedicated actors, but further elaboration of the drama through psykana and psychedelic drugs which are disseminated throughout the audience that they too may see into clown world. The end result is something like a deranged mixture of a bardic recitation of oral history, a circus, grimdark edgy performance art, elaborate spiritual exercise, and a Grateful Dead concert, dedicated to reenacting and expressing the story of the fall of the Eldar, as both elegy and warning.
Far from being merely performers, though, and despite their rather ludicrous appearance, they are in fact some of the most dangerous shock-troopers among the Eldar, taking the concept of "break a leg" as far as you would expect in Warhammer 40,000. As self-appointed keepers of history, in addition to reciting and propagating it through performance art, they also maintain and guard the collection of esoteric knowledge deep in the Webway in the hidden Black Library, protecting it from those who would attempt to enter and learn of forbidden lore which they might use for evil and the furtherance of goals of Chaos. The Harlequins' protection of the Library is almost impenetrable, but they will from time to time allow those who have conquered the Chaos within them to enter. They have allowed Eldar, other xenos, and even humans into the Library at times when their agenda is to fight against Chaos, but they will fight to the death to prevent the Chaotically aligned, or those vulnerable to corruption by Chaos, to enter.
In times of war, the Harlequins fight the foes they see as posing a threat to the very existence of the Eldar, first and foremost Chaos Space Marines, the Necrons, and the Tyranids. The Imperials and Tau can be worked with, and the Orks are easily manipulated; unlike most Eldar, the Harlequins are free of racial prejudice, so as long as you battle the threats to all things and aren't attacking them or getting in their way, they're perfectly happy to work with you be you Mon'Keigh or Blueberry. This makes them one of the most level-minded factions in the setting and helps make them a very likeable faction, in contrast to the Craftworlders and Dark Eldar who are hated for being status quo-defending fairies and for being psychotic sick fucks.
The glue that keeps the Eldar together
They owe no allegiance to any Craftworld, Corsair Fleet, Exodite World, or Dark Eldar Kabal, but rather recruit members from all factions, and will fight in their armies on all sides. Their only loyalty is to Cegorach, whom they believe has charged them with the "Great Work" of reunifying the Craftworld Eldar, Corsairs, Dark Eldar, and Exodite Eldar into a single race to fight off Slaanesh, the Necrons, and whoever else has a bone to pick with the chosen people of the Old Ones. It is notable that they do not use the methods to keep their souls safe that other Eldar do—their faith in Cegorach, complete after going through the Trial to become a Harlequin, is enough to keep them safe. Despite this, they are allowed free passage through the Craftworlds and Commorragh, because the Craftworld and Exodite Eldar respect the Harlequins for preserving their history, and the Dark Eldar and Corsairs
are too afraid to try and stop them find Death Jesters' humor hilarious; they also couldn't keep the Harlequins out if they tried due to the Harlequins' superior knowledge of, and ability to use, the Webway.
This also makes the Harlequins the closest thing to a central authority the Eldar species has. While the various Eldar factions may not necessarily answer to the clowns, when they speak, everyone from Commorragh pimps and Craftworld wizards to Exodite farmers and Corsair pirates stops what they're doing and listens. When Asdrubael Vect died, it was the Harlequins who held his funeral, and then slaughtered all the attendees so as to resurrect him. When exiles risk the crone worlds to collect soul stones, it is the Harlequins who guide them. The things they do may not always make sense but no Eldar doubts that whatever they do is because Cegorach wills it.
Harlequins do not necessarily restrict their visits to the Eldar. In the Harlequins' view, they must perform their work for anyone and everyone who may benefit and learn the lessons from The Fall. Thus it is very rare, but not unknown, for Harlequin troupes to visit Imperial worlds. However, it must be noted that given the Imperium's strict policy of xenophobia, the circumstances under which such visits occur almost always coincide with the absence of strict Imperial oversight.
Of course, given the inscrutable nature of Eldar language and art, it is highly debatable whether or not a human audience would even be able to grasp the message that a Harlequin performance was attempting to convey. Most accounts of Harlequin performances amount to something like splatterhouse Shakespeare, with chainsword wielding Coenobite clowns flinging psychedelic rainbow viscera while the audience trips out on peyote. On the other hand, it is conceivable that Harlequins adjust their performance based on the audience, keeping the performance elaborate in form, but simple in message, thus allowing humans to understand the Great Enemy and what can be done.
In any event, by the time Imperial authorities become fully aware of the presence of a Harlequin troupe, the xenos have inevitably departed. Given the isolated nature of many imperial worlds and the Imperial policy of enforced ignorance, most common inhabitants might find the harlequins as just another passing troupe of strange, incredibly skilled artists, unaware for the most part of their xenos nature. Furthermore, since harlequins only need a webway portal instead of say, a massive starship to get onto a world, no one really discovers they have been in a close encounter of the third kind, at least until some Ordo Xenos operative takes notice. Thus, while in theory Harlequins (as xenos) are not welcome on Imperial worlds, in practice the Imperium can generally do little to stop such visitations.
Another explanation is that while the Ordo Xenos may not be fans, the Ordo Malleus is fully aware that the Eldar know more about Chaos than they do, and that the Harlequins fight Chaos as agents of the Black Library. The Inquisition's desire to obtain that knowledge is therefore probably enough to make them pressure everyone else into not doing anything rash, as long as the Eldar behave as well.
Judging from their allies matrix, it's fortunate that humans at least sometimes listen to them (so far as humans listen to any Eldar, anyway), since on the Tau worlds they visit they are inevitably met with an endless earful about the fucking Greater Good. They don't play on Necron Tomb Worlds (no shit?) given that the Necrons are the oldest foes of the Eldar and the two have brought each other nothing but grief over the last few million years, and Harlequins work to fight against them just as hard as they do against Chaos. Don't even fucking ask if they play on Ork worlds (you know, they probably do, but have to reduce the dialogue to indecipherable grunting, swearing and cockney slang). It's presumed that they did try to play for the Tyranids only once, but found out the space bug-lizards have no appreciation for art; hence the decision to put the Tyranids right next to Chaos and the Necrons on the mandate to kill-on-sight-and-annoy-the-hell-out-of.
During The War of The Beast, Eldrad Ulthran sent a troupe of Harlequins to convey a message to the God-Emperor of Mankind, letting Him know that Chaos had to be treated as the primary threat and that the Imperial Fists successor chapters were on their way. Quite why he thought that anyone would care about the first half of the message whilst the Imperium was literally facing total annihilation at the hands of The Beast no one but Eldrad knows. In another fantastic demonstration of Eldar logic, the Harlequins he sent thought that the best way to pass the message along was to butcher 99% of the Humans they came across whilst shouting "Friendship! Friendship!" Understandably they didn't find willing ears whilst they were eviscerating Guardsmen and Custodians. In fairness the humans likely wouldn't have listened anyway but the Eldar plan was definitely the worst one they could have possibly went with considering all that it got them was meeting their end before the Eternity gate. Props for getting that far though. All of them wound up getting massacred eventually by the Custodes (not without getting some for themselves), save for Lhaeriel Ray, who was about to be slain by the Captain General save for the intervention of Grandmaster of Assassins Drakan Vangorich and Inquisitor Veritus. She was then brought to the ultra-secure Inquisition stronghold under the South Pole, to be interrogated and incarcerated for life. There she displayed a token from Vulkan, who had apparently given it to Eldrad to indicate "friendship" in some future crisis, and continued to reiterate that she came in peace and to send a message to the Emperor, who she said once counted the dick as a friend. Eventually, though, Inquisitor Weinand helped her escape to a shuttle where she went off to parts unknown, presumably carrying news of the whole affair and the situation on Terra back to Ulthwe.
The Final Act, A.K.A. The Last Troll
In recent years, the Harlequins' war against Chaos has been characterised by a newfound urgency. Full masques have become an ever more common sight among the stars. Appearing from the Webway, they can be found performing within the realms of their kin or battling the galaxy's disparate races in vicious campaigns of apparently random violence. As the 41st Millennium comes to a close, more and more Eldar vanish into the Webway, forsaking their former lives to take up the Harlequin's mask. The Harlequins' numbers are growing, and many among the Eldar wonder why. The truth is inspirational and terrifying in equal measure. At the very heart of the Black Library there lies a silver-lit vault. Therein stands a plinth made of finely graven obstinite, upon which rests a crystalline book said to contain the words of Cegorach himself. Since the Fall, the tome’s covers have remained closed, sealed shut with flickering chains of light. Yet now, long-awaited portents have come to pass. A fallen sorcerer seeks the lore of the library. A king stirs in his court of death and silence, preparing to rise once more. Within madness' eye, the champion of the Ruinous Powers prepares to seize a realm long denied. As the signs have come to pass, so the bands of light about the tome have flickered and died.
Now, at last, the tome has fallen open. Within its pages the Shadowseers have found a script, a secret final act that changes utterly the tale of the Fall. Penned in inks of light and shadow, these words present a slender hope, detailing an intricate, galaxy-spanning performance with the potential to change the fate of the Eldar race. Always, the strands of fate have pointed toward the victory of Chaos during the last, mythic battle known to the Eldar as the Rhana Dandra. Yet within the pages of the crystal tome is recorded Cegorach's ultimate and final jest, a way to trick Slaanesh into expending all her power not to destroy the Eldar, but to save them. How such an impossibility could come to pass is unclear, for on this matter the final act is infuriatingly vague. Yet the Harlequins take their god's words on faith alone, for their devotion to Cegorach is total and his methods beyond question or reproach. Thus they have begun the steps of this final dance, and will see it completed, or else face absolute destruction in the attempt.
This is now also likely the Eldar species’ final and only hope for survival, period, since Eldrad upgraded from dick to dumb dick and went and boned everything for them, failing in an attempt to awaken Ynnead early and ended up killing him, all the progress that had gone into him, and the infinity circuits of every craftworld, instead. Whoops. Course, this is probably precisely why the crystalline book opened in the first place, with Cegorach basically going “Oh dear, who could’ve seen that coming? Oh wait, I did, that’s why I have a plan B ready to go for you dumb shmucks. Let’s open it up shall we? And we’re keeping the Dick out of this one. That fuckup with Ynnead…even I think that wasn't funny.”
Until Eldrad didn't, of course. Ynnead seems to be doing just fine, if forming the Yncarne is any indication. Though the Harlequins are still working with them so maybe the plan to trick Slaanesh is still on. Or the Harlequins figure they might as well hedge their bets. If one plan fails, the other might succeed. Or it was the plan all along. In any case, they, like everyone else who understands the scale of the Imperium, may be dicks but aren't stupid enough to truly bring mankind's wrath down on them. Especially since the Inquisition has Inquisitors who know the location of the Black Library...In any case, they're more or less co-operating with the Ynnari though how much of this is honest and how much of it is just coincidence and how much of it is going to end up with the Craftworld Eldar getting a hilarious dose of their own backstabbing medicine is yet to be revealed. Assuming this plot thread isn't just dropped or ignored by GW, of course.
7th Edition introduced numerous subfactions of the Harlequins known as Masques. Masques are pretty small compared to most Warhammer subfactions, only consisting of about three squads or Troupes, each lead by a Troupe Master, plus support in the form of vehicles and specialist performers like Death Jesters and Shadowseers. To get an idea for the scale, the novella "The Masque of Vyle" stated that a Masque consisting of two dozen Harlequins was unusually large. The 8th Edition codex retconned this a little by saying that the named Masques were actually "Grand Masques" that contained multiple Masques within them, with each Masque acting as its own autonomous unit and the Midnight Sorrow being said to consist of "many dozens of Masques". Below is a list of the most well-known Masques.
- The Midnight Sorrow: The blue and red ones you see on the box covers. Are the most dedicated to fighting Chaos, and embrace their roles to the point where they lose all trace of their original identities. All their performances are about the dangers of Chaos to the point where the only acts they put on anymore are depictions of the Fall. Helped Eldrad with his ritual to summon Ynnead, and thus became the first Harlequins to support the Ynnari.
- The Veiled Path: Manipulative bastards, with a history of betrayal so great even other Harlequins don't trust them. Their most famous member is Sylandri Veilwalker, AKA clown Eldrad, whose schemes have manipulated figures ranging from Fabius Bile to Belisarius Cawl. Helped the Ynnari, but also helped Vect who views them as his greatest enemy so who the fuck knows what they're planning.
- The Frozen Stars: Strongly believes that the Eldar race can be saved and their empire rebuilt. Also believes all non-Eldar races are vermin who should be killed for the Laughing God's amusement.
- The Dreaming Shadow: Dedicated not to fighting Chaos but the Necrons. They are known to resent other Harlequins over their disagreement on who the true enemy is, but this sentiment is deliberately exaggerated. Most Harlequins see through this act and hold the Dreaming Shadow in high esteem regardless.
- The Soaring Spite: Dedicated to telling the tales of Cegorach's close ally known as the Cosmic Serpent. As such, are known for using a wide array of jetbikes and skimmers, Harlequin vehicles being named after the Cosmic Serpent's spawn. Are very close to the Craftworld Saim-Hann, supposedly because Saim-Hann's symbol is the Cosmic Serpent but really because both like to go fast.
- The Silent Shroud: A incredibly secretive masque that performs in complete silence. Not only do they not say a word, their weapons are muffled by technology and illusion, making battle against them disorientating and unnerving. As such, they specialize in stealth and terror tactics, like the Night Lords except specializing in the "bad LSD trip" form of horror instead of jumpscares and torture porn.
- The Dance Without End: This Masque specializes in performances that recount the deeds of Cegorach himself, and as such are believed to be the closest to the Laughing God of all his disciples. They were the first Masque to perform the dance representing the Fall of the Eldar. After all of this, they are also the Masque defending the webway and the Black Library more than any other, and if they dont know a path in the webway, no one does. Despite how this lore makes them sound really fucking important, don't have rules in 8th edition.
- The Shattered Mirage: Compared to The Frozen Stars, The Shattered Mirage believe the Eldar are totally fucked, performing dances that are extremely dark and fatalistic. Thanks to their outlook on life, their preferred tactics are to do as much damage as possible, with little regard for their own lives.
- The Twisted Path: These guys are known for letting their audience members into their plays, only to be spirited away by the Harlequins and never seen again. In battle, they often kidnap both enemies and allies as well as strike in the middle of warzones, sometimes leaving right before victory. They explain their actions with complex riddles and illogical analogies.
- The Reaper's Mirth: The most bloodthirsty of Masques, the Harlequins of The Reaper's Mirth see the battlefield as a canvas for their gory arts. Because of this, they have a larger proportion of Death Jesters among their ranks. They are known for committing atrocities like the Fountain of Crimson Tears, which was so horrible that an entire world had to be exterminatused. We can only guess what it was. Given stuff like that, it's doubtful the Craftworld or Exodite Eldar want anything to do with them. I mean, fuck that's Khornate if ever there was any.
Each Harlequin Masques is made up of a cast of players, that perform the many complex and intricate dances that retell the history, and the many myths of the Eldar species, each performances is led by a troupe master. These Harlequins make up the bulk of each Masque, supported by the Skyweavers, Voidweavers and Starweavers they make up the supporting cast, that without which, no performance could happen.
Shadowseers and Death Jesters take up prominent positions within each Masque but they still take up the role of secondary characters behind the Star Performers, who play the roles of the most important characters in Eldar History. At most the Shadowseer will represent or personify fate while the Death Jester does the same for death. Each of the Eldar Pantheon has a dedicated Eldar taking up their place within the performance, though only two have been revealed so far:
- The Solitaire - who takes up the role of Slaanesh. Literally anyone else who attempts the role will go insane, and Solitaires typically do not stay with a particular troop permanently.
- The so called Harlequin King- Who take up the role of Cegorach, the Laughing God itself; who even Lelith Hesperax doubts she could best. In lieu of the Harlequin King, a Troupe Master represents the Laughing God.
- Although not named, a new player has entered into the performance- who takes up the role of Ynnead.
If GW ever wanted to expand the range on the table top, they could easily turn the Harlequins into a small elite army of powerful Characters, supported by the weaker regular players; who doesn't want too see the Harlequin version of Khaine or Isha?
We're Our Own Army Now
7th edition saw Harlequins get to be their own Faction, with new models for all members of the troupe, plus new models and rules for the Solitaire and a new Eldar jetbike, the Skyweaver. There are also two new vehicles, the Starweaver (a transport) and the Voidweaver. In addition, Shadowseers got their own Psychic Discipline, Phantasmancy. Harlequins survived into 8th and became all sorts of more killy and speedy, and get to freely mingle with their Dark and Craftworld cousins thanks to sharing the Aeldari keyword. Let the show go on!
Now with our own faction creation tables.
|Forces of the Harlequins|
|Command:||High Avatar - High Warlock |
Shadowseer - Solitaire
|Troops:||Black Guardian - Death Jester - Master Mime |
Mime - Troupe Master - Trouper - Warlock
|Vehicles:||Black Guardian War Walker - Black Guardian Vyper |
Jetbike - Skyweaver - Starweaver
Venom - Voidweaver
|Allies:||Dark Eldar - Eldar|
|Playable Factions in Warhammer 40,000|
|Imperium:||AdMech:||Adeptus Mechanicus - Mechanicus Knights|
|Army:||Imperial Guard - Imperial Knights - Imperial Navy - Militarum Tempestus - Space Marines|
|Inquisition:||Inquisition - Sisters of Battle - Deathwatch - Grey Knights|
|Other:||Adeptus Custodes - Adeptus Ministorum - Death Cults - Officio Assassinorum - Sisters of Silence|
|Chaos:||Chaos Daemons - Chaos Space Marines - Lost and the Damned - Chaos Knights|
|Xenos:||Aeldari:||Dark Eldar - Eldar - Eldar Corsairs - Harlequins - Ynnari|
|Tyranids:||Genestealer Cults - Tyranids|
|Others:||Necrons - Orks - Tau|