Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Social Satire of Dragon Age: Mages and Templars part 1

Part 2
Part 3

    As has been mentioned many times before in this blog, I am a huge fan of the Dragon Age series. I have purchased all of the games, DLC, novels, and comics. It's a world which builds very much off the Dungeons and Dragons aesthetics and it does it well.

    This is no surprise since the same people who made Dragon Age also made Baldur's Gate, one of the all-time best RPGs of all time. I think Dragon Age is an improvement over that, not the least because you can romance the red-headed rogue. However, what sort of social commentary can be found in a setting filled with dwarves and elves?

    Quite a lot, in fact.

    The chief example of this and the focus of today's essay is going to be the often debated subject of Templars vs. Mages. It was a minor issue in Dragon Age: Origins but became a major focus of the storyline in Dragon Age 2 (indeed, some would say too much focus was paid to it). It's a conflict with much nuance and the source of many heated debates on the internet. Unlike many such arguments, there's a larger issue at stake which the conflict serves as a good metaphor for.

    Specifically, Freedom versus Security.

    For the purposes of this essay, we will define freedom as a rite of self-determination and control over one's body. There is also the freedom of property, both owning it as well as accumulating it. All of these will be addressed within this, rather lengthy, three-part essay.

    Security will be defined as the protecting the greater public good, including freedoms for those individuals not having theirs' restricted. For example, locking up a slaver so he doesn't enslave other people. This essay will not attempt to forward either quality as inherently superior but understand all functioning societies contain a mixture of both.

    To understand this conflict, we need to understand the full scope of the issue and that will require an analysis of both sides' relationship to the other. This is going to be a lengthy discussion so please bear with me. Note: the use of the term satire refers to humorous works by but I find the label appropriate here given the use of fantasy characters to stand in for other issues. Others may disagree and are welcome to do so.

    The premise of the Templar and Mage conflict begins with individuals in the world of Dragon Age being born with magic rather than taught it. The powers manifest at adolescence and often in violent, destructive ways. In Dragon Age: Asunder, we encounter a child who killed her parents by summoning a fireball. This is the least of their dangers, however, as mages are a beacon to extra-dimensional monsters in the Fade (termed "demons" by the dominate religions of the continent).

The destructive power of mages.
    Mages who are possessed by a demon are called "Abominations" and present the single greatest threat to life in the setting after Dragons and the Darkspawn. We encounter our first Abomination in a young boy named Connor who is a Mage not sent to the Circle. Making a pact with a demon to save the life of his father, Connor is transformed into a Damien Thorne-style horror which summons hordes of the undead to serve him and mind-controls individuals to serve him in degrading ways.

    Without the heroes, its very possible Connor is capable of killing all life in a medium-sized village. We hear of another Abomination from Knight Commander Meredith, her own sister in fact, who destroys much of a town before she's put down. Meredith's family had concealed her from the Templars, only for her freedom to become a nightmare. Demons are wily creatures too and we see a young girl befriend a talking cat that, if freed, will promptly possess her and walk around in her body like a new suit.

The face of evil.
    The solution in Thedas is that all mages, once identified, are taken to the Circles. The Circles are, ostensibly, mage-run facilities where the children are educated in the safe use of their powers. Much like Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Mutants, children learn the dangers of their abilities but how to use them for the benefit of mankind. In a more light-hearted setting, this would be the end of it. Unfortunately, Dragon Age is "Dark Fantasy" and realism has a habit of on minorities divorced from the larger community by circumstances beyond their control.

    The Circles are run by mages but they are controlled by the Templars. A religious order of knights dedicated to Andraste, a messianic figure who overthrew a tyrannical magic-using regime, the Templars have authority to execute mages who they suspect of having been corrupted by demons.

    Mages have the option of being given a sort of "magical lobotomy" which removes the ability of mages to feel emotions but renders them immune to being possessed. This is called being made Tranquil. Theoretically, a Templar is only supposed to kill or Tranquil those mages who have succumb to possession, evil, or are too weak to safely use their powers.

    The public has a vested interest in making sure the mages are taken from their families to be placed in the Circles. Not only for their own safety but the safety of the mage in question. Quote-unquote "normal" subjects do not have the education to teach mage children about the dangers they might face.

    However, as we discuss later in this essay, Circle mages are not allowed to teach their own children either. One of the most well-adjusted and moral mages in the franchise, Bethany Hawke, was taught by her apostate father Malcolm Hawke. The suitability of the parents doesn't matter, however. Instead, the mages are only able to be trusted by the Dragon Age public within the confines of the Circle.

The terror of the Templars.
     Much like in our world, the difference between what a person is supposed to do and what they actually do is quite different. Templars and Mages are both, with the exception of elves, only human and capable of both flawed judgement, prejudice, as well as corruption.

    In Dragon Age, we see how all these qualities come together to make an excellent metaphor for the struggle between Freedom and Safety which has been a conflict since the first days of society. Indeed, Dragon Age is one of my favorite fictional depictions of this struggle since it manages to avoid most of the prejudices and assumptions which come inherent to these discussions.

    The first issue is being a mage is a life-sentence. For reasons a mage cannot help and they were born with, they are separated from their families and forced to live away from society for the rest of their lives. While certain mages, such as Senior Enchanter Wynne, are given freedom to wander Thedas unguarded, the majority of them can never leave the Circle towers.

    During the Fifth Blight of Dragon Age: Origins, less than a dozen mages were released from the Circle to fight an apocalyptic zombie-like threat despite the lore saying thousands of mages lived there. Indeed, the Templars are one of the most formidable fighting forces in all of Thedas but do not participate in fighting the Blight unless your Warden exterminates the mages they're supposed to guard.

    The Templars consider their duty of supervising mages to trump their obligation of helping stop the end of the world. Any mage who flees the Circles or never goes in the first place is hunted down. These mages are called Apostates and the religious connotations of their label are deliberate.

    Note: Mages have powers of healing in addition to their power to destroy and we only see them utilize this ability in rare occasions. The Apostate Anders uses his powers to assist refugees while Wynne uses them to assist the heroes of Origins. We also see mages heal the Pope-equivalent of Thedas in Dragon Age: Asunder. It is telling only the renegade mage is actively serving the public. The fact these gifts are denied to the common people due to Chantry paranoia is troubling and highlight mages have much good to give the world as well as evil.

    Next, the Templars are hardly unbiased figures regarding the mages. The Chant of Light, equivalent to the Bible in Thedas, is a book whose first stanza is a prohibition against mages using their powers to rule over mankind and that they should serve it instead.

    The prejudice of the Chantry against magic-users and their beliefs is brought home with the Mage Origin where the protagonist encounters a woman deep in prayer. The Player Character may join her, or not, but will discover either way that she is praying for the Maker (The Chantry's god) to take away her magic. The comparison to homosexuality is an easy enough one to make and troubling. This mage, at least, has been taught to hate herself by society and the Chantry in particular.

Someone who had their child removed from them. Also, one of the gentlest mages in the world. Similarly, she's possessed.
    More troubling is the fact that mages are forbidden from child-rearing. Children born in Circles are taken away from their parents and raised in Chantry orphanages. Orson Scott Card, an ironic choice for writing Dragon Age-fiction and mage-fiction in in particular given the homosexual parallels,  focused on the traumatizing nature of this in the Dragon Age comic.

    While one might argue the Circles are inherently dangerous places for children, the denial of one's right to be a parent has several nasty real-life parallels where ethnic groups had their children stolen to be raised by "proper" families. One might view it as a soft-form of genocide with the idea that mages will cease reproducing and someday cease to exist. At the very least, it limits their numbers as we discover magic is passed down within the blood, and prevents them from growing as a subculture.

    Kirkwall's mages are not only forbidden from raising their children but all forms of sexual contact period. Even children who display magic themselves often never learn who their parents are as we discover with Wynne only identifying herself to her son Rhys decades later.

    The prejudice of Templars against mages is confirmed with Ser Alrik, an extremist radical amongst them, who believes all mages should be made Tranquil (eye-rollingly called "The Tranquil Solution"). While there is indications he wants to do this because of illegal (by Templar law) desire to sexually abuse his charges, there is a statement by several Tranquil that he believed this action was the only way to save their souls from the Void (the Chantry's version of damnation).

The worst of the Templars.
     The latter, at least, indicates a truly deep and overwhelming bias against magi. We discover Ser Alrik is not the only one to take sexual advantage of his charges with Ser Karras being confirmed as yet another Templar who does these sorts of actions. Other Templars may become involved in sexual relationships with magi but these seem to be consensual and are beyond the scope of this article.

    Then there is the Rite of Annulment, which the Templars are given for the purposes of exterminating every single man, woman, and child within a Circle if it is completely lost to corruption. Theoretically, this is to prevent Abominations from escaping into the public at large.

    We see one such incident almost happen with the Circle of Magi in Ferelden. Senior Enchanter Uldred attempts a revolt against the Circle system and due to careless use of Blood Magic, accidentally gets himself possessed as well as the majority of his charges.

    The deformed monsters which result could have easily spread beyond the Circle to infect the public at large. Only the Grey Warden's possible intervention prevents the mages from being wholesale massacred as the Templars are not possessed of the skill or knowledge to free the Circle (nor desire).

    The problems with this are obvious as no attempt is made to differentiate between those actually possessed and those who have escaped such a condition. The greater public good, according to the Templars, requires that some children may die so that a situation like Connor's doesn't occur. Given demons are capable of trickery, this is a justifiable argument.

    Justifiable but not right.

    The Rite of Annulment is not applied only to circles lost to corruption, however. The Rivain Circle of Magi is exterminated by the Templar Order for what is likely a variety of reasons including spirit-possession, increased contact between mages and humans, as well as the tensions between the Templar as well as Circle system following the Kirkwall Incident in Dragon Age 2. There is no indication the Circle was completely lost to corruption, however, so the Templars acted out of religious conviction versus the events described above with Uldred.

Life as an abomination may well be worse than death.
    Senior Enchanter Wynne illustrates spirit possession does not have to result in a psychotic monster. The truth about spirits is obscured for the purposes of religious doctrinal purity. The Kirkwall Annulment is a muddier issue as it is performed with questionable means following an act of mage terrorism.

    The dubiousness of the Annulment in Kirkwall, however, is a moot point since the Templars proceeded to enact it anyway until the point Knight Commander Meredith's madness was clear. Either way, the Templars have the legal authority to commit a mass execution which has been enacted many times in the past. The awareness of this is something Dragon Age players would be hard-pressed to miss given they have the option of participating in two.

    The issue of Lyrium Withdrawal also comes up when dealing with Templars and their ability to make sound judgements. While the original game of Dragon Age: Origins has Alistair explain that Templars do not need lyrium to supplement their anti-magic abilities, comics and interviews have since confirmed this has been retconned.

    Templars require a steady supply of lyrium in order to provide them the supernatural abilities which allow them to silence, bind, and defeat mages. As Alistair explains, they don't view this as magic since it comes an outside source and doesn't apparently increase their risk of demonic possession. It's also an ability which exists only in relationship to stopping magic versus using it.

    The first question question is whether lyrium can actually be used to supplement other kinds of magic than Templar abilities. We know that Dragons blood can function similarly, bestowing the powers of Reaverdom on those who drink it. If humans in Thedas can gain the powers of magic without the risk of demonic possession, shouldn't this be encouraged? Are Templars limiting themselves to anti-magic simply because of cultural tradition? If they are only able to use able to perform anti-magic effects, none of these are issues but it answers to these questions are relevant.

    Secondarily, and more insidiously, is the case of lyrium addiction. Lyrium is said to increase paranoia, obsession, and (in cases) cause dementia. Like actual real-life drugs, there are side-effects to altering one's body chemistry. While most Templars seem to be perfectly rationale like Ser Gregoir and Ser Cullen, almost all of their decisions become questionable while under the influence. One could make an argument for or against the Ferelden Annulment, for example, based on Ser Gregoir's belief he could only trust First Enchanter Irving's word on the subject.

    Worse, is the case of lyrium withdrawal which can render a destitute mess as we see in Dragon Age 2. While King Alistair, despite the retcon, is able to go off lyrium with seemingly no ill-effects, he ultimately returns to using it in the comics. Ser Evangeline also suggests that she cannot leave the Templar Order lest she continue taking lyrium indefinitely. In effect, joining the Templar Order is as much a life-sentence as becoming a mage.

       The price of the Templar Order's existence is a crippling addiction which has mind-altering effects but, also, provides Thedas with some of its best anti-mystical warriors. Can their judgement be trusted because of this and is it immoral to leave them enslaved to lyrium.

    The Templar Order is able to survive despite its separation from the Chantry in Dragon Age: Asunder but it is still dependent on lyrium, which raises new questions. In Origins we encounter a Carta Smuggling ring and mages bribing Templars with lyrium. Does it have addictive qualities too or were they building up a private stock for just this sort of occasion?

    It's a question to ponder.

     Finally, on the Templars' side of things at least, there are the dual issues of the Harrowing and Tranquility. We will cover these along with Blood Magic, Mage Terrorism, and Self-Determination in Part 2 of The Social Satire of Dragon Age: Mages and Templars.

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