Religion in the Dragon Age, part 2: the tragedy of oppression

I wrote a post some time ago titled “Religion in the Dragon Age: what a fantasy RPG tell us about religion” in which I discussed how religion was still questionable in the world of Dragon Age: Origins; one  that is filled with all sorts of supernatural phenomenon. I recently finished playing the sequel to DAO, cleverlynamed Dragon Age 2, where you play as a human named Hawke. It spends considerably more time dealing with the topic of religion, but it approaches it in a more subtle manner, preferring allegory to outright discussion. As with the previous post, a warning is necessary: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. If you have not played this game yet and intend to, DO NOT READ FURTHER as my discussion here will spoil much of the game. If you aren’t familiar with the games and don’t intend to play them, I recommend reading the original article first because I lay out some definitions and background there that I assume the audience already knows here.

Kirkwall City Crest

Kirkwall City Crest (1)

The story takes place in a town called Kirkwall, in which tensions are high between various factions in the city that lead to disastrous results. There is a group of (non-human) people called the Qunari who have taken up residence in Kirkwall, much to the dismay of the (human) nobles. There are also two groups called the Circle of Magi and the soldiers who guard them, called the Templars (not the same as the real Knights Templar) that are in conflict. You play as a human of noble descent, but lost his/her (her in my case) nobility due to your mother running off with a mage not of noble descent.

In the world of Thedas, mages are viewed with suspicion and fear because they are susceptible to possession by demons from the Fade. They are not viewed like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, who is revered to say the least. Because of this threat, mages are required to join a Circle, which is an organization in which mages are trained and kept. Think of military school. Mages are required to be in the Circle for their entire life, and anyone who leaves is branded as an apostate and hunted down by the Templars. Apostates who are caught are usually sent back to the Circle, but they are also commonly killed on site.

Abomination

Abomination (1)

A mage that has been possessed by a demon is called an abomination. Once a mage becomes an abomination, it is almost impossible to save the mage. There is only one recorded incidence of an abomination being saved in both games that I am aware of. In every other incidence, of which there are many, the abominations are simply killed. Some mages are more at risk to being possessed by a demon than others. Those who are deemed to be at greater risk are made tranquil by the Templars, usually without the mage’s consent. A mage is made tranquil by cutting them off from the Fade, which has the effect of also removing their personalities. Making a mage tranquil is a direct reference to Lobotomies performed on the mentally ill in the mid 20th century, and produces almost the exact same result.

The mages, of course, don’t like this. They are basically kept as prisoners in the Circle, and all races, whether human, qunari, elves, or dwarves, are hostile towards mages. In Dragon Age 2, the leader of the Kirkwall Templar branch, Knight Commander Meredith, is extremely overzealous in her attempts to control the mages. This results in the mages pushing back, resulting in an all-out war. There is a type of magic called blood magic that uses blood of the living to power its spells. It is a dangerous type of magic because it increases the chance of becoming an abomination, however it is also very powerful. During the war, many of the mages resort to blood magic to defend themselves, some meeting with disastrous consequences as a result. The oppressed resorting to desperate actions that they would not normally do to save themselves is a prevalent theme in this part of the story.

The Qunari are a race of beings from the north (iirc) that have their own set of beliefs separate from the Chantry. They don’t believe in any supernatural elements to to life aside from those that can be proven, such as magic. Significantly, they don’t believe in any deities which sets them apart from those of the Chantry. Sounds great, right? Not so fast. The Qunari are a part of what they call the Qun. The Qun can be summarized as a code of honor or conduct, but I don’t think that fully describes it. It is a state of mind, as much as anything. The Qunari submit to the Qun become part of a broader way of life. In the Qun, everything and everyone has a defined purpose. There is no question what someone is supposed to do, or how they are supposed to act. Everyone’s role is predefined, without possibility of choice. To the Qunari, life is simple and they take great pride in having “clarity of purpose.” In fact, people are not seen as individuals, but rather a part of a singular entity that is greater than them.

The Arishok

The Arishok: a Qunari leader (1)

This view of life is attractive for many, and so they choose to join the Qun voluntarily. One prime example is Tallis, an elf who joins the Qun because she felt aimless and without direction. Of course, this puts the Qunari at great odds with the Chantry because the they are stealing followers from the Chantry. A group of Qunari are staying in Kirkwall as part of an ongoing mission to retrieve some item of some sort (not really important what). The population of Kirkwall mostly believes in the Maker, which fuels an us-vs-them attitude among the population and creating a lot of tension between the groups. After a series of inciting incidents, large scale fighting breaks out between the mostly human Chantry supporters and the mostly Qunari and elf Qun members. In the end, the Qunari are all slain in the defense of Kirkwall, with Hawke playing a key role in the fighting.

What is most interesting to me are the events that lead to the fighting. Some of the humans wanted to fight the Qunari, but the leadership of Kirkwall wanted to avoid fighting at all costs. The Qunari, on the other hand, had no “wants” so to speak, but rather had no choice but to fight once a series of events occurred. It didn’t matter what the reality of the situation was, the certainty of the Qun required them to fight. Whether or not they all died, and whether or not innocent people were killed was irrelevant given their collectivist mindset since, of course, the individual is not important to them. This is the danger with such absolutists collective views, and many of the real-world religions have this mentality.

The Qunari aren’t representative of any one particular real world religion or group, but certainly contain aspects of truth from a wide variety of groups. There is similarity with communism considering the whole “part of a collective” bit, although I would say it’s more Brave New World than 1984. The way that members of the Qun describe it, though, makes it much more akin to a traditional religion than a governmental model. People who die for the Qun are very much dying for “their” beliefs, even if those beliefs are shared by all in the Qun. The Qun members are very fervent about their beliefs and that the Qun is the “right” way. In fact, the Qun feel that conquering other peoples and forcing them to join the Qun is actually their way of “liberating” these people and doing them a favor. During a mission, I heard a very telling discussion between two of my party members, Tallis, a Qun member, and Anders, an apostate mage:

Anders: You just… woke up one day and decided “what I really need in life is someone telling me everything I should think?”

Tallis: It wasn’t that easy. Haven’t you ever looked at the world and wondered where the justice is? the equality? In the Qun, everyone is welcome. Elves, humans. It doesn’t matter what you look like, where you come from, there’s a place for you.

Anders: Unless your a mage.

Tallis: You won’t find that anywhere else in Thedas.

This game really shows the dangers of ideology, and what happens when one group oppresses another. It doesn’t matter if the reason for oppression is worthwhile or not; oppression often leads to violence, and that is something we should always be mindful of. DA2 shows what happens when ideology is allowed to run rampant, and the results are tragic indeed.

(1) “Dragon Age Wiki.” Dragon Age Wiki. Available: http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/Dragon_Age_Wiki

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