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Thedas Studies #2: Elven Mages and Spaces of Resistance in Thedosian Society

[MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE DRAGON AGE SERIES]

(For the sake of this entry assume the Warden from DA:Origins is a Circle of Magi elf mage and the Inquisitor from DA:Inquisition is a Dalish mage)

As I mentioned in the first Thedas Studies piece, Thedas is a settler colonized society where Elves in the collapse of their own civilization were enslaved and oppressed by humans. Whereas the essence of being elven before the Veil was tied directly to magic, human settler society that attempted to replace them instead developed over time to become generally anti-magic. One of the legacies of the rise of the Chantry and anti-mage logics in a deeply anti-elven society is how elven mages are treated by both their elven and human counterparts. One would assume that elven mages would be most oppressed because of their unmatched potential to overturn the settler colonial system with their powers, but there are spaces where elven mages operate outside these systems. In my opinion, those spaces not fully under the control of the Chantry or Thedosian governments might serve in the future as spaces for elven resistance and resurgence. In this piece I want to begin exploring those spaces and possibilities by looking at how Thedosian society interacts with two classes of elven mages, Elven mage Grey Wardens and Dalish Elven Keepers.

For those that are unfamiliar with the Grey Wardens, they are a society of warriors from all species and classes that work to protect Thedas from the Blight and Darkspawn by becoming part Darkspawn themselves. Coming into being during the 1st Blight, they are unique in Thedas for having signed treaties with every political power on the continent granting them the ability to appropriate almost any resource necessary to stopping a Blight including people. Among the ranks of the Grey Wardens is almost always some Circle mages and often even mages branded as maleficarum and/or apostates. These mages are not only crucial as weapons of war but also serve specific functions for the Wardens including conducting the ritual that create Grey Wardens themselves. These rituals would otherwise be illegal per Chantry law since they involve blood magic, but because of the Warden’s treaties they are allowed to act without censure.

What does the above have to do with Elven and Mage oppression? As we see with the Hero of Ferelden (HoF) and her companions, the status of being a Grey Warden even in a hostile situation as we saw during the 5th Blight, overwrites most of the other statuses individuals hold. The HoF often encountered Templars, Ferelden soldiers, nobility and other authorities that would under any other circumstance either have killed her on sight or arrested her to be thrown into the nearest Circle prison. With the protection that Grey Warden status gives them, we see elves among their ranks engage in a range of work and behavior that they otherwise could not. The HoF in particular, showed that an elf could become the most powerful warrior in Ferelden and even fell a Archdemon. The problem is that these people become exceptionals and their exploits credited to their association with the Grey Wardens not their elveness. In that they can unfortunately be seen to be reinforcing, not subverting Humans’ oppressive beliefs about Elves by crediting a human majority organization with their “uplift.”

The Dalish provide another example where Elven mages are able to live outside the bounds of human settler society. The Dalish as a culture built on reclaiming and recreating as much of their pre-colonial society as possible have built an unique leadership structure. The Dalish are split into numerous clans who have little interaction with each other so as to avoid human repression. Because of this form of organization Keepers were created to lead each clan and coordinate among other clans when they do come together. Keepers are all mages and serve both to lead the clan politically but also interpret and interact with magical elven artifacts and sites that the clan comes across. Each clan in addition to a Keeper has a First (and Second) that succeeds the Keeper when they die. Any other mages are expelled from the clan for fear of both Templar attention and the increased risk of demonic possession by having more mages around. The Dalish both represent a form of resistance against the anti-mage order while also engaging in some of those same dominant tropes (e.g risk of abominations) to supposedly protect the clan.

Acknowledging the above, Dalish culture choosing mages as leaders and training them in magic that has not originated in the Circle is far outside the bound of how the Chantry and most humans think that societies should operate. The fact that the Dalish can live this way without many of the same dysfunctions or carceral systems as we see in human mage society also stands as a critique against the Chantry order.

What are the implication of these two classes of people existing in Thedosian society? In both cases we see spaces where elven mages are allowed to not only exist and survive, but thrive. This is dangerous for Chantry ruled society for one key reason which is that for the Chantry to rule and maintain control it depends on omnipresence and omniscience. Specifically the circles and alienages serve as spaces that circumscribe how these oppressed people can engage in the world. Templars can only suppress the magic that they know exists. This is why Knight-Commander Meredith in Kirkwall (before encountering red lyrium) resorted to extreme carceral behavior in response to mage resistance tactics that nobody had seen before (e.g. forcing demons to possess templars). This is why elves in alienages are forced to worship the Maker so that they never develop a culture outside of humanity’s walls. This is why the language of “apostates” and “heretics” are so important. They are words and labeling that activate social systems that prevent mages/elves from ever acting in a way that can’t be controlled or countered by the Chantry, Templars, and human nobles. This is precisely why Grey Wardens and the Dalish are so dangerous; they aren’t bound by these rules and neither are any of their members.

What would happen if the Dalish ever came together and decided to use their accumulated knowledge to address their dispossession? What would happen if the Elven mage Warden-Commander decided that in order to protect from the Blight that the wider political order of Thedas needs to change (a la her influence on Alistair becoming king of Ferelden)? The Chantry may have the remnants of the Seekers and Templar Order to depend on in the face of open conflict but as we saw during the Mage-Templar War sociopolitical orders don’t need to be completely overwhelmed by force to crack and collapse anyways. Considering the new spaces of possibility created by the Inquisition and the return of Fen’Harel to Thedas, these ‘wildcard’ organizations and classes of individuals will have more (radical) ways to change things going forward for better or worse.

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