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


(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.

Thedas Studies #1: Is Thedas A Settler Colonized Continent?

[This article contains MASSIVE spoilers for the entire Dragon Age series]

I’m one of the Dragon Age players that spent as much time in the Codex reading the well written lore around the in-game world as I did actually playing the game. I’m also a sociologist who studies settler colonialism and urban racial inequality so of course I decided to nerd out by applying my sociological training to studying the world of Thedas during the Dragon Age. So this post is the first in a series I’m calling “Thedas Studies”. So let’s get into it!

For this first post I wanted to deal with the fundamental issue of whether Thedas is a settler colonized continent or not. I think this is an important question to ask because defining what the basic reality of this world is informs how we as people engage with everything else happening within it. For example when we define a society as a “democracy” vs a “dictatorship” we interact with social problems within them, such as police brutality, very differently. This difference in framing social problems can include  ignoring them completely as onlookers and analysts. I will argue below that Thedas is a settler colonized continent and that our analyses of the game world, human/elven relations, needs to be understood within this context.

So what is settler colonialism and how do we recognize it’s existence? Settler colonialism is a form of colonization where the invading regime/population seeks to build a civilization on conquered land vs simply extracting resources and/or ruling over the indigenous population. Settler colonialism is almost by definition always genocidal in nature, where the invaders seeks to eradicate the indigenous population physically, culturally, and genetically from the land so their own descendents can take up permanent residence. In the real world examples of settler colonies include the entirety of the western hemisphere including the US, New Zealand, Australia, and other nations. All of these nations engage in a pattern of eradication/slavery, asserting sovereignty over the land, and in most cases attempting to erase the act of conquest itself and trying to naturalize their presence upon indigenous land.

Looking back to Thedas we clear evidence of at least the replacement of an indigenous population with a foreign one. Dalish oral histories, accounts gathered by the Inquisitor while he explored The Crossroads, and first hand accounts given to the Inquisitor by Solas/Fen’Harel all state that the original inhabitants of Thedas (at least above ground) was the Elves and their civilization of Elvhenan. After Solas attempted to free Elves from the rule of the Gods by creating the Veil, the whole civilization was thrown into chaos with massive losses of life. Some time after the creation of the Veil humans showed up in Thedas, perhaps from Par Vollen or some other unknown place. As elves and humans came into contact elves realized that their immortality beginning to disappear and thus withdrew from contact with humans. Over the next thousand or so years, human tribes grew and took land from elves, enslaving those they captured. Humanity’s rise in power and land base coalesced into the Tevinter Imperium. From that point Tevinter conquered the rest of elven held territory and enslaved the entire species. In this way it is clear that humans engaged in a protracted settler colonial campaign of extermination and enslavement. So on a basic level, Thedas at least under the Imperium was indeed settler colonized.

Some complications come up tho. Abelas for example argues that elven civilization already ended before the humans took over, denying that they conquered anything/anybody really. But I suspect that like Solas, Abelas doesn’t really see modern elves without their Fade enhanced existence as ‘real’ elves and therefore “his people” already died off before Tevinter showed up. There’s also the issue of the Dales, which was given to Elves by Andraste for their assistance in overthrowing the Imperium. The Dales was a sovereign kingdom that was eventually conquered and annexed into Orlais. Does the existence of the Dales= decolonization? What about the rest of the continent that never went back into elven hands? I would argue that decolonization is never complete until the entire settler regime, and in the case of Thedas, its successor states (Ferelden or Antiva etc) are all dismantled. As far as ancient elves like Solas is concerned, none of Thedas rightfully belong to humans or Qunari for that fact. Not to mention that since the Dales got reconquered by Orlais, elves were again fully settler colonized having no sovereign territory of their own (alienages damn sure don’t count lol).

Aside from the land grabs we also see cultural genocide with humans forcing the Chant onto elves, destruction of elven artifacts and structures, as well as a writing of history that denies the pre-contact elven presence on the land. Cultural genocide also includes cultural appropriation and theft. Archon Thalsian, first human blood mage and creator of the Old Gods religion, was argued to be taught blood magic by elves. He then used this power to destroy the elven civilization. He and other Tevinter magisters tried to pass this power off as being gifted to them by the Old Gods when it was the people they enslaved who taught it to them. It stands to speculate how many more spells, technology, and artifacts humans expropriated from elves while enslaving them and denying them access to that same knowledge/resource.

Resistance to settler colonialism in Thedas abounds. There’s the Dalish who engaged in grand marronage, refusing to allow themselves to fall under human authority. They practice what aspects of their culture they could reimagine, recover, retain after over 1000 years of slavery. Although they are the most extreme/obvious example of elven resistance, there are other smaller forms of elven resistance within human society. For example there’s the Halamshiral uprising that occurred in 9:40 Dragon. Connected to that uprising is Briala’s, Empress Celene’s spymaster, group of elven spies who actively engage in subterfuge against human interests. There are also regular uprisings in alienages across Thedas because of poor starvation conditions human rulers keep them under. Lastly there’s Solas’s efforts to undo the Veil which will necessarily kill most of the people in Thedas and presumably lead to elves gaining back their powers/immortality.

Things that I didn’t address above but will in subsequent pieces were elf-blooded folks (human-elven children) and how they fit into the settler regime, the layered relationship of Orlais colonizing their neighbors/ Ferelden nationalism in light of them all being on stolen elven land, the desire of the Qunari to settler colonized Thedas for themselves, as well as how claims to land are complicated by Dwarves and their presences under Thedas. I would also like to address the complications of even the claim to a place called Thedas considering that before the Veil the entire dimension and geometry of the world was radically different to the point where one could question whether “Thedas” was even a thing then (similar Abelas’ issue with calling modern elves “elves” even though they are missing their ingrain magic abilities).

Overall the continent is in a state of unrest and depending on world state there have been elves named Hero of Ferelden and Inquisitor respectively upsetting the taken for granted social positioning of elves. With many elves moving to follow Solas, and the ongoing rebellions in places like Denerim, and the uncovering of large fragments of elven history over the course of the Dragon Age, I’m sure calls for elven sovereignty or more engagement in petite/grand marronnage will be seen in Thedas.