Thursday, August 24, 2017

An Implement of Destruction: Forging the Iron Bull

Cole: Do you think about how to kill everyone you meet?
The Iron Bull: Do you not?
Charming and confident, The Iron Bull is miles away in
personality from the painfully guarded Sten of DAO. He
really, really loves dragons. (And redheads.)
I adore all of our companions in Dragon Age: Inquisition, but my favorite among them all for sheer complexity is The Iron Bull ("I like having an article at the front," he notes. "It makes it sound like I'm not even a person, just a mindless weapon, an implement of destruction."). Voiced in a funny, sophisticated, and scene-stealing performance by Freddie Prinze, Jr., Bull is a richly drawn and integral DAI companion, and as another character written by Patrick Weekes, he's both the flip side and mirror of Solas, as well as one of the best and most surprising characters I've ever encountered in the fantasy genre, whether in books, films, or games.

When we first meet Bull, he's bashing his way through a rainy, bloody skirmish on the dark terrain of Ferelden's Storm Coast. At first, he seems pretty easy to define—he's a hulking, formidable mercenary for hire, our latest representative in the Dragon Age trilogy of the Qunari, the warlike people with Fascist and Communistic undertones that follows the religious and political tenets of the Qun. It's a race and culture that we've already come to know since Dragon Age: Origins through previous characters Sten (the rigid companion, soldier and future leader of DAO) and the Arishok (the terrifying, yet respectful adversary of Dragon Age II).

Funny, blunt, and seemingly more emancipated from his restrictive culture than the others of his race that we've met, Bull is a decidedly new and different face of the Qunari, and he brings along a diverse, ragtag gang of superbly trained fighters called the Bull's Chargers. The main thing to take away is that this guy who's so confident, hilarious, and sexually freewheeling is miles away from the narrow, painfully guarded Sten of Dragon Age: Origins (and I say this as someone who loves Sten), and he heralds a much more nuanced and occasionally terrifying understanding of the Qunari and their very real threat to Thedas as a whole in this new story chapter.

As we first get to know him, Bull certainly doesn't seem like much of a threat, as he's also almost laughably transparent about his allegiances. Right away, within minutes of meeting the Inquisitor, for instance, Bull admits that he's a spy, an agent of the Qunari organization called the Ben-Hassrath (essentially their secret police). He's letting us know this, he admits, because he wants our trust—he'll report back to his headquarters at Par Vollen—nothing important, nothing we'd mind him passing along—and he'll then share information with us in return, while bringing a significant advantage to the Inquisition's forces.

It seems like a fair trade, and let's face it, he doesn't seem like much of a concern as far as his undercover work, since he's informed us at the get-go. Bull then seamlessly assimilates into the daily life of the Inquisition, and he's all too quickly a powerful leader and warrior—an essential companion to bring on our party's missions, fights and expeditions.

All well and good, right?

The Life (and Death) of the Party
It's easy to forget that Bull's an agent of a potentially devastating
and hostile force. As well as the smartest person in the room
Yet while Bull seems to be nothing more than the canny muscle, the life of the party who drinks, laughs, and loves bad puns and fart jokes, he's much more than that. If we're paying attention as the story progresses, we'll very quickly begin to realize that the funny, personable, and brutal warrior in our midst may also actually be the smartest and most perceptive person in the room—at the very least, in a tie with Solas. And what makes this so fascinating is that it's all wrapped up in this big, scarred one-eyed guy from a Fascist society that's openly bent on conquering the world. 

And his future is poised on a knife-edge.

While Bull certainly is what he appears to be—a gifted fighter, drinker, jokester, and lover (who is refreshingly and blithely pansexual), there's also a lot more to him. A brilliant battle tactician who's also a keen and nuanced observer of human nature, Bull's not only incredibly funny and a must to take in your crew (his banter with your companions is delightful), he's also utterly without sexism—he calls your female Inquisitor 'Boss' with total respect and sincerity, for instance. He also shows sensitivity and loyalty toward his companions, is deeply moved by the carnage in the landscapes around him, and his glee at just seeing a dragon is one of my favorite moments in the entire game. "Today is a good day!" he cries. "Today is a very good day!"

But those moments just scratch the surface of The Iron Bull as a character, as they are as much about what he wants us to see as they are about who he actually is.

Madness and Mayhem: Bull's History
Bull's been training to be a spy since, basically, childhood.
No, that's not terrifying at all.
We learn a lot about Bull's childhood throughout DAI, piece by piece, if we pay attention to his conversations with the Inquisitor and other companions (especially Cole). From those, we know that he was a caregiver at an early age growing up under the Qun—Qunari children are not raised by their parents, but communally, in schools, by tamassrans, the female Qunari rulers and priestesses. Here, even as child, it was noticed that Bull was always looking out for the younger or smaller children. He was quickly recognized for his cleverness and perceptivity, nicknamed Ashkaari (or "One Who Thinks," in Qunlat) and selected for training under the elite and mysterious spymasters and fighters known as the Ben-Hassrath.

Once grown and a part of the Ben-Hassrath, Bull quickly began to make a name for himself. He was funny and charming, able to play the part of an unsubtle man with great subtlety. Capable of insinuating himself anywhere and able to convince others of anything he wanted them to believe, he was given a new name (or, under the Qun, a new 'title' defining his role in Qun society) as a testament to his skills at dissembling: Hissrad (or "Liar"—and yes, that's exactly as disquieting as it sounds, as it directly tells us Bull's primary role under the Qun is to lie). Bull became a skilled and highly valuable agent for several years, capturing rogue operatives and bringing them in for "re-education" (brainwashing), uncovering secrets, fighting and winning engagements, and leading soldiers. His successes at these activities culminated in a command deployment in Seheron, the bloody, war-torn and hotly contested island where the Qunari had struggled for years to maintain a foothold against constant attack and active resistance by Tevinter soldiers, fog warrior rebels, Tal-Vashoth (rogue Qunari), and more.

Because of its brutal atmosphere, Seheron deployments by the Qunari were deliberately short-term, and rarely lasted more than two years. Bull, however, true to form, lasted eight, before suffering a massive breakdown upon the loss of most of his command, including his best friend, in an attack following the poisoning of several of his men, as well as an entire school full of children. In a frenzy of rage and vengeance, Bull embarked on a bloody mission of retaliation, killing the group of Tal-Vashoth warriors who were responsible, but the incident left him mute, wounded, and suffering deeply from post-traumatic stress. Despairing and no longer believing in the Qun, Bull turned himself in to the Ben-Hassrath re-educators for voluntary brainwashing to try to "fix himself."

What breaks my heart here is this simple fact: That Bull was willing to break himself, to turn over his whole mind and heart for manipulation and brainwashing, because he was too loyal to contemplate a world in which he was no longer capable of being faithful to the teachings of his culture.

Life After Seheron: Building the Chargers

When Bull emerged from his stint with the re-educators, he was considered a broken, yet still valuable tool, and sent to Orlais to pose as a Tal-Vashoth working undercover. He took on the name "The Iron Bull," traveled extensively on mercenary jobs while shadowing plots and nobles, and began to assemble his mercenary company, the Chargers, including, most notably, rescuing his future lieutenant Krem from an attack and potential attempted rape at a border Tevinter tavern—an act that cost him an eye, and yet gained him his first, and deepest, bond of self-created family. 

It's a crucial milestone for Bull, and one that moves me, because, in saving another, he saves himself. Without Krem, I believe, there is no happy ending for Bull. That single act—Bull's salvation of another person at his own significant injury and expense—defines everything Bull was meant to be at his best, and everything the Qunari would spend and sacrifice without mercy or understanding. (Yeah: in other words? They aren't worthy.)

At this time, Bull demonstrated an ability to blend with surprising ease into Orlesian life at several levels, observing and reporting on nobles and players of "the Great Game" of complex Orlesian politics and allegiances while also recovering from his past losses. He was an oddity, a charming rogue to the Orlesians, but he also passed through enough mansions and bedrooms to become a formidable force, and I believe it's this period that was observed, noted and respected by future companion Vivienne (and that it's why she, the coldest of our companions and a regular at the Orlais court, so patently adores Bull right from the start).

Meanwhile, even as this period was unquestionably beneficial for him, at the same time Bull's recovery, independence, new name and family all converged to both heal him and to create a looming crisis of conscience for the Qunari, who was now both literally and figuratively very far away from meeting the strict demands of the Qun. Qunari don't have names, they have nicknames, usually relating to their roles or titles. They don't have families. And they definitely don't have freedom.

That's why the timing is so crucial: just when he had begun to question his world once again, after more than a decade away from Qunari headquarters at Par Vollen, Bull was ordered to join (and watch) the Inquisition, and that's where he enters our story in earnest in DAI.

Meanwhile, I continue to explore the character of The Iron Bull as he becomes a friend and companion to the Inquisitor in the further character analysis here.

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