Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Demons and Archangels: The Journey of Cullen Rutherford

Yes, Cullen's hotness in Dragon Age: Inquisition is actually visible from space.
Cullen: No one ever listens. Not until it's far too late. Maker turn his gaze on you. I hope your compassion hasn't doomed us all.

Spoilers, as always, for all of Dragon Age (Origins, Dragon Age II, and Inquisition)!

This is the first analysis of several overdue discussions I'll be posting on our Inquisition's ridiculously beautiful Commander Cullen. Here, I'll start by examining his earliest origins and influences, and will be progressing through a look at his romances and other quests to follow. 

And fair warning—I love Cullen, but I'm also going to be tough on him here and there. However, I think it's important to point out his flawed and less than stellar moments as we follow his journey to the humble and reluctant commander he becomes in Dragon Age: Inquisition. I think his journey is far darker than it may appear to be, at first, and I think there are many, many times when he actively fails the tests set before him. But I do think he eventually triumphs. Which is what makes the entire journey so satisfying for me.

As written by a team of writers who gave him real nuance throughout the trilogy, Cullen was written by Sheryl Chee in Dragon Age: OriginsJennifer Hepler in Dragon Age: II, and by Brianne Battye in Dragon Age: Inquisition, with editing by  Cori May. Cullen is voiced, and with beautiful range, emotion, and inflection throughout all three chapters of Dragon Age, by Jonny Rees.

So let's look at his progression through the story from a big-picture perspective.

But before we do... I guess I should start by admitting a Dragon Age sacrilege. And it's a pretty serious one.

No, really... here goes: 

Cullen's not my type.

Is he beautiful? Of course he is. Cullen in Dragon Age: Inquisition is the kind of gorgeous that renders ordinary humans verklempt. His eyes are as changeable as the skies above Honnleath. His cheekbones could cut metal. His lips are firm and beautifully formed, and the little scar on his upper lip only accentuates their perfection. His body was evidently carved by Michelangelo. His golden hair curls slightly, waving perfectly back from his face in a casual, accidental tumble that no doubt requires zero effort from him at all. His voice is both manly and gentle, and when he sings, little birds perch on the branches to listen in bliss.

In other words, it's a scientific fact that Cullen's hotness is actually visible from space.

But to me, his beauty was almost a handicap in Dragon Age: Inquisition. At first, all I saw was the pretty, pretty man, a readymade Prince Charming, and while I admit I did my fair share of gazing (because I am actually alive and fairly low on the Kinsey scale), I also waved a hand and went, "Nope." For a long time, I just was never really interested. I tended to prefer characters whose beauty was more subversive or hidden because it felt more real to me—Bull, or Solas, for instance. The kind of person where one day you wake up and go, "Oh, my God, how did I not notice how gorgeous you are?" When it's too obvious, for me, it's less fun.

Then I flirted with Cullen in my third playthrough, and he was shy and embarrassed and just horrible at it. Awkward. Sweaty and stammering. Terrified of all human contact. Here was the most beautiful man at Skyhold... and thanks to life's cruel conspiracies, he was a social misfit, a secret loser, a man haunted by his own past and terrified at the prospect of an actual date. I'd also just done a full trilogy playthrough and I was definitely feeling a little judgmental toward him for his decisions in the first two games. The only thing that made it better for me was that he was so visibly haunted, sleepless, guilty and penitent here.

Flawed, damaged, sleepless and haunted? And the worst flirt ever? Suddenly, I'd never found him so attractive in my life. 

Cue my Dragon Age: Inquisition romance with Cullen. When I was, suddenly and definitively, very interested in Hitting That.

Surviving Trauma

One of the themes that shows up over and over again in the Dragon Age trilogy, and especially that of Dragon Age: Inquisition, is that of survival over trauma. Of triumph over personal loss and adversity. And I don't think that's accidental. It's one of the things that made me fall in love with DAI even above and beyond the other previous and beautiful game chapters. Life is tough. What doesn't break us makes us stronger, and what does break us makes us both grateful and humble for what we still have.

The end result, for me, is when it comes to stories, I'm a sucker for damage, and for triumph over it. So I loved the fact that when we meet each and every Advisor and Companion in Inquisition, there is a beautifully complex person waiting there. A life already built, a history, complete with yearnings, guilts, regrets, torments and fears, all private and hidden and waiting to be confessed and (just possibly) healed.

I think this theme of overcoming the trauma and damage life inflicts is a deliberate and too often overlooked subtext in the games, and it's a wonderful thing to notice and appreciate. It's an idea each chapter of Dragon Age has addressed, and each time in a new and expanded way. 

In Origins, for instance, this theme was explored through, well, an origin story. Through the tale of a certain kind of young hero who must triumph when tested by the very direst of circumstances, corrupted and sentenced to an eventual cruel death in the very flower of their youth and innocence. In the underrated Dragon Age II, it was presented through one person's poignant attempt to support family and to keep on living a normal life right in the middle of the maelstrom, as her city (my Hawke is a girl) fell into chaos and destruction around her. And in Inquisition, I felt, those stakes were raised even higher as the Inquisitor must rise to an almost insurmountable challenge. Personal life, home, family, love, all of that is gone as Inquisition begins, and because I am a forever fool for headcanons, I always found that notable and tragic. The Inquisitor, after all, did not emerge from a vacuum. As Dragon Age: Inquisition begins, they are simply present at the Temple as a nobody, there to take note of events, as a regular person interested in (and worried about) the world.

Then the sky tears, demons fall, and suddenly the Inquisitor has abilities she never, ever wanted or imagined. Thus begins, for me, a gorgeous and slightly melancholy hero's journey that Joseph Campbell himself would have loved.

Just keep in mind that the entire time your hero is doing all of these things? Closing rifts? Saving worlds? They're also battling trauma and loss.

Just like everyone else we meet. And just like Cullen.

Refusing the Hero's Mantle

One of the best things about Cullen's character design is how plainly haunted
he is by what he has survived. He may be gorgeous, but his pain and
suffering are clearly visible on his face in the deep shadows around his eye
What the Dragon Age trilogy does well every time, I feel, is the way it plays with classic tropes and then spins or subverts them. There's the hero's journey, and there's also my other favorite trope—that of the merry band of misfits who must triumph against impossible odds. But then the Dragon Age writers complicate that hero by stacking the deck before their journey begins (the Joining) or by forcing them to ask themselves (to quote Solas) "what kind of hero they'll be" right after they've just survived catastrophe, imprisonment, loss, and a near-death experience. And that's just the first hour.

Bioware also adds complexity to that little band of misfits by giving us characters who are so rich and nuanced and complicated that they fully deserve their own novel treatments. Sten, with his brutal alignment to a terrifying ideology yet still with a simplicity and capacity for loyalty, love, and softness (and cookies and kittens). Leliana, with her simultaneous pulls toward life as an adept assassin... or life as a gentle, pious servant of the Chantry. Alistair, with his chance to stay an anonymous and brave warrior against the Blight... who must then answer (or refuse) the call to serve as the unwilling sovereign of his entire people. Zevran, the assassin on a mission of self-annihilation and suicide, who instead finds the possibility of loyalty and love. Morrigan, the secretive daughter of a mythic figure (she has no idea HOW mythic), the Witch of the Wilds... even from the beginning, they're all wonderfully drawn and complicated figures.

And don't forget Hawke, who never ever wanted any of this shit, and who simply wanted to live a nice quiet life in Kirkwall. Until the world went to hell and she had to step up. And step up. And step up. (A feeling my canon Dragon Age: Inquisition Inquisitor knew all too well, since she'd had no desire at all for power, fame, or even color-coordination.) And Anders, Fenris, Aveline, Merrill, and Isabela all deserve columns of their own (and they'll get them, eventually). Each of them survivors in some fashion, each brave and cowardly, compassionate and cruel, tender and irrevocably flawed.

Each one of these characters feels guilt for actions taken and (most of all) not taken. Guilt for actions in which they may have actively colluded. Guilt, sometimes, for simply surviving.

Leading that pack is, of course, the Inquisition's commander himself, Cullen Rutherford. And yet Cullen isn't arriving new and fresh to the scene in Inquisition. We've watched his journey from the beginning. And yet Cullen, as a participant in each of these chapters—is also similarly weighed and challenged by circumstance, and each time, his reaction is different and believable.

For instance, in Dragon Age: Origins? He's no hero. He fails. 

And fails hard.

The Tender Templar

Cullen in his fetal, DAO form. He's basically still a caterpillar here. He's
not bad, he just needs to cook a little longer to achieve maximum hotness
Cullen Rutherford was born in 9:11 Dragon, to parents in Honnleath. When we first meet Cullen, he's a sweet young lad, a naive Templar barely out of his teens proudly serving as a Templar at the Circle Tower at Kinloch Hold, on the shores of Lake Calenhad.

Through conversations, correspondences and Codices, we learn that Cullen was a sweet child who looked up to his older sister Mia (to whom he lost most of his early chess matches), and who was not necessarily an immediate leader, even of younger siblings Branson and Rosalie. 

What he was, was good

Even as a child, Cullen was good. Thoughtful. Kind. A boy who looked out for others. Time and again, all he really wanted to do... was protect. Support. Help. (And... I have to interject here... who does this remind you of? I'll address this later, but I think the parallel is not an accident.) 

And he wasn't just kind or seeking justice and order... there was a spiritual component. He was also devout. He believed in the preachings of the Chantry, and wanted most of all to serve the Maker.

When he was eight, Cullen declared his decision to be a Templar. His family teased him a bit but his adored older sister Mia was his champion, and he eventually convinced his family of his seriousness. She also evidently supported his early training efforts, purely on his own, until he was noticed by a visiting Knight-Captain, and brought into the Templar order for training at the age of thirteen. He was later in this than most, but his dedication soon had him surpassing the other trainees around him, and he flourished.

When he was eighteen, Cullen took his final vows and began the strict religious and combat regimen that included devotion to the Maker and Chantry, along with the required and voluntary addiction to lyrium that would boost his Templar powers against magic. He was then assigned to the Circle Tower at Kinloch Hold, under Knight-Commander Greagoir. When the Blight began in earnest, his family fled to South Reach, but while his siblings survived (shepherded, I have no doubt, by the indomitable Mia), Cullen's parents both perished.

It's a sad story, like so many in Thedas. But there are a few noteworthy details to this period of Cullen's life that I think are, once again, worth highlighting, especially in our first meetings with him in Origins

The Boy Soldier: Cullen in Origins

In Origins, Cullen is the sweet, slightly naive Templar who (if we play a female Circle mage) has been charged with killing her if she does not survive her rite of Harrowing, something he dreads, since he's also in love with her.

But our intrepid future Warden survives, and there's a little banter with Cullen that pretty much echoes what will become most of his future attempts at flirtation (please note that there are several Warden dialogue choices, so here were mine):

Cullen: Oh, um, hello... I uh, am glad to see your Harrowing went smoothly. What? I'm fine. I... uh, I'm just glad you're all right. You know.
Warden: Would you really have struck me down?
Cullen: I would have felt terrible about it. But... um... but I serve the Chantry and the Maker, and I will do as I am commanded. 
Warden (flirting hard): Maybe we could go elsewhere and continue our discussion?
Cullen: (horrified) Elsewhere? What do you mean?
Warden: I've seen the way you look at me...
Cullen: Oh, my goodness. If you're saying... what I think... that would be really... inappropriate and... I couldn't. (pause) I—I should go.

And... He RUNS AWAY.

It's both wonderful and awful and incredibly embarrassing. Poor Cullen. But it's a memorable introduction, at least. (And bonus points for the sly "I should go" departure line that would become famous through the ages in Mass Effect.)

Torture and Death

Cullen as a captive after the atrocities at the Kinloch Hold mage circle. What he
witnesses here warps and twists him for nearly a decade to come
When next we see Cullen, it's after the horrific events of the Kinloch Hold mage circle, in which possessed mage Uldred has almost destroyed the entire tower thanks to a following of corrupted blood mages, inflicting a catastrophic wave of terror and damage through a rain of demons and Abominations.

The Warden fights through all the levels of the Tower and eventually comes upon Cullen, killing his captors and attempting to reconnect with him and let him know that he is safe. The conversation with the deeply traumatized and tortured Templar, however, does not go well—please note that I include my own female mage and party member responses, below, which can of course vary slightly depending on your own choices. It's a pretty lengthy dialogue section but one I think it's important to quote in its entirety:
Cullen: This trick again? I know what you are. It won't work. I will stay strong. I know, only too well. How far they must have delved into my thoughts.
Wynne: The boy is exhausted. And this cage, I've never seen anything like it. Rest easy. Help is here.
Cullen: Enough visions! If anything in you is human... kill me now and stop this game. You broke the others. But I will stay strong, for my sake... for theirs. (Pause) Sifting through my thoughts. .. tempting me with the one thing I always wanted but could never have... using my shame against me... my ill-advised infatuation with her... a mage, of all things. I am so tired of these cruel jokes... these tricks... these...
Warden speaks: (I'm real)
Cullen: Silence! I'll not listen to anything you say. Now begone! (a pause, and Cullen is visibly confused) Still here? But that's always worked before. I close my eyes, but you are still here when I open them. (pause) I am beyond caring what you think... the Maker knows my sin, and I pray that He will forgive me.
Warden: (There's nothing wrong with liking someone.)
Cullen: It was the foolish fancy of a naive boy. I know better now. (pause) Why have you returned to the Tower? How did you survive?
Warden: (This was my home.)
Cullen: As it was mine. And look what they've done to it. They deserve to die. Uldred most of all. They caged us like animals... looked for ways to break us. I'm the only one left...
Sten (if in party): Be proud. You mastered yourself.
Cullen: Be proud? What is there to be proud of? That I lived and they died? They turned some into.. monsters. And ... there was nothing I could do.
Warden: Stay strong.
Cullen: And to think.. I once thought we were too hard on you.
Warden: We're not all like that.
Cullen: Only mages have that much power at their fingertips. Only mages are so susceptible to the infernal whisperings of the demons.
Wynne: This is a discussion for another time! Irving and the other mages who fought Uldred... where are they?
Cullen: They are in the Harrowing Chamber. The sounds coming out from there... oh, Maker.
Wynne: (We must go save them.)
Cullen: You can't save them. You don't know what they've become. But you haven't been up there. You haven't been under their influence. They've been surrounded by blood mages whose wicked fingers snake into your mind and corrupt your thoughts.
Alistair: His hatred of mages is so intense. The memory of his friends' deaths is still fresh in his mind.
Cullen: You have to end it now! Before it's too late!
Warden: No.
Cullen: Are you really saving anyone by taking this risk? To ensure this horror is ended... to guarantee that no abominations or blood mages live, you must kill everyone up there.
In my playthrough... the Warden refuses.
Wynne (to Warden): Thank you. I knew you would make a rational decision.
Cullen: Rational? How is this rational? Do you understand the danger?
Wynne: I know full well the dangers of magic, but killing innocents because they might be maleficarum is not justice. I know you are angry— 
Cullen: You know nothing! I am thinking about the future of the Circle. Of Ferelden.
Warden: (It's not as bad as you think.)
Cullen: I am just willing to see the painful truth, which you are content to ignore. But what can I do?
Sten speaks up in favor of Cullen's brutal belief and choices (not surprising given the Qunari and their incredibly brutal stance on mages)—however, a mage with good persuasion can ask him to rethink his stance.
Cullen: As you can see, I am in no position to directly influence your actions, though I would love to deal with the mages myself.
Warden: Perhaps I can free you.
Cullen: Don't waste time on me... deal with Uldred, if that is what you plan to do. Once he is dead, I will be freed.
Warden: Stay safe. It will be over soon.
Cullen: No one ever listens. Not until it's far too late. Maker turn his gaze on you. I hope your compassion hasn't doomed us all. 
And then we go save everyone. And everything so far is totally forgivable and understandable. Then, unfortunately, we meet up with Cullen again, freshly freed from his cage. In a meeting with the Warden, First Enchanter Irving, Greagoir, and more, a newly-rescued Cullen unfortunately if understandably goes completely bonkers:

Poor Cullen is... (cough) to put it bluntly... not okay:
Irving is rescued, order is restored, and he meets with Greagoir, the Warden, and Cullen.
Cullen: Uldred tortured these mages hoping to break their wills and turn them into abominations. We don't know how many of them have turned.
Irving: Don't be ridiculous.
Cullen: Of course he'll say that, he might be a blood mage! Don't you know what they did? I won't let this happen again!
Greagoir: I am the Knight-Commander here. Not you. 
Irving: We will rebuild. The Circle will go on. And we will learn from this tragedy and be strengthened by it.
Greagoir: We have won back the tower. I will accept Irving's assurance that all is well.
Cullen: But they may have demons within them, lying dormant! Lying in wait!
Greagoir: Enough. I have already made my decision.
Um... yeah. So. Not Cullen's finest hour. Admittedly.

The Aftermath

There has been plenty of justifiable criticism of Cullen's harsh reactions to his captivity and torment. He's basically immediately calling Greagoir to enact the Right of Annulment, and to kill ALL of the mages, and that's pretty brutal stuff.


I want to point out that he says this stuff literally minutes—minutes—after being rescued. He is very much not in his right mind, he's absolutely still back in that cage, and while I'm glad Greagoir immediately overruled him (in my playthrough, at least), few responsible people would have taken Cullen's hysterical outcries as real orders or as the recommendations of a sane person.

The irony is, of course, that the Right of Annulment (I keep wanting to type "Rite of Annulment" but that's not the phrase) has been invoked and carried out (depending on DAO character choices) 17 times in Thedas at this point in time, sometimes in instances in which it was later proven the mages were either innocent or murdered outright for political reasons (Antiva, Dairsmuid, and others).

But as far as Dragon Age: Origins, keep in mind, Cullen is a 19-year-old kid here who's just been tormented and teased with visions of the woman he loved and was too shy to approach. As Bull notes later on in DAI, people are pretty easy to break. We're not that complicated. The demons were able to warp Cullen's love and twist it into something ugly and shameful. Because, well, that's what demons do.

Then on top of that, he pretty clearly implies that the blood mages tortured him mentally and deliberately as well before leaving him to the cruel play of the desire demon. And then he watched everyone else with him die horribly, and then heard the additional deaths and tortures all around him, even when he couldn't see them.

So I tend to forgive Cullen's outburst here, although he doesn't get a total pass from me for one key reason: As a Templar, in this moment in which he is unable to master himself, to me, he has failed his first major test. Because he's not just a guy who's been traumatized. He is a Templar with the power of life and death over the mages, and in his own hysteria here, he is willing to sacrifice dozens and potentially hundreds of additional lives simply because of his own fear. And what's troubling is, he wields the power and legal right to do so. It is only Greagoir who stops the unthinkable from happening (if that's our choice).

I don't forget that. And—to be fair—neither, I think, does Cullen. Not for an instant.

I think now, for instance, is a good time to flash back on an admission Cullen made when we first encounter him in captivity. He says: "And to think.. I once thought we were too hard on you." I think this is so important because it demonstrates the empathy and the 'real' Cullen he was meant to be. He wanted to be a protector, a good Templar, but already even as a young man here barely out of his teens, he had begun to harbor doubts about the system's fairness to the mages under Templar care. (And that was in what was, reportedly, one of the fairer, gentler Circles!).

The Kinloch Aftermath

It's worth noting that Cullen was still recovering after these events for some time, and was definitely not seen as stable by Greagoir. If you play the Dragon Age: Origins DLC "Witch Hunt" with a Warden who was a female mage, for instance, you will overhear two gossiping mages at the Tower talk rather callously about the fact that Cullen was sent by Greagoir to Greenfell, to the Chantry there in order to "level out."

As far as Cullen's story goes—it appears that he did in fact calm down at Greenfell, but that Knight-Commander Greagoir then felt it best to send him elsewhere, so he was sent to serve the Circle in Kirkwall, in 9:31 Dragon. Once in Kirkwall, Cullen was promoted to Knight-Captain and was assigned to serve as Knight-Commander Meredith's second in command there.

Talk about the worst possible time and place. Poor Cullen couldn't have been sent to a more trauma-inducing location in all of Thedas (except, maybe, for the White Spire). And unfortunately, every paranoid thing Cullen may have ever thought about mages would have been reinforced and supported by the increasingly crazy Meredith, as well as by Kirkwall's incredibly high percentage of blood mages.

Cullen in Kirkwall

When we meet up with Cullen again in Kirkwall, he's visibly calmer, older, and more confident. He's also made a giant leap in hotness from his DAO appearance (this will become a continuing theme with Cullen from chapter to chapter), and makes for a rather kingly, almost angelic golden figure here.

In Dragon Age II, Cullen's metamorphosis continues. My favorite thing about
his character design here (other than the circles under his eyes) is how visibly
curly his hair is, since I secretly think he hates that and tames it in DAI
One thing I find interesting about Cullen's character design in both Dragon Age II and Dragon Age: Inquisition is that his suffering is visible. Yes, he's beautiful, but his eyes are haunted and pink-rimmed, with deep purple shadows beneath. From our first glance in Dragon Age II, we can look at Cullen's face and see that this is not a man who gets a lot of restful sleep. He's haunted by his past sufferings.

Cullen has a rather difficult role to play in Dragon Age II, because he is still damaged, and still wants so badly to be a good Templar, a good soldier, a good leader. And despite his experiences in Kinloch, I do get the feeling in most of Dragon Age II that he's attempting to be just and fair in his interactions with mages, despite the fact that (bless his heart) a good percentage of those are actually either practicing blood magic or doing insidious or potentially demonic things (seriously, Kirkwall is just the worst place ever). He also admires Meredith, who is charismatic and for many years, at least, appears to be tough but also someone who can be reasoned with.

Yet as the years pass in Kirkwall, the madness grows in Meredith's eyes, and Cullen is forced to examine both his own prejudices and the realities of the situation before him. He admits in several conversations with Hawke that he has increasing doubts about what was once so clear to him, yet even so, he defends the usefulness of the abhorrent Rite of Tranquility on mages (ugh), and at another memorable point (what I'd argue to be Cullen's lowest in the trilogy), he says some pretty vile, unforgivable things if you happen to be a mage supporter:
Hawke: Blood mages have infiltrated your ranks. They have been implanting your recruits with demons.
Cullen: Sweet blood of Andraste!
Masha: Demons! Did you say something about the recruits and demons?
Templar: I didn't want to tell you, Masha. They—they were horrible. Those mages see the rest of us as just ants to be crushed. They won't stop until they've destroyed the Chantry and the Templars forever.
Hawke: Mages have been systematically abused by the Templars for a thousand years.
Cullen: How can you say that after what you've seen?
Carver (hilariously, if present, to Hawke): Yes. How can you say that to the Templar right in front of you?
Cullen: Mages cannot be treated like people; they are not like you and me.
Masha: Surely that's a little harsh.
Cullen; They are weapons. They have the power to light a city on fire in a fit of pique. 
Hawke: Mages are humans and elves. Just like the rest of us.
Cullen: Many might go their whole lives thinking that. But if even one in ten falls to the lure of blood magic, they could destroy this world.
This, right here, is Cullen's nadir. His absolute worst moment. Worse for me even than the aftermath of his informal call for the Right of Annulment in DAO.

Now, to be fair, he says it after the revelation that blood mages have infiltrated the ranks of the Templars, and I'm sure Cullen's inwardly flashing back to every horrible thing he experienced. But... yeah... it's pretty terrible. (The only bright spot in this scene, for me, is the absolutely priceless reaction of Carver... and scenes like this are why I will always love our grumpypants insecure little Hawkebrother.)

The scene itself, taken as a whole, however, is troubling, and it also shows that Cullen hasn't advanced all that far from his previous traumas and prejudices. Yet I think that very fact is so important to his story, and to his arc. 

"They are Weapons"

For me, as upsetting as Cullen's comments are here, they provide a shockingly important moment in the trilogy, and in Cullen's character arc in particular.

And what's interesting is the visual handling of this moment as designed, animated and presented in the game.When Cullen says that mages cannot be treated like people, the action abruptly stops being a simple back-and-forth series of closeups. Instead, after Carver's comment, Cullen steps slightly forward and we see a beautiful wide shot with Cullen at the center, as our view of him rotates slightly. It's very cinematic (kudos to the artists, designers, animators and director here) and signifies something momentous, something worth noting. And I think it is.

What Cullen says here, what he puts into words, is the crystallization of the anti-mage, pro-Templar side of the entire war to come. The belief that allows magically gifted children to be taken from their parents and imprisoned in Circle Towers for the rest of their lives, to live or half-live under the watchful eyes of soldiers who have the ability with full impunity to harm, rape, lobotomize (with Tranquility) or kill them without consequence at any moment. And even in good mage circles, this boils down to the fact that, if you are a mage, you are taken from your family. You are captive in a high narrow place with people you don't know. You are forbidden, in most cases, normal romantic relationships or marriages, and if you do succumb to a hasty affair, any resulting child will be taken from you.

And, of course, someone is watching you and everything you do twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week. Me, I'd go stark raving mad in a month. No wonder Anders becomes consumed with it—Anders, who ran away seven times, and who was captured and returned every time, then tortured, abused, and put in solitary confinement, and who then watched his friends and lovers killed or turned Tranquil. Anders, who never even gave his captors the satisfaction of his real name. (Yeah, I feel tremendous pity for Anders... but more on that in a later post.)

To me, the most notable thing Cullen says here isn't that mages aren't people. Yes, that's awful. But to me what's worse is when he actually puts into words the terrible subtext that "Mages are weapons." Here, he is speaking the Chantry's subtext for all to hear—and what has always been the Chantry's real belief. That mages are tools. Things. Objects to be shut away until needed, and then used and cast aside.

The tragedy of this speech is compounded by the fact that—even if 1 in 10 mages did in fact succumb to possession (and of course the actual percentages seem to be exponentially smaller than that)—that still leaves nine other brave and loyal mages who would be happy to fight injustice and demons, despite what they have suffered, and who I believe would stand at his side and fight those demons.

I think Cullen does get where he needs to, and it's to a recognition of repentance, guilt and shame that are miles away from his words here. But it's gonna take time. And the better part of a decade.

Therein Lies the Rub

This is also precisely why I think it's important that Cullen be the one who says these words. That it's Cullen—who has before now seemed to be older, kinder, more thoughtful—who allows this terrible series of admissions to occur.

Here, in the Dragon Age II dramatic spark to the powderkeg that is the issue of mages versus Templars, while Meredith is an insane extremist (as, of course, eventually, is Anders, directly opposed), Cullen must serve as the seemingly reasonable and conscientious Templar soldier, the man of duty and faith. When he admits that he thinks violence is the only way, it's both deeply disappointing and surprising.

But it's also, I feel, a necessary part of his story. Cullen, after all, is the unbeliever who will see the error of his ways; he is Saul on the road to Damascus.

Look at it this way: A mage who realizes the Circles are wrong is just one mage out of thousands. It's not a surprising revelation. However, a Templar Knight-Commander who does so? Can and will help to change the world for the better.

For me, this makes Cullen's journey through the rest of Dragon Age II more suspenseful and satisfying. He is the shining true believer, the one person who should stand beside Meredith and her irrational hatred at all costs. And yet he cannot do so. As Chapters 2 and 3 take place, Cullen becomes a visibly sadder, more penitent and confused man. He spouts platitudes. He says some pretty awful things against mages and doesn't appear to recognize why they are so terrible.

I'm grateful that the Cullen who says "Mages are not people" is not the same
man we meet in Dragon Age: Inquisition.
My own take here is pretty simple: Just as the Qun warped a protective and nurturing Bull into Hissrad, so too did the Templars warp and twist Cullen into a person who would say the words I quoted above. 

However, that hate-filled man is not who Cullen was meant to be. It is not who he is at his core. When he says "Mages aren't people," to me it's a last gasp. It's Cullen expelling the very final vestiges of that demonic poison, as he succumbs for just a moment to it and gives himself over to absolutes.

But then I think the madness passes. And I believe, going forward, as his doubt and guilt grow, he truly begins to change. Yes, he wants so badly to believe, yet he's courteous to a mage Hawke and is even willing to admit to Hawke on multiple occasions his fears of and for Meredith and for the people of Kirkwall.

By the end of Dragon Age II, Cullen must yet again make a choice that will define him, and yet again, I do think he fails. Not because he supports Hawke and finally allies our merry band against a Lyrium-mad Meredith. But because it is only her threat against Hawke that finally spurs him to action. Cullen  doesn't take action or discover his own humanity because of her invocation of the Right of Annulment before a pleading, intelligent, and very sane Orsino (who I will always adore, and who I absolutely headcanon did not end Dragon Age II as relayed by Varric). 

In fact, Cullen is silent when Meredith tries to invoke the Right. He knows it is wrong, and he is silent. He only actually speaks up against her when she threatens Hawke, whom he has reluctantly come to see as a friend (to both himself and to Kirkwall).

However, for Cullen's trilogy-long arc, this works for me. I think it has to be this way, and I think it's deliberate: Cullen has failed his test yet again. Not as badly as in DAO, but... he has a ways still to go for redemption.

As Dragon Age II ends, in 9:37, Cullen hangs in there for a few more years, but the writing's on the wall. Everything he thought he believed in... the system he loved, has failed him. He has to find new meaning. He's starting to ask himself questions that tear at him, that hurt him, to which he doesn't want the answers. And yet he can't help himself. He is, oddly, almost pulling himself unwillingly forward into his own growth, self-awareness, and redemption. And also, of course, into bitter shame and repentance.

The Chisel on the Marble

And that's where Dragon Age: Inquisition comes in, and why it's a fascinating finish to Cullen's arc.

Each time Cullen appears in the Dragon Age trilogy, he is visibly changed. It's
as if he is a statue of marble being shaped by a sculptor.
I started this analysis by noting that most of the characters we meet in Dragon Age are damaged in some crucial way, struggling against past abuse, loss, torment, and pain.

The interesting thing that DAI does, is that it takes the framework of that survivor's story and pushes the boundaries a bit further, darkening the tapestry and adding complexity to it. Inquisition uniquely almost always couples a background of trauma and violence with a heightened and dual perception of guilt and responsibility. Everyone in DAI who is battling PTSD, for instance, is also battling guilt. Bull. Varric. Cassandra. Cole. Solas. Blackwall. Even our darling Josie. And especially beautiful Cullen.

I began this analysis by talking shallowly about Cullen's beauty. However, I also think that this character attribute can also actually be seen as an intrinsic and fascinating external representation of Cullen's own journey. 

Each time Cullen appears in the Dragon Age trilogy, he is visibly changed. It's as if he is a statue of marble being shaped by a sculptor, and in each ensuing chapter, he is more handsome because, it can be argued, he is becoming who he was meant to be. The Cullen of DAO was the princely, biddable young warrior you wouldn't have picked out of a crowd. The Cullen of DA2 was the archangel at the gate—tormented with doubt, but surviving, and struggling toward the light. The Cullen of Dragon Age: Inquisition is Cullen in full flower—not the prince or the archangel but the mature man whose visible handsomeness is only matched by his equally visible suffering and desire for penance and reparation.

And that's what I'll talk about in my next analysis... as we meet the older, wiser Cullen in Dragon Age: Inquisition... where he's a man who doesn't just pray daily for victory, but for his own atonement.


  1. OOOH! I love this. You touch so much on what I did, with far less cursing and your absolute beautiful way with words. Cullen is such a tragic story, all of him. Even as much as I love him, he so irked me in 2 until I got to understand him more in DAI. Thank you �� so much!

    1. Thank you so much for that (it's high praise), and for checking it out, Jessi! I agree that Cullen's a really gorgeous and complex character, and I really think DAI is a terrific conclusion to his arc and growth across the trilogy.

  2. The interesting thing about DA2 Cullen is that he *does* speak out if (and only if) a pro-templar Hawke is in the Gallows when three mages show up looking for sanctuary. He actually turns on Meredith without prompting because she wants to murder them because they might be blood mages (where did we see that line before?) and Cullen turns into the man I adore, reminding Meredith that Templars are not intended to be murderers but guardians. I had only ever played pro-mage Hawkes until I heard about this bit of dialogue (and because I wanted to really romance Fenris ♥) and it is worth all the putting up with Meredith to get this dialogue. And that always strikes me as the Cullen who chooses to leave the Templars when Cassandra shows up.

    1. Emma, this is a terrific point, and a dialogue I've actually never seen before! I so appreciate your noting it here -- and I'm really delighted to hear that there's a little more nuance to Cullen at this early point in his journey as a character. I definitely think it jibes perfectly with who he is as DAI begins.

  3. Gosh, but I love the way you breakdown and talk about the complexities of these stories and characters.

    Ive read over this a couple of times and just love it.

    I’ve debated with other people on whether or not Cullen has a true redemption arc, in the traditional understanding of such things. Redemption arcs usually involve a clear moment of understanding and decision, but I think that for Cullen it’s more gradual. There isn’t a single moment of realization and becoming, but rather a process, a growth out of the darkness.

  4. I realize that this is an old post, but I found it my wanderings and just had to gush at how much I loved it! I couldn’t agree more on his growth and how I saw him through the trilogy.

    And this was pure gold:
    “Flawed, damaged, sleepless and haunted? And the worst flirt ever? Suddenly, I'd never found him so attractive in my life.
    Cue my Dragon Age: Inquisition romance with Cullen. When I was, suddenly and definitively, very interested in Hitting That.”
    I was a good 3 playthroughs into Inquisition before I figured I’d flirt with him to try someone new. Now, I dread to think what DAI would have been like if he hadn’t been romanceable.

    Anyhow, kudos ����

  5. I have been absolutely loving your write ups on this wonderful game. I am playing DAI for the first time and it is my first introduction to Thedas and all the wonderful people it is populated with. I realized since I only have Inquisition that I was just scratching the surface and have been using your wonderful blog to educate me on all that I am missing from what came before. On my first play-through I romanced Cullen because I was charmed by him from the start. I love him. Honestly, I never thought I could fall for a video game character but I'd divorce my husband for Cullen in a heartbeat. This deep dive into early Cullen is amazing and it makes me love him even more, if possible. So, I know I am very late to the party but I couldn't find part 2 of this. Can you direct a new fan to it? And because of you, I am going to romance Iron Bull after Solas. Never thought I would do that.

  6. I loved this analysis. Will we ever see the Inquisition part? :(


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