Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Quiet Apostate: Romancing Solas in Dragon Age: Inquisition (Pt. 1)

Inquisitor: We are both of the same people, Solas.
Solas: The Dalish I met felt… differently... on the subject.

Perhaps the greatest irony to Solas's romance with the Inquisitor is how quietly
he enters the scene in the beginning of Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Massive SPOILERS across all of Dragon Age!

He's so easy to overlook, at first. A humbly dressed companion in homespun, a male elven mage apostate with no vallaslin—with no markings to note allegiance to clan or god. He is a rather curious figure—pale, bald, and thoughtful, neither old nor young, and with a precise and mellifluous voice and a slightly reserved, cool demeanor. He's not especially buff, loud, or commanding. He speaks softly. He's nobody—not really remarkable at first glance. At least not in any obvious kind of way. 

And he certainly isn't your typical heartthrob.

Meet Solas. And given the sheer emotional heights of his final scenes in both Dragon Age: Inquisition and particularly in the DLC "Trespasser," perhaps the greatest irony to Solas's romance with the Inquisitor is how quietly he enters the scene in the beginning.

And I love that. It's just so smart from a dramatic standpoint. Because, when we meet Solas, we barely get the chance to register him in all the tumult—we've been thrown into a world of war and terror that's raining green fire and demons, we're still intermittently begging Cassandra not to throw us back in chains, and we hastily meet Varric and Solas within minutes of battling our first demons and closing our first rift.

In other words, it's all chaos and mess. Everyone's a stranger. Our Inquisitor (whom I'll refer to in the Lavellan character choice since that's the only person who can romance Solas) is confused and scared and tired. Either way, meeting Solas doesn't look or feel all that noteworthy, not in the moment—not least because it's also overshadowed by the return of our wonderful DA2 friend Varric, who's chatty and warm and instantly willing to befriend. Solas is by comparison relatively easy to overlook. Besides, again, we're still traumatized and learning on the run. We exchange a few quiet words and introductions, and then we're fighting onward, through snow and blizzard, through demons and fire, through derision and distrust.

So it's understandable that many of us, we barely look over, especially in a first playthrough, at the quiet elven guy next to us.

And that's exactly what he wants.

The One You Least Suspect

I know plenty of fans keep looking longingly back to the disparate and richly varied race-gated introductions to Origins, but the introduction to DAI is so effective for me because it drops us into the action as an unknown, solitary protagonist who is whoever and whatever we create them to be—into a raw, violent yet beautiful world in which up is down and right is left. We start the story with no one—no family, no friends (we're not the Warden of DAO or the Hawke of DA2). We have 
no past beyond our near-death and resurrection as events beginNobody questions this, and it means a hellish introduction for our characters (especially our Lavellans) in the beginning, and we're further accorded scant support or empathy at first by those around us.

Surprisingly, Solas seems to empathize, however, and he even hints at his own isolation when we first speak on the way to the forward camp:
Solas: You are Dalish, but clearly away from the rest of your clan. Did they send you here?
Inquisitor: (my take: OMG YES BUT I DIDN'T WANT TO AND WTF IS HAPPENING). Bioware version: What do you know of the Dalish?
Solas: I have wandered many roads in my time, and crossed paths with your people on more than one occasion.
Inquisitor (among other options): We are both of the same people, Solas. (Personal subtext: OMG I'M SO CONFUSED AND I REALLY NEED A FRIEND AND SUDDENLY I REALLY MISS MY CLAN)
Solas: The Dalish I met felt… differently on the subject
Inquisitor (in my mind): Sorry. Seriously. Also: Crap. Crap. Crap.
It's a foreshadowing of our later discovery, in which we learn later on that Solas's awakening (or, rather, his reentry into modern Thedas proper) was very similar in some ways to our own. In other words, our situation, perhaps, mirrors his.

In a romanced Lavellan, this parallel loneliness and isolation is something I find potentially really moving and fascinating. I believe it also contributes to a greater intensity in the relationship that develops between them, if that's the foundation, as well. They are lonely, cut off, yearning for connection they can never achieve. The parallels and implications are powerful, rich and startling.

On the Outskirts

But even as we are thrown center stage, whether we wish to be or not, Solas keeps to the edges. Even after we arrive at Haven, Solas just hangs out over by his modest village hut, far from the Chantry building or the center of camp. He's there if we want to seek him out (and they're some of the most beautiful and lyrical conversations of the story if we do), but otherwise, he's pretty much invisible until it comes time to heal the Breach. He's barely noticeable, off to the side. Someone to provide some unexpected conversation if we run off to the edges of the village to talk to him.

Again, it's perfect.

I mean, consider it: Our first meeting with Bull, when we encounter this larger-than-life figure carving his way through a swathe of bad guys in the midst of storm and thunder as the surf pounds beside him, it's downright mythic. Our first glimpse of Dorian is as beautiful and vivid as a fever dream in a shadowed future. Vivienne's entrance is all exquisite drama and masks and glitter and ice. Sera steps from the shadows like an arrow from the string; a spirit of vengeance against the abused weak and small.

So many others, too, we meet in these florid, vivid, highly emotional moments. So I just love the fact that we meet one of the most important characters in the entire story in this rather casual, offhand way. It is also, notably, one of the few times in the game that Solas is not alone.

Solas's romance is sneaky on every level. You start out talking to the quiet
pale bald guy for three minutes, then catching your breath and going, "Wait...
wait... WAIT. When did he get so hot?"
Taking Notice

But that's Dragon Age. Nothing is quite as simple as it appears to be. For instance, if you're me, you start out by thinking, "Well, obviously I'm romancing Cullen because he's so handsome that it's kind of difficult to even stare directly at him—it's like looking into an eclipse or something" (and don't even get me started on Dorian or Cassandra or Varric or Sera, either), but then you end up talking to the quiet pale bald guy for three minutes, then catching your breath and going, "Wait... wait... WAIT. When did he get so hot?"

Which just makes them seem even more realistic. For me, this first DAI playthrough, I ended up romancing Bull (who as I've already noted, I'd also found utterly unattractive at first, until I fell flat for him and realized how amazing he was, which was even better). I loved everything about it and have posted many, many walls of text about my reactions. Bull absolutely remains one of my favorite characters across Dragon Age.

Still... I'd never quite gotten over my surprise crush on Solas, and even before I'd gotten to that final, powerful meeting between Solas and Flemeth, I knew I was going to romance Solas in the next playthrough.

A Date with Gaming Destiny

And then, of course, as I've described previously here on the blog, I finished the game and then did a fair amount of shrieking—in delight, horror, and frustration at the Fen'Harel revelation as well as at what happened to my darling, adored Flemeth (who is OKAY, dammit, she's FINE, she simply needs another trip to the spa LA LA LA CAN'T HEAR YOU).

And, yeah, I've never restarted a game so fast in my life.

I was determined. My next playthrough would be my canon. I'd play a Dalish elf again, but a quieter one, and I'd romance Solas. I'd pay attention to every single conversation, and enjoy my relationship with my lonely, elegant, brilliant, pixellated crush of the moment.

I thought I knew everything, and that it would be fun. The best part of Solas's romance is, unless you romance him, you actually know very little. Because that's who he is; he doesn't show himself to just anyone. Even those he likes (or loves) as companions. So you have to romance him to really know him. And then, of course, it's too late. 

NOTE: Feel free to use this moment to cheerfully curse the genius of Solas writer Patrick Weekes (but please do so lovingly, because the poor guy does get a ton of flack simply for writing a character so complex and realistic that thousands of people fell in love with his character (NOT HIS FAULT), and to also add a hex on the tea-filled flask of our wonderful David Gaider, who (it turns out) came up with the entire diabolical idea of making Solas romanceable. Because he's a genius that way. And then Weekes was the perfect person to make that idea a reality.

In a horrible way. In a horrible, wonderful way.

Anyway. (PS, read Feeder. And then his Rogues trilogy. And everything. And don't miss Gaider's series of beautiful DA novels. Read. Them.)

The end result is that, like thousands of other unspoiled Solas-mancers, I had no idea what I was in for. No idea at all.

And then it happened.

Subverting the Formula

Thanks to Bioware, the romances in the Dragon Age trilogy are always as varied and unique as the characters and stories themselves. You can seduce Alistair in the first blush of adolescent love, find blazing, reckless  passion with Anders or Fenris, duel gallantly for Josie's honor, tease and dally with Isabela, heal Dorian's bruised heart, embark on a hot if slightly detached sexual adventure with Bull, you can kiss Cullen on the battlements (after you edge his silently adoring Jim out of the way, of course), or romance Cassandra with moonlight and poetry...

...All this, alongside a dozen other terrific and entertaining romantic choices across the game trilogy.

Each of these romances has been created with real thought, care, and attention to detail, with each further illuminating both the love interests as characters, and the protagonist you're playing for, as a hero with his or her own fears, flaws, and strengths. And they're all beautifully written, designed and brought to life. No romance exists in a vacuum in Dragon Age, and each further enhances our knowledge of the other characters as well as of our own protagonists and who we shape them to become.

For me, for sheer, lyrical complexity and emotion, the most entertaining,
immersive, and devastating of any romance across the trilogy... is Solas's
But for me, for sheer, lyrical complexity and emotion, by far the most entertaining, immersive, and purely devastating of any romance across the trilogy... is Solas's.

Because, well... it gives us all things, in a storyline that's not just tied to the core story, it's braided to it, entrenched in it. 

With Solas, we get the many-sided fractal that is all the depth, connection, pain, love, fear, sensuality, loss and potential heartbreak of so many other Dragon Age romances in a single story if we romance him. His romance means love and loss, passion and high drama, sexual tension held to the very breaking point in conjunction with intense fear, conflict, belief, courage, and mutual depth of feeling. It's all romantic proclamations and doomed whispers; it's sorrowful glances and unexplained disconnect; it's all of this and more. It's love and connection in a world where magic still exists, and it feels private and pure until one of the most shocking moments in the game (if you're lucky enough to experience it, as I did, unspoiled).

And it's all weirdly perfect, because Solas himself is a paradox, a creature of extremes—someone who's both spirit and flesh, hot and cold, gentle and fierce, abstemious and yet deeply sensual. And, of course, he's ultimately both cruel and kind.

And cruel.

And kind.

The worst things he could possibly be at once. But we'll get to that one later on. For now, let's look at his introduction.

The Quiet Apostate

Solas is a wonderfully designed character (and kudos to the Bioware artists who did so) because his beauty, as with his secret identity, is hidden in plain sight.

For those who don't look closely, Solas is just this bald, pale elven mage of medium height who wanders around with us and who maybe gets a little lofty and condescending from time to time.

But for those who look closely, he's beautiful, unique, and unmistakable—a man in the prime of his life, slimly built, with a long nose and a distinctive, elegantly tapered jaw that both subtly echo his wolf-aspect, and with deep-set pale hazel eyes under straight, heavy auburn brows. His skin is pale and lightly freckled, and the portrait is completed with a beautifully shaped mouth and a cleft chin. His ears are also positioned, again, in this way that perfectly yet subtly evokes something of the wolf when Solas is viewed from straight-on. And of course he finishes the portrait with the ancient wolf jawbone he wears around his neck on a thin cord of leather. 

It's both clue and curse; it's who Solas was... and who he must always be.

In other words, it's awful. And it's gorgeous.

Ultimately, for me, in a visual sense, Solas is like one of those picture-puzzles you have to look away from, and then back, to see the hidden picture hiding beneath the picture. Once you do that, you'll suddenly see a collection of seemingly unrelated things turn into a wonderful image you never expected—a tree, a profile, a visage, et cetera, and this was also how I felt about recognizing Solas's handsomeness. And then you add Patrick Weekes's poetic and layered dialogue. Plus one of the most gorgeous and subtle voices in creation, with the voice contributions of talented Welsh actor Gareth David-Lloyd.

It's a pretty volatile combination. Especially for the unprepared.

To echo the old quote from Aristotle, let's just say, when it comes to lethal attractiveness, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. (And then you add ancient elven armor, maybe, and, um, fall out of your chair. Don't tell me I was the only one. Don't you dare.)

Anyway. Sorry. ONWARD.

Starting the Dialogue
There's a quiet subtext to Solas's earliest discussions that for me only becomes apparent upon replay or revisitation, which is primarily centered on his definitions of those he may or may not perceive as 'real.' This moment can be incredibly impactful based on what we know of Solas, what our relationship is with him in-story, and how open we have chosen to be with him.

For instance, in my own story experience... One minute, I was talking to Solas in Haven, making the rounds as I talked to all the companions, and we began to discuss the Dalish. The character I was building in my Dalish protagonist was proud of her heritage, and Solas followed up on his initial story on the way to the forward camp (in which he'd admitted that the Dalish had attacked and expelled him when he had tried to share his knowledge with them) by expressing further suspicion and contempt for the Dalish people:
Inquisitor: I’d be interested in hearing your opinions on elven culture.
Solas: I thought you’d be more interested in sharing your opinions of elven culture.
He pauses, pointedly.
Solas: You are Dalish, are you not?
Inquisitor (among several options): Yes, I am. The Dalish are the best hope for preserving the culture of our people.
Solas: “Our people.” You use that phrase so casually. It should mean more… but the Dalish have forgotten that. Among other things.
Inquisitor: Oh, but you know the truth, right?
Solas: While they pass on stories, mangling details, I walk the Fade. I have seen things they have not.

Suddenly, for a few minutes, I was as immersed in the game and moment as deeply as I can ever be captured by a book, a film, a piece of art. Suddenly, I was having an argument with a character in a video game who had also somehow managed to get under my skin and irritate me.

I then chose to have my character answer unexpectedly however—not with a counterattack, but with a plea for knowledge and understanding, and Solas's unexpectedly generous and thoughtful response remains one of my favorite story moments in the game:
Inquisitor: Ir abelas, Hahren. If the Dalish have done you a disservice, I would make that right. What course would you set for them that is better than what they know now?
Solas seems like he might continue in anger, then pauses, and in a lovely subtle performance note by voice actor Gareth David-Lloyd, he sighs.
Solas: You are right, of course. The fault is mine, for expecting what the Dalish could never truly accomplish. Ir abelas… da’len. If I can offer any understanding, you have but to ask.
Loss, Syntax and Ancient Sweeties

This is one of my favorite dialogue exchanges in the game. I especially love that Lavellan, instinctively, moves to use the formal elven here, falling back on her Dalish origins (but in a way he will share and respond to), to both apologize for the Dalish's treatment of him, and to ask, with respect, what she and they can learn from him. For me, it's a key, lovely moment, as is his use of elven to answer her in kind. It's incredibly important: It's Solas admitting, despite himself and his previous outbursts one intrinsic fact: That, yes, we are alike, you and I.

Then their potential romance truly begins. At least, for me. In terms of my own story and protagonist, it's the first moment at which I feel the two realize they are more alike than different, and I still support the curriculum enough to keep them in mind.

In addition, I'm always touched that he calls her da'len, or 'young one,' here, as well, in the formal response. It's less an expression of youthful inequality (although, of course, the disparity in their ages here is one of actual millennia) than one of, to me, addressing the forms. Responding within the ritual, as she has spoken to him.

In Solas's awareness, the most dangerous thing that can happen is exactly what
does... when he realizes the Inquisitor is more than a shadow or sacrifice
My favorite aspect of this exchange is the sudden, complex and precipitous drop in tension. Solas is visibly surprised and moved by the Inquisitor's respectful plea for understanding. And then undone by the realization that, wait, this person is not an enemy. This person is listening to him. This. Person. And a dawning realization, appreciation, and terror, of that awareness surely accompanies this, right?

He's already on the precipice.

Because, for the first time, when Solas argues a point, when he expresses anger or frustration in this hostile and ugly, muffled new world in which he has found himself, someone else responds with love, acceptance and with a plea for better understanding. 

The only problem is, it's someone who's not supposed to intrude on his private circle of reality. They aren't supposed to do that. They aren't supposed to persuade. Or tempt. Or move him.

No. No. No.

In his world, the person who responds isn't real. They're a shadow, a shimmer, a ghost. Not real. Never that.

Except... now, this. The possibility. A sudden kinship, a flashing awareness, a connection.

And he is, after all, so lonely.

Solas is a passionate and intensely feeling man. I think, right here, if there's a romance brewing, it's here when he falls flat. And it's therefore that much more believable that here is when the walls simply come down. And when they do, he thinks of Felassan.

As he must. As he should. But more on that later.

The Romance at the Core

Meanwhile, ultimately, to me, Solas's romance is the best of all worlds, offering a little bit of everything, with the open sensuality of Bull's, the sweet, slight awkwardness and hesitance of Dorian's or Cullen's, the doomed passion of Anders, the hidden dramas, conflicts and guilts of Fenris or Blackwall's romances, and the sheer poetry and lyricism of Cassandra's or Alistair's.

However, what makes Solas's romance wholly unique and different from those of the other companions across the trilogy, for me, is that it's the only way we'll really get the complete portrait of Solas, of who he is at his most open and unguarded. This isn't the case with the other characters—if you have high friendship, approval (or even rivalry), even if you don't romance Bull, or Anders, or Alistair, or Leliana, or dozens of others, you'll still walk away knowing who they are, even if, depending on your choices, Bull's romance does provide an unexpected glimpse of both his capacity for tenderness (or ruthlessness, depending on your choices), just as Sera's illuminates her capacity for both playfulness and cruelty if you're playing an 'elfy' Dalish Inquisitor.

Hidden in the Heart

Nevertheless, there's not the disconnect with other companions that we get with Solas—we still get those glimmers of who we already know them to be, with or without the romance. 

But this isn't really the case with Solas, who's careful and reserved with every word, every glance, every touch.

With Solas, you have to reach out. Talk. Open up. There's no other way.

In other words, to know him, you have to be brave. Connect. There's no other way. Otherwise you never get past the barriers.

If we don't romance or befriend Solas, we'll never really know how complicated he truly is. We won't see him lose control, whether in a kiss he cannot bring himself to break, or in his anguish at the prejudicial and senseless death of a friend. Instead, he comes across as a much more distanced character. He remains self-contained, cold, dismissive, and predictable. The elven mage who thought he knew too much, and who needed no one.

Or so he thought.

Because distances can be bridged. Awarenesses can dawn. And love can awaken empathy, admiration, desire and understanding beyond imagining.

But I'll take a look at that in my next post on Solas's romance...

For those of you who romanced Solas... how soon did you look over and realize? Were you as slow as me, or did you notice him sooner?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Meaningful Banters: "He Dumped Me!" (A Real-Life Post-Solas Discussion)

I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional... but you can't have everything.
The Purple Rose of Cairo

She's gone. She gave me a pen. I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen.
—Say Anything

SPOILERS for Dragon Age: Inquisition!

So, let's talk.

What do you do after a certain unexpected and earth-shaking relationship status change in Dragon Age: Inquisition

Yeah. You know. That moment after Solas dumps you.

Did you take the option to call him an asshole? Or did you shrug? Cry? Yell banal’abelas, banal’vhenan? Or did you nod understandingly while calmly waiting for him to work out his internal bullshit? If so, you're a far better person than my poor Inky, who in my own internal headcanon went off to get schnockered at The Herald's Rest for a week and who then filled all Solas's favorite wine bottles with tea.

I didn't take it so well either. In a weak moment, I called a gamer friend, Kimberley, to admit the depths of my outrage. And she's never let me forget it.

I'd really loved Bull's romance previously, but okay, I admit it, my crush on Solas was even worse—pixellated or not, I'd definitely found myself gazing at him more than once with little hearts in my eyes. For this reason, writing my latest analyses on Solas's romance has been even more fun than usual, but reliving its humiliation and fabulousness also made me think again about how oddly emotional these game moments can be. 

Case in point... Exhibit A.

I pause the game. Click a number on my phone.

Kimberley: Hey, what's up?
Me: He dumped me!
Kimberley: Who?
Kimberley: Uh... who?
Me: Elf boyfriend. You know... Solas. IN THE GAME. Inquisition.
Kimberley: Oh, God, right! Pajama elf! The one who's... remind me again? He's, like... a superhero?
Me: An ancient elven god.
Kimberley: Oh. Right. Pretty cool. I remember now. Even if that was a total spoiler though.
Me: Yeah, it is cool. And sorry again that I spoiled you. I was just really excited when I found out.
Kimberley: I get it.
Me: Thanks.
Kimberley: But... didn't you already know that was gonna happen?
Me: Him dumping me? Um, I mean, my Inquisitor? NO, I DID NOT.
Kimberley: But I thought you played it before.
Me: I did, but I romanced Bull.
Kimberley: Oh, right! The one with the... um... safe word?
Me (cough): Yeah.
Kimberley: Woof.

Side Note: At this point in time, Kimberley hasn't yet played DAI or romanced Bull, but she's heard my vague if delighted descriptions of his romance. So we both pause for a respectful mental time-out.

Me: Anyway.
Kimberley: Yeah. 


Me: It just seems unfair. You'd think the fictional boyfriends are the ones who'll be supportive. Not dump you suddenly in the middle of a swamp. I mean, I get enough of that in real life! It's not right.
Kimberley: Since when have you been dumped in the middle of a swamp?
Me: Okay, so I'm exaggerating. But then he just leaves you there!
Kimberley: In the swamp? 
Me: Yeah. I mean, it's not like they have Ubers in Thedas.

A pause. 

Meanwhile, in my imagination, Solas is choosing this moment to change his Facebook status from "In a relationship" to "Single." 

Kimberley: So... you're actually kind of pissed about this, aren't you?
Me: Huh? No. Um. It just caught me off guard.
Kimberley: Because you honestly really sound upset.
Kimberley: Ouch.
Me: See? I know, right? 
Kimberley: I don't care if he's fictional, that's gotta hurt.

An audible sniffle escapes me and I reach frantically for a tissue. I am now mentally throwing fireballs at Solas. I am not okay.

Kimberley: Wait. You sound funny. Have you been crying?
Me: No.
Kimberley: Oh shit. You have. You totally cried.
Me: Oh, boo-hoo, lucky guess... Besides, I cry at everything. I'm a crier. Books. Movies. Commercials. Disney ballads. YouTube videos. Pets. Sappy pop songs.
Kimberley: Fictional boyfriends...
Me: You weren't there!
Kimberley: Angela... Neither were you!
Me: Okay, I know, I know, but... seriously, it's surprisingly emotional.
Kimberley: You're too sensitive. You need to play more zombie stuff.  It's cathartic. And you don't get relationship crap.
Me:  It's not my fault! It's Bioware! They're evil! It's WHAT THEY DO.
Kimberley: You cried. Over a fake boyfriend in a video game. I'm blackmailing you about this forever. This is hilarious.
Me: It's not hilarious. If Garrus had dumped your FemShep you totally would have cried.
Kimberley (smugly): Garrus would never do that to me.
Me: If I killed you with the power of my mind right now, no jury would convict me.
Kimberley: No jury in... where is it again?
Kimberley: Sorry. I'll be serious. I really do want to be supportive. 
Me: Thanks.
Kimberley: So. Can you kick his ass, at least?
Me: Huh. No. I don't think so.
Kimberley: Awww... 
Me: What is it?
KimberleyYou can't. You can't do it.
Me: Shut up.
Kimberley: YOU STILL LOVE HIM, don't you?
Me: Oops, look at the time! I... Yeah. GOTTA GO.
Kimberley: Coward.
Me: Someday, you'll play Dragon Age: Inquisition. And you'll romance Solas. And on that day, you will FINALLY understand my pain.
Kimberley: No, I won't. 
Me: Why?
Kimberley: Because I'm gonna romance Bull.**

The Emotional Component

Sigh. True story. And in all seriousness there is this small part of my brain that's still waiting for some kind of resolution there. I can laugh about it (and often do), but there's a reason many of us nevertheless wince a little when we call this emotional state Solavellan Hell.

I mean... sometimes, if a game is good enough, this stuff sure feels emotionally real. That's part of the fun of it, oddly enough.

Another fun aspect to all the suffering is that if I ever want consolation on this, I've got it in spades. Because I am not alone. Thousands of other gamers all over the world have also romanced my commitment-phobic, lonely elven god boyfriend. So we're all kind of supportive and sweet to each other when we hang out on social media or post in groups or message boards. It's pretty funny, as if we all have the same ex, but minus the residual jealousy or weirdness.

POV (Emotion Versus Reality)

And it's the same with almost all of us, I notice. We start out by saying "My Inquisitor" did this, or "My Warden" did that, but you know what happens every time? The first person sneaks in—lord knows, you've had to have noticed it here on my blog, since I do it constantly. The shift is almost imperceptible for me at this point—from "she did this," or "he did that," to "I did this" or "I did that." Because yes, you're building a character when you play these RPGs, but the Dragon Age team in creating them, and especially in the case of Inquisition, also thoroughly understands that you're additionally invested on a powerful and personal level that may surprise you (it always does me), and bam, at certain, sneaky moments, you'll almost certainly find your heart engaged, as well as your imagination and intellect. 

But, well, that's what you get when you give your heart to a fictional character. Or when you don't do the Dark Ritual. Or when you don't save the Chargers.

Or when you romance Solas.

While it's not always exactly a barrel of laughs, as an emotional experience in Dragon Age, Solas's romance is, for me, unparalleled. And that's even before you factor in the ornate and poetic language, or the surging melancholy strings of Trevor Morris's gorgeous and cinematic soundtrack, or Gareth David-Lloyd and Alix Wilton Regan's beautiful voices, or the haunting and lovely character design, or the breathtaking and sorrowful backdrops of Thedas.

So. Yeah: Next post. Let's do this... 

Let's talk about Solas's romance...

**NOTE: Two years later, Kimberley played Dragon Age: Inquisition. And she romanced... (wait for it)... SOLAS.


Friday, May 4, 2018

Meet the Evanuris: The Mother, the Spirit and the War of the Gods

When you consider what life was like in the ancient days when spirits and
physical beings lived together in a magical world, it's easy to see why Solas
reacted in horror to his awakening after millennia in the Fade.
The pages of this book—memory?—describe an elf approaching a city of glass spires so deeply blue they ache. The city's outskirts are wrapped in lakes of mist, and figures stroll along the pearly, glowing strips as if they walked on solid ground. Groves of trees woven into enormous parks shelter elves in quiet hollows, while other elves walk below a river churning along an invisible shoal in the air.

The scene hums with quiet talk and contentment as the memory's maker reaches the city's gates, already thrown open wide.
—Dragon Age: Inquisition "Trespasser" DLC ("Vir Dirthara" Codex: Homecoming).

SPOILERS as always, for all of Dragon Age!

Welcome! We're on to my second post in my series on "Meet the Evanuris" (please do check out my first post here, for a general overview of Dalish myths and gods back when we were young and naive and oh, so trusting). 

Our knowledge is darker now, however, and far more complex, thanks to Dragon Age: Inquisition and especially "Trespasser." 

So here we go... as we try to separate fact from myth.

Let's set the scene: In the very farthest reaches of the past, it appears that there was a great war, between the immortal Elvhen people, led by the Evanuris, and a force of unnamed foes (the Forgotten Ones, to me, are the likeliest candidates here). They won, and the Evanuris prospered, and, I suspect, drew power from their defeated foes much like Solas would do to Mythal, countless ages later.  (Please note that I'm going to use the 'Elvhen' connotation for the ancients here, to differentiate from the modern elves).

Incredibly powerful in magic and accepted as leaders by a presumably grateful people, the Evanuris were the ruling body for millennia. According to most Dalish myths about the elven pantheon, they were led by Mythal and Elgar'nan, who had five children: the twins Falon'Din and Dirthamen, as well as Andruil, Sylaise and June. 

Yet as we travel through Thedas and into mysterious areas like the Temple of Mythal, the Tomb of the Emerald Knights, the Lost Temple of Dirthamen, and into the hidden Elven Ruins in Solas's ancient valley, we begin to find that Andruil, Sylaise and June are also depicted as being potentially completely unrelated. Further, there are even implications that Falon'Din and Dirthamen were not biological twins, but something more complex.

Me, I'm not so sure about the family issue. At least in this moment, I'm on the side of the fence that thinks they were all related.

Mythal and her brood of little nestlings,
before the world went wrong.
The Spirit and the Flesh

I think the five were Mythal's actual children because of, first off, the golden mosaic portrait of Mythal in her hidden Arbor Wilds temple. Look at it—she looks for all the world like she's adorably holding a basket of chicks... FIVE OF THEM!

And it also does appear to me from the stories and implications that Mythal, at the very least, loved these people and considered them offspring. Or, at least, family. Biological connections or no.

But even if they were all family, this doesn't have to mean that they were all physical beings

Think about it. We know from the revelations of "Trespasser" that they were all powerful mages, but it's also entirely possible that, in a universe in which spirits and physical bodies inhabited the world together, pre-Veil, not all of Mythal's children may have been of the flesh. (Or her companions, for that matter, but I'll get to that farther on...)

For instance, based on the original Dalish legend that Falon-Din could go beyond the Fade (or, let's say, into the spiritual realm pre-Veil) in ways Dirthamen could not, I wonder if Dirthamen was a physical being, an elf, while his 'twin' Falon'Din, who was able to walk both worlds, was in fact a spirit all along. I mean, it would make sense. No mortal could cross and recross into the purely spiritual world beyond the physical as Falon'Din does, so the discrepancy makes perfect sense. They may even have been able to share Dirthamen's physical body on occasion, in a more benign version of the way Justice piggybacked on poor Anders's soul.

And while I'm on the subject... I want to point out that it's this, as I mentioned briefly in my previous post, that may answer the mystery of why Falon'Din and Dirthamen are the only Evanuris depicted in the Temple of Mythal with black, black eyes. (Yes, I'm still wondering about this...)

(Please note that throughout this discussion, when I refer to "the Fade," I am referring to the spiritual side of the Elvhen world, pre-Veil, and more specifically, to the place from whence spirits are born, and to which the souls of the dead return.)

I think this is an important detail to note because of the time period we're addressing—the time of the Evanuris was an age in which the spiritual and the physical were not precisely interchangeable, maybe, but in which they coexisted in perfect harmony. Spirits and fleshly beings were both equally considered to be people and treated, it seems, without a specific prejudice for either. In fact, I wonder if spiritual beings weren't in fact more prized for their input because it had the potential to come from experiences across distances and years far beyond those of living beings, even immortal ones. 

I'll go into more of the potential for both physical and spiritual Evanuris members in Mythal's entry to follow... and farther on in this post, as well.

Meanwhile, our journeys through DAI and "Trespasser" certainly teach us many things about the elven pantheon that seem to be less rooted in legend and more based in fact (and please note that anything I refer to here as "facts" is simply my assumption of what we learn in "Trespasser"—everything we know may very well of course be flipped again in Dragon Age 4). 

I do think that in the glorious early days of the Evanuris, there was
real love and affection among them, even if it wasn't sustainable.
Myths, Lies and Truths

What's most interesting to me is that, fairly quickly into Dragon Age: Inquisition, our own accepted assumptions upon visiting the story of the elven pantheon are up-ended, and radically so. It is, after all, Mythal and Fen'Harel we eventually come to associate with vengeance, not Elgar'nan, even though it becomes apparent that Elgar'nan's temper was his defining quality (he certainly doesn't sound like a very pleasant guy, and much like Zeus it's implied that he may have been a pretty terrible husband, father and ruler). Take this pleasant little excerpt from the "Song to Elgar'nan" found in the Temple of Mythal:
Elgar’nan, Wrath and Thunder,
Give us glory.
Give us victory, over the Earth that shakes our cities.
Strike the usurpers with your lightning.
Burn the ground under your gaze.
Bring Winged Death against those who throw down our work.
Elgar’nan, help us tame the land.
In the above, don't miss what may be veiled references to a threatening Titan (in the shaking of the Earth), and to the divine dragon shape-shifting form that was apparently the ability common to all of the Evanuris (not just Mythal)—I'll address this in more detail farther on. In the references to lightning, are they referring, meanwhile, to Elgar'nan's mage abilities? Or did he, like Zeus and Thor, profess to use both lightning and thunder against his foes?

With these and many other tantalizing little revelations, in other words, we quickly come to realize through the Codices and scraps of knowledge we accumulate in DAI that the Evanuris weren't all-knowing, powerful deities. They were, in fact, an arrogant, quarrelsome, corrupt and conflicted lot who frequently warred and fought within themselves, enslaved their own people, and who just as frequently abused their powers simply for amusement's sake.

I frequently play for Dalish Inquisitor protagonists in my DAI playthroughs, and if I headcanon for my heroine during the story's events and discoveries, I always find the revelations about the Evanuris to be incredibly powerful on an emotional level. Imagine Cassandra finding out that the Maker was not only never real, he was just some arrogant mage guy abusing his power. I mean, the implications are huge for the elven participants in DAI. Imagine the loss of belief in a profoundly Dalish believer... it might be enough to cause you to doubt everything you thought you knew. And it just might be enough to send you dashing off into the world to follow the silent call of an ancient almost-god...

But things were different long ago, after all. And maybe it wasn't always bad. In fact, I'm sure it wasn't.

A Paradise of Magic and Knowledge

In the beginning, despite the high passions and prideful immortals, it truly seems that there was harmony among the Evanuris, and I do believe, at first, that these beings did love one another, and glory in the beautiful world they inhabited. Andruil hunted and killed, yes, but at first I think she did so out of a real desire to celebrate and protect the beasts of the world and to pit herself only against their very greatest strengths (and to then, I would assume, feed her people). She who hunted the beasts also protected them, something we see in the fragments of stories of Ghilan'nain as well. 

I also think that Falon'Din, the 'shadow' of Dirthamen who may have been a terrifying spirit, at first really did probably treat his work as a shepherd of sleepers in uthenera, and later, of souls, with honor and respect. I would imagine that in the beginning, Falon'Din  would have experienced real wonder at each new soul and its passage to the Beyond, whether in dreams and uthenera, with the potential to return, or whether as a final journey into the Fade upon death, in a return from physical form to spiritual.

In other words, for a time I think it all really was wonderful, magical, beautiful and peaceful—perhaps for millennia the mortals of Thedas would be unable to count or even imagine. 

The story is certainly sadder if these beings all began as good, and I believe it's plausible that for many thousands of years, even, the Evanuris were truly wise in their rule over the Elvhen people. I think they created and nurtured a paradise of wisdom, magic and thought, in which gravity was optional, conversations lasted for decades, relationships evolved over centuries, and the magic was as simple as a word or a breath. A world that Solas later mourns to us in Haven:
“Imagine ..... spires of crystal twining through the branches, palaces floating among the clouds. Imagine beings who lived forever, for whom magic was as natural as breathing. That is what was lost.”
Passions Before the Veil

Speaking of Solas, I think it's important to bring up the fact here that, based on his dialogues and interactions with a romanced Inquisitor, these were intensely, deeply feeling people—beings who were both wise with millennia of learning, conversation and exploration, but who were also shown time and again to be quick to feeling, emotion and passion. 

Solas, seen here just before he utterly stomps all over my poor Inquisitor's heart,
is a sensual, passionate, and intensely emotional person. Were these qualities
common to all Evanuris in a world without a Veil? I think they were. 
Look at Solas in Dragon Age: Inquisition—even under the 'blanketing' presence of the Veil, he reveals himself to be a passionate and emotional person—not at all the cold-seeming mage apostate we first talked to at Haven. Solas's emotions run high and his fires are undimmed once he becomes freer to talk to our Inquisitors (if high in approval), and especially with a romanced Inquisitor, it's easy to see why he initially felt depressed and confined by the world under the Veil. This is also subtly emphasized by the fact that Solas is at his most romantic and passionate either in the Fade, or where the Veil is thin (as it is in his excursion to Crestwood with a romanced Inquisitor). He even admits this openly after the first kiss: "Such things have always been easier for me in the Fade."

With this in mind, it's all too easy to see why Solas awakened after long millennia and looked around himself in horror, seeing all those around him as beings who, to him, seemed muted and fragile, transitory and barely alive—he'd awakened, as he eloquently describes it in "Trespasser," to "a world of Tranquil." (I love this description, thanks to the always-superb Patrick Weekes, and have frequently felt since hearing it that this is also what it is often like to be an artist, as well...)

Anyway. When this consideration enters the picture, that this entire people were intense, emotional, deeply feeling and passionate, it's easier to see that the Evanuris were, in all likelihood, doomed by the very passions that sustained them. 

And let's not discount the very real potential for the most insidious enemy of all... boredom.

After all, a few millennia go by, and hey, you've seen it all, done it all. Perhaps the Evanuris, in the end, were no different from the many RPG players who, having done their share of 'paragon' playthroughs, decide to go renegade just to see what would happen next. (I'm only partly kidding, here...)

The Inevitable Corruption of Power

Because, let's face it: People change. Or, as Anne Rice's ancient vampires discovered, perhaps it's a more subtle thing—that people who can exist for centuries do not so much change as become more and more who they always were at their core. 

In other words, immortality may actually kind of suck.

Either way, after however many ages or millennia, every one of the Evanuris seems to eventually gone slightly mad (and then some) at a certain point, corrupting in each case the very talent, ability or love that had originally moved and shaped them. So Dirthamen became obsessed with secrets. Andruil went bonkers and hunted earth, skies and the Void itself to such an extent that even her fellow "gods" expressed fear that they might be next. Falon'Din no longer just ferried souls, he harvested them, glorying in death and lakes of blood, and amassing armies of spirits to do his bidding (that is, when he wasn't clashing with Elgar'nan for dominance). Elgar'nan, meanwhile, was evidently the same lovely guy he'd always been, just intensified, enslaving countless numbers of his people to serve and honor him, and to erect massive tributes and statues to his might—and very possibly doing so by carving those tributes into the bodies of his slain enemies, which in one memorable case he seems to have done on the mountainous corpse of a Titan itself (or, well, he had his slaves do it). Here's a quote from that moment:

The pages of this book—memory?—describe a monument made in a single afternoon by a thousand-thousand toiling servants swarming over a lump of fallen stone as large as a collapsed mountain. By the end of the day, the stern figure of Elgar'nan stares down into a valley, carved out from the foothills of the rock. The slaves have disappeared. Light radiates from the eidolon's narrowed eyes and its open, snarling mouth.

(Side Note: As they were in DAI, the Codices in "Trespasser" aren't just incredibly informative, they're also gorgeously written, so kudos to the writing team on those, which included the intrepid and talented Brianne BattyeMary Kirby, and @Sylvf.)

The Evanuris were likely always doomed. Even in a world of magic,
I suspect that gravity will eventually always win out.
In short, immortality was no longer enough. Power was no longer enough. Magic was no longer enough. Only an unquestioned dominion over all, with tributes of death and enslavement, could satisfy the Evanuris. Vanity, jealousy and a refusal to abnegate power seem to have been the fatal flaws of the once-harmonious group.

It was both tragic and inevitable. They'd seen it all, done it all. It appears that, at a certain point, the only thing that would satisfy them was to make the world their playground, a place in which they could enact the darkest tableaux of fear, war, death, corruption, decadence, plague (cough, BLIGHT, Andruil, cough), and enslavement.

The Arrival of Solas...

My own interpretation is that here, watching Andruil slay for fun, breaking her own sacred rules as she hunted earth, abyss and sky while poisoning both herself and the world, watching Elgar'nan and Falon'Din delight in slaughter and power, and watching even Dirthamen and Ghilan'nain plot against her, that Mythal just got scared, depressed, and tired.

I think that for awhile here, she tried for peace nonviolently at first, and sometimes it even worked. But then that wasn't enough. People weren't listening. So then she went into full-on Warrior-Queen battle mode—in Dragon Age: Inquisition and especially in "Trespasser," we find so much evidence of Mythal's physical attempts to stop the carnage! She subdues Falon'Din in his own temple. She overpowers Andruil and removes the knowledge of the Void from her to protect the world. She even may defeat a Titan simply for one more tool in her hand to use to protect her land and people (I'm still trying to figure out what her motive was here, but I'm convinced it has something to do with helping the elves—I just don't see Mythal killing a Titan for sheer gain).

Either way, she does all this, and it's still not enough.

So I think she calls for help. She calls on a friend from the Fade—a friend I believe she knows and deeply loves—someone she trusts to be both friend, companion and protector: Solas. A spirit.

The Case for Solas as Spirit

This is it. I think this is the point when Mythal calls Solas into the physical world, and I believe wholly and utterly that when she does so, she is calling on someone she has known since the world was young, a spirit of wisdom and grace.

And I think he answers out of love for her, and does as she asks, entering the world of Thedas as a slender, quiet young man, as a being who is utterly unique—both spirit and body, old and young, servant and master, guardian and trickster. Who walks in all worlds, both dark and light. I think their bond is one of love, but that it is not romantic; in fact, I think it actually transcends romance.

I'll talk about this more later, but it's intriguing to consider that Solas, already impossibly old in spirit form, may enter the world of the living here, becoming enfleshed at the request of Mythal (much as Cole would do, albeit involuntarily, ages later), in the body of the man we meet millennia beyond this time in Dragon Age: Inquisition

I think this is what Solas means when he says he has always been the person we see before us, and that he's telling the truth; he is who he appears to be. He doesn't carry a wisp or vestige of a god; he is the god himself, the god who knows he's not one and never was; the elf and man who was once a spirit. I think all of this is true, and that the only change to that physical form of his is that the vallaslin that signified his service to Mythal, a symbol that became one of enslavement among his people, he eventually removed with her blessing, leaving only the tiniest scar upon his face as evidence (hey, it was probably his first try), as Cole later remarks obliquely in "Trespasser."

I love the idea of Solas beginning life as a spirit who is then called into the physical world (accepting that call by choice, and with love). It explains so much about him—his passionate embrace of all things fleshly, from the "frilly cakes" he once loved back in the ancient days of Orlais, to his open and fiery sensuality with a romanced Inquisitor. 

It also explains his passionate support of spirits as fellow individuals, his empathy for Cole, as well as his deep grief over the loss of the spirit Wisdom. This isn't just someone he may have known during his long sleep in the Fade, after all, but someone he may have known for ages beyond counting. Someone who is a reflection of who he himself once was. 

It even explains his painting style on the beautiful frescoes in his Rotunda, which I believe are accomplished not only in the finest artistic tradition of the ancient Elvhen masters, but that they also depict the events of DAI as seen not in real life, but instead as if... seen by someone from the Fade. That's my theory, anyway.

So... Enter Solas, stage left.

The idea that Solas may have entered the world solely at the request of
Mythal, and as a testament of his love for her, makes the end of their
journey all the more tragic and ironic.
Choosing Sides

I suspect that, for awhile, maybe even a few more thousand years or so, that Solas's entry onto the scene helped to stabilize things. He was brilliant, with a knowledge of the Fade/Spirit world beyond any ever seen, and with prodigious magical powers and a gift for diplomacy, a passion for justice and free will, and a slight glint of both rebellion and humor now and then. I think Solas would have fascinated the other Evanuris, and that he may even have grown to love his fellow 'gods' and truly helped Mythal to stem the tide of corruption, at least for awhile.

My suspicion, however, is that, even then, the one thing Solas could not stand was the existence of slavery. As someone who may have existed for countless previous ages and civilizations in the Fade, Solas would have seen the tragedies of slavery in years beyond the telling, and he would have seen the enslavement of their own people by the Evanuris as the height of evil. Either way, he began to fight it, first covertly, and then in open defiance.

At around this same time (or so I hypothesize), we know from the Codices that Mythal stepped in between the conflicts of Falon'Din and Elgar'nan, and that she eventually openly defeated Falon'Din, bloodying him in the sacred place of his Temple itself (an insult I'd imagine he never got over). We also know that Mythal openly defeated Andruil after her final trip to the Void, and that she may even have taken some of her power just as Solas later does from Flemeth, as the Codex notes that Mythal "sapped Andruil's strength and stole her knowledge." Again, Andruil may have taken awhile to recover, but as with Falon'Din, I do not see her licking her wounds and reconciling herself to peace, and it's definitely implied that she had personal reasons to begin to hate and fear Solas, as well, in her own right.

The eventual war within the Evanuris was, for this reason, unavoidable. Eventually, despite Solas's brilliance and trickery, despite all of Mythal's attempts at peace, the oldest and most powerful mages ever seen set themselves up as gods, opposed only by an increasingly desperate Mythal and Solas, who was now making a name for himself by freeing slaves and toppling tyrants in his own right. And so they began to call him Fen'Harel, the Dread (or 'Rebel') Wolf, as the being who could stalk them in all worlds and take them down, and whose magical powers exceeded even their own. 

The Divine Shape

We learn some interesting things in DAI and "Trespasser" about the escalation in tensions at this point. From still another Codex from elven writing found in the Arbor Wilds, we learn that the 'divine' form of the dragon-shapeshifter may not have been solely the province of Mythal herself, but (it's implied) was the province of the Evanuris or 'gods' themselves:

"His crime is high treason. He took on a form reserved for the gods and their chosen, and dared to fly in the shape of the divine. The sinner belongs to Dirthamen; he claims he took wings at the urging of Ghilan'nain, and begs protection from Mythal. She does not show him favor, and will let Elgar'nan judge him."
For one moment there is an image of a shifting, shadowy mass with blazing eyes, whose form may be one or many. Then it fades.

This, to me, is a huge clue fraught with significance. It's really exciting!

While we now associate Mythal as the figure associated with the dragon,
there's a distinct possibility that shape-changing to the 'divine' dragon-form
was in fact possible for all of the Evanuris at some point
Basically, from this scrap of information, it appears to me that Ghilan'nain and Dirthamen seem to have teamed up at some point (which also, to me, implies at least some alignment with the already ferocious Andruil) to support a dragon shapeshifter of their own. Created, perhaps, to battle Mythal? The outcome for the 'sinner' in question did not go well, however, and Mythal allowed Elgar'nan to enact a brutal judgment—again, setting the stage for betrayal, as we already know how close Dirthamen and Falon'Din are supposed to have been.

So... if we follow this logic even further, it would seem to me that Andruil, Falon'Din, Dirthamen, and Ghilan'nain were openly opposed to Mythal, and that (based on Mythal's parallel rage to Flemeth's) Mythal's mate Elgar'nan also aligned with them eventually (overcoming his previous antagonism with Falon'Din). And based on the implications of our final talk with Solas, it appears that Sylaise and June, too, joined in, as all of the 'gods' were judged by him as complicit in the betrayal. I've even wondered if Elgar'nan only pretended to judge the 'sinner' mentioned above, and if instead the criminal wasn't actually freed instead. If so, this 'sinner' could in fact be the entity who eventually committed the actual murder of Mythal.

At the same time, I wonder if this isn't also when the Forgotten Ones, renewed in strength and awaiting their chance, sensed the schism and warfare among the Evanuris, and used the situation to make another attempt to conquer the Elvhen people once more. It would make sense, and also explain why Solas took action against both sides of the conflict, as well.

Either way, with their fellow immortals aligned against them, and war threatening from the Forgotten Ones, Mythal and Fen'Harel could not stand against them all. But it seems they tried.

But it was not enough. They were betrayed, and Mythal was murdered.

And after Mythal fell, as we know, Fen'Harel's vengeance tore apart the heavens, created the Veil, destroyed both the safety, culture, and immortality of the elves, and cast both the Evanuris and the Forgotten Ones into imprisonment for the ages. He did this both to save his people and to avenge the murder of the person he loved most in all worlds, but as we already know within the world of Dragon Age, by doing so he also inadvertently doomed his own people to mortality, defeat, diminishment, and eventual enslavement by humans.

And all because he answered the cry of Mythal.

A Closer Look

Thanks as always for reading! I'll be taking a closer individual look at each member of the Evanuris in further posts, following the hints and revelations of Dragon Age: Inquisition and "Trespasser."

And of course, for me, the pantheon must begin not with the cliche of the Father, but with, instead, the Mother... so I'll be posting on Mythal soon to follow, as the first of many more to come in the series intermittently over the coming months.

Meanwhile: what do you think of the Evanuris? What are your thoughts about the theories I've posted here? Do you think it's possible that Solas and Falon'Din may have been spirits in the first place? I'd love to hear what you think, so please do share your reactions in the comments!

"Dragon Age: Dreadwolf" Predictions & Ponderings (and "What's in a Name?" Redux)

He doesn't call, he doesn't write, but finally, it looks like we might be hearing from Solas at last (2023?), as BioWare announces t...