Saturday, July 21, 2018

Wolf and Demon, God and Man: The Many Faces of Solas


SOLAS
: We all have a face we want to show. And a face we do not.


Dread Wolf. Anonymous mage. Freer of slaves. Humble apostate. Decadent noble. Fallen god.

I believe that Solas wears many faces, both metaphorical and actual, throughout the stories of Dragon Age, which is why I'm fascinated that Solas is so amused by the Orlesians, for instance, at Halamshiral—when he himself may be the most adept mask-wearer in all of Thedas!

No matter what face he's presenting, Solas is often at his most revealing when he is in the grips of some great emotion (or, to a lesser degree, when he's feeling playful). He hides adeptly the rest of the time, as at home in shadow as in light. And as usual with our paradoxical onetime almost-god, he loves secrets and wordplay, and I think this is due in part to the slight humor that so often goes unacknowledged with his character (to me, at least), as well as to his more powerful, elemental and yet ultimately simple need to speak the truth.

Yet while Solas may love secrets, and feints, and puzzles, his mask is surprisingly transparent; he's simply not a liar at heart. And yet his faces go beyond simple definitions of true or false. He's presented in so many ways—as an antagonist or supporter; as a humble outsider or as an inside power player; as a supercilious git, or as a man of the people; as a potential friend, or as a lover.

The common thread to all of these? He struggles visibly when it's time to lie.


The mage and the Wolf... and millennia of secrets.

The Truth-Teller

I often compare Solas with Bull, because I find so many intriguing similarities between the two characters; yet while they are strikingly similar men, in many ways, they are also, just as intriguingly, polar opposites.

For instance, in the matters of lies and truthfulness, the two could not be farther apart. Bull is a liar at heart, and it's part of who he is even though it doesn't remotely tarnish the potential sweetness and generosity at his core. Solas, meanwhile, is almost compulsively truthful (wherever he can be), as in just a few examples here:
Solas: I apologize. The kiss was impulsive and ill-considered, and I should not have encouraged it. 
Or: 
Cassandra: Solas, if you do not mind me asking, what do you believe in?
Solas: Cause and effect. Wisdom as its own reward, and the inherent right of all free willed people to exist.
Cassandra: That is not what I meant.
Solas: I know. (A pause) I believe the elven gods existed, as did the old gods of Tevinter. But I do not think any of them were gods, unless you expand the definition of the word to the point of absurdity. I appreciate the idea of your Maker, a god that does not need to prove his power. I wish more such gods felt the same.
Or: 
Blackwall: For all your experience, Solas, you don't carry yourself like a soldier.
Solas: You should have seen me when I was younger. Hot-blooded and cocky, always ready to fight. 
Blackwall: Ah, youth.
Or: 
Dorian: Solas, for what it's worth, I'm sorry. The elven city of Arlathan sounds like a magical place, and for my ancestors to have destroyed it...
Solas: Dorian... hush. Empires rise and fall. Arlathan was no more "innocent" than your own Tevinter in its time. Your nostalgia for the ancient elves, however romanticized, is pointless. If you wish to make amends for past transgressions, free the slaves of all races who live in Tevinter today.
Dorian: I... don't know that I can do that.
Solas: Then how sorry are you?
What's the common denominator above? Brutal, unflinching, unrelenting honesty. And I can offer a dozen more examples, at least. Solas is not only an honest man, at heart, he's willing to be so even if it endangers his secret mission.

Solas's visible compassion for Abelas is no accident—he himself has stood exactly where Abelas now stands, and he understands his curse and his current bitter crossroads all too well.
Ancient trickster, academic, apostate, Dread Wolf or no, I truly believe Solas is, the vast majority of the time, actively seeking to reward questions with truth, or as much of it as he can tell. Unlike Bull, for whom lies are as easy as water, a baseline, Solas is not Hissrad, and I think it's evident from a wealth of conversation and discovery throughout Inquisition that Solas is not only not a natural liar; he is actually a pretty terrible one, in general, to an almost comic degree. He almost gives himself away a score of times or more across the story—blundering into little admissions, inconsistencies, and awkward moments simply because while he's a brilliant mage, leader and tactician, he is not really a spy at heart. As here:

Blackwall: Skyhold. How did you find it?
Solas: I looked.
Or:
Cassandra: I've wondered: How did you know to approach us, Solas? The Breach opened, we were scrambling and barely had time to think... and there you were.
Solas: I went to see the Breach for myself. I did not know you would be there.
Cassandra: You must not have been far away.
Solas: I was not. I'd come to hear of the Conclave, but did not want to get close.
Or:
Solas: I had forgotten how I missed court intrigue.
Inquisitor: You miss court intrigue? When were you at court? 
Solas (visibly discomfited): Oh. Well, never… directly, of course. An elven apostate is rarely invited to speak with empresses and kings.  
This last instance is one of my favorites, since it's right after Halamshiral, and Solas actually breaks character badly enough to disapprove when we ask him about it (the only time we gain disapproval from him for doing so in the entire game). It's really funny—he basically goes from, "Ah, how I missed courtly intrigue!" to "Um, whups, not me, I've barely even seen palaces except when I was out picking elfroot or hiding from Templars..."

The Decadent Noble

Speaking of faces, I always especially adore Solas's appearance at Halamshiral, because it's so revealing and surprising. I'd been expecting to see Solas at his most bitter there—the disdainful activist loathing the entire situation, especially the visible reminders of elves as a fallen and enslaved people. 

Instead, Solas is haughty and amused, lounging indolently against a darkened corner while enjoying the food, drink, and decadence. I even love the hat he wears (which is the object of a sizeable amount of hatred in the fandom)—I don't care, it does wonderful things to his face! To me, this is the purest glimpse of Solas's Evanuris persona—a real, live glimpse of the ancient noble with the wicked gleam of sex and humor in equal measure. And it's delightful. This is a Solas who has seen it all, for millennia, for whom nothing is surprising, and to whom all this frippery and intrigue must seem the height of shallow silliness.

But oh, what fun it must be for him to be back in the game again! At ease in a palace, surrounded by beautiful things. Not to have to play the humble apostate in homespun; to feel the silks and velvets of fine fabrics, to indulge in elegant food and drink (and, no doubt, the frilly little cakes he so enjoys), and to look forward to a dance, a touch, a kiss, with the woman he loves. All while watching approvingly from behind the Dread Wolf's eyes as she goes on the hunt, herself.



How appropriate it is that Solas's mask slips so visibly at the masked ball at Halamshiral. The ancient elven noble aspect of Solas is revealed here at his most decadent, careless and charming. "Hunt well!"

The Dissembler

But for the most part, I think it's apparent from Solas's demeanor throughout the story that he increasingly hates the situation in which he's found himself, and that he may even seek to subconsciously reveal himself to end the whole subterfuge entirely

Solas has involved himself in the great events across the ages for millennia (then painted his exploits in flawless frescoes) but he has done so most of that time as a power player; even as a rebel, he basically signed his name to his deeds in glowing letters of magefire twelve feet high (Gandalf would have definitely approved of his whole "SOLAS WAS HERE" approach). In all seriousness, Solas may have been the leader of a resistance force, but it appears to me that he rarely had to lie or enact a subterfuge for very long. Except, perhaps, in his plan to entrap the Evanuris and Forgotten Ones at the same moment, according to the old tales—although we already know how reliable those have turned out to be.

And please note: I'm not saying Solas isn't capable of fantastic subtlety and deception, especially at great need. I simply argue that he's not a liar at his core, and that lying is, I would argue, distasteful and difficult for him.

Look at the events of The Masked Empire: Solas is the leader and strategist, the shadowy puppeteer in the Fade. Felassan is the agent, the flawless dissembler and trickster, not Solas. Felassan is the one who is able to smile, and joke, and hide who he is and what he really wants. Solas would have been a disaster in his role—and it appears he was; when he approached the Dalish after his long sleep, Solas was bluntly refused and shown the door. I am convinced that Felassan, on the other hand, would have smiled, raised an eyebrow, twirled the twig of his enchanted staff in his fingers, and been welcomed (and, of course, feared).

The Nightmare's Captive


This is why I think the truth is something Solas is almost compulsive about throughout DAI, and that wherever he can tell the truth, he will attempt to do so. Not just out of a habitual honesty, but because it's an actual relief to him to be able to do so. Because it releases him from the cage in which he has trapped himself.

Look at it this way: Solas has been keeping secrets for millennia, building almost unendurable pressure of grief, self-doubt, secrets and regrets. Sometimes he needs to reveal something, to let off the pressure, to share something with a companion—especially a friended or romanced Inquisitor—even if they do not fully understand what he has revealed in the moment.

I think he does this with the most subtlety when he talks about his true face, his truest self. 

The Secret Faces

I think in life, in the physical world, Solas is who and what he appears to be. I believe him when he tells us that "This is all I have ever been."

However, I think there is room, as there so often is with Solas, for this to be both true and untrue.

For instance, yes, I think Solas in physical form has always been the Solas we meet. But there are also those other potential personas, especially those in the Fade. Beyond the other visages Solas hides within the Fade, there's also the very real possibility that while he lay dreaming, he may have also walked in the world in the bodies of other mortals—in the form of Shartan, for instance, all those centuries back.

In addition, of course, as you know from my other explorations here, I also believe Solas was a spirit of Wisdom before that for years uncounted. So already there's more to the truth he confesses—if this turns out to be true—than meets the eye, as Cole notes:

Cole: You're different, Solas. Sharper. You're in both places.
Solas: I visit the Fade regularly. Perhaps you are sensing traces of it.
In addition to this, however, due to his powers both as as spirit and as King of the Fade, I think Solas in the Fade may literally, in fact, present different aspects or faces, as well. Why not? If illusion within the Fade is a skill Solas uses as easily as breathing, then surely he uses that skill in more ways than one.

Enter the Solas of the Fade: The Dread Wolf. The demon. And the man.


Solas shows one face to the world, but I believe he wears others in the Fade.

The Dream-Master

We already know that Solas can effortlessly shape the Fade to his will, building glorious illusions in an eyeblink and bringing back moments and places (and people?) now lost to the mists of time.

He does this openly only once in Inquisition, and I can't tell you how much I love the scene—and wish we had so many more!

It's a tease, in a way. Solas can create untold worlds and realities in the Fade. But we only get to see it once in the story presented to us. Once!

Sigh.

But that one moment does show us everything we need to see when it comes to demonstrating Solas's powers and abilities in the Fade.


The most intriguing thing about the scene with Solas and a high-friendship or romanced Inquisitor in the Fade is the implication that they have met there and talked many times before.

"We Talked About That Already..."

Once he trusts the Inquisitor enough, he takes them back to Haven after its destruction—a perfect Haven of sunlight and color, and then walks with them moment by moment through the perfection of that illusion to externalize his own struggle at the time (struggles of which we were completely unaware). It's always interesting to me to realize how open Solas is being here—how honest he's being about his confusion and near-despair. I mean, okay, he's not including the all-important detail of "I may or may not have caused all this..." but his emotion and horror at the outcome are palpable and undeniable.

This scene is a favorite of mine for many reasons, not least because its subtleties are so rewarding, and it tells us so much if we're paying attention. Beyond providing us with a glimpse of a Solas who's intriguingly accessible, uncertain and emotional for the first time, it also rewards us with a delightful look at the ways in which developing relationships in Dragon Age: Inquisition are painted in a few key brushstrokes:
The Inquisitor and Solas walk through Haven, which is unbroken and whole again. Haven looks impossibly bright and perfect, banners flying bravely in the winter light.
Inquisitor: Why here? 
Solas: Haven is familiar. It will always be important to you. 
Inquisitor: We talked about that already. 
I love this—that little exchange of dialogue gives us so much potential information and insight! How many times has Solas taken her to the Fade? How many times have they spoken about the events of Haven? What did the Inquisitor share about her own fears? Her nightmares since? Her guilt over those she could not save? What makes Haven so important to her? The fact that she was willing to die for the Inquisition and her friends? The fact that it is where she discovered a courage within herself of which she had never been aware? Or the fact that it felt like home, perhaps for the first time? A home that was lost?


It's notable that, when asked to talk about himself, Solas takes the Inquisitor to the Fade. He then speaks honestly about his fear, despair, and confusion as she lay near death—emotions which become even clearer after the end of DAI.
Lost Haven

Going beyond the potential quiet tragedy of a Lavellan Inquisitor, who may not have much experience with a permanent home after a nomadic upbringing among the Dalish, this sense of transience is also a powerful potential component of the backstories of a Cadash Inquisitor, as well as that of a Vashoth. In other words, Haven may have been, for most if not all Inquisitors, their first literal home.

So this little exchange is fraught with emotion and meaning. Here, Solas knows the Inquisitor well. It is not just a flash to the Fade; it is also a flashback and a flash-forward of sorts, a revelation that Solas's friendship with the Inquisitor has continued to grow beyond the bounds of what we see within the story. A revelation provided, gently and with humor, by the persona of Solas's true self, as the quiet elven mage we see every day.

I also love the little detail that the Inquisitor is slightly exasperated as they enter Haven. "We talked about that already." (Translation: "I've already told you this. Haven't you been listening to me at all?")

Solas merely responds with a slight and enigmatic smile. Of course.

But while this moment in the Fade is incredibly important, it is, I believe, just one of Solas's potential faces there. It is the one he prefers to show, but it is not, I think, his only face here.


Solas says goodbye to a friend (and, I believe, a onetime lover). At the same time, he also faces a vision of his past self.

The Hidden Sides of Solas

So what are these other hidden aspects?

As noted above, I believe there are three: That of the living Solas we know (the man), the presence of a huge, shadow-enshrouded Dread Wolf, with red Pride-Demon eyes, and the aspect of a terrible and powerful Pride Demon, born perhaps when he brought down the retribution of the ages in punishment upon the Evanuris... and took the name Solas ("Pride") as a badge of his own guilt. (Or... did he take on the name, do you think, when called through from the Fade by Mythal? As in, Pride at serving her? Pride at becoming real?)

Either way, I definitely think Solas's name is one he adopted, just as Abelas once did, out of duty and self-recognition. I do not think it is the name he was born with (although this part gets a little murky for me, since Solas also implies that spirits in the Fade lack a certain individuality until they push through:
Cole: Pushing through makes you be yourself. You can hold onto the you. Being pulled through means you don't have enough you. You become what batters you, bruises your being.
Solas: Yes, exactly. Deliberately crossing the Veil requires that a spirit form will, personality. That concept of self gives a spirit the chance to maintain its nature. Wrenched into this world unwillingly by the rifts, spirits suffer the same fate as my friend.
Cole: Then we will help them.
Since it certainly seemed like Solas's gentle, poetic friend Wisdom had her own will and personality, I wonder if Solas is oversimplifying here simply to help Cole get the point across. I certainly cannot imagine Solas even in spirit form as anyone remotely generic. Besides, Solas himself shows deep love for spirits as people, and surely Mythal would not have called upon him from beyond the Fade if she had not already known and loved him (and known of his capacity for wisdom and loyalty)?

It's worth noting that I don't think any of these personas is evil. I think they are all still Solas. But I also think he may use them to accomplish things the living Solas might find difficult: The death of Felassan, for instance, which I believe was carried out by the Wolf. The conveyance of the Orb to Corypants (Pride Demon). Et cetera. A different face in the Fade for each need: Solas as lover, friend, and man. The Dread Wolf for fear and wrath. The Pride Demon aspect for terrible vengeance.


The Dread Wolf as savior, healer and freer of slaves.

Clues in the Dialogue

If I'm right, and these are literal as well as metaphorical aspects to Solas, then there may be some witty and subtly funny clues within Solas's dialogues and banters, as well as (of course) in the beautiful Tarot images of Solas throughout the game as well.

Take this exchange with Vivienne, for instance:
Solas: Tell me, Enchanter. Do you even bother to explore the Fade in your dreams?
Vivienne: I prefer to explore the world I actually live in.
Solas: Pity. You could be much more powerful if you ventured outside your narrow preconceptions.
Vivienne: Ah, the temptation to leave the path. You sound like a pride demon.
Solas: Enchanter, any pride demon you met would just walk away, shaking its head and laughing uncontrollably.
Vivienne: Oh darling, more than one already has.
Oh, I'm sure he has. And I think he's standing right next to her!

Or take this little exchange with Cole, below:
Cole: Do you know a lot about wolves?
Solas: I know that they are intelligent, practical creatures that small-minded fools think of as terrible beasts.
Now, on the one hand, of course it's fun because it's the actual Dread Wolf saying this about wolves, and it's fabulous. And metaphorically it's even more delightful because Solas is also noting himself as "an intelligent, practical creature" that "small-minded fools" have truly built into myth as a terrible beast.

But remember, supposedly, Solas doesn't actually think of himself as a wolf, and he has maintained in other dialogues that the persona was assigned to him and he adopted it for propaganda purposes.

But let's skip forward to that "Trespasser" revelation to examine what he says more closely there:
Solas: I was Solas first. “Fen’Harel” came later… an insult I took as a badge of pride. The Dread Wolf inspired hope in my friends and fear in my enemies… not unlike “Inquisitor,” I suppose.
First off, the usual kudos to Patrick Weekes for sneaking in another divine pun: Solas taking the name Fen'Harel as a badge of Pride. That's just wonderful. 

But again, what if he's also being literal here, too?


The fact that the Dread Wolf is always depicted with the eyes of a Pride Demon fills me with absolute glee. Because of course it has Pride Demon eyes! It has to.
Terror from the Fade

Solas notes that he used his Fen'Harel persona to inspire fear in his enemies. Well, what if he's once again being more literal than he seems? What's more terrifying than a beast in a nightmare?

It's all too easy for me to imagine Solas—especially the vengeful, enraged and sorrowful being of millennia past—hunting his enemies in the Fade, in the form of a monstrous and yet beautiful wolf wrapped in shadow and terror, a creature of blood and vengeance to end all nightmares.

While the general rule of the Fade seems to be that death there equals Tranquility (not physical death), Solas once again seems to be the exception to that rule. Remember: Solas can, perhaps unique in all the Fade, kill there. He killed Felassan there, and Cole confirms in "Trespasser" that it was a true death, not just a metaphorical one. (Although I'd love to be wrong here, as I'd adore the chance to see the wonderful Felassan in the world of DAI! And yeah, I'd romance the crap out of that man.)

I also think there's another aspect to the Dread Wolf persona that isn't much explored across the fandom—I think Solas wore this aspect frequently as he slept, hidden beneath Skyhold, and that the Dread Wolf is why Skyhold was repeatedly abandoned. I cannot imagine that those who occupied Skyhold—especially for nefarious purposes—encountered restful sleep there.


A portrait of Solas in the Fade? I think it is... 
The Face in the Shadows

Ultimately, I also think this is why Solas is so hung up on the idea of faces when he speaks throughout the story, and why it's no accident that the final scene of his romance is centered on the idea of faces, as well. Solas stutters notably twice when talking to the Inquisitor about her face (and his desire to speak the truth), and his removal of the vallaslin is, for me, one of the most gorgeous visual and metaphorical moments in the entire game. There's something exhilarating, intimate and sensual about the moment in the way it's presented, and it's all the more painful because of the cruelty that follows immediately after.


Solas's preoccupation with faces culminates in his admission in "Trespasser" that "I would not have you see what I become." I will be doing an in-depth analysis of that "Trespasser" conversation in its entirety later on to better explore its riches, but for the meantime, let's just say that, to me, this comment is so much more interesting if, again, Solas is being slyly literal, and telling us even more than we think he is. If he loves the Inquisitor, he would not wish her to see the Dread Wolf, the demon, the killer within himself.

This is all why I think he's being utterly truthful when he confesses to Cole, "We all have a face we want to show, and a face we do not." And I think Cole sees this and accepts it without question because he sees the guilt and pain of the living man before him and understands that he is trapped, grieving, and misguided, but not evil.

Remember, for Cole, the greatest sin he can lay at anyone's feet is the accusation "You don't care!" And yet the truth of Solas at his core, of course, is that he does care, and deeply. He just wishes he didn't. Everything would be so much easier if he didn't.

But he does. And that's his tragedy and his curse. And the face Solas wishes to hide most of all... but can't. As Cole notes later on... he's simply not that kind of Wolf.

2 comments:

  1. Once again, an amazing analysis that is a sheer pleasure to read. A few things jumped out at me:

    "Solas is not only not a natural liar; he is actually a pretty terrible one, in general, to an almost comic degree."

    I absolutely adore this, because I think it's both true and subtle. What's more, however, I think Solas *believes* he's an excellent liar and just chooses not to do it. :) It reminds me of the mythical tales of bards where they cannot lie, but they constantly mislead.

    Also, "he basically signed his name to his deeds in glowing letters of magefire twelve feet high" - and despite his hobo- *cough* erm, humble appearance, hes totally still at it! In the Rotunda, it looks like he's doing the Inquisitor's story, but with the wolf bowing to the dragon in the end, I think it's clear that he is still documenting his own. I sort of like that Solas, for all his intelligence, never seems to learn and struggles to actually change. I feel like he is stuck in a rut in time, and needs the Inquisitor/Inquisition to be able to even begin to forge himself anew. I think the ending is actually a failure to do so, and another burden on his shoulders.

    "... I believe there are three: ... the presence of a huge, shadow-enshrouded Dread Wolf, with red Pride-Demon eyes, and the aspect of a terrible and powerful Pride Demon"

    I personally think the wolf is the Pride Demon. With regard to his taking his name as Pride, what do you think of the fan theory that Solas = alone?

    "...his removal of the vallaslin is, for me, one of the most gorgeous visual and metaphorical moments in the entire game."

    It always bugs me that, if you drank of the Well of Sorrows, his removing the vallaslin and declaring you free doesn't actually free you. Imagine if it did for a moment? How would that later scene with Mythal/Flemeth play out? It struck me as a bit of a logical fallacy that Solas is the Dread Wolf, Freer of Slaves, yet somehow he fails to deliver his love from Mythal's geas, which quite literally is his shtick?

    Thanks again for writing and sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I would suggest only one thing. Any really good liar knows (as Bull knows) that you must tell the truth as often and as long as possible because, then, the lies are so much easier to accept. Does Solas enjoy lying, no. Is he good at it? Oh, yes.

    ReplyDelete

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