Monday, August 6, 2018

Defending Fiona

Fiona is a rather chilly, reserved character whose pragmatism can make it difficult to like her. But I respect her choices,
and I pity the quiet pain she carries.

FIONA: The Warden you brought to Skyhold... his name is Alistair?

INQUISITOR: Yes. Didn't you meet him?
FIONA: No, there' point in that now. He seems a good man.
INQUISITOR: Yes, he does.
FIONA: It's not important. I'm simply musing on the clever tricks the Maker plays.

She has pale eyes and a slightly kittenish face, although when she was young, her eyes were reportedly darker. She is strong in the face of adversity, and is able to maintain an impressive coolness even in the face of torture or certain death. She does not expect to be liked, accepted, or forgiven. That's Fiona.

Most Dragon Age fans know the character of Fiona well, and most also have widely diverging opinions about her. Those who know her from The Calling, David Gaider's poetic journey into darkness about the Grey Wardens (and it also serves as a sneaky first warning of how terribly far they can be led astray), tend to like Fiona for her courage and unexpected vulnerability in the Deep Roads. Those who meet her in Dragon Age: Inquisition, meanwhile, often judge her harshly for her leadership of the mage rebellion in Ferelden and for the choices she makes there.

Depending on your choices in the game—most specifically, whether you support mages or Templars—Fiona either becomes an enigmatic and sorrowful presence at Skyhold... or she leads Corypheus's army against you, and you kill her (and most of her followers) at Haven.

Early Life

As I noted above, we first meet Fiona in the Dragon Age novel The Calling, and when we learn about her upbringing, the only word for it is tragic. I'm talking, make-a-movie-about-her-and-then-cry-through it, tragic. It's breathtakingly sad. And that's just talking the first 15-20 years or so. It arguably gets worse afterward. Fiona can be chilly and off-putting, but there's ample reason for that: she doesn't trust people because, for her entire life, people abused whatever trust she gave them. I'm estimating that Fiona was born in 8:92 Blessed Age (give or take), based on the events of The Calling and later, of Inquisition.

In The Calling, we learn that Fiona was raised in an Orlesian alienage until the loss of her family when she was just seven years old. She was then sold into slavery to a Comte Dorian (not, of course, any relation to our darling DAI mage companion), who abused the child both sexually and physically. When she manifested and recognized her own magical abilities, Fiona used them to kill the Comte, nearly dying herself in the process. Somewhat surprisingly (and I can't tell you how much I love this detail), the Comte's widow didn't punish the child, but sent her to the mage circle at Montsimmard instead. It's certainly implied that the Comte's widow was, in fact, just another victim who could not bring herself to kill the brave child who had risked death to destroy her abuser.

Fiona eventually begged to be allowed to join the Grey Wardens, and was recruited by Commander Genevieve. She survived the Joining, alongside key later major players Duncan and Riordan.

Fiona is a quiet figure when we encounter her in the Skyhold library, but there's also a subtle humor to her, and a gift for
acceptance, that makes me pity her.

The Calling and Asunder

In the events of The Calling (9:10-9:11 Dragon Age), Fiona accompanies the group of Grey Wardens under Commander Genevieve who descend into the Deep Roads. During this mission, one fraught with conflict, danger and increasing awareness of the inevitable sadness of the fates of the Grey Wardens who have reached their Callings, Fiona becomes close to King Maric Theirin. The two are drawn to one another in danger and darkness, and they eventually become lovers. Later on, after death, loss, battle and redemption, both return to their lives on the surface. 

Then, slightly unexpectedly, Fiona returns in 9:11 to speak to King Maric to let him know that she has given birth to his child, and to get his promise that he will tell the boy his mother was a human who died, hiding his real origins. That child, of course, is Alistair, who becomes a world-changing Grey Warden, and who potentially ascends the kingship and who is so integral to the events of Dragon Age: Origins during the events of 9:30-31. 

It's ironic that in a story that centers around The Calling, Fiona is the only Grey Warden in history who will never have to hear it. 

But her son will. If he lives that long.

The Quiet Rebel

In the next Dragon Age novel, Asunder (also by Gaider), it's the year 9:40, and as we backtrack slightly, we discover that Fiona has left the Grey Warden order because it was found that she could not be re-Tainted from further Joining rituals. This caused anger and resentment from the other Wardens, so she returned to the Montsimmard Circle of Magi, where she ascended rapidly to the roles of First Enchanter and then to Grand Enchanter (9:37 Dragon). 

Fiona's return to the Montsimmard Circle marks the point when Fiona began to kindle her heart in earnest against the Circle system, and especially against the rampant abuses she witnessed by the Templars against imprisoned mages (and this wasn't even one of the worst). The same year, not long after Fiona was made Grand Enchanter, elected leader of all Circle mages in Thedas, she led a motion before the College of Enchanters at a Conclave (the first held to try to save off hostilities between mages and Templars) to dissolve the Circle of Magi. 

What's interesting to note here is that when making her plea, Fiona directly addressed the inaction of Grand Cleric Elthina on behalf of the mages at Kirkwall, despite years of open corruption and abuse in the Circle there before the apostate Anders took radical action and destroyed it.

Fiona's motion was denied after a passionate plea by Senior Enchanter Wynne to maintain the Circle system, but despite this vote to maintain the system, the Templar order immediately disbanded the College of Enchanters in retaliation.

Shots Fired

Not too long after this, in 9:38, while Felix was making the trip back to Hossberg from the university with his parents (going home for a visit during the winter holidays), hurlocks attacked their party, killing Livia and wounding Felix, also infecting him with the Blight sickness (a slow death sentence).

Meanwhile, Divine Justinia V helped to set up a new Conclave in order to investigate abuses (and specifically, the Rite of Tranquility), and to once again attempt to broker peace between mages and Templars. Fiona attended and once again called for the Circle of Magi to disband, but before a vote could take place, Lord Seeker Lambert labeled the entire Conclave to be an act of treason, launched an attack, and captured Fiona along with several other mages (and, notably, First Enchanters). They were eventually released, at which point Fiona gathered the mages at Andoral's Reach and called for yet another vote of separation. 

At this point, the mages were angry enough to agree, and the Mage-Templar War had officially begun.

Alexius's use of time magic means that Fiona's perception of choice is simply an illusion. In reality, he can continue to shape events over and over again until she agrees to his terms—simply because she has no other remaining options.

Paths Converging

At this point, events all seemed to converge in tragic ways. Justinia managed to call for the new Conclave at the Temple of Sacred Ashes, hoping to bring together mages and Templars in some sort of new peace. Both Fiona and Lord Seeker Lucius Corin sent intermediaries, suspecting potential foul play, so both survived the explosion to follow. The war continued, and in the devastation Fiona led the surviving mages to Redcliffe in hopes of finding some sort of haven.

When the Inquisitor meets Fiona in Val Royeaux, the Chantry has publicly disavowed the Inquisitor (as the Herald), and the Templars have also publicly reinforced their departure from the Chantry, as has Lord Seeker Lucius, brutally and publicly striking down poor Revered Mother Hevara to make his point. We then encounter Fiona mysteriously as we exit Val Royeaux, and she asks us to come to Redcliffe in order to discuss a possible alliance.

Questions in Redcliffe

This is where things get interesting... and where I get truly invested in Fiona's situation.

If we select the quest "In Hushed Whispers," and choose to support the mages, when we show up in Redcliffe, Fiona seems genuinely surprised to see us, showing no knowledge of our previous discussion or meeting arrangement. She visibly distrusts the meeting, and implies that it's a setup (and it's reasonable, given her circumstances, why she might think so).

Fiona then discloses to us that things have changed since that unremembered initial meeting. She has relinquished her role as Grand Enchanter and all privileges associated with it, and has traded the servitude of the mages to Tevinter for a period of ten years in response for assurances of their safety and protection. She now answers to a mysterious magister named Gereon Alexius, who at this point also reveals he is changing the terms of their agreement, and that the mages will now be subject to military rule and service. She protests, and he answers rather coolly and smugly, dismissing her to speak to the Inquisitor and Dorian.

At this point, Alexius springs his trap, using the time magic he has been manipulating all along, and the Inquisitor and Dorian are thrown one year forward into an alternate and hellish universe where Corypheus has won, and the world is a nightmare beyond all recognition. When Dorian and the Inky explore the castle, they find their former companions imprisoned and dying of Red Lyrium exposure, as well as poor Fiona, who is horrifically actually being physically transformed into the mineral itself. Fiona accepts her fate as a consequence of her actions, and simply warns the Inquisitor against Alexius.

In the end, we defeat Alexius (of course) and the current Fereldan monarch arrives to kick the mages out of Ferelden (and this is extra-heartbreaking if it's Alistair who's king, for... reasons). They then have no other option but to take whatever we offer—alliance, or servitude, with the Inquisition.

Alexius has spent incredible energy, vast amounts of magic and money, as well as countless lives and futures, in order to save his son. It's understandable. And grotesque.
Springing the Trap

Here's the deal: I like and pity Fiona. She has had a terrible life by any standards. She fought bravely when asked to do so by her country, joined an organization offering a limited lifespan, a guarantee of a terrible death, and with a 1-in-3 chance she wouldn't survive the initiation.

She then had a momentary glimpse of love that was (of course) impossible to sustain (given his, ahem, kingship), was kicked out of the Grey Wardens for something that she had zero control over, then finally seems to have achieved a little freedom and happiness as a mage. But that, too, was an illusion. 

She spends the rest of her youth in attempting to provide better lives and just outcomes for her fellow mages, until we meet her in the early events of DAI. And Fiona then again tries to take action for justice but all her choices are circumvented, all her power taken away. She reaches out and tries to join the Inquisition, but her visit is literally removed from time itself by Alexius, using additional time magic, so that she is further cheated of any knowledge or awareness of that choice. 

Then we go to Redcliffe. And I've seen many, many people who hate her for agreeing to serve Alexius and Tevinter. Who blame her for conscripting the mages to them.

I understand this. But I don't share it. Because she's been used, and her mages herded into a trap from which there is no emergence.

A Stacked Deck

When Fiona agrees to join Alexius, she is already the visible and open victim of his enchantments and time manipulations. We are blatantly shown that Alexius has the ability to shift what he needs to, to get what he wants. Time magic, for instance, has already completely erased Fiona's outreach to us in the Inquisition. It has removed the help we could have provided there. It has further driven her and her contingent of mages into an inescapable narrow space as they attempt to avoid full-on warfare.

Keep in mind—these aren't the mages wreaking havoc across Thedas. Nor is Fiona advocating violence. These aren't the mages murdering civilians and stealing goods, glorying in death and destruction, burning villages. These are, rather, the mages who peacefully voted to govern themselves, only to find themselves at the center of an armed conflict. These mages have not lifted arms against anyone and simply wanted to remove the requirement of perpetual imprisonment, control, and surveillance, of life under the eye of a Templar. Keep in mind that a mage cannot maintain family contact. A mage cannot have a long-term relationship in the Tower or give birth to a child they can parent. A mage can be executed at any time with zero repercussions. They have no agency over their lives, bodies, or choices. They can be tortured with zero repercussions. Raped. Put in solitary confinement. Abused. Made Tranquil for, say, turning down a Templar's advances (and then subsequently giving said Templar a future of unlimited access to a compliant and empty body for his enjoyment).

If this sounds gross, it is. It upsets me. It should upset anyone. Yet Fiona's mages aren't out there burning down Ferelden. They're holding votes, speaking in calm voices, trying to use the system to change the system. In return, they have been driven from place to place to place. Each potential path of safety has disappeared.

Plenty have criticized Fiona for choosing to serve Tevinter. But I'd make an alternate case: That she has only done so when she literally had no other options left.

Because of the time magic. 

My favorite thing about Fiona is that she has zero apologies or justifications to make about her actions. She is calm, flat,
and accepting of any outcome. She does what she can and then accepts the reality that follows.
Impossible Choices

Alexius's use of time magic is why I believe that Fiona has no actual free will here, only its illusion. We're even given proof firsthand, as I noted before, when her attempt to reach out to us is erased completely as if it had never happened.

Alexius's goal here is to remove her hope. To make sure Fiona believes she has no options. To make sure she does what he wants her to do. And I think a case can be made that Alexius is methodical and careful, and that he does what he needs to do repeatedly to reinforce her perception here, and so he is able to make these small tweaks to the timeline with ease. And cruelly, in which case, each attempt she enacts to save her mages is met with a new obstacle until all that is left is indentured servitude (that is really more slavery and captivity).

As my eagle-eyed reader Teresa further points out here, "If you talk to some of the NPC mages in Redcliffe," she notes. "There are rumors of a 'massive Templar army' coming to wipe them out, and also rumors that Arl Teagan was going to kick them out to protect the 'muggle' residents of Redcliffe if that came to pass. All of that was thanks to Alexius manipulating time to plant agents in the ranks." I love this observation and it's one more way to emphasize the insidious ways in which Alexius is actively seeking to remove agency from the mages' choices. Fiona is therefore not only contending with the time manipulations Alexius is constantly enacting against her and the mages, but with the very real power of propagandized terror, as Alexius expertly scares the mage population in Redcliffe into the realization that he and Tevinter are their only hope.

In other words, Alexius has removed every other branch from Fiona's path, from the path of the mages, that might have led her anywhere else but to Alexius and Tevinter. 

After all, Fiona leads a potential army; a group of prodigious power, and he needs this desperately to get what he wants for poor doomed Felix. 

The Fear that Drives Fiona

Let's look back and remember that Fiona is the victim of enslavement and hellish abuse as a child. She refused to take that abuse forever, and eventually and righteously killed her abuser, even at the potential price of execution.

She was still able to forge a path for herself. She became a Grey Warden, proudly risking her own life simply to join the order, and then to do her part against the Darkspawn. When the time came, she stood true. It's also worth noting that she was the leading voice against the Architect, in the events of The Calling.

When she realized her situation after the fact, she could have taken many actions. She was after all pregnant by the King himself. Yet she simply kept his secret and still managed to quietly, politely, let him know the outcome later on, in a way that would not jeopardize his political standing, and that would provide protection and a future for her child.

Then no matter what she had done, or how heroically... she was kicked out of the Grey Wardens simply for overcoming the Taint. She rejoined the Circle system, pragmatic to the end. Only to find that this, too, was a room without an exit.

Full 'Circle'

Ultimately, I can't blame Fiona for becoming a voice for the mages. I can't blame her for becoming a voice against imprisonment. Everything we know about Fiona already tells us that she was willing to do so no matter what the risk to herself.

The fact is that some Circles, many Circles, were hell on Earth. The White Spire. Kirkwall. Even Kinloch Hold wasn't exactly a bed of roses, given that it put Anders in solitary confinement for over a year. Add in to this a system that included the forced removal of mage children from their families, imprisonment, distrust, constant scrutiny by people who can kill or imprison you at any time (Anders, for instance, and the repeated solitary confinement I mentioned), and let's not forget the daily, ongoing threat of harassment, rape, violence, or Tranquility.

I'll close my defense of Fiona by noting that her fears of retribution were justified. The Right of Annulment was carried out on 19 different Mage Circles through recorded history through DAI (942 Dragon), with many many being shown later to have been staged or manufactured by corrupt Templars. That's the slaughter of thousands of imprisoned mages by their captors. Look at what Anders went through. Look at what Wynne went through—even if she supported the very system that victimized her, she herself wasn't allowed to fall in love. She wasn't allowed to keep her child. And that was in a "nice" Circle!

I just find this so upsetting. I've talked a lot about how much I hate the Qun, which doesn't allow romantic attachment or even familial bonding. That removes children from their parents and raises them in a communal setting to become what will be most useful to the system. Well, the mage Circles are just as barbaric. Sure, some Circles were evidently okay, but to me the whole system is fatally flawed (and by DAI hopelessly corrupt). Even Cullen seems to know it at that point (even if Viv remains pointedly, deliberately, blind).

In the end, whether the mages win or lose, Fiona is unmoored from the world, a woman without a friend, a home, or a place.
And she's okay with that. Because it's the price that was required.

Oaths Kept

In the end, Fiona can only choose from the options available to her in DAI. If she has no options? Servitude to Tevinter begins to look pretty damn good. So I deeply pity Fiona and respect her for trying to stand up for a population of people who lived their entire lives as captives with zero power over their own bodies, lives or choices. She's not violent. She's not waging outright warfare. She tries to use politics, to use the civil and peaceful choices her government has ostensibly provided. In doing so, she's trying to protect people she cares about; people locked away to be wielded as weapons, people hated by the populace and victimized by their 'protectors' over and over again.

I think the most terrible aspect of Fiona's choices is that even in Skyhold, it's like her options are ended. There's nothing left for her. She admits in conversations with the Inquisitor that she is no longer the Grand Enchanter. She doesn't seem to know what she is, just that it's all over. She has no plans, no hopes, no anything. And if poor Alistair is a Grey Warden left in the Fade, she simply and poignantly disappears without a word.

What's ultimately most tragic to me about Fiona is that she's totally, brutally focused on outcomes. She joins the Grey Wardens because it allows her the greatest access to action and honor. She finds momentary solace with Maric yet immediately understands its transitory nature and never attempts to use that against him (even bearing his child in secrecy). She has no reaction at all to losing her status as leader of all of the mages of Thedas beyond a few moments of wry humor in the Skyhold library. Even in the alternate future, her body slowly transforming into Red Lyrium, she's only focused on how you can fix things.

In Peace, Vigilance

Fiona never comes across as a warm person to me, exactly. She's rather cold, detached, and difficult to access. Perhaps her damage has made her understandably slow to trust others. Perhaps that abuse has also made her careful about those she lets into her life. Perhaps there's another Fiona, a warm and giving person underneath the quiet mask, that we'll never get to see, only given to us in a rare glimpse, as a gift in prose by the talented Gaider. But all we meet is the quiet, accepting public servant—the mage who does what she's required to do no matter what the cost:

In War, Victory.
In Peace, Vigilance. 

In Death, Sacrifice.

Ultimately, I think she did the best she could. It's terribly sad and yet appropriate to me that Fiona lived up to the Grey Warden motto even when they kicked her out. In the end, whether the mages win or lose, she is alone, adrift, and unmoored from the world—a woman without a friend, a home, or a place. 
And she's okay with that. Because it's the price that was required. 

It seems to me that if life has taught Fiona anything, it's that everything has a price. She recognizes this, and pays. She's just so used to paying it, she no longer even asks herself if it hurts.


  1. I think it's worth noting, also, that Alexius used time magic to plant Venatori agents in the mage ranks to whip up fear. If you talk to some of the NPC mages in Redcliffe, there are rumors of a 'massive Templar army' coming to wipe them out, and also rumors that Arl Teagan was going to kick them out to protect the 'muggle' residents of Redcliffe if that came to pass. All of that was thanks to Alexius manipulating time to plant agents in the ranks.

    Also to note, Dairsmuid itself was not hell on Earth until the Seekers got involved. When the Seekers found the mages basically weren't being treated like cattle, that's when it got ugly and became hell on Earth. Reference this Codex:

    I will always go mages because I cannot, in good conscience, leave men, women, and *children* to be put to the sword.

    1. Teresa, this is a completely new revelation for me, and one I didn't catch! I had no idea that Alexius and the Venatori were literally gaslighting the mages and scaring them into a hasty decision! That's brilliant, and I've updated my post to reflect that, and credited you as well (I quoted you also -- I hope you don't mind)!

      And you are absolutely 100% right on Dairsmuid. I've corrected that as well -- I totally confused it with a different Circle.

      Thank you as always for your insightful thoughts and comments!

  2. Hmm. I think this is an excellent article about Fiona, and I don't really have anything to add about her other than a thank you for writing such an awesome analysis.

    I do have a more sympathetic view of Vivienne though.

    Like you, I don't like the Circles - but I also think that many people who condemn Vivienne for being pro-Circle conveniently sweep her reasoning under the rug as if it's simply wrongheaded rather than fundamentally a hard set of facts to swallow.

    In Thedas, mages are extremely dangerous. They are like children walking around with loaded assault rifles that they don't know how to use. Their simple existence regularly results in mass death and destruction. Over and over, the theme depicts families trying to protect their beloved mage children while the child slaughters everyone either slow or fast. It's happening, has happened, and will happen again. It is also absolutely tragic, but it's not an easy problem to solve.

    The Circles probably aren't the correct solution to that problem, but destroying them without putting anything at all in their place is dangerous beyond belief.

    The problem with the Circles is that they are a product of- and breeding ground for- hatred. All of the things above that make Circles evil are symptoms of that fact, not the cause.

    In my mind, Vivienne's tragedy is that she believes the Chantry and Templar rhetoric that labels her a monster. Perhaps there's a little bit of know thyself in that, but it's a viscous, self-feeding illusion. And monsters aren't people. If one dehumanize them, Circles or no, atrocities are the result.

    I can hardly blame Vivienne for believing what she was taught and continues to have evidence for every waking moment of her day.

    1. Thank you for commenting as always, Kinaed!

      I'm probably not as far away from you on Viv as you may think -- I actually do truly love her. I do think she's somewhat limited in her POV (she comes from a permissive Circle, so she doesn't really seem aware of how bad things can truly get).

      I do agree that mages are dangerous, and that there absolutely must be a structured and formal way to deal with them, to both teach them to manage and control their powers as well as to fight against the possibility for Abomination.

      But I think that's possible without the extremes we hear about so many times in DA -- Anders and his tortures and solitary confinements, the rapes and Tranquilities imposed upon mages by corrupt Templars, the removals of mages from the world itself (simply to be held as magical weapons for the Blights). I mean, look at Wynne -- she preaches for the Circles constantly, but she wasn't allowed a simple, open romantic relationship. And when she became pregnant, they took away her child and he was raised in an orphanage instead. The cruelty of it is staggering.

      I do blame Viv -- but I also think she isn't actively cruel. She's just privileged and utterly unaware of her own privilege -- and that can be a devastating thing in a person who wields power over the poor or disenfranchised.

      Thanks for the debate!

  3. I enjoyed the read! Thank you so much for writing!

    This is a bit hard too because I'm not sure there's a single definition of insanity. I do think Solas' mental health should be in question, but I'm thinking my way through his sanity. I'm not sure if there's a case for actual insanity, despite the heavy parallels presented here with my own theories. Solas perceives and knows reality, rather his issues are with his personal judgment in relation to said reality - that is, his reactions are off, out of step, sometimes plain wrong, but he's aware and working intelligently. It's like his baseline values need reworking.

    I personally wonder if his perceptions of people are linked to his values and beliefs being 8,000+ years old - what kind of culture did the Elvhen have, after all? It doesn't seem like a wholesome one.

    I felt a curious absence in this article without a mention of Felassan. To me, murdering his best friend and right hand frames a large part of who he is, and it's frankly alien. Yes, Solas clearly believes that people aren't real, they feel tranquil to him... but is whether he believes they're real because of how he connects to and values people? Is it a result of what Elvhenan was about and the culture he represents?

    It's undeniable that Solas has been through a lot, and it wouldn't be surprising if he has some sort of trauma associated with that. That said, I don't see blatant evidence of mental health problems presented to players. Certainly mental health is one of those things where problems aren't immediately obvious, so I wouldn't rule it out and even view it as likely - just lacking in base evidence.

    Meanwhile I completely agree that there's ample evidence that he's addicted to the Fade every bit as much as Cullen is to lyrium. More so - Solas doesn't see it as a problem or have any interest in giving it up, whereas Cullen at least recognizes his addiction as affecting his life in an undesirable way. In fact, if the Inquisitor has a terrible relationship with Solas, they can accuse him of just that. Saying that, I don't think it's a question of sanity, but cravings. I suspect the Elvhen were far stronger and linked to the natural world in a way that is obstructed by the veil - and the Fade is where he feels powerful and whole.

    When I think of failing mental health on his part, I think more about the damage and pain of isolation. His symptoms are depression and being "grim" rather than trouble grasping or coping with reality.

  4. I think it's worth noting that what Alexius offered her was not what he intended to deliver and was likely a far better deal for the mages than we give her credit for. She protests at one point in the conversation that he promised her not all her people would join the army because they aren't all suited to it. His explanation to you, that the mages must serve a Magister for ten years in order to attain full citizenship, is a genuinely good offer, even if they all have their suspicions by the time you turn up. His offer guarantees them sanctuary and shelter and a path to full citizenship in Tevinter. I'd bite his hand off if I thought his offer was genuine.


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