Sunday, March 31, 2019

Merrill, Mirrors and Might-Have-Beens...

Merrill is an often confounding, even paradoxical character. She's all kittens and rainbows and charming ditziness, yet she's also a superb battle mage (blood magic, even!) as well as a coldly capable scientist.
MERRILL: I'm sorry.
ANDERS: You're sorry? For me? This could be you! You could be the next monster threatening helpless girls!
MERRILL: Anders... There's no such thing as a good spirit. There never was. All spirits are dangerous. I understood that. I'm sorry that you didn't.

First off, the quote I open this latest post with includes a clue, both to Merrill, and to the complexities of the Dragon Age universe. Merrill tells Anders point-blank that she does not distinguish between spirits and demons. Both are dangerous in their ways. (This post isn't really about their relationship, but yeah, I'll address it more later.)

I love this. This is the real heart of Dragon Age. Not black or white. Life or death. This universe holds the potential for middle ground, and nobody encompasses that more charmingly than Merrill in Dragon Age II.

And I get it if you dismissed her as a facile, foolish, or sweet/silly foil for all the action around her. After all, Merrill is an often confounding, even paradoxical character. She's young and old. Innocent and willing to get dirty. Capable and incapable. Funny until she's terrifying. She's all kittens and rainbows and charming ditziness, yet she's also a superb battle mage (blood magic, even!) as well as a coldly capable scientist.

Merrill's history is one rife with the typical challenges of the elven people. She starts out life in the Alerion clan, which roamed Nevarra. As the third in the clan to manifest magical gifts, she was given, as was common, to Clan Sabrae after the next Arlathvenn (the gathering of Dalish clans), handpicked to be the Clan's First to Keeper Marethari.

Then come the events of Dragon Age: Origins, when Merrill and Marethari enter for the first time, stage left.

The "Origins" Story

As players of Dragon Age: Origins know, if you play the Dalish Elf Origin, Merrill becomes a temporary party member to seek out the fate of her friend and fellow clan member Tamlen, and it's just heartbreaking. Brave and inquisitive, Tamlen goes missing in the old Elven Ruins, so Keeper Marethari gets Merrill to join our Warden to go find and hopefully rescue him. What's key here in terms of the larger story is that Maretheri calls on Merrill as the First of the clan, knowing her insight, magical ability and knowledge can be of help.

The fact that Marethari later discounts all of these is, to say the least, really sad to me.

Upon discovery of a tainted eluvian, it's apparent that Tamlen is gone (and doomed). Merrill at least isn't tainted by the eluvian, and for awhile she returns to her clan and regular life. Tamlen later shows up as a partial ghoul, heartbreakingly confirming that he was Blighted by the mirror, and the Warden kills him in mercy. (Note: If you play DAII following Origins, Merrill's history will continue, and she will admit to you that she's distrustful around humans since Tamlen's loss.)

Then comes the Blight, and Marethari moves Clan Sabrae to the outskirts of Kirkwall, across the water from Ferelden to the Free Marches on the ship Pride of Amaranthine.

Even given her seasickness, this will be the only easy journey Merrill ever makes. All the others will be... more complex.

Merrill's discovery of the entity at Sundermount both saves and damns her; it offers damnation and salvation both. 
Finding Audacity

Before we get to Dragon Age II, let's take a brief interlude to share Merrill's discovery of the entity that will save and damn her in the caves of Sundermount.

Mary Kirby's delicate short story from Merrill's point of view provides a vital look into Merrill's mind and abilities, as well as her near-terminal capacity for self-doubt and apology (traits with which I empathize). The story provides us with a glimpse of the moment Marethari and Merrill discover the Sundermount cave's supernatural tenant for the first time.

The episode is eerie and sort of heartbreaking. Merrill can hear the cries of the creature even in her sleep, and its pain is so insistent that Marethari herself awakens sobbing from its transmission of its loneliness.

The area within the cave is strange to them, appearing either as a temple or a tomb to Merrill, and it appears to be Tevinter (not at all elven, and yes, somewhere Dorian is doing a fistpump while Solas resignedly passes over five bucks). Marethari dislikes the look of the place, and frowns at the arches (Merrill being Merrill, and having empathy for all things, immediately pities the poor arches for having to undergo Marethari's disapproval).
Help me.
Oh, that was not the right answer at all.
Keeper Marethari seems to grow taller, becoming a towering pillar of angry Dalishness. “Name yourself! Or be left to your silence.”
I am One Who is Trapped. Help me.
The Keeper demands the creature's name, and on the third demand, the answer comes: Audacity.

What's interesting is that Marethari instantly knows it's a demon. Or... assumes?

Either way, she realizes it's bound to the statue in the temple, and that it is trapped there. She's satisfied that it won't threaten camp, and turns to leave. The demon cries out:
Wait! I have been trapped here for time beyond counting. I bore witness to the fall of your kingdom. Help me, Keeper of the Dalish, and I will give you knowledge of all I have seen. 
Merrill, still in tune with the creature, momentarily glimpses visions of the past glories of the elves—of the empire of the elves, of Arlathan itself, glittering and magnificent. Think about its offer: to Merrill, who cares, who is compassionate. And who adores history, yearns for it, wants it more than anything, and this is all briefly in her grasp. She hasn't a chance.

The demon tempts her desperately, one last time: All this could be yours. The Keeper merely orders her out, and they depart even as the vision fades for Merrill into darkness.

But we already know... Merrill will go back. The conversation has just begun.

Audacity's offer to Merrill is fatal: She cares, she's compassionate, she adores history... and here's the possibility, to make a difference. To learn something that may change things for her people. She's doomed.
Spirits and Demons and Demons and Spirits

But first off, let's take another look at Audacity, because this is a character that truly fascinates me. And I think it's a harbinger for more complexity to follow in DAI (and I'm always a fan of grey versus black and white).

Solas makes the point in Dragon Age: Inquisition repeatedly that the line between spirits and demons is not always immediately apparent. That they are complex beings capable of their own thoughts, pains and rationales. This is further borne out when the question of what Cole actually is becomes paramount. Solas cannot entirely say whether Cole is spirit or demon, although he is (as Cole's story becomes more apparent) eventually aware that Cole's origins in the Fade were as a spirit of Compassion.

But still. 

It's evident that there's a fair amount of wiggle room. It is never actually quite, quite, concrete. My take: Cole is a spirit who was forced through the Veil via desperate trauma as he tried to comfort a dying mage, using his gift of Compassion. But he was trapped enraged in a semi-human form and then wavered between spirit and demon throughout the events of the White Spire. I think the Inquisitor and Solas (and companions) help him solidify that, oh yes, he's still a spirit, in DAI. Before then? Not so sure. I think it could've gone either way with him.

Sorry for the segue, but I think it's important and vital here. Because, flashing back, here we are with Merrill, and here we have this creature that is trapped, tormented, and in agony for centuries beyond counting, and calling for help. Its loneliness and suffering are so palpable that Merrill feels it, and even Marethari weeps to hear it.

Would I free the creature, myself, given the situation Merrill faces? No. But... would I talk to it? Yeah, I would. So I understand why Merrill would. What's interesting is that I think, well... so would Solas. Or Cole.

Adjacent Questions... 

There's another possibility here, brought up by my good friend @Imasithduh. She made two subtle and insightful points that I think are worth addressing here:

  1. The Dual Nature of 'Audacity'
    Typical to the writers of Dragon Age, there's a gorgeous hidden symmetry to the name of the demon "Audacity." She points out that the name "Audacity" has both positive and negative connotations, and that (wonderfully) Merrill and Marethari embody each of those. Merrill embodies "a willingness to take bold risks," the positive side of audacity, while Marethari could be argued to embody the "rude, impudent or disrespectful behavior" of the term.

    I love this, and also think it ties beautifully to the dual natures of spirits and demons, to good and evil, etc. To the distance between Merrill and Marethari, which will eventually become fatal. And neither of them is wrong or right. They just can't back away far enough to see clearly.
  2. Somewhere in Between...
    And moving on... what is Audacity? What if it's not as simple as spirit or demon?

    For instance, my friend @Imasithduh thinks Audacity may very well present as a demon for Marethari... and as a spirit for Merrill.

This ties perfectly with my own conundrum about Audacity. Why does Marethari hear its name and immediately assume, "Demon?" And also: "Evil?"


To me, it's always been apparent that Merrill listens intently. And she doesn't just hear, she understands and empathizes.
The Girl Who Listened...

Keep in mind that this is a creature in terrible pain, trapped in loneliness and agony so acute that just glimpsing moments of it has both Marethari and Merrill unmanned and deeply upset.

Does that sound like a wholly evil creature? Something that cannot be saved? Doesn't something sentient, that can speak, and that is in this amount of pain deserve at least a moment of discourse? Isn't it worth trying to find a way to save it? Or to at least assuage its suffering?

Marethari simply dismisses it: It's a demon

But Merrill can't.

And I don't think I could, either. Of course, I'd have probably been a lousy mage, anyway. But still... if the world is so bad that we can't bother to talk to a creature in pain... aren't we lost already?

This is one of those situations that makes me wonder what other characters would have done. Of course, I can't help but wonder what Solas would have thought. And yet I feel pretty safe in saying that Solas would have shown compassion. As — assuredly — would Cole. And, yes, Cass and Viv would have been scandalized and horrified. But that's them.

But here's the thing: This question also directly ties into every single move Merrill makes afterward. She is shamed by her companions, lost from her clan and Keeper, all for her insistence on continuing the conversation. On showing compassion. And, most of all, on risking her own life for knowledge.

To me, it's always been apparent that Merrill listens intently. And she doesn't just hear, she understands and empathizes. Until danger makes her defend or kill. And even then she does so regretfully.

To me, Merrill's right to listen. To listen only. Keep in mind that huge events (and many years) pass in which she does no more than this. She is cautious and careful. She does not free Audacity. But she is willing to listen, to consider. To me this is the very best of what makes Merrill so special, and why I love her character.

So let's get to the events of Dragon Age II.

Merrill truly knows magic; she's a scholar and leader, and she is fearless as long as the only life she's risking is her own.
Merrill's Mission

I feel like many people may misjudge Merrill for her mission and choices in Dragon Age II. Because yes, Merrill is impractical, daffy, incapable of finding her way out of a paper bag, and patently adorable in her personal life, I feel like she's frequently infantilized. She's too often assumed to be silly, impractical, or (worst of all) childish despite all evidence that she is visibly a functioning if quirky adult woman always capable of full agency and choice.

If we separate her from her winsome insecurities and innocences, to me, Merrill's not remotely daffy when it comes to her research and work. Merrill may lose her way around Kirkwall (and I kind of always shudder at the idea of her wandering around that cesspool, even with the seamless invisible enchantment of Varric's protection), but she knows magic; she's a scholar and leader, and she is fearless as long as the only life she's risking is her own.

To me, the key to Merrill, as with many Dragon Age characters, is compartmentalization. She shares more in common with people like Leliana, Bull, Varric or Solas than you might think, and I think she's terrific at it. She's capable of warmth and fun and silliness, but she's equally capable of turning to cold steel as she reminds you to kill her if she endangers those she loves. That's Merrill. That's also Cass. Bull. Plenty of other war-savvy characters who are lots of fun, but who are also casually willing to die for the right thing, the right cause, the right moment.

So Merrill isn't really that uncommon a personality. Plenty of people are goofballs in one side of life and precise-to-an-atom in other areas. 

Personally, I've known more than a few friends who have worked in the sciences as well as in tech. And as a smart person who is also an idiot in daily life at most regular "easy" human activities, I can attest that sometimes smart people can be really, really dumb away from work (points at self). 

So Merrill, I would argue in DAII, tries a great deal to address her situation logically: 

  • She commits to learning the secrets of an artifact that goes back to the highest days of the elven people.
  • She talks to the demon/entity at Sundermount. It gives her the information she needs (another key detail that it may not be pure evil) to purify the shard she retained.
  • She removes herself from her clan to minimize their exposure, despite being groomed lifelong for a leadership position.
  • She accepts the sanctions and judgments of her Keeper as she departs her former life and culture.
  • She uncomplainingly goes to live alone in the Kirkwall Alienage (basically the Thedosian version of an enforced ghetto area within the city). It's a price she's willing to pay.
  • She takes great care in both her exposure to Audacity, as well as to blood magic, so that no other people are involved.
  • On the rare occasions she involves others, such as Hawke and her companions, she gives them blatant, clear orders to kill her should she become possessed or compromised.
  • When she needs additional tools or information, she is respectful of Marethari and the rules of the Dalish. It is only Marethari who breaks them.

Yes, Merrill takes risks in exposing herself to Audacity at Sundermount. But she also demonstrates quiet responsibility and caution. All of which Marethari tragically ignores.
The Best Intentions, The Worst Outcomes...

So, yeah, Marethari is frustrating to me here. 

Do I think she loves Merrill? Sure. Of course she does.

Do I think she respects Merrill? 


Because repeatedly (and despite the fact that Merrill was her First), she treats Merrill as someone undeserving of agency.

It is Marethari who cannot seem to keep to the rules. It's Marethari who doesn't move the clan, keeping it at Sundermount for years longer than normal (and in proximity to danger) while she attempts to bring Merrill back into the fold. At the same time, it is Marethari who directly endangers Merrill and ultimately causes the death of Pol through desperate propaganda against Merrill (to the extent that Pol flees into danger and death needlessly within the caves). Adding insult to injury, Marethari then breaks her word to Merrill after directly endangering her life in her quest for the Varterral, handing over the artifact reluctantly to Hawke, disgracing and deeply wounding Merrill, and once again infantilizing her.

I'm gonna pause and just recap that again, in my own words:
MERRILL: I have decided to embark on a journey that is both dangerous but potentially vital and useful to all the elven people historically. I will sever ties with my clan. I will live alone to explore my theories to minimize danger. I will bring people ready to kill me if I encounter the demon again.
MARETHARI: As Keeper and leader, I have a series of steps I should take here. Which I will mostly disregard. I will humiliate my First as she leaves to pursue independent research. I will promote fear and propaganda against my First, to the extent that I directly cause the deaths of clan members. I will not relocate the clan as I should normally have done. I will humiliate my former First by breaking a direct and ancient promise to her despite her risk of her own life (and those of her companions). I will finally show my lack of faith in my First by freeing a demon to possess me (and thus endanger her and potentially my clan, and all of Kirkwall.
So. That's where I stand.

Yes, Merrill takes risks in exposing herself to Audacity at Sundermount. But she also demonstrates quiet responsibility and caution. Her early interactions with the demon appear stringently limited, she gets the information she needs, then realizes she must leave the clan to limit their exposure to any additional danger from her situation. She then removes herself, the mirror remnants, and the purified shard, to the Kirkwall alienage.

Merrill does this because she is driven to the search for knowledge; even more than most Dalish, she feels keenly the loss of her own heritage, of the simple lore that is her people's right and due. When Marethari, confronts her on her choice, Merrill abandons everything. Openly. When she joins Hawke and her companions in Kirkwall, they are all she has left. 

There is something heartbreaking to me about the fact that Merrill leaves the only family she has ever known for the isolation and poverty of the Kirkwall alienage. And yet she does so without hesitation.

Merrill's willing to die for something that may tell a story for the Dalish going back millennia. Something that may even provide travel to unknown realms, locations, times. For her, it's worth the risk of a single life.
Things Play Out... and Go Wrong...

But Marethari won't leave it alone.

Merrill is still showing responsibility and calm, bringing Hawke and a team who are known to be capable of defeating demons or abominations, to come with her to her final excursion to Sundermount. She gets their promise beforehand to kill her if she becomes a danger (even if one of those present is her lover). And y'all, come on, that's badass. She is willing to die. It's never a question.

And don't forget — they did so once at Marethari's own request. She was there.

Only to find that her daring and courage are circumvented because, for the Nth time, Marethari could not credit her with the ability or strength to make the trial. Marethari had walked right in and freed the freaking demon (with zero reason to do so) to "save" Merrill. This has been the pattern all along. Lord save us all from someone like Marethari, who "loves" Merrill, has zero faith in her abilities, mocks her to the remaining clan members, breaks her promises to her, then (to cap it all) frees a demon that could have killed her entire clan (and the city below).

What kind of First would Merrill would have made, given Marethari's actions? Why did Marethari want her to stay so badly if she had so little faith in this person? It's sort of grotesque, the paradox. How could Merrill have truly ascended to leadership with this complete lack of faith?

True to BioWare, as always, there are so many outcomes for this sweet, steely character. Merrill may build the mirror or break it. She may build or break herself. She may find true love or be killed by that lover. She may emerge with an invaluable magical artifact (that may in fact empower the Dread Wolf himself) or she may shatter it and find herself lost and without purpose.

And yet Merrill (at least in my choices) prevails. Merrill is one of my favorite characters across Dragon Age, not least because there is a purity to her quest, that she is driven to knowledge for knowledge's sake, and that she is willing to risk herself and her own life without hesitation in pursuit of this task. 

To echo the words of Ellie Arroway in Contact, Merrill believes the recreation and repair of the ancient eluvian represents a connection to the past of the elves that cannot be overstated, and that it is "worth a human (or in this case, elven) life." Merrill's willing to die for something that may tell a story going back millennia. Something that may even provide travel to unknown realms, locations, times.

For Merrill, history is sacred, and ignorance is terror. Knowledge is worth death.

It's a point of view I understand. She has the courage to pick one... and stay the course.

Merrill was right.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Ar Lath Ma, Vhenan: Solas's Romance, Part 4

"Has it affected you? Changed you in any way? Your mind, your morals, your… spirit?" asks Solas. Big questions, and not always easily answered...

INQUISITOR: So what does this mean, Solas?

SOLAS: It means... I have not forgotten the kiss.

It's a big moment when, after Adamant, Solas comes up to see the Inquisitor in her quarters.

As he does.

Wait, no.

He doesn't, does he?


No, really. Not ever.

Solas doesn't actually ever come to Lavellan's quarters. He doesn't come to her rooms.

As blog readers, you all know I'm a headcanoning fool, but yes, it feels to me, always, like one of the strictures he has set upon their budding relationship. As if she can go to him within the confines of the Rotunda, but that he cannot visit her in her bedroom because, well... it's just blurring the boundaries for him. Too difficult. Too tenuous. Too close.

See, this is where two roads diverge in a wood, and I—I take the Road of Solas Does Not Have Sex with the Inquisitor. Ever. In-game. While of course acknowledging that there's room for both takes on this (and it's genius of Patrick Weekes and BioWare to espouse this).

And I am not saying this does not occur, um, elsewhere. For instance, in various quality and exciting fanfics, some of which I may or may not also be writing. But I think—in-game, and quite cruelly—that no, they do not. I always find it tragic, because it's something she needs and deserves. Something I wish he had given her. That gift of intimacy. Just that one moment.

But... sigh. Me, I feel like he just can't allow himself to go there.

NOTE: Throughout this piece, I am using screen shots with the "Always Night at Skyhold" PC mod. I just felt, on the latest playthrough, that the mod was useful and appropriately gothic for a romantic story that goes so very dark. I love the original sunset setting for this scene, but to me it's brutally hopeful and romantic (which may have been the purpose). 

I prefer this one, which is starker. Darker. It won't end well. Let's embrace it. But that's me.

Each step of their romance is controlled by Solas—how close, how far, when to touch, when not to. 
Maintaining the Boundaries

So I do not believe that Solas and the Inquisitor have sex. My logic for this goes as follows:
  • Their entire relationship is about the slow burn.
  • Each step of their romance is controlled by Solas—how close, how far, when to touch, when not to. It's not in a toxic way, but that "dominate your focus" dialogue wasn't just there to be funny. Solas is all about control, to me, at least in certain (cough) scenarios. I think he likes to orchestrate things.
  • Each beat of the relationship—except for the crucial Last Date—involves Solas refusing contact then returning to the kisses in spite of himself. And then he leaves with this almost palpable sense that he is forcing himself away from temptation.
  • We never get a sex scene (and, aside from Josie, this is something we get for every other companion across the entire trilogy).

    And, to me, this doesn't ping as Solas being ace (while Josie does)—although I should add here that he does ping as asexual to many other players, including reader Ladyiolanthe, who argues that Solas can certainly in fact be asexual or demisexual, and those are real potential options for him given his behavior as presented. In my ignorance, I dismissed those too immediately above, so of course this is another aspect that can be interpreted by the player. (Note: please forgive any mistakes I've made in discussing those or any other aspects of sexual orientation or preference, as I definitely didn't mean to discard interpretations or representations that may be powerfully meaningful for many players: How you see Solas and his sexuality is absolutely yours, first and foremost. This is just how I have attempted to interpret him.)

    But let's get back to my case for "They Do Not Have Sex..."

    So I'll amend my earlier statement to say that, to me, Solas seems like a very strongly sensual and sexual person, based on his behaviors, and one powerfully in love with the senses of the flesh, and who is deeply tempted by his physical desire for Lavellan. For this reason, the lack of a sex scene is noteworthy to me. Especially since he ends every other sexual moment with with variations on "we shouldn't!" So, for me, the moment he finally capitulates and goes, "Let's have sex!" should be a really big one. But we never see it.
  • We never get kisses with Solas on demand. Which again, I find character-appropriate. Our Inky/Solas relationship is delicate enough that it is probably Solas who initiates the kissage. When he allows himself to. I know his romance was one of the later romances added in the final year of development, but I still think the technical options were there to add a love scene or a "kiss on demand," and that the exclusion of either item is deliberate and noteworthy.
  • Last but not least, Solas instantly and emotionally denies sex when called on it by the Inky in "Trespasser:"
INQUISITOR: And so he did.
SOLAS: I did not. I would not lay with you under false pretenses.

Solas actually sounds upset over the above exchange, as played by Gareth David-Lloyd.

Either way, it's a big issue among Solasmancers, and there are passionate and persuasive points on both sides. But this is where I stand.

However—as I mentioned—I definitely understand those who headcanon that they do have sex after all. It just doesn't work for me the way the romance plays out. And I do think it's actually more angst-ridden and painful that way, that he never even gives her that one thing, that gift of shared intimacy. Not even a single night for them to lose themselves in one another.

Setting the Scene

In terms of the story, Solas has tentatively entered into a romance with the Inquisitor, but they're also in a holding pattern.
Before we go to the balcony with Solas, we're at a very specific point both in the Inquisition storyline and in Solas's romance.

In terms of the story, Solas has tentatively entered into a romance with the Inquisitor, but they're also in a holding pattern. They kiss passionately in the Fade... and the next morning, in the Rotunda, he agrees to the possibility of a relationship if the Inquisitor will be patient with him, as "it has been a long time." She agrees, and he is warm and affectionate in a careful, slightly remote way going forward. But there are no more kisses.

For a pretty long time.


And nothing else happens for what would appear to be weeks or even months in-game. If you look at the ensuing events after the Fade Kiss, the Inquisitor has accomplished a series of events both political and on the battlefield against Corypants. She's spent months establishing Skyhold as an important and vital new hub for the Inquisition, recruited valuable agents, acquired power across Thedas, and acquired loyalties from companions, including Solas. She's also most likely faced the dangers of Adamant and the Fade, possibly conquered the Great Game at Halamshiral, and recovered her memories.

My favorite part of "Wicked Eyes" is how it also provides a subtle, enjoyable new flash of insight into Solas, and it's a more natural escalation, for me, into the balcony scene.
Wicked Eyes and Wicked Wolves

As noted above, one thing I personally will also have chosen to do at this point is the wonderful quest "Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts." Now, this is optional—it can also occur after Adamant, which means that it would occur after the balcony scene, not before. But for me it's more effective for multiple story reasons for "Wicked Eyes" to have occurred before.

For one thing, experiencing "Wicked Eyes" before Adamant and "Here Lies the Abyss" means that you'll recruit Morrigan before Alistair (or whoever did the Dark Ritual, if your Warden or another character did so) in DAO, providing you with an additional potential scene in the courtyard between Morrigan, Kieran, and the father of her child that is surprisingly poignant.

But my favorite part of "Wicked Eyes" is how it also provides a subtle, enjoyable new flash of insight into Solas, and it's a more natural escalation, for me, into the balcony scene. To understand this, please check out my post here on what I think Solas was actually up to throughout this quest. It's really fascinating to consider, and to me it provides a fun explanation for why he's so odd, blithe, carefree, and unlike his usual rebellious self.

And then he's odd again after Halamshiral, not quite his old self again. As if he's trying to re-don the suit of the apostate and it no longer quite fits. I'll be analyzing that conversation later, so more on that to follow.

Nevertheless, whether before Halamshiral or after, Lavellan goes to talk to Solas, and he's jittery and odd, off-balance.

And then we talk to him and he shows up IN HER QUARTERS.

Sorry. It's just a big deal. Solas never does that. Bull does, sure (wait, wait, headcanons collide AND IT IS GLORIOUS)!

Okay, sorry. Now I'm back.

When we go talk to Solas, triggering the balcony scene, he's quite different, yet again, from his usual cool calm. He is instead uncertain, on edge.
Off to the Balcony

First, let's address the timeline. Since we can skip around in quests and accomplishments, there's a pretty flexible order in which all this stuff can occur.

While some players have encountered this quest immediately after Solas's loyalty quest, for me, I suspect that the canon order in which the story flows is that Solas goes to see Lavellan after the events of Adamant and the Fade. I say this because the interlude in the Fade seems to both awe and exhilarate Solas. Not that this is a shock. I mean, let's face it, Solas loves the Fade more than anyone, anywhere, anywhen. Bless his little ancient elven heart.

So that's the scene, at least as I see it playing out.

And then we go talk to Solas, triggering the balcony scene, and he's quite different, yet again, from his usual cool calm. He is instead uncertain, on edge. The presentation of Solas in the scene here is that he looks almost sad, and openly confused:

SOLAS: Inquisitor, I was… do you have a moment?

They walk together out onto the Inquisitor's BALCONY (I know, I'll stop yelping about this, but it's a big deal!).

And then he turns to her.

SOLAS: What were you like... before the Anchor? 

The Inquisitor looks down at her left hand, trying to remember her life before the Mark.

SOLAS: Has it affected you? Changed you in any way? Your mind, your morals, your… spirit?

Note the slight pause there. I've mentioned this before, but I think it's key. And since I overanalyze everything, I do think every one of Solas's pauses here is scripted, deliberate, and important.

Solas's question of the Inquisitor is all the more tragic and epic because he sees and loves her beauty, her courage. And he sees and loves her actual spirit. So he suspects that love, tries to write it off as a side effect.
A Question of Spirit...

So let's look at that pause: He pauses, hesitates, because spirit is the thing that means most to him in the world. The spirit. More than anything. And I actually believe that Solas, if he is in fact a former spirit, may even have some ability to see into the spirits within those he meets.

Which makes it all the more tragic and epic, his love for the Inquisitor: He sees and loves her beauty, her courage. And he sees and loves her actual spirit.

And I think there's something more complex happening here too. For me, his trip to the Fade has triggered his loneliness, his deep wish to find companionship, a kindred spirit. He's seeking additional connection. Which is why I believe Solas also yearns for the possibility that perhaps her spirit was changed, enhanced, transfigured by her contact with the Orb of Corypants (revealed to be Solas's).

In some respects, it's a slightly unpleasant, even narcissistic idea... but I think the key here isn't that he's looking for himself in her, I'd say he's more seeking every additional excuse he can to maintain proximity, even beyond the Mark. He knows he should not be romancing Lavellan. He knows he should remove himself... unless... there are reasons he MUST maintain contact. For her safety. For her spirit.

Solas is genuinely torn, and this is one of the key moments when he must choose—caught between, love, lust and an open willingness to deceive himself.
Finding Excuses

And story-wise, we've also entered the 'maybe' that he's even wondering frantically if this is why he's drawn to her, if it's instinctual, something he cannot help... because of this connection, because of the Mark, and because she touched his Orb (I know, I know, let your dirty little mind run free—mine already did).

My take: Solas is genuinely torn, and this is one of the key moments when he must choose—caught between, love, lust and an open willingness to deceive himself. On the one hand, he's searching for an explanation. Imagine the relief—he's not in love! She just absorbed a little magic and now he feels connected to her spirit! Just a by-product of sorts. Annoying, but not insurmountable. But still... the feelings are so strong. So he's also desperate to hold onto that idea that he and the Inquisitor may now be, irrevocably, spiritually connected.

But he's wrong on both counts, and she lets him know that very, very quickly. He doesn't get off that easily. If he's in this thing, he has to admit that love is involved. Nothing magic, nothing ancient or external. Just love, the deadliest thing of all.

 If Solas is in this thing, he has to admit that love is involved. Nothing magic, nothing ancient or external. Just love, the deadliest thing of all...
Back to the Balcony

So let's go back to where Solas asks his question, and the Inquisitor answers. (Please note that, unusually for me here, I will be including most potential response variations here, since they are so different, and show different potential sides of both Solas and the Inquisitor.)

Here we are, back on the balcony. And I love that we can hear the faint howl of the wind through the mountains here. The visual and aural design of this entire scene is so beautiful.

SOLAS: What were you like before the Anchor? Has it affected you? Changed you in any way? Your mind, your morals, your… spirit?
INQUISITOR: I don’t believe so.
SOLAS (disappointed): Ah.

Another telling pause. And this is a big one, and something I forgot to mention in my previous version of this post until reader Mia Monza pointed it out. She noted, and I agree, that Solas appears visibly disappointed here, as if he wanted her to acknowledge some visceral, real change in herself after the Mark. Mia noted that she believes this is due to Solas grasping for explanations on why Lavellan is so special to him and—specifically—on her "personhood" for him: If she has absorbed something from the Orb, this might provide him with a facile explanation for why she matters to him and allow him to continue on, guilt-free, with his plans to drastically change or even destroy this world without having to see its inhabitants as "people." (Remember, we later learn his vision of the living world was, for a long time, like "walking through a world of Tranquil.")

But this is one of the many times Felassan's words will echo back to him, in irony and bittersweetness, even as they did in the very beginnings of the romance: If she's real—if he accepts that she's real—then everyone here is real, and he is, in fact, a monster. 

INQUISITOR (among options): Why do you ask? (Alternatives are where she asks if he thinks she'd notice, or simply where she asks what he thinks is going on there)
SOLAS (answering in a rush): You show a wisdom I have not seen since… since my deepest journeys into the ancient memories of the Fade! You are not what I expected.

This part is charming because it's another of those rare moments where Solas is effusive and emotional, unguarded. And then there are some more dialogue options (I usually go with Option 3):

Option 1:
INQUISITOR: I don’t think of myself as different from anyone.
SOLAS: Perhaps not in the form of your body, no.

Option 2:
INQUISITOR: Sorry to disappoint.
SOLAS: It’s not disappointing, it’s… (sighs). Most people are predictable.

Option 3:
INQUISITOR: What have I done that’s so surprising?
SOLAS: You have shown subtlety in your actions, a wisdom that goes against everything I expected. If the Dalish could raise someone with a spirit like yours… have I misjudged them?

The Inquisitor answers—either for the Dalish, disparaging them, or stating that she is a product of her own choices. I typically support the Dalish:

INQUISITOR: I don’t hold the Dalish up as perfect, but we have something worth honoring... a memory of the ancient ways.
SOLAS: Perhaps that is it. I suppose it must be. Most people act with so little understanding of the world. But not you.

One thing I especially love about this moment is that Solas is basically declaring his love for Lavellan's mind—her actions, her decisions. And he is also showing himself as fallible, as vulnerable, that he can rethink entrenched points of view he has nurtured for millennia. He can see her as a person. He can see the Dalish as people. He can care for his companions. 

He is beginning to see how beautiful, and how fatal, simple love can be. 

Once again, for readers of The Masked Empire, the ghost of Felassan is very present here. As he should be.

The kiss and approach is an interesting staging choice—to me it seems to offer a slight nod to Solas's earlier implied bedroom preferences, in which she seems to be both relinquishing and yet wielding power.
"It would be kinder in the long run."

A pause as they face each other, the rays of the sunset falling gorgeously upon both their faces. They lean in toward one another but do not touch. Yet.

One of my favorite things about Solas as a character—both in how he is drawn and presented, and in how he's written and voiced—is this almost tangible representation of the fact that he is not quite fully there. He could run at any time. He wants to run; he needs to run. He doesn't want to give in.

So it's again a lovely detail that we see this so many times. So many times, he backs away, says "I shouldn't... we shouldn't..." and yet he's a passionate man. He is alive and still young even if the world is on fire. He has been desperately lonely for millennia, and here is perhaps is one and only chance at love, and at a moment of real happiness.

INQUISITOR: So what does this mean, Solas?

He smiles. Solas also likes controlling the moment, don't forget (see also: Indomitable Focus).

SOLAS: It means... I have not forgotten the kiss.

It's a big deal, and the Inquisitor faces him. She can either tell him to forget it, or agree to resume/continue their romance. Of course, my canon Inquisitor agreed with him:


Another key little moment. She walks right up to him and into his space. The romantic "Companion Kiss" music comes up in Trevor Morris's score. Then the Inquisitor leans close to him and clasps her hands behind her back. It's an interesting staging choice—to me it seems to offer a slight nod to Solas's earlier implied bedroom preferences, in which she seems to be both relinquishing and yet wielding power. And he gets that she's teasing him, and they almost kiss, the Inquisitor openly taunting him with what she knows he wants. But Solas resists and turns away.

She touches his arm and pulls him back.

SOLAS (still facing away from her): It would be kinder in the long run.

Another "I should run right now" moment for Solas. "I should run far, far away from this."

SOLAS: But losing you would…

He can't run, or resist. They kiss again, at last. And it's as passionate and beautifully presented as always, and with the setting rays of the sun falling upon them both (if, of course, you aren't running my grimmer mod). And I mean, it's, like, a THIRTEEN SECOND KISS. (Compare that to our poor Bullmancing Inquisitors, who got a 1-second peck outside the tavern, darn it.)

And then they end the kiss, and it's as if a pact has been sealed between the two of them. Solas says the words every Solasmancer has loved and dreaded since time immemorial:

SOLAS: Ar lath ma, vhenan.

And then he leaves. Dropping a mic as the Inquisitor just looks pleased, dreamy, and thoughtful as she watches him go (as do we all).


And then they end the kiss, and it's as if a pact has been sealed between the two of them. Solas says the words every Solasmancer has loved and dreaded since time immemorial... DAMMIT.
Parsing the Language

Meanwhile... not to diminish the charm or power of the final declaration, I only have one minor gripe here, which is that Gareth David-Lloyd's love declaration is phrased as "Ar lath, ma vhenan." Which has led, unfortunately and predictably, to a zillion tropes and memes in which people think he says "I love (you), my heart" here. And that's not quite accurate.

What Solas actually says is, "Ar lath ma, vhenan." To break it down in elven:

Ar: I
Lath: love
Ma: you
Vhenan: heart/home

Despite the insistences of much of the fandom, in other words, "ma" (while it can certainly stand in for either "my" or "you") is much more likely to be used as the object "you," especially here.

As for me, I always take GDL's phrasing here more as, "Ar lath ma vhenan. Not that he's misplacing the comma but rather that he's emphasizing the word "love."

(Sorry. I'm a nerd.)

Solas leaves... Solas, who is ALWAYS on the verge of leaving, simply because he is terrified of limits, terrified of feeling too much, lusting too much, of giving in to feelings he has bottled up for centuries upon centuries...
Final Observations from the Balcony

Don't you love the view up here? I always do. So much!

There are some very interesting, key and unique things happening in these final moments for me, so just a few additional observations as we enjoy the fading light of sunset.

First off, it's both in-character and absolutely appropriate that of course, Solas declares love in this very casual yet intense way... it's as if he is simply speaking aloud something understood by them both. She already knows he loves her. He already knows she knows. But he gives her that gift by speaking the words aloud. Even her reaction isn't joy or glee or anything huge; she simply smiles thoughtfully, watching him leave (BECAUSE OF COURSE HE DOES). She's okay for now because he's given her a gift.

I've thought a lot about the timing of this "I love you," and it's worth examining. For other romances, the "I love you" is the culmination, a separate arc. But I would argue that, as Solas's romance plotline is so deeply tied to the main storyline of DAI, its timing is not actually all that sudden. DAI takes place across approximately 1-2 years according to canon. By the siege of Adamant, Solas and the Inquisitor have spent at least 9-12 months together, by my reckoning. I further headcanon a few months beyond the Fade Kiss (seriously, so unfair to poor Lavellan) as they navigated their potential burgeoning relationship and its boundaries.

So they've been good friends and companions, and that romantic "something else" for almost a year now. It's just that now is when it's finally out in the open.

It's not about the Inky admitting it to herself. But about the milestone for Solas. And his relinquishment of doubt or uncertainty. Against all his inner warnings, he loves her, and he must act. And it must be a relief, certainly, to do so here. To give each of them this moment.

But let's compare this to all of the other declarations of love in the game. Out of all of them, all of them, Solas's is the only one that pointedly does not lead to or arise from sex (beyond the kiss, I mean). (As I noted, I am a die-hard believer in "They did not have sex," so I incorporated a lot of this behavior into my DAI AU fanfic—a Solas who is always on the verge of leaving simply because he is terrified of limits, terrified of feeling too much, lusting too much, of giving in to feelings he has bottled up for centuries upon centuries.)

The moment is given, yes, but the moment ends.

Solas says "I love you"... and then he leaves. It's a gorgeous presentation of subtext and metaphor in a single moment. It encompasses all of the passion, warmth and sexiness of the character... as well as his potential for coldness and expedience... and even cruelty.

It's who he is. It's what he has to do. It's what he will always do, both now and in the future.

That's what you get if you love Solas. Twelve-second kisses that may or may not taste ever so slightly of the tears ahead.

I still think they're worth it. Most replays. How 'bout you?

Note: I updated this post to address a missed (and vital) element in the dialogue 3/18.

"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...