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.


  1. Can I make a request? Don't scold other people for, in your opinion, misusing the term "genocide" and then use WARSAW GHETTO to describe part of Kirkwall.

    Seriously, maybe it's not a big deal to you or anyone else, but I've been on the brunt end of enough of your defensive lecturing bullshit that seeing you invoke a term related to real world genocide AFTER YOU HAVE TOLD OTHERS THAT USING GENOCIDE IS NOT APPROPRIATE, that shit really pisses me off.

    1. Thanks for the reply -- and I appreciate the criticism.

      And yeah, I've definitely sounded off on social media before about the use of specific words where specific characters are concerned because they instantly poison (end) the discussion. If someone likes Anders as a character and someone else says "How can you support a terrorist?" isn't the conversation really over? Because it's assigning real-world values to a fictional situation. Same with Solas. If someone likes Solas's character and the response is, "So you support genocide?" again -- doesn't that end the discussion?

      And I still feel that way. It's also completely okay with me if you don't. I expressed those feelings to illustrate where I will disengage, and why. I wasn't attempting to "scold" anyone, and don't think I'm really in a position to do that here. People can continue to use whatever language they want, and I'm equally free to choose not to engage when they do.

      Meanwhile, I would argue that my original use of "Warsaw Ghetto" here was, while probably not necessary and in poor taste (apologies)-- not the same thing. There is no way to me not to see elven alienages as enforced ghettos. For racial reasons alone, the city elves are locked away and required to live in deeply poor, cramped conditions solely due to their race. The game knows and accepts this and I think presents it knowing that it's disturbing. I think it's meant to be.

      But while I changed the term I used there, my using that term doesn't reduce or simplify a complex character's situation or end a conversation. So I'm not sure they're the same thing.

      However, I definitely didn't want to upset you or anyone, so I've changed my language somewhat there, in order to hopefully correct the impact.

      Thanks as always for reading, and for the debate.

  2. Brilliant. There are so many details I've missed. The depth of the writing in these games continues to amaze me.

    1. Thanks very much, Pal! I agree that the writers of the games are so often underpraised for their beautiful work.

  3. Hmm, a few thoughts...

    - Merril's innocence and naivete always struck me as being specific to coming from a different culture and discovering city life. She never struck me as infantile, but rather teased or viewed that way by Hawke's companions.
    - It's been awhile since my last DA2 playthrough, but I'm more sympathetic to Marethari. Merill messes with Blood Magic and a tainted mirror that already claimed one of their clan. These are established taboos that would naturally make someone question someone else's judgment, so Marethari's not wrong about Merill. Sure, Merill has her reasons, and we love her for them, but no more is Marethari unrelatable. She saw her First engaging in acts that our modern minds would liken to "serial killer" crimes, then stopped trusting her First's judgment. Like I'd freak out if I found out my kids were doing drugs, even if it was their growth process. Whether Marethari was right or wrong was only something that could be proven with hindsight. Of course, we are more omniscient as players of all three games to understand the Dalish's traditions and understandings of the past/the world around them are flawed, but I can't find it in myself to condemn her so roundly, even though the outcomes were poor.

    One of the things I love about Dragon Age is that every villain is relatable, and every hero could be described as a villain by their opponents with as much legitimacy as their opponents do them.

    That's what real life is like. Marethari didn't wake up in the morning and decide to be terrible. She's described as such because we see her story from Merril's side of the fence.

    Personally, I love Merill too - but *because* she is a little bit evil.

    1. There are frequent arguments by some fans about Merrill's innocence to the extent that they feel she does not actually possess the agency to pursue a sexual relationship with Hawke, for instance. Which bothers me, because she's a grown woman -- innocence does not have to equal sexual abstinence (it's basically the flip side of the 'slutshaming' coin), etc.

      You make a great point about Marethari's justifiable fears, although I don't think that Merrill choosing to purify the shard is quite up there with serial killer crimes. Although, I agree, she is (and should be) horrified at first.

      And you're also right that we players have the larger view, and that that omniscience includes a certain amount of vision poor Marethari doesn't have. And that definitely adds to the tragedy of the situation.

      I think for me where it falls apart is where Marethari punishes Merrill for breaking the rules and yet breaks almost all of them herself, directly driving the entire story to its inevitably tragic ending.

      But -- that's what I love about it too, in an awful way. I have zero doubt that Marethari loves Merrill, and her love for Merrill is as deep as the love for a daughter. Love is what dooms everyone involved here, and while it upset me (and deeply saddened me too), it's always believable.

      I especially love this comment you make: "Marethari didn't wake up in the morning and decide to be terrible." It's so true.

      And what's haunting is that I think the same thing applies to Merrill. She probably never in her life imagined she'd be a rebel. Much less for a historical object. And then one day she was.

      Thanks so much for reading, and for the discussion!

  4. At one point in DAI, Solas comments something along the lines of "they were not demons to me." I think that it is fully possible that Audacity *was* a demon for Marethari and a spirit for Merrill, simply because it reflected what they expected to see. Merrill was willing to accept Audacoty as a spirit, and Marethari just was not and immediately assumed it was evil.

  5. You mention that Marethari keeps the clan hanging about in that one location for years longer than expected or wanted. The clan knows they are endangering themselves by doing so, and so does Marethari. Yet they linger, at her insistence.

    Marethari also heard Audacity's voice, in her sleep, etc. Just like Merrill. So maybe Audacity had something to do with Marethari's decisions? Audacity could have here been working on both of them. Merrill was willing to talk with it, but that would not stop it from continuing to try to influence Marethari to do what it wanted (free it), and if I'm right, it would not want Marethari's clan to move on. Instead, it would hint the clan should stay right where it was, well beyond the rendezvous time Marethari promised to Flemith.

    Anyway, I think this would go a ways to explain why Marethari's subsequent behaviour toward Merrill was so base. Audacity needed them to be at odds, and thus unable to support each other. In Audacity's place, would you want to have to negotiate with a Merrill who had a Keeper with Marethari's experience in her corner?


"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...