Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Blows of the Chisel: Your Place in the Qun (Asit tal-eb, Part 1)

Under the Qun, individual identity is immaterial. It's only valued for its contribution to the whole. Above, the Qunari warriors could (at least) console themselves that they are now artistic and exciting additions to Solas's garden. Woo-hoo!
THE IRON BULL: It's like being a block of stone with a sculptor working on you. One day, the last of the crap gets knocked off, and you can see your real shape, what you're supposed to be.

Shok ebasit hissra. Meraad astaarit, meraad itwasit, aban aqun. Maraas shokra. Anaan esaam Qun. "Struggle is an illusion. The tide rises, the tide falls, but the sea is changeless. There is nothing to struggle against. Victory is in the Qun."

Shanedan, intrepid Thedosians! So... as always, I started to write one column and analysis, aaaaand... found myself falling down the rabbit hole.

It's Dragon Age, right? It's easy to do. After all, this entire blog is, to some extent, my fall down that very same rabbit hole.

But this was a pretty big tangent, so just a note of explanation.

See, I started my post by writing about Bull's pivotal loyalty quest in Dragon Age: Inquisition, "The Demands of the Qun." But as I began to write my analysis, I realized that I needed to preface that post, to lay a kind of foundation. Before I talked about the demands of the Qun... and what they would ask of Bull... shouldn't I take a look at the Qun itself, and what it demands of its adherents? Shouldn't I place that quest in some sort of context? After all, what does it matter that Bull must meet the Qun's demands, unless we have a better idea of what those demands actually are?

Besides, not gonna lie... it's really fascinating to go back and look at the Qun across the trilogy.

So here we are. First off, I'm going to post this overview of the Qun, and what I think it asks of those who follow it, as well as how it's presented across the Dragon Age trilogy.

After that, I'll also be posting some interesting revelations and revisits with my darling Sten, as well as transcriptions with my equally adored yet (yes) terrifying Arishok, including several dialogues I transcribed from Dragon Age II.

And then we'll get to "The Demands of the Qun." Eventually.

"Struggle is an Illusion"

Ever since Dragon Age: Origins, I've always been fascinated by the Qun... and more than a little terrified by it.

Any belief system that requires participants to act only for the big picture, an inherently Fascist doctrine, and utterly disregarding the individual... should terrify anyone. It does me.

And this is life under the Qun, where people act in support of their world order, without care for individual harm, loss or effect. Under the Qun, the individual identity is immaterial and utterly without merit. It is only valued for its contribution to the whole.

What I love about the progression of its presentation across Dragon Age is how each Qunari character presents a new and more complex, different aspect of understanding the Qun:
Sten, Dragon Age: Origins: As the true believer, Sten is the perfect introduction to the Qun philosophy and societal construct. Sten is the soldier, the steadfast subscriber, and the perfect introduction to Qun 101. The Qun is who he is. Sten only falls apart, notably, when he has lost that identity (via the loss of his sword).
Sten has no quandaries about his identity or his place, and finds the outer world deeply troubling and confusing. Although he is charmed by a few little indulgences (kittens, flowers, paintings, and cookies), Sten ends his adventures relatively unchanged. He ends as he began, viewing all outside points of view as counterproductive and alien to the Qun. He will return to his people, mission accomplished, unchanged (but not unaffected).
The Arishok, Dragon Age II: Enter the Arishok. As one of the three main rulers within the Qun's world, the Arishok provides a much bigger, starker view of what the Qun demands—essentially a flipped view from that of ordinary soldier Sten. And yet, like Sten, the Arishok's focus is rigid, narrow, and as confined as his quarters in that Kirkwall alley. He's genuinely scary (and so hot! OH SHUT UP) because he's not simply a tyrant or conqueror. He's desperate, trapped, and trying to recover the single most important artifact of his people across the ages. While tempted to intervene many times in what he sees as a disturbing and decadent chaos, he sits out the conflicts in Kirkwall for several years before breaking and deciding to "save" its inhabitants violently for the Qun. It does not end well for anyone. And no, I'm still not okay.
Tallis, Dragon Age II: Mark of the Assassin (DLC): Played by criminally charming geek goddess Felicia Day, Tallis is a lovable yet deadly agent of the Ben-Hassrath seeking simply to fulfill a mission that involves both love and loyalty. While I felt this mission slightly simplified both the Qun and especially the Ben-Hassrath, casting them in a rosier glow than they perhaps deserve, I enjoyed it as an up-close vision of a person simply trying to do the right thing under its regime. From the extremes of Sten and the Arishok, Tallis is a welcome middle-ground character.
The Iron Bull, Dragon Age: Inquisition: The Iron Bull is a wonderful culmination of Qun-loyal characters, because he exists in both realities when it comes to the Qun. He's in, he's out. He's loyal, he's Ben-Hassrath. No matter what you choose as a player, as a spy and sleeper agent, Bull is deeply entrenched in both the worlds of the Ben-Hassrath and Inquisition, and he acts accordingly. Whether we earn his loyalty or don't, whether we romance him or don't... we inevitably learn volumes about the Qun thanks to Bull, and in a truly unique new way.
And for all his bluff, for all his inner questions, Bull's still a true believer when we meet him. Which is why I find his C.S. Lewis simile about the blows of the chisel so affecting (and about which I will have much more to say in a later post)—he wants to be carved. He wants to be shaped. He is fully willing to be altered, repaired, moved, sculpted... to meet the challenges asked of him. And the outcome of his story, depending on our choices, is both personal and devastating in "Trespasser." 

What the Qun Demands

As a world order, the Qun is undeniably pretty scary.

And yet, I can also understand those I know who find the fantasy of the Qun oddly comforting. The structure, the knowledge of your own place in the larger picture. The immutable changelessness of it. As one friend put it, "You'd never have to worry about your own safety. You'd never worry about hunger, or shelter, or abuse, or unemployment. You'd be treated with inherent respect by everyone in your society no matter what your role. And you'd know your life had purpose."

I get this. But of course I also have to always counter this point of view by naming the price for this safety: An absolute lack of personal agency (which is probably the one thing that scares me more than anything in the world). Under the Qun, you'd be safe, sure:
  • But your body will not belong to you.
  • You will do what you're told.
  • You will be analyzed from babyhood and assigned for maximum usefulness. If this occurs, you may be trained in warfare, spycraft and more, while still in childhood.
  • You will perform the job you are given efficiently... whether you enjoy it or not.
  • You will go where you're sent.
  • You will not marry or partner with a romantic interest.
  • You will have sexual relations with whoever you are commanded to mate with for breeding purposes.
  • You will then be required to give birth, if female, to any resulting child.
  • If you do give birth, your child will be taken away to be raised in a group setting by a Tamassran, indoctrinated in groupthink before it cuts its first tooth or grows its first little stubs of horns.
  • Your primary social relationships will be with those you work with (no mates, lovers, family units allowed).
  • You will agree to reeducation and brainwashing if you ask too many questions, or if you show yourself to be mentally fragile.
  • If you manifest magical abilities, you will submit to being leashed, enslaved, your tongue may be removed, and your mouth may be sewn shut.
  • If you become unable to do your current job, you may be put to work in menial labor until you are no longer physically functional... and then executed.
I mean, holy totalitarianism, Batman. That's a heavy price for safety.

The Qun accepts everyone. That's great. Except that it then demands everything they are, everything they have, everything they dream or want or desire.
Chaos Into Order

As an important and complex aspect of Thedas's diverse assortment of belief systems—as well as the code that has driven the Qunari characters we have met and cared for over the past three games—the Qun is a wonderful fictional construct. Its primary inventors (as far as I know—please correct me if I'm inaccurate here) in the BioWare creative Qunari triumvirate seem to have included resident Qun expert Mary Kirby (who wrote Sten in DAO, and laid the foundation), and with additional insight and expansion by David Gaider in DAO, and further in DA2 with Kirby, as well as by Patrick Weekes in Dragon Age: Inquisition as he wrote for The Iron Bull.

The Qun, to me, as noted, seems to combine multiple potential philosophies and belief systems, but it's important to call out the fact that while it seems restrictive and confining, everyone is welcome. This is vital, scary, and (well) effective for recruitment and public relations. It's especially attractive, I would imagine, for many elves, who are still seeking for identity and a larger meaning. Anyone of any race can join, anyone can become viddathari and in fact ascend in the hierarchy to significant degrees, as they prove their worth.

This is all part of the important bigger picture: There is no deity to the Qun. While the Qun seems at first glance to be religious in nature, I think that's kind of a metaphysical feint; I think it's really not at all religious, and that belief in anything higher would in fact be antithetical to the Qun itself. So to me, ultimately, it's areligious—more philosophical and fatalistic, more authoritarian and political. There's a lot more of Confucius and Communism than Christ to the Qun, after all.

And as a code of conduct and series of rules for daily life, the Qun is basically a belief system that creates a perfect totalitarian melting pot of societal entrapment.

The Tome of Koslun

The Qun seemed to start harmlessly enough, and with peaceful intent. Based upon the writings of Kossith philosopher Ashkaari (Qunlat for "One who seeks") Koslun, in the beginning it appeared to be a code created, at its most basic, to operate out of the desire to soothe the inner savage lurking in every Kossith. Koslun yearns for order, and his teachings reflect a belief that structure is the only possible rational response to chaos, whether internal or external.

His writings therefore counsel and soothe, offering not so much a code for peace, as for order, as a potential antithesis to the savagery that slept in the heart of every one of his brethren, who were rechristened as "the Qunari," i.e., "the People of the Qun."

This origin certainly lends credence to Bull's fears of a loss of control, of his inner savage, and to his stories of other Tal-Vashoth as beings who had gone brutal and cruel, without boundary or logic. Under the teachings of Koslun, there's real belief in the potential violence in the hearts of these magnificent horned giants. Is it something to do with their mysterious origins? Were they engineered, after all, long ago, perhaps by the Evanuris themselves? Is that inner savagery due to their dreams of dragon blood and kinship? 

Why do the Qunari fear their inner capacity for violence above all else? Why is a self-administered system of suffocation and entrapment the only answer?

It's a good question. One I suspect has still not been entirely answered. Yet.

Oh, Izzy. Stealing treasures and wreaking havoc and not really calculating outcomes...
The World and Self are One

Koslun wrote all his observations and tenets down, painstakingly and in great and poetic detail, in a volume that became known as The Tome of Koslun. The book became the single most revered relic among the Qunari, was lost during the Qunari Wars, and eventually was locked away in Orlais until 9:31 Dragon, when it was stolen by Isabela.

I wish I'd understood when playing DA2 how absolutely staggering the scope of Isabela's deed was here. We're talking about pretty much the only sacred artifact the Qunari possess. And she stole it. Of course, on the plus side, this also makes DA2 incredible fun to revisit, as well as the Omnibus, where we get a poignant glimpse of what exactly Isabela suffered, and why she pursued her revenge in that way.

And after all those revelations, I definitely get why. Izzy was forced into marriage, abused, traumatized, and basically enslaved, and the Qunari chapter of her life was a big part of that. But looking back, I still wince at what she chose to do here, not just because it affected thousands (and potentially tens of thousands) of innocent lives in Kirkwall, but because she was willing to up-end the Qunari people's one single artifact. Surely there were other things to steal? Easier things? 

Still, it's not like she was going to do something small to make a statement. That wouldn't be true to Isabela on any level. 

"Esit Tal-eb."

Regardless, the Qunari got their relic back, one way or another, depending on your decisions in Dragon Age II. And the teachings of Koslun remained a continued reminder to seek inner peace, and to accept what cannot be changed:

When the Ashkaari looked upon the destruction wrought by locusts,
He saw at last the order in the world.
A plague must cause suffering for as long as it endures,
Earthquakes must shatter the land.
They are bound by their being.
Asit tal-eb. It is to be.
For the world and the self are one.
Existence is a choice.
A self of suffering, brings only suffering to the world.
It is a choice, and we can refuse it.
—An excerpt from The Qun, Canto 4

I find this both disturbing and comforting. The ability to accept the world as it is, to stop fighting the tide and to flow with it instead, can certainly be viewed as reassuring on some levels. But, all words aside, suffering isn't truly a choice is it? It is something we endure. And suffering is, for most of us, transitory. Temporary. Life is not usually a series of extremes. We all muddle through somewhere in the middle, after all. Suffering is just a part of the deal.

But—still—I get why adages like these might be attractive for those seeking to find meaning in life, and who turn to the Qun for support. Because this hearkens right back to the comfort I brought up earlier. Under the Qun, we need not question who we are, what our purpose is, right? We wouldn't need to wonder why we exist. What our suffering is worth. The Qun provides persuasive answers to that, even if in most cases, those answers would be pretty suppressive.

A Search for Peace

It's pretty apparent that Koslun wasn't a bad guy. There is a beautiful balance to his idea that the only answer to chaos is order. I don't think it's terribly practical or enforceable in the long term, however. Is the only answer to a wildfire a determination to stomp out all fire in perpetuity? It just seems a little extreme.

Still, so Ashkaari believed. And so the Qun was realized and brought into the world.

The result was a mighty fantastical regime powerfully reminiscent of real-world regimes like those of the Soviet Union, the Nazis, and North Korea (as well as with a smattering of Imperialist China due to the presence of gunpowder and "gaatlok" explosives). 

The Qun operates like a smooth, well-oiled machine... as long as all the components stay components. As long as everyone remembers their place. As long as everyone acts for the greater good. As long as nobody sticks out too much. As long as square pegs contort themselves into round holes. And of course, with a distrust of magic, and with a deep distrust for demons, spirits, and magical entities of all kinds, which is understandable in a culture where reality and nature are revered above what cannot be seen.

There is no you under the Qun. There is no individual Sten. Or Bull. Or... anyone... under the Qun. The individual is immaterial. And yet the system does offer that connection, to something that is not exactly divine, but which is simply more. The Qun asks you to serve something larger than yourself. And to reach inward, with your inner eye, to become your truest, best self. The Qun's core tenet is to ask people and objects alike to simply be what they are, to display their wonder and difference in the light of the sun.

I think of Gatt a lot here. Imagine being abused, terrified, enslaved, and then being rescued. Imagine being avenged, finding acceptance and friendship, and as you learn of your new society, imagine discovering genuine interest, support, and comfort from the Qunari. Imagine seeking a destiny supported by your rescuers, the reinforcement that you are essential. Imagine finding your place—not as a slave, not as as reviled elf, but as a man. And in doing so, finding even greater service and connection under the Qun.

It's why I can't blame Gatt, ever. Gatt's just trying to survive. And to honor those who saved him.

As of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the Qun ebbs and flows like a tide across Thedas, gaining and losing sands but always maintaining a calm and terribly certain center.
Under the Qun's Eye

As of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the Qun can be argued to be at its height. It is an empire that ebbs and flows like a tide across Thedas, gaining and losing sands but always maintaining a calm and terribly certain center. And it does so without the stigma of magic (or blood magic) or obvious enslavement practiced by Tevinter. I can see how this would be attractive to those who maybe don't look too close. Or who are so desperate for peace, for answers, that any order is better than chaos.

After all, the Qunari are patient teachers. If you're conquered, it's true that they don't see you as an actual person... but hey, they really do hope you'll convert, so that they can finally see you as one.

And that's where we are as of DAI and "Trespasser." As Sten predicted, there is every sign that the Qunari are seeking to expand their scope, their areas of conquest, their impetus to "help" Thedas and compel order. They are poised, at long last, to arrive on our shores... even as Solas assembles his own army and matures his plans.

And this is what I fully expect to be the reality of Dragon Age 4.

The Future of the Qun in Dragon Age

After Blights, after Rifts and demons and magical warfare... the Qun may come across to many as comforting. Safe. After all, as its formidable warriors carve their paths across Thedas, the Qun is a belief system that does not ask people to follow gods or deities or supernatural beings. Instead, and persuasively, it asks them to seek an inner sense of order and calmness. It argues, in fact, that if you cannot find that inner peace... the Qun will provide it.

The Qun does not require that you believe in the Maker. In the elven pantheon or the Evanuris. It simply asks you to be your best self. And to put all effort of that self into the vision of something larger. If you do so, you are complimented because you are a person, not a thing. You are a respectable being. Not a bas, a nonperson, a sub-person, a thing. You are special. You are, in fact, never alone, because you are a part of something greater:

Solitude is illusion. Alone in the darkness,
I was surrounded on all sides.
The starlight dripped from the petals
Of cactus flowers,
A chorus of insects sang across the dunes.

How much abundance the world carries
If every fistful of sand
Is an eternity of mountains.
—An excerpt from The Qun, The Body Canto

Hey. It's persuasive stuff. It's why people join cults. It's why Bull glories in the suffering he endures under the Qun, secure in the idea that these are the blows of the chisel, each one improving him, revealing his true form and bringing him closer to perfection.

I think it's human (and nonhuman) nature to seek acceptance. To see comfort, and safety, and structure. The Qun offers a seductive option for many people that I actually think would be surprisingly popular today, both legislatively and socially. Which is why, next game... if the elves aren't choosing Solas, I'm betting they'll be heading to the Qun in greater numbers than ever before.

At its core, the Qun scares me. It's repugnant to me. I can't help but believe, much like Solas, that free will is essential for society. I also think this is deliberately built into the idea of the Qun and its place in the Dragon Age saga. Yes, it's powerful, fascinating, even seductive. But it can't survive. Ultimately, the demands of the Qun are unsustainable. As context, I can understand someone moving to another country and finding its laws and ethics more to their liking, especially in the world we find today. I can understand people choosing cultures and climates that work for them. What I cannot quite get is the idea of choosing a belief system in which unbelievers are no longer people. 

But of course we see it now, every day, in the real world, right this very moment. That compartmentalization of people into two groups: Those who matter. And those who do not.

So it's brilliant and timely, certainly, that we explore that divide here in the fictional setting Thedas provides across the massive Dragon Age trilogy, novels, and graphic novels—not just via the Qun, but with the Chantry. With the conflicts between templars and mages. With the dissolution of the Seekers. With the desperate destruction of Anders. And with Solas, too.

Nothing is worth a universe in which life is valued only for a precious few. Which is why the Qun cannot live indefinitely. People aren't automatons. We can serve greater ideas, but not without appreciation for our separate, individual lives and selves. 

The Qun will always be doomed to fail. In the end, the individual cannot be ignored.

We are not things.

1 comment:

  1. It's probably just an example of apophenia, but I can't help but wonder if Koslun was realizing truths about the world of Thedas and the Veil that others missed... Some of the passages in the Cantos make me think they could be about spirits, and possibly even about everyone having a spirit (which is one of my favoured fan theories). I also wonder if there's a deep tragedy to the Qun: maybe the things Koslun wrote have been badly misinterpreted.

    For example, using the very same excerpt from Canto 4 that you used:

    When the Ashkaari looked upon the destruction wrought by locusts,
    He saw at last the order in the world.
    A plague must cause suffering for as long as it endures,
    Earthquakes must shatter the land.
    They are bound by their being.

    The Qun interpretation of these first five lines is that all things serve a purpose. But we learn (in a roundabout way) from Solas in DAI that spirits also have a purpose. (Solas in All New Faded For Her says that his friend Wisdom was twisted from its original purpose when the mages summoned it; this is what turned it into a pride demon. Its original purpose was wisdom.) Is the order of the world that all people, having a spirit, share a common purpose with their spirit? For example, the Inquisitor might be a spirit of hope deep down inside (our companions often spoke to us of the hope we represented to them), and via the Inquisition they were serving their spiritual purpose.

    Asit tal-eb. It is to be.
    For the world and the self are one.

    If the Fade is sort of a collective consciousness of all the spirits and the flesh-and-blood creatures of the waking world (seems to be the case since multiple dreamers can experience the same dream and interact with spirits, as evidenced by what the Warden and companions experienced in the Fade in DAO, also by a bunch of things that Solas tells us), and supposing that Koslun had figured out that living creatures are embodied spirits, this could be expressing that flesh-and-blood creatures are not separate from the collective consciousness.

    Existence is a choice.

    Existence as a flesh-and-blood creature appears to be a choice for spirits and demons, as illustrated by Cole and possibly by Solas himself.

    A self of suffering, brings only suffering to the world.

    If “A self” is the spirit inside the person, and “A self of suffering” = that person’s spirit becoming a demon, this is pretty evident. The negative emotions that demons feed on appear to sometimes even be fomented by them, as with Nightmare in Here Lies The Abyss. And it makes sense that an embodied spirit twisted into a demon also brings suffering to the world. There is some indication of this with Cole in Asunder…

    It is a choice, and we can refuse it.

    Perhaps an embodied spirit is complex enough to make its own choices about whether it will embrace the positive or negative end of its constituent emotional spectrum. As Cole may have done between Asunder and Inquisition? And maybe as Solas is doing in order to see his plans fulfilled.

    A lot of the rest of the Tome of Koslun and parables about Koslun also leads me to wonder if Koslun had somehow realized what the world might have been like pre-Veil. In the parable about the world, he talks about changing the world or changing yourself, both of which seem like things people literally could have done before the Veil separated the physical and metaphysical realms. Canto 1 makes me wonder if the first four and a half lines are describing how spirits went from simple wisps to being complex enough to take on physical forms.

    The notes left for Tallis by Saarath as they descended into madness make me wonder if they also were realizing the truth of the world, possibly managing somehow to break through the Veil, and it was too much for them.

    Ugh, Dragon Age, why do you make me wonder about things like these? (Don't get me wrong, I love it, but I do hope we can find out all this stuff before the series ends!)


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