Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Incorruptible Warrior: Sten Introduces the Qun (Asit tal-eb, Part 2)

To have affection for Sten is to discover, with heartbreak and surprise, what it feels like to care about something immovable and changeless. Like, say, a rock. He cannot be moved, swayed, or changed.
STEN: One day our ships will come to these shores. And the antaam will bring this land to the Qun. But it does no good to dwell on it.

This marks the second part of my series on the Qun—you can view the first, a "big picture" take, here

Meanwhile, if you're a regular reader of my blog, you already know I love Sten, even as I mourn the fact that he is a subtly tragic figure—someone trapped, indoctrinated, into a worldview from which he will never escape. 

Even the knowledge that (according to BioWare canon) Sten ultimately becomes one of the three leaders of the Qunari triumvirate as Arishok, succeeding the dead or disgraced Arishok of Dragon Age II, and who then works presumably alongside the Arigena and Ariqun to guide his people... even knowing that, it doesn't really assuage my sadness.

It's still tragic. Because, to me, Sten's destiny is an endless circle that begins and ends with a cage, and the Qun is the reason why. We rescued him (or may have chosen to do so, at least) in Dragon Age: Origins, offering him a chance at redemption and success in his mission for his people (to answer the question, "What is the Blight?" and to, presumably, help to address it).

Sten did this—with both loyalty and courage, with honor and with a kind of cautious, hidden gentleness. He learned about the world, demonstrating a kind of naivete we normally associate with youth (I was so surprised to realize Sten is middle-aged when I did my timeline!) as he was exposed to a greater world. It seemed to me that for the first time, he was allowed softness. He picked flowers and petted kittens when he thought no one was looking. He gazed at paintings and silently treasured even tattered, ruined works of art in his year of traveling with the Warden and companions. He developed a fondness for cookies. He may even, almost shockingly, have begun to demonstrate real feelings of friendship and care (or... more?) toward the Warden, or for Shale, calling them "Kadan," an endearment both romantic and non-romantic... designating in Qunlat "where the heart lies."

Witnessing all this, I was really invested in Sten. Not least because I have massive voice kink and he has one of the most beautiful and underappreciated voices across the trilogy, thanks to voice actor Mark Hildreth (and people: please watch The Looming Tower if you didn't already because it was amazing, and Hildreth is terrific among a superb cast).

But yeah: I cared about him. I watched his evolution with interest. I was, ultimately, truly invested in Sten! And playing DAO for the first time, I naively envisioned a zillion potential resolutions for Sten. I mean, I really, really expected them: That he'd die defeating the Archdemon. That he'd stay in Ferelden or the Free Marches if he lived, not returning to Par Vollen. That he might even fall in love with the Warden and allow himself to glimpse a wider world. 

But, no matter what outcome I envisioned... there was a common denominator to each: That Sten could not go back because he had seen too much.

Oh, I was so, so naive.

Because Sten of course does none of these things. Sten is affected by the world outside the Qun. He visibly moved and surprised by many of his relationships and revelations as the story progresses.

Right. And then he goes right back to serving the Qun. While maybe implementing a smuggling network to ensure he has access to cookies. And maybe also to kittens and paintings, too.

But nothing really changes for him. He is who he is. He serves who he pledged to serve. His loyalty was really never in doubt.

It is not a coincidence that we meet Sten in a cage. The subtle tragedy is, I believe, that Sten will never really leave it.
The Regretful Conquerer

So... sigh... Sten goes back.

He fricking goes back.

Which is tragic, maddening, and... true to character. Because that's what a good Qunari does. And Sten is a good Qunari. Despite his familial bonds with his companions, despite the camaraderie of those chilly nights around the fire, listening to the songs of Leliana, trading stories with his friends... he does not, as Bull does, create something lasting that he will carry with him and even replace his fealty to the Qun's demands. He does not give himself a name, or warm to a nickname given by others. He does not value the Qun above individuals.

To me this is inexpressibly sad. Sten, by the end, visibly loves his companions. Still, if the Viddasala appeared... he'd kill every single one of them on command. Because he is Sten of the Beresaad. He is one of many. He serves the Qun. And to the Qun he will always return.

This is my take. This does not mean I am remotely okay with this. NOPE. Honestly, this outcome for Sten affected me very strongly. I'd just been so sure! So sure he wouldn't go back. I'd been conditioned by movies, by fiction. Surely a Sten who had glimpsed the wide world of Thedas, who'd sniffed the delicate perfume of roses and daisies and violets... who'd played with little fragile kittens, shadowboxing gently with tiny paws... who'd realized the value of art for art's sake... surely this guy wouldn't go back to his totalitarian prison?

But he would; he does. And honestly? I can't blame him. It's what most people would do. It takes a tremendous, tremendous amount of change, loss, and courage to truly change who you are, what you want, what defines you, and what you view as safe. To discard your belief system and to change what you think you know and understand about the wide world.

There are some key moments, sure, where Sten reveals an affecting combination of wisdom, naivete, certainty, cruelty, and softness. Upon revisitation, however, the main emotion I view for Sten is... regret. Sadness and grief. Not at his impending departure from people he loves. But rather, at their impending conquest by his own people

Sten doesn't want to care for the Warden, or this world. He knows what the Qun will do to them. And he will do whatever he is asked to do to bring the Qun to these lands. But it becomes apparent, as with Bull later on, that he can feel these things without any actual joy in the potential for conquest.

Sten reminds us of a crucial fact that is apparently ever-present in his mind, even if not in ours: "One day, our ships will come to these shores. And the antaam will bring this land to the Qun. But it does no good to dwell on it."
"You Make Your Own World"

One of my favorite moments to exhibit this duality—this affinity for a people that (in his mind) is already conquered can be seen a beautiful monologue by Kirby and acted by Hildreth, where Sten describes his take on the world.

He speaks slowly and softly, and with more patience than is apparent at first glance. He is sharing something important to him, truly attempting to teach:
"My people have a tale: A great ashkaari during his travels came upon a village in the desert. There, he found the houses crumbling. The earth, so dry and dead that the people that the people tied themselves to each other, for fear that a strong wind would carry the ground out from under their feet. Nothing grew there except the bitter memory of gardens. 
"The ashkaari stopped the first man he saw, and asked, What happened here?
"Drought came, and the world changed from prosperity to ruin, the man told him.
"Change it back, the ashkaari replied.
"The villager became angry then, believing the Ashkaari mocked him, for no one could simply change the world on a whim.
"To which the ashkaari answered, Then change yourself. You make your own world."
If the Warden questions him here, he answers:
"Are you sure of that? Tell me, when you awakened after Ostagar, was the world the same as it had been before?
"Believe in whatever you like: Absent creators, or whimsical gods. Follow prophets, or ashkaari, or omens in the earth and sky. You will find wisdom only if you seek it."
 A moment later, Sten seems to realize that he did not communicate the lesson he desired. He sighs, then explodes in frustration and sadness. "Parshaara!" he cries out. "We should move on."

The main aspect here is that Sten is truly and obviously upset by this conversation here, and feeling genuine emotion. 

WARDEN (Optional): You think the Qunari are coming to convert us?
STEN: One day our ships will come to these shores. And the antaam will bring this land to the Qun. But it does no good to dwell on it. 

He ends in exasperation and hidden sadness, as he so often does: "Parshaara!" he laments, as he always does. "We should move on."

The Memory Apart

As I revisited Sten as a character in my last DAO playthrough, I realized something: That his time with the Warden and companions was something he saw from both the ferocious present and from the regretful future.

In other words, he was never going to leave the Qun. Nor was he tempted to do so. On a subtle level, and rather horribly, Sten was simply regretting the atrocities that would be required to bring these people under the code and rule to which he subscribed. He was seeing their future suffering, and regretting not that they would suffer, but that their suffering would be necessary at all.

Compare this to Bull's admission in DAI to Solas, that Sera, for instance, would not be able to function under the Qun. Bull is being honest there; he's not cloaking the realization in regret. He is able to eventually go Tal-Vashoth precisely because for him the glass orb of the Qun's world is cracking; he does not lie to himself about the foreseeable tragedy of what he sees, nor does he excuse the Qun's part in that tragedy. For all his superb gifts for subterfuge, despite his Hissrad self... Bull is willing to be honest with Solas there. And I think it's one of many reasons he is able to be rescued, if we take that chance to do so.

It's a timely comparison, as I've already noted that, among our leading characters, Bull for instance is certainly formidable at compartmentalization. But so, it turns out, is Sten. To illustrate this, I've assembled a few banters that provide a further taste of this (purposely omitting most of those I covered in my other article on Sten here). Here goes:

LELIANA: Are there Qunari bards?
STEN: Why wouldn't there be?
LELIANA: I don't know. You don't seem like very musical people to me.
STEN: You base this on me? I am a soldier. The antaam does not do battle with lutes.

I love this one above, because it's a reminder that there's so much we simply do NOT know about the Qunari people and their culture. Personally, I suspect that Qunari music would echo the music of the Soviet Union and other rigid, more militaristic cultures—in other words, heavy on the use of music as a useful tool for marching, inspiration, and formal celebration. I'd suspect we'd get lots of drums and percussion, lots of hymns and battle songs, and incorporating wind instruments that are easy to play and transport into battle. 

But we'll never know so far, because, dammit, Sten does not reveal more than this.

The Warrior and the Rogue

Meanwhile, Zevran is characteristically curious and fearless on the topic of the viddathari, and I love the way he hones in immediately on how the elves as viddathari take a place within the culture:

ZEVRAN: Hm. Yes. Well, I've heard that the Qunari actually put the elves in charge? Over the humans? Is that true?
STEN: Some of them.
ZEVRAN: Only some? Which ones are they?
STEN: The ones who belong in charge. That is the way of the Qun.
ZEVRAN: How does this Qun determine who belongs in charge?
STEN: The tamassrans evaluate everyone and place them where their talents merit.
ZEVRAN: But elves, in general, merit higher places than humans in Qunari society?
STEN: Some of them.
ZEVRAN: Back where we began. It's like talking to a water wheel.

It's interesting that, later on, it is not Zevran who sparks the conversation, but Sten himself, who is remembering someone for whom he once felt pity:

STEN: I knew one of your countrymen once, elf.
ZEVRAN: Oh? Have you been to Antiva, then?
STEN: No. Until I came to Ferelden, I had never left the islands. She came to Seheron twice a year with the traders who bought spices from the northern jungle. Only she among the traders would speak to the antaam. Questions about the rainforest, its depths, and the things to be seen there. We humored her. She was... an unfortunate soul.
ZEVRAN: Unfortunate in what way?
STEN: She was a Crow, as you were. Sent to assassinate the kithshoks, leaders of the army of Seheron, for the Tevinter Imperium. We knew this, and pitied her.
ZEVRAN: I'm surprised you did not simply slay her.
STEN: There was no need. Her questions were meant to show her the way through the jungle towards our fortifications. And so one day, she snuck into the jungle to find her target. We found the pieces of her body in a tree, where the spotted cats kept them for later. We had never told her that our kithshoks were the ones who negotiated all the trades at the port.
ZEVRAN: Then she was a fool. That's not very sympathetic, I'm afraid.
STEN: It was her ignorance we pitied, not her mistake. She believe we hoarded things we cared for as her own people do. We were sorry for her, that she thought only some people were important.

I find this exchange both illuminating, ironic, and deeply sad. Sten admits that he and his brethren pitied the elven woman, even as they set her up to die. Meanwhile, he ends on a whopper: "We were sorry for her, that she thought only some people were important."

I mean, Sten. Dude. Darling. Isn't that exactly everything that is wrong with the Qun? That "only some people [are] important?" That some people aren't even people, but things? Talk about unconscious irony.

Many of Sten's truths to Shale are pretty heartbreaking upon examination. For instance, the implication that there is no place for them at all, as in this admission to Shale: "We accept beings of all walks of life, so long as they are willing to accept their place in the world." My question: Or... lack of place?
The Ballad of Sten and Shale

But beyond his conversations with the Hero of Ferelden and his increasing potential respect for them... for me, it's Sten's conversations with Shale (voiced by the fabulous Geraldine Blecker) that are, in some ways, the most moving and bittersweet, because he openly adores her, yet he also acknowledges that his own people might not value or allow her admittance (even though she herself shows a total willingness to convert to the Qun):

SHALE: What do you estimate are the chances of success, Qunari?
STEN: For the Grey Warden? Little to none.
SHALE: So, why does it follow? I do not risk death, but it does.
STEN: My mission is no different from the Grey Warden's. I must see this through to the end.
SHALE: It would rather perish than give up its quest?
STEN: Indeed. There is honor to be salvaged in such a quest, no matter its chances.
SHALE: Honor is a curious thing. It is far better to be practical.
STEN: What use is practicality when it leads to cowardice and emptiness? It is better to live well, than to live.
SHALE: An, uh... interesting theory.
STEN: There is worth in your life, Shale. There is value, but only if it is used.

The implication above, to me, is that Sten latches onto the wrong aspect, and that Shale is somewhat disappointed by his misinterpretation. And then the stakes ramp up a bit, as below:

SHALE: I have a question of religion, Qunari.
STEN: For you, kadan, I will answer.
SHALE: Would its "Qun" accept a convert that was a golem?
STEN: I do not know. It has never happened. We accept beings of all walks of life, so long as they are willing to accept their place in the world.
SHALE: And what place is that?
STEN: One of equality. Within the Qun, an individual exists to serve.
SHALE: Hmm. That is less appealing. Would it consider birds to be its equal as well?
STEN: Birds? Birds are... but animals. Enlightenment does not await them.
SHALE: Excellent. That sounds very promising.

Poor Shale. Years of dealing with bird shit while immobilized would certainly create a hatred for guano... and birds in general.

It's really charming and funny. However, if you really want to start feeling a tug at your heart, here's the one that gets me, where Sten is openly afraid to share with Shale... that she has no probable place under the Qun:

SHALE: I have heard an interesting tale of the Qunari.
STEN: Speak, kadan.
SHALE: I am told that the Qunari put mages on leashes. Leashes! What a delightful concept!
STEN: It is not something that one should take pleasure in. It is done because it is necessary.
SHALE: Why not put them out of their misery? Crush their skulls and be done with it. Fast. Efficient. Fun.
STEN: You have been offended by such men, so your bloodlust can be forgiven. But these ones you speak of are to be pitied. Even so, they must serve, just as any other must serve. All must find their place within the Qun.
SHALE: It does sound like a delightful place where it comes from. Mages on leashes. What will they think of next?
STEN: I can not say that they would not wish to put a leash on you as well, kadan.
SHALE: Hmm... That does sound less fun. Yes.

Shale is naive on equality. She's terrifyingly without ethics, but she's also kind of adorable. And as far as equality, Shale's amusingly fine on a lack of it for others, as long as she herself isn't at the bottom on that issue:

SHALE: The Qunari mentioned something of equality when we last spoke.
STEN: I said that all were equal under the Qun, yes.
SHALE: What of humans? Surely they would not be as equal as others.
STEN: All who accept the Qun have their place, as any other. In the lands we occupy, even the Elves have come to embrace this concept.
SHALE: And if this place is at the bottom?
STEN: If that is where one belongs, then that is where one should be.
SHALE: The Qunari are a very practical people, Sten.
STEN: It is as I have always said. But I thank you.

Like, okay, yes, as above... Shale's kind of horrible in terms of her lack of ability for empathy or kindness... and yet, let's face it—also hilarious, and wonderful, as long as one is not a bird. 

Uncomfortable Revelations

But moving forward, I wonder if Sten felt genuinely sad upon reflection after this next conversation. Where, friends, Shale basically divulges that she lusts after Sten and enjoys watching him fight on a physical and sexual level. And, I mean, she basically implies that she is, well, probably in love with him, also.

And all... just a few moments after he praises her as... a construct. A thing. (Cries.)

It's everything that's wrong with the Qun in a single conversation:

SHALE: I wish to say that it has been pleasant fighting at the Qunari's side.
STEN: I feel the same. You are a remarkable construct, kadan. A warrior to be feared.
SHALE: No more than the Qunari, surely. The way it strikes down its foes, marvelous!
STEN: I smile each time you roar a battle cry, knowing our foes tremble.
SHALE: I could watch you fight all day long—the skill you display, the form, how the light plays on its muscles... I mean... yes. Well done. With the fighting.
STEN: You, as well.
SHALE: Right.

The worst part: Shale, his kadan, is openly admitting to lust for Sten here... and he's just as obviously completely oblivious to that fact. And it's so touching and painful.

Which is why, even if this is a ship that sails too rarely, let's face it, there's a part of me that wants Shale to return in DA4 after reattaining her female dwarven form, and then for her to walk down the streets of Par Vollen, approach Sten's throne, and go, "Hi honey! Miss me?"

If she does, much as I ship Sten and my canon Warden and dream that, in some realities, he follows her to their own choice of a life and land apart... I will be equally delighted if Sten merely looks down at this wonderful new version of Shale, living and whole, as she returns to him... and smiles.

I know it's a vain hope. It comes from the same place as my conviction that Sten could never possibly return to the Qun after the defeat of the Archdemon. 

But it makes me happy to believe the lie.

Just a little.

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