Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Temptation of Hissrad: The Demands of the Qun, Part 1

What do you do when you realize that your country may have wronged you, lied to you, and used you to kill, capture, and brainwash hundreds of potentially innocent people? Bull faces this potential reality in "The Demands of the Qun."
THE IRON BULL: My people don't pick leaders from the strongest, or the smartest, or even the most talented. We pick the ones willing to make the hard decisions... and live with the consequences.

Greetings, fellow Thedosians! Gird your loins, this is gonna be a long one...  Welcome to my fourth piece in my series on the Qun and its mysteries, thanks to the beautiful and brilliant minds of Mary Kirby, David Gaider, and Patrick Weekes. In previous weeks, I've attempted to examine the Qun's foundations in Dragon Age: Origins, thanks to Kirby and Gaider, as well as analyzing its representations in the trilogy, from Sten and the Arishok, to a newer and more complex representation of a Qunari character in DAI's The Iron Bull.

This post marks Part 1 of 2 in my in-depth examination of The Iron Bull's loyalty quest: "The Demands of the Qun," where Weekes's interpretation takes center stage with Bull, and I'll be following this with a final post and analysis to complete my thoughts on the entire quest itself.

Onward. Aaaand here we go!

So... What does it mean, to abandon your faith, your country, your people? To realize that every truth you grew up with, each fact you never questioned, each comforting assumption... may have been wrong? And not just wrong, but horrifically, tragically wrong? When every righteous blow of your weapon may have gone astray and killed those who had simply desired freedom?

What do you do when you realize, in fact, that your country may have wronged you, lied to you, and used you to kill, capture, and brainwash hundreds of potentially innocent people?

That's pretty heavy stuff. And that's what The Iron Bull is faced with in his loyalty quest, appropriately entitled "The Demands of the Qun."

It's a pretty dramatic and emotional scenario, not least because Bull isn't the only one asking those questions and making those decisions. As his leader, commander and Inquisitor, we're making them too. And he will judge us for our choices.

Oh, boy, will he judge us.

Bull admits why the Qun drives him: "It's like being a block of stone with a sculptor working on you."
The Blows of the Chisel

I mentioned this in my opening examination of the Qun, but I love that, in one of our earliest conversations with The Iron Bull, Bull tells us a key fact about what moves him and inspires him as a part of the Qun:
"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."
Bull is no stranger to pain or strife. Give Bull a challenge and he smiles that narrow smile and charges right for it. So I love the idea that writer Weekes has presented us with this as a part of Bull's core identity, that for him pain under the Qun is simply the process of turning his imperfection into perfection, of sculpting him into who he was meant to be.

It's a terrific simile for Bull to use, and an expression of an idea that would certainly be believably attractive to the kind of person Bull reveals himself to be—to one who seeks improvement, who wants to be challenged to realize their best and most capable self. And it makes sense that Bull, a lifelong adherent, soldier and spy, would find it comforting. "This hurts," he would think, "But it's worth it."

The concept of this pain as the price of perfection irresistibly reminds me of C. S. Lewis's famous observations about God. He felt that pain was simply God's way of crafting each of us into a better person. Lewis famously said:
"I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that he gives us the gift of suffering. Pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world. You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the Sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect."
Pain Equals Perfection

Lewis's idea is certainly an interesting and persuasive concept, and it has been a favorite of mine since I was very young, even though (while I was raised Catholic, and also had a brief Amy Grant phase in college), I am nonpracticing when it comes to religious faith—I'm pretty hardcore atheistic, with just a single filament of hopeful agnostic, at this point. Although I support whatever faith gets my friends and loved ones through their days, I just can't quite get there all the way to belief, myself.

But I've always loved Lewis's writings and essays even so, and I remember in the past, when faced with hard choices and the terminal illnesses of loved ones, I did seek a higher meaning, a higher power or awareness... and I held onto Lewis's words tightly, wanting to believe there was meaning in pain. It was a comforting idea—not one I was able to sustain long-term, although I do believe that adversity and suffering can make us kinder and more empathetic to others overall.

But it was a beautiful simile. Almost too beautiful.

Either way, it's notable and interesting that this sustains Bull, and it also seems to me to echo Sten's similar "I am their work" statement back in Dragon Age: Origins. This thinking is exactly what the Qun encourages, that each citizen is simply a tool, a thing for the Qun to hone and use for its own good. 

And this way, according to Bull's thinking, the Qun is always there for him, and his pain, trauma and grief are simply tests of his own worthiness. The blows of the chisel, making him perfect.

Until the break in the sky.

When he joins the Inquisition, Bull's a definite paradox. He talks a good game, but he's also spent the past decade as far away from Par Vollen as he could possibly get. 
The Broken Tool

As we make our way through the story of Dragon Age: Inquisition, and witness the many amusing banters between The Iron Bull and the rest of our companions, it's no surprise that a number of those conversations (as well as those initial talks with the Inquisitor) circle continuously around the question of Bull's adherence to the Qun and its tenets. Bull expects this, and is genial if guarded, and he's also openly amused at how alien his concepts seem—especially in the conversations about sex and parenting.

It's interesting right away—remember, Bull encourages the idea publicly that he's his own person, since it's useful to his work as a mercenary and spy, even if he doesn't go so far as to actively play Tal-Vashoth. But when he joins the Inquisition he's a definite paradox, as he talks a good game of Qun loyalty, but (let's be honest) he's also spent the past decade as far away from Par Vollen as he could possibly get. When you look at his actions in the big picture, he certainly seems like a man desperate for safe haven (ahem, sorry).

And yet he doesn't show that outwardly. He's assured, confident, charismatic and casual when it suits him (and when it's most strategically advantageous). There's no sign externally of a man on the run, of a warrior who seeks shelter. It's arguably written all over him for the first major chunk of the DAI story, yet it's never ever spoken by him, save for a slightly weary admission to Solas during their endless early bickering that not everyone in the Inquisition would fare well under the Qun (like Sera)—and this includes people he has grown to care about.

The Liar

But despite the fact that Bull may have his own private reservations about his place in the Qun, as far as we can tell within the Inquisition in those early days, he's a secure, superb and nimble propagandist, parrying with Solas on the nature of free will, and deftly shrugging off any implications that he harbors even a fleeting disloyalty. He's proud, after all, of the fact that he once turned himself in to the reeducators after his traumatic breakdown after Seheron. He wanted them to "fix him," they seemed to do so, and then sent him far, far away. And he was more than happy to oblige—and too relieved at the change in his circumstances—to question what was actually happening there.

But Bull is smart. He may be a superb liar, but I don't think he lies to himself.

So at some point, late, late at night... in those taverns after last call. Or after a little welcome release and oblivion with any one of a number of partners in little rooms above the bar... Bull would have had to face facts: He'd been thrown away. He was inches away from being a bas, a thing, and a defective one. A broken tool. And now the Qun had sent him off to do what little they thought he was still capable of doing, until he fractured all the way.

In those complex moments, Bull had to have known the crossroads was approaching. And he'd know that he'd have two choices when that moment arrived: To prove his loyalty (no matter what the cost), or to break away, for real. And for all time.

It's no coincidence that the first things Bull does upon departing Par Vollen are to choose a glorious new name and then to gather a family for himself.
The Good Soldier

So as we prepare for "The Demands of the Qun," the Qun has largely left Bull. In sending him off to roam Thedas, they've thrown him out like an unruly pet... but with a string attached to that collar of his... just in case they need to yank him back.

The problem here is that Bull is nothing if not stubborn to the ends of the earth. And loyal. He doesn't admit to being tossed aside. He's not resentful of his superiors or of the Qun itself. He's just sorry he didn't live up to the task he was asked to accomplish—it doesn't matter that he lasted five times longer than anyone else on that Seheron detail. He just sees that he failed, got patched up, and allowed himself to be sent back out into the wide world while he could still be of some use to the Qun.

At this point, Bull departs Par Vollen for a decade, charging joyously forth across Thedas in order to gather information (and coin), to take down foes in skirmishes, help the little people, and to rebuild some kind of life for himself. And I believe it's no coincidence that the first things he seems to do are to choose a new name (something new, something glorious), and then to gather a family.

It's no coincidence that even as he seems to acquiesce to the Qun on his journeys, Bull nevertheless embarks on a series of subconsciously rebellious actions against the core demands of the Qun itself.
Divisions of Loyalty

As I've referenced earlier in my examinations of the Qun, an important concept in the Qun is the idea of "Asit tal-eb"—"It is to be": the idea that everything and everyone in the world has a nature, acts accordingly, and that all these things come together to form a proper order—such as a beast killing its prey, the locust devouring crops, or the water flowing to the sea.

What's sort of ironic to me, then, is that Bull, post-Seheron, goes on a roundabout journey of self-actualization... a journey in which I would argue that he is actually, to some extent, simply becoming his true self. Which, rather ironically, is not against the demands of the Qun. Bull was right about his potential to change, just wrong about the source: It is not the Qun that transforms Bull, but rather himself and his capacity to feel... his grief, loss, loyalty and love—first for Krem, then for the Chargers.

So when you analyze Bull's actions after Seheron, it's not a coincidence to me that even as he seems to acquiesce to the Qun on his journeys, he nevertheless embarks on a series of subconsciously rebellious actions against the core demands of the Qun itself:
  • The Qun doesn't use names. Bull gives himself a name. And further names his loved ones.
  • The Qun breaks up family units, recognizing their danger to the whole. Bull builds a family.
  • The Qun sees people as things, tools, implements. Bull seeks out real, emotional connection on a constant basis.
  • The Qun does not allow sex and love to commingle. Bull may seek and find a potentially, genuinely fulfilling romance, either with Dorian or the Inquisitor.
It's a theme with Bull, and very interesting as his loyalty quest approaches: His words and demeanor give us nothing but a passionate adherence to the Qun. I think he truly believes this... well, in the topmost part of his mind.

And yet...

I wrote once about how Solas in DAI is a man in a waking dream—of what might be, of potential happiness. In yet another parallel between the two very different men, I believe the same is true for Bull, too, in the first half of DAI's story events. 
A Servant of Two Masters

Bull nevertheless covers his bases, and does it well. Many (if not all) of Bull's actions are those of a deeply divided man. He continues to be a terrific and no doubt informative spy living and working in plain sight. He reports to the Qun regularly. He apparently continues his progress to seduce the Inquisitor—a task that we know in hindsight to be both potentially effective as a gamble, and (at least, at first) remarkable for its combination of heat and coldness.

We only learn most of this later, but looking back, it appears to me that for much of the first half of Inquisition's story, Bull is walking both worlds. He's marking time, speaking both sides, and doing so pretty well. Bull has already shown himself to be adept at compartmentalization, and all his training enables him to do so now, with incredible skill. So he can be the good spy... as well as a truly good guy willing to die for the people of Haven.

Yet also... basically, I think... until "Demands of the Qun," divided or not, compartmentalized or not... I do think The Iron Bull feels a true kernel of real hope, albeit unspoken and unacknowledged, when he joins the Inquisition. And that, when he seduces the Inquisitor (or Dorian), therefore, I think he also does so out of at least some genuine attraction and interest.

I wrote once about how Solas in DAI is a man living a waking dream—a dream of what might be, of potential happiness. In yet another parallel between the two very different men, I believe the same is true for Bull here, as well. After all, what better way to sell a lie than to believe it yourself?

And so for a little while, Bull's a man who can play the game, give lip service where required... while reserving his heart.

Meanwhile, rescue by rescue, Bull saves who he can, just as he did when leaving Par Vollen: the brave loners, the misfits, the forgotten ones—just as he'd saved Krem, then Dalish, Grim, Stitches, so many others in the Chargers. People who had themselves been abandoned. And he makes them his family. Ever since his childhood as little Ashkaari, he was a person drawn to saving and protecting others. No wonder then, that he wholeheartedly approves of the work to help restore Thedas, and of his role in helping the poor, lost, wounded, and disenfranchised.

That's who Bull is. At his very best self... at least.

Sometimes the rescued can become the rescuer. Such is the case with Krem.
Rescuing the Rescuer

For me, this is vital to understanding Bull's position as we approach his loyalty quest here, and his mindset. He has, at least physically, left the Qun—a feat he's also explored at least to some degree mentally, even if he cannot even admit to himself yet. He has given himself a name, a family, a place, even the chance for potential redemption from the past deeds that haunt him and from the inner savage he fears.

Sometimes, the most beautiful thing about being rescued is that you yourself can become the rescuer. Which is why I love the symmetry that Krem, Bull's first rescue, the person who would become his spiritual son, is the person who gets Bull to join the Inquisition. As if Krem himself knew Bull would need a new outlet, a new place to establish himself. As if Krem was seeking for some way to save the big-hearted captain who'd saved him.

And it worked. After building himself up with Fisher's Bleeders and eventually creating his own mercenary force with the Chargers, Bull joined the Inquisition, at Krem's direct urging, bringing along the rest of Bull's joyful, raucous Chargers family. 

It's interesting here to note that Bull instantly tells the Inky about his dual allegiances. "Hey, I'm a spy!" I think he does so because it's expedient and smart to instantly build trust and present a picture of amiable incompetence, but also (I'd argue through my rose-colored glasses) because he wants to be real. What if he simply wants to tell the truth where he can? What if he got tired of roaming, and wanted to find some semblance of a home? By the time the Inquisition has reached Skyhold, even with the breaks in the sky, life is suddenly warm and welcoming for Bull and the Chargers. They have a home base, a purpose, plenty of money, warm beds, and companions and friends always ready to raise a glass or spin a tale. 

And presto, Bull finds himself with at least the possibility of a new life, all thanks to Krem. It's pretty safe to hypothesize that Krem probably wanted Bull to at least consider leaving the Qun permanently, if he could bring himself to go Tal-Vashoth. Krem probably saw far more clearly than Bull how damaged he had been by his former life.

It's implied that Krem not only got Bull to join the Inquisition, but that he may have done so in a loving and active attempt to save Bull—to get him away from the Qun for good. Were the other Chargers part of this, as well?
Building the Chargers

There's a little kernel of a hidden story to how Bull came to join the Inquisition, if we pay attention to dialogue from Bull, Krem, and even Vivienne. If we do so, we get a clearer presentation of how events proceeded for Bull and the Chargers: First, the Breach appeared, with Bull and the Chargers on missions in or around Orlais. Then the Inquisition formed, and Krem then went to Bull and actively, deliberately suggested the Chargers do their part. 

Here's how Bull summarizes events in the Fade later on, if we bring him along on "Here Lies the Abyss":

The Iron Bull (as Krem): "Hey, Chief. Let's join the Inquisition! Good fights for a good cause!" 
The Iron Bull (as himself): I don't know, Krem, I hear there are demons.
The Iron Bull (as Krem): "Ah, don't worry about the demons, Chief! I'm sure we won't see many!"
The Iron Bull (as himself): Asshole.

Still, all later grumbling about demons aside, Krem had convinced Bull, and he'd agreed. Something about the situation called him to answer. Bull would have then reached out to Par Vollen and gotten permission (and, it's implied, additional orders—to infiltrate the Inquisition organization, to get close to the Inquisitor, etc.), then sent Krem to offer their services.

So to get back to my main point, what touches me about this scenario is the implication that Krem not only got Bull to join the Inquisition, but that he may have done so in a loving and active attempt to save Bull—to get him away from the Qun for good. It's tempting to wonder if this wasn't just Krem, but a collective attempt by the other Chargers, as well.

And then Gatt shows up at Skyhold, and here we are. When the Qunari yank that string and remind Bull that you can leave Par Vollen, but that it takes a lot more than that to be out of sight of the Qun... so of course it's fitting that the fate of Krem and the Chargers themselves will lie in the balance. Will Bull save his self-made family, or recommit once and for all to the Qun?

It's a cruel scenario, and its impact is irrevocable. And our choice there will depend upon whether we simply—like the Qun—view Bull (and the Chargers) as disposable tools, as things... or whether we value them as something more than bas.

Meanwhile... I'll resume this further in my post to follow, when we find Bull on that painful rainy hillside on the Storm Coast in Part 2...

Thank you as always for reading!


  1. I wouldn't point to CS Lewis RE this concept about suffering being related to perfection: this is a theological concept that was, ironically, mostly imported from Nietszsche (who was vehemently anti-religion, Christianity in particular- which makes the extent of his influence on Christian theology rather odd).

    It is the clue behind Nietzsche's many comments on suffering, and his condemnation of pity, and the key to his penultimate concepts of the Eternal Return and the Over-man: the Over-man is the one who achieved perfection, by sublimating their suffering into creative, philosophical growth and expression, forging new values in the process... and who affirms the past history of the universe as it is, both the good and the bad, because the good REQUIRES the bad.

    Anyways, just thought I'd point this out for anyone who may find this bit of philosophical trivia interesting.

    1. Thank you for this information on Nietzsche! I had no idea and it's really interesting to learn.


"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...