Sunday, May 3, 2020

TEVINTER NIGHTS Analysis: Three Trees to Midnight

 "There are no more elves, no more humans. There are only bas, who must work to prove themselves worthy of serving the Qun."
—From "Three Trees to Midnight," DRAGON AGE: TEVINTER NIGHTS

WARNING: SPOILERS on TEVINTER NIGHTS! Please read at your peril!

So hello all you glorious people of Thedas,

I hope you're doing okay in this insane world, and most of all, that you are all staying safe and well.

I'm hoping to help provide an escape of sorts by analyzing all of the stories in TEVINTER NIGHTS that I feel specifically advance the lore.

So—please note. This doesn't mean I dislike or didn't enjoy stories I leave out, it just means that I want to actually try to note and discuss the new things we learn, and what aspects of those new stories might be subtly teaching us something that will bridge the gap (or even foreshadow) the potential game issues of Dragon Age 4.

With this in mind, I'm starting with Patrick Weekes's homage (for me, very real) to the classic story of THE DEFIANT ONES with a brief discussion of the overall story, and then some final tidbits noting what the story gives us in terms of new information. I will be doing this for many, although not all, of the stories in the anthology, slightly varying inclusion here and there if a theme emerges.

Please note—if I don't include a story you love, hit me up. My focus here is mainly on lore—what we get, what we learn, and and what will propel us forward. So I may love many stories but skip past if they don't give me tons of lore. 

Here goes!

The Story at a Glance

Put simply, the plot of "Three Trees to Midnight" is about a Tevinter mage named Myrion (hiding his talents for survival) who suddenly finds himself a Qunari prisoner, shackled to an elf named Strife (a Starkhaven city elf eventually adopted by the Dalish). After a brief and brutal journey by dreadnought, the two find themselves unwilling compatriots as they attempt to escape imprisonment with their lives in the misty forest of Arlathan, even as the Qunari elite pursue them at every step.

The scenario is timeless and irresistible—a trial by fire in which Myrion and Strife must match wits (and strides) to attempt to escape from the brutal prospect of slavery (or mindlessness) under the conquering Qunari. Each man considers his shackled partner a non-person then looks more closely to see themselves in each other's eyes.

"Filthy knife-ear," snarls Myrion at their first meeting.
"Lazy shem isn't used to working," sneers the elf right back.

Of course, it's a match made in heaven.

And of course, both of their assumptions about each other end up being oversimplifications and (mostly) outright wrong—both have lost loved ones in the recent battle, and both are better, braver men than they first appear to be to the other. And more loyal. Of course, they bond as they flee into the mysteries of Arlathan forest (and yes, I may have let out a delighted sigh when I realized where they were). In the end, they battle and evade their pursuers, bond over their shared danger and survival, and end with the prospect of a new life—however challenging—that awaits them.

What It Adds to the Lore (and Implies for Dragon Age 4)

"Three Trees to Midnight" starts off fast and never lets up, so it could be easy to skim past so many delightful new details and confirmations when it comes to the lore.

But here's what I felt was new information, so here goes:
  • Approximately a year after "Trespasser" (I think?), Ventus, "Jewel of the [Tevinter] Imperium," has fallen to the Qunari. This is an important detail because I think it's painting a picture of just how inexorable and inescapable Qunari world victory may be (without help). It's also worth noting that we find out later that "the Antaam had attacked the bas of the South without the blessing of the other Qunari..."
  • Another detail: One small ray of hope is that Strife's friend Thantiel had smuggled out information on the next Qunari invasion, and that's what Strife is able to recover and take with him. Based on comments from Strife, it looks like they are targeting Rivain, and Strife wants to help stop that, but he also simply wants to warn the clans before the attack (his friend Irelin appears to put that into motion instantly).
  • Qamek is more concisely defined—not just as a chemical potion that wipes minds, but as one that appears to be alchemical—a combination of drugs and magic that is a bitter, viscous brown liquid. We later realize (per a gleeful Bas-taar, happy at their absence) that the Ben-Hassrath "measure" qamek, implying that some lighter doses may be less debilitating or permanent.
  • We see qamek's effects firsthand (and that heavy doses are irreversible) first on Strife's friend Thantiel, and then (implied) on Myrion's friend (and perhaps lover) Jasecca. Turned into "walking corpses" by the drink, the only escape for those afflicted is death, and both Strife and Myrion provide that as all they can do for the qamek-cursed.
  • The Qun was already terrifying. But under more brutal commanders like Bas-taar (the self-styled "Keeper of Bas," i.e., people-as-things), all men are put into work camps and all mages are routinely mind-wiped via the Antaam (or at least this command). (AGHGHGH).
  • Another important element here is that we're introduced to the concept of the Qunari Huntmaster, an important figure who seems to straddle multiple worlds in the Qun, and who acts as a kind of freelance justicar. He's new to the Bas-taar's regiment and was sent (interestingly enough) directly by the Antaam to oversee him—it appears they are a bit concerned about his zealousness.
  • When Strife introduces himself to Myrion, I instantly thought of how elves will often rename themselves after moments of transformation or trial. I wondered if Strife might therefore be the name he had just adopted after the battle and his imprisonment. As a city elf who was welcomed by the Dalish, could he be someone we have met before?
  • At least some Dalish mages are shape-shifters, and the one featured in this story, Irelin, consistently appears as one of the halla, sacred to the Dalish and beloved of Ghilan'nain. She is also able to shapeshift at will into other animals, from falcons to bears and more.
  • The Huntmaster is a wonderful character—his black and white facial vitaar seems to imply that he exists between the two, and in his first scene, he reminds Bas-taar that "The path of the Qun does not call for needless violence," even as he spares a seagull he could have skewered effortlessly. Bas-taar does not understand this kind of subtlety—there is no difference for him between the seagull and the prisoners they took, and all deserve to be skewered and tortured.
  • The Huntmaster's facial markings are later revealed to symbolize sight, and his gift for empathy shows up in lovely details like when he notes (with "an edge") that the Bas-taar had killed all the mages he'd encountered—even those who surrendered and did not fight. It's interesting to further be reminded that the Ben-Hassrath would normally have judged which mages should have lived and died, offering the judgment of "No, this mage should live, do not hurt them more than necessary."

    Again, it all reminds us that—if we pay attention, this is a brutal Qunari conquest but not sanctioned by the Qun itself (reinforced when he attempts to break off the chase in Arlathan, as "there is too much we do not understand." Bas-taar refuses.
  • I like the reminder that Myrion is a mage who can function without a staff, it just requires his training, ability, and a more precise connection to the Fade.
  • Arlathan forest is reported to be haunted (not a huge surprise, given its brutal and shrouded history), and Strife remembers being told that in Arlathan, "Spirits remembered what had once been."
  • Cool detail: It appears that most of the Qunari do not speak Trade very well (an interesting detail that may be important later).
  • As he works to escape, Strife locks his thoughts to each of the elements of the Vir Tanadhal, the Dalish tenets legendarily passed down to them by Evenuris/goddess Andruil. Each tenet he recalls strengthens him and guides him forward—(1) Vir Bor'assan, the Way of the Bow, (2) Vir Assan, the Way of the Arrow, and (3) Vir Adahlen, the Way of the Forest.
  • For me, Strife reveals some verified elements of Dalish cultural details... it's an intriguing reminder of the Dalish love for Andruil, who frankly always terrified me, so it sets her in a better, gentler light than I am used to. The Vir Tanadhal was not universal however (and was in some ways directly opposed by Sylaise's quieter Vir Atish'an, "the Way of Peace") but it certainly helps Strife here. Strife also calls upon Ghilan'nain, too, and later warns a scoffing Myrion, "Be careful how you speak of the Lady of the Hunt while you stand in her forest."
  • Further on, what is a truly exciting is the revelation that Arlathan forest is protected across the ages, and that it lies under a mist of ancient elven magic that will actually feel the moods and emotions of interlopers, and respond automatically to threats, as we see here when a "forest guardian" (basically a huge elven golem of wood and stone, with blades of thick metal edged with lyrium) rises to combat the forest intruders. Strife later confirms that there aren't many of these golems, and that the guardians seem to be spaced by a day's march or more.
  • Strife speaks the standard "Andaran atish'an" greeting, but the Arlathan guardian golem doesn't back down the way he expects it to. A sign of the world 'moving on?' Or is Strife just wrong here?
  • Myrion gives us a rare glimpse into Tevinter mage tests, which appear to occur a bit earlier than the Harrowings in other parts of Thedas (he took his at 14, where he was tempted by a desire demon that took the form of a boy he had adored.
  • Later, the Huntmaster (who has been trying to help the fugitives in subtle ways) reveals that he is "Saarbrak, of the Ben-Hassrath," and that even opposed to Bas-taar, that he is deeply loyal to the Qun, and his job is in fact to "destroy those who threaten the Qun," even if they are... within the Qun itself. I love this. He further notes that he is not Antaam. He is something else.
  • “Some of the bas now call us monsters,” says the Huntmaster. He adds, "This is what threatens the Qun.” “Hass ebala-varaad nehraa,” he says after slaying Bas-taar in righteous judgment. Then translates for total understanding: “For those I watch, of which I am one.”
It begins in hatred, anger, and division. Yet it all ends with a realization of respect, of kindness, and (best of all) of freedom and found family, two of my favorite tropes across all fiction anywhere. What's not to love?

Meanwhile, what do you think? Did I miss any details?


  1. Thanks for your thoughts and insight!

    I had pictured the golem as a Vartarrel for whatever reason (but hey, I also make all the hobbits human-sized in LOTR. Haha).

    The comment about the Qun not approving of the southern invasion was, I assumed, specifically a reference to the Arishok in Kirkwall not being sanctioned, as Varric says in DAI, but it's interesting to consider it actually being in reference to all of Thedas.

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Mark!

      Apologies for the delay, I'm navigating a bunch of weird deadlines, but these are great observations. I think I had a kind of varterral image in mind too here -- to some degree -- it's a scary creature, no matter what!

      Yeah, I agree on the Arishok and the Southern invasion -- this is implied to be an overreach and I really loved the little hints of the schisms that may be occurring in the Qunari a few years after Trespasser. This means DA4 should be realllly interesting when it comes to the Qun. Like, it may involve Qun against Qun? That would be amazing.

  2. She's such an amazing character, right? I find her terrifying but very sympathetic, especially in her complex relationships with Ghilan'nain and Fen'Harel. I can't wait to see what comes next.

    She is also (cough) a potential character in my fanfic novel, if it's of interest. But no pressure.

  3. "As a city elf who was welcomed by the Dalish, could he [Strife] be someone we have met before? Oooh, I LOVE this theory.

    It's great to see first-hand the internal strife amongst the Qunari. Sometimes their philosophy is described by in-game characters as one-note (intentionally, I presume), so two Qunari who know the Qun like the back of their frighteningly muscled hands debating their interpretations was really fun.

    Great read Angela - looking forward to reading more of your thoughts!

    1. Thank you so much, Stephanie! (Apologies for the late reply) I agree that it's always great to see more complexity and exploration of the Qunari and their culture.


"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...