Saturday, January 22, 2022

The Warden and the King: Analyzing Alistair

"The arl used to come here in the winter when I was small. I, uh... slept with the hounds."

"Yeeees?" asked Alistair, and I was smitten.
Well, you know what they say. You never forget your first love. And they're right.

When it comes to Dragon Age, my very first love was this guy. Yeah, him. The cutie over there to the right, with the slight goatee and the cowlick (I love the cowlick!) and the bewildered expression and the beautiful voice of a guy who got lost in a honeycomb and managed to remember how to chuckle about it later. And he'd do so in a manner that was incredibly charming and self-effacing, especially since he didn't actually seem to know it was charming. 

You remember this guy, everyone does.

The sweet, smart, funny, brave young guy in Dragon Age: Origins. You may know him as Alistair. Or as King Alistair. Or (ouch) as the bitter drunk guy in the bar in Dragon Age 2. Or, almost as tragically, as the Grey Warden who joined up and then may have sacrificed himself in Inquisition.

Rumors vary.

But I still remember when he gave my Warden a rose, out of nowhere. The world was so dark, the skies were as grimy and ugly as the landscape around us, and here was this sweet guy giving my little cynical, tired, nightmare-ridden elven mage Warden a rose.

It's a moment. Or rather, a Moment. It really is. Because he gives her this speech, and it's just lovely, and beautifully acted by Steve Valentine (who I got to TALK TO recently for Dragon Age Day! I know! I'm plotzing! I'll share links soon... he was an incredibly nice and generous interview.)

But yet—because the speech is so beautifully written and delivered, it somehow doesn't matter that we may be experiencing this touching moment covered in Dragon Age Origins gore, or when fighting the Broodmother, or (even more hilariously) in the middle of the confrontation about a possessed Connor (ask my good friend @ImaSithDuh about that one—it's a great story).

The thing is, no matter what, it's just a lovely moment in which Alistair pours out his whole heart, every pure thing within him, to the Warden, and whether or not she loves him back, the most beautiful thing about this scene for me is that the most innocent and lovely element in it is not the rose, but Alistair.

Take a picture of this moment. Save it like a snapshot.

Because, depending on our choices, this Alistair will not survive the Blight, either literally or figuratively.

A Tangled Tree of Potential Futures

Among all of the incredible characters across the world of Dragon Age, Alistair is one of those with the most varied and diverse array of potential futures.

Let's look at just a few: He may stay "soft" Alistair, or become more cynical and "hardened." He may  be someone whose first love is also his last—or he may rapidly progress to having a threesome with Isabela and the Warden. He may accept the Kingship or refuse it, and remain a Grey Warden. He may successfully woo the Warden or be turned down. If he does woo the Warden, he may marry them, dump them, be dumped by them, or take her as his mistress. Or he may end up married to Anora.

He may also quit the Grey Wardens if the Warden chooses to allow Loghain to be conscripted, and in that case, he may end a hopeless drunk, or (softened or hardened) he may accept the Kingship. 

He may refuse the Dark Ritual with Morrigan, or he may accept it, and find that he has fathered a child.

And, of course, regardless of any of his varied romantic paths, he may succeed in killing the Archdemon and survive... or sacrifice himself.

And if he lives, and continues as a Grey Warden, he may also survive only to sacrifice himself in the Fade, in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Basically, Alistair's future paths are as complicated as he is, himself.

Luckily, it's Dragon Age. It's all going to be written and presented beautifully, and here, by no less than Origins worldbuilder David Gaider, who infuses Alistair with an unflagging joy, wit, and humor that it would take a stronger person than me to resist.

But hey, who wants to resist? Alistair is a sweetheart. He's just a good guy. A good, funny, brave guy.

And maybe doomed. Maybe not.

As always... it's up to us. What happens to this guy, who's so immediately engaging? In a way, it's a beautiful encapsulation of Dragon Age. He can be a hero, a true love, or a cad. He can end up at the heights of kingship or the depths of a Kirkwall alleyway (an outcome that always destroys me).

But he's still always Alistair. He's still the person who wouldn't hesitate to die for what he believes in. He just runs into trouble when what he believes in crumbles. That's his tragedy, and the beauty of his potential character arc. What does he have if he can't die for something anymore? If what he believes in lets him down? 

The Boy With the Hounds

For me, no matter what fate awaits him, Alistair's story is always tinged with just a little bit of sadness.

Let's start with his upbringing. Born in 9:10 Dragon, it's implied that even living under the wing of Arl Eamon, Alistair grew up pretty poor and humble, told in childhood that he was a King's bastard whose mother had been a maid who'd died giving birth to him. He spent much of his time among the animals and even slept with the hounds. He was cruelly treated by Eamon's wife Isolde, who wrongly thought Alistair might be her husband's son, and he was eventually sent away to the Chantry (in 9:20 Dragon, to the monastery at Bournshire).

And excuse me for interrupting my wall of text here, but REALLY, Eamon and Isolde? Sending this sweet, funny, affectionate kid to go hang out with the livestock and bed down with the hounds? Isolde because of that stupid thing where the wife blames the kid for her husband's imagined indiscretion? (Gah. I hate this so much. Hated it with Catelyn, for instance, in Game of Thrones. hate it here. And I hate even more that it's believable psychology that actually happens. What is WRONG with people?!) And Eamon, who does all this awful stuff simply to pacify Isolde?

Eamon. Isolde. You are terrible people. Terrible, terrible people. And execrable parents.

But back to our recap of Alistair's journey.

Finding a Place

We soon discover, of course, that Alistair is actually the illegitimate child of King Maric and elven  Grey Warden mage Fiona, and that Arl Eamon had taken in Alistair at Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir's suggestion in order to shelter Alistair in Redcliffe, in part to protect the honor of Eamon's sister, Queen Rowan. Let's just say that Loghain's choice probably says something else about what an awful person he is, and as noted, I'm not a fan of Eamon's parenting skills, either.

During his years with the Chantry, Alistair was trained to be a Templar, but he chafed under the demands of Chantry life. Now an impressionable young man eager to make his mark on the world, and deeply unhappy with monastery life, he was rescued from this both literally and figuratively when he met Duncan, Commander of the Grey, in 9:29. 

Alistair met Duncan and well, it was love at first sight. Instant hero worship. And who can blame him? Duncan was a commanding and charismatic figure, a living hero doing something brave and selfless for king and country. Adding to Alistair's adoration was the reality that he was just not doing very well at the monastery—he hated life there, he hated being constantly told what to do, and wanted more. He wanted to be out there, doing, fighting, achieving—not hanging out in a church.

Not long before it would be time for him to take his sacramental vows as templar, Alistair began to push himself further, training, competing, and making an impact in a tournament where he fought bravely, but was ultimately defeated by several notable templar champions, including Ser Eryhn, a superb female templar, and other renowned champions Ser Talrew, and Ser Kalvin. 

Even in defeat, Alistair's bravery and pluck made a definitive impression on Duncan, who decided the boy would be a huge asset to the Grey Wardens, and sought to officially recruit him. Alistair was enthusiastic about the chance, and both he and Duncan eventually won out against the Chantry, which didn't want to let him go—the Grand Cleric only conceded when Duncan invoked the Right of Conscription to remove Alistair from the templars and into the world of the Grey Wardens.

But let's pause for a second again.

The Worst Gift Ever

If you read this blog, you know that I'm occasionally a bit conflicted on the Grey Wardens and how they work. I admire them unreservedly for the bravery of what they do, of the sacrifice it requires for each of them, and the courage it takes to do so.

However. I'm... not such a fan of "Let's keep the risks of the Joining secret for PR reasons!" Or, hey, "Let's conscript a sweet naive kid with a hero crush into a dangerous secret organization whose induction ceremony involves a significant risk of instant death—and a 10-15 year lifespan even if you survive!"

Ahem.

But. I mean, would YOU do this to someone you loved? Would YOU look into the eyes of a sweet, starry-eyed, brave young man, and decide the very best thing you can do for him is bring him into an organization with a limited lifespan, a fellowship with its share of thieves and rough, condemned men and women, and a certain ending in madness and lonely, violent death beneath the earth?

This is where I just can't help but blame Duncan, at least a little. Despite his shallow and obvious  doomed hotness.

Sorry. It's just so brutal. I do think there's real love for Alistair there, but based on what we see in Origins, Duncan is absolutely ruthless when it comes to stocking the Grey Wardens. He needs bodies. And we quickly realize that he's willing to lie to people and deceive them to get them to the Joining. 

And this is understandable, to a degree. He's a commander under huge stress and impossible odds—a guy facing a worldwide Blight, an Archdemon, and an unexpected tyrant. And he's pragmatic enough to use whatever he can. This is also key to his personality later on, when he will suggest the conscription of Loghain to the Wardens—for Duncan, every person is a potential Grey Warden, a potential tool worth spending.

But still. I'll never quite understand him looking at this young man who is almost a surrogate son... and condemning him to the Grey Wardens.

I know the story demands it. But that doesn't mean I can't resent it for that. Just a little.

Alistair in the Grey Wardens

As far as Alistair's backstory, wow, it's a poignant and predictable scenario for Alistair, in some ways. He was semi-abandoned, starved for love, treated like a stray who was sent to sleep with the hounds. He was also a lonely child who worshipped the Grey Wardens and who dreamed of the chance for future heroism. Only his mentor Duncan made things bearable, providing the father figure he'd always dreamed of.

This mentorship can, of course, end tragically if we decide to conscript Loghain, and it's a life-changing moment for Alistair—a moment that will cause him to give up on his quest with the Grey Wardens entirely. He may end up a drunk or a King, but he will never be the same again.

Neither will we.

Still, that's in the future. For now, Alistair thrived much more under the Grey Wardens than he had with the templars and Chantry, and the lonely young man found himself his first family of fellow misfits.

And then the Blight hit—and we begin the events of Origins, joining Alistair as our first window into the Grey Wardens.

Fairy Tales and Other Outcomes

Alistair is our Warden's first friend among the Wardens, and our immediate first party member. He  gives us our introduction to how the Grey Wardens function, and is basically a soft and understanding companion who guides us into our entrance into fighting a dark and Blighted world, no matter what our chosen origin story.

The key thing about Alistair is that he's just this guy who's funny and kind, our first friend, this Grey Warden who's dedicated to the cause. But his is a journey we're going to watch, up close, firsthand, whether he's our friend or enemy, whether he's a lover or more than that, and whether we dump him or he dumps us.

He's still pretty much always ridiculously charming. But that charm is different if the sweet kid becomes a cynical man, which makes it more painful if we, for instance, happen to play an elven mage romancing him during the Origins story. If we support his path toward kingship, it's that much more devastating when he promptly dumps our Warden as no longer appropriate as a consort. And he's honestly, again depending on choices here, pretty surprisingly cruel about it—especially if doing so as "hardened" (the path for Alistair in which we tell him, after the confrontation with his "sister" Goldanna, that he needs to toughen up and accept the world as it is).

So it's a crapshoot. We may end up with our chosen happy ending as Queen or (for the more accepting and cynical, as mistress), or as companion to the Warden who renounced the kingship—or we may end up dumped... or, worse, mourning the death of our lover, ex, or best friend.

Alistair as Party Member

The fun part of Alistair in our party in Origins is, of course, how he interacts both with our Wardens and (most of all) with our party members. Every relationship is fascinating and instructive, and tells us about each person—both who they are, and who they may become.

With Morrigan he is antagonistic and distrustful, and while I wouldn't exactly want to watch it, I admit that their banters are the stuff of rom-com legend, and I can totally get those who ship them. The love/hate energy is absolutely present.

With Wynne, he's boyish, familial, and a little coy, begging for shirt-mending and sock-washing and support, blushing when she offers too much help. I love their relationship, it's bittersweet when you remember that he never actually had a loving mother figure before her—more on this in my upcoming Meaningful Banters post separately.

While with Sten, he's respectful and appropriately wary. He's openly intrigued with Zevran's world-weary and open sexual confidence (and a little abashed by it), and easy and charming with Leliana (and for me, at least, it's easy to ship both of them here), and amused and curious with both Oghren and Shale. He is, of course, as the boy from the hounds, an outstanding friend to Barkspawn.

It's all so much fun, and so fascinating. 

Immortal Alistairisms

Thanks to David Gaider's innate wit and wordplay, Alistair is always charming and fun to be around, and some of his lines are easily the most immortal across the series, especially, of course, such gems as "Swooping is bad," and "I'll just stand over here until the blushing stops."

"What? Lead? Me? No, no, no. No leading. Bad things happen when I lead. We get lost, people die, and the next thing you know I’m stranded somewhere without any pants."

"Yep. Beasties. Beasties are coming."

"Have you ever licked a lamp-post in winter?"

"That's what I'm here for. To deliver unpleasant news and witty one-liners."

"Andraste's flaming sword! I know where babies come from!"

And my personal favorite: "You know, one good thing about the Blight is how it brings people together."

He's also predictably kind when delivering a notice of death: "I hope you like heroes, my lady, because your husband died like one." or "I'm sorry but your husband has fallen in battle. You have my condolences."

Basically, most conversations with Alistair feel like a warm hug with a chuckle at the end. It's incredibly disarming. It was also fun, later on, to see Gaider bringing a similar wit to Dorian, but of course with Dorian we're getting a much more sophisticated and self-aware character. But the same quick wit is still very much a throughline there.

My Journeys with Alistair 

I'm gonna be honest. I've resisted writing about Alistair because, although he was my first Dragon Age love, he also left me with some pretty conflicted feelings.

You know how it is with Dragon Age. These characters feel real. They sneak inside your heart.

And that's what happened with Alistair for me. As with so many of these characters.

My first playthrough ended happily enough, although it felt weird to me. My Warden romanced Alistair, he stayed softened (we gave Goldanna WAY too much money!), refused the Kingship, did the Dark Ritual (yes, everyone's doomed because of this, let's face it, at some point we're gonna have to PAY for this!), and they went off into the sunset together. But the odd thing was, I just didn't see it working out. I adored Alistair, but there was no way in my mind that these two people would ever last romantically. My Warden was too prickly and traumatized (city elf), and Alistair just felt too soft to me to survive her personality long-term. I was so convinced they wouldn't work out that I even wrote a fanfic about my headcanons, because honestly, by the end, I felt like she'd had a deeper connection (doomed, of course) with Sten.

I played other outcomes with Alistair after that, and weirdly that first playthrough was one of the happiest, although it played out oddly in my head. I did get another sweetheart of a playthrough with a Cousland where Alistair married her, and it was a lovely feeling to see our boy installed as King and yet happy in his new role, and with the woman he loved by his side.

The Darker Side of Alistair

Of course, I also played other, less happy outcomes. And just as a Qun-loyal playthrough will show you an unexpected and colder darker side to The Iron Bull in Inquisition, if you make certain choices with Alistair in Origins, you also get glimpses of his darker side, too. He's pretty brutal if he decides to dump you for the kingship, and if you "hardened" Alistair it's definitely one of those "be careful what you wish for" scenarios, because this is miles away from the sweet boy who once gave you a rose.

Meanwhile, if you take Duncan successor Riordan up on his suggestion to conscript Loghain for the Grey Wardens (for me, it's the perfect punishment for Loghain), Alistair goes absolutely nuclear. Even if you are at 100% approval with him, even if you're romanced, if you choose this, Alistair shuts down completely, goes stone-cold, and severs all friendship with you. He will also walk away from the Wardens (and from fighting the Blight), which stunned me the first time I played it.

The most surprising aspect for me in this potential storyline was that even when we defeat the Archdemon, if he is King, Alistair will talk to us one more time, but nothing has changed. He is still unrelenting and unforgiving, and he basically coldly tells us we should have died, and he's suspicious and going to investigate why we didn't (very plainly implying that he wanted us to do so).

And look, I get it. Every one of us has something we cannot allow, forgive, or overcome. Every one of us has an edge of the map, a "here there be dragons," go-no-further point. For Alistair, who is normally a pretty forgiving person, that edge of the map is the idea that Loghain survives in any way. For Alistair, the only appropriate outcome for Loghain's treason is death—and it's certainly the standard punishment for that crime, especially in the magical medieval world around him.

But it still shocked me. During the whole epilogue at the castle, I remember how I kept trying to talk to Alistair again, to explain that I had done what Riordan had wanted, wanting to tell him why I felt becoming a Grey Warden was actually appropriate for Loghain (he becomes the very thing he betrayed and tried to destroy), and that 10-15 years of fighting Darkspawn, ending in a lonely death beneath the earth was far more suffering than a quick fall of the ax. But of course, I couldn't. Alistair isn't going to listen, you no longer exist for him, his heart is hard, and he has a kingdom to run.


Fairytales and Their Endings

At heart, though, Alistair is a prince—a sweet guy who makes jokes even in the worst or most impossible situations, whistling in the dark. 

At his best, Alistair doesn't really want power, or kingship. Which is, of course, why I think he ends up being such a good king. It's always those who don't want the power who are best at handling it— the person who doesn't want to be king is usually much better and fairer than the person hungering for the throne. Even if he marries Anora, if he does so without taking the Warden as mistress, there is a sense (for me at least) that he's going to try to make the best of it, that he and Anora will try to find solace and companionship in each other. First, because it's expedient, and second, because, well, that's the way Alistair's built.

In the end, I really think he just wants to love and be loved. He's not just the giver of the rose that survives the storm, he's also that rose, himself—a delicate thing, whose survival was a kind of miracle.

But roses die. Princes, Wardens, and kings, die too, willingly sacrificing themselves against Archdemons or Fade monsters. Or they fade away as drunks in alleyways. Or maybe they just grow old, running a country next to a woman they may or may not love, or walking the darkness with fellow Wardens while their time runs out. In every one of these futures, Alistair is still going to be funny and charming; he's still going to say something fantastic and witty at just the right moment, no matter how much darkness or sadness is in his heart. Because that's also how he's built. He'll always try to add a bit of hope or sweetness where he can, to lighten the darkness.

Perhaps the most poignant lesson of Dragon Age: Origins is that the brightest lights are still capable of going dim. Roses bloom, even in darkness, but they also die. 

Sometimes, maybe it's enough that they ever bloomed at all.

4 comments:

  1. One of the sad but I suppose necessary things about Alistair (at least if he becomes king) is that he canonically has not yet learned that Fiona is his mother. When we see him in DAI, he still believes he's the son of a maid, and Goldanna's half-brother. It makes the conversation about him with Fiona all the more poignant.

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    1. Oh, it's also sad if you side with the Mages and Alistair is king, because of course he comes to Redcliffe Castle and kicks Fiona and the mages out of Ferelden. Fiona looks so sad. She perhaps held a secret hope that she could have some sort of relationship with Alistair after all, once he gave safe harbour to the mages in his country. Maybe not telling him she is his mother, but quietly being able to get to know the man who is her son. But that dream evaporates in that moment.

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    2. Oh, great pick. It always kills me that there is no resolution there, but I also love it. It's the way things sometimes go.

      But yes, the realization that Alistair never seems to find out about Fiona -- and that they meet in that incredibly sad way -- always kills me.

      She does look sad when the mages are kicked out and it's so brutal.

      But the worst moment for me is if Alistair sacrifices himself in the Fade, and we return. Fiona is controlled but broken... and after that... she's just gone.

      Poor Fiona. It really hurt. (I've only had Alistair do that once. And ouch.)

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  2. I am so happy to see a post about Alistair. I played DAO after DAI, and so after falling for Cullen and then being dumped by Solas I was not ready for Alistair. Seriously they do video game relationships so damn well.

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The Warden and the King: Analyzing Alistair

"The arl used to come here in the winter when I was small. I, uh... slept with the hounds." "Yeeees?" asked Alistair, an...