I recently rediscovered that everything evil in the Dragon Age universe starts with magic. All corruption in the world has one very clear origin (according to the Chantry at least). The Tevinter Magisters*. On a mission to reinstate the Old God Dumat, a group of Tevinter Magisters decided to enter the Golden City and usurp the throne from the Maker. The Magisters, endlessly arrogant, wanted to take the city for themselves, and so they entered the Fade, the realm of dreams, to conquer it. But by entering the Golden City, the magisters brought corruption to the world, and they themselves became the first darkspawn.
Magic is meant to serve man, not to rule over him
The magic of Dragon Age is volatile. A mage is always in close proximity to the Fade and as such always open to potential corruption in the form of possession. In the first Dragon Age game, Origins, the corruption of mages by demons is a large part of the underlying player motivation.
One such example is Uldred, a power crazed mage working with Loghain. He has used blood magic to become an abomination, a mage taken over by a demon. This is one of the aspects of body horror in the game. The transformation of unwilling (in this case) mages into horrific and twisted versions of themselves. Something, I should add, Uldred seems to derive great joy from doing.
Magic is the starting point of all evil and all corruption. This is such a common theme that it is hard to spot to begin with, but it is there from the very beginning.
Mages face the constant threat of being taken over by the demons of the fade. Magic created the first blight and with it, the taint. The taint in turn threatens to corrupt or kill everything it comes in to contact with. Thedas is a world where everyone faces the fear of transforming into something monstrous, something evil and ultimately bent on the destruction of the world as we know it. There’s a strong body horror theme running through all three of the games, not in the least in the third installation of the game, with the idea of red lyrium. I will however get back to the specifics of red lyrium in another blog post.
In Peace, Vigilance. In War, Victory. In Death, Sacrifice
No one except the Grey Wardens are immune to the taint of the darkspawns corruption. No, that’s not quit true. Grey Wardens willingly go through a ritual where they imbibe the taint in order to withstand its effects. This is in reality only a condemnation to a slower death. Everyone touched by the taint succumbs sooner or later, but a Grey Warden makes a trade – a period of immunity in exchange for a much slower progression of the disease. Sooner or later, howerver, even Grey Wardens are broken by the taint.
The taint is a slow and painful way to die. In the instances where NPCs in the Dragon Age game series talk about the corruption, they are most of them in pain. Aveline’s husband Wesley speaks of how the taint can be felt, moving through him. So does one of the soldiers treated at Ostagar, although he seems much farther along in his infection – he can hear the Archdemon singing to its troops, and tries to warn the people minding him that something awful – the horde – is on its way.
This is repeated over and over. How the taint is slowly creeping into everything and in everyone if one is not careful. The only reprieve given if infected is to become a Grey Warden, but as stated previously, that is no real cure. It just delays the inevitable. For the player this should be a true horror show, but in my mind, the only time the horror of the taint is rammed home is when meeting Hespith in the Deep Roads.
The Fear of Change
The taint ties in to a very grown up fear, the fear of mutation, of change, of becoming something other, something we hate. Like Wikus Van De Merve feared his transformation into a “shrimp” in the wonderful (and horrific and politically astute) movie District 9, the taint threatens people in Thedas to become what they most fear and hate, an agent of the darkspawn.
Let’s return to Hespith. In the search for the paragon Branka, the Grey Warden enters the Deep Roads, a place overrun by darkspawn. The journey is one of discovery and exploration and needless to say, of battle. Branka has gone missing in the Deep Roads, and she is needed to settle a dispute over the throne of Orzammar, the dwarven kingdom. Branka is one of the very few “modern” paragons, dwarves that have given the dwarven society something great by creating a technological or societal leap forward. For the Grey Warden to be able to put a king on the throne (and get help to fight the blight) Branka must be found. She is needed to sort out the deadlock in the dwarven assembly. Branka in turn has entered the Deep Roads in search for the Anvil of the Void, and while searching for her, it becomes clear that Branka is ruthless in her search. The Anvil of the Void was an artefact created by the paragon Caridin. The Anvil is said to be able to create Golems, hulking stone warriors used by the dwarves to keep the darkspawn at bay.
The Stone has punished me, dream friend. I am dying of something worse than death. Betrayal.
The words are spoken in one of the most unsettling encounters in the entire series of Dragon Age games. Meeting Hespith in the Deep Roads is an immediate ticket to the deep and underlying horror of the world. This is the stuff nightmares are made of, and the key to the blights that have plagued Thedas.
The taint carried by the darkspawn can turn any creature rabid and into a ghoul, but it also has the less than charming property of being able to turn any humanoid woman into a broodmother. A progenitor of thousands of darkspawn.** Hespith recites a poem that details the process of turning into a Broodmother, laced through the path to discovery of the chamber where Laryn is kept. A very disturbing conversation can be held with Hespith where she talks about the corruption that is now also moving through her own body. Both Hespith and Laryn have been betrayed by their paragon Branka, who let the darkspawn claim the women in order to try and solve the riddles and traps that protect the Anvil of the Void. In exchange for the Anvil, Branka accepted that these women be violated and transformed into monsters.
What is most horrifying, apart from the betrayal Hespith suffers at Branka’s hands, is the fact that Hespith knows what is coming. She says so herself. Hespith has already seen her friend Laryn turned into a monster, and she is in the process of becoming one herself.
The revelation that darkspawn corrupt humans, dwarven, elven and qunari or kossith women in to breeding machines is chilling, not only because it takes days, maybe weeks to complete the transformation but also because we ourselves are the origin of evil.
The passage in Dragon Age Origins where Hespith recites the poem of injustices visited on Laryn, and soon on herself, speaks of a primal fear. To be violated and invaded by something that doesn’t belong. The taint is a virus, an unthinking parasite that nevertheless can be felt as it works its way through the bloodstream of those infected by it. The Broodmother is the ultimate offense, not only because the victim is violated, but because they know what’s coming and once the process starts, are powerless to prevent it.
I could argue the tiredness of the horror pregnancy trope, because it is a horror pregnancy with evil fetuses all around***, and these fetuses all grow into darkspawn, the better to keep the taint alive. I could point out that Slither does it much better. There are no gender boundaries in Slither. Anyone can become a womb. But I’d rather bring it back to the starting point of this post.
Arrogance created evil by trying to break into the Golden City. By doing that, the Magisters became the origin of the taint. The taint is kept alive by corrupting women into creating more darkspawn. Original sin in a nutshell. In Dragon Age, the potential for corruption is everywhere, and the ultimate horror is that we brought it all on ourselves.
* Magister is a term for a mage, someone gifted with magic.
** This is actually a recurring theme in both Dragon Age and Mass Effect, the enemy using the population against it. The reapers use Dragon Teeth to create husks, brutes, banshees and marauders. They allow their technology to invade the bodies of their victims to turn them into ground forces, thus turning the enemy on themselves. Like zombies, each loss for the home team is a potential gain for the enemy.
*** Not to speak of the potential fetus terrible at the end of the game where Morrigan offers to become pregnant in order to house the soul of an Old God (the Archdemon) in exchange for none of the Wardens dying in the battle.