Happy Dragon Age Day! After an entire Dragon Age Month, full of revisits of games, examinations of favorites, and a slew of thoughts on characters, trophies, and fanatic fans I’ve saved one last heavy-hitting topic for this year’s Dragon Age Day.
Throughout the Dragon Age series, the unease surrounding magical arts has bubbled beneath the surface of all game events, and sometimes has exploded to the forefront of the plot.
This stems partly from, supposedly, a prophet of the Maker preaching that magic is meant to serve man, after mages found a way to break into the Golden City (Dragon Age’s version of heaven), and corrupt it beyond recognition. The idea that magic is dangerous and corruptive permeates Thedosian culture, and is palpable in the way mages are feared and locked away from the rest of society, as in Ferelden and the Free Marches.
Mages outsides of the control of the Chantry – the predominant religious organization in Thedas – are considered to be maleficar, or the horrifyingly feared blood mages, believed to be power-hungry, corrupt, and dangerous to society.
While not examined too closely in Dragon Age: Origins, the actions of mages outside of their templar-guarded Circles can seem slightly skewed during the story of Dragon Age II. My first time playing, I sympathized with the mages cognitively because of their situation, but the player was shown example after example of mages running amok when not under supervision (regardless of the reasons they believed they needed to resort to the actions they took).
And, time and again, mages cause problems in Thedas.
Spoilers for all three Dragon Age games below.
In Dragon Age: Origins, the mages are fairly benign, but the player is told that corrupted mages are the reasons Blights exist at all, and this is explored further in the Awakening DLC.
In Dragon Age II, mages resort to blood magic to hide from their oppressors, and then become possessed by demons and try to kill people trying to help them. Anders, a mage, blows up a Chantry building and kills innocent people. A blood mage kills Hawke’s mother to complete a frankenbride for himself, comprised of the body parts of multiple women. And the most even-tempered mage, Orsino, turns out to be an abomination, as well.
In Dragon Age: Inquisition, a mage is responsible for tearing a hole in the sky to allow demons to pour out, destroying the Chantry and crippling peace talks between the mages and templar, dividing them further. This was precipitated by another mage, who seeks to destroy the world in order to make up for the fact that he almost destroyed the world.
Mages, are you okay?
This begs the question: are mages inherently bad? Is magic bad? Does the Chantry have it right that magic needs to be strictly controlled and regulated, and the people who have magical abilities should be treated as if they are dangerous?
A therein lies the dilemma.
Dragon Ethics: Origins
When deciding whether something is morally “right” or “wrong,” we each have a set of ethics that we use to evaluate said situation (or, at least, I hope we all do). Ethics is just that: moral principles that guide our actions or behaviors in any given situation.
So whether we think magic, or blood magic, or mages in general, are good or bad, we first need to figure out which moral guidelines we’re using. As with any study of ethics, there are a number of directions from which we can look. A few we’ll be using today are:
Consequentialism is an ethical principle that seeks a greater balance of good over evil. Under this umbrella term, what constitutes a “morally good” action is not specifically defined. This means that a “good” action could mean an absence of pain, or satisfying a personal preference, or even seeking a “greater good” for a larger whole/community. Simply, consequentialism deals primarily with the consequences of actions, rather than the intentions or the action itself.
This last one dips its toe into the ethical principle of utilitarianism, which is a version of consequentialism. This ethical principle deals mainly with, to oversimplify, an analysis of cost/benefit. If an action promotes happiness for the greatest number of people, then it is the correct or “good” action to take. If an action would cause 495 people a great amount of benefit, even if it meant that five people would be horrifically tortured for their entire lives, that action would be deemed ethical to take.
This is in (somewhat) contrast to deontology/deontological ethics, which says that an action is “right” or “ethical” based on the action itself. The action is considered right or wrong under a series of rules, rather than on the consequences. Intentions matter, but the action itself is most important, even more important than consequences.
As a sidebar, this ethical principle allows for “permissible ham,” when one may actively harm people in order to benefit more people… but only if the harm is a side effect, and not the intended action. For example, in the trolley problem, this type of thinking would say that the person could flip a switch to kill one person to save five is okay, but murdering someone to harvest their organs (to donate to a hospital) is wrong. Intention is important!
Under this ethical principle is Kantian ethics which – to oversimplify to an extreme degree – is following a set of rules or “duties,” some of which are “perfect” – you either can follow it or you can’t, such as don’t kill innocent people – or “imperfect” – that each person can follow to varying degrees, such as “learning about the word in which you live.” These duties should also be able to be applied to all of humanity without causing harm or contradictions.
Which brings us back to blood mages, mages, and their questionable actions.
Blood Magic 101
Quick Thedas history lesson on blood magic… The Chantry teaches that blood magic originally came from the Tevinter Old God named Dumat, who eventually became the first archdemon after he broke into the Golden City and corrupted it. It was, it is said, blood magic that enabled him to do this supposedly impossible feat, and as his actions corrupted the Golden City – the seat of the Maker – beyond recognition, the Chantry forbids blood magic. It is, simply put, associated with darkspawn, evil mages, and a quest for power. The Chantry believes that mages not under the care of the templars will eventually become blood mages, lured in by the power blood magic gives to a mage.
Tevinter, meanwhile, is a country ruled by mages and, included in that, blood mages. This was the country that sacked the Elvhen homeland, and killed Andraste, the prophet of the Maker. So, again, these mages are considered bad and evil, for myriad reasons.
Under the Chantry, blood mages are called maleficarum, a word that strikes fear into many a heart, although not all mages outside of Chantry rule (apostates) are maleficarum… Although the Chantry is more than fine with portraying all apostates, benign or not, as dangerous blood mages that need feared, captured, and subdued.
On to the mages themselves.
Blood Mages and the Thoughts That Guide Them
To gain a clearer picture of these principles, and to tease apart the nuances of the mage issue, let’s take a look at a few noteworthy mages (not all blood mages, to be fair), their actions, and a quick analysis of whether their actions are acceptable as “good” or “moral.”
Blood mages and their thoughts and actions
Relationship to Magic: Dalish elven mage, apostate, blood mage
Actions, Ideas, and Consequences: Merrill is the first of her clan, charged with maintaining the history of the Dalish elves that has been reclaimed. She also feels responsible to save two of her clansmembers, who went missing during the events of Dragon Age: Origins (one of whom is the Grey Warden). She resorts to blood magic to give her the power to cleanse a cursed mirror that took her clansmembers away, and in the process winds up consorting with a demon.
The demon’s intention is to possess Merrill, so to stop that from happening, the Keeper of the clan sacrifices herself in Merrill’s place. The clan winds up disbanding (at best) or being completely annihilated by Merrill and the playable character (at worst). She doesn’t manage to “fix” the mirror, although it is cleansed of the demon.
Ethical Assessment: Looking at it from a consequential/utilitarian standpoint, it’s easy to say that Merrill’s actions are terrible, since it results in the death of the clan’s Keeper, and potentially the deaths of the entire clan, or, at the very least, they are left wandering without a leader and without a home. In return, one demon – whom she called – is destroyed, and she is able to build a mirror. Destroying the lives of an entire clan, and being responsible for the death of the leader of the clan, just so Merrill can rebuild a mirror, is not acceptable under this.
Under a deontological way of thinking, though, her actions are more tolerable. Her intention was to save clansmembers, and to restore a piece of Elvhen history. She doesn’t “pull the trigger” to kill the keeper or her clan (she acts in self-defense). This can pass an imperfect duty check of “regain and preserve Elvhen culture,” with some unintended collateral damage along the way. So, her actions were acceptable.
Relationship to Magic: human mage, apostate, can transform, which falls under auspices of blood magic
Actions, Ideas, and Consequences: If nothing else, Morrigan is pragmatic, calculating, and self-interested, if not a little arrogant in what she thinks she knows. She uses magic as a tool to achieve her ends, including blood magic, and performs an aptly-named “dark ritual” that spares the Grey Warden who kills and archdemon from death, and passes the Old God spirit within the archdemon on to a baby, who can house the spirit safely. She doesn’t share her reasons why, although her quest for personal power is always apparent.
Ethical Assessment: Despite her caustic manner, Morrigan doesn’t really act in a way that is immediately seen as unethical. She uses blood magic, but she will use it to save people (through transforming into animals, or during the “dark ritual”). Under utilitarianism, which seeks the most good for the most people her actions check out, insofar as the actions she takes that don’t immediately help a large group of people (i.e., said “dark ritual”) don’t really hurt anyone, either.
From a deontological standpoint, she does stray into some unethical territory, because she acts in her own best interest. “Acting in one’s best interest” cannot be considered ethical here as if this were applied to all of humanity, harm and conflict would arise.
Relationship to Magic: powerful magister, created a type of magic that can break space-time
Actions, Ideas, and Consequences: Alexius is a magister from the Tevinter Imperium, who, along with his role in the overarching plot of Dragon Age: Inquisition, winds up casting a spell to remove the Inquisitor from the timeline, so the main villain may be successful in his quest. He does this because he believes that by helping the villain, the villain may cure his son of the Blight sickness he has, and in this way may be saved from an untimely death.
Under the rule of the villain, countries fall, hundreds die, and Alexius’s son dies anyway.
Ethical Assessment: Hoo boy. Under utilitarianism, this is pretty terrible. Destroying the entire world for the sake of one person is an absolute no-go under utilitarian ways of thinking. Full stop.
And in this case, deontology won’t save him, either. His intention was to kill someone specifically so they couldn’t stop the rise of a being bent on destroying the world, to save his son. While there are extremes that any of us would go to for our families, and while Alexius’s actions are perhaps – perhaps – understandable from that perspective, it stands that there is nothing about his intentions that check out here. And the duty, “Save your family no matter the cost” cannot be applied to all people without causing conflict.
Relationship to Magic: elven mage, First Enchanter in the Kirkwall Circle, blood mage, surprise abomination
Actions, Ideas, and Consequences: Orsino looks out for the mages under his care, although becomes increasingly – and understandably – restless as the templars tighten their grip around the Circle mages. He consorts with blood mages, and condones, sort of, the use of magic that he finds interesting… which results in a serial killer, perhaps emboldened by Orsino’s interest, taking the lives of numerous women. While this part of the game is rather abrupt, during the endgame he turns into a monstrous abomination in order to make a point about mages not being abominations, and to topple the templar rule. He is killed, and the city of Kirkwall is thrown into crisis.
Ethical Assessment: Interestingly, from a utilitarian standpoint, the jury is still out, at least by the end of Dragon Age II. In the short term, Orsino’s actions are terrible, and cause so many problems. In the long-term, toppling the horrific abusive system propagated by the Chantry might have the most benefit, and depending on actions in the third game, does have a lot of benefit. So while the events of the second game put Orsino firmly in the “NO” camp, it’s possible that his actions, in the end, helped more people.
From a deontological standpoint, again we’re in some grey area. His intention with his interest in the serial killer’s magic was for knowledge, and he did not have control of the killer’s unfortunate actions. Regarding the mages, he sought to protect them, and to overthrow a tyrannical system, which are both very noble duties, which could potentially be applied universally (although I could foresee some issues that are outside the scope of this article). There is some unintended collateral damage (e.g., Hawke’s mother, a number of templars and mages who die during the events of the endgame, and the eruption of the city), but Orsino’s intentions are reasonable. The only action that is questionable is his transformation into an abomination set to kill the person trying to help him, which… to be honest I don’t understand why that happened in the game, other than developers trying to make the point that both templars and mages are at their breaking point, so I am willing to sort of overlook that detail.
This list could go on, from Avernus, to Vivienne, to even a mage/blood mage Grey Warden and beyond. But the point is, as we look at the various mages, and their use of blood magic or other magic, there is only one that scored as “unethical” strictly across the board. All the others may have had some questionable portions of what they did, but all also had some kind of redemption within these ethical principles, as well.
So where does blood magic fit into the world of Thedas? Is it morally and ethically wrong, to be stamped out as soon as it’s discovered? Or is it, as Vivienne says in Dragon Age: Inquisition a tool to be used, like any other tool? After all, fire is a tool that can bring heat and cook food, but it can also kill and destroy.
When it comes to judging a person for who they are, or what they have, or what they don’t have, is there ever a way to truly judge them universally? Or is it really all a matter of perspective?
What do you think? How do you make moral or ethical judgements? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
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