solas as technoking : yet another reading of dai : trespasser

It’s that time again! You’ve raided Etsy for all those cool knicknacks that you hope will prompt subtle grins of approval from fellow Dragon Age players on the street, and you’ve read so many fanfics that you’re sure your head will burst if you read one more line about trailing fingers or questing tongues. What now, then?

It’s speculation time!

Cut for Dragon Age: Inquisition Trespasser DLC spoilers.

Dark Ages

To return to the issue of Solas and the Veil (because really, who actually left that issue?) I want to look this time at technology. Or more specifically, the lack of it, in the post-Veil world Solas brought into being. He is quite outspoken, even from early in the game, on the “lowness” of everything about this world: its culture, its politics, and especially its technology:

“The Dalish strive to remember Halamshiral. But Halamshiral was merely a fumbling attempt to try to recreate a forgotten land. Elevenahn was the empire–and Arlathan its greatest city. A place of magic and beauty, lost to time.”

But Solas is not blinded by nostalgia, snapping at Dorian when the latter expresses regret at Tevinter having destroyed it. “Empires rise and fall. Arlathan was no more ‘innocent’ than your own Tevinter in its time.” I note this to emphasize that when Solas speaks of the wonders of Arlathan he does not do so entirely from the realm of rose-tinted regret. He knows what the elves of Arlathan did, and he still disapproves. But he does mourn this “dark and angry time” into which he has woken–from which he points out that Varric can offer solace:

“If you bring them a little peace with the worlds you make between the pages, you have done more than most.”

Yeah, Solas, about that…

Speaking Things

Bruno Latour starts out by saying a lot of things that do not sound new to us. He points out that in many premodern indigenous cultures, a web of cultural context ensnared everything, such that every act and object held meaning that would reverberate through the cultural web and cause reactions along the way. Nothing occurred in a vacuum, everything was connected. This was, he says, a premodern way of thinking.

Then he introduces “hybrids”–blends of both the cultural and natural world, which again seem rooted in a past time. The example he gives is the caribou killed by an Inuit hunter. While it is, indeed, a source of meat, bone and sinew that will materially sustain the people for whom the hunter hunts, the caribou is also bound up in a ritual framework as a spirit, and addressed as such by Inuit culture. In this way the caribou is a “hybrid”–with a stake in both the scientifically measurable, material world, and the socially-constructed world of belief and cosmological repercussion. It’s a “speaking thing”–no lifeless tool or product, it speaks to both the interior and the exterior.

Usually after this one points to the modern exodus from this belief system in favor of science, and Latour begins to do so, deeming it the Great Divide [between the natural and the cultural]. But then he detours, saying (as paraphrased by Erik Davis)* that:

“…the modern West never really left the anthropological matrix. Instead, it used the conceptual sleight of hand of the Great Divide to deny the ever-present reality of hybrids, those ‘subject-objects’ that straddle the boundaries between nature and culture, agency and raw material. This denial freed the West from the inherently conservative nature of traditional societies, where the creation of new hybrids–new medicines or weapons–was always constrained by the fact that their effects were felt throughout the entire matrix of reality. By denying hybrids, modern Europe paradoxically wound up cranking them out at an astounding rate: new technologies, new scientific and cultural perspectives, new sociopolitical and economic arrangements. The West drastically reconstructed ‘the world’ without acknowledging the systemic effects that its creative activities had on the interdependent fabric of society–let alone the more-than-human world of rock and beast that provides material for that fabric.”**

This, he posits, is how European cultures could wreak such havoc on the world around them without particular concern as to the long-term (or even short-term) effects of such a wanton harvest. And as my husband, resentful ex-Catholic, loves to add, it’s easy to ransack the environment when you only care about what some nebulous bearded entity thinks about you in the afterlife, anyway. More importantly, though, Latour states that modern technological advancements have made it more and more difficult to buy into the illusion of the Great Divide. In Davis’ words,

“Each new hybrid that arrives on the scene — test-tube babies, Prozac, the sequencing of the human genome, space stations, global warming — pushes us further into that no man’s land between nature and culture, and ambiguous zone where science, language and the social imagination overlap and interpenetrate.”***

Our very technological advances, in other words, are pushing us backward into premodern ways of thinking, if only because the effects of those technological advances are so great and far-reaching as to be impossible to relegate to the the purely scientific and measurable world.

Fine, get back to Dragon Age already!

Solas wants to bring back the more technologically-advanced world of the elves, yes. But he wants to do so in a very specific way: by obliterating the Veil, the Great Divide which locked mortals away from the spirits. Those with whom constant communication might, arguably, increase the chance of sensing when their actions have repercussions throughout the world. Everywhere you take Solas in the game, he speaks of the Veil, yes, but also of the spirits he can sense through it: “The spirits are angry here.” “The spirits flee this place.” That kind of feedback loop would necessarily clue even the most thick-headed in on times when their actions carry more weight than that which can be measured or counted or noted in a logbook. If the spirits scream bloody murder at you for taking your axe to a tree, you might reconsider logging that particular forest.

And yet. Arlathan, even with this ever-present feedback loop of spiritual connection, was no innocent place. Elves cheerfully enslaved other elves and saw no problem with it. They even murdered one among them whose primary goal it was (we are told) to nurture and protect her people. Solas knows this. To what extent are we to suppose Solas believes in, or partakes in the use of “mere” tools? To him — he who is not locked away on the other side of the Veil, but who knows what it feels like for all that is walled off there, all those spirits, to flow freely out amongst the living — would not all things speak? He describes waking up to a world of mortals “like being in a room full of Tranquil.” Tranquil, who cannot hear those beyond the Veil. But Solas can. Would such a person create a “mere” tool, that did not speak?

Oh yes. We’re talking about the orb.

I direct you to Phthalo’s excellent pre-Trespasser analysis of the orb, which is no less fascinating or informative now that Trespasser is out. Indeed, it is more so! Because she invokes the “linguistic wizardry” of the elven language to point to a curious connection between Solas, the orb, and the female Lavellan, should one be playing as her:

arlathmavhenanPhthalo asserts that “vhenan,” in keeping with Solas’ mode of speech and general double-sidedness, is not just some sweet epithet of affection. It speaks to the actual relationship binding the Inquisitor to Solas through the mark on her hand — the mark burned there by his orb. His orb, which he created and used to construct the Veil — thus, his tool. But again, we are talking about a being who pre-existed the divide between strictly-measurable materiality and incorporeal spirituality: thus, tools are never mere tools for him, locked away from the cosmic framework of spirits and the interior workings of the heart. Vhenan. If, as Phthalo theorizes, his calling the Inquisitor “heart” means more than we think it means–if there was actually some essential part of him burned into the Inquisitor when she touched that orb–then she may, indeed, be the “she” who Cole says it hurts Solas to be away from, when you are chasing him through the qunari at the end of Trespasser. Which, obviously, ups the emotions in that scene.

What, you ask, if the Inquisitor isn’t a female elf who romanced Solas? What’s different then? Well–not much. Because no matter how you go about it, Solas still cuts off your arm. (An aside: this had to be explained to me. I interpreted the post-romance stalking down the hall as indication that we did it ourselves, ala Aron Ralston — since the Inquisitor’s arm still glows, looking like an arm, after Solas leaves. But I suppose it could just be working its magic, gently, in accordance with his assertion that he is not a monster and that he did lure the Inquisitor there to save him/her.) If you did romance Solas, though, and if he is playing with language the way Phthalo says he might be, the difference is that he shows you that connection, if he loves you. He admits to having created this thing that went wrong, and whose misfiring bound you to him, to Solas, more dearly than he thought was possible and more than he wanted. So he cuts it off, reclaiming that part of himself. Taking that speaking-thing’s voice away from you.

Because things are never just things, for Solas and the world he came from. They are wrapped up in these greater, grander frameworks, that speak both to the spirit and to matter. And, for a brief time, you were caught up in it too.

But no more.

So what’s he gonna do?

Solas is a maker. You’ve seen his orb and what it did; you’ve seen his fortress and the weapons he stockpiled there to arm slaves he freed. Yes, he used his creations and his technical know-how for a cause he believed in, but what he is good at is his craft. (Seeing all sides of a situation; predicting outcomes: not so much.) It stands to reason that, if this Veil-sundered world is still capable of allowing such fantastical creations as Solas’ broken orb to come into existence, he might try to make something again. He has reclaimed the part of his power he bound to the orb, after all–as much as he could; as much as had been burned into the Inquisitor instead of fried by Corypheus. He is likely to seek a place of power where tools such as those he once made could be made again. This of course explains the blatant “we’re going to Tevinter!” map-stab at the end of Inquisition broadly, but the question remains: how? Will he storm in and seize what he needs, or coerce from the shadows, insinuating himself in amongst the aristocracy like Morrigan in Orlais? This last seems unlikely, both because he would be an elf in Tevinter (though one assumes he could disguise himself; put a glamor over his body) and more pointedly because he loathes slave-owners and would be morally pained to play nice with them.

On the other hand, he is no stranger to moral pain. And we know, from Trespasser’s epilogue, that no less a capable mage than Dorian is leading a faction to reform Tevinter. Whether that includes ending the practice of slavery is not addressed, but we know Solas had the opportunity to bring Dorian’s attention to the cause:

Dorian: Solas, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry. The elven city of Arlathan sounds like a magical place, and for my ancestors to have destroyed it…
Solas: Dorian… hush. Empires rise and fall. Arlathan was no more “innocent” than your own Tevinter in its time. Your nostalgia for the ancient elves, however romanticized, is pointless. If you wish to make amends for past transgressions, free the slaves of all races who live in Tevinter today.
Dorian: I… don’t know that I can do that.
Solas: Then how sorry are you?

Could we potentially see Solas, in whatever disguised or veiled form, attempting to woo Dorian both into freeing slaves and into imparting enough trust to let Solas into or near some magical toolbox warehouse kept under lock and key in, for example, Minrathous?

Oh Maker, please let the answer be yes.

_______

*Davis, E. (1998). Techgnosis: Myth, magic, mysticism in the age of information (pp. 2-3). New York: Harmony Books.

**Yes, his use of “the West” as a term is dated and fraught with ethnocentricity and yes, this is rather a more fanciful explanation for proto-European technological progress than the climate-based theories more widely received. Please allow for the possibility, though, that there still might be something worthwhile here to learn despite all that.

***Davis, 3.

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