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How far would you go to escape abuse?
How far would you push to ensure that the abuse you had faced never happened to anyone you loved ever again?
Where would you draw the line between your life and the life of someone who was threatening your own?
In my never ending quest to defend (and my slight obsession with the character) Anders from Dragon Age 2, I’ve decided to take a step out onto a limb and discuss some of the reasons that, in addition to finding the lynchpin mage an exceptionally dynamic character, to explain why he makes complete sense to me.
Anders, whom I’ve discussed fairly extensively in the past, is one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve encountered in the DA series, much to the surprise of many people when I say this. If you total up the happenstances of the life of an average mage in Thedas, and scoop on a heaping of Anders’ own personal experience with abuse, he becomes someone that I recognize as a person making reasoned decisions to make a calculated escape from an abusive situation. This conflicts wildly with many of the anti-Anders arguments I have encountered dismissing him outright of being simply “crazy” or “manipulative and abusive” himself.
History of Oppression
Mages in Thedas have a long history of forced oppression by the dominant religion of the land, controlled by their Chantry. Magic is seen as a threat to humanity, and those born with the ability to wield magic are stripped of their rights as people as soon as this ability is discovered. In short, magic manifests in children, and those children are taken, often forcibly, from their families to be raised in Chantry-controlled, prison-like fortresses, called Circles, where armed soldiers babysit them to ensure they do not get out of hand.
It is illegal to exist as a mage outside of Circle control in most of Thedas. Anyone skirting this fate is declared an “apostate” and risks being hunted their entire lives. Part of the background of the Hawke family your PC is a member of in DA2 includes this reality, forcing them to often have had to move growing up to dodge the templars hunting them.
Mages are not allowed to inherit titles, or land, even if they are born to noble families. Mages are strongly discouraged from having relationships, and even marriage requires express permission from the local chantry. A mage who is still being housed by the Circle is not allowed to keep any child born to them, should they have one as the result of an unsanctioned relationship. In Dragon Age: Origins, the healer and senior mage, Wynne, speaks of having her child taken from her under these circumstances. Children born inside the Circle are deemed property of the Chantry.
The Effects of Confinement and Abuse
Anders was a child of twelve when he was taken from his home — bound — to the Circle to be taught. He was still a teenager when he made his first of seven escapes from the Circle in Ferelden, each time being forcibly dragged back by templars who, according to him, were not shy about kicking him and otherwise abusing him in the process.
“Most people enjoy being kicked in the head to be woken up each morning. Me, I’m just so picky.” ~Anders, Dragon Age: Origins Awakening
After one of his escapes and subsequent returns, Anders was restricted to solitary confinement for at least a year, where, as he implies during Dragon Age: Origins Awakening, the only “person” he saw during that time was the tower mouser, Mr. Wiggums. Solitary confinement, being one of the most severe and harsh punishments used in the U.S. prison system, has been well documented to leave lasting medical side effects. It has been considered torture, with people such as former Prisoner of War Senator John McCain recounting how trying the experience was on him. Solitary confinement has been known to cause symptoms associated with the clinical definitions of psychosis in people who had never shown signs before. People with predispositions to mental illness have found their conditions exacerbated. Yet, solitary is used on prisoners in the U.S. routinely, and solitary was used as a reprimand for Anders’ escape attempts. It isn’t a far-fetched conclusion to presume that many of the traits portrayed by Anders in DA2 are connected to both the abuse he experienced at the hand of the Circle and its templars and his time spent in solitary.
Hours a day with no human contact, and people wonder why a mage would agree to allow himself to merge with a spirit.
I suppose my point is that by the time you, as a Hawke, meet up with Anders in Act I of Dragon Age II, it is well established that he has been not only abused, but systematically oppressed, while watching others like himself receiving the same treatment for years. To see that he is ready to fight back in defense of mages everywhere is not a difficult concept to accept for him as a character. That he would accept the offer of a spirit of Justice to merge and reside in side him to aide him is not something I have difficulty understanding.
Parallels to Domestic Abuse
It is interesting to me that Anders’ number of escape attempts totals to seven. According to statistics, it can take an abuse survivor seven to eight times to successfully leave an abusive situation. The period during and immediately following the escape are the most dangerous and hold the potential for flares in violent retribution, one statistic quotes a 75% increase in risk of violence.
Send in the templars…
Many people do not survive their escape attempts, and judging by the arms and armour on templars, the safety of the escaped mages is not foremost in their minds.
Most people need outside assistance to make a clean escape, safely. Looking at Anders’ situation, he would not have succeeded had he not encountered the Hero of Ferelden and/or been conscripted into the Grey Wardens. When the templars come for him this final time, it is clear that he will be hung for the supposed crimes he has committed, even though it is not confirmed that Anders has actually murdered anyone, even his most recent captors. He did, however, defeat many darkspawn (the impending evil in the first two games) by himself, demonstrating what a powerful mage he is.
The Chantry is allowed to decide whether a mage may live or die, or have themselves cut off from their magic, rending them emotionless, or Tranquil, which many mages deem a fate worse than death. In fact, Chantry law states that a mage who has passed the testing that proves they are competent can not be made Tranquil, yet, the law is overlooked if a templar or cleric believes they have enough of a reason.
Mages are not given a voice in their own defense.
As time as went on, Anders, with some encouragement from Justice, a Spirit of Justice from the realm of dreams, spirits and demons known as the Fade, saw that the problem oppressing mages did not end with his freedom alone.
Foreshadowing what is yet to come, Justice and Anders have several exchanges during the in-game party banter that BioWare is known for that, in retrospect, really give you the groundwork for Anders as many of us have come to know him in Kirkwall.
From in-game dialogue in DA:O Awakening:
- Justice: I understand that you struggle against your oppression, mage.
- Anders: I avoid my oppression. That’s not quite the same thing, is it?
- Justice: Why do you not strike a blow against your oppressors? Ensure they can do this to no one else?
- Anders: Because it sounds difficult?
- Justice: Apathy is a weakness.
- Anders: So is death. I’m just saying.
- Justice: I believe you have a responsibility to your fellow mages.
- Anders: That bit of self-righteousness is directed at me?
- Justice: You have seen oppression and are now free. You must act to free those who remain oppressed.
- Anders: Or I could mind my business, in case the Chantry comes knocking.
- Justice: But this is not right. You have an obligation.
- Anders: Yes, well… welcome to the world, spirit.
- Anders: Are you saying that you could become a demon, Justice?
- Justice: I said no such thing.
- Anders: You said that demons were spirits perverted by their desires.
- Justice: I have no such desires.
- Anders: You must have some desires…
- Justice: I have none! Desist your questions!
- Anders: I apologize, Justice. I didn’t mean to suggest you would become a demon.
- Justice: I should certainly hope not.
- Anders: I just wondered what relation there is between spirits and demons. Demons are a worry to any mage.
- Justice: I do not know what makes demons as they are. Such evil angers me, but I do not understand it.
- Anders: Well, I hope you never come to understand.
- Justice: I as well, mage. More than you could possibly know.
Anders was aware of the reality of the severity of his situation. Following game-lore, a former templar was recruited into the Wardens, and was eventually assigned to follow Anders everywhere he went. After time this lead to the merging of Anders and Justice, similar to a demon possession, except that spirits are not demons, and presumably the merging could be amicable.
What was not expected was Anders’ rage at the injustice against mages fueling the spirit of Justice and turning him into a force of Vengeance. People facing abuse will sometimes reach out at escalating levels of resources whom they think can help them.
This happened with Anders. First, he fought back only for himself. Then, he joined an underground network of mages who worked to free apostates. Then, he wrote manifestos decrying the oppression of mages by the Chantry. He reached out to friends to help him. He tried reasoning with higher and higher levels of officials with the power to enact the change he wanted to see. Time and again he hit wall after wall, repeatedly being either told that mages were dangerous and deserved their fate, or, in the case of the Grand Cleric, that the best solution was to sit back quietly and wait for the Maker to sort out the answer.
Becoming more and more desperate, Anders reveals to Hawke that the templars are becoming more and more aggressive towards him every day. It is clear that the bribes that Varric, another companion, and Hawke throw around are all that keep Anders from the Gallows (Kirkwall’s Circle) altogether.
Finally, Anders seems to hit a wall where he is certain that no one is going to aid him, and that he is either going to die at the hands of oppressors, or he is going to die fighting for the freedom of everyone like him. He realizes that there is no room for middle ground when he is fighting for his survival.
Like so many people who have faced prolonged abuse, Anders chooses to fight back, and he strikes hard. The human race is not capable of giving up on survival, and if given the choice between our own lives and the life of an attacker, there are people who will choose to fight back to protect their own. This is not to say that everyone will do so, or that it is or that his actions were even the correct response.
But it is a response I understand, fully.
The idea that someone would strike out at their abuser in a way that would ensure that said abuser would not be able to come after them again is not so hard to wrap my head around. This is probably why I was able to not only side with Anders in my playthrough, but probably why I find myself, still, defending his actions, all across the internet and in real life. I’ve witnessed Anders called cold, calculating. I’ve heard him referred to as manipulative and even crazy. These are some of the kinder things I’ve heard and read.
Really, Anders was a survivor. He meant to shove back against those who have worked to remind him his whole life that he is less-than, and wanted a world where no one else would have to suffer as he did. This is the mind of a victim pushed to surviving.
Photo credits to Miri1984 and Twist_Shimmy of the People of Thedas Community of Dreamwidth for screen caps not belonging to me. Because they are awesome.