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"Dragon Age: Origins" (2009): The Dalish Warden, An Analysis

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Ash has been playing "Dragon Age" since the first game's release. She enjoys exploring and explaining the characters and lore.

Concept art of the Dalish Warden.

Concept art of the Dalish Warden.

As I've mentioned on other articles, the Dalish Warden was the first Warden I ever played in Dragon Age: Origins. This was due in large part to my unhealthy obsession with the elves of the Lord of the Rings franchise. I wanted to play an elf who, like Arwen, married a human and became their queen. Boy, did that backfire.

After Mahariel, I played a dwarven princess, then an elf mage, a city elf, and finally, a human noble. I actually enjoyed all the origins but my favorites were the elven ones, plus the dwarven princess.

Because Mahariel was my very first Warden, she was my favorite for a long time. I've roleplayed the Warden as the male Theron, but I enjoy playing as Lyna, the female version (for obvious reasons . . . I am a woman). So because I have more experience playing Lyna, that's the version of Mahariel I'll be discussing here.

Welcome to my analysis of the Dalish Warden.

Quick Trivia

My Lyna Mahariel reluctantly follows Tamlen to the mirror.

My Lyna Mahariel reluctantly follows Tamlen to the mirror.

Fun trivia: the Dalish Warden origin wasn't even supposed to exist!

Originally, the developers wanted two origins for each race, so we have dwarf commoner/noble, human noble/mage, and city elf/mage elf.

The developers wanted the Dalish and their culture to seem foreign, hostile, and strange, so it wasn't going to be playable. This is why Mahariel is the only origin who never sees her clan again or in any way returns to her point of origin, while also having the least connection to the overall plot in Origins.

But David Gaider wrote such an interesting (in my opinion) origin for the Dalish Warden that it was added at the last minute. This is pretty funny to me, since the Dailsh Warden wound up becoming so symbolically integral to the overall story three games later ("symbolic" because it doesn't really matter choice-wise if she was the Warden, but having her as Warden makes the world more interesting).

The Dalish Warden. . .

  • Is the origin that introduces eluvians, which wind up being important later.
  • Ties the three games together with the inclusion of Merrill, more eluvians, more elven lore, Flemeth's fondness for the Dalish (expressed in Inquisition), and Solas the Dalish-hating ass being an antagonist.
  • Actually does have ties to everything in the game with the exception of Orzammar: the Dalish Warden would have an opinion on the mage/templar conflict because of her people's struggles with magic (in Origins you discover during Wynne's personal quest that her apprentice is living free as a Dalish); the Dalish Warden has special dialogue in the alienage; and the Dalish Warden would care who sits on the Fereldan throne, since it would directly impact her people (if Anora is chosen without Alistair, she is pretty hard on the elves).
  • Could be seen as having a tie to both Ameridan and Dalish Elf Inquisitor. Three prominent Dalish stood up to protect the world, proving that the Dalish aren't as terrible as some think and that nothing is black and white (which fits the franchise theme of "gray morality").
  • Gets a lot of content in the DLC Witch Hunt. As if to make up for the lack of content in the main game, the Dalish Warden returns to the ruins where their story began, they get a Dalish follower, and they learn more about Dalish lore, making them the most relevant Warden for the DLC.
  • Has the most interesting Awakening playthrough as well. Awakening makes the most sense as a Dalish elf because the nobles try to assassinate you when you're made arl over the arling (if I recall correctly). It makes no sense to try and assassinate the human noble Warden, but a Dalish elf (or any other origin, for that matter) ruling humans? That's something that would ruffle some feathers. Also, one of your followers is Velanna, a Dalish elf on a redemption arc similar to Mahariel's. Because of this, the Warden becomes a sort of mentor to her.

Mahariel is an Orphan

Ashelle tells the story of Mahariel's parents.

Ashelle tells the story of Mahariel's parents.

Only three of the Wardens begin the game with dead parents. That's a surprisingly low number considering that most RPGs begin with the burning of the protagonist's homeland and/or the slaughter of their family.

  • There's the elven mage, Surana, who doesn't know where her family is. The entire theme of her story is that she makes a new family with Irving and Jowan.
  • Then there's the human noble, Cousland, whose parents die during the origin.
  • The dwarven princess doesn't count because her father doesn't die until half-way through the game, and I'm discussing Wardens who started out orphans.
  • Also, Amell's parents might still be alive. I can't remember what was said in Dragon Age 2.

So like a few of the other Wardens, Mahariel's parents are both dead when the origin starts. Ashelle is the woman who raised her. You can speak to Ashelle after the first act to discover that your father was murdered by bandits and your mother abandoned you to commit suicide in the forest.

Mahariel can respond to this with anger, learning that city elves killed her father and that her mother was "foolish and weak" enough to abandon her (so city elves aren't so noble and innocent as some fans make them out to be . . .).

I love having Mahariel take the angry "foolish and weak" line because then Ashelle will remark that Mahariel will understand some day when she's fallen love. This is a prophecy that always comes true in my games, as Mahariel always falls in love and usually sacrifices herself in the end, meeting the same tragic fate as her mother.

While I love using a mod to knock Morrigan up as a girl and live happily ever after, it makes for an interesting story (and a better redemption arc) to have Mahariel die in the end . . . mirroring her mother.

Mahariel's Father Met Maric and Loghain

The first "Dragon Age" novel in the series.

The first "Dragon Age" novel in the series.

I have read all the Dragon Age novels up to The Masked Empire. I stopped reading after that because with the release of Inquisition (the game where Bioware had so much fun thoroughly vilifying the Dalish. But I suppose I should have see it coming after what they did to the mages . . .), I had decided I was done with anything new the franchise released.

My bitterness aside, The Stolen Throne is the first book in the series. It details how a young Loghain, King Maric, and Queen Rowan go on a crusade to take back their kingdom from Orlais.

It pretty much details how and why Loghain is the Orlais-hating, paranoid, delusional man that he is, while also setting up Origins for some deliberate parallels:

  • In the book, Loghain, Maric, and Rowan were kids barely out of their teens yet carried the tremendous burden of saving their country and securing its future and freedom. Meanwhile, the Warden, Alistair, and Morrigan are barely out of their teens and yet are expected to save the entire world.
  • Loghain is put in the position of the Warden. Everyone constantly looks to him for guidance, forcing him into a leadership role that he resents in the beginning. Eventually, he accepts that he's a hero and even begins to think he's the only person who can get things done (much to his detriment later in Origins).
  • Rowan and Elisa Cousland, as well as Maric and Alistair, are more examples of history repeating itself.

These parallels aside, we also learn that just about every origin had a tie to Maric, Loghain, and Rowan. During their campaign against the Orlesians, the Couslands helped in the war, and Maric made allies with the dwarven king, who was the dwarven princess' father. He also worked closely with the mages (Shale's master), and even recruited the Dalish.

This is where my babbling gets to the point.

There's a scene in the book where Maric and Loghain get lost in the Korkari Wilds. They are captured by Dalish, who then hand them over to Asha'bellanar . . . or as we more commonly know her, Flemeth.

The leader of the Dalish clan who interrogates Maric and Loghain is a friendly, brown-haired mage who is also implied to be keeper.

When you start the game as a Dalish, the default Dalish Warden has brown hair.

Also, Mahariel's father was a mage and keeper of his clan, while Mahariel's mother was a hunter. They would meet in the forest because their affair wasn't approved by the clan. It's likely that they wanted Mahariel to breed with another mage and pass on his magic. (Breeding to preserve magic was the goal of the Dalish before the retcon in the third game.)

Given how the developers love tying the various Wardens into the world, it makes sense that Mahariel's father would have been the one to save Maric and Loghain. Interestingly enough, he was kind and didn't just kill the humans on sight. Validates the roleplay option to play Mahariel as taking after their father and being kind. But . . . I like the idea of a redemption arc way too much.

More fun trivia: the Dalish keepers and mages are believed to be descendants of Dalish royalty. So Mahariel, the child of a keeper, is royalty!

Jerk-Mahariel Makes Sense

My screen capture of Lyna and Tamlen threatening humans.

My screen capture of Lyna and Tamlen threatening humans.

There are a lot of fans who hate the elf-loving portion of the fandom and accuse us of romanticizing the Dalish elves and making them out to be innocent in their endless struggle with the humans. I feel these are people who never played the Dalish Warden in Origins, or else they wouldn't see elf fans this way (again, it's more city elf fans who are like that).

Because the Dalish Warden is pretty much set up to be a racist asshole from the start, and any elf fan in the Dragon Age fandom would know this.

Yes, the elves in Dragon Age are tragic but they are not innocent. No one in Dragon Age is. All races are a direct subversion of the races in Lord of the Rings. So while the elves in LOTRs are holy and pure and worship starlight, the elves in Dragon Age slaughter humans and cackle while doing it.

Three humans cower from the Dalish Warden and Tamlen.

Three humans cower from the Dalish Warden and Tamlen.

As soon as the game opens, you are given the option to murder three unharmed, defenseless humans who make the mistake of wandering too near your camp.

But the choice to kill them can be rationalized, even if it is ultimately . .. evil. You just have to look at it from the perspective of a Dalish, whose people are constantly chased, harassed, and murdered by humans. After centuries of wandering due to constant human aggression, it makes sense that the Dalish would become angry, suspicious, paranoid, and violent.

Hate breeds hate. That's the rationalization for the Dalish Warden killing the humans, but it doesn't make it right.

In giving us the choice to make our character kill innocents, the writers have set the Dalish Warden up for a wonderful redemption arc. I remember how I noticed it right away and leapt on it: I had my Dalish murder the three humans (there's an option to just kill one or all of them. She went overboard), then spent most of the game hating humans and mocking them with Morrigan, only to look in the mirror one day and realize she was a sh*tty person.

When this realization hit her, she sacrificed herself to the Archdemon, leaving her lover Morrigan behind to grieve (I used the Equal Love mod after I got tired of Leliana, but better mods have come in the years since then).

My Lyna meets King Cailan.

My Lyna meets King Cailan.

And playing a racist Dalish elf actually made me like Cailan more, so that I feel I had a completely different perspective of him than most fans (who, sadly, hate Cailan and like Loghain, mistakenly think he's a child playing at war. Cailan is a naive child but not in the sense that Loghain and some fans think).

At the start of Ostagar, Cailan will greet the Warden happily. The elven Warden can dismiss him and refer to him as nothing but a human lord.

In the original shipped game, Cailan is hurt by this dismissal and quickly cuts the conversation short without snapping back at the Warden. It says a lot about his personality that he didn't have them punished in some way for that blatant disrespect. Even Wardens aren't above kings. Could you imagine if the Warden had talked that way to Vaughn? Or to one of the Couslands, who probably would have had them thrown out (the elves in Highever are very unhappy . . .).

There's also the fact that, once you've talked to a few people around the camp (Alistair, Loghain, Daveth, Jory, Wynne), you discover that King Cailan has been raving in excitement about your arrival. Duncan has bragged to everyone about you, and now they're all expecting the traditional hero of standard fantasy fiction. In other words, they expect a tall, handsome, male human hero to come marching up, banner flying. Instead, this little smart-mouthed elf woman turns up. And on top of being a woman and an elf, she hates humans.

To me, subverting expectations at Ostagar makes playing anything but Aedan Cousland worth it.

I don't think Cailan (unlike the others in the camp) has a problem with the Warden being a woman or an elf. But the fact that she's racist likely punches a hole in his naive ideals of what elves are actually like and why they might hate humans.

If you're playing a city elf, Cailan asks about life in the alienage. He has no idea what the elves are going through under his reign because he is purposely kept oblivious by people who don't want to see the elves reach equality. Before the Warden, Cailan has probably never spoken to an elf as an equal.

The reason why all of this made me like him is because he actually tries to take the opportunity to learn about elves and their struggles by talking to you. He actually cares about his subjects and wants to help them!

Cailan takes my insults in stride.

Cailan takes my insults in stride.

There's also a fan made patch that restores cut dialogue and fixes common bugs. It restores some of the dialogue at Ostagar, which makes playing through that level more enjoyable.

With the fan made patch installed, instead of being hurt and rebuffed by the racist elven Warden, Cailan laughs and allows the Warden's insults to roll off him, instead smiling and continuing to welcome her. You can see his altered/restored dialogue in the picture above.

It made me have more respect for Cailan because he was confident and didn't care what the Warden thought of him, still respected her abilities as a warrior, and wanted to welcome her anyway.

All of this caught my Dalish Warden off-guard. She's never in her life been respected by a human before Duncan. She kind of hates Duncan for stealing her from her clan, and she knows that he needs her for the Blight, so she doesn't trust his respect.

But this human king, who could have had her elf-ass hanged, laughed off her insults and welcomed her as an equal anyway! My Dalish was so delighted and surprised that she respected Cailan immediately and saw him as a king who could possibly mend the rift between humans and elves if only he could make more humans behave like him.

Cailan's "I don't care what you think/I'm a good person" attitude was so much more attractive than the hurt, recoiling response he has in the original shipped game. Why they cut that dialogue baffles me. Maybe they wanted Cailan to seem more childlike, and so they had him act hurt.

Of course, all of Cailan's responses are hilarious to every origin. If you arrive as the city elf and tell him that you killed an arl, it's worth it just to see and hear his shock. . . .lol.

My Lyna and Tamlen look in the mirror.

My Lyna and Tamlen look in the mirror.

Having your Dalish start off racist and cruel, realize they are wrong, and then try to change seems to be the entire premise of the Dalish Warden's arc. Because roleplaying them as someone who is kind from the get-go is really boring and not nearly as satisfying as having them go from villain to hero.

Especially since their antagonist is a man going from hero to villain.

I pity Morrigan if you make her sleep with that.

I pity Morrigan if you make her sleep with that.

By the time you get to the landsmeet, Loghain dismisses you as a "wild elf" and is in-your-face racist, telling everyone not to listen to you because you aren't even human. It's a moment that stings extra hard if your character began as an actual wild elf who was racist and slaughtered humans for fun. If your character was all sweetness and light, then Loghain's racist comments are mildly annoying but that's it.

And there are several moments where being a Dalish who used to be racist and cruel comes back to bite the Warden in the ass with a rush of guilt: the Urn of Sacred Ashes, dealing with Zathrian, making friends with humans like Morrigan and Alistair and realizing they're just people, looking at Loghain and seeing the person you/the Warden could have become . . .

Basically, following a redemption arc makes for more interesting roleplay. Playing a Dalish is really boring if you start off sweet and nice. Dalish aren't suppose to be sweet and nice. They are people hardened by hardship and oppression. It makes perfect sense that they'd be assholes.

Merrill in Dragon Age 2 was a subversion of this (much the way Liara in Mass Effect was supposed to be the opposite of asari stripper stereotypes), but even she calls Hawke a shemlen when she gets angry (shemlen is a slur).

The Mirror is a Metaphor

My Lyna with Keeper Marethari.

My Lyna with Keeper Marethari.

I also feel the mirror is a metaphor for the redemption arc that Mahariel was set up to go through. Because the moment Mahariel looks in the mirror is the moment her entire life changes and she sets out on a course to become a hero.

The darkspawn in Dragon Age are themselves a metaphor. The darkspawn are twisted, corrupted versions of the races of Thedas: the ogres come from qunari, the shrieks come from elves, the genlocks come from dwarves, and the hurlocks come from humans.

They are the darkness in all of us, a darkness we must overcome to make the world a better place. The darkspawn are us.

So when Mahariel looks in the mirror and is overrun by darkspawn, she is doing little more than looking in the mirror and seeing her own darkness. As a result, she is the only Warden to become tainted during her origin and is forced to join the Grey Wardens in order to overcome the taint by becoming a hero . . . aka overcoming her own darkness.

Duncan recruits the Dalish Warden.

Duncan recruits the Dalish Warden.

A lot of people dislike this origin because it feels like you're recruited because you're Duncan's charity case, rather than a badass who impressed him. If you don't join, you will die. If you refuse to join, you are forced to. But in reality, the Dalish Warden becoming tainted and having to overcome it is just the perfect metaphor for their redemption arc.

Tamlen becomes a Shriek.

Tamlen becomes a Shriek.

Meanwhile, Tamlen is left to become a shriek.

Toward the middle of the game, a bunch of darkspawn will attack the camp. Among them is Tamlen, who is turning into a shriek. He begs you to kill him. He's in agony.

The scene is tragic if Mahariel had an implied romance with Tamlen. She is forced to kill her lover to end his misery. But even if Tamlen is just a friend, it's still pretty messed up.

Alistair has a word of kindness, and because he's the default companion (aka the only one guaranteed to be there), he's the only one with recorded lines and a brief scene.

But it was a nice touch, showing what could have become of the Warden if she hadn't been given a chance at redemption. And since all the origins happen regardless of which one you choose to play, that means not choosing Mahariel results in her actually becoming one of the shrieks that always attack the camp, since Duncan wouldn't have been there to save her.

Pretty sad when you think about it.

Hating Duncan is Hilarious

Duncan confesses that he broke the mirror.

Duncan confesses that he broke the mirror.

Another great reason for playing Dalish is all the lines you can get where the Warden hates Duncan. It pisses off Alistair everytime you sh*t on his father figure, which made for a great love-hate relationship between Alistair and my Mahariel the first time I played.

In most of the origins, Duncan is a savior who shows up to rescue the Warden at the last minute. He saves Surana/Amell from being made Tranquil; he saves Brosca from execution; he saves Tabris likewise from execution; and he saves Aeducan from dying in the deep roads.

Some people who love the human noble origin hate Duncan for snatching them away from their parents in the middle of an attack on Highever, but I never felt that was logical. What was the point staying there and dying with your parents when you were needed elsewhere? Duncan saved your life!

No. To me, the only origin where hating Duncan is completely rational is the Dalish Warden origin.

Mahariel has a good life. They live free in the forest with a clan that loves and cares for them. They could easily travel north and avoid the Blight (which her clan does in Dragon Age 2) and never have to give their lives fighting darkspawn in service to the same humans who oppress them . . . And yet, here comes Duncan, insisting that they come with him and become a Grey Warden.

My Lyna and Merrill look for Tamlen.

My Lyna and Merrill look for Tamlen.

If you pay close attention, it's obvious that Duncan manipulated the Dalish Warden into coming with him. When you return to camp from your search for Tamlen, Keeper Marethari becomes a little pissed at Duncan for smashing the mirror. She had intended to use the mirror to cure the taint in Mahariel. And indeed, we learn in Dragon Age 2 that this was entirely possible, as Merrill cleanses the taint from the mirror herself and becomes obsessed with the fact that she could have saved Mahariel if not for Duncan.

Duncan then takes the keeper aside and explains that he needs Mahariel to become a Grey Warden. Once the keeper realizes how serious the Blight is, she encourages the Warden to go with Duncan.

Duncan basically smashed the mirror so that you would be forced to join the Grey Wardens for a cure. He didn't do this to be an asshole but because he is a pragmatist. He saw how you handled yourself in the ruins against darkspawn, he saw that you had the willpower to survive the taint, and he knew you would make a good Grey Warden. You were needed, so he did whatever nefarious thing he had to to get you in his clutches.

My Mahariel meets Duncan for the first time.

My Mahariel meets Duncan for the first time.

Of course, Mahariel is very young, emotionally immature, and doesn't understand this. She can be played as very rude to Duncan and as hating him for stealing her away from her life. And if you so chose, her bitterness can go on well after Ostagar, with her trashtalking Duncan to Alistair's face.

It reveals a lot about Alistair's character when you don't coddle him. In this instance, the Warden is angry about the fact that they weren't given much of a choice in joining. Alistair doesn't seem to care and wants them to respect Duncan . . .even though Alistair's entire arc is about how he resents not being given a choice about the templars. Becoming a Grey Warden was the first thing Alistair chose for himself, and that's why he's so keen on worshipping Duncan: Duncan was the first person to respect his autonomy.

Ironically, Duncan also disregarded the Dailsh Warden's autonomy to recruit her. She has every right to be as resentful of Duncan as Alistair is of Eamon for dumping him at the chantry . . . And yet, Alistair can't seem to make that connection (unless there's some dialogue I missed somewhere).

Unapologetically hating Duncan also just makes for some delightfully hilarious roleplay. If you've never done a playthrough where Alistair hated you, you seriously need to try it. His reaction every time you do something pragmatic or just straight up evil is . . . priceless.

"Does the word 'insane' mean anything to you????"

And it gets even better when you desecrate Andraste's ashes to become a reaver. Alistair babbles in the background about how you shouldn't do it, and the Warden's response is a very brief,

"Shut up, Alistair."

Lmao. I think people don't realize that Alistair was meant to be annoying. All the lines the Warden has telling him to shut up or otherwise mocking him are there for that specific reason: he was meant to annoy us and annoying him back is supposed to be entertaining. And it is. Alistair is a wonderful character in this regard, but as a person, he is so easy to despise simply because he won't stop whining.

Most players don't bother trying the dark, pragmatic, "evil" choices because they want to be a hero and/or they hate being mean to the characters in the game. But this a video game! Have fun!

And given the entire set up of the Dalish origin, Mahariel is the perfect Warden to roleplay as a pragmatic arsehole who hates Alistair, hates Duncan, hates the Grey Wardens, and makes all the hard, realistic choices, like abandoning Redcliffe, killing Connor, putting Bhelen on the throne, keeping the Anvil, etc.

Being an idealistic hero who always saves the day is great. But it's also fantasy. The thing about Dragon Age is that it's a fantasy world that attempts to be realistic. In this world, noble, idealistic heroes are burned at the stake (Andraste).

Dragon Age took inspiration from A Song of Fire and Ice and as a result, is supposed to be grimdark. At least, that was the case with Origins.

Happy Endings Are Nice Too

Fan art of elven female Warden and Morrigan.

Fan art of elven female Warden and Morrigan.

Of course, one thing I love about Origins is that it gives you a choice. Things don't have to be grimdark. You can go for a happy ending or a sad ending as you please on each playthrough. So there were times when I sacrificed the Dalish Warden for the tragic ending, and there were times where I let her live. And both endings were great.

In fact, I loved this so much that I brought the concept over to Mass Effect 3. I installed a mod that would allow me to choose (depending on my story choices and readiness score) whether or not Shepard lived or died at the end. I did some playthroughs where Shepard died, leaving poor Liara behind to weep over her helmet, and I also did some happy playthroughs where Shepard lived. . . . and it was awesome.

The Dalish Warden doesn't have to sacrifice herself to redeem herself. She could end the Fifth Blight, save the world, and as a reward for her all her hard work, she disappears into a mirror with Morrigan and lives happily ever after, raising her kid. Thus, her story begins with a mirror and ends with a mirror, coming full circle.

Thank you Bi Overhaul mod.