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"Dragon Age: Origins" (2009): The Mage 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.

Warden Mage Surana official concept art.

Warden Mage Surana official concept art.

I love playing mages in video games, so the entire mage/templar conflict in the Dragon Age franchise has always intrigued me. As a result, the elf mage Warden, Surana, has always been one of my favorite wardens.

After the dwarf noble, I feel she has a very compelling arc regarding friendship and betrayal, and it provides a lot of great role playing opportunities, especially if you're going to romance Morrigan, an apostate (illegal) mage or Alistair, a former templar (aka mage hunter).

Though I love Surana, I also love the human mage Amell—but I'll be honest. That's mostly because Warden Amell is the cousin of Hawke, the protagonist from Dragon Age 2.

I never really got into roleplaying Amell before Dragon Age 2 because, for me, playing an elf mage made the game more interesting and it also made the character more relatable.

The elf mage has to contend with hatred for mages, hatred for elves, and hatred for women throughout the game. I relate to this because I'm a black lesbian (racism, sexism, homophobia) so I know what it's like to stand at an intersection of hatred. Why wouldn't I be drawn to embodying a character like this, who overcomes these social barriers to save the entire world?

That being said, most of my analysis will focus on Surana, not Amell.

Let us begin.

The Mage Warden's Background

My Surana Warden outwits the Pride demon.

My Surana Warden outwits the Pride demon.

Unlike the other origins, we know little to nothing of Surana's background.

We know that Amell came from a noble family thanks to Dragon Age 2, and that she was sent away to the tower at a young age, something which seemed to prompt Hawke's mother into desperately hiding her mage children.

But in Dragon Age: Origins, we know nothing of Amell, and all we know of Surana is that she was either from Lothering or was a city elf who was taken from the alienage in Denerim. This is something she can say in dialogue when asked about her family during the origin.

It was like this on purpose because the mage Warden's origin is supposed to be about her lack of family and how she tried to create one instead inside the Circle with Jowan, a sibling, and Enchanter Irving, who is supposed to be a father figure.

The Warden's Isolation

Jowan as he appears in "Dragon Age: Origins."

Jowan as he appears in "Dragon Age: Origins."

Through dialogue choices with Jowan during the origin, we learn that he and the Warden have been friends since they were both dumped at the tower as children.

Jowan discusses his mother cursing him and calling him a demon and disowning him for his magic. So his father takes him to the Chantry and just leaves him there. Eventually, he is taken to the Circle Tower.

Later after the events at Redcliffe, the Warden can ask Jowan why he would betray her when they had been friends for so long. Jowan will admit that he was jealous of her tremendous magic power.

The Warden, after all, is quite famous for her skill. So much to the point that Duncan comes all the way to the tower to recruit her specifically. And she is known by those in the tower as Irving's "star pupil."

But she is also feared.

Knight Commander Greagoir as he appears in the game.

Knight Commander Greagoir as he appears in the game.

In fact, it was the Warden's very power that isolated and confined her. I believe this is why she has only one friend and no romance in the her origin, unlike practically every other origin where the Warden has friends, a family, and a lover.

The Mage Warden is alone.

Having Knight Commander Greagoir always breathing down her neck because he's afraid of her turning on the tower meant that other mages steered clear of the Warden. Even the templar Cullen, who has a crush on her, is too terrified of her to really make a move, instead hiding behind the pretense of duty and honor.

Interestingly enough, Jowan does not observe that the mage Warden is lonely and isolated because of her power. Instead, he envies her! Which, I think, has more to do with his feelings of self-worth as a result of his mother's abuse and neglect (man, these characters were so wonderfully written).

Trying to be a blood mage was Jowan's way of trying to be as good as the Warden. Instead, he got caught, lied to his friend—and his lover's!—face about it, and took them all down with him.

Basically, Jowan was willing to throw the Warden under the bus and risk imprisonment and torture for his lover, Lily, if it meant he got to escape the Circle and becoming a Tranquil.

This is what makes Jowan's betrayal so sad, deep, and thoroughly infuriating.

Betraying Jowan Makes Sense

Enchanter Irving as he appears in the game.

Enchanter Irving as he appears in the game.

There are two ways that you can role play the Warden.

The first way? As someone who is naive and completely trusting of Jowan, believing him to be their friend.

The second way? As someone who knows Jowan well enough to tell when he is lying. You can actually ask Jowan straight-up if he is a blood mage. This occurs while he is standing in the Chantry hall with Lily. When asked, he stammers a great deal and has shifty eyes.

And instead of letting herself get thrown under the bus, the Warden can go to Enchanter Irving and betray Jowan before he can betray her, thus securing her own survival.

I have done both paths, and I prefer to betray Jowan.

This is largely because the Mage Warden was raised by Enchanter Irving, who is like a father to her. And the mage origin shows that Irving is a conniving and ruthless politician, constantly sparring for what little power he can gain in order to protect his mages and the Circle from the ruthlessness of the templars and the Chantry.

A cool Enchanter Irving mod I can't find.

A cool Enchanter Irving mod I can't find.

If you go to Irving and tell him that Jowan is planning to escape with Lily, a Chantry sister, Irving will devise a plan to get both of them caught, so that the Chantry is embarrassed and exposed.

The Warden can call Irving vicious for this, but it's mere politics. Taking the Chantry down a peg insures that they don't purge the Circle over one blood mage because they would have to purge their own. It's pragmatic and cruel but a necessary cruelty.

This is the man that the Mage Warden was raised by. It only makes sense that she would learn from him and be as cunning, pragmatic, and cruel when the need arises. So why wouldn't she betray Jowan and Lily to secure her own survival? Getting caught helping them could have easily made her Tranquil given Greagoir's paranoia, but with Irving to back her, she has a chance to avoid a harsher punishment.

Of course, if you choose to play the Mage Warden as naive and trusting, things magically work out for her anyway. But I enjoy the story more knowing that my character took charge of her destiny and tried to prevent herself from being used and betrayed by her own friend.

Also, again, it just makes sense that the Mage Warden would be a pragmatist after having been raised by a father figure like Irving.

Uldred as he appears in "Dragon Age: Origins."

Uldred as he appears in "Dragon Age: Origins."

And yet, on the other hand, Irving is also so confident in his own cunning that he doesn't even notice Uldred is recruiting blood mages under his very nose. In fact, he trusts and respects Uldred and believes they are friends, and this is how Uldred gets away with building his secret army and eventually taking over the Circle.

Like Jowan, Uldred had good intentions. Using blood magic began with simply wanting his freedom and independence and became something dark, as Loghain going back on his promise to free the Circle is what ultimately ticked Uldred off.

This is why it's just as valid to roleplay a Warden who is actually fooled by Jowan, her blood mage friend. The parallels between the two friendships are deliberate.

I guess I prefer betraying Jowan because I don't like my character looking like a naive fool.

Irving and Jowan at Redcliffe.

Irving and Jowan at Redcliffe.

But no matter which choice you make, it's my belief that Irving set you up to get conscripted by Duncan. He already knew what Jowan was up to and isn't remotely surprised when you come to tattle. This is why he is always there with Greagoir right as you are leaving the basement. This is also why Duncan mysteriously appears just in time to save you.

You're Irving's favorite and he would do anything you ask, even travel a day across the lake to help save a possessed child. Even allow Jowan into the Fade when it's against his better judgement.

He knew he couldn't protect you from Tranquility or execution or Aeonar, so he set you up to get conscripted. He didn't betray you.

Irving saved you.

Roleplaying Redcliffe

The Redcliffe Dungeons where Jowan is encountered.

The Redcliffe Dungeons where Jowan is encountered.

Another reason I love playing as Mage Surana is that it makes the events at Redcliffe personal and gives the Warden a huge amount of roleplay for the first half of the game that the other Wardens just don't get.

Straight out of Ostagar, the Warden is advised to go to Redcliffe, where they discover their traitor-friend, Jowan, is the cause for an army of undead attacking the village each night.

The Warden doesn't know it's Jowan until after the battle, which can make for some interesting roleplay depending on whether or not they chose to defend the village. For example, if your Warden chooses to abandon Redcliffe for the night, they might return, discover Jowan is behind it, and then feel guilty, as they might blame themselves for letting Jowan escape the tower.

Talking to Jowan at length and choosing to release him or keep him imprisoned is also more meaningful when you actually know him. You can choose to play a bitter Warden who calls him a fool or you can open the door and let him run to freedom.

Given that you're a mage who actually understands demons and magic, it would also make sense in this origin to leave Redcliffe and venture to the Circle Tower to find help for Connor.

Possessed Connor and Isolde.

Possessed Connor and Isolde.

On the surface, this choice makes no sense and is actually really . . . dumb. After all, why should a demon that has been wrecking the village giddily for days suddenly stop and put everything on hold while you sail across the lake, which is a day's journey away?

Realistically, you should return to find everyone in the village dead and the demon cackling manically, right? Actually, no. If you talk to Connor before leaving the castle, he gives you a good reason why it's actually safe to leave: the demon is afraid of you.

Connor explains that the demon has run away because she's terrified of the Warden. And why shouldn't she be? The Warden just slaughtered her way through the demon's entire undead army. And if the Warden is a mage, it makes even more sense, as they can easily enter the Fade and end the demon once and for all.

So in essence, the demon and the Warden are at a stalemate. The demon knows she's beat and is merely waiting for a chance to negotiate (this is why she tries to make a deal in the Fade. She . . . doesn't want to die). Meanwhile, the Warden (depending on how you play her) would like to avoid killing Connor.

Again, it's a stalemate.

And it only makes sense if you're playing a mage. The only time I kill Connor is when I'm not playing a mage. My other Wardens would never risk the entire village for a magic ritual they aren't even sure would work. Especially my dwarves, who don't understand magic at all and believe it makes the most sense to just kill Connor and be done with it.

Killing Connor also rewards you with a (hilarious) scene where Isolde shrieks and begs and you get to (yay!) knock her out.

Ah, the wonders of roleplaying.

Returning to the Tower

The Circle Tower after Uldred's uprising.

The Circle Tower after Uldred's uprising.

Not every Warden gets to return to their origin point and reconnect with the NPCs from their past.

The Cousland Warden, for instance, never sees home again. They are unable as Howe is occupying it. And why would they want to so soon after the massacre of their family?

The Dalish Warden, likewise, never revisits her clan during the campaign and instead meets another clan, where some of the NPCs recognize her and even acknowledge her parents.

The other Wardens can return home and even have to face the consequences for their past actions. Kallian Tabris, the city elf, must face Soris and Shianni (who she may have betrayed for money) while the dwarven princess must face the fury of Orzammar for a crime she may not even have committed.

Both origins can prove pretty interesting because of this, but alas, you don't even get to return home until nearly the end of the game. Mage Surana, meanwhile, must return to the mage tower only a few weeks after leaving it, and is thus forced to face the consequences of her actions pretty early in her arc.

This is actually good because it happens before the quest for the Urn of Sacred Ashes, meaning the mage's arc resolves by the time she has to answer questions about it.

In other words, it makes for a more coherent story. Things just seem to happen in a neat and orderly fashion for the Mage Warden and she feels more personally involved in the game's main plot even more than a Cousland, who was supposed to be the default (not canon) Warden.

More Roleplay with Pointy Ears

My Surana Warden talks with Jowan.

My Surana Warden talks with Jowan.

The largest reason I prefer playing Surana over Amell is the roleplay aspect of it.

As I explained further up, I like playing underdogs who rise to the top. It has to do with being an underdog in real life, naturally. Also, because I'm an underdog in real life, I just can't identify with playing someone like, say, Cousland or the Princess Aeducan, who both had pretty privileged lives.

Technically, both of these Wardens are princesses given that the Couslands were second in line for the throne and were practically royalty. These two Wardens were respected and even admired by default, just for existing as they are. It's the exact opposite of what it's like to be a minority. I have never in my life been respected and admired for being a black lesbian . . . more like assumed to be a stereotype and dismissed (and/or hated for not being a stereotype because people can't confront their own racism).

So while I enjoyed playing the princess dwarf and the spoiled Cousland heir, I did not identify with their struggles, which comprised of losing their families and their wealth and privilege suddenly and in the most painful way. As someone who never had a loving family (the dwarven princess' father loved her, at least), and as someone who never had wealth and privilege, I can pity these characters, but I can't identify with them.

Even the Amell Mage, while still oppressed for possessing magic, is still better off than the elven mage. Both were snatched from their families at a young age, but Amell was a noble and was snatched from a relatively easy life of privilege, while Surana was either taken from Lothering (the peasant countryside) or Denerim Alienage (which we learn in-game is ruled by some pretty horrible humans).

In short, I identify more with characters who share similar hardships to my own. It's not a shock. Most people want to play characters who are like them so that they can self-insert and project themselves into a fantasy world. It's the entire reason that every default protagonist in every video game ever is a straight white male: these games are targeted at straight white males.

For this reason, the city elf, Tabris, was my favorite Warden for years. Then I finally got into playing a mage, which turned out to be pretty awesome, and Surana became my canon.

Mages are the best.

Choosing Jowan's Fate

Jowan at Redcliffe.

Jowan at Redcliffe.

In the end, you can choose to help Jowan redeem himself or you can hold on to your anger, save Connor yourself, and then even kill Jowan for what he did.

Your choices are, as always, about defining your character.

Whenever I play a mage, I find myself choosing to let Jowan redeem himself. I always wind up doing this because he seems sincere about making up for all the bad he did. And because he's my Warden's only family, she gives him a chance, even when Irving scolds her and is completely against it.

And after the events are said and done, you can execute Jowan yourself or let someone else do it.

I always choose to have my Warden execute Jowan. I feel she would do it to 1) protect him from being hurt further by Isolde's men (Jowan was tortured by them) and 2) as retribution for his deep betrayal of her trust.

I mean, if it hadn't been for Duncan, the Warden probably would have been made Tranquil or even flat-out executed. There would have been very little Irving could have done. And all because Jowan lied to her face and used her to get to his phylactery.

As Morrigan says in the game,

"There is no trial for apostates, no prisons, no mercy!"

The Circle is a prison, actually. But mages who flee it or break its rules are just killed or lobotomized without question. And while Anders from Dragon Age: Awakening was indeed arrested and brought back, he was still placed in solitary confinement for long months at a time, which is a very cruel and inhumane punishment.

Knowing this, what Jowan did was pretty callous. He only cared about saving his own butt from Greagoir's punishment, instead letting his best friend risk everything and take the fall for him. How much must it hurt the Warden to know that their only friend secretly hated them and envied them all along and was willing to let them become Tranquil, even while they were trying to save him!

This is another reason why I just have Surana execute Jowan herself. She doesn't have many options.

If she doesn't kill Jowan herself, the arl's knights are likely to beat down on Jowan some more and continue torturing him as payback for the devastation on the village and the loss of their families. No one deserves to be tortured.

Some fans don't understand.

Some fans don't understand.

But if the Warden sends Jowan back to the Circle Tower, he'll be made Tranquil, which in my opinion is a fate worse than death.

Your Warden is purposely given a chance to come to a conclusion about Tranquility during the origin for the very purpose of deciding Jowan's fate later. Jowan points her toward Owain, a Tranquil mage who insists that he's "happy" being an emotionless robot.

Your Warden can argue with Owain that his current state is monstrous or else they can naively believe that Tranquility is a "valid" option for mages. I put "valid" in quotations because it's not valid. At all.

Yes, the Tranquil are people and that should be respected. But that doesn't mean I have to agree with what's been done to them. Tranquility is a fantasy version of lobotomy. It's a monstrous practice. And it's even hinted in Dragon Age 2 that female mages are lobotomized so that templars can s*xually abuse them. A person who becomes Tranquil becomes a helpless victim to be used and controlled, as demonstrated by the franchise again and again (look what happened to the Tranquil in Dragon Age: Inquisition).

A Tranquil mage from "Dragon Age: 2."

A Tranquil mage from "Dragon Age: 2."

Fans are not "dehumanizing" the Tranquil by acknowledging that what's been done to them is abhorrent. Just because the Tranquil seem to enjoy being Tranquil doesn't mean it's good for them. People are emotional creatures and this leads us to be irrational. As a result, we enjoy a lot of things that are bad for us: recreational drugs, junk food, unprotected s*x, driving while drunk, self-mutilation . . . And yet, these things are objectively bad for us. How is being made into a zombie that won't object to r*pe any different?

Owain openly admits that he was so scared of the Harrowing that he asked to be made Tranquil, so his emotions led him to an irrational decision. To be clear, his emotions weren't irrational, his conclusions about them were. Owain is a victim who can't even recognize his own victimhood or the fact that what's been done to him is terrible. This is a classic example of what abusers want: someone so beaten down and unaware of their own abuse that they won't even fight back.

The Harrowing is a disgusting practice where mages are possessed by demons and are forced to fight them. If the mage loses, they die.

It's just a way of blackmailing a mage into becoming a compliant slave. They either die, they become Tranquil, or they face down a demon and somehow win after what is likely to be a traumatic experience in the Fade.

This is pretty awful. Being faced with death or lobotomy is not a real choice. It's blackmail. Owain was terrorized into becoming what he became. It's a sickening thing to use someone's emotions to manipulate them into compliance and strip them of their basic right to personal freedom.

If you talk to Alistair about being a templar, he'll tell you that he decided he wanted out of the Order the day he was forced to witness a demon-possessed girl get slain by templars during her Harrowing.

And when the Mage Warden goes through her own Harrowing, she meets spirits and demons alike (Mouse and Valor) who are disgusted by what's going on in the tower.

We are not supposed to see Tranquility as a valid option. We are supposed to see it for the travesty that it is, and our horror at the realization of what Jowan faces is supposed to motivate us to help him during our origin.

So becoming Tranquil rightfully terrifies Jowan. It's a fitting punishment if the Warden is still bitter that he was willing to let it happen to her. Or it's something to be avoided if the Warden has forgiven him on some level.

Again, it's about defining your Warden. I roleplay my Warden as caring enough about Jowan to protect him from becoming Tranquil, even if it means killing him. I feel that she still loves him as a friend, despite everything.

It just fits the story better for me.

In the End It's All About Defining Your Warden

Awesome Jowan fan art.

Awesome Jowan fan art.

So yes. I always execute Jowan myself. My character is always deeply hurt by his betrayal, calls him a fool to his face twice, and shows nothing but hostility and anger at Redcliffe. And yet, if anyone tries to hurt Jowan, she's lunging to defend him—from Lady Isolde, from Eamon, from everybody.

Because at the end of the day, the idiot is still a brother to her.

The story is good. And what makes it even better? If you romance Morrigan, your Warden finally gets a family of their own, one that can't be locked away in the Circle Tower. I always play women, though, so Leliana becomes my Surana's new family.

It makes for a pretty perfect character arc and a wonderful experience. Which is why I will be forever baffled that the Mage Warden is probably the least popular Warden.

Oh well. More Mage Warden for me.