Something occurred to me recently, when I was contemplating the outcomes of a Leliana!Divine world-state. Circles, imperfect as they arguably are, provide a contained environment with which to resolve a potential outbreak of possession. I acknowledge that, as you have opined, the Rite Of Annulment is a sub-optimal response to them; that said, even a less questionable solution would be easier to implement with the Nevarran Accord in place. How would the post-circle Thedas solve such events?
Well, that’s a bit of an understatement. I believe I said that the Right of Annulment is fucking evil. :)
I stand by that, absolutely. I don’t think it is ‘questionable’ or ‘sub optimal’. I think the indiscriminate murder of what may amount to hundreds of trapped and helpless people is a grotesque and horrific thing. I get these Asks, sometimes. And they all amount to ‘But when do we get to murder mages? Surely now we can murder mages? Surely this situation is bad enough that we can murder mages?’
My answer is never. You never get to murder mages without consequences. And let’s be clear here: my word is ‘murder’. If you are cornered by a mage, possessed or otherwise, who means to kill you, and you find you must kill them to survive, then you are acting in self defence. And that’s fine. But if you have arrived on the scene with the intent to kill, you are a murderer.
First thing: this business about Circles and the Annulment being set up to resolve possession scenarios. They’re not. Not at all. If they’ve ever actually accomplished that, it was incidental to their true purpose. However, I think in most cases the Circles (and in all cases Annulments) have made things worse rather than better. I know that safety is how the Chantry sells it, but the Chantry lies.
Let’s take a look at how all this got started:
In the 83rd year of the Glory Age, one of the mages of the Nevarran Circle was found practicing forbidden magic. The templars executed him swiftly, but this brewed discontent among the Nevarra Circle. The mages mounted several magical attacks against the templars, vengeance for the executed mage, but the knight-commander was unable to track down which were responsible.
Three months later, the mages summoned a demon and turned it loose against their templar watchers. Demons, however, are not easily controlled. After killing the first wave of templars who tried to contain it, the demon took possession of one of its summoners. The resulting abomination slaughtered templars and mages both before escaping into the countryside.
The grand cleric sent a legion of templars to hunt the fugitive. They killed the abomination a year later, but by that time it had slain 70 people.
Divine Galatea, responding to the catastrophe in Nevarra and hoping to prevent further incidents, granted all the grand clerics of the Chantry the power to purge a Circle entirely if they rule it irredeemable. This Right of Annulment has been performed 17 times in the last 700 years.
The Templars murdered a mage for practising ‘forbidden magic’. What did he do? We’ll probably never know. And that’s the root cause of the problem: Templars are empowered to perform summary executions, and are never held accountable for their actions. They are assumed to be justified in anything they do.
The Circle mages, finding themselves trapped in a building with a mob of religious fanatics who had just proved they were not even slightly above murder, retaliated. Apparently, they were really good at it. Targeted guerilla warfare that kept the Templars on the back foot, and for which they were never caught. I’d just like to pause for a moment to give a fucking standing ovation to the Glory Age Nevarran mages. It’s doubtful they were ever able to write down and disseminate their tactics. Nevertheless, they should be an inspiration for every generation that followed after.
Eventually, someone broke through the Templar lines. I’m not sure whether I believe the bit about the demon summoning. I’ll certainly concede that it’s possible: people do summon demons to fight their battles, and that can get very, very, very out of hand. But ‘demons’ and ‘blood magic’ are the Chantry’s go-to excuses for everything, and they’ve been caught out lying or misunderstanding these situations before. The mages were, as I said, doing really well. And they were Nevarran mages. This is a culture that knows how to work the Fade, and, given that this is early Chantry history, I’d expect traditional Nevarran practices to be more prominent and less suppressed by Chantry forces. I’d put Nevarran mages up there with Rivaini and Avvar in knowing how to handle spirits.
Someone got out, and they stayed free for a year. Given that a ‘legion’ of Templars were sent after them (from context I’m not entirely sure if the author means 5,000 (ish) Templars, like they sent in the Roman army, or if she just means ‘a lot’ but I suspect the latter because bloody hell, that’s a lot of Templars), and they were pursuing them over the course of that time, I would guess that the 70 people killed were mostly, if not entirely, the pursuing Templars.
Whoever this was, possessed or not, they conducted an extremely effective rebellion against the Chantry and Circle systems. They, as well as the other mages involved, demonstrated that Templars could be resisted. And not just resisted: killed. They could be taken out in large numbers. You can just walk out of a Circle.
That could never be allowed to happen again.
The Right of Annulment meant that, back at the stage where the mages were just ‘mount[ing] several magical attacks against the Templars’, the Templars could just go in and slaughter everybody, without making any effort to discover who was behind the rebellion.
The Right of Annulment is a terror tactic, aimed at suppressing rebellion. The Circle system exists to oppress and contain mages, both for the financial and political gain of the Chantry, and because Orlesian culture is genuinely anti-magic and wants to suppress magic in other cultures. None of this is done for anyone’s safety.
Look at the other times it’s occurred (where we have any details to discuss):
The third time the Right of Annulment was invoked on a Circle of Magi, in 3:09 Towers, Knight-Commander Gervasio of Antiva killed all of the city’s mages for demonic possession. However, a massacre may have already occurred at the hands of Knight-Captain Nicolas, with the Right invoked as cover-up. The Seekers of Truth later apprehended Ser Nicholas, who had left the order to kill mages and admitted to having murdered over a hundred.
Ser Nicholas murdered a bunch of mages, both inside the Circle and out, and the other Templars killed any survivors to prevent retaliation or attempts to seek justice. This is a perfect case of the process Galatea implemented working exactly as intended: the Antivan mages were never given the chance to organise and resist the way the Nevarran mages did. They also claimed they did it because of mass demonic possession, which is why I’m suspicious of the original Glory Age event.
The Annulment in the Broken Circle quest was called due to Uldred’s rebellion:
Uldred will show us the way. Finally, recognition within the Circle and freedom from the scornful eye of the templars. We will not be shunned. Be ready.
–Enchanter Gravid, Libertarian
The time is drawing near. Uldred has brought his intentions to light and a confrontation is all but inevitable. We will separate or walk with our brothers, but we will be free.
–Enchanter Boson, Libertarian
If blood must be shed and used, so be it. I will follow when he calls. The yoke must be released, whatever the cost.
–Enchanter Prist, Libertarian
I have spoken to him directly. His intentions are that we will demand the templars withdraw. I don’t know that I am willing to follow, but I will be present to hear his argument.
–Enchanter Fonst, Aequitarian
Madness! I doubt blood will be of use to you if it is flowing down the tower steps. Step away from this folly, before it consumes us all.
–Enchanter Luvan, Loyalist
The call is made. We will stride out of here with pride in our step, regardless of outcome. This is for the good of the circle. Uldred will see to it.
I can’t take any Templar handwringing over this situation seriously when I have to note that this is, once again, a rebellion. Uldred and his allies had an actual plan: with Loghain’s backing they were going to force the Templars out of the Circle. It is entirely within Templar interests to kill all of these people.
This is also a rare case where we can actually confirm a demon outbreak in the Circle. It is thus a clear example of why ‘containment’, as you’ve put it, is cruel, counterproductive, and indeed itself an outright evil.
If you are confronted by a demon, and lack the strength to fight it, the best thing you can do is leave. The Circle system does not allow mages to do that. They are unable to get away from the demons hunting them, and have no choice but to confront them.
Because the mages could not leave the Circle, what started with a single case of demonic possession, when Uldred fucked up a summoning spell, became a plague. While the timeline on this is somewhat murky, the events of Broken Circle likely took place over two or three days: during that time both mages and Templars who were trapped in the Circle were hunted down by demons and either killed or possessed. This was always bad, but the Circle made it a nightmare.
The Annulment in the Kirkwall Chantry was largely called because Meredith is a terrible person who likes to hurt mages … but, it can certainly be framed as a reaction to what she perceives as open rebellion:
Varric: The more she squeezed the mages, the more they resisted. The more they resisted, the tighter she squeezed.
Mages have been attempting to flee Meredith’s brutal regime in the Gallows for years:
Here in Kirkwall, citizens actually help rebel mages escape. Escaped apostates have survived their freedom long enough to form the “the mage underground,” a network that feeds and shelters escapees and even transports apostates into remote areas of the Free Marches and beyond our easy reach.
We can’t trust the raiders’ promise of passage - the templar’s bounty on us is far too tempting. Press on every contact you have! We must leave Kirkwall before the knight-commander does something drastic. Each night, more of our brethren make it to the coast.
If the hounds sniff out your current location, the other site we discussed is clear. Be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.
Ultimately, of course, Meredith used Anders’s attack on the Kirkwall Chantry as a pretext for the slaughter. That had fuck all to do with the Circle mages, but it didn’t need to: the Kirkwall mages were already attempting to escape their oppression in large numbers. That couldn’t be permitted. ‘Anders’, ‘demonic possession’, ‘blood magic’ – in the end, any excuse will do, when the point of an Annulment is to both crush the present rebellion and deter anyone who thinks about trying again.
When we heard of the injustices against our fellow mages at the White Spire, the Circle of Magi in Val Royeaux, I feared what was to come. Our Circle at Dairsmuid is small and isolated; it exists largely as a façade to appease the Chantry.
When the other Circles rose up, the Chantry sent Seekers across the bay from Ayesleigh to investigate. They found us mixing freely with our families, training female mages in the traditions of the seers, and denounced us as apostates. Perhaps they thought we were spineless robes who could be intimidated with a little bloodshed. Before I was first enchanter, I was the daughter of Captain Revaud, of the Felicisima Armada. I know how to plan a battle.
They brought with them a small army of templars. We fought. And we might have won. But they invoked the Right of Annulment, with all the unrelenting brutality that allowed. It is their right to put screaming apprentices to the sword, burn our “tainted” libraries, crush irreplaceable artifacts under their heels, tear down the very walls of our home. No mage has the right to disagree.
We of the Dairsmuid Circle wait now, behind barricades. I have sent word to our brother and sister mages of this outrage. When they break through, we will not die alone.
The Annulment at Dairsmuid happened because a large-scale rebellion was already underway. The Dairsmuid Circle is clearly sympathetic to the rebellion – Rivella clearly calls the events at the White Spire an injustice – but given that they are a small Circle, practically speaking they probably couldn’t add much might to the uprising. This Annulment was symbolic: the Rivaini mages have likely been living their lives like this for generations; in the context of the mage uprising any deviation from Chantry dogma could be called ‘rebellion’. This Circle could only be said to be in rebellion in the most technical sense, but that was enough. They killed them all.
The Annulment is not a solution to demon possession. It’s not intended to be. That’s not what it’s for, and that’s not how it’s used. It’s terrorism. I’m sorry for the length of this, but every time I get an Ask like this I feel like I’m somehow failing at a fundamental level to convey the horror of what is going on in Thedas. The grim, ugly persecution and mass murder that is going on day-by-day, and is being sold to the average Thedosian as for their safety. The world of Dragon Age is terrifying, but not because it has demons or mages in it. It’s terrifying because of the amount of power it has ceded to the Chantry, and because of what that means for any person who doesn’t meet the Chantry’s definition of ‘normal’.
Okay. So. How should they handle it?
There’s a flippant part of me that just wants to say ‘Any way other than this!’ Because, honestly, it’s difficult to think of a system that’s worse than the one they have now. But it’s not as though they have no way forward.
The first thing I would say is that simply abolishing the Circle system should alleviate the problem considerably, because you aren’t going to have hundreds of mages packed into a place they can’t leave. You can’t have 500 possessed mages on your hands if only three mages live in your village.
It would also limit several of the causes behind possession: you won’t be forcing people to live in places where the Veil is routinely thinned by blood magic and demon summonings (phylacteries and Harrowings, respectively, and fuck the Chantry for their hypocrisy). You won’t be constantly subjecting people to high-stress situations: Tranquility, the Harrowing, forced separation from your family, long-term confinement, Templars in general, the fact that sometimes your friends just disappear and you have to accept this as normal – you know, the standard horrors of being a Circle mage.
Of course, there will still be cases where relatively large numbers of mages congregate to deal with matters affecting them specifically: classes, lectures, magic-related competitions or other leisure activities, and the political proceedings of the College of Enchanters.
Should any trouble occur in such situations – well, most schools have evacuation and lockdown procedures in place aimed at protecting students and staff when there’s a threat on campus. Why should this situation be any different? No system is ever going to be perfect, and you can’t guarantee that no one is ever going to die (we can’t do that in our world either), but you can have strategies arranged in advance to get people away from danger areas, and on what to do if you find you can’t get out and have to protect yourself until help arrives.
First thing is clear the area. Anyone who is not actively hurting someone else right now gets to evacuate. Right now, I don’t care whether any of the people in the crowd are also possessed. You can test for that, and it may not even be a problem. Unless you currently look like this:
… and you are trying to rip people’s arms off, you get to leave.
Now, yes, that still leaves us with a possessed person. On that point, I would say that the Chantry lands need to completely change how they view spirits, mages and possession. As far as I can tell, everything they think is wrong, and a lot of it is dangerous. The Chantry regards demons as ‘the Maker’s first children’, who turned on humanity out of jealousy. They are inherently evil and irredeemable. That’s not true. No spirit has ever corroborated that story, and All New, Faded for Her demonstrates that a demon is a spirit in pain, and can be healed.
The Chantry regards possession as just about universally a death sentence. And that’s … really not true. There are some cases where possession is just fine. The Chantry would have killed Wynne just as much as Uldred if they knew about her situation. Cullen wants to lock Sigrid in a room with a Templar, because he doesn’t grasp that there’s nothing wrong with her. Your first question, when dealing with a case of possession, should always be ‘Is this actually a problem?’ If not, go away and leave them alone.
Even in cases where you are looking at outright hostile demonic possession, the mage is rarely gone. Connor, untrained child that he is, still surfaces sometimes. Having defeated her Templars attackers with demonic assistance, Evelina first flees from her kids, taking the demon away from them – although she loses control later. Marethari will contain the pride demon with which Merrill has been working until she is clear of her clan and the battle can be fought in seclusion. Grandin’s kind of a weird case, because the possession was voluntary and the two are working together – but it does seem to be a demon. Nevertheless, in that case you can speak to him, and there remains hope that the two might eventually sort themselves out.
We know that mages can be saved from demons. Connor, Feynriel, Fiona, Pharamond – all people who have survived demonic possession. It’s not even necessarily difficult: you can send Jowan in to fight Connor’s demon – this poor hapless apprentice whom they were going to make Tranquil – and he does just fine. Of course, some demons are stronger than others; I’m not saying it’s not a good idea to have specialists. But the Chantry is seriously overstating the problem here.
When possessed, most mages think they are about to die. The brave, the strong, the selfless – they fight to contain the demon until someone can come and kill them so they don’t hurt anyone else. But in those circumstances, it’s all too easy to succumb to despair. Imagine if mages could think, not ‘hold on, they’re coming to kill you’ but ‘hold on, help is on its way’.
So the next thing to do would be ask Dorian. People always seem to forget that Tevinter exists and, given that mages are aristocrats there, would seriously frown on just murdering them out of hand. Anders says in Dragon Age 2 (I haven’t got a screenshot, yet) that they help possessed mages in Tevinter. Now, when you explain to him that your previous plan had just been to murder small children because of demons, Dorian is probably going to yell … a lot. I mean … really a lot. But the entirety of southern Thedas deserves that and worse, so I can’t be too bothered. Get him to send books and specialists. Make this part of the curriculum in the College of Enchanters. It might become part of the Spirit Healer specialisation, since they’re already good with spirits.
Our third thing is … well, asking Solas is probably impractical at the moment, but there are alternatives. We need people who care about spirits and who want to help them. Ask Cole: one way or another, his entire quest line is about providing a spirit with the emotional tools to handle the mortal world. There’s more than one path that works, so regardless of whether you chose more spirit/more human, he should have some insight. Ask the Rivaini, the Dalish, the Avvar. They know about spirits, and they know how to reach the Fade. Some things the Chantry thought were impossible (like safe spirit possession) turn out to be perfectly normal in other cultures.
The Chantry needs to admit they know fuck all about this situation and have been causing incalculable harm for centuries.
This whole process should be regarded like an outbreak of a really complicated illness: get everyone clear of the area, and send in professionals to help, rather than harm. Ideally, everyone should get out of this alive. You should be aiming to save the spirit and the mage. If that’s not possible, you save whom you can. Killing is only ever a last resort.
And finally … now we need to determine whether a criminal act was committed. If you got possessed because you live in Kirkwall, and it’s hard to go three steps without running into a demon, then you are a victim and once you’ve been freed of the demon you have nothing to answer for. If you thought it was a good idea to summon a demon army in your basement to TRY TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD, then we’re going to have to bring in the guard to arrest you.
Now … that’s should. It’s probably not will. The Chantry has ruled Thedas for centuries, and they have taught people that mages want to get possessed and kill people and/or that mages want to be magisters and make everyone else slaves. Making Leliana Divine does not just do away with all that prejudice. She may well ask the questions and do the research – she’s a bright lady, and will just give zero fucks about gossip about talks with Tevinter or ‘barbarian’ cultures – but teaching people not to stab first and think later, not to regard mages as inherently evil at worst and as expendable sinners at best will take time. I expect them to handle many things badly. We haven’t done away with bigotry in the real world either, so.
There’s also the problem of Bioware, because they would really like it if I were deeply conflicted over whether to choose mages or Templars, so I do expect more side quests where they force me to kill possessed mages. I mean – I really hope they stop that shit, but I’m not expecting it.
But Circles and the Annulment are for no one’s protection. Well, no one’s but the Chantry’s. And I say: fuck the whole lot of them.