“The Shadow to the Substance”: Romanticism in ‘Dragon Age’

According to the romantics, imagination is the means of crossing into the spiritual and returning with a message of Truth. The poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley writes that: “Reason is to Imagination as the instrument to the agent . . . the shadow to the substance.” For the romantics, poetry (defined usually as expressive language and including prose and music) reveals eternal truths whereas other disciplines only measure finite and temporary facts. Poetry was a looking glass for the soul and held messages from the divine. However out of vogue that thinking is now, in the Dragon Age universe, it seems that this sense of romanticism holds considerable weight and that the two poet figures, Leliana and Verric (figured here as as bards), are elevated to a romantic status.

Whatever is going on in Dragon Age, be it racial tension, religious corruption, or class warfare, the figure of the poet remains untouched. Just as the romantics and their descendents argued, Dragon Age portrays a world in which poets have privileged knowledge, an almost prophetic understanding of their world and societies. They feel more deeply and are more in tune with a power that supposedly everyone has access to.

To a romantic, the poet grasps Nature in the Platonic sense; they are able to see beyond the veil between the material and spiritual and can interpret what Truth they see for everyone else. This is especially relevant in a world with a literal barrier called “the veil” separates the waking material world and a dream world and where the Maker allegedly resides. Ralph Waldo Emerson took the notion further by suggesting that poetry interprets not just a universal Truth, but God and heaven.

In the first Dragon Age, the player is approached by a flamboyant priestess named Leliana, who insists on travelling with the group based on visions she’d experienced from the Maker. What’s important is that Leliana is also a bard, a musician and poet. To Emerson, poetry is a message from God, and it is the poet that brings the material world closer to God.

As Emerson writes:

[I]t is the distortion and detachment from the life of God that makes things ugly, the poet who re-attaches things to nature and the Whole — re-attaching even the artificial things and violations of nature to nature — by a deeper insight — disposes very easily of the most disagreeable facts

Leliana doesn’t just write down her feelings or chronicle history, she receives messages from God and interprets them for His subjects in Thedas. Ugly and unnatural things (such as the blight and darkspawn, as in the case of Dragon Age) are made beautiful and natural again through the poet. Leliana, a poet and clergywoman, literally speaks with her god and is offered a major role in unravelling the blight, restoring order to the world and further serving her religion.

There is also the case of Verric, the poet figure of the second Dragon Age. Verric, unlike Leliana, is not a devout man. He has nothing to seek redemption for, and he’s more concerned with worldly things like money, fame, and drink. But the military arm of the Chantry, the Seekers, ask Verric to recount the details of events in Kirkwall — even though other witnesses such as Sebastian or Aveline would seem to be more trustworthy witnesses. But the Chantry (the representatives of the Maker in the material world) seems to understand that the poet has a greater access to Truth than anyone else.

Furthermore, Verric narrates a story that hasn’t even happened. He knows all possible outcomes and reflects back on decisions that the player has yet to make. Emerson says that “the sign and credentials of the poet are that he announces that which no man foretold . . . for he was present and privy to the appearance which he describes.” This is important because the church seeks the one figure with the most intimate relationship with Truth, the poet Verric. Narratively, Verric is recounting to both the captain of the Seekers and the player events that the player hasn’t experienced yet. The character is privy to what hasn’t happened –at least, for us .

Both poets live in the same world in which mages are lobotomized, cities are segregated into racial districts, nobles squabble and kill one another for titles, those in authority sell their trust to criminals, people are tugged into wars repeatedly and unavoidably, and still the poet is granted special treatment. Both poet figures understand society, morality, and even the divine better than their non-poetic peers. They aren’t perfect as people, but as figures of art, they’re nearly prophetic in their wisdom (even if they rarely act or seem to know it). Their stories are the only reliable guide for living in such a chaotic world.

Shelley would have poets be “the institutors of laws and the founders of civil society and the inventors of the arts of life and the teachers who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and true,” and based on Dragon Age, the developers at Bioware would seem to agree. No matter how self destructive and irrational the people and societies of Thedas act, it’s the poet that serves as guide. For developers working in an art form constructed by engineering software and writing mathematical computer code, Bioware have placed considerable faith in the power of poetry.


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