Mages Like Me: Dragon Age, Magic and Mental Hospitals

I saw myself, a teen in a psychiatric hospital, in the mages of Dragon Age.
April 1, 2017, 4:00pm

There's a place where they send you when you're young and troubled.

You don't really have a choice in the matter. They ask you if you'll come along willingly, but it's just a formality. If you don't go with them now, they'll bring in armed men to escort you there, where you'll be under constant surveillance. They say you're here because something is wrong with you, because you can't handle life in the outside world. You'd hurt yourself, they say, or you'd hurt someone else. You're here for your own protection, and they'll let you go—with proper supervision—when you're no longer dangerous.

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But what happens when you never stop being dangerous?

Dragon Age fans will recognize this story. It's about the Circle of Magi, a place where young people with a talent for magic are sent. But the above isn't about the Circle Tower. It's about my life as an adolescent psychiatric patient.

Spoilers for the Dragon Age series below.

Magic is literally the source of all evil in the world, according to the cutscene at the beginning of Dragon Age: Origins. The hubris and greed of mages causes the Fall of Man, it says. Mages are naturally susceptible to demonic possession and abuse of power, and must be watched carefully to prevent them from hurting themselves and others. The Chantry (a sort of ersatz Roman Catholic Church) creates an institution to keep them in line: the Circle of Magi.

Header and all Dragon Age screens courtesy of EA

In the Circle, young mages learn to control their powers. At the end of their training, they face a ritual called The Harrowing, where templars force them to confront a demon and resist possession. If they don't perform according to the Chantry's specifications, the templars either kill them on the spot, or perform the Rite of Tranquility on the mages, a sort of magical lobotomy.

Central to the three games is the conflict between the Circle of Magi and mages who demand more freedom. Unfortunately, the drama of the conflict is undercut by the fact that every mage who opposes the Chantry ends up being evil.

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In Dragon Age: Origins, the only unambiguously "good" mages—Wynne and Irving—believe that the Circle is necessary. The mages who defy Chantry law are less noble. The utterly amoral Morrigan deceives the main character into carrying out a ploy for her to conceive a "demon baby." Uldred, a staunch mage liberationist, is a straightforward antagonist who murders innocent children and eventually transforms himself into a giant demon.

The main plot of Dragon Age 2 revolves around the struggle between the templars (who think that there is an epidemic of blood magic and evil among the mages in the city) and the Circle of Magi, who insist that they're doing no wrong. While some of the mages are innocent, like Hawke's sister Bethany, the templar leader is ultimately accurate in her assessment of the Circle of Magi, whose leader is a secretly an evil blood mage.

Anders, a party member, is the strongest proponent of mage freedom. He also becomes possessed by a demon and ends up blowing up a church full of innocents, provoking an all-out war.

Inquisition, at least, begins to admit that the Circle of Magi might require a certain amount of reform, and shows several corrupt Chantry authorities. Still, the leader of the rebel mages who oppose the Chantry is morally questionable at best and a craven villain at worst. Another mage, fan-favorite Dorian, frowns at the Circle of Magi, but his counter arguments are weakened by his status as a foreigner: in his home country, mage-kings murder their slaves to power blood magic and summon demons.

And then there's Solas. Solas consistently makes the most eloquent and strongly-worded arguments against the narrow-minded views of the Chantry, but he turns out to be an evil demigod and the secret puppetmaster behind the main antagonist, who is an evil mage.

It is difficult, then, for some people to understand why I feel sympathy for the mages trapped in the Circle of Magi. Given that allowing mages freedom seems to unerringly end up with murder, havoc, and the occasional apocalyptic war, it seems bizarre to argue that their confinement is neither justified nor necessary. Yet still I identify with the young apprentice mages trapped in their Hogwarts-cum-prison, hoping that they pass their Harrowing, dreading that the Rite of Tranquility might happen to them.

There's no Rite of Tranquility, but there are anti-psychotics and electro-convulsive therapy.

Of course, there are differences between a mental hospital and the Circle of Magi. There are no templars waiting to cut off your head if you mouth off to your psychiatrist, but there are men in scrubs with injectable Ativan if they think that you're "being unsafe." There's no Rite of Tranquility, but there are anti-psychotics and electro-convulsive therapy. My own psychiatrist recommended ECT for me, but my parents refused. Instead, I was placed on anti-psychotics that made me left me in an unfeeling, apathetic daze.

At least one nurse thought my ailment was spiritual. Convinced that they were satanic, she took away the Terry Pratchett and RPG books my family brought me. I made do with what I could find in the day room: Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul and poems by Jewel. Mostly, I spent my time sleeping off the drugs.

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My days were taken up by tedious group meetings run by overworked and underpaid psych techs and social workers, or outdated psychoeducational videos.

If it doesn't sound like I experienced much healing during my stay in the hospital, you're correct. Being an inpatient is not about getting better. It's about being safe—ensuring that you're not going to die, hurt someone else, or break any laws. It's more like prison.

And it's what I saw when I played Dragon Age.

The Circle isn't the only reason I see myself in the mages. Like mental illness, the talent for magic is a heritable quality. When Bethany is sent off to the Circle, Hawke's mother laments the fact that magic runs in both her and her late husband's families. It's a conversation that I've had many times with my own parents. I'd watched them try to find some reason for why I was so messed-up. I watched them blame themselves, just like Hawke's mother blamed herself for Bethany's misfortune.

In America, it's not unheard of for mental illness to be blamed on demonic possession. It's downright common for people to claim that God and faith can cure mental illness (The secular version of this phenomenon substitutes "positive thinking" or "mindfulness" or the self-help gospel du jour). My culture views me as an aberration and regards mentally ill people with fear and suspicion. People like me learn to hate ourselves. We're taught to think of ourselves as deficient and broken, to regard ourselves as inherently and permanently flawed rather than temporarily in pain.

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We are not taught to question a society that considers 20 percent of its population "mentally ill." We don't question a culture that creates a group of people and says that "these people feel pain because there is something inherently wrong with them," rather than questioning how it contributes to those people's pain. Questioning that would be like questioning Chantry law.
Only villains do that.

I'm still "in the Circle," so to speak. I take medication. I see a therapist regularly.

I don't feel ashamed of who I am, for having this quality they call "mental illness." I cherish my ability to feel things deeply, even though it brings me pain. The ability to summon intense emotions from nothing is useful to me as an actor, writer, and storyteller. I see connections between things that other people do not see: poetry in the flight of birds and omens in the garbage on the street. My illness has taught me to be steady in a crisis, to be keenly aware of my own emotions, and of the emotions of others, and to be wary of things that seem too good to be true.

It's not strange to me that the mages seek their freedom. They want a way to view their condition that doesn't render them as demons. They want to imagine themselves and their world complexly. They want to look at themselves in the way that Solas tells us to look at the spirits of the Fade: without judgement, and without fear. That doesn't make us demons.

That makes us human.