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Dragon Age: Origins and the Legends of King Arthur
This hit RPG seems to have borrowed something from Sir Thomas Mallory
At the moment, my favorite video game is Dragon Age: Origins. Not because of the graphics; I can tell from watching my husband play that Skyrim's art is more realistic. Not because of the fairly mechanical and repetitive game play. It's gotten to the point where I can program each character on my team to do the same five or six actions every time the enemies appear.
It's the story. I am completely enraptured by this epic tale, in which a tiny band led by the last two Grey Wardens left in Ferelden travel across the map, solving various local problems and raising an army to combat the evil darkspawn monsters that threaten to destroy the world. In the meantime, they must struggle to break the power of a powerful army general named Loghain, once the closest friend of the lost King Maric, who now appears to be descending into paranoid and power-hungry madness. Most importantly, I have very much enjoyed interacting with the characters; the player-character has nine companions who pipe up with compelling back stories and crackling banter. The two most effective and popular companions are a young knight named Alistair and his nemesis, a mage named Morrigan.
Today, I realized why I thought the story was so compelling. It's a classic. We've heard it before. David Gaider and the good people of Bioware have borrowed very heavily from the Arthurian legends to spin their tale.
King Arthur Legends
Although the lore of the Arthurian legends is too vast to go into here, there are a few basic concepts worthy of note here that have definite parallels in Dragon Age: Origins. Uther Pendragon, King of England, lays with Lady Igraine as she lies bewitched, believing the king to be her husband. The illegitimate child they produce is Arthur. Fearing for his son's safety, Uther has Arthur raised far from court in the relatively modest home of a nobleman named Sir Ector. After Uther is proclaimed to be dead, a wizard named Merlin causes a sword to be sheathed in a stone; the one who can pull it out is the rightful king of England. Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone almost by accident, and is crowned.
Once he is made king, Arthur puts together an assemblage of trusted knights who sit at the legendary Round Table. One of the most famous adventures undertaken by this group is the quest for the Holy Grail, the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper.
Arthur has a half-sister, a sorceress named Morgan Le Faye. The daughter of lady Igraine by her rightful husband, Morgan is a sexual temptress and a shape-shifter. Although Morgan and Arthur do not get along at all, Morgan tricks Arthur into sleeping with her; the result of this incestuous union is Mordred, a knight who grows up to kill King Arthur.
From Mallory to Bioware: The Arthurian characters reborn
The main character of Dragon Age: Origins is the player-character, a person known generically as The Warden who can be either male or female and may have one of six origin stories. The Warden may be a human noble, a mage, a city elf, a forest elf, a dwarven noble or a dwarven outcast. He or she does not have an obvious counterpart in Arthurian legend, but many of the other characters do. (When playing a mage, I tend to think of the Warden as being a replacement for Merlin.)
As our story begins, King Maric is deeply mourned, and his legitimate son, King Cailin, is a flighty dreamer who mistakes war for a game. Lacking any talent in governing himself, the kingdom is largely run by his distinctly machiavellian wife, Anora, the daughter of general Loghain. The king, his entire army and almost all of the Grey Wardens are massacred in a battle against the darkspawn when General Loghain commands his own troops to retreat, leaving the battle lost. Loghain immediately seizes control of the country, blames the two remaining Grey Wardens for Cailin's death and sets a bounty on their heads.
Some of the nobles are troubled by this power grab and seek another person to take the throne from this man, who at least appears to be a usurper. But who shall it be?
Here is where the Arthurian stories begin to match Dragon Age: Origins very closely. Maric, who has been lost and may or may not really be dead, is mildly reminiscent of Uther. However... about that illegitimate son...
Arthur Pendragon = Alistair Therin
Arthur was an illegitimate son, raised by a nobleman in secret, far from court. In the world of Dragon Age, Arthur finds his video game counterpart in Alistair, a young templar who has been roughly and coldly raised in secret by a nobleman named Arl Eamon. (In the Arthurian legends, the man Arthur calls father is named Sir Ector.) Alistair, like Arthur, is a bastard; his mother is said to be a common servant. However, with the death of Cailin he is the last remaining person in Ferelden with royal blood.
Much of the central conflict in Dragon Age:Origins, especially as it reaches its conclusion, relies on Eamon's attempts to raise Alistair to the throne of Ferelden as the only known biological heir of Maric. Although Alistair is initially unwilling to lead, one of the game's hidden quests is to encourage him to develop the assertiveness necessary to serve as an adequate ruler. If the player character chooses certain options, Alistair will eventually take the throne and surprise everyone by becoming a popular and effective king.
In the Arthurian legends, Arthur became king by pulling a sword from a stone. In this game, Alistair's most straightforward road to becoming king lies in defeating Loghain in one-on-one combat. However... the sword in the stone does appear in the game. In a seldom seen and little known easter egg, the game does very occasionally give the player-character a chance to see a magic axe stuck in a stump. Once removed, this weapon, known as The Axemeter, can be equipped as a Tier 6 blade with an extra chance to strike at dragons.
The Holy Grail = The Urn of Sacred Ashes
One of the most important features of Dragon Age is the role of the Chantry, and its mission to spread the religion of Andraste to the people of Ferelden. Andraste is a human woman chosen as the wife of The Maker, and she was executed in a way that is reminiscent of both Jesus Christ and Joan of Arc. After Arl Eamon falls ill, poisoned by a mage working for Loghain, the Warden, Alistair and their companions must seek out a relic sacred to Andraste, the Urn of Sacred Ashes. They must pass through a series of trials called the Gauntlet in order to be appraised as worthy to see the ashes, which are symbolic of her death very much as the blood of Christ is symbolic of his. This holy quest is the only part of the main game that is not a poltical maneuver to convince the different peoples of Ferelden to join the army against the darkspawn. In the particular walkthrough depicted in the screencaps shown in this article, this quest was achieved by the Warden, Alistair, a rogue named Leiliana and another mage named Wynne. Apparently, Andreste allows a bigger audience at her holy place than Jesus does.
Morgan Le Fay = Morrigan
The king, a fair and virtuous knight, has a nemesis who differs from him in every way. He is a defender of the traditional religious order; she is outside the reach of ordinary religion, and she practices black magic. They fight and bicker... and ultimately, they mate, producing a damned child that may or may not bring down the reign of the king.
In the Arthurian legends, this woman is Morgan Le Fay, half-sister of the king. After sleeping with Arthur, she gives birth to Mordred, the villain who eventually kills the king. In Dragon Age, she is called Morrigan. Both women are very strong, practical magic users, and both are shape-shifters. While there is much discussion on the fan forums that Morrigan may be the result of a tryst between Maric and the being known as Flemeth, there is no canon proof of this within the game. However, during the time they are together as companions in the Warden's party Morrigan and Alistair fight so bitterly, so often, with such hilarious results that many players have speculated that their animosity masks hidden sexual tension.
Ultimately, in games where the Warden is female Morrigan will indeed make a dark and seductive proposal. The Warden who kills the game's final boss, the Archdemon, will be killed in the process as the tainted Old God soul inside channels through his or her body. If Morrigan becomes pregnant with the child of a male Warden, the Archdemon will channel into the child rather than the Warden, and the Warden will live. The child will become an Old God, a being who may in the end be very dangerous some years down the road. If the Warden is female, the task of siring this baby will fall to Alistair. He is the only male Warden still alive in Ferelden able to give Morrigan the child she seeks. Morrigan declares that she will disappear with the child, and she will not tell the player or Alistair what she intends to do with the child once it is grown. It is left for the player-character to decide if saving the lives of both Alistair and herself is worth allowing such a being into the world.
Dragon Age:Origins borrows from sources other than King Arthur, and it is not meant to be an exact replica of the Arthurian legends. If the player-character so desires, Alistair can choose to avoid the dictates of royalty and remain where he is happiest, as a Grey Warden... or he can end up dead on the executioner's block, a victim of royal politics in very much the same way as Lady Jane Grey. Morrigan may be refused her dark ritual, and one of the Wardens may die instead. It is even possible to recruit Loghain into the player party as a replacement for Alistair (he will refuse to serve with Loghain) and have him either do the ritual with Morrigan or die slaying the Archdemon. However, while the possible stories that can be told with Dragon Age take the characters in directions Mallory never suspected, the creative team at Bioware can thank Mallory for many of the founding ideas that make this complex story so compelling and so worthy of multiple play-throughs for the dedicated gamer.