As literally anyone who knows me in any capacity will have heard (ad nauseum) by now, I have spent a lot of time lately playing Dragon Age: Inquisition. Like, a lot of time. Throughout the game and as I devoured peripheral media afterward, I found that the universe in which Dragon Age takes place is delightfully meaty, full of complex themes, metaphors, and social commentary. Particularly interesting and expansive were Bioware’s concepts about magic — how it works, its limitations, and its effects on society. Varied public opinions on magic mean that magic-users are given drastically different treatment in different regions of Thedas. Not only is magic and the control thereof a major source of political tension, the various in-universe religions, especially the Chantry, have strong and vocal opinions on the matter that help to shape public sentiment, leading to constant disputes about mage rights.
Just as interesting as the social consequences of magic is the concept of the Fade: the physical source from which magic flows. Though it is observable, the Fade is very mercurial and very different from the material world, and is fairly poorly understood by the denizens of Thedas. For mages, who are born with innate abilities to channel magic, the Fade is the source of their power, but for everyone else, it is the source of dreams and (according to some) desires and temptations.
All people—with the exception of dwarves, who have no connection to the Fade—enter the Fade while sleeping, but have little or no control over how it will appear and what will happen. Mages tap into the Fade remotely to channel power for spells, and can fully enter the Fade with the aid of a substance called lyrium and maintain relatively good self-awareness. Dreamer mages (called somniari in Tevinter) can enter the Fade at will, have almost total self-awareness, and are even able to shape the Fade and affect others’ dreams. While in all these cases it is the person’s spirit leaving their body to enter the Fade, it is possible to enter the Fade physically, though the circumstances under which this can happen are exceptional.
The Fade is also where spirits go after the body dies. Whether the Fade is actually the afterlife or simply a conduit through which spirits pass is a matter of which school of faith one subscribes to, and is related to each society’s perception of magic as positive or negative. The Qunari, who believe magic to be unnatural and dangerous, teach that the Fade is the “Land of the Dead” and forbid the living from entering. The Qunari claim that they, like dwarves, do not dream and have no connection to the Fade, yet in spite of this, some Qunari are born with innate magical abilities, just like human and elven mages. This suggests the possibility that some Qunari do dream, but simply refuse to admit it for fear of being connected to the Fade. Though the Qun, the religion most Qunari subscribe to, forbids unnecessary killing of mages as “wasteful”, the Qunari are cruel to mages with a fanatic intensity, calling them saarebas—“dangerous things”—and engaging in barbaric practices to control them while pragmatically making use of their powers. Qunari-born mages and mages captured in Tevinter often have their mouths sewn shut to limit their spell-casting abilities.
The Southern Chantry teaches that the Fade is a liminal space that souls pass through on their way to the side of “the Maker,” but that if souls are aimless or bogged down by vice, they become trapped in the Fade for eternity, becoming either demons or wandering spirits. The Southern Chantry is also intensely distrustful of mages, and in seeking to control magic it sometimes resorts to measures that—while more structured—are every bit as extreme as Qunari practices. Under Chantry law, anyone born with magical abilities must be subject to a test called a “Harrowing”, where the mage is dosed with lyrium and forced to enter the Fade. An order called the Templars supervises this test, and once the mage has entered the Fade they will bait demons to attack the mage. If the mage can fend off the demons, they are released and allowed to continue studying magic in a limited capacity under a Chantry-formed organization called the Circle of Magi. If the mage becomes possessed during the Harrowing, the Templars present will usually kill them on the spot. If a mage has difficulty controlling their abilities and is deemed dangerous to themselves or others by the Chantry, they are subject to a process called the Rite of Tranquility, which effectively lobotomizes them, making them unable to use magic, but also incapable of independent thought.
There are certain deliberate parallels between the way the Chantry treats mages and the way different Christian groups treat gay and transgender people. Some divisions of the Chantry believe mages are a danger to society and must be eradicated or made Tranquil en masse, similar to how certain fundamentalist Christian groups resort to “exorcism” and “conversion therapy” to try to control people and change their behavior. Other Chantry members tolerate the existence of mages but severely limit their rights and treat them as second-class citizens, and still others believe in the Chant of Light but are aggressively opposed to the Chantry’s treatment of mages and try to work from inside the faith community to change practices. Though not directly allegorical, there are in fact many criticisms of various branches of Christianity in Chantry practices. Like most branches of Christianity, the Chantry is evangelical, and like the Catholic Church in particular, has engaged in mass forced conversions and holy wars called “Exalted Marches”, which parallel the Crusades.
Much like with the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism, the Chantry is divided into two major factions: the Southern Chantry and the Imperial Chantry, and the Imperial Chantry’s opinions on magic could not be more different than those of the Southern Chantry.
The Tevinter Imperium, the seat of the Imperial Chantry, is a mageocracy with a strict caste system. The top caste, called the “altus”, is made up of old mage families with a genetic predisposition toward magic, who intermarry with the specific intent of creating more mage children. The ruling body of Tevinter is called the Magisterium and is made up entirely of mages. The Archon, the political ruler of Tevinter, and the Divine, the head of the Imperial Chantry (called the Black Divine in the south) are both always chosen from amongst the Magisterium. People without magical abilities are called “soporati”, and while they can make comfortable livelihoods for themselves as merchants, business owners, or craftspeople, they will never have political power or be allowed to move up in the caste system unless they have the good fortune of producing a child with magical abilities.
The Imperial Chantry teaches that Andraste, the wife of the Maker, was a human mage, and while they have a process for training and testing young mages, it is not comparable to the Southern Chantry’s Harrowing, and the Rite of Tranquility is not practiced in the Imperium except on certain uncontrollable slaves who happen to be born with magical abilities. While the Imperium has certain regulations about specific types of magic, especially blood magic, the privileged position Tevinter mages are in means that as long as they are reasonably tactful about it, they can get away with almost anything.
In an unparalleled and deeply hubristic move, a group of Tevinter magisters once physically entered and attempted to conquer the Fade using lyrium and blood magic. The Southern Chantry calls this the “second sin” and teaches that the Magisters were attempting to usurp the Maker. In doing so these magisters became creatures called darkspawn and caused the First Blight, one of a series of plague-like corruptions caused by Archdemons and their legion of darkspawn. While the Tevinter Imperium acknowledges this invasion of the Fade, they insist that it was simply a failed endeavor by cultists of the Old Gods not sanctioned by the Magisterium, and that the Blight was a bid by the Old Gods to reclaim power.
The most fascinating aspect of worldbuilding in regards to Dragon Age’s concept of magic is the fact that every explanation of it in the games and peripheral materials is unreliable to some extent. Because of the strong differing opinions on magic, religion, and the Fade, most information given is shown through the lens of strongly-held beliefs of some kind, and any given character’s concept of magic may reflect a different level of education or a different upbringing. The contention over magic is an exceptionally well thought out element of the Dragon Age universe, with convincingly believable arguments on all sides that do not resort to the flimsy dichotomy of good and evil. The Chantry’s contention that magic is dangerous is every bit as valid as the Tevinter notion that mages are valuable, and how those ideas are translated into practice raises all kinds of practical and moral questions. There is no “right” way to ensure that mages are both equal and safe, and the nature of the Fade remains largely beyond comprehension, which makes the political, moral, and social understanding of magic beautifully complex.