Monstrous Mothers: The Price of Womanhood in ‘Dragon Age’

Dragon Age

It’s Mother’s Day Weekend! You know what that means: it’s time for mothers who slay.¬†ūüĒ™¬†Specifically, I’ll be focusing on the character development and overall portrayal of Flemeth and Morrigan in the¬†Dragon Age¬†series and how they are presented within the world they inhabit. With this piece, I want to dig deeper into what it means to be a woman¬†and¬†a mother¬†in a world that is too often brutally unforgiving of¬†both, though far harsher on the latter. There are dozens of shared¬†traits to be found in both characters, and in a lot of ways, they mirror each¬†other’s experiences. ‘Like mother, like daughter’ was never more apparent in the journey¬†of Flemeth and Morrigan, whether they walk together or apart.

Let’s first brush up a little on your knowledge of the formal definitions that surround two different descriptors used to label these women. Notice the similarities between both.

Mother

[Noun]
1. A term of address for a female parent or a woman having or regarded as having the status, function, or authority of a female parent.
2. A term of familiar address for an old or elderly woman.
3. A woman exercising control, influence, or authority like that of a mother.

Witch

[Noun]
1. A person, now especially a woman, who professes or is supposed to practice magic or sorcery; a sorceress.
2. A woman who is supposed to have evil or wicked magical powers.
3. An ugly or mean old woman; hag.

It shouldn’t be news to you at this juncture, but I’ll point it out anyway: women in positions of power are too often depicted as nearing death, ill-tempered, and¬†even monstrous. There is an element of danger¬†that comes with being a mother, and the¬†Dragon Age¬†series couldn’t have been more clear in their portrayal¬†of the only two women to raise children in the entire main cast.

Dragon Age

Midwifery & Mysticism

We find early on in¬†Dragon Age: Origins that the¬†Witch of the Wilds upholds an¬†infamous reputation throughout Ferelden, though her story has long since faded into folklore by the time the Warden steps foot in Flemeth’s¬†overgrown domain. When we first meet the alleged witch of legend, it’s no accident that her identity is misinterpreted to be someone else. This theme of allusion and mysticism lay the groundwork for the narrative of both mother and daughter. They stand apart from the rest of the world because the world at large is determined to interpret them liberally and inaccurately. In particular, Morrigan’s initial entrance sets the stage for two very important themes at play:

  1. We first meet Morrigan framed by the reaction of three Warden men.
  2. All three Warden men react negatively upon meeting Morrigan.

Think about how many characters¬†in the¬†Dragon Age¬†universe who¬†are deeply leery of magic. Just to toss out a few names that spring to mind: Alistair, Fenris, Cullen, Carver, Meredith, Sten, Sera. Seeing a pattern? I’m suggesting that ‘magic,’ in itself, could be read as a metaphor for womanhood. Mages are treated like second-class citizens, only ever relieved of the social stigma when they submit to the¬†Rite of Tranquility, a process that strips them of their identity and¬†establishes them as docile, subservient objects without agency. The most powerful woman known to¬†Thedas is undeniably¬†Andraste who, lo and behold, was actually a mage. In the story the Chantry tells, she was diligent, pious, and¬†ultimately ‘pure’ enough to win the Maker’s favor‚ÄĒmeaning she wasn’t actually a¬†revolutionary mage who set the world on fire.

In stark contrast, Flemeth’s tale is told to frighten children, not to inspire them. She is shrouded in superstition, the gnarled old woman known to capture and kill¬†men who stray too far into the forest, then bear their daughters so that she may draw the life from them to obtain their youth. It’s your average laundry list¬†of ‘How to Identify a Witch’ that’s been remade time and again in the human narrative. When any woman¬†seeks to fight for her own agency, she is fearsome, grotesque, and unworthy of¬†love. It doesn’t ultimately matter whether the¬†Grimoire Morrigan obtains about her mother is true or false (only she reads and interprets its contents, remember). Flemeth is depicted as the pinnacle of mother and murderer, the vessel of life and death, and interpretation often makes as provocative a¬†study as fact.

Dragon Age

Seduction & Shapeshifting

Both women are sexually attractive in the conventional sense, mostly because this is a video game and Important Dudebro¬†Audience¬†Reasons, but there’s a bit more going on here than meets the eye (haha puns). They each wear provocative, revealing clothes in order¬†to emphasize the fact that they have far more agency than their history¬†might initially suggest. Motherhood doesn’t always have to mean matronly, which is a delightful little departure from¬†conventional thinking. What I appreciate most about their design is the fact that neither woman is actually “attainable.” They are never prizes to be won by the playable character or any other person in the whole of the¬†Dragon Age¬†series,¬†no matter how many¬†past sexual partners¬†they’ve had. Stick that in your lyrium and smoke it.

Sure, you can romance Morrigan as a straight dude or encourage her to seduce Alistair, but that doesn’t mean she’s¬†going to be waiting¬†around for your sorry ass later. She even peaces from the final battle with the Archdemon Starbucks +¬†sunglasses-style, departing from the main questline¬†entirely to embark on her own story. Even if you played through the Witch Hunt DLC with nothing but¬†good intentions for a happy reunion, Morrigan is still the one fully in control of her own destiny. You can’t cage¬†her any more than you can Flemeth, which I wouldn’t advise seeing as she’s, you know, a dragon.

Speaking of dragons, it’s important to remember¬†that both mother and daughter are shapeshifters, which actually seems to be a rare ability given the wide scope of mages the playable character can recruit. No other companion has this talent so intimately¬†woven into their narrative, and¬†no other mage companion is quite so distinctly labeled a¬†“witch” as these two characters are. Merrill is a mage, but she’s often presented as an elf first. Bethany also shows magical talent, but¬†she primarily fills the role as little sister before anything else. There’s Vivienne, Queen of Everything, but her narrative is more clearly bound to¬†the framework of the Orlesian court. (Damn, there aren’t many women mage companions.) Why, then, are Flemeth and¬†Morrigan the only¬†dreaded witches of old?¬†Why do they adopt the form of such poisonous, gruesome beasts?

Femininity is ugly. Femininity is dangerous. Femininity will kill you.

Dragon Age

Erasure & Eradication

While we’ve encountered plenty of parental figures on our journey through Thedas, we rarely, if ever meet actual parents. No other companion you’re ever able to recruit¬†has children. Think about that for a minute. Sure, there’s a war more or less being fought in every Dragon Age game, but it’s still an indisputable fact that Morrigan was¬†deliberately written to be the sole¬†mother to join your party in the “canon” storyline. I don’t think that was a choice made lightly by the writing team. Don’t fret, I can hear your arguments already. “But she had to have the Old God baby!” I think there’s more at play here, though, and not all of it is very flattering to mothers. Surprise, surprise.

At the end of¬†Dragon Age:¬†Origins, a pregnant Morrigan escapes to the fringes of society to deliver her son‚ÄĒonly to cloak herself in the finery of the Orlesian court just as her mother found shelter¬†in the Korcari Wilds long ago. Although they may have hidden in very different environments to rear their respective children, the sentiment is still the same. These women are mothers by choice, but did they really choose to raise¬†their children apart from the world? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the lone wolf archetype, but I think there’s something a bit sinister about the fact that¬†we see so much of these women throughout gameplay‚ÄĒuntil¬†they become¬†mothers. Morrigan is pushed out of Flemeth’s door to make her own way, and she¬†travels even further to raise¬†Kieran, presumably among other children, except we’re only¬†told¬†that was the case. We only saw¬†a glimpse of her as a mother, just as we primarily see Flemeth on her own.

Why isn’t motherhood viable enough as a plot point to be clearly depicted in a game? Why do we only get three whole scenes across three game installments between Flemeth and Morrigan interacting with their children? And even in this, mother and daughter are pitted against each other, because with¬†the passage of time comes the inevitable parlay for power. As with any narrative¬†featuring two powerful, prominent women at the apex, one must always fall so that the other might live. I’m reminded of a Game of Thrones¬†quote, if you’ll pardon yet another medieval trash reference:

“Queen you shall be . . . until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear.”

Upon¬†reaching the pinnacle scene in¬†Dragon Age: Inquisition¬†where the two¬†meet for the first time since Morrigan left (yeah, it’s been that long), nothing is really resolved at all. It’s almost as if two¬†women¬†can’t exist in the same space without one self-destructing. Is this some law of physics I wasn’t taught in school?¬†Their story ends abruptly with Flemeth all but delivering herself to Solas, relinquishing her duty as a “vessel”¬†like some bizarre will and testament meeting where a cranky egghead gets power and her daughter gets immortality. We’re told during the epilogue scene that Morrigan left Skyhold with her son after the final battle, once¬†again cast out from any kind of family environment she might have cultivated, which is ironic, given the fact that she’s the only remaining parent¬†in the story. Are all mothers¬†truly nothing more than husks to be discarded when our skin has wrinkled with age?

History¬†teaches us that mothers are figures of authority and keepers of great wisdom. They are travelers, scholars, and warriors. When you see these women portrayed as monstrous husks worthy of¬†folklore, remember that this¬†narrative originates from ages of systematic distrust and depowerment. Mothers are more than the ferocity with which they must fight merely to exist in this world. Give them¬†the credit they so deserve on more than just Mother’s Day Weekend.

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8 Comments on “Monstrous Mothers: The Price of Womanhood in ‘Dragon Age’

  1. Love this as a Mother’s day themed article, (with the caveat Morrigan is not necessarily a Mother in game) i have nothing to add, but a quibble: what about Leandra?

    She is never a party member, and perhaps not a main character, but I find her very important to my Hawke’s story in DA:2. And a very interesting relationship to examine (there’s some good meta on tumblr, if anyone would like me to dig it out and link to it).

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    • You’re definitely right about Leandra! She’s a formidable woman and sooo interesting as a deeply flawed character. I just didn’t feel like she’d fit in this post, specifically, because I was mostly interested in analyzing the relationship between how we perceive ‘mother’ + ‘witch.’ Leandra deserves a post all on her own, tbh.

      As for Morrigan not being a mother, yeah, there’s the potential for that, but I think it adds a wonderful layer to her character in that she truly comes full circle on her journey. But hey, everyone plays differently! More power to you.

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      • *Nod* I agree it works best when it’s just these two with the witch/mother comparison. Witches are one of the few archetypes we have for women who have their own power, and are so bound up in our fear of that power, their infertility/fertility, & they do seem to so often have desire for children without the need of a man or a nuclear family (and how often must she be punished for desiring to raise children this way?).

        I definitely want to meet Morrigan as a Mother (I’ve seen the DA:I gifs :)), I am planning on doing an entire replay of Origins so that i can set up a world state just for that change – well that & because I can’t remember many of the smaller decisions my Warden made ūüėČ – it’s been a while. As I personally can’t change such a big decision in the keep without playing it through.

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  3. Haha, my first thought was “what about Leandra?” as well. But it makes sense to leave her out – it would have to have been a much broader discussion. I think Wynne would make an interesting counterpoint here as well for her relationship with Rhys in Asunder. She is the opposite of the witch, I think; the healer, a safe, grandmotherly feminine presence, and is the most ‘maternal’ of your companions… But then she is also the one who has been an entirely absent mother – unlike Flemeth and Morrigan, who raised and cared for their children, albeit with possible ulterior motives in both cases.

    A super interesting read! It’s a minor quibble, but I didn’t really take from the epilogue that Morrigan was “cast out” of the Inquisition, rather that she chose to move on – I suppose the wording is fairly ambiguous, though, so either interpretation could be correct.

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  4. You don’t mention Wynne at all – she’s also a mage and a mother. Admittedly most of the story between her and Rhys features offscreen in Asunder, but it would have made for an interesting comparison.

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    • Ooh yes, good suggestion. There’s Fiona as well.

      Looks like it’s safe to say there’s plenty of material for DA themed Mothers Day articles for years to come ;D.

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  5. Hey! So I saw this post linked at the end of this year’s Mother’s Day post and had so many feelings I kinda had to rant about them here. Sorry to be that weirdo writing an essay-length comment on a year-old post, y’all. Also, spoilers? Not sure if that matters here.

    You know, I would really love it if it turns out that the legends about Flemeth stealing her daughters’ bodies turns out to be patently untrue and/or completely warped. I think it would be really interesting and telling if it turns out that Morrigan, too, was fooled by this overshadowing misogynistic archetype of the wicked witch who makes a meal of younger women’s beauty. Bring me the heart of Snow White! That metaphor about the commodification of beauty really couldn’t be any less subtle, lol.

    I want Flemeth to turn out to be just like, “girl i told u not 2 worry, i’m ur mom, dummy; sure i’m elbows deep in sketchy af shit that prolongs my unnatural lifespan but also i raised u all this time 2b strong and maybe that didnt mean being nice but also, we’re 2 witches living in a feudal bog, of course i wasnt all sunshine and roses all the time. plus i taught u how 2 turn into a spider and that’s pretty cool right” and it’s revealed that the ritual Morrigan was worried about was some entirely different kind of unholy abomination. Besides, when you confront Flemeth in Origins (and Inquisition!), doesn’t she tell you that Morrigan is wrong but she’s not really going to bother getting into it? I wish really she had.

    I just……….really love Flemeth. I think she’s fierce and terrifying and amazing and probably one of my all-time favorite fictional crones, so I really want to believe that her love for Morrigan is fierce and terrifying and amazing, too. I want to believe that even though she isn’t particularly *nice* or *kind* she’s still a mother, and that mothers don’t need to be 100% self-sacrificing martyrs to just be moms. But maybe I’m just looking for one sexist archetype (the fierce protective Mama Dragon? I guess?) inside of another sexist archetype (the witch who eats her own children), I don’t know. (Also, I haven’t read any of the novels so I’m not sure if I’m missing some major stuff; sorry if all of this is super wrong).

    This trope didn’t use to bother me as much but I think I had never stopped to think about it. In fiction, we see benevolent, self-sacrificing moms and evil moms willing to literally murder their children for their own selfish gains but you rarely see a complicated mom who makes the best bad decisions they can (other than, weirdly enough, Cersei Lannister, especially in the GoT TV show). Anyway, even though Flemeth was thrown under the bus to save that rude, pasty d-bag, I don’t really think anything can kill Flemeth and I’d be more than surprised if Inquisition was the end of her story in these games. Flemeth now, Flemeth forever! I hope she comes back in full force in whatever the next DA game turns out to be.

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