It’s Mother’s Day Weekend! You know what that means: it’s time for mothers who slay. 🔪 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.
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.
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.
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:
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—meaning 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.
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.
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—only 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—until 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.