Time to kick off the “30 NPCs for 30 Days” challenge! First up: Athenril
(art by shrouded-artist)
One of the things I love so much about Thedas is how much women drive its action. Unlike almost every other fantasy universe (and the real one, too), the highest powers, the decision makers, and the agents of change– they’re all women. From Anora to Meredith, from Elthina to Justinia, from Andraste to Flemeth to Branka to Marethari… this is a woman’s world, and man just lives in it.
That’s not to say that men can’t or don’t make important decisions, or that sexism is nonexistent in Thedas – hell, the whole “let’s make Alistair king!” quest-line of Origins carries all sorts of overt sexist connotations. But in Thedas, women have so much more agency than they’re usually allowed by these types of stories. Generally in fantasy tales, women are relegated to support staff (e.g., healers, white mages, queens, nurses); agents of evil or the arcane (e.g., witches, summoners, the archetypical Old Crone)—or most often, simple objects of desire; the hero’s casus belli, the reason to fight. In Thedas, however, women are all these roles and more; they are guard-captains and regents; grand clerics and businesswomen; tribal leaders and smugglers. And the vast majority use their opportunities and abilities to impact the world around them: For every Babette du Launcet, who sits on her privilege as if it were an embroidered seat cushion, there’s an Anora, a Meredith, an Evelina getting shit done.
For Western audiences, this is a revelation, but not so much for all cultures. As I understand it, traditional Hindu faith argues that the feminine is power, strength, and potential, while the masculine is merely its agent, or derivation. Even “shakti”, the word for power and strength, is feminine, and not masculine. As far as gender divisions go, that’s a separate-but-equal that’s far more appetizing to me than what we normally see in Western culture, which tosses us a Tina Fey or a Milla Jovavich every now and then and expects us to be grateful for it.
I belabor this point because there’s no better representation in my mind of just how different Thedas is than Athenril. She is the player’s introduction to this New World Order, a world in which every woman is an empress, and carries within her a slice of the divine.
Yet, she’s such a throwaway character: Athenril’s competence and intelligence are treated as No Big Deal, when in fact for us on the outside, it is very much a Big Deal. Too often, the only women in fantasy stories afforded such competence are the protagonists—the NPCs and bit characters are left to fill the same old maiden-mother-crone stereotypes as they’ve always undertaken.
But not Athenril. She isn’t a maiden, or a mother, and she’s certainly not a crone. Nor is she a particularly nice person, either. She’s not kind, or gentle, or soft, and that alone distinguishes her from 95% of female side characters you will ever encounter.
In the Gallows, Athenril is presented, in black-and-white terms, as the “moral option”; Meeran asks you to kill for his acceptance, while Athenril does not. But note that Meeran will only ask you to kill. Athenril will ask you to do everything else. In the Meeran “Loose Ends” quest, you are asked to kill an adult man who has made many mistakes and many enemies. But in the Athenril “Loose Ends” quest, you are asked to deny a pre-adolescent boy the only means by which he can feed his destitute family. Tell me, which of those is the “moral” option? Which of them leaves your hands clean?
I love that Athenril is cold, ruthless—and unapologetic. We don’t see her grapple with the ethical or emotional impact of her decisions; she doesn’t angst about how her job conflicts with her innate need to nurture. She may very well feel this way, but importantly, the player doesn’t see it. The game doesn’t think it’s any of our business. And given that our culture expects women to wear their heartache on their sleeves, for all to critique, that the Dragon Age writers gave her (and many other female characters) this privacy is nothing short of astonishing.
Now, that said, I should clarify: Athenril isn’t cruel. She is an opportunist, a business woman—and a good one at that. Not only does she have the business savvy to recognize what a valuable resource Hawke is when he stumbles into her lap, she also has the wisdom to develop his talents and exploit them to her greatest advantage. With Hawke’s assistance, she manages to carve out a space for her organization among the cartels when nobody else can, and that’s really, really impressive.
You could even argue that Athenril does some good in Kirkwall: She offers jobs to refugees when jobs are scarce, and she allows Hawke to provide for his family and evade the Templars, neither of which is easy in the City of Chains. She even seems happy to let the Hawke name steal her notoriety—because hey, as every good businessperson knows, any publicity is good publicity. So I can understand why she takes it so personally that Hawke leaves once his time is up, because frankly, it’s not a bad life she offers. Maybe it’s not honest work, but at least it’s work; and that’s more than many are willing to give.
We know so little about Athenril, and yet so much at the same time: That she even offered Pryce a job in the first place says a lot about who she is, and what she believes in. With Athenril, everyone gets just one chance. But at least they get a chance.
It’s no accident, in my opinion, that Athenril is elven—one of the oppressed race throwing off her metaphorical chains and grabbing success where she can. I like to think that Hawke learned a lot from her: more than just how to fight, but how to survive; how to seize opportunities—and when none are given, how to make some of your own.
And really, that’s the story of Kirkwall itself: This story of unlikely survival, of breaking the chains that bind you, of the downtrodden ascending to burn brighter than the sun. What I love most about Athenril is what I love most about Thedas in general: that even the darkest places are ruled by women, that opportunity lurks in every loss, and even the lowest slave or refugee can become a savior in the end.
Tomorrow: Ghyslain and Ninette du Carrac