From Gold to Black – Is the Black City Arlathan?

 

As Dragon Age players we all know the story of the Black City. It’s the very first thing anyone is confronted with upon starting a game of “Dragon Age: Origins.” 

But to recap, just in case: At the beginning of time the Maker, jolly old chap that he is, created a beautiful golden city with music for cobblestones, banners fluttering without wind and no doubt ice cream and lemonade rivers. But the spirits did not appreciate all his works the way he wanted, so like a pissed off housewife he went out to get some strange instead. He created his second mortal children, humans and elves. But in the first sin the ungrateful sods were turned to blood magic by the Old Gods and so the Maker decided to give them the ultimate silent treatment by abandoning existence itself. Thereby leaving his beautiful, not-garish-at-all, golden city behind.

Fast forward a few centuries to when a group of moustache twirling Tevinter baddies, including everyone’s favourite Magister Coryphiface, felt the influence of their order waning, gathered up their slaves and, thinking that building a tower was a little too much work, instead sacrificed them in a big honking blood orgie to penetrate the golden city and usurp heaven itself. The Maker, being quite the territorial type, did not appreciate this and threw them out creating the very first darkspawn to roam the world and destroy humanity. Also, since he was apparently going through kind of an emo phase, he permanently turned the golden city black for good measure.

It’s an absolutely heart-warming morality tale about the consequences of the abuse of power and folly that comes from the hubris of man. But that’s exactly what it is: a tale.

The Alternative Facts

Solas: The first expert at tattoo removal.

The true, or at least truer, story of the Dread Wolf.

Misleading history, lore or “facts” are not uncommon in Dragon Age. From Inquisitor Ameridan unexpectedly being an elf because the chantry expunged all references to elves before the Exalted March on the Dales (the fucking racists), to the Dwarven worship of the stone turning into something much more serious with the introduction of the titans and the true nature of lyrium, to finding out about Levi Dryden’s ancestor, Sophia Dryden, not being quite the clearing of his family’s name he’d expected. That’s not even mentioning the biggest reveal of all, that about the true nature of the hated Dread Wolf and the oh-so-lovely elven gods. So given all this it would not be unreasonable to suspect what we know about the golden city, and how it became the Black City, might be rather a bit flawed as well.

In fact, we have good reason to believe the tale we were told is at least partially wrong. We were told the magisters corrupted the city and it turned black. But when we encounter our beloved Coryphenis in “Dragon Age 2: Legacy,” he loudly laments “The city! It was supposed to be golden! It was supposed to be ours!” and before this “The light. We sought the golden light. You offered… the power of the gods themselves. But it was… black… corrupt. Darkness…. ever since.” Both of these lines suggest that when the magisters entered the city it was not golden but was already black which, in turn, suggests that the incursion of the Magisters (the so called second sin) is not what turned it black. But Coryphiums’ dialogue may suggest even more if we look closely.

Sniffing Out the Taint

He suggests that they were promised “… the power of the gods themselves.” by the Old Gods, lamenting that they did not get it. But I would suggest that maybe he got exactly what he was asking for. The taint. And no not the sexy kind, the darkspawn kind.

In “Dragon Age: Inquisition’s” “Trespasser” DLC we hear from everyone’s favourite sociopath Solas that if he hadn’t banished the Evanuris they would have “…destroyed the world.” But he never actually explains how they would’ve done this. Maybe the rascalians turned to the most dastardly of things, maybe the way in which they had risked destroying the world was through the Blight. Literally making it “the power of the (elven) gods.” The source of their incredible power.

We know from encountering Avernus in the “Warden’s Keep” DLC that the Darkspawn taint has power. We can deduce this from such cryptic sentences as “But the darkspawn taint… …has power.” In addition if you decide to be a naughty boy/girl and read his journals, you gain the option to drink a vial with a concotion he made which is said to unlock the hidden potential of “… the tainted blood you drank during the joining.” If you do happen to decide to drink this random concotion you found in an ancient ruin created by a mad mage you will find that you do not in fact gain salmonela, as you might have more reasonably expected, but it does indeed unlock hidden powers. You squirm in pain as you drink it, but the game helpfully informs you that “…there is power in this pain… and a hint of understanding.” Good thing too, because a cutscene of the Warden on the shitter would not have been well-suited to the game. Afterwards you permanently have access to new, blood-magicky unique abilities with delightful names such as “dark sustenance” and “blood thirst.”

Now why is this relevant? Because if there is one truth in the Dragon Age universe it’s that power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and magical power corrupts absotivilutely and leaves you with all kinds of skin conditions as well. In fact we see this with Avernus too. Not just the skin condition, he has become obsessed with the power of the tainted blood. He experiments on his companions, murders them, wants to do this to more people and says things like “The wardens use it merely to sense darkspawn. A triviality. My research has discovered so much more-hinted at even greater heights.” and “This knowledge could not only save Soldier’s Peak– with it, the Wardens could grow even more powerful!” It’s a harrowing sight to behold, though not an uncommon one. We often see mages use forbidden magic and be corrupted as a result. In fact it’s the way the Mage Warden’s storyline starts.

I can only imagine that powerful mages who were narcissistic enough to literally pose as gods might take a similar path. We’re told by Solas that his lady love Mythal “…was a voice of reason” and that “… in their lust for power they killed her.” which is ultimately what caused Solas to act against them. Maybe Mythal, whom we’re told loved her people, was (quite unreasonably, in my opinion) not a big fan of the other Evanuris infecting people with the Blight and sacrificing them in huge blood sacrifices. Maybe she spoke out against it. And, as we’ve seen with Avernus, maybe the Evanuris were willing to harm whoever they needed to, in order to keep their power. So they whacked that old buzzkill.

And what else could possibly be more of a risk to the world than the Blight? The entire first game is dedicated to fighting it and building it up. If the Evanuris were infecting people with it, taking it into themselves (like the Grey Wardens) and using it for great feats of magic it’s no wonder Solas would seek to move against them. It would also explain why Solas has such a distaste for the Wardens.

The Eggman Foreshadoweth

Throughout “Dragon Age Inquistion” Solas’ reactions to things are often… telling. When the Inquisitor discovers Skyhold for the first time Solas is smiling, but as the Inquisitor walks past him his smile turns into something much more… sinister, foreshadowing the fact that he lead you here quite purposefully. Solas will be excited when at Halamshiral, saying he likes and had missed court intrigue. Pretty odd for an apostate, but not surprising for someone who likely spent lots of time intriguing with his fellow godly pals. If the Inquisitor embraces their role as chosen of Andraste, he will not be happy about it. Angirly asking whether you enjoy the worship and whether you see your worshippers as fools guillible for their belief. Which… I don’t remember, but wasn’t there another group of non-godly people that proclaimed themselves as gods? A group Solas had a bit of a gripe with? When Morrigan and a Dalish inquisitor speak positively of Falon Din, an elven god, Solas sounds quite annoyed. And when asked, will talk about how Falon Din’s appetite for adulation was so great he began wars to amass more worshippers. The kind of reaction you’d expect from an elven god bitter about having been shit on throughout the centuries, while his horrible fellow gods were idealized instead. If the Inquisitor helps the rebel mages Solas will greatly approve, but if the Inquisitor takes them prisoner he will greatly disapprove. Pretty understandable if you know that he lead such a rebellion himself. He even makes a joke at one point that something is impossible unless “…we collapse the Veil and bring the Fade here so I can casually reshape reality.” which obviously references his attempt to bake a cake using blood magic! Or the ultimate plan which he reveals in “Trespasser.” So why, pray tell, does he seem to dislike the Grey Wardens so much?

Basic message: Don't do it.

The Wardens drinking Darkspawn blood and making it seem… not very appealing.

If you choose to exile the Wardens at the end of “Here Lies the Abyss” Solas “Greatly Approves” whereas if you let them join the inqusition he “Greatly Disapproves.” Not just that, when he talks to you about them he calls them a “…proud little cult” is worried about “…their next attempt to control something beyond their comprehension?” and says that “Their only purpose is to protect the world from something they do not understand, something that corrupts them!” Even when you say “The Wardens deserve a chance to redeem themselves” something Solas should be quite for considering his own quest for redemption Solas actually “Disapproves.” It’s after this he will even go so far as to talk about what a comfort it is that you’ve confirmed his worst stereotypes about humans. Basically hinting, if you know what he plans to do, that killing everyone will be a lot easier for him now. Now I’m no stranger to murderous rages, but that’s a pretty freaking extreme reaction. So what does that tell us?

In my not-so-humble opinion it tells us that he knows much more about the Blight and its origins that he has let on. Since his reaction is so emotional, and many of his reactions are based in his personal experience, this also suggests his judgement here is based in personal experience. That he has himself seen people try to use the Blight before. That he has seen how it can corrupt those who attempt to use it. How cults can form around those people, maybe even religions.

And why would he be so averse to even suggesting such people can be redeemed? Because he was quite willing to create the veil and banish the Evanuris forever exactly because he thought they were beyond redemption. They only deserved destruction and banishment. And anyone suggesting otherwise thus feels like a personal attack to him. Like someone is making excuses for the people who murdered his beloved, Mythal.

How to Imprison Gods and Banish Darkspawn

Alright, but so what if the Evanuris created or were big users and spreaders of the Blight? So what if it corrupted them? What does that matter? And what the fucking hell does any of this have to do with Arlathan?! It’s quite simple, actually. Wait, no. It’s incredibly fucking complicated. But let me try to explain it anyway…

We only know from Solas that he created the veil and this somehow banished them forever. He mentions both of these things in one breath, so this seems to suggest they are connected. That creating the veil somehow banished the Evanuris. But to where? We never see the Evanuris wandering around the fade. We never come across them skipping rope with demons, having coffee with spirits. They’re supposedly these uber-powerful mages and yet we’ve never heard of or seen their effects on the fade or its denizens. Why is this? Because the one place where they were banished to, is the one place in the fade where we have never been able to go: the Black City.

After all, it’s made very clear that the city is unreachable. In the codex entry about the Black City it’s said that the city is “equidistant” from all other points in the fade. Something which seems to be confirmed by gameplay, since no matter where you go in the fade or when, the Black City always seems just as far off hovering above you. It’s said that dreamers don’t go there, nor spirits and that “even the most powerful demons seem to avoid the place.” Shit, if I were a powerful demon I’d stay away from the Evanuris too. And what better prison than a place nobody can ever get to? Not to mention their warden is wandering the fade. Because what does Solas do the moment he creates the veil? He takes a little nap. Actually, quite a big nap. He sleeps for thousands of years, spending all his time in the fade. Something which is… kind of odd, except if you consider that he might’ve been watching over the Black City. Making sure nobody escaped it. This seems to be backed up by the codex entry “Arlathan: Part Two” with one line reading “It is a fable, to be sure, but those elves who travel the Beyond claim that Fen’Harel still roams the world of dreams, keeping watch over the gods lest they escape from their prisons.”

Wtf is the Black City?

A lot of open space, at least.

The charming holiday location: Vir Dithara.

But where did this prison come from? And here we get to the crux of the article. What is the Black City? What does it look like? It’s a giant floating island city. Earth still beneath it, as if it was pulled from the ground. We know of many other such places. The fade is full of them. But in particular we know of Vir Dithara in the Crossroads. The library you visit in “Trespasser.” A magnificant building which once existed in the mortal world as part of the Elven empire, but which was sundered by the creation of the veil. Now it is merely a blasted ruin suspended on a few pillars of earth in the air. And do we perhaps know of another, albeit slightly bigger, blasted ruin suspended in the air? The Black City.

It goes even further, because Solas specifically tells us that besides Vir Dithara “There were countless other marvels, all dependent on the presence of the fade, all destroyed.” And what greater marvel was there than the great city of the elves, Arlathan? And considering the elves’ penchant for magic, especially since their god-kings were mages, you really think that place wouldn’t have all sorts of magic trinkets dependent on the fade when one of their libraries did? But if it was shattered and became part of the fade, where is it? Look up, asshole, it’s been hanging right above you for 3 games already.

And, in fact, that was likely the point of the veil. Because the stories speak specifically of a betrayal, and Solas alludes to having been involved in court intrigue. So maybe Solas, devilish egg-man that he is, gathered all his Evanuris buddies together in the city for a loving sorry-I-killed-Mythal dinner. With all of them and their blighted hordes in one place, zap he raises the veil and sends Arlathan with the Evanuris and their darkspawney ways scurtling into the void, never to escape again.

That is some very large ominousness.

The Black City suspended ominously above you.

Or maybe they were already there and Solas simply had to do the banishing part. It was the Elven capital after all. It could be the Evanuris were mostly hanging out there already. Sipping tea, solving limericks, practicing their evil, darkspawn taint driven magic, you know that sort of thing. A bunch of corrupted mages turning the once glorious golden city of the elves into a black one as the darkspawn taint spread over it. Sound at all familiar? If not, then you have amnesia and you should definitely seek out a doctor before you start bleeding from your eyeballs.

Yes, supposedly the Tevinters sank Arlathan, but what evidence is there of that? What evidence is there that the Tevinters could even do such a thing? None that I know of. What I do know though is that there appears to be a big fucking lump of earth stuck to the bottom of the Black City. If it was Arlathan, I can only imagine that clump of earth would’ve left a pretty big hole somewhere in Thedas. And the Tevinters get blamed for just about anything bad anyway, and they do appear to have been the ones to have moved into Elven lands after the fall of the elven empire. It would be all too easy for the timeline to become screwed up and the fall of Arlathan to be attributed by the elves to their invaders too. This is, after all, pretty much what happened with the elves losing their immortality. It is, like almost everything bad, attributed to the coming of man but in truth Solas states that “…it was me.”

By the Old Gods & the New

Noooooooooooooooooooooot at all.

Corypheus’ best friend and essence repository not looking archdemon-like at all.

All of this would also perfectly explain what happened next: The Old Gods start whispering to the Tevinters soon after the fall of the elves. So maybe the Old Gods have remnants of the Evanuris in them. After all Corypheus was able to use the taint to place part of himself into a dragon, and when the dragon dies some sort of “essence” returns to him. Not only that but this dragon was actually mistaken for an archdemon at first. Maybe it was mistaken for an archdemon because it was the same thing. As in it was created in the same way and served the exact same function as one.

The Archdemon before spittin' fire like Eminem 2.0.

The Archdemon from the first game.

It’s also worth noting that Mythal was even able to transform into a dragon and place her essence or a fragment inside Flemeth somehow, despite the slight handicap of having been murdered. Similarly we know from Morrigan’s child that there is some sort of… essence inside the archdemons that can be captured. Maybe this is a fragment of one of the Evanuris. That Flemeth would know about this would make sense in that case, since Mythal was one of the Evanuris and currently in possession of her body. And Flemeth’s insistence on Morrigan reclaiming such magic would be even more interesting then, considering the Evanuris supposedly murdered her. Perhaps she’s hoping the resulting creature will be like the Evanuris before they were corrupted by the Blight. She is a sentimental sod, after all. Perhaps, unlike her hubby, she believed they could be redeemed.

Be it the Corypheus route or the Flemeth route, it’s concievable that the Evanuris, powerful as they were, did something like that. So that could be what the Old Gods and the Archdemons are. They were under the Evanuris’ control all along. Which makes perfect sense, because what would the Evanuris want more than anything being stuck in the Black City? To get out. And what did the Old Gods do? Try to get them out.

At least, I suspect that was their plan with the Tevinter magisters. Coryphe-whatever was clearly mislead into doing what he did. He was promised a golden city by the Old God he worshipped, Dumat, and this was the reason he entered the golden city. The whispers of the Old Gods. Maybe the Evanuris thought that if they could convince the Tevinter magisters, through the Old Gods, to enter the city, they would be able to get out. And the plan just failed due to a Solas’ safeguard which immediately sent the Tevinters back to Thedas, though not without catching the Blight rampant in the Black City.

Or maybe, just maybe, the spread of the Blight is part of the Evanuris longer con to get out. They were trying to get the Blight out of the Black City so it can spread again. Perhaps as the Blight spreads, their power grows. Perhaps one day they hope(d) it’d grow enough so they could escape their prison.

Or perhaps they can simply use the Blight to control the Darkspawn and the Old Gods as puppets and believe that they can scour Thedas this way for some other way to free themselves. This might even mean the wardens are potential puppets.

Your guess is as good as mine. But no matter what, a connection seems, at the very least plausible.

Committed to Coherence

There are also convincing narrative reasons to believe the writers will go this route, specifically one: coherence. Dragon Age is a series after all, but so far the main stories of the games, especially Inquisition’s, don’t seem to contribute very much to the larger story. A larger lore.

The first game is all about stopping the Blight and the Archdemon. The second game is about the beginnings of the mage-templar war. The third game is about the rise of the Inquisitor, the defeat of Corypheus and the Elven gods. So I propose that, despite looking like very different stories, they are all building to the same thing.

Those damn dirty blighters!

The horrifying gore and suffering caused be the blight at Ostagar.

If the Blight we fight in the first game was created or is being used by the Evanuris, then of course the story developing in Inquisition to be about Solas and the veil makes sense. It’s setting us up for that final reveal. If the Evanuris are the big bads and they are simply mages gone too far, then of course the central conflict of “Dragon Age 2” makes sense. The game’s all about how much freedom these mages, like the Evanuris, should have. It would also tie together “Dragon Age: Origins” and “Dragon Age II.” In Origins we see all the pain and suffering the Blight causes. We know how bad it is. So, in answer to the second game’s major question, the argument “last time mages had freedom they created the Blight which threatened to swallow the world” becomes a pretty persuasive one.

In short, if the Black City is Arlathan and the blight a tool of the Evanuris then the games, which seem pretty disjointed now, would all be unified into a single, epic arc by the end.

A Tale Told by an Idiot

So, assuming that you managed to get through this entire article without forgetting the beginning, let’s go through the story of the Black City again, this time with what we’ve found out in this article:

Towards the beginning of time we have the Elves. Immortal, we find them frolicking through the meadows and forests, creating wondorous things like big, spirit-assisted libraries, magic teleportey mirrors and gleaming golden cities. A war happens, maybe against humans, maybe against demons, maybe against the titans, maybe against the original darkspawn. The most powerful mages become generals, then venerated elders, then kings, then gods. Magical power absotively posilutely corrupts and so the mage-gods seek more and more of it.

They either create or decide to use the Darkspawn taint for this purpose, turning Arlathan black with its use, but, as these things go, it quickly starts getting out of hand. They spread it to their slaves and use them in blood sacrifices, in eternal competition with each other. But they cannot control its spread. This becomes very clear to Mythal who, being the motherly sort, is none too pleased with this set of circumstances. Being the peaceful, lovey-dovey gal that she is, she sits down to have a nice open chat with them and, naturally, they respond by violently murdering her. Solas, who was already not so sure about this whole “hey let’s use this uncontrollable bio weapon as a power source” thing or the “let’s also kill a bunch of innocent slaves” cherry on top, is finally pushed over the edge and rallies the people to him. The elves, in an incredible display of entitlement, decide they’re not all that happy being infected with Blight and sacrificed against their will, so many rally to Solas. Solas, with his army, mozies on over to Arlathan where the Evanuris have holled up (maybe even retreated to) with their own darkspawney armies. He creates the veil and banishes the city of Arlathan to the fade, as an unreachable island in the middle. To make sure the Evanuris never come back he takes a nap. In doing so watching over them in the fade.

He quickly realizes that this whole “freeing the elves from enslavement by elven tyrants” thing simply resulted in the elves being enslaved by Tevinter tyrants and boohoos many boohoos. These same Tevinter tyrants start listening to the Old Gods who, on behalf of the Evanuris, tell them “Hey guys, wouldn’t it be totally cool if you guys ripped open the fade and freed my masters, uuuum, I mean got all the wonderful candy inside.” The Tevinter mages, not having learned from their parents not to take candy from strange dragon gods because their parents were too busy making blood sacrifices in the bathroom, do this. They get there only to find Arlathan overrun with the Blight, which “oopsie” infects them too. Either the Evanuris or one of Solas’ safeguards sends them back to Thedas. But the Blight, being quite sticky, goes along with them. Once again unleashing it upon the world. The Evanuris snigger and twirl their moustaches as they wait for their plans to finally let them the fuck out and I can only imagine Solas smashes his hand into his face in a facepalm of elven god proportions. Eventually leading to the plan we see him try to carry out in “Dragon Age: Inquistion.”

I just want to thank Youtuber Ghil Dithalen for giving me some good examples of misleading history. She regularly discusses Dragon Age lore so if you liked this article, you might want to subscribe to her. You can find her Youtube channel by clicking here.

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Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots taken from the Dragon Age game series including “Dragon Age: Origins” and “Dragon Age: Inquisition.” We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. The game series belongs to David Gaider, Bioware and EA games.

1 comment

  1. Doing research for another article I also happened to find this little gem which I thought I would share here: “And that is how Fen’Harel tricked them. Our gods saw him as a brother, and they trusted him when he said that they must keep to the heavens while he arranged a truce.”

    This fits in rather well with the idea that Solas tricked the elven gods into staying in Arlathan (the Black City is literally taught in Chantry religion as having once been heaven) before banishing it into the Fade.

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