Magic and Drugs Part 3: In defence of Anders - Tactical Ninja
Aug. 23rd, 2012
11:34 am - Magic and Drugs Part 3: In defence of Anders
This is the third thread I've been following about magic and drugs after playing through DA2. The first one was the relationship between magic and drugs as they exist in this world. The second was the parallels between the way magic users are treated in Thedas and the way drug users are treated in this world. The third and final thread is a bit more personal. It's about the way I feel about these things and how it affected my view of one of the characters.
GIANT SPOILER WARNING: HAPPY U NO CAN READ COS REASONS!
Anders seems to be the character everyone loves to hate. Except those that love to love him *cough*, but I'm not talking here about romances, I'm talking about his actual character. I've seen him described as selfish, manipulative, whiny, and annoying. People talk about spending the entire game wanting to bang his head on a wall. Which kind of makes me go "Hey, he made you feel something. That's pretty impressive for a fictional NPC in a video game!"
Anyway, by far the biggest complaint levelled at Anders is the difference between Awakenings Anders and DA2 Anders. Apparently characters aren't allowed to change. But to that I say "Of course he was going to change."
When we first meet Anders, he's just made his seventh escape from the Circle. He was taken from his parents at 12 when his magic manifested, and led in handcuffs by the templars to a tower where he was locked up. He proceeded to spend his teenage years escaping, then being caught and dragged back. While in the tower, all mages are subject to abuse at the whim of the templars - everything from being made to feel as if their existence is a sin to being kicked in the head, to being killed. According to Awakenings Anders, there's no way for a mage to prove themself so they are 'locked up for everyone else's safety.'
After his 6th escape, Anders was kept in solitary confinement for a year. When we come across him, he has escaped again and was being escorted back to the Circle when darkspawn attacked. We never find out whether it was actually darkspawn or Anders himself who killed all the templars guarding him, but he is alone, surrounded by piles of dead darkspawn and templars, when you find him. Conscripting him into the Grey Wardens gives him immunity from the templars, thus he can finally be free of the Tower and can live as an apostate - albeit the restricted life of a warden rather than true freedom.
His character comes across as happy-go-lucky, irresponsible and self-centred. He's funny, yes, but it's a sarcastic humour edged with putting Anders before everything else. And if you listen to some of the things he says in Awakenings, you can feel the bubbling resentment under there already - he talks of the way mages are tolerated rather than accepted, the way the templars justify their abuse with this litany about how mages might be dangerous and how.. unjust.. this is. He's angry and if you look, you can see it.
Fair enough too. He must be at least in his early twenties when you meet him, so he's been abused for 10 years. How did he get away with escaping his abusers repeatedly without being killed or made Tranquil*? By being happy-go-lucky, irresponsible and self-centred. The First Enchanter of the Circle saw him as harmless, and I argue that it's for these reasons. He's funny and his motivations appear to be entirely for selfish reasons and hedonism - he wants to eat, fuck and party like other people his age - and therefore the Circle and the templars do not see him as a threat. Anders' character in Awakenings is a defence mechanism - "If I'm funny they won't kill me." He's only out for himself because he's still in 'save myself' mode - which has done a pretty good job of keeping him alive so far. He even alludes to this in DA2 when needled by Fenris:
F: "Why haven't the templars killed you yet?"
A: "I'm charming."
What we are seeing here is someone who's recently left an abusive situation and is still following the behaviour patterns learned within it. I know that when I left my husband, the first year was spent learning how to be in a world where my behaviour and motivations were not entirely focused around avoiding bringing shit down on myself. One of the things that I found hardest to learn was to take responsibility. I had lived for years with a convenient scapegoat for everything that went wrong - my life was based in unfair treatment (abuse I didn't earn) and the .. injustice .. of that made it easy for me to deflect responsibility onto him for everything. After I left, I had to learn to carry that. So yeah, I was irresponsible and self-centered until I learned not to be. I wasn't all that funny, but hey, my defence has always been anger. *shrug*
So I see Awakenings Anders' personality as a veneer laid over the core of who he is rather than the sum total of who he is. You get glimpses of how angry he is, but it's more hinted at than seen because he's still learning to live in the real world and his safety is in being funny, selfish and irresponsible so people think he's harmless. And when Justice enters the game, we see Anders starting to learn to take responsibility. By the end of the game, Justice is starting to talk Anders around to understand the systemic oppression of mages as something he can fight against.
In between the games, Anders voluntarily allows the Spirit of Justice to enter him so that they can work together against the oppression of mages. The combination of Justice being in his ear about it and the writings from his friend Karl in Kirkwall (who is imprisoned in their Circle) have convinced him that this problem is bigger than just him. Basically, it gives him a purpose over and above his immediate survival, which is now not a compelling factor in his life. He's moved on from wanting a pretty girl and a decent meal to wanting the right to shoot lightning at fools.
A similar thing happened to me when I got over being in survival mode. Just saying, for me it took a lot longer, but I don't live in a magical universe where Spirits of Justice pop up and explain things to me in convenient soundbites. But yeah, once I had my personal shit sorted (good job, place to live, support network), I started wondering what next. For me, it was drugs. It sounds .. hedonistic and selfish, but I want the right to alter my mindstate chemically if I so choose. And for the first little while that's all it was - I was frustrated and angry that I personally risked my freedom and stability every time I did this thing that had been somewhat instrumental in my healing process. Yes it was, I will write about that one day but not today, this will already be long enough without that.
So yeah, I wanted to take drugs. But it didn't take me long to realise that continuing to do so under the radar was not going to change anything. I can even put a date on when exactly this crystallised for me: October 17th, 2007. An excerpt from that post:
"I want to stand up. I want to become a public advocate of realistic attitudes to drug use in society. I'm tired of buying into the 'harm minimisation' argument when the only real harms I can see associated with illegal drugs (by comparison to other harms from other behaviours) are caused by the very fact that they are illegal.
I have a lot to lose. I understand what could happen if I were to really stand up and make myself known. But I don't see how attitudes are ever going to change if people who successfully integrate recreational drug use into their lives, while still functioning as contributing members of society, remain hidden from the public view. I know I'm tilting at windmills. I know that on my own, I've Buckleys of making a difference.
But if I don't try, how can I really say that I back what I believe? How can I consider myself to be someone of integrity if I hide something that I don't even believe is wrong, for the sake of fitting in with societal expectations?"
Swap the word 'drug' for 'magic' and hello, Anders. So he went to Kirkwall and started helping mages, and I went to university to study Social Policy and Criminology. As I learned more, I realised that this isn't just about the right for me to take drugs, it's about the harms that have arisen because of the prohibition of drugs, and the .. injustice .. of a system that discriminatorily marginalises people who are already struggling because of an arbitrary distinction between which drugs are legal and which aren't. Drug law has been used to further racist and sexist agendas, and to perpetrate human rights abuses all over the world. How is cashew slavery disguised as 'rehab' in Vietnam any different from licence plate slavery of incarcerated drug users (who make up a substantial percentage of the US prison population)? Who exactly is responsible for the orphans in Mexico, orphaned because of military escalation of drug cartel violence? Etc. I realised that this isn't just about me. It's about a whole system and the people who are trapped by it, and the damage it's doing to those people.
In short, I grew up. So did Anders. So no wonder he's not the same happy-go-lucky cad he was in Awakenings. He's got a shitload more to think about now, and because he's an apostate working to free mages, he's got a lot more at stake. He also has the residual burning anger at the .. injustice.. he was dealt because of the system, and the actual Spirit of Justice living in his head, colouring every decision he makes in the black and white terms of "IS THIS JUST?"
As the game goes on, more and more blood mages appear. By the end it seems that every mage in Kirkwall who isn't Anders or Sparrow (my Hawke) is turning to blood magic. As we established in the last post, blood magic is the reason the Chantry (and through their propaganda, everyone else) is afraid of mages. The fact that any mage can learn it through dealing with demons and thus become practically invincible is used to justify locking all mages up 'just in case'. We also established that the negative consequences of drug use, particularly drugs like heroin, are used to justify criminalising all drug users 'just in case'.
For the mages, their oppression is becoming worse because with each blood mage uncovered, the templars see justification to crack down harder. The templars start to make people Tranquil in anticipation of their using blood magic, even though this contravenes the law - the templars are becoming a law unto themselves.The harder the templars crack down, the more any mage seeking to escape the Circle needs to escalate their magic in order to get out - which means more blood magic. And every time a blood mage appears, it reinforces in everyone's mind why magic (and thus mages) should be prohibited. Thus, Anders hates blood mages because they undermine his efforts to demonstrate to the world that mages can be trusted to govern themselves. He has managed to remain free of the Circle without using blood magic, and he believes that to free themselves from oppression, mages need to do the same.
So when people say they dislike Anders because of his behaviour towards Merrill (who is basically nice but a blood mage), I think he's completely justified in having a go at her at every opportunity. She lives free already and has not had to suffer for her magic, but her actions are contributing to supporting a system of oppression that will hold up her behaviour as a reason to kill other mages. Anders, who is semi-openly practicing magic and helping mages to escape the Circle, is only still free through his association with Hawke. He is being watched and he knows that any slip off that tightrope means death or tranquility for him. Yet Merrill is stubbornly continuing down a path that puts his life and that of all mages in danger. I dislike Merrill, personally. I think she's a selfish brat and deserves every verbal slap she gets.
I can totally relate to Anders' frustration at this situation. I can remember tearing a strip off a young guy in a tutorial who was bragging about having been irresponsible with drugs - because every time someone does that, it gives the prohibitionists more fuel to continue with this system they have set up that does so much harm to so many people. There is nothing so frustrating when working to dismantle a broken system, than the people you are working for reinforcing the negative beliefs that maintain that system. Like many of the people complaining about Anders going on about mages, I'm sure that kid thought I was annoying and whiny as well. It kind of goes with the territory.
So yes, I identify with Anders. We seem to have a lot in common (except, you know, for the bit where he's a fictional character that actually can shoot lightning at fools) - history of abuse, character development that changes us**, passion for a cause, frustration at lack of progress towards that cause, and to some extent, willingness to risk personal safety for that larger cause. I don't have Justice in my head and in some respects that's a good thing because sure as fuck I have enough anger to warp Justice into Vengeance, but I do have an innate sense of fairness that makes me willing to risk pissing people off to achieve it and to wear the consequences of saying the hard stuff.
I think this is why I got pretty attached to Anders. I could even (I won't yet, don't worry) write about why I thought lying to Hawke and blowing up the Chantry made sense in his situation (which was a lot more life-and-death than mine I have to say). I found him by far the most sympathetic character in the game. Varric and Aveline were totally the most together, the other party members were mostly funnier (although even in Act 3 when Vengeance is in full swing there's still the odd glimmer of funny/sarcastic Anders in there), Fenris was hotter. But Anders is the one I can relate to, he's the most honest, and he's the one whose story made DA2 into a game that's caused me to think for this long and write three very long essays about the relationship between magic and drugs.
I can't see his story progressing from here, sadly. And that might be part of the appeal - not knowing whether he made it.
* Tranquility - for a mage, it's more or less the same as being lobotomised - cut off from the Fade where their magic springs from. The tranquil are emotionless husks and it's a fate most mages fear more than death.
** I love how Anders' personal quests in the three Acts are called Tranquility, Dissent, Justice. It's just so perfect to outline the catalysts for his character development.
And for those who don't give a crap about that stuff: Mars has a Happy Face!
This makes me squee.