In the Dragon Age series, “lyrium” is a mysterious mined substance that plays a large role throughout the games. Regular lyrium, in its raw, turquoise blue form, is extremely volatile to nearly all races, and it can only be safely extracted by dwarves of the mining caste. Processed lyrium, however, is used (delicately, though sometime not) by both templars and mages, serving the latter to strengthen their connection with the otherworldly “Fade.” Nobody knows, it seems, just how lyrium works, only that it can be addictive and it…sings. Yes,” sings” to its users in pacifying tones, calming them, making them feel at ease. All this players learn within the events of Dragon Age: Origins.
In Dragon Age II, lyrium becomes something else. Something eeeeeeevil! Upon venturing in the Deep Roads, the Champion of Kirkwall, along with Varric Tethras and his shady brother Bartrand, discover an idol made of pure lyrium — it’s red lyrium, though they don’t recognize it as such. It immediately starts “singing” to Bartrand, who, under the red lyrium’s influence, locks everyone away in the Deep Roads…forever! But all isn’t lost, as the Champion and Varric find their way to the surface. In light of all that occurred, Varric swears revenge against Bartrand and that cursed idol. Little did he know then what terrible things lay in wait.
The story of lyrium, its affects and defects, is, as I said, one that’s tightly woven into the fabric of Dragon Age. As if regular lyrium isn’t dangerous enough, red lyrium proves far worse, turning brother against brother and men into monsters. It’s with that I mind that I relay my first Uncanny Account of this spooky month. Because while red lyrium came to be known to drive people mad, could it also cause…ghosts? Let’s delve into two Dragon Age II quests to shed some light on that eerie proposition!
After the Deep Roads expedition at the end of Dragon Age II’s first act, its second act begins three years later. The Champion is living well, as is Varric’s brother Bartrand who, after selling the red lyrium idol, among other treasures, has purchased an estate in the rich part of town. Later on however, in a companion quest called “Family Matter,” Varric finds out that suspicious activity is taking place at Bartrand’s estate, so he asks for the Champion’s help to investigate. They come to find out that Bartrand, though without the idol, has been driven mad by it. After hearing its relentless “singing,” he tortured his servants, fed lyrium to his guards (caused them to go insane, as well), and locked himself away all in the hopes of freeing his mind from red lyrium’s heinous “song.” Varric and the Champion are faced with a tough choice as to how to best help Bartrand, whom they find begging for death. There’s no question, as Varric repeatedly points out, that red lyrium is responsible for the events at Bartrand’s mansion, as well as that’s dangerous and needs to be destroyed at all costs.
After the passage of a few more years, in the game’s third act, another companion quest called “Haunted” pops up concerning Bartrand’s mansion. Through his channels, Varric learns that, though Bartrand’s mansion is now abandoned, strange occurrences within it have been reported. As far Varric knows, no one has been living in the mansion, and it should remain in the much the same state as they found it when Bartrand had gone mad inside its walls. If the Champion is all too curious, the choice can be made to go examine the house.
Upon entering the empty estate, it’s clear that a strange aura shrouds the place. And it doesn’t take long for the Champion and crew to realize that is being haunted by some strange force – floating furniture, flying books, and literal ghosts pretty much give that away. As the poltergeists at play appear to become more incensed as the party travels further into the mansion, small battles ensure with various creatures and demons. In the quest’s final throes, the party faces off with an Ethereal Golem, along with a host of moving housewares. With the Golem dispatched, the poltergeists disperse as well, and the house goes silent. But the question remains: what caused the haunting?
Then, in Bertrand’s old room, Varric discovers a piece of red lyrium, which he suspects had broken off the idol Bertrand had taken from the Deep Roads. (With the red lyrium in hand, Varric immediately begin acting odd himself—does he hear its evil “song?”—and he tries to convince the Champion to let him keep it.) But back to the haunted house. Did one little chunk of red lyrium cause, perhaps, the house itself to go mad? Could it have somehow summoned up the spirits of the place that were already within its walls? It’s known that regular lyrium can enhance one’s connection (if to one’s detriment) to the Fade; could red lyrium be the “dark side” of that coin to regular lyrium’s “light side?” No answers are provided as Varric, whether or not he keeps the red lyrium, wants nothing to do with Bartrand’s old mansion ever again.
Red lyrium becomes a major and exceptionally hazardous player in the events yet to come in Dragon Age: Inquisition. In that game, its revealed through Bianca Davri, one of Varric’s associates, that red lyrium has been tainted by the Blight – that which caused Darkspawn and plenty of other Dragon Age problems. But the Bight is known to only affect living things. So speculation abounds that lyrium, any lyrium, is actually…alive. This supposition makes sense when considering the haunted mansion and other red lyrium “possession” occurrences in Dragon Age II, from the lowly Bartrand to the famed Commander Meredith, who just so happened to be the one who purchased the idol from Batrand and subsequently had it made into a terrible, and possessed, blade. If lyrium, red lyrium, is a living thing with supernatural powers, it would follow that it could possess the living, as well as the dead. But then the question arises as to just how much agency the red lyrium takes with that choice. Dominating a mind to make it go insane is one thing, making some books furniture fly about is another entirely.
If you follow Dragon Age lore, what do you make of red lyrium’s menacing prowess?
All in-line images were taken by author during PS3 gameplay of Dragon Age II (© BioWare).
While I suppose it was too much to ask for a “Lyrium: Explained” questline, I was kind of hoping we’d get more than “it might be alive” in Dragon Age: inquisition. Honestly though, I’ve mostly forgotten how exactly magic works in the Dragon Age universe. I know it has something to do with drawing on the Fade, but what even is the Fade? We know it has some sort of connection to all living peoples since that’s where they go when dreaming (right?), so maybe it’s some sort of life energy? That would explain lyrium’s magical properties and its capacity to be corrupted by the Blight. All that said though, lyrium is still largely a mystery. Maybe they would have solved it in the final Dragon Age they were hinting at in the Inquisition DLC, but that’s looking unlikely now.
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One of my gripes with the Dragon Age series generally is that lyrium is never truly explained, despite the fact that it plays an incredibly important role in all the games. The discover of red lyrium alone shapes nearly all of Dragon Age: Inquisition, and no one calls it anything more than just “bad.” It just feels like a permanently unfinished idea…which maybe could be fixed in DA4? That’d be nice.
The Fade isn’t really all that well-explained, either. I’ve always understood it as a metaphysical space that lies just beyond the real world and is accessible only through dreaming. (In a way, our constructs of heaven and hell are kind of similar, just without the religious overtones.) Somehow, and with the help of lyrium, mages are able to draw from the fade to cast spells. If the fade is “alive,” it would certainly follow that lyrium is “alive,” too. But I don’t know for sure. It’s all very interesting and very entangled!
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