So, I am not knowledgeable on every single character in the DA world, but many others are. Here, linked with permission is some meta on Cullen (pre-Dragon Age Inquisition release). This meta examines his character, origins and complexities as presented in Dragon Age Origins and Dragon Age II. Originally posted on AO3 2011-12-07
As the title suggests, a defence of my favourite Templar. It’s not so much an essay as a damn thesis. As first seen on Tumblr, Part Two will follow and covers his role as Knight Captain. Enjoy!
(See the end of the work for notes.)
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read my fiction before that I’m a fairly dedicated Cullen fan. Of course I could be whimsical and say that all the Dragon Age characters, from Origins and DA2 and all the DLCs, are very dear to me, but Cullen holds a special place in my heart. So when someone recently called Cullen an ‘abusive rapist’ on another site, going so far as to say they wanted to see him as a companion in DA3 so they could kill him, I pulled up rather fast at that one. Of all the reasons to hate Cullen, of all the things he does to find abhorrent or disappointing, where in the Void did that come from?
It was too much for me to leave alone, so I sat down and started hammering away at his character, trying to understand the enigma that is Cullen. I know I run with a rather pro-mage crowd, so I hope you’ll all indulge me in filling your dash with a little Templar perving for five minutes. I’m not here to start a flame war, or convert you to Cullen worship; I just want to make people stop and think a little, and perhaps start a discourse on him. He’s a complex character, and he deserves just as much attention because of what he represents to us: faith and duty versus hope and humanity. If there is one word that sums up Cullen’s character in a nutshell, it is conflicted.
Warning for immense rambling. Slightly triggerish for discussions of psychological torture and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And I will apologise in advance to anyone with actual training in psychology or psychiatry if I get my facts completely wrong- I did discuss my notes with my psychiatrist and she gave me the thumbs up, but she didn’t read the finished product. So! Onwards.
I like Cullen. I like Cullen a lot. Maybe it’s the hair, maybe it’s the voice (Greg Ellis, you could read me a drive through burger menu and still make it sound sexy), maybe it’s that tiny half smile he gives, maybe there’s something about him being so very broken and my fingers just itch to fix him… whatever it is, I adore that Templar. And I have no trouble reconciling my adoration for Cullen with my deep and abiding love for Anders and Justice (yes, they come as a two-for-one in my head, let’s just move on). I can be pro-mage and still like him. So when I saw such hateful, poisonous words directed at him, I had to stop and go ‘really? Is this really how he’s viewed by the fandom? Are there really people who can’t differentiate between Cullen and Alrik and Karras? Am I really looking at him through rose coloured glasses?’ Needless to say, I started to think… and then my thinking got a little carried away.
For the purpose of this discussion, when I talk about the origin story I will be referring to either of the mage origins with a preference for female protagonist. We learn the most about the way Cullen’s mind works when dealing with a female mage.
In the origin story, we are first introduced to a bumbling, shy young Templar who seems to have no problem in befriending and being friendly to mages. Or at least, not the normal objections that one would expect to see from a Templar. It should in fact be old history to everyone who has played the game that it’s common gossip in the tower that Cullen seems to have a crush on the female protagonist. To him, it doesn’t seem to contradict his duties at all to be friendly with the people he’s protecting, although he “… would have felt terrible about it” which I always find amusingly macabre. And at that point, that’s what he’s doing- he’s protecting mages, not imprisoning them, and he doesn’t feel particularly good about it. Rather naïve on his part, but there you have it. All of his dialogue is nervous and stuttering and far too inexperienced; this is not a trained killer, a ruthless Templar the likes of which we are all too familiar with in DA2. He is simply a young man trying to find his feet in his vocation, with the added complication of feeling a slight infatuation for the very woman he was tasked with felling.
Here’s the first problem that people have with his character. Some people consider this behaviour to be unacceptable, to be tantamount to obsession or stalking. Although I’d like to say people are entitled to such an opinion, I find it a little short sighted. As Alistair explains to the Warden, Templars and recruits are not particularly encouraged to partake in all the normal activities that occupy young men and women (and older men and women for that matter!). That’s not to say they are forbidden from sex or marriage or relationships, but it’s certainly discouraged; and as Anders so eagerly tells us in Awakening and then again in DA2, Kinloch Hold was somewhat infamous for the sexual freedom and promiscuity of the mages incarcerated there. For a young man to be locked away from any major settlements where he might find ‘safer’ options for a bedmate, to be told to watch these uninhibited young women and men day after day after day, to be told to look but never touch, constantly reminded that they are evil but yet to see evidence of it… it would confuse the Void out of anyone.
The Templars of Kinloch Hold lead a very different life to their compatriots across the sea in Kirkwall; in Kirkwall we see the Templars able to come and go, still in contact with their families, able to indulge themselves in the services available at the Blooming Rose, able to immerse themselves in the civilization of the city should they need to escape the darkness that is the Gallows. Kinloch Hold, by comparison, is in the middle of nowhere, an island literally and metaphorically. The Templars have very little recourse should they need a diversion from their duties—a tiny settlement, little more than a rustic inn and a few fishing shacks. Instead they are locked in the tower along with the mages, their only escape if they’re ‘lucky enough’ to be sent out hunting for apostates and mage children.
So Cullen is a young man, mid-twenties, who by his nervous demeanour appears to have never been seriously involved with a girl before, who is ordered to stand and watch pretty, promiscuous girls day after day after day… and we wonder why he might be mildly infatuated? He’s simply a product of his environment, a situation that constantly seats temptation directly in front of him and tells him to be strong and ignore it. He is essentially taught that feeling sexual attraction is a sin. And the accusations that he’s creepy? It’s just a crush- have you ever had an unreciprocated crush before? No one ever said he watched the Warden while she was sleeping, or bathing; he never made inappropriate moves and he never touched her and he never took advantage when or if the Warden makes a move against him. True, he’s one of her jailors, and that will never make it wholly right, but is his behaviour at this point really that abhorrent? I’d be inclined to say no. Cullen is just a sexually frustrated young man with middling social skills, following his faith to the best of his abilities, trying to come to terms with the fact that his duties require him to kill the mage with the cute smile if she turns into something from his darkest nightmares. That he’s not messed up before Uldred attacks is fairly outstanding on his part.
Now on to the heartbreaking scene at the top of the Tower during the Broken Circle quest. If you haven’t actually seen the interaction between Cullen and a female mage Warden, I think it’s worth just stopping to go and have a look. The Warden returns to what was essentially her home to find it overrun with demons and on the brink of being annulled entirely. When she left, it was under a cloud of suspicion after helping a blood mage escape from the Tower; when she reappears, rumours follow her of betrayal and high treason, accused of being responsible for the massacre at Ostagar and the death of the king. And she walks into the midst of such a vastly indiscriminate slaughter, with these stories nipping at her heels… if you were a Templar, with the expected prejudices burned into your skull from an early age, how much trust would you place in such a woman? Allegedly the uprising is a result of Uldred trying to sway the Templars and the mages to support Loghain in the brewing civil war, and his arguments being shot down when news arrives of his treachery at Ostagar, but even then it becomes a game of hearsay and conjecture. The Warden hardly presents as trustworthy either, so her reappearance is not exactly reassuring.
Cullen and his brethren have fought against Uldred’s uprising, a losing battle, and by the time the Warden makes it to the top of the tower he is the only one left alive. He has seen men cut down by monstrosities the likes of which he has never seen before, creatures that hunger for his mind and his emotions, and the worst thing is that some of these creatures were once the mages that confused him so much. His superiors warned him that this could happen, that mages were not to be trusted, and yet he allowed himself to slip. Because they looked so normal, so human, and up until that point he honestly believed there was no obvious harm in mages. As David Gaider said, he is someone who has had his faith broken twice, once by mages and once by Templars  (more about the Templars when I discuss DA2) which implies that once upon a time he actually had faith in mages. Which is more than we can say about most Templars, and it makes me wonder why that sort of attitude has preserved so late into his training; granted, Greagoir seems like an almost indulgent sort of Commander at times (not all the time, and certainly not always towards mages, but more about that in a moment), but what we know and understand about the Templar Order doesn’t really seem to encourage Cullen’s initial attitude.
His belief in the basic goodness of humanity is stripped from him, in the most brutal fashion possible. His faith in mages- and most likely his faith in people if one looks closely enough at his behaviour in DA2- is utterly shattered, and the naivety and innocence that still lurk in his character in the mage origin are ripped from him. Because as if fighting for his life wasn’t bad enough, as if seeing mages burst outwards into abominations, their flesh rippling and corrupting, as if seeing his fellows cut down around him wasn’t the worst thing that could happen, standing there and expecting to die… then the demons got permission to play with him.
I’m going to talk about torture for a second, and specifically the effects that physical and psychological torture leaves on an individual. So consider that a trigger warning. We don’t know in any great detail what Cullen had to go through in the Tower. There are allusions to what happened, and we assume it wasn’t nice by any stretch of the imagination. There is fairly strong evidence that his torture wasn’t physical, more psychological as the demons sought to tempt him and taunt him and break him mentally. But that doesn’t make his experience any less horrifying. They got inside his mind, made him watch the deaths of his friends, locked him within hearing range of the Harrowing Chamber where he was forced to witness the screams and the sickening sounds of bodies being warped and reformed as the demons surged through into the reluctant host. In the case of a female protagonist, he believes that his sins are being dragged before his eyes, his shame and his secret hung tauntingly before him. Every secret darkness within him is dredged up by the demons, who delight in his anguish and his horror and hound him for what could have been hours, days, weeks… the Blight takes place for a year, and though the state of the Tower suggests that the uprising has only recently taken place when you arrive, that doesn’t rule out that perhaps the Templars have been fighting a losing battle for some time now.
So for an undetermined amount of time, Cullen has been held prisoner by creatures who do not know compassion, or pity, or remorse, creatures who only hunger for him to feel more, hurt more, so that they can feed upon him. We do a good enough job of beating ourselves up for the strange and often horrid things that can cross our minds unexpectedly. And we don’t live a militaristic, quasi-religious life that constantly hounds us to be suspicious, be cautious, be merciless, be judgemental, be righteous, be unforgiving. Imagine having all those dark secrets and macabre thoughts dragged into the open and forced upon you repeatedly for hours upon hours, until you were ready to believe that your saviour was just another mocking apparition. Imagine what it would be like to confuse the appearance of someone you are attracted to with just another sadistic attack by demons, and to think it was further proof of your perverted nature. How far would you have to fall to reach that point? How far would you have to fall to beg for death?
CULLEN: This trick again? I know what you are. It won’t work. I will stay strong…
F!MAGE WARDEN: Cullen! Don’t you recognize me?
CULLEN: Only too well… how far they must have delved into my thoughts…
WYNNE: The boy is exhausted. And this cage… I’ve never seen anything like it. Rest easy… help is here.
CULLEN: Enough visions. If anything in you is human… kill me now and stop this game.
LELIANA: He’s delirious. He’s been tortured… and has probably been denied food and water. I can tell. Here, I have a skin of–
CULLEN: Don’t touch me! Stay away! Sifting through my thoughts… tempting me with the one thing I always wanted but could never have… Using my shame against me… my ill-advised infatuation with her… a mage, of all things. I am so tired of these cruel jokes… these tricks… these…
Doctor Allen Keller is the director and cofounder of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture ; he has given evidence at senate enquiries into the instances of torture in military operations, and is considered a world expert on torture recovery. Some of his interviews are fantastic, and it’s so easy to see not just Cullen in his words, but also Anders and his year in solitary confinement, or Fenris and his intimately abusive relationship with Danarius, or what any mage in Thedas is at risk of at every moment of their lives. If you have time, I highly recommend having a look at the work he does- there’s actually a documentary coming out in about a week’s time called Doctors of the Dark Side that I am definitely keeping an eye on and crossing my fingers that I can see it at the cinemas over here at some point. But he has some fantastic things to say about psychological torment, and how the scars can linger just as long as any physical scar.
“It’s often difficult to tease out the physical and the psychological abuse because it’s quite common that they’re happening simultaneously. But for many individuals, the psychological forms of abuse including even the anticipation, the waiting, the uncertainty and the terror, as well as being subjected to forms of humiliation where they may not be physically injured or for example, if someone is subjected to a mock execution. If a gun is held to someone’s head and the trigger is pulled in a mock execution, there may be no physical marks, but the nightmares, the terrors can go on for months and likely for years, if not a lifetime, after what the individual has suffered… That fear of being killed, of course, naturally is one of the most terrifying things that one can experience and can result in profound anxiety. And then in years to come anything that might remind the individual of that terror, of that fear, can result in just an overflow of terrifying memories and nightmares.” 
I won’t go into excessive detail, although I’d highly recommend taking a look at the rest of the interview. He does go into some specifics about waterboarding, so if you’re squeamish or triggered easily, I’d avoid it. There was also some research done in London (Torture vs Other Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment, 2007) about survivors of the Yugoslavian conflict in the 1990s, where “…those techniques that did not involve physical pain were just as distressing, or even slightly more so, than those that directly inflicted pain.” That same article has some interesting points from a Harvard study into solitary confinement (can’t stay away from Anders, can I?). Another great resource for this topic is The Centre for Victims of Torture, where they summarise psychological torture so very succinctly: Torture is the deliberate and systematic dismantling of a person’s identity and humanity.
Cullen was tortured, plain and simple. There’s no real need to elaborate any more than I already have, but to summarise this is a young man in his twenties, hardly confident in himself and only averagely competent in his abilities, who fought for his life and saw all of his friends and colleagues slaughtered around him, who saw children and women cut down mercilessly, who saw mages turn into creatures from his worst nightmares, and then when he thought he was going to die, those same creatures kept him to play with at the blessing of the few mages who had yet to turn into abominations. I think the fact that he’s even coherent at all when you find him at the top of the Tower is indicative of the strength of his character.
But of course, in some ways it’s already too late for him- the naivety is gone, and he begs the Warden to kill the rest of the mages. He’s lost the ability to trust, and he cannot believe that there are mages who would not turn upon them if given the chance. It’s a complete 180°, from trusting too much to being unable to trust at all. His faith in humanity is gone, and all he has left is his faith in his duty; the balance has shifted and he is on his way to becoming the Knight Captain we know and love (or hate) in DA2. People may have betrayed him, but his duty gives him something to cling to, something to justify and explain the world, something to explain away what he has suffered and give him a reason to not just curl up in a ball and die. Duty gives him a reason to fight, but more than that it gives him purpose. So he latches onto it with all his might, and insists the mages must be killed . He yells at you, rails at you, screams that there is no other option- it’s all or nothing. If you don’t, he implies, you’re no better than them. And he does this again in front of Greagoir and Irving later on, when the two men are asking your opinion on Annulment. It’s eerie, actually, how calm and civil that conversation is considering what they are discussing- should we kill the remaining men, women and children in this Tower without question? Cullen has more to say, surprisingly coherent despite what he has just been rescued from. And if you side with the Templars? “Do not worry ser, we no longer have to fear their dark powers.”
That’s not to say he has no right to be coherent; people respond to torture and stress differently, the same way that different people respond to pain differently. Given what the epilogue can tell us about his fate, I think it’s obvious that Cullen has seized hold of ‘I am a Templar, this is my duty’ with complete fanaticism; if you side with the Templars and kill Irving and the mages, he is nothing but completely and utterly relieved. It’s his way of surviving, his way of getting out of bed each morning, and the anger and bitterness with which he reacts in Origins and at least the first Act of DA2 suggest he’s carrying some fairly serious self-loathing for not recognising the importance of his duties before now. There are two possible endings that explain Cullen’s fate, and neither of them is pretty. They both paint a picture of someone driven by unbending belief in the suspicious nature of mages, and potentially driven to the brink of madness by it. Again, hardly surprising: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can have terrible effects on a person’s mental stability.
Consider the language the epilogue uses to describe Cullen. Suspend your disbelief for a moment and remember that the epilogue slides are not necessarily correlated with what happens in DA2. If you side with the mages and shoot down his attempts to have the Circle annulled, “…he endures festering mental scars from his experience in the Tower. This leads to an eventual mental breakdown during which he kills a number of Mage Apprentices before fleeing.” Festering mental scars. Not just mental scars, but ones that fester and rankle and worsen as the months go by. Is anyone surprised that he suffered from PTSD after his experience? I’m actually more surprised that he was left in a position of power over the same people who did this to him (I’m making a generalisation here- of course they aren’t Uldred and his minions, but from a Templar mindset one mage is as good as another). Why was someone so traumatised and so paranoid left around mages who possess even more freedom than before? As far as he’s concerned, freedom is the absolute worst thing you can give to a mage. So he’s back in that same environment, surrounded by temptation again, and he’s expected to just get on with his job and deal with it. I imagine that the Templar Order doesn’t have a great health care plan (), and counselling is probably almost non-existent in Thedas. And before long, it all becomes too much for him and the inevitable happens- he snaps. He lashes out at the source of his pain, the reason for his paranoia- mages- and then flees, presumably without being found again by the wording of the epilogue. Not a happy ending at all.
If you sided with the Templars and did not grant the Tower autonomy, it is just as heartbreaking, with shades of Meredith shining through. “If the Warden sided with Cullen, or was of Mage Origin and did not grant the Tower autonomy, then Cullen will eventually become Knight-Commander of the Circle Tower after Greagoir retires, watching over the Magi with a much more strict and cruel regime than even Greagoir had.” Now the wording can seem a little off here regarding Greagoir; the rapport he had with Irving is very misleading as to the nature of the environment in the Tower. After recruiting Anders in Awakening, we learn a lot more about what goes on behind closed doors that we are not necessarily exposed to even as a Mage origin- beatings, suicide, rape, solitary confinement as a means of behavioral reprogramming and Maker knows what else. Greagoir, for all that he seems gruffly endearing in some of his conversations with the Warden, and has a weary sort of camaraderie with Irving, is still the master of this little world, and has a duty of care to the mages as much as the Templars under his command. So if Greagoir, who can come across as a potentially decent human being, is considered to be both strict and cruel by the tomes of history and is already responsible for a Tower that condones rape and violent beatings and every kind of abuse in between, we can only imagine what that means for Cullen’s reign as Commander.
The end of the Blight rolls around, and Cullen’s life has changed drastically in such a short time. He has been utterly traumatized, and given that he’s an NPC whom we see very little of in comparison to the companions, there is so much about his recovery that I can only offer as conjecture. So let’s consider what happens next. From Kinloch Hold… to Kirkwall.
We have no idea how Cullen came to be the Knight Captain in Kirkwall in such a short amount of time. The wiki and his codex entry offer no explanation as to his sudden promotion- which I’ll point out appears to have skipped several stations, as the rank of Corporal and then Lieutenant is usually the next two steps in the chain of command. In a short space of time, and at a relatively young age, he’s gone from a simple Templar to the second most powerful position within a branch of the Order. And not just at any location, either, but at the centre of Templar power in the East; the young man with the stutter has come a long a way in a very short amount of time.
Let’s talk timelines for a moment.  The Blight in Ferelden took place over the space of a year, and Hawke and family fled from Lothering near to the very start of that year. The codex states that the entirety of events in Origins, including the initial awakening of Urthemiel, took place in 9:30 and the events of Act I take place in 9:31. It’s hard to tie down events in either game to a month by month breakdown, so I’m going on supposition for a small portion of this. I’ve researched it all fairly extensively, so I hope that I will be forgiven by anyone who objects to my theorised timeline.
When we launch into Act I, the Blight has ended very recently, possibly as little as a month or two by the chatter you hear around Kirkwall, and yet Cullen is already ensconced in his new position. Given that the Broken Circle quest could have taken place at any time during Origins except for perhaps the last two, maybe three months (if we assume that the Broken Circle was the very last of the main quests performed before Denerim and the Landsmeet), Cullen has potentially only had a recovery period of maybe five or six months when Hawke first meets him in Enemies Among Us. If we assume that it was the first quest undertaken by the Warden, he may have had as long as twelve to fourteen months to recover. Lucky him- a whole twelve months to pull himself together, to get over the horrifying event that has defined his life, his character and his world views. Would you tell a rape victim that twelve months is plenty of time for she or he to have recovered emotionally? Would you assume that someone who survived a terrorist bombing is going to be balanced and well-adjusted in a year’s time? Of course not. That’s not to say he couldn’t, necessarily, but we can’t presume a victim of trauma is going to just dust themselves off and get on with their life.
Cullen was a victim, and his mind was violated, and we can’t expect him to have recovered in such a short space of time. Although it is easy for us to say that, given our medical superiority and greater understanding of the human psyche; we know that human beings can be fragile creatures, and we know that sometimes it takes a lot of effort to keep us in working order. There are a significant number of options for victims of torture: we have cognitive behavioural therapy, risk intervention, stress inoculation therapy, eye movement desensitization, pharmacotherapy, group psychotherapy, dedicated facilities around the globe that exist simply to nurse victims of torture away from “…the sense of unpredictable danger to reliable safety, from dissociated trauma to acknowledged memory, and from stigmatized isolation to restored social connection.”  Thedas has no such resources, and in a medieval style society one can imagine there would be very little support offered. At times, it’s easy to imagine that the better part of Kirkwall is staggering around with PTSD.
“Recovery from the effects of torture can be a long and difficult process. Overcoming physical brutality can be hard enough, but even long after the actual events have occurred, victims of torture must deal with the trauma of psychological brutality as well. Long after the physical wounds heal, the psychological trauma persists. Even with professional help, recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can take decades and even after recovery seems to be in the past, relapses remain common.”
In the space of a year, and without any kind of acknowledged aid or assistance, Cullen has become one of the most powerful men in Kirkwall, potentially one of the most powerful men in the Free Marches. One might consider that a good thing, to see him leaving the past behind him, moving on in an attempt to put an ugly incident aside and just get on with advancing his career. But stop and consider it closely for a moment- why has a traumatized Templar from another country been made second in command in the most important outpost in eastern Thedas, with no apparent record of leadership skills and nothing to recommend him except his violent fear and hatred for mages? What happened that Cullen, out of all the Templars in Thedas, could be considered the best fit for the role of Knight Captain?
Well, what do we know about Kirkwall and the Gallows? Meredith came to power in 9:21 Dragon and has apparently ruled with an iron fist ever since. I’m not going to go into the details of that because much better writers than I have already analysed her character and her reign fairly thoroughly. We know that it’s hard for them to keep their numbers up. We know that there is a big ‘problem’ with mage support in the city, and at the same time there is a higher than normal rate of blood mages and possessions (the reason for which is revealed to a particularly diligent Hawke by finding every Enigma of Kirkwall ). It’s a volatile environment and hardly the best place for a recovering victim of torture to find solace. Purpose, certainly- Cullen has his work cut out for him, but maybe he’s looking for just such a distraction. Perhaps he wants a fresh start, somewhere away from Ferelden; that might explain why he’s in Kirkwall in the first place, but it doesn’t explain why he’s gone from Templar, bypassed Corporal and Lieutenant and become Captain in such a short space of time. That also goes without making mention of the other more senior Templars (or just the older Templars) such as Thrask, Alrik, Emeric, Karras… they were all bypassed in favour of a much younger contender, although it remains to be seen whether any of them actually wanted the position in the first place.
Wilder conspiracy theories aside, it seems that Cullen brings several things to the role of Knight Captain that couldn’t be sourced from within Kirkwall. One, he’s fresh blood and he’s eager; he is not burdened yet by the ongoing chaos that Kirkwall seems to breed on a daily basis, and we know that the Gallows struggles to keep their numbers at sustainable levels, so importing Templars from overseas seems like a valid solution to that problem. Two, his trauma might potentially make him a more appealing candidate. Bear with me for a moment on this point: Cullen has become a fanatic, someone completely driven by the belief that mages are not human. In a place like Kirkwall, where every day seems to breed fresh disasters and new incidences of blood magic, the Templar Order does not want someone with a more moderate touch. As much as we can say that the situation in Kirkwall is worsened by Meredith tightening her grip, the Knight Vigilant in Orlais isn’t simply going to shrug and call for them to use more restrained measures; that’s just not the way things are done in the Templar Order. We are talking about an organisation that sees no problem in systematically slaughtering a building full of men, women and children twice a century , so they are not going to look for a moderate candidate.
Cullen is exactly what they are looking for in a Knight Captain- he’s not just ruthless; he has reasons for his ruthlessness. They can say ‘go and imprison these dangerous mages’ and point at a group of eight year olds and he will do it. Why? Because he has lived it, and recently too; the scars are still fresh, and some of them still appear to be open and bleeding if Hawke prods him too hard in Act I. He’s young enough to be influenced and intimidated by senior Templars- more on that in a moment- but he’s now harder and colder and more suspicious than ever before. He hates mages, pure and simple, because their burden has personally affected him now. I said earlier that Cullen’s journey is about the conflict between his faith and duty versus his ability to hope and trust, his humanity in a sense. The time in between Origins and DA2, a time that should have been his time to heal and come to terms with his torture and imprisonment, has instead gone almost immediately into being the Knight Captain, which requires unbending faith, and complete commitment to duty, and in a place like Kirkwall, it requires him to believe without a doubt that he is doing the right thing- that he is the unsung hero, that what he is doing is ordained by the Maker himself, that he is doing what no one else was strong enough to do.
Why is Cullen the Knight Captain?
Because he believes.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
His Captaincy: Act I and Act II
For the purpose of this essay, Hawke is predominantly pro-mage, with the occasional pro-Templar comparison thrown in to show how Cullen responds differently in each situation. Like in Origins, his responses are more telling when dealing with pro-mage situations.
CULLEN: These Templars are spoiled. If they’d witnessed what I saw in Ferelden they’d know to never trust a mage.
“Post-traumatic stress disorder is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in psychological trauma. This even may involve the threat of death to oneself or to someone else, or to one’s own or someone else’s physical, sexual, or psychological integrity, overwhelming the individual’s ability to cope.”
That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
When first we meet Cullen again in the quest Enemies among us, his torture potentially only a year behind him at the most, he’s dealing with two things that he absolutely cannot abide- the idea that some of his recruits are putting themselves above duty, and the threat of blood magic. For those who never played Origins, this is not a nice introduction- we come across him threatening a sallow faced young man, shaking him violently, verbally abusing him, even going so far as to draw his sword on him.
CULLEN: Andraste be my witness, Wilmod. I will have the truth from you. Now!
WILMOD: Mercy, ser, mercy!
CULLEN: Were it that easy.
WILMOD: Don’t hit me.
Confession time: that scene breaks my heart every time. It’s indisputable proof that he has changed, that the torture has hardened his heart and turned him into someone else. He’s no longer the stuttering young man from Kinloch Hold; this is Knight Captain Cullen, who has no tolerance for fools, no compassion for deserters, no patience for those who would seek to defend the rights of mages. This is a man who has been completelybroken, and put back together so badly. And then when Wilmod changes, when the demon breaks through and hisses violently at them, the panic with which Cullen responds is just further proof of the changes in him; that’s not to say that people don’t have a right to be afraid when faced with an abomination, but his terror is just so raw, and it has so much meaning in it.
Now… the moment wherein Defira attempts to seem convincingly knowledgeable about psychology. I’m making my own deductions  about Cullen’s diagnosis, and you are all of course welcome to disagree with me (particularly for anyone with training, please weigh in!). There is only so much we have to go off of with Cullen, as our interactions with him are limited. We don’t know if he suffers from nightmares, but we do know that he has “… intense negative psychological or physiological responses to any objective or subjective reminder of the traumatic event.”  His cold response to accusations concerning the treatment of mages and the Tranquil Solution suggest a certain level of emotional numbing or emotional avoidance, another symptom. He displays signs of hyper-arousal of the amygdala, which some of you might remember being mentioned in Firefly (or may be aware of it through other channels); that is to say the part of his brain that processes the fight, flight or freeze response is hyper-responsive. PTSD from a neuroendocrinology perspective, is described as the result of “… a traumatic event causing an over-reactive adrenaline response, which creates deep neurological patterns in the brain. These patterns can persist long after the event that triggered the fear, making an individual hyper-responsive to future fearful situations.”  In summary, he is more likely to overreact when confronted with situations that trigger reminders of the trauma. So when faced with mages being possessed by demons, or having Hawke needle him and insist that mages are normal people, or having to deal with a mage underground- these are all likely to provoke an over the top response that seems completely disproportionate to the original situation. There are things I can’t evaluate, such as whether the condition causes “… clinically significant distress or impairment” of major domains of life activity, such as social relations, occupational activities, or other “important areas of functioning,” as we just don’t have enough access to him to be able to tell for sure, or whether he suffers from “… persistent symptoms of arousal not present before the event” (shut up, I know what you’re all thinking because that’s exactly what I thought too. You’re all filthy) which is to say erratic behaviours outside of the norm- problems with anger, concentration, insomnia or hypersomnia.  He certainly seems to be lot angrier than when last we met him, but can anyone blame him? It’s hard to say whether his anger is excessive or justified, and without more time with the character it’s harder to pin those symptoms to him with any certainty.
The symptoms that we are able to lock in are present for an experienced length of time, which rules out Acute Stress Disorder- a short term condition rarely lasting longer than a month- , and there is every possibility that because he has ongoing exposure to the environment which provided the trauma he may in fact be suffering from Complex-PTSD, a similar but distinctly different syndrome wherein the sufferer has been repeatedly traumatized or has little reprieve from the triggers in their environment. C-PTSD is often evident in children from an abusive home, or hostages taken prisoner for months or even years at a time; for Cullen to remain around mages, especially in a place like Kirkwall where there are ongoing problems with blood magic and possession, would only exacerbate the trauma and potentially elevate him to C-PTSD. I say potentially only because I’m making assumptions about a lot of his diagnosis- C-PTSD may explain his inability to just simply walk away from his role as a Templar, because it explains irrational attachment problems formed by an ongoing traumatic relationship. Certainly, taking on an even more stressful position in an even more stressful location is bizarre behaviour, and implies that he cannot simply let go of this love-hate relationship he has with mages and duty. But there are a lot of other symptoms that don’t quite line up, or that are present in PTSD and not in C-PTSD, so it’s a hard call to make. I sat five online Trauma Assessment Surveys, answering all of them with the limited knowledge of Cullen’s behaviour that we have- all of them came back positive for PTSD, with the lowest scoring one registering as ‘at risk, please see a specialist for further information’ to the highest scoring listing as ‘immediate risk to self and others, please seek medical attention as soon as possible’. Again, I’ll stress I’m not trained in psychiatry or psychology, so anyone who wants to clarify a few points or object to my analysis, please have at it.
And let’s consider the fact that he’s been promoted to a demanding position, and placed in a taxing environment the likes of which we just cannot fathom. We know thanks to the Enigma of Kirkwall that the city is a bad, bad place for people; the Veil is so thin in places that demons can whisper directly to normal elves and humans, (“It is well known that the Veil is thin in Kirkwall, small wonder given the suffering in the city. But we’ve discovered the magisters were deliberately thinning it even further. Beneath the city, demons can contact even normal men,” ) if not burst through unassisted. This is not a healing environment for someone who was mentally, emotionally and spiritually tortured. As Knight Captain, his duties would be endless: he would have little to no down time, he has dwindling recruit numbers to deal with (“It’s hard to keep recruitment up enough to maintain our numbers”), a city that seems determined to thwart his efforts, a charismatic individual like Hawke who may be going out of their way to undermine him, and as Meredith withdraws into herself from Act II onwards (“I’m afraid she’s become more reclusive since you came to Kirkwall, Hawke. These last three years especially, she’s been very suspicious of outside influence. I almost wonder if something happened,”) it’s my head canon that he is in fact burdened with running the Gallows altogether. Meredith stands as the figurehead, the bogeyman that frightens hapless citizens and mages alike, whereas Cullen stands in the background and makes sure that their numbers are sustainable, and the training rosters get posted, and patrols get organised, and budgets get approved and all the millions of other boring little things that would make up running a fortress that size. Cullen we see out in the field on numerous occasions, dealing with every little disaster and tragedy and debacle that gets lobbed at the Templars. Meredith, by comparison, stays in her office but for a handful of scenes. He’s clearly not a man who shies away from the dirty work, and he’s prepared to get out there himself to see the job done properly. Is it because he doesn’t trust anyone in his command to do the tasks required of them- or is it because he simply has to maintain this public presence in order to keep the Templars in line? Is his burden as Captain more significant than we realise?
He clearly has trust issues; just look at the speed with which he turns on Wilmod, and turns on him violently too. And all because he believes the boy is attempting to desert from the Order, hardly the most heinous of crimes in the world. But it tells us a lot about his character and who he has become, and it shows just how badly he is suffering from his torture. The quick anger and harsh judgement; the flinching fear and instantaneous panic; the seething fury in the moments after the demon’s attack; the momentary blush and stutter when he talks about the Blooming Rose. The young man he was is still in there, buried under unresolved pain and bitterness. The war between faith and duty against his humanity is still being waged, and it’s not done by any stretch of the imagination.
So, we understand how Cullen thinks, and what he’s suffered and why he is the way that he is. Let’s try and apply that now to his behaviour in DA2 and see if we can’t shed some light on some of the things going on. I’d straight up like to say that I do not condone his attitude at times. I do not condone the fact that rape is occurring in the Gallows. I do not condone the beatings taking place, or mages resorting to suicide, or illegal Tranquilities, or mages being locked in their rooms all the hours of the day. I do not condone the fact that men like Alrik and Karras are allowed positions of power, while men like Thrask and Emeric and Samson must reach out to outsiders like Hawke just to see things done humanely. It is completely wrong on so many levels, and it breaks my heart, and sometimes I just want to put my fingers in my ears, hum really loudly and pretend it isn’t happening. I side with the mages every single time (unless it’s for SCIENCE and even then I need at least a full tub of ice cream and then a box of tissues while I bawl hysterically). But the point of this essay was to be objective, and to explain his behaviour as openly as I can without excusing it.
First things first: let’s talk about that speech he gives after Enemies Among Us, when you have delivered Keran back to the Gallows. From the word go, Hawke doesn’t show a lot of tact in announcing the results of his little investigation:
HAWKE: I’ve got some good news, and some bad news…
CULLEN: What? What is it?
HAWKE: Good news, Keran is safe. Bad news, half of your recruits may have been possessed by demons.
And undiplo!Hawke is even worse, blurting out the following:
HAWKE: Blood mages have infiltrated your ranks. They’ve been implanting your recruits with demons.
Nice. Very subtle Hawke; granted there was really no easy way to say that, but to say it so bluntly… Without batting an eyelid, Hawke has unknowingly informed Cullen that his very worst fears are coming true. Trigger number one. And for Hawke to then turn around two minutes into the argument and say that mages deserve the benefit of the doubt, that not all mages are evil… it must be like Cullen hearing his own naivety thrown back in his face, and he simply has to convince Hawke how very wrong he is. Because he himself was wrong, once upon a time, and it very nearly killed him; it certainly left him with any number of lingering emotional wounds. Trigger number two. And Keran begging to be allowed to stay, despite possibly being possessed by a demon… you can just imagine Cullen’s thought processes now- is he possessed? Is he a walking time bomb? If I trust him, is it going to blow up in my face? Trigger number three.
HAWKE: Mages have been systematically abused by the Templars for a thousand years.
CULLEN: How can you say that after what you’ve seen?
CULLEN: True, not every mage gives in to temptation, but none are ever free of it. At any time, any mage could become a monster, from the lowest apprentice to the most seasoned enchanter. Mages cannot be treated like people. They are not like you and me.
MACHA: Surely that’s a little harsh.
CULLEN: They are weapons. They have the power to light a city on fire in a fit of pique.
HAWKE: Mages are humans… and elves… just like the rest of us.
CULLEN: Many might go their whole lives thinking that. But if even one in ten falls to the lure of blood magic, they could destroy this world.
This speech is the one that gets people most up in arms over his character, and I have to ask… why? Were we expecting something different from him? Cullen is a Templar, who has been brainwashed and indoctrinated by the Chantry and the Order for most of his life to believe that mages are the greatest threat to the world; somehow the message did not hold too firmly with him in his youth, and for a time he was a compassionate if slightly daft young Templar who believed that there was some good to be found in mages. Then the uprising at Kinloch Hold happened and he suddenly had indisputable proof that everything they’d been telling him for years was undeniably true. Mages did turn into monsters. Mages didlack compassion and decency and humanity. Mages were driven by the lust for power, and bore no respect for other human beings at all. I am making a generalisation, but you can see the way his mind works locking this message in as utter truth. Do I believe what Cullen is saying? No, I don’t; but I can see why he would say it. And it breaks my heart that he believes it so adamantly.
The alternative dialogue, a more moderate approach, gives us even further insight into the way his mind works. If Hawke doesn’t immediately leap to the defence of mages, but instead just tries to dampen the tension, Cullen responds just as moderately too… but it’s hardly a sterling indication of his character.
HAWKE: There’s fault on both sides. We must find a way to live in peace.
CULLEN: Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps mages need better education as to why the Chantry functions as it does. Perhaps they would not go against the will of Andraste herself. I will look into it.
In principle, he’s agreeing that there could be some changes made. But you don’t even have to read between the lines to see that he thinks that all the changes need to come from the mages. He’s willing to educate them, show them the error of their ways, help them to see exactly why they’re so evil and need to be watched and imprisoned and controlled. He thinks that this is a compromise, that he is giving ground by doing this. Admit that you’re evil and let me change you- it’s the only reasonable thing to do.
But there are some inconsistences in his approach to mages and magic, the first of which can actually be seen in the very same scene. If you have Anders or Merrill present when you rescue Keran, either of them can check to see if the recruit is still possessed. When Cullen tries to discharge Keran from the Order, Hawke can step in and give the all clear.
HAWKE: We conducted tests on Keran. He’s not possessed. He can stay in the Order.
CULLEN: I hesitate to ask what methods you used that you are so certain. Still, you have done much for us by stopping these blood mages. I will heed your request.
What? Hawke just as good as admitted to using magic, which Cullen acknowledges, and then promptly ignores? He doesn’t question how Hawke had access to such magic, he doesn’t demand to know exactly who the free mage amongst the companions is, he doesn’t rant and rail at Hawke for being unaware of the dangers magic poses. They have potentially just argued about mages being capable of destroying the world, and yet Cullen shrugs his shoulders and all but says ‘it’s better if I don’t know.’ Is he willing to believe in Hawke, despite being willing to condemn his arguments moments ago? Or is it more likely that, as he said earlier, it’s so very hard to keep their numbers sustainable that Cullen is willing to latch onto any reason to keep Keran in the ranks? It is his first year as Captain after all, and this whole debacle is likely to reflect very poorly on him. He’s probably desperate to hush the whole thing up, lest the Templars become a laughing stock and he lose his commission. So why does he allow this comment to slide? Is he being a hypocrite? Probably- it doesn’t mean that he’s not desperate and possibly panicking and looking for a way out. We know from the way he fondly remembers the Amell Warden to Hawke that he is quite capable of looking past magic and seeing the person beyond, so it may indeed be easy enough to peg him as a hypocrite and leave it at that. I’m not happy to leave it at that though, surprise surprise; my argument here is that Cullen’s journey is about his dedication to his faith and duty as opposed to the trust and humanity that still lurks inside him. Every now and then, the younger and more innocent Cullen shines through- the Cullen who still believes in people. Is he choosing to believe in Keran, or Hawke, and does it matter? Write him off as a hypocrite if you want, but the characteristics of PTSD suggest that avoidance of triggering situations is the preferred method of coping by most sufferers, and Cullen is hardly going to keep Keran around if he genuinely believes he is unsafe.
He even acknowledges Anders in Act II, should you confront Cullen regarding the Tranquil Solution either before or after completing Dissent. I’m making the assumption that they recognise one another from Kinloch Hold, but Anders doesn’t exactly advertise the fact that he’s a Grey Warden. There’s some dialogue from Anders during the romance that suggests he’s worried about the Templars snooping around near to his clinic in Darktown, which in turn implies he’s not really trying to use the immunity that being a Warden should provide for him (I say ‘should’ because we know that wasn’t the case in Ferelden, but who’s to say how they treat mage Wardens in other realms? Perhaps it was only an issue in Ferelden because the order was only so recently returned to the country, and the Chantry wasn’t quite sure how to cope with the idea of free mages). So he’s worried about the Templars looking for him, but says nothing when Cullen openly acknowledges him as a mage? Why doesn’t Anders panic and run for the docks? Why doesn’t Cullen clap him in irons then and there? Don’t forget, this is before Hawke is the Champion, so the Templars don’t really have a reason to keep him happy. They were quite content to take Bethany away if she was the surviving sibling with no regard as to whether it would upset Hawke or not. Again, I think he’s allowing some flexibility in his attitude: whether it’s out of respect for Hawke, or respect for Anders as a Grey Warden, or as a fellow survivor of the darkness of Kinloch Hold, I don’t know.
And now onto some of the darker aspects of his character. Cullen is the Knight Captain, outranked only by Meredith. He would be very much aware of some of the more wretched behaviour that goes on in the Gallows, and yet according to Anders it continues for the entire seven years of the game. Rape, beatings, abuse, outright murder, illegal Tranquilities, suicide… it’s appalling and makes me shudder to think about it. Any decent human being would have stepped in and stopped it, or attempted to put a stop to it. So… why didn’t he? I have a few theories on this, none of which completely absolve him of the blame. Some certainly give him more leeway than others, and I’ll attempt to explain them all.
If we assume the very worst, that the OP who called him an abusive rapist is correct, then there’s not really any hope for his character. It makes him as bad as Alrik and Rolan and Karras and every other Templar like them over the past thousand years, and there’s no hope for him. There’s no point to the essay, because he’s clearly a lost cause. Right? WRONG. That’s not who Cullen is: there’s no evidence to suggest he ever, ever partakes in such horrors. He can’t say brothel without stuttering, he never expresses violence towards women or children, and he is capable of making a rational argument- sometimes it’s not a nice argument, but you can see where he’s coming from. He questions Meredith’s leadership, and he is capable of compassion, as seen at the end of Best Served Cold (more on that in a moment). Granted, by not stopping the abuses, he’s as good as condoning them, and he has some fairly awful things to say if you question him on the Tranquil Solution. But I think we can rule out the idea that he’s a psychopath. And taking a look in the opposite direction is fairly pointless: we all know he’s not championing for changes to take place in the Gallows, that he has some fairly strongly worded things to say about mage freedoms and the potential treachery of mages.
Cullen occupies the middle ground, but by no means does that make him a moderate. There are, however, very strong hints of a decent human being shining through the bitterness and the fear, so how do we justify what goes on in the Gallows with the idea that Cullen is not unredeemable? Firstly, we have no idea what actually goes on behind closed doors in the Gallows. Even if Hawke’s sibling is in the building as an imprisoned mage or a newly recruited Templar, we don’t have any idea of the politics and the power plays and who has seniority over whom… Cullen, for all that he has the title, doesn’t have the seniority by virtue of years served. There are men and women who have potentially decades more experience than he does, who may be disinclined to listen to a hot-headed young Captain from another country. Particularly if his idea of duty happens to disrupt their idea of fun- particularly I’m looking at Ser Alrik, who seems quite content to run his own macabre little band to his own standards. Consider the letter you can loot from the Templar Lieutenant in the Chantry in Tranquility (if you’re very quick!):
“I have told you a hundred times not to bother the knight-commander with your pathetic questions. She’s a busy woman and has no time to nurse you through your crisis of conscience. You are under my command. If you take issues with my orders, you bring them to me, or I will see you stripped of your knighthood!” 
Alrik is clearly running around behind his superiors’ backs, inflicting all manner of pain and mayhem on the mages and less intelligent Templars by the sounds of things. If he’s able to hide things from Meredith we can assume he’s hiding things from Cullen as well. That certainly doesn’t excuse Cullen for all the other atrocities going on under his command, but the letter is something that not everybody happens across in game, and it certainly casts the politics of the Templar Order into a little more confusion.
Maybe Cullen isn’t aware of everything that happens under his rule, but he can’t be oblivious to everything. In Act II, assuming Karras wasn’t killed by Hawke during the quest Act of Mercy, Alain of Starkhaven hesitantly admits that the Templar comes into his room at night, and we can all draw our own conclusions as to what happens after that. If we try and look at the scenario from Cullen’s perspective… here we have an escaped mage, who was recaptured in the company of blood mages. Trigger number one, blood magic, because remember that Cullen struggles at times to differentiate from one mage from another. Alain was caught in the company of blood mages, ergo that makes him a blood mage, which in turn means that he is comfortable in dealing with demons, if we follow Cullen’s logic. Trigger number two, a deceitful power hungry mage with a history of talking to demons. In a situation where you have a senior but violent Templar being accused by someone that logic suggests is dangerous and untrustworthy and deceptive, the benefit of the doubt is going to go with the Templar. It doesn’t matter if we-as-Hawke or we-as-player-external-to-the-game know better: we’re looking at this through Cullen’s eyes. And Cullen isn’t always capable of adopting a neutral perspective.
Regardless of how we approach it, at the end of the day Cullen has to have known about some of the atrocities going on in the Gallows. Maybe not all of them, maybe not even most; maybe he chose to be blissfully ignorant and turned a blind eye when he saw things happening, maybe he managed to justify it to himself in some kind of perverted logic, maybe he just didn’t care enough to intervene. And that sucks. It really, really does. Even if he overlooked just one rape, one beating, one instance of someone being driven to kill themselves just to escape, that’s one too many. But we also don’t know how many times he intervened as well, how many attacks he put a stop to. We don’t know how often he was lied to by other Templars, how often mages held their tongues out of fears he wouldn’t listen or would condemn them, or how often Meredith told him to drop it. We don’t know how many times he just nodded and said ‘carry on’, or how many times he drew his sword as he did against Wilmod and said ‘this is not the way of the Order’.
The one thing I can say in his favour, and it’s marginal at best, is that sufferers of PTSD have quite severe avoidance behaviours. While his decision to stay with the Templars doesn’t exactly correlate to that- although my theory on that is that he chose to stay, apart from the lyrium addiction and the indicators of C-PTSD, because he could remain in control of his environment and attempt to remain the dominant predator, as it were. If he retired from the Order and became a civilian he’d be, by his own logic, even more at risk- he might deliberately go out of his way to avoid traumatic situations like that. Someone being contained and restrained and violated in whatever manner it might be? Trigger; cue immediate avoidance. PTSD is a mental illness, and even if he has the best intentions in the world by being in the Gallows, every scenario in there is going to be a trial for him, a potential trigger that might frustrate and panic and anger him even further. However we look at it, whichever angle we try to take, Cullen isn’t doing the right thing. There might be reasons for his behaviour, and whether his actions or lack thereof arise out of cowardice or pettiness or fervent belief or anger or vindictiveness or fear or simple hopelessness and acceptance, there’s no way to make what went on in the Gallows right.
Finally in Act II, the last little bit of interaction we have with him is centred around the Anders centric and of course has to do with the previously mentioned quest Dissent. Ser Alrik we already know to be responsible for Karl’s fate, and the forced Tranquility of a young mage seen rebuffing her former lover in the Gallows courtyard, and numerous other horrific atrocities that are the warning signs of psychopathy  (aren’t Templars just so mentally well balanced?), and his new plan is of course the Tranquil Solution. You can confront Cullen with news of this either before or after the quest.
HAWKE: Someone told me the Templars are working on a plan to make all mages Tranquil. Is this true?
CULLEN: It is… an idea that was discussed. But there are no plans to go through with it.
HAWKE: Your Ser Alrik was working on a plan to turn all mages Tranquil.
CULLEN: I will not ask how you came by the personal effects of a man recently murdered within our own walls. It’s true there has been some discussion of the idea. But as you can see, it has gone no further than that.
ANDERS: You expect us to believe that?
CULLEN: Believe what you like, mage. The Harrowing has served us well enough for centuries. It will be up to mages themselves whether they push us to more stringent measures.
HAWKE: It sounds like you support this.
CULLEN: The Tranquil ritual was created as a mercy, so that mages need not be killed out of hand for a threat they might pose. There is an argument to be made for applying it more widely.
ANDERS: Are you going to listen to this? He’s no better than Ser Alrik.
CULLEN: Do you think it’s easy to contain a mage who truly wants to deal with demons? We have done our best. But many mages have made it clear that they view the ritual as no better than death. They want no controls on them at all.
Personally, I find this scene even more heartbreaking than his rant about mages not being humans. In that scene, I believe he’s entitled to his anger and his frustration and the passion with which he speaks shows us just how deeply the news of the possessions has hit him. He’s frightened and feeling threatened, not just by the possibility of blood magic but by Hawke leaping to defend a group of people that he cannot differentiate one from the other, good from bad; he has every right to respond angrily, to respond with adrenalin burning in his veins. But this conversation? He’s calm, he’s rational, and that’s horrible. My favourite Templar, calmly discussing the idea of using a barbaric and soul-destroying ritual against an entire class of people? It makes me shake with anger to just think about it. However, looking at it calmly, there’s depth there if we take a moment to step back and read him properly. The most immediate thing is that Cullen all but acknowledges Hawke to be responsible for Alrik’s death anddoes nothing. By his own words he is agreeing to look in the other direction over the murder of a Templar, so Alrik clearly wasn’t a favourite of his. In fact, his body language and tone of voice are suspect as well; if anything he’s reluctant to talk about anything to do with the Tranquil Solution. I’ve used the dialogue with Anders in the party, because Cullen’s response to him, apart from acknowledging an apostate in the middle of a conversation about how best to control mages, is weary and resigned, as if he’s had this argument a million times over and is sick of talking about it. The question is, who has he been arguing with? Has he sat in on the discussions between Meredith and Alrik, or did Alrik on occasions bring his complaints straight to him? Was Orsino present, or made aware of the plan? Did Alrik gloat to the mages, and they came running to Cullen for confirmation? Or has Cullen been having these arguments with himself late at night, obsessed with the freedom and desperate sense of relief such a plan would offer, but unable to reconcile such an abhorrent act with his own desire for security?
Or maybe I’m just reading too much into his character. After all, it’s not like I believe his entire journey is about trying to balance his desire to serve the Order and faith with his desire to be a decent human being… oh wait.
His Revelation: Act III
HAWKE: Everyone says the Knight Commander’s gone crazy. Are you still behind her?
CULLEN: The people ask too much of her. She needs a spine of iron to survive her position. I have seen madness before. I saw Uldred’s eyes when there was nothing human left in them. The Knight Commander… she is not there yet. But I do not have to ask where the rumours come from.
CULLEN: After what happened in Ferelden I told myself I would never again question the purpose of the Order. But it grows harder each day to tell whether I am serving the Templars or only the Knight Commander. It may be that they are no longer one and the same.
Act III rolls around, and Cullen has had over seven years to recover from the events that took place in Kinloch Hold. Granted, he’s never been treated for what I firmly believe to be PTSD, and he’s dealing with a charismatic individual like Hawke who is openly encouraging the mage underground and defying Meredith in public. More than that, though, he’s dealing with Meredith after six years of corruption by the idol- for the first time ever he’s questioning his path and thinking such thoughts aloud in the presence of an adversary. These are not doubts that lurk in the depths of his heart, but fears so great that he is prepared to give them voice, questioning exactly how far he is prepared to go in order to see duty served.
This is rather telling in regards to how the Gallows is policed and controlled; I said earlier that we have no idea exactly how things play out behind the walls of the fortress, and perhaps Cullen is sometimes bad guy and sometimes good guy without any way for us to know. His confession that he is struggling to reconcile Meredith’s leadership with what he believes his core duties to be is the first sign that he is more helpless than he’d like to be. We know in Act II that she ordered some of the Starkhaven mages to be executed as examples to the others, and we know that she orders the mages to be confined to their cells for a greater part of the day. Anders continues to tell us exactly how bad things are in the Gallows, and perhaps for the first time in seven years, Cullen is starting to see it too. The war is duty versus his humanity… and the scales are tipping. Meredith is taking the Order in Kirkwall in a direction that he does not believe in. He is so desperately conflicted that he admits this to Hawke, of all people. Think about how alone and out of place he must feel that he thinks Hawke is the only person he can confess this to. Rather telling as to the power struggles going on in the Gallows, isn’t it?
Before we get to that final scene in the Gallows, as The Last Straw explodes around them all, I’ll take a brief moment to mention the quest Best Served Cold. Once the dust has settled and the rebel mages and Templars lie dead, Samson leads Cullen to the scene of the kidnapping, where Cullen remarks in disgust that if all Templars were exposed to what he was in Ferelden, then none would support mage freedom. It’s a small step backwards; a little bump in his journey, but you cannot expect him to simply stop being traumatised by his past. Some people move on, and some people do not- I’ve already given my reasons countless times as to why he has every right to wallow in his suffering, and why he’s a relatively well-balanced individual despite what he has suffered. It’s the kind of comment we expect from him, really. But then two things happen that are significant for his growth and for him finding the path that best suits him without outside influence from his commander or from an unreciprocated crush. Hawke can choose to defend Alain and beg for clemency for the mage, to which Cullen replies as follows:
CULLEN: Hmph. You mean he was one of them, save for a convenient last minute change of heart? I’ll encourage Meredith to take it easy on him.
Here we have a twice runaway mage, who has twice fallen in with blood mages, and with barely a shrug of his shoulders Cullen sighs and agrees to go easy on him. With only Hawke’s word as reassurance Cullen agrees to vouch for him in front of Meredith; this is not something he would have done seven years ago. And then moments later he reinstates Samson to his position within the Order, despite the fact that Meredith herself expelled him. Both of these actions say one thing clearly: that Cullen has reached a tipping point, and is prepared to stand up to Meredith, to openly defy her with actions both big and small. At this point in her madness, blood magic is an even bigger trigger for her than it is for Cullen, and for him to automatically reinstate a Templar who has been assisting mage runaways for years… neither of these acts is insignificant. Anders is not the only one who has run out of patience.
And then we have the magnificent shock of standing and watching the Chantry disintegrate under the force of Anders’ attack. What do you suppose Cullen would be feeling in a moment like that, to have reached a point in his journey where he’s beginning to lose faith in his commander, beginning to turn back to the idea that mages are people and that sometimes they do good things for the world; the scales are tipping and the young man who believed in the inherent goodness in people is struggling to re-emerge. As he stands there and watches the symbol of his faith explode against the night sky, the victim of mage power gone terribly terribly wrong, that would be like having his whole world wrenched out from under him. Remember his words spat angrily at Hawke in Act I? “They have the power to light a city on fire in a fit of pique.” How prophetic those words must feel to him in that moment. Do you think he’d be entitled to a certain amount of bitterness, hatred, fear, panic, outrage? Out of anyone assembled in Lowtown to watch the confrontation between Orsino and Meredith, surely he would have the greatest reason to turn immediately to the nearest mage and cut them down where they stand.
Yet despite this… if you choose to side with the Templars, he is so desperately conflicted.
CULLEN: The Rite of Annulment was invoked on the Circle in Ferelden when I was younger. There, it was justified. Demons overran the whole tower. Here, it’s much harder to tell who’s in the wrong.
CULLEN: I hope Meredith knows what she’s doing. I will do what she commands of me, but… something about this isn’t right.
CULLEN: Maybe with you on our side we can resolve this quickly, and with little bloodshed. I am not looking forward to this.
CULLEN: You must steel yourself for what is to come. We both must.
He so clearly doesn’t believe in what the Templars are about to do, but even at the eleventh hour he is trying to stay true to what duty would demand of him. Of course, at this point he has no idea whether it his duty to protect mages and Templars alike, or whether it is his duty to follow his Commander. More than that, though, he openly admits how much this night is dragging back awful memories for him; he is visually struggling before the battle is even joined.
And of course, regardless of whether you stand with the Templars or the mages, he finally snaps and orders Meredith to stand down.
CULLEN: Enough! This is not what the Order stands for! Knight-Commander, step down! I relieve you of your command!
I always cheer and clap, giggling like I’m some giddy fourteen year old. Finally, this is the moment I’ve been waiting for Maker knows how many hours of gameplay, for seven years’ worth of Kirkwall time, and it should be an unequivocal triumph. But is it? I’ll rain on the parade for a moment longer and just point out that Meredith is of course completely mad by this point. Is Cullen being a good Templar, or a good person by defying her? Or is he just being a sane person, who recognises that things cannot continue as they have for so long- that doesn’t necessarily make him good either. Of course he redeems himself further with this line:
CULLEN: You’ll have to go through me.
I may have swooned a little when he did that. Just saying.
And finally, when the battle is won and Meredith lies dead, corrupted and killed by the very lyrium she coveted so fiercely, Cullen stands downagain. With Meredith dead, he stands as the acting Commander of the Gallows; he is well within his rights to turn on, imprison or kill a pro-mage Hawke. Hawke is still potentially a mage, or has a mage sibling, or is the lover of a mage. And Hawke is guilty by proxy of the Chantry incident, not to mention responsible for Maker knows how many deaths that night alone. The horrors of that evening, the death and destruction on a scale Cullen has not seen since Kinloch Hold, would have to be so very agonising for him… and yet as we saw in the pro-Templar quotes, he acknowledges that this is not as bad, that this is so very much a grey situation that he doesn’t feel comfortable with. The night holds blood magic and demons and abominations and dark magic in the hands of his own Commander. He has been betrayed by mages and Templars both now, and his moral compass would be so desperately askew. He trusted mages once, and they became monsters; he trusted the Order instead, and it became a sanctuary for human monsters that preyed upon those they should have protected.
Cullen is conflicted- you see him hesitate in the pro-mage play-through, unsure of what course of action to take. In the end, he stands down and lets Hawke walk away. Is he too tired to keep fighting? So disillusioned with everything that has taken place that he cannot find it within him to pursue? Or is he genuinely convinced of the rightness of what Hawke is doing in standing up for an ideal, recognising the moral bankruptcy of the Templars in Kirkwall under Meredith’s reign and finally just admitting that enough is enough?
Everyone is going to draw their own conclusions about his character in the end there. Of course, I’d like to hope that by now most people have a new appreciation for who he is, what he stands for and what he’s been through. And I suppose all my suppositions aren’t good for much until we learn more about him in DA3. But this is a man who has suffered for seven long years, and he hasn’t always made the right decisions, and sometimes he hasn’t been a good person… but isn’t that what it is to be human? He’s a product of his environment, shaped by faith and duty and pain and unending conflict as to what makes a person good. I know for some people he won’t ever be a favourite character, and some people will never be able to look at him with anything but disgust. What I hope I achieved in writing this is for some people to stop and look at him twice when they encounter him, to consider what isn’t being said, to think about all the things he deals with in the Gallows that we never see or hear about. Think about what he’s gone through and marvel in the fact that he’s still smiling, he still cracks a joke with Hawke, and he’s not completely raving mad.
Cullen is one of the unsung heroes of Kirkwall, and I don’t think he gets enough credit. The struggle between mages and Templars is so wonderfully personified in his journey, and the best part is- I’m hoping- that his journey isn’t finished, and we can see it continue in the next game.
And if he isn’t romanceable in DA3 I’m going to utterly die. Also if anyone from Bioware ever reads this, I happen to know a really awesome writer who seems to know far too much about one of your fictional characters for her own good. If Cullen needs a writer, I’m fairly sure I can get you in contact with her. Just saying.
American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR®), American Psychiatric Association, 2000, ISBN 978-0-89042-025-6 http://www.appi.org/SearchCenter/Pages/SearchDetail.aspx?ItemId=2025