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.)
Chapter 1 on AO3
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.