What Is Wrong with Dragon Age’s Red Lyrium?

As the beginning of a fascinating discussion about lyrium, both red and blue, on the BSN recently the idea was posited that the special stone is not, in fact, mere mineral but actually a living entity. The concept immediately captured my imagination and I’ve been pondering the implications since.

The short version runs thus: dwarves literally go back to the stone when they die. The bodies as well as the spirits of their dead are absorbed by the veins of lyrium that run through the entirety of Thedas (and, one presumes, the planet on which that continent is located but that’s a much different set of speculations). Lyrium sings, as is clearly demonstrated, and it does so with the voices of dwarven ancestors.

Now, I can’t say that I’m sold on the idea that lyrium eats the dead bodily. I’ve got this awful vision of dwarven tombs empty but for a tendril of ravenous, glowing blue stone waiting for its next helping. However, the concept of its both creating and reclaiming the spirits of the dwarves does make a certain amount of sense in the Dragon Age universe. But what about that dangerous red lyrium?

The ancient thaig in Dragon Age 2 brings up a lot of questions, none more pressing than the creation of that idol and the corrupted-looking lyrium of which it’s made. Had the game not been so explicit in stating that it was, in fact, lyrium I’d have assumed the red stone was some other stone entirely. It seems clear that something untoward happened down there to create a baleful, bloody glow where the bright, clear song of lyrium used to reign.

Now, in theory the thaig is so very ancient that it predates the Tevinter Imperium, Andraste, and the Darkspawn themselves. It seems to me that any society so ancient—and having mined that long—should have centuries before at least progressed to the point of explosives rather than having one madman just learning to make them well during the Dragon Age. And yet the dwarves are barely more advanced that the rest of Thedas.

They’ve also erased the ancient thaig from their Shaperate’s records. What had been going on down there?

Given that we uncovered some pretty unsavory experiments in the Golems of Amgarrok it’s not unreasonable to believe that the even-more-ancient dwarves go up to some shenanigans the race as a whole doesn’t care to recall. Indeed I’ve begun to wonder if the Darkspawn are the only reason they no longer access whole sections of the Deep Roads. Could it be that they sealed off some thaigs because they lost control of something they created?

We have evidence that this happened at least once, in Amgarrok. Perhaps the ancient thaigs were ceded, one by one, as the red corruption spread through the lyrium. One can imagine the fear those ancient dwarves felt as the raced to get ahead of it, to cut off the spread and preserve the stone through which their ancestors spoke to them.

That brings to mind a question: can we tell from the lore when they abandoned the thaig? We encounter plenty of Darkspawn on the way to it but there was no clear evidence that they’d been inside. If the builders fled even before the ‘Spawn existed there must have been a powerful reason, after all. The legend of the Profane, which we do see in the ancient thaig, clearly had its roots in the truth.

So here’s my speculation: the dwarves sought to create golems of some sort. That long ago, it seems likely they were still expanding the Deep Roads. Perhaps they wanted golems for physical labor, perhaps to protect them from creatures they found in caves uncovered along the way.

It may even be that there were mages among the dwarves so long ago and they thought they could gain more power through the lyrium. That would explain the presence of a demon, one who possessed the creator of the golems or taught him or her the blood magic necessary to do make them or even drove the mages to do it to themselves.

Whatever the reason, someone fused living dwarves with the stone of their ancestors. Knowing nothing about control rods, they created the Profane (explaining the name) that were likely insane or without memories—or both—from lyrium exposure and the pain of their transformation. (That seems to be a theme in the Dragon Age universe, as Shale and Fenris both demonstrate and the codex entry on lyrium makes a realistic assumption.)

The ancient thaig is, if I remember correctly, much deeper than Orzammar and the other thaigs we’ve explored. I’m picturing the insanity of those dwarves, tied directly into lyrium, as “infecting” the veins still buried in the surrounding rock. If lyrium is a sort of collective life force containing the wisdom (and follies) of dwarves that have died it may have consumed those creators or mages as they were killed in transformation.

Note, however, that I still don’t see lyrium as red at that point. It’s changed, and much for the worse, but not tainted as the word is used in DA. But let’s go back to my imagined series of events.

The change is spreading and the lyrium no longer sings to the castes. It’s filled with anger and pain and those sensitive to its song can hear the results. They flee the thaig and seal it but the lyrium runs in veins that are not contained by the limits of this ancient city. One presumes there existed more than one thaig even then, and that the stone connected them all.

The word goes out that something awful, something unprecedented has happened. Perhaps the others hear it, or hear whispers of it from their own lyrium. But the end result is that the dwarves change their direction. They have to isolate that area and stop the spread of the change.

So the dwarves dig around the thaigs known to be affected. They set a generous distance and excavated everything, leaving only enough rock in which they cannot hear the lyrium to hold the tunnels. The veins that enter this tunnel are dug back and buried deep so that they cannot reach the still-pristine lyrium closer to the surface. This must have been the undertaking of a shocking amount of time and manpower (dwarfpower?), even given a large population at the time, but what else could they have done?

Suppose the original plan was not the work of a single thaig or family but something that was known to and supported by either the ruling castes of various thaigs or the population in general. That would be one explanation for something so vast and lengthy, something with so much importance to their history, to have been struck from the records of the Shaperate rather than using it as a cautionary tale for generations to come.

Alternatively, it was so long ago that, as the various thaigs were lost for one reason or another the records that told of it were also destroyed. Orzammar’s Shaper has the history of their own thaig and some older stories but there’s no way to confirm that the ancient dwarves purposefully hid this history or choose not to send record of it when other went to establish new thaigs while the dwarves were still expanding their underground world. Thus it would have passed from the memories of the higher and farther cities with only the horror story of the Profane to give a hint of what actually transpired.

I said that I did not imagine, at that time, that the lyrium had not yet turned red. In my imagination, that particular worsening came with the Darkspawn. The isolated lyrium no longer had new sprits to consume and simply chased itself ‘round the truncated veins in its prison growing more angry and more insane over the years.

At some point, the Darkspawn came into being. How that happened we do not yet know, outside of the Chantry’s canonical explanation. Was it the Tevinter magisters? Was it some natural occurrence or catastrophic accident? Could it have been the corrupted lyrium, reached by some hapless creatures deep below and spreading its madness?

Whether it originated or simply was tainted by the Darkspawn otherwise created, the new creatures were the only thing as far down as the ancient thaigs. I imagine them learning to use this source of power and the taint and corruption mingling in both. At some point, the dwarves begin seeking the ‘Spawn to drive them back. Those that fight them contract the taint as well, eventually becoming ghouls or dying far down in those ready-made tunnels at which they must have wondered even as they chased their quarries into them.

The dwarves died down there and the Darkspawn died at their hands; now the corrupted lyrium had spirits to consume anew. The spirits were tainted, however. I picture at this point the red coming into the blue, spreading through a perhaps dim or diseased-looking web and turning what it contained into something more aggressive and insidious. In fact, it has become insatiable, wanting only to consume, much as the Darkspawn want only to kill and ruin.

This has gotten terribly long so I’m going to end it here. I’ll post a continuation in which I consider how this all affected the idol, what happened to it in Kirkwall, and some speculation about future game or downloadable content that could expand on what red lyrium is and how it may threaten the blue version that sustains Orzammar both financially and spiritually.

If you have comments, either to add to what I’ve said or to point out where I’ve gone completely mental, I’d love to read them!

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