I swear, one day I’ll stop talking about Cole. That day is not today! Cole from Dragon Age: Inquisition went from being a character I knew nothing about to one that I wanted to adopt as my son. His story is tragic, and his desire to understand the world and help people within it is endearing. His lack of social aptitude is childlike and I just want to shelter him from the whole world. I quickly became endeared to him throughout my first playthrough, which led me to the tie-in novel centred around his backstory.
There are two parts to understanding Cole – the part the book shows and the part the game shows. I’ll show you why this is important by highlighting certain parts. Parts in Blue are revealed only in the book and parts in Green are revealed only in the game.
- Cole is originally a young male mage, brought to the White Spire by the templars. They throw him in the dungeons and forget about him. The White Spire is a point where the Veil is thin, which means lots of spirits (and demons) come through and take interest in the living. Dying of thirst and starvation, one such spirit, a Spirit of Compassion, visits Cole. Unable to help him, it becomes distraught and does the only thing it can think to help him – become him.
- Cole is thus renewed as an odd human-spirit hybrid that most people cannot perceive. His memory is also muddled, so he does not remember who or what he is. As such, he is confused as to why others cannot perceive him and panics that he is fading from existence. There are, however, a few moments when people do glimpse him and have thus dubbed this entity “The Ghost of the Spire”. Cole interacts with people at some points, but they quickly forget him once he has left their vision.
- Desperate to not fade away, he believes he must be “real” to people. And, as a confused human-spirit thing, he uses flawed spirit logic to believe that when he kills particular people, he is the most real thing in their world and thus his realness is restored. (The game will suggest, actually, that the Spirit of Compassion was doing mercy killings, as those Cole kill are mostly captured dungeon-dwellers who want to die, but Cole’s own explanation in the book debunks this.)
- There is one denizen of the Spire who seems to be able to see and remember Cole always – this is Rhys, whom is a senior enchanter and scholarly Spirit Medium. This means he has an affinity for communicating with spirits and resisting the temptations of demons. As the only one that can really see him, Rhys becomes friends with him and tries to help Cole before realising he is the murderer killing the other mages. They have a fight, but Cole gets away when Evangeline comes looking for Rhys and interrupts.
- When Cole hears that Rhys is leaving the Spire to go on a quest with Wynne, he worries for his only friend and decides to follow him, even though he’s sure Rhys hates him. He has a childlike simplicity of just wanting to keep him safe and not be hated.
- When Rhys et al conduct a ritual to send Wynne to the Fade to help her Tranquil friend Pharamond fight the demon possessing him, everyone, including the nearby Cole, gets pulled into the Fade. In the Fade, the whole party is now able to perceive him. Believing Cole is a demon and Rhys is being tempted, they are all hostile, to say the least, until Cole risks his life for Rhys. Rhys and Evangeline separate from Wynne and Adrian to find Cole.
- The Fade has twisted into Cole’s nightmare and reveals his traumatic past. His mother was from the Wilds and his father tried to “tame” her. While they do not mention how she died, it is implied that his father may have killed her. During the Fade nightmare, a demon takes the form of Cole’s father within his childhood home and tries to kill Evangeline, yelling (at Cole) about how evil he is, just like his mother. After Rhys despatches the demon, they find a child-version Cole hiding in the cupboard, clinging to the corpse of his dead sister. During one of his father’s angry tirades, Cole and his sister had hidden and when “Bunny” couldn’t keep quiet, Cole held his hand over her mouth to silence her. He did not realise that he had suffocated her in his desperate fear to stay hidden. Evangeline and Rhys pull him from his nightmare, believing that he was a real boy once.
- After leaving the Fade, Cole remembers that he killed his father with his mother’s dagger, the same one he was using the commit the murders.
- The party decides to take Pharamond back to Val Royeaux so that the Divine may decide what to do with him. During their journey, despite forgetting Cole due to his nature, Pharamond suggests that Cole may have been an “arcane derangement”, or hedge mage, a mage with non-standard and unique abilities. He suggests that his ability to be forgotten and to be imperceivable may be his unique magic ability. After all, he was taken to the Circle so it implies he must have some magic ability in him, even though he appears to not be able to cast magic. However, this is only his theory and he’ll never know for sure.
- They get back to the Circle, Wynne pulled a sneaky-sneak to have an audience with the Divine directly, and things are weird. The mages get a conclave, Rhys and Adrian are on lockdown, Evangeline is being demoted after the conclave – and Cole is just hanging around. Pharamond has been condemned to be made Tranquil again. When Cole confronts him and offers to help him escape, the old man simply asks to be killed. Cole does not do this, realising he doesn’t want to be that monster anymore.
- After the conclave goes horribly wrong, Lord Seeker Lambert uses it as an excuse to declare martial law to stop “the rebellion” and locks up all of the senior enchanters, including Rhys, whom is badly wounded. Cole promises to get Rhys out – and so he does. This is, unfortunately, after Lambert has been trying to convince Rhys that Cole is a Demon. While Rhys brushes off his attempt, he can’t really let go of the idea. Cole, Evangeline, Wynne and Shale break all of the mages out of the dungeon and Cole drags a bleeding-out Rhys to the sewers.
- Lambert is having none of that and comes after them. Cole uses his abilities, which he has begun to tap into rather than reject, to hide Rhys and himself. Lambert pulls out his
diarynotebook and recites a few words, which dispels Cole’s magic and they are both visible to Lambert. Lambert then stabs the metaphorical knife in and twists when he announces that the chant he said, the Litany of Ardalla, dispels mind control from demons. The bombshell that Lambert has “confirmed” he is a demon is too much for Cole and he breaks, effectively disappearing. That leaves the rescuing Evangeline to fend off Lambert and keep him off Rhys.
- After the whole “rebellion” leaves and becomes an actual rebellion (good job, buddy), Lambert returns to his chambers after all of the templar commanders decide to break away from the Chantry. Here, Cole is ready and waiting for him. He tells him that there really was a boy named Cole that the templars forgot him. The “demon” found him and stayed with him as he died. When the templars found the dead boy and realised their mistake, they removed all records of Cole so no one would know what happened. He then kills Lambert.
- Cole remained at the White Spire, essentially spying on the other templar commanders that had been under Lambert, including his successor. When they leave to Therinfal Redoubt, he follows them.
- This is where things split a little, but the effect is the same. Either the Inquisitor meets Cole here and he joins them to help fight the red templars, whom are people he has never trusted, or the Inquisitor is warned by Cole of the impending templar army heading for Haven – it depends on who the Inquisitor goes to help. The result is ultimately the same.
- At Skyhold, there is a conversation as to whether to let Cole stay. Cassandra believes he is a demon and thinks he should go. Solas believes he is a unique spirit and thinks he should stay. This will carry on if he stays. Cole uses his ability to sense pain and helps people in some unconventional ways, but thanks to his abilities, people do not realise that he has helped them at all.
- If Cole is with the party for the fight at Adamant Fortress and is pulled into the Fade, he essentially freaks out about being in the Fade “like this”.
- After it is revealed that the Warden mages at Adamant were binding demons to their will, Cole begs Solas to bind his will to him so no one else can control him. Solas refuses outright, as he believes spirits are people and would not do such a thing. He does, however, know that some Rivaini mages who used spirits would give them special amulets to stop other mages from controlling them.
- If the amulet is procured, Solas and Cole find that it does not work. On investigation, they pinpoint that something is stopping it from working, something related to Cole. They travel to this point and find a man – a man that turns out to be the (now ex) templar that forgot about Cole-the-human-mage and resulted in his death.
- Here, there is a choice. The Inquisitor can either side with Solas or Varric. With Solas, he will convince Cole to forgive the templar as a Spirit of Compassion, using his ability to put the tormented man at peace. The amulet begins to work, as some of Cole’s humanity has left and his spiritual side increases. He becomes more of a ghost than ever, vanishing constantly and being emotionally disconnected. With Varric, he will give him Bianca and Cole will try to shoot the man, only to find it unloaded/jammed. Varric will ask if he feels better, which he doesn’t, and Varric says he will help Cole moved past what happened, to accept it and move on. With this route, the amulet is not needed, as Cole becomes more human and there is not enough Spirit side to control anymore. This also results in him losing some of his abilities, such as people forgetting him and being imperceivable.
- Throughout the game, The Inquisitor can also talk to Cole and find out he is concerned for Rhys and Evangeline, not knowing what happened to them. He emphatically asks the Inquisitor not to find them – and, of course, they can do it anyway behind his back. They will find them captured by red templars. Forces can be sent to save them, and then they can be recruited to the Inquisition to help in Val Firmin. Cole is initially angry that his wishes were ignored, but he is then grateful, as his friends would have died otherwise. Letters from Rhys after he is saved reveal that he still remembers Cole, when Cole was convinced that Rhys would surely forget about him as everyone else had.
I’ll stop there, because the rest of it is really just the end game, where Corypheus can’t control Cole and that’s it. If the Inquisitor didn’t get the amulet, Cole won’t go to the final boss – he refuses because he’s scared of being controlled by the magister.
Both mediums cover the same basic plot points for Cole – he was originally a human mage, he died, a Spirit tried to save him, a weird melding of beings happened, Cole can’t be perceived by people normally, and he doesn’t like templars. Put the two sources together and you have a good narrative with ups and downs, falls from grace and redemptions. But if you look at the two separately, you see two very different views on the same person. This is mostly because of context – the book is centred around Cole’s darkest hour. Here, he is confused, scared, desperate, and his social-moral compass is spinning wildly. He does many bad things, and his final act of the book is of vengeful violence. While I agree it is a good part of his plot, reading just the book ends with Cole on a very dark note. With the game, however, we are introduced to a Cole on his path to redemption. He has already gone down into the dark valley, and we are joining him on his struggle back up. His morals have definitely improved – he honestly wants to do good and help people. He has accepted more of who he is and is less scared by it. He also finally gets closure, one way or the other. I feel that Cole’s character is great – but you only get the whole picture from having both sources.
Now for some theory! Well, it’s a mini-theory, and it has flaws as well, but hear me out. During the book, Pharamond suggests that Cole may be an “arcanist derangement”, a hedge mage. These are mages that have not had conventional training in a Circle. Many times, their magic comes out in unique ways, and sometimes even unknowingly. So it could be possible that the ability to be forgotten and imperceivable is actually a form of hedge magic. This makes sense, as Cole is brought into the Circle by templars, despite not seeming to be able to do any magic.
There is a flaw to this, which is brought up by the game when choosing whether to make Cole more Human or Spirit. If you choose Human, Cole loses his ability to be forgotten and is now perceivable to others, though he still retains his ability to feel others pain. This latter skill was clearly gained from the Spirit of Compassion that “became” him, as that is its primary purpose.
So what happened to his other abilities by becoming human? It’s hard to say, really. Considering that the Spirit rebuilt a new Cole body, perhaps the rebuilt body itself is not what gives it the capacity for magic. Perhaps the Spirit had gleaned some of Cole’s magic ability when it took his form, but the body it rebuilt does not in itself have that magic. It would not be difficult for a Spirit to do such abilities, but it is an ability another human body would not be able to replicate. By becoming more human and less Spirit, it lost that gleaned ability? Like I said, it’s a sticky flaw, and I doubt we’ll ever get a straight answer for it. It could just come down to the two writers of the source material not communicating his background fully – the novel Asunder was written by David Gaider, whereas Cole’s portion of Inquisition was written by Patrick Weekes.
There is a chilling possibility presented, one that I just can’t get out of my head, despite the flaw. If Pharamond was correct and Cole’s ability to be forgotten and imperceivable was his own magical ability, then it is entirely possible that Cole caused his own death. In the very beginning of Asunder, Cole remembers being brought to the circle dungeons by templars and our narrator reveals the following:
He didn’t want to be a mage. He didn’t want to discover how one became a mage, and found nothing wondrous in the idea of magic. Fervently he prayed to the Maker, over and over again, for deliverance. He prayed until his voice was hoarse, prayed for the templars to forget he even existed.
And then he’d gotten his wish. That’s exactly what they did.
If Cole’s ability to be forgotten actually comes from unknowingly being a hedge mage, then we just saw him making the templars forget about him. He has accidentally exerted his magic on the templars, made them forget he was even there, until after he has died and his magic no longer works. Cole’s discussion at the end of the book with Lambert just before he kills him reveals further that Cole was real and the templars did eventually find him, after he was dead. In a panic for their error, they destroyed all records that they had brought him in.
The young man leaned close, his expression one of deadly intent. “There was a Cole,” he whispered. “You forgot him in that cell, and I heard his cries when no one else would. I went to him, and held his hand in the darkness until it was over. When the templars found him, they erased everything to hide their shame . . . and I was helpless to act.” Sorrow, and perhaps even regret, crossed the young man’s face, but only for a moment. “I’m not helpless any longer.” The words send a chill through Lambert’s heart.
Here, Cole has shifted more to his Spirit side after Lambert has convinced he is (wrongly) a Demon. After all, Demons and Spirits are made of the same stuff, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the Litany of Ardalla worked on Spirits as well. But I digress. He explains that the templars forgot about Cole and he died.
There’s another point here that I think helps support the “hedge magic” angle as well – the templars hide their shame. If the templars were as evil as Cole believes they really are, then why would they be ashamed of accidentally killing a mage? This links to when Cole confronts the very same templar during his personal quest in the game. The templar himself has left the order, and is now a lyrium addict. He is haunted by what he did – he feels bad that Cole died, and in fact left the templars because of his guilt. It’s certainly not definitive, but it does suggest to me that he did not WANT to forget about Cole, and that he could not even believe he had done such a thing. As Solas asks Cole, he can feel the templar’s pain, his guilt, the shame that drove him from the templars – it was all for forgetting Cole and letting him die. It’s clear that the templar is haunted by this, which leads me to think that Cole’s hedge magic is what made him forget, right up until there was no life left in Cole to fuel the magic spell and his dead body was discovered on their next patrol.
The more I go down the rabbit hole, the more I see reasons that Cole’s magic caused his death. Another example: in the first chapter, Cole says he has never associated himself with the word “mage”, that it’s not him. But then why have the templars taken him to a Circle? For me, this points to the fact he has no control over his magic – he didn’t even realise was using it. Unfortunately, I also can’t shake the chink in this theory’s armour, and it’s a pretty big one. Cole losing his magical abilities when turning more Human, rather than when more Spirit, just keeps this theory from being a solid as it should be. But the idea that Cole was the cause of his own demise all along certainly fits in well with the tragedy that is life in Thedas.