So like many of my peers I’ve been thoroughly engrossed in Skyrim these last few weeks. Unlike most of my peers, I have an apology to offer Bethesda, because I am pleasantly surprised by what I’m getting. I’ve written here, and elsewhere, that I fully expected Skyrim to be Oblivion II. Bethesda has been hit or miss with me lately; between Oblivion and Fallout 3, I didn't know which side of the line to come down on. I was expecting a Radiant AI fiasco, boring quests and people with huge noses. I’m happy to say I haven’t seen any of that. I feel like I’m playing a true sequel to Morrowind, a true continuation of the Elder Scrolls series. And like Morrowind, Skyrim has some interesting political dynamics going on throughout the game world.
First of all, let me say I’m really happy to see that the writers and designers are not afraid to Break the Dragon. Since Skyrim takes place 200 years after Oblivion, some major changes have occurred, most notably a gigantic war that has rearranged the shape of the Empire. Also, Talos worship has been banned, the Nords are super pissed, there’s a civil war, dragons are yelling at each other and blowing shit up, and everyone still hates the cat people. I’m glad to see that the keepers of the Elder Scrolls aren’t afraid to feed the blood god.
War Makes Everything Better
So the war is interesting. It is almost impossible to disentangle race from politics in Tamriel, simply because most political entities are racial in nature. The Empire is the exception here, but being an extension of Cyro-Nordic (read: Caucasian) imperial designs, the Empire cannot totally divorce itself from its own ethnic histories. Nothing in the Elder Scrolls is post-racial, but we could say that the Empire is pre-post-racial. For the most part, racism is not well tolerated. Nords, Imperials, Bretons, Elves, and other races all live together in relative harmony, and much of the racial tension that does exist is confined to smaller, localized areas.
It’s not all gravy, to be sure. In Morrowind, slavery is still legal. This was an Imperial concession to the cultural sensibilities of the conquered Dunmer, who viewed the keeping of slaves as an ancestral right and according to them, it has nothing to do with race. Of course, the yoke of slavery just happens to fall heaviest on the beast races, so we don’t really know what those protestations are worth. While slavery in concept is race-neutral, like most things in life, one group ends up getting the shaft. I suppose that in a land without liberal professors, the internet, effective mechanisms for instilling cultural guilt, and hippies, pre-post-racial is the best we can hope for.
The Empire's cosmopolitan make-up is important because every once in a while, racial tensions do boil up and then there's hell to pay. Issues old and bitter lie between the Elves and the Cyro-Nordics, the first men to truly dream dreams of conquest and Empire. It was the Elves who first attacked the Nord settlements at Saarthal. The Nordic hero Ysgramor would return with the 500 companions and extract vengeance; he would later drive all the Elves from the continent, and form the first Nordic empire. Nords and Elves have barely tolerated each other ever since.
Nothing Worse Than a Bunch of Angry Drunks
In Skyrim, the abovementioned Great War is essentially a war of Elves versus Men. The Aldmeri Dominion is a collection of Elves who feel, for the most part, that they should be the dominant species of Tamriel. They have at various points throughout history managed uprisings and rebellions, but it isn’t until the Great War that they are a true, severe force to be reckoned with. One of the concessions the empire makes to the Dominion is that the worship of Tiber Septim (Talos) is no longer allowed. And boy howdy, does this piss people off.
This is an interesting dynamic because it sets off a complicated chain of events. The Empire has always functioned as a protectorate. Conquered regions are allowed to keep a majority of their customs, beliefs, religious institutions, political hierarchies, literature and other cultural norms. In the case of Skyrim, individual Jarls rule over their respective lands, and a High King of Skyrim sits in Solitude. Provinces are allowed a wide degree of latitude, but the ban on Talos worship hits the Nords hard, mostly because Tiber Septim was himself a Nord. He is regarded as a heroic icon of the race, a god-man who ascended to the pantheon through sheer force of will.
That the Empire agreed to the ban of Talos is almost quizzical. One some level, a government must realize that the outlawing of a religion is almost never effective; the Empire itself must see the parallels between the ban on Talos worship and the Temple’s repression of the Nerevarine Cult. On another level, telling people that their revered god is no longer a god is, well, ridiculous. In a society that is mostly literate, with a profusion of religious doctrines and beliefs, it is probably impossible to commit deicide by fiat. At some point, all the propaganda in the world isn’t going to be as effective as the physical eradication of the religion’s history. How do you do this? As we see in Skyrim, Talos’ shrine is removed, and an official apology is issued, but since the Aldmeri Dominion doesn’t yet have that much clout in Skyrim, little else changes.
We are never really told why the Aldmeri Dominion want to see Talos kicked out of the pantheon of Nine Divines. They state clearly that no human can achieve apotheosis, but we can't quite believe that because they have no problem leaving Arkay alone.* And the Empire certainly isn't offering any explanation, other than some half-assed pamphlet that reads like Rick Perry trying to explain why he can't count to 10.
No, it seems fairly obvious that the Dominion problem with Talos is rooted in race and politics. I would venture to guess – simply in light of their silence on the matter -- that the political ramifications are the real concern, here. Banning the worship of Talos is basically attacking the Nordic religious foundations at their most basic; it is an attempt to rip the very fabric of the Nord religious identity, kind of like the War on Christmas would be for American Christians, if there actually was one.
If the Thalmor were dealing with a less stubborn people, they might achieve what seems to be their desired aim, and that is weakening the Nordic cultural identity to make Nords more malleable. The Dominion is basically in it for the long troll. They’ll take a concordat now for the opportunity to stick Skyrim in the ribs, then come back and pick over the corpse after she’s bled to death. Perhaps, by banning Talos, they hope to remove that essential “thing” that makes the Nords who they are? Knocking down their man-god is just the thing to take the wind out of their sails, the arrogant bastards.
The problem is, they forgot about the mystical Nord ability to yell a motherfucker to pieces. So there’s that.
The weakening of the Empire, combined with the Emperor’s willingness to concede to the Thalmor demand regarding Talos, has the people of Skyrim up in arms. Ulfric, the leader of the rebel Stormcloaks, has about had it. He challenges the High King Torygg to a duel, and then hollers at him till he dies. From now on, Skyrim will be for Nords. Everyone else – including the Empire – can get the hell out.
The idealist in me automatically wants to side with whoever the rebel is, and this pretty much goes for anything, ever, except maybe for Star Trek. I have a pretty strong streak of anti-authoritarianism, made all the more ridiculous when I remember that I was in the military for six years. But anyways, Ulfric has a lot going for him ideologically. His religion was banned and his people are utterly humiliated by it. The Empire, whom Skyrim has sworn allegiance to, and for whom Syrim has always provided vicious, capable warriors, seems to be losing its grip. The ever-hated elves have not only forced them into a one-sided truce, but they are now interfering in Skyrim’s affairs. Why shouldn’t Skyrim be for Nords? Why should they tolerate these interlopers? They’re gonna come in here, smash up our stuff, have sex with our women and tell us which bloodthirsty bearded terror we can deify? By god, grab your axe and let’s kill these sonsabitches!
Of course the catch here is that Ulfric is terrifically racist, and by extension, so are the Stormcloaks. Skyrim can be for the Nords, but Ulfric wants everybody else out. Say what you want about the Empire, but they’ve always done their best to keep the peace. Nords were free to make their homes in Morrowind, and Dark Elves could go freeze their balls off on a glacier somewhere, and all of it was perfectly legal. The rebel in me automatically hates the Empire, but then I am forced to admit that I’d rather have them in charge than Ulfric. How the hell did this happen? When did I become a cheerleader for these goddamn imperialists?
I guess the short answer is that I hate racism more than I do imperialism, which isn’t a surprise really. Imperialism does seem to have its benefits, and not just in the world of video games. But there is some visceral, immediate reaction that occurs somewhere in my gut when I think of helping the Empire continue its existence. I guess if I examine a corollary, the most immediate that springs to mind is the Roman Empire. In the Roman Empire, slavery was tolerated, warfare was a constant threat, there were state sanctioned religions, capital punishment, and widespread lead poisoning. But man, you could get fresh drinking water everywhere and the roads were safe. And slaves could buy their freedom, eventually. I mean, it couldn’t have been that bad, right? If it weren't for them, we might not even have roads!
This is how twisted it gets. A person could easily find themselves supporting a regime that allows slavery because, hey, they aren’t racist! At least, that’s what happened to me while playing Skyrim. And now I feel bad.
Bethesda has created an engrossing political landscape this time around, infinitely more interesting than the one presented in Oblivion. Maybe I'll write a more measured review of the game within the next few days, but right now I have to get back to my Noridc dual-wielder, who is about to tell Ulfric where he can go stick his magic words. Thank you, liberal education system!
*The only possible explanation for this is that the Thalmor don't believe in the Arkay apotheosis theory, but instead view him as a true god (as depicted in The Monomyth). But then this forces me to ask, if they can leave that one religious deviation alone, why not the other?