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Monday, October 15, 2012

The Literary Review of Skyrim Part 2

Part One of The Literary Review of Skyrim

This is part 2 of an unknown amount since I'm doing it "live."

Disclaimer, the first: this is going to have spoilers about the game Skyrim.  If you haven't played Skyrim, and you don't want the unfolding plot to be ruined, run screaming from this article and hide under your bed.

Disclaimer, the second: I am still playing this game so I might say some things here that will completely change at the very next plot pont or that might not be very insightful at all.  ("This Littlefinger guy is such a stand up dude!  I really like him!")   I could make this huge deal about language and culture and the next character I meet is going to say the same thing in not so many words, and everything I write here will seem like uninspired drivel.  ("Before you go kill that dragon, I wondered if you wanted to talk about the relationship between language and culture...") So for those who've finished it, please limit your mocking to a line or two and one piece of rotten cyber-fruit.  And also please don't ruin the end for me by telling me if I'm right or wrong.  ("That's not what happens!  You end up being the son of the unlawful union between a sword and a tree!"--Yes this is a real reference.  No, I don't want to talk about it.)  I'm enjoying playing and I'll cheerfully ignore anything that looks like it might ruin the ending.  As of this writing, I have retrieved the horn and discovered that dragons haven't just returned, but they are coming back to life, I just visited a burial mound, saw the big dragon (the same one who interrupted my execution) raise another--which I then killed.  After that, I talked to the women about the Thalmor and The Blades.  I've done a number of side quests for The Companions, The Mage's Guild, The Bard's College, and several miscellaneous quests.  That's as far as I've gotten besides a lot of exploration.  I only play video games for a few hours a week and I really like to play through as much of a game as I can, so sometimes I'm guilty of practically avoiding the main quest line.

Disclaimer, the third:  I'm going to jump right in where I left off from Part 1.  There are some major points there about dragons and giants and "those-that-came-before" that I'm not going to reiterate.  I'm just going to come out swinging.

At this point, I have to say...Skyrim is probably the most thematically subversive game I've ever played.   It's also about the power of writing--so it's pretty awesome for this blog.

This includes games with missions to kill X number of cops or objectives that involve overthrowing the US government.  I've played games where throwing molotov cocktails into the open mouths of political    figureheads didn't make me really think about the trouble with our social assumptions in a way Skyrim does.  None of those "shock value" games even comes close to matching the paradigm rage that seeps from every pore of Skyrim.  No, there isn't a monster named Paradigmia, and you don't team up with a companion named Chomsky to kill it, and I don't think the last boss fight will be with two brothers named Koch who wear the Gold Manslacks.  And no one has given me a sword that looks like a giant pen or anything.  But the game wants us to question everything, transcend the petty battles and assumptions so basic they shape the very way in which we perceive the world.

Don't worry--Chris can show his work.

The past is coming back to haunt Skyrim.  It's like the girl you knocked up showing up at your 40th birthday to introduce you to your son--except...with fire breathing and magic and shit.  Every plot element I've seen reinforces this idea that "before you got here this was already a problem, and now it's YOUR problem."  It's not just a matter of rich back stories either.  Everywhere I go, the past is about to boil to the surface.  It is almost never a new conflict you find as you cross the countryside, but rather it always an old one rekindled or made urgent.  From the tragedy at Winterhold and the intolerance of the mages, to the Forsworn rebellion in Marketh that wasn't quelled properly 20 years ago, to the main conflict between the Empire and The Stormcloaks being based on The White Gold Concordance that ended the last war, everything going wrong in Skyrim is the past coming back to life.

Which is why when I discovered that the dragons were not waking up or returning but actually coming back to life, I just sort of shook my head and smiled.  Someone really did their dragons-in-literature homework before they just slapped a "badass villain" into Skyrim.  In literature, dragons represent man's moral failing--especially his corruption over time--and the metaphor of past vs. present that is SO prevalent in Skyrim is carried on by them quite beautifully.  Seriously, they couldn't have made it any more clear without naming the dragons things like "Politically Expedient Treaty" (Pollextra?) or something.  In fact, any place a dragon hangs out, is almost always some old, decrepit ruin that is falling apart.  A relic of the distant past of which the newly arisen dragon is a part.  It's probably a good thing they hang out in ruins too, because if I didn't have some ancient ass pillar to run around, I would have been a little High-Elf-Briquette more times than not.  But these ancient ruins are not as inconsequential as the current people of Skyrim would wish.  The past is relevant to the present, and it will not stay dead and buried--literally.

However, the writers of Skyrim took extraordinary pains to make the giants inconsequential in the Skyrim storyline.  You meet like five people early on who tell you that they'll leave you alone if you leave them alone.  The first giants you run into are easily avoided and if you do get to close they wave their arms and make it very clear that you need to turn around.  They run around in loincloths, do not speak at all, and carry big wooden clubs.  They're kind of the opposite of dragons really--dumb, and silent.  And until you think to yourself "How tough can they possibly be," and end up back at your last save point in about five seconds, they are pretty un-agressive.

These aren't the giants I talked about in Part 1.  In fact, it seems like extra care has been taken to make sure we can't possibly confuse them for "those who came before."  People say they aren't significant.  They run around in caveman gear.  They almost look like pre-civilization and possibly even pre-linguistic humans.  The emblems on the 7000 steps even say that early men were weak and had no voice.

But that may be exactly what the writers of Skyrim intended.

The role of "the great heroes of the past" like the Nephlim or Beowulf seems to be filled by the Dragonborn.  (And before you think that only old cultures have heroes like this, consider how we revere our founding fathers in the U.S. with an almost mythological persona and a larger than life role in our sense of who we are and how we got here.) The Dragonborn are dudes who mastered the Thu'um and could slurp up the souls of dragons.  You play the first one to show up in a long time--right along with the dragons.  And yes it is an interesting mechanic that gives you a few neat things you can use to help you kick ass or pass certain obstacles or get free drinks, but the really interesting thing is the culture and mythos surrounding it.

Arngeir explains that dragons always speak with the voice.  To dragons there is no difference between talking and fighting.  Dragons only speak with great need, though, because their very words shape the world around them.  And in fact, one of the things you can see when you use a powerful Thu'um or take on a badass dragon is that when The Voice is used, the entire world around you changes.  In a game where the visual setting is so exquisitely, eye-poppingly rendered, this causes an instant and major shift.  This is more than just some spiffy new way to blow up enemies and get hot women in the bar to kiss each other.  You literally change the whole world.  And though normal people can possibly learn The Voice from cloistered old men way up on the mountain (who learn with lots of rules and ceremony) as a Dragonborn it comes to you naturally.

So let's take a quick inventory.  Giants look a lot like cave people.  They don't talk.  Dragons symbolize the past and the past is coming back to haunt Skyrim, and they once subjugated humans with The Voice which can literally shape the world around it.  Almost every major turning point of history seems to have involved The Voice in some way.  A group of old white guys (literally all old, white, human men) live on a high high tower and learn how to use it by rules and ceremony.  And you have the ability to absorb dragons (the failures of the past) and use them to reshape the world around you.

The Voice sounds an awful lot like written language.

There are a lot of ways to interpret "The Voice" in the context we have so far.  Literary analysis is not about what MUST be or authorial intention, but about what fits and why and the implications that an author may not have even considered.  Civilization might be one possible interpretation for The Voice.  Language and culture would certainly be another.  But I think a juxtaposition of these ideas works better, and that can most easily be found in the written word.  The written word fits almost with an uncanny ease. The Voice is our cultural narrative and linguistic power that is carried down through the generations. Once we had language we could convey our knowledge to the next generation and thus birthed culture.

It probably also birthed the first pedant who insisted that "ugg" was not a word, and it was pronounced "oog".

With culture came the power of language to change and control the world we lived in through the cultural narrative.  Language shapes the way we perceive our world--literally it controls how we perceive things in a way that psychology and linguistics (and psycholinguistics) are only beginning to understand.  People whose language has no word for certain colors can't discern those colors unless you walk up to them holding swatches side by side.  People who live in a culture whose linguistic origins come from a river with a flood plain see everything around them in terms of cycles of death and rebirth.  People who speak languages that don't have as many dynamic verb tenses as English sometimes have trouble figuring out what order things happened in.  In openly promiscuous societies, they don't have concepts of jealousy that are remotely like ours--it's not just that they don't have words for it; they can't wrap their brains around the idea.  (And I would totally move to one of those societies, but they have no word for deodorant or soap so maybe not.)  In our society we conceptualize politics as a zero sum war with a winner and a loser (rather than an agreement or a compromise) largely because we define the terms around politics with things like "battleground states," "war-chests," "bombshells," and "return fire."   Language can limit our ability to conceptualize concepts or it can lock those concepts in, depending on how we use it.  If you incorporate meme theory, a single linguistic idea-- LITERALLY one word--can change our world.  They're only scratching the surface on the study of this, but it's clear that words really shape our world more than we know.

Let me say that again: words shape our reality.  Sound familiar?

With the spoken word, culture is fluid and dynamic--it can change in only a few months.  But with the written word, culture and language get locked in.  It becomes static and unbending.  It can take generations--even hundreds of years--of challenges for the evolving needs of the culture to coax a concession over even a single idea from a written cultural bedrock.  Look at how much difficulty evolution has in the face of creationism or how the Old Testament has stood in the path of social progress in the modern era (slavery, civil rights, and now LGBT rights).  In societies with written codexes of how-things-ought-to-be(tm) we hear things like "that's not a word" when a new concept comes to town or "that's not allowed" when an new behavior does.  We return to the holy words of the past to tell us how to live (be they bibles or constitutions).  And by controlling these books--by controlling the written word--no end of power can be exerted over humanity.

Consider for a moment--no matter what side of the debate you fall on--the struggle to control the definition of the word "rape," and how much power could come from controlling (without opposition) just that one, single word.  Now imagine the hegemony you would have if you controlled language itself.

 Or consider how in the US Presidential debate of October 16th a single word--"Binders" (or possibly "Binders of women") went instantly viral, but Romney's attempt to shape the narrative failed when it turned out he had lied about his role in the binder landing on his desk.  Now that one word has become an albatross to his campaign.  Just one word carries tremendous power.

Dragons subjugated humanity with The Voice much like early civilizations did through the written word.  The priests and the scribes were literate and they used that power to wield vast control over the masses.  And ALL the early stories of our civilizations greatly involve morality and the superiority of one moral system over those of its neighbors.  They are competitions against each other--they are "fights" between the various lifestyles and even civilizations about which merits are the best and which would be dominating over humanity.  Remember how the dragons don't use The Voice except in need and to them fighting and talking are the same.  This is very similar to the early written works of most civilizations.  Basically they waved around their civ-peens and had a massive cultural pissing contest every time pen met paper.

Then humanity rebelled against the dragons because FUCK dragons.  (I think I'll wait until after I meet Paarthurnax to talk about the gift of the gods in mythology.)  Dragons make shitty leaders and they don't do any good "I feel your pain" speeches.  However, now dragons are coming back to life.  This sounds a lot like the angular momentum of history.  Humanity was subjugated by kings and emperors and priests and scribes using the cultural narrative through the written word.  As long as these guys could define our world, they had all the power.  "Trust us!  You think this ROCKS! Your subjugation makes you content."  People basically didn't know any better.  But it's more than that.  They COULDN'T know any better.  They literally didn't have the capacity to know any better.   These societies competed fiercely amongst themselves to be the dominant culture--to be the only story that got told about the way things were and ought to be.  Any other narrative was subversive and stamped out.  But as things like the printing press gave everyone the power of literacy and took the control of "shaping our reality" away from a few voices, humanity rebelled against this kind of control.  ("Hey, I have it on pretty good authority that you owning everything including me isn't actually all that awesome.")  Suddenly...a cultural rebellion starts.  And this SORT of rebellion follows education wherever it goes.  Even today, the subjugation of women in some cultures is primarily executed by keeping them illiterate and telling them they are absolutely happy.  As of this writing it has only been a couple of weeks since a young Afghani girl was shot by the Taliban for thinking she deserved an education.

However, even in our post king/emperor world, the problems of the past still haunt us. In fact the return of dragons in Skyrim continues to track with the interpretation of The Voice as language.  They spring up out of the ground after being dead and cry out "Fuck you, death.  I'm a dragon."  But think about what they represent: human failings and especially corruption.  It is our most base cultural assumptions about how to live and spread and grow and overpopulate that are now coming back to haunt us.  Our technological advances have kept us ahead of the curve for a few hundred years, but now the underlying assumptions have created other problems like soil erosion and global warming.  The wars of the 21st century are going to be about water.  The whole system with which we assumed we should live--going forth and multiplying and kicking the ass of those who live differently and taking their stuff--is now the source of our troubles as we get more and more crammed into a world of finite resources.  We never tackled those basic king and emperors on their most fundamental social assumptions.  We toppled their thrones but then adopted their world views without much adjustment.  Oops.  Our bad.

More and more we're seeing the old "dragons" spring back to life in the form of an intense drive to control humanity, quell dissent, and crush subversion by dominating the narrative through the written word and compete with other paradigms for ultimate dominion.  The disparity of wealth between the richest and the poorest is at its largest of all time (ever) and growing, and certain people really are ruling the masses largely by dominating the flow of certain information and restricting access to other information.  Stories such as the meritocracy keep people comfortable with having much, much less, and the ideas that certain "isms" are simply the only possible way we could POSSIBLY live are barely even questioned--even as those underlying assumptions breed more and more problems like hydra heads.  By attempting to push certain stories and censor others, these "dragons" have once again risen to control humanity.

Yes, I just compared Clear Chanel to a big fucking evil dragon from Skyrim.  I apologize if that offends any big fucking evil dragons.

Major sub-quests also feed into this interpretation.  In both the early bard quests and the Companions quests the idea of "controlling the story" is essential.  In an early bard quest chain you must literally alter the source material text of an ancient story about taming a dragon in order to get what you want from the local jarl.  (Yet another narrative chock full implications if viewed through the interpretation I'm advancing.)  I'm pretty sure there is some joke about Texas and evolution that I could make here, but that's just low hanging fruit.  In the companions quest, the entire trajectory of your actions is based on the idea of lycanthropcy being a gift or a curse and which of those assumptions controls the narrative of how to proceed.  Even minor quests like explaining to an overzealous suitor that his "wooing" is actually "harassment" or "who wrote this letter" involve this idea of controlling language or the story in order to create a certain reality.  And while there are plenty of "Kill this guy" or "Fetch this thing" quests, a lot of what is going on has directly to do with which story will dominate and which words are given more power.

Even the giants fit into this interpretation. According to the agricultural civilization narrative, farming is what pulled us out of our primitive state (even though non-agrarian societies can be quite advanced).  The idea of humanity in its "natural state" looms large in our consciousness today, but is largely inconsequential in the struggle of our overarching cultural narrative.  (We may worry about what's natural when we're arguing about paleo diets, REM sleep cycles, hair care, or nature vs. nurture issues but we still wouldn't even CONSIDER going back to hunting and gathering...or even living with a reasonable eco-footprint.)  Trying to directly contradict our basic nature tends to end very VERY badly for us, yet it is possible to outthink them and use tools to overcome them.

In fact, the encounters between dragons and giants take a dark implication through this lens as each time the giants fight the dragons, they are hopelessly outclassed, fight valiantly, and die quickly, much as every hunting and gathering society has found itself hopelessly outmatched by the power that expansionistic agricultural civilization can bring to bear.

Now along come you.  You can also shape the world with your voice, but you're not a big nasty lizard who hangs out in ruins and brags about how "old school" you are.  You show up in the middle of a major conflict for political power but you quickly learn that this conflict is at least peripheral to, and may even be driven by, larger forces.  I don't really think Skyrim is written to be "decoded."  Allegory that tries to be point by point representative usually comes across pretty clunky.  Any attempt to do something so linear as to compare Stormcloaks to Republicans or something would be silly.  (Though I do think their resurgent devotion to religion could make this an interesting exploration.)  So I'm not going to bother with that kind of interpretation.

But one need only look around the real world for a moment to encounter some kind of raging battle for power between two factions bent on dominance that seem to be missing bigger picture of issues that swirl around them--where both are being assholes and it seems like like larger forces are not only completely immune to the results their struggles, but may even thrive upon the conflict.  Obviously in election season here in the States many of us will think of politics--where in order to have equal marriage rights and not overturn Roe v. Wade I have to vote for someone who does illegal detentions and drone attacks on civillians--all while big oil gets subsidies on top of record profits no matter which side wins, and the finance industry basically deregulates itself.  But many conflicts could fit just as well.  Israel/Palestine.  Water conflicts.  Iraq.  Wikileaks.  Whatever.

But in Skyrim, which side will win this battle is completely up to you.  You can use your voice however you want.  You can do anything with that voice.  You can back up whichever asshole you think is least misguided...or you can transcend their petty bullshit and go after some of the real issues.  It up to you.

Much like life.

And so Skyrim becomes a major social commentary on our world, and our tragic lack of foresight when it comes to seeing how modern band-aid solutions will become tomorrow's past that haunts us, on the never-ending struggle for power that misses so many of the bigger issues, and even the failure of a romantic sense of the "golden past" to really rescue us from the problems we face today.  However Skyrim is also a subversive commentary as well because these competing ideologies almost always embody the "range of debate" on an issue.  Democrats are liberal and Republicans are conservative but anyone who goes further than the party line one way or another, suggests that both parties are idiots, points out who benefits from the two party system, or notices that certain things don't change no matter who's in charge finds themselves marginalized and ridiculed pretty quickly.  Just look at a guy like Ralph Nader.  A lot of people kind of liked him until he got enough votes to actually affect the election, and then he was persona non grata.  Look at the way people treat someone like Noam Chomsky who just points out how the system exerts influence over us--they treat him like he's an insane fringe lunatic.

And yes, these people find themselves ridiculed by the very mass media and stories and cultural narratives that are controlled by those who would stand lose power if these narratives were to come into question.  Funny how that works.

Skyrim teaches us the real power of writing isn't understood by the crusty old white guys spending lifetimes on the rules, far above the real people in their cloistered, white towers.  (Gee, I wonder what that could symbolize.)  Skyrim encourages the hero to look beyond the petty desires of petty men, higher up the food chain to those who are actually controlling  the story.  And while I don't think that Skyrim is suggesting we take a war-hammer to the Koch brothers or stealth-kill Goldman Sachs with a bow from 100 yards, it encourages the destruction of the domination of our story by these types.  It encourages us to take back control of our definitions, of our language, and of our STORIES, and revisit the world through a new cultural narrative.  Forget the rules that the old guys spend their lives talking about--go and change the world!  Go and LITERALLY Change. The. World.  Create a new narrative in which we have a choice, rather than supporting one in which we are a slave to.  The dragons are the corruption and they embody the failings of our entire civilization and cultural narrative, but the dragons can be killed, their souls absorbed, and their strength yoked to make the power of words even stronger.

Seriously, I'm surprised Skyrim's writers haven't been black-bagged or something.

The deeply subversive hope of Skyrim lies in this simple idea: that we can learn from our past--that, in fact, we can be strengthened by it if we directly confront those failings rather than burying them to resurface later.  In this way, we can "destroy" those attempting to dominate our narrative, reclaim our freedom and choice, and gain back the power of free will.  We can create our own reality.  And we can do it through the power once reserved only for those who would rule us--the power of words.

But be careful because it is quite possible to get stuck in a never ending loop of killing one more giant.

More as I play through the storyline...


  1. I got exactly the same impression you did, though more based in my study of Sumerology, my linguistic theory is very hobbyist.
    "The Voice sounds an awful lot like written language."
    I can prove the historic intentions here. This is an example of the Dragon language


    Now here is an example of Sumerian cuneiform, the first known written language


    I am sure this was done on purpose. As well, the oldest Sumerian magic was literacy based. The gods, and those that mastered language would speak, and as they spoke the world changed, fitting their decree. The use of language to dictate reality was called a Nam-Shub in ancient Sumer. The gods and magicians used it against their enemies Writing was another way to make the spell stick.

    The process of learning to write, by learning a few hundred Cuneiform marks and their myriad meanings in certain contexts, and spending years practicing them by pushing a stylus in wet clay, must have seemed enlightening. The literate held an incredibly cultural and economic power over the illiterate, with an ability to say things and put them somewhere they could be heard in perfect memory years later. This may be the reason that "Teacher" and "Magician" share the same word in Sumerian.

    1. These are awesome insights that I hadn't even considered. I've got little more than Ancient Civ IA in my brain when it comes to Mesopotamia.

      Very cool stuff!!

    2. And now I want to re-read Snow Crash.

    3. Yeah, me too. I remember it being really slow in the middle, but I might appreciate it more now.

  2. One of the first things in Skyrim that got my attention, in the opening scene of the game, was how Ulfric was gagged to prevent him from using the Voice to free himself. He's also presented as a charismatic and persuasive speaker who knows how to use words to his advantage. There is more I can say about how his character develops the themes you discuss in your post, but I'll avoid spoilers for now. Suffice it to say say that there are several moments, depending on which side you join in the civil war, that demonstrate how much he understands the power of words and narrative to control events and people.

    Anyway, this may be my favorite of your posts so far. I'm looking forward to what you have to say about...well, a lot of things, but especially the Diplomatic Immunity quest (which should be coming up soon) and your first meeting with Paarthurnax. Go play more Skyrim!

    1. It was hard to stop playing and write. I don't get a LOT of time to play video games, but I'll write more soon.

      Though part of me fears I've blown my wad, and my next essay will be like: "Yep....it's still about that stuff."

  3. It's nice to see video games getting some serious attention as a legitimate art form.

  4. I really hope you finish this. I think it's my favorite. Please don't just let this one die.

    1. Not at all. Just got a little distracted by holidays, cats dying, and illness.

  5. I know this is kind of an old article by now, but...

    These are incredible theories. I admit I was skeptical when you first mentioned it, but every time you added a new piece of evidence or interpretation, I found myself agreeing more and more!

    I really wondered, as I read this, what you thought of (maybe spoilers?):

    Eventually getting to learn the Dragonrend shout. It seemed like it was a direct example of people taking control of the narrative by reversing roles.