An Arrow to the Knee: Skyrim & the Northern World

Glossary

  • DLC – An acronym for Downloadable Content, this is additional content released by a studio after the game’s release
  • Dungeons & Dragons –abbreviated to ‘D&D’, this is a cooperative tabletop role-playing game. One person is the Dungeon Master, controlling the world, the enemies and its inhabitants, while the others play as characters in the world. The DM presents them with choices on which they must act
  • Housecarl – From the Old English huscarl, meaning originally a close personal servant, and later evolving into a term for the elite bodyguards of a monarch or leader
  • Jarl – A Scandinavian local leader, equivalent to the Old English Earl
  • Mod – short for ‘modification’, this refers to extra content generated for a game, often by the fans
  • Open-World –called ‘sand-box’ in the US, this is a gaming term referring to a game world with a great amount of freedom of movement for the player. This is opposed to ‘corridor-games’, where the player moves from one scenario to another in a linear sequence
  • RPG – an acronym for Role-Playing Game, this refers to computer or tabletop games where the player interacts with the world through a created character, exercising some choice over their skills, race, gender and other characteristics, as well as having agency over choices that affect the world
  • Thane – from the Old English thegn, a man of wealthier standing, with a position of military or civil authority in a community, often chosen or appointed by a monarch or Ealdorman, a shire-level leader

Ancient Stones

“And the Scrolls have foretold, of black wings in the cold,

That when brothers wage war come unfurled,

Alduin, bane of Kings, ancient shadow unbound,

With a hunger to swallow the world,”

            You’d be forgiven for thinking this to be from some ancient Eddic poem or prophecy, correlating as it does to the words of the Seer in Norse mythology. However, this is from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a videogame released in 2011 by Bethesda Softworks. Colloquially known as Skyrim, the game soared instantly to a popularity it has enjoyed for nearly a decade. Skyrim is an open-world RPG, with a focus on customization, exploration and individual experience. Beautiful graphics, an immersive world and a gorgeous musical score are all factors in its success, but I believe there is more to it than that. In my article on Viking warriors, I referenced the success of Valheim and For Honor, but as regards to games with a Norse and Anglo-Saxon theme, Skyrim tops them all, with over 30 million copies sold to date. The game has generated an extensive meme culture and has a devoted fanbase, who are still creating mods for the game on an ever-widening scale, adding worlds and races, clothing, characters, weapons, music, settlement upgrades and graphic innovation. The studio release of three DLC packs, adding new quests, provinces and content, proved an uproarious success.

            The interesting question lies in the ‘why’. Of the thousands of videogames released since Skyrim’s debut on the 11th November 2011, why has it endured in popularity? Its graphics and mechanics were not particularly ground-breaking, even at the time, and the advent of virtual-reality and ever more sophisticated and graphically advanced gaming worlds should, logically, have supplanted the older titles. Yet, something about the world and values of Skyrim has allowed it to endure. In this article, I will share my views on why Skyrim has remained so beloved, with its distinctive Scandinavian and Old English flavours. I will begin with a brief introduction to the game, before exploring three facets of the Northern World that make the game so compelling.

Shattered Shields: The Land of Skyrim

            Skyrim is the northern province of Tamriel, the world of the Elder Scrolls series. It is inhabitated by the hardy Nords, and is a beautiful and wild land of tundra and forests, bordered by a vast and misty ocean, and ringed around by majestic mountains. Divided into nine ‘holds’, or provinces, each governed by a Jarl, the land is beset by civil strife, but the greater danger is the ancient dragon Alduin, who seeks to consume the world. Only the protagonist, the fabled Dragonborn, can stop him, by absorbing the souls of slain dragons, and speaking their language. This projection of their voice, or ‘Thu’um’, can be used to unleash all manner of powers, such as breathing fire, blasting foes away from you, slowing time, or moving at incredible speed. The main campaigns, such as defeating Alduin, ending a civil war, or rising to the top of the Dark Brotherhood or Thieves’ Guild, never intrude on the sheer wonder of wandering. Having clocked up something like 1,200 hours of gameplay across various platforms and editions of the game, I am still playing it, and still coming across things I had not found before.

            Much of the language, societal structure and supernatural framework of the game is lifted bodily from Norse and Anglo-Saxon sources, from the use of terms like, ‘jarl’, ‘thane’ and ‘housecarl’, to locations like Hrothgar, the mountain-top temple of the monastic Greybeards, from the name of the king in the epic poem Beowulf. The poetry of the Nords is akin to Anglo-Saxon verse forms, which use short, alliterative phrases to create vivid word-pictures. A host of personal names like Gunnar, Erik, Sigurd, Lars and Sven are common, and the prevalence of ale and mead give a Northern flavour to food and drink. Place-names hold etymological links to the Norse world, such as the ‘-grav’ suffix on tombs and crypts, meaning a place of burial, and the source of the Modern English ‘grave’. Even the symbols of the Holds would be familiar to an Anglo-Saxon traveler; the horse, the crown, the wolf and the stag. The player character often comes across abandoned ruins, and soon learns that they were the home of the Dwemer, a race of long-extinct dwarves, whose technical mastery allowed them to construct machines that outlasted them. Their name is taken from the Old English dwimmer, meaning crafty or cunning, with connotations of magic or sorcery, and is found in The Lord of the Rings, where Saruman is described as ‘dwimmer-crafty’. So it is clear that this is an Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian world, but what about that world is so enduringly attractive?

Sky Above, Voice Within: A World of Freedom

            The largest thematic influence in Skyrim, drawn from Scandinavian culture, is the sense of freedom; the clear intention of the developers was to present a world to soak in like a bath. Unlike other RPGs, there are no areas locked off, and almost no limits to where the player can go, beyond the player’s equipment and skill level. The game is filled with superfluous detail connected with the fabric of life, with no impact on the gameplay or story. Tables are littered with tankards, personal effects, cutlery, crockery and food, and bookshelves bulge with folk tales, riddles, histories and technical manuals. Aside from those few books which allow the character to increase their knowledge and skills, the bulk of it is merely immersive lore. Houses, taverns, shops and halls are filled with jewelry and artifacts, while the plains and forests brim with flowers, plants and animals. It is a world filled with people who live and work, rather than merely being signposts for the character to activate as they proceed towards their goal.

            This freedom is attractive to us as an audience, because our world is circumscribed to a large degree. We have jobs, mortgages and are tied to digital communication. Everything must be booked, tracked, delivered on time or quantified, arguably limiting our ability to be spontaneous or to spend time out of contact. The freedom of escape, of wandering and existing in such a land as Skyrim is intoxicating. To make camp beneath the stars, to explore a vast cave network full of ancient treasure and terror, to do battle with monsters that terrorize communities and be lauded as hero and savior; it all fully exploits a unique facet of the videogame experience. Whereas in books and film we passively observe the actions of others, videogames like Skyrim give the player agency, to be a criminal or hero, a thief or a warrior, a wanderer, a master blacksmith, a vigilante, a monster-hunter, a sorcerer, a vampire, a werewolf or the world’s most feared assassin. We can interact with the world and its problems at our leisure, or not at all, and merely wander the vast landscape taking up such work as piques our curiosity. For me, this freedom to roam is akin to the thrill of walking with Ordnance Survey maps, dreaming of what lies over the hill or round the next headland.

Tooth & Claw: Dragons, Draugr & Wolves

            Aside from the human population, the land of Skyrim is filled to bursting with life, some of it natural, and much of it supernatural. Its natural enemies, such as bears and wolves, are drawn from the Northern World, and the supernatural enemies even more so. As the player ventures into the world, they are set upon by monsters straight from the heart of the wild mythology of the North. Draugr, the restless grave-spirits, can be found in the vast subterranean barrows and burial chambers, while trolls and ice wraiths haunt windswept mountain passes. Skyrim is also filled with shape-shifters like the werewolf, and creatures who have experienced an even worse fate; the Falmer, the blind and bestially aggressive orc-like dwellers beneath the mountains, were once the Snow-Elves. They are clearly a version of the Norse light elves, who live in Alfheimr, and are fairer than the sun to look upon. Yet the greatest and most compelling of all foes are the dragons themselves. They share much with the Anglo-Saxon understanding of dragons, for it is their voice which gives them power. In Northern mythology, to speak with a dragon was a danger, for they had great powers of illusion and persuasion, as if putting the listener under a spell. It is often postulated that the wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, is like a dragon, for Tolkien described his voice as, “Not hypnotic but persuasive. Those who listened to him were not in danger of falling into a trance, but of agreeing with his arguments, while fully awake. […] Saruman corrupted the reasoning powers”. This is exactly how the conversations with dragons often play out during Skyrim’s narrative; their words and arguments sound fair, even reasonable, until the player really considers them.

            All of this combines to create a land of living fable, where the player becomes a legendary dragon-slayer, a hero of time whose destiny is to free Skyrim and Tamriel from the Ragnarok of Alduin. These monsters and villains appeal to our ever-present need for heroes, and the framework is so familiar that we do not notice it; after all, what child is there who does not know what a dragon is? The subconscious symbolism of mountain and forest in Germanic storytelling has often been analyzed as places of adventure, danger and rebirth, and Skyrim uses these familiar dangers to tell a very old story; the hero’s journey. The progression of the Dragonborn features the familiar elements; the call to adventure, the magic weapons, the ancient evil, the special powers, the journey to the underworld, the grey-bearded mentors, the temptation of power, the evil king, the dark opposite, the beautiful female aid, resurrection, master of the two worlds, the list goes on. That these ancient motifs are so obviously present in one of the most popular videogames of all time is no coincidence. This article is too short to attempt a survey of these ideas, but The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, by Christopher Booker, is an excellent exploration of the subconscious framework of storytelling.

Dragonborn: Tolkien, D&D and the Legacy of Fantasy

            Like its narrative framework, a key component of Skyrim’s success is its ability to tap into a recognizable world of tropes, characters and language. The works of JRR Tolkien served as a progenitor for the genre of fantasy, providing an archetypal framework that has become definitive. Even when attempting innovation, fantasy writers and creators are still defined by ‘The Tolkien formula’, defining their work against it. The world of Dungeons & Dragons is a cultural phenomenon that, drawing on Tolkien as an influence and beginning in 1974, has spawned hundreds of other role-playing games, and whose popularity has only grown, especially online during the recent lockdowns. D&D in turned influenced Skyrim. In many ways, Skyrim is a single-player, live-action version of D&D, and its particular genius is to use these familiar tropes in novel settings. An example is the term Dragonborn, which in D&D is a playable race, whereas in Skyrim is an innate power. Tolkien’s High Elves are wise, immortal beings with supernatural gifts, but in Skyrim, an arrogant and domineering race who believe themselves superior. The idea of a ‘character creator’ is something that evolved in D&D and other role-playing tabletop games, and Skyrim starts with this most enjoyable of mechanics; the player may be whoever they want, choosing from ten races and dozens of other combinations of gender, height, build, complexion and ability.

            This framework allows the game to be easy to navigate symbolically. Very few would come to the game without understanding at least a little of its mythology and monsters. Like the best D&D campaigns, the attraction lies not in novelty per se, but in familiar material in a context just novel enough to give sharp definition. Skyrim offers the player original ideas, such as the extinct dwarves, but draws on themes at the heart of Tolkien and fantasy. The transformation of the Snow Elves into the Falmer are an echo of Tolkien’s orcs that were once elves, and the presence of the overbearing High Elves and the Imperial forces represent the common fantasy plot of ‘resisting the evil empire’. However, the lemon-twist in this particular recipe is that the Imperials are acting under duress, stamping out the religious freedom of the Nords to stay the wrath of the High Elves, and the native rebellion, the Stormcloaks, wish to impose segregation and second-class citizenship on non-Nordic races. Depending on your individual opinions, the choice is harder than Portia’s caskets. This mix of familiar territory and innovative presentation make for an experience that is simultaneously compelling and satisfying.

Death or Sovngarde: Being the Hero

            As the player reaches the game’s conclusion, they come face to face with Alduin World-Eater on the plains of Sovngarde, the Skyrim version of Valhalla, the eternal warrior-hall; “In the end, all valiant Nords can enter Sovngarde. […] [violent death] seems a small price to pay for the chance to spend an eternity in Shor’s wondrous hall”. There the player meets the Heimdall-like guardian of the hall, and sees the pantheon of Norse warrior-heroes of ancient days. This is a manifestation of the keystone of all the success of Skyrim; it is a game soaked through with the values of the Northern World. Hospitality, quick-wittedness, honour and courage are venerated, and even if the player acts immorally, they must still defeat the evil and imperil their own life to succeed. Like the heroic proclamations of Beowulf or Sigurd Dragon-Slayer, a line from the game’s prologue encapsulates the attitudes that permeate Skyrim. Before being executed for resisting Imperial rule, a condemned Nord says, “My ancestors are smiling at me Imperial, can you say the same?” This defiance in the face of death, robbing your enemies of the savour of their victory, is a cornerstone of the Old Norse mentality, and occurs often in the Icelandic sagas. It is these values that combine with the freedom, fable-nature and fantasy legacy of the game to build a world to lose oneself in. Sometimes my wife or I speak the lie that, “I think I’ll just play a little bit of Skyrim”. Like proceeding pedestrian-style to Mordor, one does not simply play a little bit of Skyrim.

Further Reading (And Playing)

  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, by Bethesda Softworks
  • The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, by Christopher Booker
  • The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien.
  • The Elder Edda, a Book of Viking Lore, translated by Andy Orchard

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