You see, I’ve spent the last two years writing a 780-page novel set in the universe of Skyrim, the wildly popular game by Bethesda Softworks. Have I lost my mind? Maybe. Or perhaps this project has helped keep me sane. Since today is the release of the next game in the series, Elder Scrolls Online, it seems an appropriate time to ‘fess up. (And this is aimed mainly at those who know me as a nature writer. If you’re a gamer or fan of the fantasy genre who has happened across this post, feel free to skip straight to the novel itself.)
It all started with our move to Michigan in 2011, when Diane took a job at Wharton Center for the Performing Arts in East Lansing. I had never even been to Michigan. We didn’t know a single person here. And we drove our older son up to San Jose for his freshman year in college in the middle of packing for the big move. So that was a lot of culture and family shock to absorb all at once. Not to mention that my work as a writer and conservationist had focused mainly on the deserts of California. Hard to keep doing that from the Midwest.
So there I was, that first six months in Michigan, and the kids were playing this game called Skyrim. (And I would blame it on the kids, except for the fact that anyone who knew me well in college also knows that I spent way too much time in the game room playing Asteroids. Also, I had already played Oblivion, the precursor to Skyrim in the Elder Scrolls Series. The virtual has always had an appeal for me.)
I soon found myself obsessed with the game, as many were. It had the most realistic character interactions of any game I had played. An amazing soundtrack by Jeremy Soule. The scenery was stunning: lofty peaks, grassy plains, vast glaciers, and ruins in the middle distance to lend a Romantic, picturesque quality. (No deserts, unfortunately.) There were birds singing in the trees, hawks soaring overhead, and lots of other wildlife, including some that would eat those not well-armored or ready with a dual-wielded firebolt spell (or a calming spell if you happen to be a pacifist or a vegetarian).
Skyrim is an “open world” game, so you can do whatever you like. You can slay the dragons, fight in the Civil War, and follow the other quest lines. Or you can just walk around exploring the scenery, doing favors for people, and listening to their stories. You can even be a pacifist and complete many of the quests using only stealth and cunning. You can get married (to a person of either sex). You can sit down in the Arcanaeum and read books on the lore of Tamriel (the continent of which Skyrim is just one region), the creation of Mundus (the Elder Scrolls universe), and the various gods (nine by some counts, not to mention a variety of “Daedric lords”). Or you can sit in a tavern, listening to a bard and drinking an ale (this is where the virtual nature of the game falls seriously short).
I know, I know. We “nature writers” are supposed to prefer real nature to simulacra of nature. Last Child in the Woods and all that. But my opinions about nature and the “environmental movement” have grown so dour that they’re best kept to myself.
Ironically, this novel began with a nature-y idea: it would be funny to write a “Natural History of Skyrim.” It would be told in the voice of the character I played, a Breton woman. (At the beginning of the game, you choose the features of the character you’ll play: race or nationality, gender – only two; the game’s not that progressive! – and other physical attributes. And, what’s that you say, a man playing as a woman? Only non-gamers will be surprised by that.) She would be a bit of a 19th-century naturalist, sketching flowers, pressing them in her notebook, figuring out how the different varieties are related. She might look at the landforms, which sometimes make no geological sense, and wonder how they got that way. Living in a universe where the gods were present in daily life, she might ascribe it to their whims, but maybe also begin to wonder about the natural processes that could shape the land. She would look at the stars and wonder if they really are the light of Aetherius shining through tiny holes in the plane of Oblivion that surrounds Mundus – or something else? (In that sense, maybe she’s more of a 10th-century naturalist.)
That idea quickly morphed into the one of writing a novel telling her story as Deirdre, now a half-Breton/half-Nord orphan, who goes through the adventures of the game, discovering that she’s the Dragonborn, fated to do battle with the dragon-god Alduin, deciding whether to become involved with Ulfric Stormcloak’s rebellion against Imperial tyranny, and discovering who she is at the deepest level. In the end, it would correct what many players saw as a problem with the ending of the game’s main story lines. It would also retain that 19th-century quality, complete with a stodgy Editor’s Introduction that makes it a story-within-a-story.
As I was forming the idea for this work, the gaming community’s horrible treatment of Anita Sarkeesian and her feminist analysis of video games was coming to light. Major White Knight time! One of her worst online abusers was in Toronto. I actually found myself thinking, “Toronto’s not that far away, and I own a stout crowbar.” Instead, I channeled that outrage into this story. In a way, the frustrated teenage boys (of whatever numerical age) who responded with such vehemence to Sarkeesian are the target audience for this work. How better to practice white-knighting than in a fantasy story? It’s a criticism I’ll gladly accept.
Like much of our own world, Skyrim is a contested territory, with occupying Imperial forces oppressing the native Nords, who just want to be free to worship their own gods. But the Nords aren’t really natives, because thousands of years in the past they arrived in Tamriel from their native Atmora, pushing out the elves who already inhabited the place. Now, distant cousins of those elves, styling themselves the High Elves or Altmer, want to control all of Tamriel, and even to wipe out or enslave humans and all the other races of the continent. Looking at Syria, Darfur, Russia, and our own behavior on various continents (including North America), it seems these real world problems have no solutions. Perhaps they can only be worked out in a fantasy world, as Deirdre attempts to do. And she has her own hatreds to deal with, mainly for the Nords who killed her parents out of their ignorance and bigotry. Can compassion for all beings possibly exist in such a world?
So I set out to write a big, baggy, 19th-century-style novel tackling big themes based on a video game. Two years and 780 pages later, here it is, The Song of Deirdre: A Memoir of Skyrim. In that time, other writers of Skyrim fan-fiction, like Erica North/Jenny Melzer, have gone on to publish their own novels. The singer known as Malukah has become famous for her covers and arrangements of Skyrim’s tavern songs, both as a solo artist and with other artists. Who spends two years on a fanfiction (or novelization, as I like to think of it)? Apparently, that’s just how I roll.
Diane has already served as my alpha reader (and, thank the Nine, she enjoyed it, or I never would have carried on). Now you can serve as my beta readers, if you’re willing. I’ve tried to write it in a way that will appeal to non-gamers who aren’t familiar with Skyrim, and I’d love to get feedback on whether or not I succeeded.
If you’ve played the game, all the better, because I’m also eager to hear how it goes over with you. The story does follow the events of the game, but I hope you’ll enjoy the twists I’ve put on them, and there are a few in-jokes that only gamers will get.
If this proves popular, perhaps I’ll go on and write Books II and III, which will help to explain some of the mystery expressed by the tome’s editor, Laurentius Aaronius, in the introduction.
(Oh, and sorry for the clickbait in the title.)