Song of Deirdre On Writing Politics

Skyrim and the Possibility of Peace in a Violent World

Warning: this post contains spoilers for both the game of Skyrim and my novelization of that game, The Song of Deirdre. Also, it’s probably a lot of abstract drivel. To avoid that, just go read the novel. It’s free, after all, and several people tell me it’s not drivel.

screenshot of a Nord.
Just another Nord of Skyrim (Screenshot from Bethesda)

One of the great things about Skyrim is the impressive number of ways you can choose to play it. It’s an open world, so you pick which quests to follow, or none at all. In the opening scene, you create the character you will play throughout the game, choosing from two genders and ten races. You can marry either available gender and any of the ten races,¹ choosing from among the game’s eligible marriage partners.

photo of a Dunmer woman
A Dunmer woman

This means you can play as a hulking Nord who runs around bashing everything with his hammer, takes on the mantle of the Dragonborn, prevents the end of the world, and then comes home to wear the Amulet of Mara (propose marriage) to his Altmer (High Elf) boyfriend. Or you can play as a dual-wielding Dunmer (Dark Elf) thief who doesn’t want to get herself involved in the impending civil war and doesn’t believe the dragon-god Alduin will destroy all of Mundus. No, you just want to sneak around pickpocketing and grabbing whatever wealth you can, and then spend it on a particular Orc you have your eye on.

Here’s another intriguing option: to play the game as a pacifist. Several players have recorded their peace-making efforts on video, and the Wall Street Journal even ran a piece on it. For some players, this was just an “I can beat the game with one hand tied behind my back” kind of trick. For others, it was a philosophical and ethical approach to the game. With all the talk of video games either promoting violence or offering a safe release for violent instincts, this approach offered a third way: to pursue the possibilities of peace in what at first seems a typically bloody world based on medieval Europe.

Just as there are different reasons for choosing pacifism in Skyrim, there are many different definitions of it. For some, pacifism means showing mercy to all beings: not just people, but animals, butterflies (whose wings are used in potions), aggressive trolls, vampires, and even the undead. This is a laudable goal, but I assume these players order bread, fruit, and cheese from the game’s taverns and food vendors. And I question whether killing the undead counts as murder, because they should already be dead. (The debate continues as to whether a Nord’s soul remains in the desiccated body of a draugr or goes on to Aetherius or Sovngarde, the Nord’s two destinations in the after-life.) For others, pacifism simply means maintaining scores of zero on all the game’s kill counters, no matter how this is achieved: using fury spells to get others to do the killing for them, for instance, or luring lone creatures into deadly traps. (If this is pacifism, I have to wonder: did Hitler ever kill anyone himself?)

But what about a more realistic type of pacifist, one who wants to avoid killing any people, whether directly or indirectly? For this type of player, Skyrim presents several problems. The  main quest or story line involves the character discovering his or her powers as the Dragonborn, and then using these powers to stop an uber-dragon named Alduin from destroying the world. While not technically “people,” Alduin and his dragon cohorts are intelligent beings with their own language. They even consider themselves superior to humans and the other races of land-striders. This means that killing a dragon is just as much an act of murder as killing an elf or an orc. For the Dragonborn, foregoing killing a dragon is a double sacrifice, as absorbing dragon souls is the main way he or she gains power for the ultimate showdown with Alduin. Yet it is possible to avoid most of the dragon battles throughout the game, mainly by running away. That leaves two dragons that must be killed to advance the main quest line: Mirmulnir and Sahloknir. Pacifist players must compromise their principles by being present for these dragons’ deaths while letting non-player characters do the dirty work.

Deirdre absorbing Mirmulnir's soul
Deirdre absorbing Mirmulnir’s soul

That leaves Alduin himself. But there’s a question whether Alduin is merely a dragon or something else: a demi-god, the son of Akatosh, chief among Skyrim’s nine gods. Would even the most ardent pacifist refuse to do battle with a demi-god, if it meant saving the world? Clearly, some would. Two of the game’s characters suggest exactly this ultra-pacifist approach, since Alduin serves as both creator and destroyer, ending this world so another one may come into being. If this were a real-life choice, it would be one with the greatest moral and philosophical implications; in the game, it is a cost-free choice, as the player can simply stop pursuing this quest line and go on to do other things. There is no penalty for players who choose not to confront Alduin, no clock counting down the days and hours to the end of the world (which would be represented by just a blank screen or a cinematic showing the destruction of the world).²

Of greater bearing on our own world is the Civil War quest line, which seems nearly equal in importance to the Alduin quests, if only because the player is involved in it from the very beginning. If the game’s main story requires only small compromises to pacifist principles, the Civil War quests require greater ones. Skyrim is a province of the Cyrodiilian Empire, but after their religion was banned (for complicated reasons), many of the province’s native Nords are seeking independence under the leadership of Ulfric Stormcloak. An apparently equal number desire the Empire’s protection against a third group, the Altmer, or High Elves. None of these factions are wholly good or wholly evil. Even the Altmer, who apparently want to commit a genocide against all humans, are not an embodiment of pure evil: they have legitimate grievances going back thousands of years, to the time when humans invaded the land of Tamriel from their own continent, Atmora. The situation has many analogues throughout history, the closest perhaps being the Britons chafing under Roman oppression. Modern day Iraq or Syria are also good parallels.

The odd thing with the Civil War quests is that you can pursue them in a pacifist manner, assuming you have great skill in Illusion magic. This branch of the arcane arts features not just spells that will strike fury or fear into the hearts of opponents, but ones that will also calm them and prevent them from attacking the player or each other. But here is the frustrating part: while it is possible to calm all opponents while taking over forts and cities, the game won’t let you advance to the next phase of the quest line without killing the requisite one hundred soldiers at each fort. Once you get to the capital city (Solitude or Windhelm, depending on which side you’ve chosen), you can calm both armies and then move ahead into the keep having killed no one. Only the leader (Ulfric or Tullius) is too powerful to be calmed. Once in the keep, you can continue to calm all parties forever, but there’s no way to end the game this way. The losing side is always bent on gaining a good death and will keep fighting until they’ve achieved it.

I’ve often wondered why sci fi and fantasy writers can imagine all sorts of Death Ray Guns, photon torpedoes, and (in the case of Skyrim) a Marked for Death Shout, but they can’t imagine a Peace Ray Gun or a Shout of Love and Compassion. Yet Skyrim’s creators did invent a Spell of Harmony which can quell entire armies. With this “weapon,” the player-character should be able to stop the fighting and force the opposing sides to settle their differences through other means. It’s just too bad they didn’t let you go ahead and use it to its greatest effect.

That’s a shortcoming I set out to rectify in The Song of Deirdre. Can there be a third way in what seems like a zero-sum game?

Deirdre returns to Skyrim with rage in her heart against her parents’ killers. She could easily have become a character like Manda Scott’s historically-based Boudica, wreaking righteous revenge on her parents’ killers, on the Altmer who robbed Nords of their religion, and on the Imperial army which engages in brutal torture and nearly had her beheaded without a care for the fact that she was neither a rebel nor a criminal.

Deirdre speaks with Odahviing after the dragon's capture
Deirdre speaks with Odahviing after the dragon’s capture

But she chooses a different path, succeeding only fitfully. In the beginning she participates in her own share of killing (always in self-defense) yet over time she grows both sickened by all the death around her and certain that revenge will solve neither her own problem nor the problems of Skyrim. She searches for a peaceful resolution to Skyrim’s conflicts, with the greatest obstacle always being the rage and anger she has in her own heart.

What does all this have to do with the modern world? Probably nothing. Yet it seems to me there is so little chance for ending the cycles of violence in the world – everywhere from Ferguson, MO, to the Ukraine, to the Middle East – that perhaps only a fantasy setting allows the space to truly consider what peace might take. Something about the fantastical provides an emotional distance not available in RL conflicts. Is that distance merely an “escape,” or does it actually let us usefully reflect on the problems of the world? I don’t know, but as I wrote the novel, Assad was bombing his own people in Syria and US troops had only recently left Iraq, for better and worse. Those uses and abuses of force weren’t far from my mind as I considered how Deirdre would use her growing power. Would it corrupt her, as the adage predicts? Or would she find another way?

On her blog, science fantasy author Kameron Hurley has some thoughts on the penchant of humans to slaughter and oppress each other, and the unique ability of scifi and fantasy to offer a metaphorical approach to these issues:

In World War II, my grandfather spent much of his time stationed in Germany and France cleaning up dead bodies. Primarily from concentration camps. He hauled the bodies and drove the trucks. He watched an entire people nearly annihilated. Today, when I turn on the television, I’m watching the children of those same people annihilating another people, wiping them off the face of the earth.

I don’t know why we murder ourselves, all of us, eventually. It’s why I wrote Mirror Empire. It’s what the whole bloody book was about, really: being confronted with an impossible choice. Knowing that in order to live, you must become everything you hate, knowing that if you back down, you’re annihilated. What will they do, in the end? What choice will they make, when it’s them against the wall, fighting themselves?

I am a book and a half into the series, and you know what?

I don’t know what they’re going to do.

Mirror Empire cover
You had me at the blurb from Lauren Beukes

Her book drops tomorrow, and I’m eager to see how she sorts this out.

Hurley could have used other examples, as there are many from which to choose. I’m reading Manda Scott’s Boudica quartet, a historical-fantasy about the Romans wiping out the Celts of Britain and the horrible loss of both lives and culture that entailed. And I’ve learned only recently (or maybe I forgot and was reminded) that a variety of the Celtic cross has been adopted by white nationalists, beginning with Norwegian Nazis and continuing into the current increase in anti-Semitism in Europe.³ The KKK sprang from impoverished Scottish and Scots-Irish whose ancestors fought English oppression. How is it possible for the oppressed to so quickly become the oppressor?Perhaps all of U.S. history is the best example of a people turning into what they claimed to hate. (Perhaps a better way to put it is that people are hypocrites and we already are what we claim to hate. Just look at Thomas Jefferson. Or the fact that there were only Founding Fathers.)

The parallels between Iraq and Skyrim are instructive. In Iraq, the US played a role similar to that of the Cyrodiilian Empire, and the Iraqis were the Nords of Skyrim. One possible ending for the game has the newly liberated Nords waiting for the inevitable attack from the High Elves, uncertain whether they can unite behind Ulfric to fend off such an invasion. One suspects Ulfric will be as vengeful against his opponents in Skyrim as Nouri al-Maliki was in Iraq, and could come to a similar end. Meanwhile in RL, the attack from a third force in Iraq has already come in the form of ISIS. The game offers no solutions, just as there seem to be no solutions in RL. What the world needs now is a peace bomb, or one big Spell of Harmony.

The Song of Deirdre solves the Civil War conundrum differently than the game, yet the question is still there at the end. Will Skyrim be able to fend off an elven invasion, and what means will it use to do so? Deirdre is determined that it won’t stoop to the brutal level of the elves and that the Nords can be trained to more peaceful ways. Both in the fantasy world and in real life, it seems that if true peace is to be achieved, not only must the worst prejudices and hatreds be overcome, but even the worst oppressors must be forgiven. But who among humanity possesses that kind of forgiveness and compassion?

Deirdre is deeply conflicted here, if not quite hypocritical, as she wrestles with her own rage, occasionally losing control of it to greater and greater destructive effect as her power increases. Will this power corrupt her? By book’s end she seems to have her demons under control. Will this prove lasting, or will those demons rise up at some point in the future? Those questions await a Book Two.


A Skyrim wedding
A player-character marrying Aela the Huntress

¹I initially assumed this was true, because why wouldn’t it be, with such an extensive list? But you’re out of luck if you want to marry a Wood Elf (Bosmer) or a Khajiit, and equally so if you’d prefer a Redguard or Altmer of the male persuasion. (But hey, this is what console commands are for.)

²The non-impact of the game’s most momentous events on other areas of the game is one of its weakest points, in my opinion. The player can prevent the end of the world, earn the name of Ysmir (or Stormcrown) after an ancient ruler and hero of Tamriel, decisively aid one side or the other in the Civil War, prevent a variety of other disasters, and after all that, the town guards still greet you with “hands to yourself, sneak thief,” or some other dismissive greeting.

³The use of the “Celtic cross” is actually a lot more complicated than that, as this article from the Anti-Defamation League shows.

One reply on “Skyrim and the Possibility of Peace in a Violent World”

There’s a mod that disables disrespectful town guard greetings after you fulfill certain conditions… in general, for me, Skyrim is mediocre without mods, one of the best games ever with them. You need to know what mods to install, though.

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