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.

New Review of The Song of Deirdre

From Mack-w over on fanfiction.net:

Two sleepless nights burning through this fic were extremely well spent. Your style is wonderful, and I had a great time in coming to recognize your quirks. 10/10

Your writing is incredibly engaging and sets the hook in early; I didn’t want to sleep, but the few winks I caught were spent dreaming of your beautifully wrought world. The depth and life that you’ve created are nothing short of inspiring. The pacing is very well done – it honestly looks as though it’s flying by, but the content progresses organically with a fluidity that I don’t often see in fanfiction.

The changes that you’ve made fit so well that I wouldn’t even notice if I was unfamiliar with the canon story. The attention to detail plus the recurring themes of hate, balance, and compassion… I could go on for days if my overcritical brain wasn’t retyping every sentence three times. I’ve learned a thing or two about flow in here, but other than lessons learned, this story will stick with me for a long time. I’ll cherish this as a work with emotional impact.

As for your dilemma, I agree that you have a talent that should be recognized, but with the nature of fanfiction, it just cannot be. I wish you all the success in the world should you write something monetarily eligible, and I wish with all my heart that you reconsider finishing your Song.

Sure, there’s no money in this fanfiction gig, but reviews like this almost make up for it.

What’s Next for Deirdre

Deirdre in SovngardeSo there it is, 62 chapters, 350,000 words, or roughly 750 printed pages. (If you haven’t begun The Song of Deirdre yet, you can start here.)

When I began this project two years ago, I had several questions (spoiler warning!):

  • Could I get fictional characters moving about and speaking in a convincing manner?
  • Could I make the world of a video game come to life on the page?
  • Could I make it equally entertaining both for those who had played Skyrim and for those had never played video games at all?
  • Could I write a convincing female character (whatever the hell that means)?
  • Could I avoid making her what Anita Sarkeesian calls a “Ms. Male Character” (essentially a male character with a few superficial feminine markers)?
  • Could I write the whole thing as a first-person memoir and sustain reader interest?
  • Could I wrestle the random quest lines of Skyrim into a coherent plot with enough narrative tension to keep readers clicking “next chapter”?
  • Could I manage four main narrative arcs and a couple of smaller ones?
  • Could I rise above the inherent heterosexism of a straight man writing a lesbian character if I focused hard enough on developing her relationship and did so in what I think of as a feminist and LGBTQ+ -friendly way?

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 62

Epilogue

It was a bright afternoon when we arrived in Dragon Bridge. The morning’s journey to my home town had been a pleasant one, the sun shining down through the pines, bright red snow flowers popping their heads up through the receding banks of white, the songs of warblers and thrushes newly returned from the south enlivening the air. Now the sun warmed our backs as we sat on a dais placed near one end of the town’s famed bridge. Behind us, the mighty Karth River roared, its banks filled with snowmelt from the high peaks of the Reach. I told myself I should be glad on this lovely spring day.

Yet the day’s somber purpose drove all thoughts of gaiety from my mind. I could not help looking down at the town’s woodlot, where Horgeir usually spent his days splitting wood. Now a single short log was placed on blocks at knee height, a double-bladed axe leaning against it, and a large basket of woven rushes placed on one side, ready to receive the axe’s grim produce. Nearby stood the headsman, his features hidden by a black hood. A dozen hold guards were placed throughout the town, and two archers perched on roofs nearby, observing the scene.

Lydia, seated next to me, squeezed my hand. “Are you not happy, my love?” she asked. “This is the day you’ve long awaited, the day your parents’ killers will receive justice.”

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 61

The Temple of the Gods

It was madness – two armies clashing in a narrow passage. Tullius could have held out long against the Stormcloaks behind the castle’s stout defenses. But he had driven his remaining soldiers into a frenzy of fear, convincing them it was better to go out in a final, futile assault than to cower behind the castle’s gates. And Ulfric’s soldiers were eager for a fight, having been deprived of one for so long. There would be many losses on both sides – Elisif and I the first, if I didn’t do something to stop it.

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 60

Castle Dour

Four hundred elves in Labyrinthian, and no one wanted them. Two weeks had passed since the liberation of Whiterun. Messages had gone back and forth between Ulfric, Elenwen, and Tullius, with nothing but threats on either side. Meanwhile, the captured Altmer subsisted on short rations. Even then, the Stormcloaks couldn’t keep feeding them forever. Winter was always a lean time in Skyrim, and trade with the south had been disrupted by the war.

I kept well out of the negotiations. Lydia and I busied ourselves around Whiterun, helping where we could with its restoration. Balgruuf was installed once more in what was left of Dragonsreach, sharing the war room and remaining living quarters uneasily with Ulfric. Yet for the first week Balgruuf was too weak to do more than rest. He named Lydia his new housecarl, Irileth having fallen defending him. I became an informal steward.

The first of our tasks was a grim one. The bodies of the fallen, both within the city and without, had to be collected and given proper funeral rites. Lydia’s mood grew darker as more of her friends were uncovered. Fortunately, the deep snows had kept most of the scavengers at bay, though it made finding all the bodies difficult. Lydia had many friends among the fallen, as did I – Farengar, Thorald, Vilkas’ brother Farkas, Adrianne. And then there was Onmund. We found him, along with the rest of the Nords who had fallen on the bridge, tossed onto the iced-over river like so much refuse. It took me a long moment after we found him to remember why we had spared the lives of the elves.

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 57

 

Mistveil Keep

 

“You!” came a harsh voice from behind me. I felt a hand on my shoulder, spinning me around. I turned to see Proventus Avenicci, a knapsack slung over his back and an expression of rage on his face.

Lydia and I had been walking through Riften’s market plaza, crowded this morning with cityfolk returning from Maven’s execution at Mistveil Keep. I had wanted no part of it, choosing this moment instead to walk Lydia from the temple to the Bee and Barb, where I had found us a room. She was still weak, and had to lean on my shoulder.

Proventus seemed to have aged a score of years since last I had seen him, with new lines of grief and worry marking his brow and his hair several shades more gray. “You!” he said again. “It’s your fault! And now my daughter … she was all I cared about in the world!”

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 56

 

The Gates of Riften

 

Moaning. Screaming. Whimpering. Appeals to Kynareth and Mara, Ruptga and Malacath. Smoldering trees and singed leather and bodies burned beyond recognition. The foul stench of voided bowels and warm blood and spilled entrails, mixed with the sweet aroma of cooking meat. For the awful truth is that the smell of burned human flesh is like that of any other roasting game. The very fact that I could find it appealing turned my stomach.

I watched as Odahviing soared away from the battlefield, wishing he could take me anywhere other than here. But no, I was the author of this atrocity and I must look on it. I had commanded that he set me down here, and then sent him on his way.

“Help me,” a nearby soldier croaked. “For the love of Morwha, help me.” Morwha is the name used in Hammerfell for Mara. The fellow was a Redguard from the Imperial side. He had escaped the onslaught of fire, but had a great rent across his leather cuirass. The snow nearby was stained bright red.

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 55

 

The Rift Pass

 

“We’ve had no word of Imperials approaching,” growled Unmid Snow-Shod, housecarl to Jarl Laila Law-Giver. “Why are you running through the streets and raising the alarm?” He was a fierce-looking Nord with a tall sheaf of red hair running over the top of his skull and a spiral tattoo on the right side of his face. His menacing aspect was undercut somewhat by his elven armor, with its sinuous lines and bright gold color. Next to him, Jarl Laila sat on her throne, her eyes wide and her hand to her mouth.

“Because your city is blind to the east, and the Imperial army is approaching that way,” I replied. I was desperate to get him to raise the city’s defenses. Evacuating Lydia from the city would do her little good, since the potion still wasn’t ready. I had sent J’zargo and Brelyna straight to Elgrim with the troll’s leg, while I raised the alarm.

Unmid looked distractedly up at one of the many banners decorating the great hall of Mistveil Keep. The banners bore the sigil of Riften: crossed swords on a purple and gold background. “I always knew this city’s hasty rebuilding would be its end,” he said. “It was never made to withstand a siege.” He spoke true. The city was protected on the west by Lake Honrich and on the south by the precipitous Jerall Mountains. A trio of towers known as the Three Sentinels guarded the northern approach to the city, but none of them had a view of the steep slopes to the east. Nor did the city itself have towers or lookouts facing that way. Only Mistveil Keep itself was built to withstand an attack, but it couldn’t do that if the city fell.

Unmid was still lost in thought when a Riften guard ran into the throne room. “The Dragonborn speaks true! We sent a scout up to the peaks southeast of the city and he saw the Imperial army moving up the slopes from the east. They were having difficulty traveling off of the road in such steep country. He reckoned two hours until they arrive in force before our walls.”

The Song of Deirdre – Chap. 54

 

The Temple of Mara

 

“Falmer Ear!” exclaimed Elgrim, the old alchemist.

“Falmer Ear?”

“Yes, you heard me right, if only I had it in my shop. I don’t suppose you’d like to go exploring into any Dwemer ruins, would you?”

“I’ve quite had my fill of the Dwarven constructs, thank you,” I said, thinking of all the dead Falmer I had left with ears intact, “but I’ll do whatever it takes to cure Lydia of this poison.” I stroked her hand, which was still icy cold. I had been sitting with her all night, ever since we arrived at Riften’s Temple of Mara. The main hall had been turned into a makeshift hospital, with pews that folded ingeniously to become cots.

Elgrim twirled one end of his mustache, which hung down below his jaw. “Hmm, we probably don’t have the time. Charred skeever hide will do nearly as well. Plenty of those in the Ratway. I’ve always said they should rename it the Skeeverway. Hah! Now, where is that Ingun?”