A Scholar in Skyrim – reading the literature of another world
by James M. Potter
It was 11 in the morning, but actually it is about 9 in the evening. It was fairly sunny outside, but actually the snow is falling silently around me as I leave my house. Not my house, but the College in Winterhold – at which point I realise I’ve been playing too much Skyrim. Replete with arcane lore, Skyrim is home to a vast corpus of literature, and I’ve decided to continue my new year’s resolution of making myself more well-read. Will reading Skyrim’s books add to my understanding of the world? The makers have seeded the place with a huge variety of tomes which must have taken a long time to assemble and write. I’m intrigued to see whether they will reward a closer reading.
Many of the books scattered across the inns, dungeons, and caves of the northern wastes have inevitably been transcribed and placed online for our delectation. Indeed many of them were written for previous Elder Scrolls games, and Bethesda have quite sensibly recycled them to enrich the history of their creation. Nevertheless I felt it would be far more appropriate to read the material in the intended environment – that is, in-game.
Leaving the safety of the College, I go into the village, where an ex-student keeps a small library of books in his tiny room in the inn. This friend – well, more of an acquaintance – seems happy to let me sit and read from his carefully ordered collection. Plucking one from the shelf, I dust off the cover, revealing the title – Biography of Barenziah, Vol.1. I look along the shelf to see how many other volumes there might be – two more sit waiting, daring the intrepid scholar to lose himself in them. Better get stuck in. I pull up a chair and open the first volume.
Barenziah is written by ‘Stern Gamboge, Imperial Scribe’. His style is as dry and pompous as the name suggests, which I imagine befits his position as an obseqious court scribe. This sequence concerns the life of the eponymous dark elf queen, who apparently lived for several hundred years, but whose achievements now warrant a modest three slim volumes. After being messed around a little by world politics, she emerges a noble and powerful woman, still ruling Mournhold in Morrowind after all this time. Despite its tantalising references to a nameless Champion, which stir some half-forgotten ancestral memory within me, I’m not enthralled, and turn to a volume which I imagine might have more personal resonance. It’s called ‘The Book of the Dragonborn’, and since I am, apparently, a Dragonborn, the first the world has seen in many a generation, I feel like I ought to have a quick skim.
This is more like it – a work of great scholarship credited to Prior Emelene Madrine of Weynon, it briefly summarises the state of knowledge concerning the Dragonborn. It’s perhaps most intriguing for the prophecy with which it concludes – a seemingly apocalyptic succession of verses which indicate the coming of the Last Dragonborn. I find myself hoping this mysterious figure is not me. If it is, I think people would be slightly distressed to know that I am wiling away the end of the world reading dusty old books.
The literature of Skyrim seems to fall into several categories. There is a seam of historical and biographical books, such as those described above. There are also a number of travel guides to various locations, including the rather entertaining ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Whiterun’, and ‘An Explorer’s Guide to Skyrim’. It seems that there is quite the demand for Lonely Planet-style tourist books. The ‘Gentleman’s Guide’ is the work of one Mikael the Bard, a lively character who advises the reader where the chief delights of the city may be found. It comes across as something of an inept latter-day ars amatoria, detailing the locations, occupations, and characteristics of the region’s female talent. He concludes: ‘Who would want to sleep alone in a cold land such as this? Not I.’ He’s not the most subtle of tour guides, but if exploring the land ever ceases to yield excitement, it will perhaps prove an indispensible guide to exploring the romantic side of life in the cold north.
There are also a fair few books of mythology, as one would expect. One bizarre example relates a creation myth of the cat-people, and makes for a diverting read. There are political pamphlets and theological musings, crafting manuals and indecipherable necromantic ramblings.
What’s striking is that most of it has little more than a tangential relationship to the game. Reading books will occasionally furnish you with a greater knowledge of the factions, races, and cities you will discover as you play; very occasionally, it will provide useful information about landmarks and magic stones. More often though its purpose is solely to deepen the sense of a history behind the game. You’re not required to read any of it to progress, yet doing so will yield a greater understanding of the world via the vast lore that has been accrued not just in this game but in a whole series of lengthy Elder Scrolls adventures. There are few modern entertainment franchises that have this level of history and culture built in to them, and that have invested such time in building not just a physical landscape but a cultural foundation to underpin it.
Of course, the style in which it is all written shares with most modern fantasy a deep indebtedness to Tolkien and the generic characteristics he helped to establish. It is by no means original, and certainly a fair amount of it reads like bad fan-fiction. What is original, however, is the way this corpus has been developed and expanded over the last couple of decades, not through traditional media, but quietly in the background of a gaming franchise.
If Bethesda are really looking to expand on this aspect of their world, perhaps the next stage will be including the work of the community. The nearly 2000 entries on fanfiction.net suggest a large number of fans are writing and reading stories inspired by the games. In this age of the online, shared experience, perhaps a book lying around in the next Elder Scrolls world will in fact have been written years ago by someone on the other side of the world. Perhaps, in a manner not dissimilar to that in the recent Dark Souls, a player will be able to leave a mark in another’s world, but this time by virtue of a book, left in an inn. The sense of ‘being alone together’ which would result from this is, I think, very much in keeping with the way we now share our experience of playing games. It might just make those empty northern mountains a little less lonely, too. To paraphrase Mikael the Bard: ‘Who would want to journey alone in a cold land such as this? Not I.’