Of all the systems of belief that humankind has utilized to understand our place in the world, the concept of necessary dualism is surely one of the most enduring. Whether we structure our thinking in terms of good and evil, masculine and feminine, true and false or simply us and them, the world almost lends itself to this kind of binary understanding. It permeates our religions, our national myths and especially our sense of self. We define ourselves against the Other, that entity we deem to embody opposition to our personal truth. In the past, this way of thinking may well have been necessary for our survival. Tribal societies depend upon group coherence and loyalty, normally defined against the danger of outsiders who may not have our best interests at heart. Unfortunately, this simplistic approach does not aid us when we attempt to engage in mature discourse in pursuit of the greater grasp of a complex subject. When we approach the world in this spirit, we often do more harm than good to both our ability to learn and to each other. Dualism literally reinforces itself: it is a double-edged sword.
Unsurprisingly, The Elder Scrolls reflects this familiar aspect of our nature within its own fictional narratives. It is a commonly held belief within the setting, not to mention within the lore community itself, that the world is a battleground in which a great conflict is continually fought between two primordial opposing natures. Duality is said to be the foundation of the Aurbis, a necessary concept fractally embodied at ever lower gradients within the cosmos. At its centre is the Arena, the realm where both cosmic forces will finally have the chance to prove their inherent correctness, bringing a conclusion to an endless war.
This battle plays out in the religions, cultures and politics of the inhabitants. If the series has a running theme, we often assume it’s that of the philosophical schism between the worldviews of Man and Mer, which mirrors the even more abstract split between Stasis and Change. We see this dualism reflected time and time again in the lore in the work of scholars (“Anu-Padu theorem”), in religious beliefs (“Anu and His Other”), in folklore (“The Light and the Dark”), in war (The War of Manifest Metaphors/The Great War) and in a multitude of other ways. “Mirrors indeed,” said a goddess whose own role involves uniting opposite sides in a harmonious whole.
Is it any wonder then that we so easily identify with one side or the other when it comes to debating the lore? The Elder Scrolls would seem to encourage our inherent desire to distinguish between the two sides in any argument, one right and one wrong. There can be no middle ground when the world depends on choosing a side for survival. Unfortunately, this overwhelming emphasis on dualistic clashes just does not stand up to scrutiny. Its deceptive simplicity merely ignores that which does not fit the pattern. How should we incorporate Nir of the Anuad, or Magnus and the Ge into this system of thought? On whose side do we place the so-called “beast” races, the alien Hist or even neutral parties in the various wars which erupt between Tamriel’s diverse factions? In order to maintain this narrow-minded viewpoint, anything that undermines the tidy idea of conflicting opposites must be conveniently filed under “Not Relevant” for the duration of the argument. When we ignore the very nature of the Grey Maybe itself for the sake of a win, Tamriel becomes very bland indeed.
If we lose touch with the multifaceted complexity of the setting, we do both it and ourselves a disservice. Not only do we rob the series of its wealth of creativity and expression, we lose touch with one of its most beautiful elements: the unreliable narrator. The developers strive to provide us with a multiplicity of views from diverse people, cultures, religions and backgrounds on what is “true” from their perspective. These “truths” coexist, sometimes clashing, sometimes collaborating and sometimes just plain ignoring each other. They breathe life and vitality into a dynamic setting, allowing us to interact with myriad beliefs and philosophical ideas about our own existence, many of which we may never otherwise be exposed to in our daily lives. The Elder Scrolls universe, much like the eponymous counterparts in-game, has never been about one correct answer or one objective truth. To paraphrase one of the great writers of this series, “the magical nature of Nirn frowns on absolute answers. With a hammer this big.”
If we acknowledge that the setting frowns upon absolute truths, why do many of us find it hard to accept this when it comes to lore discussions? Why do we so often see lore fans clash with each other in trivial arguments where it isn’t enough to simply convince the other side, they have to be shut down entirely for wrong-thinking, stupidity or a grievous lack of knowledge? Is it because the writers have been so successful in immersing us within this setting that we develop extreme emotional attachments to certain factions? Is it because it highlights greater ideological conflicts beyond the realm of fiction, leading to strongly held real-life views melding with our lore opinions? Why do we get so heated about fictional conflicts within a fantasy setting that does not do simple good versus evil?
Like many great works of fiction, The Elder Scrolls does not shy away from controversial topics. Murder, abortion, blasphemy, genocide, rape… the list goes on. It rarely provides a ready-made opinion on how we should judge these issues, meaning our own morals come into play when interpreting the lore. Strongly held real-life positions on issues of morality, religion, politics and so on will naturally meld with our lore positions. However, I would argue it’s not quite as simple as that. None of us can be impartial judges all of the time. Just like in reality, our moral values can be tested when it comes to acts of violence or wickedness committed by our “side”. For example, we might display a willingness to point out the horrors of the Falmer attack on Saarthal while acting as apologists (in the Stendarrian sense) for the genocidal words and actions of the Atmorans and their successors, the Nords. We might be incapable of seeing the colonialist mentality of General Tullius and the Empire’s trammeling of the concept of self-determination, while pointing at the potentially racist overtones of Ulfric’s cause and demanding his execution for limiting the rights of refugees in Windhelm.
It is inevitable that such issues lead to discussion and debate, and rightly so. These conversations can be fruitful for many reasons: they help us to comprehend a complex issue from multiple points of view; they allow us to see the deficiencies in our own interpretations and thereby stress-test our theories; they introduce those less well-versed in the lore to the numerous reasons used to justify the actions of those responsible for these events; and most importantly, they help us hone our critical thinking skills so we can continue to engage effectively with others in the future. Of course, this relies on our willingness to respect other points of view in the way we wish ours to be respected. We interact constructively, listen attentively, consider the arguments proposed and respond appropriately.
When we choose not to respond like this, these discussions can become utterly pointless. If all we intend to do is speak past one another and repeat ever louder our own opinions in the hopes of shutting the other person up, we would be better served by not bothering to discuss the lore with others whatsoever. Why have an intellectual conversation with another if not to mutually learn or inspire? If we wish to impart our “wisdom” on another lore fan, best to be sure it’s actually wisdom we’re selling and not folly or we’ll look a fool and alienate ourselves from the community.
If we care more about the debate than our own ego, we’ll surely be willing to suffer indulging in some basic civility for the sake of sharing knowledge. There is nothing scholarly about relentless sarcasm, abuse or ad hominem attacks. Nor is it particularly helpful to pontificate from on high about why a fellow fan’s ideas are just “wrong” without offering any valid reasons why this is the case. Yes, the onus is on the proponent of the theory to justify why they hold that position, preferably citing sources and so on, but this does not absolve the critic from properly explaining why they believe it is wrong. Appeals to popularity or the authority of a particularly renowned “lorebeard” hold no weight. Like personal attacks, it simply shows the weakness of our argument.
Some of us might be confused by this, assuming a weak argument is one that provides no firm answer rather than one that has no substance. There is a difference between the two. Bear in mind that there can be no absolute answers to many lore questions. This is simply the way of things. This situation encourages us to offer our thoughts, theories, suggestions and oftentimes multiple answers to the same query, from which others may pick and choose what appeals to them. The best responses contain sound reasoning, reference to sources and logical extrapolations, but we have room for those which inspire us and romance us too. Engaging in futile arguments over questions we cannot definitively answer but insist upon giving one anyway rarely allows for this experience. These answers depend not on sound reasoning but on sheer partisanship. It tends to devolve into yet another boring argument of “us versus them”, which in my opinion barely qualifies as scholarship at all. For one such example of tribalism in our community, please look back at Volume 1, Issue 3 – ‘The Skyrim Civil War: Why it Doesn’t Matter’ by Andrew Watson.
I’m sure we can all name examples of arguments on various forums that run out of all proportion due to ever escalating argumentation that completely goes against the basics of reasoned debate. Ad hominem attacks, appeals to authority, refusal to provide evidence because something is deemed obvious, accusations of thought crime for supporting or criticizing a particular group – most if not all of these will make a star appearance at some point. They tend to be in response to the same old questions, often those which inherently presume cosmic dualism. Is Lorkhan evil? Who will win the Second Great War? Who is more powerful, elves or men? I’m willing to bet that if you care whatsoever about the lore, you’ll either be a passionate supporter of one of these opposing positions or else despairing at the thought that a series you love can drive your fellow humans to such a frenzy for the sake of a shared fantasy. Those of a particularly cynical persuasion might now be thinking that acting bizarrely for the sake of a shared fantasy is a hallmark of human culture.
I realize a few self-proclaimed “lorebeards” out there regard themselves as the authority on everything in The Elder Scrolls, but I believe most of us will openly admit we do not know it all and in fact enjoy seeing serious, considered and intelligent discussion and debate. We derive joy from it, we are intellectually stimulated by it and in turn we formulate our own ideas to share. This is made possible because Tamriel mimics Earth. Many aspects of its world are subjective in nature rather than straightforward and rarely are we gifted with the obviously “correct” answer. If we were, our conversations would be nowhere near as entertaining, enlightening or even profound. It would be boring, less likely to provoke fascinating thoughts and theories and the only reason people would contradict it would be for the sake of contrariness. That may well appeal to some people but I personally find it sad.
Each of us will undoubtedly bring to any discussion our own unique life experiences alongside our knowledge of the lore. We have our own emotional responses to certain topics, our own ideologies and beliefs, our own frameworks of understanding right and wrong and so on. Just like in real-life, we can use these things to enrich our interactions with others or to shut them down. We all share a love for The Elder Scrolls and if we proclaim to have any interest in the lore, surely we also share a passion for scholarship. We each bring a new perspective to the lore as it filters through our own perceptions and we have the chance to share this in a positive way, so that we all grow and develop our imaginations and thinking skills. Why not try putting your own preconceived ideas and preferences to the test? Why not try to look at the lore through a new ideological paradigm? If you’re a fan of Dunmeri philosophy, why not try to understand the world as an orthodox Altmer? If you’re a fan of the Daedric worship, how about approaching the lore through the lens of a religious devotee of the Nine? This is the beauty of Tamriel, that we can explore its many facets, wear new faces and experience an entirely different story. You never know, you might even find you come to disagree with your own treasured beliefs and can engage with the lore community afresh.Illustration courtesy of Mikhail Pabor for The Tel Mora Independent Press