This article first appeared in The Tel Mora Independent Press, Volume 1, Issue 3
Take a glimpse into the goings-on of any Elder Scrolls group on Facebook, Reddit, or nearly any other social platform, and you’ll likely encounter discussions on the Skyrim Civil War. Some argue that Ulfric was a Thalmor plant and that means the Empire is the clear moral superiority, and others will argue that complicity with the Thalmor is worse than directly fighting against them.
Pro-Empire combatants will say that the Empire needs to remain united to fight the Thalmor, and the pro-Stormcloak folks will say that the Empire has no claim to Skyrim and has no right to infringe upon the rights of its Sons.
Both groups engage in the same sorts of debate instant-replays that you’ll find anywhere else–if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
I’m here to tell both groups that none of that matters. And I have two primary schools of thought as to why.
To start, it has been my experience that people take this issue very seriously. They become legitimately angry at people who so much as like the opposing side, be it Empire, Stormcloak, or even Thalmor.
It turns into some sort of pseudo-RP where the lines between fiction and reality have blurred. People who argue in defense of the Thalmor or Empire are called fascists and people who support Stormcloaks are called racists, and both sides call members of the other stupid in one form or another.
Right out the gate, this faux tribalism is stupid. Like really stupid. The only reason anyone likes the Nords at all (in the context of the Civil War) is because they likely have identified with them as a race of humans.
Being human ourselves here in the real, it makes sense that any story about conflict between Men and some other alien race is likely to be interpreted with the Men as de facto protagonists.
We attach our own human identities to the identities of these fictional “humans” because as social animals, that’s how our psychology works. It doesn’t take long for this mentality to extend to othering the opposition. “They’re against my perception of the human identity! They’re evil animals!”
Speaking as a lore enthusiast, we tend to approach lore like a historian might look at history. No self-respecting historian looks at conflict and sees “good guys” and “bad guys.” Instead they look at the facts. What really happened? What were the results? It’s not a matter of which side was right morally–such questions are the demesne of philosophy, not history.
And the same is true of lore. It’s alright to have favorites. Hell, it’s alright to like one side over the other or to agree or disagree with the motivations of one group.
But when you look at two sides of a fictional conflict like this one and take sides, you’re not really engaging in lore. Lore involves all sides, all truths, not just who was right, and talking to someone who prefers the opposition to your preferred side of the aisle doesn’t make them stupid or wrong.
Instead of worrying about which side is “better,” it might merit investigating each side. Understand them both. Why do the Thalmor seem to hate the Nords so much? Why is the Empire playing along with it? Why are the Stormcloaks so angry at the Empire? What does “Skyrim belongs to the Nords” mean? Understand the motivations of each side, and you begin to enter true lore.
The second approach is a bit more meta.
Let’s approach it logically.
If history is any indication, The Elder Scrolls games have a history of offering their players choices.
In Daggerfall, we saw a main storyline with six possible endings, depending upon the player’s choices. Bethesda decided, come the next installment (which is technically Redguard) that they wanted to avoid invalidating the experience that any single player had. Did you give the Totem of Tiber Septim to Mannimarco? Did you give it to Gortwog? The Underking? Uriel Septim?
Whatever your choice was, imagine being told by Bethesda that your choices didn’t actually happen, and that the Totem being given to King Eadwyre is what is canon. Doesn’t that downplay the whole point of choices in a game world like this one?
Bethesda’s response to this conundrum was an elegant (if not controversial) one: Dragonbreaks.
Because of the gravity of the situation in the Iliac Bay and the role of the Numidium, time was literally shattered, which allowed all these outcomes to occur simultaneously.
The Agent granted the Totem to Mannimarco, ensuring his transition from the King of Worms to the God of Worms while simultaneously giving it to the Underking and receiving the Necromancer’s Amulet, giving it to Gortwog and granting the Orsimer people freedom, et cetera.
All the endings occurred, and the result is referred in future games as “The Warp in the West” or “The Miracle of Peace.”
My point is that the end result of the game, particularly the part that offered the most drastic choices, is referred to vaguely. The same happened with the Nerevarine. They defeated Dagoth Ur and then faded into obscurity and rumor. The Champion of Cyrodiil, too; they mantled PELINAL and became the Mad God and that’s the last we hear of them.
Turning back to the Civil War, how might Bethesda refer to it in such a way so as not to invalidate your playthrough or my playthrough? A few answers are likely–they might decline to mention it at all, they might vaguely reference the conflict without naming a victor, or most likely, they’ll say the Civil War ended in a stalemate and both sides lost innumerable casualties.
Playing the middle ground doesn’t ignore that you killed Ulfric or General Tullius. They’ll probably say that both men died in the fighting with little mention of the Last Dragonborn at all.
What we’ll end up with in all likelihood is that the Civil War happened, people died, and the Dragonborn killed Alduin. And that’s it.
In short, the whole “controversy” around the Civil War is a non-issue. No matter what side you take, if you take a side at all, you’re missing the point of Skyrim, of The Elder Scrolls.
All too often, people miss the bigger picture. And that’s what really matters.
4 thoughts on “The Skyrim Civil War: Why it doesn’t matter”
I read the article with my usual expectations and putting on my arrogant face but ended really disappointed. Not in the article or anything but the realization that yeah, in the canon it really doesn’t matter. Bethesda sucks that way. Your choices don’t matter in the bigger picture of the Elder Scrolls lore.
But that’s irrelevant to the arguments on which sides are better. You play your character the way you want and that in the scope of the game world one side is better than the other. It doesn’t really matter what the next game will say happened. The information we have now is what we’re arguing with. And in a way I think the most influential people in the worlds most important events in the past know better than today’s historians what was really going on.
Also the Stormcloaks are better if you were wondering.
Nope, Vormar, you’re wrong. Neither side is better.
But author is wrong too. Thalmor is even worse, cause if they would win we wouldn’t get any new TES games.
Hi there, Vomar and Barmaglott!
Whether your choices matter or not in the “bigger picture” is largely irrelevant. We here at The Tel Mora are proponents of personal canon, wherein your choices make all the difference to your interpretation of the lore, which is the only canon that should matter to the individual. We would also argue that hindsight is 20/20, and historians have a far better understanding of how events unfold than those embroiled within those events. It comes from stepping back and being objective, which is one of the points of the article.
As to the Thalmor, whether they’re “good” or “bad” is also a non-starter, and simply ignores the other point the article made in the first place. If we were all closer to elves in real life, and the storytelling of Skyrim were played from the perspective of the Altmer rather than the Nords, we would be having a discussion about how terrible it is that Talos is worshiped at all. Understanding the frame of reference and the perspective is incredibly important in being objective. This is true for lore and for history. We understand how Hitler thought. Yes, from our moral perspective the man was a nutcase and needed to be stopped, but that doesn’t change the fact that historians don’t refuse to study Hitler simply because he was a bad man. Remember that good and evil are perspectives, and one man’s god is another man’s devil.
Thanks for responding!
Well if we look at it from a purely objective point of view the civil war matters a fuckton.
Ulfric’s and the Stormcloaks viewpoint and understanding of the Empire is he feels betrayed by the empire for them siding with the Thalmor so his motivation is to free the Skyrim from the Tyranny of the empire.
From the empires perspective Ulfric is a traitor that misunderstood that the temporary treaty with the Thalmor is only a ruse so they can buy them time for the next war.
So why is the Civil War important from a lore perspective? Well same reason why the Nord/Dunmer war in Morrowind is important.
The Civil war will have huge ramifications because either Talos will die from a lack of worshippers and if that happens the Nords might either abandon the old ways completely or reject the Imperial divines. Or Talos will be strengthened and possibly the Thalmor would be slaughtered.
To say the civil war doesn’t matter is like saying the Battle of Red Mountain doesn’t matter from a lore perspective, I mean who gives a shit whom kills Nerevar when everyone there is accountable and a traitor for turning against the good Daedra. Who gives a shit if Dagoth Ur is correct because his blight disease is objectively idiotic (it’s the same idioticness as Harkons viewpoint) because everyone will oppose the blight disease.