Swimming around in the vast sea of the Elder Scrolls fandom, many of us (especially those who come from the more sheltered regions of Lore study, such as this subreddit or the Imperial Library forums) will have noticed a virulently rabid hate for the creation of one particular (former) developer, Michael Kirkbride (often simply referred to as MK), in more “casual” circles.
Some people are baffled by this, as MK’s continued contributions to the lore are still referenced and acknowledged even in recent titles such as Skyrim (which references The Seven Fights of the Aldudagga and The Many-Headed Talos, among others), and ESO, whose Kirkbridean lore inclusions are too many to count. So why the continuous denial of his involvement and contribution?
One recent post on the subject in the TES lore subreddit sparked an interesting discussion, and made me think quite a bit, so I would like to share my two cents with the lore community about this very common sentiment among a certain subsection of our fandom.
What I’m going to argue here is that the hatred is not directed at the person of MK in particular, but at the structure of Elder Scrolls lore itself, of which MK is simply the most visible and vocal exponent.
DISCLAIMER BEFORE I START: Please note that in this essay I’m not in any way, shape or form claiming that refusal to acknowledge MK’s contributions to the lore or the nature of TES lore is somehow stupid or lazy, or that the people who do so are somehow inferior to people who don’t. The term “casual” will be used in this essay with no negative connotations whatsoever, to mean “people not involved in the deeper aspects of the lore”.
What sets TES lore apart from other lore?
The first question we have to ask is how does Elder Scrolls lore set itself apart from other franchises’ lore?
Well, as pointed out numerous times, TES lore is different in that the concept of canon is explicitly and unceremoniously tossed out of the window. This is confirmed not only by MK, but by devs directly involved with the games, such as Lawrence Schick.
The narrative structure of The Elder Scrolls, with its central focus on the literary device of the unreliable narrator, as well as the nature of the Elder Scrolls universe itself, with its highly malleable and blurry reality (think of CHIM, kalpas, mythopoeia…), renders a traditional conception of Canon with definite and unambiguous facts unworkable.
Not only that, but becoming well-versed in the lore requires significantly more and harder work than, I would say, most other fictional franchises out there, which brings me to the heart of the problem: the betrayal of very deeply seated expectations.
The newcomer’s perspective
Most, if not all, Elder Scrolls fans, especially those who were introduced to the series after Morrowind, come from other fantasy fandoms. Whether it be Tolkien, Harry Potter, Dragon Age, or, heck, even Star Wars or Star Trek, most are used to a more “traditional” way of approaching the intricacies of lore and canon.
An explanation which is often bandied about is that MK/deep lore haters either can’t or won’t handle the admittedly very weird stuff found in it, and want the Elder Scrolls world to be yet another generic D&D clone RPG with vaguely Tolkienian characteristics. While I agree that such an attitude plays a strong part in the refusal to acknowledge the deeper parts of the lore, I think the underlying motivations are not what most people think.
I personally think that the issue springs out of perceived elitism in the deep lore community; a perception which is, alas, all too often justified. The problem is not that new players or newly lore-interested players want Elder Scrolls lore to be banal and clichéd, it’s the fact that this lore is often presented to them in a way which is almost deliberately obscure and complicated.
In most other fantasy or sci-fi franchises, what you see in the games/books/films is all there is. The lore is all there, and it is ready for consumption. Whether it’s in the dialogue, in a codex, in a wiki or in a companion book, the information you receive is complete and unambiguous, with the exception of a few mysteries peppered here and there to make it more interesting. This is an expectation which has been drilled into us by years and years of entertainment.
Want to know exactly what an Archdemon is in Dragon Age lore? Here. Simple.
But this expectation is demolished as soon as you look a bit under the surface of the TES universe, and it’s easy to see how someone coming in with that kind of expectations might feel excluded or even mocked by the usual response the lore community gives to any question.
When a newcomer to the lore asks even a “simple” question, such as “how was Nirn created?”, they expect to be referred to a wiki page they can read in five minutes and that will give them a clear answer, not to be told to read ten wildly contradictory texts and six fifty-page long lore essays by Loremaster X and Y that argue on the finer points of how the Yokudan creation myth can be harmonised with the Anuad, or who the Observer was in the Enantiomorphic conflict between Anu and Padomay.
To be a beginner to TES lore is to be thrust into a world where even facts which would be pretty clear-cut in any other franchise are the subject of fiercely heated debate.
In short: where other lores merely require reading, TES lore requires scholarship.
Researching TES lore is an exercise in constant frustration and uncertainty. If you come in expecting clear answers, you’re going to be disappointed. TES is a bit too much like real life for some people’s tastes.
And, as already mentioned above, most of the deep lore stuff is weird as hell, and, crucially, this weirdness is not visible in the games. Coming from a Skyrim playthrough, your expectations are for Nords to be classic Fantasy Vikings, and Dwemer to be classic Tolkien dwarves, complete with axe and Scottish accents, who somehow mysteriously disappeared.
What you don’t expect is Nords lining their shields with wasabi paste so that they can bite into them in order to avoid the exhilarating effects of sky whale exhalations, or Dwarves being a race of nihilistic sound engineers hell-bent on achieving transcendence by erasing reality itself through the denial of its most basic logical principles, a reality which is, incidentally, the dream of a self-destructive mind intent on elaborating a profound trauma and which resets every so often by being swallowed whole by a dragon-like deity. Oh and by the way, dragons are living time machines created from the shards of the soul of an insane god whose comatose, infinitely large body can be seen hanging in the sky.
And this is just the simpler stuff.
When presented with such a monumental and confusing work, coupled with the ease and thoughtlessness with which many in the lore community use obscure terms like CHIM, Enantiomorph, Mantling, Dreamsleeve etc., one can be excused if their first instinct is to pooh-pooh the whole thing and insist on going back to a world where the Aedra are the Gods, the Daedra are the Demons, and Akavir is Fantasy Japan.
Coupled with this is the often very obscure and I would say even obtuse way in which MK and other deep lore exponents present said lore, and their refusal to disambiguate any points of it.
We in the deep lore community have learned to relish and enjoy the intricacies of the lore and the often long and hard work required to disentangle (or at least interpret) it, but it’s not difficult to see how someone might take this as simply an overly sophisticated way of bullshitting oneself out of an answer.
In short, I think that the denial of MK’s involvement in the lore and the “canonicity” of deep lore itself stems from a betrayal of expectations with regard to the availability of clear and unambiguous answers, coupled with the “shock therapy” introduction to the deeper aspects of TES lore that is often administered to unwitting newcomers.
The good news is, the deep lore has never been more accessible than it is now.
Excellent introductory podcasts like The Elder Lore Podcast, and more advanced ones like Written in Uncertainty, together with incredibly useful resources such as The New Whirling School (which hasn’t been updated in a while. RottenDeadite, knock if you’re still there!), or the venerable How to Become a Lore Buff, have made the task to slowly getting into the metaphysical weirdness of TES a lot easier than it was even as far as ten years ago.
What I would suggest when debating a deep lore hater is rather than confronting them with elitist cries of how much better and interesting the TES universe is with the deep lore included, acknowledge their legitimate concerns and gently steer them towards one of these resources, so that they too can learn to enjoy the weird, weird stuff that makes TES lore so different and fascinating.
And if they still prefer to have a “normal” fantasy universe, don’t insist. It’s their C0DA, and it’s as valid as yours.
This article first appeared in r/teslore
“The Chimer – Tribunal’s Conspiracy” | Photo by Isugi, DeviantArt.