Are Bretons Boring?

Bretons in Brief

The Bretons are the closest thing that you’ll get to half-elves in The Elder Scrolls. They’re the product of generations of breeding between men and mer in what is now the province of High Rock, and was called the Direnni Hegemony in the middle of the First Era, according to the Pocket Guide to the Empire. This is contradicted a little by The Horse-Folk of Silver-Hoof which says the at the Hegemony was ‘in its death-throes’ in the early sixth century of the of the First Era, although the name might have persisted a little beyond the Direnni Hegemony’s actual rule. Either way, the elves kept human slaves when they arrived, which eventually formed a middle caste between the merish rulers and their human slaves. Over time they became more human, with the book Bretons: Mongrels or Paragons? stating:

The inevitable Half-Elven offspring from these liaisons were not adopted into the families of their Direnni parents, being considered sub-Mer, but were nonetheless often given privileged positions among the subject Nedes. Over time, this led to the establishment of a recognized caste of mixed-blood humans, who were given the name “Bretons” (from the Ehlnofex “beratu,” or “half”). The Breton caste was only allowed to marry humans, so over time their Elven blood became more diluted, and the Nedic appearance predominated.

That dilution continued over time, and the Direnni influence waned, sped up either by active Breton rebellion, or the destruction of Direnni forces at the Battle of Glenumbra Moors. It’s not really clear what happened, but after that event, Bretons ruled most of what would become High Rock. They formed a set of incredibly fractious kingdoms , which has a very contradictory co-existence with the roots of their society in the Direnni. But we’ll get to that.

Why are Bretons Seen as Boring?

The Bretons are seen as boring because they represent a more typical view of Western fantasy than other parts of Tamriel. They have knights orders, originally formed to combat the Direnni if you believe the more self-aggrandising tales, and a “questing culture”, according to several sources. It’s put most succinctly in the Pocket Guide to the Empire, First Edition:

Youths of all professions and trades in High Rock spend their free time in knightly pursuits, real and imagined, performing good deeds and the like for all and sundry, in oft-vain efforts to achieve, one day, a noble status. This “quest-obsession,” more than anything, has served as High Rock’s sense of national identity, a peculiar form of altruism and mutual reliance that binds its people together.

So here we have a tale of knights, questing and chivalry that present a fairly typical portrait of Western fantasy, or at least the stereotypical idea of feudal fantasy, but without any of the colour that would quite make this a take similar to A Song of Ice and Fire. The book The Knightly Orders of High Rock takes this a little further in its description:

First, they provide an acceptably “noble” calling for the excess sons and daughters of the aristocracy. Over time, as trade has made High Rock prosperous, the profession of merchant has become an accepted alternative to feudal lordship for the children of the nobility, but frankly, not every baron’s son has a head for numbers and negotiation. For these spare heirs, there’s always a membership available in the local knightly order.

At a first glance, this seems fairly standard, but there’s a difference here that changes the dynamic. Note that it’s the spare sons here that are becoming the questing knights, not the firstborn as would have happened historically. With High Rock’s prosperity being mercantile, the best sons are committed to be merchants, rather than feudal landowners. However, that’s not an area that’s ever really fully explored in the lore.

I think that’s part of what makes the Bretons boring to many fans. Bretons are presented in ways that are a relative table of Western fantasy traditions, without much elaboration of what those elements are. High Rock is full of scheming politicians, but we don’t hear about many of those schemes. They are detailed in places like TES2: Daggerfall, but it’s taken as accepted background elsewhere and not really detailed. Which is a shame. ESO has been taking pains to try and make these elements a bit more detailed, with books like the Guide to the Daggerfall Covenant, and The Story of Princess Eselde being political propaganda as much as they are anything else. But I’m not sure there’s necessarily the detail that many fans of The Elder Scrolls want from the series.

Metaphysics vs History

Another element to this is that the Elder Scrolls fandom tends to go for the more, shall we say, exotic, grandiose, alien stuff. The questions that a lot of the discussions are about, including this podcast, revolve around the conceptual, world-spanning stuff. Things that are painted with a broad brush. That isn’t to say that there aren’t fans of the political and historical stuff, there definitely are. But many fans are asking “what is” type questions, rather than “what happened” type questions with the lore, and “what is CHIM?” will give you a longer and more intricate answer than “what are the Bretons?” or “what is High Rock?” This podcast has been based on those sorts of questions, because they’re big, and can be answered well, but without the need for much historical context.

A lot about the Bretons requires historical context in order to function; the assassination of King Lysandus of Daggerfall in 3E 403 needs a context to be important, in a way that world-ending threats like blight from the corrupted heart of a god or the reappearance of an apocalypse-causing dragon does not. That historical context requires a lot of digging, and appeals to a different kind of interest and sentiment.

That interest is in the granularity of history, which isn’t always present in TES; there’s talk of a myriad of squabbling kingdoms, but that’s as far as it goes. Unlike with real history, there isn’t necessarily the background of which kingdoms, what the squabble was, what the differences between the antagonists were, and how things changed as a result of events to really pick up on. The political nature of High Rock reminds me of this quote from Terry Pratchett’s Mort:

The horse wheeled, and the vast flat checkerboard of the Sto plain sped underneath them at lightning speed. This was rich country, full of silt and rolling cabbage fields and neat little kingdoms whose boundaries wriggled like snakes as small, formal wars, marriage pacts, complex alliances and the occasional bit of sloppy cartography changed the political shape of the land.

That description could be High Rock. What were those alliances? We have no idea. What wars? Again, no idea. We have the examples of a few, but not the kind of detail that we need to flesh it out to any great degree. The lack of differentiation is an issue here, too; what makes Camlorn different from Evermore, or from Shornhelm? We get very little impression on this, and it needs it to bring about colour, so that the province has depth, in my opinion. While, for other places in Tamriel, having a story is enough to make things interesting, the kind of place the developers want High Rock to be requires history, which it hasn’t had much of, and even if it has, it is hard for fans to pick up on.

Early Installment Syndrome

This is partly, for a lot of fans, High Rock is in the past. It’s been the setting of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, at a point when the series didn’t really have much of an independent identity. Like the Redguards to a degree, the Bretons have had a bit of revisionism throughout their history. Their description in Arena had them noted as being “descended from the Druids of Galen”, which was never mentioned again.

By the time of Daggerfall, the Bretons had their origins set a bit more in stone, although the setting still rests a little uneasily as a conflation of the British and Germanic influences. The fractious kingdoms feel very like the Holy Roman Empire, but the names and overall aesthetic feel closer to British legends more than anything else.

Bretons and the Ehlnofey

British legend isn’t actually a bad jumping off point for discussing the overall origins of the race in-universe, actually. In keeping with the elements of British Isles folklore that seems to have been a design goal for the Bretons, in some ways, there are some elements that differ or diverge from the usual man-mer story. The book Witch Cults of Northern High Rock says this:

The all-female Beldama Wyrd trace their origin to the time Y’ffre transformed himself into the first Ehlnofey (or “Earth Bones”) and established the laws of nature. While this is obviously mere myth, the Beldama Wyrd all fiercely believe they are descendants of the Ehlnofey.

This suggests that the Beldama witches at least consider that they don’t have their origins with the Direnni, but the Ehlnofey, which makes them stand apart from other Bretons. Whether they are somehow still Ehlnofey breeding with Ehlnofey is unclear, but I don’t think so. This would also lend some credence to the idea of the child inheriting the race of the mother, presented in Notes on Racial Phylogeny and Biology. The Beldama Wyrd are all-female, and so in keeping their cultural practices only to the females of their line, it would maintain them as distinct cultural entities, while eventually diluting their Ehlnofey heritage down in the same way that the Bretons overall were created. Maybe something is in that for all Bretons? Or maybe that’s a way for the ESO team to tie in the Druids of Galen that little bit more?

I think this is possibly something that is also aimed at in ESO’s High Rock development more generally; the Mongrels or Paragons book notes that the word “Breton” comes from Ehlnofex. We don’t know precisely what language the Direnni spoke when they first settled in High Rock, but if they had already devolved into using Aldmeris, why is “beratu” derived from Ehlnofex, unless they had descent directly from the Ehlnofey on some level? If that’s the case, then the Bretons not only have merish blood, but also are closer to the Ehlnofey than others. But I’m not sure that’s actually too likely, particularly if we take it that giants are a strain of being closer to what the Ehlnofey were. Both giants and the Altmer (who claim to be the closest to the Aldmer) are taller than the Bretons, which makes me think this is actually a linguistic quirk more than anything else.

Bretons and the Direnni

The initial relations with the elves are a little muddy, too. Holidays of the Iliac Bay states “[t]he Bretons have been in Tamriel since before recorded history”, which implies that the Direnni arrived, found them there and enslaved them. This contradicted by both editions of the Pocket Guide to the Empire, in different ways. The First Edition suggests that:

“the ‘Manmeri’ beyond the Reach were, in fact, descended from human slaves taken during the Elven destruction of Saarthal.”

This is apparently the reasoning of the Nords from their First Era empire, who made contact as part of their conquest of High Rock in general. I think this is quite unlikely, and a symptom of the generally anti-merish sentiment that pervades the First Edition of the Pocket Guide. The third edition, which is actively trying to have a less “propagandistic tone” from the first, says this:

There is evidence that early beast men of one variety or another may have been the original inhabitants of High Rock, but the Aldmer coming from Summerset Isle were the first to settle and form permanent communities. The early Nedic people who arrived next were stumbling upon a highly sophisticated culture, and were quickly overwhelmed and absorbed.

This goes along with the sort of history that Father of the Niben promotes, that beastfolk are the aboriginal inhabitants of Tamriel, and then the elves arrived, before men. It’s also kind of interesting in that it’s a reverse-invasion narrative; the men arrive, find a more established culture and are subdued. That’s very different to the usual story of invasions. In this world, I can’t remember any examples of this happening outside of the earlier histories of China (I could be wrong there, please correct me if so!). It’s also not a story that the first edition would have contained; the authors of the first edition wouldn’t have considered that mer would simply defeat men who arrived, they would have needed to be actively subdued by an act of treachery, like the Night of Tears. However, even here I don’t think that was quite the case. The book Skyreach Explorer says this about the Nedes:

I think that the overall skill and craftsmanship demonstrated in the stonework that surrounds us clearly shows that the Nedes were much more than war-loving savages. I’m sorry, Reginus, but I have to record it as I see it. The architecture demonstrates that they treated stonework and masonry as an art form. The carvings are more than simple decoration. They tell a story of a proud and powerful people, of a culture reaching for the stars that was then cut short by jealous invaders.

While the book’s author is possibly a little too eager to paint the Nedes as advanced in order to promote her own theories, I find it hard to believe that a culture that arrived second to High Rock would have created distinct architecture if the story from the third edition of the Pocket Guide is true in its entirety. I think it more likely that the Direnni are the ones who arrived later, possibly repurposing some Nedic structures to sort their own desires. The word “conquer” is used in the Mongrels or Paragons? Book, which I think is probably the closest we’ll get to the truth of what happened.

The Disappearance of the Direnni

However, the Direnni eventually ceased to be the ruling class, and the Bretons became their own masters. Exactly how this happened isn’t clear. Some texts claim that there was an active rebellion against the Direnni, like Knightly Orders of High Rock, which traces the origin of these orders to the families who overthrew the Direnni, while others claim that the Direnni simply declined in numbers, particularly following the Battle of Glenumbra Moors. I’m inclined to believe the latter, particularly as stated in the Breton Crafting Motif notes state that that their structure “hearkens back to the rank-obsessed Direnni Hegemony”, meaning that there was no violent overthrow. Revolutions tend to reinvent structures as well as who is at the head of them, and as feudalism isn’t hugely common in Tamriel, I don’t see where else the Bretons would have got it from.

Merish Influence & Doublethink

The current Breton culture claims to look down on all things elven, because they supposedly overthrew the Direnni. This has brought about not least a little bit of tension and cognitive dissonance among the Bretons. Mongrels or Paragons says this:

The Breton nobles, who had been forced to differentiate themselves from the Direnni part of their heritage, justified their new ascension by distancing themselves from Elves and everything Elven—ironically so, as the Elven blood ran strongest in the older noble families.

There is also some lingering merishness in their pantheon, as Sheor, the “Bad Man” of Breton religion, is a clear bastardisation of Shor, the Nordic representation of Lorkhan.

The fractiousness of the Breton kingdoms is probably also linked to the Direnni; the squabbling over who owns what is, to me anyway, a remnant of an initial crisis of authority following the demise of the Direnni. With everyone making claims based on rank and hierarchy but with no final arbiter, fractured kingdoms strikes me as the logical fallout of this. The first edition Pocket Guide to the Empire says this:

During the First Empire, it was incorporated as one of the Holds of Skyrim, and many Nords settled in its rolling hills and pleasant valleys. But they paid a terrible price during the Dissolution of Skyrim’s Empire; the Aldmeri retook the Western Reach with a vengeance, slaughtering the Nord colonists to a man; precious little Nord blood flows in the veins of today’s Reachmen. As a hedge against future incursions from Skyrim, the Aldmeri fashioned the Western Reach into an impregnable bastion. Thus, the Western Reach remained under Elven rule the longest of any part of High Rock, and the legacy of this dark sojourn can still be seen today.

Overlooking the fairly xenophobic tone of this passage, and building on the idea of a gradual Direnni decline, I think it’s most likely that merish control receded from High Rock in fits and starts, leaving them with a patchwork of governance.

Bretons & The Empire(s)

Having said that, High Rock has been the cradle of the Septim empire, in some ways. It was part of the first Tamrielic empire thanks to the actions of Bangkorai soldiers against the Grey Host, and has been a mostly loyal part of the Empires since then.

It has particular links with the Third Empire, though. High Rock claims Alcaire as the birthplace of Tiber Septim, and the book The Fall of the Usurper claims that every ruler of the Septim dynasty until Cephorus Septim II, more than 200 years after Tiber’s conquests, was either a Breton or spent much of their youth in High Rock. It’s also noted as the wealthiest province of the Empire, and so should be pretty key to the Empire’s prosperity, at least in places like Wayrest and the like. However, High Rock initially joined with Potema in the War of the Red Diamond, showing that the fractiousness of the Bretons is pretty constant.

Hope this has been a reasonable illustration of why Bretons potentially were boring, but are becoming less so; there’s a fair amount of excavation of their concept(s) that can still be undergone in order to give them more depth. I’d also personally like some more of the historical depth, but appreciate that’s much more work for developers!

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