Hello and welcome to Written in Uncertainty, an Elder Scrolls podcast sat firmly in the Grey Maybe of the series universe. The aim of this podcast is to get down into the guts of some difficult questions in The Elder Scrolls, and look at where all the various possible answers come from. This will be covering a range of metaphysical concepts present in the series, as well as particularly contentious events or characters within the series.
However, I’d like to begin by discussing my perspective on the lore, and what that means for how I’ll be talking about it in the podcasts. This will involve two things: a narrative device called the Unreliable Narrator, and discussion of a fairly contentious topic in The Elder Scrolls, that of series canon.
The Unreliable Narrator
At its base, the Unreliable Narrator is the idea that the person or thing telling you a story is not to be trusted. There are some very big examples of this in literature, from Frankenstein, The Catcher in the Rye and A Clockwork Orange. However, the ones that spring to mind for me are Life of Pi and Fight Club.
In Life of Pi, the main character is telling a story to the author, a tale about how he was cast adrift in a lifeboat with a number of zoo animals for many months, most particularly a male Bengal tiger. Two insurance reps ask him about this, and find it unbelievable. He then relates a similar narrative, with most animals replaced by people, and no tiger or tiger replacement. The insurers ultimately choose to believe the story about the animals because it’s a better story, not necessarily because it’s the truer one. Hold on to that thought, it’ll be important later.
Either way, it’s possible that we never get the full truth out of Pi, and we have no way of telling what the truth is from the book we have.
Fight Club tells of a man who is dissatisfied with his life and meets a man in an airport and starts to live with him after his apartment blows up. The pair start an illegal fighting ring, which the narrator’s friend transforms into a series of violent anarchist groups which start to tear down society because its members feel they have no place in the world. The narrator becomes horrified and tries to stop it all. However, at the climax of the story we learn that the narrator and his friend are actually the same person, who is at the same time setting up these groups and trying to stop them.
In both of these stories, we can’t entirely trust our primary source of information about the story. In The Elder Scrolls, the unreliable narrator is present in that the background texts we are given are presented from an in-universe perspective, with named authors who have their own potentially limited perspectives on what they’re talking about. Some texts totally contradict each other. We never get presented with information that is necessarily absolutely true, like we are in the Dragon Age franchise, for example.
That means that there’s always room for interpretation, which, in my opinion, is what makes the lore of TES so engaging and enjoyable. It also means that knowing the source for something is important, as the author or speaker may have biases or a lack of information, which we can try to counterbalance if we know where it comes from.
For these podcasts, I’ll try to flag the sources for these ideas, both inside TES universe and out. I’ll occasionally be using sources outside the universe in order to frame the texts better, fill in any gaps, and bring in some more information which can potentially enhance our understanding of a particular idea and where it comes from.
And now on to the next point of discussion, one that’s fairly contentious within the TES lore community, that of canon and canonicity.
Quick note to clarify here, when I say “texts”, I mean anything that gives us information about something, not just books. A computer game is a text, a film is a text, an audio recording is a text etc.
A canon is a series of texts that are taken as as acceptable sources of information about a thing. The term usually gets used most when talking about religious texts or elements of a particular fictional universe. Canon texts are those sources that are deemed to be official or true, in whatever context that truth is relevant.
Canoncity also gets applied to the universe of The Elder Scrolls, typically to refer to things or events that have been approved by Bethesda. However, Bethesda has always provided us with lore information in a way that is intentionally uncertain and incomplete. Given such a context, having a strict canon of material that provides authoritative information isn’t possible without commentary from the series creators, which Bethesda have generally been very reluctant to give, and some, like Elder Scrolls Online Loremaster Lawrence Shick, have said outright that there’s not necessarily an objective reality behind events in Tamriel.
In Elder Scrolls, all lore is delivered not from on high by revelation, but from people who live their lives in the game, in the world of the game, and based on their beliefs… What this means, of course, is that people have different viewpoints – these viewpoints sometimes contradict each other, and so sometimes we have players saying “alright, this person believes that, and that person believes this other thing, but which one’s the real thing?” Well… it’s not a world like ours. In a world like ours, where you can sort of trust in science and say “well yes, people have different beliefs but I know there is an objective reality.” This is a world of myth. This is a world where reality is actually changeable, where the Divines can change not only what happens going forward, but what has happened in the past. So, you know, the idea there is an objective reality behind all these different people’s opinions is not necessarily the case in the world of Tamriel. So listen to what all these different people have to say, make up your own mind, make up your own beliefs about what happened and you’re as liable – since you’re playing in their world and you’re playing a character in their world – what you think happened is as legitimate as what that NPC thinks.
We can potentially have “canon sources”, in the sense of texts that are from Bethesda, and will be referenced as possible truth in future publications. These don’t necessarily include true information, but define the possible universe of discussion. Such sources include the games, the novels and any online content that has an impact on the lore, like the ESO Loremaster’s archives. However, even here TES is a little fuzzy. Because of the Unreliable Narrator, and the way in which a game series like TES is developed, previously accepted texts could be wrong, or texts previously thought to contain ridiculous information could become more well-supported as new material is written for the games.
We also have a variety of texts written from both in-universe and out-of-universe perspectives by developers and ex-developers, the most prolific of whom has been Michael Kirkbride, also called MK the ‘the Elk’ in parts of the lore community. MK was an employee of Bethesda while the core of the series’ lore was being established during The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguardand The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, but he left before Morrowind’s release and has since worked as an independent contractor, for Oblivion and Skyrim, and probably ESO, although I’m not sure there. He’s also written a lot of stuff about the more obscure bits of TES lore since leaving, some of which are a little at odds with the general tone of the series. Some of this has been referenced in the games, some of it hasn’t. As a result, there’s been lots of arguments in the community about how much of these texts should be taken as canon sources of lore, or disregarded.
My View on Canon
I don’t think canon itself matters. What matters to me is how well particular texts fit with what we already know (or think we know) about the world of TES, not where it comes from as such, and that’s how I’ll be evaluating things. I’ll also be highlighting where the points I’ll be making come from, and discussing my opinion on the sources at times. If you don’t think they come from valid sources, feel free to disagree with me, and I look forward to hearing your opinion in the comments or the Discord server.
As a result, I’m not so concerned about whether things are true or false, I don’t think that we can always get there in TES, but I’m interested in weak or defensible arguments, asking questions like, “does it fit with what we already know?” “what texts support the interpretation?” That sort of thing. Remember the idea earlier of what makes the better story? That’s kind of what I’m aiming at, in the sense of what makes the most coherent and interesting overall narrative.
Check out the show’s website: https://www.writteninuncertainty.com
Talk TES lore with other fans at the Written in Uncertainty Discord: https://discord.gg/Jc3r99w
Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Keep in touch on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aramithius
Watch Written in Uncertainty videos: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCzQ9_UWzSiPvTcmcPmnE-hg
Chat live during Elder Scrolls lore streams: https://www.twitch.tv/aramithius
Support the show, get early access to all Written in Uncertainty content: https://www.patreon.com/writteninuncertainty
Drop me a tip: https://www.ko-fi.com/aramithius
Check out the rest of the Robots Radio Network: https://www.robotsradio.net
Send in a voice message: https://anchor.fm/written-in-uncertainty/message