Why are Elder Scrolls Protagonists Always Prisoners?

As usual, the disclaimer before we kick off. Just to remind everyone that this is my own understanding of the ideas I’m talking about and not necessarily the whole truth of the matter, although I’ll do my best to bring in other viewpoints as we go through. If you have any other ideas, I’d absolutely love to hear them. Please leave comments below, or join the conversation at the Written in Uncertainty Discord server.

Where does the idea of the Prisoner come from?

Ever since The Elder Scrolls: Arena we have had the protagonists in the Elder Scrolls games being prisoners to various degrees. I think there’s a few exceptions in the spin-offs, and you can argue that the start in The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall isn’t really a prisoner because they start off in a cave. But I seem to remember they have a slightly more definite backstory to the prisoner in Daggerfall at the start is someone who has been a prisoner in the past.

But why is this particular thing important? This is because you have Prisoners who become Heroes and Heroes have a particularly important role within the cosmos and the metaphysics of The Elder Scrolls. There’s a beautiful quote that I think started all this off, in The Elder Scrolls III, the game starts with this line:

Each Event is preceded by Prophecy. But without the Hero, there is no Event.

This has several of implications for precisely what the Hero is, what the Hero does, and how they function with relation to Prophecy, and by extension, the games. The idea of the Prisoner as a mythical figure, as an important type of character within The Elder Scrolls universe has been touched on at some parts in the games, very explicitly in the Clockwork City storyline in The Elder Scrolls Online, which has solidified some of the ideas that fans have been bouncing around for a few years about what the Prisoner is and how it works. I’d also like to extend my thanks to IceFireWarden or Al-Hatoor, depending on where and when you’ve known him for his absolutely brilliant text, Anuvanna’si – Heroes, Prisoners and the Godhead with a Thousand Faces. He’s collated the vast majority of stuff relating to the Prisoner within the Elder Scrolls universe, what it means how it fits together in a marvellous 56 page document and put forward a very convincing case about what the hero is in the Hero’s role within the Aurbis. I’ll be touching on some of his ideas as we go through this, I don’t agree with him on all the particulars, as I’ve noted here.

The Prisoner as Game Design

On one level, the Prisoner started off as a game design choice; it makes the beginning of a game very, very easy to micromanage and set up tutorials, as a prison is by its nature, a closed environment. So you’ve got no real artificial reason for limiting what the player character can do. If they’re already in a prison, you’ve got all the constraints you need. So it’s very easy to run through tutorial. teaching someone how to move, how to jump, how to pick things up, how you use them etc, because a prison is such a self-contained environment. It’s since evolved into something of a tradition within The Elder Scrolls; it’s the way that the majority of games have introduced things since 2002, with The Elder Scrolls III. However, there’s also been coincidences to go alongside that which have kind of hinted at that sort of a setup. The reason for that if you think about the exception that we’ve got the Daggerfall start, a cave is very similar in terms of how restricted you are in comparison to the outside world; you can still only really go one way, you will have a very few limited things that you can do, and there’s not generally going to be many people around in the wake of a shipwreck. So it was done for entirely the same reasons.

This is a definite person, and not a Prisoner.

From a story-writing perspective, it also means that there’s no need for a backstory, you have an environment where someone is entirely cut off from anything, they are a totally blank slate that can then be expanded on as the players want. They can be used however the player sees fit without the game developer imposing their own views on what sort of a character the protagonist is going to be. That may be a weakness or a strength, depending on your perspective on what a role playing game is. If you look at something like the Witcher series that’s got a defined protagonist with a definite viewpoint which implies how they should be played and written; their reactions are woven into the narrative of the game. But with the Elder Scrolls, it’s always been Make Your Own Adventure, make your own person, and the ability to have a prisoner as a totally blank slate is something that serves The Elder Scrolls‘ purpose very well.

Prisoners and Heroes

We also have the notion that a prisoner can become a Hero. If you look at the Zurin Arctus quote that I started us off with, it’s a capital H “Hero”, it’s a Hero who determines something, it’s the sense of the Hero makes the Event. Without the Hero, there is no Event; it determines the ultimate outcome of that event, and whether the Event itself happens at all. It is a way of making something that’s possible into the real. We have a quote from Sotha Sil in The Elder Scrolls Online, saying that, “The Prisoner wields great power, making reality of metaphor.” That’s absolutely what’s going on here. When we talk about the Hero creating the Event, it’s making a possibility into a certainty, or at least something concrete; the idea of linking prisoners with certainty is something that we absolutely shouldn’t be doing at this stage.

Prisoners are Free

Part of the power of the Prisoner, why you have Prisoners that become Heroes, is because you have Prisoners as things without anything really constraining them. That seems paradoxical, but bear with me.

You have a Prisoner who starts with nothing, they have nothing to lose, and therefore they can do or be anything without consequence. If we think back to last time, we were talking about radical freedom and the Existentialist notion that

Tyler Durden is definitely about understanding freedom and imprisonment. In more ways than one.

what’s actually constraining you from jumping off a cliff or clubbing the person nearest to you with whatever you’ve got in your hand is just social convention and your own conscience. If you have a Prisoner who is entirely divorced from any sort of social context, which all the characters in The Elder Scrolls are, then it’s just down to their own sense of what they want to do, how they understand the world. They are self-creations, in that sense, who do what they want, unlimited by anything around them. This is similar to how Tyler Durden presents his philosophy in Fight Club; the idea of hitting bottom before you can rebuild yourself is very similar to this idea. It’s the idea of you break yourself, tear everything that matters away, and you find out what the core of you is, and then you can start rebuilding, constructing your reality into what you want.

Prisoners Understand Limitation & Break Causality

To move on to exactly what Prisoner is, the Prisoner is a thing that inherently understands imprisonment and limitation, and sees beyond that we have a great definition or the Prisoner within The Elder Scrolls Online from Sotha Sil, who says:

“The Prisoner must apprehend two critical insights. First, they must face the reality of their imprisonment. They must see the determinative walls – the chains of causality that bind them to their course…
“The Prisoner must see the door to their cell. They must gaze through the bars and perceive that which exists beyond causality. Beyond time. Only then can they escape.”

That’s going beyond even radical freedom, because with radical freedom you’re still bound by the laws of physics and causality. There’s been a somewhat interesting relation with causality and philosophy; throughout philosophy’s development, there’s been debate about what exactly causality is, is it necessary, how are things linked together in terms of an event chain, and some of the more modern philosophers, starting with David Hume in the 18th century, but has moved beyond that most explicitly with Giles Deleuze, who is essentially said that empiricism (that is the study of how events happened in the world, and what we based the scientific method on) is “the science of imagination”, because Deleuze is taking Hume’s idea that you can’t necessarily say that just because, for example, a billiard ball hits another billiard ball, that second billiard ball will necessarily move. There may be other constraints that we’re not aware of that they stop it, or we may not understand the basic laws governing it. So we can’t determine causality as a necessary thing. Deleuze moves beyond that, and says that what we understand as causality is based on our own experience; all lived experience before each event determines how we understand everything fitting together, which leads him to call empiricism “the science of imagination”. He’s saying that if you start looking at how things fit together, you have to imagine how events going to turn out and how causality is going to unfold, because you don’t know that it’s necessarily going to be the case.

This kind of works, if you think about how athletes and snooker players, for example, see things: they visualise how they see things are going to turn out and plan and make their reality out of that, which is what’s going on here with the Prisoner. They are seeing or existing beyond time beyond causality. They’re saying, “this is my situation, I refuse to accept it, I will change my situation because I have no connection to my context, I have no connection to the reality in which I find myself so I can remake it into absolutely anything.” So from this, we have the idea that the Prisoner can be anything, can do anything, in some senses.

Prisoners and CHIM

Where else have we heard that sort of language before? The ability to reshape reality to define it as they wish? That’s very similar to CHIM, and has various links to the Tower that CHIM has as its central realisation.

Michael Kirkbride talks about the way that the constellations the Thief and the Tower interact in a particular part of Vehk’s Teaching. The way that he talks is this:

The Thief is another metaphorical absolute; in this case, he represents the “taking of the Tower” or, and sometimes more importantly, the “taking” of the Tower’s secret.

What is the Tower’s secret?

How to permanently exist beyond duplexity, antithesis, or trouble…

Another part goes a little further and says:

One that knows CHIM observes the Tower without fear. Moreso: he resides within.

Being within the Tower is how a Prisoner can in theory start. If we’re thinking about this on a metaphysical level, they are imprisoned in a place that is a tower, it as a strong thing to hold things that are worth looking away, and the Thief which is potentially the most common role of the proagonist within the Elder Scrolls, also also linked to the Tower and getting to the tower and taking the Tower’s secret.

Just to pick up on the main point here in the biggest implication of the lot, does that mean that the Prisoner and therefore every Elder Scrolls protagonist in series has CHIM? You can certainly make that argument because you can say that the Prisoner must reside within the Tower to start with and will then go beyond. There’s the similar breaking of chains, breaking of causality going beyond limits that is part of CHIM (particularly the Psijic Endeavor in my reading), but I don’t really think the Prisoner connects to that.

As much as we have talk of the Prisoners seeing beyond Mundus and thereby determining their own destiny because they’re not connected to causality, the Prisoner feels far too connected to Mundus for that to be something that I think is linked to the concept, it’s possible that the Prisoner is an indeterminate state that being locked in the Tower in a metaphysical sense, and then realising the stuff beyond the Tower and reaching beyond it to the realisation that the Tower is the self, which is the central realisation of CHIM, which I discuss more here.

In order to reach that realisation, you need to start from the Tower, and then you start to make another kind of destiny. If you become a Hero, it’s possible that the Prisoner could achieve CHIM or is in a better place to achieve CHIM, but I’m not sure that every Elder Scrolls protagonist therefore has CHIM. I know there are some disagree with me on that one, and I entirely understand how you can come to that kind of conclusion, because the relations of very, very similar I kind of think of it in the sense of the difference between Bodhisattva and a Buddha, if I can go there. Both can achieve the Enlightenment that comes with understanding the universe, but the Bodhisattva puts it off to stay behind within the circle of reincarnation to teach others how to achieve enlightenment. I don’t think there’s any particular prescription for a Buddha to particularly stay behind; as much as they probably won’t seek out death, once they die, they will then achieve Nirvana and be removed from the cycle whereas the Bodhisattva explicitly remains within the material in order to help others achieve enlightenment. Which also now I think about it sounds very similar to why Lorkhan fails at CHIM in his creation of the Mundus: to allow others to transcend, which is pretty much the Bodhisattva role.

I’m sure there’s some irony in the Tribune that wants to make everything ordered desperately want uncertainty. But I think that’s for another time.

I think the Prisoner fits that particular archetype, because they can potentially see Tower that “I” and say, “Well, no, this is just me, and I’m going to do what I will”, rather than reaching the full realization of CHIM that is “I am the universe and can do anything”. That being said, the Prisoner still can in theory do anything; we have the idea of a Hero creating the Event, and that means that they decide how the event goes. This is similar to the observer role within an enantiomorph. One of the biggest metaphors for how the enantiomorph works is the way that quantum superpositions, are resolved; the observer collapses the waveform and says, the superpositions are going to be one thing or another, depending on their observation. We also have a Sotha Sil’s words that “maybe” is the word he craves above all else. The Prisoner is the maybe, is the uncertain element, because they can do anything.

Heroes, Names and Prophecy

Doing is really quite central to how I understand the Prisoner working, particularly as Prisoners become Heroes, so I’m going to transition now is talking about how the hero works. The Hero to my mind is a thing that does, it’s not a thing that is. Certainly that’s true in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, but I think that’s still potentially the case for an awful lot of other things as well. The Hero of Kvatch is another big example of this , because they’re not chosen. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim breaks this formula little, because they are the chosen one, in that you are definitely the Last Dragonborn, and will do this that and the other. Or maybe it’s that you can do this that and the other; if I remember Arngeir’s dialogue right, he talks about how the Dragonborn is separate from the way of the Voice and is connected a bit more to Akatosh and has their own separate destiny. This is a way of saying, “you will not do something the way that we know it’s done, it’s still What are you going to do”. There’s still that element of maybe about it.

The core idea of this for me, for the Hero, is that the Hero is something that does, it’s not something that is, and that potential explains why each Hero is always referred to as a title
and not a name: because it’s not a person, it’s a role. The Nerevarine is the person who defeats Dagoth Ur and fulfills all the various prophecies. The Last Dragonborn is the one who appears when you’ve got various prophecies coming true according to the Book of Dragonborn. So even when you have got pre-prescribed things happening, they’re just things to be done. Or there are people who will do certain things, you can then choose to do those things, and then become the hero. This turns the maybe into the is, in that you could be this thing and then are that thing because you are doing a particular series of actions which something that’s called the Nervarine, or the Last Dragonborn, or whatever is said to have done.

Heroes and Histories

We also have an interesting idea that kind of come up when people try and work out whether the protagonists in The Elder Scrolls games have an actual history.

I’ve seen this most commonly when people try and look at what the Last Dragonborn’s meant to be when talking about their past in The Elder Scrolls V, and the options you get are fundamentally contradictory. You can say that you never knew your parents, or you did, in the Dawnguard questline, as well as why you were crossing the border in the Cidhna Mine quest. You can give any of those answers. The game doesn’t make you choose any particular one because you can choose your own background. The Prisoner can be anything The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind takes this a little further. You are openly accused of being fake in the course of main questline, of being an Imperial plant and spy. You kind of are, but you are you actually the Nerevarine, and you’ve been getting these visions from someone claiming to be Azura. Whether you actually are, the choice is yours.

When speaking with Dagoth Ur, you get asked What are you going to do with the tools, and who you are. You can give any answer, ranging from “I am Nerevar”, “I am no one” or “I’m doing this all for my own gain.” And he doesn’t question you on any of it. He doesn’t say, “no, you must be Nerevar, because you are here before me with the Tools”, or “I feel it within you, and you have Moon-and-Star” etc. It doesn’t say “No, you’re wrong” to any of those points. You can be whatever, so long as you go through the motions of the quest. So long as you do the things that that the Nerevarine does you are functionally the Nerevarine. The Hero is
that sort of an archetype: they are always the creator of the Event and we don’t really need to know that much more about them, which is also potentially a reason why they fade from Tamriel after they fulfill their purpose.

Heroes as Scribes

One of the comments that Michael Kirkbride has made on the forums talking about how he sees the hero functioning relative to the Elder Scrolls themselves and within what the Elder Scrolls are, we have this quote:

Until a prophecy is fulfilled, the true contents of an Elder Scoll are malleable, hazy, uncertain. Only by the Hero’s action does it become True. The Hero is literally the scribe of the next Elder Scroll, the one in which the prophecy has been fulfilled into a fixed point, negating its precursor.

So you have the Hero as the scribe of the Elder Scrolls, it’s resolving the uncertainty that is an Elder Scroll into something definite, into something true. They are making reality into a particular way, and thereby writing an Elder Scroll, making it into those absolutely indelible historical records that they become once the events they described come to pass.

Are the Heroes “Meant” to be Heroes?

Now back to that little thought I had on predestination and freedom that The Elder Scrolls Online drops in with us. That’s in the text Chaotic Creatia: The Azure Plasm, which has this interesting little nugget at the end of it:

Such are the facts. What follows is speculation, born of conversations with the Sojourner during his infrequent and unpredictable visits. His theory is that the Soul Shriven’s bodies are flawed because they have lost the focusing principle of their Anuic souls, so their vestiges are imperfect patterns. I concurred that this was likely, and then proposed the theoretical possibility of a Soul Shriven who, despite having lost his or her soul, possessed some other intrinsic Anuic aspect. This shall-we-say “paragon” Soul Shriven would form an unflawed body in Coldharbour that was a perfect duplicate of the body worn in Mundus. In fact, if this paragon bore a sufficiently high Anuic valence, upon contact with Padomaic creatia its body would form almost instantaneously.

The Sojourner scoffed at my theory, but seemed taken with the idea nonetheless. He went on to speculate that if such a thing were possible, it would probably occur in a situation where the Mundus was in existential jeopardy. In that case the Heart of Nirn would spontaneously generate such “paragon” individuals as a way of defending itself from destruction, in a manner analogous to the way the mortal body fights off infection.

This sounds very like how the Vestige is formed. I think the purpose of this text, or at least the conclusion that we can very easily draw from this text is that the Vestige is a paragon Soul Shriven, that they’re intended to be that thing which saves Mundus from existential jeopardy. However, the question that I’m wrestling with at this point is whether we can say that Heroes as a whole are created in a similar way. Can you then throw together those different types of creatia and say that this is the thing that will save Mundus from its existential jeopardy? Is this the nature of the Hero because of the way it’s put together?
that kind of feels fundamentally against the freedom of the Prisoner, but it also feels quite powerful call as well, because the Soul Shriven starts out as nothing, and becomes the Vestige and the Hero and so on and so forth. But were they meant to do that all along? Or did they choose to do that? Was there something in particular that was guiding what they were doing in order to save them?

I don’t think that we can necessarily say that the Prophet and all of those events would really suffice as guidance in this sense, that feels a little too convenient, particularly because it doesn’t work out quite how the Prophet went about getting a new Emperor on the throne. There’s no real way of connecting the prophets so much with this kind of immune system response that this text seems to imply, but it’s certainly an interesting little aside, in terms of what the Prisoner isn’t represented sense.

As much as we talked about choice and everything that entails, the ability to be anything, do anything etc, are we really able to do that? If we can go meta for a second, would you really do anything but complete the main quest of the game? Yes, you can run off and do all the subquests, not touch the main storylines within the games. But is that really enough there to say that the Prisoner wasn’t put into that specific place to not be the Hero? You can take this to another level and say there are mods that mean that you’re not necessarily a prisoner when you start up in some cases, depending on what set of mods used in for each particular game. But that’s not quite the games as designed, in my view. The idea that you are this thing that’s bound, constrained and then released to this this fundamental freedom, and then you do what you were designed or programmed to do? Not sure that that’s quite the intent here, but if we can generalise the stuff that Chaotic Creatia was talking about, I don’t really see any other conclusion at this point. I don’t know whether it is generalisable beyond the Vestige, but as the Vestige functions in the same way that other heroes do, then it’s probably something that we can apply to the other heroes.

Heroes and Towers

There is one final point I’d like to put as a contrast to that idea that these prisoners are being spawned as a self-defense mechanism. It goes back to the notion of the Towers we have in pretty much every single Elder Scrolls game since Daggerfall. The main series games have each seen the destruction or deactivation of a Tower. In Daggerfall, it was the Numidium. In Morrowind, there was the freeing of Lorkhan’s Heart and the consequent probable deactivation of Red Mountain and then in Oblivion, the destruction of the Amulet of Kings and deactivation of White-Gold Tower. Within Skyrim, the Snow Tower lies “sundered kingless, and bleeding”, and so I don’t know whether we’re meant to take that as the Tower been deactivated or not. If you want to hear my full of thoughts on that, please go back and listen to the episode on the Towers.

Given that we’ve got that full list of all of these Towers potentially being deactivated by the actions of Heroes, then are these things really the saviors of Mundus, are they really agents of stability and survival? I’m not totally sure, because part of the function of the Prisoner as Sotha Sil says is to look beyond the walls that comprise Mundus to see beyond that, to
potentially go beyond that if we want to extend the idea of breaking out of prison to breaking out beyond Mundus. I know I said earlier that I didn’t think that Prisoners necessarily have CHIM, but if the drive of a prisoner is to move beyond Mundus, beyond the walls of the prison, can we extend that say that they are breaking the prison as well? That they are going through and deactivating the spikes of unassailable reality that are the Towers in some sort of an effort, maybe to return Mundus to a state of existence within Oblivion to destroy it entirely? I don’t know. But it’s another thought that could explain why the Prisoners are doing what they’re doing. You had a little sense of the things beyond Mundus and the prison is then have that subconscious drive to go along with events, to the extent that they will start to bring about the fall of Mundus.

That’s a little interesting in terms of what the Prisoners are doing; if you’re saving the world, but at the same time destroying it, are you really saving the world? I don’t know. I’m going to leave that with you.

Thank you ever so much for taking the time to listen/read, this has turned a little bit more rambly than I first envisioned when I set this out. I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. If you have any answers to the questions that I’ve been posing in this cast, please let me know. I would absolutely love to hear your opinions on what the role of the Prisoners we’re all playing, whether there’s any ultimate purpose to it.

One final reminder, if you liked this podcast, please subscribe on your favorite podcatcher, I’m now most of the ones out there. If you fancy a chat, please join the discussion on the Written in Uncertainty Discord.

Next time we are finally going to get around talking about mantling. I have mentioned it in several casts and I’m finally find a space to fit it in. At long last we will be asking, what is mantling, and how is Talos three people? Until then this podcast remains a letter in uncertainty.

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