Reader question: toy soldiers

Reader Adam asks:

What are your thoughts on the history of toy soldiers?

I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that I have “thoughts,” which is funny considering how much of my mental energy is taken up by thinking about present-day toy soldiers.

Part of the question of the history of toy soldiers — of toys in general — comes down to the vexed question of intent. That is, we definitely see figurines of various kinds throughout history, but are they “toys” per se? In some cases, doubtful: like, these soldier figures from an Egyptian tomb have a ritual/magical function, but I definitely always think of them as a wargame unit when I see them in museums.

Mesehtisoldiers

I knew a guy when I was doing my MA who was very fascinated by what these kinds of figurines could tell us about the Egyptian military — and he was a wargamer.

You also get what appear to be toy figurines of knights in the middle ages, I do know that: see some examples here.

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But it’s really in the 18th century that “toy soldiers” as we know them become a thing, particularly in Germany. I assume this is to do with changing trends in consumer culture — this is also when we get “shopping” as a leisure activity, for instance, and my guess would be that this is also when you start to get any kind of large-scale production (even if not that large-scale) of dolls, dollhouses, jacks, etc. But it’s also true that this is an age of militaries with standard, elaborate uniforms, where a bunch of identical monopose brightly-coloured tin figures is what an army would idealise itself as.

2007BN1676_jpg_l

This kind of thing, you know what I mean? That’s the War of the Austrian Succession, so it’s about right era-wise.

And of course, this is also the era that I associate in my mind with the rise of militarism that goes with the nation-state, the idea of armies as institutions. Rrrrroughly; we’re talking long-term trends here.

Now, a lot of these early tin soldiers are made using two-part flat slate moulds, so they’re very thin. When I was getting into wargaming, the books on the topic in my local library made mention of these, although they were understood as primarily a German thing and an older thing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
These are from the Roscheider Hof museum in Germany, for instance. 

As the mould-making technology develops (I assume as rubber moulds get easier and cheaper to make and hollow casting becomes easier? I legit don’t know how that works), you start to get the three-dimensional toy soldiers that most British kids remember. I even had some of these in the day, although heaven knows where they came from. These are the kinds of things H.G. Wells wrote his wargame rules for, I believe.

7225
This kind of thing, y’know. 

And then there’s Elastolin and then plastic moulding becomes practical and you get cheap 1/35 or 1/72 model soldiers, like Airfix toys, and plastic army men in bags and then Gary Gygax is gluing cardboard wings to dime-store dinosaurs to make dragons and then you have D&D which begat Warhammer and so on and so on. I actually like 1/72 plastic figures and buy them compulsively, even though I have almost no use for them. But they’re so varied and economical! Heck, I don’t know. There are a lot of them out there, though. 

So yeah — “toy soldiers” in the sense we understand them are probably a product of the technology and economy for mass-production being available plus uniformed militaries being the norm plus society being very into the pageant and spectacle of the military. Note that a lot of early toy soldiers aren’t in any kind of combat position and there are a lot of military bands, colour parties and so on — you’re clearly meant to be creating a parade with them.

Tangentially, there’s quite a lot of good stuff on the evolution from military wargaming to modern fantasy and adventure gaming in Jon Peterson‘s excellent book Playing at the World, which I wholeheartedly recommend if you have not read it.

Reader question: toy soldiers

The Weight of History in Warhammer 40,000

Right; I promised I would talk about gaming, so here it is. (I generally talk about gaming on my gaming blog.) Today we’re going to talk a little about historical themes in Warhammer 40,000 and its various derivatives. Now, if you have ever played this game, or are familiar with its art and design, you’ll know that it tends to be covered in little Gothic flourishes — or, to be less charitable, that everything is made out of cathedrals. Imperial_Imperator_Titan Now, I remember when I was in high school I really didn’t like how everything in the 40K universe was encrusted with skulls and spires, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate it a bit more. Let me begin at the beginning: it’s obvious that the first edition of Warhammer 40,000 was a stew of many different influences. The most obvious of these is 2000 AD: you can see Judge DreddStrontium DogRogue Trooper and Nemesis the Warlock in its genes very easily. There are also a lot of other connections — Dune, obviously, Michael Moorcock, The Road Warrior, and earlier games like Laserburn and Dungeons and Dragons, not to mention the then-still-inchoate Warhammer Fantasy Battle setting. The Realm of Zhu has done some amazing work on tracing artistic inspiration in the Warhammer Fantasy Battle game. It also drew a lot of its inspiration from history. That’s no surprise: as this interview with Rick Priestley points out, several of the members of the Design Studio during the classic era had backgrounds in archaeology. (In fact, during my recent trip to the British Museum, I saw this book by GW and TSR alumnus/archaeology guy Graeme Davis, who also wrote the AD&D Vikings book [EDIT: whoops! He did the Celts one], in the gift shop. (Big hat tip to Orlygg for making me think about this stuff.) Now, in the 1990s, the design of the various aspects of the 40K setting took on explicitly historical models. For instance, the Ultramarines are pretty heavily modelled on Romans: Dow2r_ultramarines_dlc_02 While the Valhallan Ice Warriors are pretty obviously modelled on the Red Army of the Second World War: 2266_imperial_guard.valhallan But these aren’t the historical references I’m talking about, really. The early historical references are a bit messier, a bit more … playful, maybe? I think the best-known of these is probably the Dark Angels chapter. The Dark Angels were founded by a godlike being called a Primarch — this particular Primarch is variously called Lyyn Elgonsen, Lynol Jonsen, or (currently) LionEl’Jonson. Lion_kretschmann_by_slaine69 All of which are, of course, just ways of spelling “Lionel Johnson,” a 19th-century English poet who did all the usual 19th-century English poet stuff: repressed his homosexuality, converted to Catholicism, was Alfred Douglas’s cousin. His most famous poem is “The Dark Angel,” which seems to be mainly about fighting against temptation. Now, I don’t think this was part of a plan — I think the people compiling these books were well-read people, and when they needed to come up with the leaders of their chapters, they threw in a couple of literary and historical references (see also: Jaghatai Khan, Konrad Curze, Perturabo). It was only later that some people came along with a (perceived, anyway) mandate to systematise. But whether early throwaway references or later systematic exploration, I think both “generations” of 40K have this in coming: the setting is weighed down by its history. I think this aesthetic is not uncommon in British sci-fi of the 1980s. Consider this excellent article by Chris Sims about Judge Dredd’s costume. I think it’s all worth reading (I’m a fan), but here’s the key point:

Judge Dredd exists in the world of Thrillpower, the far-off future year of 2099 AD, in a society where every single thing has become monstrously overwhelming. Just the very idea of Mega City One, this towering post-nuclear metropolis that’s built on overcrowding and stuffing as many people into the only tiny space that can actually support life? That’s the core idea of Judge Dredd, and when Pat Mills, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra created him, they made sure to weave that into the fabric of those stories. There’s a good reason that one of the first ideas that comes up in a Judge Dredd story, once they’ve established this massive, teeming, crushing society where the fascists are the good guys, is the “futsies,” people suffering from “future shock” who just snap under the pressure of living there. Life in the future is just too much for people.

And that idea of too much is present in the art of 40K. Everything is covered in skulls, everything is a mile tall, everything is ten thousand years old or hungers for all life or iz kuvvad in Orky know-wotz — everything is just way too much to endure and stay sane. It’s a world where these are the good guys: warhammer-40000-art-песочница-Imperium-322656 Nothing in the 40K universe should be “efficient” without having “brutally” on there first. Even the Eldar, who are meant to be all lithe and elegant, are covered in trinkets and greeblies, literally encrusted with the souls of their dead ancestors, persistent reminders of the tragedy of their species. (This is why the Tau, a late addition to the canon, sit so uneasily with the rest of it.) I think this is a very interesting contrast to a lot of “classic” science fiction. A lot of the tradition of sci-fi art shows images that are clean and futuristic without a whole lot of visible past-ness: science-fiction_7d5c2c9b You know the kind of thing. Now obviously that’s not all science fiction art, but I think there’s an identifiable trend where the future is often portrayed without a past. But the 40K future is all about the past. Partly it’s about our past — although it’s the future, it’s decidedly primitive, with swords and whatnot. It uses the images of our past, but in romantic ways: so the Dark Angels, for example, aren’t medieval-like in their modern incarnation: they’re Gothic, using images of medieval monks and knights to create a moody, mournful aesthetic that doesn’t actually resemble the middle ages at all. DeathwingKnights (This is a new-ish look for them, but it’s been developing for well over a decade). I think this is a pretty interesting use of historical imagery: as a source of weird greeblies to cover every visible surface with. It creates this impression of the 40K setting as somewhere that’s almost rotten with history, encrusted with meaningless and cruel legacies from some forgotten era. tumblr_m4j033XucV1qhslato1_1280 tumblr_m5tab3jL3z1qhslato1_1280     And it’s interesting to me that as the setting’s been developed, it’s become more and more specifically obsessed with its own history — going back and mapping out every nook and cranny of the Horus Heresy, for instance, in an endless series of commentaries and footnotes on books written 25 years ago. If you want to consider this view of history something that very specifically comes out of Britain in the 80s, I wouldn’t argue with you. I certainly think that the fusion of the Gothic and the modern would come much easier to someone who lived in London or even Cambridge; I have referred in the past to the place in the New Museums Site where I used to work as “Necromunda.” To summarise, then:

  • The creators of the 40K setting borrowed liberally from everything around them (partly in response to a company mandate to reuse existing miniatures lines, partly because that’s how a game designer do).
  • A lot of this was from history or historically-influenced literature, because they were into that stuff.
  • This interacted well with their other influences.
  • The result was a mess of different historical influences …
  • … that greatly enhanced the setting’s theme of immeasurable antiquity and weirdness.

   

The Weight of History in Warhammer 40,000

The Nazi Vixen Thing

(Note to readers for whom it matters: this post contains Nazi imagery. It’s used in a … historical? … context but if you don’t like that stuff or are worried about your employer or whatever, I thought I should warn you.)

A while back, reader Ian asked me to write about the whole “sexy Nazi” thing. He probably thought I forgot! I wish I had.

In any event: if you are at all familiar with any sort of modern pulp literature or games surrounding WWII, particularly “Weird War 2” type stuff, you will have been exposed to the “sexy Nazi vixen” archetype. It is … weird.

First, let me establish what I mean here. I’m not talking about a glamorous femme fatale who happens to be a Nazi, like this lady:

INF3_0229

Or Dr Elsa Schneider in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:

Elsa

Those two are perfectly ordinary examples of the pulp femme fatale archetype and could be subbed in for any old bad guy (although I guess Schneider looks all icily Nordic, so there’s that).

No, I’m talking about stuff like this:

VixenVixensInTheUK

Or this:

AirboyValkyrie

 

Or these miniatures for the game Projekt X (bonus points for having both the bondage-gear and inexplicable-decolletage-SS-uniform variants).

So: what the hell?

Now, the first thing that occurred to me was that this is a feature of pulp art, and could it in fact be a legacy of the pulp era? The answer seeeems to be that it isn’t. I haven’t conducted a thorough search, but I don’t see a lot of sexualised German uniforms, sexualised Nazi regalia, anything like that, in contemporary pulps or comics. The closest thing that popped out at me (hurr) is Valkyrie, seen above with unconscious Airboy. Now, while that’s a modern illustration (by the late Dave Stevens), it’s a pretty accurate rendition of Valkyrie’s 40s-era costume. However, you’ll note that there’s not actually anything particularly German about her uniform — even Airboy is in bright American red and blue, but she’s just in generic sexy villainess garb. (And if Airboy and Valkyrie remind you of Jetlad and Skywitch from Top 10: yup.)

But it isn’t until after the war that we get the traditional Nazi sex vixen. I think that in order to be a proper pop-culture Nazi vixen, you need some or all of the following:

  • An absurdly tight German uniform OR bondage gear festooned with Nazi insignia
  • A great big officer’s hat OR a jaunty little cap (almost never a stahlhelm)
  • High-heeled bitch boots OR jackboots
  • A riding crop
  • A gun: usually a Luger, an MP40 or something ludicrous like an MG34. Not a 98K.
INC205 Gretel von X large2
BINGO!

Now, the archetypal example of this character is:

Ilsa_she_wolf_of_ss_poster_02

 

The jaunty-capped ice maiden types in the background just round out the definition.

Apparently, this kind of quasi-porn started almost immediately after the war, I guess because it gave the usual low-budget slimeballs the kind of “educational” pretext they needed to wrap their movies in a veneer of social responsibility (especially important for the US, where most of them failed to pass anyway but whatever).

But from there somehow it seems to have crept into popular culture in a way that lots of similar stuff didn’t. Here’s an example from Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which is pretty mainstream:

Eliteguard1

I guess, in the end, the answer to “is it just a bondage thing?” is “yes.” It’s notable that there isn’t any comparable super-sexification of the other combatants — oh sure, there’s lots of bomber nose art and glamour art and pinups, but they don’t have the same cultural oomph as the Nazi Vixen.

What’s extra weird to me is that of course this is about as un-Nazi as you can get. I mean, sure, obviously the Nazis were into horrific torture and oppression, but their attitude toward women was not quite so decadent. Nazism rejected the idea of the modern “liberated” woman, and the party tried (with very little success) to force women out of the workforce and back into the home, where they would be smiley (or sometimes stern) and blonde and look after smiley or stern blonde children.

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women-to-work

 

I mean, in a way it’s just indicative of how far WWII gamers have replaced the specific beliefs of the German government with a sort of expression of generic evil (evil overlords require sexy evil female sidekicks), but still.

As you probably know, the USSR had quite a lot of women fighting. Female snipers are famous, of course, but there were female pilots, female tank commanders, female military police, the whole bit. And yet those are seldom (sometimes, but not as often) as ridiculously sexualised as German women. Is it because Soviet women actually fought? Is it because Nazis have that whole “torture camp” thing going on? I honestly have no idea.

So, to summarise: the roots of the “Nazi sex vixen” thing? Porno, as far as I can tell. Its modern incarnation: maybe goofy and harmless, maybe weird and creepy.

As an aside: Valkyrie eventually switched sides and became a good guy; Secrets of the Third Reich has a female American super-soldier in a tank top and implausibly short shorts.

 

The Nazi Vixen Thing

Abraham Lincoln INFINITE COMBO

I have a habit of getting periodically obsessed with things that I neither know anything about nor have any reason to care about. For the last couple of months, it’s been competitive fighting games. I have barely played a fighting game in my life, except for a little Soul Blade (then called Soul Edge) at university and the usual unsuccessful Street Fighter II button mashing in junior high. So why am I watching videos of gameplay on Youtube? I have no idea.

However, it did inspire a few thoughts. For one thing, I think the characters in some games are really charming. Take, for instance, Dudley from Street Fighter III and IV:

An English boxer with rolled-up sleeves and a curly moustache who tells people they have no dignity? J’approve.

The old-timiness of Dudley made me think about other fighting games. Did you know for instance, that there’s a homebrew fighting game based on Les Miserables? It’s called Arm Joe, for reasons that make sense in Japanese. You can choose from a cast of characters including Javert, the Thenardiers (who are a single character), Valjean, Enjolras, Marius, an unnamed policeman, Robo-Valjean, and loveable bunny(?) Ponpon. So there are some deviations from the canon is what I’m saying. Anyway, observe:

 

Anyway, the spectacle of a fighting game character just straight shooting a dude with a musket inspired the thought that I like games where you get to play historical characters. I know you have leaders in games like Civilisation, where the fact that Gandhi is a murderous psychopath is a running gag. But I mean actually playing those characters as your characters. And a fighting game could actually be a fun way of doing that!

The obvious person who springs to mind as a potential character is Abraham Lincoln, or, as he’s known in these parts, “American Major General Abraham Lincoln.” (This is a joke that like three other people, including my wife, will get.) Lincoln himself was a big dude with some history in the grapplin’ business.

lincoln-wrestling

Long reach, mostly throws, I’m guessing.

So yeah, now I want to see this game, in which major historical figures brawl to determine who is the greatest.

Plato was also a champion wrestler, as it happens.  I’m just sayin’.

Abraham Lincoln INFINITE COMBO

Historical simulation is weird; alt-historical doubly so

I do not have an opinion on this topic; I’m just thinking out loud here. I don’t have a solid view about how wargamers think about history, or even how I do in this context.

As will be no secret to anyone that knows me, I am a wargamer, albeit more of a prepare-to-wargamer. I paint little metal and plastic models, I build little scenery for their battles, etc. In short, I’m not at all cool, but then if you thought I was:

  • Thank you, but
  • you really haven’t been paying attention so far.

Anyway, so. On the one hand, I have lots of little orcs and ogres and mutants and Cthulhu monsters and so on, but it’s not them I want to talk about today. It’s more, as befits the blog, historical models. Like these guys:

Imex Vikings

 

I seem in particular to have quite a lot of vikings: I have viking armies in 6mm, 15mm, 1/72 and 28mm scales. That is quite a lot.

But I have also played various Late Roman dudes, Crusaders, and occasionally some WWII Brits and Americans.

But playing a game about Vietnam would really creep me out. Or a game about modern-day Afghanistan. I mean, people play them and that’s fine; our creep lines are all in different place. But they would creep me out.

Now, I’m under no illusion about the Viking Age being somehow nicer than Vietnam or whatever. This is just another case of the pirate thing.

(My pitch for this series is that these guys steal a boat and they go around robbing people. And if the people turn out to be Catholics they torture them. No, no, it’s cool, they have cool hats.)

But somehow it’s weird and I don’t like the idea of playing in those conflicts.

Now, this turns very interesting when you get into alternative history. Consider if you will the case of 1938: A Very British Civil War.

Now, this is a series of system-agnostic sourcebooks that posit the abdication crisis erupting into a full-on civil war in Britain, with the anti-Edward Anglican League clashing with the BUF and then various worker’s militias and so on also piling in. It’s interesting to see how people interpret this. For some people, the situation is played as farcical, with the Anglican League being uptight English stereotypes and the BUF resembling Roderick Spode’s blackshorts:

Now, you could say that in one way this represents its own bias: an English Civil War in the 1930s is inherently funny; that stuff happens elsewhere.

But there are some other ones where the scenarios are played a little bit more straight, and these have engendered controversy of their own. For instance, I once read a scenario in which the BUF were raiding a neighbourhood, with their intention being to round up all the minorities and other social undesirables and march them off to the camps. People were very weirded out by that, and I’m not sure I’d want to play that side in a game. And it’s not that I like to play good guys in general — I play bad guys in a lot of games.

So why is that so weird? Is it because it’s closer to home? Many people base their VBCW campaigns in and around the places they actually live, so that could be it? It’s not because it’s something that really happened, which is why people usually explain why they don’t like playing the Nazis but they don’t mind playing worshippers of Khorne the Blood God.

I don’t know. But I think it’s an interesting thing.

Mind you, I love the VBCW concept, and I love the amazing work people do in building their armies. My personal preference would lie on the farcical side of things, but I think it could be a lot of fun to play. Might do it in 1/72, though. Cheaper.

If you want to see more images of, and writeups of, people’s games, you should look at the relevant Lead Adventure forum. 

 

Historical simulation is weird; alt-historical doubly so

More video games and history: LA Noire this time

LA-Noire-Box-Art

As I mentioned earlier, I was ill over Christmas, and even after recovering I was pretty low on energy for a couple of days. What I did during this period was sit around in my pyjamas and play L.A. Noire. Although the game came out in 2011, I only recently got a 360, so it was new to me — which is also why I did my series of posts about archaeological themes in Skyrim so recently.

Anyway, this game was a gift from a good friend who knows that I love interwar and postwar Americana in general, and James Ellroy in particular, so there was always going to be some rich stuff in there for me.

Murder mysteries in general are usually about digging up the past, metaphorically and often literally. Not for nothing are historians often compared to detectives. And the “sunny noir” genre — LA Confidential, Chinatown, even Who Framed Roger Rabbit — are often specifically how the sordid micro-history of a murder investigation is related to the grander history of an American city, usually Los Angeles. Given that it’s basically a pastiche of these novels and films, LA Noire is no different — we start with the usual series of crimes, but the unfolding backstory of what happened to Cole Phelps and his comrades during the war will provide the context for the end of the story. In the meantime, however, the individual personal tragedies are part of a larger setting where unstoppable “progress” is transforming the American landscape.

So, interesting in that respect. The other aspect of the game’s use of history that interested me was the role of the murder of Elizabeth Short (the “Black Dahlia”), one of LA’s most famous unsolved crimes. It’s a particularly gruesome crime and it’s provoked a lot of speculation about the killer’s identity, particularly after it was fictionalised by James Ellroy and then made into a film. But somehow there was some aspect of the killing’s use in the game that rubbed me the wrong way, as if the statute of limitations on the Short case had not yet expired. Which is weird — I’m certain there are several games that use the Jack the Ripper murders as part of their gameplay, and that probably wouldn’t bother me. But somehow in this case it seemed … I don’t know. It didn’t sit right with me, and I’m not sure why.

The third thing I thought was interesting was the game’s use, or non-use, of racial epithets. Racial and social prejudice is depicted throughout — there are characters with insulting things to say about Jews, African-Americans, Latinos and above all women; the second act pairs Phelps with a misogynist boor of a partner. But the language is mostly toned down. Characters sneer about “blacks,” or “Hispanics,” but there are only a few instances of racial epithets. The N-word comes up once, in the mouth of a black character. I thought that was very odd. If they had left it out altogether, I would have said “yeah, they’re making an (admittedly unrealistic) concession to modern sensibilities.” If they had larded the game with it, I would have said “yeah, they’re depicting (admittedly kind of offensively) the way people probably talked in 1947.” But to have it appear just once (together with just one example of a few other ethnic slurs) felt very strange, and I’m not sure of the reasoning behind that decision. Not that anyone has to explain anything to me, of course.

So yeah, part of the pleasure for me was just the visual design — the houses, the cars, the ads, the documents, all evoking a certain time and place. If it weren’t for the game’s frustrating, repetitive driving gameplay, just driving around the city would have been half the fun. But I do think the historical themes in the game go a little deeper than that, although largely because they’re so important in the genre from which it’s derived.

More video games and history: LA Noire this time

Archaeological themes in Skyrim: 4

OK, so over the last few posts I’ve talked about my overall impression of the way archaeology works in Skyrim (and in Skyrim, if you see what I mean). I’ve specifically looked at the cases of Saarthal and Nchuand-Zel, but there are a few other things I want to mention before moving on to general conclusions. The first is that for a pseudo-medieval kingdom, Skyrim has got a lot of museums and educational institutions. In addition to the College of Winterhold, there’s a bards’ college in Solitude, which has a Professor of History and everything. And one of the very first plots you do when you join the College (after going down a dungeon and killing some monsters, obviously) is to falsify an ancient verse, on the grounds that a) it’s not in a modern enough style, b) it’s incomplete anyway, and c) by monkeying with it you can persuade the Jarl of Solitude to favour your side in an argument. That is some pretty sophisticated sociopolitical shenanigans for a fetch quest!

The head of the College finds the verse unsatisfactory.
The head of the College finds the verse unsatisfactory.

There’s a little museum in Windhelm, and it’s great — it’s basically a wunderkammer, full of weird items, both natural curiosities (including valuable alchemical reagents) and historical artefacts (like Ysgramor’s Soup Spoon, which is actually a fork). Although it’s partly meant to be a joke, it plays an important role in setting up its proprietor as an expert on antiques, which comes up in a plot, and as a harmless eccentric, which is a fakeout. He even talks about he was once an adventurer like you, but now contemplating these items is how he relives his glory days.

There are quite a lot of skulls, now that you mention it.
There are quite a lot of skulls, now that you mention it.

I’ve already mentioned the Dwemer Museum in Markarth, but I think it makes an interesting example — it is much more a proper museum, run by officials, patrolled by guards and full of valuable objects. I am given to understand that later on I’ll be asked to carry out a heist.

I! DIG! GIANT ROBOTS!
I! DIG! GIANT ROBOTS!

 

Lastly, there’s a tiny museum in Dawnstar, which is no more than a few display cases in this guy’s house. It is … odd. The museum celebrates a cult who worshipped Mehrunes Dagon, the main baddie in the previous game, Oblivion. Its proprietor wants to send you on some fetch quests with an obvious ulterior motive. I suspect a hammer-murdering lies in his future. So once again I’m struck by the diversity of the portrayals of archaeology and memory in this setting.

640px-SilusVesuius'sHouse

 

And this ties right in with one of the two main plotlines of the game, the war between the Stormcloaks and the Empire. Unlike in some similar games (say, Fallout: New Vegas), the conflict between the two factions is very complex and subtle in its differences. It’s very possible to find yourself sympathising with both sides. After leading an Imperial attack on Fort Dunstad, I felt genuinely remorseful for the killing — the game makes it clear that the Stormcloaks are, in their way, no less idealistic and patriotic than their Imperial counterparts. Each faction has its flaws — General Tullius, the Imperial commander, is a callous bigot, while Ulfric, the leader of the Stormcloaks, is an ambitious self-seeker. The Empire is flawed and authoritarian; the Stormcloaks are provincial and exclusionary. And all of this centres around their views of their own history. As far as the Stormcloaks are concerned, by turning their back on the worship of Talos, the god who was once a man, the Empire has violated Skyrim’s culture, a culture that is always talked about in terms of the ancestral, heroic dead. Same goes for the Empire: Skyrim has always been part of the Empire, Skyrim will always remain part of the Empire. Each side has its own version of a patriotic song condemning the other; although they differ in several verses, both contain the line “we’re the sons of Skyrim.” But everywhere you go, the history you encounter, whether from books or from archaeology, tells you that things are much more complex than that.

One of the really nice things about the game is that the setting’s history — as expressed in the previous games in the series — actually sees a lot of societal change. For instance, the Five Hundred Companions were once the warriors who fought for Ysgramor, basically Skyrim’s equivalent of the knights of the Round Table. Now the organisation is little better than a gang of mercenaries with an unpleasant secret. But they still collect artefacts to do with Ysgramor, including the hull of one of his ships, Jorrvaskr, and the fragments of his axe, Wuuthrad. You have to wonder if this is a way of bolstering their image as Ysgramor’s heirs in the face of their apparent diminution in the modern day. Similarly, another organisation in the game, the Blades, appear in Oblivion and the previous games as a noble order of warriors and agents who serve the Emperor, but turn up in Skyrim as a hunted secret society, on the run from the victorious Thalmor. 

This level of change in the “modern” setting is reflected in the history. Empires have risen and fallen, whole cultures have vanished or been exterminated. The Nords’ claim to being the people of Skyrim is contested, as you learn by exploring their tombs and the tombs of the societies that came before them — not to mention getting talked at by some of their victims. In fact, almost every group’s view of its own history is slightly off in some way. 

The thing that interests me the most about this is that this is very unlike how history and archaeology are treated in most fantasy literature. I’m not saying that history isn’t complex in some fantasy, because obviously it can be bewilderingly complex, but that it isn’t usually treated as this shifting and contentious thing. It’s usually the answer to a question, instead of the thing that raises questions. This is, probably not coincidentally, how history was viewed by the writers of the 19th-century adventure fiction that inspired a lot of fantasy authors. But in Skyrim, the legendary past is contested and mysterious, and there are a lot of people in the setting actively trying to manipulate it for their own ends. I think that’s very unusual in fantasy fiction and fantasy gaming, and I think the fact in Skyrim is worthy of mention. 

 

Archaeological themes in Skyrim: 4