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!
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.
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.
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.
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.