The themes of TES questlines: Might vs. Right?

Post » Fri Jan 06, 2017 11:40 pm

Video games are slowly becoming serious mediums for storytelling. So how about we practice our skills of in-depth story anolysis?

Before I continue, I should warn you that this OP will also contain some spoilers for Fallout 4, in addition to those of the Elder Scrolls. Namely, the quests "Blind Betrayal," and "In Sheep's Clothing." If you haven't completed either of those quests yet, you might want to before continuing with this thread.

Here's my thesis for this thread: Thematically, most (though not all) of the Elder Scrolls factions and main questlines are about the relationship between "might" and "right."

The warrior/magic factions: Might for Right

In Oblivion, the Fighters' and Mages' guilds both represent the concept of "might for right." In other words, you use your power to do good, rather than achieve your own ends. This philosophy takes center stage during their Oblivion questlines, where their antagonists - the Blackwood Company and the Necromancers, respectively - serve as foils to the good factions. These antagonists use their powers unconstrained by morality to acquire, for themselves, the highest possible personal gain. To them, power is a means to an end.

In Skyrim, the Companions add a new twist to this theme. They are werewolves, creatures who are normally perceived as evil. However, they are the good guys, and receive the five-star accommodations of Jorvaskr, being within farting distance of the Jarl's palace, and are revered by the citizens of Whiterun as the city heroes. Meanwhile, the Silver Hand, a group of werewolf hunters - who would normally be the protagonists in most fantasy fiction - have no better social standing than common bandits. With the exception of their namesake weapons, those not affiliated with the Companions might confuse them with ordinary bandits.

The reason for this is because, even though the Companions have a power that is rooted in evil, they have nevertheless tamed that power and use it exclusively for good. Granted, it also helps that they keep this power a secret to anyone except their own kind, but even after the player character is prematurely introduced to it, we still trust the Companions because of their track record of being the good guys. It's just like with Alucard in the Castlevania series; it's his actions, not his powers, that dictate his moral alignment. Meanwhile, the Silver Hand act like bandits in every capacity except for the part where they fight werewolves.

That's why, in Fallout 4, when we learn that Paladin Danse is a synth, we're sympathetic towards him, and some of us might plead for his life. But in that same game, when we learn that Mayor McDonough is a synth, we're far less sympathetic. We've already seen that McDonough is the typical sleezy politician that none of us can stand, so seeing that he's a synth just clenches what we already knew about him. The difference between Danse and McDonough is the personality each character exhibits before their synthhood is revealed.

The Dawnguard: Might blocks right

Most likely designed to serve as an antithesis to the Companions, the Dawnguard represent the idea that might prevents right. They believe that having too much power, and/or the wrong kind of power, automatically makes you evil, and there is nothing you can do to become a good guy short of removing your power altogether.

Specifically, this faction focuses on the power of vampirism. Isran hates vampires down to his bone marrow, but unlike the Orc who lost two wives to vampires, we never really get an explanation as to why Isran, of all people, hates vampires so much.

But maybe it's better that way, because Isran functions better as an idea rather than a person with a backstory. He's the antithesis to the Companions. Whereas the Companions have shown that you can still be a good guy even if you're imbued with evil powers, Isran believes that evil powers are always ... always ... evil.

This is best demonstrated in the relationship between Isran and Serana. Even after the entire Dawnguard questline, even after Serana has time and again proven her loyalty, even to the point of killing her father and entire castle's worth of servants to the point where she has no home to return to and is forced to stay in Castle Dawnguard. Despite all these sacrifices, Isran STILL doesn't fully trust Serana.

The Thalmor: Might Makes Right

The Thalmor adhere to the philosophy that "might makes right," also known as "the ends justify the means." They have a higher culture than the rest of the Tamrielic races, and they feel that, because of this cultural might, that makes them worthy to rule over the other races. Their cultural might makes them the rightful rulers of man.

This is best illustrated when you meet a Thalmor agent in a random encounter. One of the dialogue options you can receive from them is "That we are superior to men is an established fact."

They also feel morally justified in their acts towards Talos. They argue that it's immoral to worship a man. They offer no evidence of their own that Talos isn't divine, but to them, the fact that they claim he's a mere mortal is all the evidence they need. Their cultural "might" causes their statements to otherwise become "right," even if they weren't true just two seconds before the Thalmor uttered them.

In the real world, the phrase "might makes right" is often used to describe the way political and/or militaristic figures who are victorious in their efforts are subsequently able to use propoganda to convince future generations that they were morally justified all along. To that extent, the Skyrim book "The Talos Mistake" shows that the Thalmor have been at least partially successful in that approach.

The Stormcloaks & Imperials: Right makes Might

Designed as an obvious antithesis to the Thalmor (hence why the Thalmor have the biggest presence in the civil war questline), the Stormcloak and Imperial armies represent the philosophy that right makes might, rather than the other way around. It's up to each player to decide which army is in the right, but each army believes, themselves, two things:

1. They are in the right, and

2. The righteousness of their cause will imbue them with the ability to drive back the other army.

This philosophy is best demonstrated during the Jagged Crown quest. The army leaders scoff at the idea of wasting so many men going after some stupid hat. But their seconds in command convince them to go through with it on the grounds that it would be a symbol of the righteousness of their cause. Indeed, their convictions appear vindicated by the end, since whoever you deliver the crown to will eventually go on to win the war. Granted, most players believe that this is caused, not by the crown itself, but by the fact that the player character is such a one-man wrecking crew that his combat skills - not the crown itself - is what turns the tide of the war.

But then again ... maybe that's the whole point! After all, whenever you hand over the crown to one of the leaders, you're stuck playing with that side for the rest of the game. An opportunity to jump ship during the peace treaty quest was take out of the final release of the game. So this certainly plays into the main theme: Giving your army the symbol of right is what simultaneously equips them with the physical might (aka you) that lets them win the war!

This is made even more fitting when you realize that you, as the player, chose which side you wanted to fight for based primarily on which side you felt was "in the right." The righteousness of their side (as dictated by you) is what causes them to acquire the WMD that is your character, giving them the victory. Them being "right" gave them the "might."

The Dragons: Might Equals Right

The Dragons represent a side in this theme that doesn't really exist among actual human beings. An Elder Scrolls dragon can read this thread and be entirely confused. To them, might isn't for right; might doesn't make right or vice versa; to them, might and right are entirely, completely, 100% interchangeable. As a Skyrim load screen explains, dragon fights in the sky are in fact deadly verbal debates.

Odhaving agrees to become your ally after you defeat Alduin in battle. His exact words are "you have proven your mastery [over the thu'um] twice over." He is now not only your ally, but is doing so willingly, because he has become convinced that you are morally justified ... by beating the crap out of whoever you had a disagreement with!

Because according to a dragon ... that's how you prove the righteousness of your cause! Fighting, debating, talking, sparring, killing, and scientifically proving, are all one-in-the-same.

Daedric princes & The Mythic Dawn: There is no right; there is only might

When describing the daedra to a non-TES-fan, the first description that comes out of your mouth isn't that they're essentially gods. Rather, it's their complete lack of a mortal sense of good and evil. There are daedra like Azura and Meridia, who appear "good" by mortal standards, but that's only putting it in mortal terms. Every daedric prince considers the concept of "good vs. evil" to be a completely foreign concept to them. Unlike the dragons, the daedra don't consider might and right to be one in the same. They just can't comprehend the concept of right at all. To them, might is the only thing. Comparing might to right is like comparing might to "adlkasdlfiwaerukds."

The Mythic Dawn of Oblivion's main quest highlight this concept in mortal form. When infiltrating the Mythic Dawn during the quest "Dagon Shrine," we hear Mankar Cameron giving a speech about how glorious the world will be when Dagon rules it. His vision is that the strong will thrive and the weak will suffer. He makes it sound like this is justice in its purest form. Because to the daedra and those who worship them, that is! Survival of the fittest, to them, is the purest form of justice. Giving survival and thriving to those who are in the "right" just makes no sense, since the concept of "right" does not even exist.


So as can see, with maybe the exception of the Thieves Guild & Dark Brotherhood, nearly every faction and questline in the Elder Scrolls games explore the central, overarching theme of "might vs. right." What is the relationship between the two? Which is the catalyst and which is the consequence? Or is such a relationship entirely redundant? This, in my opinion, is the main theme of the Elder Scrolls.

What do YOU think the main theme is? Let the discussions ... commence!

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Sabrina garzotto
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Post » Sat Jan 07, 2017 8:46 am

I think the Companions can be more chalked up to being rushed rather than about them being the "good guys". The Silver Hand aren't mere bandits. Look at all the books the Silver Hand has in their loot... "Songs of the Return", etc.. They are adherents of Ysgramor themselves. Kodlak himself feels bad about the path he's on.

I think the ultimately the Companion story is about redemption. Kodlak himself feels bad about the path he's on. The story with the Silver Hand needed to be fleshed out though. They should have been led by renegade ex-Companion members imo.

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Queen Bitch
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