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Straussian Skyrim

May 6, 2013

Skyrim, the latest installment of the Elder Scrolls series is one of the greatest games ever made. It’s world is open, beautiful, incredibly detailed, and engaging. The game opens with the player’s character lined up before an Imperial execution squad along with members of the rebel group, the Stormcloaks. After the introduction, the player’s character escapes the chopping block and is free either to ignore the civil war for the rest of the game or get intimately involved in it and join either side. The sub-plot of the war between the Stormcloaks and the Empire is a metaphor for the Middle East, and in particular, America’s relationship with fundamental Islam.

There are three major factions in Skyrim’s civil war: Stormcloaks, the Empire, and the Thalmor.

The Stormcloaks represent the Muslim Brotherhood, and fundamentalist Islam in general. They are fighting for the right to worship Talos. The Empire surprisingly does not represent America, but rather native dictators who ally themselves with America in exchange for peace and money. The Imperial leaders mostly agree with the Stormcloaks in their desire to worship Talos. They have signed a peace treaty with outsiders to suppress Talos worship in exchange for trade and peace, much like, for example, the Saudis. America is represented by the Thalmor. The Thalmor have military superiority over the Empire, which they use to extract religious compliance. You could perhaps view the Thalmor as taking a “we know what’s best” approach and imposing their way of life through force.

Maybe Americans are correct to try to impose Western values, and maybe the Thalmor are correct to try to wipe out Talos worship. In my opinion, it looks like the writers of Skyrim definately don’t think so. The Thalmor are portrayed as arrogant, demanding, and insensitive to native culture. While I believe America has put a lot of effort into becoming more responsive to local culture, the critique certainly held at the beginning of the Iraq war.

The Imperials come off looking pretty bad, but also stuck between a rock and a hard place. The character definitely gets a taste of the brutality of their rule. But once you meet the High Queen, you realize she is in a very difficult position. She herself is sympathetic to the desire to worship Talos, just as many middle eastern tyrants are sympathetic to fundamentalist Islam, but she cannot openly support it without going to war with the Talmor. Similarly, Middle Eastern dictators must constantly pay lip service to western values, lest they be deposed by America, or at the very least, have their foreign aid cut off.

The Stormcloaks don’t come off as looking particularly good either by the end of the game. Their rhetoric is powerful and they talk a good fight, but as they conquer city after city, the locals start complaining about their crassness and how they can’t go on with their lives as they are used to. The Stormcloaks are often accused of racism and xenophobia. For example, the Dunmer and Argonians represent the Jews and the Coptic Christians. Despite living in Skyrim for as long as the Nords, they are treated as second class citizens. Life under Stormcloak rule is portrayed as harsh, but the Stormcloaks take pride in their strength and virtue.

Shouting is rhetorical power made manifest. Words themselves have magical power in Skyrim and those who can control their words are the most powerful. Dragonspeak is the language of ideas, and in Skyrim, ideas are literally mightier than the sword. The game’s developers let the player decide who to side with, and like reality, each path has its advantages and disadvantages.

Further Reading:
Leo Strauss

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