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Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for
the Degree of Master of Arts (English)
Acadia University
Fall Graduation (2014)


This thesis by Marc Ryan Muschler was defended successfully in an oral examination on
September 19, 2014.
The examining committee for this thesis was:
Dr. Jeff Banks, Chair
Dr. Cory Rushton, External Reader
Dr. Herb Wyile on behalf of Dr. Jon Saklofske, Internal Reader
Dr. Kevin Whetter, Thesis Supervisor
Dr. Jon Eustace, Head of Department


I, Marc Ryan Muschler, grant permission to the University Librarian at Acadia University
to reproduce, loan, or distribute copies of my thesis in microform, paper or electronic
formats on a non-profits basis. I, however, retain the copyright in my thesis.








Table of Contents

List of Figures. v
Abstract.............. vi
Acknowledgements....... vii
Introduction..... 1
Chapter One 9
Chapter Two.. 35
Chapter Three 62
Conclusion 86
Bibliography. 88


List of Figures

Figure I: Dragonsreach. 16
Figure II: Urnes Stave Church.. 21
Figure III: Interior of Dragonsreach. 23
Figure IV: Cross-sections of Viking-age buildings.. 24
Figure V: Sovngarde Hall of Valour. 47
Figure VI: Interior of Sovngarde, Mead Kegs.. 49
Figure VII: Interior of Sovngarde, Roasting Meat 50


This thesis provides an examination of the Norse and Anglo-Saxon literary and
historical cultural connections that heavily influence gameplay in The Elder Scrolls V:
Skyrim. These influences ultimately encourage player participation in epic-heroic
traditions reminiscent of those found in Northern European heroic poetry and
demonstrate how game developers can utilize literary and historical sources to create an
entertaining and engaging game space. The thesis is divided into three chapters which
each interpret a different aspect of Skyrim gameplay in the context of their literary and
historical antecedents. The first chapter looks at the connection between Anglo-Saxon
mead halls and those found in Skyrim, particularly the socio-political role it plays both in
literature and gameplay. The second chapter discusses the concept of the afterlife in
Norse and Nordic culture, illustrating the similarities between the two religions and how
their ideals ultimately impact player behavior throughout major quest lines. The third
chapter focuses on dragons within Skyrim and their connection to the northern heroic
image, ultimately demonstrating the important role they play both in Anglo-Saxon and
Norse literature as well as Skyrim.



I would like to thank all of my friends and family for their unwavering support in
my academic pursuits over the last several years. My gratitude goes out in particular to
the Acadia English Society, who have kept my pretentiousness thoroughly in check
during my time as an honours and masters student and who have encouraged me to
immerse myself in all things literary and explore all of my academic passions.
I would also like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Kevin Whetter for supporting me
throughout both my honours and masters degrees. His passion for mediaeval literature
is one of the primary reasons why my interest in the field has developed over the last
several years, and I am entirely grateful to have had such a wonderful tutor and friend.
I am indebted to a number of other faculty members of both the English and
History departments who have been of immense help in nearly every facet of my
academic career at Acadia. A particularly warm thanks goes out to the Department
Secretary, Christine Kendrick, who has moved mountains to help myself and many other
Lastly, a very heartfelt thank you goes out to my friend, Matthew Kohlenberg, to
whom this thesis is dedicated. Whether youre in Sovngarde, Valhalla, or elsewhere,
youre certainly missed here.



In the last several decades, video games have taken on a significant role in mass media
storytelling and culture. While traditional narrative media are still very relevant and
popular globally, video games afford the developer and the player the ability to create,
visualize, and, most importantly, directly interact with narrative universes. For example,
while J. R. R. Tolkiens literary narratives remain popular and influential, his imagined
worlds have been significantly extended and revitalized through online role-playing
games. Video games such as The Lord of the Rings Online afford players the ability to
interact directly with and change the outcome of events in Middle-earth. This type of
interaction, in which the reader or player engages with a wholly developed, consistent
fantasy narrative, is precisely what Tolkien argues in his essay On Fairy-Stories to be
the essence of fairy-story and what most modern readers recognize as heroic and fantasy
literature. Tolkien was not discussing video game narratives, but the experience of farie
which he advocated for traditional fairy literature is even more possible in such an
interactive environment.
One of the important elements that Tolkien valued in stories and storytelling is the
sense of literary depth, what in On Fairy-Stories he refers to as the Pot of Soup or
Cauldron of Story from which new authors or storytellers take their traditional stock

(Tolkien 27). As a fantasy narrative, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim clearly illustrates the
ways in which a new storyteller or game designer might use the motifs from the Cauldron
of Story. Skyrim further illustrates that video games can be artifacts worthy of academic
exploration and analysis due to the Anglo-Saxon and Norse historical and literary tropes
that are an important part of its gameplay. Initially released in November 2011, Skyrim is
one of the most significant roleplaying games of the last decade. While the bare bones of
this thesis emerged out of a desire to highlight the knowing echoes of mediaeval
Germanic culture in Skyrim, one of the most significant revelations came in the form of
an essay produced by prominent mediaevalist and Tolkien scholar T. A. Shippey. At the
core of Shippeys recent essay The Undeveloped Image: Anglo-Saxon in Popular
Consciousness from Turner to Tolkien is the argument that the literary and historical
culture of Anglo-Saxon England is nearly non-existent and therefore irrelevant to modern
narrative media. Shippey is a noted scholar, and since the articles original release in
2000 the Cambridge University Press has reprinted it online in 2009, furthering its impact
on contemporary academic impressions of Anglo-Saxon studies and the relevance of
Anglo-Saxon ideology within a popular culture context.
I contend that this impression of the limited relevance of Anglo-Saxon historical
and literary culture is incorrect. Video games such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim show
the relevance and persistence of Anglo-Saxon and Norse literary and historical culture in
popular media, which results in a more developed image of video games as a powerful
story-telling medium.
Shippeys article raises a question about the topic of relevancy: namely, how does
one determine what is or is not relevant? He argues that Anglo-Saxon history and

literature is no longer relevant within academia and the humanities in general. However,
what Shippey fails to recognize is the relationship between academic relevance and
popular culture, from which everyone (regardless of profession) derives significant
amounts of meaning. That is why the exploration of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse ideas in
Skyrim is relevant to academic inquiry: the prominent use of these themes and tropes is
indicative of a greater interest in the relevancy of material within popular culture. This
is demonstrated by the emergence of similar concepts in television shows such as Vikings
or Game of Thrones, as well as their popular use within the gaming industry as a whole.
Further, the developers of Skyrim demonstrate an attention to detail and
significant use of primary source material that circumvents a tradition of ignorant
inheritance, resulting in a product which resembles current narrative and gaming trends,
but which actually features a careful renewal of the mediaeval roots of many of our alltoo-familiar narrative tropes. These efforts to create a game space so heavily inundated
by Anglo-Saxon and Norse historical and literary culture ultimately directs the players
behavior towards epic heroic ideals, perpetuating a specific image of heroism reminiscent
of Beowulf or Sigurd.
In order to demonstrate this learned and source-specific approach to game and
character creation, this thesis will provide an in-depth analysis of the parallels that exist
between specific aspects of the Skyrim game space and the mediaeval primary sources
that the developers used in the creation of Skyrim. In doing so, it will also demonstrate
how these Norse and Anglo-Saxon elements, be they literary, architectural, or historical,
ultimately influence the actions and behavior of the player in order to fulfill a specific
heroic archetype.

From a theoretical perspective, this thesis will make use of source study as a means
of highlighting the various aspects of Anglo-Saxon and Norse literary and historical
culture that are found throughout the Skyrim game space. What I see as the developers
pervasive use of Anglo-Saxon and Norse primary sources suggests that it is fruitful to
examine Skyrim within the context of a source study because source study allows for the
in-depth analysis of the intricate details for which Skyrim is so well known. The concept
relates directly to T. S. Eliots essay entitled Tradition and the Individual Talent, in
which Eliot argues that it is critical to understand a poet (or, in this case, a game
developer or author) within the context of the people and sources that have a direct
influence on their own work (49-53). In the case of Skyrim, many of these sources are
Anglo-Saxon and Norse texts that are utilized in the development of a fantasy narrative.
This approach will serve the dual purpose of demonstrating that Shippey is
mistaken in his contentions regarding the relevance of Anglo-Saxon culture within
popular media and illustrate the developers deliberate use of primary source material in
the creation of Skyrim in order to create an environment that is historically interesting and
influences player behavior.
Mediaevalists commonly make use of source study within their own research. The
benefits of source study are discussed by critics such as R. M. Lumiansky and Ralph
Norris, who both argue that the detailed analysis of a text for source-based inquiry is an
essential aspect of academic study which allows the reader to gain insight into the origins
and meaning of a particular body of work. For instance, Lumiansky discusses source
study in reference to Malorys Le Morte Darthur, arguing that

Once a student can believe as a result of factual comparison that Malory used
the alliterative Morte Arthure as a source for his Tale of King Arthur and the
Emperor Lucius, he can then examine Malorys handling of this source with an
eye for patterns which Malory intended (Lumiansky 5).
It is important to understand the link that exists between, say, Malorys aforementioned
tale and the alliterative Morte Arthure because it has a great impact on our perception of
both texts within the greater context of Arthuriana in general. Most importantly,
understanding the relevant pieces of the sources allows one to trace what is similar and
different in the new text, and thus trace the new authors artistry and themes. He also
suggests that the first essential in source study is . . . the comparison of one piece of
writing with an earlier piece; from such comparison the scholar concerned may maintain
that the author of the later piece used the earlier piece as source (Lumiansky 5). Having
established the new fact of such a source, the source scholar then considers the
similarities and differences between the two texts, thereby increasing our understanding
of the meaning, theme and structure of the borrowed material in its new narrative or,
for my purposes, even new medium (Lumiansky 6). Like Lumiansky, I believe that
when a scholar establishes this kind of probable source relationship . . . [she or] he has
added a new fact in the field of literary history (Lumiansky 5). There exist deliberate
connections between Anglo-Saxon and Norse primary source material and aspects of
Skyrim integral to the overarching plot and gameplay as a whole. This is quite relevant in
regards to a statement made by Norris, who argues that, source study has also been of
essential practical use in the case of Malorys work in helping establish even the text that
ought to be read (Norris 5).

The argument that source study is a necessary aspect of determining the critical
importance of texts is heavily related to discussion of game studies within a mediaeval
context because, within my experience, the critical field of game studies does not receive
the amount of recognition and attention it deserves. The continued relevance of articles
such as Shippeys stand in testament to this fact: there is the potential for a significant
amount of exchange between the fields of mediaeval and game studies that goes
undocumented or unacknowledged, and hopefully a source study such as the one which I
propose helps to highlight why it is important to pursue such lines of inquiry and
The thesis proper consists of three chapters, each one highlighting a different
element of Skyrim that sufficiently parallels Anglo-Saxon and Norse literary and
historical cultures. Chapter One is primarily concerned with the mead hall structure and
how it operates in-game as both a centre of socio-political power and as a statement of
honour and glory, two concepts central to Anglo-Saxon and Norse heroism. Building off
of discussions by Stephen Pollington and other critics, I attempt to bridge the similarities
that exist between the mead hall of Beowulf and those we understand through
archaeological and material culture evidence. This culminates in a discussion of how
these ideas are consolidated within Skyrim in the form of mead halls such as
Dragonsreach, ultimately demonstrating how developers make use of specific AngloSaxon and Norse material in order to create significant centres of gameplay that emulate
historical and literary tropes which are central to character development. To further

reinforce this point, I delve into the player-NPC1 and NPC-NPC dynamics that exist
within the game space and comment on historically accurate understandings of the lordretainer relationship, an ideological concept central to Anglo-Saxon and Norse society
which plays an important role in character development for many Anglo-Saxon heroes.
This is done within the theoretical context of J. R. R. Tolkiens conceptualization of a
successful fantasy narrative in his essay On Fairy-Stories in order to explore the logic
behind the developers choice to make deliberate use of Norse and Anglo-Saxon source
Chapter Two delves into the mythology of Skyrim and the parallels that exist
between the Norse and Nordic pantheons, including the similarities that are found
between both major and minor mythological figures and undead villains. There is a
particular focus on the Norse god Odin and his Nordic counterpart, Shor, in which I
highlight the multiple ways the developers have attempted to emulate the famous Norse
gods traits and actions through their own mythology. This chapter also discusses the
similarities that exist between Norse and Nordic conceptualizations of the afterlife in
Valhalla and Sovngarde and how the player engages with the fabled hall of heroes
firsthand. The afterlife plays a crucial role in the main quest line of Skyrim and has a
significant influence on character progression and development; therefore, it is crucial to
understand the connections that exist between the Norse and Nordic locations and how
the player engages with both environments in a similar way. In the context of the
afterlife, this chapter also touches on the draugr villain that is prominent within Skyrim
and how it operates as a representation of the developers interest in utilizing primary

1 Please note that NPC refers to non-playable character, a figure programmed
within the game that is not controlled by a player.


source material in order to encourage the player to participate in an inherently Northern
European epic-heroic tradition.
Chapter Three of the thesis looks at the relationship that exists between two
central aspects of gameplay in Skyrim: dragons and the conceptualization of Anglo-Saxon
and Norse heroism in the game. One of, if not the most prominent aspects of gameplay is
the storyline that centres around the players role as Dragonborn, a mortal with the soul
of a dragon who can use that power for selfish or selfless reasons. This chapter
accordingly investigates the importance of dragons within Norse and Anglo-Saxon
literary culture and why they are perceived in such a prominent but destructive light. This
culminates in an investigation of the similarities between Germanic conceptualizations of
dragons and those within Skyrim and the important relationship that exists between
dragon and player within the game space.
Overall, this thesis will demonstrate how game developers effectively utilize
specific historical and literary sources in order to create a fascinating and engaging
landscape which impacts player behavior. Additionally, it will disprove Shippeys
argument that Anglo-Saxon literary and historical culture is irrelevant within a
contemporary context, most notably through the developers deliberate use of primary
source material from Anglo-Saxon England.

Chapter I: The Construction of Fantasy, Nordic Architecture, and their AngloSaxon and Norse Literary and Historical Antecedents

On December 12, 2013, The Examiner dubbed The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim the best game
of the generation, with multiple reviewers citing its massive scale and attention to detail
as a few of the many reasons why Skyrim is the deepest game of this generation
(Ruygrok, crowns The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as Game of the
Generation). As a body of work, Skyrim2 represents the capabilities of the video game
industry to produce games that are exciting and entertaining, but it also utilizes
significant historical and literary sources in order to influence player behavior and
engagement. Many other critics have similarly noted Skyrims level of fun and
entertainment: IGN, one of the most significant online communities related to the
discussion and evaluation of video games, ranks Skyrim 9.5 / 10 Amazing (IGN) and as
the seventh best RPG (role-playing game) of all time on IGNs Top 100 RPGS of All
Time list (IGN). Game reviewer Charles Onyett suggests that Skyrim is one of the most
fully-realized, easily enjoyable, and utterly engrossing role-playing games ever made
(Onyett, Say Goodbye to Real Life).
For myself, as both an avid gamer and an academic, the positive reception of
Skyrim in popular culture is interesting because of the Anglo-Saxon historical and literary

2 Please

note that the italicized use of Skyrim refers to the game itself, while any instances of use
otherwise refers to the geographical region.

paradigms which exist throughout the narrative space. The developers use of AngloSaxon source material in the development of Skyrim stands in testament to the inaccuracy
of statements made in scholar T. A. Shippeys paper, The Undeveloped Image: AngloSaxon in Popular Consciousness from Turner to Tolkien. Shippey suggests that AngloSaxon literature and history are essentially non-existent within the contemporary popular
Within academia, especially American academia, marginal may well be a fair
description. Outside academia one might feel that non-existent or perhaps
invisible would be more truthful: Anglo-Saxon history and Anglo-Saxon
England, in so far as there is any popular awareness of them at all, are in
suggestive ways regularly taken as being not marginal so much as off the page.
(Shippey 215-6)
If Shippey is correct in his assessment of the non-existence of Anglo-Saxon
literature and history within popular culture, how and why can Anglo-Saxon tropes be
used so effectively within Skyrim to develop an engaging fantasy narrative? The main
answer is appeal. The appeal of such a timeline and frame of reference is understandable
from the perspective of both the developer and the player: Anglo-Saxon and Norse value
systems appeal to the combat-oriented aspects of typical RPG gameplay (as will be seen
later in the thesis) and provide a cultural backdrop that is relatable through its
iconography yet far enough removed from our own sensibilities to operate successfully as
a fantasy culture and narrative.
On the topic of fantasy narrative construction, J. R. R. Tolkiens essay On FairyStories offers a number of convincing arguments that relate to aspects of the Skyrim


development teams use of primary source material. Tolkien argues that an essential
aspect of fantasy is that it contains not only fictional components, including magic and
races, elves and dwarves, but that these concepts exist in association with humanity,
within an environment both relatable and comprehendible, thereby allowing the reader or
player to engage more readily with the narrative. Tolkien calls this human element
recovery (57), a narrative experience or effect whereby fairy stories allow the reader or
player to gain an external perspective from which to review his or her place within the
world. This idea is most effective if the world is removed from our own, yet still retains a
number of relatable planes that place the reader or player in a familiar (yet foreign)
position. Therefore, Skyrims developers use of specific historical, literary, and sociopolitical sources from the Anglo-Saxon and Norse periods is highly significant in the
establishment of an overarching narrative that resembles our own world and therefore
makes some of the developers creations, such as the race of the Nords the games focal
group, who are imagined as being of Northern Europe descent - a relatable element of the
game. These relatable elements cement certain cultural tropes and ideals within the
overarching game narrative and impact the players experience substantially, as will be
seen as the thesis progresses.
An analysis of the sources the developers make use of in the creation of Skyrim
reveals that mediaeval material culture and socio-political concerns are among some of
the most dominant tropes within the game space. A source study of Skyrim helps to bring
to light these literary and material sources and the effect they have in contributing to the
games sense of narrative and historicity. I am employing source study both in its
common sense of a quest for narrative sources, but also in a broader sense of discerning


historical or material sources. It is these latter materials with which I am particularly
concerned in this chapter, though the nature of the evidence requires some literary
analysis as well.
Before delving into this subject in relation to Skyrim, the term material culture
must be fully fleshed out within the context of a literary and historical lens. Nadine Pence
Frantz defines material culture as the physical, material objects that cultures create and
use in the course of common life (Frantz 791). Similarly, Maren Hyer and Gale OwenCrocker define the term as the aspect of human life that centres on the creation and use
of objects the things that make up the everyday as well as the symbolic items used by
the people in a given society (Hyer & Owen-Crocker 2). In essence, material culture
refers to a cultures landscape, buildings, and physical objects, and the study of such
materials enables scholars to discern information about social conventions and rituals,
improving our understanding of a particular culture as a whole. In the context of AngloSaxon and Norse studies, material culture has a very significant place within scholarship
because a large portion of our understanding of the system of the lord-retainer
relationship (for example), comes from our understanding of the mead hall, one of the
most iconic buildings in Northern European literature and history.
The mead hall is more than merely a pre-Norman timber structure in Anglo-Saxon and
Norse history. It represents the significant epic-heroic conventions that were fundamental
to the structure of Northern European society; it also functions as a location central both
to the settlement and governance of early English kingdoms. Texts such as Beowulf,
which have the best documented hall from contemporary literature in the form of
Hrothgars building Heorot (Pollington 101), are essential to our understanding of the


mead hall as a centre of socio-political power within a community. F. M. Stenton argues
that, there is no doubt that this literature represented real life (Stenton 302); therefore
Anglo-Saxon literary sources are essential to our understanding of the mead hall from a
literary, historical, and cultural perspective. The developers of Skyrim make significant
use of the mead hall both as a cultural object and as a socio-political venue. In fact, all
nine of Skyrims holds (i.e. the governing cities for specific regions) make use of mead
halls both in the historical Anglo-Saxon and Norse sense and as symbols of epic-heroic
convention and power as seen in texts such as Beowulf3. These halls operate as points of
reference for the player and reinforce the Northern European epic-heroic conventions
which dominate the game through the relationship that exists between questing and the
mead hall environment. The mead hall has an implicit effect on the players engagement
with quests and NPCs throughout the game, operating as a focal point for activity in the
various holds of Skyrim. This effect relates to Tolkiens idea that material objects help
evoke the players sense of identity within an engaging fantasy narrative, in which the
player is more apt to engage with different aspects of the narrative based on the setting
and environment. Because of this historical and literary precedence, Skyrims mead halls
are recognized as important structures within the game space and thus have a
fundamental impact on player behavior because they direct the players movements and
opportunities for adventure.
Mead halls function as physical indications of the wealth and reputation of their
lord. In his aptly named book-length study The Mead Hall, Stephen Pollington claims


The word hold derives from the Old English word heall and heald. According to the
Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, heall is defined as a a hall, residence and heald
means hold, guardsmanship, protection, rule. This is yet another example of the developers
attention to detail and the explicit use of Anglo-Saxon and Norse sources.


that the window of the hall is a window into early English society (Pollington 17). The
difficulty with studying Anglo-Saxon and Norse culture is that comparatively little in the
way of architecture or literature survives from these periods. Therefore the existing
material is of the utmost importance to our understanding of these cultures as a whole.
The scops4 description of Hrothgars Hall in Beowulf is, as previously mentioned, one of
the most iconic and useful descriptions available:
So his mind turned to
hall-building: he handed down orders
for men to work on a great mead-hall
meant to be a wonder of the world forever;
it would be his throne-room and there he would dispense
his God-given goods to young and old
but not the common land or peoples lives.
Far and wide through the world, I have heard,
orders for work to adorn that wallstead
were sent to many people. And soon it stood there
finished and ready, in full view,
that hall of halls. Heorot was the name
he had settled on it, whose utterance was law.
Nor did he renege, but doled out rings
and torques at the table. The hall towered,
its gables wide and high and awaiting

4 Defined by the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon dictionary as a poet. Scop. The
Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.


a barbarous burning. That doom abided,
but in time it would come: the killer instinct
unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant.
(Beowulf 64-85)
This passage demonstrates the multi-layered significance of the mead hall as a
geographic location and a symbol of power. The building functions as a centre of
government for Anglo-Saxon and Norse kings. At the same time, the grandeur and
prestige of the building denotes the power of the ruler; therefore King Hrothgars concern
with making Heorot the greatest mead hall ever constructed is as much an assertion of
power as it is a statement of heroism and ability. This is seen most notably through the
poets description of the hall as both a great mead-hall and a throne room, out of
which Hrothgar dispenses gifts to his retainers, enforces laws within his kingdom and
oversees the daily activity of the community immediately surrounding Heorot. Overall,
the passage demonstrates a marked interest in power and reputation: two traits significant
in nearly every facet of Anglo-Saxon and Norse society.
The mead halls in Skyrim parallel those of Beowulf in size, architecture and sociopolitical implications. One of the most significant mead halls in Skyrim is found in
Whiterun hold and is known as Dragonsreach.


Figure I: Dragonsreach, a mead hall in Skyrim

As Figure I clearly indicates, when designing Dragonsreach the developers obviously had
in mind notions of power and reputation similar to those that consume Hrothgar in his
construction of Heorot as well as other monumental forms of archtiecture. The Elder
Scrolls Wiki5 entry on Dragonsreach demonstrates a marked concern not only with the
history of the Nords of Skyrim, but of distinct themes of tradition and honour which
permeate both the world of Skyrim and Anglo-Saxon literature:
It was constructed in the ornate wooden style of the great Nord longhouses of
ancient days. Visually and politically, it is very much the focal point of the entire
city itself and perhaps even Skyrim as a whole. As is true of the keeps in other
cities, Dragonsreach serves many important functions. As the seat of government
in Whiterun, Jarl Balgruuf the Greater resides here as its ruler. Dragonsreach is

5 The Elder Scrolls Wiki is a fan-made encyclopedia of knowledge for all matters
related to The Elder Scrolls universe. With over twenty-six thousand pages separate
entries on various topics it is the best source of information for any of The Elder
Scrolls games outside of the immediate game space.


situated in the Cloud District of Whiterun and, as the name suggests, it is
elevated from the rest of the city. According to the Jarls steward, Proventus
Avenicci, the building gained its name after a battle with a dragon that left the
victorious party as rulers of the clouds. (Elder Scrolls Wiki, Dragonsreach)
Dragonsreach has a long and significant history that explains why the structure is so
large. The extensive addition (the discernibly larger structure at the back of the building)
was constructed in an attempt to trap a dragon during a conflict with the Dragon race
outside of the players timeline and serves as a backdrop that adds historicity and power
to this particular location. The significance of dragons within Skyrim will be discussed
later in the thesis, but for now it is necessary to know that to capture a dragon within
Dragonsreach is a powerful feat that honoured Whiterun as a hold and King Olaf OneEye (who responsible for capturing the dragon) and his lineage for many years to come.
Indeed, Jarl Balgruuf the Greater (a major character in Skyrims main quest line) is a
direct descendant of King Olaf, which demonstrates the significance of lineal ties and
blood rights to the throne. These lineal affiliations parallel those of both Anglo-Saxon
and Norse positions of power, in which an individual was thought to be a great leader or
hero if his or her heredity reinforced his or her own reputation. This cultural convention
can be seen prominently in Beowulf with Hrothgars warm greeting of Beowulf into his
Hall. Crucially, his respect for the warrior is partly based on Beowulfs heritage and his
fathers prominence, which Hrothgar describes during their first encounter:
I used to know him when he was a young boy.
His father before him was called Ecgtheow.
Hrethel the Geat gave Ecgtheow


his daughter in marriage. This man is their son,
here to follow up an old friendship.
(Beowulf 372-6)
One of the most interesting scenes in Beowulf occurs when Wulfgar assesses
Beowulfs character. Not only does this give us insight into the role of retainers within a
mead hall, but it also demonstrates to those in attendance at Hrothgars court that
Beowulf is worthy of an audience with the lord, thereby speaking to Beowulfs heroic
character as a protagonist. When players initiate the main quest line of Skyrim, named
Dragonborn Rising, they must similarly make their way to Dragonsreach in order to
deliver news of an impending dragon attack to the Jarl. Upon entering the mead hall, the
Jarls housecarl Irileth will approach the player and likewise assess the protagonist. This
is important because this assessment or challenge parallels that which transpires in
Beowulf, therefore mimicking the adjudicating process which ultimately increases the
protagonists value as a heroic character. This process entrenches the player within the
social-political dynamics of the mead hall, initiating him or her into the Nordic customs
that they will follow with many other NPCs throughout the game.
Skyrims developers include a number of intricacies within the dynamic of the
mead hall to frame it as a focal point of the game as a whole. The player initiates
gameplay by travelling to the mead hall of a distinctive region where he or she
encounters a number of quest givers who play major roles in the overarching fantasy
narrative. By initiating the first quests through the necessity of travelling to
Dragonsreach, the developers make it very clear that the player can travel to any hold and
encounter similar quests if he or she seeks out the mead hall of those regions. Much like


the mead halls of Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature, a protagonist can enter a Hall and
almost always expect some sort of quest or conflict which needs resolution. The Hall thus
provides a location for adventure6, a point of initiation for the hero that dictates player
movement throughout the game space. The inclusion of such points of reference in the
game is important for player engagement and development because they offer the
opportunity to seek out stories in which the player can actively participate. Will
Hindmarch believes this is a crucial aspect of player development, arguing that stories
that develop over the course of gameplay are personally exciting and meaningful in a way
that movies and novels arent, but they achieve this level of personal meaning at the
expense of secondhand meaning. (Hindmarch 52) In this way, the mead hall is a
protagonist-centric construct which allows players to delve into the excitement of
gameplay throughout the course of the game. At the same time, the mead hall is an echo
of mediaeval culture that provides the player with an understanding of mediaeval history
and culture with a host of intertextual references and themes.
Another crucial aspect of the game developers construction of fantasy narrative is
the relatability of certain aspects of our world within the game space. Tolkiens
sentiments regarding the nature of Farie were discussed previously and his argument can
be applied to Skyrim fruitfully. Tolkiens construction of Middle-earth with its thinly
disguised references to mediaeval history is a great example of one way that storytellers
add an element of realism and identification to their narrative. By placing Middle-earth
within the greater trajectory of English myth and history, Tolkien bridges the gap
between the cultural history of the two regions which allows for the exchange of ideas


The heros call to adventure is a standard component of heroic literature and of its modern
critics. See especially Campbell, Bowra, and de Vries for a significant examination of this


between these two planes. Where epic-heroic convention is essential to the everyday life
of heroes in The Lord of the Rings, it is equally significant in the lives of the readers who
can understand such ideals within the context of their own world. Norse architecture
dominates the game space, but mead halls are one of the most important indicators of the
Anglo-Saxon elements of architecture within the game because they are some of the most
accurately rendered aspects of real-world relatability in Skyrim. Rosedahl goes into great
detail about Norse architecture and some of its most iconic elements:
The exterior of houses was determined by the materials and method of
construction, but the houses of the nobility were distinguished by size, elegant
form and good craftsmanship. They probably also had splendid carvings and
painted decoration in brilliant colours on parts of the exterior like the remains of
early wooden churches, sometimes re-used, such as Urnes Church in western
Norway, Hemse in Gotland, and Hrning Church in north-east Jutland. Secular
buildings were no doubt just as grand (Rosedahl 43).
Although, as just argued, Dragonsreach has thematic and ideological associations with
Anglo-Saxon literature and culture, Rosedahls description makes clear that the
architectural layout pictured in Figure I is equally typical of historical Norse buildings,
thus clearly connecting common Norse material practices with those found throughout
Pictured previously was Dragonsreach, easily one of the most iconic mead halls in
the Skyrim game space. Pictured below is Urnes Stave Church of Norway, built around
1130 at the height of Viking power in Norway and during the early stages of Christian
expansion into the region:


Figure II: Urnes Stave Church

There are obvious and immediate parallels between the architecture of Urnes Stave
Church and Dragonsreach. Both buildings feature rising, prominent rooftops which peak
at severe angles with multiple levels. The thatched roofs are similar, and the wood used
in construction appears to be of similar tone as well. One of the most striking similarities
between the two buildings is the peaking roofs, which seem to be leveled in the same
fashion. Helen Clarke and Bjrn Ambrosianis comprehensive study of Viking Age
towns and building types makes an in-depth analysis of a number of Norse buildings that
are paramount to our understanding of Viking architectural techniques. Through looking
at the remains of building sites including Hedeby, Sigtuna, Lund, Dublin, and numerous
others, Clarke and Ambrosiani conclude that a thatch-style roof was typical for Norse and


Anglo-Saxon buildings of numerous sizes7 (Clarke 142-8).8 Therefore, the sloping roofs
such as those seen in both Dragonsreach and the Urnes Stave Church are typical of
Viking building practices These ideas are reinforced in descriptions about the Urnes
Stave Church as seen in its UNESCO World Heritage Site description, which states that
the roof frames were lines with boards and the roof itself covered with shingles in
accordance with construction techniques which were widespread in Scandinavian
countries (UNESCO, Urnes Stave Church). Richard Hall explores this topic in-depth
in his book The World of the Vikings, where he comments on the typical longhouse
design of Viking buildings:
The long walls of longhouses were often slightly curved, so that the widest part of
the building was at its centre. Longhouses varied considerably in length but were
normally about 5m (16ft) wide, and had their roofs supported internally by rows
of paired posts that divided the building lengthwise into three, creating the effect
of a nave and aisles. (Hall 40)
Although Dragonsreach does not conform to the average size of a longhouse due to the
Nord aesthetic and cultural emphasis on epic scale, there are a number of distinct
similarities between its inherent structure and that of a typical Viking longhouse. For


In the effort to avoid generalizations, please see Clarke and Ambrosiani, Towns in the Viking
Age 142-8 and Hall, The World of the Vikings 40-3, each of whom highlights some of the other
building practices of the Vikings. Although thatched roofing was quite common, geographical
orientation and resource availability resulted in the use of thatch, turf, and shingles depending on
regional custom. The commonalities that exist within Norse and Anglo-Saxon environments for
roofing practices relate more to the sloping, thatched aesthetic style, not necessarily the materials
Please note that the use of Viking refers to Norse peoples and practices pertaining to a
specific period of time between the seventh- and eleventh-centuries. The two are sometimes used
interchangeably because the literature in question throughout this thesis originates during this
period of time and thus the people typically known as Vikings are the same Northern
Europeans associated with Norse history, literature, and myth.


instance, Figure III demonstrates the partitioning of Dragonsreach into three discernible
sections, thus conforming to typical Norse architectural patterns and style.
The interior of the buildings also share similar architectural patterns, with wood
carvings that denote similarities in pattern origins. Clarke and Ambrosiani argue that one
of the key structural elements in identifying a typical Norse structure is the interior
appearance of the support frames, which, by the beginning of the Viking age were
being replaced by structures where the weight of the roof was carried by sturdy posts in
the walls (Clarke and Ambrosiani 142).

Figure III: Interior of Dragonsreach.


Figure IV: Cross-sections of Viking age buildings from Clarke and Ambrosianis text
Towns in the Viking Age


A comparison of Figures III and IV demonstrates that the developers of Skyrim make
considerable use of Norse architectural principles such as those outlined by Clarke and
Ambrosiani. Such use of specific material culture antecedents adds to the significant
similarities that exist between the mead halls of Skyrim and those of Anglo-Saxon and
Norse history and literature. At the same time, within the game, the support structures
themselves hearken back to a past age in which epic proportion and scale were
fundamental components of the Nord culture and everyday lifestyle. This in itself is a
reflection on themes of loss which not only dominate the cultural landscape of Skyrim,
but of Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature as well.
One could compare the term for both peoples, Nord and Norse, and use the
phonetic similarities to denote further resemblances in cultural heritage; but due to the
visual nature of video games and the astonishing accuracy of the buildings rendered in
Skyrim, names alone do not have nearly the same effect as halls. Dragonsreach, although
quite a bit larger in scale, mirrors a number of the iconic elements of Norse architecture,
therefore operating as a point of reference and a visually engaging stimulus for many
players, especially those who possess some understanding of traditional Norse
architecture. Even those players who do not possess such an understanding will
nonetheless recognize the importance of the building due to its epic scale and proportion.
This recognition comes as a direct result of the developers use of specific sources,
thereby offering the sort of thematic consequence which R. M. Lumiansky attributes to
source study (6). The immensity of Dragonsreach as a building and an heroic signifier
also parallels the epic-heroic tradition out of which Beowulf operates, symbolizing the
greatness of the hold of Whiterun, and consequently its rulers, through its sheer size and


magnitude. It is not an exaggeration to say that you can see Dragonsreach from nearly
any point in the hold surrounding the town of Whiterun, which illustrates the epic-heroic
scales akin to the literary sources that were used to develop the game. Pollingtons
description of Meduseld, the mead hall featured prominently in J. R. R. Tolkiens The
Lord of the Rings, identifies reasons for such size:
Meduseld the house of Eorl was a thatched barn in the same way and to the
same extent that Anglo-Saxon halls were large, wooden buildings with a wide
range of practical functions. These halls served as the focal points of the
communities they served all commercial business was witnessed there, all
justice was enacted there, all judgments were spoken there, all contracts were
made and dissolved there, all praiseworthy deeds began and ended there. The hall
and its community were identified, one with the other. (Pollington 17)
Scholars acknowledge that Tolkiens Rohirrim, including their king and his Hall, are
modeled on the Anglo-Saxons (see, e.g., Shippey, Road 106), but even without this
recognition I would argue that what Pollington says of Meduseld is equally applicable to
Anglo-Saxon and Norse halls, as well as to those in Skyrim. While Tolkiens work is
likely a source of information for some aspect of Skyrims development, the previous
discussion of the architectural accuracy and socio-political significance of Dragonsreach
stretches beyond that which Tolkien describes and moves into the realm of Beowulf and
critical source material pertaining to mead hall construction. Source study teaches us that
the larger the building, the larger the hold and therefore the more important the ruling
class or lord of that specific region. A mead hall as large as Dragonsreach would
accommodate a significant populace and all of the civil and governmental responsibilities


that the position of Jarl entails. In this way, the mead hall operates as a point of reference
for players and non-playable characters alike, and such references contribute to the
players experience as part of a greater narrative of which he or she is only a single part.
One of the most prominent themes of heroic literature is loss. Loss and the lordretainer relationship also feature quite heavily in Nord culture, particularly in relation to
player behavior within and surrounding the mead hall environment. K. S. Whetter
discusses this topic in his article Genre as Context in the Alliterative Morte Arthure,
demonstrating how loss plays an integral role within mediaeval heroic literature:
A defining feature of epic-heroic literature is precisely this focus on heroism and
its costs, the connections between life and death, glory and suffering. The
heros search for fame is paramount, but heroism and fame often secure hardship,
death or tragedy. What I wish to emphasize is that the suffering or death attendant
upon heroism need not be automatically critical, the result or indication of a moral
failing in the hero or of ideological unrest in heroic literature. Rather, death is the
paradox of heroism, both in this genre and this text. (Whetter 58)
Loss is especially prominent in Anglo-Saxon heroic and elegiac literature: loss of ones
home, loss of ones culture, but most importantly, loss of ones warrior band or
comitatus. The Wanderer is one of the most important examples of elegiac poetry in the
Anglo-Saxon canon, focusing on the grieving of an individual male who no longer has a
home. The following excerpt is indicative of those overarching themes:
Awakeneth after this friendless man,
seeth before him fallow waves,
seabirds bathing, broading out feathers,


snow and hail swirl, hoar-frost falling.
Then all the heavier his hearts wounds,
sore for his loved lord. Sorrow freshens.
Remembered kinsmen press through his mind;
he singeth out gladly, scanneth eagerly
men from the same hearth. They swim away.
Sailors ghosts bring not many
known songs there. Care grown fresh
in him who shall send forth too often
over locked waves his weary spirit.
(The Wanderer, 46-58)
This idea of The Wanderer, or a man without kin or country, relates to ideas of kinship
and the lord-vassal relationship which dominate socio-political relations of the AngloSaxon period. Eric John discusses both of these ideas, suggesting first that throughout
the Anglo-Saxon period, a mans position in life depended largely on the nature of his kin
and of his relations with them. Kinship relations were the chief source of protection, but
also the chief source of obligation (John 168). Kinship itself is an essential aspect of
both Anglo-Saxon and Norse cultures, but the lord-retainer relationship is just as
important, if not more important than that of kinship. Thus:
The kinship network was reinforced by the institutions of lordship and vassalage.
This society was held together by the bonds of lordship, or perhaps better by
the bonds and privileges of lordship. The great magnates were the vassals of their
lord the king; they would, in turn, have a number of ordinary warriors subordinate


to them. It is probable that the bonds were symbolized by the ceremonies of
homage and fealty (John 168).
Pollington makes a similar point when he suggests that, Enright [sic] contrasts the
leaders title of bread-keeper hlafweard, our word lord, with the name of the
dependents hlaftan bread-eaters. Service in return for the basics of life must have been
a commonplace form of social contract in Anglo-Saxon England (Pollington 185). Such
social contract[s] dominate Norse and Anglo-Saxon socio-political ideology, nowhere
more so than in the mutual obligations of the warrior band. Not only is the importance of
the comitatus in Anglo-Saxon culture present in The Wanderer, but it is equally as
prominent in The Battle of Maldon as well. In Maldon, one of Byrhtnoths loyal retainers
is indeed a hostage of his house, having Norse origins yet fighting for Byrhnoth to the
death regardless of any familial ties he might have with those who fight against his lord:
Thus the hostage himself willingly helped;
he was a Northumbrian of a brave family,
Ecglafs child; he was named Aescferth.
He hesitated not at the play of battle,
but shot forward many arrows;
here striking a shield, there cutting down a warrior,
all the while with his weapon he would wield.
(The Battle of Maldon 265-71)


As this passage demonstrates, Byrhnoths hostage felt as much fealty to his lord as any
other member of the Lords retinue and thus fought with his life in order to defend his
lord in his time of need.9
Significantly, such politically charged language exists within Skyrim as well,
particularly in reference to the players role and behaviours in the social and class
rankings that can be seen most prominently in the mead hall. As the centre of governance
for the various regions of Skyrim, the mead halls of the holds are political institutions in
and of themselves. The Jarls (the word for Earl in Scandinavian languages) of these
regions operate as distinct entities that actively engage in the lord-retainer relationship
through their own personal retinue and the guards that are employed within their regions
of influence as well. Jarl Balgruuf the Greater and his relationship with Irileth is the
perfect example of such a convention: in exchange for her fealty, Balgruuf pledges his
own allegiance to her and provides her with food, shelter, and the bounties of their
exploits. Hence one of the other common Anglo-Saxon poetic terms for lord, ringgiver. Pollington goes into a great amount of detail regarding this topic in his study of
the mead hall, providing a thorough explanation of the different roles one would find
within a mead hall and how their relationship with the lord of the house would operate
(181-98). As members of this elite group, the Skyrim Jarls retain a great amount of power
but they themselves pledge fealty to the High King of Skyrim, thus perpetuating the lordretainer relationship on another level of allegiance. Similar to Anglo-Saxon tradition, the
position of Jarl is hereditary, passing from parent to their first-born child. (Jarl, The
Elder Scrolls Wiki).


See John M. Hills The Anglo-Saxon Warrior Ethic for more information on this topic.


The lord-retainer relationship is of the upmost importance within Anglo-Saxon and
Norse society and has an equally significant impact on the player in Skyrim. Texts such as
The Fight at Finnsburh and The Battle of Maldon are indicative of this importance. For
instance, The Battle of Maldon focuses primarily on the unwise actions of Byrhtnoth,
whose hubris got the best of him and caused him to lead his men to their deaths during a
battle with Vikings. Upon his death, some of his men retreated, but many others stayed
and fought on in honour of their lord, even though their actions meant certain death:
Our hearts must grow resolute, our courage more valiant,
our spirits must be greater, though our strength grows less.
Here lies our Lord all hewn down,
goodly he lies in the dust. A kinsman mourns
that who now from this battle-play thinks to turn away.
I am advanced in years. I do not desire to be taken away,
but I by my liege Lord,
by that favourite of men I intent to lie.
(The Battle of Maldon 312-19)
The power of the lord-retainer relationship operates as a cornerstone principle of
Northern European epic-heroic poetry, and therefore has great significance in relation to
Skyrim because the player operates within this hierarchy throughout many of his or her
interactions in the mead halls of Skyrim10. The cumulative evidence is such as to show
that the developers clearly evoke such parallels deliberately in order to enhance the

10 See Joel Bazelman, By Weapons Made Worthy: Lords, Retainers, and their
Relationship in Beowulf (p. 112), Stenton 302, and, Dorothy Whitelock, The Beginnings
of English Society (29-47) for more information pertaining to the important role of the
lord-retainer relationship in Anglo-Saxon and Norse culture.


players personalized role within the game space as an aspiring member of the Jarls
For instance, although we can only speculate as to the reasons behind the
protagonist of The Wanderers loneliness,11 players of Skyrim have to come to terms with
a similar system of honour and trust during their endeavors throughout the nine holds.
Ultimately, trust plays an essential role throughout every major quest line in the game.
Whether players finds themselves fighting for the Jarl of Morthal or the Companions,
trust is gained through the successful completion of quests and the benefits are similar to
those described in the mediaeval lord-retainer relationship. As an adventurer, the player is
removed from a situation that would allow them to develop closer relationships with nonplayable characters. As in The Wanderer and other mediaeval source texts, the player is
ultimately an outsider who must prove his or her worth through the successful completion
of various deeds in order to be accepted by a certain society or organization. Most
groups, including the Brotherhood and the Thieves Guild, require some sort of initiation
before the player even gets to start the main quest line and gain access to their resources
and other members within the game.
One of the most astonishing emulations of the historical lord-retainer relationship
can be seen through the players interactions with the various Jarls and his or her ability
to gain status as a thane of the different holds throughout Skyrim. Although the title of
thane lacks the same loyalty required by the lord of Anglo-Saxon England, gaining the
title benefits the player greatly within the various holds as he or she becomes better liked


For more information regarding the wanderings of the Wanderer, please see Ferrell 201-4,
OKeefe, Heroic Values and Christian Ethics, and Anderson 158-60. All of these critics discuss
The Wanderer in depth, focusing specifically on the elegiac tone of the poem in relation the
comitatus relationship the protagonist laments through his wandering. Also pertinent to this
discussion is Bjorks Sundor et Rune.


by the non-playable characters within those regions and accordingly gains access to shop
discounts, the ability to purchase their own homes and land, and their very own
housecarl. The position of thane (spelled en in Old English) is defined by the Oxford
English Dictionary as a man who held land granted by the king or by a military
nobleman, ranking between an ordinary freeman and a hereditary noble (OED Thane).
This is equally true in Skyrim as in Anglo-Saxon England. To achieve such status within
the game, the player must finish significant quest lines for the Jarl of the region and gain
the trust of a determined number of villagers through the completion of specific quests
throughout the holds. By doing so, the player is able to gain the trust of the people of the
holds as well as that of the Jarl, thereby allowing him or her to reap the rewards of the
thane position and gain a place of value within Skyrim society.
In the context of roleplaying digital game narrative, protagonists generally do take on
an adventurer or wanderer role in order to achieve as much as possible in the various
locations across the game space. A source study enables us to realize the extent to which
the developers of Skyrim have ultimately created a protagonist role that is influenced by
notions of kinship, heroism, and the lord-vassal relationship that are such important
aspects of Anglo-Saxon and Norse culture. The evidence points towards this being a
deliberate action on the part of the creators, particularly through the ability to attain the
rank of thane within the socio-political structures of the various holds in Skyrim. It also
demonstrates the relevance and persistence of epic-heroic ideologies within a modern
context, and how the themes and cultural beliefs of the Anglo-Saxon people are relevant
within particular game narratives.


Much like during the Anglo-Saxon and Norse period, within The Elder Scrolls V:
Skyrim, the mead hall functions as a centre of government, commerce, and activity. Texts
such as Beowulf demonstrate the important socio-political role that the mead hall plays in
the daily activities of the Anglo-Saxon world, and the work of scholars such as Stenton,
Pollington, and Rosedahl reinforces this role through historical evidence. In reference to
the mead halls of Skyrim, we have discussed the socio-political, literary, and architectural
similarities between the structure within the game space and its historical and literary
counterparts, as well as some of the functions of the mead hall both in the game space
and reality. Comparisons of Dragonsreach to buildings such as the Urnes Stave Church in
Norway demonstrate the developers keen interest in and seemingly deliberate use of
Norse architectural patterns in the creation of mead halls within the game. A discussion
of the socio-political aspects of the game and the important role of the lord-retainer
relationship in relation to the protagonist reinforces the thematic and cultural parallels
between the Nords and the Anglo-Saxons and Norse. Ultimately, these specific cultural
and thematic parallels operate as points of reference and orientation within the game in
ways that Tolkien suggests are crucial to the development of a great Farie narrative (On
Fairy-Stories). These historical precedents influence the players heroic role,
culminating in an engaging fantasy narrative that makes use of significant Anglo-Saxon
and Norse primary sources in order to perpetuate a particular standard of Germanic epicheroic convention. The next two chapters will explore the religious and epic-heroic
ideological constructs of Skyrim further in order to determine some of the other ways the
developers make use of Norse and Anglo-Saxon source material to influence the heroic
model of the player.


Chapter II: Gods of War, Halls of Honour, and Paths of the Dead in Nordic and
Norse Myth and Literature

In his authoritative text on Viking history and culture, Gwyn Jones asserts that nothing
was more characteristic of the northern lands than the Old Norse religion (Jones 315).
To some extent this remains true even today. From a twenty-first century perspective, it is
easy to see that one of the most pervasive aspects of Norse culture is their religious
values and mythological pantheon. Comic and film franchises such as The Avengers, and,
more specifically, Thor, demonstrate how Norse mythological beings such as Thor and
Loki retain popularity within Western popular culture. Additionally, television programs
like the History Channels Vikings reinforce these sentiments through their own use of
the tropes which dominate Norse literary and cultural myth. Over the course of the
twentieth and twenty-first centuries, narrative depictions of Norse myth and legend in
new media have popularized Norse mythology in mainstream modern culture, an interest
notably reflected in Skyrim. However, what differentiates Skyrim from other
representations of Norse myth in popular culture is the developers attention to detail and
their extensive use of both literary and historical sources that ultimately result in highly
accurate reflections of Norse mythological structures and conventions within the game.
This demonstrates that these game developers are reaching beyond the commonly used


video game tropes and incorporating elements of mediaeval history and literature into
gameplay in order to create an in-depth, engaging environment that influences player
behavior through the perpetuation of epic-heroic convention within the game. While the
number of primary sources utilized in the conception of the game is unknown,12 source
study reveals major signs of their use, or at least the use of definitive scholarly studies of
such sources. Although biography is not always the most accurate method of literary
criticism, the fact that one of the lead developers (Kurt Kuhlman) holds a doctoral degree
in history from Duke University13 provides additional, albeit circumstantial, evidence of
the developers ability and willingness to consult such sources.
Undeniably, several subtle indications of such source use exist throughout the
game. A prominent example is the mention of Sleipnir, Odins eight-legged horse, within
the lineage papers of the quest Promises to Keep (The Elder Scrolls Wiki, Lineage
Papers). In this quest, Sleipnir is referred to as the great grandsire of the horse Frost,
who has a reputation within the game space for his exceptional stamina and speed. In
fact, within the context of programming calculations which determine the various
attributes of playable and non-playable characters alike, Frost has a stamina count of onehundred and forty-eight, much higher than the typical count of one-hundred and six for
other horses in the game. This subtle allusion to the mythological ancestry of Frost is one
minor way in which the Skyrim development team makes use of Norse sources, as

12 Despite several attempts, I was unable to get in contact with either the Bethesda
customer service team or the developers themselves regarding this question. Therefore,
the vast majority of my thesis relies largely on the evidence present in-game that source
study strongly suggests is connected to primary sources and representations of such
Anglo-Saxon and Norse literary and cultural tropes within Skyrim.
13 For more details on Kuhlmans work at Bethesda and previous experience in
academics, please see: Inside the Vault: Kurt Kuhlman. Bethesda Blog. Bethesda
Studios, 5 Dec. 2007. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.


Sleipnir is not a figure within the most dominant popular culture references to the Norse
mythos. Additionally, the inclusion of Sleipnir echoes an important section of the Saga
of the Volsungs where Odin helps the great hero Sigurd choose a steed descended from
Sleipnir (Volsung Saga 56). There are, moreover, other, more dominating aspects of
Skyrim which parallel some of the most important aspects of Norse mythology, notably
the Nordic equivalent of Valhalla.
In order fully to understand the importance of Valhalla and Sovngarde, it is
necessary to contextualize this reference within the greater Norse and Nordic pantheons
as part of a significantly larger mythological picture. According to Else Rosedahl, there
are two significant primary sources from which we derive the majority of our knowledge
of Norse mythology:
The most important sources are old poems about the gods from the anthology
known as The Elder Edda, written down in the thirteenth century, and Snorri
Sturlusons book [the Younger or Prose Edda] about the art of poetry from about
1220. This contains a detailed Norse mythology, which is as reliable as it could
be, given that it was written some 200 years after the introduction of Christianity.
(Roesdahl 148)
Henry Bellows suggests that the poems are great tragic literature, with vivid descriptions
of the emotional states of the protagonists, Gods and heroes alike. (Bellows, The Poetic
Edda) The Elder Edda is of particular importance as one of the only written sources
which outlines the Norse pantheon within the greater context of creation, discussing
important ideas such as the tree of the universe known as Yggdrasil and the various
relations between the gods that establishes the pantheon within a literary tradition. There


are numerous modern sources that attempt to consolidate this information into succinct,
concise summaries, but by far Gwyn Jones and Hilda Ellis achieve this with the greatest
clarity in their respective works, A History of the Vikings and The Road to Hel. Like
Rosedahl, Jones similarly notes that these two Edda sources are of paramount importance
to scholarly efforts in understanding Norse myth:
Norse conceptions of how the world began and how it must end are preserved in
two famous works, the verse Vlusp, the Sybils Prophecy, probably composed
early in the eleventh century [and contained in the Elder Edda], and the prose
Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson about the year 1220. (Jones 316)
In the context of Skyrim and the lore of Tamriel, the descriptions provided of
Norse mythological beings such as Odin are very important because similar game deities
are modeled on these Viking examples. Rosedahls description of Odin is similar to that
of Hall, emphasizing the gods significant role in the mortal realms of battle, poetry, and
intellect. This is seen both in his position as chief deity and the physical description that
relates to his ability to fight, and in his ability to impose his all-seeing presence upon the
mortal world through the use of his two ravens. The descriptions of Odin and his various
characteristics are very important in the context of Skyrim, where gods with similar
attributes and responsibilities play a significant role within the Nordic pantheon.
Sleipnirs minor role within Skyrim has already been noted: the horse was created
to appeal to and thus further engage players towards epic-heroic play styles who have an
interest in Norse mythologies and the pantheon of gods and would understand such a
reference. However, within the greater context of The Elder Scrolls universe there exists
a pantheon of gods that operates within similar paradigms as those of our own


mythologies. One of these gods in particular, named Shor, shares a number of common
traits with Odin. The Elder Scrolls Wiki, one of the most significant sources of
information pertaining to any of The Elder Scrolls games, provides a description of the
god Shor as, chief among gods within the Nord pantheon who exists as King of the
Gods before his doom (Shor). This description places him both within the Nordic
pantheon and as King of the Gods of other pantheons as well, in which he is referred
to as Lorkhan instead of his Nordic identity. The appearance of a multicultural god within
the Nordic pantheon is indicative of an extensive amount of research on the part of the
developers into how mythological deities operate within the respective pantheons of a
region such as the Germanic territories of Northern Europe. Hilda Ellis Davidson argues
that multiple titles are indicative of an incredibly powerful god, one accepted by many of
the cultures that worship the deity in question:
A god may be referred to by a title rather than a name, and a powerful deity is
likely to have many titles, which may be used in inscriptions as well as literary
sources, and are sometimes mistaken for names of separate deities. (Ellis
Davidson 60)
Odin, typically associated with the Norse pantheon, went by many other names in other
European pantheons. For instance, F. M. Stenton argues that several lines of evidence
suggest that the principal gods of heathen England worship were the common Germanic
deities Tiw or Tig, Thunor, and Woden (Stenton 98). Woden is a commonly used name
for Odin within Anglo-Saxon England. Although each culture has slightly different
beliefs based around this specific deity, the deity itself remains constant throughout each
culture. In the instance of Skyrims Nordic pantheon, Shor similarly goes by several


names and titles as well. Lorkhan is the most famous name for Shor outside of Skyrim,
operating within the Imperial pantheon as one of the most significant Aedra of the
world14; however, he is also known in Cyrodilic culture as Shezarr, The Missing God,
reflecting on the fact that he alone of the Aedra has truly died and vanished (Lorkhan).
Shors multiple identities parallel those of Odin and help add to the depth and complexity
of the religious narratives which exist within The Elder Scrolls universe. These mythical
identities also reinforce the developers own attention to historical detail as their religious
pantheons develop along similar geographical and cultural exchanges as those of
Northern Europe. These similarities relate heavily to Tolkiens discussion of the
importance of relatable or human elements within a successful fantasy narrative that
allow the player to engage in a gameplay environment that they can understand in relative
terms. By establishing a mythological pantheon that has inherited various aspects of its
conceptualization from our own cultural roots, the development team provides an element
of cultural historicity that allows the player to approach the game from a relatable, albeit
new perspective. Not all players will recognize such source use, but for those that do, it
adds to the narrative depth and historicity of the game and promotes a learned reading of
the game as a cultural text. Even those players who do not recognize the underlying
source material still benefit from the thematic use made of this material by the

14 Aedra is old Almeric for our ancestors. Please see The Elder Scrolls Wiki entries on
Aedra, Lorkhan, and Shor for further details. Shor not only operates as a major
deity of many of Tamriels principal cultures, but his name is reflective of the extensive
etymological and philological histories that develop within The Elder Scrolls universe
and further demonstrate the developers attention to historiographical detail within the
overarching narrative of the game series. As one of the Aedra, a religious term associated
with the original spirits of the universe, Shor exists within both cultures prospering
throughout Tamriel and those lost in previous ages. This identity is reinforced through the
use of the term Aedra, which comes from an old Aldmeric language, one of the original
groups within Tamriel that has since past into memory within their own histories.


developers, which thus encourages them to participate in an ongoing behavioral dialogue
with Norse and Anglo-Saxon literary and historical sources.
A particularly interesting fact about the worshipping of Shor is that his followers
accept him as a dead God, one who died fighting for the mortal Nords against foreign
Gods (i.e. of the Meri pantheon) who conspired against him and brought about his defeat,
dooming him to the underworld (Shor). Not only does the idea of mortality and
religion relate to our historical understanding of the Norse pantheon, but it also reinforces
Shors role within the land of the dead, drawing further parallels between him and his
Norse counterpart, Odin. Davidson provides a summary of Odins roles within the Norse
pantheon, highlighting his importance in reference to death and the dead:
Odin appears in the northern myths in three main aspects, as ruler of the land of
the dead, god of battle, and god of inspiration, magic and wisdom; his long list of
names emphasizes these varied characteristics and powers. In the myths as we
have them, he is Allfather, leader of the gods, some of whom are called his sons,
the eldest being Thor, according to Gylfaginning. (Davidson 76)
Although a leader of the Norse gods whose range of responsibilities extends past the
afterlife, Odins most significant role is as the harbinger of the dead: this role he performs
by gathering warriors who died fighting to his fabled mead hall named Valhalla, where
they await the end of the world, Ragnrok. These interrelated notions of Ragnrok,
Valhalla, and the select heroic dead play an important role in Norse mythology and
culture by shaping the warrior ethic that dominates Scandinavia during the Viking period
in general, and literary heroes like Sigurd and Beowulf, who are representative of such
values, in particular. Significantly, similar ideas about death and battle are fundamental


aspects of Nordic culture, both from a socio-political and mythological perspective,
effecting the narrative progression of gameplay as well as the Nordic mythology.
For instance, Davidson outlines the effect that ideals regarding death and virtue
have on Norse socio-political structures, most notably the upper class or warrior class:
From western Scandinavia we find a similar motif in early poems, two of which,
Eiriksml and Hkonarml, were composed in the tenth century by court poets in
honour of two Norwegian kings, Eirik Bloodaxe and Hakon the Good. In these
the dead king is described as entering the hall of Odin after his last battle, to join
the heroes feasting with the god; when he arrives at Valhalla, he is welcomed by
Valkyries, one of whom greets each newcomer with a horn of ale, and is then
taken in to meet Odin. (Davidson 37)
Davidson demonstrates the appeal Valhalla holds for the warrior classes that are
explicitly the targets of such notions of an afterlife. Both Roesdahl and Jones argue that
archaeological evidence such as that found in burial mounds throughout Anglo-Saxon
England and Norse Scandinavia demonstrate a distinctly upper-class worship of Odin
(Rosedahl 31-51, Jones 316-23). Many of the most grandiose burials and those mounds
investigated that produce warrior-grade armour and weapons have discernible tokens of
Odin, indicating his worship among those classes (Jones 323). Similarly, Shor is typically
associated with the upper classes of Skyrim, namely through one particular song that is
played by bards in most mead halls and inns throughout the province. The song, entitled
Shors Tongue, dates back to the era of Wulfharth, whose thuum15 is so powerful

15 Thuum refers to an ancient form of magic prominently used in Skyrim during
the late Merethic and early First Era, but have gradually become obscure. Shouts use


that it successfully vanquishes his most powerful foes and results in his election to the
position of High King of Skyrim. His first edict as ruler is to reinstate the validity of the
Nordic pantheon of gods, thus reinforcing the significant association between mythology
and upper class rule in Skyrim (Shor) which echoes a similar association in the AngloSaxon and Norse culture.
As previously mentioned, a key aspect of Odins power as a god is his association
with death. Davidson elaborates on this aspect of his character, discussing the
implications of such a power:
The myths representing Odin as the god of death are linked with his power to rule
the battlefield and to award victory to whichever side he chooses. In his desire to
bring great champions to Valhalla, he either comes to summon them himself or
sends the Valkyries, his female attendants, to escort them to the Otherworld when
their time on earth is over. (Davidson 76)
Odin is able to control victory on the battlefield through his ability to determine which
warriors will be taken from the world of the living to Valhalla. Such powers are well
known by specialists, as demonstrated by Ellis and many other scholars who corroborate
such accounts. For instance, Ellis analysis of Sturlusons Prose Edda results in the
following understanding of Valhallas purpose and physical form:
Here the word is used more than once to describe warriors who dwell with Othin,
who, we are told, chooses certain of those killed in battle on earth to dwell with him
in Valhll, his bright dwelling in Gladsheimr. The life they lead there is one of joy
and feasting with no mention of eternal conflict. However the hall is full of shield

the vocalization of specific words of power to create powerful magical effects.
(Dragon Shouts, The Elder Scrolls Wiki)


and mailcoats, it is haunted by wolf and eagle, the creatures of battle, and is large
enough to hold mighty hosts. There are over six hundred doors to the hall, and
through each doorway will pour hundreds to fight the wolf. (Ellis 66)
In multiple publications, Ellis Davidson illustrates both the epic qualities of Valhalla and
the bountiful rewards that exist for someone who chooses a life of violence above all else.
The prominence of such an ideology within Norse culture may provide one explanation
for the increase in violence during the Viking period from the early eighth to the eleventh
centuries, but, more importantly for the topic of this thesis, Valhalla provides an example
of one of the most significant direct parallels between the Norse and Nordic mythologies
that exists within Skyrim.
The main quest line in the entirety of Skyrims vast and lengthy gameplay
culminates with the players final battle against Alduin, the main antagonist of the
narrative, outside of Sovngarde, Skyrims version of Valhalla. The prominent (albeit
fictitious) writer Beridette Jastal describes Sovngarde thusly in his in-game text,
Sovngarde, a Reexamination:
It is time for Nords to learn the truth. Eternal life can be theirs, without the need
to spend an entire mortal life in vain pursuit of something completely
unattainable. In the end, all valiant Nords can enter Sovngarde. Dismemberment,
decapitation or evisceration seems a small price to pay for the chance to spend an
eternity in Shors wondrous hall. (Jastal 7)
Based on this description alone, the parallels between Valhalla and Sovngarde are
strikingly clear. The heroes of both the Nordic and Norse religions gain eternal life within
the walls of these fabled mead halls, halls that are also referred to as the halls of a


specific deity. These notable Norse undertones reinforce the warrior culture which
dominates Skyrims socio-cultural landscape and ultimately plays a significant role in the
development of not only the protagonist of the games character, but the characters whom
the player interacts with as well. Ultimately this means that contemporary players are
encouraged to adopt the ideas and ideals of Germanic warrior culture via Skyrim and its
Norse and Anglo-Saxon borrowings. They are asked to participate in a dialogue with
epic-heroic conventions of the past through a quest line that encourages engagement with
the ideological constructs of mediaeval Northern Europe, particularly through their
interaction with Sovngarde.
As previously posited, Sovngarde and Valhalla resemble the mead halls of
Northern Europe, but on a grander scale. Descriptions of Valhalla suggest that the mead
hall has over 600 doors to adjacent chambers and unlimited amounts of mead and meat
for consumption by the chosen warriors. Exceeding the size and grandeur of even the
most fabled of human constructed mead halls (as specified in Chapter I and seen in texts
such as Beowulf), Valhalla is the ideal of both Norse and Anglo-Saxon architectural
achievement and legend. Securing a seat in Valhalla is something that was desired by
many Northern European cultures during the mediaeval period and relates to the concept
of northern courage.
J. R. R. Tolkien outlines his theory of northern courage in his famous essay,
Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. In this piece, Tolkien suggests that there is a
distinct northern sensibility of courage which is promoted as the epitome of heroism and
which supersedes all other concerns, including death (Tolkien 117). What Tolkien calls
northern courage is the heros willingness to face death or defeat without despair.


Beowulf provides a good example of the expression of this sensibility, particularly at the
end of the poem where the protagonist sacrifices himself in a fight against a dragon to
win further fame and protect his people, even though he enters the battle knowing it
would be his last due to his age. Tolkien, as well as the mediaevalist community at large,
favours The Battle of Maldon as one of, if not the most prominent examples of northern
courage in Anglo-Saxon history and literature, citing the following lines as the epitome of
this ideal: our hearts must grow resolute, our courage more valiant, our spirits must be
greater, though our strength grows less (The Battle of Maldon, 312-13). This ideology
speaks to a form of heroism which is encouraged in many different genres of video
games (especially roleplaying games), but is of particular importance to Skyrim, in which
so many allusions are made to Norse mythology and ideals. Many stories of the heroes of
Skyrim, particularly in the texts and songs that are scattered throughout the cultural
landscape of the game, recount similar feats as those performed by the warriors in the
Battle of Maldon and Beowulf himself. For instance, Kolb and the Dragon is a choose
your own adventure-style text that follows the exploits of a hero named Kolb as he
attempts, much like Beowulf, to slay a dragon. As we shall see in Chapter III this is one
of the most significant reasons why Norse mythological paradigms play such a vital role
in the major quest lines of the game, and why Sovngarde itself holds the same amount of
power in the minds of the Nords as its counterpart Valhalla did for the Vikings in
mediaeval history.
The material culture of the game plays a vital role in demonstrating the
importance given to Sovngarde as a mythical location within Skyrim. It has a major
influence on player behavior within the game as the player attempts to appeal to the


warrior culture ethos that will allow them to gain admittance to this location. Not only
does the fabled hall feature heavily within the major quest line, it has a prominent place
within the entire Nordic culture, which is represented by its sheer physical appearance.

Figure V: Sovngarde Hall of Valour

In Figure V, one can see distinct similarities between the Mead Hall of Dragonsreach,
discussed previously, and that of the mythical Sovngarde. For example, the architectural
patterns are alike, although Sovngarde has a more dominating presence due to its massive
size. The buildings scale and structure reinforce a monumental, ancient quality typical of
Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythical structures. For instance, R. M. Liuzza describes a
famous Anglo-Saxon poem called The Ruin, dated to the eighth century, as a
monologue spoken by an unidentified character whose situation is unclear but who


seems to be cut off from human society and the comforts of home and friendship
(Liuzza 1). This text is itself fragmentary but seems to describe a destroyed stonework
building somewhere in southwestern England, referring to it as, wondrous is this
foundation the fates have broken and shattered this city; the work of giants crumbles
(The Ruin 1-2). While the decomposing state of the building is not relevant to Sovngarde,
what is quite relevant are the allusions to the supposed giants who once held the
technology to complete such a structure.
The Anglo-Saxons built in wood, not stone, and the ruinous building of the poem
is generally taken to be Roman. The historical fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth
century brought with it a significant decline in architectural abilities that resulted in the
construction of buildings throughout Northern Europe that did not initially exhibit the
same construction materials or scope as their earlier Roman counterparts. Because of this,
buildings such as the one described in The Ruin gain a mythological quality within
Anglo-Saxon and Norse cultures, resulting in multiple references to such works being the
constructs of giants. Skyrim exists within a similar historical and cultural framework
where the landscape is filled with larger-than-life ruins from ancient cultures thought to
be much more advanced than those which currently occupy the territory. For instance, the
Dwemer culture is renowned throughout Tamriel for its feats in engineering, including
robotic constructs who still function as guardians of Dwemer ruins even several millennia
after the races downfall. The Elder Scrolls lore indicates that the Dwemer all died off
many millennia ago, and thus all that is left of that great society are the ruins the player
can traverse in Skyrim. Sovngarde itself is thus a reflection of specific Northern European
literary and archaeological conventions through its epic stylization and its construction


out of sheer stone as opposed to the wood commonly seen in mead halls throughout the
Skyrim province. Epic both in proportional scale and in generic history, Sovngardes
appearance directly parallels an architectural style typically associated with Norse
structures, as demonstrated by its striking similarity to other mead halls in the game such
as Dragonsreach as outlined in Chapter I.
Upon entering the hall itself, the player encounters yet another set of allusions to
Nordic mythology which again adopt and adapt elements of Valhalla described in Norse

Figure VI: Interior of Sovngarde Hall of Valour, Mead Kegs


Figure VII: Interior of Sovngrade Hall of Valour, Roasting Meat

Stephen Pollington, a critic who features heavily in the previous discussion of mead halls
due to his authoritative text, The Mead Hall: Feasting Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England,
says the following about Odins Valhalla:
Old Norse mythology is replete with references to halls and feasts and alcohol. As
chief god, dins main hall in myth is Vlhll (Valhalla) in which the fallen
heroes the Einherjar, the gedriht of the god feast and drink to their hearts
content; he has another dwelling called Vlaskjlf. Vlhll is in a part of heaven
called Gladsheimr (land of happiness). Cooked meat is provided by a boar call
Shrimnir in a pot called Eldhrimnir by a cook called Audhrimnir. There is no
lack of anything desirable in the warriors afterlife. (Pollington 30)
Pollingtons description of the respites that Valhalla offers illustrates the similarities that
exist between the Norse and Nordic halls of dead warriors. The interior of Sovngarde is


reminiscent of the grandeur of the epic-heroic world that is found in many Anglo-Saxon
and Norse poems such as The Ruin, but it is implicitly linked to Valhalla through the
items it offers the warriors who live there. Pollington, Roesdahl, Ellis, and Davidson all
allude to the gratuitous amount of drinking that occurs within Valhalla, and Figure VI
depicts a place where excessive drinking is encouraged; therefore, regular drunkenness is
an aspect of the lifestyle at Sovngarde, too. The figure pictures one of the two mead areas
that dominate Sovngarde, thus placing the availability of mead to its warriors on the same
level as that of Valhalla. Feasting is yet another major theme discussed by most of the
cited critics; they all suggest that the warriors admitted to Valhalla feast heavily while
they are not fighting, with Pollington specifically citing boar as the food of choice for the
afterlife. As Figure VII partly demonstrates, boar is indeed the featured source of meat
for the feasting that occurs in Sovngarde. This is confirmed by written sources. The type
of meat roasting in Sovngarde is discussed briefly in the in-game text A Dream of
Sovngarde by Skardan Free-Winter, who writes that suckling pigs turned on an iron spit
over a roaring fire (Skardan 3). Although suckling pigs are indeed different from boar,
they are all members of the same genus (Sus) and thus closely related. This fact in
conjunction with the many boar-tusk goblets, candle holders and various other
adornments interspersed throughout the hall suggests that there exists a close relation
between suckling pig and boar in The Elder Scrolls universe. It also illustrates the close
relation between Norse and Nord myth, for the victuals of Norse Valhalla are emulated in
Sovngarde in the most minute detail.
The third and possibly most noteworthy parallel between Sovngarde and Valhalla
is seen in the warriors themselves. As the protagonist of the game, the player does not


actually die in order to get to Sovngarde, but there exist a number of other connections
between the two locations which demonstrate the significantly Norse roots of Valhallas
digital counterpart. The Poetic Edda, and in particular the poem Grmnisml, discusses
Valhalla to a great extent, with stanzas eight through ten and twenty-two through twentysix discussing the nature of the location and how the warriors are handpicked by Odin
and his Valkyries to live within its halls after their deaths. The leading scholars of the
Norse afterlife all mention these same elements, suggesting that heroes such as Beowulf
and Sigurd possess sufficient prowess and renown to be found feasting, drinking, and
roaming the halls of Valhalla in their afterlife. Sovngarde is discussed along similar lines
throughout the game, inferring that every great hero who has ever lived will go to the hall
when he or she dies as well. This concept is proven correct when the protagonist
encounters a number of heroes, namely Gormlaith Golden-Hilt, Hakon One-Eye, and
Felldir the Old, who colour the pages of the history books found throughout Skyrim and
play an integral role in the completion of the major quest line. In addition to their
importance as heroes, their names also offer subtle references to Odins appearance in
Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature, particularly in the case of Hakon One-Eye and Felldir
the Old, as Odin is regularly said to walk the lands of mortals as an old man missing one
eye. Hall reasserts these ideas in his assessment of the importance of Valhalla,
corroborating accounts offered by other critics in their description of Valhallas purpose
as a gathering place:
Renewal of a sort was also available to individual Viking warriors who died after
showing great valour in battle. They would be chosen by the Valkyries, female


assistants of the powerful god Odin, and join the feasting in Odins great hall,
Valhalla. For others, death took them to an underworld called Hel. (Hall 167)
The concept of renewal is of paramount importance within video game culture as a whole
because of the convention of allotting the player numerous lives and filling the game with
items that allow for the healing and buffing of a players character. In particular, it is of
great significance in Skyrim because a number of important plotlines revolve around the
idea of an afterlife and immortality. The player is faced with many different types of
renewal in the form of vampirism, lycanthropy, necromancy, and a variety of other lifealtering states during his or her travels throughout the open world, yet it is only through
great valour in battle, specifically against dragons, that players are able to achieve a form
of eternal afterlife and comfort. Other forms of afterlife, most notably the Soul Cairn (a
Nordic mythological location that resembles the Norse Hel which Hall refers to and is the
subject of Ellis book The Road to Hel) are detested and feared by the greater populace of
Skyrim and Tamriel as a whole. Only Shors Sovngarde is looked upon with any degree
of desire, setting the tone for the warrior-oriented Nordic culture and paralleling the
similarly combat-oriented Norse culture as well. The developers promote Sovngarde as
the epitome of afterlife, thereby encouraging the player to direct his or her behavior along
a path that allows one to emulate and exceed the deeds of those heroes that already reside
in the hall.
The appearance, alongside non-playable characters, of heroes in Sovngarde who
are directly related to the main quest line seems rather fortuitous and somewhat
unnecessary. This is due to the daunting task of killing the major antagonist of the game,
Alduin. However, it is the developers strong attention to detail pertaining to the other


heroes of the hall that demonstrates the considerable research into Norse and other
Northern European mythologies that enhances a players experiences within Sovngarde
and promote certain behaviors within the player. There are several other named heroes
that exist in the hall, the most important being Ysgramor, the most fabled and legendary
hero within Skyrims history and culture. The Elder Scrolls Wiki characterizes Ysgramor
in quite a positive light:
An Atmoran warrior, and the leader of the Five Hundred Companions. He is one
of the most legendary heroes of Men, and played a major role during the time
known as the Return in the late Merethic Era. Ysgramor is the first human
historian, as he developed a runic transcription of Nordic speech, which was
based on Elvish principles. (Ysgramor (lore))
Ysgramor predates the race of Man, as he is one of the founding ancestors of the species.
He is responsible for the colonization of Skyrim and, although he does not play a key role
within the major quest lines of the game, he is a very important character in the heroic
backdrop that helps emphasize the Norse and Anglo-Saxon literary and cultural tropes
that dominate the players experience in the game. The Imperial Geographic Society, a
group of historians within the Tamriel universe noted for their series of texts, A Pocket
Guide to the Empire, describe Ysgramor thusly: Out of this time also rose one of the
most legendary of all Tamrielic figures, Ysgramor, from whom all Nordic kings to this
day are descended (2-3). Ysgramor is the first hero to greet the player upon his or her
entrance to Sovngarde, which is the equivalent of a figure such as Beowulf greeting a
new hero upon his or her entrance to Valhalla. Ysgramor epitomizes all of the heroic
conventions of the Norse and Anglo-Saxons; he is a dominating presence within the


game lore and exemplifies the type of hero that the player would aspire to be within the
game. Ysgramors presence in Sovngarde is indicative of the developers conscious
decision to promote certain patterns of behavior in the player that would allow them to
attain the same type of renown as this fabled hero.
One of the most prominent aspects of the game that Ysgramor is involved in is a
group called the Companions, a mercenary company that swears fealty to the single best
warrior within the group and goes on adventures throughout Skyrim in the hopes of
finding renown. They represent the Anglo-Saxon comitatus retainer-retainee relationship,
thus playing a main role in enhancing the Norse and Anglo-Saxon elements of the game
through further promoting the development of relationships with non-playable characters
which emulate such a standard of interaction.16
In these and other ways, source study enables students and players (if they wish)
to see the many explicit parallels between the Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythological
pantheon and heroic ideology and their counterparts in Skyrim. These similarities play a
key role in developing a specific heroic model for the player that incorporates the
prevailing themes and tropes of Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature into the game space.
The player, even when ignorant of the sources themselves, is still confronted by the
themes and history created by those sources. The player is encouraged to adopt specific
epic-heroic conventions in order to attain the renown and status necessary to be held in
the same regard as Ysgramor and other heroes of Sovngarde. The modeling of gods such
as Shor on their Norse pantheon equivalents provides the sense of human relatability that

16 For more information regarding the comitatus in an Anglo-Saxon or Norse context,
please see F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971),
and James Campbell, The Anglo-Saxons (London: Penguin Press, 1991).


Tolkien suggests is so crucial to the construction of fantasy narrative. Sovngarde, the
Nordic representation of Valhalla, similarly promotes physical and metaphorical cultural
tropes such as the northern courage ideology that cements the Nord race within the
warrior culture of the Norse and Anglo-Saxons. The physical structure of Sovngarde
further promotes resemblances between Nordic and Norse culture because of its
architectural similarities to the mead halls discussed in the previous chapter, which are
such an important component of both cultures. Similarly important to both cultures is the
concept of the afterlife, and the developers also make use of a villain archetype that
serves to encourage the players engagement with epic-heroic northern tradition in this
One of the most commonly recurring video game archetypes is the zombie
villain character, one that is now ubiquitous in mainstream popular culture and seen in
countless movies and novels. The extensive use of the zombie archetype within popular
culture makes it quite easy to overlook the significance of the draugr within Skyrim as
anything but a non-playable character fulfilling a specific marketing need. After all, the
draugr are one of the most prominent villain archetypes present within the game and are
found in many combat instances. However, when one delves into the history of the
draugr within the literature and histories of the Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Nordic peoples,
one can see a complex model of villain that recurs throughout some of the major tenthand eleventh-century Norse texts. Equally as important, the developers use of the draugr
villain archetype encourages players to engage in elements of the Northern European
epic-heroic tradition through their multiple encounters with this antagonist.


From a historical perspective, the draugr exist as a mythological entity within
Norse religious and literary texts, exemplifying one of the most terrifying and haunting
facets of Norse religious beliefs. In essence, draugr are humans who come back to life
after burial to defend their burial mound or cairn and terrorize those living nearby. Their
prominent role within Norse sagas is a complicated one. Hilda Ellis Davidson elaborates
on this point in The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe, where she states:
The attitude to the dead in northern religion is by no means easy to define. Many
of the tales that have found their way into the Icelandic sagas express a primitive
attitude towards the dead, who are viewed as hostile to the living, grudging them
life and desirous to deprive them of it (Davidson 122).
The historical and literary sources detailing Norse conceptualizations of the afterlife offer
conflicting accounts of possible afterlives and confusion surrounding the source material
from which this information is derived. Thus, the task of defining the draugr as a group is
a difficult one. For instance, there are several Norse texts, most importantly Snorri
Sturlusons thirteenth-century Prose Edda, which attempt to outline and define the nature
of the afterlife for the Norse peoples. Sturlusons account focuses primarily on the
concept of Valhalla, arguing that all those men who have fallen in battle from the
beginning of the world are now come to Odin in Valhall[:] a very mighty multitude is
there, but many more shall be, notwithstanding which it will seem all too small
(Sturluson 50). This somewhat cryptic passage is one of several found throughout the text
pertaining to Valhalla. Sturluson also mentions Hel in several instances as well (see
Sturluson 16), but does not go into extensive detail about the notion of the undead or the
possibility of any afterlife outside of these two otherworldly realms.


In contrast to this, there are several accounts of the draugr that exist within Norse
sagas, most notably Grettirs Saga and Njals Saga. The sagas explicitly state that it is
possible to come back to life after death in the form of a draugr. For instance, Njals
Saga records the following tale about the death and burial of Gunnar Hmundarson, the
tenth-century Icelandic chieftain:
They threw up a grave mound over Gunnar and let him sit upright in it. It
happened at Hildarendi that a shepherd and a housemaid were driving cattle past
Gunnars cairn. Gunnar seemed to be very merry and was reciting verses in his
cairn (163).
In this passage the reader can see the implicit link between life and the afterlife; because
of Gunnars rather peculiar burial position he cannot move towards the afterlife and is
instead living in an undead state, as demonstrated by his singing and reciting of verses
around his cairn. According to the writer of Njals Saga, then, a possible alternative to
either Valhalla or Hel is life on Earth after death and burial. In other instances of this
saga, Gunnar is seen looking at the moon, when it is full, and disturbing passersby with
his singing (163). While this is an important source of information about the draugr and
the afterlife, it is also rather vague. There is no information about how Gunnar came to
become a draugr and whether it is related to a breach in burial practices (i. e. he was
buried whilst sitting upright) or because of a specific action or event that occurred during
his life. Gunnar is one of the most admired heroes within the Icelandic saga tradition,
therefore given the context of his literary reputation, how does one understand the
relationship between life and death in Norse mythology? According to his reputation,
Gunnar is the perfect candidate for Valhalla, yet he does not manage to achieve this


afterlife for unknown reasons. Equally, the relationship between life and death is central
to the Skyrim game space, as evidenced by the inclusion of locations such as Sovngarde,
the Soul Cairn, and draugr tombs, which demonstrate that there are multiple paths one
can take in the afterlife. These various models of the afterlife have an implicit effect on
player behavior because it encourages the exploration of these different planes of
existence, which appeals to the exploratory and wandering aspects of epic-heroic
The best-known source of information about the draugr in Norse literature is
Grettirs Saga, which illustrates their reputation as villains and creatures of immense
power and strength. The saga tells the tale of the folk hero Grettir, whose various heroic
exploits throughout Iceland give him a reputation near in stature to iconic individuals
such as Beowulf and Sigurd. One of the most astonishing of these adventures is seen in
his interactions with the draugr Glam, who rose from the dead to terrorize the people
living near his grave. In this text, Glams movement from life to undead status is
explained as a violation of burial customs: he was not properly buried at a church but
instead in a cairn at the site of his death with no official burial rites (72). Due to this
breach in custom, Glam haunts the farmstead where he once worked and terrorizes the
inhabitants until he is eventually slain by Grettir:
A little later the people found that Glam was not lying quiet. Terrible things
happened; many men fell unconscious at the sight of him, and others lost their
sanity. Soon after Christmas, people began to see him walking about the
farmhouse and were terrified by him; many of them fled away. Then Glam began
to sit astride the roof at night and beat it so furiously with his heels that the house


came near to breaking. Soon he was walking about day and night, and men hardly
found the courage to go up the valley, even on urgent business. All this was a
great calamity for the people in the district (72).
This passage demonstrates that the actions of Glam are consistent with those of the
draugr found throughout the game space. Draugr are seen as creatures of terror: their
main purpose within The Elder Scrolls universe is to antagonize the player and the local
populations who attempt to interfere with or invade their burial spaces. This role is seen
countless times in the players interactions with draugr and draugr-infested locations
throughout Skyrim gameplay. For instance, one of the players first quests in the main
quest line, entitled Bleak Falls Barrow, requires the player to enter a tomb inhabited by
draugr who defend a map of dragon burial sites. During this quest, the player encounters
draugr walking around inside and outside of the tomb, terrorizing locals day and night.
The draugr are feared by the NPCs, who actively discuss stories about farmers that have
been run out of their homes by draugr seeking to reclaim the area surrounding their
burial sites. These stories are consistent with those discussed in Grettirs Saga and
provide evidence as to the developers deliberate use of primary sources in order to create
a villain modeled after the Norse zombie archetype as opposed to those that exist in
contemporary gaming culture.
Ultimately, the draugrs prominence within the Skyrim game space is indicative
of their importance as a test against which the player can prove ones heroic value and
experience. They are utilized within this context by the developers because they are a
popular archetype within gaming culture and, more importantly, are found within Norse
and Anglo-Saxon sources as villains that allow the player to adhere to epic-heroic


conventions in securing their destruction. Heroes such as Beowulf and Sigurd are most
commonly known for their killing of monsters. Similarly, Grettir of Grettirs Saga
receives renown for his destruction of Glam the draugr. While there are multiple
instances in which these heroes must kill mortal men, their reputation is built on deeds of
a supernatural nature because it stands in testament to their ability to defeat an enemy that
is considered terrifying by the populace at large. Similarly, the player in Skyrim receives
the greatest renown or reward for the destruction of supernatural entities. Although
bandits and other mortal enemies exist, instances pitting the player against otherworldly
creatures result in greater reward and more repute. By creating quest lines and hiding the
most valuable rewards in the tombs of draugr and other supernatural entities, the
developers of Skyrim encourage the player to participate in the tradition of monster
killing that is a prominent aspect of the epic-heroic tradition. The use of draugr in this
context demonstrates an attempt to go past typical game conventions and tropes in order
to create a developed villain with mythological and historical precedence.
The next chapter will delve further into these attempts and their importance, most
significantly through the Germanic heroic traditions that exist within the game and how
the primary antagonists of the main quest line, dragons, are central to this tradition.


Chapter III: Where there be Dragons, there be Dragon-Slayers: the Importance
of Dragons in Anglo-Saxon and Norse Conceptualizations of Heroism

The concept of northern heroism plays a pivotal role in the players experience
throughout The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It has been established that the developers
encourage the player to pursue a specific epic-heroic tradition through the players
interactions with various aspects of the game space. One of the most important ways that
the developers do this is through the heros relationship with dragons, the major race of
antagonists in the game who are inseparable from the players experience due to the
players status as Dragonborn. However, such an assertion raises questions regarding
the epic-heroic tradition and how it functions within the game space. How can one
illustrate that the heroic role of the player within Skyrim is one of the northern tradition as
opposed to the traditional role of a hero within the context of video games in general?
There is a significant connection between these two heroic paradigms, but ultimately they
are represented in vitally different ways because the paradigms of expression between
source text and video game differ significantly.
The relationship between the northern literary tradition and Skyrim makes it
necessary to establish a brief working definition of heroism that extends through the
literature and into the game space of Skyrim. Source study and narrative tradition must


supply the evidence for connections between game and literary-historical tradition.
Academics such as C. M. Bowra, Joseph Campbell, and Dean A. Miller stand out as
having a significant impact on our understanding of the hero, but Bowra is especially
significant within the context of this thesis. Bowra argues that one of the central
principles of heroism emerges in the following circumstances:
A great man must pass through an ordeal to prove his worth and this is almost
necessarily some kind of violent action, which not only demands courage,
endurance, and enterprise, but, since it involves the risk of life, makes him show
to what lengths he is prepared to go in pursuit of honour (Bowra 48).
This statement defines the epic-heroic archetype in a good portion of the heroic literature
available for study: the elements of trial, action, courage, and risk are, in many ways, the
essence of heroic narrative. However, it must be stated that while some Icelandic sagas
focus on female protagonists, heroic poetry from Northern Europe is concerned primarily
with the deeds of men, as seen in Beowulf, Saga of the Volsungs, Njals Saga and
numerous other texts. Therefore, Bowras statement regarding gender is not supposed to
be exclusionary, but merely reflects the primary gender of concern in northern heroic
Those familiar with the general arc of many video games, in particular role playing
and shooter games, will notice the connection that exists between this working definition
of the basic epic-heroic narrative and that of game storylines. Many video games revolve
around protagonists who must overcome great odds in order to prove their worth and
establish themselves as great figures within their respective universes. As with literary
epic-heroic narratives, this generally involves some form of violent action and requires


great amounts of courage and moral, physical, or intellectual strength to accomplish said
goals. While I am in no way asserting this is the general definition of all video games,
many popular series including Mass Effect, Halo, and The Elder Scrolls Series make use
of a similar template in their construction of fantasy narrative. There is a thus a direct link
between the typical construct of heroism in epic poetry and that of many popular video
games. This link demonstrates the implicit effect that this particular notion of heroism has
had on our culture. In the case of Skyrim, this heroic ideal extends past the typical
patterns of heroism found in video games and back into the northern literary tradition
through the players implicit relationship with Norse and Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry.
This connection is further illuminated by Bowras study of heroism in Western heroic
poetry, particularly in his description of the quality of hero that sustains a particular plot:
Since [heroic narratives] are concerned with a superior class of fighting men, they
like to describe unusual feats of strength and skill, blows of which no ordinary
man would be capable but which are to be expected from heroes. The realities of
war are thus subjected to a selective process in which the thrills are heightened
and the taste for martial details amply satisfied (Bowra 56).
Distinct parallels can be drawn between the strength and courage of heroes who exist
both in heroic poetry and in game spaces. Texts such as the Saga of the Volsungs suggest
that the hero is a direct descendent of the gods, which thus explains his greater-thanaverage abilities. This is stated in the first few lines of the saga, which tells of a man
who was named Sigi, and called of men the son of Odin (Byock 1). Sigi is an ancestor of
Sigurd, the primary hero of the saga and therefore a descendent of Odin by bloodline. In a
similar way, game plots can justify the protagonists aptitude for magic, fighting, etc. in a


variety of fashions. The post-apocalyptic science fiction Fallout series, for instance,
justifies the players unique abilities and advantageous position in a desolated world
through the use of the vault system, a project established by the United States
government which ultimately allowed for several members of the human race to survive
the destruction of civilization and continue to progress over the period of a century
(Fallout, Bethesda). Players in Skyrim are placed in a similarly opportune position as
the Dragonborn, a unique privilege bestowed on a deserving individual at birth who can
communicate with and harness the power of the dragons thuum. This topic will be
discussed in-depth later in this chapter, but the parallel remains clear: there is a distinct
emphasis on both a specific type of narrative and specific type of hero within Skyrim that
has precedents in mediaeval heroic poetry. It is my contention that the developers of
Skyrim carefully renew Norse and Anglo-Saxon ideals of heroism in the context of
current gaming trends by incorporating specifically epic-heroic source texts into game
While Bowras working definition of heroic poetry is integral to our
understanding of heroism within game spaces and their literary counterparts, he neglects
to discuss a significant aspect of northern heroic poetry which plays a paramount role in
The Elder Scrolls series. J. R. R. Tolkien famously identified this theory of [Northern]
courage in his 1936 lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. According to
Tolkien, the concept of northern courage is a central aspect of Northern European heroic
literature. Speaking of the interaction of the authorial imagination and historical context
Tolkien states that:


One of the most potent elements in that fusion is the northern courage: the theory
of courage, which is the great contribution of early northern literature. This is not
a military judgment. I am not asserting that, if the Trojans could have employed a
northern king and his companions, they would have driven Agamemnon and
Achilles into the sea, more decisively than the Greek hexameter routs the
alliterative line though it is not improbable. I refer rather to the central position
the creed of unyielding will holds in the North. (Tolkien 117)
Tolkien goes on to describe the inevitable mythological war between good and evil, gods
and monsters, and how, in northern heroic literature, the gods seek assistance from
mortals: And in their war men are their chosen allies, able when heroic to share in this
absolute resistance, perfect because without hope (Tolkien 117). Essentially, what
Tolkien is praising within his lecture is the dominant theme of northern heroic literature
in which the hero carries on fighting regardless of the cost, be it his life or the life of his
comrades. The hero assumes that he fights on the side of righteousness and therefore
anything but victory is shameful, even if such action results in his death and even if such
actions do not conform to modern notions of justice or morality. As mentioned
previously, one of the greatest literary examples of this mentality in action is The Battle
of Maldon, which focuses on the ofermde of an Anglo-Saxon commander named
Byrhtnoth whose own pride results in the loss of a key battle during the Viking raids into
ninth-century England. In this story Byrhtnoth and his men attempt to defend a bottleneck
point from a Viking invasion and, although Byrhtnoth dies during the battle, his
comitatus continues to fight after his death against insurmountable odds because to do
otherwise would be to shame their commander and themselves. Many mediaeval critics,


such as Michael J. Alexander, view The Battle of Maldon as an expression of the purest
form of Northern European heroic poetry and point to it as the best example of northern
courage in the greater Anglo-Saxon canon.
Tolkiens definition of northern courage is vital to the working definition of
heroism in Skyrim because it plays a major role in the players interactions within that
environment. The Skyrim developers source-fed use of Norse and Anglo-Saxon literary
and historical culture brings these ideas to the fore, particularly in relation to the players
interactions with both Thanes and the Companions groups throughout the game. As
mentioned earlier in the thesis, cultural hierarchy plays a key role in the players
interactions with various non-playable characters throughout the Skyrim game space. This
cultural hierarchy relates heavily to both the mediaeval comitatus relationship and the
idea of heroic partners, each of which in turn reflects the important bond which exists
between heroes and their counterparts. Joseph Campbell argues that the ever-present
threat of death is essentially a reflection of the lord-retainer relationship that binds an
Anglo-Saxon comitatus together and was viewed as the ultimate expression of fealty by
those in a lord-retainer relationship (Campbell 35). Therefore, it is quite significant that a
players housecarl will always fight for his or her thane regardless of the consequences,
be it death or serious injury.
The character Lydia, who is generally the first housecarl to which a player gains
access, epitomizes the housecarl NPC. She is fiercely loyal and follows the player into
any dangerous situation that he or she may encounter, which is in stark contrast to some
of the other mercenaries for hire throughout the game. For instance, one mercenary
available for hire, named Kharjo, consistently abandon a fight if it gets too rough or the


threat of death looms over the player. This is particularly true in instances when combat
is initiated with a dragon, a creature feared by most characters throughout the game.
Indeed, many of the non-Nordic companions available for hire are equally likely to flee
during a rough combat scenario, which offers great insight into the developers
perception of northern courage in regards to the races that exist within the video game.
The developers apply the concept to Nordic characters in particular to direct the player
towards a certain standard of heroic activity which the focal group of the game
Additionally, the thane-housecarl dynamic which exists within the game takes on
an important role in demonstrating one of the essential aspects of mediaeval heroic
culture tradition: a strong relationship with another (albeit lesser) heroic figurecompanion. Bowra argues the following about heroic partnerships:
A hero cannot live entirely for himself, and needs a companion to whom he can
unburden his heart and whom he can make the partner of his ambitions. That is
why heroic poetry has its great pairs of gifted friends, like Achilles and Patroclus,
Roland and Oliver, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the Uzbek Alpamys and Karadzhan,
the Armenian brothers Sansar and Bagdasar. When the hero forms a friendship
with a man who is only less heroic than himself, he forms a partnership of a
special kind. The participants share both dangers and glory, and the honour of one
is the honour of the other. Such friendships are based on mutual respect, and each
partner expects and receives the utmost from the other. (Bowra 65)
Bowras explanation of a slightly unequal heroic partnership contextualizes the role of
the housecarl both within Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature as well as the Skyrim game


space itself. His description also demonstrates that this heroic tradition precedes
mediaeval sources and, in the context of Skyrim, reconfirms the developers beliefs in the
importance of utilizing specific cultural traditions in their narrative. For the player, such
partnerships are a necessary and sometimes essential aspect of gameplay. For instance,
the Skyrim expansion pack Dawnguard necessitates player interaction with a vampire by
the name of Serana, who is a necessary companion in order to complete certain quests.
The thane-housecarl relationship is a major example of how the developers of Skyrim
have incorporated in-depth and cohesive literary and historical theories of heroism into
gameplay. While the heroic tradition is broad and multi-culturally distributed throughout
Western literature, Skyrims terminology and inherently Norse setting (as discussed in
previous chapters) establishes a direct link between Norse and Nordic value systems.
This link has an immediate effect on the players experience throughout the game
because a player is guided towards a certain standard of interaction with NPCs and their
surroundings that is commonly associated with northern European heroic culture.
One might object that there exists a general cultural precedent that equally
explains a number of the choices the developers make regarding their representation of
heroism within the game. However, as this thesis reveals, there exists within Skyrim
significant evidence for the Anglo-Saxon and Norse roots of the heroic traditions which
permeates the culture of heroism throughout gameplay in order to impact player behavior
and push the player towards a mediaeval epic-heroic tradition. One such example of this
encouragement comes in the form of the previously mentioned group called the
Companions, who are described by Elder Scrolls wiki as a group of warriors who take
on public and private contracts for the people of Skyrim, and who purportedly carry on


the tradition of the Five Hundred Companions of Ysgramor (Skyrim:Companions).
Although many players and reviewers believe that the Companions simply fill the role of
the Fighters Guild which exists in other Elder Scrolls games, there are significant
differences between the two groups which firmly cement the Companions within an
inherently northern tradition of heroism. First and foremost, the Companions are defined
by their relation to Ysgramor, an ancient Atmoran king who established the first Nordic
settlements in Skyrim and is known as the harbinger of us all (Skyrim:Ysgramor).
Ysgramor remains one of the greatest heroes within Skyrims history, and his exploits are
legendary not only among the Companions but among the Nordic race as a whole.
Indeed, he is so important as to reside in Sovngarde, the Nordic equivalent of Valhalla
where only the most acclaimed warriors of Nordic origins reside after their death (see
Chapter I for details). This symbiotic link between group and king automatically
establishes the Companions as representatives of an inherently Norse and Anglo-Saxon
system of beliefs, but further examination of the structure of the Companions reveals that
this source association is much more in-depth. For instance, the Companions are located
at a Mead Hall in Whiterun named Jorrvaskr, an ancient and honoured mead hall that
has served as the headquarters of The Companions for untold generations (Jorrvaskr).
It is by far the oldest building within the region and is built from one of the longboats
used during the return journey of the Five Hundred Companions of Ysgramor, the fabled
journey that operates as an origin story for Nords that live within the region of Skyrim.
This journey parallels that of the great King Scyld in Beowulf, who is said to have arrived
in a boat from points unknown and became a great warrior-king who founded the SpearDanes and who, after his death, was sent out to sea in a burial ship (Beowulf 1-25).


Additionally, the Companions still hold Ysgramor as their true and only leader, and
therefore they fight constantly to honour both his memory and that of their fallen
comrades. One of the first phrases the player hears upon entering Jorrvaskr is I am a
warrior and will die as I lived in glorious battle! (Skyrim:Jorrvaskr). This line is
evocative of the heroic Norse and Anglo-Saxon ideology, a parallel made clear by Gwyn
Jones interpretation of Viking perceptions of warfare:
Many of the Viking Age finds are weapons, and fighting and the ideals of
warriors courage, strength, delight in weapons, the splendor of battle, loyalty to
ones fighting comrades, faithfulness to ones lord unto death are constant
themes in poetry in honour of princes and almost on many rune stones. But
these ideals were not unique to the Vikings. They were fundamental to the age,
and were also expressed in Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry, such as the poem about
the battle of Maldon, where Brihtnoth and all his men were killed (Jones 145-6).
According to Jones, both the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings rejoiced in and cherished
opportunities for proving themselves within battle; although this desire for fame and
battle is not necessarily true of the vast majority of both the mediaeval or Skyrim
population, certainly the upper echelons of Northern European society were heavily
concerned with notions of honour and justice during this period. The themes of courage,
strength, loyalty, and camaraderie are all essential aspects of defining the Anglo-Saxon
and Norse literature which has heavily influenced the game, particularly in reference to
texts like Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon, and The Saga of the Volsungs. All of these
works demonstrate a candid interest in the connection between honour and heroism, as
seen during such iconic events as Beowulfs slaying of Grendel and Grendels mother as


well Byrhtnoths men facing down insurmountable odds in order to maintain honour. By
extension, the Companions are equally concerned with such notions of honour, as
inferred by such descriptions as, [The Companions] are renowned as impartial arbiters
on matters of honour (Skyrim:Companions).
Given the links between honour and heroism that run throughout heroic literature,
it is easy to see how both the thane-housecarl relationship and the Companions
demonstrate the Anglo-Saxon and Norse origins of the system of heroism that dominates
the Skyrim gamescape. While Bowras general statement about the principles of heroism
helps to indicate the developers direct knowledge of the Western heroic literary
tradition, the concern with loyalty and honour through determined combat equally
demonstrates an awareness of Tolkiens conceptualization of the northern courage theory
of heroism that defines both the heroic poetry of Northern Europe and the role of the
player in Skyrim.
We have established that the heroic ethos of Skyrim is heavily modeled upon
heroic paradigms that exist within the Western literary tradition, in particular those
commonly found in the epic-heroic literature of Northern Europe. However, we have yet
to explore how the player epitomizes the ideals of epic-heroic convention through his or
her own possible actions within the game. While the evidence presented (such as the
players relationship to a house-carl and the representation of the Companions within the
game space) is convincing, there is one significant mediaeval trope that firmly and clearly
establishes the relationship between the player and heroes such as Beowulf and Sigurd:
dragons and the mythological precedent for the emergence of a unique warrior.


According to W. P. Ker in his influential text, The Dark Ages:
The northern gods have an exultant extravagance in their warfare which makes
them more like Titans than Olympians; only they are on the right side, though it is
not the side that wins. The winning side is Chaos and Unreason but the gods, who
are defeated, think that defeat is not refutation. (Ker 57)
Essentially, Ker suggests that northern gods such as Odin and Thor are equally at the
mercy of chaos and disorder as humanity; the major difference between the two is that
gods have the ability to fight and influence the odds on a scale which humans could never
attain, even though they are ultimately defeated by dragons. As Sturlusons Heimskringla
as well as several other Norse sources point out, humanity has a distinct role within this
battle against chaos through our ability to become great warriors worthy of Valhalla and
to fight in Ragnrok, the war which ends the Norse world and its gods. Similarly, the
gods of The Elder Scrolls universe, primarily those who relate heavily to the Nordic
pantheon, live and die at the will of a greater power over which they have no control
they simply possess a greater ability to react to the challenges of the universe than do the
Nordic mortals. This is most significantly represented through the absence of Shor, who
was banished from his position of power in Sovngarde during a coup amongst the gods.
The Nords revere him as the King of the Gods and continue to worship him regardless
of his absense. According to the Skyrim Wiki, Foreign gods (i.e. of the Meri pantheon)
conspired against him and brought about his defeat, dooming him to the underworld
(Shor). This demonstrates that the Nordic pantheon is equally as fallible as their Norse
counterparts and can fail in the same way as lesser beings such as humans, although on a
much grander scale.


The question that remains is how does the fall of Shor relate to the rise of the
protagonist as the hero of the game? Just as Sigurd is both descended from Odin, Chief of
the Gods and wields a sword which was bequeathed to his ancestor Sigmund by the same
deity (see Saga of the Volsungs, Chapter III), the player in Skyrim receives a similar
gift in the form of his or her abilities as the Dragonborn. The Dragonborn (also known as
the Dovahkiin in the language of dragons) is the most significant title bestowed upon the
player in the game because it signifies the players unique abilities that make him or her
more powerful than the other warriors in the game space. According to the lore pertaining
to this topic, Skyrim legend tells of a hero known as the Dragonborn, a warrior with the
body of a mortal and soul of a dragon, whose destiny is to destroy the evil dragon
Alduin (Dragonborn: Skyrim). Over the course of the history of Tamriel several
individuals have been acknowledged as Dragonborn, all of whom are legendary for their
various heroic exploits. Dragonborn are unique because they can learn the language of
the ancient and powerful tongue (Dragonborn(Lore)) of the dragons which can be a
powerful aid in any combat scenario, but most importantly those involving dragons
themselves. In establishing the player as the Dragonborn, the developers are
strengthening his or her place within the Nordic heroic tradition inside the game. This
Nordic tradition in turn encourages the player to engage actively in a heroic role that
operates within the epic-heroic tradition outside of the game. According to the Prophecy
of the Dragonborn, a message predicted by a group devoted to aiding those capable of
dragon slaying, one day the Last Dragonborn will be born at the end of time to fight
against the dragon Alduin, also known as the World-Eater:
When misrule takes its place at the eight corners of the world


When the Brass Tower walks and Time is reshaped
When the thrice-blessed fail and the Red Tower trembles
When the Dragonborn Ruler loses his throne, and the White Tower falls
When the Snow Tower lies sundered, kingless, bleeding
The World-Eater wakes, and the Wheel turns upon the Last Dragonborn
(Alduins Wall, Skyrim).
In the context of Anglo-Saxon and Norse literary and cultural links which I see as
informing the game on so many levels, there are several distinct and important parallels
here. Nowhere perhaps is this more true than in the representation of heroism and
dragons that is central to the northern-based heroic ethos the developers are trying to
One of the most significant of these connections is that of the dragon in Norse
myth who gnaws at the roots of the tree of the universe: in this way, Alduins title of
world-eater parallels a central tenet and image of Norse myth, thus indicating that
Norse mythology is utilized as a direct source of information in the creation of Skyrims
major antagonist. In the context of northern courage and northern mythological
imagination, a key point to note is that the Last Dragonborn prophecy is not that the
protagonist will win, merely that she or he will arise to take part in battle, whether to win
or lose. For those players with knowledge of Norse myth, the inevitable defeat of gods
and heroes alike adds a level of suspense and engagement to this scenario in the game.
Therefore, an informed players character is not in search of a long life, but honour and
fame, much like those heroes of the northern epic tradition. For those players who know
nothing of Norse myth, the prominence and threat of dragons is still important simply


because the hero is capable of defeating such a formidable foe. By modeling ideals of
hero and villain on pre-existing narratives and cultures the developers are able to make
their own mythical environment more detailed and possibly more believable. Therefore,
the sources ultimately affect both the informed and uninformed player.
Dragons are a vitally important feature of early mediaeval literature, particularly in
the context of heroic poetry. Although the keystone of northern courage is not fighting
dragons per se, but rather the willingness to fight a perhaps insurmountable foe without
succumbing to despair, dragons are regarded as the penultimate villain and slaying one
means attaining a level of honour and success near to that of the gods. Much that has
been written on the subject is in relation to J. R. R. Tolkien and his representation of
dragons in his various fantasy texts. While Tolkien is certainly partially responsible for
the reemergence of dragons within the popular consciousness, the appearance of dragons
in Middle-earth stems from the authors deep-rooted love of the subject and the intensity
of such a ferocious opponent in Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature. Thus even Tolkienderived dragons, however unconscious their developers debt might be, owe something to
the mediaeval origins of the worm. Tolkien explicitly acknowledges the preeminence of
dragons in heroic lore in his influential essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics:
As for the dragon: as far as we know anything about these old poets, we know
this: the prince of the heroes of the North [Sigurd], supremely memorable nas
nafn mun uppi medan verldin stendr was a dragon-slayer. And his most
renowned deed, from which in Norse he derived his title Ffnisbani, was the
slaying of the prince of legendary worms. Although there is plainly considerable
difference between the later Norse and the ancient English form of the story


alluded to in Beowulf, already there it has these two primary features: the dragon,
and the slaying of him as the chief deed of the greatest of heroes. (Tolkien 113)
As the above passage demonstrates, Tolkien believes that the truest and most powerful of
heroes are defined by their actions against dragons and their ability to slay a dragon in
protection of their honour and their people. The phrase there are in any case many
heroes but very few good dragons (Tolkien 114) speaks volumes to the important role
dragons play as determiners of the value and power of heroes in Norse and Anglo-Saxon
literature. While many heroes can be found in the Norse and Anglo-Saxon canon, very
few of them ever encounter a dragon, yet those that do are some of the most famous
heroes of the northern European epic-heroic tradition. Indeed, throughout the relatively
expansive Northern European heroic literature canon, there are only a few dragons ever
slain by heroes, the most notable being Ffnir in Saga of the Volsungs and the unnamed
dragon at the end of Beowulf. Out of these two only Sigurd is successful in his slaying of
the dragon (See Chapter XVIII, Of the Slaying of the Worm Fafnir), whilst Beowulf
dies in combat with the worm but is able to wear it down enough so that he and his
companion Wiglaf can slay it once and for all. (Beowulf 2700-45)
Tolkiens sentiment about the importance of dragons is echoed by many other
mediaevalists specializing on the subject: Paula Nielson states that dragons are a central
part of Norse mythology, as are those who battle them (Nielson, Dragons in Norse
Mythology). rmann Jakobsson delves into the topic more specifically in relation to
Icelandic literature in his paper, Enter the Dragon, Legendary Saga Courage and the
Birth of the Hero, in which he argues:


The dragon provides the Sigurd legend with its core. Thus understanding the
legend means understanding the meaning dragons held for the contemporary
audience of the saga. (Jakobsson 34)
As these scholars demonstrate, dragons are revered not only by the original Anglo-Saxon
and Norse cultures, but by mediaevalists who see dragon slaying as a test for only the
most initiated of heroes.
The importance of dragons both in popular and academic thought gives new
significance to the role of the player in Skyrim. As a hero with the soul of a dragon, the
player operates as a hybrid that epitomizes the qualities most admired and revered in both
beings. For instance, dragons in Skyrim are feared for their shout, also known as thuum,
which bears the weight of power and destructive force whenever used. The dragonborn
can utilize this power against dragons and other foes, thus combining the attractive
qualities of the northern hero with one of the most powerful aspects of dragons in Skyrim.
The developers of Skyrim utilize epic-heroic convention in conjunction with fantasy
narrative in order to place the player in a position of immense power and guide him or
her towards a certain heroic ideal. This ideal is similar to that of Sigurd or Beowulf,
whose main goal is to test their own prowess and attain glory through feats of extreme
strength or wisdom.
That being said, Jonathan Evans argues that dragons are more common than many
mediaevalists would lead us to believe. By his account it is not necessarily the rarity of
the dragons in The Saga of the Volsungs and Beowulf which lends acclaim to the dragonslayers, but the unique ferocity of those dragons in the context of heroic deeds:


Dragons are far from rare in the Germanic world; and while not all of them in Old
Norse literature measure up to the particular standards Tolkien and others have set
for them few dragons seem as dire as Sigurds and Beowulfs in the
aggregate they amount to a large body of material. (Evans 220)
Interestingly, as Jakobssons article develops his findings echo those of Evans as well.
Jakobsson is essentially able to establish a hierarchy of dragons based on his philological
study of the root words use to describe dragons in Old Norse. In doing so, he determines
that within the greater Germanic heroic literary canon only Sigurd (primarily), Ragnarr,
and Beowulf stand out as slayers of great dragons (Jakobsson 37-8). This philological
study was conducted in conjunction with a study of the sources from which Norse and
Anglo-Saxon heroes derive their acclaim, most notably with Sigurd, who makes
appearances all over the Germanic world, in the Nibelungenlied, in Beowulf, in images
carved on Swedish runestones and in several Old Norse texts (Jakobsson 38). From all
of this information we can make several conclusions about the perception of dragons
within Norse and Anglo-Saxon myth. Importantly, the fiercest dragons are some of the
most well known monsters within early mediaeval literature. Their power shapes the
current-day perceptions of Anglo-Saxon and Norse heroes. It goes a long way in
determining who is the best of the best.
With all of this information in mind, how do we consolidate our understanding of
the import of dragons in Anglo-Saxon and Norse literary culture with that of the dragons
in Skyrim? How do the parallels that exist between the two narratives impact the
reader/players understanding of heroism and heroic action? On the most basic level, the
reverence of dragons and dragon-slayers in a mediaeval context is mirrored within video


game culture. Just as mediaeval heroic tradition praises Sigurd and Beowulf for the
ferocity of their greatest foes, so Skyrims developers accordingly try to recreate a similar
respect within the game for the player who is able to slay and absorb the souls of dragons
through his or her own actions. Initially this is achieved during gameplay itself when the
player finds out that he or she is Dragonborn. This quest, entitled Dragon Rising, is
when the player first successfully slays a dragon and is the first moment when the player
realizes that he or she has a unique ability. This special identity is established when the
Whiterun guards who help kill the dragon see the true power that the Dragonborn has
over the creature. The people of Skyrim are in awe of the power of the player, much like
Hrothgar and the Danes are in awe of Beowulf when he is able to slay Grendel. This
power is reinforced by the dialogue of the house-carl Irileth, who is in awe of the power
that she just witnessed. The completion of this quest leads to obtaining the title of Thane
of Whiterun and solidifies the players role within the game as Dragonborn. The fact that
the player obtains the title solely because of his or her title as Dragonborn is an important
indicator of both the power of the players character and the power of dragons within the
Another key indicator of the power of dragons comes in the form of armour that
can be crafted from their scales and bones. Dragon Armour is some of the strongest
armour in the game and cannot be purchased, only crafted from the remains of dragons
that the Dragonborn has killed. The armour is highly sought after by players but requires
them to train for hours as a smith in order to create the armour in-game. If wearing a full
set, people around Skyrim will recognize the strength and power of the armour in
conversations with the player. For instance, guards will say the following to the player:


Is your armor made of dragon bones [or scales]? By the gods, what I wouldnt do for
a set of that (Skyrim: Guard Dialogue). Although a relatively minor encounter, this
sort of detail helps to add to the overall atmosphere of dragon fear and dragon-slayer
reverence within the Skyrim universe. Equally importantly, this dragon-reverence
parallels that of Anglo-Saxon and Norse epic-heroic literature and ultimately serves to
reinforce the idea of northern courage and honour that permeate the game space.
A recurring discussion within the mediaeval academic community is the
representation of morality through dragons. In some ways, dragons are manifestations of
human vices. These vices are ultimately denounced or rejected by Anglo-Saxon and
Norse society and therefore, by extension, the dragons can teach lessons about morality
to the reader. For instance, one of the recurring dragon tropes that exist within the
Western literary tradition, as well as in the representation of dragons in the popular
consciousness, is the dragons gold hoard. As seen in such books as J. R. R. Tolkiens
The Hobbit, dragons are obsessed with hoarding gold, jewels, and precious goods in order
to satiate their lust for consumption. This trope, too, has its origins within mediaeval texts
such as Beowulf that similarly represent a dragons lair as a gold hoard and treasure trove:
until one began
to dominate the dark, a dragon on the prowl
where he guarded a hoard; there was a hidden passage,
unknown to men, but someone had managed
to enter by it and interfere
with the treasure trove. He had handled and removed
a gem-studded goblet; it gained him nothing,


though the thiefs wiles he had outwitted
the sleeping dragon. That drove him into rage,
as soon the people of that country would discover.
(Beowulf 2211-2220)
This passage from Beowulf not only demonstrates where Tolkien got the source material
for a particular scene in The Hobbit, it also illustrates the insatiable greed and gold-lust of
a dragon. Similarly, the dragon Fafnir guards a great treasure in the Saga of the Volsungs.
In both texts, the dragons succumb to insatiable gold lust, and whilst neither Sigurd or
Beowulf suffer from the same fate they do not prosper for long after killing the respective
treasures guardians. Greed is considered a terrible vice by the Norse and Anglo-Saxon
people, particularly in reference to the role of a king as ring-giver.
Jakobsson discusses this notion briefly in reference to the concept of youth,
arguing that
An uncanny relationship is established between the hero and the dragon, who in a
sense become the heros double: the evil ancestor the hero has to fight, and who is
a part of him, indeed the key to his being, and yet also the main threat to his
existence. Every father figure is also a symbol of the past and of death (Jakobsson
In this paper Jakobsson attempts to establish a father-son relationship between the dragon
and the dragon-slayer that echoes concerns over youth and death and the fear of getting
older. While in some ways dragons operate somewhat as doppelgngers to their slayers,
the argument regarding the father symbol is not entirely convincing. Jakobsson
approaches the topic from a psychoanalytical perspective, utilizing Freudian theory in


order to explain the father-son relationship between the dragon and dragon-slayer. This
argument in and of itself is not entirely convincing, although does merit some
exploration. Dragons ultimately operate as representations of the values (i.e. the greed
exemplified above) of the society whence they come, just as their identity as a formidable
opponent parallels the might of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse ruling classes. Gwyn Jones
notes that a major source of power for Viking kings was their ability to grant land and
wealth to those they ruled in order to establish a lasting bond between retainer and
retainee (Jones 68-72). James Campbell notes a similar relationship in Anglo-Saxon
England, stating the following:
To secure followers and power treasure is essential. Kingship and treasure-giving
go hand in hand. Kings are treasure guardians, gold-friends, ring-givers. A
good king gives. Hrothgar was the best of earthly kings the best of those who
bestowed gold. A bad king begins to hoard his treasures, never parts with gold
rings. Treasure rewards service, creates the expectation of loyalty, and is the
outward sign of honour. (Campbell 54)
In a Norse and Anglo-Saxon context, treasure-giving is an integral aspect of the power
dynamic which exists within the upper classes of those societies, and thus those who do
not give gifts of gold or other luxury items are considered bad rulers. The Wanderer and
the Seafarer both lament their lost comitatus but also the loss of a king who gives gifts
(ex. The Wanderer 23-28, The Seafarer 13-16). Scyld, Hrothgar and Beowulf are
repeatedly hailed as good kings partly for their largesse (ex. Beowulf 20-1, 66-85, 263050); Hrothgar tells Beowulf (and the audience) the story of Heremod as a warning that
greedy kings are bad kings who come to bad ends (ex. Beowulf xiv. 64-88). Dragons are


ultimately hoarders of wealth, one of the worst sins for the powerful during the AngloSaxon and Norse period; therefore it is easy to see the parallels which exist between the
obligations of rulers and the downfall of dragons. In the context of Skyrim, similar
parallels can be drawn between the Dragonborn and the dragons he or she fights in the
context of sheer physical and intellectual power. Dragons hoard their power for
themselves and are self-interested creatures; they do nothing to help those around them
and only exist to terrorize Nords. Although the hoarding of material treasure is an aspect
of gameplay, the developers encourage the player to assist the Skyrim community at large
through the completion of various quests and by protecting those who cannot defend
themselves. Whether the player is interest in looting, stealing, or various other potential
activities, the major storylines of the game insist that the Dragonborn is almost always
doing the right thing. In this way, dragons mirror the flaws of vanity and self-interest
which the Dragonborn is encouraged to denounce.
Source-study thus reveals the inherent link between perceptions of heroism and
the role of dragons within the Skyrim game space and northern myth and heroic literature.
Bowra defines heroism in the Western literary tradition as a test to prove ones worth
through overcoming obstacles and maintaining ones honour and integrity during this
process (Tolkien 117-8). Tolkien points out that a unique feature of the northern courage
theory of heroism is the acceptance of inevitable defeat and that honour exists in fighting
on in spite of the likely consequences out of loyalty to ones lord or retainer and to your
brothers in arms (as is the case in The Battle of Maldon) or for fame and renown (as seen
in Beowulf and Saga of the Volsungs). The developers of Skyrim make a deliberate effort
to simulate this martial loyalty through aspects of gameplay like the thane-house-carl


relationship and the Companions, figures who epitomize these ideals through their
devotion to honourable warfare and achieving acclaim for their lord, Ysgramor. These
heroic ideals combine with the mythological origins of the greatest of heroes in an
attempt to create legendary icons that transcend the level of aptitude in battle and life
expected from common people. These iconic heroes are offered as exempla to the player,
who is encouraged to pursue an inherently epic-heroic path that reflects many aspects of
the Northern European heroic tradition. Those who achieve such a degree of heroism in
Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature are rare, but there is a general association between the
best of heroes and the ability to slay a dragon that distinguishes them within the canon.
Like Sigurd Volsung, the player in Skyrim has specific abilities that distinguish him or
her from the other heroes of Skyrim, a fact illustrated through the gamer-heros ability to
kill dragons. By reinforcing parallels with the Anglo-Saxon and Norse heroic tradition,
the developers of Skyrim are able encourage the player to take on the unique identity of
Dragonborn as a representation of the best values of a society that has fallen into disarray
in order to create a brighter future.



Overall, the developers use of Norse and Anglo-Saxon primary sources in the creation of
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim encourages players to participate in the Northern European
epic-heroic tradition through their engagement with the various settings, quests, themes,
and even major storylines found throughout the game space. The developers attention to
detail in the development of the mead halls and the socio-political conventions associated
with them serves the purpose of creating areas the player will encounter very early on
gameplay, which engage the player in a specifically Anglo-Saxon and Norse environment
that encourages them to participate in a dialogue with quest-givers and other major
characters who are similarly indicative of such mediaeval roots. This underlying matrix
of mediaeval ideas and themes demonstrates that the developers are concerned with the
literary and historical elements of game development and understand the tropes of fantasy
narrative construction, including those outlined by J. R. R. Tolkien in On Fairy-Stories.
Equally, the emulation of the lord-retainer relationship through non-playable characters
such as Jarl Balgruuf the Greater and Irileth provides an example of NPC interaction that
advocates for a player/NPC dynamic similar to that of the Anglo-Saxon comitatus. The
parallels between Norse and Anglo-Saxon cultural tropes and their Nordic counterparts
continue into the mythological realm, where the developers utilize the Norse pantheon in
order to establish a Nordic order similarly concerned with the Northern European epic


heroic tradition. This is seen through the similarities between major structures such as
Valhalla/Sovngarde, which ultimately promotes a specific heroic ideology that the player
must emulate in order to gain admission into this revered location. This chapter then
discusses the godly and delves into the other realms of the afterlife that the player
encounters during their adventures through Skyrim. This includes and in-depth analysis of
the draugr, a villain archetype that demonstrates both the development teams significant
use of Norse sources in the creation of the game and their desire to appeal to the epicheroic traditions which revere those with the ability to slay monsters. This analysis in
turn segues into an important discussion of dragons and the relationship that exists
between dragon and hero in Skyrim and Norse and Anglo-Saxon myth. The dragons exist
as the ultimate test of heroic ability that both contradict and parallel the players own
status as the Dragonborn. In slaying dragons, the player proves his or her merit as a hero
within the Germanic heroic tradition that reinforces the inherent links that exist between
Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature and history and their Nordic counterparts in Skyrim.
In summation, I hope this thesis has achieved its objective of illustrating how the
Skyrim development team encourages unproblematic interaction with the epic-heroic
conventions of Northern Europe. In doing so, I hope further to have demonstrated the
incorrect assumptions made by T. A. Shippey, who suggests that Anglo-Saxon and Norse
literary and historical tropes are irrelevant within a contemporary context. The popularity
of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and the developers intricately detailed approach to
emulating Northern European epic-heroic convention stands in testament to how AngloSaxon and Norse tropes can be utilized with a great deal of success in a digital



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