Last year, I wrote an article on why my wife and I had stopped playing Bethesda’s 2012 hit, Skyrim. Part of our difficulty then was related to our decision to create a female character, and after my earlier article came out, my wife admitted that it was a little unsettling when male NPCs leered at or expressed interest in our character. So we completed the Winterhold quests for the mage’s college, but not much else, and then other games supplanted Skyrim in our routine.
The hall in Whiterun, one of the main cities of Skyrim.
Recently I’ve returned to Skyrim, and my decision was largely due to a conversation I had in the British literature survey course that I’m teaching this semester. After we had finished our discussion for the day, a student approached me and asked if I had heard of this game called Skyrim. Always excited to talk video games with students, I gabbed for a few minutes about not finishing it and why. He nodded and then reminded me that the mountain retreat for a group of monk-like sages in the game is called “High Hrothgar,” an obvious reference to the king who is saved by Beowulf in the first two parts of the poem. That single observation, presented in the context of teaching Beowulf helped me to reconsider how I approached playing Skyrim, and it helped me realize that my expectations for the game were faulty.
To understand how my expectations were flawed, I should point out that the British literature survey course at most universities is divided into two halves, the first covering beginnings to about 1750, and the second from 1750 to present. In the first half, Beowulf is a staple text that introduces students to many of the components of early medieval cultural practices and poetic narrative style. Students who have read Tolkien’s work often notice how “similar this is to The Lord of the Rings.” While medievalists might groan at the phrasing, the reality is that for many students in university literature classes, Tolkien’s work is a more familiar reference than his source material. But of course, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is still quite different from the middle earth that students encounter in Beowulf. There are harmonies between the two, of course, but the world that Beowulf inhabits is far more vexed than Tolkien’s creation. The Middle-Earth of hobbits and orcs and elves has far less moral ambiguity; Sauron is wicked and the ring must be destroyed. Yes, there are some who are tempted by the ring’s power, but as readers we are never left in doubt that destruction is the ring’s proper end. (And lest I incur the wrath of Tolkien scholars, I do not mean to belittle Tolkien’s vast imagination and literary achievement.) Now, astute readers of Beowulf know that the story seems to be similarly simple: a demonic beast attacks Heorot, Hrothgar’s hall, and Beowulf kills it. The beast’s mother attacks the hall, and Beowulf kills it. Later, an older Beowulf’s kingdom is attacked by a dragon, and he kills it. But under the surface, the text contains is far murkier and uncertain than this simple narrative summary might suggest.
The first page of the Beowulf manuscript.
As a text Beowulf does have moments of moral and religious confusion. The characters of the story live in a pagan world and follow pagan religious traditions, but they also seem to praise something like the Christian God, perhaps a result of a later monastic transcriptionist inserting more overt Christian themes into the text. Additionally, Unferth, a character not dissimilar to Tolkien’s “Wormtongue” at first chides Beowulf for his apparent pride and grandstanding. In this first encounter, Beowulf offers a strong rebuttal to Unferth’s goading, suggesting that while he has accomplished many great deeds, Unferth has done little to being himself acclaim. But unlike Wormtongue, Unferth is not consigned to villainy after this encounter; indeed, later in the story, he offers his sword to Beowulf, who thanks him graciously for the gift. In Beowulf, it would seem that human characters who at first seem wicked, are not forever disgraced.
Beowulf’s world is not a place of grand castles and high chivalry; Beowulf inhabits a place where moors and darkness lurk just on the edges of human civilization. Around every crag and crevice new danger might lies in wait, and unlike The Lord of the Rings, there is no Gandalf to show the way or save the day. And this was my realization about Skyrim: it is a game set in Beowulf’s world, not in Bilbo’s. After the previous entry in the Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion, I had come to Skyrim expecting another world of high fantasy. I was taken aback by the harsh and stark landscapes of Skyrim. My return to Skyrim has been ongoing through several hours of gameplay so far, and with this new framework for understanding the kind of world players were meant to inhabit, the experience has been far more gratifying and rewarding.