Monday, October 6, 2014

The Jewry and the Quarter: Dunmer as Medieval Jewish Allegory in TES V: Skyrim

Allegory is everything to fantasy storytelling, and nowhere in modern fantasy does racial and ethnic allegory loom larger than in Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls series. Connections between the races of Tamriel and those of Earth have long been drawn, and these connections and theories range from the insightful to the strange to the ignorant. At risk of being classified as the latter, I seek to prove that the diasporic Dunmer who appear in TES V: Skyrim can serve as allegory for the Jews who lived in medieval Europe. A close reading of one particular geographic location in the game—the city of Windhelm's Gray quarter—will provide most of my evidence and points of discussion.

Dunmer woman and man, as seen in TES V: Skyrim. Photo courtesy The Elder Scrolls Wiki.
The Dunmer, otherwise called Dark Elves, are a race of Elven people based out of the nation of Morrowind who also live in diasporic communities abroad. Like the Jews depicted in anti-semitic middle and late medieval illuminations, the Dunmer are dark-skinned, their facial features more dramatic and severe than their Nord counterparts (who play the role of medieval Christians in this allegory). Ancestry is pivotal to Dunmer culture, holding a kind of cult status, and the race maintains a sense of tight religious and ethnic community due to a racial history of both triumph and affliction.

Nowhere is the Dunmer-Jewish allegory more evident than in the ghetto that is the Gray Quarter, a narrow street in the city of Windhelm where all of the city's Dunmer citizenry have been corralled (the name of the quarter derives from the skin color of its inhabitants, who are made out to be racial Others by the city's human majority). The street is almost a carbon copy of the many Jewry Lanes once present in Europe, streets to which all Jewish citizens were relegated to work and do business.

A view of Windhelm's Gray Quarter. Photo courtesy The Elder Scrolls Wiki.
The Dunmer are not natives of Windhelm, having been driven to the nation of Skyrim as refugees by a catastrophic volcanic eruption. A Nord historian, his racial biases evident in his writing, calls these newcomers a “lazy, discontented rabble,” accusing them of generating unrest and bringing their bizarre, “native customs” into the city.

The characters who inhabit the Gray Quarter, however, are the ones who bring the allegory to life, complicating a simple academic comparison with their lived experiences.

Players may speak to a Dunmer pawnbroker in the Gray Quarter, an elf by the name of Aval Atheron, whose occupation problematically coincides with medieval Jewish stereotypes but whose power to voice his own experiences gives him an advantage over the two-dimensional Jews in medieval British literature. Aval expresses his discontent at the treatment he and the other Dunmer receive, informing the player that the Nords “don't let my kind live anywhere outside that slum.” Jews in medieval Britain and much of Europe were required by law to live on the assigned Jewry Lane or face harsh repercussions—for the most part, the same seems to be true of the Dunmer.

Another encounter—this one with Aval's sister Suvaris Atheron—shows the player just what kind of treatment Dunmer face in Windhelm. When the player first enters the city, (s)he sees Suvaris harassed by Nord citizens who accuse her of being a spy and threaten, “Maybe we'll pay you a visit tonight, little spy,” a threat with disturbing sexual implications as well as racial. When the player speaks with her, Suvaris replies that the Nords “come up with any excuse to despise us.” Such was the common fate of Jews in medieval Europe, who were villainized in Christian nations as well-poisoners and child-murderers, among other things.

Problematic to this allegory, however, are the Dunmer characters in Windhelm's Gray Quarter who openly embody the stereotypes of medieval Jews. Revyn Sadri, for instance, owns a pawnshop in the Gray Quarter and acquires his goods through nefarious means. This “greedy Dunmer” mirrors the “greedy Jew” archetype depicted in “Theophilus” and other medieval sources. Likewise, the innkeeper Ambarys Rendar expresses an open hatred for the Nords and shows little concern even at their deaths, a fact which brings to mind the malicious, scheming Jewish characters in “The Miracle of the Boy Singer” and other Marian miracle stories.

These instances aside, I do not feel The Elder Scrolls set out to create a malicious or entrapped image of Dunmer-as-tormented-Jews nor that—beyond the walls of the Gray Quarter—this allegory holds up. Other Dunmer in Skyrim, including a few who live just outside the walls of Windhelm, live free of the same persecution faced by the ghetto Dunmer and without malice toward the Nords. Their ancient history and the majority of their modern culture share few common features with that of Europe's Jews. That the Dunmer of Skyrim and the Jews depicted in medieval Christian literature share so similarities may be an accident on the part of the game developers or a product of my own over-active imagination. Yet such allegories may prove fruitful for those who wish to better relate the fantasy world to human history, just so long as these allegories are made in fairness and with a critical eye.

1 comment:

  1. This is interesting. I think the Dunmers ancient culture, their diaspora, their ability to survive in desert climates and the Orientalist stereotypes lurking in a lot of Elf content in Skyrim overall (the Altmer are literally yellow) make it seem almost too obvious in hindsight.. Thanks for your post!